What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness has been defined as the awareness that arises through “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally” (Kabat-Zinn, 1994, p. 4). Other similar descriptions of mindfulness have emphasised “the non-judgmental observation of the ongoing stream of internal and external stimuli as they arise” (Baer, 2003, p. 125).
Mindfulness has its origins in Buddhist tradition, and has been adopted in psychology as an approach to respond adaptively to mental events that contribute to emotional distress. The basic premise underlying mindfulness practice is that the experience of the present moment in a non-judgemental and purposeful way can effectively counter the effects of negative thoughts about the past and the future, which tend to occur in depression (Hoffman, Sawyer, Witt, & Oh, 2010). Therefore, mindfulness can be conceptualised as a form of mental training to reduce vulnerability to ways of reacting that contribute to increased emotional distress.
What Mindfulness is NOT?
Mindfulness is not about having an empty mind (I hear this misconception way too often!). The nature of our minds is to wander, so if you think you’re only succeeding in mindfulness if you manage to keep your mind empty, that is a perfect recipe to feeling like you’ve failed. Instead, mindfulness is about developing your ability to observe your thoughts or feelings without being caught up by them, in the same way as you would watch clouds passing by in the sky.
Mindfulness is also not about just relaxing. Whilst most people do feel relaxed when they practise mindfulness (which is a bonus!), in mindfulness you’re turning your attention inwards (e.g., noticing your thoughts and feelings), whilst in relaxation you’re turning your attention outwards (e.g., by distracting yourself and engaging in a given activity).
How to practise it?
The formal practice of mindfulness is often as a sitting meditation where you are encouraged to focus your attention on a particular focus, most commonly the breath and its somatic sensations. Whenever the mind wanders and thoughts and feelings arise, you can take notice of them and let them go, whilst returning your attention to the breath. This process is repeated each time your attention wanders away from the breath.
An informal mindfulness practice entails using the same general approach by bringing awareness to the present moment during the course of the day, whether you are brushing your teeth, commuting, eating, walking, etc.
If you would like to know more about mindfulness and its use in psychological well-being, please click here.
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