Mindfulness: If Not Now, When?
Larry Cammarata, Ph.D.
Introduction to Mindfulness
John Lennon’s apt quote that, “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans” is a very accurate statement for so many of us who are caught up in the rapid pace of our busy lives. We plan our day while brushing our teeth, obsess about the conflict we had at work earlier in the day while lying in bed at night, think about what clever reply to make as our friend or partner expresses their thoughts to us—the list goes on and on, exemplifying how life offers us one thing while our minds are often focused elsewhere. This is a common state of affairs for many people. While multitasking and simultaneously processing various bits of information might be advantageous for “getting the job done”, something is lost in the experience. This “something” that is lost is the full experience of the present moment. To fully experience the present moment, our mind and body must be focused upon what is happening in the present moment, not our story, expectations, thought, or plan about what is or should be happening. The practice of mindfulness is a process that trains the mind and body to be fully present to the reality of the present moment, without the added thoughts, fantasies, and images that obscure the moment.
Mindfulness has been succinctly defined as, “…awareness…of present experience…with acceptance” (Germer, 2005, p. 7). Mindfulness informs you about the present state of your mind, body, and actions. Mindfulness is an antidote to “mindlessness”, the state of mind that is likely to result in actions and speech that are ineffective at best and harmful at worst.
Floodlights and Laser Beams
The “awareness” component of mindfulness can be compared to the light emanating from a floodlight that illuminates everything in its field. To illustrate this floodlight analogy, take a few moments to be still and just observe your surroundings, noticing what you hear, see, and smell. You might be acutely aware of the sound of your neighbor mowing their lawn, the sight of gently swaying trees outside of your window, or the smell of freshly brewed coffee wafting from the kitchen. Mindfulness allows you to receive the sensory impressions of these objects within your field of awareness while also knowing what you are doing or experiencing in the present moment. Instead of getting “swept away” by the experience, you’re able to have a conscious relationship with the object of your experience while also “minding your mind”, knowing where it is in the process. While mindfulness can be compared to a “floodlight”, the related mental process of concentration can be compared to a “laser beam”. As a floodlight illuminates everything within the field of its range, a laser beam pinpoints a narrow focus, essentially illuminating a single point within the wide field of potentially observable phenomena.
Concentration and Mindfulness
Concentration focuses the mind on a single object and mindfulness “remembers” the object and notices when our mind strays from it. Mindfulness allows us to return to the object that we are concentrating upon when we move away from it because of distraction, boredom, or tiredness. Concentration and mindfulness work together; a concentrated mind is typically more mindful and being more mindful allows us to stay concentrated for longer periods of time.
Popularity and Scientific Credibility of Mindfulness
Mindfulness can be practiced formally as “mindfulness meditation” and can also be practiced informally through the process of paying close attention to whatever one is doing, whether washing dishes or enjoying a beautiful sunset. The formal practice of mindfulness meditation has gained popularity and scientific credibility through the writing, teaching, and research efforts of Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D. (Kabat-Zinn, 1990). An MIT-trained molecular biologist, Dr. Kabat-Zinn is the founding Executive Director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He is also the founding director of the renowned Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
Mindfulness, Health, and Healing
The practice of mindfulness meditation has been associated with several cognitive and emotional benefits, including emotional regulation (Chambers, Lo, & Allen, 2008) and enhanced information processing speed (Moore & Malinowski, 2009). Mindfulness appears to support the empathy, acceptance, and compassion of therapists (Fulton, 2005), qualities that enhance the effectiveness of therapy. Some of the health benefits of mindfulness meditation include improved cardiac functioning, enhanced immune system functioning, and improved sleep for those suffering from chronic insomnia (Shapiro & Carlson, 2009).
In the field of psychotherapy, there are now several empirically validated therapeutic modalities incorporating mindfulness as a therapeutic process:
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), and Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). Mindfulness-based treatment approaches have been successfully applied to anxiety, depression, personality disorders, psychotic symptoms, stress symptoms, chronic pain, and substance abuse (Shapiro & Carlson, 2009).
