Mindfulness is the powerful idea that we are not our thoughts. When we are mindful, we are tuning in to the present moment. We are accepting the moment as it is and not judging it to be good or bad. We are aware of any of the thoughts, emotions, and sensations that arise in the moment and accept them as they are.
Mindfulness is not new. It has been around for thousands of years and is contained, in some form, in about every major religion: Buddhism, Taoism, Sufi & Christian mysticism, contemplative Christianity, and Kabbalah. However, mindfulness need not be associated with religion and one does not have to believe in God to practice mindfulness.
If we are not our thoughts and feelings, just who are we then? We are the awareness of our thoughts and feelings. We are our conscious presence. However, most of the time we are not really conscious. Instead, our consciousness is lost in the stream of various thoughts going through our head that are automatic and unconscious. They are happening to us and might be experienced as a “voice in the head.” Such thoughts might include such things as:
- Why does this always happen to me?
- My presentation is going to be just awful…I just know it!
- I’ll never find true love…I’ll always be alone.
- Why, oh, why did I pass up that job opportunity? What was I thinking!
- I need to go to the store, get some milk, egg…cereal…and buy stamps! Stamps! Yes! Whew! Glad I remembered that…almost forgot. What else am I forgetting? I need to water the lawn tonight! That reminds me, I need to get a good landscaper. I need to ask Bill who did his yard…I should go see a movie with Bill. I can’t wait until the new Harry Potter film comes out!
OUR THOUGHTS AS A RIVER
Here’s a metaphor about mindfulness that might prove helpful. Imagine that our thoughts are like a river. A river has a current. Stopping our thoughts altogether is much like trying to stop the river flow – not an easy task! When we overly identify with our thoughts, it is as if we’ve fallen into the river and are now subject to the current. If the content of the thoughts happens to be very negative, it is likely being swept away by white water rapids. Mindfulness, which contains the critical concept that we are not our thoughts, allows us to get out of the river to stand at the bank and safely observe the river current. Then, even if they are dangerous rapids, we are safe from harm as we watch the water rush by. By learning to become more mindful, we are able to create some distance from the current of our thoughts. In essence, we are standing at the bank and observing the current of our thoughts.
WHY SHOULD YOU TRY TO BECOME MORE MINDFUL?
Psychology has been the Johnny-come-lately to mindfulness. It has only been in the past decade or so that it has received serious attention. An avalanche of research touts the benefits of mindfulness: a more positive mood, less stress and depression, improved relationships, improved physical health, enhanced creativity, better sleep…the list goes on and on.
Why does becoming mindful help us? The past is behind us. In a way, it doesn’t exist at all. However, regrets about the past cause us to feel down right now. Glorifying the past diminishes the power of the present – the light of the present is overshadowed by the past. Likewise, focusing too much on great things that might happen in the future pulls us away from what is happening now. This is the “grass is always greener on the other side” syndrome. We keep trying to get somewhere else in the near or distant future because those futures are better than where we are in the present. Worrying about what might happen in the future causes us distress in the present. Asking ourselves, “what if…” in our heads much of the time is a recipe for anxiety.
Thus, much of our anxious and depressive feelings come from dwelling on the negatives of our past or worrying about possible negative outcomes in the future. Becoming more mindful has the power to improve our mood and decrease psychological distress. Mindfulness has the power to liberate us, to unshackle us, from dwelling on the past or future.
This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t ever reminisce about good times, have goals, look forward to things, or plan for the future. Indeed, reminiscing about positive past events, having optimism about the future, and setting and achieving goals can have a positive impact on our mood and general sense of well-being. But when more of our attention is focused on the past or future, it diminishes the power of the present moment…which is the only time in which we exist. When we are mindful, we think about the past in the future in a more deliberate way. It is a choice and not a matter of our thoughts gravitating toward the past or future automatically and unconsciously.
STEPS YOU CAN TAKE TO BECOME MORE MINDFUL
One of the easiest and most powerful ways to become more mindful is to focus on the breath. Breathing always occurs in the present. It has the power to anchor us in “the now.” So, periodically throughout the day, take some slow, deep breaths. Try to inhale deeply using your diaphragm for a count of 7-10. You should feel your belly rise slightly on the inhale. Hold your breath for a second or two, and then slowly exhale for a count of 7-10. Listening to the sound of your breathing can help you to focus on the present. Rather than thinking of the sometimes daunting task of meditating for 30 minutes a day, try some slow, relaxed breathing several times throughout the day. You’d be surprised at how good it feels to take even one slow, deep, conscious breath. As you practice at it, you will notice a greater sense of calm and presence.
No doubt you’ve heard the expression that we should all “stop and smell the roses.” There is much wisdom in that old saying. William James, sometimes noted as the father of psychology, famously said, “My experience is what I agree to attend to.” If our attention has drifted to upsetting thoughts, that will be our experience. However, if we consciously direct our attention to the sensations and experiences around us, we will be pulled into the present moment – because we can only senses in the present. Thus, when you observe a sunset or cloud formations, savor the taste of chocolate, listen to a Bach concerto, or feel a warm embrace – you are necessarily in the present and out of your head.
Many of these experiences we take for granted. But try to consciously feel the warm water of a shower trickle down your body or listen to the cicadas on an evening walk. Consciously directing our attention to the sensations of the world around can liberate us from the endless stream of mind chatter.
Using a Nonjudgmental Approach
A critical aspect of mindfulness is trying to take a nonjudgmental approach to viewing your thoughts, feelings, and experiences. We are often quick to label things as “good,” “bad,” and related variations (e.g., wonderful, horrible). For example, we start thinking things such as, “It’s terrible that I have so much do,” “I’m a bad person for saying that,” and so on.
Certainly, there are times when judging is appropriate. After all, we’d have to always flip a coin or roll a die to make all of our decisions if everything were neutral. That would make life quite ridiculous! However, we need to realize that once we start judging things as good or bad, our feelings get pulled along with these judgments. As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “There is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
When we become mindful, we try to adopt a nonjudgmental approach so this gives us some psychological distance from our thoughts. We are not our thoughts – we are much more than that. But when we are not mindful, in a sense, we can become victims of our thoughts – be swept away by a current of negative thinking.
Here’s how this can work practically. Let’s say that you made a social blunder at a party. You might think to yourself, “I’m such an idiot for doing that!” Now, it’s a given that it’s probably never helpful to be so harsh on oneself, but let’s say you are having trouble being kind to yourself. A mindfulness strategy that could help you feel a bit better is to think to yourself, “I’m having a thought that I was an idiot for doing that.”
Some of these mindfulness strategies might seem inconsequential at first. However, by identifying your thoughts as thoughts, it will give you some distance from them. When you accept your thoughts hook, line, and sinker as the truth, then your emotional state will be subject to whatever thoughts are going through your mind at the time. Many of these thoughts have been conditioned over time and from our early experiences. For the most part, these thoughts are unconscious and happening to us. Through becoming more mindful, you can become aware of your thoughts and, with practice, will become less victimized by them.
THE BENEFITS OF PRACTICE
Learning to be more mindful, like anything in life, takes practice. But, as with all things we practice, we will definitely become more adept at mindfulness through our efforts and reap the many rewards. Although the benefits of mindfulness are many, the primary one is greater happiness. Isn’t this the main (or one of the main) purposes in life – to be happy? We are not talking about the fleeting pleasures that come from stimulating our nerve endings, but the abiding joy of living. As you practice, you’ll get much better at getting out of the current of your thoughts and onto the riverbank. Being on the riverbank offers a serene vantage point from which to experience life.
Mike Brooks, Ph.D.