If you haven’t been encountering the word “mindfulness” on a monthly basis, look up. You might be living under a rock.
Trends come and go and concepts go through a life cycle. Perhaps the main concept of the moment in psychology, self-improvement and spirituality is the concept of mindfulness. My words are not meant to disparage mindfulness, for I myself have benefited greatly from it — both personally and in terms of my professional life as a psychiatrist. Below is an image of the level of use of the term ‘mindfulness’ over time.
The word “mindfulness” is used so much, but really, what is it? Whether you feel completely clueless or simply not 100% clear, I’ll do my best today to deconstruct it, for it is more than one idea.
I start with the most well-known and commonly-used definition of mindfulness, the one developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, the developer of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. In 1983 he published this definition: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; On purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” I highlight the individual components by numbering them: 1. paying attention, 2. on purpose, 3. in the present moment, and 4. non-judgmentally.
Below I discuss the components that comprise mindfulness.
The concept of paying attention presumes that the person has control over where they direct their attention. Paying attention means consciously and with intent directing one’s attention towards some things and not towards other things. For the theorists and practitioners of mindfulness, a common goal is to increase focus onto the present moment: “to be here now.” There are three reasons for this. One, awareness of the totality of one’s current moment-by-moment experience is the foundation for greater acceptance of one’s entire experience, and this acceptance, as I will discuss later, comes with its own benefits.
Two, awareness of the present moment makes a person aware of how much of their life is spent thinking about what is not present right now, including thinking (sometimes inordinately) about the past and the future. Thoughts about the past often have a brooding quality, focus on past pains and regrets, and can link with depressive feelings. Thoughts about the future often focus on to-do lists and a range of potential problems (most of which will never come to pass) and can link with anxious and stressed feelings. If one spends so many of one’s present moments considering the past and the future then little awareness may remain to experience the present. Some writers refer to this as seeing life “through a dirty windshield,” because this past and future focus leaves one with a diminished sense of the now.
Three, research studies have found that a wandering mind, which is a mind that focuses on what is not going on around the person right now, (such as focusing on remembered pasts or imagined futures, even when these thoughts are neutral or pleasant), leaves a person less happy. Because the wandering mind is such a common feature of the way our minds work, it has been called the “default” mode, and the search is on for how it is instantiated in the brain through the default mode network.
So, the question arises: when you attend to the present moment what are you paying attention to? There are so many aspects of right-here right-now experiences it’s hard to know where to begin. External experience includes everything perceived through your five senses. A well-known exercise in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction — one of the first mindfulness based psychotherapies — is having group participants pay close attention to the experience of chewing a single raisin. Participants report appreciating both the positive nature of this mindful sensual experience of eating the raisin as well as the respite it provides from intrusive negative thoughts. Aspects of the present moment also include internal experiences, including one’s thoughts, emotions, drives/motivations/cravings and bodily sensations.
Acceptance refers to opening oneself to the totality of one’s experience, both external and internal. The goal of acceptance is to maintain broad awareness while remaining non-judgmental, non-defensive, and non-reactive rather than attempting to ‘experientially avoid’ the painful or unpleasant aspects of experience. Common ways that people attempt to avoid uncomfortable thoughts, memories, feelings, bodily sensations and situations is through thought suppression, emotional suppression, distraction and behavioral avoidance. Distraction includes behaviors such as habitual intoxication with substances or engaging in activities, such as compulsive gambling, sex, eating or shopping.
The reason that different forms of experiential avoidance are so common is that avoidance of uncomfortable aspects of experience brings short-term relief. The problem is that in the longer-term avoidance is linked to the development of a wide range of psychological problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, agoraphobia, depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive symptoms and addictions. For example, a person who has experienced trauma, who habitually avoids painful recollections of the traumatic events, never gives themselves an opportunity to master their fear and emotional pain, nor to come to terms with their shame, loss and grief. In fact, the very avoidance of various aspects of the traumatic experience paradoxically leads to a greater focus on them and increases their power to influence the ongoing experience of the individual. A common way to state this is that if you try not to think of a pink elephant, you are actually engaging in thinking about a pink elephant. So, the underlying causal factor in the development of a wide range of psychopathology is not the presence of uncomfortable thoughts, memories, feelings and sensations but rather in the common but counterproductive experiential avoidance approaches many people engage in as a coping mechanism.
