What is Mindfulness? Definition and History

Amber Murphy

Mindfulness has powerful, well-demonstrated effects on a person’s mental health and wellbeing. But while it is a very straightforward concept, it nonetheless can be quite a challenge for many of us to grasp. And while it is a direct term, the true meaning of mindfulness is quite profound and can occasionally be rather complicated. So what is mindfulness? In as few words as possible, it means that the mind is fully attuned to and accepting of the present moment.

Sounds easy, right? But with modern technology and the omnipresence of screens and other stimuli, our minds are often conditioned to be anything but mindful. That’s why actively striving to be mindful is so important. To help you further that goal, we’ll break down what mindfulness is, discuss it’s longstanding historical origins, and give you some tips and pointers to reconnect with your mind and re-focus on the present.

Free meditation appDeclutter The Mind is an app that will teach you how to meditate, help you form the habit of a regular practice, and expand your mind to the teachings of mindfulness.

Aspects of mindfulness

Mindfulness is simultaneously a singular and quite multifaceted concept. But at its core, it has two central tenets: focusing on the present moment, and doing so without judgment. Each of these components is significant, so we’ll take a look at them one by one. There are also many ways to practice mindfulness, these aspects apply to all forms of mindfulness.

Awareness of the present moment

Focusing your awareness on the present moment seems like it should be easy, but for many of us, it’s anything but. How often do you obsess over past mistakes, or anxiously look ahead to an anticipated future event? Or, perhaps even more commonly, finding yourself distracted by your phone or TV, and not focusing on anything at all?

Advocates for mindfulness certainly don’t say that you must never do any of these things. Bu never focusing on the moment can be quite taxing on one’s mental health. And conversely, mindfulness has tremendous, scientifically demonstrated benefits to one’s mental state.

But again, what is mindfulness? What does it mean to focus your attention on the present? Take a moment, step back, and simply take note of how you feel. Are you feeling anxious, energized, frustrated, happy? Keep in mind, as well, that mindfulness isn’t just about your mental state. Scan your body, noticing how you feel. Maybe your foot is itchy, or your shoulder is sore. Perhaps you feel particularly physically relaxed. Good or bad, simply notice it.

And most importantly, whatever activity you’re engaging in at a given time, give that all of your attention. This can be big things, like focusing all your energy towards your goal when you’re working on a big project at work, or something small like watching your favorite TV show without scrolling through your phone at the same time. Either way, whatever you’re doing is what you’re focusing on.

Absence of judgment

Focusing your attention isn’t the only component of mindfulness. It’s about the way you do so. Mindfulness is about observing how you feel, and accepting what you find without judgment. That means that whatever you find yourself feeling, don’t fight it. If you notice that you’re feeling anxious, for example, your instinct might be to try to change that.

But the fact is, resisting a negative feeling is only going to make it worse. You convince yourself that you shouldn’t be feeling this way. That only exacerbates the feeling when you can’t will it into going away.

Almost ironically, the best way to get past a negative feeling is through the various non-judgmental aspect of mindfulness. Acknowledge your feeling, accept it, even welcome it. Resisting is akin to clinging on to that negative feeling. Accepting it, on the other hand, allows it to move on of its own accord.

You begin to realize that you are not your thoughts. An important realization to live a more pleasant and happier life.

What is mindfulness?

So, simply put:

What is mindfulness? Focusing your attention on the present moment, and doing so without judgment.

However, that can be easier said than done. Let’s move on and discuss the long-held value.

A brief history of mindfulness

It’s important to keep in mind that mindfulness is not some lost, ancient, esoteric practice. it’s something that anyone can do at any time. While meditation, for example, can be a great way to cultivate mindfulness (which we’ll briefly touch on later), mindfulness isn’t a ritualized practice, it simply requires a moderate amount of focus and effort.

That said, the importance of mindfulness has long been known and emphasized by various cultures and movements. People have asked “what is mindfulness?” for centuries, and even millennia. Buddhism, for example, since its earliest days, has focused heavily on the importance of mindfulness. Mindfulness is commonly the first listed of the seven factors of enlightenment. While there are many versions of mindfulness within Buddhism (of varying complexity), the simple one we’ve described is heavily incorporated.

Emphasis on mindfulness became common in the West with the rise of nature-focused writers and academics in the early 19th-century, such as Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Walt Whitman. These writers believed that humanity was inherently good, but was liable to be corrupted by materialism. Mindfulness was one of the main strategies they advocated to help reconnect with nature and the self.

While these movements tended to focus on a more formalized version of mindfulness, by the late-20th century, mindfulness had become increasingly common as something to incorporate in one’s day-to-day life. Some of you may be seeking enlightenment, but most of you are simply looking for a strategy to reduce stress. Simple mindfulness is an excellent path to the latter.

Tips to practice mindfulness

Now you know what mindfulness is, as well as the long-held importance of the practice throughout history. But if this is all new to you, you’re probably wondering how to get started. Fortunately, we’ve included a few tips and pointers to help you become more comfortable practicing mindfulness. We’ll start off with something simple:

Breathe

Breathing is the one thing that every living person is doing at all times; how much different could it make? Well, if it sounds basic, it is. But that doesn’t mean it’s not incredibly powerful. Observing and controlling your breathing can be one of the most significant ways to manage stress and develop mindfulness.

In fact, the very thing that makes it seem so necessary is precisely why it can be such a useful mindfulness tool: you’re always breathing automatically. That means, at any moment, you can check in on your breathing. And use that moment to connect with yourself. Begin by simply observing your breathing: are your breaths short and labored, or are they deeper and slower? From there, focus on a few deep breaths to calm yourself down, and use it to relax and center yourself.

Keep a journal

How often have you tried to think back and realized you had no idea what you did two days before? That is one of the most significant signs that you could use more mindfulness in your life. You may write that off to simple memory issues, and some of that may be true. But it is also a sign that you likely aren’t really present or paying attention to what you’re doing.

One of the best ways to combat this is to keep a journal. It’s up to you to what, specifically, you want to journal about. Still, our recommendations would be to keep a log of accomplishments, challenges, and things you are grateful for. But regardless of the subject matter, the most important thing is that you take the time each night to reflect upon your day. That has value in and of itself, and in time, it will help you reflect in the moment as well.

Exercise

Exercise might be the most remarkable example on this list for many. But it has a significant connection with mindfulness. When you find an exercise routine that works for you, whether it’s running, swimming, playing a sport, or anything else, you leave the rest of your life behind. To perform at your best, you need to focus wholly on what you’re doing. And guess what, that’s mindfulness! Whether you spend 20 minutes or two hours exercising, during that time, you’re being mindful.

Meditate

Meditation is often viewed by many as an esoteric, almost mystical practice that is useless to an “average” person. But that isn’t true at all. While there are myriad types of meditation of varying complexity, at its core, basic meditation is the practice of sitting down and being mindful. You’re not trying to transcend reality or move to a different plane, you’re simply striving to still your mind and focus on the here and now.

Start small: it’s better to do just a few minutes a day than set big goals and give up when you fail to reach them. Try sitting down, focusing on your breathing, or repeating a phrase you enjoy and focusing on that. Close your eyes, allow yourself to relax, breathe slowly and deeply, and just be present. Pay attention to your body, starting with your toes and working your way up. Spending five minutes a day like this will allow you to become accustomed to a quieter mind and simple, calm focus.

When you’re ready, you can start our 30 day mindfulness meditation course. You’ll learn how to practice mindfulness and live a more mindful existence.

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