WHAT IS MINDFULNESS?Who it is for and what not to mistake it for
Updated: Apr 4
Is it that you have heard the word mindfulness so many times but you are still quite puzzled as to what it actually means? In this article you can find answers to the following questions:
What is mindfulness?
Where does it come from and how do we see it nowadays?
Who teaches and does research into mindfulness in the Czech Republic?
What are the science-based benefits of mindfulness?
How does mindfulness affect the structure of our brain?
How can we develop the human capacity for mindfulness?
For whom is mindfulness?
For whom is mindfulness not?
What is mindfulness not?
How do we develop mindfulness in SEMwell?
WHAT IS MINDFULNESS
“Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, with a friendly interest.”
We could expand the definition of Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the pioneer of modern mindfulness, by adding that mindfulness is our innate capacity to shift our attention to the present moment and perceive the world fully, effortlessly and with a distance. By developing this capacity we can alleviate the stress responses of our body and mind, concentrate more and enjoy life with ease and joy.
WHERE DOES MINDFULNESS COME FROM AND HOW WE SEE IT NOWADAYS?
Mindfulness has its roots in Buddhist philosophy and meditation that are over 2,500 years old.
Due to the work of a host of neuroscientists and psychologists it has secularised over the last 50 years (i.e. it has been separated from religions and their institutions) and has been made accessible for the western world.
We would like to present the following four names out of the number of pioneers who have brought this originally eastern contemplative practice to the eye of our Euro-American world and who have also initiated intensive research into its impact on our health and wellbeing: Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, often called the father of western or modern mindfulness, Dr. Mark Williams, professor of clinical psychology, psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Siegel and neuroscientist Dr. Richard J. Davidson.
Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor at the University of Massachusetts, developed a structured eight-week mindfulness programme for patients with chronic illnesses and pain for whom medication no longer worked in the 1970s. After completion of the programme the patients reported lower physical pain and, most importantly, their mental condition improved. This programme is now known all over the world as MBSR - Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and its benefits have been documented by thousands of scientific studies.
Jon Kabat-Zinn’s work was taken up, among others, by Dr. Mark Williams, professor of clinical psychology at Oxford University and founder of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre. He can be credited for interconnecting mindfulness and cognitive behavioural therapy and for the development of the MBCT – Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy – programme.
Dr. Daniel Siegel, American professor of psychiatry at UCLA in California, a researcher and prolific author. He founded the Mindsight Institute and coined the term “Mindsight” – the human capacity to perceive the mind of the self and others, and established the “interpersonal neurobiology” framework. His focus includes mindfulness in parenting and its effects on the development of children’s and adolescents’ mind and brain.
Dr. Richard J. Davidson, neuroscientist, professor of psychology and psychiatry at Wisconsin-Madison University, established the Center for Healthy Minds. For over 40 years, the Center has been conducting research into the effects of mindfulness on our brain and nervous system. Apart from research this organisation offers various innovative educational programmes and digital applications for the development of mindfulness
MINDFULNESS IN THE CZECH REPUBLIC
It was the Mindfulness Club that,since July 2016, has been the hub of mindfulness teachers, researchers and other experts in this country.
The credit for its establishment and operations goes primarily to Marek Vich, Ph.D. who, together with Jan Burian, Ph.D., developed the eight-week-long Relational Mindfulness Training. The benefits of this programme for overall wellbeing and interpersonal relationships have been documented in a scientific study.
Kami Dvořáková, PhD., among others, has made a major contribution to mindfulness making its way into Czech education. Following her research into mindfulness conducted at the University of Pennsylvania, she initiated the first study of the impact of mindfulness training for teachers at Czech elementary schools. The sixteen-hour programme aimed at preventing stress and developing psycho-social skills in teachers was subjected to a scientific study that proved its benefits.
Mindfulness programmes for children, adolescents, parents, and teachers have been taught since 2014 by Jana Kyriakou and Hanka Čechová – qualified mindfulness teachers and members of SEMwell. Overall, there is a host of mindfulness experts in the Czech Republic working in various fields.
Nowadays, mindfulness has found its way into healthcare, education, sports, arts as well as business. Mindful approaches to living have been developing in all walks of life and all over the world – the primary purpose being support for our wellbeing – both mental and physical. And thousands of research studies have so far confirmed that mindfulness indeed provides such support.
SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE OF MINDFULNESS BENEFITS
As mentioned earlier, scientists began to study mindfulness and its benefits in the 1970s. Over the last 25 years alone – i.e. between 1996 and 2021 – a total 16,581 studies were published (Baminiwatta, Solangaarachchi, 2021).
Research confirms that regular mindfulness practice has the following benefits for our health and overall wellbeing:
Stress reduction in children, adolescents and adults
Enhanced attention, memory and academic performance
Improved concentration in children and adults with attention disorders (ADHD etc.)
Increased level of empathy and compassion towards self and others
Overall enhancement of physical and mental condition
Decreased inflammation in the body including at the epigenetics level
Support for the treatment of depression, anxiety, eating disorders and other mental disorders and conditions
Studies have also shown the importance of the quality of mindfulness teaching, its adjustment to various age groups and the length of practice. There is no simple formula for calculating how long an individual needs to engage in regular meditation practice to induce neuroplastic changes in the brain. What research does say is that the ways in which we develop mindfulness or teach it to others play an important role.
HOW DOES THE DEVELOPMENT OF MINDFULNESS AFFECT OUR BRAIN?
