What you need to know about the so-called “mindfulness”

What is it? Who invented it and what is it for? We answer these and other questions about one of the trending words at the moment. So you don't spend half your life distracted.

I like to see mindfulness as the ability to be present”, begins by saying Vasco Gaspar, author of the book Aqui e Agora (Raw Material edition). "It's being aware of what's going on around us, the emotions, our body"


The art in question - if we can call it that - is simple in its definition, difficult in practice. After all, how many times can we effectively turn off our train of thought and focus only on what is around us? It's like the recurring habit of driving on autopilot, not even getting around, or riding on public transport without ever noticing who you come across. And why is it so important to do the reverse? Because “our whole life happens now, in the present”.


We walk 47% of the time distracted.


On average we spend 47% of our time distracted, “swinging between thoughts of the past, projections for the future or fantasies about the present”. The number is not random and concerns a survey conducted by Harvard University, which questioned 2,500 people through an application about what they were thinking at a given time. The investigation was led by psychologists Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert, who claim that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.


If my head is in the past or in the present, I'm losing my life”, recalling one of the most iconic quotes by Albus Dumbledore, character in the Harry Potter saga, when he says to the young and heroic wizard: "It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.” The idea is not entirely unreasonable considering that anxiety often comes from the fact of continually thinking about the future, in an attempt to solve problems that are not immediate or creating expectations about certain events.


Our mind is biased towards the negative”, the human being is attracted to the negative for the sake of survival. To this, he adds that problems are often just “mental concepts” — this is what common sense calls suffering in advance. “Suffering now won't help at all. We get more stressed, anxious and enter a negative spiral, in the sacrifice syndrome.”

Mindfulness is, then, a mental training that teaches people to deal with their thoughts and emotions. It helps a person to distinguish useful thoughts from useless ones which, under certain circumstances, are even harmful.


Who thought about this?

"Most of what we know today as mindfulness has its origins in Buddhism." Although the technique is ancient, its recent introduction into Western society is due in particular to one person: Jon Kabat-Zinn. Doctorate in Molecular Biology at MIT, it was in a retreat that he realized that meditation could be used without any religious component. Taking that assumption, he developed the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program that would later revolutionize the way mindfulness is viewed. "All the branches we've heard about mindfulness have this trunk in common, although after the program more ramifications emerged. But it was Jon Kabat-Zinn who started by linking science to mindfulness“, explains the author. And if meditation was once seen as “something for fools”, as Vasco Gaspar makes a point of referring, in the 1990s and 2000s the first results began to appear showing how these practices were capable of “altering structures of the brain itself in account, for example, of stress management”.


And how do you practice “mindfulness”? Do you have to cross your legs and say “ohmmm”?

Mindfulness can be practiced in two ways, formally or informally. The first concerns meditation, although you don't have to cross your legs or put your hands at chest level. In fact, it's not necessarily about being focused, it is more about making the effort to be mindful, letting the thoughts flow for a few minutes in silence. “Meditation is like going to the gym. They are artificial practices, to cultivate, things that we don't do in our daily lives”, explains Vasco Gaspar.


Myths Linked to Meditation Practice

According to Vasco Gaspar's Aqui e Agora, these are the most common myths associated with meditation:

  • to meditate one has to sit in strange poses;

  • it is necessary to burn incense during meditation;

  • it is necessary to say goodbye to material goods;

  • you have to go to India (or any other destination on the Asian continent);

  • to meditate is to stop thinking.

In reality, the person chooses one or more times of the day to pay attention to the fantastic quartet - body, sensations, emotions and thoughts - a form of meditation that does not involve reflection, but rather the direct perception of what one feels in that precise moment. “It doesn't involve asking questions, it's not so reflective. It's a mental training”, said the Observer Gonçalo Pereira, responsible for the stress management workshop at The Lisbon MBA, the 13th best MBA in Europe according to the Financial Times.


