Although only recently embraced by Western psychology, mindfulness practices and techniques have been part of many Eastern philosophies, such as Buddhism, Taoism, Tai Chi, Hinduism, and most martial arts, for thousands of years. The various definitions of it revolve around bringing non-judgmental consciousness to the present experience, so it can be considered the art of conscious living.
Mindfulness may be defined as:
“Bringing one’s complete attention to the present experience on a moment-to-moment basis” (Marlatt & Kristeller, 1999, p 68).
“Paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally” (Kabat-Zinn, 1994, p4).
“Consciously bringing awareness to your here-and-now experience, with openness, interest, and receptiveness” (Harris, 2007).
Let’s note some of the important elements of these definitions. First, we can observe that mindfulness is a process of awareness, not thinking. Awareness involves noticing experience, as opposed to getting caught up in thoughts. Second, the three definitions above hint at a corollary aspect: the attitude that goes with being mindfully aware. It is not one of closed-minded pre-judging. Instead the stance is one of openness and curiosity, which encourages acceptance rather than conflict or avoidance of whatever is happening. Thus, a person can be having the unpleasant experience of intense pain and yet – through mindfulness – regard that pain with curiosity and openness, as merely a sensation to be explored, rather than something to fight with or escape.
Third, paying attention in a particular way – “on purpose” – suggests that we are able to choose what we pay attention to. When we can direct our awareness, focusing on different aspects of our experience, we are free to deeply connect with ourselves, appreciating the fullness of each moment of life. We can use the awareness to enhance our self-knowledge, and to connect more deeply with those we care about. We can use mindfulness to expand our repertoire of responses to our world, thus greatly increasing our psychological resilience and capacity to move our life in a valued direction.
The Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) Approach to Mindfulness
Mindfulness is a mental state of awareness, focus and openness – which allows you to engage fully in what you are doing at any moment. In a state of mindfulness, difficult thoughts and feelings have much less impact and influence over you – so it is hugely useful for everything from full-blown psychiatric illness to enhancing athletic or business performance. In many models of coaching and therapy, mindfulness is taught primarily via meditation. However, in ACT, meditation is seen as only one way amongst hundreds of learning these skills – and this is a good thing, because most people find it difficult to find a consistent meditation practice. ACT offers a vast range of tools to learn mindfulness skills – many of which require only a few minutes to master.
ACT breaks mindfulness skills down into 3 categories:
1) Defusion: distancing from, and letting go of, unhelpful thoughts, beliefs and memories
2) Acceptance: making room for painful feelings, urges and sensations, and allowing them to come and go without a struggle
3) Contact with the present moment: engaging fully with your here-and-now experience, with an attitude of openness and curiosity
These 3 skills require you to use an aspect of yourself for which no word exists in common everyday language. It is the part of you that is capable of awareness and attention. In ACT, we often call it the ‘observing self’. We can talk about ‘self’ in many ways, but in common everyday language we talk mainly about the ‘physical self’ – your body – and the ‘thinking self’ – your mind. The ‘observing self’ is the part of you that is able to observe both your physical self and your thinking self. A better term, in my opinion, is ‘pure awareness’ – because that’s all it is: just awareness, nothing else. It is the part of you that is aware of everything else: aware of every thought, every feeling, everything you see, hear, touch, taste, smell, and do.
More information and references:
Baer, R. (2003). Mindfulness training as a clinical intervention: A conceptual and empirical review. American Psychological Association: 10(2), 125-143.
Harris, R. (2007).The happiness trap: stop struggling, start living. Wollombi, NSW, Australia: Exisle Publishing, Ltd.
Harris, R. (2009). Mindfulness without meditation. In HCPJ (Healthcare Counselling and Psychology Journal), October, 2009, pp 21 – 24.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. New York: Hyperion.
Marlatt, G. A., & Kristeller, J. L. (1999). Mindfulness and meditation. In W. R. Miller (Ed.), Integrating spirituality into treatment (pp. 67-84). Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
Shapiro, S.L., Astin, J.A., Bishop, S.R., & Cordova, M. (2005). Mindfulness-based stress reduction for health care professionals: results from a randomised trial. International Journal of Stress Management, 12 (2), 164-176.
Teasdale, J.D., Segal, Z.V., & Williams, M.G. (1995). How does cognitive therapy prevent depressive relapse and why should attentional control (mindfulness training) help? Behaviour Research and Therapy, 33, 25-39.
Australian Institute of Professional Counselors. What is Mindfulness, and what is it not? July 17, 2013 This article was adapted from the upcoming Mental Health Academy CPD course “Mindfulness in Therapeutic Practice”. For more information, visit www.mentalhealthacademy.com.au.
Harris, R. ACT Mindfully. September 16, 2018 The ACT View Of Mindfulness
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