“Mindfulness.” It’s a buzz word, isn’t it? It’s something we throw around because we feel like we should know what it means (and at this point, we’re too afraid to ask.) Mindfulness has been the subject of countless studies, and it’s something many psychologists and therapist believe to be enormously effective in reducing the symptoms of a variety of psychological disorders.
Mindfulness is firmly planting your feet in the “here and now.” It is the act of being intentional, purposeful, and present in whatever you are doing: if you are breathing, you’re focused on your breath; if you’re studying, your mind is fully occupied by what you’re learning; if you’re thinking about your emotions, you are present in what you’re feeling.
If you’re like me, so far, this doesn’t sound that revolutionary Hang in there, this is where it gets good!
If you think about how you go about your day, you probably think, feel, and behave almost completely on autopilot. You wake up, groggily eat breakfast, zone out as you drive to work, react angrily to the minivan that cuts you off, etc. Very little purpose and attention goes in to what you’re doing. The problem arises when we do this with our emotions and thoughts. We let stressful or negative thoughts consume us, wrecking havoc on our well-being. We aren’t driving with our hands on the wheel of our consciousness, and often it naturally turns the wrong way.
Mindfulness allows us to develop a new way of approaching our world, a way that allows us to take back the wheel of our well-being from those thoughts and emotions. This leads me to the another crucial aspect of mindfulness: it involves training yourself to be a non-judgmental and objective observer of your own thoughts and feelings.
This is really, really important, and shockingly uncommon. I can’t tell you how often people speak about themselves in a way they would never dream to speak about someone else. And when you point it out to them, it almost comes as a surprise: “Oh, wow…. I guess that was pretty harsh!”
Sometimes, when difficult things happen to us, the distressing thoughts we have about that difficulty actually cause more damage than the event itself. For instance, when my anxiety starts to bubble up, I might automatically get frustrated with myself for the thoughts I’m having. Instead, it is way more helpful for me practice observing those thoughts and not judging them as good or bad.
Detaching oneself from the thoughts to let them pass is like watching clouds float by, or a leaf making its way down the stream. You don’t worry about whether that cloud or leaf is good or bad, you simply notice it, and let it pass. This takes away the weight of distressing situations by limiting their impact: we have the power to let the stress of a bad grade, a conflict with a coworker, or a fender-bender end with the moment it happens. Or, we can run emotional laps around that event, continuing to give it power over us. Personally, the first options sounds preferable.
By stepping out of our automatic way of viewing the world and our judgmental way of viewing ourselves, we can stop responding to distressing situations in unhelpful ways. I know right now, you’re probably thinking, “Great, but how do I actually DO it??” You’re not alone! But to keep this post from becoming a novel, I will share some of my favorite mindfulness strategies next time. For now, just know that mindfulness is a practiced skill that doesn’t come naturally. But if you work at it, research suggests it can be pretty life changing.