What is mindfulness?

MindfulnessMindfulness is the English translation of the Pali word “Sati”. Sati is an activity. Mindfulness is a technique in which a person becomes intentionally aware of their thoughts and actions in the present moment, non-judgementally. It plays a central role in Buddhism, with Right Mindfulness being the seventh element of the Noble Eightfold Path, the practice of which is considered a prerequisite for developing insight and wisdom.

In a secular context, mindfulness is attracting increasing interest among Western psychiatrists as a non-pharmacological means of dealing with anxiety and depression.

What does mindfulness involve?

Mindfulness involves bringing your awareness back to the present moment. By residing more frequently in the present moment, you begin to see both the inner and outer aspects of reality.

Inner reality may unfold as one sees that the mind is continually chattering with commentary or judgement. By noticing that the mind is continually making commentary, you gain the ability to carefully notice these thoughts and decide if they have value. Most often, mindful people realise that “thoughts are just thoughts” – the thoughts themselves have no weight. People are free to release a thought (“let it go”) when they realise that the thought is not concrete reality. They are free to observe life without getting caught in the commentary.

As a person more closely observes inner reality, one finds that happiness is not a quality brought about by a change in outer circumstances, but rather by realising that happiness starts with releasing attachments to thoughts, thereby releasing “automatic” reactions toward pleasant and unpleasant situations or feelings.

Mindfulness does not have to be constrained to a formal meditation session. It is an activity that can be done at any time – it does not require sitting, or even focusing on the breath, but rather is done by bringing the mind to focus on what is happening in the present moment, while simply noticing the mind’s usual commentary. A person can be mindful of the sensations in one’s feet while walking, of the sound of the wind in the trees, or the feeling of soapy water while doing dishes. A person can also be mindful of the mind’s commentary: “I wish I didn’t have to walk any further”, “I like the sound of the leaves rustling”, “I wish washing dishes wasn’t so boring and the soap wasn’t drying out my skin”, and so on.

MindfulnessOnce a person notices the mind’s running commentary, they then have the freedom to release those judgements: “washing dishes: boring” may become “washing dishes: washing dishes”. In this example, the practitioner may see that washing does not have to be judged “boring”; washing dishes is only a process of coordinating dishes with soap and water.

Any activity done mindfully is a form of meditation, and mindfulness is possible virtually all the time. In addition to various forms of meditation based around specific sessions, there are mindfulness training exercises that develop awareness throughout the day by using designated environmental cues. The aim is to make mindfulness essentially continuous. Examples of such cues are the hourly chimes of clocks, red lights at traffic junctions, and crossing the threshold of doors. The mindfulness itself can take the form of nothing more than focusing on three successive breaths. This approach is particularly helpful when it is difficult to establish a regular meditation practice.

Applying mindfulness to medical conditions

Recent research points to a useful therapeutic role for mindfulness in a number of medical and psychiatric conditions, notably chronic pain and stress. In fact, recent research suggests that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy can be used to prevent suicidal behaviour from recurring in cases of severe mental illness.

Mindfulness in psychiatry

Mindfulness is a core exercise used in dialectical behaviour therapy, a psychosocial treatment developed for treating people with borderline personality disorder. Mindfulness is also used in some other newer psychotherapeutic methods, such as acceptance and commitment therapy and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, which has a foundation in mindfulness-based stress reduction programs.

More information

Psychology and psychotherapy
For more information on psychology and psychotherapy, including different types of therapy, see Psychology and Psychotherapy



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