There’s a word that floats around in nearly every mental health Thing I’ve done. “Mindfulness.” It’s kind of vague, and associated with all sorts of mysticism, so let’s simulate it right now. This should only take about 1 minute.
Open this blog in its own window. No other tabs. Close or minimize any other program – just hide it in general.
Step away from any text messaging, instant messaging, MSN-ing, BBM-ing or whatever acronym things go by now. If people still say “brb”, say that.
Next, put your phone in a drawer. Or throw it across the room. Or put it on silent and turn it upside down far away from you.
If you aren’t already in a quiet room, go there. Or tell everyone to leave you alone and turn off the TV.
If you’re eating or drinking, put it aside.
If I’ve missed a distraction of some kind, get rid of it.
I should now have your undivided attention.
You are now engaging in mindfulness, congratulations!
That’s it. Mindfulness means dedicating your entire attention to a single activity. That’s really it.
Have you opened back up all your tabs? WAIT. How long can you read my blog post without switching to something else? Did you switch to Googling mindfulness right at the beginning? Has your phone buzzed? Do you want to answer it? Doooo youuuu???
If you’re actually seriously trying mindfulness, your first reaction is going to be, “This is hard.” I’m not just saying it because I found it hard or something. I think, compared to some of my group-mates, I found it relatively easy. But it doesn’t matter, because it isn’t about hard or easy. Mindfulness is one of the most personal experiences you can have, because it is entirely between you and your mind.
One of the therapy groups I was part of was entirely about mindfulness as a practice for improving mental health, specifically depression. We spent 8 weeks practicing various approaches to mindfulness, and there are follow up meetings that are still happening (a year and a half later) when we can practice as a group. It was a fantastic opportunity.
In ‘The Mindful Way Through Depression’, by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a book that was used in the group, one of the early chapters relates a story. A young monk was just initiated at a monastery. On his first day, he went to his master teacher and said, “I am ready to learn. What do I do?” The teacher replied, “Go to the top of that mountain, and sit there all day, and think of nothing.” The monk thought, Ok, that’s easy! and hopped to it. He climbed the mountain and sat there, but try as he might, he could not think of nothing. Every time he tried to clear his mind, new thoughts kept invading, and distracting him. Over and over he tried, but at the end of the day, he climbed down the mountain, and sadly reported to his teacher, “I could not think of nothing. I have failed.”
The teacher said, “No, you have not failed. Tomorrow, go back to the top of the mountain and think of something – anything you want.” Relieved, the monk thought that sounded even easier, and the next day he sat at the top of the mountain and tried to think of something. But nothing stuck. He couldn’t keep a thought in his head. He cast around for ideas and his mind turned a blank. The same as the day before, he returned to his teacher to say he had failed. But his teacher said, “No, now you have learned that you cannot command your mind. This is the beginning.”
Ok, let’s skip the somewhat repetitive fairy tale and the mountain. You don’t have to be a monk. But I guarantee you will have the same problem when taking up mindfulness.
If this sounds remarkably like meditation, that’s because it is. In a sense, it’s simplified meditation. Meditation, as a concept, comes with all these preconceived notions of monks, orange robes, Nirvana, Buddhism and mystical powers. It’s just our Westernized schtick. So for mental health classes and groups, cognitive behavioural therapists have generally chosen to use the word “mindfulness”, and leave out the parts about attaining enlightenment.
Meditation – mindfulness – is simply a practice, an activity in which you train your mind to focus, to pay attention to only one thing. It sounds incredibly simple, and yet is incredibly hard. I can’t manage it for more than about 10 seconds at a time. So why bother?
We kept asking our teachers that in group. What are the benefits? Why keep practicing? Is there really an enlightenment at the end (we couldn’t help but ask)? In response our instructor was uncharacteristically cryptic, which was frustrating. But I don’t think it was his fault. As mindfulness is so personal, I imagine that the ‘benefits’ are very difficult to describe, and probably very specific to a given person’s life. He assured us there really, truly were benefits, and that it took a lot of practice to see them, but it was worth it. I cannot deny there was something calm, collected and wise about him, especially when he spoke of these ‘benefits’.
I have not practiced faithfully enough to know – and by faithfully I mean frequency, duration, and intentionality. Within the 8 weeks of the course, I got nowhere. Actually I got worse, and relapsed seriously into depression and self-harm, which starts a whole other story, so moving on…
But. Allow me to raise my finger and say “But!” in a vaguely mad scientist fashion. I’ve noticed things. Jeez that sounds creepy. But I have!
In the past year I’ve done things differently than I did before. Take this post for example, It passed you by. I would not have noticed anything without mindfulness training. It would have literally passed me by. Late bus? I have the presence of mind to know to distract myself, to remember that I have a habit of panicking. Patrick hasn’t called recently, to say when he’s home? No problem. I might start to ruminate about what could have happened to him, but I eventually catch myself. It doesn’t always make me feel better, but it’s better than feeling I have no control. Random emotions? They don’t feel so random anymore. I know what I’ve eaten, how I’ve slept – I pause to think, why am I feeling this way, and I have the beginnings of an answer. Upset and angry? I know I’m reacting to something, as opposed to literally being the embodiment of injustice, anger, and frustration. I don’t always remember in time to avoid blowing up, crying or running out of the room, but sometime later in the day I find myself reconciling with earlier events.
All because of paying attention? Ya.
For all that mindfulness classes will talk about being in touch with your thoughts and your body, the single most important part of mindfulness is not a smooth stream of consciousness, or a sense of being one with yourself; it’s interruption. Every time you start to not pay attention during mindfulness, the idea is that you notice, say oops, ok, and then go back to paying attention. In other words, you practice interrupting your train of thoughts, and thus practice interrupting the chain reactions that, cognitively, cause depression, anxiety and panic. The result is that you successfully remember to interrupt yourself when you find yourself in the midst of this thought-spiral in daily life.