MINDFULNESS: An Intro Series Part 1 - Introduction
Updated: Apr 23
If you’ve wondered what mindfulness is, wanted to try it out or understand it more, or you’re just searching for some new recordings, this series might be for you: a seven part introduction to mindfulness and some of its attitudes and core practices.
Welcome to this brief introduction to mindfulness. The seven parts of this course should take you about two weeks - as you do some reading then try different practices. It is ideal to work your way through the series from the start to the finish, but you can start anywhere, jump around, and go through as quickly or as slowly as you like. There are seven sections. Of course it’s good to read the introductory sections to get a better understanding of things, but if you would like to jump ahead and just do some of the practices, feel free to just jump ahead.
The practice of mindfulness has become increasingly common in the world of therapy, and various therapeutic approaches place mindfulness at their core (e.g. Acceptance & Commitment Therapy and Dialectical Behavioural Therapy). Mindfulness is about stepping out of automatic pilot and being aware of what is going on in our minds, our emotions, our bodies and what is happening in the world around us. It is also about having the flexibility to shift our attention, and our behaviour, as needed.
While definitions vary greatly (Nilsson & Kazemi, 2016), in Western literature mindfulness is often defined as “… paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally” (Kabat-Zinn, 1994, p. 4). It has also been described as the a process of “…being present and aware with an attitude of curious acceptance” (Bishop et al., 2004). Mindfulness can mean many different things. It can refer to a state, a practice, or a course made up of different practices (Hanley et al., 2016).
This introduction is based on some of the approaches and practices taught in the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) courses (please follow the links if you would like to find out more about them). As we go through this brief intro series, we will keep mindfulness as simple and practical as possible. At the core it is a simple approach, but like any skill — like anything worth doing — it takes time and effort to see the benefits.
HOW MINDFULNESS MIGHT HELP
As humans, we are able to experience a vast range of thoughts and feelings. We also have a great ability to amplify our suffering. This process happens when we get caught up in reacting to our thoughts and feelings; when we ruminate on the past or worry about the future; when we can’t stop analysing our problems and trying to solve them; or when we react out of habit in ways that make our lives (and/or the lives of others) harder. It’s natural to experience difficult thoughts and feelings, however, wrestling with them may make them worse (Wilson & Murrell, 2004).
Mindfulness offers an alternative to this process. When we are mindful, we may experience ‘objective awareness’ (Bishop et al., 2004; Shapiro, Carlson, Astin & Freedman, 2006) — a capacity to see our thoughts, emotions and physical sensations as temporary (Carmody, Baer, Lykins & Olendzki, 2009). Mindfulness can also help us to live more experientially, staying in touch with the things we can see, hear, touch, taste and smell, and spending less time worrying about the future or ruminating about the past. Instead of reacting out of habit we may develop more choice in what we focus on and how we respond.
Ideally, then, mindfulness is a process that can help us to better experience and process the wide range of thoughts and feelings that come with being human.
In the research literature, studies have shown that mindfulness may help psychological stress (Brown & Ryan, 2003; Carmody et al., 2009), anxiety and depression (Carmody et al., 2009), pain (e.g. Ludwig & Kabat-Zinn, 2008; Sagula & Rice, 2004), obesity (Singh, et al., 2008), executive functioning and self-regulated behaviour (Brown & Ryan, 2003; Carmody et al., 2009), and cardiovascular and psychological health (Prazak et al., 2012). Mindfulness has also been shown to prevent negative automatic responses from escalating (Heeren, Van Broeck & Philippot, 2009).
A FEW CAUTIONS BEFORE WE START
As the popularity of mindfulness increases we should keep a few things in mind. Mindfulness isn’t a cure all and it may not suit everyone (Hanley et al., 2016). While practices come from a very long Buddhist tradition, it has been much removed from this context and is relatively new field for western science. As such there is more work to be done in terms of understanding how it works and knowing who should or shouldn’t do certain practices.
First off, a lot of the research about mindfulness programmes is based on people practicing for eight weeks. This is because it takes time and effort to see change. Like any new skill, mindfulness requires persistence.
