An animation on how mindfulness empowers us by Happify
Mindfulness is the awareness that arises through purposefully and nonjudgmentally paying attention to the present moment. Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn, who is considered the “godfather of modern mindfulness”, has also outlined a list of attitudes that forms the foundation of the practice. It includes:
Some may associate mindfulness with formal, systematic practices of meditation that could range between brief, daily meditation to intensive retreats. Nevertheless, mindfulness is also a way of being (Feldman & Kuyken, 2019). We can intentionally bring the open, discerning attitude in paying attention to whatever we are doing: may it be doing chores, going on walks, listening to music, eating and drinking, and the many other activities that we usually take for granted.
Society has pushed this harmful narrative that “negative” emotions such as sadness or anger are wrong; that we should not experience it and, when we do, we have to “fix” it. In reality, emotions are neither good nor bad. They just simply are. They are part of the human experience and are generally out of our control. Emotions are valuable sources of information that help us gain insight on what we need in the moment, and enable us to make decisions.
Consider anxiety, for example. Anxiety, at its core, is a response to fear. It is the alarm bells that warns us about what could come. As such, anxiety seeks to protect us from danger. In the olden days, anxiety kept our ancestors alive by helping them react faster when they are being chased by wild animals. It does this by initiating a switch that temporarily allows the survival instincts in our Feeling Brain to override our Thinking Brain, which then activates our primary “threat response” (e.g. fight, flight, freeze, and appease/fawn).
Today, there might not be any wild animals actively running after us. However, anxiety and other “negative” emotions still helps to facilitate more detailed and analytic thinking, promotes persistence on challenging cognitive tasks, provides clues to issues that require our attention, and more (Gruber, n. d.). For instance, anxiety is what pushes us into putting extra effort when we are preparing for a major job interview. It keeps us vigilant when we cross busy roads or venture out alone at night.
The problem comes when we feed into the societal narrative and subsequently try to avoid, ignore, or even outright reject any unpleasant emotion. Our subjective feelings – along with the bodily sensations associated with it – interact with our current circumstances, past experiences, culture, and upbringing. This determines how we perceive a situation, which then affects our behaviour.
On top of that, factors such as major traumatic experiences, loss, or ongoing stress can cause the switch to Feeling Brain to become jammed. This meant that we would tend to react reflexively, instead of responding thoughtfully to situations. When the act of avoidance becomes part of our reflexes, it is infinitely more difficult for us to notice that we are doing it. This often turns into a cycle of suffering that perpetuates many problems with mental health.
Just as the video by Happify has depicted, mindfulness prompts us to take a step back and observe these automatic, habitual patterns of behaviour. It invites us to look upon the patterns with curiosity and openness, so that we may be able to understand what our emotions are trying to tell us. It then encourages us to recreate a space between our emotional experience and our behaviour, so that we may be able to act more in accordance with our goals and values.
Furthermore, mindfulness reminds us that our emotions are not permanent. The way that my mentor and lecturer has described it to me was to visualize ourselves as the sky; and our emotions, thoughts, and sensations as the passing clouds. The clouds will arise and take shape. Some are light and wispy; whilst others are heavy with rain, occasionally bringing thunder and lightning with them. There will be days coloured with brightness and clear skies; but there will also be days when the clouds converge to produce storms that shake us to the core. In either of these situations, we can choose to focus on the clouds and hold them in place. But we can also choose to let go, and let them pass or dissipate like all clouds ultimately do.
I think this is a beautiful metaphor that demonstrates the ebb and flow of our emotions. When we can learn to stop struggling against our feelings and just sit with them instead, we will be able to process them and let them pass. Finally, the metaphor signifies hope and possibility for change – two important components of resilience and recovery (Hayes et al., 2017). Mindfulness highlights the fact that it is impossible to be joyful all the time, and it is impossible to be sad all the time. Whilst valleys or downs are inevitable in life, they are not forever. This could be relieving or comforting for those who expect themselves to achieve a “perfect, happy” life, and/or those who might be so deep in the darkness that they cannot see a way out.
One last note that I might make is that, just like all approaches, mindfulness will not work for everyone. If it is something that you find yourself connecting with, or if you are interested in learning more about how you could apply it to your individual circumstances, always seek out professional help so that these practitioners can assist you in your journey.
Learn more of the science behind mindfulness with this article at Seribu Tujuan.
Learn more of the relationship between mindfulness and religion with this article at Seribu Tujuan.