What does my therapist mean when she tells me to be mindful?
What does my therapist mean when she tells me to be “mindful”?
I decided to dedicate a blog to answer this question. As I began considering my own understanding of the concept of mindfulness, I was forced to first consider what mindfulness is not. I found myself doing multiple things simultaneously. I focused part of my attention on the television show that was playing in the background. I ate a bag of chips while typing notes. I ensured that my cell phone was at arm’s reach, checking it for the time every couple of minutes. The general population calls this “multi-tasking”, a “skill” that many of us feel fortunate to have mastered. Still, I wonder, is attending to multiple tasks depriving us of the ability to fully experience each one? Is it a process that prevents us from completing a blog, enjoying a potato chip, or laughing at a joke that came up on a television show? In other words, is being engaged in everything at once keeping us from being mindful of the moment? I began to think about circumstances during which mindfulness does not occur. Can you relate to any of the following situations?
It is Saturday morning, and you arrive at the mall. You see a parking spot after driving around in circles, as you talk to your friend on the telephone. You happily park your car. You shop, and buy a few things that you need, also attending to other things that you want. You leave the mall, smiling, because you finally treated yourself to something nice. As walk out to the parking lot, suddenly your mind is blank. You try to remember where you parked the car, but the process of parking is a blur to you. All that you recall is the content of your phone conversation. You remember the deal you got on those shoes. You try hard to go back to the moment that you found the parking spot, the color of the parking sign or the cars that were nearby, but you come up with nothing! Suddenly, you realize, that you have no idea where you parked the car! It is as if you were not part of that process.
It is 7 pm, and you have just gotten home from work after a stressful day. As soon as you settle in, you begin to think of all the deadlines you have for the week. You start feeling physically uncomfortable and mentally confused. You begin visualizing your boss’s face of disappointment, and thinking “what if I cannot finish in time?” Next, you find yourself opening the refrigerator door. Initially, you actively pick out a few snacks, and suddenly you begin picking at left overs, eating automatically without engaging in the process. Almost unconsciously, you eat for about ten minutes, until somehow your body tells you to stop. You come to your senses. Once you stop, you feel like you woke up from a “trance”. You stand at the kitchen counter, as you notice the mess that your reaction to your anxiety caused. You feel full, guilty, and confused, as you cannot explain what or how this happened. You don’t remember how the turkey tasted, or what the donut felt like, you just recognized that you ate it. It is as if you were not part of that process.
You are having coffee while sitting across a table from your partner. You are tuned into the conversation initially, but as the minutes pass, you begin to think about all those things that you “should” be doing. You make an imaginary list of the things you need to do today, and your mind goes off in tangents. As this occurs, your partner’s voice remains noticeable, but becomes more vague and unrecognizable. Then you hear the voice clearly say “Hello?! Do you know what I mean?” You look back at him with a blank stare, trying to remember what you last heard. You have no idea how to respond. Your coffee is finished, and your conversation is mid-way through, but you don’t really feel like you were there. It is as if you were not part of that process.
What do you notice in each one of those situations? In the three scenarios, the difficulty with recalling information related to a moment stems from the lack of focus. Instead of staying in the present, you have been thinking about all that is not related to that moment. Your thoughts have drifted to the grocery list, how annoyed you felt earlier in the day when that car cut you off, or how you have five minutes to drink your coffee. You think of all that is or was, but deprive yourself of the here and now. In the three situations, you are not tuned in to the present. You were doing or thinking of two or three things at a time.
Mindfulness is defined by a state of awareness. It is consciously connecting to whatever is happening, right here, right now. This allows you to engage fully in the characteristics of an experience, allowing your senses to be stimulated by appreciating the sounds, smells, and feelings related to that moment. “Mindfulness, paying precise, nonjudgmental attention to the details of our experience as it arises and subsides, doesn’t reject anything. Instead of struggling to get away from experiences we find difficult, we practice being able to be with them. Equally, we bring mindfulness to pleasant experiences as well. Perhaps surprisingly, many times we have a hard time staying simply present with happiness. We turn it into something more familiar, like worrying that it won’t last or trying to keep it from fading away.” –Psychology today
Being mindful not only consists of being in the present. It also entails dealing with uncomfortable and difficult situations, without having to avoid, suppress, or ignore. It is changing your relationship with anxiety, depression, and frustration and just sitting with it. This will help you identify what is triggering these emotions and understand how they are manifesting in your physical self (body) and your thinking self (mind). This constant awareness can be reached by using your observing self. Being mindful is not wishing that things were different or wishing to be somewhere else. It is being where you are. Remember that feeling pain is part of being alive. Mindfulness encourages you to observe your emotions and allow them come and go, like the motions of a wave.
“The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers”.
– M. Scott Pec