What's Up with Mindfulness?
Updated: Sep 29, 2019
You’ve probably heard the word “mindfulness” being tossed around quite a bit. If you practice it already, then you know what’s the deal with it and you probably value it enough to keep going.
If the concept of mindfulness is a stranger to you, however, maybe you wonder what’s the fuss with it. Today’s post aims to elucidate mindfulness, explain why it may be worth your while and also give a few simple examples about how to make it an everyday habit for you.
From my point of view, mindfulness is an essential goal of therapy as a whole, because I believe therapy aims to the active process of becoming fully aware of your life, yourself and your circumstances. After all, if you are not aware of what is, how can you go about making desirable changes?
What Is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the quality of awareness and presence that a person can bring to everyday living.
Being mindful is the opposite of being mindless- living life in autopilot, automatically, habitually, and without realizing what it is that you are experiencing. It is also the opposite of obsessively clinging to the present moment, as if wanting to stop it from changing.
Being mindful thus means surrendering to the flow and flux of life, as if each new moment is a new beginning that you aim to live with eyes wide open, fully attentive, aware, and awake.
So being mindful essentially means being fully aware and present in whatever experience lies ahead of you; immersing yourself in it fully, without any intention to modify it, suppress it, avoid it, reject it or block it- but in contrast allowing it to be just what it is.
Mindfulness is therefore the act of consciously focusing the mind in the present moment without judgement or attachment to it.
It is the intentional process of observing, describing and participating in reality nonjudgementally, in the moment and with effectiveness.
Let's have a look at each of these elements of the above definition of mindfulness:
Observing= Attending to events without trying to change them, experiencing them with awareness in the moment
Describing= By recognizing and describing our experiences mindfully, we gain better self-control and we can subsequently learn to regulate ourselves better.
Participating= Entering completely into activities of the present moment, instead of being half-there or multitasking.
Nonjudgementally= Assuming a nonevaluative approach towards your experiences, not judging if something is good or bad or whether it should really be different. Our interpretations of events that happen is at the root of our suffering, therefore if we stop making assumptions and instead look at the facts, without further evaluative meaning, we will immediately find some relief. Being nonjudgmental means allowing something to be exactly what it is, without intention to change it. Radical acceptance is one application of nonjudgmentalness.
It is humanly natural that we are not constantly fully present. Going from and coming back to mindfulness is the actual practice. That’s why mindfulness is not really a destination, but a process, a journey that you participate in.
Is Meditation the Same as Mindfulness?
Mindfulness originates in Eastern practices and philosophy, where meditation is also an inherent part. Yet mindfulness and meditation are not the same, though closely related.
Meditation implies mindfulness,
but not the other way around.
You can be mindful without meditating,
but you can’t meditate without being mindful.
Also, there’s a spiritual component to meditation, as all religions include contemplative prayers or meditations as part of their practice. Yet you really don’t have to be spiritual or religious in order to apply mindfulness in your life. What suffices is your intention to live your life to the fullest, and attentively observe what is going on within you and around you.
Why is Mindfulness Beneficial?
There’s ample scientific evidence of the benefits of mindfulness, and nowadays most therapeutic approaches implement mindfulness one way or another.
Mindfulness has been found to improve well-being, quality of relationships, emotional regulation and distress tolerance. It is related to decreased dysphoric mood, anxiety, and depression (among many many others). Below I will sum the 3 most prominent reasons why you would benefit from mindfulness, starting today.
1. Reduce Suffering and Increase Happiness
Undoubtedly, there are always going to be problems in your life. Pain is not optional, but suffering is. Mindfulness is a way to keep you detached from suffering. You can choose to let go of negative experiences by being mindful of those. Similarly, you can choose to attend to positive experiences and thereby increase their intensity, by becoming mindful of those.
Quite a lot of our problems stem from the fact that we overanalyze and focus our attention on those, without expressing appreciation and gratitude about what’s actually going well in our lives.
Mindfulness can greatly help with this!
2. Increase your Control over your Mind
Having better control of your mind essentially means having better control of your attention. You can train your brain to attend to whatever you need to, at any given moment. With mindfulness, you are making your mind your servant, instead of being at its merciless control. We are often victims of our own minds and emotions, allowing them to toss us around however they please, as if we have no power over them. Becoming mindful actually means reclaiming control of your mind.
To illustrate this better, I invite you to think of mindfulness of emotions. The steps to becoming mindful of your emotions include giving yourself the time to stop, recognize, and describe them. Label them and see what it is you are exactly feeling right now, instead of acting on those emotions on impulse.
So when you take a step back and label your emotions, you actually give your mind some time to decide how you will further act, instead of automatically acting on an urge. Practicing Opposite to Emotion Action is an emotion regulation exercise, that is based on first becoming mindful of what it is that you’re feeling , and then doing the opposite than what your emotion dictates you to.
3. Experience Reality As It Is
Sometimes we are in denial of reality, wishing it was different than what it is or holding on to an idealized image of the Past, or ruminating about the Future.
Living in the Past or the Future means not being here, in the Present, while all you have is really just here-and-now. Mindfulness therefore allows you to experience reality as it is.
By doing so and entering reality fully, you can also distinguish what parts of your reality you would like to change or improve. Personal progress and growth is really impossible without mindfulness. You have to be able to see and understand where you are now, in order to be able to make a plan for where you’re going next.
