The practice of mindfulness is essentially the practice of being aware, being present. By being present, a person lets go of thoughts of the past and of the future and focuses on the here and now. By letting go of consistent thoughts of the past, one lets go of what they can’t change. By letting go of constant thoughts of the future, one lets go of the anxiety of what they can’t control. A mindful person is entirely present for each moment. They are both liberated and engaged. Letting go of thoughts that pull you toward the future or toward the past can be quite difficult. However, practicing mindfulness is incredibly rewarding. More importantly, mindfulness is available to everyone.
Mindfulness practices vary. One practice is mindful breathing. In this practice, one focuses on their breathing and lets their thoughts drift by. When a thought comes to mind, one acknowledges the thought, lets it go, and returns their attention to their breath. Another practice is yoga. In yoga, one focuses on their breath and their physical movement. These practices are meditative in that a person focuses their attention on these things, allowing their mind to be otherwise clear. In any case, the focus of mindfulness is to bring the mind to the present.
Holly Hazlett-Stevens, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. She teaches the class Mindfulness in Psychology and has studied Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) a great deal over the years. MBSR was created by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Kabat-Zinn earned a Ph.D. in molecular biology from MIT in 1971. He was also a practitioner of buddhism and yoga. These practices helped him to develop MBSR to help people suffering from chronic anxiety and pain. He developed MBSR as a way to teach these practices in a more accessible way. Since the foundation of the Stress Reduction Clinic in 1979, MBSR has become more and more prevalent and there are now around 600 programs around the world teaching MBSR.
Dr. Hazlett-Stevens is also a practitioner of mindfulness meditation. She states that sometimes people place too much value on every thought that crosses their mind. Putting so much emphasis on every thought allows stress and worry to weigh heavily on the mind. She said, “People become enchanted by their thoughts.” While we sometimes put too much emphasis on these thoughts, we can also de-emphasize them. She goes on to say, “We can become disenchanted with our thinking through mindfulness… ‘That thought’s just a thought, I don’t have to get carried away with it’”.
This isn’t to say our thoughts aren’t important. The issue comes in when we place too much value in a particular thought, when we worry endlessly over something trivial or about something out of our control. Anyone who's seen Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them will find the main character, Newt, with a similar sentiment when he says, “My philosophy is that worrying means you suffer twice.”
The effects of mindfulness have been subject to many studies. Some studies are more subjective, wherein people who have been practicing MBSR are given self report questionnaires. In these reports, people often claim to feel certain stress symptoms decrease. In more objective studies, people who take part in MBSR programs and report that their stress levels have decreased and are subject to MRI scans of the brain to identify physiological changes. In these studies, subjects’ amygdala are found to have shrunk and to have become less active. The amygdala is closely associated with fear and stress, so this change could signify that MBSR can have a physical affect on a subject as well the psychological effect.
Professor Hazlett-Stevens describes the effects of mindfulness, “Stress symptoms, anxiety and depression decrease. Self compassion and psychological well-being increase.” Practicing mindfulness allows a person to stop dwelling on thoughts that cause stress and anxiety. In practicing mindfulness, one doesn’t judge themselves or others as harshly over little things. This allows self compassion and well-being to increase.
Practicing mindfulness allows a person to engage with the present and let go of thoughts of the past and the future. It reduces stress and increases well-being. At the same time, it can be difficult to achieve. Professor Hazlett-Stevens said, “It’s incredibly difficult to pay attention in the present moment with any continuity, it can seem very daunting, but it’s very simple and it’s also very accessible.” Keeping oneself in the present moment is not something we are all used to. We plan ahead and our mind stays in the future. We consider the past and our mind slips backward. But we can let go of these thoughts and remain in the present. Mindfulness is not some distant thing. It is not only accessible to a selective few. Mindfulness is available to everyone right here, right now.