What is mindfulness?
You have probably heard about mindfulness. Mindfulness practices and teachings have become so popular in recent years that they are being integrated into many forms of therapy, educational curricula, business leadership training, and even finding their way into pop culture references. Generally speaking, the mindfulness practices that are creating all the buzz come out of Buddhist meditation traditions, however, there are practices of mindfulness in almost every religious and cultural tradition.
Colloquially, the term mindfulness is used in the same way as the expression "paying attention" (e.g. I will try to be mindful of that). This usage seems quite consistent with both the Buddhist and Western psychological understanding. Paying attention, however, is not always as easy as it sounds. Whether practicing meditation, studying for a test, or engaging in any activity that requires sustained focused attention, the mind can wander off pretty quickly into stories, distractions, memories, or worries about the future. Before we know it, we are no longer paying attention to what we set out to focus on. Sometimes, the consequences of wandering attention are insignificant (spilled coffee, needing to re-read a paragraph) but the consequences can be much more meaningful (big mistakes at work, relationship problems, and even fatal car accidents).
How do I do it?
Training our attention is not unlike training our physical body, yet we rarely train our attention deliberately despite the significant benefits of having some measure of control over our mental processes. This deliberate attention training is often referred to as meditation or mindfulness practice and it requires focused attention on a particular object of awareness, often the breath. As the mind wanders, one's attention is re-directed back to the object of meditation. This repeated process leads to a greater capacity for present attention, greater awareness of one's mental and emotional processes, greater capacity for letting go of mental fixations and unhelpful beliefs, and often an increased ability to understand and empathize with other people's experiences.
But mindfulness sounds really boring!
Mindfulness practice is boring, as well as agitating, frustrating, and bewildering - at first, and then it starts to become remarkably interesting. Even boredom starts to become interesting in that we see it for what it often really is: Agitation about not being able to escape our present emotional experience. The more that one engages in mindfulness practice, the more stable and focused the mind becomes. As the mind becomes more clear and stable, we can start to see what is happening in our mind with a clarity that was previously unavailable to us. This clarity results from both a sharpening of attention and from a slowing down of the chaos of our mental processes. We start to see how our mind jumps around making up stories about everything. Once we are familiar with our mind’s process of constantly spinning stories, we can see how these stories dramatically impact our emotional experiences, our life choices, and our relationships. We start to recognize the real possibility of being able to let go of oppressive beliefs and fears and tune in more with the world around us.
As we tune in more to our present experience, this new acuity of attention also starts to illuminate our sense perceptions. The world starts to slow down and present itself with a vividness and vibrancy that was previously hidden by the onslaught of thoughts and stories. The process of slowing down and focusing also improves our ability to connect with others. Since our stories about them seem less solid and we are actually paying attention, we start to hear and understand them more deeply – no longer stuck in our assumptions about who they are and what they mean, or waiting for our turn to speak.
Letting go of painful habits
As we become more focused and aware, we develop insight and familiarity with our mind and mental processes. Through insight and familiarity, we develop a greater sense of agency in relation to thoughts, emotional experience, and unwanted life events. We are no longer victims to our habitual patterns and thoughts. We start to feel that we have more choice when it comes to our lives, even when things are not going our way. Without some sort of mindfulness practice, many of us can become completely uprooted, distracted, and overwhelmed by emotional experiences and painful thoughts. In this state of overwhelm, we tend to make poor choices in an attempt to numb ourselves or make the pain go away.
Mindfulness is the opposite of rumination. Rumination is the unintentional dwelling on recurrent thoughts. Often these thoughts are self-critical or angry. When we are ruminating, it feels impossible to keep our mind on anything but these thoughts and stories. Mindfulness allow us to focus our attention on something of our choosing and let go of the addiction to our stories, whether painful or pleasurable, along with the unhealthy habits that we may use to escape our pain.
In traditional spiritual contexts, mindfulness is a prerequisite to cultivating other qualities of mind that are of more value than self-criticism or judgment of others. Once we are able to have some measure of control over where we place our mind, we can then use our mind to develop acceptance, love, compassion, and empathy for others and ourselves. We can recognize when we are falling into being judgmental or when we are defending ourselves rather than opening our hearts to the pain and confusion of the people we love. We can then use this awareness and the strength of attention to come back to the ways of being that bring more joy and connection.
While the benefits of mindfulness practices are no secret to those who have practiced mindfulness within their spiritual or cultural traditions, Western psychology has strongly embraced the power of mindfulness in recent years. New studies seem to come out almost daily validating the use of mindfulness as a legitimate therapeutic intervention for a multitude of different life challenges (e.g. depression, anxiety, chronic pain, ADHD etc.). Mindfulness can be particularly effective in combination with other therapeutic work.
Mindfulness is important in my own work with clients. In addition to providing mindfulness instruction to clients when desired and helping clients identity mindfulness practices from their own traditions, I believe that working more with present moment experience in session allows for deeper levels of emotional processing and relational insight.
Follow the link to the Additional Resources section of my website for more information on mindfulness and meditation.
Nat was first introduced to meditation practice 20 years ago within the context of his own therapeutic journey and since that time has studied, practiced and taught mindfulness based practices in Canada and the US. Nat has taught and mentored others within the context of traditional Buddhist retreats, workshops on mindfulness and compassionate communication practices, and individual, couple and family therapy sessions. Nat has also explored these themes in his academic work having conducted experimental psychological research on the effects of mindfulness and emotional awareness in reducing aggressive responses to goal threats as well as exploring how somatic awareness and embodied mindfulness practices can be integrated into couple and family therapy.
Nat Roman is a Registered Psychotherapist with a Master of Science in Couple and Family Therapy and a BA in Psychology and additional specialized training in Nonviolent Communication (NVC) processes and community based restorative conflict circles. In an earlier stage of life Nat worked as a professional musician and strongly believes that creativity is an essential part of life, whether one is engaged in a formal creative discipline, problem solving, or attempting to get kids off to school in the morning.