Mindfulness has been gaining in recognition and popularity in the U.S. for the last two decades, and with good reason. A number of leaders in the mental health field have studied the usefulness of mindfulness in creating mental health and in treating mental illness. In fact, many of the evidence-based treatments (i.e., treatments that have been scientifically shown to be effective) used in the care of patients at the Brattleboro Retreat are centered on the practice of mindfulness. But did you know it’s a technique that can benefit just about anyone?
What exactly is mindfulness?
I should start by first saying what it is not: mindfulness does not require or promote any spiritual or religious beliefs. The simplest definition of mindfulness may come to us from Jon Kabat Zinn, a leading researcher and author on the topic who described mindfulness practice in his first book, Full Catastrophe Living, as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.
When we are mindful, we are choosing to notice what is happening right now, in the moment. And when our minds wander off to things outside the present (worries about the future, anybody?), we simply notice that we’ve wandered, and bring out attention gently back to the present.
Newcomers to mindfulness practice sometimes worry that if their attention wanders they are doing it “wrong.” But that’s just a normal function of our minds. The “practice” of mindfulness is in noticing you have wandered, and bringing your attention back. It is this purposeful, nonjudgmental return to the present moment that is the crux of mindfulness.
How can mindfulness help?
Increasing volumes of research support the therapeutic benefit of mindfulness not just for patients, but for everyday people from all walks of life. Whether you are a parent, a teacher, a carpenter, truck driver, trial attorney, or retail sales person, mindfulness has been shown to help you feel happier, manage stress better, and be better at your work.
Why not give it a try?
The simplest way to begin practicing mindfulness is to focus on your breath. Just bring your attention to the bodily sensations of breathing—the movement of your lungs, chest, and stomach; the feeling of air passing through your nose and windpipe. Try not to change your breathing or worry about how you are breathing. Just focus your attention on the sensations as you breathe.
Eventually, your attention will wander. This is normal, and sometimes called “monkey mind” (picture a monkey swinging from vine to vine like your mind swings from thought to thought). When you notice that monkey mind has taken hold, gently bring your attention back to your breath. Try doing this for two minutes, or better yet five!
Whenever I lead a group in mindfulness, one person will invariably tell me they can’t practice breath-based mindfulness—it’s too anxiety-provoking, or brings up feelings of panic or worry about asthma attacks. Fortunately, there are many ways of doing mindfulness. Some people find that if they give their brain something to think about while they breathe, the anxiety goes away. For example, counting each inhale and exhale as a breath “one, two...” sometimes provides the mind with an “anchor” of attention.
You can also choose an entirely different focus than your breath, like watching something—nature, a candle flame—or listening to sounds. Any of your senses can be the focus for mindfulness. The steps are the same: choose your focus, notice when your attention wanders from the focus, and nonjudgmentally return to your focus.
Still hate the idea of sitting quietly to be mindful? Good news! Any activity can be done mindfully. The key is to keep your attention on just that activity, instead of letting monkey mind visit all your thoughts about yesterday, last week, and tomorrow. When you notice your attention has slipped, bring it back to your activity. So what kinds of activities make for good mindfulness practice? How about brushing your teeth? Washing dishes? Eating ice cream? Drinking coffee? Walking in the woods? As long as you’re noticing on purpose, the present moment, nonjudgmentally, you are doing a mindful activity!
Angela Rowan, LICSW, is the Brattleboro Retreat's Clinical Manager of DBT Services.