Mindfulness is a state that can be cultivated in which one is aware of one’s present experience and responds to this experience in a non-judgmental and non-reactive way. The practice of mindfulness often leads to a sense of balance and psychological well-being. To cultivate mindfulness, you don’t need to try to create any particular state of mind such as relaxation or focus. Instead, your task is to simply become aware of each thought, feeling, or sensation as it arises in the present moment and to let each thought, sensation, or feeling pass away without judgment or attachment. While this is a simple practice, it can be both challenging and transformative. Our usual mode of being involves replaying scenes from our past and planning for our future. Mindfulness is a tool for training our mind to be fully present with our experiences as they are happening.
How does mindfulness practice impact mental health?
Mindfulness positively impacts our mental health by decreasing judgment and decreasing the amount of time we spend daydreaming about the past and the future. Over the past 30 years, the effects of mindfulness meditation have been studied by medical doctors, neuroscientists, and psychologists. It has been found to improve immune system function and may even cause structural changes in the brain. In the field of psychology, mindfulness meditation has been found to be effective in treating symptoms associated with a variety of disorders, including depression, anxiety, psychosis and borderline personality disorder. Mindfulness has also been found to decrease suicidal and self-harm behavior.
What happens when we stop judging our experience?
With time through this practice of mindfulness, you will most likely become less judgmental. When we stop judging our experiences, we are able to become less defensive and less reactive, and are better able to tolerate unpleasant experiences. This is especially important as we usually spend tremendous effort trying to avoid unpleasant experiences, which can lead us to indulge in addictive behaviors as a way to distract or numb ourselves. One of the first scientific studies of mindfulness by Jon Kabat-Zinn involved treatment of medical patients who were suffering from chronic pain. After 8 weeks of mindfulness instruction, these patients reported a reduction in psychological stress as well as a reduction in their subjective experience of pain. While their physical condition didn’t change, their suffering was reduced just by letting go of judgment and avoidance and opening up to the direct experience of their pain.
Can mindfulness impact my self-esteem?
Yes. By practicing mindfulness we learn to stop judging ourselves as well as everything else that we come into contact with. If judging occurs in the present moment, you simply become aware of judging and how judging impacts your experience in the moment. With time, this leads to a decrease in self-judgment and an increase in self-esteem. I conducted a study of college students which showed that increased levels of mindfulness lead to increases in self-esteem and satisfaction with life.
Why focus on the present moment?
Focus on the present moment, as opposed to the past or future, is also a central quality of mindfulness practice. This attention to the present moment without judgment produces a deep shift in how we think and how we experience the world. If we are not aware of our direct experience in the present moment, then we are missing out on our lives. The present moment is the only moment in which our life occurs and we neglect it at a great cost. I find that when I am mindful, I feel everything more fully. I am happier and more connected in my relationships. I also experience the sadness and the pain in life fully, but it feels bearable. Living with a moment of pain (psychological or physical) is always bearable: it is the idea of a future full of pain that wears on us so much. If we stay present, we stop creating this imagined future and instead remain curious and open to what is happening now and to whatever comes next. In my experience, it is always a new experience.
Where can I find free, guided mindfulness practices online?
Here are a few websites with different mindfulness practices of different lengths. I encourage you to try a few out and start benefitting from this practice.