Basically, mindfulness means paying attention (without judging) to what is happening in the present moment. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? In fact it’s incredibly hard.
Mindfulness, while not exactly the same as meditation, does overlap with it. Meditation practices can be found in most religious and spiritual traditions — for example, praying the Catholic rosary is actually a meditation on events in the lives of Jesus and Mary, with the prayers serving as the background mantra. This is why the common Protestant complaint of “they don’t do anything but recite memorized prayers” is not true, or at least it shouldn’t be.
Meditation is a fundamental part of eastern religions such as Buddhism. Each Buddhist tradition has its own ideas about how to meditate. I don’t claim to know much about it, but I do know that meditation is not always done while sitting. More advanced individuals may practice walking meditation as well as meditation / mindfulness while carrying out tasks such as dishwashing (I’ve done that one before and it completely changed my feelings about the task. So why haven’t I kept it up?).
Mindfulness is one of the four main areas addressed by Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). Its four attributes are Observing, Describing, Participating, and Nonjudgmental Stance. Each of these is important.
Observing means that I pay attention to my 5 senses (as well as other internal and external sensations) on a moment-by-moment basis. Then I Describe what I have observed using language that is as precise and rich as possible. Participating may mean literally joining in — a conversation, a game — or using empathy and spirituality to help me feel I am part of the human race, part of the planet. Finally, I choose a Nonjudgmental Stance when I am Observing, Describing, and Participating. This is especially applicable to describing because it will affect the words I choose.
An example scenario:
Someone has said something to me that I perceived as critical and my shame spiral has been activated. How can I use mindfulness to help me get out of this situation? First, I Observe the outside (what tone of voice did he or she use? has this person been critical in the past? is he or she critical of everyone?) and the inside (what do I feel in my body? what am I thinking and feeling?). Then I use words to Describe what I observed (out loud or to myself). If I notice that I want to turn away from the interaction, I make a decision to stay engaged and to listen carefully to the other person. Finally, I stop paying attention to any judgmental thoughts that occur to me, whether directed at the other person or at myself.
This procedure calms my thoughts and feelings and allows me to interact using Wise Mind. Practically speaking, moment to pause is one of the most valuable mindfulness skills for me. It is quick and easy but it can make the difference between maintaining my serenity and having a horrific temper tantrum!