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What is Mindfulness? A Beginner’s Guide

Want to learn how to practice mindfulness? Make it easy on yourself with this short mindfulness for beginners guide.
by Rosie Allabarton | Apr 26 2019

Mindfulness has become a bit of a buzzword over the last five to ten years, and while increased numbers are reported to be reaping the wide-range of benefits this meditation and lifestyle philosophy offers, for others the at times obscure and perplexing language surrounding the subject can prevent them from exploring it further. Finding a straightforward answer to the question ‘what is mindfulness?’ can prove more difficult than you may think.

What is Mindfulness? A Beginner’s Guide

In this article we’d like to debunk some of the myths surrounding mindfulness as well as provide some clarity as to what a mindful approach to life really means. Think of this guide as ‘mindfulness for beginners’: we’ll also be outlining the history surrounding the practice, and letting you know some of the key benefits you can experience as a result of regular mindful meditation.

Mindfulness for beginners

So, what is mindfulness? Among all the picture-perfect articles and hazy Instagram posts citing it as the go-to lifestyle choice of the moment, it can be tricky to find and pin down a clear definition of what is actually a centuries-old belief. In his book, Wherever You Go, There You Are, Jon Kabat-Zinn describes mindfulness as overriding an automatic approach to life, becoming more aware of our actions while we are doing them. He describes this action as taking ourselves out of ‘pilot mode’ and instead noticing the details of living in order to gain a generally more positive outlook.

But what does ‘overriding an automatic approach to life’ mean in practice and how do we do it?

In their book, Mindfulness, Mark Williams and Danny Penman explain that mindfulness is a mental training technique that consists of observing thoughts and feelings as they come into our minds but instead of responding to them as we would normally do, we simply let them float by without reacting to them. A helpful way of thinking about it is to imagine clouds in the sky: you can lie on the grass watching them float overhead but you remain wholly separate from them. In a similar way, we can ‘watch’ our thoughts as they occur to us without interacting with or reacting to them.

As we get better at this mental training we are able to see our thoughts and feelings in an almost detached way; we can watch them but we don’t have to do anything about them in that moment. Crucially, we do not have to decide if those thoughts are right or wrong. This practice can help us learn how to react thoughtfully, and not immediately, when we are overcome with emotion, and thus this helps us to take more control over our lives and relationships. Put simply we are no longer at the beck and call of our emotions.

A brief history of mindfulness

While it’s often thought that the practice of mindfulness has its roots in ancient Buddhism, there is also some evidence to suggest elements of meditation were practiced by Hindus in the context of yoga even earlier in around 1500 BCE. However, mindfulness as we practice it now in the west is largely founded on Zen principles and the training of sati. Sati is the “moment to moment awareness of present events”, but also “remembering to be aware of something” which come directly from Buddhist theory. What we can be certain of is that mindful meditation has been practiced in Eastern cultures for thousands of years.

mindfulness quotes

Over the last forty years, Western cultures have started to adopt these ancient Buddhist practices to help relieve stress and depression. The founder of modern day mindfulness is Jon Kabat-Zinn who founded the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in the late 1970s. It was Kabat-Zinn who helped to bring the practice of mindfulness meditation into mainstream medicinal thought and demonstrated that by practicing mindfulness we can all experience improvements to both our mental and physical well-being.

Why practice mindfulness? Some key mindfulness quotes

Research into mindfulness has proven numerous physical and mental health benefits for those who regularly practice it. If you need a little extra incentive in order to sit down and meditate for a few minutes everyday, take a look at this list of proven positive outcomes and read these key mindfulness quotes for mind and body. Once you start your regular mindful meditation you, too, can look forward to some of these amazing benefits.

Improved mental health – dealing with difficult thoughts

“Mindfulness is a great antidote to everyday stress.”
Mark Williams and Danny Penman

Our minds wander during 50% of our waking life, Mark Williams and Danny Penman tell us in their book Mindfulness. It’s no wonder then that when we start tuning in to the here and now more of the time — rather than thinking about the past or worrying about the future — our awareness of our present thoughts and feelings becomes more finely tuned and our ability to handle these thoughts and feelings gets easier along with it.

“[Mindfulness is about] allowing ourselves to realize who and where we already are.”
Jon Kabat-Zinn

In Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Western mindfulness goes even further. He tells us that through mindful meditation we are able to realize the richness and possibility of our own growth and transformation and become reunited with aspects of ourselves we may have previously overlooked or not appreciated. This in turn leads to more intense experiences of joy, peacefulness, and happiness, and when difficult emotions arise — as they always do — we are much more equipped at dealing with them.

“By listening to your body you can get a very clear sense of what is important in your life.”
Eckhart Tolle

The Power of Now supports this view. Pain is a part of life, Eckhart Tolle writes, but mindfulness gives us the inner strength to deal with it. Tolle also cites mindfulness as an antidote to everyday stress, reducing anxiety and irritation as well as preventing relapses into depression. Dan Harris, author of 10% Happier, concurs. He cites evidence that shows that mindfulness can even shrink the areas of our brain associated with stress as well as improve general decision-making.
Improved physical health – alleviate pain and suffering

“Mindful meditation can help alleviate chronic pain.”
Mark Williams and Danny Penman

It’s not just our minds that will benefit from a commitment to meditation. In The Power of Now, Tolle tells us how research has shown time and again how mindfulness significantly strengthens our immune systems. This physical advantage enables us to better tackle colds, the flu, and other viruses. He also discusses its positive impact on chronic pain, in some cases alleviating it altogether.

“Mindfulness can help cancer patients better handle stress and senior citizens avoid loneliness.”
Dan Harris

Dan Harris, author of 10% Happier — who recently appeared on an episode of Blinkist’s podcast, Simplify — tells us how the practice can lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart attacks. Not only that but the effects of ADHD can be stemmed, along with asthma, psoriasis, and even IBS. Who knew that meditation could do so much for us?

How to practice mindfulness

We hope we’ve managed to debunk some of the myths around mindfulness, give you an answer to the question ‘what is mindfulness?’ and offer you a clearer idea of what this life-enhancing practice entails. After reading about the host of psychological and physical benefits we’ve mentioned here, perhaps you’re now considering trying some mindful meditation yourself. And why not? As a practice it’s totally accessible to everyone and can be done almost anywhere once you’ve got the hang of it! Whether you’re keen to de-stress after a difficult year at work, you need a little island of calm in the middle of a bustling routine, you want to understand and connect to your desires, or you’d like to have more of a handle on the darker side of your emotional spectrum, mindfulness could very well be the solution you’re looking for.

To dive a little deeper into the subject and learn some practical ways of getting started we recommend reading some key titles on the subject on Blinkist. Whether that’s Wherever You Go, There You Are, by mindfulness guru Jon Kabat-Zinn himself, or The Mindful Athlete by George Mumford, we’ve got a host of titles in our library of books that can guide and inform you on your journey into a more mindful, and more positive, experience.

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