Mindfulness has become a buzzword nowadays. New scientific studies continue to explore the remarkable benefits of mindfulness meditation. But as expected, this spread of mindfulness has also given rise to misconceptions about what it is and how it works. Today, we’ll be diving deep into the concept of mindfulness.
In this article, you’ll learn everything you need to know about mindfulness meditation. We’ll begin by understanding what it is and from where it originated. Then, we’ll look at the science behind meditation and the difference between mindfulness and concentration. Finally, we’ll discuss how to cultivate mindfulness through meditation, its application in daily life, its benefits, and some common queries regarding the practice of mindfulness.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the ability to be fully aware of the present moment without any judgment. It’s when we’re fully engaged at the moment—free from distraction and aware of our thoughts and emotions.
When you’re aware of your thoughts, feelings, or bodily sensations without labeling them as good or bad, we can say that you’re mindful. So, the moment-to-moment awareness of our inner and outer world without getting overwhelmed by what’s going on is called mindfulness.
Sorry for paraphrasing the same thing several times; I just wanted to make it clear.
The aim of mindfulness is to create a state of “bare awareness”. It’s a skill we can develop by practicing meditation. Mindfulness doesn’t eliminate stress or other difficulties; instead, it gives us more choice in how to handle them through awareness. It helps us respond calmly to situations that would otherwise agitate us.
The origins of mindfulness
Mindfulness has been around for thousands of years. It’s primarily associated with Hinduism and Buddhism, but it also has roots in other religions, such as Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Here, we’ll talk about mindfulness in Hinduism and Buddhism as most of us learned about this concept from one of these religions.
Hinduism is the oldest religion in the world, and mindfulness has been linked to it for ages. The Sanskrit word for mindfulness is smṛti. From Bhagwat Geeta to Vedic meditation, discussions about smṛti mindfulness are everywhere in Hinduism.
Buddhism is another religion that holds mindfulness in high regard. Pali is the language of Buddhist scriptures, and the word for mindfulness is Sati. The Buddha considers it to be the first factor of the seven factors of enlightenment. Also, “correct” or “right” mindfulness is the seventh element of the Noble Eightfold Path that leads to the cessation of desires.
Jon Kabat-Zinn was the biggest influence on bringing mindfulness to the West. He developed the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, an eight-week meditation course designed to reduce stress.
Mindfulness vs concentration
A lot of us don’t understand the difference between these two pillars of meditation. Both mindfulness and concentration are necessary to get the most out of your sessions. They work together as a team to ensure that the monkey mind sticks to the practice. However, they are two distinct functions of the brain.
Concentration means one-pointedness of the mind. When you concentrate, you force your mind to remain on a single object. So it is a forced state of mind. It’s when the mind focuses solely on one object without interruption.
Mindfulness, on the other hand, is more delicate. It’s the ability to be aware of what’s happening. When you’re mindful, you’re aware of your thoughts and feelings without judging them or getting caught up by them.
How do they work together? Mindfulness picks your object of meditation and notices when the mind goes astray. Concentration does the work of holding the mind steady on that chosen object.
So, you’re able to stay on the object of meditation by concentration. Whereas mindfulness enables you to stay attentive and not get distracted by random thoughts or images. If you end up getting distracted, mindfulness helps you notice it. Then, you bring your mind back to the object of meditation and concentrate on it again.
The science behind mindfulness meditation
To understand how meditation affects us, we must first look at the most recent discoveries about the brain.
In the last 10 years, scientists have discovered that every time we think, feel or learn something new, a neural connection appears in the brain. Those things we repeat the most, like our habits, make these connections grow stronger. Over time, the connections we don’t use grow weaker and eventually disappear.
Some neuroscientists have suggested that we don’t choose most of our behavior; instead, it is programmed by these neural connections in the brain.
Imagine the tip of an iceberg which is the smallest part. The tip represents all the things we can choose consciously, such as solving a math problem. The larger part of the iceberg contains all of our unconscious thoughts and feelings. They direct most of our behavior, such as reacting to arguments in the same way again and again even if afterward we regret doing it.
This happens because we’re not aware that we are controlled by unconscious emotions. In this unconscious part of the mind, neural connections are powerful.
