Mindfulness has become a mainstream idea, practice and even prescription to deal with a number of modern day ailments - states of feeling bad, uneasy, anxious, stressed, overwhelmed, disconnected and joyless. But just what is mindfulness and how can it help you feel better, live a more fulfilling life and even escape from feeling anxious or depressed?
Mindfulness has been defined by many great teachers and scholars, and the way I distill it is this: it is being present to the moment as it unfolds with an attitude of curiosity and acceptance.
'...to turn inward to pay attention to some part of the self from the position of Self, turning your awareness inward toward felt present experience in a curious, non-judgmental way' (Schwartz, 1995)
‘paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally’ (Kabat-Zinn, 1994)
What is the point of mindfulness?
Sometimes you may wonder wonder what the point is. Why would anybody want to watch their own experience, aren't there better more proactive things to do that would help with whatever is the problem?
Mindfulness is not about solving first-order problems (how to 'fix' the latest problem in your life), it is about addressing second-order problems (changing the way you feel about and respond to the problems in your life.) Mindfulness is about learning to put your focus on the most powerful and accessible resource you have; it is about finding an inner place of liberation, where you can change how you feel and how you experience life; it is about taking charge of your inner experience.
When your inner experience is dominated by regret and rumination over past painful experiences, for example, this is can lead to a state of feeling depressed. If your inner experience is dominated by worry and fear about future experiences, this can create a state of anxiety. You may go back and forth between these two states, continuously, without even being aware that you are constantly focused on past or future, rarely ever being present in the now. This is otherwise known as being stuck, disconnected, out of touch with your true self.
How can learning mindfulness help me feel better?
You may have the idea that mindfulness is just a trance that you get into for a little while, but then go 'back to reality' and then what? But mindfulness is actually the way out of the everyday trances you live at the mercy of unconscious, habitual, automatic patterns of conditioning (Wolinsky, 1991).
Learning to be present in the moment is one part of becoming mindful. Another part of it is learning to diffuse - or separate yourself from your thoughts and feelings. Most of the time you probably wander through your life in a state of fusion with your thoughts and feelings - you can't tell the difference between your feelings, thoughts and yourself. This makes you extremely vulnerable to every passing thought or feeling hijacking your sense of well being! If you can learn to recognize this for what it is, by developing your awareness, then you can begin to gain a sense of liberation from moment to moment thoughts and feelings - recognizing them for what they are and not confusing them for WHO you are.
Is their any science behind mindfulness?
Neuroscience has been hot on the trail of mindfulness, seeking to understand how mindfulness actually works. What has been found is that it works due to your marvelous brain's ability to adapt and change itself. Neuroplasticity—the rewiring that occurs in the brain as a result of experience—now explains how regular mindfulness meditation practice alters the brain’s physical structure and functioning (Davidson et al., 2003; Lazar et al., 2005; Siegel, 2007a; Vestergaard-Poulsen et al., 2009.)
What can learning mindfulness help me with?
David and Hayes (2011) reviewed research on mindfulness and came up with benefits of practicing mindfulness, which are summarized below:
Emotion Regulation - Learning to tolerate uncomfortable feelings. When you can tolerate uncomfortable feelings, you begin to notice more freedom from being 'run by emotion' and thus can be active in deciding how to respond to feelings instead of being overwhelmed by them.
Decreased Reactivity and Increased Response Flexibility - Awareness of your feelings and thoughts, without judgment creates some space for you to maneuver so that that instead of immediately reacting, you can decide to respond in a new (non-habitual) way.
Relationships with Others - Noticing the reactions, feelings, and thoughts that arise in you when you observe with non-judgmement and awareness, the person you are with.
Internal Psychological Functioning - Mindfulness has been shown to enhance functions such as self-insight, morality, intuition, and fear modulation (Siegel, 2007)
Decreased stress and anxiety - When you can escape constant thoughts of the past or worries of the future and inhabit your present moment more of the time, you simply feel better.
Empathy and Compassion - When you are able to get some separateness from your constant stream of thoughts and feelings, something wonderful often happens - you get to see yourself apart from thoughts and feelings, and notice how you so often get pushed around by all the mindstuff! From there you may feel a sense of compassion for yourself for how easy it is to get stuck. That self compassion can lead to a sense of empathy for other people who are struggling with the same thing.
How is mindfulness used in psychotherapy and counseling?
First of all, not every psychotherapist or counselor uses or teaches mindfulness. In my own practice, it depends on the client, what they are trying to accomplish, and what their level of openness is to using mindfulness. Frankly, the primary way mindfulness is used by thereapists is not in helping clients become mindful per se, but using their own mindful awareness to sense, feel and notice - moment by moment - what is happening with the client in the room. Tracking and being available for what is going on with the client is iteslf a skill of mindful presence.
In general, psychotherapists are especially interested in encouraging clients to be mindful of sensations, emotions, thoughts, feelings, and memories that might be connected to deeper core narratives, transference, schemas, filters, scripts, introjects, beliefs, or other ways of understanding the organization of your experience. Mindfulness can be used to reorganize the way you think, as well as provide distance and perspective on the inner working of your mind and psychological states. It can be a therapeutic tool within a session, as well as a life-long practice and skill for use during and beyond psychotherapy (Johanson, 2006.)
A favorite, more formal way of incorporating mindfulness into psychotherapy is by using Focusing, a process developed by Eugene Gendlin, Ph. D. Focusing is accessible, easy to learn, and effective. You can do it outside of psychotherapy, it requires minimal practice and you can do it by yourself. If you are interested in trying it, click here for brief explanation of Focusing and how to do it: Focusing
How can I learn more about mindfulness?
Fortunately there are a wide array of resources for gaining access to mindfulness, especially here in Santa Rosa and the greater San Francisco Bay area. Read a book, find a teacher, attend a seminar or talk on the subject. Bring up the subject with friends and family, if you have a therapist ask them about it. (Click for tips for finding a therapist.)
Books and research seem to be exploding on the topic, so it should not be difficult to find a place to start. John Kabat-Zinn and Jack Kornfield are tried and true favorites. And although he does not label it as "mindfulness," Eckhart Tolle (who has a non-denominational spiritual angle) has a powerful way of putting it all together in his book, "The Power of Now." Another excellent teacher is Buddhist monk and author Pema Chodron, who I have found to be invaluable.
If you would prefer to learn midfulness without any specific spiritual context, there are also many such books out there. An excellent text written by a seasoned therapist and neuroscience expert with a focus on self self healing is "Bouncing Back, Rewiring your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being", by Linda Graham, MFT. I cannot recommend this book highly enough for it's thorough explanations and practical exercises.