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What is Mindfulness?: A Session With Susanna Williams

As the semester winds down, an increase in workload combined with the business that comes with the million activities that get crammed into April weekends can cause a lot of stress.  Mindfulness can help relieve that anxiety!  This discipline can have many positive personal effects, including increased concentration and compassion and finding balance and meaning in life.  But what is mindfulness, exactly?  Breathing exercises?  Meditation?  Having (not being) Unagi?  In my religious studies class called Spiritual But Not Religious, we have been learning about a wide variety of themes surrounding the concept of spirituality including the transcendentalist movement, American encounters with Eastern religions, and even rock music.  To accompany our study of this particular topic this week, Professor Matt Hedstrom invited Associate Director of the UVA Mindfulness Center, Susanna Williams, Ph.D., to give a guest lecture and teach our class all about mindfulness. 

Williams opened her talk by defining mindfulness as “being aware in the present moment without judgment”.  This definition, borrowed from mindfulness trailblazer and University of Massachusetts Medical School professor Jon Kabat-Zinn, may seem a little abstract, so let’s break it down.  Awareness involves keeping your mindset in the here and now, as opposed to reflecting on the past or looking toward the future, and living without judgment means viewing your thoughts objectively.  Think about the tasks set in front of you today, understand your current emotions, and recognize your thoughts as they occur.  One way to be present with your thoughts is through meditation, which Williams described as the process of distancing yourself from your thoughts and choosing whether to pay attention to them or to let them go.  Mindfulness has real life implications – by mindfully engaging with daily life on a regular basis, you will be able to use the skills you have developed to make better choices.  For example, with a calm mind, you can take an intentional breath before responding to a situation to make the best decision possible. 

So where do we go from here?  Some ways to practice mindfulness that Dr. Williams suggested include formal sitting meditation and various activities that can be performed mindfully, including walking, writing, relationships, and movement such as yoga and tai chi.  The next time you feel overwhelmed, try being fully present in your thoughts and actions, and maybe even write your thoughts down or meditate on them.  It is certainly not an easy task, but with practice, mindfulness can have real effects on your attitude and the choices you make every day.

For more information about the UVA Mindfulness Center, visit www.uvamindfulnesscenter.org

Sarah is a fourth year media studies major and Spanish minor at UVA who is admittedly way too obsessed with pop culture.  Wahoowa!  
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