Mindfulness is based on Buddhist techniques which stress the importance of developing control over one’s thought processes, both negative and positive, and to take an objective view of these processes, as opposed to trying to alter the content of our thoughts.
These processes have been developed and extracted from their Buddhist background and applied to a therapeutic process in a number of ways, most notably by John Kabat-Zinn with the 8 week MBSR course in MIT, and also by Teasdale, Williams and Segal with MBCT in Oxford, and Bruno Cayoun with MiCT in Australia.
Mindfulness offers the possibility of being able to control our inner experience as opposed to being at the whim of external events. Take for instance, guilt, over having negative thoughts. Rather than punishing oneself for thinking thoughts, it can be more productive to simply accept them as just thougths. When seen in this way the "thinker" can achieve a more objective view of the thoughts and therefore be more in control of them. This allows the thinker to have more discernment about whether to act on these thoughts, or just to accept them and not act on them.
With certain forms of anxiety and depression, it's one's thoughts themselves that can become part of the problem. Many of the CBT approaches deal with objectively analysing the thoughts and trying to persuade the thinker about the objective lack of basis for these thoughts. Mindfulness would do something similar but rather than trying to persuade the thinker of the thougths lack of basis, it would instead prompt the thinker to accept the negative thought as it is, but not to be swayed by it. Accept the negative thought, as a negative thought.
But it's just a thought.
"I am worrying" as opposed to "There's no need to worry". Listening to, and accepting the thoughts (but not encouraging them either) as opposed to trying to silence them or argue them out of existance. Taking a moment to listen to and acknowledge the thoughts and breath through them, without giving more energy to them.
Mindfulness involves paying attention to each event experienced in the present moment with a non-judgmental attitude. With such an attitude the mind does not get caught up in thoughts or sensations but lets them come and go, observed but not followed. This offers the possibility of a more objective understanding, one in which thoughts are just thoughts, not necessarily "truths" about oneself or the world.
Meditative techniques such as concentrating on the breath and bringing the mind into the present, as well as tuning in to bodily sensations, can develop an ability to break up what initially seems like one event (i.e. "she said something that made me angry"), into its many component parts (i.e. "She said something that I felt was unfair, and I felt my chest tighten. I felt afraid and I lashed out"). This can also bring into awareness one’s learned (automatic) responses. Often just slowing things down can change the nature of the experience. Most of the time we do things automatically.
Mindfulness Based Psychotherapy offers the client the opportunity to re-explore current situations and slow them down so that the client can uncover the various cause and effect stages that take place in any event. This can empower the client to see that there are causes to things, and multiple possible outcomes, as opposed to being at the whim of external events.
If events happen because the conditions that caused the event were present, then it also follows that other conditions that can cause other, preferable events to take place can be instigated. Mindfulness offers the possibility of being free of conditioning, and really open to adopting newer more positive behaviours. This can be hugely empowering.
Let's look at the above scenario again from a Mindfulness perspective:
"They said something that took me by surprise. I felt this was unfair. I inferred that they were purposely trying to hurt me by being unfair."
(The key event re-visited). STOP!!.
Take a moment. You don't need to react straight away. Feel your feet firmly on the ground. Note how you're breathing. Acknowledge what's going on for you right now. This could be chest tightening, heart beat increasing, fire in your belly, and one's old familiar way of responding.
Think now; "How do I best want to resolove this situation? What's ultimately in my best interest? To have an argument or to try and resolve this ammicably? If I try first to resolve it and it doesn't work, I can still go back to having a blazing row and letting them know how I feel in no uncertain terms."
Now, we can't change the way others behave, but we can give them a choice. If at this stage the other party still seems to want to row, you can still choose to do this if you want.
Slowing things down also offers the opportunity of detecting habitual responses earlier so that we can choose, "do I really want to behave in this way? Is this way the most appropriate response? Is it really in my interest to respond like this?"
We all have within us disturbing emotions such as anger, fear, anxiety, regret and sadness. Attachment and aversion can cause pain in our lives, especially when what we are attached to is no longer present, i.e. when loved ones pass away, a relationship ends, or life simply doesn't turn out the way we had wanted.
Often, a lot of our suffering is caused not by external events but by our internal thoughts and reactions to those events.
Awareness can bring us freedom and choice as opposed to being dominated by habitual responses and thought patterns.
This is all very well, but most of us can become overwhelmed in stressful situations, and don't have the presence of mind to act as we would like to. Often we can be left thinking, "I wish I'd said such and such a thing". Sometimes it's only ten minutes after an event has passed that we regain clarity over things. So how do we get clarity?
Well, it can take time.
Indeed, once we're in a crisis situation our decision making ability can be severely impaired. This is because stressful sutuations tend to have the effect of closing down our mind, and narrowing our focus. Often people in stressful situations can only think of one or two solutions, usually their habitual response to stress. This is also why ten minutes after the encounter we may come up with a line that we wish we'd had to hand during the encounter. After ten minutes the stress has passed sufficiently to allow for newer thoughts to arise.
The time to plan for a crisis therefore, is not during a crisis, but in times of calm.
This is where a Mindfulness practise comes in. In therapy the client and therapist can work on events that have been causing distress to the client, using the techniques outlined above. The client can choose to undertake practises in between sessions, to strengthen their control over their own minds. This can result in the client having more control over their own their lives.
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