Many people in the arena’s of self-help and new spirituality sing the praises and preach the benefits of practicing mindfulness, but what is it? When I begin to explain it to someone, after a few minutes of explanation I say, “Why don’t we just give it a try, instead of talking about it?” Then I lead them through a practice. But still, what is it? I can only tell you of my experience.
The origins of mindfulness come out of Buddhist ideas and practices of awareness and meditation. Through the practice of attentive awareness the individual learns to have a clearer comprehension of their experience and their reality, by slowly clearing the lenses through which they view the world. The goal is to attain a liberating wisdom, which allows the “illusions” of the world to be identified and lifted. As this occurs, life experiences begin to change because of the way they are perceived and interpreted.
Mindfulness became more popular in the realm of psychology in 1979, when Jon Kabat-Zinn founded the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts, to treat the chronically ill. It soon grew to be used by many people for a variety of reasons, such as depression, anxiety, grief and anger.
Over the last century, various forms of mindfulness practices have evolved in many other therapeutic and spiritual settings. “Awareness” (though slightly different) has been a keystone of Gestalt therapy since 1940; Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) uses mindfulness as one of the four core skills taught to students and clients; and Hakomi also uses mindfulness as a foundation for increasing awareness through experiential practices. I use mindfulness tools in my therapy practice in all of these ways. I also teach clients to relax their mind and body in order to more easily access deeper parts of themselves in hypnotic states.
And still you might ask, but what is mindfulness? My definition of mindfulness is, the practice of quieting the mind, slowing the breath, and focussing your awareness on your internal experience of yourself. The experiences you perceive through interacting with the outside world and your inner world are both equally important. The goal is neither attachment nor detachment to your thoughts or feelings, but simply to notice. Notice how your mind, body, heart and spirit react in each moment. In the noticing and the slowing down, you can choose to respond instead of react, and make a new decision about how you interpret and proceed from that moment.
For example, as a gay man in the world you have most likely experienced homophobia from others in a variety of ways. Perhaps you were teased and bullied as a kid, or berated and attacked by family members. As a result your default belief is “I’m not safe here” or “It’s not okay for me to be myself.” As we move through the world these beliefs run in the background and effect all of our experiences, changing how we relate to others. But if you’re able to be mindfully aware of your automatic thoughts which are based on these beliefs, you can choose to question those thoughts and have different experiences. You can slowly begin to realize that there are certain places where you are safe, or that there are people who accept you just as you are. Over time you can begin to change how you feel in the world by shifting your thoughts and creating new experiences.
Many say that mindfulness is about being present in the moment – “be here now.” Choosing to respond to the moment based on what’s happening now, and not based on what happened last week or what may happen tomorrow, can liberate us from fear, pain and suffering. It may sound easier said than done, but that’s why it’s called a practice. We succeed in our practice every time we remember to be aware and notice, what is happening now.
by Nick Venegoni, MFT