The very first time I remember attempting meditation was in college. In my dorm room, I turned off the lights, plopped down on a pillow, and lit a candle. I sat as still as I could for about 20 minutes waiting for my mind to go blank. It didn’t. I decided I wasn’t cut out for meditation, so I gave up and went out to find some friends I could hang out with.
About 15 years later, I heard a medical doctor present on the physical and psychological benefits of mindfulness. Honestly, I didn’t pay the idea a whole lot of attention at first. Remembering my brief failed attempt in college, I knew grabbing a cushion and closing my eyes wasn’t going to get me to nirvana! However, I was intrigued by the idea and began to investigate.
So began my mindful journey. For the past 6 years I’ve been exploring mindfulness in my own life as well as the ways in which it can help my clients. The possibilities are exciting.
If you have heard anything about mindfulness (and it’s likely you have) you may have some questions. I certainly did. I’ve put together this FAQ to answer some of those questions as well as share some ideas on where to start your own mindful journey if you are so inclined.
1. What is mindfulness and is it the same thing as meditation?
Jon Kabat-Zinn, the developer of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) defines mindfulness is “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” To me that means that as I sit here typing this I notice the chair supporting me, the sound of the keys clicking as I type, the glow of the screen in front of me. I am here, typing this word, right this moment. Of course it also means that in the next moment I might start thinking about what I’m going to do when I finish this blog post or remembering a call I forgot to make. And it means that I won’t judge myself for that.
Perhaps when you think of mindfulness you imagine a red-robed monk perched cross-legged on a cushion with eyes closed. While “sitting meditation” (as this practice is referred to) is a common and very useful mindfulness practice, we can also be mindful when we walk, talk, eat, sit in meetings, wash dishes, you name it! Any moment you become fully aware of your experience is a moment of mindfulness.
Again, the idea here is not that our minds are blank, but that our minds are focused on what is happening in this moment.
2. What are the benefits of mindfulness?
It might be easier to discuss what mindfulness doesn’t seem to help. Studies have linked mindfulness with strengthened immune systems, less stress and anxiety, improved relationships, reduced depression, greater happiness, and increased concentration, among many others benefits.
Note: Mindfulness is not a quick-fix (see #3 below). You will not close your eyes, breathe and suddenly have all of your problems disappear. Rather, mindfulness helps us see our problems more clearly so that we are able to respond rather than react to difficult situations. Mindfulness requires effort and commitment to train your brain in this way. However, many (including myself) report that it is worth the effort and research is confirming these anecdotal reports.
3. Why does it seem like everyone is talking about mindfulness these days? Is it a fad?
Mindful practice has grown in our collective awareness in the past 10 years. There are a number of reasons for this. In part, the growing field of interpersonal neurobiology and our greater understanding of how the brain works provides evidence for how mindful practices can help the brain work better. Additionally, awareness of mindful practice has grown because of its increased use for the treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which has received greater attention as many of our military members return from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Finally, I believe that there is a growing recognition of the need in our culture for the greater attention, connection and compassion that mindfulness can offer.
Is it a fad? Unfortunately, there does seem to currently be a faddish quality to mindfulness. Similar to the idea of a “get rich quick” scheme, mindfulness is seen by some as a “get relaxed now” scheme. Our culture loves the quick fix. However, just as the “get rich quick” scheme rarely comes as quickly or easily as advertised, mindfulness practice takes commitment and patience in order to glean its true rewards.
4. What does mindfulness in therapy look like?
A growing number of therapists have received training in and incorporate into their work some form of mindfulness. The way mindfulness looks in therapy will vary from therapist to therapist depending on the client’s needs and the therapist’s theoretical orientation.
I’ll describe here a few ways I may use mindfulness in session with clients:
I may invite her to pause, close her eyes and take a few breaths as a way of calming the nervous system and becoming present.
I may ask a client to do a body scan, with eyes open or closed, focusing attention from the top of his head, down the body to the feet, noticing any sensations or areas of tension.
I ask my clients, “Where do you feel that hurt/pain/sadness/anger in your body? Can you describe it? What if you could “breathe into” that part of your body? Does that cause the sensation and feeling to shift or move?”
By slowing my client down and getting him in touch with the moment to moment experience, he can begin to explore how to respond in situations rather than react. This improves the client’s productivity and relationships not to mention his physical, mental, and emotional health.
5. How can I learn more or get started?
Fortunately, there are a many easily accessible resources for learning about mindfulness. Unfortunately, there are so many, it can be overwhelming to chose a starting point.
I believe the most accessible place to start is with Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). This program was developed in the 1980s by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn to help patients at the University of Massachusetts. It is an 8-week intensive training in mindfulness meditation. It has been extensively researched and is offered at a number of locations in the DC Metro area. Additionally, there are a number of books and audio programs that can take you through the program as a self-study.
In closing, I would like to share a poem by Rumi, a thirteenth-century poet, called the “Guest House”. It beautifully captures the possibilities that mindfulness practice can provide.
THE GUEST HO– USE
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.
Meladie Burke is a licensed professional counselor in private practice in Old Town, Alexandria, VA. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.