Mindfulness: The Secret Ingredient
There are so many different approaches to therapy out there. It’s hard to make sense of it all. But, no matter what kind of intervention a therapist offers, no matter what technique they employ, all of therapy is really just about helping people be more aware and more connected with their authentic selves.
What does it mean to become more aware, more conscious, more mindful? Mindfulness is the practice of bringing conscious awareness to the present moment. It means being present with one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations in a non-judgmental way.
Without realizing it, we are all constantly judging our own internal feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations. This judgment is a result of the fact that we hold unconscious rigid expectations of ourselves and the world.
Even a positive, static self-concept like, “I am a generous person” can cause us suffering. Imagine “a generous person” in an imbalanced, exploitative relationship. She may ask herself, “why should I pay for the bill again while he constantly mooches off of me?” That would be natural and reasonable thought – but for someone who thinks of herself as a “generous person” that also might be a dissonant thought. Such a person is likely to judge her conflicting thought as “bad” or “wrong” and repress it. Thus, she disables her capacity to acknowledge and respond to her “truth.” She is not only vulnerable to exploitation. She is wracked with punishing self-doubt.
We all engage in negative self-judgment, and most of us are unaware of it. Most of us are unaware of the unrelenting expectations we hold about ourselves and the world. Yet these judgments filter our interpretation of just about everything. These judgments keep us tethered to our rigid self-concepts and prevent us from realizing our own dynamic, vital Truth.
We are so committed to our narrow ideas about ourselves that when we encounter dissonant thoughts, we experience existential threat. We unconsciously flee from the offending, non-conforming thoughts and fail to learn about the truer, more expansive version of ourselves.
Still, “The heart knows the bitterness of its own soul.” (Proverbs 14:10). Somewhere inside of us, we sense that something is off, something is missing. If we refuse to listen to our truth, eventually we develop symptoms such as depression and anxiety.
We are much, much more than an idea, no matter how glorious or elevated that idea may be. In mindfulness, we learn this for ourselves.
This may sound like a lofty goal, and it is. But – it begins simply by staying present in the moment and learning to relate to our inner experience without judgment. Really, it’s that simple.
We learn not to take our thoughts and feelings as personally because we cease viewing them as an extension or inseparable expression of who we are. Slowly, this loosens the ego’s hold on us. We learn how to lead lives that are less distracted and less trivial. We learn to relate to passing thoughts and feelings much as we would relate to any other momentary external event.
Imagine that you hear a bird chirping. You may experience the sound as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. However, you are not likely to then think ‘I am hearing an unpleasant sound, therefore I am a bad person.’ The sound comes and goes, and you move on.
Now imagine you had a troubling thought. You would experience it as a momentary unpleasant experience. No more than that. Like the smell of walking past a sewer, it comes and goes. When we learn to be less judgmental of our internal experience, we can more easily become aware of the passing nature of our thoughts and feelings. With time, as we see how thoughts and feelings are not permanent, we naturally stop relating to them as ‘the truth.’ We stop interpreting thoughts as reflections of who we are and thereby, we stop reacting to them in a habitual automatic way.
With practice, we accrue more capacity to self-reflect in an objective way. In this way, we experience more internal spaciousness. As our capacity for meta-awareness increases in real time, we can then make more conscious choices – choices not bound by the past.
Ultimately, as more and more inner spaciousness develops, mindfulness develops into a connection with something that is deeper and closer to the subjective center of ourselves – an experience that is inherently meaningful.
The Jewish sages taught: “If you have acquired consciousness – what do you lack; and if you lack consciousness – what have you acquired?” (Talmud Nedarim 41) No matter where you are in your path, no matter how beleaguered you may feel by life, you have the capacity for conscious awareness. You have the capacity to develop and refine that tool, which can change everything.
My task as a therapist is to help you reach an enlarged view of who you are by connecting to your essential self and developing your capacity for awareness.