Meditation helps us change our old, harmful patterns of being by creating new neural connections in different parts of the brain, literally making the brain larger. In a moment, we’ll also look at the specific parts of the brain responsible for different functions and how mindfulness alters them for the better.
The practice of mindfulness meditation
In this section, we’ll get to the actual practice that helps you cultivate mindfulness. But before we do that, it’s important to know the correct posture in meditation.
If you would like to know the difference between sitting on a chair and the ground, read this article: Meditating on the Floor vs. on a Chair—Which Is Better?
How to sit
Good posture is critical if you want to develop razor-sharp mindfulness and concentration. It has a direct impact on the quality of your practice. Here, we’ll glance at the eight key elements of posture.
- Sit cross-legged. If you have a medical condition that prohibits you from crossing your legs, do the next best thing: sit on a chair.
- Keep your back straight. If you’re serious about progressing on the path of meditation, an upright spine is a non-negotiable requirement.
- Don’t stretch your arms. There’s no need to put them on your knees. Keep them relaxed in your lap, with elbows slightly bent.
- Join your hands. You can cross your fingers or put one palm on the top of the other, both facing upwards. If you do this, your thumb should ideally touch each other at the tips.
- Keep your head straight. Your head and neck should be in a straight line. Don’t stretch your neck though, it has a minor hook that should be maintained.
- Keep your gaze still. Don’t move your eyes even after closing them. Restrain the movement of the eyeballs.
- Try to have a gentle smile. This one isn’t necessary, but it adds to the stillness and tranquility of your session. A breeze of calmness flows within you when you smile gently.
- Your tongue should touch the front part of your palate. This is to make sure you’re not distracted by frequent swallowing. Any saliva will move down on its own if your tongue is touching the palate.
The goal of these instructions is to keep your body as relaxed as possible. If you’re straining any part of your body to attain this posture, you’re doing it wrong.
These are the basics of correct meditation posture. I highly recommend you read my beginners guide to meditation posture for more detailed instructions with pictures.
How to meditate
One of the simplest and most effective ways of cultivating mindfulness is Anapanasati or breath meditation. It requires you to focus on your breathing. Here’s how you do it:
- Find a comfortable position. Ideally, you should sit cross-legged on the ground. If you can’t, sit on a chair.
- Close your eyes. You can close your eyes fully or keep them half-open. If you keep them half-open, make sure the eyelids aren’t covering the pupils. If you keep falling asleep when meditating with closed eyes, try keeping them half-open.
- Focus your attention on your breath. Notice every inhalation and exhalation. You can focus on the rising and falling of your belly or the sensations in your nostrils. That’s the actual practice.
- When you get distracted, gently bring your mind back to your breath. It’ll happen a lot in the beginning. You may end up ruminating for five minutes before realizing that you had drifted away. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad meditator. This act of training the mind to stay on an object by repeatedly bringing it back is what’s meditation.
So all I have to do is focus on my breath? Is it really that simple?
Yes, it’s that simple, but not as easy as it may sound. We’re bombarded with stimulations from every direction, and the brain doesn’t want to just sit and do nothing. There’s a reason why Buddhists say that we have a “monkey mind”.
But don’t get discouraged. It becomes easier with practice. The more you practice mindfulness meditation, the better you’ll be able to maintain it.
6 tips for better practice
So you now know how to sit and meditate. The question is: How do you make it an integral part of your life? Here are some tips to help you get the most out of your sessions and build a meditation routine:
- Take some deep breaths. Before diving straight into your practice, it may help to take a few deep breaths. It’ll calm you down and allow you to slip into meditation with ease.
- Count the exhalations. If you find that you’re getting distracted a lot, count your exhalations up to 9. Then, start back at 1. This technique is beneficial in keeping the mind focused on the breath.
- Choose a convenient time and be regular. Meditating at the same time of the day will not only help you create the habit of meditation, but it’ll also boost its effects.
- Keep a relatively empty stomach. It’s better to meditate on a relatively empty stomach than right after lunch or dinner. Read this article to find out why you shouldn’t meditate after eating.
