Mindfulness is a particular state of awareness cultivated through intentional practice. This practice could be meditation or yoga but if could also be an everyday activity like brushing your teeth, walking to the store, eating a bagel, or watching a sunset.
Practicing mindfulness has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression and improve well being.
So, what defines this particular state of awareness?
1. Mindfulness is defined by present moment awareness
Our attention is usually tied up in thoughts about the past or future. We therefore often sail through life on "autopilot" somewhat (and sometimes completely) unaware of what’s actually happening now in our bodies and around us.
Sometimes this is extremely helpful because it allows us to automatize many everyday activities such as riding a bike, driving a car, typing, making a phone call, walking to the bus stop, having lunch with a friend, talking to a co-worker etc. We don't really need our full attention to carry out these activities. We can complete them with our bodies while our minds are at least partially elsewhere.
The downside of this ability to cruise through life on autopilot is:
1) We can miss what’s happening now. We miss the feeling of the breeze on our skin, the smell of the ocean, the sound of the birds chirping while riding our bike home on a beautiful sunny day because we're thinking about what we have to do tomorrow. We miss out on the feelings of joy and closeness that might bubble up when we see an old friend because we are thinking about the work we have to do on Monday morning or our car repairs.
2) We get ensnared in thoughts of disappointment about the past or worry about the future. This can lead to depression or anxiety because we don’t need to actually lose something or someone important to us or experience threatening events to be scared, sad, or stressed. All we need to do is simply imagine past or future threats or losses and we react like they are happening now. I don't need someone to sneer and laugh at me to feel sad or ashamed. All I need to do is think about the time it happened 10 years ago or imagine that it could happen next week.
Practicing mindfulness means intentionally bringing awareness to the present over and over again. It’s about noticing what’s here now. We can't stop our difficult thoughts (we really can't) but mindfulness can help us loosen ourselves from the vice grip of unhelpful thoughts about the past or future that we turn over and over in our minds and that can cause us to feel miserable.
The present moment is filled with joy and happiness. If you are attentive, you will see it. - Thích Nhất Hạnh
2. Mindfulness is an embodied and sensory awareness
As humans we tend spend a lot of time lost in thought, caught up in ceaseless mental chatter. This characterizes the sort of "autopilot mode" I described above where our attention is caught up in the stories in our heads and we cruise through life unaware of the details of where we are and what our bodies are doing now. Mindfulness on the other hand involves bringing our attention and awareness to our "embodied" present moment experience. This means bringing our attention and awareness to our sensory experience using all of our senses (smell, touch, hearing, sight, taste, proprioception, interoception).
For example, when you are having lunch with a friend in autopilot, your attention might be tied up in thoughts about the meaning of what they are saying and whether you agree or disagree, what you need to do after lunch, whether you received that email yet, whether you were justified in telling your boss off before lunch. You might miss the subtle tastes of the food, the beautiful way the light hits the glasses on the table, the expression of sadness on your friend's face when she tells a story, the sensation of an emotion bubbling up inside your chest when you tell her about your week, the very subtle feeling from your belly telling you that you have had enough to eat. This may not seem like a big deal in this case but if we are always on autopilot, reacting to what we think is happening instead of what is actually happening it can cause big problems.
When we practice mindfulness we cultivate awareness with all of our senses. We notice the chatter in our head and recognize that this is thinking and we cultivate awareness of the sensory elements of our present moment experience that are all too often ignored. We can cultivate awareness of obvious sensory experiences and very subtle ones. For example, we can be aware of the heavy feeling of our feet on the ground as we walk and the slight tingling sensation in our toes, we can be aware that it is dark and of the very slight variations in shadow and light around us. We can be aware of the pitch and cadence of our friend's voice, the sounds that we hear that are distant and near, the smell in the air, the tastes and textures in our mouth, the often very slight changing sensations in our bodies as we move through space and as we experience emotions.
Mindfulness is characterized by 5 key attitudes
a) Non-striving/acceptance: This means noticing the subtle ways in which we often resist the way things are. This might include wishing things were different, insisting things should/should not be a certain way, wishing we were different, or resisting uncomfortable sensations in your body (e.g., tensing up against pain or difficult emotions). Cultivating non-striving/acceptance means intentionally and repeatedly accepting things as they are in this very moment by noticing when we are resisting reality and being willing to come back to noticing, acknowledging, and experiencing reality just as it is with an attitude of openness.
