Mindfulness: What is it and why is it helpful?
I recently reviewed Sam Harris’s book Waking Up and it got me thinking about how important mindfulness is and how much of an impact it’s had in my life.
His book was not my first experience in mindfulness, my first exposure was during my recovery from bulimia. The cognitive behavioral therapy I went through was very dependent on the idea of mindfulness. Many mental disorders have been improved with this practice including OCD, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and drug addiction. Basically anything that hijacks your brain and makes you obsess or ruminate.
What exactly is mindfulness and how do I do it?
It is essentially bringing your focus to the current moment. Instead of being lost in thought, you focus your attention on what’s in front of you.
Practicing mindfulness is very simple, although not easy. Mindfulness meditations can help, although they aren’t necessary to keep doing long term, it will just show you how to do it.
The most simple mediation that most people start out with is sitting or laying in a comfortable space and bringing attention to your breath. You aren’t trying to control your breathing, but only focusing your attention there. If another though enters your head while you are doing this, just acknowledge that you are having the though and let it go, return your focus to your breathing.
Noticing these passing thoughts is really the first step, in the future you’ll be able to stop these thoughts when you notice them and bring your attention back to the current situation.
In addition to the breath exercise, some people focus on sensations their body is feeling such as feeling the couch you are sitting on, the weight of your hands in your lap, etc.
You only need to do this for 10 minutes or so, and you can start with as little as one minute and work your way up. You’ll be surprised how much is constantly popping into your head.
Why is mindfulness so helpful?
It breaks the process of rumination and obsessive thoughts. You are able to focus completely on your current surroundings, feelings, and sensations rather than being lost in your thoughts. You are also able to recognize when you are having these thoughts and falling down the rumination rabbit hole.
It can also break the automatic response you have to certain situations. For example, a depressed person will respond to circumstances with, well, depression! This becomes wired in the brain as an automatic response. Mindfulness challenges these responses.
Are there any downsides?
Possibly. There have been some reports of PTSD getting worse with mindfulness, but this may be due to learning to cut out distractions which might bring trauma into focus. The good news is there are many reports that PTSD is actually made better because you can learn to divert your attention from the trauma you are recovering and bring your focus to the present moment, rather than letting your mind wander back to the trauma. So this may be a situation where things get better before they get worse, but it’s still something to consider.