Say the word mindfulness and images of people sitting in silence, softly breathing with eyes closed may come to our minds. We imagine these individuals are in some sort of Zen-like state with thoughts pushed to the side, the mind blank and worry-free. We’ve heard that mindfulness practice helps people manage stress, mood, and even chronic pain. Despite these benefits, many of us assume the only goal of mindfulness is to obtain a peaceful mind, and the only way to do this is to “clear our mind.”
So we decide to look up information on mindfulness, download an App, or even attend a meditation group, sitting in silence with others, trying to focus on our breath, and leaving the day’s stressors behind. Instead of finding that inner calm we seek, we become deeply aware and dismayed by our inner struggles. Our mind refuses the silence, and the harder we try to shut these intrusive thoughts down, the louder it becomes. Instead of feeling at peace, we instead feel distressed and discouraged and convince ourselves that perhaps this mindfulness practice everyone raves about just isn’t for us.
If you tried mindfulness before and relate to this experience, you are not alone. During the beginning of my mindfulness practice, I often felt confused by my inability to find the inner peace I was chasing. While others in a meditating group would share how relaxed they felt, I felt equally perhaps even more stressed. I was able to find brief moments of mental calm but struggled with consistency, never clearing my mind for more than a moment or two. At the time, I didn’t realize that my expectation of what I thought mindfulness should feel was creating my distress. It wasn’t until I began to learn more about mindfulness that I began to understand that my experience was a normal and integral part of mindfulness.
What Mindfulness is (and is Not)
Have you ever arrived home and couldn’t remember any part of the drive? Or taken a first bite of ice cream to quickly find yourself staring at the bottom of the container? We spend much of our lives mindlessly moving through it. This is no surprise considering the world around us promotes a busy lifestyle. Being “productive” in western culture is highly valued. Busyness is an expected state of mind and even something we seek out because it’s comfortable. What’s uncomfortable is sitting with ourselves while painful thoughts and emotions surface. But surprise! THAT is exactly what mindfulness is. In Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression (Segal, Williams and Teasdale 2013) mindfulness is described as the following:
Though this definition seems simple, it highlights a state of mind in which we rarely exist and is worth exploring in more detail. Below is a breakdown of each part of the above definition.
Mindfulness is the awareness that emerges through:
Paying Attention is noticing what is happening at this very moment. It may include noticing our feelings, emotions, bodily sensations, the sounds or smells around us. It’s using our five senses to be aware of exactly what is happening now. When we start to pay attention, we start recognizing patterns in our thoughts and behaviors. We begin to recognize the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and the world around us. It’s our way to make sense of the world and our place in it. Some stories are more helpful than others and recognizing these stories can help us be more intentional in how we respond.
On Purpose or having the intention of doing what we are doing. When we do something on purpose we do it because we mean to do so. We choose this action instead of being victim to our patterns of thoughts and behavior and reacting blindly to the environment around us. Being intentional is most difficult when we experience our strongest feelings of sadness, anger or hurt. With a lack of awareness, we often respond to these unpleasant feelings on autopilot which can lead us in a direction that may be unhelpful and even hurtful.
In the Present Moment is exactly what it sounds like. The reality is that the present moment is the only place in which we ever truly exist. Yet we spend little of our time in the here and now, and more of our time thinking about our to-do list, lamenting the past, or worrying about the future. To be in the moment is to be here, right now with whatever is happening and to truly experience it whether it hurts or brings us great joy.
Non-Judgmentally: For many, being non-judgmental about our experiences is the hardest part. We have a natural tendency to compare what we are doing to what we think something should be like instead of experiencing the moment for what it is. We may wake up in the morning, dread our day or that meeting in the afternoon. Already the expectation is set that today will be a bad day. We feel pain before anything painful occurs. When we begin to approach our thoughts with a more open, curious and non-judgmental stance, we start creating distance from our judgments. By taking a more neutral stance, we can look more honestly at ourselves. It’s hard to be honest if that honestly brings about a tidal wave of judgment. It’s easier when we are able to step back and be gentler in our self-assessment.
To Things as They Are: Looking at things as they are means not as we wish they were or imagine them to be but in its current state. We can only really start from exactly where we are.
Benefits of Mindfulness
So what is the point of all this mindfulness? Why start a mindfulness practice, and how does it even work? And we know that research shows mindfulness does work. But how? How can sitting with our thoughts and feelings—even the painful ones, help us feel less stressed, less depressed and experience less pain both emotionally and physically? For many of us, this feels counterintuitive. Shouldn’t we try to think positive thoughts or distract ourselves to feel better? It’s hard to realize that the more we refuse to let things we label as too difficult come to the surface, the more pain we are in.
Mindfulness works not because we push away thoughts and feelings, but because we accept them. As a result of this acceptance, we quiet the internal battles in our mind. We accept our sadness, hurt or anger without adding fuel to the fire by our judgments. Mindfulness is not about stopping our chattering minds but accepting them. It’s not about stopping the pain. We all experience pain. It is a human condition. By non-judgmentally accepting pain as a normal part of life, we suffer less.
Additionally, by recognizing our own feelings and thought patterns, we can respond with intention. We don’t just react with anger when our partner pushes our buttons or when our boss says something upsetting. Instead, we can choose our responses thoughtfully, creating better relationships and less distress in our lives.
So, the next time (or if maybe for the first time) you decide to sit down, slow down and focus on your breath and find a busy mind, remind yourself “this is normal.”—our minds chatter. If you walk away, feeling more stressed. It’s okay! Maybe you do feel calm and more at peace at the end. Well, believe it or not, that happens too—in fact, the more you accept and less you struggle, the calmer you may begin to feel overall including during your practice.