Mindfulness is a psychological concept that has become popular in mainstream American culture recently. Having its roots in Buddhist religious meditation, the practice has been adopted for secular purposes in various fields, ranging from health and wellness to psychiatry. Mindfulness implies a state of active awareness of one’s inner state and outer surroundings. As a result, achieving the mindfulness condition has been associated with significant benefits for mental health, positive feelings, social relationships, and physical well-being documented by numerous studies and experts. This report seeks to investigate the fundamental basics, origins, concepts, and applicability of mindfulness as a practice, with the purpose to determine its viability for integration in therapy and daily life.
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Definition of Mindfulness
Mindfulness has various broad definitions in the English language, particularly the state of being consciously aware. Mindfulness has become a semantic amalgam recently introduced into the Western mainstream culture based on philosophical and religious adaptations of Buddhist beliefs. These are defined as a mental state that focuses awareness on a present moment and acceptance of one’s feelings, thoughts, and sensations. In this case, mindfulness is a mental state which is dependent on the core concepts of the mindfulness philosophy discussed in the next section. However, this does not necessarily characterize mindfulness from a Buddhist perspective which emphasizes awareness through composure of mental and emotional functions. In this state, the acts of judgment and evaluation are analogous with the seven attitudes of mindfulness, leading to acceptance and non-judgment (Grossman, 2015).
The Western definition of mindfulness, utilized in the psychology field, is the act of paying attention in a way that focuses on the purpose of presence in the moment and a non-judgmental approach (Black, 2011). Mindfulness can be considered an outcome and a process. The process known as the mindful practice is a systemic approach of acting in an open and caring way, using knowledge, and attempting to shape the mind. Meanwhile, the outcome known as mindful awareness is the state of deep knowing that results from freedom of the mind, apart from preconditioned societal perspectives. A definition unifying both concepts can be stated as “awareness that arises through intentionally attending in an open, accepting, and a discerning way to whatever is arising in the present moment” (Shapiro, 2009, p. 556). The common theme of all definitions of mindfulness is the receptivity and engagement of an individual in the present moment. Mindfulness is meant to be a counterbalance to the chaotic attention capacities and business of the modern world that cause limited awareness of current reality (Black 2011).
Core Components of Mindfulness
The concepts of mindfulness were broken into three distinct axioms which attempt to simplify this complex philosophy into core building blocks that can be used in practice. The definition of mindfulness regarding paying attention in a manner of presentation in the current moment embodies the three axioms of intention, attention, and attitude (Shapiro, Carlson, Astin, & Freedman, 2006).
The intention is the component of mindfulness which seeks to identify the objective of this practice. It has been lost in the transition to Western psychology from the Buddhist roots which emphasized enlightenment and compassion as the primary intention. The intention is directly correlated with outcomes of meditation and mindfulness practices. It has been found that intentions may shift as an individual practices mindfulness techniques, ranging on a continuum from self-regulation to self-exploration, and the ultimate objective of self-liberation (Shapiro et al., 2006).
The axiom of attention in mindfulness applies careful observation of moment-to-moment experiences and awareness of internal and external surroundings. Attention is utilized in psychology as a vital component of healing for present moment awareness. In cognitive-behavior therapy, attention provides an individual with the ability to observe and change internal and external behavior patterns. Attention is vital to attend to the contents of the consciousness and is a critical component of mindfulness practices in establishing mental fortitude and self-regulation (Shapiro et al., 2006).
The final component of mindfulness is attitude. Attitude forms the foundational seven pillars of mindfulness outlined later in this report. Attitude describes an individual’s approach to the attention axiom. While awareness is central to mindfulness, the quality of this awareness is rarely addressed. Attitude is key to formulating the quality and characterization of attention and awareness. Therefore, the approach can vary as being either cold or compassionate. An individual must explicitly focus on the attitudinal quality of their awareness (Shapiro et al., 2006).
Cultural Perspectives on Mindfulness
Mindfulness is associated with meditation that has its origins in Buddhist practices but has become popularized in Western culture. Psychological literature highlights two distinct cultural viewpoints, the Eastern perspective which is based on Buddhism religious components, and the Western approach that is more focused on objective awareness and mental health (Djikic, 2014). The outcomes of both Eastern and Western approaches are similar as they both suggest a process and transition to full self-development and mindfulness can be used as a technique to track this growth (Weick & Putnam, 2006).
