I mention in my bio on this website that I am interested in how the concepts of mindfulness and self-compassion can help us live in the present moment. Because these are two ideas that are less common approaches in psychotherapy, I thought I would begin my blog by talking about mindfulness and self-compassion. I will begin with mindfulness.
In recent years, there has been more and more interest in mindfulness in the mental health community. Mental health professionals help people to deal with and understand their suffering, and mindfulness is a strategy that can be helpful to this process.
Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as, “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to one’s unfolding of experience moment by moment.”
Mindfulness is simply about being awake to what is happening to us in the present moment. Though new to western psychology, mindfulness as a technique for easing our suffering has been around for a long time. Mindfulness comes from Buddhist psychology and has been central to these teachings for over 2,500 years.
I spent the past year co-leading a Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy group for depressed students at the University of Texas. Most of the students in the group were new to the concept of mindfulness and upon being introduced to mindfulness, many students had similar questions that centered around the following: “How does mindfulness help our suffering?” “How do we do mindfulness or be mindful?”
“How does mindfulness help our suffering?”
It is a very natural question to wonder how mindfulness…being aware of the present moment…is something that can help us to suffer less. Though this is not a question that is easy to briefly summarize, I have found it helpful to go back to Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness (above.) He says that mindfulness is, “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to one’s unfolding of experience moment by moment.” When we are able to be mindful, or be with our experience nonjudgmentally, we are able to accept our experience in a different way. When we can accept our experience we aren’t afraid of our experience and we are therefore more willing to approach our experience. If suffering is a part of our current experience, we are then able to creatively address this suffering. (Please note that accepting or not judging the present moment or your current experience can be a very fruitful yet difficult process and I’ll talk more about that when I discuss self-compassion in future blogs.)
Another way to look at how mindfulness can be helpful is to look at what mindfulnes is not. A classic example of mind-less-ness happens to many of us in our cars. As we are driving down the road toward our destination, we find ourselves on autopilot and as we come back to the present moment we wonder where we’ve been for the last five minutes. We don’t remember thinking about driving or noticing the view on the street, only being lost in our thoughts.
Many of us spend a lot of our time in this mind-less place. Practicing mindfulness allows us to catch ourselves in these mind-less moments and gives us the opportunity to come back to the present moment rather than spending time lost in our thoughts. Rather than letting our thoughts run us, we have more control of our thoughts which will allow us to have more control over our behaviors and emotions. With this comes the possibility of easing our suffering.
I hope this is a helpful starting place for those interested in an introduction to mindfulness. In my next blog I will look at the question, “How do we do mindfulness or be mindful?” and in subsequent blogs I will talk about how I use mindfulness in my work as a therapist.