From the Jackson Hole News & Guide Column Sound Mind
What is mindfulness? Why all the hype, and how does it help people?
We hear about it all over the place. It is touted as a significant development in mental health practice for pain, depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder, borderline personality disorder and many other conditions.
Not only that, there are mindfulness centers and clinics, as well as educational and training programs for business leaders, schools and groups. Flitner Strategies hosted one such program last week, a one-day intensive “Rewiring Leadership” course infused with mindfulness practices.
Focusing on the now
Given the interest and support across such a variety of areas, including spiritual and philosophical, it seems safe to say there must be at least something to mindfulness that is important.
Indeed. But what exactly is it?
To be clear, I am addressing mindfulness, not meditation. Those are related but separate practices.
To be mindful is to be present, deliberately focused, paying attention to the moment and the situation you are in. In other words you maintain your awareness of what is going on around you, internally and externally, so you can regulate thoughts and emotions, rather than being on autopilot and being more reactive. Mindfulness allows you to be aware of what is truly going on as separate from your assumptions about or perceptions of a situation.
With the world as busy as it is, most of us are rarely mindful. We get caught up in distracting thoughts, assumptions about what is happening in the moment, trying to anticipate the future. And many people are beating themselves up for mistakes made in the past.
The following are some good examples of not being mindful, as adapted from the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale developed by Kirk Warren Brown and Richard Ryan:
- Rushing through activities without paying attention
- Inattentiveness that leads to mistakes
- Failure to notice tension or discomfort
- Forgetting people’s names as soon as you meet them
- Reading the same page in a book over and over because wandering thoughts compete with your attention.
When not kept in check our mind wanders into worrying about the future or judging the past. We tend to develop “thinking errors,” turning thoughts into facts. Those “facts” then drive our reactions. Mindfulness gives us time to look at the real facts of the situation and check any inferences we might have.
Many people who seek therapy may be preoccupied with the past or consumed with worry about future events. That constant cycle prolongs the suffering they experience. It goes without saying that most of us will feel better if we are less upset by unpleasant events in our lives. However, life tends to bring us the bad as well as the good. So how can being mindful help us feel less disturbed by our experiences?
Mindfulness is a skill that must be learned and practiced but can enable you to be less reactive and judgmental in any situation. It becomes a way of really looking at each situation for just what it is, be it positive, negative or neutral. That allows you to effectively solve problems and feel less distressed.
Practice is important
When we practice mindfulness the brain’s “fight or flight” center, the area associated with fear and emotion in response to a perceived threat, appears to shrink. As that happens it allows the part of the brain responsible for higher-order functions — focus, concentration, decision-making and problem-solving, for example — to become larger.
In other words, mindfulness practice can replace our more primal responses with more thoughtful ones.
You can begin to practice mindful skills every day through some simple steps. Some people do it through meditation, but all sorts of activities are useful. Here are some:
- Take a few minutes each day and focus on your breathing. This can be especially useful during intense situations or interactions.
- Be aware of your body. Take note of physical sensations. Do a body scan and notice any areas of tension or pain and try to relax them.
- Pay close attention to your senses — smell, sound and touch — that you may not notice otherwise.
- Notice your thoughts as they pass. Try to think of them as clouds in the sky, being aware of but not attaching to any one thought.
Another good way to practice is to concentrate on one task. Focus only on that task and the sensations experienced with it. A great activity that you can use daily is going for a mindful walk while paying attention to the sounds you hear and the sensations from the environment.
Practicing just a few minutes each day can train your brain to be more aware. That can lead to many changes in your day-to-day regulation of emotions or stress.
Keep in mind that it is a skill and that to do it well you must practice. If you begin and notice that your mind has wandered, notice the wandering and turn your attention back to the activity.
Be patient with yourself and be well.