It would be logical, to begin with, the root issue that mindfulness attempts to address in Eastern cultures. In Buddhism, the primary problem is suffering (dukkha) which refers to the human condition, both physical in terms of health and mental regarding emotional pain. People commonly focus on pain as the inevitable factor of life, experiencing suffering as a result of human factors such as craving, attachment, and aversion to experiences (Djikic, 2014). Mindfulness (Sati) in Buddhism is an ancient practice and philosophical approach to life, based on spiritual traditions. Mindfulness is associated with conceptual practices of awareness, openness, and reception. It is the state of attentiveness to the present moment and awareness of experiences. These qualities and functions of the mind are considered to be adept to cultivation, which the primary focus of mindfulness practice (Chen, Scott, & Benckendorff, 2016).
In the Western perspective, the primary issue is mindlessness that drives decision-making through preconditioned, primed, stereotypical, and authority-compliant behaviors. Individuals are victims of a society which continuously characterizes and categorizes people based on historical or economic conventions. However, these aspects exist solely in the mind, and humans continuously struggle with the mindlessness of existence in reality. Despite the vehement ideals of free will, individuals in Western society lack choices and are controlled by the environment (Djikic, 2014).
Three purposes can define the Western perspective of mindfulness. It seeks to actively differentiate existing distinctions, create newly diverse categories from events, and a better appreciation of context and methods to work around it. Mindfulness from a Western approach is focused on switching modes of thinking and becoming more aware of similarities and differences in oneself and surroundings. There is an emphasis on the flexible awareness of the present and external events with goal-oriented cognitive tasks at hand (Weick & Putnam, 2006). This differs significantly from the Eastern approaches of meditation and inner exploration.
Seven Pillars of Mindfulness
Beyond the mental, ethical, or psychological aspects of mindfulness practice, there is a complementary attitudinal foundation. Developed by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, who is known for introducing mindfulness into Western psychology, these attitudes consist of non-judging, patient, beginner’s mind, trust, non-striving, acceptance, and letting go (2016). These attitudes serve as a foundation to the practice, essentially cultivating an individual’s ability to relax the body and mind, thus engaging with the core prospects of mindfulness.
Non-judging consists of attempting to disregard preconceived attitudes that guide every concept of the mind towards judgment in one way or another. Mindfulness attempts to bypass the automatic preconceptions of judgment through recognition and control. Patience is a rare virtue in the modern world of instant gratification. However, practicing patience in mindfulness helps to consider existence and moments at specific periods in time, becoming aware of time and experiences. Beginner’s mind is a concept associated with the simplicity of a mindfulness approach. Life experience and expertise can often cloud clear thinking and the ability to recognize important concepts of curiosity and creativity. It does not imply a lack of knowledge, but rather the ability not to become overwhelmingly influenced by the heaviness of experience when facing the unknown. The fourth attitude is trust, which goes beyond the basic black and white preconception that society instills. Instead, mindfulness attempts to emphasize philosophical questions of trust regarding knowledge, thoughts, and senses. Trust seeks to stimulate the individual’s awareness of one’s body and mind, mobilizing them for self-exploration. (Kabat-Zinn, 2016).
Non-striving is a difficult concept to apply in the capitalism-driven Western society which focuses on achievement and “doers.” In mindfulness, non-striving is focusing on the present moment, particularly during meditation, and attempting, for a time, to disconnect from any possible responsibilities or appointments. Acceptance is an attitude commonly misunderstood to mean that things should be allowed to happen as is. In mindfulness, acceptance is the opposite of passive resignation, but rather a comprehension of the given fact and using this knowledge to find solutions for further actions without being entrapped by negative conditional thoughts. Finally, letting go is the final pillar of mindfulness that emphasizes nonattachment to a particular outcome. It is a healthy approach to address an individual’s cravings, fears, and clinging to negativity, meant to liberate the inner well-being. Once again, it does not promote passivity or reactive distancing, but working together with outer attitudes such as acceptance, this is meant to embrace reality from a different perspective despite it being far from ideal (Kabat-Zinn, 2016).
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Mindfulness theories argue that the nature of present-moment awareness and non-judgmental acceptance can have significant wellness benefits. Mindfulness offers a holistic approach that addresses critical aspects of individual health and performance. The practice promotes fitness, self-care, and clarity of mind, which subsequently impact the quality of life, relationships, and ability to engage in various personal and professional activities (Altizer, 2017). Mindfulness has been associated with helping to manage burnout, depression, and career dissatisfaction in high-stress jobs by teaching individuals to cope and foster resiliency (Chatwal et al., 2018)
One of the biggest benefits of mindfulness is stress management. The practice aids in self-regulation in response to negative emotions and events. Instead of the common response to daily stressors such as avoidance and denial, mindfulness practice encourages acceptance. While avoidant strategies can only produce short-term solutions, mindfulness provides long-term support by affecting somatic states. The individual is connected to opportunities to manage stressors which is more likely to lead to positive stress response (Donald, Atkins, Parker, Christie, & Ryan, 2016).
