What is “mindfulness?”
“Mindfulness is: paying attention, on purpose, in a particular way, in the present moment, with non-judging awareness.”
“Mindfulness is being aware of what we’re doing while we’re doing it.”
“The root [of mindfulness] is experiencing the itch as well as the urge to scratch, and then not acting it out.”
“In mindfulness we learn to awaken from unconscious absorption in thoughts and feelings.”
The heart of mindfulness is the cultivation of attention to “things as they are,” with an attitude of non-judging awareness.
“Non-judging awareness” means not being caught up in judging, not believing everything we think. Mindfulness training leads to an ability to witness and get curious about difficulties, rather than withdrawing from, ignoring, or struggling with them.
Mindfulness involves training the mind to know what it’s paying attention to – starting with observing our breathing and body sensations. Body sensations are called the “neutral ground of our attention.” Thinking about what we’re thinking, or thinking about what we’re feeling (emotionally) can quickly lead to being lost in more thinking and feeling. But if we say to ourselves “How is the back of my right calf feeling right now?” there is an anchoring effect on thinking and feeling – slowing it down, allowing the mind to rest. Our mind can rest on a free-wheel for a while, allowing a re-routing of negative thinking patterns. After a break, thinking often becomes more positive, and can be surprisingly original. New possibilities for responding arise, increasing mental and emotional flexibility and resilience.
What is “Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction?”
Thirty years of research on the physical and mental health effects of a program called “Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction,” or MBSR, demonstrates that mindfulness practices, when done consistently, reduce suffering, improve resilience and stress tolerance, physical and mental health, kindness and compassion, happiness and peace of mind.
The practices taught in MBSR programs derive from teachings that are over 2500 years old. They were secularized, modernized and brought into the health care mainstream by the pioneering scientist Jon Kabat-Zinn, and his colleagues at the University of Massachusetts, beginning in the late 1970s. Mindfulness practices include: awareness of breathing, body scanning, yoga, qigong, and sitting and walking meditation; attitudinal practices, including non-judging awareness and don’t-know mind; and affective practices, including gratitude, lovingkindness, and compassion practices.
MBSR programs are generally taught in eight 2.5-hour sessions and an all-day retreat. They are now offered in many hundreds of clinics and hospitals in the US and around the world. Increasingly, MBSR is taught in elementary, middle, and high schools, graduate and professional training schools, including medical schools and law schools, corporations – like Google, Apple, law firms, insurance companies, and nonprofit organizations. When combined with psychotherapy, MBSR training proves to be very grounding for people with psychological difficulties of all kinds. It is a wonderful adjunct to therapy for people wanting to participate actively in freeing themselves from suffering. *
Mindfulness for Psychological Health
MBSR has provided the foundation for an ever-growing field of therapies that apply mindfulness practices and concepts to established methods of psychotherapy. These new therapeutic applications of mindfulness are making emotional regulation and self-management possible for the first time for people with the most challenging psychological conditions.
Some of the most prominent of these applications are: Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy for Depression (MBCT), Mindfulness-based Relapse Prevention for Substance Use (MBRP), Mindfulness-based Eating Awareness Training (MB-EAT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Extensive ongoing research demonstrates their remarkable benefits.
How Might I Start to Practice Mindfulness?
The world-renowned Vietnamese mindfulness teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, says that the practice of stopping is the first practice of mindfulness. It can help us to interrupt and break unconscious habits that keep us stuck in reactivity, and cause suffering to others and ourselves. Learning how to pay attention to what we are doing while we are doing it – noticing what we are experiencing in our bodies, thoughts, and emotions – requires the practice of inner as well as outer stopping.
Imagine you’re getting ready to ride a horse. Your foot is in one stirrup, one hand is on the horn of the saddle – but before you can take your seat or pick up the reins, the horse takes off at a wild gallop! You’re holding on for dear life, and then hear someone shouting to you from the side of the road: “Where are you going?!” You yell: “I don’t know – ask the horse!”
This galloping horse represents what we call habit energy – the reactive thinking/feeling patterns that are part of our genetic inheritance, and have been established and taken root throughout our lives. Unconscious tightening and other body sensations fuel habit energy. When present, whenever we’re reacting, it can drive us like that galloping horse, and we aren’t in control of ourselves.
By stopping, we can regain our seat and pick up our (inner) reins. Breathing with conscious awareness, briefly focusing attention on non-thinking – by scanning body sensations and stretching mindfully – it is possible to interrupt the habit energy, calm and soothe distress, and observe thoughts and emotions with greater objectivity. Mindfulness teaches us to respond instead of react to stress in our lives.
One simple mindful stoppingpractice that can be done anywhere, anytime, is called conscious breathing.
Try this: notice where you feel physical sensations as you breathe in and out. It is often easiest to feel this on the inside of the nostrils – but it’s important to find out where you feel it, if you can. Now, say to yourself: “breathing in, I know I’m breathing in” as you breathe in, feeling the in-breath; and “breathing out, I know I’m breathing out” as you breathe out, feeling the out-breath. Do this three to five times. Now, check: Are you focused here, in the present moment, or in the past, or the future? What are you feeling in your body? What thoughts can you identify? What emotions or moods can you name?
* Note: MBSR instructors are required to have a deeply-established and daily practice of mindfulness meditation, to have attended at least two long silent retreats, and to incorporate mindfulness in their lives. Therapists wanting to learn about mindfulness to enhance their work must understand that mindfulness is not something that can be learned in a weekend and then applied in therapy.
For more information about training in Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction:
A few good books:
Mindfulness and Psychotherapy, Christopher K. Germer, Ronald D. Siegel, and Paul R. Fulton, Editors.
Wherever You Go, There You Are, Jon Kabat-Zinn
When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chödrön
Transformation and Healingand Peace Is Every Step,Thich Nhat Hanh
Mindfulness of Thinking and Attitudinal Practices – by Renee Burgard
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