Mindfulness: What You May Not Know
I’ve had the privilege of leading hundreds of mindfulness groups over the years as well as retreats and all-day mindfulness workshops for professionals and the general public. When I ask participants and people in audiences questions relating to these points below, I end up straining my ears to hear a response. Each of these 11 observations and findings is important so hopefully this blog entry will dispel some of the silence.
1.) Present moments last 3-4 seconds on average.
Research by Daniel Stern has found that our experiences of an “uninterrupted now” are moments that typically last 1-10 seconds, with some exceptions for very experienced meditators.
2.) The scientific definition of mindfulness involves self-regulation and curiosity.
While there are many definitions of mindfulness floating around, few people know that leading mindfulness scientists came together in the early 2000s to come up with a formal definition of mindfulness in order to better understand this interesting phenomenon. The consensus was that mindfulness is: 1.) The self-regulation of our attention along with 2.) an attitude of curiosity, openness, and acceptance. It is interesting that two character strengths are at the core of mindfulness itself.
3.) Every mindfulness-based program or workshop is merely a “launching pad.”
This refers to the wildly popular MBSR and MBCT programs, as well as newer programs like Mindfulness-Based Strengths Practice (MBSP). Such programs launch participants toward greater awareness, coping, well-being, and strength. But, as Jon Kabat-Zinn has said, each of these programs are the menu but not the meal; the map but not the territory.
4.) The first step in learning mindfulness is “Catch AP-ASAP.”
This is my recommendation to those starting off learning about mindfulness – to “catch auto-pilot as soon as possible.” Our minds are more away than present. Autopilot is pervasive. A first step in cultivating greater mindfulness is to first notice that your mind has wandered off. The sooner you notice this, the more effective you will be in practicing mindfulness.
5.) Our mind can process 126 pieces of information every second.
There is so much we could notice in our environment that we don’t. Of course, much of this is unnecessary sensory information that would obstruct us, but this finding from researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi reveals there is ALWAYS far more we are not attending to than what we are. Humbling, isn’t it?
6.) Since the start of this millennium, mindfulness research has increased 20-fold.
The science and practice of mindfulness has hit its groove and has become popular in treatment centers, businesses, classrooms, workshops, and especially, research labs around the world. See this graph from David Black that outlines this explosion of research.
7.) Mindfulness and relaxation strategies are very different.
Many practitioners meld these two approaches together or use the words synonymously. And, many mindfulness teachers attempt to “set the mood” by playing background music. The purpose of mindfulness, however, is NOT relaxation. The purpose of mindfulness is the cultivation of awareness. Period.
People are often confused by this because a common “side effect” of mindfulness is relaxation. But, this is an important distinction because individuals can easily feel discouraged from practicing mindfulness if they are expecting something different. Also note that for certain individuals (e.g., those with panic disorders), the practice of relaxation is actually counter-indicated.
8.) Decentering is one of the critical explanations for why mindfulness is so successful.
Decentering occurs when you observe your thoughts and feelings as temporary events in your mind and not facts or truths about you. When you are worrying over and over again about something bad that might happen, take the dominant worrying thought and acknowledge that it is not a fact or reality. Note that it is merely a transient thought passing through your mind. While you might have to repeat this many times, you are practicing de-centering.
9.) Mindfulness is found in all the major world religions.
While Buddhism is certainly the original home of mindfulness, the early Desert Fathers of Christianity as well as Christian mystics such as St. Teresa of Avila, emphasized mindful reflection as a way of communing with God. The attentional aspect of mindfulness developed in contemplative traditions goes by many names: recollection in Christianity, zikr in Islam, kavanah in Judaism, and samadhi in Buddhism and Hinduism.
10.) No one is an expert in mindfulness.
Be wary of those who make this claim to be experts. Once someone claims they are an expert in something, they stop exploring. They slow down their curiosity. Once openness and curiosity wither, so does mindfulness. Mindfulness, instead, is best viewed as an ongoing process. Think of yourself as being on a journey with your mindfulness practice where you intend to return your attention to your present moment a billion more times in your life.
Bonus: And your mind wandering is normal!
Mind wandering means you are human. Be grateful for that! Countless people get discouraged when their mind wanders off repeatedly during mindfulness meditation. But this is what all people’s minds do. This is why mindfulness is helpful because mindfulness is a return to the present.
Remember this fact: Every time you notice your mind has wandered and you bring it back to the present moment, you are actually practicing and cultivating your mindfulness. So….keep practicing!
Bishop, S. R., Lau, M., Shapiro, S. L., Carlson, L., Anderson, N. D., Carmody, J., … Devins, G. (2004). Mindfulness: A proposed operational definition. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 11, 230–241.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life. New York: Basic Books.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990). Full catastrophe living. New York, NY: Dell.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2003). Mindfulness-based interventions in context: Past, present, and future. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10(2), 144–156.
Niemiec, R. M. (2014). Mindfulness and character strengths: A practical guide to flourishing. Cambridge, MA: Hogrefe.
Segal, Z. V., Williams, J. M. G., & Teasdale, J. D. (2013). Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression: A new approach to preventing relapse (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Guilford.
Stern, D. N. (2004). The present moment: In psychotherapy and everyday life. New York, NY: W. W.Norton & Company.
Teasdale, J. D. (1999). Metacognition, mindfulness and the modification of mood disorders. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 6, 146–155.
VIA Institute’s practical resources: www.viapros.org
Free VIA Survey of strengths: www.viame.org
On mindfulness and character strengths (new website): www.viacharacter.org/mindfulness
On mindfulness and character strengths (new book): Niemiec’s Mindfulness and Character Strengths: A Practical Guide to Flourishing
Niemiec, R. (2013). Mindfulness: What You May Not Know. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 10, 2016, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/character-strengths/2013/07/mindfulness-what-you-may-not-know/