Mindfulness according to John Kabat-Zinn means paying attention in a particular way – on purpose, to the present moment, non-judgmentally. So, mindfulness is quite ordinary. Any time you direct your attention on purpose to any aspect of your present experience (thoughts, emotions, senses/sensations), without preference for one experience over another, then you are practising mindfulness. You can eat mindfully, do the washing up mindfully, or walk mindfully.
However, we have a tendency to rely heavily on our ability to function on automatic pilot. Have you ever looked down at your plate when you were eating and wondered where it all went? The meal might have been delicious, but your mind was somewhere else and you didn’t notice. Or have you had the experience when someone says hello to you, but it’s as if they are just going through the motions and they don’t really see you? This ability to function on automatic pilot is useful because it enables us to multi task. For example, once we know how to drive, we can do it automatically and think about other things. However, if we live our lives too frequently on autopilot, we miss out on the richness of experience, like a delicious meal, or the moment when we say hello to each other and we really see each other while we are doing it!
However, increased mindfulness means increased awareness of unpleasant experiences too. After all, unpleasant experiences are a necessary part of life. Resistance to unpleasant experiences is both futile and counter-productive. If we never know pain, we can never know pleasure. Furthermore, unpleasant experiences give us information about what we might need or want. For example, feeling lonely tells us that we are in need of connection. This is our system’s way of regulating itself. If we never felt hunger, we might never eat and that would be disastrous!
Mindfulness in Psychotherapy
I always encourage mindfulness during my sessions. Together we will pay attention, on purpose to the present moment without preference for one experience over another. This means noticing thoughts as they arise in the moment, and being aware of emotions, body sensations and movements as they are experienced. We can describe and explore these experiences to find out more about them and what they might be telling us about the present situation. Your aim is to carry that mindfulness into your day-to-day life, so that you can live your present moments more fully, enjoying the richness of life, and responding effectively to the needs of your mind-body system.
Mindfulness is simply a particular way of paying attention, however, there are some formal meditation practices that can help us to strengthen our capacity for it. Mindfulness is a very simple form of meditation that was little known in the West until recently. A typical meditation consists of focusing your full attention on your breath as it flows in and out of your body. Focusing on each breath in this way allows you to observe your thoughts as they arise in your mind, and, little by little, to let go of your struggle with them. You come to realise that thoughts come and go of their own accord, that you are not your thoughts. You can watch as they appear in your mind, seemingly out of thin air, and watch again as they disappear, like a soap bubble bursting. You come to the profound understanding that thoughts and feelings (including negative ones) are transient. They come and they go, and ultimately, you have a choice about whether to act on them or not.
I am a trained mindfulness teacher and have run courses in Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy in a hospital setting. Whilst teaching formal mindfulness meditation practice will not necessarily be a part of every psychotherapy, for many people I would encourage practising between sessions as a useful adjunct to the therapy.