Podcast: What is Mindfulness?
Is your mind constantly preoccupied with the past or the future? What if you could train your brain to just BE in the present moment? This is the essence of mindfulness — simply being in the here-and-now (not worrying about that stupid thing you said last week), and gently noticing your surroundings and thoughts without judgment. In today’s podcast, Jackie enlightens a skeptical Gabe of the value of practicing mindfulness and how it can be a very useful tool in his mental health tool box. And she’s armed with scientific facts to break him down.
When was the last time you truly listened to the rain, enjoyed a cup of coffee… or stopped to smell the roses? Tune in to hear how mindfulness can help you get rid of the mental static that causes so much anxiety.
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About The Not Crazy Podcast Hosts
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations, available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from Gabe Howard. To learn more, please visit his website, gabehoward.com.
Jackie Zimmerman has been in the patient advocacy game for over a decade and has established herself as an authority on chronic illness, patient-centric healthcare, and patient community building. She lives with multiple sclerosis, ulcerative colitis, and depression.
Computer Generated Transcript for “Mindfulness” Episode
Editor’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to Not Crazy, a Psych Central podcast. And here are your hosts, Jackie Zimmerman and Gabe Howard.
Gabe: Hey, everyone, welcome to the Not Crazy Podcast. I’d like to introduce my co-host, Jackie.
Jackie: And that was my co-host, Gabe.
Gabe: Jackie, we are going to discuss mindfulness. And not surprisingly, I am not a big fan of mindfulness, probably because I’m a Gen Xer and have common sense.
Jackie: Oh. Oh. Shots fired. OK. Well, I guess that’s why this is a good topic, is because we don’t agree probably at all. I think mindfulness is an amazing tool. It’s wonderful. And everybody should be using it, just like therapy.
Gabe: It’s important to point out that just because Gabe Howard doesn’t like mindfulness doesn’t mean that Gabe Howard thinks that mindfulness is bad, should go away, or that people shouldn’t use it. I also don’t understand yoga. I will never do yoga. It’s scary to me. I would get wrapped up like a pretzel. But I’m not on a campaign to eliminate yoga. I’m not on a campaign to end mindfulness. It’s just everywhere. And it seems to be offered up as the solution to every problem until CBD oil came out. And then we sort of forgot about mindfulness for a little bit. But sincerely, it is everywhere.
Jackie: It is everywhere. And it’s not the solution to everything, but it is a solution to a lot of things. Not solution, it will aid a lot of things. Let’s be clear, it’s not going to solve world hunger, but it can make things better. Right? It’s helpful. It’s helpful. And it can.
Gabe: It’s like taking a hot shower when you’re sick.
Jackie: It can get you to where you want to be, maybe a little bit faster. And let’s rewind for a minute, Gabe. Actually, before we jump into that, let’s talk about what is mindfulness.
Gabe: Like from a technical definition?
Gabe: Not its new age bunk that is pointless.
Jackie: No. This is from Berkeley.edu. So.
Gabe: All right. I trust Berkeley.
Jackie: Berkeley. This is a really long definition. I’m just going to read a part of it, which says mindfulness means maintaining a moment by moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and surrounding environment through a gentle nurturing lens. I know you’re gonna say that’s bullshit.
Gabe: But I do struggle with this because it’s not. Who shouldn’t be aware of their body, right? I don’t think it’s bullshit to be aware of your body. I don’t think it’s bullshit to stop and smell the roses. I don’t think it’s bullshit to count to 10. I just think that all of this stuff existed and that people have been doing it for years and we didn’t put a name on it and give it like a culture surrounding it. I think maybe that’s what I have the problem with. Mindfulness used to be called stop and smell the roses. Mindfulness used to be called slow-down. Now all the sudden it’s like a new fangled thing that people think they just discovered.
Jackie: Wrong. First of all, mindfulness is actually rooted in like Buddhist meditation, right? So it’s not a new fangled thing. It’s a thing that specifically in America we suck at. So yeah. Stop and smell the roses is the same thing. Take a moment. Pause is the same thing. But we didn’t do it. Nobody did it. And they definitely didn’t do it in a way that was long and meaningful. Yes. If you stop literally for a moment and smell the roses. Technically, that’s mindfulness. But do you get any of the benefits from a 0.5 second roses smell? No, you don’t.
