Mindfulness: The Benefits of Mindfulness Practices Within Ourselves and Our Relationships
By Aleisha Maunu, MA, LMFT, CACII
“Do every act of your life as though it were the very last act of your life” (from Meditations by Marcus Aurelius).
For centuries, much attention has been given to the use of mindfulness in our lives. Writers, researchers, and thinkers from Thich Nhat Hanh and Pema Chodron to Daniel Siegel and Tara Brach have studied/researched and taught the practice of mindfulness to millions of people around the world.
Writings that encourage the use of mindfulness practices go back thousands of years, coming out of religious texts – as in the Bible: “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength” (Isaiah 30:15) and “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today” (Matthew 6:25-34) – also, in Buddhist teachings/texts: “There is a way to be purified, to overcome sorrows and grief, to release suffering, to secure the right path, to realize nirvana. This is to be mindful” (the Buddha).
In addition to these ancient texts, recent thinkers have been looking at the benefit of mindfulness from both spiritual and secular perspectives, both within the individual and within relationships. Perhaps not surprisingly, research seems to indicate the multitude of benefits of the practice of mindfulness, as we will discuss in a moment. First, it is important to understand the definition of mindfulness.
Regarding mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh states, “I define mindfulness as the practice of being fully present and alive, body and mind united. Mindfulness is the energy that helps us to know what is going on in the present moment.” An online article from the website, Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, defines mindfulness in the following way:
“Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment.
Mindfulness also involves acceptance, meaning that we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them—without believing, for instance, that there’s a “right” or “wrong” way to think or feel in a given moment. When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we’re sensing in the present moment rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future.”
Mindfulness helps us bring awareness to the present moment, without judgement – to ‘just be’ in that moment. As I just mentioned, much recent research has been conducted on the benefits of practising mindfulness meditation, including psychological, emotional, physical, and relational impacts.
In one study (Stanley & Jha, 2009), researchers found that the use of mindfulness meditation reduced PTSD symptoms and increased focus in a group of Marine reservists. One group practised mindfulness meditation 15 minutes a day, and the other group did not. After two months, results showed that the mindfulness meditation group reported significantly lower levels of anxiety and stress. Additionally, this group also reported a significant increase in their ability to retain new information.
Another study by the same researchers (Jha, Stanley, Kiyonaga, Wong, & Gelfand, 2010) looked at the impact of mindfulness on emotion and working memory with U.S. Marine Corp reservists. This study indicated that working memory capacity increased in the ‘high practice’ mindfulness-training group. The high practice group also corresponded with lower levels of negative affect and higher levels of positive affect.
Another study looked at the impact of mindfulness meditation on the immune system (Davidson et al, 2003). Brain activity was measured before and after an 8-week training program in mindfulness meditation (in addition to a 4-month follow up). Results indicated significant increases in brain function and immune function. Other researchers are also looking at the impact of mindfulness practices on the brain. Holzel and colleagues (2011), for example, found that mindfulness practice increased gray matter density in brain regions involved with learning, memory, emotional regulation, perspective taking, and self-referential processing.
Mindfulness practices not only seem to enhance functions within ourselves, they also seem to enhance our relationships. One particular study (Carson, Carson, Gil, & Baucom, 2004) looked at the use of mindfulness-based relationship enhancement with couples and found that couples’ levels of relationship satisfaction, autonomy, relatedness, closeness, acceptance of the other, and psychological distress improved. Individually, people also reported an improvement in optimism, spirituality, relaxation, and psychological distress. These benefits were also maintained at a 3-month follow up. Other clinicians and researchers, such as Daniel Siegel (2004) and Daniel Hughes (2009), have discussed the benefits of attunement and attention (mindfulness) in relationships between caregiver and child.
If you are interested in learning more about the use of mindfulness in your daily life and in your relationships, please see below for several book references:
Attachment-Focused Parenting: Effective Strategies to Care for Children by Daniel A. Hughes
Inside Out Healing: Transforming your Life Through the Power of Presence by Richard Moss, M.D.
Parenting from the Inside Out by Daniel Siegel and Marty Hartzell.
Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life by Thich Nhat Hanh
Radical Acceptance: Embracing you Life with the Heart of a Buddha by Tara Brach, Ph.D.
The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being by Daniel J. Siegel
The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle
Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn
Additionally, individual, couples, or family counseling may be helpful in assisting you in becoming more mindful in your daily life and in the presence of your loved ones. If you are interested in the practice of mindfulness meditation, you also may be able to find mindfulness meditation classes in your community, through both secular and religious/spiritual organizations.
One simple way to begin practicing mindfulness and coming back to the present moment is to focus on your breath – without trying to change it, just notice your breath coming into and leaving your body. You may want to do this initially with your eyes closed to help you with focus. As you practice this, you may find that your mind wanders, so without judgment, gently bring your focus back to your breath. As you begin to feel success with this task, you may wish to extend your focus to sensations you feel in your body (again, without judgment or trying to change these sensations) and then to sounds that you hear in your environment. There are many guided mindfulness meditations online that can assist you in learning and practicing, and soon, you too may experience the benefits of mindfulness in your day-to-day life.
Aleisha Maunu, MA, LMFT, CACII, is a therapist who works with individuals, couples, families, and children/teens. Her areas of experience include adoption/attachment, substance abuse, and other family/couple concerns. She provides services through Maria Droste Counseling Center in Denver, CO.
- Carson, JW; Carson, KM; Gil, KM; & Baucom, DH (2004). Mindfulness-based relationship enhancement. Behavior Therapy, 35(3), 471-494).
- Davidson, RJ; Kabat-Zinn, J; Schumacher, J; Rosenkranz, M; Muller, D; Santorelli, SF; Urbanowski, F; Harrington, A; Bonus, K; Sheridan, JF (2003). Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosom Med, 64 (4), 564-570.
- Holzel, BK; Carmody, J; Vangel, M; Congleton, C; Yerramsetti, SM; Gard, T; Lazar, SW (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 191(1), 36-43.
- Hughes, DA (2009). Attachment-focused parenting: effective strategies to care for children. New York: W.W.Norton & Company, Inc.
- Jha, A. P., Stanley, E. A., Kiyonaga, A., Wong, L., & Gelfand, L. (2010). Examining the protective effects of mindfulness training on working memory capacity and affective experience. Emotion, 10(1), 54-64.
- Nhat Hanh, Thich (2008). The Moment is Perfect, Shambhala Sun, May 2008.
- Siegel, D & Hartzell, M (2004). Parenting from the inside out: How a deeper self understanding can help you raise children who thrive. New York: Penguin Group USA, Inc.
- Stanley, E. A. & Jha, A. P. (2009). Mind fitness: Improving operational effectiveness and building warrior resilience. Joint Force Quarterly, 55, 144-151.
- Weiss, L & Hickman, S. (2013). What is Mindfulness. Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. Retrieve September 1, 2013 from www.greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/mindfulness/definition.