‘Mindfulness' is a common translation of a term from Buddhist psychology that means ‘awareness' or ‘bare attention’. It is frequently used to refer to a way of paying attention that is sensitive, accepting and independent of any thoughts that may be present. Although mindfulness can sound quite ordinary and spontaneous, it is the antithesis of mental habits in which the mind is on ‘automatic pilot’. In this usual state, most experiences pass by completely unrecognised, and awareness is dominated by a stream of internal comment whose insensitivity to what is immediately present can seem mindless. Even if most people knowingly experience mindfulness for very brief periods only, it can be developed with practice.

Mindfulness places ‘attention’ at the heart of psychotherapy. Given that psychotherapy depends so heavily on the interaction between therapist and patient, it is remarkable how little prominence attention has received. Notable exceptions have included Freud, who believed psychoanalysts' attention to be essential to their practice.

Techniques for developing mindfulness

Some people develop mindfulness because pursuits such as regularly playing a musical instrument can foster it. However, it is usually learned through a mixture of guided instruction and personal practice.


Meditation is an approach to training the mind, similar to the way that fitness is an approach to training the body. But many meditation techniques exist — so how do you learn how to meditate?

“In Buddhist tradition, the word ‘meditation’ is equivalent to a word like ‘sports’ in the U.S. It’s a family of activities, not a single thing,” University of Wisconsin neuroscience lab director Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D., told The New York Times. And different meditation practices require different mental skills.


If relaxation is not the goal of meditation, it is often a result. In the 1970s, Herbert Benson, MD, a researcher at Harvard University Medical School, coined the term “relaxation response" after conducting research on people who practiced transcendental meditation. The relaxation response, in Benson’s words, is “an opposite, involuntary response that causes a reduction in the activity of the sympathetic nervous system.”