Informal practice, on the other hand, happens when a person tries to bring what he learned in meditation into daily life — and the application couldn't be simpler. An example: when driving, you pay attention to the path and do not do things on autopilot, or when you use your attention on what can calm you down, instead of joining those who get angry in traffic. Gonçalo Pereira also explained that human beings were born naturally in the present: that is why when his daughter was younger there was no concrete notion of time for her – five minutes or an hour meant the same; she just knew the present.


Quais os seus benefícios?

First of all, mindfulness cannot be seen as a panacea, that is, a supposed universal remedy for all the ills of the world. However, their practice does not prevent them from obtaining greater clarity and the ability to deal with the different adversities that arise throughout life. “The more I am able to be present, the more I will be able to deal with my life, with my problems. Our heads are so full that we can't pay attention to anyone”, says Vasco Gaspar, giving examples of parents who pretend to be playing with their children while their minds wander to other spheres of private life.


“A lot of people live the worst things in life without living them. It's a cultural issue. I think that human beings have lost the ability to rest", explained Gonçalo Pereira in August of last year, also mentioning the benefits of what he has been practicing for several years and that he has the habit (and profession) of passing on to others: "Mindfulness is learning to stop. This is the first benefit, which allows us to gain cognitive abilities.”


For these and other reasons, your practice can be an effective contribution to the stress of working life. And in case you don't remember, stress may not be addictive but it makes people sick physically and psychologically, running the risk of, in the end, becoming depressed and having panic attacks. There is also the possibility of getting into burn out, which refers to exhaustion at work.


In a more scientific line, it should be noted that a team from the Research Center of the Center for Cognitive-Behavioral Studies and Intervention was responsible for creating a pioneering program for infertility based on the practice in question. The research involved 55 infertile women of different ages undergoing medical treatment in Lisbon, Porto and Coimbra. In the end, the women in the control group who underwent the intervention saw their negative feelings decrease – shame, defeat and self-pity – with the gains being maintained after six months.


Where has “mindfulness” arrived?

If it is true that mindfulness has already stepped into the foyer of science - with the areas of neuroscience or epigenetics serving as examples -, the same can be said considering many other sectors of life in society, as Vasco Gaspar clarifies in the aforementioned work:

  • in healthcare, in the sense that mindfulness is being used successfully in the treatment of mental and physical pathologies. An example of this is the fact that it is recommended by the British National Health Service;

  • in companies, like Google that created the Search Inside Yourself course;

  • in leadership, with the late Steve Jobs of Apple or Arianna Huffington, president and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post, admitting they practice mindfulness meditation;

  • in politics — who would have thought that mindfulness is offered to collaborators in the English parliament?;

  • in the military and security forces (both the US Navy and US Army have already bowed to full meditation);

  • e ainda na educação.


Mindfulness in education? How so?

Educating with mindfulness does not necessarily mean that there will be no more conflicts between parents and children, however there is a promise to understand more easily that each conflict has its role and what learnings are associated with it. “Mindfulness is, in its essence, a way of relating to life. It is the purposeful observation of the present moment without judgment and with compassion”, says Mikaela Övén, certified mindfulness instructor since 2012 and author of the book Educar com Mindfulness (Porto Editora). “This observation allows us to create a space between emotion and reaction, that is, we can have answers more clearly and we can give them more calmly,” she continues. Therefore, the same truth can be applied in family dynamics, from educator to student, which translates into calmer parents who have more appropriate responses, argues Mikaela, who associates mindfulness with conscious parenting.


For me, living with mindfulness is realizing that I am perfect in my imperfection. I don't look for right or wrong, I try to be aware. I'm not looking for opinions but rather being connected with my son and my intentions. But what, then, are the benefits of a child growing up with the word mindfulness in the dictionary? “These are children who grow up with very healthy self-esteem, which is not the same thing as being self-confident. Self-esteem means that I deal well with everything I am, it is a social immune system and it will help me with the different challenges in life”, says the instructor, arguing that self-confidence comes from the outside and is related to having or doing. Once self-esteem is installed, the promises involve the child's ability to develop good relationships with others and have a real sense of what empathy is. “It allows you to develop more conscious communication, knowing how to say what you want and what you don't want. Know how to express emotions.”


And in the classroom, what happens?