Mindfulness: What it is and why it's important.
Mindfulness is a topic that in recent years has become more mainstream. You may have come across this term in the news or in well-being articles and wondered what all the hype is about. Jon Kabat-Zinn (1994) defines mindfulness as: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally.” When we do so, our minds are able to be fully present--“mindful”--of what we are doing or what is happening right here and right now. The nonjudgmental stance involves being an observer of and accepting what is, rather than labeling things as good or bad or trying to change or control what is occurring.
“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgementally.”
-Jon Kabat-Zinn (1994)
In my therapy practice, I frequently use mindfulness exercises as a component of treatment for anxiety and depression. I differentiate between mindfulness and meditation practices. While they both stem from Eastern philosophies, it’s important to note that their use is not a religious practice and can be useful to anyone of any belief system. When I teach my clients mindfulness practice, I am referring to simple (yet difficult!) exercises of focusing attention on the present moment. There are several mindfulness exercises that I teach clients for use throughout their day in order to focus on the here and now. On the other hand, I describe meditation practice as a more formal practice of seated meditation. There are many different types and approaches to formal meditation, but this generally involves setting a timer and sitting in either silence or listening to a guided mediation for a set amount of time. Most of my clients fit such formal practice into their morning or nightly routines. In contrast, mindfulness practice can be thought of as a portable, quick version of meditation that can be done anywhere, anytime. The goal with mindfulness practice may be to do an exercise for a few minutes, ten or more different times throughout the day; rather than sitting for twenty minutes in formal meditation. There are many mindfulness practices to bring our focus to the present moment. The various exercises that I teach clients involve using things that are always with us as "anchors" to the here and now, such as breathing, our five senses, our body, or our actions in the present moment. My clients can do the exercises while driving, while sitting at their desks, or while doing typically mind-LESS, automatic tasks such as showering or doing the dishes.
In today’s busy world of being over-scheduled and having our noses constantly in our smartphones, mindfulness is needed more than ever. Our minds are constantly being called to distractions away from the present moment to binge watch the latest show, laugh at the latest memes, or to stay on top of the deluge of work email. As amazing as technology is, having all of these distractions at our fingertips has severely limited our time of "just being" in the moment. When was the last time you waited somewhere in silence, rather than reaching for your phone to entertain you? I, too, am guilty of this--even during the brief wait in line to check out in the grocery store I've found myself mindlessly reaching for my phone as if letting myself "just be" for two minutes is intolerable.
In this busy world, it is quite possible (and quite common, it seems) to live most of our life on autopilot, with our brains engaged in other moments of time than the present. While our bodies carry out automatic tasks like washing dishes, our brains may be elsewhere--in the past or in the future--maybe lost in thought scripting a conversation we plan to have or re-running one we’ve already had. The emotional consequence of this mind wandering can be having very real, present-moment emotional responses to things that are not even happening right now (e.g., experiencing present-tense anxiety when scripting that intimidating, future conversation that may never actually occur). The more we focus on what IS right NOW, the less we have to experience such unnecessary emotional responses. Most of the time, the present moment is okay.
With mindfulness, the goal while doing a task like washing the dishes would be to notice the details as they occur rather than getting lost in thought. You can do this by paying attention to what you are doing, even saying to yourself what is occurring, so that you stay engaged in the here and now. When your mind wanders (and it always will!), you simply bring it back to focusing on the task you're doing.
When we are present-focused, that moment of washing dishes or waiting in line can become a refuge of calm, peace, and joy, rather than our minds wandering to other potentially upsetting moments in time.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever you go there you are. London, UK: Piatkus.