One way to understand the difference of approach between a purely cognitive method of dealing with distressing thoughts vs. a mindfulness-oriented approach is through the following simple example.
Imagine a therapy client complaining of the following thought to their therapist:
“I am worthless”.
A cognitive therapist would be inclined to use Socratic questioning to support “cognitive restructuring” of the thought, helping the client to disprove the thought. A mindfulness-oriented therapist using an Acceptance and Commitment Therapy approach would likely facilitate the client towards cognitive “defusion” (Wilson & DuFrene, 2008), resulting in the client’s acknowledgement that, “I am having a thought that I am worthless”. The awareness of the “thinker” in relation to the “thought” can create emotional distance from the thought without having to change it. Defusion can diminish and remove the stress that can be the consequence of distorted or reactive thoughts, while “fusion” with our thoughts, invests, “…them with authority and consequence…” (Wilson & DuFrene, 2008, p. 51).
Notice how the first statement, “I am worthless”, is a statement of identity, while the second statement, “I am having a thought that I am worthless”, recognizes the distinction between the thinker and the thought. This distinction can be labeled as an example of cognitive defusion, which refers to a process that allows an individual to, “…look at…thoughts rather than from them” (Hayes & Smith, 2005, p. 70). The practice of mindfulness supports cognitive defusion, and is more about the “observation” of thoughts than deconstructive “analysis” of them. When we are aware of our thoughts, we can be free from their literalized constraints. Then, we can choose to act based upon our values and intentions, rather than react to people and situations that activate potentially stressful thoughts.
You don’t have to change your thoughts and feelings to create peace with your thoughts and feelings! Changing your relationship to your thoughts and feelings can result in making peace with them.
Mindfulness on and off the Meditation Cushion
Mindfulness can be practiced formally, as in mindfulness meditation, where the practitioner is seated in a stable position, with the mind focused upon an object of concentration such as the breath. When distracted, the practitioner gently returns their focus back to the object of concentration.
Mindfulness can also be practiced in a more informal way, outside of the structure of a meditation practice. Each waking moment allows us an opportunity to practice mindfulness. Standing and waiting in a long line at a grocery store when we are pressed for time provides a space for practicing patience, an important attitude in support of mindfulness. When we are stressed by conflict at work or home, we have another opportunity to observe the physical or emotional tension that arises, applying mindfulness to our thoughts, speech, and actions, which can prevent unskillful communications and other actions that might impair our relationship with a spouse, partner, friend, client, or co-worker.
The A-B-Cs of Mindfulness
A simple way of remembering the essential components of mindfulness practice involves what I call the “A-B-Cs of Mindfulness”:
Acceptance of all experiences, the essential attitudinal stance that supports the practice
Body awareness, which refers to posture and is related to physical accommodations (e.g., a comfortable chair or cushions) that support the practice
Concentration upon an object of awareness, such as the breath
Acceptance infuses mindfulness practice with an open attitude that meets reality (e.g., thoughts, feelings, perceptions) on reality’s terms, without avoiding or opposing our present-centered experiences.
Body awareness creates stability for the practice of mindfulness through proprioceptive feedback about our posture and level of muscular relaxation. Body awareness establishes a conscious connection to our body that is supportive of acceptance, concentration, and a sense of being grounded.
Concentration cultivates sustained, focused attention upon an object of awareness. In the context of mindfulness meditation, a typical object of concentration is the sensation of the breath upon inhalation and exhalation. The point of focus for the breath is usually at the level of the diaphragm or at the nostrils.
Acceptance supports a sense of peaceful openness, body awareness promotes a stable connection to the body and physical environment, and concentration cultivates mental stability and calmness. Mindfulness allows us to know when we have strayed from acceptance, body awareness, and concentration.
The practice of mindfulness can be applied to our mind, body, and emotions, essentially anything that we encounter internally or in our outer world, including stressful situations and difficult relationships.