Gabe: But don’t you? Now I’m going to defend mindfulness because I kind of disagree. Like when you said, do you get any benefit from a 0.5 second rose smell? Are you kidding? We never stop. First off, we don’t do things one at a time now. We invented multi-tasking, and that’s my generation. You know how I was making fun of your generation? Gen Xers invented, one thing at a time? No, multi-tasking is where it’s at. So we don’t stop and do anything for .05 seconds. So are you kidding? Like 0.5? That’s an improvement. So yeah, in that way, I agree with you. I just don’t think it’s mindfulness. I think it’s stopping to smell the fucking roses.
Jackie: But it is mindfulness. It doesn’t hurt to put a title on it. Right. OK. Prime example. Have you ever gone to a friend and talked about a problem, Gabe?
Jackie: And isn’t that similar to what you do in therapy?
Gabe: I mean, except that therapy works on a scientific basis.
Jackie: So does mindfulness.
Gabe: Does it?
Jackie: It does.
Gabe: Does it?
Jackie: It does. Would you like some facts?
Gabe: I would love some facts. The way that it is described, and I know that I’m old and I know that I’m crotchety. I know that I’m set in my ways. But I would love to read any article about mindfulness that doesn’t make it sound like bunk. I am open to the idea, Jackie, that it’s not, but it’s always so hippy dippy and flowery and it doesn’t seem to be based on anything. And I would like to point out that talking to your friends and therapy, while maybe on the same spectrum, are a world of difference. I don’t want everybody to avoid therapy because of, you know, Bob at the bar.
Jackie: No, but you can fit. Talking things out is helpful.
Jackie: It has a name. It’s called therapy. When you’re doing with your friend, it’s not therapy, but like it fits under the idea of talking out your problems.
Gabe: Very true.
Jackie: Similarly in this situation. But here’s a fact. Ready to have your mind blown? Mindfulness changes our brains. This is still from Berkeley. Researchers found that it increases density of gray matter in brain regions linked to learning memory, emotion, regulation and empathy.
Gabe: Give me an example of practicing mindfulness. What are we dealing with? You know, we use the example of stopping to smell the roses. And I know that that that is a mindfulness basis. But I can’t believe that stopping to smell the roses for 0.5 seconds or even five minutes a day, I can’t believe that that is changing gray matter in humans. It doesn’t sound reasonable to me.
Jackie: Well, as you might suspect, I strongly disagree with you again on this. Because you can’t tell me that over time, stopping to relax your brain, release stress, all the positive things that come out of something like mindfulness can’t change the chemistry in your brain. You’re telling me that if you’re on level 10 stress forever that your brain chemistry doesn’t change?
Gabe: I will cave immediately on that one. Because obviously when when I was in a state of perpetual depression, for example, that changed my brain. When I was in a state of perpetual mania, that changed my brain. So sometimes I do feel like I’m stuck in a semantics argument. Like I feel like I’m saying, hey, look, we need to be aware of our surroundings. We need to not live in this stress. We need to understand our limitations and we need to count to ten. We need to focus on our breathing. And I think that’s a good idea. People have heard me say this. And then your side fires back. Well, that’s mindfulness. And I immediately say no. How did we get here? Because one of the things that you said is that mindfulness came from Buddhism, which is which is literally thousands of years old. But I never, ever, ever heard the phrase mindfulness until like ten years ago.
Jackie: So because it didn’t have a name, it means it doesn’t exist and it’s not real?
Gabe: Yeah, I did. I hear the stupidity in that.
Jackie: It doesn’t make any sense. I mean, here’s what I think. Mindfulness is not one thing. It’s not a list of five steps. It’s not clearly defined. It’s a relatively abstract concept. And I think that a lot of people in the world have a hard time wrapping their brain around the idea of mindfulness could really be anything. It’s what works for you. And without clear guidelines and really stringent rules we’re all like, this is scary. I don’t really understand what this is and it must not work. It must be completely rooted in all of the wiggy and the weird hippy dippy shit because I don’t have a clear guide on how to make it work for me.
