Mindfulness: [Sticky]

Summary:

The objective of this piece is to provide a condensed explanation of the mindfulness concept. I have taken a condensed approach so as to not overwhelm with wordy explanations. My mindfulness journey and back story commences this piece.

It is acknowledged there are many adaptations and interpretations of mindfulness in existence, therefore this piece provides a generalised backdrop from a therapeutic perspective. Predominantly this approach derives from my own learnings of mindfulness during Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT). Additionally, as mindfulness skills are universal, they can be practiced by anyone and not only those suffering from mental illness or in the midst of chaotic emotional distress. In fact, I have found practicing mindfulness when I have been feeling ‘okay’ has been a great source of relaxation and at times constructive ‘me time’, through the process of ‘self-soothe’.[1]

At the bottom of this piece there is a glossary of frequently used terms in re the DBT/Therapeutic/Mindfulness lingo used throughout this blog.

NB: This condensed, generalised and personal interpretation of the mindfulness rationale is not intended to act as a wholly affirmative definition. Instead, it aims to operate as an informative summary based on my own understanding, interpretation and use of mindfulness.  

Back Story: My Mindfulness Journey

I first learned of the practice of mindfulness when I commenced DBT. I will not lie, with the way my multi-thought at one-time brain operates,[2] I found practicing mindfulness challenging. Practicing mindfulness was further hindered by my mistrust of medical professionals and unwillingness to co-operate in therapy. Although on paper the mindfulness concept and skills are simple, putting them into practice is a different matter. As it is a form of retraining the brain for the purposes of increased mental wellbeing.

I was most definitely a therapy sceptic, as such, I did not believe in the possibility of retraining thought processes for a greater mental health good. Prior to DBT, I had spent years being referred to various forms of therapy and I rarely had the decency to turn up. In fact, I distinctly remember when I was around 18 being referred to some sort of group therapy (I cannot for the life of me remember what it was) and I did not bother to turn up to the introductory session. This is avoidance at its most transparent. I simply did not trust the mental health system, nor did I see a point to therapy engagement. As my rationale was always ‘you cannot change the past, so why bother thinking about it?’.

Fast-forward a few years to when I finally agreed to attend therapy sessions. The therapy was DBT. For the first few months of DBT my sporadic therapy attendance behaviours continued. Until one day I was given an ultimatum that was the wake-up call I needed. I was sitting in my usual spot for the group element of DBT (I had actually turned up. Round of applause, please) when my one to one therapist entered the room. She asked me to join her for a moment. Ha! Little did I know what she meant by that.

In her office she pulled no punches telling me I was being removed from DBT. The removal was due to my lack of attendance and unwillingness to engage in DBT’s skillsets – including mindfulness. I was taken aback by this, as well as her sternness. To me, this reinforced my belief that she hated me because I was such an unlikeable and worthless person.[3] How wrong I was on this point, discussed later. Filled with grief and rejection I was ready to dish out my share of defensive attitude (putting it nicely). Something held me back from doing so and I am glad it did, as at the end of this ‘meeting’ she informed me I had one week to decide on my position. Thus, I was not completely out the door.

If I chose to stay, I could not miss a single group or individual session. If I did I would be removed from the DBT programme. Sulkily I decided to return and try to engage with all aspects of DBT. This is the point when my understanding of mindfulness and its beneficial attributes started to develop. After my return, engagement with mindfulness was a challenge, particularly so because during the early sessions I had gotten into the habit of thinking ‘what a load of mumbo jumbo bullshit’. Nevertheless, with time and practice the mindfulness activities became easier. I learned which categories of mindfulness skills I could work with; particularly as a means of distress tolerance. Consequently, I adapted, developed and made them workable for me. This is why I discuss mindfulness within the context of a Lush cocktail throughout this blog, as by amalgamating the two I found my therapeutic safe-haven.

Fast-forward again and thanks to my DBT engagement as a whole, in combination with mindfulness skills that allowed me to ‘step back’ from my troubling thoughts, I learned that my therapist did not hate me at all. The opposite was true in reality.

Her scornful tone during the aforementioned meeting was in response to my previous behaviours and the pattern of unreliability I evidently presented. As had she taken a softly-softly approach, I would have metaphorically done my best to walk over her. I would have pushed the boundaries as far as I could to escape fully engaging in therapy. I am eternally grateful to her for her approach that day. As I needed someone strong enough to not put up with my behaviour, but I also needed this done in a non-accusatory and non-attacking manner. She achieved this. After some time, she became the only professional from any discipline to achieve both my trust and form a rapport with me. Not only did she listen to, help and support me, but she believed me.

