Mindfulness is a broad term that refers to any practice of non-reactive participation, intentional cultivation of awareness, and paying attention to the moment as well as bringing oneself into each moment as fully as possible. It is a simple yet many-layered and elegant thing to talk about. It is easy to talk about, difficult to practice, but worthy of the effort. More so, mindfulness is the patient and gentle cultivation of awareness of your thoughts, your emotions, and your bodily sensations as they happen. Mindfulness is the practice that helps you to know what you are thinking as you think, and a knowing what you feel while you feel. It’s not a retrospect, a backward-looking (as in getting “stuck”), but an immediate here-ness.
Within this wide swath of mindfulness is attentiveness, prayer, meditation, concentration, recollection, being present within the moment. There are many specialized forms of mindfulness that have emerged from various spiritual and philosophical traditions, and while these multiple traditions may diverge on their metaphysical foundations and ends, they converge on the common agreement that we are subject to conditioning and attachments which become sources of misery and suffering for us. These traditions also agree that a foe to human health is inattentiveness which has many names: distraction, dissipation, scattering, and what we might even call dis-attention, as does John Kabat-Zinn (2005). Related to this inattentiveness are the cognitive phenomena of misperception and misattribution, which oft lead to mistakes (Kabat-Zinn, 2005).
Helpers trained in the Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) tradition have rendered from the ancient Greeks, the insight that it is not actual events that are the cause of our misery or disturbances, rather we are disturbed by our thoughts about these events (Aurelius ). Therapists and counselors, even those who practice CBT, are subject to being caught up in misperceptions, are we not, and their own habits of thought in which thoughts multiply from the first misapprehension, and become complicated rather than remain simple. Within these complicated thoughts you are often presented with your habits of comparison, taut hope (read attachment), an expectation that your clients will receive you, and your therapeutic wisdom, putting it all to practice and moving quickly along the path of healing.
When your taut hope and expectations are thwarted you may feel frustration, exasperation, and even despair over your effectiveness as a helper or client willingness to change. These are the testing points of reality that reveal to you your deeply held assumptions and philosophies about self, others, relatedness, shoulds, and so on. The value of mindfulness to mental health practitioners lies in its utility for cultivating keen attention to your own experiences and reactions to your client, in the moment of your meeting, sharpening your receptivity to your clients’ para-verbal and verbal communication, taking in key emotional information you may miss if you have fallen into the fog of perfunctory engagement. As much as it will yield for you an enhanced reception of your client as you meet them, it can also yield your presence to your client, communicating to them true care and concern with your concentrated being.
In DBT, mindfulness forms the core skill around which all the others (distress tolerance, emotion regulation, and interpersonal effectiveness) are gathered and integrated. Citing John Kabat-Zinn (2003), McKay, Wood, and Brantley (2007), these authors and practitioners identify mindfulness as a form of non-judgmental paying attention on purpose, in the present moment (p. 63). Should you cultivate your own mindfulness practices, beyond any simple engagement for the skills training groups you may lead, you will find yourself becoming more attentive, more present, and flexible in your practice with your clients. Beyond a mere gimmick, or something you “do in case of an emergency,” and beyond a form of relaxation, mindfulness is a practice that while honed through concentrated and intentional practices such as meditation or prayer, or short practices in simply sitting and observing your breath, it is a way and stance of life. In your sitting practices, breathing, meditations, concentrations are intended to increase your presence and attention to all moments. From meeting a client to shaving stubble and from enjoying an ice cream to managing stress, mindfulness is more than simply a response technique. It is a living practice, diligent attentiveness, and awareness cultivated in each and every moment as it comes and goes. It is even attention to inattention, returning you to attention. This nonjudgmental and purposeful attentiveness is also related to the cultivation of wisdom, that well-lived, big-picture kind of knowledge that lends itself to living in a fairly patient and measured fashion that nurtures human well-being.