Mindfulness meditation originates in Buddhism. During a Vipassana retreat in the 70s, the psychiatrist Jon Kabat Zinn had an epiphany to create a mindfulness based stress reduction program (MBSR) and thus managed over time to make meditation or mindfulness socially acceptable in the West, at least in its secularized version.
There are now thousands of scientific studies on the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation. The practice has made it into conference rooms of major corporations like Google, top-tier sports, Hollywood, classrooms, and even the U.S. military.
So you don't have to be a Buddhist, nor do you have to light incense or replace "Hi" with "Namaste" to benefit from mindfulness. You also don't have to take anything we write at face value. The beauty is that mindfulness is based on direct experience.
Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention
Studies have shown that we are absent-minded, not here for about 50% of our waking hours, i.e. we are lost in our own virtual reality. On the one hand, this costs unnecessary energy and on the other hand, we literally miss our lives.
With mindfulness we counteract this natural tendency by specifically training our mind to come back to the present.
So the first aspect here is the clear attention to what is happening in the here and now. The second aspect is attitude. The key in meditation, as in life, is the how - how do we face our experiences? With a non-judgmental, interested, kind attitude - open and curious rather than judgmental.
As soon as the judging mind is on - the inner critic "I should be further along, or "you're not doing that right", "you can't do that", "I shouldn't feel that" - we move away from the direct experience and tension builds up and intensifies the feeling of discomfort that we want to get rid of. The Buddhists call this the second arrow. When something doesn't go the way we want it to go and then we condemn ourselves for it not going that way.
With mindfulness you can just observe and notice and accept it all without having to like it and without being caught in it. You simply do not create additional resistance to what is.
Mindfulness is not about getting rid of feelings and thoughts, that is a rather hopeless endeavor, but it is about becoming aware of feelings and thoughts. Turning towards them in a non-judgmental and curious way, accepting them.
It is also not about having only positive thoughts, or being only relaxed and de-stressed (even if that is often a side effect). It is about being here for life as it is - even for unpleasant sensations. The more we can be comfortable with our feelings and experiences, the more we can hold and feel at home in our bodies and lives. The more fulfilled our life is.
We have a natural tendency to chase after pleasant experiences and push away and avoid unpleasant sensations. This is quite normal and, evolutionarily, has ensured our survival. But if we are constantly unconsciously driven by it, we have no real choice and freedom and we miss out on life or develop unhealthy avoidance strategies and escape habits that harm us in the long run.
Mindfulness is also not an instant fix. Meditation practice is a process and unfolds over time. Much like when we exercise certain muscles - that also takes time.
It's a practice for life - and not just for the meditation cushion.
It becomes a way of life, a certain way of looking at things through which we view what is happening.