There has been a lot of buzz lately about ‘mindfulness’. I’m sure you’ve heard of it in the media, and information is exploding within the scientific literature too. But what does mindfulness really mean? I want to help to clarify this, so you can better understand how mindfulness relates to your healing and wellness.
Many people equate meditation with mindfulness, or think that mindfulness means emptying thoughts out of your head. Neither is accurate. Mindfulness refers to a capacity of mind – a capacity that all humans inherently have – to intentionally pay attention to whatever is arising in the present moment, without judgment.
This means noticing the sensory information that is available to you in the here-now moment, both on the inside as well as anything coming from the environment outside you, as well any thoughts and emotions that might be present. The key is learning to do thiswithout needing to make any of it different from how it already is! Just noticing; this is mindfulness in a nutshell. It’s pretty simple, yet it can also be revolutionarily transformative!
Where meditation comes in is as a way to practice mindfulness. Another way is yoga asana (when practiced true to its origins with present moment awareness). Studies have shown that by applying meditation practices regularly over a period of eight weeks, measureable changes are seen in the brain, in important regions and networks that are involved in the ability to shift and focus attention, store memory, modify pain and threat perception, and regulate emotions.
Mindfulness meditation has also been shown to lower the stress hormone cortisol, as well as IL-6, an inflammatory chemical, in only eight weeks, through complicated effects that change how your DNA is being activated!
Recently, I spoke about the promise of “Mindfulness-Based Interventions” (MBIs) as a supportive treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder at UBC’s popular lecture series “BrainTalks” at Vancouver General Hospital. While there is exciting literature emerging within the field of trauma resolution about mindfulness, this is a relatively new application of MBIs.
An MBI is a standardized, evidence-based program that is delivered in a group, typically over an eight-week period, with one 2.5 hour class/week, 1 ~6-hour ‘all day retreat’ and 40 to 60 minutes of ‘home practice’ completed daily by participants. The MBI that I teach has existed for the longest period of time and is supported by the most research: Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). MBSR was developed at the University of Massachusetts in the mid-80s by Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD.
There is a solid database of the effectiveness of MBSR for improving symptoms and quality of life for other very common conditions, including:
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Autoimmune diseases (e.g. psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis)
- Chronic pain
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