Written by: Lauren Barris, LCSW-C
Mindfulness: Paying attention, on purpose, to the present moment.
That’s it. Simple enough, right? Now, there are many different definitions of mindfulness floating around these days, and far be it from me to tell you which one to ascribe to. What I will say is that the definition given above (based on Marsha Linehan’s DBT) has helped me tremendously not only to make sense of mindfulness, but to remind myself how to do it in moments when I am struggling. Whether you are practicing mindfulness while breathing, sipping your morning coffee, driving to work, distracting from physical pain, playing a sport, or creating art, it has got to have those three components – you’ve got to have your attention on the task, in that moment, on purpose. It’s important to remember that no one stays in a perfectly mindful state all the time. Our brains are far too busy for that. Our brains like to multitask (and often need to!), and our attention gets pulled away by distractions all the time. If you are driving your car and all of a sudden your child starts vomiting in the back seat, you better believe you’re gonna have part of your mind on the road and part of it on your kid, and anything less might not be effective at all, let alone safe. BUT, when you choose to practice mindfulness, you are making the choice to let go of distractions, even if just for a moment. Every time your attention is pulled away (and it will be), your task is to notice that, and to gently pull it back to the present moment, as many times as it takes, without judgment.
So, what’s the big deal? Well, the big deal is that we have started to figure out that mindfulness can actually be a very powerful treatment for depression and anxiety. The difficulty is that when are in pain, when we are overcome with sadness, or filled with fear and anxiety, throwing our full attention onto that moment is often the last thing we want to do. But the thing is, if we want to have a shot at managing those negative emotions, we need to first notice them, pay attention to them, and experience them. If mindfulness is our goal, our task is to notice our emotions, observe them for what they are, lift out the judgments, sit with whatever waves come over us, and notice that we are still okay. When we see the emotion for what it is, rather than running from it or shutting it away, we can make an intentional choice about how to proceed. Perhaps the emotion is a warning sign that we need to change something, or leave a situation. Perhaps it is caution getting us to check out the facts of a situation! Perhaps it is a relic of times long past, and when we stop to think, we realize that it does not actually fit with the situation we are in. Emotions have all sorts of important things to tell us, and if we put all of our energy into avoiding them, we will never benefit from the information they bring.
Although mindfulness of emotions is a big part of why mindfulness can help treat depression and anxiety, mindfulness is not just about noticing the painful stuff. Mindfulness does not discriminate! So the next time you are doing, well, literally anything, try it out. Pay attention, on purpose, to the present moment. With neither positive nor negative judgment. I think you will find you are able to be more effective in whatever task you are doing, and you may even be able to experience pain without all the extra suffering. But don’t take my word for it; to read more on this, check out the following article: “Positive Reappraisal Mediates the Stress-Reductive Effects of Mindfulness: An Upward Spiral Process.”