Mindfulness is a way of bringing the meditative attention developed during meditation practice to every day life. While meditating in the traditional meditation pose – or some variation thereof – you focus on your breath to help you stay in the present. You also observe when your mind wanders off (or, more common, you notice that it has wandered off) and how often that happens (quite frequently). When you notice your mind wander, you gently remind yourself to come back to your breath.
Thich Nhat Hanh is one teacher of the practice of mindfulness. He teaches it to help us incorporate this meditative presence into our daily life. Basically, you use your breath to come back to the present moment whenever you notice that your mind has drifted into the past or the future. Why is it so important to stay present? You are alive right now, in this moment. You can enjoy this moment no matter what happened in the past or might happen in the future. But you can only enjoy it if you are present to it. Thinking about the past or the future also uses energy – energy that is spent on something rather futile. You cannot change the past. And no matter how much you worry about it, you cannot control the future. You can choose what is happening right now, in this moment. And you can choose to be totally present to this moment.
When you start practicing meditation and mindfulness, you will notice how often you are not present. Sometimes that is very frustrating because you feel that you are not doing it right. But it is the normal habit of our mind to drift. It always wants to be busy, often thinking more than one thought at a time and none of them completely to the end (nor can you find the beginning of a thought). So, when you notice your mind has wandered, remind yourself that it’s okay and that you can go back to your breath right now to return to the present moment.
A detailed secular program to learn meditation can be found in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Full Catastrophe Living. I also found The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh and Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn helpful. Both books are (deceptively) simple with short chapters and incorporate exercises you can try.
Is mindfulness and meditation tied to a religion? Not necessarily. Mindfulness is a practice that can be part of living even if you do not follow Buddhist principles. Jon Kabat-Zinn teaches mindfulness and meditation as part of his stress reduction program – without any religious affiliation (although he is a Buddhist and his more recent writing is more influenced by that religion). More recently, mindfulness has been combined with Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy to create a promising approach to healing from depression: Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy. Early MBCT research showed a decrease in relapse rate compared to standard treatment but only for those people who had 3 or more depressive episodes prior to learning MBCT. There was no difference for those with 2 or less episodes. A meta-analysis of the effects of MBSR on depression and anxiety by Canadian researchers did not, however, find an effect. It also remains to be seen if MBCT offers any benefits above and beyond Cognitive Therapy, which has been shown to prevent depression relapse.