What does “Mindfulness” mean?
I recently returned from a five-day workshop on “Mindfulness” based Cognitive Therapy for depression. These days we frequently hear about “mindfulness” and it’s application to a variety of conditions and situations. It’s become a popular term.
But what does it mean? When I think of mindfulness, I think of being aware of other people’s feelings or being careful (as in be mindful of where you step). But this type of mindfulness is different. It’s all about being aware of your own experience.
“Mindfulness means being able to bring direct, open-hearted awareness to what you are doing while you are doing it: being able to tune in to what’s going on in your mind and body, and to the outside world, moment by moment (“The Mindful Way Workbook by Teasdale, Williams, and Segal, Guilford Press, 2014)."
Why is this important? Awareness of our own experience helps us differentiate between thoughts, feelings, and sensations. It enables us to see ourselves more clearly, with greater understanding. And, as a result, we see things around us more distinctly. This can result in better decisions. It enables us to take greater responsibility for our actions. And it can help us discern the needs of others with greater clarity.
Our view of ourselves, and the world around us, comes through our senses—taste, sight, touch, hearing, and smell. We have internal sensations—the feeling of our bodies, our skin, our muscles, our joints, and the rhythm of our breath. And we sense the world around us through our sense organs. There is a symphony of sensations and it’s difficult to hear the individual instruments. These individual sensations trigger thought, which elicits emotion.
I might experience tightness and discomfort in my lower back. This may trigger the thought—“Oh no, here we go again! Lower back pain! Now I’m going to be in pain for days! What a drag!” This thought now sets off emotions—anger, frustration, and sadness. These emotions elicit more tension and tightness—yes! In my back! Now I have more thoughts---“This is worse than I thought! I’m sick and tired of this pain! I want it to go away!” Pain is a sensation. Distress over being in pain is called suffering. That distress is a dimension that we add to the equation.
The authors note—“Moods and feelings can trigger “matching” patterns of thinking, memory, and attention, which then make the feelings even more intense and persistent”. It can be a downward spiral. And, this kind of training helps us discern our own “habits of mind”—the way our mind works. We can see how thoughts arise in our minds that are judgments or evaluations of our experience rather than the direct experience itself. It often results in ruminating, future thinking, and distress. It shifts us from living in the here and now, the present, into the future that is still unborn. It nurtures anxiety rather than acceptance.
Many of these observations come from the practice of Eastern Buddhist meditation. These meditative practices focus on sitting quietly every day, focusing on the breath, the sensations of the body, and simply observing thoughts as they arise without judging or evaluating them. Experienced meditators (individuals who have practiced this meditation daily for years) report that they have greater awareness of themselves, they are more relaxed, and they are able to cope better with the disruptions that come in life.