What Is Mindfulness, And How Does It Work?

Mindfulness: what is it and how does one do it?

The following post is adapted from “Doing nothing can produce real results” originally penned by Barry du Plessis in Issue 4 (2018) of Capital.

Many of us have heard about it. Richard Branson swears by it. And it has become part of company culture in corporate entities such as Google, Nike, Sony, Ford and Apple. “It” is mindfulness. Often described as the mental equivalent of going to the gym, mindfulness provides relief for busy people, requiring them to slow down, stop, breathe, and find a moment to be in the present.

What exactly is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is often referred to as meditation, but it is perhaps more useful to view it as: a “state of mind” that allows one to focus on whatever needs to be the focus of attention in the present moment. So for example, mindfulness allows one to focus fully upon an activity or task even though one may be experiencing significant levels of stress relating to difficulties in the workplace, the home environment, or in one’s life in general. In such a situation, if an anxiety-provoking thought arises in one’s mind, mindfulness allows one to notice the thought as it arises and ==decide== whether it needs one’s attention ==before== one gets caught up in the difficult feelings and thoughts.

So, rather than trying to stop one’s mind from wandering, which neuroscience suggests it does a lot of the time, a mindful state of mind allows one to notice a thought, and any accompanying emotion, as it arises and decide there and then whether it requires one’s attention or not. If not, we are able to quickly refocus and place our full attention back onto the task at hand and, in this way, raise our level of effectiveness while reducing our stress levels considerably.

To put it another way, mindfulness requires us to intentionally focus on the present moment, and to accept and pay non-judgemental attention to the sensations, thoughts, and emotions that arise. When (and not if) your mind begins to wander, you recognise that you have been distracted, and bring your attention back to your breathing, or to the objective noticing of that thought or sensation.

This deep engagement with the here-and-now is combined with an attitude of acceptance and openness, allowing thoughts and emotions to come and go without judgement or evaluation. The idea is to not intentionally add anything to the present moment experience, but to be aware of what is going on, without losing yourself in anything that arises. (Consider the value of that sort of utterly calm mental and emotional discipline for stressful interactions with others, such as one’s children, work colleagues, family members, etc...)

How does one cultivate a mindful state of mind?

In order to cultivate mindfulness, i.e. a mindful state of mind, one can simply engage in regular moments of mindfulness throughout one’s day, such as through paying close attention to what is happening in the present moment either in the external environment and/or within one’s inner world of thoughts, feelings and physical/bodily sensations. It can be as fundamental as sitting quietly for a few minutes and paying attention to the physical sensations accompanying the most basic life affirming act – breathing – and actively experiencing the sensations of air entering and leaving your nose and/or causing the chest and belly to expand and subside. Mindfulness can also be practised more formally – the mental equivalent of regular, scheduled exercise – during a sustained period of focused attention as part of a predetermined routine. And to achieve the sort of clear and focused thinking that is possible, along with enhanced mental flexibility, requires that one engages with mindfulness practices or exercises on a regular basis throughout one’s day.

The benefits of mindfulness

But, you may ask, does Mindfulness work? Is the return worth the time investment? Research suggests that the answer is a definite “YES”. This is because engaging with mindfulness practices or exercises on a regular basis throughout one’s day slowly but surely results in significant changes occurring in the structure of one’s brain. In particular, the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in decision-making, problem-solving, emotional regulation and focused attention, experiences an increase in the connections between nerve cells and a thickening of the brain tissue and, as a result, becomes more efficient and effective.

Various studies show that being mindful or meditating briefly can reduce levels of cortisol, the hormone responsible for inducing stress, and can thicken grey matter in the brain and improve the ability to process information. It can also trigger the release of serotonin and endorphins, two hormones that help with focus and motivation.

Because it helps you to focus on the present situation without becoming emotionally embroiled in it, mindfulness is one of the mental hygiene techniques that can help to minimise the negative impact of constant interruptions and can sharpen skills like attention, memory, and emotional intelligence. Research has shown that our minds have a tendency to wander at least 50% of the time. But studies show that mindfulness training can help curb our tendency for distraction, strengthen our ability to stay focused and even boost memory.

Mindfulness can enhance creativity, because we come up with our greatest insights and biggest breakthroughs when we are in a more meditative and relaxed state of mind. That is when we have “eureka” moments, probably because the deep engagement, openness and acceptance involved in mindfulness encourages divergent thinking (i.e. coming up with the greatest number of possible solutions to a problem), a key component of creativity.

While stress narrows your perspective, sharply reducing empathy and negatively impacting cognitive performance, mindfulness can help boost your mood and increase your sense of connection to others. Practising mindfulness can improve your relationships by (at the least) removing the emotional charge from unavoidable stressful situations and possibly by eventually leading you to be a kinder and more compassionate person.

How does one incorporate mindfulness into one’s daily routine?

The problem for many people is that they’re already operating at their maximum level, and find themselves constantly juggling roles and responsibilities, and/or running from one task or activity to the next. Investing in something like mindfulness may therefore seem to be a complex task that is sure to involve lots of time and money – just another thing to add to everyone’s to-do list!

International research shows that mindfulness is something anyone can, with practise, do oneself. A little bit of training or outside input, however, would certainly ease the process of making mindfulness part of one’s daily routine.

Rooted in Buddhist thought and theory, mindfulness is a completely secular practice. It is a form of meditation and, just as there are many types of fitness practices (jogging, cycling, swimming, squash, etc.), there are many types of meditative practice (such as transcendental meditation, Christian Centering Prayer, etc). In the West it was popularised in the 1970s by University of Massachusetts professor Jon Kabat-Zinn, a cognitive scientist who founded the university’s Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine. Kabat-Zinn developed what he called “mindfulness-based stress reduction,” an alternative therapy for a variety of often difficult-to-treat conditions. By the early 2000s, the concept of mindfulness as a stress management technique had gained widespread popularity.