Mindfulness plays a critical role in emotional regulation which can potentially prevent emotional exhaustion and depression. The attention systems and self-awareness engaged during mindfulness meditation causes structural and functional changes in the brain that lead to the facilitation of embodied emotional regulation mechanisms. This impacts an individual’s cognitive and behavioral functions on how they react and display emotion (Guendelman, Medeiros, & Rampes, 2017).
Use in Therapy and Interventions
Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) has become a popular therapeutical approach to treating a wide variety of psychological disorders and reducing stress, depression, and anxiety. Mindfulness at the core of MBCT is the mechanism believed to be responsible for decreasing negative effects and reducing maladaptive automatic emotional responses. This is consistent with the principle that mindfulness training affects the brain areas which manipulate affect regulation and stress impulse reaction (Khoury et al., 2013). Consistent scientific evidence supports that mechanisms of psychological functioning and well-being promoted by mindfulness have an impact on cognitive and emotional reactivity which is critical for control in mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). Theoretical accounts incorporate mindfulness as a mechanism for self-compassion, attentional control, and regulation in MBT (Gu, Strauss, Bond, & Cavanaugh, 2015). Although mindfulness in therapy is supported through scientific evidence, further research is required as many studies face issues with consistency bias. Below are examples of how mindfulness can be used in therapy and interventions to treat specific psychological conditions.
Anxiety is a common psychiatric disorder associated with uncontrollable, irrational, and overwhelming fear that a patient faces regarding daily activities. A more severe form of anxiety known as hypochondriasis leads to recurrent distressing images that are intrusive and cause anxiety episodes. MBCT can be used as a potential solution to managing the disorder by affecting the way that patients relate to their fears and intrusive images. MBCT trains to recognize triggers and images as products of the mind that do not reflect reality. Therefore, patients experience a decline in the threatening nature of the images and can avoid feeling distress that accompanies anxiety episodes. Participants can use mindfulness to let go of distressing thoughts instead of using avoidance and worry which drives anxiety (McManus, Muse, Surawy, Hackmann, & Williams, 2014).
Depression is a chronic and recurrent condition that is a mood disorder leading to persistent feelings of sadness and concurrent factors. Depression has a high risk of relapse and suicide, associated with adversity and abuse. MBCT has the potential to be used to prevent relapse episodes by incorporating relapse prevention skills to patients in remission. It combines cognitive therapy with psychological education and mindfulness meditation (Williams et al., 2014). MBCT was implemented based on the model of cognitive vulnerability, thus patients at risk of relapse experience significantly different negative thinking patterns. Mindfulness encourages patients to become aware of internal events such as thoughts and feelings and change the way that they relate to these perceptions. MBCT has been established to have a similar effect to that of a medicative antidepressant in preventing relapse of up to 12 months (MacKenzie & Kocovski, 2016).
Substance abuse and misuse is a psychological disorder that has a wide variety of traditional treatments without significant positive clinical results. Mindfulness-based interventions have been expanding as a potential therapy method to address the disorder. Interventions seek to develop and mental state which is attentive to internal and external experiences, thus modifying cognitive and behavioral approaches to create adaptive change in thought patterns. Furthermore, the attitude of opens and non-judgment helps to cope with distressful events in other ways than substance abuse. The relationship with thoughts and experiences changes to reduce the impact of stress as the patient accepts the moment experience rather than suppressing them with substance misuse (Chiesa & Serretti, 2014).
Mindfulness-based interventions have gained significant popularity in the treatment of various obesity-related eating disorders such as binge, emotional, and external eating. As obesity becomes an inherent public health risk in the United States and globally, MBT interventions have the potential to introduce innovations in treatment. Eating disorders are explained as coping mechanisms that individuals use in response to psychological stress or negative self-perception (Oreilly, Cook, Spruijt-Metz, & Black, 2014). Furthermore, the psychosomatic theory suggests that over-eating is a dysfunctional response of the body unable to differentiate emotional arousal and hunger at a specific moment. Mindfulness, which seeks to focus on a moment of experience with a non-judgmental approach, is valuable in addressing the underlying mechanisms of eating disorders. These types of interventions focus on cognitive behavior and self-awareness which eliminates the negative self-perceptions. Furthermore, mindfulness aids in becoming aware and controlling inner emotions and attentional bias to food (O’Reilly, Cook, Spruijt-Metz, & Black, 2014).
