Over the past few decades, mindfulness has been growing in popularity within psychology. Defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn as "nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment," mindfulness allows us to recognize our own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors as they arise without getting stuck in our usual, automatic reactions. Recently, I've received some e-mails from people who are new to mindfulness practice. So, rather than provide another exercise for city living, I thought that I would review some of the mindfulness basics. And, what better way than through a Top Ten List? So, I bring you: "The Top Ten Reasons Why Mindfulness is Cool."
10. It's free. We can bring our attention to anything at any time, and we don't need any special books, gadgets, or experiences. There is nothing that we need to buy in order to practice mindfulness. We can become aware of what's happening now, right now. For example, as you read these words, you're likely thinking about what I've written (at least I hope so). Now, take a few moments to do the following: Re-focus your gaze to the edges of your computer monitor. Notice what colors you see as well as any differences in shading. Use words to describe what you notice. Slowly bring your gaze back to this article, paying particular attention to the colors and shades of the your desktop, such as the background, programs, icons, ads, etc. And, then resume reading. Congratulations! You just practiced mindfulness! Of course, we often need a little guidance, so attending a workshop or buying a book can be helpful. If you're interested, I recommend a few books and resources through my Amazon Store.
9. It helps us accept things that we cannot change. Sometimes, we can take some constructive action to feel better, like getting out of an unhealthy relationship or stepping out of the rain (not to equate the two in terms of difficulty, though). However, when pain is unavoidable, mindfulness allows us to suffer less. By developing a certain amount of flexibility in determining where to place our attention as well as equanimity relative to our reactive judgments, we can experience painful things without getting caught up in additional suffering. Pain is just painful, as opposed to being something that we rail against or refuse to acknowledge.
8. It's accessible to all of us, regardless of our spiritual beliefs. In other words, there's nothing particularly religious about paying attention. Of course, different spiritual traditions have addressed the importance of awareness within their teachings, such as the centering prayer within Christianity, Shabbat within Judaism, and mindfulness within Buddhism. However, the present moment is also available to agnostics and atheists.
7. It's supported by research as being helpful (but it's not a panacea). Psychological science has demonstrated the effectiveness of various mindfulness-based therapies in helping people with chronic pain, psoriasis, anxiety, substance abuse, and Borderline Personality Disorder. However, it is not a cure-all for everyone. For example, Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy for Depression has been shown to prevent depression relapse in people who have suffered three or more episodes. In the initial study (Teasdale et al., 2000), MBCT was compared to a Treatment-as-Usual condition, and it was not any more effective in treating people who have suffered two or fewer episodes. In fact, the initial study showed a slight (though not statistically significant) increase in depression for people who fell into these other categories.
6. It can be done without any extraordinary effort. Mindfulness is often mistakenly equated with meditation. This is not surprising: indeed, there are mindfulness meditations! However, meditation is simply a way to practice mindfulness in a structured, dedicated way. It's akin to going to the gym in order to work-out, perhaps. You can get into shape by running around the neighborhood or taking the stairs more often. And, we can train our minds in the same way. We can have a dedicated practice (like a morning meditation session) or cultivate awareness through more informal, contextualized means (by reading this blog or visiting our main site, Urban Mindfulness, for example).
5. It encourages us to trust in our own experiences. Mindfulness does not require that you believe anyone or anything; it simply encourages you to notice what's happening. No one is a better expert on your experience in the present moment than you-and the same goes for me. I can't tell you what you're experiencing, and vice versa. If stand side-by-side, we might share some environmental experiences in that space, like being in an 80 degree room or hearing a siren outside. However, our perceptions and judgments of these experiences are likely to be very different. I might find the room hot and the siren annoying, while you might relish the warmth and extend a blessing to the people responding to an apparent emergency.
4. It helps us get over our selves. Within U.S. culture, we spend a lot of time thinking about ourselves. Through the adoption of a mindful perspective, we're better able to recognize our commitments to and connections with the people around us. Particularly in an urban setting, we can't do it alone. We rely on others to make sure that we have electricity, running water, curbside garbage disposal, public transit options, etc. And, I'm willing to bet that you didn't make the shirt you're wearing. For a more detailed treatise on this principle, I'd recommend reading One City by Ethan Nichtern.
3. It allows us greater flexibility in living. From an existential perspective, mindfulness allows us to cultivate the knowledge of self in order to live authentically and exercise agency. That is, we become aware of the responsibility that we have over our actions and their alignment with our personal values. Rather than going through the world on "automatic pilot," we participate fully and genuinely in ways that allow us to exercise freedom over our actions in the present.
2. It can be done anytime, anywhere. Whenever we like, we can tune into the Mindfulness Channel, which encourages us to become aware of what's around us and our innermost thoughts and feelings. The Zen monk Thich Naht Hanh, for example, advises that we use our breathing as an anchor for mindfulness practice. As long as we're alive, we can focus on this omnipresent experience by focusing on the sensation in our nostrils as we inhale and exhale.
1. It feels nice(r). Through practice, we become better aware of the pleasant and unpleasant experiences in life. Based on these insights, we can try to cultivate more pleasant experiences than positive ones. If I know that it feels uplifting to notice signs of spring, then I can be on the lookout for buds, birds, and blue skies. Obviously, this does not always work nor do we always have such control--sometimes, bad things happen or desired situations don't come to fruition. However, once we break free from our usual reactive programming, we can look at the situation objectively and decide what (if any) action to take in order to feel better. For example, if I feel disappointed by the lack of sunshine today, I can make a concerted effort to feel happier, rather than becoming mired in my bad mood. Pretty cool, huh?
BTW, if you're interested, you're able to pre-order my new book through Amazon. It's a compendium of mindfulness tips and reflections for those of us who live and work in the city: Urban Mindfulness: Cultivating Peace, Presence, and Purpose in the Middle of It All. Thanks for your interest and support.