The psychological practice of Mindfulness (derived from Eastern meditation practices) is de rigueur at the moment, being promoted as a standalone practice for psychological wellbeing, and forming part of a number of evidence based psychological therapies. A straightforward definition of Mindfulness is to pay attention to the present moment, and to do so non-judgementally. And although anything can be done in a Mindful fashion, there are a number of formal Mindfulness exercises designed to promote this skill, such as paying attention to our natural breathing.
When running therapy groups I noticed that my clients thought of Mindfulness mainly as a relaxation exercise, but Mindfulness can help in more ways than this. What follows is a summary of ways that we can use Mindfulness to promote mental wellbeing. I will start with the simplest uses, and progress to trickier, but potentially very rewarding applications.
An exercise like Mindful Breathing can focus our mind on the rise and fall of our breathing, these natural rhythms serving to calm an agitated mind. And some people will combine Mindful attention with relaxation exercises, such as controlled breathing and progressive muscle relaxation, which are designed to calm us physiologically as well as psychologically.
Our attention is a limited mental resource, and when our mind is focussed on a certain aspect of the present moment, it is not thinking about other, possibly less pleasant things. Hence Mindfulness as a form of distraction can help to dampen distressing emotions, and reduce worry and ruminative thinking.
Much of our mental and physical activity occurs automatically and outside of awareness. Anybody who has regularly driven along the same route has probably experienced getting to their destination without noticing a single part of the journey, perhaps lost deep in thought the whole way. But the car wasn’t driving itself, (although that technology is on its way!), so many parts of your brain must have been working diligently in the background. In a similar way, many of the negative mental processes implicated in mental health disorders occur automatically and outside of awareness.
Exercises like Mindful Breathing, Eating, and Walking, train us to become aware of activities that are frequently automatic, and to examine them with curiosity, rather than jumping to an instinctive judgement. We can then apply this same skill to other automatic events, particularly the unhelpful thinking patterns, corrosive emotions, and reactive behaviours that contribute towards mental health problems. As a former management accountant we used to adhere to the maxim ‘what isn’t measured can’t be managed’, and in psychology we could say that ‘what isn’t noticed can’t be changed’. So the greater insight we can achieve with Mindfulness allows us to begin that change process. Be aware though that noticing unpleasant thoughts and emotions for the first time can be confronting, so it’s helpful to have a therapist or other trusted person available for support.
Confronting Unpleasant Emotions
Negative emotions fulfil important functions, and must play a role in our lives. But we tend to avoid what we don’t like, and very few of us like our negative emotions. Taking the edge off an unpleasant feeling is okay, but there is plenty of evidence that excessive avoidance of unpleasant emotions is ineffective in the long run, leading to greater negative emotion overall. Hence we are better off learning how to confront and understand our negative emotions, so that we might respond to them in a more considered way. Being Mindful of both the mental and physical components of our emotions, paying attention to them with curiosity rather than judgement, can teach us that these are just sensations like any others. With dedicated practice we can learn to weather the storm, ‘sitting’ with our emotions long enough to decide how best to respond to them.
A great paradox of Mindfulness is that by learning to simply observe internal and external events, (including our thoughts and emotions), instead of trying to control them, we are in fact better able to control how we respond to them, and hence influence how they impact upon us. This is because many of our reactions to events are automatic, born from habit or reflex, and our attempts to control particularly internal events, like emotions, are ineffective in the long run. The restraint of a seasoned Mindfulness practitioner allows them to respond to events in a more controlled manner, consistent with their best interests in the longer term.
A Way to Live
If we integrate Minfulness into our lives then we begin to live in the moment. And the reality is that the present moment is all we have. Sure, there are memories of the past, and we will have new experiences in the future, but even these things can only be thought about in the present moment.
An old supervisor of mine used to call thinking about the past or future ‘time travel’. It is important to learn from the past and plan for the future, but if we spend too much time travelling then we miss out on the present anyway, so what was the point of all that thinking?