As a cognitive psychologist, I’ve read many articles on the mechanistic and habitual behavior of people. In Bargh and Chartland’s (1999) famous paper, “The Unbearable Automaticity of being”, these scholars sum up the psychological evidence that about 95% of human behavior is automatic and unconscious. This is true independent of intelligence and education. The cause lies in Western culture’s overemphasis on doing and achieving (vs being and feeling). Our educational system prepares us for work, not life. This tendency has been brought to an extreme in the medical profession and has been recognized as a major cause for burnout and suicide among people in this field. We need a different type of education that teaches us how to be fully present, metacognitive (self-reflective), and stress resilient. This is also known as mindfulness training and it is gradually becoming part of mainstream culture.

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is commonly defined as sustained non-distraction and an orientation toward one’s experiences characterized by curiosity, openness, and acceptance.

It is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.

While mindfulness is something we all naturally possess, it’s more readily available to us when we practice on a daily basis.

Whenever you bring awareness to what you’re directly experiencing via your senses, or to your state of mind via your thoughts and emotions, you’re being mindful. And there’s growing research showing that when you train your brain to be mindful, you’re actually remodeling the physical structure of your brain.

The goal of mindfulness is to wake up to the inner workings of our mental, emotional, and physical processes

What is meditation?

Meditation is exploring. It’s not a fixed destination. Your head doesn’t become vacuumed free of thought, utterly undistracted. It’s a special place where each and every moment is momentous. When we meditate we venture into the workings of our minds: our sensations (air blowing on our skin or a harsh smell wafting into the room), our emotions (love this, hate that, crave this, loathe that) and thoughts (wouldn’t it be weird to see an elephant playing a trumpet).

Meditation has been extensively researched in the past 40 years and the benefits are enormous — less anxiety, more resilience and empathy, longer sustained focus, and better ability to inhibit habitual responses, among others (Clifford, 2013). In turn, the enhanced ability to inhibit responses leads to longer-term improvements in emotional well-being (Sahdra et al., 2011). Meditators also experience an increased sense of purpose in life. When you have a sense of purpose, you wake up in the morning with a sense of mission, and it’s easier to make decisions and plans. In a study led by neuroscientist Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin, the people with the strongest sense of purpose in life had a more resilient stress response, less reactivity, and faster recovery from induced stress. (see section on Purpose in Life)

Mindfulness meditation asks us to suspend judgment and unleash our natural curiosity about the workings of the mind, approaching our experience with warmth and kindness, to ourselves and others.