04/08/2013 08:13 am ET Updated Jun 08, 2013

The Many Benefits of Mindfulness

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If asked to explain the value of mindfulness, you may want to consider the following question: Can you sit for one minute and completely quiet your mind? Can you do this without feeling like you're coming out of your skin? When Dr. Donna Rockwell first became interested in mindfulness, she discovered that this exercise proved quite a challenge. She found, like so many of us would, if we really took the time to try it out, meditating, or even just calming our mind, can be tough to do. It's no wonder that in an age of high-speed this and digitized that, it's even harder to slow down, to connect with ourselves, and to just be.

In February, I was fortunate to meet up with Dr. Donna Rockwell at the Society for Humanistic Psychology Conference in Santa Barbara, Calif. In addition to being a clinical psychologist, a writer, and an international speaker, Donna is now a teacher of mindfulness meditation. On April 18, she and I will be presenting an online webinar, "Mindfulness in Everyday Life: The Way to Happiness and Meaning." When I had the chance to interview Donna on this subject, she described the state that most people pass their time in, in which they are either "bemoaning the past or catastrophizing the future." In other words, we spend very little time in the present.

Mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn has described mindfulness as paying attention to the present moment with intention, while letting go of judgment, as if our life depends on it. The present is the only real moment we have. And, in fact, our life may actually depend on it. Among its many benefits, mindfulness meditation may actually increase telomerase, the "caps" at the end of our genes, which, in turn, can reduce cell damage and lengthen our lives. In addition, research demonstrates that mindfulness may help bolster our immune system, making us better able to fight off diseases from the flu to cancer. Mindfulness helps improve our concentration and reduce ruminative thinking that contributes to the high levels of stress that is so prevalent in our society. Stress and ruminative thinking can be taxing on both our physical and mental health. So how can mindfulness help to enhance our well-being?

Mindfulness is an incredible tool to help people understand, tolerate, and deal with their emotions in healthy ways. It helps us to alter our habitual responses by taking pause and choosing how we act. When we are mindful, we experience our life as we live it. We experience the world directly through our five senses. We taste the food we are eating. We recognize the thoughts we are having. In doing so, we learn how our minds work, and we are better able to label the thoughts and feelings we are having, instead of allowing them to overpower us and dictate our behavior.

Because mindfulness presents an effective method to get to know oneself, to reduce stress, and to live in the present moment, cultivating mindfulness is a powerful therapeutic practice. Mindfulness can potentially help individuals who have bipolar disorder who are suffering from suicidal ideation. Mark Williams has written extensively on how mindfulness may lessen the likelihood of recurring depression. Having shown such positive results, mindfulness techniques and meditation have been incorporated by many therapists into their methods.

When we learn mindfulness techniques, we help to train our minds to observe its own thoughts, feelings, and sensations with an objective view. This must be done with compassion, as we tend to lose patience with ourselves, particularly in the early stages of practicing mindfulness or trying out meditation. When we release judgment and learn to live in the moment, we increase our mental agility. We can also better regulate our emotions. As Williams wrote in his book The Mindful Way through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness, "Get out of our heads and learn to experience the world directly, experientially, without the relentless commentary of our thoughts. We might just open ourselves up to the limitless possibilities for happiness that life has to offer us."

As human beings, we are often surprised to find that we can tolerate much more than we imagine. People who have anger problems fall victim to their emotional reactions when certain triggers set them off. By learning mindfulness, they are far better able to take pause and react in a more constructive way to conflict. A simple breathing exercise can interrupt their outburst and lead to a more favorable outcome. This is also true for parents who are struggling with their children and couples who are keying off each other based on destructive dynamics that have built up between them.

When we are reactive, falling victim to our immediate thoughts or emotions, we are not always acting in our own self-interest. Mindfulness provides a great tool for developing more self-acceptance, which helps us build our compassion for others. It allows us to take more power and be more strategic in terms of our goals. It can bring us closer to the people we care about and help us to interrupt self-sabotaging patterns we've adopted throughout our lives.

Teaching ourselves to calm down and to be more receptive than reactive is a practice made possible through mindfulness techniques. Whether learning to meditate or merely to tune in with ourselves at various times throughout our day, we are enhancing our ability to feel more integrated and to act with integrity. We improve our ability to focus our attention. We are better able to slow the racing thoughts that lead us to engage in limiting or self-sabotaging behaviors. We strengthen our resilience and enhance our capacity to experience the joys of everyday life. Cultivating mindfulness is perhaps the greatest gift we can give ourselves. In a sense, it is a gift of time, the permission to slow down and be present, to experience life as we live it and to discover who we really are in the process.

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