Mindfulness and Intention
Just as attention and an accepting attitude are essential components of mindfulness, so is intention (Shapiro, Carlson, Astin, & Freedman, 2006), which is a reflection of the purposeful nature of mindfulness practice. Individuals have various intentions for practicing mindfulness. Some use mindfulness as a form of stress or pain management, others practice mindfulness to enhance specific abilities such as concentration, emotional regulation, and self-awareness, while the primary intention for many spiritually motivated practitioners is to liberate the mind and care for others with acceptance, kindness, and compassion.
If Not Now, When?
Regardless of one’s intention, the practice of mindfulness is a pathway for making peace with self, others, and the world. Whatever circumstances that you face, now is the time to breathe mindfully, relax, and open to yourself and others with acceptance, appreciation, and kindness. If not now, when?
Please join the Mind Body Medicine Network’s next webinar on “Mindfulness for Health, Healing, and Mind-Body Integration” with Larry Cammarata, Ph.D. on June 16, 2013 from 7:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Eastern Time Zone. Learn how to apply the skils of mindfulness and mindfulness meditation to enhance personal and professional effectiveness. The benefits of mindfulness meditation include improved cardiovascular health, enhanced concentration, increased self-awareness, anxiety reduction, decreased stress and chronic pain, and improved sleep. Larry Cammarata, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist practicing in Asheville, North Carolina who specializes in mindfulness-oriented psychotherapy and education. He is a Lead Faculty Area Chair of Psychology for the University of Phoenix. Larry is a regular speaker for FACES Conferences, an organization that brings together leaders and experts in mindfulness and psychology. He is a published author who was designated as an “Author-Expert” by IDEA for his writing, teaching, and practice in the field of mind-body health, fitness, and wellness. Along with Jack Kornfield, Dan Siegel, Marsha Linehan, and other leaders in the field of mindfulness-oriented psychology, Larry co-authored a book entitled, “A Year of Living Mindfully: 52 Quotes & Weekly Mindfulness Practices”. Larry is an instructor of the Chinese martial and healing arts of Tai Chi Chuan and Qigong. He has authored a DVD entitled, “Qigong for Health and Vitality: The Eight Pieces of Brocade.” He has presented his work on mindful movement at Investigating and Integrating Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society, an annual international scientific conference hosted by the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He can be contacted via his website at http://www.Mind-BodyWellness.org.. Cost $30. For more information and to register for Dr. Cammarata’s webinar go to:
Chambers, R., Lo, B. C. Y., & Allen, N. B. (2008). The impact of intensive mindfulness training on attentional control, cognitive style, and affect.
Cognitive Therapy and Research, 32, 303–322. doi:10.1007/s10608-007–9119-0
Fulton, P. R. (2005). Mindfulness as clinical training. In C. K. Germer, R. D. Siegel, & P. R. Fulton (Eds.), Mindfulness and psychotherapy (pp. 55–72). New York: Guilford Press.
Germer, C.K. 2005. Mindfulness: What is it? What does it matter? In C.K. Germer, R.D. Siegel, & P.R. Fulton (Eds.), Mindfulness and psychotherapy (pp. 3-27). New York: Guilford Press.
Gunaratana, H. (1991). Mindfulness in plain english. Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications.
Hayes, S. C., & Smith, S. (2005). Get out of your mind & into your life: The new acceptance and commitment therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990). Full catastrophe living: using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness. New York, NY: Delta.
Moore, A., & Malinowski, P. (2009). Meditation, mindfulness and cognitive flexibility. Consciousness and Cognition, 18, 176 –186. doi: 10.1016/j.concog.2008.12.008
Shapiro, S. L., Carlson, L. E., Astin, John A., & Freedman, B. (2006). Mechanisms of mindfulness. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 62(3), 373-386. doi: 10.1002/jclp.20237
Shapiro, L. & Carlson, L. E. (2009). The art and science of mindfulness: Integrating mindfulness into psychology and the helping professions. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Wilson, K. G. & DuFrene. (2008). Mindfulness for two: An acceptance and commitment therapy approach to mindfulness in psychotherapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.