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Is mindfulness a meaningless buzzword, a practice that only appeals to people who are into pseudoscience, or something actually worth looking into?

Mindfulness. If you're someone who hangs around the internet for fun sometimes, perhaps while enaging in the automatic multitasking the practice condemns, you've come across this buzzword. Often coupled with pictures of the Buddha or zen-type pebbles, articles about mindfulness may give you the impression that the practice has something to do with meditation and Buddhism — with "new age" things that make some of us instinctively recoil.

Is the idea of "mindfulness" something you can simply toss if you're a no-bells-and-whistles person like me, or is there something valuable behind the buzz? This skeptic investigates.

What's Mindfulness?

Google the concept of mindfulness, and you'll come across Wikipedia and meditation websites you may not want to click on if you're pretty sure this kind of thing isn't for you. Make your way to these websites anyway, and you may have no clearer idea as to what mindfulness actually means — it seems to be a complex enough thing for its definition to vary quite a bit, depending on who you ask. Let's see:

  • A mindfulness meditation teacher called Jon Kabat-Zinn describes the practice as "paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally".
  • Wikipedia says it's the "intentional, accepting and non-judgmental focus of one's attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment", adding that it can be achieved by means of "meditational practices that are described in detail in the Buddhist tradition".
  • A website called Wildmind buddhist meditation describes mindfulness as "the gentle effort to be continuously present with experience".
  • A Huffington Post blogger describes mindfulness in slightly more practical terms in the context of being a teacher: "Stopping before reacting is what is called mindful awareness."

Yes, the practice of mindfulness is associated with Buddhist thought, but you don't need to be a Buddhist to engage in it — or even, as one person who practices mindfulness told me, know anything about Buddhism at all. Congressman Tim Ryan, a Catholic, wrote a whole book about how mindfulness can do all kinds of things for people, including "recapture the American spirit", for example, so it can clearly do something for people who aren't into traveling to India to devote years of their lives to a Guru as well. 

In my quest to gain a clearer understanding of what mindfulness actually means in practical terms, I spoke to some people who like the concept so much that they strive to make it part of their daily lives. 

One woman, who took a mindfulness course to deal with her anxiety and depression, told me: "It's about simple things. I frequently eat my meals so quickly, while thinking about all kinds of other things, that I forget what I ate a matter of minutes later. Another example is fully concentrating on doing the dishes — rather than thinking about that meeting tomorrow, feel the water run across your hands, and watch the bubbles. Most importantly, when I talk to my husband and kids in the evening, I remind myself to truly experience that time together, and listen to what they are saying. In this fast world, we think we have multitasking down to an art, but we often fail to do any one thing fully at all. Mindfulness is, to me, something that combats that."

Jo, a counselor who teaches mindfulness techniques to her clients, describes it as "being in the now"; laying aside worries about the past, future, or other things you could be doing instead of what you are actually doing. Another woman, whose child was diagnosed with ADHD, sees mindfulness as a method that helps people focus in the face of the multitude of distractions modern life throws in our way. 

As a down to Earth person, the explanation that resonated with me most was Julie's. Julie, who has Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, described often being irritated by therapy sessions. "I'm not into deep breathing and happy thoughts. I'd rather do something productive", she told me. Having been diagnosed with PTSD myself, I know how it can shroud your whole life in a thunder cloud. So when Julie said mindfulness helped her cope with flashbacks, that sounded pretty good. "I may notice I'm holding onto my necklace, and think, 'the pendant feels smooth and a little warm, while the chain feels rough when I run my fingers through it. Oh, there's a bit of wool stuck in there. I should get that out." Mild flashbacks become less scary this way.

A mother of young kids, Julie also uses mindfulness as a way to experience the present. She describes the process, so it no longer sounds vague and odd: "When we go to the park, I notice the weather and how the sun feels on my skin, the grass, the trees and their colors, the laughing kids running around on the playground, and my own kids, asking me to push them on the swings or play tag with them."

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