The concept of mindfulness has become very popular in recent years. There’s been a push for “mindful” activities, including meditation, yoga, nature walks, deep breathing, and these are all great mindfulness tools –
But what is mindfulness really?
There are a lot of conflicting ideas and misconceptions out there around what the practice of mindfulness is supposed to achieve. Many people believe that mindfulness is supposed to promote and enhance relaxation, mitigation of negative emotion, control of thoughts, an empty mind, etc, and when these states are not achieved, i.e. someone still has negative emotions, people then believe they have failed at mindfulness, or that it’s not effective. Now, those can definitely be added benefits of practicing mindfulness – someone may feel more relaxed – but, relaxation, a cessation of negative emotion, or thought stopping is NOT the goal of mindfulness, in fact it’s an impossible feat to stop thought, or remove all negative emotion, so let yourself off the hook.
What does that mean in our daily lives?
Our brains are very impressive and efficient machines that constantly interpret and filter data through the sieve of our beliefs and experiences, initiating (usually) automatic responses to our environment. Our mid-brain, otherwise known as the Labrador brain, is constantly evaluating our surroundings based on the pleasure vs. pain principle. We are wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain, while using up as little energy as possible (learn more about the Motivational Triad in this video by Sarah Weber at Primed for Health). That is our survival wiring, and that used to be a very effective way to interact with the world around us.
These automatic reactions, however, are colored by our experiences and the resulting beliefs, but our beliefs aren’t always true, or right, or in line with our goals and values. In fact, our brains are wired to view any amount of emotional discomfort as a threat, stimulating us to avoid the “pain” that a situation is causing. So, we tend to react in a way that offers us short-term mitigation of that discomfort, but that behavior may not support the long-term goals we have for ourselves. For example, an employee may need to have an important meeting with his manager, but he feels anxious about it, so he calls in sick, or keeps rescheduling the meeting. This action may offer him some immediate mitigation of his negative emotion (anxiety), but does not support his long-term goals of moving up in the company, or his value of being an effective employee. In fact, his avoidance of the short-term discomfort creates a catch-22 of MORE anxiety around the situation – a constant growing cycle of feeling anxious about the meeting, rescheduling to avoid discomfort, to feeling more anxious, to avoiding discomfort at a greater scale, etc – which may lead to more destructive actions all meant to avoid feeling discomfort, or pain, in this one situation. This is otherwise known as experiential avoidance – avoiding an experience that our brains perceive, through our emotions, as being painful.
Practicing mindfulness allows our pre-frontal cortex to metaphorically create space between itself and the mid-brain. Allowing us to observe our thoughts and emotions, negative and positive, and decide how we’re going to respond, instead of reacting automatically just to avoid “pain”. We have more control over our actions than most people think.
Therefore, the practice of mindfulness retrains the brain to create space, or breathing room, between thoughts and emotions, and the actions we take because of them.
At it’s basic level, mindfulness is when your mind and body are engaged in the same activity at the same time. In turn, mindlessness would be when your body is engaged in an activity, and your mind is thinking about things other than the activity of the body, or trying to think of a way to get out of the experience as quickly as possible.
Washing a Dish Mindfulness Exercise (From The Psychology of Enhancing Human Performance, Gardner et al, 2007)
Choose a relatively quiet moment to select a dish and place it in an empty sink. Just look at the dish for a moment and become aware of the color, shape, and texture of the dish. You may become aware that other thoughts come into your mind while performing this exercise. This is inevitably going to happen because numerous thoughts come and go in our head all day, every day. Simply notice them, notice the tendency to fight them, and let them be. Gently bring yourself back to the task of focusing on the physical aspects of the dish.
Now, pick up the dish and allow comfortably warm water to pass over it. Notice the sensations of the water, its temperature, and the feel of the dish as the water passes over it. Once again, you are likely to notice a variety of thoughts unrelated to this task. If so, please notice without judging them as good or bad, right or wrong, but simply an activity in your mind that comes and goes like waves intermittently hitting a shore. The specific thoughts you are having do not matter, just your ability to notice and focus on the feelings and sensations that the water and dish create. Allow yourself to feel the sensations in more and more detail. In this way, you continually strengthen your concentration.
Now, wash the dish with whatever mild detergent you normally would and become aware of the additional sensations of smell and touch that emerge from this. As you continue to mindfully wash the dish, notice any external sounds and any internal thoughts as though they are simply words or symbols on a ticker tape and gently bring your attention back to the task of washing the dish. Having a variety of thoughts is normal; be patient with yourself. The fact of the matter is the mind will always tend to wander. Remain in the moment with washing the dish and you will increasingly enhance your attention.
After about 5 minutes, wipe off the dish, stop the water, sit down and briefly think about the experience.
Was there a particular thought that kept emerging?
What emotions did you notice? Were you annoyed? Frustrated?
Did you feel the need to stop the exercise?
Was it difficult?
Tell us about your experience in the comments below!