While “mindfulness” is a buzzword in our culture, there are a number of misconceptions about it. In this month’s article, I will define mindfulness, debunk some myths about it, and explain why we all might benefit from practicing mindful awareness in our daily lives.
There are many definitions, but one of the most popular was proposed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, who created The Stress Reduction Center at the University of Massachusetts Medical, which now houses an internationally renowned treatment program for chronic illness, pain and mental health problems.
He states that mindfulness is “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” Essentially, mindfulness is being awake, aware and present in as many moments of our lives as possible.
This contrasts with the way many modern Americans spend their days, consumed by to-do lists, feeling pulled in multiple directions with work responsibilities, family needs, personal desires and the ever-present pull of technology — phone calls, text messages, emails to respond to, and increasingly, social media posts where there is constantly something new to see, yet little of actual substance to add meaning to our lives.
Our brains are not adapted to the constant stimulation that technology creates. While most of us try to multi-task in our daily lives (or feel we are forced to), we are simply not wired to focus on more than one thing at a time.
Research studies increasingly show the costs of our attempts at doing too much, in the form of ADHD (for children and adults), anxiety, depression, and reduced productivity and overall well-being. For farm workers, a lack of mindfulness or presence can be very dangerous. Operating heavy machinery or interacting with livestock while worrying about an upcoming tax meeting or getting distracted by a text message has potentially great consequences.
Intentionally practicing mindfulness means slowing down. It means focusing on only one thing at a time to the extent possible.
While it can seem counterintuitive in our current culture, most of us have a sense of the mental exhaustion that trying to “do it all” can create.
What happens to you personally when you pause to respond to a text message in the middle of a task (especially if that task requires a high level of focus or mental energy)?
What happens to your efficiency when you try to complete multiple tasks at the same time?
I, personally, feel overwhelmed and have difficulty getting anything done (or done well) when I am not mindful.
There are a number of myths about mindfulness that are important to explore.
First, mindfulness is not “meditation.” Meditation is one practice that can lead to improved mindfulness, but mindfulness is anything we do that improves our ability to pay attention to the here and now — pausing to feel the cold air on your face, really listening to something your spouse or child or a neighbor says, catching yourself when you get lost in your thoughts, or taking a moment to inhale the sweet smell of freshly made hay.
We can all practice pausing in these moments — and the more difficult ones that are also a part of life.
Second, mindfulness is not “religious,” although in popular culture it has been associated with Eastern religions more commonly (and Buddhism in particular). Likely due to its importance in improving both physical and mental health, historically nearly all religions have incorporated a form of mindful awareness. Franciscan Monks, for example, embrace the practice of meditation as a means of gaining insight and getting closer to God.
Kabat-Zinn and his colleagues have created an eight-week program that teaches mindfulness (“Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction”), which has been studied extensively over the past 30 years. Results consistently show that as our levels of mindful awareness increase, so do countless metrics of health and well-being.
These include improved quality and longevity of life while coping with chronic illness, including terminal cancer diagnoses, reduced impact of chronic pain, improved employee productivity and reduced burnout and turnover, and significant improvements in mental health outcomes, including depression and anxiety.
Importantly, the research shows that the more we practice mindfulness (in both small and large ways), the more we benefit. We can all take time each day, or even each hour of the day to “stop and smell the roses.” Our physical and mental health will improve as we do.
If you are interested in learning more, a great place to start would be Kabat-Zinn’s 2012 book, “Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the Present Moment — And Your Life” or Williams and Penman’s 2012 book, “Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World.”
Dr. Lauren Welter is a licensed psychologist. She lives on a livestock and crop farm near Monticello, Iowa, with her husband Dan and their children Isaac and Clara. Contact her through her website, prairiehomewellness.com/.