Before I became a clinical psychologist I was a certified yoga teacher, so I have been studying mindfulness for years. The field of psychology has recently begun embracing the concept of mindfulness, and these days it’s common to hear the term being thrown around outside of mental health and wellness contexts. I consider mindfulness to be a crucial tool both inside and outside of therapy, but I find that many people don’t fully understand what it means and how to practice it. This series of blog posts will explain why I find mindfulness to be important, and how you can learn to use it to your benefit.
We use the term mindful in the dictionary sense to mean keeping something in our awareness. Examples would include being mindful of passing cars when crossing the street, or being mindful of stepping over the gap when getting on the subway.
When psychologists use the term mindfulness, we are referring to the tool that can be used to facilitate meta-awareness of the self. Practicing mindfulness meditations or mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral exercises helps us to observe our thoughts and feelings so that we can better manage and understand our needs.
Mindfulness to the Rescue: A Common Scenario
Imagine you are standing on a stage, ready to speak to a large audience. All of a sudden your palms start to sweat, you can feel your pulse racing, and you’ve forgotten that opening joke that you knew would make a killer first impression. You have one of two options:
Option 1: Give into the feelings
You start wiping your hands on your blouse, which then shows moisture stains, so you begin worrying that everyone will notice, which only makes you sweat more. Thoughts like, “I knew this would happen, oh no, this is awful!” keep racing through your mind, till your mind just goes completely blank. Eventually, you find yourself a ball of nerves, and you stumble through your speech like a robot (or melt into a pile of panic!)
Option 2: Recognize the feelings for what they are, deal with them rationally, and keep your blouse intact
You know it’s normal to be nervous even though you’ve prepared for this day, and you recognize the sweaty palms and jittery thoughts as nothing more than markers of moderate anxiety– plus, you even feel kind of proud of yourself for recognizing these pesky speed bumps for what they are, and even having a plan to deal with them! Since you’ve had this mindful awareness of what’s going on, you have the tools to put your plan into action: You take a slow, deep (not gaping!) 3-part breath just like you’ve rehearsed, you focus your mind on the self-statements you’ve pre-crafted and maybe even written on an index card for this very moment (just like you learned in Anxiety Tools), and trust that even if things don’t go as planned you will most certainly survive, likely even grow stronger, and quite possibly do a very good job!
The second option is obviously preferable, and it also describes how you can benefit from mindfulness at times of panic or anxiety. That moment when you can internally say to yourself “I am sweating because I am nervous” is the moment when you stop the cycle of panic because of your mindful awareness, and then use that insight to help you choose the right tools to deal with whatever you’re feeling.
While this scenario is rather simplistic, it also raises the key point that mindfulness is a practice. When you are standing on stage and frozen with fear is not the first time you want to “try out” mindfulness. To practice mindfulness in times of pressure, we must first be able to practice it in times of calm. That’s why the key word is practice. Mindfulness is a muscle, and it improves with use. By slowly building up your awareness practicing the following techniques during calm times (like sitting at home alone, or even during a boring meeting), you’ll be much better equipped to use mindfulness as a tool in emotionally intense situations.
Step 1: Learn to be mindful of an object
The first thing to do when learning to practice mindfulness is to increase your awareness by focusing completely on a tangible object.
Find any object, such as a paperweight from your office, and start by just looking at it. Allow yourself to observe the object, noticing its curves, any hard edges, and blemishes or scratches. Explore the color of the object, and how or if it changes when light hits it.
Touch the object. Notice the surface texture, whether it is rough or smooth, and whether it is consistent throughout. Does the object have a hot or cold temperature? Try picking the object up and weighing it in your palm.
Depending on the object and where you are, you may want to smell the object. Leather, wood, plants, food, clothing, and myriad everyday objects have a scent all their own. The goal is just to find as many ways as you can to notice and focus your senses on this object.
Step 2: Learn how to put your awareness into words
By completing the above exercise, you’ll notice that you can now describe the object far beyond its name or what its function is. A helpful aid for learning mindfulness is to put everything you’ve perceived into words. Practicing verbalizing your observations helps you to consolidate and clarify them, and it is a skill that comes in handy once you start using mindfulness to observe and express your feelings.
To illustrate, before the exercise you may have answered the question “What is this?” simply with “A paperweight.” Now, the goal is to answer that question with the observations you made in step 1. You may say things like “This is a round, black, cool-to-the-touch stone paperweight that has no smell. It is somewhat heavy in my palm when I pick it up, and it is big enough to fill my whole hand. It has several faint grey scratches that I can feel if I use the tip of my finger.”
Mindfulness Facilitates Connections and Options
By practicing mindfulness of an object and sharing your observations with others or writing them down, you’ll be practicing how to hone your focus on an object fully and completely, as well as practicing how to communicate your experiences to others. If you do this with a partner and listen to their observations too, you will also start to learn more about what types of perceptions you tend to make, and learn how you communicate compared to others– because you and your partner are both focusing on the same object, it can be very interesting to compare what you notice and how you express it. Becoming fully aware of a tangible object will increase your powers of observation and prepare you for the more challenging experience of observing and communicating more abstract things, like your thoughts and emotions. Only once we truly notice our thoughts and feelings can we work strategically to shape, soothe, or cultivate them.
The next entries in this series will help you learn to channel your observational powers inward, but it goes without saying that the more you practice focusing on things, the more natural the process will feel when you start to focus on yourself.