Mindfulness is no longer just for practitioners of Zen and Buddhism but has moved into the mainstream Mental Health counseling. It has become one of the primary techniques employed among many therapists and coupled with meditation has shown tremendous amounts of improvements in otherwise non-responsive patients. As science furthers more and more we are seeing them recognize the benefits of Zen in daily practice. As NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) describes it, “While the combination of therapy and medication is crucial to recovery, the addition of self-awareness tools and skills can also be beneficial. Whether you are just beginning your recovery or are further along on your journey, the holistic practices can be an excellent complement to therapy and medication.”
While many treatment programs employ the use of mindfulness, I will focus on DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy) in my analysis. So what is DBT? “Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), is a comprehensive cognitive-behavioral treatment that was originally developed to treat chronically suicidal individuals suffering from borderline personality disorder (BPD). DBT has been found especially effective for those with suicidal and other multiply occurring severely dysfunctional behaviors. Research has shown DBT to be effective in reducing suicidal behavior, psychiatric hospitalization, treatment dropout, substance abuse, anger, and interpersonal difficulties,” (behavioraltech.org). So what exactly does all that mean? It is a non-judgmental way of the patient accepting that they have a problem with how they think, and rather than judge it, they can make changes to make their thinking more balanced using mindfulness as one of the primary techniques.
What is mindfulness within this context? The best and simplest definition I have come across is, “doing one thing at a time, in the present moment, with your full attention, and with acceptance,” (DBT Made Simple). This can be further broken down into two parts for the patient. First, awareness and focusing on the present moment. The second part is acceptance, and this is the part that seems to be overlooked. This requires not judging what you are doing mindfully. A large percentage of patients respond well to this primarily, in my opinion, because they are taking control of their mind. Most patients, as is the case with most people in general spend far too much time in the past reliving negative things and mindfulness is a way to put a stop sign up to this harmful cycle.
How is mindfulness employed? There are a multitude of ways this is employed in your everyday life, but I will briefly cover seven of them:
1. Counting breaths. Count your breaths up to ten. One on the inhale and two on the exhale and so on. When you find your mind has wandered, simply return to counting your breath without judgment.
2. Observing sounds. Sitting silently focus your mind on any sounds which you hear: the sound of your breath, the traffic outside, the air-conditioner, etc. When you catch your mind wandering, take note of it without judgment and return to observing sounds.
3. Observing an object. Pick an object, any object. Examine the object with all of your five senses. Touch it. Smell it. Take note of any sound it makes when you move it. When you mind wanders, simply bring your attention back to the object.
4. Observing your thoughts in a cloud. Also could be called labeling your thoughts. You imagine yourself lying in a field of grass looking up at the sky. In each cloud is a thought and as it floats by you label what kind of thought it is without judging yourself for having that thought. For instance if you think this is a stupid exercise, that would be an anger thought. If you think how will I pay my house payment next month, that would be a worry thought.
5. Focusing on a thought. Pick a meaningful thought or short sentence and focus on the thought as you breathe. For instance if you think wise as you breathe in and think mind as you breathe out. When your mind wanders return to your thought without judging yourself.
6. Being the gatekeeper to your mind. This is more simply observing your thoughts. As a gatekeeper would watch people coming through a gate, you will simply experience and observe each thought as it passes over you without judging it. Experience thoughts and emotions as they come to you, do not try to block them. When your mind wanders or you feel yourself trying to stop thoughts simply return to the practice of observing them without judging the thoughts or yourself.
7. Being in your body. Quietly sitting, focus on the different sensations you experience in your body. For example, the feel of your bottom on the chair or your arms against the armrests. Take notice of any emotions you might be feeling, such as worry over a presentation you have at work next week. When your mind wanders simply return your thoughts to your body without judgment.