Mindfulness has become a popular concept both in the mental health field as well as the culture at large. It can be defined as a mental state that is achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. Mindfulness involves being engaged in the present rather than reviewing the past or anticipating the future. While this may sound like a simple concept, many distractions compete for our attention in today’s world. Western culture tends to value productivity rather than reflection, quantity over quality, as we wear “being busy” like a badge of importance.
However, practicing mindfulness appears to have a host of health benefits, including reducing stress, lowering blood pressure, boosting immune functioning, relieving chronic pain, and helping people who struggle with anxiety and depression feel more positive and peaceful. Staying engaged in the moment reduces the impulsivity and reactivity involved in binge eating and other compulsive behaviors, including self-harm.
A significant challenge to practicing mindfulness involves our desire to avoid painful or disturbing thoughts or emotions. We go on auto-pilot for much of our day, dissociating from the present so that we don’t feel our annoyance at a co-worker, our fear of failing at a challenging task, the pain of our break up or divorce, or other difficult realities of our lives. Non-judgmental acceptance of distressing thoughts and emotions allows us to become observers instead of merely participants in our experiences. We can step back a bit from the intensity of our emotions and become responsive rather than reactive if we make room for negative thoughts and feelings without judging ourselves for having them or employing coping mechanisms like denial, avoidance or minimization to delay their impact; because the truth is these maneuvers only serve to delay, not neutralize what we are thinking and feeling. We may successfully avoid the distress in the moment, but it will re-surface again (and again, and again) if not dealt with at some point.
We sometimes struggle with acceptance of a painful situation because we confuse acceptance with powerlessness and defeat. Accepting something doesn’t mean that you are giving up on being able to affect what is happening. Acceptance also doesn’t mean “I like this,” or “I want this,” or “this is good,” but rather acceptance means “This is what it is.” We actually cannot take steps to change something if all of our energy is being put towards denying the reality of our situation. Not accepting something means you can’t do anything about it because you are not even acknowledging what it really is!
Mindfulness begins with practicing being present. Using the five senses to pull your focus back to the here and now is one strategy you can employ: what do you taste, touch, see, smell or hear right now? Notice the stimuli in your immediate surroundings, observe and appreciate the moment for what it is. Noticing your breath is another way to be present in your body and clear out the distracting thoughts or worries. Count to three on your inhale, pushing the air all the way down into your stomach, before exhaling to the same count of three. Your heart rate is tied to your breathing, so if you can slow your breath you will also calm your heart. Practice being mindful for just a few minutes at a time throughout the day and see if you notice a drop in your stress level and an increase in your peace and even joy.