If you are depressed, you are living in the past.
If you are anxious, you are living in the future.
If you are at peace, you are living in the present.
~Lao Tzu, 5th Century BCE
Mindfulness is an ancient practice that seeks to deepen one’s awareness of the inner workings of the mind to create a healthy separation of the mind’s fluctuations from how we experience life. All of us are subject to experiencing life through the filter of our minds, which means that whatever way our minds choose to interpret, analyze, or judge things is how we interpret, analyze, and judge our lives. In real terms, the joy – or lack thereof – we experience is based to some degree on the inner workings of our mind.
Mindfulness is a moment-to-moment awareness, an objective view of one’s experience without judgment. Mindfulness can be seen more as a state of being and rather than a characteristic. While it may be associated or have similarities with certain practices or activities, such as meditation, it is not the same.
When one begins a mindfulness practice, one quickly realizes that the mind is in a near constant state of flux. The mind likes this, hates that; is scared of this, loves that; is turned on by this and off by any number of things. This can be exhausting! For example my mind deems traffic congestion “miserable” and thus my experience of life in that moment becomes “miserable.” Mindfulness can help us separate the mind’s interpretations from our experience of life.
Mindfulness seeks to transcend the judgments of the mind so that difficult experiences don’t make our lives difficult; they just become more like things that happen. With practice we can observe these difficulties with what’s called “compassionate detachment” so that they are just things our mind doesn’t like, while allowing us to maintain a level of serenity. In short, we are neither our thoughts nor our emotions: these are just things that occur in our life and do not define us or completely shape our life. This of course is not to discount the importance of thought or emotion, for they are important tools we’ve developed over thousands of years that serve good purpose. But they are not who we are.
Mindfulness versus Multitasking
The opposite of mindfulness is going on autopilot, paying loose attention to what task or thing you are presently doing. For example, the other day I noticed that I was doing a number of activities simultaneously: turning off the car with one hand, grabbing my coffee cup and smartphone with the other, while deciding I was going to eat the leftover Indian food for lunch and make jasmine tea.
I reflected on this behavior and realized I was not being mindful; however, this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing – I was multitasking, after all. It’s not bad or wrong to multitask, on occasion, but excessive multitasking leads to a scattered attention, excessive plan making, future-being, worry, and anxiety, which is basically fear. Fear can impair our ability to make choices that have important implications for our well-being.
Multitasking assisted us humans up to this point in our evolution, but we have never had access to the huge amounts of information that bombard us every minute of every day. We carry supercomputers in our pockets, after all. Amazingly, our brains have adapted to this change. That our attention can get scattered is an understatement. Human brains are like Ferrari supercars: they operate at incredible speeds; process large amount of information in microseconds; and test the boundaries of gravity, speed and physics. We all use our brains to do incredible things every day, from breast-feeding a baby to traveling to the moon.
So much can go right – and so much can go wrong – in both Ferraris and human brains. I’ve never had a Ferrari, but I’ve heard repair bills are staggering. I don’t need to go into what can go wrong with our health; one need only think about the myriad of mental and physical health disorders, which, in most respects, are just different manifestations of dis-ease. In other words, multitasking takes us away from the present moment and, in so doing, can create the conditions for developing dis-ease – chronic detachment from the here and now.
Here is where we as humans must continue to adapt and begin to pay closer attention to the precise thing we are doing. Nothing is actually happening in the future or in the past. What you are doing in the present is the most important thing you are doing because it is what is actually happening, unfolding now.
Quantum scientists have now corroborated what mystics have known for thousand of years: when you enter the present moment with your full attention, you enter the “field of all possibilities.” Most of us have already experienced this to some degree. When you give your attention to something – be it a child, animal, relationship, career, hobby – it grows and expands in beautiful ways. When one brings a deeper level of awareness to each and every moment, one’s life begins to grow in all sorts of spectacular and creative ways. For most of us, this is not a switch we flip but a process, a practice that we develop over time.
Benefits of a Mindfulness Practice
Reduced Worry – Mindfulness is well researched. Research shows that mindfulness has significant benefits, including reduced rumination or worry. Chambers et al. (2008) asked 20 novice meditators to participate in an intensive mindfulness retreat. After the retreat, participants experienced fewer depressive symptoms and less rumination. Moreover, mindfulness practitioners had significantly better working memory capacity and were better able to sustain attention during a cognitive performance task compared with the control group.
Reduced Stress and Improved Mood – Many studies demonstrate that practicing mindfulness reduces stress. In 2010, Hoffman et al. conducted a meta-analysis of 39 studies that explored the use of mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. The researchers concluded that mindfulness-based therapies can be useful for identifying the workings of the mind that lead to mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and high stress states. These findings are consistent with evidence that mindfulness increases positive feelings and decreases anxiety and negative emotions.
Increased Relationship Satisfaction – Numerous studies show a significant correlation between the ability to respond well to relationship stress and the skill in communicating one’s emotions to a partner. Empirical evidence suggests that mindfulness protects against the emotionally stressful effects of relationship conflict (Barnes et al., 2007), is positively associated with the ability to express oneself in various social situations (Dekeyser et al., 2008), and predicts relationship satisfaction (Barnes et al., 2007; Wachs & Cordova, 2007).
Mindfulness and Therapy
Much of Western Medicine espouses that when there is a problem, this problem needs to be eradicated so a person can return to “normal.” That is, get rid of x symptom(s) and feel better. In effect escape the problem. Mindfulness and its attending therapies say that to feel better one needs to create a new relationship with the “problem.” By doing so, it becomes less of a problem or not a problem at all. To do this, one needs not to avoid the issue but to go deeper into the issue. A skilled therapist can provide a safe place to do this and help a patient create tools to do this in their own life. Paradoxically, by going deeper into the “problem,” one’s perspective starts to change and whatever “problem” one has is actually just a thing that happens in life. The process of increasing awareness of emotions, thoughts, and sensations in turn creates more peace, happiness, and acceptance. If you would like to learn more about bringing mindfulness into your life, contact me to discuss how you can get started.
Barnes, S., Brown, K. W., Krusemark, E., Campbell, W. K., & Rogge,R. D. (2007). The role of mindfulness in romantic relationship satisfaction and responses to relationship stress. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 33, 482–500. doi:10.1111/j.1752–0606.2007.00033.x
Davis, Daphne M. and Hayes, Jeffrey A. (2011), What are the benefits of mindfulness? A practice review of psychotherapy-related research. Psychotherapy, 48(2): 198-208.
Dekeyser, M., Raes, F., Leijssen, M. Leyson, S., & Dewulf, D. (2008). Mindfulness skills and interpersonal behavior. Personality and Individual Differences, 44, 1235–1245. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2007.11.018
Hofmann, Stefan G.; Sawyer, Alice T.; Witt, Ashley A.; Oh, Diana (2010), The effect of mindfulness-based therapy on anxiety and depression: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 78(2): 169-183.
Wachs, K. and Cordova, J. V. (2007), Mindful relating: Exploring mindfulness and emotion repertoires in intimate relationships. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 33: 464–481. doi: 10.1111/j.1752-0606.2007.00032.x
Peter Lear is a therapist with The Labyrinth Institute specializing in the treatment of addictions. He is also a Registered Yoga Teacher. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 303-981-7227.