Jon Kabat-Zinn, the “Godfather” of mindfulness, and as good a person as any to shed some light on this seemingly elusive practice, defines mindfulness as, “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” In other words, you are purposefully becoming aware of what’s going on around you right here, right now. It’s noticing the sounds inside and outside the room, the smells in the air around you, the colours of the leaves on the trees, the feeling of the breeze against your cheek and the taste of the chocolate in your mouth. It’s repeatedly interrupting the constant stream of thoughts in your head and taking time to notice what’s going on in the world around you.

The principal way in which mindfulness is cultivated is through a “formal practice”. This constitutes of sitting or lying down and bringing your attention to a fixed focus point like your breath or different body parts. That’s it. And if it sounds simple, that’s because it is. It’s so simple it’s laughable. Simple, but not necessarily easy.

Distraction

What we notice when we sit down to focus on our breath, is that our focus doesn’t want to focus on our breath at all. It wants to focus on our breath a little bit, but then it wants to focus on our to-do list or tomorrow’s work presentation or what you’re going to have for dinner or how much your knee hurts. Until we eventually decide that, “Actually, I really do have to go and take the washing out right now and I’ll do my mindfulness practice later.”

Except, with mindfulness, we learn not to do this. We learn to not jump up and do that thing straight away. We acknowledge that very urgent thought, set it aside until later, and bring our focus back to our breath again. And again. And again. And again. And that is how we practice mindfulness. Choosing a point of focus. Bringing our attention to it. Getting distracted. Noticing that we’re distracted. Noticing what we’re distracted by. Refocusing on our breath. Getting distracted. noticing that we’re distracted. Bringing our focus back to our breath. Repeat for 20 minutes.

Where’s the present?

This constant guiding of our attention to something happening right here, right now, is what is meant when people talk about being present. You start to spend more time acknowledging the things going on in real time, instead of worrying about what happened in the past or what may happen in the future. And it turns out that this is actually really good for us. Science has shown that the more distracted we are, the unhappier we are. There is a direct correlation between the number of times our mind wanders and our happiness levels. A 2010 report by Harvard University scientists showed that, on average, we spend 47% of our time thinking about something that isn’t actually happening. That’s nearly half our lives. So what might our lives be like if we spent more time being present?

As we practice mindfulness, we start to notice our mind wandering quicker and quicker. The quicker we notice when our mind has wandered, the quicker we can get back to our point of focus. And this is how our attention span starts to increase and our time spent in the here and now, and thus our happiness levels go up. We also start to notice where our mind wanders to, and what we’re fixating on, helping us to unpick unhelpful thought and behaviour patterns. We start to become more sensitive to the sensations arising in our body because we’re simply paying more attention to our senses. We start to notice the rich texture of our lives.

Brain Game

These observations are accompanied by very real, physical changes in the brain. Neuroimaging research has shown that the eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course increases the cortical thickness of the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for learning and memory, and in the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for things like planning, emotional response and self-control. It also showed a decrease in activity in the amygdala, which is where fear, anxiety and stress are generated. These changes in the brain lead to participants reporting much higher life satisfaction, mood and wellbeing. The impact is real on all levels.

Furthermore, mindfulness protects the brain and its functions against the deterioration that comes with age. This means that it helps to ward off degenerative age-related diseases, like dementia and Alzheimer’s, by improving the physical health of the brain as a whole.

Brain Gains

Mindfulness practice is like going to the gym for your brain; just as your muscles grow when you pump iron, parts of your brain become thicker as you exercise them through mindfulness. And just as working out makes you feel good, so does working out your brain. The result is that mindfulness is scientifically proven to be as effective at preventing a depressive relapse as antidepressant medication.

Research into this field is in its relative infancy since fMRI neuroimaging technology has only been widely available since the mid-2000s, but all signs are pointing to mindfulness being incredibly powerful in supporting our mental health.

So what are you waiting for? It’s time to ignite your mind!