Helping people flourish at work

The Full On Overview of Mindfulness

The Full On Overview of Mindfulness

Photo of Woman and Girl Stretching Their Body

Since its introduction to the mainstream western medicine and society in the late 70’s (Kabat-Zinn, 1990), mindfulness has received considerable scholarly attention. Over the last decade, scientific research on mindfulness has intensified, approaching the concept from both a practical and a theoretical angle. For instance, different mindfulness training programs have been developed and tested using a wide range of target populations. Training programs, such as mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR: Kabat-Zinn, 1982), mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT: Segal, Williams, & Teasdale, 2002), and mindfulness-based eating awareness training (Kristeller, Bear, & Quillian-Wolever, 2006) have been used successfully to treat emotional and behavioral disorders, such as borderline personality disorder, major depression, chronic pain, or eating disorders (cf. Bishop et al., 2004). A growing body of empirical research has found evidence for the effectiveness of mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) (a) to reduce symptoms in clinical samples (for meta-analytic reviews, see Bohlmeijer, Prenger, Taal, & Cuijpers, 2010) and (b) to promote psychological well-being in non-clinical samples (Collard, Avny, & Boniwell, 2008). Besides its practical application, different studies have attempted to uncover the underlying mechanisms of mindfulness, aiming to understand the construct in terms of processes like self-regulation, impulsivity, executive functioning, and memory (see for instance Fetterman, Robinson, Ode & Gordon, 2010).

Mindfulness defined

Mindfulness is defined as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment” (Kabat-Zinn, 2003 p. 145). In other words, mindfulness involves directing attention to the experience in the present moment and a non-evaluative observation of that experience (Bishop et al., 2004). Research has consistently shown that mindfulness is an important predictor of well-being. For instance, the trait of mindfulness has been associated with higher levels of life satisfaction, more positive affect, less negative affect, greater life satisfaction, and sense of autonomy and competence (Brown & Ryan, 2003). Higher levels of mindfulness have also been found to be associated with various positive psychological outcomes, such as lower levels of neuroticism, depression, and anxiety as well as higher levels of self-esteem, vitality, and authenticity (Brown & Ryan, 2003; Lakey, Kernis, Heppner, & Lance, 2008).


Researchers have convincingly argued that mindfulness is a natural human capacity that untrained laypersons can experience (Brown & Ryan, 2003; Dane, 2011; Glomb et al., 2011). Natural variations in mindfulness are likely due to variations in genetic predisposition and environmental influences. However, mindfulness can also be trained. Research has revealed that meditation practice enhances mindfulness and thereby promotes psychological health in clinical and non-clinical samples (for meta-analyses, see Chiesa & Serretti, 2009; Grossman et al., 2004). However, mindfulness is not a “rarified state open only to those undergoing . . . training” (Brown, Ryan, Loverich, Biegel, & West, 2011, p. 1042; also see Brown & Ryan, 2004).

The goal of mindfulness interventions is to teach participants to become aware of body sensations, thoughts, and emotions and to relate to them with an open, non-judgmental attitude (Shapiro, Astin, Bishop, & Cordova, 2005). Such an open state of mind can be cultivated by repeated practice. It is important to note that mindfulness is related to but not equal to meditation. Although mindfulness is often predominantly associated with meditation, the range of practical mindfulness exercises vastly extends beyond formal meditational practice. In other words, “sitting on a cushion” is merely one way of cultivating “an openhearted, moment-to-moment, non-judgmental awareness” (Kabat-Zinn, 2005, p. 24). Integrating mindfulness into daily life routines and working habits is an important consideration, especially when under time pressure, deadlines, and tight schedules.

Formal meditation exercises

The following sections describe three formal mindfulness meditation exercises that are an inherent part of mindfulness interventions and performed during group sessions under the supervision of the mindfulness trainer. Participants are also encouraged to perform them at home daily. To help them do so, participants usually receive audio files in which the trainer guides them through the respective meditations.

Body scan

The body scan, as the name suggests, entails bringing awareness to each part of the body. Participants are first instructed to pay attention to the posture and then to their breathing. Subsequently, attention is directed to different body parts, starting with the feet and moving up from there. During the exercise, participants pay attention to different physical sensations present in a specific area of the body. After focusing attention briefly on a particular region of the body, one is instructed to move on to the next region. During the exercise, many find themselves easily distracted by thoughts, bodily sensations, or sounds. When distraction occurs, the participant is instructed to gently return attention to the body part at hand. Participants are encouraged to do so without blaming themselves or reacting in frustration, as the occurrence of distracting thoughts or sensations is inevitable, which requires extensive practice until they become less. In addition, when paying attention to the body, one might become aware of painful or unpleasant sensations (e.g., neck or back pain). Instead of altering, ignoring, or suppressing these sensations, one simply notices them on a moment by moment basis.

Seated meditation

Just as the body scan uses the body as an object of attention, the seated meditation takes the breath as the main focus of attention. Participants are instructed to sit in an upward position with a straight back, preferably with their eyes closed. After becoming briefly aware of the current posture, the participant directs attention to the breathing. He or she notices the physical sensations of the breathing, such as the air moving into the nostrils and the chest expanding. As soon as the mind begins to wander, the participant simply notices the distracting thought without evaluating it and returns his attention to the breath in a kind way.

