- Mindfulness is “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally."
- Mindfulness has been popularized as a psychological workout.
- There is a way to be mindful without so much effort or pain.
Jax* suffers from panic attacks. He gets anxious, his heart starts to pound, and he worries that he is having a heart attack. A physical exam assured him that he was in excellent health, but when overtaken by anxiety, he could not get past his fear that he was dying. His physician suggested that he try working with a cognitive behavioral therapist who recommended mindfulness techniques. But when Jax tried to be mindful, his anxiety seemed to get worse.
Adriana* is bulimic. She was also encouraged to start a mindfulness practice. But when Adrienne paid attention to her eating, she felt terrible. “I’m so ashamed of what I’m eating and how much I’m eating. I can’t turn off the critical voice in my head. So being mindful feels like letting my inner critic go to town.”
Cal* was trying to stop their use of alcohol and marijuana, which they felt was getting out of control. But they explained, “Every self-help group tells me to pay attention to my feelings, to be mindful when I’m craving a drink or a hit. But the whole point is that I don’t want to pay attention. That’s why I want the drugs or the alcohol.”
You, like many of my clients, may feel that “mindfulness” seems like one more psychological task, one more emotional weight to lift. Mindfulness has been turned into an emotional workout. Furthermore, it’s often applied in moments when being mindful is the last thing from your — well, from your mind. But there are some things about the concept that can be extremely useful, if you can take it out of the realm of assignment, duty, or homework.
I’ll show you what I mean, but first let’s talk about how the term itself is defined.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, who popularized the concept of mindfulness in the United States, defined mindfulness as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally.” Further, he said, “And then I sometimes add, in the service of self-understanding and wisdom.”
Mindfulness has become such a contemporary catchword that it has, at least in the popular use of the term, probably lost some of its original meaning. In fact, people sometimes use the word itself in a judgmental way, as in “you should be more mindful!” when someone makes a mistake in something they say or do. As a psychotherapist, I often use “mindfulness” as a shorthand for a way of paying attention, a kind of mental and emotional activity that I ask my clients to do not only in their sessions, but in the world outside of therapy as well. But sometimes my clients feel that I’m asking the impossible.
“I don’t want to be mindful,” they will say to me. “I want to just enjoy the moment, and I can’t do that if I’m paying attention to what I’m eating or drinking, or how I’m feeling while I’m doing something.”
What an interesting dilemma, since, at least as I understand it, one of the goals of mindfulness is to be able to take greater pleasure in each moment and each experience. In my work — and in my own life — I have found that paying attention to what makes mindfulness feel so hard is sometimes more important than forcing yourself to embark on a formal or structured mindfulness practice.
I have found that several things can make it difficult to be mindful.
1. Mindfulness seems like work. We are so focused and so busy concentrating in our everyday lives that we want to simply relax when we have time to do so. Eating, drinking, partying, and just hanging out are ways that we relax our brains as well as our bodies, and mindfulness looks like the exact opposite. “Pay attention” is what we do in school or at work. Who wants to do it when we’re trying to get some rest?
2. Mindfulness can make us feel bad feelings. Jax told me that as soon as he tried to be mindful of his feelings, they got worse. Turning your mind’s eye onto a painful emotion or thought can stir up more pain. There are, therefore, times when mindfulness is not a good practice.
3. Mindfulness can make bad thoughts worse. Similarly, when your mind is full of painful and/or negative thoughts, focusing on them can seem to make them worse.
But here’s an interesting thing. If you think of mindfulness as just a way of paying attention to yourself, then at those times when you want to do something other than focus on your thoughts and feelings, you will listen to that information and distract yourself from your thoughts and feelings!
For example, Jax learned that if he paid attention to how he was feeling on a regular basis, he could be more aware of the first stirring of anxiety. As I described in a post on stress, sometimes distraction is a very useful tool for managing our feelings. At that moment, rather than forcing himself to focus on those bad feelings, he learned it was much better to get up from his computer and go for a walk or call a friend or sometimes just change the project he was working on. Later, when his anxiety calmed down, he could try to think about what might have triggered the anxious feelings. Sometimes it was something about a project at work, and sometimes it was a thought about his family or his own physical state. But he discovered that being mindful was in fact a tool for knowing when he needed to distract himself, to pay attention to something other than his feelings and thoughts in the moment.
Cal and Adriana learned that they were using food, drugs, and alcohol to soothe themselves when their feelings got overwhelming. Adriana told me, “I’m realizing that sometimes I can use other techniques, like a shower or listening to music or calling someone to talk, to soothe myself. But sometimes I just want to enjoy eating something, even to the point of discomfort.” Being mindful meant making a decision that might lead her to feel too full.
“Somehow, knowing I did it with intention makes me less likely to beat myself up afterwards,” she said.
Cal, who had a harder time changing their behavior, eventually said something similar. “If I know I really just want to get lost, to stop feeling and thinking, and I can accept that without hating myself for it, then I can at least do it safely.” They began to pay attention to what made it safer, in what therapists call a “harm reduction” approach to addiction.
To me, the process of paying attention to what we need is a crucial part of mindfulness. And interestingly, I have found that for many of my clients, and for me as well, the process of paying attention and knowing that you can give yourself what you need at a given moment can gradually lead to greater well-being and a lessening of some problematic behaviors.
*Names and identifying info changed to protect privacy