- Do small sessions in the beginning. Don’t rush to sit for an hour or even half an hour when you start meditating. Small, quality sessions are much better than a long, sleepy ones. Read this article to learn more about it: How Many Times a Day Should You Meditate?
- Keep your face relaxed. I’ve noticed that my eyes squeeze and my jaw tightens up whenever I’m lost in thoughts while meditating. Keeping my face relaxed helps me maintain mindfulness.
I want to stress this point again you’ll get distracted a lot. It’s very natural and part of the process. When you get distracted, all you have to do is notice that the mind has wandered. You can say “thinking” softly in your head. And then gently redirect your attention back to the practice.
Remember, being able to maintain mindfulness for 60 seconds in a 10-minute session is an accomplishment! It’ll get better. Just stick to your practice and keep it regular.
A short guided meditation
UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) has produced this short 5-minute guided session to acquaint you with the practice. Listen to it and make sure you get the steps. If it doesn’t play, you can download it here or from MARC’s website.
Mindfulness in daily life
From what we’ve seen, mindfulness seems to be something you do sitting on the ground with your eyes closed. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can take mindfulness off the cushion and practice it in our everyday lives. That’s what makes it beautiful. Mindfulness is a choice. We can practice it anywhere, anytime.
Remember, to be mindful is to be aware of the present moment without judgment. It’s impossible to stay mindful 24×7, but we can bring it into some of our daily chores to learn the art of attention.
For example, when you’re eating, try to be mindful of every bite. Notice every morsel you put into your mouth and taste it fully. Don’t read or watch TV while having your meal. When you realize that your mind has wandered, bring it back to eating.
This way, you’ll appreciate the meal in front of you. You’ll feel how the food will nourish your body, and you’ll be grateful for it. The effects of practicing mindfulness in mundane tasks are fascinating.
Similarly, you can try to be mindful while doing dishes, showering, walking, brushing your teeth, driving, exercising, doing laundry, and whatnot. Throughout the day, keep checking in with yourself. Being mindful of your breaths will help you stay calm under pressure.
Here’s an excellent small talk by Jon Kabat Zinn on practicing mindfulness in everyday life and checking in to see if we’re really there:
Benefits of mindfulness meditation
Earlier, we saw how meditation practice creates new neural pathways in the brain. Now, we’ll talk about the psychological, emotional, and spiritual benefits of mindfulness meditation.
It reduces stress and anxiety
Studies show that mindfulness meditation reduces cortisol levels in the body. Cortisol hormone is linked with stress. A high level of cortisol in the body means more stress for the mind.
Usually, the body instantly jumps into the fight-or-flight response as soon as we experience stress. Mindfulness meditation triggers the relaxation response of our body, changing how it reacts to stress.
Also, there’s a region in the brain called the amygdala. It’s the “fight or flight” center of the brain that controls anxiety and fearfulness. Simply put, the larger the size of the amygdala, the more fearful and anxious behavior you’ll show.
Mindfulness meditation reduces the size of the amygdala so that you’re less anxious. Yes, it literally changes parts of your brain!
It sharpens your mind
Various studies show that regular meditation changes brain structure. Researchers have discovered that meditation is linked to more grey matter and a thicker cerebral cortex. The study concluded that brain connectivity in experienced meditators is better than in non-meditators.
However, it doesn’t mean you need to meditate for hours and hours to see the benefits. Another study found that people who meditated at least once a week for four years also had stronger connections between brain cells.
Another article on Science Daily tells us that breath-focused meditation affects our brain chemistry, making it healthier and improving attention.
It improves your mental health
A small study published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition concluded that meditation may help people cope with anger. The study involved both experienced and novice meditators.
Another small study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience found that meditation helps people manage negative emotions. Further, a recent study published in October 2019 in the same journal suggests that even a brief session of mindfulness meditation enhances emotional well-being.
Finally, a study examined the effects of mindfulness meditation on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety symptoms among 20 mental health workers. They found that the participants’ anxiety symptoms and PTSD decreased over the 8 weeks of a meditation course.
The research also concludes that “these improvements were significantly correlated with the total number of minutes of daily meditation practice.” So the more you meditate, the more benefits you’ll see.
