What is mindfulness?
If you’ve done much reading on the topic of mental health treatment in the last few years, chances are you’ve come across the word “mindfulness” or the term “mindfulness meditation”. Mindfulness has received a lot of media attention over the past decade, particularly with respect to how it can improve various aspects of one’s mental health. Yet, despite this increased exposure, many folks are still unaware of or confused about exactly what mindfulness is and what it’s used for.
There are likely a couple of reasons for this. First, many authors who write about mindfulness are confused (or appear to be confused) about what mindfulness actually is. In their defense, mindfulness, while a simple concept, is an inherently complicated one to explain. This is essentially because mindfulness can only be fully grasped by practicing it, not by reading about it. Doubtless, even after you are done reading this article, there will likely still be a gap in your understanding of what it is. To bridge that gap, you’ll need to practice it for a period of time.
Another reason for the widespread confusion about mindfulness is that many folks who hear the word “mindfulness” often confuse it with their preconceived ideas about meditation. For many, the word “meditation” conjures up images of someone in yoga pants sitting cross-legged, eyes closed, chanting on a mountaintop or by a lake (just do a Google image search of “mindfulness” to see what I mean). Mindfulness doesn’t require yoga pants, chanting, or sitting by lakes or on mountaintops. It can be done anywhere, anytime, with eyes open or closed. Moreover, many associate meditation with “clearing the mind of thoughts” while striving toward a state of pure serenity and/or enlightenment. Mindfulness is not about clearing the mind of all thoughts or striving towards a particular emotional state (although, as you’ll read about shortly, it does tend to reduce emotional distress by minimizing our struggles with bothersome thoughts and feelings). So if mindfulness isn’t any of those things I just mentioned, then what is it?
Mindfulness simply involves observing one’s present experience as it is, without judgement. It is about training ourselves to observe our reality (i.e., our thoughts, emotions, physical sensations) without becoming stuck in it – that is, without trying to change that experience to be different than it is.
This is a uniquely different approach than the one we use instinctively. In other words, as animals that can sense pain, we naturally try to avoid pain and increase pleasure…it’s part of our biological wiring. Thus, we spend much of our lives trying to change and rigidly control our thoughts and our emotions so they are more acceptable and tolerable for us. Anxiety, panic, sadness, anger, depression, guilt, and so forth are all completely natural human emotions, but our failure to accept and tolerate those experiences can sometimes cause them to become even worse.
I would encourage you to reflect on your own experiences as evidence for proving this point. Have you ever tried to force yourself to stop thinking a certain powerful and repetitive thought (Whatever you do, don’t think about a pink squirrel!), or experiencing physical pain or an aversive, persistent emotion? This “blocking” strategy can sometimes work in the short-term for momentary thoughts and feelings, but for more powerful, enduring, or repetitive thoughts and feelings, most people notice that when they try to block or control those thoughts or feelings, they can either persist for longer period of time or come back even stronger. (This is because the act of blocking usually activates the same neural networks in your brain that are associated with the very thought you are trying to block.)
The alternative strategy -mindfulness- involves learning to accept our experiences through simple observation, self-compassion, and nonjudgement. The idea is to simply watch these aversive experiences as they temporarily pass through your awareness, while also welcoming them in in the same way you might with more pleasant experiences like joy, happiness, and physical pleasure. When you come to accept that your thoughts are just thoughts, your feelings are just feelings, and physical sensations are simply physical sensations, then you can effectively “break the spell” of being caught up in them. You will also learn that these experiences don’t necessarily have to have meaning and that they will fade away on their own without needing to be controlled.
The ironic effect of mindfulness is that the more we learn to accept our experiences, the greater the probability that they will diminish or disappear altogether. Trying to control our thoughts and feelings typically breathes life into them and makes them stronger. Conversely, accepting and observing aversive experiences tends to help them fade away. This is the primary and paradoxical benefit of mindfulness training: By forfeiting control over our thoughts and feelings, it often gives us greater control over them and helps us feel better. But it requires reiterating that this increased sense of well being is a byproduct of mindfulness practice, not the objective of it. Remember, the primary objective of mindfulness is to get better at nonjudgementally observing one’s experience, whatever that experience is; not to change it.
Author and neuroscientist Sam Harris uses the analogy of watching a movie in a movie theatre to explain this shift in perspective. As he notes, when we are not being mindful, we are completely engrossed in the story playing on the screen in front of us (i.e., our life, with our corresponding thoughts and feelings). We are totally unaware that we are actually sitting in a theatre. However, when we become mindful, we are suddenly aware that we are an observer, sitting in a theatre, simply watching a stream of images and sounds. With mindfulness training, we can learn to break this spell by observing our experiences without becoming caught up in them. Essentially, this training allows us to “unstick” from our unhelpful thoughts and feelings so we don’t become bogged down by them. We can learn to watch as these experiences simply pass through us.
Maintaining this mindful awareness for any extended period of time is extremely challenging and takes practice. As we are first learning to be mindful, those moments of nonjudgmental observation are fleeting. The awareness of being “in the theatre” may only be there for a brief moment before we are once again caught up in our experiences, distracted by our thoughts, our plans for tomorrow, that problem we encountered yesterday. What should I have for dinner? Maybe tacos. Hmmm, I need to pick up sour cream. And poof, just like that, it’s gone. Being mindful requires that we catch ourselves when we inevitably and repeatedly fall back into the “doing mode”…the planning, the worrying, the problem solving, the reminiscing, the judging. And when we notice that we are caught up in those thoughts and feelings, we gently, and repetitively, guide our attention back to the present moment as it is. And we do this over and over and over again. The overarching goal of mindfulness training is to cultivate this capacity to observe the present moment as it is without distraction – this is the “being mode”.
Note that mindfulness can be directed toward any aspect of our reality. It can be used for observing experiences of external stimuli (e.g., sights, sounds, smells) or internal stimuli (e.g., emotions, thoughts, physical sensations). A typical mindfulness meditation consists of focusing one’s full attention on the breath as it flows in and out of the body. Focusing on each breath in this way allows us to cultivate a greater stability of attention so we can observe our thoughts and feelings as they arise in the mind and, little by little, to let go of our struggle with them. As you practice this, you will come to realise that your thoughts and feelings come and go of their own accord and that you are not controlled by them. You can watch as they appear in your mind, seemingly from thin air, and disappear, like a cloud drifting past or a leaf floating down a river. When you come to this profound understanding that thoughts and feelings (including negative ones) come and go of their own accord, you will also realize that you ultimately have a choice about whether to act on them or not.
When unhappiness or stress are parts of your experience, rather than taking these things personally, you can learn to treat these feelings as if they are simply leaves on a river, or clouds in the sky, observing them with acceptance and curiosity as they drift past. Again, mindfulness is about self-compassion and pure observation without criticism. In essence, mindfulness allows you to catch negative thought patterns before they tip you into a downward spiral. It can facilitate the process of putting you back in control of your life.
Over time, mindfulness brings about long-term changes in mood and well being. Scientific studies have shown that mindfulness not only prevents depression and reduces relapses, but that it also positively affects the brain patterns underlying day-to-day anxiety, stress, depression, and irritability, so that when they do arise, they fade away more quickly and easily. Other studies have shown that regular mindfulness meditators see their doctors less often and spend fewer days in hospital. Memory and focus improve, creativity increases, and reaction times even become faster. In general, mindfulness can be used in conjunction with other psychological strategies to enhance output in sport and performance settings, for managing day-to-day stressors, and to improve mental health.
If you’re interested in learning more about mindfulness resources or beginning mindfulness training, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As always, take care of yourselves and each other,