Mindfulness has become a trendy word recently. It seems like everyone, from business executives to exercise gurus, is using mindfulness as a way to improve performance and reduce stress. But what does it really mean to practice mindfulness, and can it really do what everyone says it can?
It may be trendy now, but mindfulness has a very long history. Mindfulness has its roots in ancient Buddhist practices of meditation, used for millennia to cultivate spiritual awareness. It wasn’t until the 1970s that Western thinkers, such as Jon Kabat-Zinn and Marsha Linehan, started realizing the psychological benefits of such practices and bringing them into Western psychology.
Today, mindfulness is an important aspect of several different therapeutic modalities, including Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy. However, many therapists use it on its own as a general practice designed to reduce stress and bring the client into greater self-awareness and present-focus.
What is Mindfulness?
Strictly speaking, mindfulness simply entails taking the time to focus on the present moment. This can be done through meditation practices, but it does not have to include meditation. Many therapists use mindfulness to help clients focus on the feelings, thoughts, and behaviors that they normally don’t recognize, but that have a negative impact on them anyway. Slowing down and paying close attention to one’s actions and reactions is one way of preventing people from getting caught in the same old habits and patterns that unthinkingly keep them from living a successful or fulfilling life.
One of the most important components of mindfulness is non-judgment. A therapist can help a client to learn to observe her emotions without immediately judging herself in a negative way because of them. Learning to find this emotional distance from one’s own habitual self-punishment can be an important way to intervene when a client is spiralling out of control emotionally, experiencing depression or anxiety, or contemplating self-harm.
More generally, learning to be in the present, instead of worrying about the future or ruminating about past mistakes, can help people to appreciate the positive aspects of their lives and move past places where they have become stuck. Such present-focus can be helpful for managing chronic pain, depression, anxiety, addictions, and many other conditions that rely on habitual patterns or seemingly-intolerable sensations.
Do I have to Meditate?
As noted before, meditation is only one of the ways that a person can cultivate mindfulness. Other techniques might include focusing on physical sensations, breathing exercises, or guided imagery. All of these techniques help the client to learn to turn his attention away from the noisy thoughts that often crowd our minds, observing but not getting caught up in the many negative reactions that can increase stress and impede happiness or relaxation.