2 Ways and 2 Attitudes of Practicing Mindfulness
(as well as many examples!)
There are 2 ways of practicing mindfulness: Opening the Mind and Focusing the Mind. Below you can find a few examples of each.
Similarly, there are 2 attitudes that you can assume while practicing mindfulness: Taking Distance/ Pulling Back , and Moving Forward/ Immersing into the experience and becoming what is being watched.
Taking Distance/ Pulling Back is useful when we use mindfulness to find relief from negative thoughts and emotions, when we want to step away from our mind’s inner noise. It is more related to the Opening the Mind practices.
In contrast, Moving Forward/ Immersing into the experience can be helpful when we want to fully be into an experience and zone out of everything else, but the experience itself. It is conceptually closer to the Focusing the Mind practices.
Examples can be:
a mindful walk in nature
mindful washing of the dishes
mindful workout at the gym
mindful lovemaking with your partner etc.
1. Opening the Mind
Opening the Mind means observing whatever comes into your awareness. Simply noticing thoughts, emotions and sensations as they come, without holding onto, pursuing, analyzing or further engaging with them in any way.
Opening the mind can be difficult, because it is very easy to get caught up in passing thoughts. But like with anything else, it gets better with practice!
Imagine that your thoughts/emotions/sensations are just luggage onto a conveyor belt. Imagine watching them from a distance, but without jumping onto the conveyor belt with any of the luggage that you see.
Harbor from a Hill
Imagine sitting on top of a hill with an overview of a harbor below at the sea. Imagine that your thoughts are all of these boats entering and leaving the harbor, but without becoming a passenger on any of those. Just letting them in and out of the harbor effortlessly and as an observer.
Imagine that you are on a helicopter and watching yourself and your experiences from high up in the sky. You see whatever is going on down below, but without affecting it or interacting with in any way. Just observe whatever happens.
You are a passenger on a train. In the same way that you observe the moving landscape out of the window, you can also observe your own experiences, allowing them to come and go, realizing they are in constant flow, without clinging onto any specific one.
2. Focusing the Mind
Focusing the Mind means practicing mindfulness by focusing your attention on specific internal or external events.
Focus your attention on your breath: Observe the sensations associated with every inhalation, and every exhalation. If passing thoughts catch your attention, notice them and then gently bring back your attention to your breath. It can help to remind yourself, that this is for “just this breath”. During every breath. Just one! Keep coming back to it.
Counting Breaths: Focus your attention on counting your breaths. With each breath in and out, visualize a giant number flashing in front of your eyes. Each breath cycle is a number (1,2,3,…). When you reach your 10th breath, come back again from 10 to 1.
Mantra breathing: Relevant to the above method of counting breaths, focus your attention on one word with each breath. This can be anything really, but preferably words that you would like to resonate with more and more, such as “calm”, “relax”, “bliss”, “happy” etc. All your existence is focused on just this one word, for just one breath.
Guided Mindfulness Exercises: Your therapist can guide you through those. This is just focusing on your imagination and things you can visualize. There’s ample examples on Youtube as well, such as The Mountain, or the Inner Observer.
Mindfulnes of Thoughts: Nonjudgementally observe your thoughts. Just notice whatever thought is coming, observe it with kindness and curiosity, but do not further engage with it. Don’t analyze it, question it, or try to stop it. Just let it be what it is, and then let it go as gently.
Mindfulness of Emotions: Observe what emotions you are feeling right now. Recognize them and label them. If you are under emotional distress, this practice of labeling can actually reduce your suffering- because you are observing the emotions and the act of labeling, takes away some of their intensity. Don’t try to manipulate your emotions, or evaluate them as good or bad. Just listen, feel, recognize, name them. If upset, it is helpful to silently repeat to yourself “This too shall pass”. Because it will, eventually- just like everything else.
Take a look at the Wheel of Emotions below, a useful aid to practise recognizing what you feel.
Focus your attention on external stimuli, such as:
Visual stimuli: Align your whole being with things you can see. This can be a painting, your hand, a leaf, your pet, another person’s face, the scenery around you, the sunrise or sunset- anything you see around you. As long as you focus your gaze entirely and utterly on it, as if you see it for the very first time.
Auditory stimuli: What sounds do you hear? Just capture any small distant sound you can for a while. Or fully listen to a musical piece without doing anything else at all.
54321 exercise: This is most definitely one of my favorite external focusing mindfulness exercises. All my clients know my love for this one. I consider it one of the most definite ways to ground you back to your senses and to yourself, out of your mind’s chatter, an immediate relief from intense emotions and an effective tool of emotional regulation. Another name for it could be “Connect to your Senses”.
What you do is focusing your attention fully on 5 things you see, 5 things you hear, and 5 things you feel on your body. Then 4 of each, 3 of each, 2 of each and just 1 of each. It doesn’t matter if the stimuli repeat themselves, as long as you observe each of the stimuli with your complete awareness and attention. At the end of the exercise, whatever was troubling you prior to it will most definitely have subdued, and will now seem less intense.
In my view, there’s only benefits to gain from practicing mindfulness.
Essentially, practicing mindfulness means consciously choosing to experience life to the fullest and embrace What Is. Besides, by being mindful, we collect information in order to change.
Start today; Be Here Now.