The interest in mindfulness-based therapies, a.k.a. third wave behavioral therapies, is "The Thing" in the mental health world right now. For those new to mental health theory, third wave behavioral therapy usually refers to types of therapy that incorporate mindfulness into making changes in thoughts and behavior. Insight into the past and feeling some sort of emotional resolution (catharsis) isn't required, and you're expected to sit upright and look in your therapist's direction, regardless of whether or not there is a couch.
A question that repeatedly comes up is, "What is mindfulness?" Fuzzy responses ensue, usually along the lines of positive lifestyle changes and a sense of mental peace. The next question that comes up is, "How is mindfulness utilized in mental health treatment?" More fuzzy responses. "So how exactly do people learn to change, isn't that what therapy is about?" Fuzz.
Alright, some people give great responses. However, I can see where people get confused about this mystical thing called mindfulness. When practitioners talk about mindfulness in the West, they're talking about three different concepts at the same time: Eastern mindfulness, Western mindfulness, and Western mindfulness used with the intent to improve mental health.
For our first segment, we're going to talk about the exercise commonly associated with mindfulness, meditation:
Meditation is the structured practice of being mindful. One sets aside time to focus on the act of mindfulness, which is typically defined as "Being in the present moment, without judgment." The purpose of meditation is to practice being mindful so that one can implement their mindful abilities during the rest of their waking hours. If you want to know a potential reason why meditation doesn't have all of those awesome benefits people talk about, it might have something to do with failure to translate those skills into "real life."
You can meditate in a chair, sitting on the floor in various positions, laying down (Think "corpse pose" in yoga), staring at candles, visualizing thoughts as bubbles popping, counting, using beads, and probably a slew of other methods I am not aware of. Styles of meditation have traditionally been associated with different sects of South and East Asian religious traditions, but people in the West often pick a style based on what feels natural versus one based on faith.
Oh, that "Being in the present moment, without judgment" thing? The definition of that phrase differs somewhat between Eastern and Western renditions of mindfulness. It generally means to experience the moment without making value judgments.
I made up a guided meditation exercise two seconds ago to illustrate "being in the present moment." Here it is:
Imagine you no longer have words to describe what you are thinking, feeling, doing, or sensing. You no longer introspect, that is, think about yourself. Because there is no "you" to think about, there is no past or future in your mind. You are neither good nor bad, smart nor stupid, beautiful nor ugly, worthy nor unworthy. You are void of description. All you are is your body, and where it is located. Because you are a body, you have the ability to smell, feel, hear, and experience emotions. As you are sitting here, you are welcome to take note of your senses and your feelings. However, avoid placing words on these sensations. You do not think in words. Of course it's okay if you start to think in words during this time - just let the words drift off. Do not pursue them. You cannot be good or bad at this exercise. This is not an exercise of skill. It is an exercise in recognizing that nothing is permanent.