Secondly, the expectation we have going into our practices is important (Hanley et al., 2016). Mindfulness ‘interventions’ are often framed as a way to manage stress and relax. This is an example of mindfulness being used without reference to its original purpose which was to be able to perceive life more clearly*. The exercises won’t always make us feel less stressed and more relaxed. Life can be hard and mindfulness might slow us down enough to have some painful realisations. The more we make mindfulness practice about trying to change things (e.g. to be happier or more relaxed) the more frustrated we may become. We may also miss out on insights about the factors impacting upon us, or our impact upon others. Therefore, mindfulness is best viewed as a process of observing what is happening rather than judging it or trying to change it. We should focus on getting better at observing and understanding life, and reducing the layers of reaction in our mind, rather than trying to change our thoughts and feelings. That’s why this brief intro to mindfulness focuses a lot on ‘mindful attitudes’ such as non-judging and patience.
Finally, mindfulness may have different effects on different people. For example, many exercises focus on the body, and some people who have experienced trauma or abuse can struggle with this. If you have experienced serious mental health difficulties (particularly post-traumatic stress, symptoms of psychosis, bipolar or depression) or are currently having suicidal thoughts, it is recommended you work through this alongside a trained therapist (Hanley et al., 2016). A professional can help you to decide if mindfulness is suitable for you, which practices are appropriate, tailor your practices, and support you should the exercises bring up any issues.
Now that we have talked about what mindfulness is, how it may help, and a few things to be aware of, in part two of this series we will talk about the first step in mindfulness practice: Mindful attention.
*If you are interested in reading more about concerns surrounding mindfulness and meditation practices, and what can at times be the overly positive rhetoric around it, these articles by Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm (authors of ‘The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You?’) may be a good introduction: (1), (2). Also, these articles by Peter Doran and Ron Purser are an important commentary on ‘McMindfulness’ — the use of mindfulness practices in institutions to help people become calmer and more productive without any link to the history of mindfulness (and its original purpose) or acknowledgement of the wider factors influencing people (e.g. systemic problems in an organisation leading to real workplace stress).
Bishop, S. R., Lau, M., Shapiro, S., Carlson, L., Anderson, N. D., Carmody, J., et al. (2004). Mindfulness: A proposed operational definition. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 11, 230–241.
Brown, W. K., & Ryan, R. M. (2003). The benefits of being present: Mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(4), 822–848.
Carmody, J., Baer, R., Lykins, E. L. B., & Olendzki, N. (2009). An empirical study of the mechanisms of mindfulness in a mindfulness-based stress reduction programme. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 65(6), 613–626.
Hanley, A.W., Abell, N, Osborn, D.S., Roehrig, A.D., & Canto, A.I. (2016). Mind the gaps: Are conclusions about mindfulness entirely conclusive. Journal of Counselling & Development, 94, 103–114.
Heeren, A., Van Broeck, N, & Philippot, P. (2009). The effects of mindfulness on executive processes and autobiographical memory specificity. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 47(5), 403–409.
Hayes, S. C. (2004). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and the new behaviour therapies. In S. C. Hayes, V. M. Follette & M. M. Linehan (Eds.), Mindfulness and acceptance: Expanding the cognitive-behavioural tradition (pp. 1–29). New York Guilford Press.
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Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990). Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain and illness. New York: Delacorte.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. New York: Hyperion.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2013). Full Catastrophe Living (Revised Edition): Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness. New York: Random House Publishing Group.
Ludwig, D. S., Kabat-Zinn, J. (2008). Mindfulness in medicine. The Journal of the American Medical Association, 300, 1350–1352.
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Nilson, H. & Kazemi, A, 2016. Reconciling and thematizing definitions of mindfulness: The big five of mindfulness. Review of General Psychology, 20(2), 183–193.
Prazak, M., Critelli, J., Martin, L., Miranda, V., Purdum, M., and Powers, C. (2012). Mindfulness and its role in physical and psychological health. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, 4(1), 91–105.
Sagula, D., & Rice, K. G. (2004). The effectiveness of mindfulness training on the grieving process and emotional well-being of chronic pain patients. Journal of Clinical Psychology in Medical Settings, 11, 333–342.
Shapiro, S. L., Carlson, L. E., Astin, J. A., & Freedman, B. (2006). Mechanisms of mindfulness. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 62(3), 373–386.
Singh, N. N, et al. (2008). A mindfulness-based health wellness program for managing morbid obesity. Clinical Case Studies, 7(4), 327–339.
Van Dam, N., Sheppard, S., Forsyth, J and Earleywine, M. (2011). Self-compassion is a better predictor than mindfulness of symptom severity and quality of life in mixed anxiety and depression. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, (25), 123–130.
Wilson, K. G., & Murrell, A. R. (2004). Values work in acceptance and commitment therapy. In S. C. Hayes, V. M. Follette & M. M. Linehan (Eds.), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and the new behaviour therapies (pp. 120–151). New York: Guilford Press.