What is Mindfulness?

2 People

The practice of mindfulness, which cultivates a present moment connection to the unfolding of our lives, manifests in cultures across the globe and in every major religion (Walsh & Shapiro 2006). Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Executive Director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, is largely credited with introducing the practice into mainstream, western medicine. He defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” Below is a video clip where he elaborates on his definition.

The formal practice of mindfulness, referred to as meditation, involves distinct periods where people train their mind to focus on one thing (such as the breath). The mind wanders, they notice it has wandered, and then they bring their attention back. Over and over. This mental exercise strengthens connections among the brain’s circuits, much akin to how exercise strengthens one’s body. Through formal practice, mindfulness begins to manifest informally. It becomes a way of being, a way of living more consciously, experiencing each moment of life more fully.

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction

In the 1970’s, as a Professor of Medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, Kabat-Zinn was concerned with the condition (which he referred to as the “full catastrophe”) that many people experience as they face their own stress, pain, and illness. He was also a student of Zen meditation, through which he developed a deep, personal understanding of the ways in which mindfulness can alleviate suffering. Recognizing that Buddhism was far from mainstream, yet wanting to make the mindfulness component widely available, Kabat-Zinn developed a secular program entitled Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).

MBSR is a standardized, highly participatory 8-week course consisting of up to 35 participants who meet approximately 2 hours per week, with one 6-hour silent retreat, and daily meditation homework. Mindful awareness of the present moment is cultivated through formal practices (e.g., focus on the breath, body scan, gentle yoga, sitting and walking meditation) as well as informally exploring applications in daily life (e.g., eating, relationships, work).

The powerful impact that mindfulness has on those who are receptive to its influence is evident in numerous ways, including the draw of the program and the way in which it has proliferated. Looking exclusively at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society, more than 20,000 people have completed their MBSR program. In addition, many have been completed their teacher certification training, resulting in MBSR being taught in nearly every state and more than 30 countries.

Although MBSR originated in the field of medicine, the program is emerging in such areas as psychology, neuroscience, education, business, law, and the military.  There is an abundance of research demonstrating the beneficial impact that mindfulness has on one’s health. We believe the time has come to apply the practice of mindfulness to health and safety in the workplace.

© 2014 Regents of the University of California