Ask A Therapist: Column #10 On Mindfulness
Q: What is mindfulness and why does it seem to be so popular lately?
A: There is a lot of buzz about mindfulness these days and for good reason! To a certain extent, mindfulness is defined differently depending on the context. Mindfulness is often understood as the meditation practice developed by Jon Kabat Zinn. And, though mindful living certainly may include meditation, mindfulness can be broadly understood as a healthy orientation in daily living and is not limited only to one strategy.
For the purpose of this column, I will try to address it as a broad topic representing a philosophical approach but feel free to send more specific questions for future columns if you want to know more!
Simply put, mindfulness is a way of being in the world that values attention to the present moment. It is an intentional strategy that helps to minimize distraction and support healthy brain functioning. It creates the space to consider how we want to respond in a situation rather than acting impulsively or thoughtlessly.
Viktor Frankl observed that, “between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” When we are practicing mindfulness we are creating space for reflection, healing, and growth, and that pausing and paying attention liberates us from many negative thoughts and habits.
One way to think about mindfulness is as a necessary and countercultural alternative to mindlessness. When we are moving through our days mindlessly on autopilot we are often disconnected from our surroundings and our relationships. We tend to fall into unhelpful habitual patterns of thinking and behaviour that don’t always serve us well, and so we find ourselves feeling fragmented and overwhelmed.
When we are mindful, we are living fully in each moment, giving attention to the present reality and experiencing our full engaged selves-mind, body, and spirit. We feel more integrated and calm and we are paying attention to what matters in the moment, free from anxiety and worry.
When we are mindful, we are able to use our curiosity to make sense of our thoughts and feelings. We can pause, reflect, and move forward from a responsive rather than a reactive place. We tend to operate out of a healthier, more balanced emotional world because we are listening to our bodies, hearts, and minds in a nonjudgemental and compassionate way.
I often encourage my clients to create a rhythm of simple “mindful moments”, perhaps three or four, at regular intervals throughout the day. These pauses can be tailored to suit each person’s specific needs and personality but they usually consist of just checking in with mind and body, and reorienting themselves to the present moment.
Often, mindful moments will be anchored around some deep breathing and a mindful scan that notices and attempts to release tension in the body. In these brief moments, typically less than 5 minutes in length, the key is to return your attention to the immediate realities and to touch back down into the body.
Sometimes people find it helpful to choose a mantra for the day and repeat that word or phrase as part of their mindfulness practice. These mantras can be as varied as the people who choose them and could take the form of a declaration like “today is a day full of promise and possibility”, a reminder like “it is well with my soul”, or a significant word like “peace”.
Grounding is another tool that mindfully connects people to the present moment through the five senses. Pausing to name a few things that you see, hear, touch, smell, and taste will effectively move you into the experience of the current moment because sensory input happens in real time.
These mindful personal check-ins are often seen as sacred pauses. People welcome a spiritual layer, like a breath prayer or a meditation on a sacred text. This enhances the experience because they are not only being mindful of self, they are also focusing attention on the presence of God in that moment.
Of course, people can choose to build mindfulness practices that include several minutes of mediation but that doesn’t always feel accessible or realistic. Mindful moments are a good way to begin to experience the health benefits of mindful living. Once you begin to pay attention with intentionality you may find that you want to linger more in those moments, and so you should.
Mindfulness is that orientation to life that says, “I’m here and I don’t want to miss it!” Maybe today is the perfect day to begin to move away from mindlessly sleepwalking through life in order to enter into the fullness of the present moment by paying attention.
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