By practicing mindfulness we will be better able to see what needs to change, and we will be better able to make peace with what we cannot change.
What is mindfulness?
In general, mindfulness can be understood as a special sort of awareness. When we are mindful we are fully experiencing what is going on in the present moment without getting tangled up in what we think about the present moment or how we feel about it.
There are three basic parts to mindfulness practice:
There are three basic parts to mindfulness practice:
- We practice noticing what is going on in the present moment.
- Whatever we notice, we practice acknowledging it and accepting what we find.
- We learn to untangle ourselves from judgment and from distraction.
A specific example.
A general example.
We practice noticing our breathing.
- We focus on the physical sensations of breathing. We notice each exhale and each inhale, how they feel different, and the exact moment one becomes the other.
- We may notice that our breaths are faster or shallower than we want, but we do not attempt to change our breathing. We simply notice the way our breathing actually is.
- We notice when our attention has wandered. Rather than forcing our attention back we take a moment to see where our mind has gone. Rather than resisting it we give that distraction a little bit of space. Then we gently turn our attention back to breathing.
By practicing with specific mindfulness exercises our brains begin to learn a new way to see the world. Mindfulness slowly becomes part of our everyday experience.
- Because we have taken the time to practice noticing the small things it becomes easier to notice everything.
- There may be things we notice that we like or don't like. Because of our practice we are able to enjoy those good moments without fear of them ending, and we can get through those bad moments without making them worse.
- Curiosity and mental flexibility begin to increase as we begin to let go of quick judgments. Our practice has begun to reveal that the labels we use are never large enough to represent what we are trying to describe. Even "distractions" can be seen as the normal ebb and flow of the brain as it works.
How is mindfulness helpful?
As we practice mindfulness we are training our brains to work in a different way. That shift can open up all kinds of new possibilities for us:
- It helps us to develop sensitivity and insight. This can help to make our personal problems less mysterious as we spend time with them. We will begin to notice connections and patterns that we missed before.
- It can increase creativity and mental flexibility. This can allow us to break out of our mental habits, helping us to see the world, our lives, and our problems in new and useful ways.
- It can decrease suffering. Instead of fighting things that we cannot change the work of mindfulness can help us to figure out how to coexist peacefully with them.
How does mindfulness work in counseling?
Mindfulness is about slowing down and paying attention. There is also strong emphasis on acceptance and making peace with what is going on in your life. When it comes to getting help from a counselor though it almost seems like these ideas are counter-intuitive. Isn't counseling about change and overcoming problems, not sitting still and accepting problems? The key to understanding mindfulness when it comes to counseling is to remember that there are some problems you can change and some problems you can't change. Mindfulness can help to figure out if a problem is changeable or not, and it can give us the insight and tools to work with either kind of problem.
How mindfulness generally works in counseling
- When a person is focused on their problems all they are able to see are those problems. Mindfulness can widen that perspective and create space for deeper insights and new solutions. Change happens with understanding.
- Mindfulness can reduce suffering by helping people to make peace with what they cannot change in their lives. This includes developing insight for understand what can be changed and what can't be changed.
How counselors use mindfulness
- The counselor tends to focus more on what is going on in the present moment or what has happened recently rather than focusing on what has happened years in the past. Sometimes the past is examined, but even though the focus is on how the client understands the past through the perspective of this present moment.
- The counselor will often check in with the client during session, asking them about what they are thinking, feeling emotionally, and feeling physically. This will help the counselor to gauge what is going on for the client in the present moment and it will also begin to teach the client to think in these terms as well.
How clients use mindfulness
- Not every client is taught mindfulness as a skill. Meditation and mindfulness practice, like any skill, does not work for everyone and in every situation.
- Even so, the client will be connected to their current experiences even when they are talking about the past. It is important to remember that the past is only understood through the lens of who we are in the present moment.
- Some clients will be taught formal mindfulness practice. The two forms of mindfulness generally taught can either help the client to become more sensitive to what they have disconnected from or it can help them to learn how to cope with what they cannot change.
Where to go from here?