My entire life to this point I had been dismissed as a liar, a drama queen or plain ignored both by relatives and ‘professionals’ who were supposed to provide help. Thus, to have someone spend time listening and working to break down my barriers (there were/are many, mainly spikey barriers) was an alien encounter for me. But this in combination with mindfulness were large contributory factors in saving my life. Hence, mindfulness features so prominently within this blog. This brings to the fore the concept of mindfulness.

What Mindfulness is:

There are many interpretations, summaries and evaluations of the mindfulness concept. This summary intentionally provides a condensed and in some areas generalised discussion of the core ideas of mindfulness, by breaking it down into two tiers of objectives and concepts. These tiers are: reconnection and separation. As conflicting as these areas may appear, it is shown they are interrelated. Consequently, falling under the mindfulness umbrella. First, a summary of mindfulness is provided.

Mindfulness:

Mindfulness originates from Zen Buddhism.[4] That is, to be fully and non-judgmentally present in the current moment; having full awareness of both body and mind as one entity, by controlling the mind for the purposes of mental peace and focus. This cognitive state and awareness is also commonly referred to as ‘living in the moment’. ‘Living in the moment’ allows us to become aware of and notice thoughts/activities/surroundings one-mindfully and non-judgmentally. This concept is expanded further under reconnection and separation, discussed below.

Reconnection:

As discussed above, the core concept of mindfulness is to participate one-mindfully both mentally and physically. One purpose of this is so that we can reconnect with our bodies. Consequently, by being one-mindful during either mindfulness exercises or carrying out day to day activities we can learn to notice how our thoughts can both consume us and affect our behaviour. By noticing sensations such as taste and scent (reconnection) our mental well-being can improve. As by becoming aware of both ourselves and the activity being exercised, our ability to function and focus increases due to the mental separation the exercise causes between troubling thought(s) and the potential negative impact on our emotions. This separation in turn, quietens down the brain, turns off autopilot mode and allows us to reconnect with our physical selves. It also allows us the cognitive space to change our autopilot reactions to difficult situations (where applicable).

Therefore, as the mind becomes retrained, emotional responses can improve following the change in action and thoughts as enacted through mindfulness practice.[5] This is the reconnection purpose.

Additionally, as stated earlier, mindfulness does not need to be practiced solely in relation to negative emotions and situations. It can also be practiced as a means of enjoyment in the small or everyday things in life, such as drinking your favourite beverage. For example, by mindfully drinking a cup of tea you could start to notice sensations such as the mug’s temperature against your hands, the flavour complexity deriving from the tea or its scent. Noticing how each of these things make you feel reconnects the body and mind. This connects to the separation concept, discussed below.

Separation:

Separation, the second tier of mental well-being through mindfulness, encapsulates the aforementioned reconnection rationale; particularly in re a therapeutic context. This separation derives from the aforementioned awareness of our thoughts and feelings. As this tier of mindfulness allows us to step back from current ‘real world’ or mental situations which engulf thoughts and accordingly affect behaviours. By stepping back, the theory is that we can become alert to unhelpful behaviours/coping mechanisms.

This is turn, over time and with practice, allows us to notice when thoughts are engulfing our lives and opens up the ability to separate thought from reality. Such separation can provide sufficient time to look at a situation from a non-judgmental perspective, so as to work on ‘letting it go’ or discover a helpful solution to the ‘mental event’[6] we have created.

Conclusion:

Retraining the brain via mindfulness is not easy in the beginning, but with practice we can train ourselves to be present in the moment, no matter how small or emotionally taxing the task may be. This is one of the reasons why opted to share my amalgamation of Lush and mindfulness, as I hope by sharing my ideas they will prove as useful to anyone reading them as they are for me as a means to help improve mental well-being by discussing how to participate in mindfulness exercises alongside my personal experiences. By amalgamating the two I have formed my own therapeutic outlet, although not always successful in re managing emotions and troubling thoughts, it has seen me through some distressing times by providing a much needed distraction.  By discussing mindfulness in the manner I do within this blog, I aim to demonstrate the skills in a practical way which may provide meditative assistance in times of need for others.

