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“Mindfulness” is a bit of a buzz word these days. While most of us have heard it used, often in the context of health and wellbeing, the term can mean different things. Much of the time, mindfulness is interpreted narrowly as “meditation,” but meditation is one of many mindfulness practices.
“I like to think of mindfulness as an umbrella,” Arielle Kanitz, DBT-Linehan Board of Certification, Certified Clinician, said in a recent interview. As the director of the Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) track at FHE Health, Kanitz helps patients develop mindfulness tools and other “skills” for coping with stress and managing mental health symptoms. (“Mindfulness” is in fact one of four modules or skillsets that comprise the DBT treatment track.)
“Underneath that (mindfulness) umbrella,” Kanitz continued, “you’ll get things like meditation or different practices like yoga or tai chi, as well as specific mindfulness skills that we teach in DBT.”
How Principles of Mindfulness Inform Certain Therapies
Principles of mindfulness inform not just DBT but also a type of therapy known as “mindfulness-based cognitive-behavioral therapy” (CBT). For example, these “7 Pillars of Mindfulness,” written by the mindfulness and mental health guru Jon Kabat-Zinn, are meant to be guiding principles for mindfulness:
- Beginner’s mind
- Acceptance or Acknowledgement
- Letting go – Letting be
Practitioners of mindfulness-based CBT say that an effective mindfulness routine will support and cultivate these core attitudes.
What It Means to “Practice Mindfulness” and Elements of Mindfulness
But what does it mean to “practice mindfulness”? As someone who has taught mindfulness skills in DBT, could Kanitz offer some insights?
Kanitz answered this question by suggesting the following four ways to practice mindfulness:
- utilizing the mindfulness skills of DBT and being mindful of the present moment
- contemplative prayer
- any kind of mindful movement (whether structured or unstructured) such as yoga, martial arts, spiritual dancing, or walking
“Meditation is like the ultimate goal and highest level of mindfulness,” according to Kanitz, who explained why. “Most of the research is about meditation, because meditation is more concrete and easier to do and study— whereas it can be hard to ‘be mindful,’ insofar as it’s not so cut and dry.”
Elements of Mindfulness in DBT – The 6 Core Skills
Mindfulness construed narrowly as meditation can sometimes discourage people from even trying to be mindful, though. Many people have trouble sitting still for longer periods or may associate meditation with the unattainable spirituality of a Buddhist monk.
Kanitz said that the mindfulness skillset in DBT is meant to be accessible: “It doesn’t require that you be a Buddhist monk to get the benefits of mindfulness; you can reap the benefits without being an expert at meditation.”
In DBT, patients learn six mindfulness skills for becoming more fully attentive to the present moment.
First, there are the “what” skills, which are “what we do when practicing mindfulness”:
- Observe your situation and surroundings with a neutral, attentive eye.
- Describe your experience in the present moment. When someone in group therapy feels distracted and is having trouble focusing, Kanitz encourages them to “start describing what is going on in the room.”
- Participate in what is happening. Kanitz used the analogy of playing a sport and being fully immersed in “whatever is happening in the present moment … you’re throwing yourself into it fully and forcing yourself to be present.”
Next are the “how” skills (for how to practice mindfulness):
- Non-judgmentally observe, describe, and participate in the present moment. So often the brain is quick to label what is happening, but “the intention is to remove the narrative we attach to experiences and experience reality as it is, without a story or assumption added to it.”
- One-mindfully means “do one thing at a time.” Being mindful of the present moment requires focusing on one activity or setting. It is not possible to be mindful and multitask at the same time.
- Effectively signifies completion of the mindfulness exercise; or, as Kanitz sometimes likes to say, invoking the familiar Nike slogan, “Just do it.”
How to Know if You Are Practicing Mindfulness Well – What to Look for
Of course, one way to know if you are practicing mindfulness well is to employ the “what” and the “how” of mindfulness skills in DBT. While these six skills provide guidance for practicing mindfulness, they can also serve as a checklist and gauge for how it is going.
Intention is also critical, Kanitz said. “Mindfulness is not mindlessness. There is actual intention, and you’re saying to yourself I’m going to intentionally be mindful over the course of the next hour.”
“A lot of people believe if they just learn all the tools, mindfulness will just naturally happen,” Kanitz said— it’s not like that. With the mindfulness skills taught in DBT, “we’re trying to take control of the mind and bringing ourselves back to the center or present moment, so there’s some action involved. It’s not like you just sit there and then it’s going to happen.”
In other words, active intentionality may be another helpful barometer for evaluating whether you are practicing mindfulness well.
Are There Other Systems for Mindfulness That You’d Recommend?
Kanitz said there are “a few different perspectives on mindfulness that maybe aren’t as cerebral as DBT and are more spiritual in nature.” When we “look at mindfulness through the lens of religion or spirituality,” it’s possible to encounter mindfulness in “certain religious practices and prayer rituals.”
“Mystical experiences” are one example, Kanitz said. Here she referred to the “characteristics of mystical experiences,” mentioned in the DBT curriculum as a somewhat more systematized way of “putting words to experiences that do not make sense.” These same characteristics also help to describe what it can be like to be mindfully present in the moment.
Some Practical Tips for Those New to Mindfulness
Did Kanitz have any advice for beginners in mindfulness?
Kanitz’ “#1 tip” was “to have patience with yourself, because so many people will say that they tried mindfulness and that it didn’t work— but try to go into the situation with as much of an open mind and patience as possible.”
“This takes time, Kanitz added, “and you’re practicing mindfulness; you’re not doing or executing it but rather practicing it. You’re putting effort in, so be patient with yourself.”
Kanitz’ second and final tip was to remember what really matters, which in this case is the effort. “It’s that intentionality that is key,” she said.
“A lot of people ask, ‘What is mindfulness?’” Kanitz said. “Jon Kabat-Zinn says mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment on purpose, non-judgmentally. From my perspective, the one piece of that definition that people overlook is the ‘on purpose’ part. That’s why many people get frustrated and think, ‘Why am I not being mindful?’ I would say to give yourself some grace and recognize that breakthroughs often come when we least expect it. The goal is to remain consistent and do it with intention.”