Mindfulness has been getting quite a bit of coverage through the media recently. Proponents have found it helps with depression, anxiety, stress, weight loss, quitting smoking, addictions and can help to boost our relationships and memory. Recently some high profile companies have started training their employees in mindfulness as it has been found to increase job satisfaction, creativity and productivity.
Is it too good to be true? Well done research supports the majority of claims that have been made about mindfulness based programs. The key with mindfulness is that it retrains the brain in ways that allow us to stay more focussed and present in the moment. The skills of being “in the moment,” “non-judgmental” and “accepting” are what really make the difference in a wide variety of situations.
Let’s use anxiety as an example. Anxiety is a normal part of life but when it gets out of control it can impede our ability to function in life. Most people who struggle with anxiety find that their mind begins to race; we tend to be focussed on future possibilities and what we think could happen. Mindfulness gives us the skill set to come back to the present moment. We won’t extinguish the anxiety, instead, we make it more bearable and learn how to have a healthy relationship with our anxiety.
So What is This Mindfulness Anyways?
Mindfulness is deceptively simple. We all have the ability to be mindful already. The most succinct definition I’ve found comes from Jon Kabat-Zinn. He describes mindfulness as:
“The awareness that emerges through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally,to the unfolding of experience from moment-to-moment.”
Breaking this down we find that we experience “awareness” by paying attention to something on purpose. Many times we do things automatically or are forced to multitask to keep up in life. Mindfulness is different in that we pay attention to some sensation, thought or activity on purpose in order to train our brain to focus on one thing at a time.
When we focus in the present moment we continually bring ourselves back to whatever the task is at this current time. Our brains have the ability to think about the past and the future, which can be helpful in certain circumstances, but in mindfulness we learn how to simply be in the moment.
Our minds automatically tend to add judgments to our experiences. This has it’s purpose; if we have a negative sensation and a negative judgment, such as a bad tasting sushi roll, we learn to avoid that experience again. However, this can keep us from fully experiencing life as we tend to constantly judge and compare things rather than simply sit back and experience them (my usual dinner spot is so much better than this new restaurant, what am I doing here?).
Finally, “the unfolding of experience from moment-to-moment.” Life keeps moving forward whether we like it or not. As we begin to experience mindfulness through exercises it tends to spill over into our everyday experiences. We learn to experience life fully by purposefully paying attention to our experiences throughout the day.
What Mindfulness Isn’t About
When I first started learning about mindfulness several years ago I had several misconceptions about what it was and wasn’t. As I taught patients during residency I found many of them had similar misconceptions. Mindfulness isn’t:
- Relaxation Therapy: You will likely start to feel less stressed and more relaxed as you practice mindfulness exercises, however, this isn’t the goal nor the “method of action” of mindfulness. Think of it more as a beneficial side effect.
- Bliss: The purpose of mindfulness isn’t to be blissfully happy all the time. As we learn to live “in the moment” we will start to become more aware of our emotions, whether they are happy, sad, anxious or loving.
- A short training program: Just like exercise, we need to continually practice mindful exercises. I know how to do a pushup, however, just understanding how pushups work won’t get me stronger, I actually have to do them every day.
- An emotion extinguisher: As I alluded to earlier, mindfulness won’t get rid of our anxiety or other emotions. Instead, it allows us to tease apart our emotions, thoughts and body sensations so we can have a healthier relationship with our emotions.
- A destination: Even experienced mindfulness practitioners have found that they need to continue the exercises daily in order to be effective. Dr. Sears, author of “Building Competence in Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy,” noted that his patients can tell if he hasn’t kept up with his daily formal practice. Similar to other
There are many mindful exercises out there, but the basics are the same for most of them.
- Object of Attention: Each mindfulness exercise will give us something to focus on. Initially we tend to focus on body sensations such as taste, sound, smell, touch and breathing. As we get more comfortable with our practice we can start to focus on more abstract objects of attention such as thoughts and feelings.
- Distraction: Everyone becomes distracted with mindful exercises; even experienced practitioners. Noticing distractions is a good thing, it gives us the opportunity to realize our attention has drifted and allows us to redirect our attention back to the exercise.
- Objectively Noticing: When we are doing our mindfulness exercises we tend to notice that certain feelings and thoughts float into our mind. Often we even become distracted by these thoughts and feelings. Rather than pushing these thoughts and feelings away these exercises are designed to allow us to redirect our attention back to the object of focus.
- It is important to do the exercises daily (or as close to daily as possible). Don’t worry if you miss a day or two. However, similar to exercising our body, exercising our mind takes time. The more we train our “mind muscles” the easier these exercises will become. Eventually we tend to notice that we are more present throughout the day even when we aren’t formally practicing.
Why Is Mindfulness Helpful?
The idea of neuroplasticity is relatively new. Our brains are dynamic and thought pathways change as we have different experiences. Often times when we have negative experiences or emotions we try to “think our way out of them.” The problem with this is that it tends to reinforce those pathways. Research has found that the more we try to outthink our emotions the stronger the emotions become.
Our thoughts and emotions are so intertwined that it can be hard to differentiate them at first. The more we practice the more we will be able to untangle our thoughts and emotions. As we learn to simply observe our emotions we find that they build up and then fizzle out on their own.
What Resources Can Help?
If you’re in the Calgary area I am happy to see you in the clinic to discuss if mindfulness is a good option for you. Jon Kabat-Zinn has some of the best books on the market; “Full Catastrophe Living” is one of my favourite resources. For the tech-savvy the “Headspace” app is a great way to get started with mindfulness as well.