So far, the message is that a person would be better off focusing their awareness on the present moment, both on the external and internal aspects of experience. And then, to be more accepting of their experience — especially the uncomfortable parts of it. This is easier said than done. After all, the reason experiential avoidance is so common is because experiencing painful thoughts, memories, emotions, etc is, well, painful. Who wants to wallow in pain? It feels so much better to avoid it.
So, the next step to making mindfulness not only a useful approach but one that people will actually engage in (without a gun to their head), is to change the context (or one’s relationship) to the painful memories, thoughts, emotions, etc. The goal is to still be aware of and accept painful experiences but to decrease the pain of doing so. If this seems like a conundrum — it is. Fortunately, there is a solution, and it is called “decentering” or “distancing.” In effect, the person practicing mindfulness is asked to become aware that they are not their thoughts. They have thoughts but are not equivalent to their thoughts. And similarly, they are taught to remind themselves that they are not their emotions. They have emotions but are not equivalent to their emotions.
So rather than thinking, “I’m a stupid loser,” thinking instead, “Check it out. There goes my mind again with that ‘I’m a stupid loser’ talk!” Notice how the person thinking the latter thought has decentered or distanced themselves from their thoughts. The thoughts are there just as they have always been, but the person has changed the context of their thoughts; they see their thoughts as something separate from themselves. Another way to put this is that the person has changed their relationship to their thoughts.
A key way to achieve this decentering is for the mindful person to develop the habit of seeing through the eyes of their observing self, a self that is separate from (above or outside of) their language-based thinking, their emoting, or their behaving. The observing self is that part of ourselves that is broadly aware, non-judgmental, non-defensive, and accepting of what is. It has a timeless quality to it and feels like it lives in a spacious and quiet space, a safe distance from the tumult of the passing thoughts, emotions, sensations and behaviors the person continually engages in.
Here are some simple ways to achieve such distancing. One is to imagine one’s thoughts as words that float up onto passing clouds that then gently move away. Or to imagine one’s thoughts landing on leaves drifting down a stream. Another way of distancing (from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) is to repeat a painful thought out loud as quickly as possible for 30 seconds. So, picking up on the example above, the person would quickly repeat, “I’m a stupid loser, I’m a stupid loser, I’m a stupid loser, I’m a stupid loser …” over and over for about half a minute. Such repetition leads to a loss of the meaning behind the sounds and only the sounds remain — dried up and bereft of their power to wound.
My One Second Mindfulness Technique
Let me share with you my one-second technique for distancing myself from uncomfortable thoughts and emotions when I recognize I may be going down some dark rabbit hole. When you first try this, it may take you three seconds or even five to reach the mental place that is the goal of this technique. (If so, I hope you forgive me for misleading you with the one second headline.)
Here it is: when I need to conjure up my observing self, I imagine that the entire front half of my body is made of fiberglass that is contoured to the shape of my body and painted to look like me. Then I imagine placing my hands on either edge of my fiberglass self at the sides and stepping backward and to the side away from my fiberglass shell (as if I were wearing body armor like the Romans did). The part of me that stepped back and to the side is my observing self, able to take in what the rest of me is thinking and feeling. Thus, I achieve a state of mind in which I experience myself as separate from my thoughts and feelings. Also, I’m able to visually imagine myself from an outside point of view, and that, interestingly enough, is what most triggers my sense of compassion towards myself — a self I can see is beset by scary thoughts and feelings. More on compassion below.
Now, this took a lot longer for you to read than it does to actually do in your imagination. You can step back and to the side of yourself within a second or two. Once there, you can maintain your observing self as long as you feel is necessary to achieve a changed perspective. Usually 10-30 seconds suffices for me.
An aspect that is not considered a core aspect of mindfulness is compassion. It is, however, a frequent additional goal and, even if not, then a frequent consequence of mindfulness practices. By becoming aware of the totality of one’s experience, and developing a different relationship with uncomfortable aspects of one’s experience through development of an observing self, one can begin to experience oneself as a member of the wider community of humans. Many people suffering from a psychiatric condition experience a chronic sense of shame and low self-worth. By stepping ‘outside oneself’ a person may be more able to recognize their shared humanity with others. At the same time, a person practicing mindfulness often becomes more compassionate towards others — by being more able to recognize the humanity of others. So, mindfulness can lead to a greater sense of belonging, shared humanity, and recognition of the common struggles and common suffering experienced by one’s self and by many other selves.
Until next time,
“Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves – slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future; live the actual moment. Only this moment is life.”
– Thich Nhat Hanh