The purpose of mindfulness training is to learn to better
observe your experiences and your environment. The objective “is to welcome
experience rather than to control it.” So it is not a process that leads to
solutions. It is a skill that makes solutions easier to identify and learn.
The goals of teaching mindfulness skills are
--improve one’s ability to recognize internal vs. external
sources of distress;
--to help learn to observe rather than evaluate experiences;
--learn solution-focused coping instead of emotion-focused
Our scientific traditions emphasize analysis rather than
extended observation. Mindfulness is learning to observe fully without
judgment. We try to observe without analysis, as if the experience or emotion
is new. Detach and describe as fully as possible.
This can be hard to do! We instinctively analyze, and in
fact such analysis is part of how we function day to day. The goal is simply to
get more practice at observing: “to sometimes choose to be mindful on purpose.”
An exercise can be based on the mnemonic ONE MIND:
Focus on One thing in the moment;
Focus on the Now;
Pay attention to the Environment;
Pay attention to the Moment;
Increase sensations (touch, taste, hearing, vision);
Strive to be Nonjudgmental;
Describe, don’t prescribe or proscribe.
One reason for practicing mindfulness is that many people
automatically turn to escape and avoidance strategies when dealing with
distress. This may include drinking, drug use, cutting, eating behaviors, etc.
When someone learns to control one coping behavior, but still instantly moves
from distress to escape/avoidance, that person may simply adopt another
Moving rapidly through the process can make the harmful escape behaviors
hard habits to break.
Slowing down to recognize the distressing feelings –
even when it’s not pleasant to do so – may be a necessary way to start
adopting different coping strategies. The recognition of what causes the
distress, followed by full awareness of the distress process, may be necessary
before trying to set goals or develop coping strategies. It may also help with the (later)
process of putting the problems in perspective, rationally disputing the
beliefs involved, etc.
The process of describing the experience or emotion
illustrates the power of words, which is a key principle of REBT as well. Words
can either define or distort experience. If you always look to others for
approval, learning to define your own experience without judgment can build
self-trust. There are useful lists of absolute words and possible substitutes
in SMART Recovery essays (ref: Dr. Sarmiento’s web site and the ‘skysite’
linked at smartrecovery.org).
Exercises in mindfulness may be as simple as focusing on how
it ‘feels’ to breathe, walk, or wash dishes. It can be a process of relaxing
and feeling (concentrating on) each body part in turn.
Put on a set of headphones and choose some
music—enough for 15 – 30 minutes. Close your eyes. Carefully listen
to each instrument in turn. Identify the patterns and rhythms: the sequences of
notes, how the instruments trade the melody or harmony. Try to create a visual
image in your brain of the instruments being played. Put them into a place and
describe it in your own mind—what you would see and feel to go along with
what you hear.
Select several foods of different textures and serve them
onto a plate, along with sparkling water, fruit juice, tea, etc.. Sit and
slowly experience each food’s smell, color, texture, crunchiness, mouth feel, flavor,
aftertaste, and the sensation as it slides down your throat and into your
stomach. Examples: celery, crackers, jello, peanut butter, yogurt, iceberg
lettuce, fruit. Hold each piece up to the light, smell it with your eyes
closed, chew slowly and thoroughly.
Turn off all the electronic things in your house, then sit
very quietly and identify all the other sounds. Or go to a place in nature
where you can be undisturbed, and sit with your eyes closed to identify and
describe all the sounds—animal, human, nature.
Go into a quiet room and close the door and curtains. Light
a scented candle and put on some quiet music of your choice. Lie down and focus
on the smells, the sounds, and how your body feels. Breathe very carefully and
rhythmically. Slowly focus on relaxing each part of your body, beginning with
your toes and gradually working up to your head.
At some point when you are feeling tense, irritable,
moderately angry, or glum, try a simple exercise: put your head in your hands
and feel your body and ‘feel’ your brain. Describe, without using subjective
terms, how you feel (hot, tired, your temples feel tight, thoughts are racing,
etc.). Try to make some simple descriptive sentences about this: ‘When I am
stressed I feel tightness in my chest and forehead’.
The idea is to become more aware of your surroundings, your
experiences, your emotions, and to learn to describe them all as if you were
observing rather than analyzing them. Once we’ve achieved greater mindfulness,
we can begin to describe the things that upset us emotionally in terms of how
they make us feel, with the ultimate goal being to achieve more effective