Mindfulness is one of the core modules in the skills component of Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) and forms the basis of various other cognitive behavioural approaches (e.g. mindfulness based cognitive therapy, Acceptance and Commitment therapy). Mindfulness is derived from Eastern, Buddhist traditions but is utilised in psychotherapy as a way of paying attention, on purpose to the present moment in a non-judgemental manner (definition adapted from Jon Kabat-Zinn). So what does this really mean? For me, mindfulness is about knowing my mind; it’s about being familiar with where my mind wanders to when I’m worried, frightened, sad or even happy. Practising mindfulness has enabled me to be kinder towards myself as I recognise the habitual patterns of my mind rather than taking my thoughts seriously, as if they are reflections of reality. Sometimes I am even able to greet my thoughts as though they are old acquaintances, with ideas I don’t necessarily agree with, but recognising the familiar patterns of their utterances with a degree of fondness.
I practise mindfulness both for my own personal benefit and in order to be an authentic DBT therapist (indeed, I try to practise all the skills). It takes effort and practice and sometimes the abstract nature of a practice (e.g. focusing on an object in a moment) can seem somewhat removed from the essence of what it is I am hoping to cultivate in my clients. I am aware of the criticisms of mindfulness from purists and those that follow the traditional components of the practices but I believe mindfulness, even in its sanitised, adapted format, has much to offer. Slowing down, focusing, noticing and for once, not striving, is alien in our culture. Learning to just “be” rather than always “doing” is a lesson in itself.
Alongside the benefits for the general population, the people who access therapy with our service struggle with intense emotions, distress and pain that is hard for most people to imagine. The notion of mindfulness is thorny and difficult. We ask people to accept and be at one with their pain, to let go of expectations that pain will go away and instead just notice it. This is the polar opposite of what most people (in our service or not) do when they experience intense emotions; most people run away from pain, doing anything they can to quieten it. Mindfulness invites people to take a different relationship with the difficult experiences they face. Instead of judging emotions, wanting them to go away or trying to avoid them, mindfulness asks individuals to just notice the emotion or the breath. This simple idea is not one easily accepted by the thinking mind but one that, with practice, can be hugely beneficial.
In allowing yourself to be present and notice what it is you are experiencing without the thinking mind chattering away and directing your action, you have more of a choice about how you are going to respond. Indeed, the emotions may be different to the picture painted by the thinking mind and you might find that allowing emotions simply to be changes them. Utilising this skill when it’s most needed though requires practice and practice can be hard. Finding practical strategies to remind yourself as well as committing to giving mindfulness a go can be helpful ways of starting to integrate it into your life.
If you’re interested in learning more about mindfulness, there are many resources on the internet and guided meditations on youtube. Mindfulness as part of DBT has specific components which we will blog about too. If you are interested in accessing DBT or a DBT-informed approach, please contact us (firstname.lastname@example.org).