Mindfulness is one of those buzzwords that nonprofits, corporations, and some parts of social media just found out about. And even though it’s really popular right now, not many people seem to really know what it is or which mindfulness techniques to use in their everyday life. Most people seem to think mindfulness is just another word for meditation. In this post, I’m going to break down what mindfulness is and isn’t, the potential benefits of using these techniques, the risks of using them incorrectly, and some examples of simple ways you can be a little more mindful everyday.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness as treatment has roots in Buddhist practices and has been relatively recently introduced into Western psychotherapy and mainstream pop culture. Since then, many different techniques and therapies have been created and updated. Mindfulness is basically a heightened awareness of yourself. You can use these many different methods to help exercise your awareness of yourself like a muscle. Many people tend to run on auto pilot due to stress, trauma, anxiety symptoms, depressive symptoms, and other mental health and physical health concerns. And as a result, many people lose touch of the present moment. Many people lose contact with some of their emotions or don’t feel totally connected to their own bodies. Or forget how they ever enjoyed the things they used to. Mindfulness is about allowing yourself to just be and accepting your present moment for what it is. No judgments. No rushing to “fix” a feeling to make it acceptable. No pushing thoughts/feelings away. Mindfulness is about giving yourself a little time with your feelings/thoughts instead of pushing it aside or distracting yourself. You could look at it as a way of creating a temporary safe space for yourself. Being aware and mindful can also build empathy which is important in building community and keeping those connections with people. Building community is so important, but are you able to maintain those connections and relationships with people? All that starts with learning and updating your knowledge of yourself. Every day, there’s something new to learn. You stop learning yourself when you’re no longer changing…and we stop changing when we die.
What It’s Not
Mindfulness isn’t a set way of doing things. It’s not 1 size fits all. Put more bluntly, it’s not just meditation. Again, there are many different ways to become more mindful. If 1 method doesn’t fit you, find another. It’s like clothes. Shop around. If 1 way makes you uncomfortable, put it down and find another one. Meditation is not for everyone. Some people with trauma and anxiety symptoms cannot clear their minds, sit still, and/or close their eyes for too long. That’s ok. Don’t mediate. There are lots of other ways to do mindfulness.
The Risks of Using Mindfulness Techniques Wrong
The only technique most people seemed to know about was mindful meditation, but I did notice that many of the negative side effects that were being reported and blamed on mindfulness in general were actually people either being forced or forcing themselves to use mindful meditation when it is not a good fit for them. Many companies have been forcing their employees to try out mindful meditation at retreats/workshops or have implemented mandatory meditation policies, which defeats the entire purpose of mindfulness: learning about yourself in a safe environment when you choose to. Forced therapy isn’t therapy. Employees usually cannot consent and definitely aren’t usually enthusiastically consenting. They’re being strongly encouraged/forced to participate. And usually employers force employees to do 1, maybe 2 styles of mindfulness (usually a kind of meditation), which does not work for everyone. And that can be uncomfortable, unpleasant, and even harmful for certain people, depending on their medical history or life experiences. If employees cannot opt out or feel peer pressured to participate, the “therapy” becomes toxic, ineffective, and potentially abusive.
And besides, companies love pretending their systemic problems and toxic work environments are individual employees’ problems. Morale isn’t going to be fixed with mandatory retreats, ice breakers, and meditation. Pay people a living wage and vet out middle management and you will see miracles.
Something else I saw people saying in my search was that mindfulness can cause depression, psychosis, etc. Mindfulness doesn’t “cause” depression, dissociation, delusions, mania, etc. What can happen is certain techniques, like meditation for example, can kick up uncomfortable emotions, sensations, memories etc. for some people. And without a mental health professional there to supervise you and be a safety net, you shouldn’t be diving deep alone if you are currently dealing with active trauma or other severe mental illness symptoms. Just like you’d think twice before going rock climbing without a spotter. No need for unnecessary risks here. Again, because mindfulness techniques are not 1 size fits all, you can drop that method and use another technique. Mindfulness (when you are doing it alone and not under the supervision of a mental health professional) is supposed to be another form of self-care. Mindfulness is supposed to be tailored to fit your needs and comfort level. It’s not supposed to hurt. It’s not supposed to feel hardcore. It’s not something you are supposed to suffer through. It’s supposed to be something you can look forward to doing as a part of your usual routine.
What Are Mindfulness Techniques Used For?
