What is Mindfulness?
Written by listed counsellor/psychotherapist: AILEEN ROSS - BACP Senior Accredited and Registered Psychotherapist & Counsellor
3rd September, 20120 Comments
Mindfulness has been described as “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally” by Jon Kabat-Zinn who has been credited with introducing the basic concepts of Mindfulness to the Western world. Since the 1960s he has been at the forefront of transforming Eastern philosophy and meditation practices into Western medicine mind/body work which has helped thousands of people cope better with stress, anxiety, depression, pain and illness.
Mindfulness techniques and approaches are based on Eastern ancient philosophy and practices, but they are not used in therapeutic ways as part of any religious tradition. They are seen as valuable body/mind life skills to develop more skilful and helpful ways of relating to everyday life.
In simple terms, Mindfulness is a way of being and becoming more aware of what is going on within and around us, noticing when we’re on automatic pilot instead of being fully present in the moment.
All of us can have days when we seem to rush around mindlessly on 'auto-pilot' with our 'to do' lists, and our brains concentrate on dozens of things simultaneously as we try to juggle them all at the same time. At those times we may only have a superficial awareness of how we are truly feeling underneath although aware that we feel ‘stressed’ and certainly know by the end of the day how exhausted we feel.
Everyday life distracts our attention from our true selves, pulling our energy in so many different directions that we find ourselves unable to focus, concentrate or make aware choices because we are usually off fire fighting the next challenge or difficulty while believing that solving those parts of our lives will help bring us better happiness.
So if we look more closely at Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness perhaps we can understand it better and apply it to our own individual circumstances.
PAYING ATTENTION ‘ON PURPOSE’
First of all his idea that to be mindful we need to pay attention ‘on purpose’... Mindfulness involves us being conscious of our own awareness. In order to be mindful when perhaps we are feeling ‘irritable’ is to be purposefully aware rather than just vaguely aware of it. Eating mindfully is different to knowing that you are eating. Deliberately bringing things into our consciousness is being mindful, simply being generally aware of something is not.
Eating mindfully for example means creating an environment where we notice all the sensations around eating and our responses. If our mind wanders onto other things, or we notice we’re trying to do other tasks at the same time, such as trying to read, watch TV or text, time, means we are just going through the motions of eating, and need instead to purposefully bring our attention back to the simplicity of eating as a single task.
Without being purposeful in what we do, our thoughts wander around all over the place in an unrestricted way. We make no conscious effort to bring our attention back to what we are trying to focus on. So purposefulness is a very important aspect of mindfulness. Staying with our experiences – eating, breathing, or walking for example, means we are deliberately shaping our minds in a mindful way.
PAYING ATTENTION IN THE PRESENT MOMENT
So often we are thinking about the past or projecting our thoughts into the future. Left to its own devices the mind can wander off into all sorts of thoughts – these could involve anger, craving, depression, revenge, self-pity, guilt, regret etc. As we ruminate over these feelings we reinforce these emotions and cause suffering to ourselves in addition to the original suffering of the event that actually sparked off the emotion.
Mostly these thoughts are about the past or the future. However, in reality the past no longer exists and the future is just a fantasy until it actually happens. The only moment there is to actually experience while it happens - which is the ‘Present Moment’ - seems to be the one we most want to avoid.
So this element of mindfulness is about noticing what is happening to us and around us right now. Mindfulness doesn’t mean we stop thinking about the past or future but when we do we try to be aware in the present moment we are thinking about past or future.
Mindful meditation helps with this process because we are constantly aware of what is rising up in our thoughts moment by moment. We try not to develop those thoughts while noticing them coming and going. By purposefully directing our awareness towards our present moment experience we create space where calmness and serenity flourishes, and away from the detrimental effects negative ruminating has on our lives.
PAYING ATTENTION NON-JUDGMENTALLY
When being mindful we try not to make judgments about experiences seeing them as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ which in everyday life we tend to do. We simply notice the thoughts and then try to let them go. We simply accept whatever arises and observe it mindfully, noticing it arising, passing through us and passing away. Whether it is a pleasant or an unpleasant experience we treat it the same way.
