I never expected my psychotherapist to encourage me to practice mindfulness meditation as part of my therapy. Yet that’s exactly what I encourage many of my clients to do, now that I’m a therapist. Why? Not for stress relief, as is often the case, but for growing self-awareness.
Mindfulness is the practice is bringing careful attention to what is happening inside you, and around you, right now, as it unfolds. And meditation is how you train for it to be habitual. While it’s not a therapy on its own, mindfulness meditation can be an important tool for deepening self-insight.
Try a very brief mindfulness exercise right now.
Stop what you’re doing for a moment and be still.
Now stop what you’re doing inside your mind.
How long can you go without thinking any thoughts of any kind? Try it.
How long did you last? What did you notice during that period of no-thought? Was there a struggle to suppress any thinking? Or was there a relaxing away from thinking? Maybe that felt good, or maybe that provoked anxiety. Did you notice a silence? Or did you notice a mental burble in the background? What did you do with your eyes?
Try it again now.
Notice anything inside yourself that isn’t thought. Emotion, sensation, sound. Notice that sense of “now.” Maybe you’ve noticed that feeling of “now” at other times when something compelling brings you to your senses. A moment of danger, or a pleasant sensation. Think of those moments you experienced where you were the opposite of being lost in thought.
Mindfulness is that sense of bringing your awareness to the present moment. You are paying attention on purpose. And most of the time, that’s not where we are. We are often, one might say, in the past. That’s because a good deal of thought is essentially memory, and our minds tend to drift into that sense of the past. That might be one minute ago, or twenty years. We are habitually disconnected from the present moment, and present moment awareness.
When you pay attention on purpose to what is going inside you, either emotionally or in your mind, you return to now, and something important happens. There are now two “yous.” The you that is thinking and feeling, and the you that notices the thinking and feeling.
Which you is which?
Michael A. Singer, in his book, The Untethered Soul (New Harbinger, 2007), explains how this works. Singer begins by writing about “the voice inside your head.” He invites you to step back and look at the voice (which is an act of mindfulness). And in looking at that voice, you may notice its tendency to chatter on and on, all day, and perhaps all night. At times, the chatter may be pointless and random, and perhaps at other times very useful.
There may be more than one voice, and those voices may affect how you feel and what you do. We all have these voices happening in our minds, but we tend not to notice the ceaseless conversation going on in there. You think something to yourself, and then answer yourself, and never stop to wonder who is doing the talking.
The important thing here is to notice that you as observer, can perceive the voice as observed.
It’s something separate from you, in the same way that you can perceive things around you. So, while the voice is inside your mind, you might ask: who is this voice, and who is the “me” that notices the voice?
The answer is that you, as observer, are the awareness. That’s the awareness you used in the beginning exercise.
You are the “you” that can stop, listen, and observe mindfully, connecting to the here and now.
The voice (or voices) is your mind working away, doing its thing. And when you get into the habit of stopping to notice this, you might find that it is nearly impossible to shut off that voice. You might have noticed that in the opening exercise.
You can imagine, then, when the mind is distressed, why psychological suffering happens.
When the mind is constantly, unceasingly, ruminating about something distressing, and you are not mindful of that, then life can be challenging.
It’s not the chattering mind that causes that suffering. It is the unnoticed “attachment” to the chattering mind that causes that suffering. That irresistible urge drawing you into the rumination like a magnet.
As a result, it’s hard not to assume that you are the chattering mind rather than the awareness of the chattering mind: “My sense of self emerges from these thoughts and memories. I am the product of my experiences.” We habitually create our identity from memory.
Mindfulness is the habit of remembering that you are not your story. It’s a new habit of seeing your mind as separate from you as awareness.
That is how you can start to deepen self-awareness, because observing the mind allows you to perceive patterns you didn’t notice before. That becomes the difference between your mind shaping you, and you shaping your mind.
Of course, you need your mind to solve real-world problems because that’s the mind’s job. However, the mind also likes to invent problems when there aren’t any to solve. We tend to call that “overthinking,” and that’s why so much of our psychological suffering is needless.
Through mindfulness practice—through being the non-judging observer of your own internal activity—you can become skilled at consciously choosing how you will respond to experiences, good and bad.
You will become more skillful at letting go of things you cannot change, without falling into a mental struggle with it. You can avoid unhelpful ruminating. You can avoid repeating past behaviour that you regret.
Mindfulness practice is a remembering practice. It’s a remembering of self as the awareness of thought, not the thought itself.
That’s why mindfulness is found in many current psychotherapy methods: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT), Sensorimotor Therapy, Somatic Experiencing Therapy, Contemplative Psychotherapy, and so on.
So now that I’ve explained the why of mindfulness meditation, it’s time to explain the what. In my next blog post, I will talk about what practising mindfulness can look like.
Mindfulness is one part of the broader process of shifting to a healthy way of relating to yourself. You may have been considering engaging in that process recently. And if you have, I invite you to reach out and contact me through the link below.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form :(