What Mindfulness Is and Isn’t
Mindfulness is less of a practice and more of an attitude or state of mind. It’s based largely on Eastern religious concepts found in Buddhism and Hinduism, but it can be applied to people of all religions—or to people of no religion at all. There are many ways to be mindful, but, for the purpose of our discussion, mindfulness requires:
(1) Focusing on a particular object (e.g., our breathing, the present moment, some kind of visual image);
(2) Being aware of when we have lost our attention on this object; and
(3) Gently redirecting our attention back toward this object again and again without self-judgment or denial.
In recent decades, mindfulness has received a lot of attention—and with good reason. Several psychological studies have demonstrated mindfulness’ ability to improve conditions as varied as chronic pain, depression, anxiety, and drug and alcohol use (Kabat-Zinn et al., 1987; Kelly et al., 2010; MacBeth & Gumley, 2012; Terry & Leary, 2011;). Here are some definitions of mindfulness that other writers have used.
“…a clear and single-minded awareness of what actually happens to us and in us at successive moments of perception.” (Nyanaponika Thera, 1972)
“…keeping one’s consciousness alive to the present reality.” (Hanh, 1976)
“…paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” (Kabat-Zinn, 1994)
“…a state of psychological freedom that occurs when attention remains quiet and limber, without attachment to any particular point of view.” (Martin, 1997)
“…bringing one’s complete attention to the present experience on a moment-to-moment basis.” (Marlatt & Kristeller, 1999)
“…a nonjudgmental, present-centered awareness in which each thought, feeling, or sensation that arises in the attentional field is acknowledged and accepted as it is.” (Bishop et al., 2004)
The opposite of mindfulness is mindlessness, which the mode our brains typically operate in. Much like someone who mindlessly eats while watching television, we mindlessly “consume” whatever happens to be parading in front of our mental TV. While in this profoundly unaware state, we’re likely to believe our thoughts, feelings or memories completely. Mindlessness is:
- Being unaware of what our mind generates;
- Either judging harshly or “policing” (i.e., pushing away) what our mind generates; and/or
- Agreeing with what our mind generates – completely and without question.
An Example of Mindfulness
Now that we’ve talked a little about what mindfulness is (and isn’t), let’s experience it by practicing a mindfulness exercise. A quick internet search will reveal a lot of mindfulness activities you can practice, but this will be a good introduction if you haven’t done mindfulness before.
This exercise only takes about 5 – 10 minutes. You may want to record yourself reading this exercise into your smartphone so you can give it your full attention. Be sure to pause 5-10 seconds where indicated. When you’re ready to listen to the recording you’ve just made, listen to it in a quiet place. Make sure you have no distractions or interruptions. Make yourself comfortable, sitting straight but not rigidly. When it comes to your posture, “upright but not uptight” is a good motto to use.
When you have found a comfortable position, gently close your eyes. Notice that your ears tend to open and become more alert when you do this. (Pause) Be aware of sound for a few moments, and then gently turn your attention to your breathing. Spend a few moments just paying attention to your breath. (Pause) If you find your mind begins to wander, as minds tend to do, gently say to yourself, “Wandering” and without judgment, refocus your attention on your breath. (Pause) Follow your breathing all the way in and all the way out. (Pause) After following your breath, gently release your attention from breathing and begin to attend to whatever arises in your awareness next. This may be a sound or a sensation. It may be a thought or a feeling. Your job is to simply notice it and let it go, moving on to the experience of the next moment. (Pause) You may notice something like the sound of the air conditioning in the room you are in… then an itch on your nose … then your breath… then a twitch…. then a thought. None of these things have to capture you; just notice them and allow them to go. (Pause) Simply follow whatever comes into your awareness from moment to moment. Don’t cling to any experience; gently observe each. Notice how they come and go. (Pause) Even thoughts like, “This isn’t working” or “When will this be over?” need to be noticed and gently released. (Pause) Remember your mind will hook you over and over again, taking you out of mindfulness. When this happens, it isn’t a mistake. Just bring yourself back to just noticing without judgment. If it happens a hundred times, gently bring yourself back a hundred times. This is only part of the process. (Pause) In fact, if it feels comfortable to you, you may want to smile gently at each of these distractions as they come up. Bid them welcome and then gently release them while bring your mind back to your breathing. (Pause) Spend 30 to 60 seconds doing this before ending the exercise. (Pause and end)
This is a nice introduction to mindfulness. Notice that the purpose is not to control, avoid, argue with, or believe what our mind generates. Our only goal is to notice what the mind brings up and gently bring ourselves back when we get hooked on something. When we get hooked (and we will), we just notice being hooked, step out of the yammering of our minds, and start observing again.
