As human beings, we’re programmed to act—and sometimes react.
It’s a survival mechanism that’s in our DNA. We needed to outrun a bear or avoid falling rocks, and each time we survived these challenges, we filed the reactions away in our brains to prepare ourselves for the next threat.
It’s difficult to move out of reaction mode. It becomes our default to external and internal stressors. However, sometimes the best response is none at all. A simple observation of a single moment, without judgement, is the concept of mindfulness. This approach to stress management makes it easier to deal with the complexity of life.
Mindfulness: This One Moment, Without Judgement
Your brain is a wonderful computer, processing and analyzing data at lightning speed with constant effort. Sometimes your thoughts are straightforward observations:
And other times, because of trauma, environmental influences, substance abuse, and other stress factors, an individual’s processing of experiences and emotions becomes distorted. This distortion causes negative thought patterns, anxiety, depression, anger, and other conditions.
Suddenly, a single observation has a lot of baggage with it:
“It’s wet, and it’s probably going to rain all day, and I don’t have an umbrella. I’m so stupid—I knew it was going to rain. Why didn’t I bring an umbrella?”
“I’m cold. I forgot my coat. It was on the couch but then she moved it, when I told her just to leave it. But she never listens to me, no matter how many times I tell her something.”
These are simple examples anyone can experience. However, when difficult circumstances trigger someone to feel overwhelmed or reactionary, negative thoughts and emotions manifest into more serious situations.
The concept of mindfulness is to develop awareness to the fact that you feel, hear, see, or sense something, and do so with balance. No judgement. Simply allow yourself to pay attention in a certain way and to focus on the present moment—not the moment before or after it.
“Paying Attention on Purpose”
A frequent question people ask about mindfulness is, “What do I do?” Jon Kabat-Zinn has a simple answer. He’s the professor of medicine emeritus and creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
He says mindfulness is the concept of “paying attention on purpose.” Since the mind is often filled with worry about and plans for the future, or stuck in a loop reliving things from the past, Kabat-Zinn says the present moment often gets “squeezed out” by a preoccupation with the future and past. “Mindfulness isn’t a technique: it’s actually a way of being. It gives us new degrees of freedom to navigate aspects of life.”
In this short video from PsychAlive, Kabat-Zinn goes into more detail about the ease and importance of cultivating awareness.
How to Practice Mindfulness
Everyone has the ability to be mindful of the present moment. It doesn’t matter what your background is, and you don’t have to alter your beliefs to accept the concept. There’s no need to buy anything. There’s not a “wrong” way to practice paying attention.
And you’re not trying to stop thoughts from flowing. The point of the practice is that you’re simply not dwelling on them.
And although the term is mindfulness, it’s really not all in your head. It’s an awakening to what’s happening with your body as well:
- the feel of water on your hands as you wash dishes
- the subtle movement of your chest when you take in a deep breath
- the secure grounding of your feet on the floor when you sit upright in a chair
- the sound of one bird chirping in your backyard
This integration of mind and body awareness helps us switch away from the auto-pilot mode of reactions in order to change three characteristics: intention, attention, and attitude. The Center for Spirituality and Healing at the University of Minnesota describes the practice this way:
- The intention to foster awareness, and do so repeatedly
- An attentiveness to observe sensations, emotions, and thoughts in the moment they appear
- An attitude that’s not only without judgement, but also compassionate and curious
And that’s really all there is to mindfulness.
In order to make this practice easier over time, be willing to stay focused on a single observation without losing yourself in other experiences, such as a bad memory or a worry about what may—or may not—happen after you read this article. Instead of falling into default reaction mode, stay rooted in the current moment.
Another way to develop a mindfulness habit is through basic mediation. Try this 5-minute meditation. Simply focusing on your breath is one of the key biological components of change that makes it easier to be present.
How Mindfulness Helps Recovery
Anyone who’s struggled with drug and alcohol addiction has numerous triggers that appear in recovery. For many people, a common challenge in the pursuit of wellness is finding healthful ways of dealing with negative thoughts and emotions.
Mindfulness isn’t an escape: it enables you to retrain neural networks in your brain. You’re essentially rewiring this amazing computer of yours, allowing it to process and analyze data more efficiently.
Consult with a treatment expert about techniques you can pick up to develop mindfulness.
Mindful Life Program: Mindfulness in Recovery
Psychology Today: The Inside Story of How Slow Breathing Calms You Down and You Can Let Go of Negative Self-Judgments and Mindfulness Meditation & Addiction
Positive Psychology Program: What is Mindfulness? Explained. (20 Definitions That Clarify Mindfulness)