Developing a mindfulness practice
I encourage all my clients to develop a mindfulness practice or continue one they already have. Here, I review my definition of mindfulness and why I think practicing it is useful generally and specifically for people doing therapy.
When I say "mindfulness" I mean bringing awareness into right here, right now, with very little judgement. Jon Kabbatt-Zinn, founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program, prefers to say "no judgement". With enormous respect, I see that as an ideal. Being human, I can have some sense of the judgements I bring, and I always seem to bring some along. So I prefer to say "very little judgement" to remind myself to look at what I am bringing now.
Why is mindfulness useful? Why should we work so hard just to be where we are? We spend a great deal of our mental energy focused on regrets, resentments, and critiques about the past or worries and plans about the future. Yet, the next step we take is always from where we are. Not from the past or from the future, from where we are now. And all the judgement we bring to our view of the present distorts it. So our most effective movement will always come from awareness of right here, right now, with very little judgement. That's why I think mindfulness practice is as useful to stock broker as it is to a bus driver or a soccer player.
Psychotherapy is, after all, a tool for helping us change so that we feel better. As Alfred Adler noted, all life is about movement. So whether we are changing our attitudes, our responses, or even our beliefs about how the world works, we are changing the patterns of our movement in order to feel better. From this perspective, then, it's easy to see why developing a mindfulness practice can help therapy go smoother and faster.
Classical sitting meditation is the traditional way to develop a mindfulness practice. Brain studies of monks who have done thousands of hours of meditation showed significant differences in structure and processing from people who did not meditate.
Interestingly, we do not have to become monks to get benefits from a mindfulness practice. Meaningful results usually show up in two to three weeks from as little as 15 to 20 minutes of practice each day. In eight to ten weeks, you will be able to try a wide variety of types of practice and discover what fits best for you. This is important, since it will be much easier to continue your practice if it fits well.
And you will discover that you can practice mindfulness anywhere, doing anything. My tai chi teacher, Barb Davis, used to tell us: "If you are doing dishes and you are focused only on the dish you are doing and nothing else, you are doing tai chi. If you are doing the tai chi form and you are thinking about the dishes, you are not doing tai chi!" You can try walking mindfully, eating mindfully, listening mindfully.
If you don't already have a mindfulness practice, you may be wondering how to start. First, I suggest you notice activities you already do that help you bring your awareness into here and now -- watering plants, walking the dog, journaling, for example. Of course, you can do all these while focusing on something else and that would not be mindful. To develop a practice, you can begin by noticing when your awareness begins to drift away -- and it will -- and gently inviting it to come back to the here and now. You will have to do that over and over since everyone's awareness drifts away. You can add focused exercises such as focused exhalation breathing, doing gratitude lists, 5-senses check in, or body scanning. Set aside a few minutes every day, try new exercises for at least a week, see what fits best for you. See if you can enjoy your practice.
Wishing you peace, health, happiness, and joy. Allen