Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Susan L. Smalley Ph.D.


Why Mindfulness Matters

Mindfulness is a means of understanding the nature of reality through intuition.

If someone asked me 13 years ago, if ‘mindfulness matters’ I would have said a resounding no, and then rolled my eyes at them for their ‘new age’ thinking. That was a time when I felt rational thought was the only means of understanding the nature of reality and applied it through my work as a scientist in genetics. One year later I had a freckle removed from my arm that proved to be an early stage melanoma, a disruption in my extremely busy life (raising three kids and being a prof at a major university). The deadliest form of skin cancer raised my stress level to high alert and I took a short leave of absence from the university to ‘get well’. During that break, my brain had a bit of a reorganization as well and suddenly I was open to exploring anything and everything alternative that might help prevent cancer. Yoga, meditation, macrobiotic diet, shamans, etc. etc., I dove headfirst into an alternative world of healing. In it I suddenly discovered something beyond the physical healing I so desperately sought. I experienced a profound sense of our deep interconnected nature—what I called a ‘oneness of the universe’—and with that arose a giant sense of compassion, joy, and bliss. Negative emotions of greed, envy, and anger couldn’t find their way into this voluminous space of love. And, I found myself in the present moment, fully aware of the beauty in moment to moment experiences.

In the aftermath of that epiphany of sorts, I returned to the university and began to study meditation and other practices that invoke a state of mind comparable to what I had experienced. I discovered it was called mindfulness and that there was a growing body of research around it—spanning neuroscience, immunology, genetics, psychiatry and other fields.

So if you had asked me 10 years ago, ‘why mindfulness matters,’ I would have told you because it has the power to heal oneself and help find authentic happiness (just what had happened to me).

Today, if you asked me why mindfulness matters, I would add to that sentiment one more thing, perhaps the most powerful reason to venture into the world of mindfulness. It is a means of discovering our interdependent or interconnected nature, to not only ‘know’ it from a lens of reason (i.e. genetics, ecology, psychology) but to experience it firsthand, to feel and know intuitively that we are ‘one,’ all part of a unity that might be called evolution, humanity, or to those spiritually minded, some version of the concept of God.

I recently discovered an object of art that reflects this value of mindfulness visually and textually. It is a fishing vessel or vat from India created by Indian artist Subodh Gupta. The vessel is 65 feet in length and crammed with objects—fishing nets, an old television, tables, chairs, a bed, pots and pans, tea kettles, etc.—everything a single fisherman might collect in a lifetime. The title of the piece is ‘what does the vessel contain, that the river does not’, a quote from the Muslim poet Rumi in the 13th century. The river is the metaphor for the oneness that I experienced and we all may find through an awareness of consciousness, self, and the nature of reality from an intuitive experience. The boat represents an individual life and the collection of objects—life experiences—that are unique and a reflection of our single lifetimes.

But the saying implies that we are all a microcosm of the whole, as we each evolve and unfold, so too does our shared humanity, so too does our ‘whole,’ our ‘oneness’. As we evolve, we discover our own evolution. As we discover, we begin to know the constancy of the continuum of change itself, the river.

A.A. Milne—the author of Winnie the Pooh stories—understood this well. He saw the river as the metaphor for this constancy of knowledge, of understanding. He wrote,

Sometimes, if you stand on the bottom rail of a bridge and lean over to watch the river slipping slowly away beneath you, you will suddenly know everything there is to be known.

So take time to find a river and watch it flow. It may be realized in a practice of mindfulness of whatever sort—yoga, tai chi, meditation, reflection, pondering, sitting in silence, attending to the present with your full attention.

This is perhaps the greatest reason behind ‘why mindfulness matters’.


About the Author

Susan L. Smalley, Ph.D., is a professor and behavior geneticist at the UCLA Semel Institute and the Founding Director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC).