If we’re focused on the future or the past, life will pass us by. Worrying about what will happen, or rehashing what has happened creates distress and dis-ease. Being either in the past or the future is a sign of a unbalanced nervous system and can cause symptoms such as digestive upset, insomnia, headaches, anxiety, depression, chronic pain, poor memory, or fatigue to just name a few. It can also cause us unnecessary harm, emotionally, mentally and physically.
The goal of mindfulness is to focus on our current life experience – to attain a state of active, open attention to our present moments. When we experience mindfulness, we carefully observe our thoughts and feelings without judging them as good or bad. We live in the present rather than dwelling on the past or anticipating the future. This creates a more balanced and resilient nervous system that can help you to engage and orient to life according to your values and vision.
What is Mindfulness?
There are many opinions and definitions of mindfulness out there, here is my understanding and how I teach mindfulness in my practice.
Mindfulness is noticing without judgment or elaboration. This means noticing what is happening right now, what are the thoughts, sensations or emotions that you are experiencing without telling a story, or deciding if it is good or bad.
For example, if I notice twinge in my knee, a judgment would be: “Ooh this is bad, I should do something about this.” An elaboration might be: “Is that my arthritis again? Maybe I should see my doctor again. Will they be able to help me? Will I need total knee replacement? Will I ever be able to walk again?”
When we layer a story and a judgment on top of our experience we have moved out of the present moment, we have lost touch with the current thought, sensation, or emotion.
Mindfulness is a skill that is learned through practice. Just like when you are teaching a child to read, you start with letters, then sentences, then move to children’s books, and then novels. With mindfulness, you don’t want to start practicing in the most stressful environment. You want to start in a neutral, safe environment, and then over time and with practice start to utilize this tool in more and more difficult situations.
Step One: Noticing
The first step of mindfulness is noticing – bringing your awareness to the thoughts, sensations, or emotions that are currently present. This part is about gathering information and building curiosity. This step is preverbal, we gather information before we associate any words with it. This can be difficult. It isn’t how we normally operate, but it’s an important first step to a mindfulness practice.
Step Two: Labeling
The next stage of mindfulness is to practice what is called labeling. This is taking the things that you are now aware of, the things that you have noticed, and give them a neutral, non-judgmental, and descriptive label. It might be something like “bell” or “thinking.” When picking a label, keep in mind that tone matters.
For example, you are practicing a Sound Meditation and you notice that you are wondering what the annoying buzzing is and how to stop it, and label that observation: “Ugh, I’m thinking again.” That label is very different than: “Oh, thinking” or “Oh, unhelpful thinking.” The process of assigning a neutral label changes the neural pathways being used from the part of the brain that uses automatic, learned responses, to the area that is more associated with decision making (the amygdala to the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC), if you are interested).
Step Three: Acceptance
Acceptance, or allowing, is embracing and welcoming what arises within us and around us, moment to moment just as it is. So, once we notice something and give it a neutral label, the next stage is giving room to all of our thoughts, sensations, and emotions to exist within us. Because our emotions, sensations, or thoughts themselves are neither good nor bad, they just are.
Now many people hear acceptance and assume that it is the same thing as toleration. It is not. Toleration implies that what is happening is ok, and it can continue with no change. The thing happening might not be ok, and you can still be accepting while doing something to change the situation.
For example, if someone is poking you with a stick, you can be accepting of the sensation of sharp pressure and the thoughts of pain AND you can ask the person poking you to stop or you can move out of range. You can accept the sensation and the thought – not pushing them away or deciding that they are bad – while not tolerating what is happening to you and actively change the situation.
Mindfulness is not passive. Mindfulness is not about floating on a cloud and passively letting life happen. Mindfulness is about being present in the current moment so that you can make choices that are best in alignment with your values.
Step Four: Response
This brings us to the fourth step, which is our response. The process of mindfulness allows us to choose how we respond rather than using an automatic reaction. When I work with patients, the first thing we do is come up with a vision statement. A vision statement answers the question: “How do you want to live your life?” This is a distillation of the values that you are already using as a guide but in a usable format that is easier to call up when you find yourself considering how to act in the moment.
You can’t control the things that happen around you. You can’t control the weather. You can’t control whether the barista is going to smile or growl at you. But what you can control is how you want to engage and orient to the world around and inside of you, no matter what is happening. You can still act in accordance with your values, no matter the situation.
You can consider what is best inline with your vision statement or your values, and use this as a means of deciding how you want to respond. This might be a simple decision to act (moving away from the person poking with you a stick). This might also be a time to employ a separate practice that you have learned. I work extensively with patients to teach biofeedback skills such as breath pacing, autogenics, self-compassion practice, or progressive muscle relaxation to use as a tool to shift the way you are orienting to the current situation. Your response is your choice, consider what would best serve you right now.
Step Five: Awareness
This brings us to our final step of mindfulness, to expand your awareness. You start with noticing, then apply neutral label, then acceptance, then your response, finally, expand your awareness. Start to notice what else is happening right now. Build curiosity around your experience as a whole.
Allow the thought, sensation, or emotion to become a single part of your experience rather than your total experience. It does not have to define you or your relationship to the world around you. Over time, and with practice, this expansion of awareness can decrease the intensity of the difficult feeling or sensation and can build an increased tolerance to it.
Mindfulness is a Journey, Not a Destination
You can practice mindfulness any time. Simply notice – without judgment or elaboration – a thought sensation or emotion that is currently happening. Start to observe your life with curiosity. Notice what story you are telling yourself. Notice when you are not present. Notice when you are present.
Remember – there is no “right way” to practice mindfulness. No one is going around giving out gold stars. There is no there, no destination at which you arrive. This is a practice that we will all be practicing for the rest of our lives and the goal is to be present now.