Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness can be defined in many different ways, but it is primarily an exercise used to cultivate non judgmental awareness of what is occurring in the present moment. It essentially shines a light on everything taking place in our consciousness.
First, we have our thoughts, swirling through our minds like a tornado, often with criticism and judgment.
Then we have our feelings, pulsing through our bodies in constant interaction with our thoughts. Are we sad, happy, angry, scared, etc?
Now add in sensory perceptions, bodily sensations, and we can see just how crowded this space can get.
Simply put, mindfulness helps us to create more space. It is the flexing of our ‘letting-go’ muscle as we separate from our stories and sit with what is.
How do we become aware?
This is nothing that can be accomplished in a short period of time, nor can it be explained in a few paragraphs, but let’s start with the technique of one-pointedness.
To be clear, this is not a science or religion. It is merely a mechanism that may be helpful for beginners to cultivate a practice; the tip of an iceberg in a sea of thousands.
To begin, pick a single object of awareness. Many people choose the breath, as it is a source we carry with us at all times.
Think of the breath as an anchor on a boat in the middle of the ocean. The boat is our mind, the ocean is the universe, and the waves are our thoughts. Without an anchor, the current is going to push and pull the boat every which way until, eventually, it sinks. But with a steady anchor in place, we can be grounded and keep our balance amidst the waves.
The practice of mindfulness is not about avoiding the current (as the current itself is unavoidable) but rather being aware of the current, the boat, the anchor, and the ocean at the same time. If we wish to utilize our breath as an anchor, we simply acknowledge this utilization and continue observing.
What does non-judgmental awareness feel like?
When first building a practice, many people ask questions like, 'how will I know when I get there?' or 'What does it feel like?'
First, it is important to note that we do not try to ‘get’ anywhere in mindfulness. While many people do report profound or transcendental experiences, it does NOT always occur. The more we try to attain what some refer to as higher levels of consciousness, the further we deviate from the present moment.
Mindfulness is simply becoming more aware of our thoughts and feelings while we are experiencing them. As long as we are noticing our thoughts as they arise without passing judgment, we are being mindful.
Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.
How do we know if we are practicing the right way?
A common reaction people have to mindfulness early on is that they are doing it wrong, or that they performed badly because their minds wandered too much.
It is important to understand that a wandering mind is not at all indicative of an unhealthy practice. On the contrary, the awareness of a wandering mind is a key part of the practice. Rather than feel discouraged when we find ourselves lost in thought, consider a sense of gratitude for the awareness that led to the discovery in the first place.
Remember that cultivating a mindfulness practice is a lifelong journey, and ANY increase in our level of awareness is progress.
How does mindfulness benefit our everyday lives?
While mindfulness practice dates back thousands of years, the underlying themes are just as relevant today. As our lives grow busier and more complicated, human beings have never had a greater need for balance and equanimity.
Deep breathing can calm us during a busy day at the office. Non judgmental awareness can help us be more patient with ourselves and our families. Meditative techniques such as one-pointedness can increase our levels of focus and comprehension.
From a scientific standpoint, mindfulness helps the brain create new neural pathways, a process known as neuroplasticity. The more we practice, the more we are able to restructure and reorganize our minds. As a result, we may find ourselves feeling more balanced, clear-minded, and resilient.
How do we deal with thought interruptions?
Despite our greatest efforts, discursive thoughts and negative feelings will often drift into consciousness. When this occurs, it is important to treat ourselves with loving kindness and compassion rather than frustration, judgment, or shame. Remember that even the most dedicated mindfulness teachers experience thought interruptions throughout their practice.
Ironically, the words loving kindness and compassion often evoke a disparaging response, perhaps due to the hallmarky nature of the verbiage. We may feel a little silly when starting a mindfulness practice. Thoughts like ‘I don’t have time for this’ or ‘this feels stupid’ may enter our awareness, and before we know it, we are engaged in a divisive battle with ourselves.
If and when such thoughts do occur, mindfulness teaches us to simply bring awareness to the conflict. Once we become more acclimated to this process, we may begin to take on the role of a neutral observer with more consistency.
What are some common misconceptions about the practice?
Many people ask how they can block out certain thoughts during mindfulness practice, specifically those that cause pain. While this ideology may sound safe or even appealing, it is the antithesis of our intention.
Mindfulness teaches us not to block out anything, not even the overtly negative thoughts that may emerge. On the contrary, we are opening up and observing as thoughts and feelings enter and exit our consciousness.
Another misconception is the use of pressure to motivate a mindfulness practice. Despite what many of us have grown accustomed to, it is possible to be persistent without striving for perfection.
Mindfulness is not a game or competition. Yes, we want to be committed, but there is no need to pressure ourselves with expectations.
Narratives like ‘I must go 5 minutes without attaching to a thought’ or ‘If I meditate all day then I will be rewarded with enlightenment’ will not aid our practice in any way.
If these thoughts do happen to come up, we simply notice their presence and continue observing. They will likely leave as quickly as they arrived.
Mindfulness is the awareness of knowing we are doing something while we are doing it. A simple example of mindfulness may be becoming aware of a feeling like anger in the moment, then closing our eyes and shifting that awareness to the breath.
Meditation is the practice of using a specified technique to cultivate mindfulness in our everyday lives. It may be more of a regimented routine such as unplugging from our phones and sitting in silence for 30 minutes in the same place, at the same time, every day.
The ideology behind both practices is about the same; we are slowing down, increasing awareness, and creating space. It is common for those who engage in mindfulness to cultivate a meditation practice as well, but not required.
What is the difference between mindfulness and meditation?
Mindfulness Based Therapy can be Effective in Treating and/or Managing the Following:
You Might Expect to Work on the following in Mindfulness Based Therapy:
Cognitive and emotional identification
Understanding impermanence (momentariness)
Recognizing the role of ego
Unplugging from screens
Bringing awareness to sensory perceptions & bodily sensations
Practicing self kindness & empathy
Differentiating between thoughts pertaining to past, present, and future
Finding time to spend with yourself and others in an engaged, authentic manner
If we can manage to stop thinking about the past or future and sink into the present, the self seems to disappear…when mental time travel turns obsessive, it fosters the backward looking gaze of depression and the forward pitch of anxiety.