What Is Mindfulness, and How Does It Make a Difference?

You've heard about it, but what is mindfulness? It's actually a simple concept with easy practices that reduce stress and can improve quality of life.

what is mindfulness

What is mindfulness? It's the practice of focusing on the present. As Merriam-Webster defines mindfulness, it's "the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one's thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis."

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It’s a term that’s bandied about frequently these days, but you might wonder, “Exactly what is mindfulness?” At its core, it’s the ability to stay present in moment. That means being able to focus, and to be aware of what’s happening right now.

For example, right now, you’re reading these words. In so doing, you are “present” because your mind isn’t wandering—you’re not ruminating about the past or fretting about the future. Most of us can’t help it: Our minds frequently wander. Mindfulness practices can provide inner peace and calm.

The practice of mindfulness is at the heart of Buddhist meditation. There are many ways to meditate and to be mindful. You don’t have to sit still on a cushion at dawn every day to gain the benefits. You can practice mindfulness virtually anywhere, anytime… even at a stop light, for example. How? By paying attention. What do you see? What do you hear? What physical or emotional sensations are you experiencing? Is it hot? Cold?

Another way to “pay attention” is by focusing on your breathing. Is it shallow? Deep? Can you feel the air entering and exiting from your body?

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what is mindfulness

What is mindfulness? It involves focusing on the moment, thinking about what you’re doing or what you’re looking at, rather than letting your mind get overrun with clutter. (Photo: © Winnietam | Dreamstime.com)

Where East Meets West: Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction

Based on Buddhist meditative practices, mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is a type of meditation that has been developed in America and incorporated into medical centers nationwide. MBSR has been used to help treat a variety of conditions, including severe trauma (such as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD) and major life stressors (such as the death of a loved one, chronic diseases, or divorce).

MBSR is nonreligious and proven to be effective—and it can be practiced by anyone. It was developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, who earned his PhD in molecular biology from MIT in 1971. Kabat-Zinn’s research focused on mind/body interactions for healing and on the effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction on the brain, body, and immune system. The program started in the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in 1979 and is now offered in more than 200 medical centers, hospitals, and clinics around the world.

Typically an eight-week course, MBSR includes:

  • Guided instruction in mindfulness meditation practices
  • Group dialogue and discussions aimed at enhancing awareness in everyday life
  • Daily home assignments

Look for courses at local hospitals, in community centers, or at houses of worship.

What Is Mindfulness? A Healthy Way to Deal with Stress

A wide variety of studies have shown that MBSR can be effective in reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression, high blood pressure, chronic pain, inflammatory bowel disease, and stress-related skin conditions such as eczema. The practice helps you become more aware of how stress feels in your body and mind. It could be a tense jaw, shallow breathing, or repetitive negative thoughts.

With practice and expert guidance, MBSR allows you to break down problematic experiences into smaller, more manageable parts, according to Natalie Bell, a certified mindfulness instructor for the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC).

A mindfulness-based meditation practice is not about denying, daydreaming, or wishful thinking. It’s about attending to the immediate moment. “We may do this with the help of a focus point, like focusing on our breath,” explains Bell. “That [helps] us to stay present, feeling the breath moving in and out of the body. You become aware of thoughts and emotions as they arise, and you can observe them with a more balanced awareness, knowing thoughts and emotions are changing all the time.”

You can discover more about mindfulness and listen to short meditations online at marc.ucla.edu. See also our post “5 Fun Mindful Exercises to Improve Health and Well-Being.”

Practicing Alone and with Others

While there are online resources to help you with mindfulness practice, it’s helpful to attend instructor-led group meditations. A certified meditation teacher provides instruction, which can help you get started. Taking an MBSR course or committing to a weekly group meditation class can help you stick with the practice. In groups, we also learn that there are others who may be dealing with similar challenges. Realizing that others are also suffering can be therapeutic.

Mindfulness meditation can be done for a few breaths (at the aforementioned traffic light, for example), or for a long period of time—when you can “unplug” and turn off the cellphone, get off the computer, and just sit and breathe.

The next time you feel stressed, try these simple steps. You might be surprised at how just a few minutes of quiet breathing can create a more peaceful and refreshed mind and body.

  1. Set a timer for three minutes.
  2. Sit upright but relaxed.
  3. Close your eyes.
  4. Feel yourself inhale and exhale.
  5. When your mind wanders, refocus on your breath.

Each time you practice, it’s like putting a deposit in your mind-and-body-awareness bank account. Over time, you’ll find yourself becoming more patient and less reactive to life’s inevitable stresses. And when you do find yourself overwhelmed, you’ll have “banked” resources from which to withdraw the tools you need to calm and support yourself.


Author JoAnn Milivojevic, executive editor of Healthy Years, a monthly publication produced with UCLA Health, likes to practice being present while walking her greyhound.

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