Mindful or Mind Full?

Published on 16th August, 2021

Mindful or Mind Full?

What is Mindfulness?

As human beings, we can experience emotions deeply and intensely, and this can sometimes be an overwhelming experience. Mindfulness is the practice of slowing down and intentionally bringing our focus to the internal and external experiences occurring in the present moment, so that we may view them more clearly.

In psychotherapy, mindfulness-based interventions are used to better understand and address the emotions and physical sensations associated with thoughts. The goal is to work towards accepting these thoughts and emotions rather than be controlled by them.

With so much emphasis on academic and professional success in our culture, many children, adolescents and adults feel immense pressure from our hyper-competitive school or work environments.This often makes it difficult to slow down and acknowledge the painful experiences or emotions that we experience.

In fact, our culture often encourages us to move quickly past pain. For example, think about how employees are sometimes discouraged from taking too much time off work for illness or the fact that we often hear “just cheer up” as advice when we’re feeling down. It makes sense that if we feel even a small sting of pain, we want to shut it off quickly, move past it, and be “done” with a difficult experience.

Mindfulness has become somewhat of a trendy word lately, and can be associated with meditation, spirituality or “inner peace”. While Buddhist and other spiritual traditions have explored the concept of mindfulness in philosophical terms, the past couple of decades have seen a huge increase in scientific research on mindfulness-based interventions in the treatment of mental health concerns. A recent comprehensive study indicated that mindfulness-based interventions showed favourable effects on outcomes for anxiety, depression, pain, schizophrenia, and eating-related disorders.

What is Mindfulness NOT?

Mindfulness is NOT having no thoughts.

Many clients I’ve worked with have come to me with the viewpoint that the goal of mindfulness is to eliminate all your thoughts, and this feels like an impossible task. Well, that’s because it is! It simply isn’t feasible to turn off your brain or body sensations. You are a human being, not a robot. Your thoughts and emotions are there for a reason, and the goal of mindfulness is to bring non-judgmental awareness to them.

In fact, bringing awareness to yourself and your surroundings in an intentional way might even illuminate emotions and body sensations that you were not previously aware of, and these are valuable signals to help you gain insight into yourself.

Mindfulness is NOT “being blissful”.

While the goal of implementing mindfulness into your life is to lessen the negative effects over time of anxiety, depression, or any number of other mental health concerns, the practice itself doesn’t automatically turn negative into positive. In fact, checking in with your thoughts, emotions and sensations doesn’t feel easy or restful. Mindfulness is actively looking at positive, neutral, and negative elements of your experience. It is active work, not passive blank-ness. So while the overall goal is to reduce the stress of the default ways of being, the practice of mindfulness encompasses the good, the bad and the ugly sides of all that you experience.

The goal is NOT to strive to be mindful 100% of the time.

Being aware of everything in the present moment and practicing noticing all thoughts, feelings and sensations is no small task. It isn’t easy and it isn’t possible to do it 100% of the time. No one has that much ability to focus. Sometimes you’re tired, sleepy, distracted, busy, tending to many different things that are pulling our attention. The goal is to build MORE mindfulness into your life, not to be mindful all of the time.

3 Ways to Practice Mindfulness:

  1. A Mindful Body Scan

A body scan is the practice of focusing attention on each part of your body in turn, moving from your head to toes. For a more advanced practice, you can try to identify tension in each part of the body, and then tense and relax the muscles to release tension.

First, sit in a comfortable seat with your feet on the ground. Then start by taking a couple of deep breaths and paying attention to each inhale and exhale. Then move progressively down your body:

  • your head,
  • your neck and shoulders,
  • your chest,
  • your back,
  • your stomach,
  • your arms, hands, fingers,
  • your legs
  • and finally your feet and toes.

Then bring your attention back to your breath, take a deep inhale and one final exhale.

Now close your eyes and try it for yourself.

  1. Practice Being Curious

Next time you find yourself feeling stressed or anxious about a situation, take a moment to ask yourself these questions, and see if it can help to reduce the overwhelming thoughts:

  • What events led up to this moment or event?
  • What are the physical sensations going on in my body right now?
  • What are the feelings that I’m experiencing right now?
  • What are the assumptions or narratives in my thoughts right now? (E.g. “I can’t do this”, “He must think X of me…”)
  • What emotions or physical sensations are these thoughts trying to avoid?

Just by asking yourself these questions, you’re practicing mindfulness and you’ll start to welcome a more neutral and curious state of mind.

  1. Practice Being Non-Judgmental

The first step is to begin to notice “shoulds” and “shouldn'ts”.

For example:

“This shouldn’t be happening!” “I should be doing more…” and “She shouldn’t have said that to me!”

Notice that there is an underlying judgment in these thoughts. They are all directly rejecting a reality. Something bad is happening, you aren’t doing the thing you feel you should be doing, and she did say that thing to you.

Whether or not any of those things are okay or need addressing, the first step is to be more direct in your acceptance of them. If you can pay attention to the judgmental thoughts you are having, you can also flip the script and practice observing non-judgmentally what is going on. This will reduce the negative feelings that are attached to the judgment and allow you a fairer and more compassionate view of yourself and the world around you.

Mindfulness takes practice and effort... Mindfulness is not an easy practice. Just like building muscles in the gym, building the practice of mindfulness in your life will take work, reflection, learning, re-learning and support.

The payoff for this effort can be huge: reducing levels of stress and anxiety by calming the body and mind, improving focus and attention by strengthening your ability to bring attention where you want it to be, and increasing your capacity for non-judgment and compassion for yourself and those around you.