Mindfulness is not a New Age, spiritual fad but a research-tested practice that can improve one’s health and well-being, according to two recently published books: Fully Present: The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness, by Susan Smalley and Diana Winston, and The Mindful Child, by Susan Kaiser Greenland. Not only has mindfulness been shown to induce relaxation and a sense of inner peace, these authors explain, it has also helped adults and kids negotiate difficulties in their lives, from health issues to challenging relationships and more.
Smalley, a researcher at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), and Winston, a Buddhist teacher, describe mindfulness as “a state of consciousness, one characterized by attention to present experience with a stance of open curiosity.” They have been studying mindfulness for years; recently, they’ve become more interested in its applications outside of meditation practice.
Though historically linked to Buddhist meditation practice, mindfulness can be developed through other activities, like yoga, tai chi, or simply taking a walk in nature. Researchers and practitioners have advanced countless secular applications of mindfulness, from schools to prisons, thanks in large part to Jon Kabat-Zinn and his pioneering Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. (Click here for more of Greater Good‘s coverage of these applications of mindfulness.)
Although research is still in its infancy, Smalley cites a litany of studies that make a persuasive case for the broad and powerful benefits of mindfulness. Research suggests that it helps people with chronic illness manage pain and stress, and that it helps kids concentrate better at school and reduces their test-taking anxiety. Studies have also shown that mindfulness improves immune function, prevents relapse in depressed patients, and increases gamma wave activity in the brain, which aids with developing insight when problem solving. Thanks to research on Buddhist monks, there’s also evidence that long-term practitioners can even increase the volume of gray matter in their cerebral cortex and temper their reactions to stressful stimuli.
With the range of mindfulness applications expanding rapidly, it’s gratifying to have a book that thoroughly reviews the current research and helps us sort the wheat from the chaff.
Though cautious about research findings, Smalley is optimistic enough to encourage readers to experiment with mindfulness themselves, and Winston tells us how. Luckily, you don’t need to sit for endless hours cross-legged or commit to month-long retreats to become more mindful. The techniques Winston describes are often simple and can take as little as five minutes a day. Paying attention to things we otherwise take for granted—such as our breathing, bodily sensations, or the sounds around us—are just a few of the ways people can get a taste of mindfulness in their everyday lives.
Still, Fully Present may lose some readers when the research gets too technical. For those who want a simple “how to” approach, or who want to practice with their children, the highly accessible The Mindful Child might be a better fit.
Greenland, who founded Inner Kids, a school-based program in southern California that teaches children how to develop mindful awareness, seems to understand how tough it can be for parents to practice mindfulness (and teach it to their kids) with everything else they have going on. “Parents meditate at strange times and in strange places,” she writes. In other words, whenever they can fit it in.
The techniques she offers for children are fun and playful, and can be done at the dinner table or when putting kids to bed. And Greenland always allows for the normal pitfalls of trying something new with kids, encouraging parents to work through difficulties they encounter without self-criticism or doubt. (For more on teaching mindfulness to kids, check out my earlier Greater Good piece, “Mindful Kids, Peaceful Schools,” and read my colleague Christine Carter’s take on the subject).
Besides providing mindfulness exercises, the book also explores how kids can apply mindfulness to understanding the relationship between their inner experiences and the world around them. The chapters are illustrated with stories of real children with real problems, whose parents have sought mindfulness as a way of overcoming shyness, letting go of perfectionism, or working through depression. Though not a researcher, Greenland has worked with Smalley on previous studies, so she is also aware of the science on mindfulness, which she weaves into the book.
Both books make developing a mindfulness practice sound doable, but as Winston writes, “Mindfulness is simple, but not easy.” With the pressures society puts on us to be constantly busy, productive, and on the move, it may be hard to settle down and be present for even one minute.
But readers of these books will be hard pressed to make excuses for not at least giving mindfulness a try. If the authors are even half right about the benefits of a mindfulness practice, we should all slow down and breathe once in awhile.