Mindfulness: A History and Practice for Mental Health
By Jocie Purcell, MusicWorx Intern
You may have heard of mindfulness from the brightly colored cover of a magazine while waiting in line at the grocery store. You’ve heard colleagues and peers practicing it in their personal time. You may even be helping clients use it for managing symptoms of depression or anxiety, but have you truly sat down and gotten to know mindfulness and where it comes from? The American Psychology Association (APA) refers to mindfulness as a practice of moment-to-moment awareness, observing thoughts and experiences without judgment. It is a trait or skill that is developed through practice.
A History of Meditation and Mindfulness
The concept of mindfulness originates from the ancient Indian Buddhist practice of meditation dating back to 2500 BCE. Through meditation, the individual explores the connection between the body and mind to bring increased awareness to physical sensations, emotions, and everyday occurrences (West, 2016). In philosophical records from India around 1500 BCE, the practice of Dhyana or Jhana, or training of the mind, is often translated as meditation. Other records of meditation have been found in writings from Laozi, an ancient Chinese philosopher and Daoist as early as the third century. Some terms in Laozi’s work include Shou Zhong, which is roughly translated to “guarding the middle”, and Bao Pu or “embracing simplicity.” In addition to the practices of Vendatism, Sufism, and Judaism, there are Hindu traditions of meditation in Yogi (yoga) practice, which has largely influenced Western culture. More information about the origins of meditation can be found here.
Meditation cultivated interest in the west in the 1700s when ancient scriptures about techniques were translated into various European languages, and eventually gained momentum in the circles of philosophers and intellectuals such as Voltaire. In 1893, a prominent yogi called Swami Vivekananda delivered a presentation in Chicago about meditation, and created a swell of interest in Eastern models of spirituality. Yogis and instructors from India migrated to the US to teach others, and eventually, the practice of meditation reformed into a secular practice. Western meditation disconnected from its religious connections and the purpose of seeking spiritual fulfillment. Thus, mindfulness was researched in scientific studies which sought to quantify and test its mental and physiological benefits.
Today, most mindfulness practitioners first encounter the practice through yoga. Yoga is offered throughout the United States in studios, athletic clubs, colleges, and more. Since COVID-19, yoga has become more accessible to consumers worldwide through virtual platforms, making it easier for people to care for their bodies and minds from home. My personal favorite online yoga instructor is Adriene Mishler, who encourages her viewers to breathe “lots of love in, and lots of love out”.
Why Practice Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is associated with training attention and awareness in order to bring mental processes under greater voluntary control of thoughts and emotions. Mindfulness fosters general mental well-being and development and/or specific capacities such as calmness, clarity, and concentration (Walsh & Shapiro, 2006). With practice, you may experience the benefits of mindfulness and live a more fulfilling life. The APA has identified benefits of mindfulness for clients and therapists alike. Several studies have shown the benefits of practicing mindfulness:
- Reduces stress
- Improves working memory and focus
- Regulates emotional reactivity
- Helps with managing pain
I’ve used this technique personally as well as countless times with patients in music therapy sessions. Another way that I like to practice mindfulness is by taking walks outside without my phone, and list 10 things I am grateful for. The more specific I am about my gratitude, the better I feel about myself and my current circumstances. I can more easily regulate my emotions, focus on tasks, and feel relaxed. The aforementioned techniques are specifically useful for managing symptoms of depression, including dulled senses, reduced motivation, and feelings of hopelessness. Focusing on utilizing the 5 senses builds new pathways in the brain as you embrace the environment. Practicing gratitude challenges the brain to create new positive thoughts. Mindfulness involves learning about yourself and practicing ways to maintain your well-being.
Available on Google Play and the App Store, there are dozens of mindfulness apps with daily meditation podcasts available to individuals seeking tranquility, elevation in mood, and mental wellness. Some of these apps include:
Mindfulness in Music Therapy
In music therapy, mindfulness practices are used in a wide variety of settings and populations:
- To manage pain and symptoms of anxiety and depression during one-on-one hospital visits
- To promote relaxation and physical awareness for individuals with Parkinson’s disease,
- To support emotional regulation in home sessions with children with neurodevelopmental diagnoses.
The use of mindfulness in music therapy often involves verbally guided exercises while live or recorded music accompanies the suggestions. For example, one can accompany the breath by playing the piano; moving up the keys in pitch during the inhale, and playing down the piano keys during the exhale. This technique suggests deeper breathing, allowing the recipient of music therapy to reach full lung capacity on the inhale, and balance levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide by exhaling “all the way out.” This mindful breathing technique increases awareness of the amount of air moving throughout the respiratory system, and promotes relaxation. With a piano or a pitched instrument, anyone can practice this breathing technique at home. More practices for breathing, relaxation, and creativity may be found in this blog post titled Music and Creative Arts for Self-Care. Anyone can benefit from mindfulness practice to develop self-awareness and increase relaxation in their daily lives.
Mindfulness scripts have been written to address specific experiences such as depression, the loss of a loved one, navigating a difficult conversation, headaches, and more. You can find more mindful benefits of using music for health and wellness in Christine Stevens’ Music Medicine: The Science and Spirit of Healing Yourself with Sound, which is sold on the MusicWorx Webstore.
Techniques such as mindfulness and meditation have been practiced for thousands of years, and provide healthy ways to cope with mental illness and find connection and healing. With mindfulness, you can begin and maintain a journey of peace and self-nourishment.
Ackerman, C.E, MA. (2017). Top 13 Apps for Meditation and Mindfulness (+Reviews). Retrieved from positivepsychology.com/mindfulness-apps/
Swami Vivekananda and His 1893 Speech. Art Institute Chicago. Retrieved from
Davis, D.M. PhD, Hayes, J.A. PhD. (2012). What are the benefits of mindfulness. 43(7). Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/07-08/ce-corner
Mead, E., BSc. (2019). The History and Origin of Meditation. Retrieved from https://positivepsychology.com/history-of-meditation/
Nisbet, M. (2017). The mindfulness movement: How a Buddhist practice evolved into a scientific approach to life. Retrieved from https://web.northeastern.edu/matthewnisbet/2017/05/24/the-mindfulness-movement-how-a-buddhist-practice-evolved-into-a-scientific-approach-to-life/
Moore, Catherine, MBA (2019). What is Mindfulness? Definition + Benefits (Incl. Psychology). PositivePsychology.com. Retrieved from https://positivepsychology.com/what-is-mindfulness/#meaning
West, M. (2016). The Psychology of Meditation: Research and Practice. Retrieved from https://books.google.com.au/books?hl=en&lr=&id=MQNOCwAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PP1&dq=the+psychology+of+meditation&ots=SsrEXTES6X&sig=UtP_o3h3xrneM5v1kFemUFHa1BA#v=onepage&q=the%20psychology%20of%20meditation&f=false