Have you ever found yourself reconnecting with a friend or loved one at the end of a day, and after 15 minutes of conversation you realized that you have not heard a word they said because you were lost in your thoughts planning for the next day or worrying about your upcoming week? How about that wasted week spent neglecting your responsibilities, getting irritated at your social support, worrying, ruminating, obsessing over the dream job you applied for and feeling inadequate, only to learn that you are not only qualified but the only candidate with a job offer?
We live in a fast-paced technology-dominated world, full of to-do lists, where multi-tasking is viewed as a quality, and we are no longer human beings, but human doings. We set high standards for ourselves, and aim to meet often-unachievable goals, and if we slow down, we worry we will miss opportunities. We try to reach the “happiness” destination, but how much do we actually enjoy the journey? How much do we connect with others, and effectively live a fulfilling life?
Mindfulness has become in recent years a popular concept, with a focus to slow down the societal pressures to constantly achieve goals, and start enjoying life’s small pleasures.
What is Mindfulness?
In its simplest form, it is the focus on the present moment. Therapist Charlton Hall states that “mindfulness consists of leaving doing mode and entering being mode, or leaving thinking mode and enter sensing mode.”
Marsha Linehan, the creator of Dialectical Behavior Therapy, puts mindfulness at the core of her theory, as a vehicle to emotion regulation and a fulfilling life. Mindfulness skills in DBT are psychological and behavioral versions of meditation practices from Eastern spiritual training. They are tools used to balance emotional mind and reasonable mind to achieve “wise mind,” which helps us be grounded by adding intuitive knowing to emotional experiencing and rational analysis.
The “How’s” and “What’s” of Mindfulness
Linehan provides simple “What” and “How” skills to an abstract and complex concept, making it more achievable to everyday life.
What skills represent a distinct activity that is practiced one at a time:
Observing means attending to events, emotions and other behavioral responses, without trying to terminate them or prolong them. It can be achieved by focusing on what your senses are telling you about your environment, engaging them in a way that you would not usually do. Ex: What does an orange smell like? What does a coffee cup look like?
Describing involves applying verbal labels to environmental and behavioral events. This skill works hand in hand with observing by engaging all the senses. Ex: First observe a tree, then describe it: “there are this many leaves, the branch goes in this direction, etc.”
Participating involves entering completely into the activities of the current moment, without separating from ongoing events or interactions. Ex: When you take a shower, are you really taking a shower or do you think about everything you have to do the rest of the day? If you are fully participating, you’ll be one with the experience, enjoying the sensation of the water, the scent of the soap, the feeling of being clean, etc.
“How” skills describe how we use the “what” skills – they can be applied all at once.
Applying a nonjudgmental stance means taking a non-evaluative approach, judging something as neither good nor bad, but neutral and objective. Ex: saying “the piece of meat is bad” is a shorthand way of saying “The meat is filled with bacteria and may make you sick.”
One-Mindfully involves devoting all your mental energy to the present moment. When you walk, walk. When you reconnect with your loved one, focus on what they say, not on your to-do list. Give up multi-tasking, and embrace single-tasking.
Effectively means focusing on what works and what is needed to achieve an objective.
Mindfulness is not about emptying your mind of thoughts, or going into a trance. It is about reducing emotional distress, rumination, worry and being more in control of your lives by grounding yourself in the present moment. It does not have to be practiced formally with time set aside; it can be done in any setting – while waiting in line at the grocery store, when stuck in traffic or while washing the dishes. And maybe by practicing daily these simple “how” and “what” skills, you can embrace your nature again and be a human “being” who navigates the journey of life by working toward the destination of happiness and not against it.