Mindfulness: an introduction

You have most likely encountered the term mindfulness in popular culture by now. A quick book search for mindfulness on Amazon.com generated more than 50,000 hits. Titles include Practicing Mindfulness, The Miracle of Mindfulness, Mindfulness in Plain English, Mindfulness for Dummies, and Zen as F*ck: A Journal for Practicing the Mindful Art of Not Giving a Sh*t, among others. Some of them, including that last one, are listed as “Best Sellers.”

There is no doubt the idea and practice of mindfulness is catching on. But what does the term mindfulness actually mean? Some regard it as a passing fad, or a watered-down version of an ancient Zen Buddhist practice, while others consider it as an empirically-based intervention for treating mental disorders like anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. In fact, it has the potential to be all those things, depending on how it is understood and used.

The purpose of this article is to provide a brief introduction to the concept and practice of mindfulness, and to provide a simple, real-world application of it that can be used by anyone, with immediate benefits. I’m not trying to provide an in-depth exploration of the concept, nor is this to be mistaken as a substitute for formal training. We’re going to keep things pretty simple, but hopefully you will be able to take from this article a practice that can be used and expanded upon in a way that can be surprisingly effective at reducing emotional pain for anyone, anywhere, right away.

First of all, what is mindfulness? The simplest definition is awareness without judgment. In a broad sense, this means an awareness of the reality of the present moment, while maintaining a non-judgmental, accepting stance. So there are two parts: awareness, and non-judgment. Sounds simple, right? In fact, one or both of those things can prove to be surprisingly difficult.  

For the purpose of this article, I’m going to focus on a slightly narrower definition, which is this: awareness of one’s thoughts and emotional reactions without judgment. Again, there are two components: being aware of one’s thoughts and feelings, and refraining from judging them. It might not sound like it, but this simple practice can be amazingly beneficial, in large part because of the simple fact that virtually all of us have been trained to do the same thing: to harshly judge ourselves for having certain feelings.

Way back in 2012, I published a post titled, “What not to teach your kids.” In it, I encouraged parents (and everyone) not to teach their children to become ashamed of perfectly normal feelings such as anger, sadness, and fear, and to try not to perpetuate these teachings in themselves. Now, I want to reiterate a point here: anger, sadness, and fear are perfectly ordinary, normal, natural feelings. There is nothing wrong with any of them, other than that they are painful. Now, ask yourself this: Do you believe what I just said? Or does some part of you believe that such feelings are bad, or wrong, or to be avoided at all costs? If so, you are in the majority. Virtually everyone on Earth has been culturally conditioned to believe such things.

From an early age, we are bombarded with (sometimes) well-intentioned but ultimately misguided messages like, “Don’t be sad,” “There’s no point in getting angry,” “Be strong,” and even, “You’d better quit your crying, or I’ll give you something to cry about.” That last one is usually accompanied by having a fist shaken in one’s face. These messages do absolutely no good at all. Instead, they have the effect of creating guilt for one’s normal feelings, which in turn causes us to suppress our feelings in an attempt to please whoever is feeding us such nonsense. So the ultimate result is suppressed pain, with guilt thrown on top of it. As I said in my last post, this is one of the reasons so many adults are going through life with a tremendous amount of accumulated pain. And because these messages have become internalized, we continue to do it to ourselves. When we become aware, even on a subconscious level, of “bad” feelings like anger, sadness, or fear, our conditioning kicks in and we respond with guilt and suppression. It’s a recipe for ongoing unhappiness that is universal.

This is where the practice of mindfulness can make such a huge difference. By simply recognizing our thoughts and feelings on a conscious level, and then giving ourselves permission to have them, we free ourselves from unwarranted guilt. This may take the form of a thought as simple as, “I feel sad, and it’s okay.” Six words that can make a huge difference in how we feel. 

There are two obstacles to this simple practice: forgetfulness, and resistance. First of all, if you decide to try to recognize and allow your feelings on a regular basis, you are not going to remember to do it every time. In fact, you might forget to do it most of the time. That’s okay, it’s the same for everyone. Don’t create an unrealistic expectation that you are going to nail it right away. In other words, give yourself permission to be a regular human about it. The more you remember, the more it will become habit, but it starts out slowly. Life will give you lots and lots of opportunities to practice.

