Mindfulness is one of those buzzwords that we hear a lot about, but what does it mean?
According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, a mindfulness specialist, mindfulness means paying attention in the present moment, to things as they are, non-judgementally. It’s about being in the moment you are in, without being lost in the past or future.
It’s about engaging all of your senses in that moment, so noticing sights, smells, sounds. It’s about stepping out of your thoughts and back into your body. Further it’s being aware of emotion, sensation and doing this without judging what we become aware of.
Linehan, a US psychologist, breaks mindfulness down into the ‘what’ we do in mindfulness, outlining key skills of ‘observe’, ‘describe’ and ‘participate’. By observe, we notice what is going on in us and around us, as well as what we are feeling.
It’s a bit like the guard at the palace gates – a calm and alert awareness to what is going on. We might then describe our experience, putting into words what we notice. So, ‘I notice I am thinking…’ and ‘I notice I am feeling…’. Participating means taking part, joining in and being totally aware when taking part in an activity.
And we attempt to do these things non-judgementally. Judgement is one of our bugbears, as we spend so much time judging ourselves, others and the world around us. We need judgement to safely navigate the world (judging distance, risks etc.), but what use is self-judgement? Self-judgement lowers our mood as it compares us against another person or ideal, outlining how we ‘should’ be and berating ourselves for what we are not.
This isn’t to say we can’t have an opinion on things, but the pejorative, damaging nature of judgement is what crushes self-belief. It also colours our own experiences, and brings about negative emotions. Oh and it’s not effective in bringing about change.
Mindfulness can help us concentrate and focus easier, as with practice (and more practice) it builds up our ability to direct and control our mind. Through practising ‘bringing the mind back to the present’ when it wanders or becomes distracted, we become more able to do that in our everyday lives. This also helps us manage situations in a calmer way as if we can find our present moment to come back to, we are more able to think clearly.
With problems in our everyday life, we are used to being at A (when we want to be at B) and using logic, careful analysis and problem solving to get there. However emotional issues aren’t like everyday puzzles – they can’t be easily understood or rationalised away. We might, for example have a goal to feel ‘happy’, however this drive for happiness creates frustration and judgement. We can’t make ourselves feel a different emotion sometimes, even if we think we should logically.
Here is where mindfulness gives us an alternative – it doesn’t ask us to problem solve away emotional issues, nor to change it. But just to notice it and let it change at its own pace. It attempts to draw us back to the moment so we are less likely to cling tightly to the issue, or avoid it completely. It’s not a problem solving technique, but a different way of ‘being’ where we let go of the need to instantly solve the issue. Further we take time out from our goal orientated mental patterns.
Mindfulness approaches teach people to pay attention to every moment as it happens, using techniques such as meditation and breathing. It allows them to let go of negative thoughts which may tip them over the edge into depression.
It also helps people to become in tune with their own bodies; helping to identify change in mood, spikes in emotion, negative thoughts and pain, which we will all experience. This is alongside a greater acceptance of thoughts, feelings and self overall, leading to increased self-esteem.
Mindfulness-based therapy (MBCT) is scientifically proven to help those who experience depression, anxiety and insomnia. It has also been recommended by the National Institute for Clinical and Health Excellence (NICE) as an effective treatment for people who have recurrent episodes of depression. In Clinical trials MBCT is more effective than a maintenance dose of antidepressants in preventing relapse in depression!