Within the context of psychology and therapy, mindfulness
generally has two widely used meanings:
- Our general amount of awareness at a given time; our relationship to our bodies, thoughts, and sensory experiences in the present moment. This might roughly be defined as our amount of concentration and focus on the here and now, as contrasted to our more typical state of mind, which is often lost in our thoughts about the future our past. In addition to our attention, mindfulness has a quality of non-judgement, or equanimity, as I prefer to call it. Equanimity is a type of radical acceptance of reality on an ongoing basis.
- A specific type of formal practice or exercise that is designed to increase our level of awareness for the duration of exercise.
One of my central beliefs as a therapist is that much of our suffering comes out of our lack of mindfulness as seen in definition 1, and that by practicing formal mindfulness exercises from definition 2, we can increase our baseline level of mindfulness in our day-to-day life over time, even when we are not “practicing” mindfulness.
The questions you may be asking yourself is: “Why would I want to do that, and what does it have to do with the depression, anxiety, trauma, etc., that is making my life so difficult right now?”
The answer is that mindfulness can be used to directly achieve the following common goals of counseling:
- Reduce emotional, mental, and physical suffering.
- Create more fulfillment in life.
- Make positive changes in our behaviors and relationships.
How is it that paying developing attention and concentration on the present moment with an infusion of acceptance can transform our moods, relationships, and recovery from traumatic life events?
Take the example of trauma, perhaps a relatively simple single traumatic event, such as a car accident. An individual who experiences such an event may find themselves caught in an ongoing mental tape of the event; vividly re experiencing the event in their own mind, with horrific detail, complete with the accompanying emotional distress and physiological reactions. When this is happening, the individual’s mind is caught in the past, and perhaps the future, as the mind races through all kinds of ways to avoid more accidents or imagines even worse ones that could occur any time they get in a vehicle.
From the viewpoint of Acceptance and Commitment therapy, the individual has become fused with their thinking, and rather than being able to enjoy their life in the present moment and connect with things they value, such as their relationships, they are lost in their own minds. They find their ability to experience fulfillment diminished as they spend more of their time trying to avoid these unpleasant thoughts and possible future accidents rather than creating a life that’s meaningful to them. Often, they replace previously fulfilling experiences replaced by impulsive and eventually destructive habits such as drinking, distractions, and isolating themselves from others.
Here’s where mindfulness becomes helpful: if an individual can develop a stronger ability to stay connected to the present moment while opening up and accepting the unpleasant thoughts about their past accident (or imagined future ones), they find that the thoughts slowly lose some of their ability to hook them and pull them away from their actual lives. Through mindfulness, they discover that thoughts are only a part of their experience, and they can maintain enough focus on the present to be engaged in doing what really matters to them, such as work or relationships.
As pleasant and helpful as this sounds, most people in even ordinary states of mind find it difficult to control their attention and find themselves frequently preoccupied with future worries or regrets about the past. At times of crisis, this is even more difficult to maintain, as the mind kicks into a frenzied state of problem solving and anguish, multiplying the suffering the experience in addition to the consequences of whatever crisis has occurred.
In my counseling practice, I help people learn a wide variety of specific and powerful mindfulness exercises to address their particular issues so that they can begin to create a life that is more fulfilling and meaningful. Some of these exercises are done in our sessions, while others require some amount of practice in day-to-day life or by setting aside time dedicated to developing these skills.
With some amount of effort, people find these skills eventually allow them to have more choice in where their mind is focused, allowing them to relax and take part in the present. They become more cooperative in relationships, less likely to engage in compulsive or avoidant behaviors, and enjoy more stability in their moods and emotions.
Interested in learning more? Contact me to see if this approach can help you with your life.