There is a growing appreciation that one must look after all aspects of wellness in order to live a complete and fulfilled life. Indigenous perspectives on health have long incorporated the understanding that all aspects of life and wellness are interconnected, and that one must take care of their physical, emotional, mental and spiritual selves in order to be well. This belief holds that when an individual is suffering in one of these areas, the other areas are likely to suffer. This understanding is slowly making its way into Western medical models with a growing understanding that a strong sense of self and spirituality are protective factors against illness.
Mindfulness is a term that is frequently used in self-help and popular media, but it is a term that few people truly understand. Most basically, mindfulness is about being present in the moment. According to “Psychology Today,” mindfulness is a state of attention and openness to the present. It is the ability to look at oneself and their thoughts with acceptance, and without judgment. Mindfulness is truly about opening oneself up to experiencing life in an active way, as opposed to being a passive observer. Another central component of mindfulness is compassion, not just for others but also for oneself.
Mindfulness practice does not require meditation necessarily, as one can practice mindfulness in a variety of ways throughout their day. However, meditation is one method of learning and practicing mindfulness that some may find helpful.
One meditation method is to focus on breathing and be mindful of breathing in and out, acknowledging the breath as it is inhaled and then exhaled. Be aware of the presence of the body as measured breaths are taken, and how each area of the body feels. Accept those areas where tension is felt and feel compassion towards them. Next, focus on the emotion that is being felt as the breath is inhaled and exhaled, acknowledging and accepting that emotion. Focus on calming those emotions as breath is taken in and out. The next step is to acknowledge the mind while taking measured breaths, then calming it. Finally, one acknowledges their perceptions as they inhale and let those perceptions go as they exhale.
Mindful meditation has been shown to have positive benefits on the brain and the functioning of an individual’s immune system, according to a report published in “Psychosomatic Medicine” in 2003. This report demonstrated that mindfulness meditation practiced over an eight-week period had a significant impact on the activation of the left side of the anterior portion of subject’s brains. This type of activation has been linked to positive effect, suggesting that subjects felt better after practicing mindfulness meditation. The researchers also reported a significant rise in antibody titers to the influenza vaccination, suggesting subjects were experiencing an increase in the functioning of their immune system.
It is not surprising that mindfulness strategies can improve an individual’s efforts at weight loss. First, the practice of mindfulness incorporates compassion for oneself. The yo-yo diet pattern and self-image challenges perpetuated by the diet industry often significantly hamper’s the ability for an individual to feel compassion towards themselves. Second, mindfulness requires the individual pay attention to what they are doing and how they are feeling doing it. If an individual savors every bite and pays close attention to their feelings while they are eating, then theoretically they will be satiated sooner and more in-tune with feelings of fullness.
Certainly the American Psychological Association supported this theory in its January 2004 publication, “Monitor on Psychology,” which suggested meditation and positive eating messages were tools for combating eating disorders and creating a balanced approach to nutrition. Positive eating messages involve creating a positive attitude towards food and avoiding restriction-based dieting.
Psychosomatic Medicine: Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation
Psychology Today: Mindfulness
Mindfulness Meditation Center: Practice Basics