As I said before, mindfulness techniques are a way to savor life or to be intentional about living life. To be more aware of yourself, what you do, and would like to do. Allowing yourself to feel how you feel: no excuses, no judgment, and even acknowledging the feelings and thoughts that make you feel uncomfortable. Ignoring, avoiding, and/or suppressing emotions because they make you feel uncomfortable is not psychologically healthy in the long run. Those feelings will get pent up and bust out in other ways that you probably will have a harder time dealing with. Mindfulness is the kind of awareness that can give you a little control over your reactions and/or know yourself enough to know when it’s time to leave a situation. Again, mindfulness can also be a kind of self care (See my post about what self-care is here). Mindfulness techniques can give you a way to hit the pause button on your life for a second. Give yourself a little break. Take some time to yourself and put the focus back on yourself and your needs for a moment. Being mindful is not only enjoying the small things in life, but also doing some self-reflection.
Mindfulness is also used in mental and medical health as 1 of many treatments for depression, anxiety, chronic pain, cravings, etc. because it allows people to sit with their emotions, their symptoms, and how they feel about their emotions and symptoms. Some people talk to their anxiety or their chronic pain symptoms as a way to be mindful. “Yeah, I get it leg, You hurting right now. You’re allowed to hurt. You going through real shit right now. I’ma pop this medicine and give you a few minutes to be in your feelings, leg. You deserve a few minutes. But I got shit to do today so that’s it, ok?” There’s power in giving yourself permission to feel whatever you’re feeling. A mindfulness technique people use to deal with intense feelings like drug cravings, cutting urges, or wanting to beat somebody’s ass is called “urge surfing”. Urge surfing is used to help people deal with cravings using awareness, acknowledging emotions, and deep breathing. It’s called urge surfing because you are literally riding the waves of your feelings, rolling with the punches, and staying on top of them. Some people find it helpful to literally picture their emotions moving over them like waves that come and go. Instead of fighting the feelings or trying to distract yourself from feeling like that, stop for a second. Acknowledge the feeling. How is your body feeling right now? Head to toe. Do you have a headache? Are you seeing red? Is your heart racing? Does your chest feel tight? Take the time and observe yourself while deep breathing. Study yourself. The deep breathing helps anchor yourself while feeling the urges. Some people like to talk to their urges too: “My head hurts. I’m shaking and I wanna do xyz so damn bad. I’m tired of feeling all this shit and I wanna use/I wanna beat the shit out of such and such. That’s real. That’s not solving anything in the long run so lemme just let myself rock right here.” Notice and describe your feelings until they eventually start to go away enough that you can move on with your day. Urge surfing generally works because cravings/urges are temporary by nature. Your body literally can’t be in that physical state for long so if you ride it out, they will go away after a while. It’s about acknowledging your feelings and giving yourself some time in the moment. Without judging yourself and without rushing yourself. It’s easier said than done, especially when you are first starting out, but it does get easier to do with time.
Examples of Simple Ways To Help Boost Self-Awareness Every Day
Whatever you choose to do, while you do it, let yourself be you. Let whatever thoughts and feelings happen come and go. Don’t force them along. Don’t push them to leave. Let them come and go like clouds in the sky, rain down a window, or like water in a stream. They’re your thoughts and feelings. See them. Acknowledge them. Observe them until they’re not all up in your face anymore. Eventually, they’ll pass on and you can move on to the next feeling and thought. Pay attention to how your body is responding and any sensations you feel as they come and go. Try not to judge yourself or put labels/values on whatever you are feeling.
Closing your eyes & sipping tea
Focusing on the beat on your favorite song & vibing out
Taking an extra long walk, savoring the walk and let your mind go
Working with your hands (sewing, crocheting, boot blacking, etc)
Relaxation techniques like deep breathing
There are so many ways to be mindful. This society directly and indirectly encourages us to check out and go on autopilot. People are not generally encouraged to be aware of themselves as a whole. Many people struggle with issues that could be handled better if they were more aware of their feelings and behaviors. Mindfulness techniques are useful for checking in with yourself, managing anger and cravings, etc. and it can be a solid part of your self-care. Knowledge is power, right? Know yourself. Take a little time for yourself. Get mindful. I want to end this with a very important point: Mindfulness (and mindful meditation) is not a cure. It is not a solution to your problems. It will not make your depression, anxiety, stress, etc. go away. Like I said before, mindfulness can help you become more aware of yourself. Awareness and self-knowledge is what you can expect from this. And with this awareness, you can make informed decisions about your next moves.
Thanks for reading. The next post is Part 2 of the You So Vain: You Probably Think This Kid is About You parenting series on Wednesday, 5/23/18. I’ll change my focus from the relationship of the parents to each individual parent. I will cover each parent’s personal feelings, thoughts, and fears around having/raising children, how they personally cope with stressful situations, and finally, the importance of learning parenting skills and ongoing therapy before and while raising children.