WHAT IS MINDFULNESS? Mindfulness has been defined in many slightly different ways, through centuries and across cultures, ages and backgrounds, but whether we refer to the Buddhist texts or to contemporary business-related courses, the essence remains the same. What is really important is that Mindfulness is an innate feature we are born with and we tend to suppress due to our contemporary lifestyle. But just like the breath, it is always there to go back to, and just like any muscle, it can be strengthened with practice.
Here is a brief selection of definitions provided by contemporary Mindfulness figures working in different fields.
I define Mindfulness operationally as the awareness that arises by paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.
(J. Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living)
A mindful leader embodies leadership presence by cultivating focus, clarity, creativity and compassion in the service of others.
(J. Marturano, Finding the Space to Lead)
Mindfulness means being able to bring direct, open-hearted awareness to what you are doing while you are doing it: being able to tune in to what’s going on in your body, and in the outside world, moment by moment.
(J. Teasdale-M. Williams-Z. Segal, The Mindful Way Workbook)
WHO IS IT FOR? Mindfulness is nowadays offered across different populations and in very diverse settings: at school, at work, at yoga centres, within the police department and inside the army, in hospitals (especially in the US and the UK) and so on. Although it has been found to be useful to mix participants with different backgrounds (e.g. somebody suffering from chronic pain, somebody with anxiety or depression issues, somebody stressed at work), it is also useful to cater for special needs relevant to specific groups. In particular, special programmes have been designed for children and adolescents, using a slightly different language and format, but the underlying principles remain exactly the same.
And yet…there is no need to be ‘sick’ in order to practice, as tapping on our innate personal resources is something that is beneficial to any of us and that contributes to our well-being. In addition, as Jon Kabat-Zinn stated, none of us is ‘broken’ and needs to be ‘fixed’, and there is more right than wrong in each of us.
WHAT DO I NEED IN ORDER TO PRACTISE? In line with Mindfulness’ founding principles, there is no special gear needed to practice. It is advisable to wear comfortable clothes, allowing us to sit for a while or to do gentle movements. Depending on our flexibility or on our preferences, we may sit on a normal chair or on the floor – on a mat, a meditation bench or a cushion. But for some ad-hoc Mindfulness exercises even a bus seat is good enough – it is really not about the props!
On the other hand, our attitude is paramount: if possible, we keep a ‘beginner’s mind’, i.e. a curious and yet kind and non-judgemental attitude, open to whatever arises – even when we would like things to be different.
Again, this is part and parcel of what Mindfulness teaches us, there is no need to consider this as a prerequisite.
ARE THERE ANY RISKS RELATED TO PRACTISING MINDFULNESS? One of Mindfulness’ founding principles is self-care, therefore the idea is not to try and push our limits too far, but we rather explore them gently. Yet, this voyage inside our mind and body patterns may be quite upsetting at times, especially at the beginning. Like with all other training-related activities, it requires patience, discipline and kindness, in order to put up with possible moments of frustration, lack motivation, impatience or even distress at seeing more clearly deep inside of our mind.
Most importantly, if we suffer from serious psychological disorders, it is critical to be supported by a professional along our ‘mindful path’: the Mindfulness teacher is not, most of the time, a therapist, and his/her work is ideally complemented by a medical figure, when needed.
IS THERE ANY RESEARCH SUPPORTING MINDFULNESS/MBSR’S BENEFITS? When JKZ started his programme, back in the late ’70s, he did not expect it to be so successful, and it was mainly participants’ reactions and feedback that worked as evidence of its efficacy. Nowadays we are blessed with countless – and increasingly deeper and more detailed – research carried out at medical/scientific level, based on relatively recent discoveries made through neuroimaging, such as neuroplasticity. Although this is a very young field and there is still much to be examined, Mindfulness’ impact on the brain and its reactions is now unquestionable, and duly descried in many scientific studies. One of the currently best-known figures in this field, who has thoroughly been studying the subject and has launched several programmes, notably to deal with addiction, is Judson Brewer. Some of his work is featured, together with a lot of the latest research, under the Section ‘Science’ of CfM Home, the community-based platform launched by the Center for Mindfulness (UMass), founded by JKZ.