Mindfulness, self-care, stress reduction, self-efficacy, coping skills, triggers, letting go, minding your side of the street…if you’ve been in therapy of any kind in the past decade, you’ve heard every one of these words or phrases too many times. And if you’re in treatment for drugs or drinking, we can guarantee you’ve heard that first one: mindfulness.
You probably heard it before you went into treatment, too. You let it go in one ear and out the other, under the assumption it had nothing to do with you and thinking about it for more than half a second was a waste of your time. Now that you’re in treatment, though, it has everything to do with you. Mostly because we bet you don’t make it past ten in the morning without hearing it half a dozen times, and your therapists and counselors expect you to practice it.
That’s right – they talk about it like it’s a sport or a musical instrument. Better get those mindfulness reps in or you’ll never recover. Use it or lose it – mindfully, of course.
So what is mindfulness, anyway?
Here’s an actual definition from a Vietnamese monk named Thich Nhat Hahn. He didn’t invent mindfulness or bring it to the US before anyone else, but he is pretty much the most well-known mindfulness guy on earth. In mindfulness circles, he’s a rock star. The Lebron James of mindfulness. Like Neil deGrasse Tyson, except for meditation. Like John Cena, but without the muscles. Think…okay, you get the idea.
Mr. Hahn’s definition:
“Mindfulness is our ability to be aware of what’s going on both inside us and around us. It is the continuous awareness of our bodies, emotions, and thoughts.”
Fair enough. If your therapist or counselors haven’t given you that definition yet, then there you go: that’s mindfulness in a nutshell, straight from the pen of Mr. Mindful himself.
Mindfulness = awareness.
Next question: Why should you care?
Simple answer: because it works.
Slightly more complex answer: because when you’re trying to get sober and stay that way – or when you’re learning to manage an emotional disorder – you have to do a lot of thinking about yourself, your behavior, and your emotions. Your therapists constantly ask you to examine your thoughts and feelings. Then they ask you to decide whether they’re helping or hurting you.
That’s where mindfulness comes in. When you’re in active addiction, or you’re in a manic or depressive phase of bipolar disorder, or you’re overwhelmed by anxiety, you probably feel like you can’t control your thoughts, much less your emotions. You feel like it’s impossible to step back and observe them. You feel like they’re just there, overwhelming and unwanted, and you can’t control them or do anything about them.
Mindfulness teaches you a cool trick: it teaches you how to step back and observe everything going on in your mind and body like you’re an impartial observer looking at yourself from the outside. To do that, you have to slow down and pay attention. And the best way to do that is with the kind of breathing and attention you learn during yoga or meditation – your basic mindfulness activities. When you learn – really learn – to slow down and pay attention, you discover you’re not at the mercy of your thoughts and you’re not a victim of your own emotions. You learn you have the ability to react to them any way you want: listen to them, feel them, ignore them, or simply let them be until the pass.
Then you get to the payoff: you learn you can replace negative, counter-productive patterns of thought and feeling with positive, productive ones.
Ready for another therapy buzzword?
Mindfulness empowers you to see the present moment as it is.
Better than that, it teaches you that you can take each moment and experience it on your own terms, in the manner of your choosing, in the way that works best for you. Mindfulness puts you back in the driver’s seat, which is where you want to be.
Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA who writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.