Clients often say, “I don’t know how to do mindfulness (or meditation).” Clients will get frustrated with their inability to just be and clear their mind. Although there are lots of apps and articles and tik-toks about anxiety and how mindfulness can help, let’s clear up some possible misconception. Mindfulness is NOT clearing totally of the mind. It is not necessary to be quiet to quiet the mind in mindfulness, in fact quieting the mind is NOT the point of mindfulness. Maybe most importantly, mindfulness is NOT the same as meditation (although similar).

Mindfulness is the ability to non-judgmentally observe your thoughts, feelings and behaviors and let them pass without latching on to any one thought and without judging yourself for having that thought. You don’t have to be in a quiet room to practice mindfulness, you can practice at the grocery store, doing the dishes, taking a walk. The act of focusing on one specific thing, like breathing or repeating a mantra, is meditation. Meditation can be useful in learning to practice mindfulness because observing and letting go of thoughts in a non-judgmental manner is a bit easier for the brain when we have something else to focus on, like with a mindful breathing practice.

So, how do you do it?

In practice, if a person focuses, or tries to, on their breathing, air in and air out, and then a thought pops in, when someone notices the thought that popped in, they can just observe this thought (without judgment is key!) and allow it to pass and then regroup and refocus attention on the breath, air in and air out. Inevitably, another thought will pop in, and a person can just observe the thought and let it pass by, and again return to focusing on the breathing techniques, air in and air out. The idea here is that mindfulness is more of a way of being in the world, rather than something you DO, per se. To be mindful is to be intentionally aware, or aware on purpose. Folks can practice being present in the moment so that in time it becomes a well-worn path in the brain, a way of moving through life with eyes wide open and paying attention to ourselves and to the things around us. It becomes a way of being by learning how to let interruptions or distractions go and get back to paying attention to ourselves, our bodies, our experiences, in the here and now.

I like to use visual analogy in explaining how to begin practicing a stance of mindfulness to clients. My favorite, and maybe most loved by clients, is the episode of I Love Lucy where Lucille Ball is working in a candy factory and cannot package the chocolates fast enough as they pass her by on a conveyor belt (if you have not seen this, you must look it up! It is hilarious!). When directing clients through learning how to practice mindfulness, I encourage them to consider the thoughts that pop in while they’re focusing on the breath as those little chocolates passing by on the conveyor belt, no need to pick up and inspect it, just allow it to move on by in a sea of other thoughts that eventually just fall off the belt and out of view. (In the clip, Lucy is focusing a lot on how to capture all the chocolates and quickly realizes she cannot—we must learn this about our thoughts too, especially if thoughts are firing rapidly, as we cannot capture and hold on to every single one).

Mindfulness is beneficial in managing anxiety. “What if” thoughts flow freely and quickly in those people with anxiety disorders. Learning to allow those worst-case-scenario thoughts to pass right on by will alleviate ruminative worry and obsessive/perseverative thought cycles. Mindfulness is helpful in learning to notice your body sensations when feeling anxious. Mindfulness is also helpful for folks to learn and practice observing themselves, their reactions, and their thoughts when they are anxious, but without judgment.

Mindfulness, or better stated, mindfulness practice, is not something we perfect at all, and certainly not in a few attempts. Like any other braining training and changing, it takes time, energy, diligence, and discipline to learn and improve upon mindfulness, and you have to be willing to practice on a regular basis. If a person gets distracted focusing on their random thoughts, they may become frustrated with the practice of mindfulness, but getting distracted and purposely redirecting thoughts and energy back to a specific thing or moment (like mindful breathing or paying attention while doing the dishes) is exactly the entire point! Encouraging clients to stick with the practice even when it seems impossible can help them achieve more peace in their life and free them from reeling thoughts.

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About the Author: Sarah O'Brien
Sarah O'Brien is a psychotherapist, LCSW, licensed in 2 states; Virginia and Maryland. She holds certifications for clinical anxiety treatment (CCATP) and telemental health treatment (CTMH). She specializes in Anxiety Disorders, Substance Use Disorders and non-using Partner/Spouse, PTSD/Relational Trauma, relationship issues and developing healthy friendships and relationships. Her practice is mostly virtual and she sees clients college-age and up.

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