Gabe: I want people to know that I don’t like have a vendetta against mindfulness. Like I can kind of hear it in myself. Like dude, why do you care? And as I said at the top of the show, I’m not trying to get anybody to stop it. It’s just as a mental health advocate and somebody who lives with bipolar disorder, I face so much misinformation. Pill shamers, they tell me constantly, Gabe, you don’t need antidepressants. You need to go for a walk in the woods. And I’m like, no, stop it. And people tell me, oh, you have bipolar disorder? You can control depression and mania by running on a treadmill. And there’s always this little bit of science. Diet and exercise does help with bipolar disorder. Going for a walk in the woods sounds delightful. You know, on an overcast day when it’s about 70 degrees and not raining, but to cure bipolar disorder? That scares me. And people are looking for reasons to ignore the medical establishment. Have you seen the anti-vax movement? We now have measles for the first time in several generations. It just seems like mindfulness is just the latest new age cure to get us away from doing the hard work that it takes to be well when you’re managing a major mental health issue or living with mental illness. So, Jackie, I’m going to throw the ball back to you and say, do you think that mindfulness is a replacement for therapy? Because I know you’re pro therapy.
Jackie: No, it’s not. I don’t think mindfulness will cure anything. It’s not going to cure bipolar. I don’t think mindfulness is the only treatment option. I don’t think that mindfulness should replace anything else you’re doing. I think it’s an additional tool to use in conjunction with what you’re already doing. Like you can’t tell me that something that lowers stress, increases appreciation in relationships, and helps with your attention skills, or decision making is something that’s not going to help you in your life or handle living with bipolar or handle living with depression. All of those things are just going to make your tool kit bigger.
Gabe: I can get behind the idea that this is a tool in your tool kit. You have a fully functional tool kit and somebody says, dude, you need a mallet. But I have a hammer. And they’re like, no, no. A mallet. I know you’re thinking it’s the same thing, but a mallet is good. So I take the mallet and I put it in with all of my other tools. I can get behind that. You read the same Internet that I read, Jackie. You know that there are people who believe that mindfulness is a cure. You know that there are people that have just elevated mindfulness so far up that they’re like, dude, get rid of your toolbox, you are mallet man now. Now, what do you say to those people and why do they believe it?
Jackie: I don’t agree with that. I can’t say, yeah, that is gonna be the solution. I believe in science. I also believe in modern medicine. I think that science, modern medicine and a little bit of like the wiggy can all live together. That’s why we have holistic health centers and things now. Because there is value in a lot of these things. Can they treat modern disease? I personally don’t think so. I don’t think it’s a replacement for medication or modern medicine. I don’t. But I think that if you are somebody who doesn’t trust medicine, who has issues with medication for whatever reason you do, or somebody who just wants to believe in a holistic approach, you could put all your eggs in the mindfulness basket and be like, this is the thing. I don’t think it is the thing. I think it’s something that not only helps with anxiety, depression and a lot of other just feelings-based things. I will say like when I feel sad or feel really anxious, I think that mindfulness helps me ground myself. Mindfulness is very similar to meditation in that way. We have all kinds of studies on meditation. You’re not telling me meditation is bullshit. Meditation works. We’re teaching it in schools now. It’s all kinds of shit. But mindfulness, because it’s a new term, to you and to a lot of society right now, doesn’t mean it’s a new concept.
Gabe: I feel the desperate need to say that even Berkeley says that mindfulness is not going to fix or cure anything by itself. It’s always an add on tool. Every study is like, yeah, that this helps in a lot of different areas. But yeah, don’t give up your medicine, fire your therapist, fire your psychiatrist. It’s not gonna cure bipolar disorder, however, to your point. While it doesn’t cure anxiety. It’s really been shown to be very effective at lowering anxiety and stress. That did impress me because I am science driven. And maybe that’s the problem that I have with it. Maybe people just took a good thing too far. It reminds me of when I was a kid and my mom got me a bike. Right? The bike got me to and from school faster. That was fantastic. And then me and my dumb ass friends built ramps, and then some of us broke our legs.
