What is Mindfulness?
All of us do daily activities without giving them much attention. We may brush our teeth without giving this activity itself much attention since our minds are mostly off thinking about something that happened yesterday or making plans for later today. We might give most of our available attention to the person we are talking to on our cell phone, leaving little left over for the car we are driving. We might be only “half listening” during a conversation with a friend because at the same time our minds are mostly drawn to thinking through our upcoming to-do lists. “Automatic pilot” is a term we like to use to describe this process of doing things without giving them much attention. Most everyone has the ability to run on automatic pilot. In many ways, having this ability, and not having to be fully present for such tasks as brushing our teeth or having a conversation, can be very adaptive. Life would be incredibly burdensome if we needed to give our full attention to everything. Yet, on the other hand, having a hard time being present in the moment and tending to have our attention pulled to the future or the past can make life incredibly burdensome as well.
More then anything, Mindfulness is about cultivating an ability to be fully present in a single moment. All of us come into the world with this capacity, but most of us spend very little time “here and now.” We instead tend to focus our attention on the yet to occur future or on the past that has already gone by. So how does this happen, and why should we care? Let’s first talk about why this happens and then move to the caring part. In short, we think that in many ways our culture unintentionally “deprograms” us from being present in the moment by heavily rewarding us for not being here. For instance, we get rewarded for multi-tasking, or doing several things at once, since it helps us accomplish a great deal. We also get rewarded for focusing on the future and the past, since doing either can make us better prepared and help us avoid repeating past mistakes. Being able to focus our attention away from the moment and on the future or the past has tremendous value. Because being out of the moment is so useful, this style gets put into play much more then it needs to be, leading people to spend less and less time aware of the present.
OK, so at the end of the day, why should we care? What is the big deal if we do not spend much time in the moment and our ability to notice this very moment gets rusty from non-use? Unfortunately, the habit of ignoring present moments in favor of others yet to come or those already passed inevitably creates problems. Overly attending to either of these can make people feel very anxious, stressed, worried, sad, guilty, and “out of touch.” It can unnecessarily spoil present moments, making it all the more difficult to be effective right now. For some, spoiled moments can build up over time and eventually decrease one’s overall ability to function most effectively. Being present in a moment is a skill that the practice of Mindfulness cultivates. Having the skill puts us in a position to take charge of our attention. Instead of making decisions automatically, being able to get into the moment gives us the opportunity to consciously choose whether it is more effective to focus on the moment, or to instead allow our attention to focus on the future or the past. Without this skill, people tend to make decisions out of habit, rather then based on what is most effective for them.
At our Center we offer two therapies that are primarily centered around the basic ideas of Mindfulness: Dialectical Behavior Therapy and Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression. Both of these therapies have other important elements in addition to Mindfulness. They also have both been shown to be highly effective. Although Mindfulness does not receive as much emphasis, because it is so valuable, we include elements of it in the other cognitive behavior therapies that we offer.