This perhaps is the biggest challenge for us in the 21stcentury where we are virtually programmed to want to move towards the pleasant and away from the unpleasant. We like ‘good’ emotions and dislike ‘bad’ emotions. We want to have ‘nice’ things in our lives and don’t want to experience difficult or challenging experiences which life has a tendency to offer us at some points in our life.
Cognitively, through being mindful we become aware certain experiences are pleasant and some are unpleasant. On an emotional level we learn not to react and create even more unpleasant experiences as a result. We call this ‘equanimity’ – where stillness and balance of mind are achieved.
This can seem very challenging when we experience physical or emotional pain; however it does help those conditions when we are not reinforcing them by constantly thinking about them. And of course all of these elements of mindfulness as defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn take considerable practice, discipline, self-awareness, and self-motivation to achieve. Once started they tend to become a lifelong journey of self-awareness and discovery.
MINDFULNESS IN PRACTICAL TERMS
With our busy 21st century lifestyles and the current economic climate adding to our pressures of everyday living and what the future might hold, many of us are aware of how we rush around, overloading our minds and bodies. We know only too well how these can lead to tension, anxiety, stress, depression, and/or to pain and illness. Few of us know how to handle the difficult emotions and challenging physical symptoms that may result. Some of us turn to doctors or therapists or medication to deal with these uncomfortable sensations which may not always seem on the surface to have a direct connection to anything we ourselves are doing.
By contrast, Mindfulness can bring us to our senses and allow us to live a more fully aware life as it focuses our attention on the present moment . . . and the next . . . moment by moment.
Mindfulness training practice involves developing exercises in breathing deeper and with more awareness; learning how to meditate - sitting, lying down, or moving; learning new gentle mindful movement exercises; and developing a daily mindfulness practice which with increasing awareness shows us how to be in our natural state of mind, focused on what we are choosing to do and fully aware of our choices.
More and more evidence is emerging to show how Mindfulness techniques and practices can benefit people dealing with challenging emotional and physical conditions. Mindfulness-based therapeutic techniques are credited with being able to help people:
Reduce blood pressure and stroke risk
Reduce anxiety and stress
Help lift depression
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Mindfulness can be practiced by anyone of any faith or religion and involves training the mind, not enforcing religious or spiritual belief system. Mindfulness skills may be practiced by anyone, whatever their background and can deepen their human capacity to live more meaningful, balanced and peaceful lives.
The two main Mindfulness approaches developed in recent years as therapeutic strategies of working with people with stress, anxiety and depression are Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), both of which are taught over a number of sessions and are completely secular in nature.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) was developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn and colleagues at the University of Massachusetts Medical School during the late 1970s to help people with a wide range of physical and mental health problems. Since then, thousands of people have completed the basic MBSR programme which is an intensive experiential training in mindfulness and enables participants to access their own resources for responding more effectively to stress, pain and illness.
The teaching of MBSR has been extensively developed in hospitals and clinics for staff, medical students and patients, also in inner-city areas, prisons, companies, law firms, universities, schools and government agencies. Evidence-based research shows MBSR to be effective in helping chronic pain and fatigue, depression, anxiety, life stress, psoriasis, cancer amongst many other conditions, and it also provides a framework in supporting self-care.
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT)
Over the past decade Professor Mark Williams, Dr John Teasdale and Professor Zindel Segal in Britainhave further developed Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) for the treatment of depression, inspired out of the MBSR programme. The aim of MBCT is to help people liable to relapsing depression to stay well. MBCT combines Mindfulness and Cognitive Therapy to introduce skills offering people with relapsing depression a different way of relating to their experience. It can help prevent repeating negative patterns of thinking and feeling that may escalate towards depressive relapse.
MBCT is recommended in guidelines of the National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) within the NHS as a treatment for people who have suffered 3 or more episodes of depression. The Mental Health Foundation has also recently launched a campaign to increase awareness of, and access to mindfulness-based courses across the National Health Service and related services.
So hopefully this article has helped explained what Mindfulness is, and how mindfulness-based approaches can be used by individuals from all walks of life, and with many varying physical and emotional conditions. They can be used by therapists to work with clients with many different emotional or physical conditions, and can also benefit therapists themselves to keep emotionally healthy working with clients and fit for practice.
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