Some people become frustrated by the fact that they get hooked. They act like it’s something that shouldn’t happen, but this is what minds do. Plus, they are missing the point of the activity: the point is to be aware. If you can practice mindfulness, eventually you’ll be less impulsive in your day-to-day life: instead of perceiving your feelings or thoughts as something that “must be” controlled through avoidance or judgment, your feelings or thoughts will be perceived as temporary mental reactions that, while painful, may not deserve any additional response whatsoever. Once we develop a mindful attitude towards our transitory mental events, we’ll become calmer and – consequently – less impulsive or reactive.
When Just Breathing Isn’t Enough: The Power of Visualization
Because of conditions like ADHD, some people cannot keep their mind on their breathing for very long. I personally find a visual image to be very helpful. The following metaphors can help people who are more visual. Pick one or two that speak to you ₁:
- While doing the activity above, imagine each Sensation, Image/memory, Feeling or Thought (SIFT) is a leaf floating on the top of a gentle river beside you (Seigel, 2012). As you sit and observe the river of your mind, you realize you are not the river—you are the observer. For example, as a sensation comes (the desire to move your legs), you notice it and place it on a leaf with compassion, and you gently allow it to go. As an image or memory comes (e.g., a fight you had with your spouse), you notice it and place it on a leaf—again with compassion—and allow it to gently float away. As a feeling comes (irritation with how long the meditation is taking), you notice it and compassionately place it on a leaf as it floats away. When a thought comes (“I have a lot of things I have to do”), you notice that thought and let it go. Some SIFT will return. This is normal; you simply repeat the process when this occurs—even if you have to do it 100 times, it only means you are 100 times more practiced. Some SIFT will hook us and we’ll be “pulled into the river”. In other words, we won’t be observing a memory, we’ll be reliving a memory, and we’ll find ourselves mentally washed away. When this happens, it isn’t a mistake: your job is simply to get out of the river and start observing again. As soon as you’re aware of this, you’re already practicing mindfulness. One of my favorite definitions of mindfulness is “getting lost in your mind 100 times and bringing your mind back 101 times.” A person is practicing mindfulness as soon as she knows that she has been pulled into the river of her mind. In other words, you’re being mindful as soon as you’re aware that you aren’t. This helps us feel accomplished, rather than ashamed because we aren’t “doing it right.”
- Image that you are on a lush, green hillside looking up at the clouds. As each SIFT comes, notice it and place it gently on one of the clouds that is rolling by. Some days it will be very cloudy. Just smile as you notice this and place each thought on it as you let the clouds drift by. You will get hooked by some clouds. Instead of observing clouds pass, you will be “in” a cloud. When this happens, just gently put yourself back on the hillside or focus on the blue sky behind the clouds. Just notice you got hooked and keep observing compassionately.
- While doing the activity above, imagine you’re in the stands of a street parade that is going by. Each SIFT is a different member of the band. As you notice them, just observe as they march across the street of your mind. Some band members will pull you into the parade. When this happens, just notice that it has happened and place yourself compassionately back on the stands while you watch each sensation, image, feeling, thought, or impulse pass.
These are only examples. Practice with a few of them, but you might find your own visual image. If you find your own, remember the following principles.
