What is mindfulness?
- • “Mindfulness” is a word from the English language meaning awareness. It is a quality or state of mind that can be cultivated and promotes psychological well-being or robustness.
- • Mindfulness is the practice of becoming fully aware of each moment and ones experience of that moment.
- • The skills associated with mindfulness are psychological and behavioural versions of meditation practices from Eastern spiritual training. Whilst mindfulness is a part of many religious traditions, you can practise mindfulness regardless of your religious background.
- • Mindfulness is now commonly used in the treatment of chronic physical pain and in stress management programmes and is increasingly being used in the treatment of emotional disorders.
- • As with any skill, mindfulness needs to be practised regularly in order for you to fully appreciate its benefits.
Practising mindfulness is done using a variety of core skills we can call
“what” and “how” skills.
“Just notice the experience”
- • Observing requires you to pay full attention to an event or emotion.
- • Observing is sensing and noticing without labelling or judging an experience.
- • Rather than leaving a situation or ending an experience if it becomes unpleasant, observing is staying with that feeling. It is allowing yourself to experience whatever is happening and being fully aware of the reality around you.
Imagine that your mind is the sky and thoughts, sensations and/
or feelings are clouds. Watch your thoughts coming and going.
Gently notice each cloud as it drifts by.
- 2. Describing
- • Describing is using words to represent what you have observed and acknowledging when a feeling or thought arises.
- • It is putting an experience into words and describing to yourself what is happening.
- • It is helpful to distinguish between objective reality and subjective evaluations or judgements when describing.
You are in a situation that feels uncomfortable to you and you do not know what to do. Rather than thinking, “I can’t do this” and believing this to be true, if you were accurately describing you would acknowledge, “A thought ‘I can’t do this’ has come into my mind”.
This act of describing can make the thought less powerful, as we stop treating thoughts as unquestioned truths but rather as things to observe.
Sit quietly on your own and hold a pebble (it may help to close your eyes). Notice sensations such as the smoothness or coolness of the pebble. Silently describe what you are sensing. Notice any judgements you may make, e.g. whether it is pleasant or unpleasant.
- 3. Participating
- • Participating is entering into your experiences and letting yourself get involved in the moment rather than avoiding, suppressing or trying to escape from unpleasant feelings.
- • You may have felt able to do this in positive states of mind such as when you are dancing, playing or being creative.
An example of the importance of participating can be seen when people experience bereavement. All of us experience loss at difficult times in our life, particularly loss of a loved one. There is evidence that shows those who allow themselves to grieve (and thus participate in the feeling of grief) recover more quickly from the bereavement than those who avoid or suppress grief.
When you find yourself in a situation that is irritating or frustrating, e.g. stuck in a traffic jam or delayed on public transport, you may have urges to fight the situation or wish it would be different. Resisting how things are usually compounds the problem; instead, try to accept and willingly participate in the experience.
Mindfulness “how” skills
These skills have to do with how one observes, describes and participates.
- 4. Non-judgemental stance
- • Having a non-judgemental stance involves attending, describing or participating without judgement, focusing on the reality of how things are rather than views, opinions or evaluations.
- • Even when you find yourself judging, do not judge your judging!
Judgement Vs Non-judgement I am stupid I do not understand this information
I am fat I am not feeling happy with the way I look
I am pathetic I am feeling upset by what my friend has said
Have you noticed yourself making any judgements like this? What would be non-judgemental alternative thoughts or viewpoints?
- 5. Being one-mindful
- • Essentially, this is focusing on only one thing at a time. When you are eating, eat. When you are planning, plan. Do each thing with all your attention, and, if actions or thoughts distract you, let go of them and go back to doing what you are doing.
We are often not in one mind; you may be sitting in this session whilst at the same time worrying about something that is happening tomorrow or driving whilst thinking through what has happened at work. To practise one-mindfulness, next time you drive the car, concentrate only on driving. If you find your thoughts drifting, bring them back to focus on driving - but do not berate yourself for this! Being mindful takes practice.
Next time you have a drink, make your drink mindfully. Sit or stand for a few minutes and give the experience of drinking 100% of your attention.
- 6. Being effective
- • This involves focusing on what works and what needs to be done in a situation, rather than what you think should be done or what is the right/wrong response.
- • Act as skilfully as you can, meeting the needs of the situation you are actually in, not how you wish it to be.
- • Let go of anger and vengeance that hurts you and doesn’t work.
You are trying to get a refund in a shop for some faulty goods and the assistant is being unhelpful. You are feeling cross and angry. As you are being effective, you choose not to behave in an angry way because you are focusing on your goals of getting your money back. You choose to be polite and calm as this is more likely to get the assistant on your side. This requires mindfulness of your emotions and awareness of your goals.
Think of an occasion recently when you were irritated and frustrated and could have handled the situation more effectively. What choices could you have made that may have helped you achieve a better outcome? Visualise and rehearse yourself doing that.
Basic mindfulness practice
1. Sit comfortably, with your eyes closed and your spine reasonably straight.
- 2. Direct your attention to your breathing. Focus on the passage of air in and out of your nostrils or watch the movement of your chest as your lungs expand with air then exhale.
- 3. When thoughts, emotions, physical sensations or external sounds occur, simply notice them, allowing them to come and go without judging or getting involved with them.
- 4. When you notice that your attention has drifted off and become engaged in thoughts or emotions, simply bring it back to your breathing and continue. If you are very distracted, try saying “In” and “Out” as you breathe. You can also count in 1, out 2; in-1, out 2.
If you decide to practise mindfulness, you will need to do this every day for a minimum of five to ten minutes. It is helpful to begin your practice in a supportive environment, i.e. preferably quiet and alone and with the minimum chance of you being disturbed (mobile phone off!). To establish a regular habit, it is also helpful to do this at a particular time of day. It may be easier to link it to another routine behaviour, e.g. before or after a meal. However, it is important to be alert! We are not practising mindfulness of sleeping!
Adapted from Linehan (2015b)