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Lately many psychologists are researching what mindfulness is and how it may be influencing the development of cognitive-behavioral therapies. Mindfulness is an idea whose roots reach back to ancient eastern meditative philosophies and practices. A simple definition of mindfulness is difficult because of its many subtleties and ultimately trying to understand it with words is like trying to describe how to swim or ride a bicycle without ever trying it. A simple definition of mindfulness must include at least two main points; 1) learning to accept living in the moment and 2) learning to see thoughts and feelings for what they really are, not what they say they are. A central strategy in traditional cognitive therapy is also developing this "distancing" from our thoughts, i.e., learning to see thoughts as hypothesis, not facts. Let me clear the air of some myths about mindfulness. Mindfulness is not: a replacement for therapy, a magic bullet, a religion, a method for distraction, a relaxation strategy, a meditative way to get rid of unwanted feelings or thoughts, a replacement for facing difficult problems and taking action in your life.

Mindfulness is not meant to replace cognitive-behavioral therapies, but to compliment them. Traditionally cognitive-behavioral therapies have put the emphasis on changing or controlling thoughts and emotions, not on acceptance. In contrast mindfulness is about learning to accept what we cannot change, a useful compliment to cognitive-behavioral therapies. Mindfulness is also about broadening our attention. It is a way to actually practice more fully feeling and accepting what each moment brings, including unpleasant thoughts, feelings and sensations. Ironically, acceptance may assist us in reacting in new and changed ways. Acceptance of thoughts and feelings may open an opportunity that paradoxically trying to force change may not have succeeded in creating. As I mentioned earlier, trying to understand the benefits of how mindfulness adds to therapy without actually doing it will just leave you with more words and ideas, but without a different experience on your thoughts. After reading the description below, try ten minutes of the exercise, a few times a week, for a few weeks.

Since there are many variations on how one can practice mindfulness, I call this exercise; freestyle mindfulness. This type of mindfulness exercise is sometimes referred to as developing an "observer perspective". In this exercise we do focus on a natural but slightly slowed breath. The breath is used as an anchor or "home base", but not necessarily as the primary focus. Unlike other breathing, meditation, or imagery exercises you may have learned, here the primary place to stay focused is on what happens between being focused on your breaths, in that immediate moment. Practice watching the "stream of consciousness" as if it were a stream carrying objects (your thoughts, feelings, etc.) or like watching characters in a passing parade. The challenge is to not join the characters in the parade. When you do notice you've gotten attached to objects in the stream, come back to your paced breath, exhale and let the objects float away again. Focus on a few breaths again, then come back to the immediate present moment and then start observing again. Try and watch and accept each passing moment without purposefully making judgments, commentary, or descriptions. Be mindful of noticing that you're noticing. Observe: noticing, thoughts, sensations, emotions, memories, urges, without immediately acting on or judging any of it. After being "carried away" by thoughts again, intermittently come back to several slightly slowed breaths again, then let go again and just observe, then breath, then observe again and repeat, for 10 minutes. Try to carry a mindful attitude into your next few moments, and intermittently into the rest of your day. If you happen to feel relaxed as a side benefit of these exercises, think of it as a welcome bonus, but not the central purpose. Mindfulness is meant to help you react to old thoughts in new ways so that you can live life pro-actively, more fully and in the present.

Dr. Sisti has over 20 years of experience as a cognitive-behavioral therapist. He is the Founder and Director of Suffolk Cognitive-Behavioral, with offices in Long Island, NY, and Brooklyn, NY. Dr. Sisti is also a member of the Board of Directors of Freedom From Fear and a Founding Fellow of The Academy of Cognitive Therapy (ACT) which was established by Aaron Beck, MD.

 

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