Principles of Mindfulness
- Noticing without judgment: A good visual image emphasizes noticing what it happening with curiosity and compassion, without being hooked (arguing, repressing, believing). If you’re hooked, your image will help you bring your mind back to a place of noticing without judgment (the bank of the river, the blue sky behind the clouds, the stands where you’re observing the parade). Noticing without judgement can be difficult. Shoulds always seem to get in the way (“I shouldn’t feel this way”; “I should be nicer”; “I shouldn’t have such memories”); therefore, mindfulness may initially feel uncomfortable – even shameful. Yet, I want to encourage you to persist through the discomfort because the end result is worth it.
- Impermanence: A good visual image communicates that SIFT and impulses come and go. We have a tendency to think that our SIFT or impulses will grow until they consume us, but this isn’t true. We only believe this lie because we act on our impulses before things can naturally dissipate. For instance, we tell ourselves, “I can’t stand this!” believe this thought and then avoid by getting drunk. We tell ourselves, “I’ll always feel this way” believe this thought and then punish ourselves somehow. We tell ourselves “This is horrible” believe this thought and then act out an addictive behavior. We never weather the storm long enough to truly believe that the storm will pass.
- Beginner’s Mind: A good visual image communicates that we have two selves: a part of us that is experiencing the SIFT or impulses (our reactive mind) and a part of us that just observes the SIFT or impulses (our observing or beginner’s mind). If we can cultivate an observing mind, then we don’t have to react impulsively. We don’t NEED to do anything. Instead, we can just notice and let impermanent “things” pass. We have a choice of whether we want to be in pain (pulled into the river, caught up in a cloud, marching in a parade) or observe our pain and do something healthy with it. Beginner’s Mind means that we experience each moment as something new and impermanent. When we are observing, we don’t have to be naïve. But if we’re willing to see old experiences with “new eyes” we’ll be less likely to be pulled into the river of the past or become consumed fretting about the future. As said by Dan Seigel, “The more experience we have, ironically the more our expertise may keep us from seeing clearly and living fully” (2017, p. 305). Beginner’s mind produces humility, while reactive mind produces impulsivity or the experience of being stuck.
Any visual image that follows these principles (noticing without judgment, impermanence, and beginner’s mind) can be helpful. But, since it is difficult to remember all of this information, the acronym COAL – Curious, Open, Accepting, and Loving – is a good summary (Siegel & Hartzell, 2014).
Yet, the more difficult thing seems to be remembering to practice. People who don’t practice mindfulness daily and then try to use it only when they are in crisis are like people who try to run a marathon without training for it. Consequently, I strongly recommend that people practice mindfulness using the COAL principles 10 minutes a day. Practicing mindfulness when you are relatively calm will help you use it when you are less-than calm.
Troubleshooting Obstacles to Mindfulness
Obstacle #1: Getting Flooded. Minds can become so cluttered that it can be difficult to label everything. I’ve had more than a few patients tell me, “There are so many things passing by my mind that I can’t place them all on a leaf—it is like a flood!” This doesn’t mean that the activity won’t help you. Just notice the thought “I can’t label everything” as a thought and put it on a leaf. Just notice the feeling of being overwhelmed as a feeling and put it on a leaf. Just notice the indistinguishable yammering of the mind as a thought and put it on a leaf. One patient of mine remarked that, as she sat by the river and watched the leaves of her mind, the river seemed to be rising. This frightened her at first, but I encouraged her to continue with the activity. Eventually, she noticed the “water” receding. If you are overwhelmed when practicing mindfulness, it will give you good practice for when you are overwhelmed in the real world. You need practice noticing the natural waxing and waning of the mind. Nothing is as permanent as it seems, including the painful or pleasurable leaves that our minds naturally generate.
