Mindfulness is more than just meditation – here’s how it works, and why it matters

‘Mindfulness’ is a term tossed around a lot these days, but what does it mean and how can it be of benefit?

Personal Growth

In the past decade, mindfulness has become something of a wellbeing buzzword, making waves in health and wellness circles, popping up in Instagram and TikTok content and even making appearances in work seminars (although trying to focus on your breathing while Mike from accounts snores his way through the presentation isn’t exactly the ideal environment in which to discover your oasis of inner calm). But while mindfulness and mindful meditation have become increasingly popular, the exact nature of what it entails and its practical benefits can frequently be unclear.

In its simplest form, mindfulness is the practice of being fully and consciously aware of the present moment, paying attention to ourselves and our surroundings with purpose and intention. The foundations of the practice lie in the principles of Buddhism and Zen meditation, with influences from yogic teachings and other Eastern philosophies. An American professor, Jon Kabat-Zinn, introduced mindfulness to mainstream Western culture in the ’70s and ’80s, creating the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and its popularity has been steadily rising ever since.

Our minds are naturally wired for contemplation, exploration and analysis. When we meditate or try to keep our attention on the present, our thoughts tend to wander easily as we wonder what’s for dinner, what that funny buzzing sound is, worrying if the electricity bill has been paid and so on. Mindfulness teaches the gentle return of our attention to the moment we’re experiencing.

Observing our thoughts, emotions, and experiences as they happen can help us to avoid acting or reacting automatically, leading to our behaviour and interactions becoming more intentional, and enabling us to steer clear of harmful or reflexive behaviours. The practice of mindfulness involves observing the present moment without judgement or immediate response. Mindfulness practices are thought to empower individuals in gaining better control over their thoughts and feelings, rather than allowing their thoughts to dominate them.

Research on the benefits of mindfulness has revealed that its practice can ease symptoms associated with conditions such as chronic stress, depression and anxiety. One particular study showed that practising mindfulness meditation for as little as 13 minutes a day promoted significant stress reduction in participants. It has also been shown to improve the quality of life for those living with chronic conditions, reduce inflammation, help with pain management, improve cognitive ability and slow brain ageing as well as increasing one’s general sense of wellbeing. Little wonder it’s being promoted as a remedy for our fast-paced modern lifestyles.

Multiple therapeutic approaches make use of mindfulness, such as mindfulness-based cognitive behavioural therapy, mindfulness-centred meditation and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), a specific meditation therapy for stress management. These techniques are commonly included in the skill set of many therapists, so if you’re feeling a little short on serenity this January and you engage with a therapist or coaching group, consider discussing with them how to integrate mindfulness into your daily routine.

Introducing mindfulness to your life

Far from having to roll out the yoga mat, fire up an hour-long guided meditation and settle in for a lot of ohms and the sound of wind chimes, mindfulness can be practiced in a variety of settings. Making mindfulness activities part of your daily schedule can be surprisingly simple, and with a bit of planning, it will become second nature.

If it feels intimidating, remember that the only criteria to make an activity mindful is to slow down, be present and try to be aware of your surroundings and any thoughts and feelings you experience. With this in mind, any activity can be mindful – cooking, walking, gardening, even driving!

A walking meditation can be a good starting point. While on a walk it can be easy to lose yourself in thought, but the continual returning of your attention to the present is pleasantly grounding. Notice the feel of your foot striking the ground with each stride, the colours of the leaves on the trees, the feel of the air on your skin, the ambient sounds in the environment. Just taking those few minutes to centre yourself in the moment can create a sense of emotional harmony that lasts throughout the day.

Discovering moments for mindfulness in a busy life might seem challenging but considering the wealth of potential health and personal benefits on offer, even 10 minutes out of your day could prove to have an immeasurable positive impact on your wellbeing.

dara & co will host a live online workshop, Introduction to Mindfulness, on 22 February with life coach and mindfulness expert Keith Horan. This event will provide a comprehensive introduction to mindfulness for anyone looking to learn more about the topic.

Niamh O’Leary
Based in Cork, Niamh is a writer interested in psychology, pop culture and parenting. She’d like to think you’d find her in a cosy cafe reading Proust, but you’re more likely to find her at home, covered in various substances from an almost-one-year-old.

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