How to Think About Mindfulness
Mindfulness has become a very popular topic over the past few years. It has some origin in meditation and alternative therapies, but many therapists are also starting to incorporate it into psychotherapy. There is some research to support mindfulness, especially when dealing with anxious thoughts. But many people have a wrong impression of mindfulness. This can lead to attempting meditation and other methods of mindfulness, not having success, and then giving up on the idea. So here, I want to discuss how you can think about mindfulness in a way that may make it seem more approachable and realistic.
Don't push away thoughts
To start out, this seems to be the most misunderstood part of mindfulness. Many see mindfulness as "clearing your thoughts." While there's some truth to that, it's common to think that means forcing out all of your thoughts. But that's not the case!
That's because trying to push away your thoughts means you have to think about the thoughts you're trying to push away. For example, if I say "don't think about the color green," what's the first thing you think of? The color green! Telling yourself not to think about something requires you to think about that very thing.
Instead, the goal of mindfulness is to focus your thoughts on something specific. Rather than telling yourself "don't think about the color green," tell yourself "think of the color red." It's redirecting your thoughts rather than forcing them away; a subtle change in approach, but one that is important for mindfulness.
So what does that actually look like? First, don't be hard on yourself for any thoughts that come to your mind. While "clearing your thoughts" may be a nice end goal of mindfulness, that's very difficult to do, especially at first. Instead, expect to have random thoughts come to mind, and be ok with that. Just recognize when they happen, and redirect yourself to thinking about whatever you're focusing on. For example, "ok, I'm thinking about the color green, that's fine, but now I'm going to think about red." If you are hard on yourself for having unrelated thoughts, you'll be tempted to push them away.
So what should you be thinking about? It can be any number of things, as long as it fulfills this next point.
A goal you'll hear for mindfulness, and meditation, is to "be present in the moment." But what does that actually mean? Well, the easiest way to think about it is that you should be focusing on something that is happening around you. Rather than thinking about the past (e.g., "is he mad at me for saying that?") or the future (e.g., "I have a lot to work on this weekend"), pick something that's around you in the moment.
What you choose to focus on can be any number of things, but it should be something involving your senses. Something you can look at, listen to, smell, feel, or taste. Whenever you have a thought about something else, try to redirect your thoughts to that thing that you are focusing on.
It doesn't have to be meditation
While we're on this point, I want to take a moment to address this important aspect of mindfulness. When people think about mindfulness, meditation usually comes to mind. But mindfulness can be practiced without meditation. In fact, you can practice mindfulness anywhere! All you need to do is pick something that's part of your present moment, then keep redirecting your attention to it.
Walking down the sidewalk? Focus on looking at the scenery around you. In a coffee shop? Focus on the smells. Trying to fall asleep? Focus on your breathing. Just figure out what works well for you, and go with that. There are countless ways to practice mindfulness, so don't let anyone tell you there's any one way it should be done.
Now, all of these things sound simple, but they usual aren't. When your mind is used to constantly thinking about various things, it will resist redirection. "Red?! How can I think about red at a time when there is so much green around!" That's why mindfulness takes a lot of practice, and you shouldn't expect yourself to be good at it right away.
But you don't need to set aside time every day to practice. Just make an effort to have it be part of your day-to-day routine. Practice during a commute, while doing chores, while eating, and so on. Whatever situations work best for you, do the best you can to practice.
Why it's beneficial
So why is mindfulness so popular? And why are psychotherapists incorporating it into therapy? Because mindfulness has a number of potential benefits:
- Greater awareness of your thoughts and thinking patterns
- Greater control over your thoughts
- Greater ability to calm your body during times of stress
The benefits likely go on, as more research is starting to look into the physiological benefits of mindfulness. There's a long history of it being useful, and many people are now using apps and such to utilize mindfulness in their day-to-day lives.
It's not for everyone, though. If you give it a try and don't feel that it's beneficial for you, don't feel like you need to force it! The whole idea is for it to be something relaxing and helpful. That can mean it takes a lot of time and patience, but it's not guaranteed to work for everyone.
Mindfulness is a helpful skill that many people are learning. Hopefully this brief post helped to clear up some potential misunderstandings you may have had about practicing mindfulness. Try to find a way that works for you, and over time you should find yourself more able to relax and to reduce your worry thoughts.
Having trouble with mindfulness? Or have you had a lot of success with it? Let us know your experiences in the comments!