Jackie: But how can too much mindfulness be a bad thing?
Gabe: I mean, if you break your legs.
Jackie: How can too much calming being the moment reconnect with yourself, with your relationships, you know, helping increase the density of gray matter? Actually, one study says that it might be just as effective as antidepressants. How can you say too much of that is a bad thing?
Gabe: There’s a million esoteric ways that I could go. Like, for example, people always make the comment, how can too much money be a bad thing? Well, did we all see Scrooge? That was bad for him. He was going to have to carry a chain and rot in hell forever. But let’s take it another step. If you are a miser that holds on to all of your money and you value your money over your relationships, then too much money becomes a bad thing. Let’s apply it here. If you have decided to ignore your psychiatrist, ignore your psychologist, ignore your general practitioner, stop taking your medication because you read on a website that all you need to do is stare at a flower for a half an hour a day. That’s a bad thing. I think maybe what you mean to say is that if it works for you and there are no ill effects, then it’s a good thing. But what I’m finding is the people that I talk to that say, oh, I’m only using this. There are no ill effects. I’m like, well, did you do it in conjunction with your doctor? I don’t need to. Why are you afraid to have your doctor look at what you’re doing? Are you afraid that they’ll find a flaw in your methodology? Are you afraid that something might happen that they’ll point out? It does seem like sometimes people gravitate to things like mindfulness and they just ignore all of the outside data so that they can say that, listen, mindfulness is working. But in the meantime, in order to actually do mindfulness 24/7, you’re probably unemployed. And that in and of itself is bad.
Jackie: Well, first of all, nobody can do mindfulness 24/7.
Gabe: Because of sleeping?
Jackie: No, because it’s basically impossible to stay hyper focused on one thing or your breathing or what the air feels like or the birds that are chirping. It is impossible unless you are a Buddhist monk in a mountain somewhere. You cannot do this 24/7. And it sounds like everybody you’re talking to is only doing this. And that’s not what I’m saying. That’s not what this is saying. If somebody said to you, I’m only going to take medication, that’s it. You would say that’s a bad idea.
Gabe: Oh, yeah. I’d say it’s a horrible idea. It’s a terrible idea.
Jackie: One thing is your one and only your hard stop is always a bad idea. All of these things require a combination unique to you, probably very different from somebody else. Dosage, time you’re doing mindfulness, are you going to therapy? All of the things; it all works together. At no point do I think anywhere that’s credible would say only practice mindfulness and that will lead you to a path of no mental illness. One hundred percent no.
Gabe: We’re gonna step away and we’ll be right back after these messages.
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Jackie: And we’re back, and I’m proving Gabe wrong about mindfulness.
Gabe: I’ve struggled with my weight for pretty much my entire life and I’ve been on a myriad of diets and eating plans and weight loss plans in the ones that work the best for me is the one that has no forbidden foods. It’s like, look. Eat what you like. And their sort of motto was all things in moderation. Understanding that, yeah, you can have cake on your birthday, but a sheet cake is too much. I know that I come out hard against mindfulness because when it first came out, it just had all of this. It just had all this flowery language and people were excited about it and they elevated it to a point where it didn’t belong to your point. A lot of that has a limited down, and there’s probably a bigger discussion to be why are so many people looking outside of what they currently have? Like, people have been struggling with mental illness and mental health issues for so long that when something new shows up, they’re desperate for it. Which really kind of shows you were not doing a good job with all of the stuff we have now. Because people who are healthy, people like me, you know, therapy is working for me. Medication is working for me. Family supports are working for me. So I sort of have the privilege to ignore this. I really do. Hey, this sounds dumb, I don’t want to do it. Well, that’s congratulations. You’re living well. You can. So it’s impacting a vulnerable group. I struggle with this a lot, Jackie. I really do, because the vulnerable group needs more. But the vulnerable group, they’re also easily taken advantage of. And I don’t know how to balance that.