It elevates you spiritually
Meditation is intimately connected with spiritual progress. Monks and sages have been practicing it for thousands of years intending to attain enlightenment or nirvana.
Breath meditation is very effective in helping us move beyond our thoughts and emotions. As we’ve discussed, mindfulness is the first step toward enlightenment in Buddhism. Mindfulness practices like Anapanasati and Vipassana have been popular for thousands of years. In Zen, we have Zazen, which incorporates Anapanasati or breath meditation.
If we’re mindful during the day, we’ll also be better able to practice virtues like compassion, patience, honesty, and equanimity.
Common questions about mindfulness meditation
Although we’ve discussed everything you need to know to start your practice, you’re likely to still have questions. In this section, we’ll look at some common queries regarding mindfulness meditation.
Also, I’ve dedicated a lot of articles to answering such common questions. I highly recommend you read the posts in this category: Questions about Meditation.
How often should I practice? How long should the sessions be?
When starting out, don’t try to meditate for lengthy periods. Your body won’t be able to sit, and your mind won’t let you meditate. So, start by meditating for 5 or 10 minutes and increase the length until you’re able to meditate for 30 or 60 minutes a day.
An important consideration is posture. Never compromise your posture to meditate for longer periods. Make it a rule to sit like a rock whenever you meditate, be it for 5 or 50 minutes.
Ideally, you should meditate daily, but neuroimaging studies reveal that meditating three to four times a week also has immense benefits. The goal is to make mindfulness a regular practice.
I highly recommend you read this article where I answer the same question at a greater length: How Many Times a Day Should You Meditate?
How long does it take to see results?
In the beginning, meditation may feel like a boring way to pass time – you just sit and do nothing. The benefits of meditation can be subtle at first. You may not notice the transformation happening within you, just as you hardly notice your face changing over months and years.
It happened to me. I was meditating daily for over five months and noticed nothing significant. It was only after stopping the practice that I saw how meditation had affected my energy level, focus, and clarity of thoughts. I started procrastinating and couldn’t focus on my studies. Then, when I started meditating again, everything was back to “normal.”
So, look for the benefits of meditation outside of it. Have you noticed anything in how you respond in your relationships or stressful situations? See if you’re calmer, more focused, and happier than you were before.
Finally, to give you a number, you should start seeing minor changes by meditating for 10-20 minutes a day for at least one month.
Help! I can’t stop my thoughts.
Good news! You don’t have to stop your thoughts at all. Meditation isn’t about thinking about a particular thing or stopping the train of thoughts. Think of your mind as a thought-producing machine. It’ll keep thinking as long as you’re alive.
The point of meditation is to recognize these thoughts and emotions as they arise. You can then witness them without engaging in them. Over time, this noticing will grow stronger and so will your inner peace.
Read this article to understand how to handle your thoughts during meditation: What Should You Think About When Meditating?
Do I have to breathe in a particular way to practice mindfulness meditation?
No. Mindfulness meditation isn’t about changing anything. You can use the breath sensations to train the mind, but you must not try to alter your breathing. The body can breathe on its own. So let the body breathe and notice the sensations caused by inhalation and exhalation.
We’ve discussed a lot of things in this article. Here’s a quick summary of everything:
- Mindfulness is the ability to stay aware of the present moment with no judgment or indulgence.
- Mindfulness is mainly associated with Hinduism and Buddhism, but it has roots in other religions as well.
- Concentration is the ability to focus your mind on one object, while mindfulness is the ability to notice if your mind goes astray.
- Meditation changes the structure of our brain by creating new neural pathways.
- Posture is an important aspect of meditation practice.
- One of the simplest and most effective ways to develop mindfulness is through Anapanasati or breath meditation.
- Breath meditation involves focusing our attention on the sensations caused by breathing or the rising and falling of the belly when we breathe.
- We can also practice mindfulness in our daily life by mindfully doing our day-to-day tasks, such as washing dishes, bathing, eating, and walking.
- Mindfulness offers a variety of psychological, emotional, and spiritual benefits.
- It’ll take you around a month of practicing 10-20 minutes a day to start seeing slight changes.
Good luck and happy meditating! 😊