I hope this has explained a bit more about mindfulness, as well as why it features prominently within my Lush cocktails

Glossary:

This glossary contains explanations of the core mindfulness concepts and exercises referred to throughout this blog.

‘Opposite to Emotion Action’:

Marsha Linehan summaries this activity and the rationale behind it perfectly, see below.

Every emotion has an action. That’s the first point you’ve got to remember. Now the second point is, if the emotion has an action that means the emotion causes the action. You can actually change the emotion by changing the action.  In other words, not only do emotions cause actions, but actions cause emotions.  And you can change your emotion by changing your action.

So it’s kind of a vicious circle – emotions cause actions and then actions cause emotion.  And the best way to think about it is that emotions love themselves.  They just keep themselves going. That’s why it’s so difficult to change. Because they go around and round and round.’[1]

‘Self-Soothe’:

Is a DBT term which encapsulates activities to practice as a means of distress tolerance. In a distress tolerance context, it is designed to help individuals deal with situations/emotions that feel too overwhelming to deal with. In a generalised context, the self-soothe umbrella includes participating in activities that will help improve our physical and mental well-being, by allowing ourselves to take time to focus solely on our own needs. This is what I refer to as ‘me time’

Living in the moment:

To be aware of what is occurring in the current moment. By having full awareness of both body and mind as one entity, controlling the mind for the purposes of mental peace and focus. This cognitive state and awareness is also commonly referred to as ‘living in the moment’. ‘Living in the moment’ allows us to become aware of and notice thoughts/activities/surroundings one-mindfully and non-judgmentally. In turn, this awareness and mindful participation in activities creates fuller enjoyment of life and its activities. As you are truly present, physically and mentally, in the activity being performed.

One-Mindfully:

This action is interrelated with ‘Living in the Moment’, above. Do one thing at a time.
‘Single-task, don’t multi-task. When you’re pouring water, just pour water. When you’re eating, just eat.’[2]

A prominent rationale behind this action is to live life to the fullest, by acknowledging what it happening in the current moment, not the future or the past. Just in this moment.

Non-Judgementally:

Marsha Linehan, summarises the non-judgmental concept excellently, below.

The point of taking a nonjudgmental stance is to give ourselves an opportunity to observe the same old things that we always observe in our minds or in our environment or about other people, but open ourselves to thinking about it in a different way. So if I withhold my judgment about what my thought means, but simply observe it, note it and let the thought move away, I have an opportunity to treat myself more gently. Even if I still have the judgmental thought, I can observe that I had the thought, then let it go. That’s the beauty of nonjudgmental stance; all the negative garbage we’re so accustomed to telling ourselves is suddenly cut off and a gentleness takes over so that healing becomes possible.[3]

‘Letting/Let Go’:

A means to let go of our suffering, by accepting or acknowledging painful emotions. To accept or acknowledge emotions is not: to say that they are okay; about invalidating how you feel nor does it mean accepting inappropriate behaviour of others. That is, behaviour that may have triggered the emotional pain. Instead, it is a process to reduce the impact and potential consequences of your emotional distress. The process involves separating the emotional pain from the suffering. As in reality the two are separate entities that become intertwined in the heat of emotional chaos.

Marsha Linehan, offers some steps for letting go of our suffering:

  • ‘Observe your emotion. Acknowledge that the emotion exists. Stand back from it and get yourself unstuck from it.
  • Try to experience your emotion as a wave, coming and going. You may find it helpful to concentrate on some part of the emotion, like how your body is feeling, or some image about it’

    These steps can also be used in conjunction with the Mindfulness Recipes throughout this blog, as they have similar characteristics.

[1] see glossary

[2] http://www.rd.com/health/wellness/10-steps-to-mindfulness/

[3] http://www.dbtselfhelp.com/html/non-judgmental_stance.html

[1] http://www.dbtselfhelp.com/html/opposite_action_part_1.html

[2] including the consequent loss of concentration

[3] Feelings that remain to the present day in general

[4] For a summary of Zen see http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/buddhism/subdivisions/zen_1.shtml

[5] Crane, R. (2009). Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. New York, NY: Routledge http://www.mindfulnessmuse.com/health-and-wellness/mindfully-reconnect-with-your-body

[6] Mental event refers to an event or situation created by the mind which has not yet come to fruition in reality.

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