For many, including myself, the idea of sitting quietly with an empty mind seems impossible.  If fact, this idea is often a barrier to any attempts to meditate or try mindfulness exercises.

But, it’s not necessary to empty your mind to practice mindfulness. Mindfulness practice has no instructions or tenets focused on clearing your mind of all thought.

Instead, the practice of mindfulness guides you in the process of choosing a focus for your attention and on simply observing your own thought processes.

What often happens when you begin to focus your attention, say on your breathing or on walking, is that you discover you are repeatedly distracted and running off with worries and thoughts.

Everyone, when they initially attempt to focus attention on just one thing, finds themselves distracted and pulled away from the exercise by their thoughts.

This process of attempting to focus attention and realizing that you are off track and lost in thought is invaluable.  It is through this experience that we begin to recognize that our thoughts are just that, thoughts.  At first this may seem a simple revelation, but realizing that your thoughts are not “the truth” and they are not your “inner self” can be liberating.

Once you discover that thoughts come and go in a ceaseless flow, you can make choices about how you relate to your thoughts.  Which thoughts will you choose to interact with?  Which thoughts will you let pass by?  Which thoughts do you want to change?

Some thoughts are unimportant, some are anxious in content, some sad or angry and some help us find meaning. With the greater awareness that comes from simply knowing they are there, you can become less controlled by thoughts, such as “I’m not worth it” or “I can’t stand it.”  You can let those thoughts pass, and in letting them pass, know that you don’t have to be ruled by them.

Mindfulness is not about emptying the mind or suppressing your thoughts. Can you do it?  I can’t.  But I also don’t try to.  In the practice of mindfulness we focus more on observing the mind.  It is not important if your mind is very busy one day or very calm another.  The focus is on noticing and being aware of what is happening internally.

You can find more strategies to improve how you feel in my new book, The Stress Response and by clicking here to sign up for more of my tips and here for podcasts using DBT strategies to improve how you feel.

Empty mind image available from Shutterstock.