Mindfulness: A Path Towards Well-Being

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Written by Lauren Helm, Ph.D.

“Mindfulness is the aware, balanced acceptance of the present experience. It isn’t more complicated than that. It is opening to or receiving the present moment, pleasant or unpleasant, just as it is, without either clinging to it or rejecting it.”

— Sylvia Boorstein

Automatic Pilot & Reactivity

What guides you in deciding how to act from moment-to-moment, and day-to-day?  When you come to a fork in the road, how do you decide which direction to go?

It is easy to go through the motions of our day without conscious awareness, paying little attention to why we are doing what we are doing, and what is happening around us. We go through routines so automatically that it is not uncommon to wonder where the time went, feeling almost as though we were not really there. Have you ever driven somewhere, only to realize once you’ve arrived that you barely remember driving at all?

So much of what we do happens on automatic-pilot. The automatization of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral patterns is the brain's way of conserving valuable and finite cognitive resources. When we repeatedly do a behavior over and over again, automaticity tends to develop, and when we overlearn a helpful skill, we are aided in more efficiently and effectively navigating a complex, ever-changing world. Without the automaticity of the habits we develop, simple tasks would take inordinate amounts of concentration, energy, effort, and time. We would have little time and energy left to invest in weighty, complex tasks, and it would likely be very difficult to survive, let alone thrive.

The downside of automaticity is that it is also characterized by little awareness, intentionality, and controllability (Bargh, 1994). When we act with little awareness, intention, or control, this is typically not a recipe for success in difficult or challenging situations that require us to respond with care, precision or finesse. Automatic responding is often reflexive, reactive, impulsive or careless. Everyone acts reactively at times, whether it is by reactively lashing out at a loved one after a stressful day at work, or distractedly overlooking important details on a project, or missing a turn on the way home from work.

Automatic pilot is a habitual way of responding, and when much of our life is lived reactively, we can be robbed of the fullness of life that we desire, because we are disconnected from the present moment - we are not fully attending to what is happening right here and now.

Moving Towards Mindfulness

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Although we are rarely are fully connected with the present moment, mindfulness can help bring us back to the “now.” When we are more fully present in the moment, we can make mindful decisions, and take intentional, grounded action. We can connect with the fullness of life (good and bad) that is offered to us in each passing moment.

But what is mindfulness, really? Mindfulness is a concept that originated in Buddhist philosophy thousands of years ago. Recently, mindfulness has been growing in popularity within the West and has become the focus of a growing body of research, which has found that mindfulness-based interventions appear to powerfully promote psychological resilience and well-being. Jon Kabat-Zinn, who started the widely-researched Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, has coined one of the most commonly used definitions of mindfulness in the psychological field: 

“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; On purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”

— Jon Kabat-Zinn

In breaking Kabat-Zinn's definition down, we can see that mindfulness has three major components, all related to how we pay attention. Our attention is what we use to observe and participate in life experiences. When we are mindful, our attention is:

1.    Intentionally or consciously focused (as opposed to unconsciously or mindlessly-driven)

2.    Focused on present moment (as opposed to the past or the future)

3.    Nonjudgmental of what we observe (as opposed to judgmental, non-accepting, resistant, or avoidant/reactive)

In other words, mindfulness is not as much about WHAT you are paying attention to, as it is about HOW you are paying attention to it. Mindfulness is about the process, as opposed to the content of your experience. The content of your experience is important, of course. However, mindfulness is about establishing a conscious, nonreactive stance towards the full range of your experiencing of life. It is about changing your relationship with your experience. You become more aware of and open to it, as opposed to shut down or disconnected from it. 

From my personal practice and professional training in mindfulness, I've learned that ultimately, mindfulness is also a way of being. It is a practice of consciously and compassionately “tuning in” to aspects of my present moment experience.  I may choose to widen or narrow my attention, and where to direct it -- whether my attention is finely pointed or expansive, observing inner or outer experience, all will do. Mindfulness is about the quality of my awareness of the moment. It allows me to more directly “experience” the moment in various ways, as I learn to allow and embrace what occurs, as opposed to rigidly attempting evaluate, restrict, or control it. Mindfulness has helped me to reconnect with the power of choice. When I become more fully aware and accepting of what is happening in the moment, I have the ability to more consciously and compassionately choose how to respond, which prevents reactive, ineffective responding, and unnecessary suffering. Mindfulness has lead me to experience more connected interactions with people, places, my career, and sense of purpose. 

