This is a brief introduction. For more detail please read my free book, Everyday Mindfulness.
Mindfulness is a modern reworking of ancient meditation traditions, principally Buddhist. It is designed to help you deal with day to day difficulties by putting you in control of your own mind.
In difficult situations such as when a loved one is very ill or we are approaching an anxiety provoking situation (e.g. an exam) or someone makes us hopping mad, we may experience very strong emotions e.g. sadness, anxiety or anger in the above situations. Sometimes these emotions incapacitate us by overwhelming us or lasting a very long time. Unhelpful thoughts may accompany these emotions such as “I’ll never get over this” or “I must be stupid if I’m so scared of this exam”. Such thoughts are often believed uncritically and tend to perpetuate the strong emotions so that we are no longer in control of our minds and we can’t cope.
The aim of mindfulness therapy is to help you learn to be aware of your thoughts and bodily sensations and in so doing be able to better cope with day to day emotions and problems.
What may happen in a mindfulness session?
A mindfulness therapist will help you establish a daily mindfulness practice, often mindfulness of the breath. They may discuss with you what situations and thoughts are problematical with a view to helping you become much more mindful and aware in these situations. There is no attempt to change your thinking, but simply to become more aware of the unhelpfulness of some thoughts. You may be encouraged to reflect on a difficult situation as it is happening or soon after. Similarly you may be encouraged to stay with an upsetting emotion for some length of time so that you can become more familiar with it and perhaps avoid the need to bring a lot of resources to fighting it off time after time. In essence the aim is to allow you to have a different, easier relationship with problematical thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations. The result of this is an increase in well being, more control over your own mind as you spend less time dealing with difficulties and more resources for important activities. Often difficulties can disappear altogether.
What are the benefits of mindfulness?
Your mind is like any other part of your being, there are benefits from understanding how it works and you can train it to work better. Specifically a mindfulness practice has the following benefits:
- Stability of mind – maintaining your mind in an alert clear space rather than at the two extremes of a dull or agitated mind.
- Flexibility of mind – the ability to shift your mind to whatever object you choose, rather than having it bounce haphazardly between a number of issues
- Self awareness – being aware of the contents of your mind and understanding the typical patterns of your mind
- Acting rather than reacting – Becoming less reactive, e.g. when you are angry and choosing how you will act.
It’s not called a practice for nothing. Like any other form of therapy real change will require hard work and commitment, in this case a commitment to maintain your practice six days per week.
How does it work?
While most of what we achieve is by “doing”, mindfulness achieves its ends by “not doing,” simply by observing. It seems to achieve its success by allowing us to see our thoughts and emotions as just thoughts and emotions not something to rule our lives or believe uncritically. Thoughts like “I must be stupid” are subtle and we generally believe them uncritically. By being mindful of our thoughts we gradually get the idea that they are just thoughts that we are having and there is no need to believe them uncritically. Similarly with a feeling like “anger” we start to realize that it is a feeling that is currently strong within us but no more than that, we currently have anger, but it doesn’t define us and it will pass. We stop identifying with the thoughts and emotions. Our mind ceases to be in the control of strong feelings and thoughts and slowly comes under our own control.
I have thoughts but I am not my thoughts.
I have bodily sensations but I am not my bodily sensations.
I have feelings but I am not my feelings.
Jon Kabat-Zinn is the name most closely associated with mindfulness which he defined as "paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally"
You may wish to look up his books:
"Wherever You Go, There You Are" and
"Full Catastrophe Living"
There's a link to him on Useful Links