By Melanie Ernould, Psy.D.
Have you ever driven somewhere and arrived at your destination thinking that you have no recollection of the actual drive? Have you ever realized the amount of time you spend on your mobile phone to the exclusion of the world around you? Or perhaps you’ve realized you’ve lost touch with important people in your life because you’ve gotten caught up in the tasks of your everyday life? What about spending time doing something to realize that you’ve spent most of that time worrying about something else, like your to-do list or your messy house? These are all common ways that we miss out on being in the moment in front of us.
You may have heard the term “mindfulness” being tossed around in conversations about staying in the present moment, but have you wondered exactly what this means or how to apply the concept to your life?
Mindfulness was once an obscure Buddhist concept but has become a wildly popular psychotherapeutic intervention in the past 10 years. This is due to the popularity of successful mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) programs and the mindfulness component of dialectical behavior therapy. The term mindfulness can mean a “moment-by-moment awareness” or a “state of psychological freedom that occurs when attention remains quiet and limber, without attachment to any particular point of view,” according to Jeffery R. Martin, Ph.D.
In the article What are the benefits of mindfulness? (from the July/August APA Monitor on Psychology), the authors Daphne M. Davis, Ph.D. and Jeffrey A. Hayes, Ph.D. define mindfulness as a “moment-to-moment awareness of one’s experience without judgment,” and claim that this is the definition that is most often used in the research. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D. was the first to develop a modern definition of mindfulness, and defined it as “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
The application of mindfulness meditation in the field of psychology was not a huge leap. According to Mindfulness-based Approaches: are they all the same? (from the 2011 Journal of Clinical Psychology) by Alberto Chiesa, M.D. and Peter Malinowski, Ph.D., the goals of mindfulness meditation and psychological health are related: both Buddhist philosophy and psychology discourage behaviors that bring on and maintain negative emotions, and encourage positive emotions. Mindfulness is considered an acceptance-based therapy, where there is not an attempt to change thoughts or emotions no matter how unpleasant they may be. Well, how does it work then, you might ask?
Perhaps paradoxically, it is through acceptance that change is brought about. In other words, the less you try to change how you think, the more you are able to then change how you think. You focus on being rather than always trying to do. This works because you are not trying to force change; you are accepting yourself as you are and creating a freedom in your thoughts in the process. It takes practice to be truly mindful but this practice has helped treat and prevent people with problems, such as anxiety and depression. Below I outline a few exercises to aid in your mindfulness practice.
To start the practice of paying attention mindfully, try this practice next time you are eating something that you would normally take for granted or not think about, a chocolate or M&M candy for example:
- Before you put the food in your mouth, bring your attention to seeing the food as if with new eyes. What do you see? What color is it? What is the shape? What texture do you notice?
- Now feel the food with your fingers. What does it feel like? Is the surface smooth or bumpy?
- Notice whether you have any thoughts that might be coming up for you about the candy, food, or eating in general.
- Now smell the food and pay attention to what you notice about the experience of smelling it.
- Bring the food item to your lips, noticing how your hand is holding the item and moving it toward your mouth. How does your body respond to the food moving toward your mouth?
- Now put the food in your mouth and leave it in your mouth for a while, noticing how it tastes and what happens to it as you suck on it.
- Pay attention to the impulse to swallow. Imagine the food item entering your body, like you are one M&M or ____ heavier.
- Finally, what are your reactions and observations about this experience? How did this compare to how you usually eat?
We tend to eat mechanically and for emotional comfort without paying attention. However, if we can slow things down, we start to notice and enjoy our experiences, and act with purpose. This is what meditation is: paying attention to your experience from moment to moment.
Stop and Smell the Roses
Pay attention to one pleasant event each day as it is happening. Write in a journal the answers to these questions:
- What was the experience?
- Were you aware of any pleasant feelings while the event was happening or only later?
- How did your body feel during the experience? Describe this in detail.
- What moods, feelings, and thoughts were present as the event was actually happening?
- What thoughts are in your mind now as you write this down?
When you notice that you are feeling stressed about something, start by bringing your attention to your breathing. In… and out… In… and out… Then, ask yourself these questions:
- How does my body feel?
- How fast is my heart beating?
- Am I tense? Where am I holding my tension?
- What am I thinking about?
- What am I feeling? How do I know I’m feeling this?
References and Further Reading:
Allen, M., Bromley, A., Kuyken, W., & Sonnenberg, S. J. (2009). Participants’ experience of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy: “It changed me in just about every way possible.” Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy, 37, 413-430.
Chiesa, A. & Malinowski, P. (2011). Mindfulness-based approaches: Are they all the same? Journal of Clinical Psychology, 67, 404-424.
Davis, D. M. & Hayes, J.M. (2011). What are the benefits of mindfulness? A practice review of psychotherapy-related research. Psychotherapy, 48, 198-208.
Ernould, M. (2012). Addressing lesbian, gay, and bisexual bullying: A mindfulness-based intervention manual. Retrieved from aura.antioch.edu
Germer, C.K., Siegel, R.D., & Fulton, P.R. (2005). Mindfulness and psychotherapy. New York: Guilford Press.
Grossman, P., Niemann, L., Schmidt, S., & Walach, H. (2004). Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits: A meta-analysis. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 57, 35-43.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990). Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain and illness. New York: Dell Publishing.
Martin, J.R. (1997). Mindfulness: A proposed common factor. Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, 7, 291-312.