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What is mindfulness, anyway?

Research

Where are you right now?

For the next 60 seconds, close your eyes and try to pay attention only to what’s happening now. Try not to think about what you did yesterday or the list of “to do’s” that you need to get through tomorrow. Notice what’s happening in your head and in your body—your thoughts, feelings and sensations—without taking the bait and acting on them.

If you found that difficult or just plain uncomfortable, you’re not alone. Most of us are focused on everything, except what is happening right here, right now. We lead busy, complicated lives where pausing to notice our thoughts without judgment or action—a practice called mindfulness—can feel counterproductive. But it turns out, just the opposite is true. Science shows that mindfulness can actually strengthen regions of the brain that regulate focus, emotional control and memory. Just like running helps us keep our bodies in shape, mindfulness can help us keep our minds in shape.

How does mindfulness strengthen your brain?

Mindfulness helps us know ourselves. When we know ourselves, we are better equipped to understand how our minds works – our values, emotions, strengths and weaknesses. Understanding how our minds work is useful because it helps us to be more aware of our emotions as they happen (Stuck in traffic…I’m feeling frustrated), and in turn helps us to manage them (“I’m feeling frustrated, that’s okay, this feeling will pass”). When you are in a mindful state, there is no attempt to change, push away, or avoid difficult emotions.

Mindfulness helps us to become more reflective versus reactive in how we respond to events in our lives. When we are reflective, we are better able to handle difficult emotions and persevere towards our goals. A very simple example would be the ability to delay gratification (donuts!). Although the feeling of temptation may be great, practicing mindfulness enables us to sit with temptation (that donut looks really, really, really, good!), reflect on the longer-term goal in mind (healthy body), and persevere towards our goals in order to reach them.

Mindfulness also makes us nicer! Mindfulness supports our ability to get along with others, and act with empathy and compassion. Having a mindful, reflective, non-reactive state of listening and responding to others helps us to form positive relationships and maintain them.

What does the research say?

Interest in mindfulness continues to grow across many domains including medicine, sports, education, and, parenting. Broadly, mindfulness training has been found to improve attention, well-being, and social emotional skills in both adults and children. Research examining the effectiveness of these efforts in schools have revealed benefits to young peoples’ attention, social and emotional skills including empathy and prosocial behavior (for example, sharing and helping others), and improved well-being. The findings are encouraging, and suggest that mindfulness has the potential to support the development of caring, compassionate citizens of tomorrow.

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