Mindfulness: What is it and why do it?
More and more therapists are learning about mindfulness and teaching it to their clients. Yet, it was not long ago that those of us teaching psychology at mainstream universities, were studying about near eastern practices on the hush, hush behind closed doors out of fear of being labelled flaky. However, scientific research since the late 70’s has increasingly proven that mindfulness has multiple positive benefits. Practicing mindfulness can decrease your blood pressure, calm your mind, make you less emotionally reactive, increase your patience, help you to be more accepting and less judgmental, increase your mental clarity, give you greater self control and much more.
What is mindfulness? Quite simply, it refers to intentionally becoming aware of your present experience. Whether you are driving your car, talking to someone, walking to work or eating a meal, mindfulness means being “fully present” to whatever it is you are doing with all of your senses. In this fast paced world of instant communication through technology, multi-tasking and quick take-out McDonald’s service, most of us are either so busy making plans for the future or mulling over the past that we are anywhere but here! In fact, we are so used to being somewhere else that to learn to be more present requires a rewiring of the brain. We are learning, though, that the brain is malleable and indeed one can build new pathways if one so chooses. It takes some practice but one can learn to become more present and it need not be onerous or time consuming. I suggest to clients that they choose some routine activity that they do on a regular basis such as brushing their teeth, taking a shower, cleaning up the kitchen, tucking their children into bed or making coffee in the morning in order to practice becoming fully present for just 2 to 3 minutes every day. My personal favorite way of practicing mindfulness is this: Instead of becoming thoroughly frustrated when I hit a red light while driving, I now use those few minutes to drop my shoulders, lean back into my seat and just allow myself to notice the color of the sky, the shapes of the trees, the feeling of the air against my skin, what I am thinking and how I am feeling at that very moment. “Buddhify” is a fabulous iPhone app that asks: What are you doing? It then provides over 80 different guided narratives to assist you in becoming mindful of whatever it is you are doing whether it is waking up, taking a work break, walking in the city, trying to fall asleep, dealing with difficult emotions or waiting around in the grocery store. What is lovely about mindfulness practice is that it allows you to experience the richness of the present. In doing so, one discovers the extraordinary in ordinary things and life becomes an experience of wonder.
There are a variety of different mindfulness practices that you can learn in order to become more present to yourself just the way you are. Different practices involve the body, the breath and/or your thoughts. Whatever the focus may be, the idea is to be able to pay attention to your direct experience with complete acceptance and without judgement. For instance, you can learn to do a body scan where you tune in to all the different sensations and feelings that are happening in your body noticing wherever there is tension or relaxation. You can do this with a yoga posture as well or you can walk a labyrinth being mindful of every sensation as you put one foot in front of the other. Alternatively, you can learn to pay attention to your breath as it gently flows in and out at the tip of your nostril. Or you can become an astute observer of your thoughts whether positive or negative, simply observing them and letting them go without investment or analysis. Unfortunately, too many people have been turned off sitting meditation where one tries to observe whatever thoughts are occurring without judgment. This is often because at first it can be very unpleasant to realize how many negative thoughts automatically appear. This very common experience has sometimes been referred to as “the trance of unworthiness.”
In the West, we have discovered that people tend to be quite self critical in their thinking. In cases where the negative self talk is very intrusive, it can be very helpful to start out by doing more directed mindfulness training. There are more focused mindfulness practices where one can deliberately focus one’s attention on any number of themes including loving kindness, compassion, acceptance, or forgiveness for both self and others. In addition, any visual image or sound or movement can be used to assist in calling forth particular feelings such as a sense of safety, contentment, relaxation, non-judgement or belonging and then just sitting with these. Thinking of someone from whom you have felt unconditional acceptance, remembering a sunset, listening to music or focusing on something from your childhood that brought you joy, can all be very powerful catalysts to bringing forth particular thoughts, sensations and emotions. You do not have to sit still nor do you have to practice for hours in order to reap the benefits of mindfulness practice. Actually, we are learning that much shorter periods of mindfulness practice can be quite effective and that 8 minutes of meditation, 3 times a week is sufficient to make very significant gains. I always encourage my clients to set small goals at first that are achievable. If expectations are too high and unreasonable, often one just ends up giving up and feeling inadequate. All it takes is a few minutes a day and as one client put it: “Even a brief period of mindfulness can feel like a month long holiday for the brain!”
Know that it is commonplace when one starts exploring sitting in silence to feel uncomfortable and to become aware of feelings of agitation and discomfort. It helps to approach mindfulness meditation with a sense of lightness, warmth, friendliness and curiosity. Mindfulness meditation is a far less arduous process when one can learn to bring not just attention but a caring attention to the process. As a mother lovingly cradles her child, so can one learn to create a compassionate and nurturing holding environment. When one sits to observe one’s inner world, a good question to ask is: “How can I be with myself as if I was with a dear friend?” In order to be effective, mindfulness needs to have heart. Sometimes the feelings that arise may be negative and at other times, positive. The key is to accept whatever the feelings may be just as they are without judgment or over-identification. The understanding is that only through being present to all of our feelings can we truly experience joy and the richness of life. In Buddhist psychology, there is no separate word for heart and mind. And so it is…there is as much “heartfulness” as mindfulness in mindfulness practice.