By Iani de Kock
The last decade, it seems that mindfulness meditation has become all the rage, especially with Silicon Valley tycoons (like Google) professing that mindfulness meditation enhances the productivity and employee satisfaction of their staff. Is this hype justified with mindfulness meditation that is being touted as revolutionary in fields as wide as a business, sports to medicine and mental health?
It’s helpful to become familiar with the meaning of mindfulness, as well as how it relates to and differs from other kinds of meditation. According to Jon Kabat-Zin, the founder of mindfulness-based stress-reduction therapy, mindfulness refers to the “…awareness arising from paying attention in the present moment in service of the cultivation of wisdom, kindness and compassion.” Mindfulness, therefore, refers to the quality of being present and fully engaged with whatever we’re doing at the moment — as a source of information without identification or judgment.
Mindfulness meditation, therefore, is the formal practice in which we cultivate a greater capacity to observe and be increasingly aware of our thoughts and feelings without getting caught up in them. This attitude of gentle and curious observation enables us to approach and observe difficult experiences with more compassion and without needing to push them away or reject them. The benefits result from this increased awareness that aids us in being less reactive towards ourselves or others.
Ultimately, the intention behind mindfulness meditation isn’t to stop or change our thoughts or the way we feel in any way. Instead, it changes our attitudes towards our thoughts, feelings and sensations and the way we meet ourselves. In befriending our inner experience, we develop greater equanimity over time, not just during the formal meditation practice, but in relation to life in general.
Besides mindfulness meditation, there are many other forms of meditation that each has its own benefits, mechanisms of action and are therefore more appropriate in some settings than others. Transcendental meditation, which focuses on repeating certain phrases or chants (most famously “Ohm” or “So Hum”) or visualisations like guided meditations in which you create imagery (like the safe place or cave) as well as meditations focused on Eastern energy systems like the chakras and reiki, all function to either project our awareness away from the present moment or to change and alter some aspect of our present moment experience in some way or form.
Mindfulness meditation, in contrast, is acceptance-based. Rather than changing the present moment, we cultivate the ability to observe ourselves (thoughts, feelings or sensations) non-judgementally and, thereby, alter how we relate to and meet ourselves and reality as it is. Central to the practice of mindfulness meditation is therefore cultivating various attitudes, including a “no judgement”-mentality, curiosity (beginner’s mind), openness, letting go and compassion, to name but a few.
The “what” skills of mindfulness (meditation techniques) and the “how” skills (mindfulness attitudes) combined served to cultivates greater equanimity. This increased equanimity is at the root of the many benefits reported in the wealth of research being published worldwide on mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness meditation is perhaps the most researched form of meditation of all with a vast array of peer-reviewed studies indicating it as a breakthrough adjunct treatment for an array of physical and mental disorders and improved quality of life overall.
Perhaps it makes sense then to spend more time being present and mindful? Not just in your formal practice, but throughout your whole day.
Iani is a registered clinical psychologist and corporate wellness facilitator and is currently completing her specialisation in mindfulness-based therapies with the Mindfulness Institute of South-Africa and the University of Stellenbosch.