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  • Writer's pictureKarla Benzl, M.D.

What is Mindfulness?

Updated: Nov 5, 2020

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness has become a trendy word these days, but what does it actually mean? In everyday life, it means being conscious and aware. During meditation or therapy, it means being aware of your own thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations, as they are occurring, without judgment. This involves noticing when the mind is on autopilot, shifting automatically between thoughts, and then consciously redirecting your attention back to the present moment. The ability to recognize your state of mind is key to practicing mindfulness. It is actually the art of redirecting your awareness that ultimately allows you to be mindful. The goal of “mindfulness” is the ability to develop open awareness for as much time as possible throughout the day. This often allows you to fully appreciate whatever is right in front of you, and become fully immersed in as many moments as possible. When you learn to be mindful as a practice of daily living, you can become more present, wherever you are, whatever you are doing. Note that although mindfulness originates from Buddhist philosophy, it is not necessarily a religious practice.

Sounds great- but how do I learn this?

Mindfulness meditation starts with a formal practice of guided meditations such as breathing awareness, body scans, walking meditation, and eating meditation. There are different ways to learn this. I frequently recommend a program called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. This is a standardized program that was developed by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn in the 1980s. It involves meeting with an instructor and group once a week, for 9 weeks. The program includes education about mindfulness, as well as guided meditations both during the class and as homework. It is a great way to connect with other beginners and also involves a one daytime retreat.

Many people choose to learn mindfulness on their own. There are abundant resources dedicated to teaching mindfulness mediation, such as the headspace app, free guided meditations by Tara Brach (, and of course, any reading by Thich Nhat Hanh and Jon Kabat Zinn. Keep in mind that you will see more results when practicing guided meditations for several minutes daily. The minimum recommended practice to obtain benefit is unknown. Studies do show that more extensive practice is associated with actual changes in the brain. A commitment of at least 3 months is necessary for more long-term results.

Many therapists will use mindfulness techniques to help those struggling with emotional or physical pain. For example, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is a treatment that has been shown to be beneficial for depression and anxiety. Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy is a type of individual therapy that incorporates mindfulness and cognitive therapy to help clients work through states of mind that are frequently associated with mood disorders or anxiety.

Why do I recommend mindfulness meditation to beginning med


There are many different types of meditation practices. Most involve focusing your attention and awareness. Often times, people tell me they are intimidated by meditation after they try really hard to sit down quietly and “calm the mind” by clearing away thoughts. It can feel forced and unattainable. This is obviously a difficult task and one that only highly experienced meditators achieve after years of practice. Mindfulness, on the other hand, allows you to notice your thought patterns and develop the tools to redirect your thinking. We call this “present moment focus.” Present moment focus is a mental muscle that can gain strength through mental exercise. Mindfulness meditation IS the exercise.

Most people begin their mindfulness journey with guided meditations, which usually involves sitting still and focusing on your breathe, or another “anchor” in your environment, such as sight or sound. As your mind starts to generate thoughts, you become more aware of your thought patterns, and can develop the skill of “letting the thoughts go,” and refocusing your attention. The same is true for your emotions. You can become more emotionally aware and develop the practice of deeply understanding your feelings, and being a better judge of when it is time to let them go, or act on them.

The act of “present moment focus” causes the brain to focus on neutral stimuli, instead of worries or ruminations. This is the antidote to “being in your head.” With consistent practice, you learn to redirect your mind to present moment stimuli. When the brain is focused on neutral stimuli, such as sight, sound, or smell, there is less room for worry and rumination. Interestingly, several studies show changes in brain activation and connectivity of mindfulness meditators.

Has it actually been shown to help?

Various studies have looked at Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy as treatment for various psychiatric and medical conditions. Studies do support the use of MBSR as an effective tool for depression, anxiety, PTSD, stress, insomnia, and chronic pain. There is evidence to support MBCT for the treatment of major depressive disorder, particularly relapse prevention, as well as anxiety disorders. Studies do show that mindfulness improves overall wellness, so technically, most people can benefit from practicing mindfulness, especially if they are motivated and interested in this modality.

This article has been adapted for children:

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