What is Mindfulness?

Small fishing boat in peaceful bay

What is mindfulness and how can it help in the reduction of stress? The Wikipedia definition of mindfulness tells us about the central role played by this state of mind in Buddhist meditation. We may be familiar with the ancient quest of Buddhist monks to reach a state of 'enlightenment' by meditating is silence for long periods of time. But this historical perspective is far from being the whole story.

Today, mindfulness is an area of growing interest and neuroscientific research because of its proven ability to help us to deal with the all-too-commonplace problems of stress and anxiety in this complex modern world. As we become increasingly overloaded by the deluge of information we have to absorb and make sense of from day to day, even the toughest of us can easily become anxious and overwhelmed. Mindfulness can provide a 'sanctuary' where we can gain some relief from such feelings.

The central doctrine of mindfulness is relaxing and putting yourself 'in the moment' i.e. freeing yourself of invasive thoughts and stresses about the future and simply 'being' in the here and now. It is about being able to observe, understand and shape the processes of your own mind. This may sound straightforward, and in some ways it is, but many of us have had little or no practice in doing this and don't know where to start. We are so used to rushing around with our heads full of invasive 'noise' that we have no idea how to attain a state of peace and calmness.

Via the route of sophisticated modern neuroscience we are beginning to understand that mindfulness meditation can literally reshape the connections within the brain, thus increasing the prevalence of positive healthy patterns and learning to let the destructive ones fade. This is possible because of 'neuroplasticity': the brain's ability to reshape its connectional structures over time. And there is strong evidence that these connections can be reshaped through conscious training and practice.

The reasons for taking up mindfulness techniques are many and varied but perhaps one of the key ones is the control of stress. Old ideas of the mind and body somehow being separate may have lead us to attach stigma to the serious problems of stress, anxiety and mental illness. But we now think of the brain as an organ, just like any other. The brain can become ill and, if not treated, can cause illness in other parts of the body. The evidence, for example, showing that people prone to angry outbursts are also at much greater risk of heart attack, cannot be denied. Feelings originating in emotion-related brain structures such as the amygdala will propagate to the rest of the body.

The good news is that you can utilise mindfulness to learn to control your stress, thus helping to preserve your overall health. You can learn to be a peace, feeling 'in the moment' and able to consciously push your negative thoughts away. For some learning the required technique will be easy, for others more difficult. But a 'mindful' state if mind is certainly obtainable by all. Learn to be more open, more 'emotionally intelligent', a better listener, a calmer person. Learning to be mindful can be life-changing.

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