People often confuse the notion of acceptance with agreeing or liking. However, accepting something does not mean you like it, agree with it, and will never try to change it. It simply means you acknowledge and accept that this is how things are right now. Acceptance is a very necessary precursor to change. If I buy a new house and it is painted a putrid shade of green I need to accept that the house is green and that I don't like it before I can change it.
It's also important to note that mindfulness involves accepting the facts of our experience but not our stories/thoughts about the facts. We can distinguish a fact from a thought by asking whether we can observe it with our 5 senses. If you cannot see, smell, taste, hear, or touch it it is probably a thought and not a fact. For example, this ice cream is good is not a fact. Have you ever observed good with your 5 senses? No. This ice cream is cold closer to a fact. You can observe cold with your 5 senses. So, mindfulness of the thought, "I'm stupid" does not involve accepting this as a fact. Rather, it involves accepting that the thought "I'm stupid" popped up, noticing that this is a thought and accepting you got 54% on your exam yesterday, that you are experiencing sadness, that there is a heavy feeling in your chest, and you have the urge to cry.
"The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change." - Carl Rogers
b) Non-judgment/beginner’s mind: This means noticing when we’re intellectualizing, judging, conceptualizing, or telling stories about something based on our past experience and then choosing to bringing our awareness back to the sensory elements of our present moment experience and bringing curiosity and acceptance to these sensory experiences.
Example: Noticing you are telling yourself a story about (i.e. thinking about) what your co-worker is thinking about you while they are talking to you, noticing that you are in fact thinking, and choosing to come back to what you are experiencing with your senses in this very moment. For example, you might notice the pitch and volume of their voice, the sensation tightness in your chest, the words they are saying, the feeling of your feet on the floor, the sensation of restlessness in your arms and legs.
This might not be everyone's cups of tea but my go to hack for practicing non-judgment/beginners mind is to imagine I am a dog, my cat, a squirrel, or some critter like that. My thought is that these creatures explore the world with relatively few concepts. There is no "exquisite dog food" and there are no "really bad days" and there are no "lame parks" there are just relatively bare sensory experiences that are new in every moment. Another fun thought experiment for beginner's mind is to imagine you are an alien that just got to earth and you are experiencing everything for the first time and you are curious about it. Is that a shoe? No, it's not a shoe! It's a rubbery-textured mass that weighs the equivalent of 2.5 pounds. You would not have concepts, you would only have your senses and you would be curious about exploring the world with your senses.
c) Letting go: This means noticing when your mind is getting carried away by stories or thoughts about how things are, were, or should be. Letting go means intentionally coming back to the present moment and your body even when these stories are very compelling (they usually are).
d) Non-doing/being: This goes hand-in-hand with acceptance. We are almost always trying to do, change, or achieve something. Mindfulness is about intentionally being with what is here now. Just being! It doesn't mean that we should never be doing or that that there is an inherent problem with doing. Of course there isn't! However, we are so often ceaselessly doing, doing, doing and it can be helpful to also cultivate the ability to let this go and to just be.
e) Patience/kindness/compassion: This means that when your mind is carried away with stories, thoughts, or judgments you acknowledge that this is simply what all minds do and then you gently, kindly, and compassionately bringing your mind back to the present. And you do it over and over and over again. Minds wander. A lot. This is natural. It's more than ok if you notice you are thinking and have to bring your mind back to the present 60 times per minute. Mindfulness does not imply a constant, fixed awareness of the present. It involves the intentional act of bringing your awareness back to the present moment over and over and over and over again with an attitude of kindness and patience.
If you want to learn more about how to practice mindfulness and meditation please get in touch.
Moving through emotional pain towards what's most important: One of of my favorite strategies for staying balanced and getting out of my head
A central feature of one of my favorite therapies, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (aka ACT) is the idea that identifying our “values” and moving towards them even when we are experiencing emotional pain is crucial for psychological health and wellbeing.
What are values? They are the things in life that are most important to us. They are what we want our lives to be about. They are different from goals in that they are not things that we can achieve or complete and they are not future destinations. They are the the things that are most important to us in life and in the now. Examples might be: Helping, creativity, our relationship, emotional closeness, caring for others, kindness, independence. One way to tap into your values is to ask, “Who or what is most important to me?” I will write more on identifying values in an upcoming blog post.
So why move towards values even when we feel terrible?