I’m sure you’ve heard of the concept of being ‘mindful’, or at least about ‘mindfulness meditation’. It’s an idea that’s really caught on, and it’s used by psychotherapists and counsellors of all types to help people gain calm and emotional balance in their lives.
It certainly is important to slow down during the day sometimes, perhaps taking twenty minutes here and there to relax and step back from our day. Doing this regularly brings down our stress levels and is extremely beneficial for our health, both mentally and physically.
Here I want to consider what ‘mindfulness’ actually is, how mindfulness can help ‘in the moment’, as a situation is actually unfolding, and how you might start switching into mindfulness when you need to. This technique is so important – not just something you can teach your clients, but something you as a busy therapist can benefit from mastering as well!
I won’t be including ways to meditate using mindfulness, although of course that is a very beneficial thing to do and at we do have a specific mindfulness meditation download you can relax to.
What I want to focus on is ‘mindfulness in action’, as it were. How you can gain detachment (and therefore calm) when you really need it – even when you are right in the middle of a situation.
The automatic pilot
If we think about day-to-day consciousness we can see that many of us go around on automatic pilot. So we might be in line at the grocery store, waiting to pay up at the checkout, but our mind is elsewhere. We’re asleep at the wheel, so to speak, there in body but not in mind.
To a certain extent this is fine, of course, and even actually highly adaptive. After all, if we couldn’t think about future possibilities then we’d never create anything, never be able to plan, or take action to avoid the potential disasters we can envisage by leaving the present moment and travelling in our minds to a possible future.
Evolving the capacity to travel imaginatively into the future and the capacity to reflect on the lessons of the past, was a great leap forward for humankind. We could imagine things being different, and with this imagination we could build civilization; art, science and cultivate all kinds of ideas.
But reflection and imagination are tools. And, just like any tool, they can be misused.
The perils of misusing imagination
So too much reflection on the past can stop us from enjoying the present or constructively planning for the future, especially if we over-focus on sad or scary past events. Likewise, too much focus on the future can get in the way of what we need to do now, and again over-focusing on the frightening stuff that we imagine lies ahead can fuel a sense of hopelessness, helplessness and fear.
All psychological difficulties, however they were originally caused, are maintained by misuse of the imagination. From depression to paranoia to jealousy and anger. Typical misuse patterns are introspecting negatively about the past, dreading the future, or imagining what other people (who aren’t even present with us in the here and now) are thinking about us.
On a side note, it’s astonishing how much we stress about what other people are thinking about us. The truth is that 99.99% of the time other people are not thinking about us at all. And the remaining 0.01% of the time they are probably worrying about what we are thinking about them. But I digress.
Using the imagination well
The tool of being able to think beyond your immediate reality needs to be controlled, so that it can be properly used when it’s really needed. For example, being able to think about why you are exercising and what you hope to achieve through exercise is a good tool for imagining the reward that increased fitness will bring and so on, while you are actually exercising or planning to exercise. This is a good use of living in the future.
Similarly, recalling how you got financially stung in the past when asked to lend money to a certain unreliable person can equip you to make better decisions in future.
So when you hear people say that the ideal is to ‘always live in the moment’ and that’s what being enlightened really means, I suggest you reserve judgement.
All you have is now
But sometimes it really is healthy to release yourself from the mental chatter in your head – to totally immerse yourself in the present moment – to forget the future and the past. And, of course, in a real sense all you actually have is only ever right here and right now.
If you observe a bunch of people walking along a busy street you can almost see that in one sense they are not really ‘there’. Much of the time we are preoccupied with fantasies or fears about the future or the past. Meanwhile, the present moment slips by barely noticed.
As a wise man once said: “If you can, now and then, suspend your expectations, you can, for a moment, see what you are actually getting.”
What mindfulness is and does
‘Mindfulness’ is simply keeping your attention in the present moment, without judging it as happy or sad, good or bad. It is a state of unattached being in which thoughts and feelings are not so much wrestled with, repressed or defeated, but simply allowed to pass by and eventually recede altogether.
It is an attitude of acceptance of the current moment for what it is. So when you are ‘mindful’ you are not in a state of fear nor in a state of hope. You are not wishing things were different. You are in a calm and spontaneous state of consciousness, accepting and observing – and therefore more likely to see what is actually happening, free from the clouds of imagination.
When we are mindful in a situation, we remain calm and we observe more objectively. These benefits bring a further benefit, which is that we are free to choose how to respond rather than just react.
When you see more clearly, free of bias, fear, hope and calculation, then you often find you have a greater sense of what really needs to be done in a situation, or even whether anything can be done right in that moment. Or whether the best response is to do nothing at all and just wait for a while.
Imagine you are someone who dreads public speaking, and you are about to give a very important speech to 500 people. You have prepared and rehearsed. But you are eaten up with terror. For you, the present moment isn’t really there at all, because your entire focus is on the immediate future – the talk that hasn’t happened yet.
But think about what it would be like to be mindful in that situation, just aware of your breathing, in and out, letting thoughts and feelings drift away – now is all there is… and, even though you know you are about to present in ten minutes, now is all there is. As well as observing your breath, you might notice the colours in the room around you, right here and now, or the way a shaft of light leans down through a window, or anything else that is in the here and now.
So how can you do this in the moment?
Step by step mindfulness
Well, make no mistake, the more you practise mindfulness when you have a calm moment, the easier it will be to recapture a sense of mindfulness when you are caught up in the pace of modern life. But here’s five tips to help you and your clients be more mindful when you really need it, in the moment.
5 steps to mindfulness for the busy therapy practitioner (well, for everyone!)
- First, decide you need to be mindful and detached and now is an appropriate time to be so.
- Second, consciously focus on the way you are breathing. Observe your own breath moving in and out, like someone on a beach watching the waves coming in and out.
- Third, start to watch and label your own emotions, without trying to change them. Say to yourself: “I can see resentment” or “I can see fear” or even “I can see calm detachment.” The part of you that can see these states is sometimes called the ‘observing self‘ and it is a powerful psychological tool. Let the feelings be there, and at the same time notice how, because you are not associating with them, you can really feel the separation between these emotions and the essential you. And let them pass.
- Fourth, imagine looking at the scene, as if you are quite outside of yourself. Without making any judgement of the situation, just get this sense of being external to and beyond this moment, watching, not even with curiosity but with total calm. Just watching what happens, not trying to keep hold of any feeling but just letting it all go, like seeing lilies floating past on the surface of a stream.
- And fifth, and last, decide whether anything you have observed in this state of mindfulness leads you to take any particular action.
So, in short, mindfulness is an almost meditative state of mind in which we are entirely focussed on the here and now and detached from both the emotional and cognitive content of our minds.
Of course we shouldn’t never use our imaginations in order to learn from the past or project possibilities into the future. But sometimes freeing yourself from regrets and fears and being in the here and now is desirable, especially if we want to remain cool and calm.
Although mindfulness can be described as a ‘meditative’ state, experiencing it is not limited to meditation. With practise, we can readily access this state in everyday life. You can appear entirely awake and active to others even as you remain internally mindful. I have given you an idea of how you might do this, and it’s truly worth practising.
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