Mindfulness is a particular way of paying attention to 1) expand awareness or 2) focus attention. Below is some brief information on these two applications of mindfulness as it relates to your life and to the practice of psychotherapy.
What are the benefits of awareness?
- Increasing awareness increases options (less experiences of feeling or getting “stuck”)
- Increasing options for how to react to stressors increases a sense of confidence and self control when confronted with life circumstances
- Increasing awareness helps people understand why they behave the way they do and what controls their behavior
- Increasing awareness helps people to identify patterns of responding, or repeating themes that may show up again and again, and can be better understood with curiosity and analysis
- Increasing awareness helps to clarify, understand, and organize behavior in a more meaningful way
- Increasing awareness (ie, awareness of anger) helps people to be assertive/ proactive, solve problems, and organize action
What problems accompany limited awareness?
- Repeating patterns of getting stuck
- Minimizes flexible and adaptive coping
- Can be likened to zoning out, dissociating, not paying attention, missing out, or failing to show up for one’s life
- Can increase vulnerability to do, say, or behave in ways that are acquiescent/ compliant; no self-awareness leads to responding/ reacting to environment (reduced autonomy, reduced control, reduced capacity for interpersonal influence/ power)
- Limited awareness is associated with not knowing oneself, what one likes/ doesn’t like, wants/ doesn’t want
- If you can’t know yourself (trust experience) how you can you know how to pursue a life that would be fulfilling and rewarding to you
Ways Awareness can bring pain
- Losses associated with missing out on ones life
- Grieving times/ time in life when things could have been better (had a person been more aware)
- Awareness of hope and possibility can feel risky or unfamiliar
- Familiarity and predictability help people feel consistency/ stability, thus awareness of alternatives can be uncomfortable/ unfamiliar
- If a past history of problematic responses evoked a particular set of behaviors (escalated conflict results in nurturing/ attentiveness from partner), awareness of alternative ways of behaving may be initially aversive / won’t get immediate desired response
Things to be aware of:
- Emotions, actions, urges, desires, hurts, want
- Physical sensations, sensitivities, breath, body awareness, gut feelings, instincts, intuitions
- Your behavior; how you behave/ change behavior, react in certain situations, which people, in different contexts
- Your history of behavior; how behavior started, what it means/ meant, how it served a purpose/ had a function or role for you
- How your behavior impacts others
- How others’ behavior impacts you
Why is obtaining skill to focus one’s attention important?
- Thoughts, emotions, pain, sensation, restlessness, boredom, etc. can sometimes interfere with a person’s ability to live their life in a valued direction.
- Thoughts and emotions can create problems, be distracting, and get us derailed
- Obsessive thoughts, unwanted thoughts, self-defeating thoughts, self-hating thoughts, anxiety thoughts, and non-useful thoughts can threaten to take over attention, control action, and inhibit needed action
- Staying focused can help a person be less prone to intense, unwanted, or problematic thoughts or beliefs
- Action urges, emotional reactivity, and other behaviors often happen “automatically”, thus practicing focused attention increases your options for limiting your reactivity (For instance, if you are a person that “flies off the handle” staying focused can help you stay grounded)
Does focusing attention get rid of pain?
No, focusing attention helps a person not get consumed by other things that threaten one’s focus (ie, obsessing, ruminating). Pain is considered a normal part of the human existence; focusing mindfulness activities are not done with the purpose to destroy, get rid of, or inhibit pain.
Focusing on sound exercise. For the next 3 minutes (set a timer if you’d like), try to focus all of your attention on sounds you can hear. Pay all of your attention to the sound, and see if it is possible to do this for 3 minutes. You will likely have multiple other thoughts, sensations, experiences, or distractions that don’t keep you 100% attentive to “just sound.” Likely if you had a painful thought, the thought took you out of the exercise. So, instead of heeding that thought your attention (buying into the thought, thinking the thought, rehashing, problem solving, etc.) you simply be aware of that thought (“oh that thought is showing up again”) and gently return to focusing on sound.
- No one is denying you are in pain
- You are not denying you are in pain
- You are not refusing to think about that situation, you are simply redirecting your attention for the time you try mindfulness
- You are increasing your control of what you pay attention to and when
- You may need to come back to your pain at some point and solve some problems, but for the three minutes this is not your task
- Urges, cravings, desires, urges to take action/ do something, urges to eat something, etc. may all come and go
- You are learning over time to increase control of all of this
Often, if your life is disrupted by intense, extreme, demanding emotions your actions often follow. You may feel as if you are controlled by your emotions and your actions. Focusing attention helps people to be more “aware” of urges, emotions, disruptions, or urgency around fixing or doing something NOW. Learning to control what you pay attention to will help you control yourself; your emotions may DEMAND your attention. Focusing attention exercises can help calm you down, settle you in, and even relax you a bit.