Introduction

Mindfulness is being intentionally aware of the present moment and its experience, in a non-judgmental manner. When I was initially introduced to the concept of mindfulness, I could read this sentence over and over again and still not really grasp the meaning.

I still kind of don’t.

It’s hard for words to adequately describe the elusive concept known as ‘mindfulness’. A lot of mindfulness is about experiencing it with regular practice. And it wasn’t until I tried out mindfulness practices myself and facilitated exercises with patients that I better understood the concept and its potential benefits.

What can be helpful, however, is to have some understanding of the ‘What’ and ‘How’ skills of mindfulness. That is, what types of activities could be mindful activities and how do I engage in these activities in a mindful manner. Below, I’ll talk about each skill in turn.

The ‘What’ in Mindfulness

The ‘What’ in mindfulness include: Observe, Describe, and Participate

1. Observe. Observing includes taking notice of what’s going on around you in the present moment. It can be external, such as sensations that your 5 senses are picking up (e.g., noticing sounds, smells, or sights around you) and it can be internal (e.g., thoughts or physical sensations).

2. Describe. Describing means putting words to what you have observed. For example, describing the sights (e.g., “I am seeing a large tree, with bright yellow leaves and a jagged trunk”) or physical sensations (e.g., “I am noticing that there is a lot of tension in my neck”, “my breaths feel shallow and quick”).

3. Participate. Participating means completely involving yourself into a single activity. This might be dancing to music; really paying attention to the food you are eating; painting something with your full attention, among many other possible activities.

An example of a potential mindful activity (walking)
Try taking a walk and really observing what’s going on around you!
Photo by Arek Adeoye on Unsplash

The ‘How’ in Mindfulness

The ‘How’ in mindfulness provides some instructions on how you should engage in the activities that were just described in the ‘What’ section. They include: Non-Judgmentally, One-Mindfully, and Effectively.

1. Non-Judgmentally. When you are observing or describing your experiences, try to be as objective and non-judgmental as possible. For example, “I am noticing that the chair I am sitting on is rough and it is causing me some discomfort” would be a more non-judgmental description. In contrast, “This chair is so hard; it’s irritating and I hate it” would be a much more subjective description.

2. One-Mindfully. Focusing on one thing at a time when engaging in an activity. If you are cooking, then you are solely involved in that activity.

3. Effectively. Effectively means that you are mindful of your goals and acting in a way that is consistent with that goal. For example, if your goal is to maintain a trusting relationship during an argument with your partner, then you might avoid responding in sarcastic or selfish way, and focus on whether your behaviours are consistent with your goal.

Putting together the ‘What’ and the ‘How’

To combine these skills, practice ONE of the ‘What’ skills with ALL the ‘How’ skill. So you might view a scenery (activity) in a way that is non-judgmental, one-mindfully, and effective.  

How is mindfulness beneficial in emotion regulation?

Mindfulness is a great way to ground ourselves in the present moment and take us out of the ‘automatic pilot’, where we go about the world without really taking in what’s going on around us (like when we suddenly realize we’ve been driving for 15 minutes without really paying attention). Some of my patients have reported that time simply feels slower and more enjoyable when they are mindfully engaging in tasks.

Specific to emotion regulation, I see two main benefits of mindfulness. First, it gives us psychological distance between ourselves and our thoughts/emotions. This allows us to separate ourselves from our internal thoughts and emotions (“I am not my thought”) and reduces the distress we get from these experiences. Importantly, the space we are allowed in this moment gives us more autonomy to act in accordance with our goals and values. Sometimes we are so drawn in our emotions that we act in a way that hurts us down the line. For some, it might be in a fight with a partner; for others, perhaps it was a work-related incident. Through mindfulness, we take ourselves out of the automatic pilot in order to respond, rather than react, to a situation.

If you’re interested to learn more about mindfulness and its benefits, see this video on mindfulness as a superpower.

Do I always have to do activities mindfully?

Nope! Although practicing mindfulness can have lots of benefits, it’d be pretty inefficient to always be focusing on one activity at a time. Some people love multi-tasking; others like to be in their thoughts when engaging in a boring chore. Still, engaging in certain activities like walking or eating dinner mindfully once in a while can be a great way to ground yourself in the moment. Moreover, there are many mindfulness meditations online if you prefer to have a formal type of mindfulness practice.

An example of multi-taskinng
An example of multi-tasking (vibing to music while working) that is perfectly okay!
Photo by Soundtrap on Unsplash

Summary

  • Mindfulness is elusive in its definition
  • The ‘What’ (Observe, Describe, Participate) and ‘How’ (Non-Judgmentally, One-Mindfully, Effectively) Skills are helpful in understanding how to engage in mindfulness
  • Mindfulness may be helpful in emotion regulation by allowing us the space to act in accordance with our goals
  • Practice mindfulness in a way that is enjoyable and effective for you

I hope this post was helpful in understanding a little more about mindfulness! Here’s a couple other posts on mindfulness in depression and the difference between mindfulness and relaxation if you are interested!

Best wishes,

P

Featured photo: Photo by simon sun on Unsplash