Therapists spend a lot of time in various trainings, and sometimes the speakers enthusiastically exhort us to try techniques for ourselves. This was one such day. “I can’t do this mindfulness thing,” my colleague said in an aside to me, “I can’t keep my mind empty.”
Unlike assertiveness, this was one area where I have something possibly useful to offer.
The point of mindfulness in mental health is not to be empty-minded. It’s to select, moment by moment, what will (versus what will not) be the center of our attention.
Imagine a giant movie screen. That’s your conscious awareness, overflowing with all sorts of activity. The thoughts that inspire strong negative emotions are, necessarily, quite compelling. We were designed that way. Otherwise, a lion would have devoured our ancestors, who failed to notice the threat as they contemplated a butterfly. This would have led to us, their progeny, not being here to discuss mindfulness or anything else.
Just so, we are prone to direct our attention to whatever thoughts pop up with negative emotions attached: fear, anxiety, anger, sorrow. They feel more urgent than happy thoughts, the way a lion feels more urgent than a butterfly.
Mindfulness practices simply coach us (over and over and over again) in the gentle practice of noticing the negatively charged thought, acknowledging it, and redirecting our attention to our preferred focus.
If you were watching a huge movie screen, for example, you might be tempted to watch the Antarctic explorer dangling in grave danger over a precipice…or, if that were too intense, you could redirect your gaze to the penguins frolicking in another corner of the screen. It’s your choice. It might have to be made over and over and over, but with practice people are able to do it relatively smoothly, having distracting or upsetting thoughts pop up at undesired times and merely refocusing on the matter at hand. If you are like most people, you are adept at doing this at least sometimes. You have merely to strengthen this skill, and learn to generalize it.
Of course, there is so much more to mindfulness than this: it is a science as well as an art, and grounded in psychology and other health sciences in more than two decades of research that includes brain imaging and not just subjective and scientifically flimsy self-reports. For a lot of people, though, it sounds impossible, implausible and suspiciously more like religion than science.
The best place to seek more information would be to look up the sizable work and research of Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, and from there the many practical applications and helpful resources.
Dr. Lori Puterbaugh, LMHC, LMFT, NCC
Posts are for information and entertainment purposes only and should not be construed to be therapeutic advice. If you are in need of mental health assistance, please contact a licensed professional in your area.