For people with existing mindfulness practices who want to take it to the next level, there are several different options. Before exploring those, let’s take a brief and brisk walk through mindfulness.
Mindfulness, which can also be thought of as mindful awareness, is a spiritual practice that dates back thousands of years. In the last few decades mindfulness has become popular in the West, and has increasingly been studied worldwide in a formal psychological context. This piece will discuss how mindfulness came to be a global practice, what the benefits of mindfulness practice are, and some recommendations for mindfulness practitioners and trainers.
A Brief History of Mindfulness
Mindfulness is an ancient tradition that has origins in Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism (or at least some of the traditions that later came to be called “Hinduism”), Islam, and Judaism (Trousselard et al., 2014). The earliest mindfulness practices were generally limited to religious and spiritual institutions in the East. In the 1970s, two events helped bring mindfulness to the United States in its current context: the founding of the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) by Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, and Sharon Salzberg (author of Love Your Enemies: How to Break the Anger Habit & Be a Whole Lot Happier), and the development of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) by Jon Kabat-Zinn.
All four of these people were most influenced by Buddhist mindfulness (in the Theravada tradition, specifically) and Buddhists such as Thích Nhất Hạnh, but their contributions to mindfulness helped popularize it as a secular practice in the United States and the West in general. The development of MBSR in particular ” integrated secularized mindfulness-based practices into traditional Western medical settings” (Wilson et al., 2017), which further stripped mindfulness of its religious connotations in the West. Today, mindfulness practices are studied all around the world in the contexts of pain management, positive psychology, anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions, to name a few.
The Benefits of Mindfulness
Practicing mindfulness can have both physical and psychological benefits, can benefit people with mental health issues and/or physical health issues, and can even benefit people with no mental health or physical health issues.
Mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) have been found to be effective in reducing addictive behaviors such as substance abuse and gambling, with mindfulness-based interventions that promote the establishment of a long-term, ongoing mindfulness practice being the most effective (Wilson et al., 2017). MBIs such as MBSR and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) have also consistently been shown to reduce anxiety and depression (Hofmann & Gomez, 2017). MBCT has shown its effectiveness in reducing symptoms in people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), as per Key et al., 2017.
A review of MBIs in Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) determined that MBIs led to increased quality of life and lower levels of anxiety and depression in patients with IBD compared to controls (Hood & Jedel, 2017). MBSR (supplementary to care-as-usual) has been shown to be effective in reducing stress levels and improving quality of life in patients with lung cancer (Schellekens et al., 2017). Mindfulness meditation has also been shown to be an effective intervention for women with chronic pain, as it reduces depression symptoms and improves quality of life (Ball et al., 2017).
A study examining a brief MBI (specifically, mindfulness meditation) in a call center found that as employees became more mindful, their levels of psychological distress decreased (Grégoire & Lachance, 2015). A review of yoga practices in school children determined that practicing yoga in a school setting can reduce stress and anxiety (Nanthakumar, 2018). Recent research suggests that MBSR can also increase relationship satisfaction for both people in a relationship, even when only one person in the relationship completed MBSR (Khaddouma et al., 2017).
Evidence-based research shows that mindfulness-based interventions lead to psychological benefits in the presence of mental illness, in the presence of physical illness, and even in the absence of illness altogether. In other words, mindfulness can be useful in the fields of traditional psychology, traditional medicine, and positive psychology. Mindfulness-based interventions are also attractive treatment options since they are effective both on their own and as supplements to more traditional treatments.
Ways to Practice Mindfulness
As the studies above show, there are a variety of ways to practice mindfulness. Some of these are directed by mindfulness trainers, and some of them can be self-directed. The most common directed ways to practice mindfulness are MBSR and MBCT, which are both limited-term interventions, although the lessons contained within can help participants establish long-term mindfulness practices upon completion of either of these programs.
You might want to take a look at this viral post: Mindfulness In 7 Steps.
As for self-directed ways to practice mindfulness, the one that is most likely to come to mind is mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness meditation is also what one likely thinks of when they hear the word “meditation”, as it involves nonjudgmentally becoming aware of one’s thoughts and circumstances to better understand them.
Mindful breathing, when one pays attention to their breathing patterns in order to better control their breathing, is a similar practice.
Yoga is another extremely common way to practice mindfulness, though some may not be aware of its roots in mindfulness. The body scan is a similar mindfulness practice, although it involves simply becoming aware of one’s body parts rather than manipulating them. Mindful eating is another mindfulness practice exemplified by the raisin exercise. The body scan, the raisin exercise, and still other ways to practice mindfulness are described here, courtesy of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California Berkeley.
Mindfulness X, MBSR and Retreats: Next Step for Mindfulness Practitioners
For people with existing mindfulness practices who want to take it to the next level, there are several different options. One option would be attending a mindfulness retreat, such as those offered by the Insight Meditation Society. Mindfulness retreats are directed, several-day-long opportunities to deepen one’s mindfulness practice. It should be noted that most retreats seek out people who have some familiarity with mindfulness, as well as an existing practice, as opposed to beginners.
For people who want to take yet another step in deepening their mindfulness practice, such as spreading their knowledge to others, there is always the option of becoming a certified MBSR teacher. For example, the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School offers an extensive program for training MBSR teachers. More information about the program is available here.
Finally, for people who already lead mindfulness training programs, there is Mindfulness X from the Positive Psychology Program. Mindfulness X is an all-in-one resource for mindfulness practitioners and trainers which can help someone develop a mindfulness-training program. Mindfulness X even includes a full program for training other people to become mindfulness trainers.
While mindfulness might sometimes seem like a recent fad, it has been practiced for thousands of years in the context of different religious and spiritual traditions. Furthermore, while mindfulness has only recently been studied in formal scientific settings for a few decades, one could argue that Western science is only uncovering what Eastern practitioners have known for millennia. Regardless, it is clear that mindfulness practices are an evidence-based way to improve the lives of a variety of people.
The most exciting part of these developments in mindfulness is that mindfulness is accessible to anyone who needs it. All it takes is starting a mindfulness meditation practice to reap the benefits that Eastern religious traditions have preached for years and years. Beyond that, just like Thích Nhất Hạnh and other Buddhists taught the Westerners behind the IMS and MBSR all about mindfulness, people with deep, existing mindfulness practices should also do what they can to spread the knowledge to others.
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