This past week, I made it to a 9:00AM spinning class on a weekend morning, and this never happens. I was so proud of myself. It was a lovely morning to be walking outside. The leaves have started to change in the city and there was a cool fall breeze in the air. I headed into the spin class, and to my immediate dismay, I noticed that there was a sub for the class. This instructor is notoriously bad; unlike most spinning classes, her classes are always empty and uninspired. I got on my bike, and went through the motions, but couldn’t help but think: What’s the point of this? Should I leave? This is going to be such a waste of time. She’s not even spinning with us! Her music is way too slow!
Ugh. We’ve all been there. We’ve all been in situations that were unexpected and irritating, and we can’t help but complain. This story illustrates how we get caught up in our own day-to-day thinking traps. We are biased to constantly anticipate what we should have done differently in the past, what we need to prepare for in the future, and we are constantly evaluating our own performance. This may have evolved over time as an adaptive function because it improved our chances for survival. It forces us to reflect on how to allocate resources effectively, and how to learn from our mistakes. However, in the modern world, too much of this way of thinking only propagates stress and takes us out of our own lives. This is where mindfulness comes in.
Mindfulness refers to a set of skills that emphasizes practicing present-moment awareness with non-judgment.
Mindfulness is a way of observing your thoughts and allocating your attention to help you feel more in control of your life. Think about all of the things you may do on any particular day, from the basic routine things like taking a shower and walking to work, to highly complex tasks, like coordinating and evaluating a proposal for one of your clients. How much of the time are you truly engaged in whatever it is you’re doing?
Let’s clarify some myths and facts about mindfulness.
Is meditation considered mindfulness? Yes—whether you are sitting cross-legged in a formal meditation class, or lying down right before bed—any time you are devoting intentional efforts to be attentive to your present-focused thoughts, feelings, and urges, you are practicing mindfulness.
Is mindfulness just about trying to relax? Not necessarily—the purpose of practicing mindfulness is not to achieve a state of ultimate relaxation, although that can often occur by being mindful. In fact, there is no express goal of practicing mindfulness at all, except to be a curious observer of your current experience, whether good or bad, happy or sad, or neutral. The Eastern philosophies that have influenced the mindfulness-based programs and therapies that are now offered today actually emphasize a state of non-striving, and just “letting it go.” Striving (in the sense of resisting reality) is conceptualized as the root of psychological distress.
Does mindfulness have to be done in a formal setting, like a stress reduction program, a week-long meditation retreat, or a yoga class? No—mindfulness can be done in formal contexts like those above, or they can be done informally. In fact, in my clinical practice, practicing in informal contexts is often easier to start with. For example, being mindful of everyday routine activities, such as walking, eating, taking a shower, or brushing your teeth. When you do these activities, focus on all of your senses as you do them- how things look, feel, taste, smell, and touch. You are guaranteed to have a very different experience doing these routine activities.
Is mindfulness just focusing on your breathing? It can be—some mindfulness exercises incorporate the breath because it is something accessible to center your attention on. However, the intention during mindful breathing is to pay attention not just to your breath and how you experience each inhalation and exhalation, but also on every time your thoughts diverge from your breath to other things, and gently redirecting your focus back on your breath.
For the skeptics out there, do you believe mindfulness is just a passing fad? In fact, its origins date back to Eastern philosophies that originated thousands of years ago. It has only recently been empirically examined in controlled trials, and many studies support its efficacy in reducing stress, depression, anxiety, and improving quality-of-life.
If you are still skeptical, I would encourage you to try an experiment. Next time you find yourself in an aversive situation, try practicing mindfulness and a state of “acceptance” of the current situation. Let go of your urge to improve or escape the situation, and just pay attention to your thoughts, feelings, and urges. If someone were writing a screenplay for this moment, what would they write? Be an active observer of your experience. If you try to accept the situation (and acceptance doesn’t have to mean approval!), you may save yourself some undue distress.
- Mindfulness reflects a practice of paying attention to your current moment experience without judgment, and being a curious and open observer.
- Practicing mindfulness has enormous health benefits for reducing stress, depression, and anxiety.
- Mindfulness doesn’t necessarily mean just focusing on something as hard as you can (like your breath), but rather is a skill of being aware of all of your present moment thoughts, feelings, and urges, AND bringing yourself back to the intentional practice of being aware when your thoughts drift.
By Angela Fang, Ph.D. - Resident Expert, Psychologist