Three-minute breathing space

The three-minute breathing space is a very brief mindfulness meditation that can help integrate mindfulness into everyday life. It enables one to disrupt automatic patterns of thinking and behavior and increase acceptance-based coping. The exercise commonly involves the following three steps. The first step involves asking oneself “Where am I?” “How am I?” “What am I thinking?” In this way, one steps outside the “doing mode” for a moment, disrupts habitual patterns, and becomes aware of the current experience. The second step involves a single focus of attention. Attention is directed away from thinking to the breath. During the third and last step, attention is expanded so that it also includes the awareness of body sensations. The focus here is on the body as a whole. The three-minute breathing space involves a direct way of coping characterized by the awareness and willingness to experience what is present.

Obstacles and practical advice

During working hours, it is often difficult if not impossible to spend 15 minutes lying down performing a body scan or focusing on one’s breath with the eyes closed. Note, however, that formal exercises can be adapted. While the body scan is most often carried out in a lying position, it is possible to use a seated position as well. Moreover, the duration can be altered. Both longer (e.g., 45 minutes) and shorter versions (e.g., 15 minutes) of the seated meditation and body scan have been used in practice and research. For some people, starting with shorter meditations and building from there is more effective in terms of adherence than starting with full 15-minute meditation sessions. The three-minute breathing space may be particularly useful in this respect because of its short duration. First, to build a habit, participants can be asked to use the breathing space at three fixed times during a day. Next, when participants are used to the exercise, they can use the exercise whenever they feel the need. In the latter case, the exercise is used to cope with emotions, thoughts, feelings, or sensations. For instance, when an employee experiences stress at work, he/she may pause for a moment and use the exercise to disrupt the negative cycle of stress-related thoughts. By taking some time to connect with the body, he/she may also become aware of bodily stress responses, allowing for appropriate measurements (e.g., taking a break).

Integrating more extensive formal mindfulness practices in an already busy daily life often requires careful planning and communication. It is recommended that people decide themselves when and where they want to do the exercises. While some people find it more feasible to practice in the morning before going to work, others may benefit more from practicing in the evening after work. Moreover, informing family members about the practice can help them minimize interruptions during practice. Repeating a practice on a regular basis using the same time and location is likely to result in a habit, which will increase these effects.

Informal exercises

In addition to these formal exercises, mindfulness interventions also involve informal exercises that aim to enhance mindful awareness during everyday activities. They require a single focus of attention and the ability to gently turn back to the object of attention following distraction. The object of attention can be anything, ranging from a conversation with a colleague to eating lunch. We predict that these exercises are particularly useful when attempting to integrate mindfulness at the workplace because they do not necessarily require additional time or environmental changes. Note that there are virtually endless examples of informal practices, which makes it impossible to list and describe them all. We have attempted to categorize the most important informal exercises and briefly explain them in the context of work. 

Awareness of routine activities

Routine activities are activities performed regularly, often daily. Most routine activities require little conscious attention because they are highly automatized. Examples include taking a shower, driving or walking to the workplace, or consuming lunch. The idea is to focus attention fully on the activity; the body movements, the sight, the sensations. When thoughts or other distractions emerge, one notices them and brings back attention to the task at hand. For instance, when eating mindfully, one eats slowly, directing attention mainly to the experience in the present moment, which includes physical movements, the taste and smell of the food, and the like. Thus, rather than doing multiple things at the same time (such as reading while eating, talking on the phone while driving home, thinking about work while taking a shower), one adopts a single focus of attention. As part of mindfulness training programs, participants are encouraged to pick a few of these routine activities and to practice performing them in a mindful way. Since it is not time consuming and involves activities that are performed daily, this exercise can easily be implemented into one’s workday. Participants may pick activities, such as being mindful while having lunch, being mindful while walking to the copy machine, or being mindful while driving home from work.

Body awareness

The awareness of the body that is cultivated through the body scan can be implemented in daily life by paying attention to the body regularly throughout the day in various circumstances. One can pay attention to the posture and become aware of physical sensations, such as pain or tension. Jobs requiring lifting, monotonous work tasks, uncomfortable work postures, repetitive movements, and prolonged periods at computer terminals have been found to be associated with physical problems, such as neck/back pain and occupational repetitive strain injuries (Aaras, Horgen, & Ro, 2000). Mindful awareness of these sensations is likely to enhance early detection and prevention of physical complaints. One can, for instance, implement daily moments of mindful awareness by setting an alarm at random intervals to disrupt repetitive movements or become aware of one’s posture. 

Awareness of impulsive and reactive patterns

Many daily patterns of thinking and behavior are habitual (unconscious) reactions to experiences or events. Failing to perform well may immediately trigger negative self-critical thoughts and judgments. The experience of sadness can result in a direct attempt to push away the unwanted feeling. Receiving a snide remark from a colleague may cause one to raise the voice and say things that he/she might regret afterwards. In all these examples, automatic patterns guide the behavior. Mindfulness requires awareness of these experiences as they arise during the day. While it may be difficult to become aware of these experiences before the onset of an impulsive reaction, becoming aware of them afterwards can also be beneficial because it may enhance detection of similar patterns in the future. 

Awareness during social interaction

Practicing mindfulness in a social context involves interacting with the other person(s) as a single point of focus. Instead of multi-tasking during a conversation with a colleague or thinking about what to say next, attention is paid to the current conversation. In contrast to identifying with one’s own assumptions and reacting impulsively, mindfulness requires an open, non-judgemental attitude during the conversation characterized by deep listening, perspective taking, and allowing the other to respond. Moreover, mindfulness during social interaction can involve speaking with awareness. Examples include pausing before speaking, monitoring one’s thoughts, and considering the effect of speaking them out loud. Practicing awareness during social interaction is an exercise that can easily be implemented into one’s everyday life.