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What is Mindfulness Anyway?

A couple of years ago I heard someone use the term "Pinterest Mindfulness" to refer to this new "trend" called mindfulness. The individual was laughing at the notion of experiencing joy while doing mundane tasks like the dishes or vacuuming; "As if that will improve my life!" she said. I have also heard people associate mindfulness with being Zen or clearing the mind. Well that's not it either. So what is it and why does everyone seem to be talking about it these days?

While there is no agreement on a single definition amongst the leaders in this field, my favourite is paraphrased from Jon Kabat Zinn, the creator of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Program:

Mindfulness is paying attention in a very particular way to our moment to moment experience while being aware of the role that judgment plays in that experience. So what the heck does that mean?

How many times have you walked from your door to your car, so caught up in plans for the day or something that happened a moment ago, get in the car and arrive at your destination not being able to recall parts of or maybe even the whole drive? What happened there? Well, it is likely that you were caught up in something that you judged to be important like solving a problem that hasn't happened yet or you were rehashing something from the past that you cannot change. At the same time you ignored those things along the way that were automatically judged as neutral or unimportant. This might have been the sunshine, the stars in the sky, a tree with frost on its branches sparkling in the light or the music on the radio.

Why does it matter if you pay attention to that tree or those stars? Without getting too technical when we are caught up in anticipating problems or rehashing the past we create a neurological storm, activating the flight, fight or freeze response over and over again. This is physically and mentally exhausting and often gets us caught in reactive, sometimes unhelpful patterns. It may feel impossible to get traction, you may find yourself longing for a break, a vacation, for someone to cut you some slack. When you learn how to pay attention to those other things in your life like the tree, the feeling of your breath in your body, the sunshine, the sound of the birds, you can actually interrupt the flight, fight or freeze response. When this response is interrupted your brain operates more effectively, you can access the reasoning part of your brain giving you an opportunity to make different decisions. You may even feel a moment or two of calm in that storm. With practice the moments of calm are more accessible and you may feel a building sense of confidence to weather future storms with a greater sense of balance.

So its not about joy, but that might be happy side effect from time to time. It's not about being Zen either, although you may feel less likely to lose it as often. It won't solve your problems but you might find that there aren't as many as there used to be and that you can handle the ones you have better when they happen. Its definitely not about clearing your mind but with practice you can learn how to recognize when your mind has gone off to unhelpful places and reign it back into a calmer space.

By the way, this trend was started about two thousand years ago. Now that we can measure the benefits in the brain, cardio-vascular functioning, pain experience, immune function and mental health, we are adopting the practice in this part of the world. And do you want to know the most incredible part? If you are breathing you are fully equipped to bring mindfulness tools into your life.

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