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I first learned about mindfulness in graduate school. One of my professors led a course, and as a stressed-out student it sounded like the perfect escape. I remember feeling excited to finally find a bit of mental bliss and quiet.
Instead, I found myself impatiently waiting for everlasting peace, tranquility, and enlightenment. It almost never came, especially when I wanted it most. I would silently yell at myself, “C’mon, mind! Get to the part where I feel better!” I felt aggravated and defeated. Was I doing it wrong? Or worse, was there something wrong with me? As it turns out, I’m not the only one who’s had skewed expectations about mindfulness.
Over the past decade, mindfulness has exploded into the mainstream, and has been highly touted by everyone from Oprah and Katy Perry to Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff. And with good reason. Mounting research shows how beneficial mindfulness can be for a number of different issues.
In 2013, for example, a group of researchers pulled together more than 200 mindfulness-based studies, comprising over 12,000 participants. According to their research, these studies showed that mindfulness was especially helpful for people who struggle with anxiety and depression. Research like this can be encouraging. Taken out of context, however, mindfulness can easily be misconstrued as a panacea, or a shortcut to happily-ever-after.
Pop culture does a wonderful job of changing the context of mindfulness from being present to selling happiness. If you search for mindfulness on any browser, it won’t take long to find tips and tricks for using mindfulness to make you feel better. So it’s no wonder that many of us mistakenly use mindfulness with the hope of feeling better and/or finding relaxation.
What do you think of when you read the word mindfulness? I used to get the image of someone sitting cross-legged on the floor, arms resting in their lap, eyes closed, trying to clear their mind. I’ve heard others mention positive imagery, breathing exercises, controlling emotions, inner peace, and staying present.
The confusion around mindfulness makes sense when you consider that even the research is uncertain about how to define it. However, there are a couple of themes that consistently pop up across the scientific literature. Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the pioneers of westernized mindfulness practice, defines mindfulness as paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally. At first glance, this seems simple, but it’s worth unpacking.
Paying Attention: What we mean by paying attention is shifting the focus of our awareness. We frequently get caught up in the flow of our thoughts and never realize it. The moment you notice you are caught up in thought is the moment you have shifted your awareness from mindlessness to mindfulness.
On Purpose: This is all about intention – making the conscious decision to act on a given commitment. You do something because you choose to do it. When you combine it with paying attention, you get this: making the conscious decision to shift the focus of awareness.
In the Present: This is exactly what it sounds like – the here and now – except it’s not that easy. As soon as you notice this moment, it’s already gone. Rather than try to capture the now, mindfulness asks for us to notice the ongoing present as it is happening, in flight. When we put it together with the other two parts, you get this: making the conscious decision to shift the focus of awareness to the here and now.
Non-Judgmentally: This means being open and willing to have a full range of experiences, even the painful ones. Our minds are wonderful at making evaluations of others and ourselves. We typically qualify our life experiences as “good” or “bad” and react to these labels: do more of what’s good and less of what’s bad. In mindfulness, we work toward a willingness to sit with both pleasant and unpleasant experiences without attempting to avoid or change them. When we put all the pieces together, it reads like this: making the conscious decision to shift the focus of awareness to the here and now while being open to the range of our experiences.
If you look back at Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness, the words peace, relaxation, and happiness aren’t included. Nor is there a reference to controlling painful and unwanted thoughts and feelings. In fact, mindfulness is just the opposite of searching for tranquility or avoiding unwanted experiences. The practice asks us to make room for, rather than suppress, even painful thoughts and feelings. This means holding expectations of outcome lightly, and noticing (i.e., paying attention to) whatever shows up.
One great way to practice non-judgmental mindfulness is to practice acceptance – and vice versa. There’s a Lyra blog about practicing acceptance, so I won’t reinvent that wheel. In the context of mindfulness, practicing acceptance can help you change your goal from seeking comfort and relief to allowing any and all thoughts, feelings, and sensations.
Research published this year shows just how important acceptance is when practicing mindfulness. This study randomly assigned 144 people who self-identified as stressed to three different types of mindfulness training programs: mindfulness with acceptance, mindfulness without acceptance, and mindfulness coping. It found that those who practiced mindfulness with acceptance were more likely than the other two groups to experience fewer physical markers of stress.
Earlier research showed that people who practiced mindfulness but were judgmental toward their experience struggled with their emotions as much as those who rarely practiced mindfulness. It’s no wonder, then, that people like me get frustrated when we spend our entire time during a mindfulness exercise focused on whether or not we feel more relaxed!
It seems that chasing a positive outcome in mindfulness can be more harmful than helpful. So, what should you do instead? During your next session of mindfulness practice, intentionally attend to that part of your mind that searches for positivity, comfort, or relief. When that part of your mind shows up, simply let it be there without attempting to change or get rid of it. If a judgment shows up (e.g., “I shouldn’t be thinking this way”), observe it and let it pass in its own time.
Ironically, when you give up searching for inner bliss and stay open and willing to experience thoughts and feelings as they arise, it’s more likely you’ll find the very thing you gave up looking for. But don’t take my word for it. Try this out as a matter of experience.
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The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Zachary Isoma, Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist and co-owner of Harbor Psychology, serving the Greater Tampa Bay area. He specializes in practicing acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) with men who struggle with anxiety and have difficulties expressing their thoughts and feelings. He is the founder of the Tampa Bay ACT peer consultation group and provides trainings, workshops, and seminars on ACT to students and professionals.