What is the big deal about Mindfulness?

When I was an undergraduate, way back in the prehistoric past, I proposed a research paper on the effects of meditation. My instructor at the time told me that I could choose to write the paper, but no one in the psychology department would be interested in it.

Flash forward forty years, and now everywhere I turn another mindfulness group or research project is popping up. Interest in mindfulness got a big boost in in the 1980s when Marcia Linehan, a well-respected scholar and therapist, discovered that it aided clients who struggled with emotion regulation. (Emotion regulation is what keeps us from having a meltdown when our favorite restaurant is closed . . . or when our friend does not return our text within the next five minutes.)

The mind in its natural state can be like a 12-year-old ambling through a shopping mall, responding to the swirl of sights, smells and sounds. Look at those shoes – I bet they’d look good on me. Oh, smell that caramel corn – that would taste good. On second thought, I’d better wait for dinner. There’s my friend, Becca. Why doesn’t she look at me? Is she ignoring me?

Obviously, this is an oversimplification. Also, in a less busy cultures with less stimulation than ours, the mind in its natural state may be less volatile and more relaxed. I noticed this when traveling in parts of Southeast Asia, the calm presence of several people that I met there.

This brings up another point. Mindfulness probably runs against the grain of our culture. That’s because to be mindful invites us to withdraw our attention from the pandemonium of sensations and slow our thoughts down. In other words, we unhook from all the attempts to sway our impulses, our feelings and our thoughts — including our own thought patterns. We do this by giving the ongoing stream of sensations, thoughts and feelings a different kind of attention than usual.

Here is one definition of mindfulness that I like: the awareness that emerges through paying attention … in the present moment and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.

These are the words of Jon Kabat-Zinn, who founded a world-renowned treatment program for chronic pain at a hospital in Boston. That points to the magic and mystery of it. Who would have thought that by changing the way we pay attention to our own inner experiences we could relieve pain from real physical conditions?

It may be easier to imagine that mindfulness can reduce our psychological pain. Today mindfulness is being used as a primary or adjunct treatment for such issues as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, addiction, trauma, and even suicidal thoughts.

Paradoxically, one of the lessons of mindfulness is to accept emotional pain, to welcome it even. When we are being mindful we can experience emotional pain without all the extra baggage that usually is attached to it. For instance, you can feel hurt by a friend without immediately jumping to feeling unworthy, unloved . . . unlovable. This is because mindfulness creates some space around the feeling of hurt — a space in which you can bring compassion to the situation and your feelings and avoid what may be habitual patterns of self-criticism or self-rejection.

I don’t mean to suggest that mindfulness is a panacea for all that ails us. If that were the case, I and my colleagues would stop practicing others kinds of therapy and just teach mindfulness. But it can be a very useful method for creating a happy life, feeling centered and letting go of some of the burdens of the past.

Here are some Links to mindfulness and other meditation resources on campus:

Mark Evans, Ph.D.
Staff Psychologist