Mindfulness-based interventions for psychosis are the least common as there has been a widespread belief by clinicians that this may be harmful to patients with these psychological disorders. However, more evidence suggests that when competently adapted, MBT may be inherently safe and helpful to these patients (Chadwick, 2014). A mindfulness-based intervention does attempt to alter the content of dysfunctional thoughts, but rather attempt to influence the patient’s approach and perception of them. Therefore, a patient observes and accepts the thoughts and experiences that arise due to psychosis in the present moment. MBT can then treat the patient from a variety of multi-modal perspectives include stress reduction, acceptance and commitment, and acceptance-based behavior that attempt to affect the cognitive approach to thoughts (Cramer, Lauche, Haller, Langhorst, & Dobos, 2016).
Incorporation into Life
Mindfulness has become a popular topic of study by medical professionals and life coaches which has produced an overwhelming amount of literature on incorporating the concept into daily life. Dr. Stahl at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center conducted studies and recommends a range of techniques to anyone interested in mindfulness. It does not require enrollment into programs or engaging with complex practices. Initially, 10 to 15 minutes if the mindful practice is helpful as long as it is consistent (Wei, 2015). Some of the practices include short guided meditations, with a wide variety of resources available on the Internet to provide structure. It may also be helpful to take short breaks at midday or the end of the day. One should calm individual thoughts, conduct breathing exercises, and become more aware of one’s physical and emotional state by concentrating on becoming aware of the body and mind. Finally, it is recommended to attempt physical exercises such as yoga that promote better attunement with the physical body and inner spiritual wellness.
Mindfulness and meditation are inherently linked with self-care which can have a positive impact by reducing stress, providing a sense of calmness, and increasing awareness. This self-care approach is vital in social work practice as it can potentially decrease mental fatigue and protect from secondary traumatic stress. Mindfulness interventions are linked to increasing compassion, satisfaction, and self-awareness that contribute to a sense of clarity critical in therapy and social work. Self-care through mindfulness can aid in achieving a balance in the physical, emotional, psychological, social, professional, and spiritual dimensions of life (Kelly & Okolo, 2016). Therefore, incorporating mindfulness practice into daily lives for students and professionals of this field can greatly contribute to efficiency, performance, and overall mental health.
There are widespread critiques and misconceptions of mindfulness practice and its purported benefits. While myths may either propel or inhibit public interest in the concept, it can be argued that they greatly outpace scientific evidence. The science which abstracts mindfulness from context and explains it within the parameters of social norms is partially responsible for the commonality of such myths. This is due to the concept of mindfulness becoming a commodity in the marketing system. It attempts to implement it in various organizations and for purposes, ranging from mental health to teamwork and leadership in companies. However, these practices do not accommodate the interests of everyone and demean the concept, since marketing inherently empowers privilege rather than encompassing broad inclusion and awareness (Walsh, 2015).
Some common myths regarding mindfulness are that it is a cult or religion of sorts. Therefore, it requires specialized clothing, equipment, and incense. There is a significant misconception about the practical aspects, suggesting that mindfulness requires remaining in an uncomfortable, immobile position for a prolonged period. It is difficult and requires incantations. There is a perspective that mindfulness and meditation are essentially the same, and its goal is to achieve a state of disconnection with reality (Simmons & Courtney, 2016). These myths are strongly based on stereotypical preconceptions and a lack of knowledge about the practice. Mindfulness can be practiced and implemented into life through a variety of methods discussed earlier, which do not have to adhere to the specific mantra, rules, or position. The primary objective of mindfulness is the focus on inner thoughts based on the core concepts of the practice.
Conclusion and Directions for Future Research
In recent years, mindfulness meditation has become a cultural fad as well as a fringe topic for scientific investigation on its potential uses in fields of psychotherapy, education, and organizational capacity. Misinformation and poor methodology have led to mindfulness attaining a poor, stereotypical reputation in public. Further research should focus on addressing concerns of defining mindfulness and creating solid research on the benefits of mindful practices in fields where it could help people (Dam et al., 2018).
Mindfulness is a psychological concept based on ancient Buddhist practices which emphasize attention and awareness of inner and external surroundings. The concept is complex, and there are a wide variety of cultural perspectives on it. However, mindfulness ascertains several proven benefits and can be utilized in social work and psychology fields. Overall mindfulness maintains itself as a self-care discipline and has the potential for widespread implementation into daily lifestyles.
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