Mindfulness is the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally, to things as they are. *
In recent years there has been a lot of interest in mindfulness. Schools are incorporating it into the curriculum, big businesses are hiring consultants to teach mindfulness techniques to their staff and the NHS has been offering mindfulness classes alongside talking therapies. In some cases, mindfulness is even offered as an alternative to counselling or psychotherapy.
What is mindfulness?
When we get too caught up in the busyness of the world, we lose connection with one another – and ourselves.
Put simply, mindfulness is a state of mind in which there is a moment-to-moment awareness of present experience. Have you ever driven somewhere only to get there and wondered how you ever navigated the junctions, traffic lights and zebra crossings? Or maybe you opened a bag of sweets and found yourself surprised that you had emptied the whole bag without even noticing. This is the opposite of mindfulness, a sort of automatic pilot where you did one thing while your attention was somewhere else – you probably don’t even know where. This sort of ‘mindlessness’ seems harmless most of the time, but it can be unhelpful as fragmentary negative thoughts and memories can sometimes slip past our attention. When they build up, stronger feelings of sadness, depression or anxiety can erupt into our awareness and we feel unprepared to deal with them.
Activities and practices that require us intentionally to direct and focus our attention and awareness can help us reach a more mindful state. The first thing that springs to people’s mind is usually some form of still, quiet meditation, but there are many other things that can also help focus the mind. Colouring, yoga or qi gong, embroidery, washing the dishes, walking with the dog, playing golf, eating…the list could go on and on.
What has this got to do with psychotherapy?
Mindfulness is a way of befriending ourselves and our experience.
I believe psychotherapy and practices aimed towards mindfulness can complement and enhance one another, although they are not the same thing. Both therapy and mindful practice encourage us to take a sustained, curious interest in ourselves or an aspect of our experience. We become witnesses to our mind and its activity rather than getting lost in it and carried away. What’s more, we are invited to take a gentle, non-judgmental attitude towards our experiences. After all, it is very difficult to be curious about or learn from something we hate.
There is also something important about making connections. In mindful practice, we cultivate a deep connection with ourselves, perhaps through paying attention to the breath, bodily sensations, passing thoughts or feelings. Through the process of psychotherapy, we are given the opportunity to connect with ourselves in relationship with another, hopefully one who will treat us with empathy, respect and understanding.
The idea of meditation is not to create states of ecstasy or absorption, but to experience being.
Both psychotherapy and mindful practice have the potential to move us out of that rather driven, ’doing’, state of mind which focusses on getting things done, solving problems and achieving goals. That state can be useful, of course, but if we live in it all the time we can get caught up in forever trying to change ourselves, the world and people around us and we will never be satisfied. That work will never be done. In shifting our attention to the direct, immediate experience of the present moment and allowing things to be as they are, we change gear from ‘doing’ to ‘being’. In this way, both mindful practice and psychotherapy can provide freedom, freshness and depth in our daily lives.
I believe that most people in psychotherapy or counselling would find that some kind of mindful practice supports and enhances their therapy and their daily lives.
Find out more about mindfulness and listen to some guided exercises at mindful.org
Psychologist Tara Brach offers a broader range of guided meditations here
* Definition taken from ‘The Mindful Way Through Depression,’ Williams, Teasdale, Segal and Kabat-Zinn, 2007