Obstacle #2: Finding the Time. Some people say, “I don’t have time to sit and meditate 10 minutes a day.” This reminds me of parents who say, “I don’t have 10 minutes a day to play with my kids and give them positive attention.” I usually respond that, if so, their attention-seeking kids will simply take the 10 minutes in other less-than-positive ways. Similarly, if you don’t have 10 minutes a day to practice mindfulness, then mindlessness will easily consume more than 10 minutes of your day’s attention.
Obstacle #3: Fear of the Unknown (Self). Not practicing mindfulness due to a “busy schedule” is usually just an avoidance-based delusion: the person is scared of their SIFT and impulses and doesn’t want to confront them. (After all… the river may rise.) I can understand this; I’ve felt similarly at times. Avoidance feels good. At first, mindfulness may not. But why spend the rest of your life running scared of yourself? Where exactly are you going to go?
Obstacle #4: “It’s really hard for me to keep my mind on my breathing.” Sometimes it’s difficult to just sit still and notice our breathing—even if we are focusing on a particular visual image. This may be especially true if you have attention problems, like ADHD, and need to be active and “doing something.” For such patients, I usually encouraged them to do one of the following activities, which require more body movement but still emphasize the same mindful principles (COAL) mentioned before:
- Take a mindful walk: Take a walk around your neighborhood. Be mindful of each step, each breath in, each sound, each smell. Once you are in the present moment, notice how your internal experience pulls you away from the present. When this happens, don’t give yourself a hard time. Simply notice the distracting SIFT for what they are and place them at your feet. With each footstep, you practice both accepting what you’re feeling and letting it go. As your feet come up, you accept. As they make contact with the pavement, you let go. When the old SIFT comes back again, just place them at your feet and let them go… again and again. Each step forward is a welcoming of your experience; each step down is a letting go. Gently bring your mind back to the present step, the present moment, the present sound, the present smell…
- Eat a mindful meal: Turn off your TV and other distractions while you eat for 10 minutes or so. Slow down the process of eating. Really examine your first bite before putting it in your mouth. What does it look like? What texture does it have? Notice its smell. Now, slowly take your first bite. Allow yourself to experience the bite fully. Really feel your teeth sinking into the bite. Allow the tastes and textures to sit on your tongue for a few seconds before swallowing. Notice feelings of salivation and flavor. Now swallow slowly. Allow yourself to be aware of the food as it goes down. Notice how your internal experience pulls you away from eating mindfully. Feelings of boredom or wanting to “hurry up” may pull at you quite strongly. When that happens, it isn’t a mistake; don’t give yourself a hard time. Instead, just gently accept the SIFT for what they are and place your mind back on your eating… again and again. Each lift of the fork or spoon is a welcoming of your experience; each swallow is a gentle letting go. Gently allow your mind to come back to the present bite… and only the present bite… again and again ₂.
- Fold laundry mindfully: As you did with eating, turn off other distractions. First, feel the laundry in your hands. Notice the tiny little differences in the textures. Take one piece of laundry at a time. Notice any SIFT that come up as you hold the current piece of laundry in your hand. Without judging yourself or avoiding yourself, place the SIFT gently inside the laundry as you fold it. Do it with care as you place it aside. Pick up the next piece of laundry and focus on its textures, shape, and smell. Allow yourself to focus on just that piece of laundry. If old SIFT return, just smile at them as you imagine (once again) folding them carefully inside the new piece of laundry. Each new piece of laundry is a welcoming; each folded piece is a gentle letting go. Do this again and again…
- Do the dishes mindfully: Feel the water on your hands. Notice what part of your hands feel the water and what part of your hands do not. Now take the first dish. You are only with this dish—none other. Carefully notice the water and soap as you apply them to the dish. Carefully notice the amount of force you have to apply to get the dish clean. As distracting SIFT come, gently notice them and place them on the plate. If it feels comfortable to do so, allow them to “wash off” the dish as you place them in the dishwasher. Pick up the next dish and repeat. When you get stuck on a particular train of thought, just notice that this has happened and gently bring your mind back to the next dish. Each dirty plate is a welcoming of your experience; and each completed plate is a gentle letting go…
The attitude with which we do even mundane things is important. You may have chores or “things to do” but you can still do them mindfully and compassionately for 10 minutes. After all, what’s the real benefit from doing these chores mindlessly and/or judgmentally? If you’re going to have to do chores, then do them mindfully using the COAL principles mentioned before. Otherwise, you’ll just complete the chores more upset than before. The river of our minds so easily wash us downstream.
