Mindfulness is not a new concept in the world of DBT® and it is certainly not foreign in pop-culture. Mindfulness is presented in all therapies and all organized religions. The only problem is that upon mentioning mindfulness, I tend to get resistance and people let their eyes glaze over while their ears close. Please don’t do that! Mindfulness is THE key to freedom!
Mindfulness is when you decide what you will focus your attention on, with a curious openness and a sense of non-attachment. This means that you stop letting your thoughts boss you around! When you notice you are ruminating or focusing on negatives, you have a CHOICE! You can say to yourself “I notice that my mind has gone down that path again. I am going to bring my attention back to this moment, back to my breath”. When you are “down that path” again (whatever that path may be), you are suffering. Suffering can be as simple as trying to plan your day while brushing your teeth or it can be utter panic while you are trying to function at work, in that way, suffering is relative to the one moment you are in. Mindfulness lets you know that you do not have to suffer. We (therapists) frequently mention focusing on your breath. The idea behind this is that if you are conscious/alive/awake, your breath is with you. This may be grim; however, if we instruct you to focus your attention on your pinky finger and then it gets cut off, you are back at square one! If we tell you that you can only calm down while looking at a fish in a fish tank, what are you supposed to do while panicking at the grocery store? If you are training yourself that you can only be calm with your teddy bear, what will you do at work? The fact that we must accept is that nothing is guaranteed to be accessible to us in a moment of crisis, except for our breathing.
A simple way to practice mindfulness is to sit in what I refer to as “wide awake posture” (sitting upright, if in a chair place both feet on the floor, shoulders relaxed and pleasant facial expression) and take 10 slow deep breaths. In those few minutes, all I want you to focus on is what it feels like for the breath to come into your nostrils, fill your lungs and diaphragm, and then slowly exit your body. Do this twice per day until it comes naturally. After time, simply breathing will become a calming and centering activity (when you choose to focus on your breath). In that way, you will habituate yourself to get the same result from one breath or ten breaths.
If you need other mindfulness ideas, there are an infinite number on the internet and there are a plethora of books on the topic. All religions incorporate mindfulness (be it through praying a rosary, reflective silence, worship music, or chanting) and most therapy tasks are intended to be done as a mindfulness practice. Common therapy recommendations for mindfulness include: hiking, exercising, drinking hot tea, meditating, or listening to guided imagery. Remember, these things only count as a mindfulness practice if you do them with your full attention. When your mind wanders (and it will), you simply acknowledge that it has wandered and bring it back. It really is that simple, unfortunately it isn’t always that easy. Here is a time where doing the hard work pays off. Let me share a real example from my life. A cohort of mine always shared how mindful hand washing was something that he had trained his body to use as a way to find his center. It sounded overly simple to me; however, as I will not preach what I do not practice, I decided to give it a try. It probably took me a month to remember to mindfully wash my hands. I would enter the bathroom with every intention of being fully present with the experience of hand washing…and then as I was drying my hands, I would realize I forgot to pay attention! After I finally got myself to pay attention, I practiced really noticing the sensation of the slippery soap as I washed my hands. I did this for about a month and I was really noticing that every time I washed my hands, my attention was PULLED toward noticing the soap and it was such a centering and calming experience. Fast forward another few weeks and I was navigating the hallways of the hospital toward the NICU to pick up my two-week-old five-pound daughter. I was a mess of emotions! I promise that zero percent of my attention was thinking about mindfulness. As I lugged the diaper bag, car seat and my rubbery body though the first set of NICU doors, I remembered that I couldn’t go through the second set of doors until I washed my hands in the supervised sink. Again, zero percent of me was thinking about mindfulness. And yet, I cannot put words to the sense of calm that came over me as I rubbed the soap between my hands! I was instantly calm and had a sense of clarity. I attribute that to the fact that I had done the hard work to condition myself to experience a sense of calm balance every time I washed my hands. I could have just given up that first month when I couldn’t seem to remember to wash them mindfully. I could have said “it doesn’t work” but I didn’t! To say it didn’t work would have been a fallacy as the only reason it didn’t work in that first month was because I wasn’t doing it! Please remember this story as you have urges to give up on mindfulness. It is the foundation of all skills because all skills must be done mindfully if you want them to work.