The second obstacle, resistance, arises from our conditioning. Those lessons about bad feelings are deeply embedded in us, and they are stubborn and strong. They aren’t going to go willingly into the night. This is to be expected. Even recognizing that the practice of mindfulness can be frustrating can be an act of mindfulness in itself, as long as we recognize we’re feeling frustrated and give ourselves permission to feel it.

I’m going to provide an example of the practice of mindfulness on a novice level, again drawing on my own personal experience. About 10 years ago, when the whole concept was still kind of fuzzy for me, my brother Matt came down from North Carolina for a visit. Now, my brother and I are very close, but not geographically, as I live in Dallas. So when we get together, we usually try to cram as much fun into the visit as time will allow. We had had a good few days, but now it was time for Matt to head back. He packed up his car and I went outside to see him off, and to walk my dog, Ozzie. We hugged our goodbyes and told each other, “Love you, bro,” and then he got in his car and drove away. I watched his car go down the street and disappear at the next intersection. Then I walked my dog.

While we were walking, I became aware of the fact that I felt terrible, and I realized I was fighting back tears. As soon as I did, the conditioning kicked in, and thoughts began zipping through my mind. It’s not like you’re never going to see him again. You’re a grown-up now. Don’t be a baby. When I became aware of those thoughts, something in me felt a little angry, and I had another thought that said, Screw that, I’m sad and I have a right to be sad. 

Instantly, I felt better, even though I started crying. What changed was a huge load of guilt lifted off my shoulders, and I felt free. I had permission to feel what I felt. I wasn’t doing anything wrong. It felt good.

In my practice, I have never met a single person who hasn’t received similar conditioning as a child. Every culture does it, or at least, every culture I’ve encountered. So we’re all walking around with this artificial guilt bomb that’s ready to go off whenever we feel a forbidden emotion. How sad is that? (It’s okay to be sad, heh-heh.) Mindfulness combats this. It frees us, even if only temporarily, from unnecessary pain. In the 10 years since the above vignette occurred, I’ve learned that my conditioning will probably never go away completely. It’s too deeply ingrained. That’s normal. But if I can’t get rid of it completely, I can get better at applying mindfulness on a regular basis, and so can you.

In some ways, the practice of mindfulness has a lot in common with cognitive-behavioral therapies. Both of them involve an increased awareness of the role of our thoughts upon our emotional state. Of all the major therapeutic modalities, cognitive-behavioral therapy enjoys the most empirical support for its effectiveness. I’ve used it for years. It can be extremely effective at challenging self-defeating thoughts and beliefs, and is a great tool in any therapist’s toolbox. CBT might not exist if the ancient practice of mindfulness hadn’t preceded it by about 2,500 years. And now there’s something called mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), which has proven effective at preventing depressive relapse/recurrence.

There’s an interesting difference between traditional cognitive-based therapies and mindfulness, however. In CBT, there is usually a focus on recognizing, challenging, and ultimately replacing “faulty” beliefs, whereas mindfulness is focused simply on recognizing and accepting such thoughts. For instance, if an individual recognized she was feeling guilty for setting a healthy boundary with a pushy, manipulative friend, a CBT approach might sound like this: “I’m feeling guilty, in spite of not having done anything wrong. Therefore I need to remind myself that setting boundaries is healthy, and I am, in fact, not guilty of bad behavior, therefore I don’t need to feel guilty.” A mindfulness-based approach might sound more like, “I recognize and accept that part of me believes I have done a bad thing and I feel guilty.”

It might be a subtle difference, but CBT contains within it an assumption that, by having a faulty belief, we are, in essence, doing something wrong. Therefore, a little guilt can creep in with it. Mindfulness, on the other hand, dispenses with the notion of right and wrong. It simply allows. There is no guilt.

This subtle difference raises an interesting question: which approach is better? As it turns out, recent research indicates they are equally effective. It is likely that traditional CBT will increasingly integrate mindfulness-based concepts. The two approaches don’t need to be seen as either/or. It is probably true that some people receive a greater benefit from traditional CBT, while others respond better to mindfulness-based practices. The question of choosing one or the other comes down to simple preference.

It’s important to understand that accepting one’s thoughts and feelings is only a part of what it means to practice mindfulness. Most resources on the subject focus quite a bit on meditation. I’ve had quite a few people tell me that they tried meditating, but didn’t really get the hang of it. Here’s a little secret: virtually everyone who attempts meditation isn’t any good at it at first. It takes practice, like most things. But regardless of whether or not you wish to pursue such a practice, you can start reaping the benefits of simply giving yourself permission to feel what you feel, right now.

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