Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally. This kind of attention nurtures greater awareness, clarity, and acceptance of the present-moment reality. – Jon Kabat-Zinn
The popularity of mindfulness meditation has skyrocketed in recent years. There are now magazines, books, websites, apps, TV programs, and countless articles – all dedicated to the subject. Movie stars swear by it, football players and athletes practice it, business leaders use it to prevent burnout, and monks and nuns still practice it the same way they have done for thousands for years. According to a 2017 federal government survey, 14 percent of Americans said they had practiced meditation at least once in the previous year – a dramatic increase from 2012 when it was only four percent. Worldwide, it is estimated that 200 – 500 million people practice some form of meditation.
The rapid growth of mindfulness meditation has been fueled by thousands of scientific studies highlighting its benefits. For instance, in 2018, 842 papers on mindfulness were published in the scientific literature, up from 82 a decade earlier. This ancient practice started to go mainstream back in the late 1970s, after a small group of Americans and Britons, who were ordained as Buddhist monks and nuns in Thailand and Burma (now Myanmar), returned home and started to offer mindfulness meditation instruction to anyone who was interested. Then, in 1979, Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts, introduced mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) as a way to manage stress, chronic pain and illness. Fast forward to today: There are mindfulness programs in hospitals, schools, universities, jails, and even the military – all because of its benefits to health and wellbeing.
So what precisely are they?
A recent article on the Positive Psychology website documented 23 scientifically-proven health benefits of mindfulness meditation, grouped into five main categories:
- Decreased stress, including lower anxiety, experiences of being calm and internally still, greater awareness, increased attention and focus, feeling connected with others, increased clarity in thinking and perception, higher brain functioning, increased immune function, lower blood pressure, and lower heart rate
- Enhanced ability to cope with illness, especially cancer and other chronic or potentially terminal conditions. This is true for those with an illness as well as for their caregivers. In particular, studies have shown an improved quality of life, a decreased focus on pain, less worry and rumination, an increased ability to function independently among patients, and decreased stress, anxiety and depression among caregivers
- Facilitating recovery from cancer, especially among breast cancer survivors; including greater self-kindness and post-traumatic growth
- Decreased symptoms of depression by enhancing the ability to step back from intense negative emotions, identify them and accept them instead of fighting them or trying to get rid of them. This allows practitioners to better regulate their emotions, leading to better coping and management of depression.
- Improved general health, including improved cardiovascular health, more physical activity, a healthier body mass index (BMI), and lower blood pressure
What’s more, is that you don’t have to meditate for years to see these improvements. Although a regular meditation practice is necessary, some people experience benefits in as little as six to eight weeks of meditating for 15 – 20 minutes every day. Even being mindful in your daily, routine activities, such as brushing your teeth, taking a shower, and washing the dishes can help to calm and relax the mind.
Speaking personally, I have no doubt that my mindfulness meditation practice contributes significantly to my health and wellbeing. As someone who has experienced anxiety and depression, I can attest to its effectiveness. And although I have not had cancer or another chronic or potentially terminal condition, I can certainly say that mindfulness meditation has helped me cope with minor illnesses.
With so many powerful healing benefits, why not try it out for yourself? It’s free, there’s nothing to lose, and you may find yourself feeling better about yourself and your life.
I’ll end with a quote from Micki Fine, founder of Mindful Living and a longtime advocate for mindfulness. She says: “A cancer diagnosis brings an awareness of the preciousness of life and mindfulness can help us to experience that precious life with greater clarity, balance, and gratitude, one moment at a time.”
If you are interested in trying out meditation apps, here are five recommendations. They are not completely free, but they all have free parts.
Header photo by David Welton