Lockdowns have been stressful for most of us, and we have been trying to find ways of coping with them. Some of us have devoted ourselves to baking, some of us have been binge-watching TV shows, some others, including me, have found comfort in the practice of mindfulness.
Mindfulness can be defined as being aware of our thoughts, sentiments, physical sensations, and surroundings in the present moment. An important feature of mindfulness is acceptance: during the practice, one should only watch and sense, without making any judgments.
The history of mindfulness can be traced back nearly 2,500 years. In Asia, where it originated from, it was practiced by Buddhist monks and nuns, to whom meditation was “an instrument to facilitate asceticism, detachment, and renunciation”, as told by Jeff Wilson in his 2014 book Mindful America.
Mindfulness started gaining attention in the West during the 1960s, when reforms in the US immigration policy facilitated the mobility of people from Asia to the US. Among the newcomers were several eminent Tibetan and Zen missionaries, who paid visits to university campuses and founded Buddhist centers in the US. Course offerings in meditation at colleges soon followed, and some of the students taking such courses even traveled to South Asia to study Buddhism.
In the seventies, mindfulness became more mainstream, and it was thanks to Jon Kabat-Zinn that the practice of mindfulness is now regarded as a secular activity with medical benefits. Kabat-Zinn was introduced to meditation by a Zen missionary when he was a Ph.D. student in molecular biology at MIT. He went on to found a stress-reduction center at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1979 and designed an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course. Initially aiming to help participants cope with stress, it then became a tool to help patients with various diseases in their recovery process.
There is scientific evidence about the effectiveness of his methods from recent times. Niazi and Niazi (2011) examine the use and impact of MBSR in the treatment of chronic diseases in their systematic review. They state that even though research on this topic is dispersed and existing studies have certain faults, the results are promising. All the studies they reviewed found that MBSR therapy had positive effects on patients, such as reduction in mean arterial pressure and blood pressure, decrease in depression, anxiety, stress, mood disturbance and panic symptoms, reduced risk of relapse into depression, and improvements in the immune system.
Similarly, the review of Saeed, Cunningham, and Bloch (2019) shows that mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs), mindfulness-based cognitive therapies (MBCT), and MBSR sessions reduce the severity of symptoms in depression patients and the effects are maintained at follow-ups, while there is less evidence for improvement in the condition of anxiety patients through such treatments.
I would like to share my personal experience with mindfulness in the remainder of the article. My first encounter with mindfulness was during my very first semester at Bilkent University, where I attended a course in breath and meditation out of curiosity. I unfortunately had to quit the course the next semester due to a schedule conflict, but, since I felt very energized and relaxed after each session, I decided to self-practice mindfulness through an app. A quick search directed me to Calm, a very user-friendly mindfulness app with both paid and free content.
With Calm, I have been practicing breathing meditation in which you focus your attention on your own breathing. Basically, you follow your breath in and out without judgments, silently observing and letting go of any thought that comes to your mind. If you happen to get lost in your thoughts, you can bring your focus back to breathing, without getting mad at yourself.
Thanks to the app, I could enjoy the positive effects of mindfulness again, yet I realized that those effects wore off if I stopped practicing for a while. This realization encouraged me to incorporate meditation into my daily routine. I started to practice guided meditation once a day, either with Calm or with videos on YouTube. After a while, focusing on my breathing became much easier. I then switched to unguided meditation – namely to meditating without recorded instructions – and I have been doing it every day for about two years.
I can confidently say that meditation has improved my well-being. I feel more serene immediately after my 15-minute daily session, and in the remaining part of my day, I am less reactive to negative and unexpected occurrences. The long-term positive impact of mindfulness practice on me is the reduction in internal chatter, which is the automatically generated stream of thoughts you have in your mind. This reduction allowed me to be aware of my present surroundings and sensations without thoughts about tasks to be done at the back of my mind, hence decreasing my general stress level.
Although more studies on meditation might be needed to reach conclusive results about its benefits, the improvement in my own quality of life has led me to encourage my friends and family members to make meditation a daily habit. Here, I will take the opportunity to recommend it to our readers as well. Even if you believe it won’t be of any help, a 10-minute session does not have a significant cost. In the end, who knows what the world of mindfulness can offer to you!
Wilson, J., 2014. Mindful America. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.
Niazi, A. and Niazi, S., 2011. Mindfulness-based stress reduction: A non-pharmacological approach for chronic illnesses. North American Journal of Medical Sciences, 3(1), p.20.
Saeed, S., Cunningham, K. and Bloch, R., 2019. Depression and Anxiety Disorders: Benefits of Exercise, Yoga, and Meditation. Am Fam Physician, 99(10), pp.620-627.