The True Meaning of Mindfulness and How it Changes Us
My favorite definition for mindfulness comes from the developer himself, Dr. Jon Kabat- Zinn. His definition states that mindfulness is, “paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally” (Kabat-Zinn, et. al., 2002). In other words, taking time to notice yourself, your environment, or an object, and just notice. No judgment. No labeling as “good” or “bad”. Just stating the facts.
Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn developed mindfulness in 1979 while he was working at UMass Medical School (Kabat-Zinn, et. al., 2002). He calls it a practice which means, you have to PRACTICE it! You must practice in order for mindfulness to work. When I’m working with my clients on mindfulness, if we hit a block, it’s usually about the non-judgement part. How do you feel something great or terrible and not label or judge it? Here’s what Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn says in an interview about his MasterClass on mindfulness:
“And nonjudgmental, by the way, does not mean that you won’t have any likes or dislikes or that you’ll be completely neutral about everything. Nonjudgmental really means that you’ll become aware of how judgmental you are and then not judge that and see if you [can let go], for a few moments at least, the restraining order that filters everything through our likes and dislikes or wants or aversion” (Kabat-Zinn, et. al., 2002).
Recently a colleague gave me a great visual for explaining and practicing mindfulness. Look at an object around. Try to describe it only using facts, and not labeling it as good or bad. Maybe it’s a book in front of you, or a mug, or the phone or computer you are reading this on. For me, I have my big water bottle setting next to me on my kitchen table. If I was to practice mindfulness with this water bottle, I would say it is large, purple, and halfway filled. There is a lid and words written on the side.
If I’m not careful and intentional with being mindful, I could quickly fall into the judgement zone which may look something like this: the water bottle is halfway full. I guess I didn’t drink enough water today. Why can I never drink enough water? Maybe I should go to the store and get a smaller one so I can drink it all during the day. I also need to get paper towels and detergent at the store. Ugh I hate going to the store. I should make a list and go soon.
As you can tell, I pretty quicky hit the judgment zone. And what happened next? I SPIRALED. Try it yourself with an object around you. See how long it takes for your mind to wander or judge what you’re looking at, instead of just observing.
Whenever I use this example with a client, they quickly recognize the judgement and spiral feeling. I hear a lot of:
“I can’t shut my mind off.”
“When I can’t shut my mind off, I hyper focus”.
“When I hyper focus or overthink, I SPIRAL”.
Practicing mindfulness is just training your brain to not spiral. To be in the present moment. Instead of judging or labeling your feelings, emotions, or physical sensations, just notice. Again, this takes lots of practice. It’s not going to work well the first time you try it. It probably won’t work the first five times you try it. But it will work with time and practice. And when I say practice, I mean everyday practice! Not once a week, not only when you feel like it, and not only in high stress situations.
Practice before you actually need it.
Some mindfulness techniques can decrease our sense of fight of flight. The part of our brain that controls our emotions and the fight or flight in us is the amygdala. Mindfulness activities such as deep breathing can interact with the amygdala and reduce the intensity of the emotions we may feel when we are stressed or anxious, such as in our fight or flight mode (Smith, et. al., 2017).
Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, a psychiatrist and author of The Body Keeps the Score, sums up the effects of mindfulness when he states, “Once you start approaching your body with curiosity rather than fear, everything shifts” (Van der Kolk, p. 275, 2015).
Last fall, I was struggling with a random bout of panic attacks. They were unprovoked and not my firsts. During this time, I had a day where I was feeling slightly more steady. I decided to try some meditations for when the panic attacks flared up again. I found one on the mindfulness app by Tara Brach that caught my eye. It was called “Heart Medicine for Fear”. The description states, “In Heart Medicine for Fear Tara Brach guides you in how to find your way to loving presence in the face of fear”. I know from my own therapy work and self-awareness that at the core of my panic attacks is fear, so I thought I’d try a meditation about facing a fear.
During the 10 minute meditation, Brach asks you to bring up a particular fear and to feel it fully in your mind and body. Then after a few minutes, she suggests you do something that seemed counterintuitive to me, but made the biggest impact. She suggested looking at this fear with compassion, curiosity, and love as opposed to fear and negativity. She mentions greeting this fear and how it makes you feel in your body. Typically during panic attacks or any anxious flare up, we tend to tense of bodies or try to distract ourselves. Instead, Brach says to be mindful about what you’re feeling and be welcoming. Speak longingly to your body and tell the fear that it’s okay it’s here.
I practiced this the next time I felt anxious and my random bouts of panic attacks stopped.
Practicing mindfulness can change our mindset, which ultimately changes our nervous system. Some mindfulness techniques that I love are the 5 senses, deep breathing, yoga, progressive muscle relaxation and body scans.
Remember, mindfulness is just paying attention, on purpose, without judgement!
Kabat-Zinn, J., Boyce, B., Staff, M., O’Leary, W., & Smookler, E. (2022, February 4). Everyday mindfulness with Jon Kabat-Zinn. Mindful. Retrieved June 8, 2022, from https://www.mindful.org/everyday-mindfulness-with-jon-kabat-zinn/
Kabat-Zinn, J., Rossy, L., Whitney-Coulter, A., Naidoo, U., Smookler, E., & Kira M. Newman and Janet Ho. (2022, January 25). Jon Kabat-Zinn: Defining mindfulness. Mindful. Retrieved June 8, 2022, from https://www.mindful.org/jon-kabat-zinn-defining-mindfulness/
Smith, J. A., Newman, K. M., Suttie, J., & Jazaieri, H. (2017, December 5). The state of mindfulness science. Greater Good. Retrieved June 8, 2022, from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_state_of_mindfulness_science#:~:text=According%20to%20neuroscience%20research%2C%20mindfulness,stress%20when%20we%20experience%20it.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Meditation and mindfulness: What you need to know. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Retrieved June 8, 2022, from https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/meditation-and-mindfulness-what-you-need-to-know
Van der Kolk, B. (2015). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Penguin Books.