Thanks to neuroscience we know that the brain shows so-called neuroplasticity. This means that we can actively mould and change our mindset, the capacity to sense and regulate emotions and to develop memory and concentration. The practice of mindfulness strengthens neuronal connections between various parts of the brain. This helps us to see things from a broader perspective. When we realize that we need not be controlled by our emotions and thoughts, this generally reduces our worries and fears. This, in consequence, decreases our physiological stress response such as the secretion of stress hormones (adrenalin, cortisol) which, in chronic amounts, increase inflammation in the body. Moreover, mindfulness practice boosts our holistic and empathetic view of ourselves and others.
HOW CAN WE DEVELOP THE SKILL OF MINDFULNESS?
Mindfulness can be developed through both formal and informal practice. Essentially, mindfulness practice trains our brain, so it is a form of mental training. Formal practice includes various forms of meditation, mindful movement and other activities and exercises. Through informal practice we bring mindfulness into everyday activities when, for example, we slowly savour our food, when walking we fully perceive colours, shapes, sounds and smells around us, or when we pay full attention to what another person is telling us. Mindfulness also teaches us to listen to our body and its needs. We find it easier to notice when we are hungry or thirsty, whether we need rest or to go for a jog outside.
WHO IS MINDFULNESS FOR?
Mindfulness is an innate capacity that each of us can develop. It is beneficial for children, adolescents and adults of all generations regardless of gender identity, sexual orientation, nationality, skin colour, religion, education or occupation. In some cases it is important to consider the person’s health condition, possible acute states of mental disorders and general neurodiversity – i.e., the diversity of the human mind and neurocognitive functions (see more at www.neurodiverzita.cz).
The practice of mindfulness may be very helpful for people showing a wide range of neurodiversity such as those with autism, cerebral palsy or various forms of ADHD. A special guidance and approach is often required in these cases.
WHO IS MINDFULNESS NOT FOR?
The practice of mindfulness has a host of benefits. However, scientists are also concerned with the risks and contraindications. For example, experts from the Oxford Mindfulness Centre liken the pros and cons of mindfulness to physical activity. We know that physical exercise is generally healthy for us and, at the same time, it involves some risks – especially when the type and intensity of the activity is not adjusted to our current health condition. Mindfulness training is not about finding eternal peace and never-ending blissful feelings. Nor is it about emptying our mind or getting rid of all problems. Mindfulness teaches us to notice both the pleasant and the unpleasant emotions, sensations and aches. Although the majority of studies points to the effect of mindfulness in terms of reducing stress, pain, anxiety and supporting the treatment of mental disorders, sometimes the practice may intensify unpleasant feelings and anxiety, or reveal deeper trauma. It is therefore very important to guide mindfulness practice in a professional manner and accept, in some cases, its ineffectiveness. Mindfulness training is generally not recommended for people with psychosis or bipolar affective disorder. In people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) trauma-informed care is important.
As there are many pathways towards health and happiness in the area of diet, physical exercise, education, professional development and leisure activities, mindfulness training need not be the only and right pathway for everybody.
WHAT MINDFULNESS IS NOT
Mindfulness is not a religion or some esoteric discipline. Thanks to neuroscientists, psychologists and other experts the originally Buddhist practice has been secularized for the needs and contexts of life in the modern Euro-American world. At the same time, the development of mindfulness can support personal spiritual development and practice, regardless of whether they are linked to any religion or life philosophy. We know that a comprehensive and well-facilitated development of mindfulness supports empathy and self-compassion, kindness to others and to the planet, and also helps people find deeper meaning in life.
Mindfulness is not a “technique”, “method” or “medication” for reducing stress. It is our natural, innate capacity to focus attention on the present and to perceive things fully, effortlessly and from a broader perspective If we train this capacity, as we may train, for example, memory, it helps us concentrate more and enjoy life with more ease and joy. This natural capacity may be developed by a formal practice which includes various forms of meditation, mindful movement and other activities and practices.
Mindfulness is not a silver bullet. Although scientific studies confirm mindfulness benefits, this pathway towards wellbeing need not suit everybody.
Mindfulness is not a disciplinary tool. The development of mindfulness is not intended to quiet a classroom full of fidgety and noisy children, nor is it intended to silent unhappy employees overloaded with work. The increased capacity to be mindful of course increases the likelihood that we will be better able to regulate our emotions, to avoid taking things too personally or to prevent being overwhelmed by negative thoughts. As a result, there may be more peace in the classroom, at home or at the workplace. However, we cannot ask children or adults to use mindfulness as an oxygen mask in a toxic environment without changing it. .
HOW DO WE APPROACH MINDFULNESS DEVELOPMENT IN SEMwell?
The SEMwell team consists of certified and experienced trainers. We cooperate with psychologists and other mindfulness and mental health experts in the Czech Republic and abroad. We are trained in trauma-informed facilitation and continuously learn and follow the most recent developments in the field. We know how to bring mindfulness to children, adolescents and adults. We will help you find inspiration on how to best support mindfulness in preschool and school education, at the workplace, in parenting and in your personal life.
Our trainers and programmes do not replace healthcare or crisis intervention. We focus on prevention and support for health and wellbeing.
Our standard mindfulness programmes are designed for healthy people as well as people with mental or other disorders who are stabilised and in the care of a healthcare specialist.
In standard programmes for larger groups we, unfortunately, do not have the capacity to take account of some special needs, such as the needs of people in an acute stage of a mental illness or with an untreated acute stress disorder. However, we may refer you to a specialist who can offer you an individual approach or therapy. If you are not sure whether a mindfulness programme is suitable for you or your students, clients or employees, please contact us and we will discuss the matter discreetly with you.
Author of article: Jana Kyriakou
Sources of photographs:
Sources of scientific articles:
And the SEMwell archive of scientific studies about mindfulness. If you are interested in a particular study, please let us know.