Have you ever noticed that when you are doing very repetitive and familiar tasks, like vacuuming the house or driving your car that your mind is often miles away thinking about something else?
You could be fantasizing about going on a trip to another country, worrying about some upcoming event, or thinking about any number of things. In either case you are not focusing on your current experience, and you are not really in touch with the ‘here and now’. This way of operating is often referred to as the automatic pilot mode.
Mindfulness is the opposite of the automatic pilot mode.
It is about how we experience the world that is firmly in the present, the ‘here and now’. Experts refer to this as the being mode. It gives us a way of freeing ourselves from the automatic and unhelpful ways of responding and thinking.
The Benefits of Mindfulness
By learning how to put ourselves into a mindful mode more often, it is very possible to create a new habit that helps to weaken old, hurtful, unhelpful and automatic thinking habits. For people with emotional problems, these old habits can involve being way overly pre-occupied with thinking about the past, the future, their emotions or themselves in a negative way.
Mindfulness training in this case does not aim to immediately control, remove, or fix this unpleasant experience. Rather, it aims to develop a skill to put you in a much better position in order to break free of or not ‘buy into’ these unhelpful habits that are causing distress and preventing proactive positive action.
The Core Features of Mindfulness
The first major element of mindfulness involves observing your experience in a manner that is more direct and sensual (sensing mode), rather than being analytical (thinking mode). A natural tendency of the mind is to try and think about something rather than directly experience it. Mindfulness thus aims to shift one’s focus of attention away from thinking to simply observing thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations (e.g., touch, sight, sound, smell, taste) with a kind and gentle curiosity.
This aspect of mindfulness relates to noticing the very fine details of what you are observing in front of you. For example, if you are observing something like a lemon, the aim is to describe what it looks like, what is its color, shape, and texture. You could place a descriptive name to it, like “yellow”, “round”, or “bright”. The same process also can be applied to emotions (e.g. “dark“, “foggy“).
An aim of mindfulness is to allow yourself to consider the whole of your experience, without excluding anything. Try to notice all aspects of whatever task or activity you are doing, and do it with your full care and attention.
It is important to adopt an accepting stance towards your experience. A significant reason for prolonged emotional distress relates to attempts to avoid or control your experience. When being more mindful, no attempt is made to evaluate experiences or to say that they are good, bad, right, or wrong, and no attempt is made to immediately control or avoid the experience. Accepting all of one’s experience is one of the most challenging aspects of mindfulness, and takes time and practice to develop. Bringing a kind and gentle curiosity to one’s experience is one way of adopting a non-judgmental stance.
Focusing on One Thing at a Time
When observing your own experience, a certain level of effort is required to focus your attention on only one thing at a time, from moment to moment. It is natural for distracting thoughts to emerge while observing, and there is a tendency to follow and ’chase’ these thoughts with more thinking. The art of ‘being present’ is to develop the skill of noticing when you have drifted away from the observing and sensing mode, into thinking mode. When this happens it is not a mistake, but just acknowledge it has happened, and then gently return to observing your experience.
How to Become Mindful
Mindfulness is a skill that takes time to develop. It is not easy, and like any skill it requires a certain level of effort, time, patience, and ongoing practice. Mindfulness can be taught in a number of ways. Meditation is one of the key techniques used in mindfulness training, but not the only technique. Contact your mental health professional for further information on mindfulness training and whether it may be suited to your needs.
Mindfulness and letting go
Trying to control or avoid worries or other negative thinking by answering back, chasing, or suppressing these negative thoughts can sometimes strengthen this negative experience rather than diminish it. Mindfulness is one way of skilfully disengaging from or letting go of negative thinking.
This approach involves practicing how to notice when you are automatically drifting into negative thinking and then skilfully redirecting your attention back to the present, to the here and now
It may be helpful to think of this approach in terms of a radio. That is, imagine that the negative thoughts that drift into your mind as coming from a loud radio that is tuned to a station where the thoughts are very negative and seem to be shouting at you.
The skill in mindfulness is not so much about trying to turn the radio off, but changing the way you listen to the radio. In this way the volume of the radio station can be reduced, and therefore seem less disruptive and distressing.
However, the important thing to remember is this is not a quick fix, it is not easy, and requires regular practice. The thoughts may still shout at you, but you are changing the way you listen. Begin with the formal practice described in this information sheet. Just like any skill, such as learning a musical instrument, you need to practice, practice, practice! By practicing daily you may eventually become better at letting go, and be able to do things in a more informal way.
Steps for letting go
To begin, it may be best to start by practicing with minor concerns before moving onto major worries or negative thoughts.
1) To begin the practice, sit down in a chair and adopt a relaxed and alert posture, then ask yourself, what am I experiencing right now? What thoughts are around, what feelings are around, and what body sensations? Allow yourself to just acknowledge, observe and describe these experiences to yourself, without trying to change them or answer the thoughts back. Spend 30 seconds to 1 minute just doing this.
2) Now bringing your focus of awareness to your breath, focusing on the sensations of your breath as it moves back and forth in your belly. Binding your awareness to the back and forth movements of the sensations in your belly from moment to moment, and letting all thoughts go. Maybe say to yourself ‘relax’ or ‘let go’ on each outward breath. Spend about 30 seconds to 1 minute doing this.
3) Now expanding your awareness to sensing your whole body breathing, being aware of sensations throughout your body. If there are any strong feelings around, maybe saying to yourself “whatever it is, it is OK, just let me feel it.” Allowing yourself to breathe with these feelings, and if your mind wanders to bothersome thoughts just acknowledge and let go of these – focusing back on sensing your breath. Continue doing this for about 1 minute.
TIP: You can try increasing the time of steps 2 & 3 as you start to get more familiar with this skill.