That’s a common buzzword. It’s right up there with “self-care” in our current vernacular.
If we look at companies like Coursera, the Great Courses, and Udemy, we can find masterclasses on the subject so that everyone can become masters of mindfulness. There are retreats dedicated to the practice, and Buddhist temples, yoga studios, and therapists in private practice and agencies offer weekly or daily groups. Jon Kabat Zinn offers a program on managing chronic pain through daily mindfulness practice.
Mindfulness is also one of the umbrellas of skills for Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). Each module for DBT skills group starts off with a two-week training period focused on mindfulness practice, and every week starts off with some form of mindfulness practice and discussion.
Why mindfulness? What is it that we’re seeking? Why do we do it?
I want to start off responding to these questions by talking about the “How” skill of DBT called “one-mindfully.”
In our current world, a lot of emphasis is placed on multi-tasking. I can remember internship and job interviews where I was asked about my ability to multi-task, because it is seen as a strength in many industries.
The truth though is that multi-tasking is a fantasy: we are unable to effectively engage in more than one complex activity at a time. That makes sense, really, because if I’m splitting my attention between two or more activities, I cannot possibly be able to complete any of them as though I was giving it my full attention.
Multi-tasking isn’t relegated just to the work environment. We use it when we listen to podcasts while cooking, play music while driving or working out, check out social media while we’re sharing a family dinner, look at our phones when we’re having a conversation with our friends and loved ones, and more.
Most of our time, really, is spent multi-tasking. When I reflect on my own behaviors here, I can see that my attention ebbs and flows between tasks, neither getting consistent and full attention.
So, DBT suggests “one-mindfully” as one of the “How” skills to practicing mindfulness. When we are engaging one-mindfully, we are focusing all our attention on one task. For instance, as I write this post, I’m trying to focus my attention only on this task, so my phone is in the other room with my family, music, and cats. One-mindfully is the opposite of multi-tasking.
DBT, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama, and others recommend mindfulness as an effective way of facing life, which is becoming increasingly more complex as more and more technologies impose more and more complications to daily living. Since many of us have a limited understanding of our emotions and limited emotional vocabulary, we have an increased urge to retreat into multi-tasking behaviors without even realizing it.
So, what is mindfulness? Simply put, mindfulness is awareness. It’s the ability to focus attention and consciousness on this moment, this breath, this activity, this thought, this feeling. I mentioned earlier that mindfulness is one of the umbrella skills of DBT, and I go so far as to say, without mindfulness practice, we cannot access the other skillsets. Put another way: if I am unable to have awareness of an action urge during an interaction with my spouse, I may find myself saying or doing things that I will later regret.
When we practice mindfulness daily, we increase the chances that we will be aware of our thoughts and feelings during what DBT calls prompting events. Why is this beneficial, you ask? Well, if I’m having a conversation with my spouse and find myself acting on the urge to check social media or see if someone else has texted me, I can ask myself questions about this urge and make a choice to remain in the conversation I’m already having or follow through on my urge and accept the consequences of potentially hurting my spouse with my action.
Currently, many of us are in a “homestay” status due to the pandemic that’s wreaking havoc across the globe. During this time, we are experiencing many powerful emotions daily, including sadness, fear, anxiety, and anger. Perhaps we’re not beaten down by these emotions, and they do come up. For me, they seem to come up on Sundays more than other days.
If we’re mindful during this time, we are present for these emotions, even though they are painful. We provide space for them and look at them with curiosity.
We validate them.
If we are avoidant during this time, the emotions that arise still come—we don’t prevent them—and show themselves in ineffective ways. This may happen through irritability, tantrums, sleepless nights, changes in appetite, restlessness, etc. Some of these responses can be harmful to ourselves, and some can be harmful to others, or both.
When we’re in a “homestay” like many of us are now, this can make our situation more unpleasant than it has to be. This is why, even though we set ourselves to experience a painful moment, practicing mindfulness of these inevitable negative emotions is necessary.
The reality is that we are going to continue to have feelings of fear, anxiety, sadness, and anger—and a lot of others—and, if we hold space for those emotions, if we stop what we’re doing and let those emotions have their authentic voice, then we are allowing ourselves to better experience this pandemic, we increase our chances to look back on this experience as one of growth and connection—both within ourselves and with others.
When I’m able to give space to all my emotions—the good, the bad, and the ugly—I’m able to be mindful that I’m not scared or angry all the time. I’m not pretending that I’m happy and content all the time, either. I’m allowing myself to know that sometimes, I’m feeling happy and connected, sometimes, I’m feeling sad or outraged, and sometimes, I’m feeling overwhelmed by it all.
When we practice mindfulness, we give our bodies the message that it’s okay to feel however we feel whenever we feel it. This is so important right now, especially if one of our activities of avoidance includes going out to engage in mindless shopping at the hint of an uncomfortable emotion.
Right now, we can give ourselves the gift of validation through mindfulness. This is a gift that will last far beyond this sheltering-at-home experience if we let it.