Take note that mindfulness is not about getting rid of pain. It is not about just learning to relax, or to reduce stress. Though relaxation is often a side-effect of mindfulness meditation, it is not guaranteed, nor is it the purpose.  Mindfulness is powerful precisely because it changes how you experience difficulty, and teaches you to observe and “sit” with discomfort, instead of avoidantly struggling with discomfort and suffering as a result. Mindfulness is the opposite of avoidance – it is about embrace.  By changing your relationship with emotional or physical pain through being mindful, often, you become more open and receptive, enhancing your relationship with the joys of life as well.

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The Psychology of Mindfulness

From a behavioral and psychological standpoint, mindfulness training allows us to alter and shape the way we habitually attend to various internal and external stimuli. It creates shifts in our attentional-patterns or habits in reacting to the environment. We become better able to respond effectively to unpleasant and pleasant stimuli, in part because it prevents a downward spiral of negative emotion (which would be created by perceiving unpleasant thoughts, emotions, or physical sensations as threatening and therefore distressing). Our capacity to widen our attention and non-reactively respond to perceived of pleasant and unpleasant stimuli in strengthened. When the presence or absence of internal stimuli are no longer judged as threatening or distressing, more of our cognitive and attentional resources can be directed towards responding in more effective ways in accordance with our short and long-term goals. Our behavioral repertoire becomes more varied and flexible, particularly as we are reinforced through the natural consequences of our actions. Essentially, mindfulness can help us to improve our emotion regulation abilities and improve the quality of our lives. 

Mindfulness Meditations & Exercises

“The best way to capture moments is to pay attention. This is how we cultivate mindfulness. Mindfulness means being awake. It means knowing what you are doing.”

— Jon Kabat-Zinn

There are various types of mindfulness exercises and meditations that can help cultivate a state of mindfulness. Mindfulness is an attentional-control skill, and like any skill, it takes repeated practice for it to become powerful and accessible. To develop the skill of mindfulness, you can practice mindfulness meditations or exercises by focusing your attention intentionally and nonjudgmentally on different aspects of your external and/or internal environment:

Practicing Mindfulness of Your External Environment

Your external environment is what surrounds you - it is whatever is located and/or happening outside of your mind in the here and now (i.e. the room you are in, the chair you are sitting in, the people that surround you, etc.). You are always interacting with the external environment by perceiving and interpreting it with your senses. When you are first starting to learn and hone the skill of mindfulness, it is often helpful to begin by focusing your attention your body's experience of the environment you are in, because it is more concrete, and may help you to root your awareness more fully in your body and become grounded in the moment. You can practice mindfulness meditation that is focused on an aspect of your external environment (i.e. the world around you) that you can perceive with your body's five senses:

  • Taste (notice the taste in your mouth, or of a particular food or drink item)
  • Touch (notice the feel of air moving into your lungs, the weight and texture of an object in your hand, the temperature of the room, the pressure of your body on the chair, etc.)
  • Smell (notice the scent or lack of scent of anything, including flowers, the room, nature, city, etc.)
  • Hear (notice the tone, pitch, volume, etc. of sounds in this room, outside, in your body, etc.)
  • See (notice the colors, light, patterns, shapes, definition, of objects in this room or outside, etc.)

Practicing Mindfulness of Your Internal Environment

You can also practice mindfulness meditation that is focused on an aspect of your “inner,” private experience. Your internal environment is comprised of whatever is generated internally -- these are our inner reactions that only we can directly observe. It can be difficult to practice a mindful "observer" stance towards our internal experiences, but extremely valuable for promoting psychological resilience, because mindfulness can help us "make space" for and non reactively move through painful internal events. You may practice mindful awareness of: 

  • Thoughts (notice the positive or negative valence of the thought; notice whether the thought is a word or image; notice the frequency, duration, intensity of the thought; label the type of thought, etc.)
  • Emotions (notice the presence of the emotion in your body, notice the associated urges or impulses, notice the frequency, duration, intensity of the emotion, notice the ebb and flow of emotion, notice thoughts associated with the emotion, etc.)
  • Physiological sensations (notice the qualities of the physical sensations such as pain, pleasure, or neutral sensations; notice your relationship with these sensations, notice their frequency, intensity, duration, and ebb and flow, etc.)

