Friday, May 6, 2016

Mindfulness - Paying attention and functioning fully


We spend much of our lives on automatic pilot; carrying out daily activities with minds elsewhere.  Perhaps we are dwelling on something which has upset us or worrying about what might happen tomorrow, next week, next year---  The past and future occupy much of our mental space, leaving us less available to experience the present moment and allow us to function fully.

The consequences are that we can feel disconnected from ourselves, as if we are on a fast train through life, with no opportunity to stop off to reconnect with who we are and what’s important to us.  We are in a constant state of doing.

Mindfulness is about a way of being.  It is a 2500 year old Buddhist practice which is increasingly finding a place in modern psychological research and practice.  The original secular Mindfulness program was developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn in a clinical setting over 30 years ago.  This is called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and is still the most widely practiced. 

The benefits of mindfulness practice are supported by research findings. Being fully aware can help us disengage from rumination - absorption in unhelpful thoughts-  and feelings of stress.  It allows us to act with calmness and clarity, even in stressful situations and make more informed and conscious choices.  It has been shown to increase energy, decrease stress, improve mood and general well-being and boost the immune system.

So what is Mindfulness?  According to Kabat-Zinn, Mindfulness is about paying attention, in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.  Mindfulness or attention training  involves practices such as meditation, body scanning and simple yoga exercises which develop the ability to focus attention and increase awareness of internal processes.

How does it work?  Attention plays a central role in interactions with our surroundings. It is commonly regarded as a naturally occurring capacity, yet our experience is that paying attention is not so easy.  Instead our attention is so often distracted by thoughts of what we need or want to avoid.  Why is this?

The key role of attention is to increase awareness of our internal and external environment related to threats to having our needs met.   This can be about safety -monitoring for physical danger - but is frequently concerned with needs such as relationship, status and power.  Attention constantly wanders to internal thoughts which form an ongoing commentary about ourselves, others and the world generally.  We constantly, worry, compare, judge, regret and plan.  The sensations associated with threat-based thinking will be constriction, tension and a general sense of unease.  Excessive rumination can underpin real mental suffering, such as in anxiety and depression.

Mindfulness helps to develop awareness of how mental processes create and maintain distress.  Our inner world is often perceived as an undifferentiated amalgam. Through paying close attention to it we learn to differentiate experience into thinking, sensing and feeling components.  For example, feeling anxious in social situations might be associated with fearful thoughts such as “I never know what to say”. In this way mindfulness helps us to tune in to our feelings and the thoughts which maintain them.

It also develops the ability to calm ourselves when emotionally aroused or stressed. Paying attention to breathing is central to all Mindfulness practices.  It is our ever present anchor to the here and now.  “Awareness of the breath” provides access to a calming experience to which one can redirect attention from distressing thoughts or feelings. 

Another beneficial aspect of mindfulness is developing the ability to “decenter”.  This is about recognising that the components of experience are simply events occurring in awareness. We become observers of our experience rather than becoming absorbed in it, recognising that we are not our experience.  I may fail at something, have thoughts and feelings about this, which will pass but I am not my failure.  We also learn to accept what happens rather than continuously making judgements about whether it is good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, to be engaged in or avoided.

The compelling message of Victor Frankl, psychotherapist and concentration camp survivor, was it is not what happens to us in life which defines our experience but our attitude to it.  Mindfulness is concerned less with the content of experience but how we relate to its elements.   We can allow our attention to wander passively and take up residence in thoughts and feelings which create and maintain our distress.  Mindfulness practice teaches us that there is another possibility.  Through consciously paying attention to what is, in the present moment, we can be more at ease even when challenged by what life throws at us.


Carmody,J., “Reconceptualising Mindfulness”(2016), Handbook of Mindfulness p 62-75.

Kabat-Zinn, J., “Full Catastrophe Living”

For Mindfulness training see and




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