Jackie: I agree with you that things positioned to a vulnerable group of people, if positioned incorrectly, can be harmful. Right? And I also would agree with you that when we’ll say mindfulness came on the scene, right, it started getting a lot of airtime. People were talking about it. You know, yogis everywhere were like, you must do this. All of that shit. I agree that it got elevated to a level similar to, honestly, you know, the benefits of yoga. The benefits of meditation. All of these sort of holistic things that naysayers and skeptics go like this is all bullshit. We’re not doing this. And as somebody who is rooted in science, loves modern medicine, you know, I am the skeptic. I am this. But there is a tiny part of me that believes in the power of the wiggy, as I call it. And the reason is because I’ve seen its benefits, right? When I am heavily worked up, and I take a minute, literally a minute to meditate, I feel better afterwards. I know that it works. Scientific research will back up why it works. The problem with things that fall under the category of the wiggy, or the hippy dippy, whatever you want to call it is that there is some buy-in required to see the benefit.
Jackie: You have to go into it going, this is going to work. Or even this could work. But if you’re trying to be mindful, you’re focusing on smelling the roses for a minute and the whole time you’re like, this is fucking stupid. Why am I doing this? I don’t want to do this. It’s not gonna work. You’re not going to get the benefits of it. The whole point is to clear your mind. If your mind is perpetually telling you this is really stupid, you’re not going to see the benefit of it. So there are always going to be people who are not going to be able to just clear all their preconceived notions and just see it for what it is. I was one of them for a very, very long time. You have to at least allow yourself to fathom the idea that it could be a useful thing for you.
Gabe: Jackie, I really like the explanation, especially backed by the Berkeley study, that mindfulness is a tool and we don’t all use the same tools. Not everybody needs a mallet, but everybody needs a toolbox. And what you put in that toolbox is different. It really reminds me of my friend Dreama. My friend Dreama is an interior decorator and I thought interior decorators were like rich people bullshit. Maybe it’s because I was raised blue collar. Maybe it’s because I’m poor. I don’t know. But she was like, no, interior design is is beautiful and decoration is beautiful. And it it helps you dream and it opens up pathways. And, you know, being in a beautiful environment will make you happy. And every time she spoke, I was like, bullshit, bullshit, bullshit, bullshit, bullshit. Then one day I get divorced. Here I am. I’m divorced. I’m moving into a six hundred square foot apartment, which I was moving out of a house into a 600 square foot apartment. I had almost no money. I had all kinds of junk shit and Dreama to the rescue. She’s like, listen, here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to design your apartment for free. I’m going to decorate it all. I’m going to lay it out largely with all the stuff that you already own. And I’m like, whatever, crazy lady. I don’t even care. I am too depressed to stop you.
Gabe: I. I call this place my pod. It’s probably one of the nicest places I’ve ever lived in my entire life. It was just so organized and beautiful and perfect. And I just couldn’t see what she was saying. And what she was essentially saying is that pretty organized spaces that speak to you make you feel better. I think that’s where we are with mindfulness. I don’t know that it helps me, but as you’ve pointed out, counting to 10, stopping to smell the roses are mindfulness acts. But there’s really no reason to be against it as long as you’re using it for the right thing. Obviously, if I quit my job to stay in my beautifully decorated home, that would be too far. If I paid my friend Dreama one hundred and fifty thousand dollars to design my 600 square foot apartment. Yeah. Maybe I’m abusing interior design. None of that happened. I used it correctly and she proved me wrong. And you have maybe proved me wrong too.
Gabe: But whatever.
Jackie: So can I get Dreama’s number? Because I could really use some help in that design department.
Gabe: Your house is pretty.
