Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy
7th May, 2010
What is Mindfulness?
Many of us spend much of our time focused either on the past or on the future, paying very little attention to what is happening in the present, this means that for much of the time we may be unaware of much of our experience. Mindfulness is the practise of staying in the moment, spending more time present to ourselves, and our surroundings. Not trying to change things but trying instead to accept the way that things are for better or for worse.
Definitions of Mindfulness
Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness.
“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; On purpose,
in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
Kabat-Zinn, if you haven’t heard of him, is a famous teacher of mindfulness meditation and the founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Centre.
First of all, mindfulness involves paying attention “on purpose”. Mindfulness involves a conscious direction of our awareness. We sometimes talk about “mindfulness” and “awareness” as if they were interchangeable terms, but that’s not a good habit to get into. In order to be mindful a person has to be purposefully aware of themselves, not just vaguely and habitually aware. Knowing that you are eating is not the same as eating mindfully.
Let’s take that example of eating and look at it a bit further. When we are purposefully aware of eating, we are consciously being aware of the process of eating. We’re deliberately noticing the sensations and our responses to those sensations. We’re noticing the mind wandering, and when it does wander we purposefully bring our attention back.
When we’re eating unmindfully we may in theory be aware of what we’re doing, but we’re probably thinking about a hundred and one other things at the same time, and we may also be watching TV, talking, or reading — or even all three! So a very small part of our awareness is absorbed with eating, and we may be only barely aware of the physical sensations and even less aware of our thoughts and emotions.
Because we’re only dimly aware of our thoughts, they wander in an unrestricted way. There’s no conscious attempt to bring our attention back to our eating. There’s no purposefulness.
This purposefulness is a very important part of mindfulness. Having the purpose of staying with our experience, whether that’s the breath, or a particular emotion, or something as simple as eating, means that we are actively shaping the mind.
Left to itself the mind wanders through all kinds of thoughts — including thoughts expressing anger, craving, depression, revenge, self-pity, etc. As we indulge in these kinds of thoughts we reinforce those emotions in our hearts and cause ourselves to suffer.
By purposefully directing our awareness away from such thoughts and towards some “anchor” we decrease their effect on our lives and we create instead a space of freedom where calmness and contentment can grow.
Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy has been developed with the aim of reducing relapse and recurrence for those who are vulnerable to episodes of depression.
It is needed because the risk of relapse and recurrence in those who have been depressed is very high, and the amount of triggering required for each subsequent episode becomes lower each time depression recurs. Research by Zindel Segal (Toronto), Mark Williams (Wales) and John Teasdale (Cambridge) has been investigating how meditation may help people stay well after recovery from depression.
Their work is based on the observation that, once a person has recovered from an episode of depression, a relatively small amount of negative mood can trigger a large amount of negative thoughts (eg. ‘I am a failure’, ‘I am weak’, ‘I am worthless’) together with bodily sensations of weakness or fatigue or unexplained pain. Both the negative thoughts and the fatigue often seem out of proportion to the situation. Patients who believed they had recovered may find themselves feeling ‘back to square one’. They end up inside a rumination loop that constantly asks ‘what has gone wrong?’, ‘why is this happening to me?’, ‘where will it all end?’. Such rumination feels to the person as if it ought to help find an answer, but it only succeeds in prolonging and deepening the mood disturbance.
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