“Be in the moment.” “Clear your mind.” “Centre yourself.”
I remember feeling rather confused when I first learned about mindfulness as a provisional psychologist. It was so abstract and nebulous – an idea that I just couldn’t grasp as tangibly as behavioural strategies like pleasant activity scheduling or Progressive Muscle Relaxation. (“Tense your arms, then relax them” – Easy!………..“Find your centre and ground yourself” – Sorry, what??)
Yet there mindfulness was, popping up in every therapeutic approach I was learning about: Mindfulness-Based CBT; Acceptance and Commitment Therapy; Meta-Cognitive Therapy. Its effectiveness has cemented it as a core component of this ‘third wave’ of Cognitive-Behavioural therapies, not to mention it has become something of a buzz-word in the popular media. To put it simply – it’s a thing. A big thing.
However, many people struggle to put this strategy, with its roots in ancient Eastern philosophies, into practice. They struggle with its vagueness, they find difficulty in understanding its aims, and they give up after having a go and finding “it doesn’t work”. But in doing this, they miss out on the powerful benefits that mindfulness can have as a mechanism for positive change.
To help break down this barrier, I’ve listed three of the most common difficulties I’ve seen with mindfulness, and some solutions for addressing them:
1. ‘I keep getting distracted’
“Focus on your breath……what’s for dinner tonight? What was that noise? What am I going to do about that work situation?”
So many people give up on mindfulness because they find their mind constantly wandering off. They feel frustrated with themselves for not being able to ‘clear their minds’ and they give up quickly, concluding that they’re doing it wrong.
Therein lies the problem. By noticing that their mind has wandered off, they’re actually doing it right!
Yes, you read that correctly. The work of mindfulness, the skill-building of mindfulness, lies in noticing that the mind has been distracted. It’s not about being able to clear your mind like a blank slate and be as zen as a master yogi. Even if you get distracted 100 times, each time you notice the distraction and bring your attention back to the exercise, you’re getting better at mindfulness.
2. ‘It doesn’t make the thoughts and feelings go away’
This is a common misconception about mindfulness – that if it’s being applied properly, it should make the thoughts and feelings ‘go away’.
Suppressing thoughts and feelings is not a healthy or adaptive long-term coping strategy – while it may work in the short-term, eventually they come back bigger and stronger. That’s why the aim of an approach like mindfulness is not, in fact, to ‘get rid of’ thoughts and feelings. Rather, the aim of mindfulness is to help us notice our thoughts and feelings and be able to ‘sit with’ them without getting caught up in them (as it’s usually the ‘getting caught up in them’ that makes us distressed).
When we apply mindfulness properly, we are able to observe our thoughts and feelings from a place of safe detachment – acknowledging that they’re there, but not becoming engulfed by them.
We regard them the way we might regard a stranger who approaches us on the street, but whom we don’t really want to stop and talk to – we can’t pretend they’re not there (as much as we might like to try), but we can acknowledge them with a polite smile or “hello” without stopping to engage in a conversation. The same applies with our thoughts and feelings – we can’t turn them off like a tap, but we can politely acknowledge them and continue on our way without stopping and getting wrapped up in them.
3. ‘It’s boring’
……..it’s supposed to be.
Consider this – boredom is an emotional state. And not just any old emotional state – it’s an uncomfortable emotional state. An uncomfortable emotion that we would normally try to get rid of and avoid (face it – when was the last time you let yourself be bored for more than 30 seconds?).
With mindfulness however, our aim is to be aware of and ‘sit with’ our thoughts and feelings, no matter how uncomfortable. Therefore, it is to be expected that we might (and probably will) experience boredom when practising mindfulness. Our job is to simply notice that boredom non-judgmentally and more or less let that feeling do what it wants. It might get stronger, or it might pass in its own time.
Next time you try mindfulness and find yourself becoming bored, approach that feeling with curiosity and intrigue. Notice what happens in your mind when you experience boredom. Where does your mind go? What thoughts come up? What do you start wondering about? Who knows, you might even get to know yourself a little better when you embrace your boredom mindfully.