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Understanding Mindfulness

A Definition of Mindfulness and An Explanation of Mindfulness

One of the simplest and best definitions of mindfulness is that mindfulness is "awareness with acceptance."  Jon Kabat-Zinn, a pioneer in developing mindfulness practices for physical and mental health, likes a slightly longer definition: "Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally, in the service of self-understanding and wisdom.”  So, there you go.  Completely clear now?

Here are two perfectly good definitions of mindfulness, yet I'm pretty sure that both of them leave you not understanding mindfulness much better than you did before.  Mindfulness manages to be a simple thing that is somewhat hard to explain.  That's the purpose of this article.  I hope to give you a much clearer sense of what mindfulness is, why  it has been getting so much attention, and some suggestions for how you can try it out.

  Once Again, What is Mindfulness?

My definition of mindfulness is that mindfulness is practicing to become more aware of all that is going on inside of you.  It is learning to to watch what is going on in your body and in your emotions and in your thoughts.  This leaves you more aware of yourself, more connected to who you are, and more able to understand yourself and accept yourself.  That may sound very nice, but the benefits that can come from it are rather amazing.  A mountain of research has shown that mindfulness seems to improve just about everything in your mental and physical well being.  It reduces blood pressure, decreases the chance of a heart attack, reduces anxiety, helps with depression, and leads to a greater sense of well-being and calm. 

When I make those claims, mindfulness starts to sound like magic snake oil.  How could it possibly do all that?  How can I be claiming that it helps nearly everything, physical and mental?  Here is my best simple explanation for how mindfulness does that:  This is an oversimplification, because it is a complicated subject, but this is a good basic way to look at it.  Most modern humans seem to live in a state of nearly constant stress.  Our minds are constantly telling us that there is a problem, that something needs to be done, that something might go wrong, that we should be worried.  As we think about these things, our bodies release stress hormones that put our bodies into a mild but perpetual version of "fight or flight" mode.  That puts stress on our system, and has our bodies running in a slightly abnormal state, all the time.  For many of us, we are in this condition all day most days.  And often, when our bodies start to send us distress signals, signals that we have been stressed too long, like headaches, indigestion, muscle tension, etc., we ignore the signals and try to forge ahead.  After all, we have things to do. 

Mindfulness works to counter this process in a couple of ways.  First, most mindfulness practices are peaceful and relaxing, and they tend to calm the body and mind while we are doing them.  Second, and probably more important, as we practice noticing what is going on in our bodies and our minds, we become more and more attuned to when we are stressed, to how we are feeling, to when we need a rest, to when our body or our psyche needs something.  As we tune into ourselves more, we get better at noticing what we need and taking better care of ourselves.   We are less likely to just remain in a state of stress and try to ignore it.

What Is Going On In You?

Let's start by asking what you do with your attention most of the time.  If you are like most of us then most of the time you are either trying to get things done, or trying to amuse yourself.  Those are both noble callings, and I have nothing against either of them.  To get something done, you direct your attention to writing an email, or to washing a skillet.  To amuse yourself, you direct your attention to a screen with a video game on it, or to a book you are reading.  Meanwhile, inside of you, your psyche is digesting and processing all the workings of your life.  Much of that happens in your emotions, as your emotions respond to everything that is going on.  It also happens in your thoughts, as you plan and remember and worry and ponder.  Sometimes we stop and pay attention to these emotions and thoughts, especially if they are strong enough to push through to the surface, to grab our attention while we are doing something else.  But much of the time we ignore what is going on in there. 

In particular, much of the time most of us ignore many of our negative emotions.  Many of us learned this growing up, based on what was modeled by our parents.  You might ask yourself, "did my parents mostly understand and deal with their own emotions, and did they teach me how to understand and deal with mine?"  Often in family where things aren't going OK people systematically learn to avoid looking at how they feel.  Even in families where things are OK, people may choose not to look there. 

Often when clients begin therapy, therapists find ourselves trying to help clients become more aware of how they feel, because that awareness seems to help with figuring everything else out.  And our thoughts and feelings are all tangled up in a dance with each other.  Mindfulness involves getting better at watching the dance, and noticing that this thought is connected to that emotion which leads to that thought and then this emotion.  It leads to more of a sense of "here's how I'm wired.  Here's how the moving parts work.  Here's who I am." 

What Happens When You Try Mindfulness?

One of the most common ways to practice mindfulness is by doing a type of meditation in which you watch the sensations of your breath going in and out.  But don't be discouraged if you think that you won't like meditation.  There are several other ways to practice mindfulness as well.  At some point you may want to look at another page on my website that describes several different ways to practice mindfulness.  My purpose right now is to give you a better sense of how mindfulness works, and I'll do that by describing a typical experience of what can happen when someone watches what goes on inside themselves. 

