Mindfulness is the ability to be fully present, on purpose without judgment.
I'm a mindfulness meditation enthusiast and therapist who regularly discusses the importance of mindfulness with my clients who work with me. As such, I get asked a lot of questions about mindfulness including these questions I get asked nearly on a daily basis: "Does this mean I need to clear my head of all my thoughts", "why can't I seem to turn off my thoughts?", or "why can't I meditate the right way?"
The truth is, there is no "right" way to meditate. In fact, I've read a ridiculous number of books, listened to an insane amount of podcasts and gone to multiple different groups, workshops, and trainings on the subject (some of which I've even lead or co-lead). Every time, I hear this same message loudly pronounced within the first chapters or minutes into whatever thing I'm doing/at: "there is no right way". I think for a lot of us Americans, this can be hard to hear. We want joy, peace, serenity, and, hey, if we're being honest, the best life possible. We want answers, steps to a goal and something to achieve so we can feel something like happiness or joy.
Now, I'm not harping on Americans but I think we have this natural drive towards independence and to achieve this idea or concept of the "American Dream". We want to feel a sense of connection with the careers or jobs we worked hard to get, our families that we built or are a part of, our communities and our friendships. We work hard to achieve this dream and then once it is achieved, we feel this missing sense of connection and deeper purpose in life that can feel like a void like something is missing or empty inside. We search endlessly and tirelessly to find meaning and time after time, come up short. It feels uncomfortable and frustrating. How can I have accomplished all these things and still feel so empty inside? That, my friend, is where mindfulness comes in. But first... science.
You know those moments when you look back and think: "what was I doing?", "why did I do that to myself?" or even "I feel like I sometimes turn into a different person that I have no control over" ? How does it feel when you think about those thoughts? If you're anything like most people, you probably feel crappy. Want to know why? Science! Science tells us that our core beliefs about how the world should work impacts our thoughts about ourselves which impacts the way we feel ("I should have been able to accomplish everything on my to-do list today" --> don't finish everything --> "I'm worthless" --> you feel crappy). This, my friends, comes from the ideas of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) which also happens to be the most researched and effective types of therapy out there today.
Science has taught us that our thoughts essentially impact how we feel. So your next question might be, "well, Sara, how do I control my thoughts?". Good question, avid reader! But unfortunately, you actually can't control your thoughts. This is probably the point where half of your will close out this window because you just want me to get to the point. Fair enough. The point I'm trying to make is that we cannot control our thoughts or feelings about anything. What we can control though is how we react to our thoughts and feelings. Make sense?
Mindfulness teaches us that we are not our thoughts or feelings. Now, I can't see your face while you're reading this but I know from the dozens of people I've taught this concept to that many of you probably think I'm woo-woo and are literally clicking the "X" on my page to leave right now. But hear me out: you are not your thoughts or feelings might seem like a bizarre concept but it's also incredibly freeing and liberating if you allow yourself to trust in this concept that has been around for thousands of years. When we allow ourselves to let go of our thoughts and feelings and just simply observe them factually for what they are, we are able to make room to feel joy, content, relaxation... all those things I mentioned earlier that I know we all want.
Here's a metaphor for you to help you out if you're still confused. Imagine it's a sunny day out and you're laying on a beautiful tapestry outdoors at Zilker Park. You're enjoying the sounds and scenery around you when suddenly a giant dark cloud comes through. You see the cloud and panic, "should I get my things?" "I don't want to be wet", "I just blowdried my hair!". You hear these thoughts and then have the inclination to look behind you to see where the storm is coming from and where it's going. You realize in this moment that there are no other storm clouds around and that this is the only dark cloud in sight. You decide not to let the dark storm cloud bother you because you can see it will soon pass and then you lay back down and enjoy your day at the park.
This is mindfulness in a nutshell. The ability to see your thoughts or feelings (or the dark cloud in this example) from a distance without judgment. When you looked around and saw the other non-stormy clouds around you, you put distance between you and the stormy cloud and gave the cloud perspective: it's just one dark cloud out of many clouds. With our thoughts, you might notice that you sometimes have mean, bossy and judgmental thoughts throughout the day. It doesn't mean you're a bad person or that you should act on that thought. It just means you have a "dark stormy cloud" on the horizon and that's it. We constantly have thoughts and emotions swirling around in our heads at any given moment and, in fact, it's amazing that we're even able to accomplish what we're able to with all this commotion.
In conclusion, mindfulness offers us perspective. What's even cooler than that is science shows that it literally changes our brain chemistry when we do this for even just 2 minutes a day. When we can check in with ourselves through mindfulness throughout the day, we aren't clearing our head or getting rid of bad thoughts. We are just noticing our thoughts and feelings for what they are. When we can build this new type of relationship with our thoughts we are telling ourselves that every part of us is important, not just the happy or more joyous parts. And isn't that a life worth living where you can love all of yourself even when society tells you not to?
What do you think? Do you think you could commit to yourself for 2 minutes a day this week during your morning or evening routine? What helps you to stay committed to yourself?
Sara Paules, LPC
Mindful Soul Center