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The Benefits of Mindfulness
What Is Mindfulness
Most simply put, Mindfulness is an active engagement in the present moment. This may at first seem like something we do axiomatically but this is not necessarily the case. As human beings in a complex world our attention is much more often in the past or in the future than it is on the present moment. Most of us are plagued by the regrets and doubts that accompany our neurotic ruminations concerning past events, be they events from five minutes ago or five years ago. And when we are not cognitively stuck in the past we are often wrapped up in the anxieties and concerns of the future, constantly catastrophizing the unknowns that lie forever beyond the blind corner that is the future.
Now, while we do have to take stock of past mistakes so as to learn from them and also make pragmatic plans for the future we do not have to let these thoughts, which are ultimately about things beyond our control, consume us. We can choose to and learn how to live more effectively, with more satisfaction in the present moment. That moment after all is where all joy, all interpersonal connection, all awe and wonder lie in wait to be discovered.
Focusing one's attention mindfully has become increasingly difficult in the face of the information age. We are, after all, tethered to mobile devices that chain our consciousness to things that just happened and to things that we are chronically anticipating to happen. While we are occupied by these devices and the social media that they connect us to we miss all the beauty that surrounds us from moment to moment and we miss the opportunity to connect with the new and novel people around us.
Far from advocating an abandonment of technology, I believe that we can more fully integrate mindfulness and appreciation for the present moment with these other entertainments and distractions offered by technology There are a few practices that you can employ for just a few minutes everyday to become more mindful. We will get to these, but first some more about the characteristics of mindfulness and the potential benefits of it's practice.
What and How Skills
Mindfulness as it is taught in Dialectic Behavioral Therapy is characterized by six skills. Three, "what skills," and three, "how skills."
The, "what skills," are observation, description, and participation. Observation is the ability to focus your attention without pushing away unpleasantness. It can be described as having a, "Teflon mind." All those thoughts and feelings that inevitably cross our consciousness are acknowledged as part of our present moment experience before they are allowed to pass onward like clouds overhead. As these experiences envelope us we put words to the experience by using the next skill, description. We may say to ourselves, "In this moment I feel anxious," or, "May heart is racing." By acknowledging and describing our present moment experience we take the power out of unpleasant experiences and learn to better tolerate these moments and let them be. And by being accepting of what is occurring in the present moment we allow ourselves to engage in the third, "what skill," participation. We can mindfully engage the moment, acting intuitively and forgetting ourselves in the process.
The, "how skills," of mindfulness include having a non-judgmental stance, being of a single mind, and being effective. When acting non-judgmentally, detach your value judgments from the facts, from the who, what, when, and why of what is occurring. Refrain from labeling your present moment as, "horrible," or, "wonderful." Accept the moment, acknowledging the harmful and helpful aspects of what is happening without placing further mental burdens upon yourself. If you can do this you will be able to employ the last two, "how skills." You will deal with one moment at a time rather than diverting your attention onto multiple concerns. When you are eating, eat. When you are enjoying a sunset, enjoy it. And when you are solving a problem, solve it and it alone. By being of one mind in our present moment we can thus deal with each issue and enjoy each momentary sensation much more effectively. Effectiveness is the last, "how skill." Give each moment what it requires, choose your objectives and give all that you have in your attempt at achieving them. Act skillfully in dealing with what you encounter from one moment to the next.
Mindfulness is a major treatment component in therapeutic interventions for depression, anxiety, personality disorders, trauma reactions, and anger management. Even if you lack any of these issues mindfulness has helped many non-clinical individuals, lacking psychopathology, to live more rewarding, less stressful lives.
There are many wonderful guided mindfulness meditations on Youtube. These exercises if only practiced for 10 minutes a day will make a habit out of paying attention to the breath. The breath after all is ever-present, can be automatic or purposeful, and provides an easy link between the body and the mind and the conscious and the sub-conscious. These meditative exercises will also teach you to be better in-tuned to the thoughts and feelings that characterize our waking moments while training you not to judge them or hold onto them longer than is necessary.
Sensory grounding is another easy way to train your self to be more mindful. If you purposefully devote your attention to what your senses are feeding you in a particular moment then cognitively existing in the past or the future is impossible. Try walking down the street while fully engaged in the details that surround you. Hear the birds, see the sky, feel the ground beneath your feet. Grounding yourself in this moment will keep you from unnecessarily being in other more distressing moments that have already passed or have't happened yet.
Finally, be patient and gentle with yourself. Our minds have evolved to wander constantly and ruminate on the past and on the possibilities of the future. If you are trying to meditate or ground yourself mindfully, and you find your mind straying, gently congratulate your self on noticing this and return your attention to the only moment that really matters, this one.