Mindfulness approaches are extremely popular in therapy these days. Mindfulness is a fancy word for learning to direct your attention at will and to use it to stabilize our emotional reactions when upset. Although the specific term “Mindfulness” originates in Eastern meditation traditions, similar techniques have been practices in the West under a variety of traditions and names. For example, prayer is a form of mindfulness as long as one pays attention to the content of one’s prayer. Athletes, artists and musicians all use advanced techniques for directing their attention.
Mindfulness refers to the action of paying close attention to a specific sensation or object. For example, briefly holding ice, which is commonly used in DBT therapy, is often used to steady very strong emotions. Ice is so cold that it becomes almost painful. Since pain tends to draw our attention almost automatically, briefly holding ice can pull our attention away from upsetting feelings or thoughts.
Most mindfulness techniques are much more gentle. The most common object of our attention is usually the breath.
It is very important to point out that mindfulness and meditation do not require continuous undivided attention. Mindfulness is an exercise of repeatedly and gently bringing one’s attention to the object of mindfulness or meditation. Most people’s minds wonder to other topics and thoughts. When upset, most people, unless they have trained extensively, get caught up in their emotions. It is for this reason that it is generally beneficial to train “the muscle of attention.” By repeating the action of paying attention to the sensation of our breathing over and over again each day, even if only for a few minutes at a time, strengthens our ability to call upon this skill when needed.
To practice mindfulness to breath, you may wish to start by counting your breaths. Choose a relatively relaxed location and simply count to 10 as you breathe in and out slowly. Try to bring your attention to the sensation of air going in and out your nose, past your throat and into your lungs or abdomen (pushing down the diaphragm feels like breathing into one’s belly). Try this exercise when you are not upset or stressed out. Anchor this exercise to certain common activities of your day. Try counting your breaths to five before you brush your teeth or before you answer your text. Use mindfulness to breath while waiting in line or waiting for your computer to boot up.
Be gentle with yourself and visualize building an important skill. This skill is not dissimilar to learning to read or to ride your bike. Please refer to the Handout on Abdominal Breathing to learn to breathe in the most calming way.
Other objects of mindfulness target your senses. For example, you can pay attention to how things taste. A common exercise recommended by Kabat-Zinn in “Full Catastrophy” involves eating one almond at a time, and fully tasting it. A good adaptation of this is to eat at least the first five bites of your breakfast or lunch without looking at your phone, and without talking to anyone. Simply bring your attention to your taste buds and try to figure out all the tastes. That’s what good cooks do!
When you walk into the cold winter day or into a hot summer day, try to pay attention to how this feels on your skin.
TOUCH: Try touching smooth and rough surfaces. Handle cold utensils at the restaurant where you may have gone for dinner. Touch the glass with ice and water. Stroke your fuzzy scarf or fuzzy boots.
TASTE: For a minute or two, focus on the sensation of putting a piece of gum or a piece of fruit or chocolate in your mouth. Just taste. It often helps to breathe into that sensation.
WALKING MEDITATION AND MINDFULNESS: Please refer to the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh and Jon Kabat-Zinn for excellent and inspiring ideas for mindfulness training.
Helpful books include: