More than a gimmick?

Dear Lucy: I see a lot about “mindfulness” in advertisements and health articles, but what is it exactly? Is it possible to be “mindful” while commuting to work or cleaning my apartment? Is this a form of meditation, a stress reduction technique, or a buzzword used by marketing teams to sell health and lifestyle products? —Mindful Of My Confusion

Dear Confused: Thanks for raising this topic! Like you, Lucy’s heard the word “mindful” used to describe a variety of activities and has had the same questions as you. Fortunately, she knew just where to turn for answers: Zan Barry, a senior program manager with Community Wellness at MIT Medical, where she develops programs on stress management, sleep health, mindfulness, and eating and body image concerns. 
Barry began by lowering Lucy’s expectations for a succinct, easily understandable definition of the term. “Words can point to a definition,” she said, “but talking about mindfulness is like talking about chocolate—the description is never as good as the taste.” 
Lucy’s thoughts drifted to chocolate cake, truffles, and hot fudge sundaes but snapped back to attention as she attempted to listen in a mindful way. “One definition,” Barry continued, “comes from meditation teacher Guy Armstrong, who described mindfulness as ‘knowing what you are experiencing, while you are experiencing it.’” 
As to the answers to your specific questions, Barry replies, “yes, yes, and yes—all of the above.” While agreeing that “mindful” has become a buzzword used to sell products, she says it’s also a skill we can develop—“one that allows us to be less reactive to what is happening in the moment, which increases our sense of wellbeing.” 
Meditation, she explains, is one way to train yourself to be more mindful. “It’s kind of like going to the gym to train your muscles to get stronger. Mindfulness meditation is a particular way of practicing mindfulness, and it can help you get better at relating to your life experiences in a mindful way—and, yes, that may include commuting or apartment cleaning.” This can reduce stress, she adds, “not necessarily because your life circumstances get any better, but because you are having a more direct experience with life instead of getting lost in thought.”
If you’re interested in learning more, Lucy urges you to join her in checking out MIT Medical’s resources on this topic. Community Wellness at MIT Medical offers mindfulness classes, a resource list with downloadable recordings, and the MIT CALM phone line at 617-253-CALM (2256), which features a three-minute mindfulness-and-relaxation exercise. Here’s to living in the moment! —Lucy

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