Mindfulness – the act of focusing on whatever it is you are doing, is a form of meditation and contributes to the meditative process. In of itself, it is a simple tool to assist us in ‘letting go” and just being.
We can learn how to be mindful from attending courses, downloading apps, reading books or looking up and following self-help searches on google. The interest in practising mindfulness in the West has developed from the need to escape from an overly busy world that we live and work in and the desire to slow down and get more out of our lives.
There are different concepts of mindfulness that exist, and they are different in how they’re practiced. However, the same result is desired – be it mindful awareness, for personal wellbeing; or enlightenment, as part of a religious practice.
Developing an awareness of one’s surroundings is what the practice of mindfulness is trying to achieve. Mindfulness as part of a meditation practice has evolved from the religious beliefs and practices of Hinduism initially and then later from Buddhism. Mindfulness in this context is seen to enhance the meditative process and has religious connotations.
Two individuals, Jon Kabat-Zinn and Ellen Langer have introduced mindfulness to the West as a practice that can help with managing stress, illness, promoting calmness and producing positive effects on the aging process.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, is an American professor of medicine and the creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Centre for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He was a student of Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who developed the Five Mindfulness Trainings. From his study with Thich Nhat Hanh, Kabat-Zinn developed his Mindful Based Stress Reduction program (MBSR) in 1979. MBSR is used to help treat chronically ill patients and this program was the inspiration for the development of Mindful Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) which is aimed at the treatment of patients with Major Depressive Disorders.
Ellen Langer, a Doctor of Psychology is a leader in the field of Positive Psychology. She has developed a mindfulness scale, the Langer Mindfulness Scale (LMS) and is the author of many publications. The LMS assesses mindfulness in four categories that include novelty producing, flexibility, novelty seeking, and engagement.
Langer’s research has found that the way we age has a lot to do with our mindset. Langer says that our ideas that we have learned from childhood, ‘fixed ideas’ can contribute to how we age. Her early research, “the monastery study” (Langer, 1981) demonstrated that the ideas held about how we age are influenced by our thoughts and our emotions. The changes in physical parameters & intellect score of individuals in this study improved, more so in the individuals who were told to believe that they were in their early years.
“Wherever you put the mind, the body will follow” says Langer. Her view on mindfulness is less about a full mediative practice but more about a state of mindfulness, it is non-meditative. She states that “...it’s the process of actively noticing new things, relinquishing preconceived mindsets, and then acting on the new observations. Langer’s many and varied research over the years had contributed greatly to the area of mindfulness. She believes that the world can benefit from mindfulness as she sees is as “… a tool for the masses that can prop open our minds.”