What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a relaxation technique derived from meditation practice. It is about learning to observe your mind at work, without getting ‘sucked into’ your thoughts. It is about learning to allow thoughts to happen and to observe them. Normally, we do not pay much attention to what is going on in our mind. We just have thoughts and act on them. For example, when we smell a delicious aroma coming from a bakery, we might think “oh, I’d love a bun.” It is only when we are deciding whether we will either purchase one or not that we become aware of our mental process. In Mindfulness, we would be aware of the smell impinging on our senses, and aware of the thoughts arising from that (“oh, I’d love a bun”, memories of tastes, images of our favourite bun) and we would then be aware of our decision-making process (“I don’t have time to stop”, “I shouldn’t really have one”, “I’ll have lunch in half an hour anyway”). The idea in Mindfulness is to become aware, dispassionately, of reality – of the environment and things going on around us which impact on us, of internal sensations and thoughts.

In ordinary consciousness, attention is generally directed outwards, to some task or activity, or driven by habit. Our thoughts similarly are often operating in habitual patterns. In general, a mindful state of consciousness is characterized by awareness turned inward toward the present felt experience. It is passive, alert, open, curious, and exploratory. It seeks to simply be aware of what is, as opposed to attempting to do or confirm anything (Johanson, 2006).

Mindfulness teaches us to focus our attention on our thoughts, emotions and sensations at this present moment, right now, without looking back at the past or predicting future consequences. It helps us to defuse or disengage from our thoughts, to observe what is happening without getting caught up in it or judging the event or ourselves. By becoming observers of ourselves, we no longer have to act on our sensations, emotions or thoughts. We can see that our thoughts are just that – thoughts. This means that we do not get into ruminations or other emotions or responses. We can then accept the thoughts as thoughts which happen and which have no other meaning.

In OCD, Mindfulness can help. Rather than just responding to a thought or emotion and automatically engaging in a ritual, you can notice what is happening. You can focus on your present bodily sensations, notice the emotion you are experiencing, and notice the thoughts which come automatically to your mind. You can ’embrace’ the feeling of anxiety or fear, allow it to occur, without getting panicked about it. The panic is due to future predictions (“I must ritualize!” “I’ll feel awful if I don’t!” “Something terrible will happen!”), but in Mindfulness you stay grounded in the present.

Because of the aspect of non-judgementality and acceptance involved in mindfulness, it is possible to develop a compassionate stance towards yourself and other people. This compassionate stance is known as ‘loving kindness’. Being critical of yourself, your OCD symptoms, causes suffering. Being accepting of yourself and your OCD symptoms means that you suffer less distress.

Mindfulness is difficult to do, and requires a lot of practice. You may not be able to sustain Mindfulness for more than 30 seconds or less when you start, but do not be discouraged. Practice can initially be done in formal mindfulness sessions or using a CD, when you specifically set aside time to do this. As you improve your mindful ability, you can start practicing at any time when you have a moment to spare: while doing the washing-up, while waiting for the ‘green man’ when crossing the road, while eating your lunch. You become aware of all your thoughts and sensations at the present moment. Only when you are well practiced will you be able to use the technique when emotions run high.

Courses in Mindfulness are available in several centres in Ireland (though not specifically directed at OCD, BDD, or Trichotillomania) (google: Mindfulness classes or google: Mindfulness courses) and CDs are available on the internet.

Johanson, G, 2006, A survey of the use of mindfulness in psychotherapy. Annals of the American Psychotherapy Association, Vol. 9, Issue. 2, p 15