Mindfulness may be strengthened through formal (planned) & informal (throughout your day) meditation practice. Informal mindfulness meditation practices may include the practice of mindful awareness throughout the day (e.g. mindfulness of physical sensations while taking a shower, mindfulness of body movements while putting the dishes away, mindful listening while in a conversation with someone close). Formal mindfulness exercises usually are planned exercises, such as mindful meditations that last 10-30 minutes and are practiced during a set time throughout the week. When you are first starting to learn mindfulness, it can be helpful to practice formal mindfulness exercises that are guided by an instructor or guided audio recording so that you can learn the technique. Mindfulness meditation can be quite challenging because it requires us to return our attention to aspects of our experience that we usually dismiss, ignore, or actively want to avoid. However, with regular practice our level of skill improves, and mindfulness becomes a more balanced and psychologically healthy way of relating to our daily lives.

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As we come to a close, I'd like to share an example of a commonly taught body-scan mindfulness meditation exercise. This meditation can help you to bring your awareness more fully back into your body, anchoring yourself back in the present moment. You might try making a recording of yourself reading this mindfulness script so that you can listen to the recording to help guide you through the practice.

Body Scan Mindfulness Exercise:

"Begin to gently bring your attention to your body as it sits in the chair in the room. Move your awareness to the parts of your body that are making contact with the chair and floor. Try to cultivate an attitude of openness, and curiosity of your experience, right now. You can approach this as if you have never experienced it before. What does it feel like, where your lower back is pressed against the chair? Feel the surface area, an imagine an outline of the parts of you that are making contact with the chair.

What sensations do you notice? Observe the degree of pressure. Notice the temperature of your skin in this area of your body. Observe any sensations that may be present for you. If there are no sensations, that is okay. Observe that. Your job is only to observe and to notice.

If your mind has wandered to other thoughts or experiences, notice this, and gently bring it back. Now move your attention down to your feet. Notice your feet, imagining your attention is fully exploring them, inside and out. The outlines of your toes, the balls of your feet, your heels. Breathe your awareness into this part of your body.

Just notice this part of your body. Notice any sensations that are there. Perhaps there is comfort, or there is discomfort. Try to not attach your attention to any sensation, but imagine breathing into it and allowing even more space for that sensation to be there. Whether it is pleasant or unpleasant, just allow it to be.

Expand your awareness now, widening it to include your entire body. Allow it to envelop your body, connecting with your body, in its entirety, at this moment. Breathe, and just allow yourself to become aware of yourself, in your body right now. Perhaps there is difficulty or this comes with ease. Either is okay. Just allow yourself to notice your experience right now, letting go, releasing, and just letting it be without needing to do anything to change it. Just let it be.

Begin to notice the sounds in this room. Take a few deep breaths and wiggle your fingers and toes. Slowly begin to open your eyes at a pace that is comfortable for you as this exercise comes to a close."

Thank you for reading! If you'd like to speak with Dr. Lauren Helm, a licensed clinical psychologist at Rise Psychology, for help with integrating mindfulness into your daily life, please click here.

Follow Rise Psychology on Facebook or Twitter (@risepsychology)

References

Bargh, J. A. (1994). The four horsemen of automaticity: Intention, awareness, efficiency, and control as separate issues.

Gu, J., Strauss, C., Bond, R., & Cavanagh, K. (2015). How do mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and mindfulness-based stress reduction improve mental health and wellbeing? A systematic review and meta-analysis of mediation studies. Clinical psychology review37, 1-12.

Kabat-Zinn, J., & Hanh, T. N. (2009). Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness. Delta.

Khoury, B., Lecomte, T., Fortin, G., Masse, M., Therien, P., Bouchard, V., ... & Hofmann, S. G. (2013). Mindfulness-based therapy: a comprehensive meta-analysis. Clinical psychology review33(6), 763-771.

Wyer, R. S. (Ed.). (2014). The automaticity of everyday life: Advances in social cognition (Vol. 10). Psychology Press.

 

Resources

American Mindfulness Research Association

www.goamra.org

Mindfulness in Businesses

www.huffingtonpost.com/news/mindfulness-business/

Mindfulness in Schools

www.mindfulschools.org