The past, the present, and the future are all intertwined. Unfortunately, the past and the future can hold the present hostage. We rehearse regrets or tragedies from our past – frequently in ways that are more destructive than productive. When reviewing the past, there is a big difference between “What can I learn from this mistake?” and “I always make mistakes – why bother?” The first is productive; the second is not. Similarly, we hand-wring our way into the future. Planning and taking some common-sense precautions are both good and necessary, but for many people this is a slippery slope; they soon jump from one imagined catastrophe to another. Depending on how we approach them, both the past and the future can leave us feeling impotent. Only in the present do we have power. Yet, it is the present that is so often minimized as we loop between our worst memories and most-feared futures.
The more times around this mind-loop, the less powerful we feel. We miss our present-focused voice and choice. We overlook the decisions we are capable of making today. Hopefully, our choices are informed by the past and future – but are not driven by them. While our minds are looping, it’s difficult to remember that, if we take care of the present, the future – while uncertain – will take care of itself and the past – while unchangeable – won’t matter as much. As said by Charles Dickens in Great Expectations, “…if you can ever undo any scrap of what you have done amiss… it will be better to do that than to bemoan the past (or fret about the future) through a hundred years” (italics added). Mindfulness can help us rediscover the power of the present. And with this rediscovery, we can rediscover our power as well (for more about how to overcome your past see my blog Redefining Your Past).
In general, the advantage of mindfulness is that it helps you become aware of your internal experience without getting pulled into your mind river. In other words, mindfulness helps you become aware of what you’re experiencing without pushing away or getting stuck in your experience. This is the heart of finding your way to okay. Your SIFT and impulses will be there (no matter what) so we might as well develop a different relationship with them. Repetitively doing so will help us become okay even when we aren’t okay.
[The above is an excerpt from the book Becoming Okay (When You’re Not Okay), which can be accessed exclusively on Amazon. A sample can be read below]
₁ Most of these metaphors and exercises are adapted from the work of Hayes et al., 2003.
₂ Because many people eat mindlessly, some find mindful eating helpful for weight loss. We eat so fast that our bodies don’t have time to “catch up” and provide us with a sensation of fullness. Slowing down the process of eating can help people feel fuller sooner and, consequently, reduce their overall intake of food.
Hayes, S.C., Stosahl, K.D., & Wilson, K.G. (2011). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, 2nd Edition. Guilford Press.
Kabat-Zinn, J., Lipworth, L., Burney, R., & Sellers, W. (1987). Four-year follow-up of a meditation-based program for the self-regulation of chronic pain: Treatment outcomes and compliance. Clinical Journal of Pain, 2, 159–173.
Kelly, A.C., Zuroff, D.C., Foa C.L., et al. (2010). Who benefits from training in self-compassionate self-regulation? A study of smoking reduction. Journal of Social & Clinical Psychology, 29, 7, pp. 727 – 755.
MacBeth A., & Gumley, A. (2012). Exploring compassion: A meta-analysis of the association between self-compassion and psychopathology. Clinical Psychology Review, 32, 6, p. 545– 552.
Siegel, D.J. (2012). The Developing Mind, Second Edition: How Relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Siegel, D.J. (2017). Mind: A journey to the heart of being human. W.W. Norton & Company. New York: NY.
Siegel, D.J., & Hartzell, M. (2014). Parenting from the Inside Out. New York: Tarcher Perigee.
Terry, M.L., & Leary, M.R. (2011). Self-compassion, self-regulation, and health. Self Identity, 10, 3, pp. 352 – 362.