Why is mindfulness so popular in recent years? How can we benefit from practicing mindfulness?

The practice of mindfulness meditation is gaining popularity in recent years in many countries. Many programs, such as Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), for learning to practice mindfulness are available for the general public and people with special needs. In many school worldwide, mindfulness is introduced as a new subject in the curriculum for improving youth’s mental health. In many business corporates, mindfulness is also introduced in corporate training program for improving psychological well-being and work performance of employees. What is mindfulness and why is it so popular nowadays?

Some traditional practitioners explained mindfulness as the noticing of our mind wandering. During the practice of mindfulness, we start by focusing our attention on one thing. It is inevitable that our mind will wander to something else. The mindful moment is when we notice our mind wandering off and bring our awareness back to the one thing that we intended to focus.

According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of MBSR, mindfulness is a floating awareness of whatever happens in our present moment experiences without judgment and reacting.  We pay attention to our present moment experiences on purpose during mindfulness practice. For example, in mindful eating practice, we pay attention to the taste, appearance, smell, texture and sound of our food while we are eating.

In the book written by Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson, “Altered Traits”, research on mindfulness meditation covers the transformation from beginners (under 100 hours practice) to long-term meditators (means of 9000 lifetime hours). Evidence showed that with around 30 hours practice over eight-week MBSR, the reactivity of the amygdala lessened in response to stress. This means that in the face of stress, the stress-related responses of the beginner meditators lessened. Furthermore, beginners also had improved attention and less mind wandering with as little as regular practice in two weeks.

Despite inconclusive results, for more long-term practice, such as those with more than 1000 to 10,000 hours practice, regular mindfulness practice creates structural and functional brain changes. For instance, long-term regular practice may create the increase connectivity between the amygdala and the regulatory circuits in the prefrontal cortex. This may be beneficial for the individual’s emotional regulation capability. Another example is the shrinking in size in the neural circuit of nucleus accumbens, which is associated with wanting and “attachment”. In fact, research evidence starts to show that mindfulness practice may be beneficial for reducing addiction.

How can we start learning to practice mindfulness? It is recommended that one may learn mindfulness practice through attending formal mindfulness training programs. It is because having a trainer guiding the practice facilitated learning through feedback and instructions. For an eight-week program such as the MBSR or MBCT, the participants are required to have a daily practice for at least 40 minutes. This also enables one to develop a habit of daily practice of mindfulness meditation.

Similar to going to the gym regularly to do physical exercises for our physical health, mindfulness practice requires regular practice for enhancing our well-being. Despite the fact that we need to squeeze enough time for doing mindfulness meditation everyday, research evidence showed that the benefits outweigh the cost.

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