My wife, Dr. Smith, and I are big fans of mindfulness approaches to therapy and we’ve included discussions of mindfulness in most of our self help books within the For Dummies series (including Borderline Personality Disorder For Dummies). In brief, Mindfulness is typically described as involving focused attention on experiences in the present moment as well as acceptance and openness to whatever the present entails. Experiences are observed and noticed rather than evaluated and judged.

A real advantage of taking a Mindful approach to experience is that relatively few present moment experiences are truly “awful” or intolerable. In fact, the vast majority of things that gravely upset people have to do with imagined, future catastrophes or guilt, shame, and self loathing over past actions.

One of our favorite discussions was about me learning the value of mindfulness in our earlier book, Depression For Dummies and it goes as follows:

Charles never feels as grounded and at peace as when he takes our dogs on a long jog three or four times each week. He heads out the door and in just a few minutes makes it to the West Mesa overlooking Albuquerque. You can see the entire city laid out at the footstep of a majestic mountain range. The view is stunning and you can see many miles out to the horizon.

The mesa is laced with dirt roads and gullies created by occasional downpours that blow through the otherwise parched land. Rabbits routinely dart across the running path. And once in a while, you can spot a coyote in the distance. Charles connects with the experience by noticing the rhythm of his running, the obvious joy the dogs exhibit, the quiet, and the (usually) gentle breezes.

Because he runs a long way, sometimes predicting a sudden downpour is impossible. The first few times rain started to drizzle, Charles cursed his fate and picked up the pace to return home as quickly as possible. But frequently Charles got soaked before he arrived home, and he felt distressed at his soaked condition. After all, everyone knows it’s awful to get drenched in the rain.

But he noticed that the dogs never seemed to mind the rain. They occasionally shook off the excess water and continued to enjoy the run as much as ever. Charles wondered how they could continue to connect with their experience unfazed and undaunted. Then it hit him. Their minds are unfettered by thoughts of how awful it is to get soaked. They merely connect with their joyful experience, nothing else.

And could he not do the same? Yes. He then realized that the sensation of the rain feels not much different from his usual morning shower. What does “getting soaked” matter? The experience of running in the beautiful setting, rain notwithstanding, felt wonderful if he let the thoughts go and simply existed.
Of course, you could wonder, but what about lightning, wouldn’t that be dangerous and indicate a need for action? Yes, that’s one way thoughts can be useful.

This last point about lightening raises an issue that is often neglected in many discussions we’ve seen about mindfulness. Specifically, we’re talking about the fact that although a focus on the present is invaluable, it’s not enough. One still must maintain a perspective on the past and the future.

Thus, when looking back on your life, it’s important to learn from mistakes, yet take the same non-evaluative, nonjudgmental, open perspective. Try to accept your past actions as having been the result of the best you knew how to do at the time. And in looking ahead, you need to remember the past and realistically and objectively forecast what actions today need to be taken to maximize your overall life satisfaction in the future. Taking shelter from lightening just makes sense even though nothing in the present would suggest any particular problem (unless the lightening actually strikes and then of course it’s too late).

The take home message is that we highly recommend training yourself to focus on the present with openness, acceptance, and without judgment or evaluation. Then take that same attitude in maintaining a perspective on the past and the future. Live your life in the present, but remain aware of where it comes from and where it’s going.