What is mindfulness or being mindful?

Being mindful is taking a reflective stance on our experience, and becoming more aware of how we live and experience our moment-to-moment state. It is intentionally taking an observer stance to our thoughts, our emotions, our sensations, and any mental images associated with those.

Critical to a mindful observer stance is the ability to stay away from making judgements, as much as possible. Judgments take us away from mindfulness into other areas of cognition, and interrupt the process. It usually takes time to learn how to keep judgments aside, so patience is helpful. Mindfulness is about reconnecting and integrating with the information our different senses have to offer us, and not just the information we have available from our rational thoughts.

What this can look like is reflecting on our experience of breathing, for example. With each breath, we observe where our body holds tension, where the tension grips on or where it lets go. We observe our thoughts, and attempt not to hang on to them, but rather witness them and make space for new observations to emerge in our experience. With each breath, we notice the dynamic shifting of experience within our body, and also what doesn’t shift dynamically. Each sensation becomes a reference point for witnessing other sensations, and mental imagery often springs into our awareness as we engage in this activity. Ideally, every one of our senses is brought to our attention when being mindful. All of these observations can later be scrutinized and judged as desired, but within the moment of mindfulness, observation through awareness of our momentary experience is paramount. The passive voice in my language to describe mindfulness is typical in guided mindfulness exercises because it is most conducive to allowing us to become aware of information emerging that we were not previously attending to or intentionally observing.

Who can practice mindfulness? Who can it help?

Anyone can practice mindfulness (there are counterindications for mindfulness— it can become overwhelming for some individuals who use dissociation as a coping mechanism to then be asked to come into the experience of presence when that’s the exact thing they are trying to avoid), but not all people benefit from it the same way. There are two main reasons for this:

First, some people are already quite mindful, and have much less to learn and develop than others; therefore, learning formal mindfulness has less to offer them.

Second, some people are innately mindful of certain sensations and experiences, but are underdeveloped in the counterpart experiences of “mentalizing,” that is, the skill of thinking analytically, critically, rationally, and comparatively. This too needs to be developed. Each of us is more innately skilled in either mentalizing or in mindful ways of approaching life, and both are essential skills to have; an absence of one can greatly weaken a person’s resilience.

Without mentalizing to balance mindfulness, some people may feel at the whim of whatever emotions or sensations emerge when being open to observing mindfully, and this can be very overwhelming. These sensations, emotions, or mental imagery can seem to take on a life of their own. If someone is prone to panic attacks and is practicing mindfulness in a way that is exclusively focused on their internal environment and not their external environment, they can more easily misinterpret internal cues that lead toward greater anxiety and possibly even generate panic attacks. This is only really a concern for those already predisposed to panic attacks, and only with particular introspective types of mindfulness. This is where being mindful of ones external environment as well as learning to critically compare sensory stimuli with reflective thoughts is beneficial.

For those who are prone to anxiety, or listlessness, restlessness, dissociation, depression, and a whole host of other mental health struggles, mindfulness can be a great tool toward increasing stability, awareness, and ultimately, objectivity (and most importantly, increases the neurological capacity to stay present and within our window of tolerance). It’s most effective when practiced regularly, as it is a skill that is developed and broadened like any other skill. Instead of working with muscles, for example, you’re working with your nervous system. This takes time. Patience with yourself is a valuable asset to have when starting out with mindfulness. It’s not a cure-all, but it is certainly a valuable tool to have towards promoting mental health and quality of life.

Blog post by Tony, Advanced Graduate Level Intern