Imagine that you are sitting and turning your attention toward your breath. You are paying attention to the sensations in you chest and abdomen as the breath goes in and out. If you are like most people, you will probably find that after a few breaths your mind wanders.  Your mind will probably start thinking a thought, or noticing a sound or a sensation in your body.  You will bring your mind back to your breath, and soon it will wander again.  You will bring your mind back to the breath, and it will wander again.  It is true that with lots of meditation practice your mind will eventually wander a little less often.  But there are a couple of really important things that you may learn from the wandering of your mind.

The first thing that may surprise you is just how much your mind doesn't do what you tell it to do.  You may be used to thinking that you are in charge of your mind.  But if you just spent 10 minutes telling your mind to watch your breath, and found that your mind spent half that time wandering around doing whatever it pleased, then are you in charge?  Yes, you can often get your mind to do things.  You can tell it to read a book, and it will usually read the book.  But many people are surprised to find that their mind has a mind of its own, so to speak.  They find that if they don't give their mind very much to do, it will soon ramble off and start doing something that they didn't tell it to do. 

The second thing that you may learn from the wandering of your mind is what your mind seems to want to do with itself.  "I tell my mind to watch my breath, and instead it keeps worrying about my job."  "instead it keeps fantasizing about being admired."  "instead it keeps judging and getting down on myself for not being able to watch my breathing."  You could say that what your mind starts doing of its own accord is an important part of who you are.  You are the person whose mind keeps wanting to do that particular thing when you tell it to watch your breath. 

Many people trying to meditate find themselves surprised and often frustrated with how uncooperative their minds are. The point of meditation isn’t to tell your mind and your body how they should be; the point is to notice how they are. If you are able to practice accepting your unruly mind, accepting that your mind doesn't just do what you tell it, it may lead to a deeper acceptance of everything else in the world that doesn't do what you tell it.

The Role of Acceptance in Mindfulness

At the heart of mindfulness is trying to observe yourself and simply notice what you notice, see what you see, without judging.  It is kind of like the attitude of a scientist who is trying to simply observe what is there, to see it for whatever it is, without judging it as good or bad.  The attitude of acceptance starts with the idea of accepting whatever you experience as you try to watch your breath, but over time the idea is for the acceptance to go slowly deeper and deeper.  It goes something like this: "I am watching my breath; I observe that my mind wanders; I try to accept that my mind wanders, because that seems to be how we are wired.  My mind keeps wandering; I am frustrated, and a little mad at myself.  I find myself thinking that I'm no good at this.  But I realize that my mind keeps telling me I'm not good at things.  I guess I have a streak of telling myself I'm not good at things.  I take a deep breath and try to accept that too.  I'm supposed to not judge, and here I find myself judging.  I guess I'm a person with a streak of judging.  I take a deep breath and try to accept that too."   

In the web page about various mindfulness exercises, one of the core exercises is practicing mindfulness of our emotions.  In trying to observe and accept our emotions, without judging them, we start to be aware of parts of who we are:  "I'm feeling anxious; I'm feeling anxious again; I guess I'm a person who often feels anxious."  We start to notice the tendencies and the patterns in how we feel and in how we think.  And if we are able to stay in the mindset of a non-judging observer, while observing ourselves, it is hoped that we will be able to simply see that we are as we are.  "I notice that I'm a person who tends to feel this; I notice that I'm a person who often thinks about that."    Many of us are very accustomed to spending our days judging ourselves, and thinking thoughts filled with "shoulds" about how we think we should be.  Mindfulness involves simply watching and trying to accept how we actually are. 

Mindfulness and Mindlessness

In explaining what mindfulness is, it may make it clearer to describe the opposite of mindfulness.  The opposite of mindfulness is being on auto-pilot, going through our days not aware of what's going on inside of us.  Think about the last time you ate lunch at your computer, or ate lunch looking at something on your phone.  You eyes and possibly your ears were taking in a signal from your phone or your computer.  Entertainment, or possibly productivity.  But how much did you taste your lunch while you were watching your screen?  Barely?  How much were you aware of your emotions?  How much were you in touch with yourself?  For many of us, in much of what we do every day we are not aware of the sensations in our body, and we are barely aware of our emotions. This is sometimes called mindlessness.

It is a useful skill to be able to direct your attention to the task at hand, to ignore your emotions and ignore the taste of your sandwich, and get the job done. That it a good skill to have, and it has probably served you well.  But being in that mode becomes a habit; it becomes automatic, and then we can spend all of our time out of touch with ourselves.  Here is hoping that you can try these methods and possibly spend more of your time in tune with yourself, and, if you can manage the acceptance part, at peace with yourself as well. 

Copyright 2019, Paul Hutchinson, Ph.D.

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