Ships in the harbor need to be anchored as they are brought back from a day at sea. If ships and boats were not secured, they would drift away if a storm were to occur at night. This is an ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) metaphor to help explain Mindfulness. Quite often mindfulness is misunderstood. Let’s clarify some essential points:
Definition of Mindfulness: Jon Kabat-Zinn defines it as: “Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” This means that we can learn to purposely notice what is happening in the here-and-now. As we do, we become observers without making evaluations or judgments about events, ourselves, and/or others.
The Mind is an amazing machine that we were given so that we can survive in this world. Often it is called the “problem-solving machine.” Our mind is constantly producing thoughts and looking out for our own comfort and safety. If the mind perceives a threatening situation, it will find ways to help us feel comfortable again. When individuals experience anxiety, their mind will — like an amazing computer — find ways to “help” remove the unpleasant events.
By default, because we carry our mind with us, we listen and often obey its directions. As we do, we can become fused and tangled up with our thoughts and feelings. Anxiety may ensue and as we try to get rid of it, we inadvertently reinforce it. It can turn into a vicious cycle.
Research has shown that mindfulness practice can help us separate ourselves from those thoughts, feelings, sensations, and urges. Note that when we learn to separate or untangle ourselves from those internal experiences, we learn to observe them for what they are — thoughts, feelings, sensations, and urges. By practicing mindfulness we can learn to notice them without trying to change anything. This is can be a difficult concept because our human instinct is to want to eliminate unpleasant events.
You can try to purposely pay attention to the now and accept what is — without making any judgments. Remember that even though you may feel relaxed and relieved after practicing mindfulness, that is not the goal, it is just a byproduct of doing it correctly. As you practice mindfulness, instead of focusing on the outcome, it is best to focus on the process of anchoring your attention to the present moment. One simple way to start is by noticing the way you breathe.
Mindful Breathing: One way to keep steady during an anxiety storm is by choosing to practice mindful breathing. You can notice how the air enters in through your nostrils and expands your lungs. You can choose to focus on the warm air as it slowly exits your nostrils or mouth. As you pay attention to your in-breaths and out-breaths for a few minutes, you will be able to stay anchored like a boat during a storm.
Keep in mind that the mind will naturally do what is used to doing — producing thoughts and watching out for our safety. As you practice mindfulness, judgmental thoughts or other random thoughts will try to divert your attention. Don’t worry. Just notice that this is happening and gently bring your attention back to your breathing.
Russ Harris has taught that “breathing is like an anchor in the midst of an emotional storm: the anchor won’t get rid of the storm, but it will hold you steady until it passes.” Practicing mindfulness every day, takes effort and consistency. As you do so, you will learn to appreciate life for what it is and enjoy it more!