How mindfulness came to save us from a mindless world


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Mindfulness is hardly a new concept; in fact, the practice of cultivating an awareness of (and, often, gratitude for) the present moment stems from 2,500-year-old Buddhist psychology. Yet, in the past decade, learning how to be mindful came to the forefront of wellness culture and subsequently mainstream culture at large.

Now, whether you want to stop biting your nails, or smash your fitness goals, or channel your ambition at work, mindfulness is a go-to tool for making it happen. And if you’re curious about specific strategies for practicing this modern mindfulness, there are no shortage of resources. You can try a walking meditation, any number of meditation apps, or celebrity-vetted tips from the likes of Tim Ferriss, Miranda Kerr, and Oprah.

Evidence of the societal-wide embrace of mindfulness is also clearly seen in pop-culture references. “We’re seeing celebrities, major CEOs, fashion icons, and musicians like Kendrick Lamar [who rapped about meditation on several tracks on his last album] speaking openly about how meditation is critical to their lives,” says Jesse Israel, founder of mass meditation movement, The Big Quiet. “When individuals of significant cultural influence speak positively about something that has impacted their lives, people pay attention.”

It’s clear that the ancient practice has found a foothold in the collective conscious, essentially becoming the backbone of modern self care during these past 10 years. But how and why did it happen, especially given the multiple millennia during which mindfulness certainly existed before it grew to be buzzy?

Mindfulness became the superhero to save us from ourselves and our devices

Mindfulness essentially means focusing on the exact moment in time by using any or each of your senses. In short, mindfulness is all about being present. That endeavor may seem simple enough, but in our increasingly hectic and stressful world—where the rise of smartphones, social media, and constant connectivity correlates with the rise of burnout, insomnia, and loneliness—the notion of anything being simple isn’t much more than a farce.

“Meditation has been around for thousands of years, but the modern-day world feels a lot busier than it used to.” —Andy Puddicombe, Headspace co-founder

“The past 10 to 15 years have brought some tremendous changes in demands on us, as well as stressors, leading more people to look for ways to handle it all,” says psychologist Marsha Lucas, PhD. This time period, she points out, is inclusive of an “increasing political and ideological divide,” and the “overwhelming cognitive and emotional overload of information we get from the internet, social media, and emails.” In other words, it’s an unbelievably stressful time to be alive, so knowing how to take a mental break is more important than ever.

Andy Puddicombe, co-founder of the Headspace meditation app, agrees that the new-to-this-decade ability to stay connected at all times factors into society’s need for mindfulness. “While the practice of meditation has been around for thousands of years, the modern-day world feels a lot busier than it used to,” he says. “More people are becoming aware that they need to pause and look after their mental health.” And that’s where mindfulness comes in.

“[Mindfulness] leads to a better-integrated brain so we have greater emotional resilience, less reactivity, and a stronger psychological capacity to thrive rather than just survive,” Dr. Lucas says.

How to be mindful anywhere, anytime

There are a variety of ways that mindfulness has become a mainstay in our daily lives. For some, a mindfulness practice means going to see a therapist or a counselor to work through stressors or fears. For others, it means going to yoga or another fitness class to zone out while sweating it out. For others still, it means meditating in a huge group setting, like The Big Quiet, which launched in 2015.

And for millions, mindfulness means using mediation apps like Headspace (company launched in 2010, app in 2012), MNDFL (company launched in 2015, app in 2018), and Calm (launched in 2012). In fact, Apple named “self care” the biggest app trend of 2018. According to market research, the meditation-mindfulness app industry was valued at $1.34 million this year, and is predicted to grow by 7 percent, year over year. (The total meditation market surpassed the billion-dollar mark back in 2016, and is predicted to nearly double by 2022.)

With this growth comes both good and bad, says Lodro Rinzler, co-founder of MNDFL and Buddhist meditation teacher. “People can access a wide variety of meditation techniques at little to no cost and experiment with what style will work best for them,” he says, noting that digital-media innovations are great for granting access to meditation and mindfulness practices for people who would otherwise be geographically isolated from them. Yet, Rinzler cautions against only using pre-recorded meditations. “In the same way that you wouldn’t necessarily try to learn CrossFit from YouTube but instead seek out a live teacher to show you how not to throw out your back doing it, it’s wise to consult with a meditation teacher as you get going.” To this point, he suggests exercising balance by using live mindfulness offerings in addition to mobile technology.

It may seem curious that these apps and services live on devices that seem to stress us out and keep us awake—heck, The New York Times has even argued that putting down our phones can help us live longer. But, by learning how to be mindful with our devices and exercise awareness of time we spend on them, we can use the tools for positive gains, says Dr. Lucas.

Furthermore, practicing mindfulness not only allows us to feel better about ourselves, but it also can provide for a different perspective on the world in which we live.

“It’s a really urgent public health need, and I hope it’ll increasingly become something we teach in schools and something physicians recommend we all do twice a day, just like brushing our teeth,” Dr. Lucas says. “It’s the ultimate mental floss.” To that point, Israel says his sister, who is a fifth grade teacher, attended a mindfulness program designed for elementary school teachers and now incorporates mindfulness practices into her lesson plans. So, it seems the next generation is poised to be very adept mental flossers.

Other great wellness turning points from the past decade? Social media completely changed our relationships with each other and our health. And, all travel became wellness travel

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