We hear “mindfulness” discussed as a way to live, a treatment for depression and anxiety, and for promotion of mental clarity and peace. But why? And what does that mean? Some people have actually taken mindfulness classes or read books on the topic.

I discovered some more precise explanation for why mindfulness helps.

According to Lindsay Maxwell, Nurse Practitioner and PhD in the Journal for Nurse Practitioners, mindfulness interventions change prefrontal cortex and anterior cortex activity on ECG studies and make clinical improvements in depression, blood pressure, and substance abuse and are effective with treating insomnia. “Mindfulness consistently transformed brain segments of meditation practitioners associated with executive attention (ability to stay focused by blocking distraction), body awareness, empathy, emotion learning and regulation, tactile information processing, and memory…and also reduced cortisol levels during periods of acute stress.” Cellular aging markers were significantly reduced along with decreased neurosis in Buddhist meditators.

Western mindfulness includes mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. They both originate from Buddhist philosophy but the Buddhist spiritual content is removed. The foundation of Buddhist meditation is insight and promotion of present awareness to help us change our thoughts which prevent happiness and cause suffering.

Buddhist studies describe 3 steps to do this, depending on the degree of awareness we are in:

1) Distract and calm the mind by focusing on the passage of air through the airways

2) Focus on the thoughts as a detached curious study in understanding without judgement

3) Change the understanding of the thought from negative and personal to a temporary unpleasant experience that will pass

Thought patterns can be changed through compassion, distraction, and reframing. One teacher that I learned from gave me a favorite tool. He said to think of a thought that wanders from the focus on breath as a 3 year-old child that just needs to be redirected from an incorrect (not bad) behavior, and refocused to the breath. Some people automatically will bring thoughts of peace in to replace undesired thoughts if they must have a thought.

Loving kindness is the eventual practice we are looking for which brings interconnectedness with all other beings. These meditations can be translated into everyday life practice and may create compassion toward oneself and others.