What Is Mindfulness? And Other Terms, Defined
The cultural buzz surrounding mindfulness may be new, but mindfulness itself has roots that stretch back thousands of years. It has long been a central convention of Eastern religions, most notably Hinduism and Buddhism, which use mindfulness to deepen their spiritual practices. In fact, mindfulness as we know it today has only become popular in the West within the last five decades. In recent years, mindfulness has entered the mainstream as a secular practice that, bolstered by robust scientific research, offers new insights into mental health and wellness.
But the comparatively recent popularization of mindfulness has brought with it an array of new terminology that can prove confusing, whether you’re a mindfulness beginner or a seasoned pro. The first of these is the definition of mindfulness itself. Here at Shanthi Project, we define mindfulness as:
the awareness that arises through paying attention, non-judgmentally, to the present moment, including thoughts, bodily sensations, and the environment around us.
Below, we’ve compiled a list of further terms that you might come across as you learn more about Shanthi Project’s mindfulness education and keep tabs on the programming we do around the Lehigh Valley. There’s no test at the end of this blog post, but gaining an understanding of these concepts can help inform your journey into mindfulness! Be sure to bookmark this glossary and return to it if you encounter an unfamiliar phrase while diving deeper into mindfulness education and your own practice of mindfulness.
ACEs │ Amygdala │ Anchor │ Compassion Resilience │ Equanimity │ Hippocampus │ Meditation │ Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction │ Non-judgmental awareness │ Prefrontal cortex │ Prosocial behavior │ Self-compassion │ Social-emotional learning │ Trauma-informed │ 90-second rule
ACEs: Adverse Childhood Experiences. These are highly stressful, sometimes traumatic, events or situations that occur during a person’s childhood (0-17 years old). They include, but are not limited to, neglect, abuse, and violence. The more ACEs someone experiences, the more likely they are to have negative and lasting effects on health and well-being later in life. Being well-versed about ACEs informs the work that all Shanthi Project instructors do.
Amygdala: this is the emotion center of the brain. It monitors for danger and activates when it senses any sort of threat. Activation of the amygdala releases stress hormones that prepare the body for fight, flight, or freeze. This can happen during stressful or uncomfortable events, and if constantly activated, the amygdala can leave us in a constant state of chronic stress. Pausing for a mindful moment helps slow down the function of the amygdala and allow the body to recover, training us to better control intense reactions.
Anchor: a point of reference that helps us stabilize our attention. During a mindfulness practice or meditation, this can be your breath, a bodily sensation, a sound, a mantra, or any other consistent thing! Focusing on your anchor(s) is a powerful tool to ground yourself to present-moment awareness.
Compassion resilience: the ability to maintain physical, emotional, and mental well-being while responding compassionately to people who are suffering. We only have a certain capacity for extending compassion to others before we need to fill up our own cups, too—and compassion resilience is what we build by filling up our cups! We often talk about compassion resilience in reference to the healthcare field, but it is equally relevant within human services, education, families, and more.
Equanimity: a common term used in the mindfulness and meditation spaces! Equanimity is a balanced, even-minded mental state toward all experiences. It means disconnecting from our sense of “I” to recognize that whatever arises is incidental compared to awareness of the thing itself. When we experience equanimity, we fully feel the present moment and recognize that life happens all around us, whether or not we're in the picture. Equanimity is not mindfulness; mindfulness is the tool that allows us to reach a state of equanimity.
Hippocampus: this is the memory center of the brain. It stores information that can help us understand the world around us and make decisions. When we’re faced with difficult or uncomfortable situations, the hippocampus can be overshadowed by the overactive amygdala. It can be hard for us to respond to new situations when we can’t clearly access our hippocampus; and in fact, the hippocampus can actually shrink over time if constantly exposed to stress.
Meditation: a contemplative practice—mental, physical, or both—that trains your brain to pay attention and focus. It refers to a whole array of techniques that encourage intentional concentration on just one thing. Contrary to popular belief, meditation is not about clearing the mind; it’s about giving your mind something to focus on. Don’t get meditation mixed up with mindfulness—meditation is just one way to practice mindfulness.
Mindfulness-based stress reduction: a program, usually eight weeks long, that was developed by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn. In MBSR, an instructor guides participants in mindfulness-based practices like meditation and yoga. Extensive research shows that this program can treat a variety of ailments, such as depression, anxiety, chronic pain, addiction and more. In studies about the effectiveness of mindfulness, you will often see participation in MBSR as the variable.
Non-judgmental awareness: accepting the reality that the present moment is whole as is, and letting go of the automatic judgments your brain makes. In practice, this means simply observing and accepting thoughts as they enter your mind without labeling them as good or bad.
Prefrontal cortex: the thinking, reasoning, planning, and decision-making part of the brain. This is the part of the brain that allows us to respond, rather than react, to a situation. Like the hippocampus, the prefrontal cortex can go offline when the amygdala is in control, and it can begin to work less effectively if exposed to chronic stress. Mindfulness practices aim to strengthen the capabilities of our prefrontal cortex.
Prosocial behavior: actions intended to help or benefit other people, like sharing, cooperating, and comforting others. In mindfulness spaces, you may encounter this term as one of the benefits of mindfulness practice; our own research shows that practicing mindfulness increases children’s prosocial behaviors.
Self-compassion: sympathetic concern directed inwards. Self-compassion encourages us to ask ourselves how we would respond to loved ones during a difficult time—then extend that same kindness, understanding, and love toward ourselves. Self-compassion is the opposite of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for mistakes and shortcomings.
Social-emotional learning: the developmental process through which humans acquire self-awareness, self-control, and interpersonal skills. Individuals use these learned behaviors to help them make positive decisions, move toward their goals, and build resilient relationships. SEL is an essential part of education and human development, but we aren’t born with these skills; they must be built and honed throughout our entire lives!
Trauma-informed: describes an awareness of the personal and societal consequences that accompany trauma. Being trauma-informed means being able to recognize and support the specific needs an individual may have as a result of trauma. Practices are trauma-informed when they look beyond a person’s presenting behaviors and ask, “What has happened to this person?” The goal of a trauma-informed approach is to avoid re-traumatizing someone.
90-second rule: this refers to the scientific evidence demonstrating that the brain chemistry of an emotion remains in our system for only ninety seconds. Once an emotion is triggered, it only takes a minute and a half for the initial bodily reaction to be flushed from our system. By learning to slow down and breathe for those ninety seconds, we can avoid ruminating over uncomfortable emotions and let them go, as quickly as they came.