Throughout this article, you will learn why does mindfulness matters, what mindfulness is—and isn’t—and what modern science is revealing about how it can resolve both everyday and more serious problems while helping to make people’s lives richer and happier.
Recently, there has been an explosion in scientific research about Why does mindfulness matters, and how mindfulness practices change both the structure and functioning of our brains as well as how they can improve all sorts of outcomes. You are encouraged to regularly engage in mindfulness practices to help you develop mindfulness.
Note: The founder of Buddhism, the Buddha was a teacher who lived in northern India between the 6th and 4th centuries B.C.E.
Table of Contents
Why does Mindfulness matter? What Is Mindfulness?
In Western psychotherapy and neuroscience, mindfulness is a translation of the term sati, from the ancient language Pali, in which the teachings of the historical Buddha were first written down.
Sati connotes awareness, attention, and remembering. In addition, there is a sense of nonjudgment and deep acceptance, a kindness or friendliness, to the enterprise.
There are three components of mindfulness: awareness of present experience with acceptance. Now that mindfulness practices have become part of mainstream psychotherapy, people are trying to construct scales to measure this.
The Dunning-Kruger effect, discovered in social psychology by David Dunning and Justin Kruger, says that our actual competence at a whole host of different life endeavors is inversely proportional to our perceived competence. When we don’t have that much mindfulness developed, we think of ourselves as pretty mindful. But when we develop more mindfulness, then we notice how often the mind wanders.
How one develops a sense of mindfulness is by studying mindlessness. You’ve probably had life experiences in which they simply unfolded on automatic—where the mind was one place and the body was somewhere else. For example, when you drive a common route, you aren’t thinking about the directions you’re taking.
Most of the time, our minds are not in the present moment. And yet the moments that matter to us are all situations in which our mind shows up. We spend an inordinate amount of time lost in memories of the past and fantasies of the future.
Why does Mindfulness matter, and How Mindfulness Practice Can Help?
Life is difficult for everybody. Everything changes and loss is inevitable. Psychoanalytic writer Judith Viorst wrote a book in the 1980s called Necessary Losses. Her basic premise was that you could understand a great deal about human unhappiness by looking at our difficulties dealing with loss.
Self-esteem is our remarkably robust habit of comparing ourselves to others. In fact, in the Buddhist tradition, this is said to be the last neurotic tendency to fall away before the highest perfect enlightenment.
Different people get caught on different domains or dimensions. In other words, we compare ourselves in different ways. For one person, it’s about who is wealthier. For someone else, it’s about who is smarter, who is more physically fit, or who has more artistic talent. The concern for rank in the primate troop manifests itself in we humans with these constant preoccupations for how we compare to others.
Mindfulness practices can help us with all of this. They can help us to see and accept things as they are, rather than as we wish them to be. For example, they can help us with dealing with the inevitability of illness or even death. It can also help us loosen our preoccupation with self—with the concern with where we rank in the baboon troop.
It’s been shown to quiet parts of the brain that are associated with self-referential thinking. It can even help us to experience the richness of the moment more fully. And this promotes savoring, which research shows to be a very important component of most paths to well-being.
Finally, it helps to connect us to a world outside of ourselves, to something larger. And this is particularly important given our ultimate prognosis. And it’s another reason why mindfulness practices figure prominently in so many spiritual traditions.
Mindfulness can also help us get along with one another better. It helps us to see the other person more clearly and not believe so much in our judgments. So, we don’t get caught as much in condemning the other person who has upset us today. It also helps us to not take things so personally. So, we can realize that much of the time, the other person’s behavior, even if it’s disturbing to us, isn’t really about us. Rather, it reflects their struggles at the moment.
And it can help us to be present in relationships. And this is essential to being able to provide empathy for others and to support others, which is quite important if we’re going to get along, particularly during difficult times. It also helps us learn not to act on urges compulsively. So, then, we can respond thoughtfully, rather than reacting automatically out of our hurt or anger.
Why does Mindfulness matter, Mindfulness Practices and Scientific Findings?
Mindfulness practices are moving into the mainstream of psychology, neuroscience, and medicine as their positive effects on the mind, the brain, and the whole body are being studied.
Mindfulness practices keep important parts of our brain from withering with age. They also activate brain circuits associated with being happy, energized, and enthusiastically engaged in life. They even lengthen telomeres, the ends of chromosomes that get worn down with stress, resulting in cell death associated with aging.
To experienced mindfulness students, it can seem strange that a millimeter of change in brain tissue shown on an MRI, or a shift in EEG activity, is more convincing in our modern age than the reports of living people or thousands of years of testimony from monks and nuns who have successfully used these practices to find peace, fulfillment, and wellness.
But for people relatively new to the practice, the scientific findings are important, especially given the tenacity of competing—and often questionable—religious, philosophic, and medical claims over the ages. After all, how do we know that proponents of miracle cures and all sorts of solutions to life’s problems aren’t just fooling us or themselves?
It’s encouraging for people who have found mindfulness practices to be personally transforming, or have taught these practices to others, to know that science is now validating time-honored observations about their power.
Mindfulness practice is also itself a form of empirical inquiry, an investigative tool for a sort of inner science. It enables us to carefully observe the processes that create distress, and then alleviate it, in our minds and bodies. Mindfulness practices can be remarkably transformative.
There has been a recent explosion of research into how mindfulness practices can help us with a remarkable variety of psychological difficulties. It turns out that everything from anxiety and depression to the challenges of intimate relationships, aging, and raising children can be helped with mindfulness practices.
(Also Read: The Seven Pillars Of Mindfulness)
Why does Mindfulness matter, and How to Become More Mindful?
The way that we become more mindful is through mindfulness practices. Many people assume that mindfulness practice is about developing a blank mind or getting the thought stream to shut up. That only happens during very intensive retreat practice. It is, however, about developing a different relationship to our thoughts—so that we can observe them coming and going and not believe in or identify them so very much.
Most people enter these practices when they’re having a rough time. And they secretly hope that this will get rid of the negative emotions and help them escape the pain. The practices don’t work that way. We feel our emotions, and even our pain, more vividly. But because we don’t resist that pain or emotion, we end up suffering much less.
Even though these practices were refined by monks and nuns and other enunciates, they’re not actually about withdrawing from life. We might take a little time to step back to develop these capacities. But they are to engage so much more richly and fully in life. And even though, occasionally, we run up against wonderful experiences of bliss or peace, they’re not really about seeking bliss or peace. They’re about learning to be with whatever might arise.
Finally, even though we call these “mindfulness practices,” they’re mind and body practices because they’re very much about noticing that all of our experience in consciousness occurs from the mind-body more broadly.
Under the umbrella of mindfulness practices, there are three skills that we’re going to try to develop. The first skill is focused attention, which is traditionally called concentration. And that helps us observe things. The second skill is what neurobiologists now call open monitoring, which is used to see how the mind creates suffering for itself. Finally, the last skill is acceptance and loving-kindness, which is used to soothe and comfort.
Neurobiological evidence shows that the mental skills cultivated by these three different meditation types represent overlapping yet distinct brain processes. Most mindfulness practices develop one or another of these three skills.