What is Mindfulness? Answers from a Licensed Therapist

After writing my first blog about mindfulness during the holiday season, I realized that many people don’t really know what mindfulness is all about. A non-therapist friend of mine asked me if it means closely paying attention to our thoughts, no matter what activity we are engaged in. Actually, I responded, it’s quite the opposite. Mindfulness is letting our thoughts be in the background while fully experiencing the present moment. We miss out on so much of our day-to-day experiences when our thoughts get in the way.

Mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn has described mindfulness as “paying attention to the present moment with intention, while letting go of judgment, as if our life depends on it.” The American Psychological Association reports that mindfulness has a number of positive effects on our mental health. These include: reducing rumination and stress, boosting working memory, decreasing emotional reactivity, increasing our ability to be more flexible, and improving our relationships. So, it’s a no-brainer! If we practice mindfulness every day, we can improve the quality of our lives.

One of my favorite mindful pastimes took place when I lived in Paris many years ago. Like many Europeans, I used to spend a lot of time in cafés, sipping cappuccinos, people watching, or reading the French newspaper Le Monde. At the time, people didn’t have cell phones, tablets, or other electronics. It was so much easier to fully take in the present moment without all of those distractions. Here is what I noticed: the smell and taste of my cappuccino, the constant chatter of people around me, the hustle and bustle in the street, and much more. The experience was simple, yet fulfilling and gratifying.

So, as a therapist, I am constantly strategizing with clients about how to be more present and mindful. Contrary to what one may think, one can practice mindfulness around any activity. It doesn’t even need to be a pleasurable activity; it can be mundane. For example, washing dishes. Who really likes to wash dishes? Generally, when people wash dishes their minds wander to the many tasks they have to do that day, or what they haven’t accomplished, etc. Sound familiar? When was the last time you washed dishes and really paid attention. Did you note the feel and temperature of the water, the noise the water makes, or the cleanliness of the dishes? Our thoughts may become louder as we wash dishes. That’s OK, and quite normal, but it’s important to bring our attention back to the experience without judging ourselves.

In my practice, I encourage all of my clients to engage in at least 15 minutes of intentional mindfulness per day. It can be a mindfulness meditation, or an activity. Before they begin, I ask that they put all electronics away to avoid distracting themselves. As they settle in, I remind them to fully engage in the experience by incorporating all their senses and putting aside their critical voice. Afterward, I suggest journaling about what the experience was like for them. Many of my clients continue with their own mindfulness practice since they have found it to have positive effects on their physical and emotional well-being.

The S.T.O.P Technique for Mindfulness

One simple, yet very useful mindfulness technique I recommend to my clients is the S.T.O.P. technique.

Here are the steps:
S: Stop what you are doing.
T: Take a few deep breaths.
O: Observe your experience as it is, including your thoughts, feelings and emotions.
P: Proceed with something that will support and comfort you in the moment, i.e., taking a walk, talking to a friend, taking a shower, etc.

Taking “time outs” from our busy day is so beneficial to our mental health, yet we often come up with multiple excuses for why we don’t have time to S.T.O.P. I encourage you all — friends, colleagues, and family — to take 10 minutes per day to S.T.O.P. Put all electronics in a different room, if possible. Let’s experiment to see if you feel the positive benefits of the practice after two weeks.

Please reflect back to me with any comments or concerns about your practice.

Stay tuned for part 3 of this mindfulness series. I will write about mindful eating, a topic about which I am passionate.

I hope you all have a very peaceful start to the new year.

Karen Chinca - LICSW | Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Wellness - Brookline MAAbout Karen Chinca: Karen Chinca is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW) located in Brookline, Massachusetts, with over ten years of experience in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for treating individuals and families who are dealing with academic, personal, and professional stress.