What is Mindfulness?
Last week we covered the concepts of dialectical thinking and the states of mind to orient you towards how to approach practicing the DBT skills. This week we will begin the Mindfulness module as mindfulness provides the foundation from which “wise mind” is accessed and the most effective DBT skill can be practiced for any given situation. You have likely already heard of mindfulness and have some kind of understanding of what it is, but I hope talking about it more this week will add to your understanding in some way.
What is mindfulness?
There are many definitions of mindfulness, but it is most commonly defined in contemporary psychology as a state of awareness in which one intentionally pays attention to present-moment experience without judgment. This can mean so many different things…paying attention to your thoughts in the moment, your emotions, your bodily sensations, anything in your environment, etc. What matters is the orienting your attention to whatever it is you are experiencing in the moment with an open and nonjudgmental attitude. Thus, the degree to which you are paying attention in this way, in a “mindful” state of awareness varies from moment to moment, and can be intentionally practiced.
Mindfulness as a transient “state-like” quality of attention can also be conceptualized as a “trait-like” quality in that people naturally vary in their tendency/capacity to be mindful across time. And what’s really cool is that this trait-like quality can be increased through intentionally practicing mindfulness (which is the purpose of DBT’s mindfulness skills!!).
As an analogy, mindfulness can be thought of as a muscle of the mind. Just as people vary in their physical strength and the resulting capacity to lift certain weights, so too do people vary in the “mental strength” needed to attend to their current experience in an open and nonjudgmental way. And we can lift certain weights (intentionally paying attention to present-moment experience) with a particular kind of form (nonjudgement) and get stronger (i.e. increase trait mindfulness) over time.
Why do we care about mindfulness?
Research has shown that this “mental strength” (i.e. trait mindfulness) predicts a variety of measures related to psychological wellbeing. For example:
Lower levels of depression, anxiety, substance use, and stress reactivity
Increased relationship satisfaction, emotion regulation, posttraumatic growth, and work productivity
Mindfulness helps us to access “wise” mind and is the prerequisite to all other DBT skills. Being aware of your present experience is the only way to know what is needed to respond in the most effective way. For example:
If we are unaware of how our thoughts are impacting our emotions, we may find ourselves stuck in unhelpful patterns of thinking that perpetuate negative emotions (e.g. “I’m not good enough” 🡪 shame/sadness/etc.)
If we are unaware of how our emotions are driving our behaviors, we may engage in behaviors that provide some kind of short-term relief, but long-term harm (e.g. feeling stressed🡪 drinking alcohol to relax 🡪 decreased energy the next day to manage stress)
Applying present-moment, nonjudgmental attention to our experiences through the practice of mindfulness can enhance so many different areas of our lives. If you are interested, the 10% happier podcast is an excellent podcast that explores the application of mindfulness across a variety of domains. It covers topics anywhere from relationships and racial injustices to sleep and habit formation. Whatever it is you are interested in applying mindfulness to in your life, you will probably find a relevant episode that might have some helpful tips to get you started.
Reacting vs. Responding
I will wrap up this week’s overview of mindfulness by sharing my favorite quote from Viktor Frankl’s book “A Man’s Search for Meaning” which is a memoire of his experiences as a Nazi concentration camp prisoner.
“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.”
In essence, mindfulness helps us to increase the space between stimulus and response so that we can access our “wise” mind and choose the most effective and intentional response to any experience in our lives (either internally or externally) instead of reacting to our experiences on autopilot. Many of the different stimuluses in our lives are out of our control (e.g. kids not going back to school, having to work from home, losing your job or a loved one, etc.), but what is always within our control is how we choose to respond. In the space between stimulus and response is our power, our “wise mind”, our capacity to make choices that are aligned with who we want to be and the life we want to live. Mindfulness helps us to access that space through nonjudgemental awareness of our internal and external experiences. As you can see in the picture to the right, I have found the space between stimulus and response to be so integral in making positive changes in my life, that I got a tattoo as a reminder to continually invest in increasing that space (via practicing mindfulness)—especially when it is the most difficult and hard to access.
Next week we will cover the DBT “What” and “How” skills for practicing mindfulness, for increasing our “mental strength” to intentionally pay attention to our present moment experiences in an open and nonjudgmental way. It is my hope that by practicing and cultivating the skill of mindfulness, we will all invariably create more space in our lives to make choices aligned with who we want to be and the life we want to live.