Jackie: This is what I really think about mindfulness. OK. I think it is a really helpful tool. If you believe it can be a helpful tool. The other thing is it’s hard. It actually takes work. If you are somebody who is kind of skeptic on the fence and you sit down and you try to smell the roses, as we have said, and the whole time you find yourself your mind wandering, doing other stuff and you’re like, this is stupid. I can’t do it. You have to stick with it. It is very similar to meditation. You have to retrain your brain to refocus back on what you’re doing. And the best way to do it is to start like really, really small. One of the best suggestions I ever heard for mindfulness was while you’re in the shower. Maybe you’re in the shower five minutes a day. I don’t know how long you take your showers, but while you’re in there, only think about the water hitting your skin, which is kind of easy to do because it is perpetually hitting your skin over and over and over again. But when you start to think about what you have to do that day, go back to thinking about the water. Mindfulness is something that takes work. You have to work at it, which means it’s not a simple fix to everything else in your life, much like all other treatment plans. It’s not an easy thing. It won’t fix it immediately. You have to work for it. And a lot of people who are skeptical aren’t willing to work for it so they won’t see the benefits of it.
Gabe: Jackie, I really like your tip about trying mindfulness in the shower. Especially the part where you can recall it throughout the day. But you’re like a mindfulness like master. You know you’re a master mindfulness-er. So what is your favorite mindfulness activity?
Jackie: That’s really hard to say because honestly, it changes with the seasons because I like to be outside in the summer. And one of the simplest mindfulness things you can do is sit outside and let the sun hit you and just focus on what it feels like when the sun hits you. Like where’s it warming on your body? How does it make you feel? Literally just feeling it. And that’s one of those things when you’re like, don’t we all just count to 10? Don’t we all do whatever? No, we don’t. We don’t make the time to focus on the thing, whatever the thing is. Another thing to do, that was a great suggestion from my therapist, who I love, was to sit in the grass one day and just feel the grass. Feel the wind. Listen to the sounds. Like, just only do that. Most the time we’re sitting in the grass and I’m making a to do list or I’m thinking about how there’s probably a bug crawling on me or if there’s a car driving by, like, what if somebody is walking up behind me right now? You know, you’re not focusing on the thing. The thing is to focus on what you feel, what it sounds like, the senses. The mindfulness is focusing on the senses. And most of us are really, really bad at doing that. So, Gabe, after all of that, after breaking down how small it can be or how it’s not going to change your life immediately, it’s not going be your only treatment option. Would you consider a mindfulness practice?
Gabe: In the interest of honesty, no, I’m not considering it at all. That said, I’m not in a bad way right now. Right? I’m not currently experiencing depression or high anxiety. I gotta tell you, though, I am willing to put the mallet in my toolbox. I just don’t have a need for a mallet right now. And I think that’s maybe what a lot of people should be willing to do with the things that just don’t sound like they are for them. Maybe they should just be willing to put it in their back pocket and consider it maybe for later. And at the beginning of the show, at the beginning of the research for the show, I was positive that we’re going to end in a very different place. So it was really, really mean to go get science and Berkeley involved. Like that.
Jackie: I’m such a dick.
Gabe: That was my Achilles heel. Jackie, it is always fun hanging out with you. Thanks for being my co-host.
Jackie: I love proving you wrong. It’s great to be your co-host.
Gabe: She wins one argument, ladies and gentlemen. Listen up, listeners, here’s what we need all of you to do. Wherever you downloaded this podcast, please subscribe. Please rate us. Please use your words and review us and tell people what you like about the show. If there’s something that you don’t like about the show, hey, we completely understand. We’re human. Email us at [email protected] and tell us about it. Remember after the credits, there’s always outtakes because hey, nobody’s perfect. Including Gabe and Jackie. And we will see you next week.
Jackie: And as always, thank you for listening.
Announcer: You’ve been listening to Not Crazy from Psych Central. For free mental health resources and online support groups, visit PsychCentral.com. Not Crazy’s official website is PsychCentral.com/NotCrazy. To work with Gabe, go to gabehoward.com. To work with Jackie, go to JackieZimmerman.co. Not Crazy travels well. Have Gabe and Jackie record an episode live at your next event. E-mail [email protected] for details.
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Podcast, N. (2020). Podcast: What is Mindfulness?. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 30, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/podcast-what-is-mindfulness/