I gravitated toward the concept of mindfulness because I’m a naturally pretty distracted person—I forget where I park, I’m always looking for my keys, and there have been moments when I’ve caught myself looking at pictures of other people’s children on facebook instead of playing with my own daughter.
Mindfulness is a pretty trendy topic these days, so I thought I’d write down some of my favorite points about mindfulness for those who may be less familiar with the concept. Mindfulness has been around for thousands of years and thirty years of intense psychological research shows that it helps just about everyone. People who are anxious are less anxious, people with depression are less likely to experience another depressive episode, people with psoriasis who practice mindfulness have clearer skin, partners who are more mindful tend to be happier in their relationships. If mindfulness was a little white pill, it would be flying off the shelves.
Mindfulness is about focusing all of your attention and awareness on the present moment with as much non-judgment and intention as possible. Similar to muscles in our body, mindfulness takes practice. There’s an old saying that the mind is like a puppy—you tell it to sit and it chews up your pillows and pees on your rug. Just like a puppy needs training and repetition, it takes effort to learn to focus and attend to the present moment with a more accepting mind.
Many people I talk with struggle with what it means to be non-judgmental in the context of mindfulness—“How can I tell my partner when I’m feeling hurt, avoid people who aren’t healthy for me, and make good decisions if I walk away from judgments?” I think about two different aspects of non-judgment that Marsha Linehan and Jon Kabat-Zinn describe respectively. Linehan talks about judgments being important shortcuts that our brain takes to protect us. We say that a piece of fruit is “bad” when we are trying to describe a consequence- “If I eat that piece of fruit, I’ll get sick”. This isn’t a big deal when it comes to fruit but it’s incredibly damaging when it comes to ourselves and our relationships. We tell ourselves that we are “bad”, “stupid”, “worthless” when what we mean is that we made a decision that hurt someone, struggle in some specific subject matter, or have a hard time connecting with some people. Mindfulness is about noticing these judgments we make about ourselves and others and allowing ourselves to replace them with observations more rooted in reality rather than taking an intellectual and cultural shortcut.
Jon Kabat-Zinn and Linehan also talk about non-judgment in the context of accepting (sometimes radically accepting) whatever is currently happening in the moment. I remember once running an “anxiety management workshop” for 15 or so college students during my internship and feeling wrecked with anxiety. My heart was pounding, my hands were shaking and I thought “How am I ever going to teach people skills to manage their anxiety when I’m feeling anxious? It’s NOT OK that I’m feeling this way”. The result was that I felt intensely more anxious and led what I’m sure was a challenging class for everyone. Mindfulness taught me to share with the whole class “You know my heart is beating a little fast, my hands are shaking a little and I’m going to accept these sensations as they are and turn my attention to teaching this class”. I found that once I accepted rather than judged my anxiety or pretended it wasn’t there, it became far easier to deal with. I want to clarify that acceptance doesn’t mean that you can’t decide you want to take action to change something you would like to see changed. You are much more likely to protest injustice if you accept and acknowledge that injustice is taking place.
Another part of mindfulness that people can struggle with is the idea of doing things with intention. In a world where we order clothes while we wait in line to buy coffee, it’s hard to recommend doing one thing at a time on purpose. At the same time, research shows that multi-tasking is less effective then doing things “one mindfully” as Linehan calls it. I tell clients that if they always have a to-do list running in their head, set aside 15 minutes where all you are supposed to do is focus on planning. If you are a big worrier, set aside time each day to just worry and then if you start worrying while you are driving or going for a walk you can remind yourself that you already worried today.
If mindfulness has perked your interest and you would like to improve your own mindfulness, here are a few recommendations:
1. Meditate—Try focusing on the movement of your breath for 5 minutes, and if your mind wanders, just gently bring it back to the movement of your breath. You’ll find that the more you practice focusing on something as simple (and boring) as your breath, it’ll be easier to focus on a plethora of things that are far more engaging like a conversation with a friend or co-worker.
2. Try a Mindfulness Power Hour—Spend one hour a day trying to focus completely on the activity at hand (doing dishes, playing with your kids, driving in the car). Every time your mind wanders bring it back gently and non-judgmentally to the task. There’s a saying that if your mind wanders a thousand times, just gently bring it back a thousand times. It also helps to put away your smart phone!
3. Explore Your Senses—Mindfulness is about getting in touch with all of your senses in the present moment so get to know some senses you may be paying less attention to. Admire beautiful works of art and nature, smell all of the bottles of perfume the next time you’re at a department store, eat slowly and see if the food tastes the same with each bite, listen for new kinds of sounds.
4. Notice—Ellen Langer describes mindfulness as simply the act of noticing. She talks about the powerful things that can happen the deeper we push ourselves to notice the world around us and particularly the people we care about. Notice your partner or friends’ smile, their wrinkles, the way it feels when you get a hug. Studies show that this simple act of noticing can make dramatic improvements to relationship satisfaction.