The Hype Behind Mindfulness
Mindfulness is about as hot a concept as we get in the field of psychotherapy. In many ways, the primary distinction between so-called 2nd wave (cognitive behavioral) therapies and newer 3rd wave therapies like ACT and DBT is the inclusion of mindfulness techniques.
There’s a pretty strong reason for this. Mindfulness techniques have been shown to be effective at reducing depression, reducing anxiety, increasing focus, reducing substance use cravings, improving relationships, managing stress, and, in one particularly handsomely-written article, increase posttraumatic growth.
Mindfulness has also made forays outside of the world of psychotherapy, as it is increasingly being applied in classrooms and medical settings. In the workplace, big, innovative employers like Google, Nike and Apple have started incorporating Mindfulness practices into their employee offerings.
That’s not to say that Mindfulness is a silver bullet or is universally loved. Some scientists are worried that the research behind Mindfulness is methodologically flawed, and that in particular we don’t have a consistent definition of what Mindfulness even is. They worry that the benefits we see above may come from other sources, like the placebo effect, or just practicing anything quietly for a few minutes at a time.
Still, even those scientists shy away from saying that Mindfulness is a bad thing or that it’s ineffective. Most just want to see better research into it, which really applies to anything in psychology at this point. Mindfulness may be especially helpful to nerds, as it’s been shown to be particularly helpful with issues most central to nerd mental health. These include decreasing rumination (or unhealthily living in your own head), improving social connectedness, and improving self-esteem. It could even improve video gaming ability.
I tend to agree with the criticism that Mindfulness is poorly defined. Is it a form of meditation? Is it a lifestyle? A skill? A philosophy of life?
Part of the definition problem stems from the fact that there is no definable, primary guru who is the original source of the Mindfulness idea. It has origins in Zen Buddhism and Vipassana meditation, traditions that are thousands of years old. One of the primary champions of Mindfulness in the west, Jon Kabat-Zinn, defines it thusly:
Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally
It’s a nice definition, but it doesn’t really clarify between it being a practice, a skill, or a philosophy. It also doesn’t give a super clear path to how to actually be mindful. Part of the problem stems from the fact that we, as humans, don’t really know how to not do something. How do you not judge an experience? How do you not let your mind wander? In fact, there’s a concept called the ironic process theory that means that trying not to do something actually makes you more likely to do it.
What is it then?
So what do you do? It’s less about not judging experiences, and more about accepting experiences. Think less about not getting distracted, and more about paying attention. Look at the name – it’s not about emptying your mind, it’s about filling your mind.
What you fill it with is your environment – both external and internal. By external, this means connecting with the information given to you by your senses. Focusing your attention on the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and feelings that you experience in a given moment. Those nerve endings in your skin, nose, ears, etc. don’t turn off, but most of the time we are focusing on our thoughts about that test tomorrow, or that time we made an idiot of ourselves, or who would win between Spiderman and Batman?
By your internal environment, I mean the thoughts and emotions that you are experiencing right now. Part of the key is detaching from the thoughts and feelings enough to recognize them as an experience, not absolute truths. Just because you’re thinking “I’m a fat sack of idiot” doesn’t make it true, it’s just an experience. You can accept this thought as something that is happening to you without judging it or engaging it enough to try to debate it.
Thinking about Mindfulness as an action, rather than a non-action, places it more in the category of a skill or practice than a deeper philosophy, and that’s where I’m comfortable keeping it. The science seems to back me up, since like any skill the effectiveness of mindfulness improves with greater practice. It can even change the brain, leading to greater plasticity in “the
anterior cingulate cortex, insula, temporo-parietal junction, fronto-limbic network, and default mode network structures.”
I also like this because I think some people get turned off Mindfulness because of its spiritual connotations or its connection with “alternative” practices like yoga, acupuncture, or even reiki. Yes, like I said before the practice does have origins in Eastern religions and philosophies, but I think of it more as a cognitive exercise. It’s the intentional stimulation of mental functions to improve your mental health. Just like you might get up and walk around for 5 minutes every hour to avoid computer posture, you need to use those parts of your brain that otherwise don’t get used. And, just like physical exercise, this leads to biological changes.
A few ways to practice mindfulness
Importantly, don’t get discouraged if your mind starts wandering. That’s part of the process! Much like sweat is a byproduct of physical exercise, distraction is a byproduct of focused attention. In many ways, the most important part of the early practice is noticing when the distraction occurs. That’s one of the things you’re trying to get good at.
Remember, too, that this is an active process. This is in contrast to relaxation skills, since relaxation is the opposite of an active process. You’re trying to build that focusing skill and that open noticing skill. It shouldn’t be hard, but it should be an effort.
Mindfulness occurs when we bring our automatic processes into our consciousness, like the processing of sensory information, which tends to get automatically filtered unless we apply our attention to it. Breathing is the biological process that sits right at the intersection of conscious and automatic processes. We can breath automatically, but we can also breath intentionally.
For this reason, most mindfulness practices begin with a few long, slow breaths, and sometimes that’s all you need. The key here is the mental action, which is sustaining focus on your breathing. Think of this like a staring contest with the sensation of breathing, you want to keep your focus on it as long as possible without becoming distracted (i.e. blinking).
Body scans are all about dropping the filters that we have in place to keep us from being distracted by random physical sensations throughout the day. Those filters are important; you wouldn’t be able to get anything done if you were always so focused on how your socks feel on your feet, but it can be a good practice to check in with those sensations from time to time.
This is a process of really diving into the experience of your nerve endings, and it’s best to do it one body part at a time. So explore the sensations coming to you from your feet, then your shins, then your thighs, and so on. This is one area where being nonjudgmental – or accepting – is really important, because not all of those sensations will be pleasant. So part of this is practicing acknowledging and accepting pain and discomfort, rather than ignoring or avoiding these sensations.
There are all kinds of activities that we can choose to do mindfully: exercise, walking, listening to music. I’ve even had a few folks that practiced mindful pooping. The point is to focus your entire attention on the activity at hand, rather than attempting to multitask or distract yourself.
With eating, this means just focusing on the food. Don’t listen to music or try to have a conversation. Certainly stay off your phone. Just devote 100% of your attention to the food – the smell, the feel, the taste – and your experience. Monitor more actively what your body is telling you about hunger, satiation and fullness. In addition to the overall benefits of mindfulness, this can curb food cravings and reduce overeating.
There are a million different sources of recordings or scripts of instructions for how to conduct a given meditation. Many of them will give you more step-by-step instructions about how to do one of the practices I’ve already covered, or similar ones like mindful walking. There are focused meditations for certain issue areas like sleep, or public speaking, or parenting. Unfortunately, many of these don’t do the best job of keeping the fundamental principles in mind here, which is why I covered them more fully above.
As far as specific resources, well: