What is Mindfulness?

Cultivating a sense of alertness, while keeping our composure

Mindfulness is a particular way of paying attention to ourselves and the world around us. It’s an attentive state where we are in direct observation of our experiences in the present moment, noticing thoughts, emotions, and body sensations.

Mindfulness also involves acceptance and non-judgement, meaning that we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging ourselves for having them —without believing, for instance, that we’re “right” or “wrong” to think or feel in a a certain way.

When we practice mindfulness, our attention tunes into what we’re sensing in the present moment rather than getting stuck rehashing the past or imagining the future. 

Mindfulness will help us:

  1. Stay engaged in and enjoy the present (rather than getting caught up in spirals of rumination). 
  2. Remain calm, better assess situations, and more adaptively respond to what’s going on in our mind or what’s going on around us (acting rather than reacting).

Mindfulness allows us to monitor our body’s signals and reactions, empowering us to intentionally choose how we respond to situations, rather than blindly navigating through life (or being led around by it). With mindfulness, we become the experts of our own bodies and minds.

It’s important to acknowledge that learning mindfulness takes time and commitment, as it involves unlearning old patterns and behaviours, but the rewards and benefits to our mental health are well worth the effort.

Once we’ve mastered the basics, we can use mindfulness in all aspects of life – from getting in the zone when playing sports, being fully present so we can relax and enjoy time with friends, losing ourselves in the rhythm of music, and even being more present during sex (and thus having better sex).

Challenging Common Misconceptions

Mindfulness ≠ a blank mind with no thoughts.

  • Thoughts will happen; just as our salivary glands produce saliva, our minds produce thoughts.[1] Mindfulness involves recognizing thoughts simply as mental phenomena, witnessing them as they come and go.

Mindfulness ≠ a relaxation technique.

  • While relaxation may occur, we’re also likely to encounter other experiences, such as frustration, impatience, or boredom. We’re practicing accepting any and all internal experiences.

Mindfulness ≠ passive acceptance or toleration of harm.

  • The intention is not to “grin and bear it”, but to attend and skillfully respond to our internal experiences. Mindfulness trains us to recognize and step back from unhelpful patterns of reaction, such as denial, avoidance, and self-judgment. We actively explore alternate responses, such as acceptance and proactive action (e.g., exiting a harmful situation).

Mindfulness vs. Mindful Meditation

Mindfulness is a natural state of being that can be intentionally trained by practicing mindfulness meditation.

Mindfulness meditation develops specific skills and capacities, including being able to anchor ourselves in the present, build our mind-body connection, and increase our ability to remain calm and resilient.

Studies have shown that practicing mindfulness meditation results in significant physiological changes in the brain. For instance, the amygdala, which is linked to our “fight, flight, or freeze” stress response, has been shown to become smaller[2] and less reactive[3] after eight weeks of practice.

We’ll be looking at mindfulness mediation as a secular practice, but it’s important to acknowledge its ancient Buddhist influences, underpinned by the perspective that while pain is inevitable, suffering is not. How we approach pain – whether that be a physical injury or a feeling of frustration or grief – contributes to the degree of suffering we experience. While it’s natural to avoid or push pain away, this reaction often adds to our struggle, exhausting us in an endless fight against ourselves (pain x resistance = suffering). Through mindfulness meditation, we can learn how to safely be with – and even befriend – our full range of experiences (pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral).

Cultivating mindfulness through mindfulness meditation practice isn’t just for combatting stress and depression; it also allows us to really engage with and enjoy life.


  1. Kornfield J. (2008). The wise heart. Bantam. From: https://jackkornfield.com/the-storytelling-mind/ 
  2. Gu J, Strauss C, Bond R, Cavanagh K. (2015). How do mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and mindfulness-based stress reduction improve mental health and wellbeing? A systematic review and meta-analysis of mediation studies. Clin. Psychol. Rev. 37, 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2015.01.006
  3. Kral TRA, Schuyler BS, Mumford JA, Rosenkranz MA, Lutz A, Davidson RJ. (2018). Impact of short- and long-term mindfulness meditation training on amygdala reactivity to emotional stimuli. Neuroimage. 181, 301–313. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2018.07.013