Mind Fullness vs. Mindfulness

Sonya Kontorovich, MA, LCPC

Are you full? Not in your stomach, but in your mind? Endless to-do lists, remembering so many people, tasks, dates, places. Does this feel like a burden that causes anxiety, depression, dissociation, physical decline, sleep problems, appetite disturbance, or headaches, among other unpleasant things? Could it be that there is a “fix” for so many of our struggles, be they at work, in our relationships, in our views of self, or in our interactions with the world? Could it be that the “fix” has been there for a long time, for longer than we have been alive? What is it? Mindfulness. What is your reaction to the word? Is it curiosity, an eye roll, a sigh after having heard about it on everything from Oprah to your morning radio program? It seems it is everywhere now, but it is not new. It is just becoming “in vogue” again, which is a great thing! Modern day guru and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) expert Jon Kabat-Zin defines mindfulness as “the awareness that arises though paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”[i] This is a deceptively simple notion, but not easy to practice, which is why it is the practice, or the process of mindfulness that we seek, rather than the outcome. One does not arrive at mindfulness like a stop on a train, but rather practices observation of the ride as the train moves along the tracks. There are also common misconceptions about mindfulness or meditation, which is one way of practicing mindfulness. Some mistakenly believe that in order to be “doing” mindfulness correctly, they must be able to achieve a state of clearing their mind form all thoughts. Inevitably, when I bring up mindfulness with clients or in colloquial life, I am met often with, “Yeah, I’m not really into that stuff.  I tried it and it didn’t really work.” Upon further discussion, I find that the people became frustrated with not being able to clear their minds and, after several attempts, gave up. The key is that this “agenda” interrupts the process of mindfulness, which I would argue is our natural state. We are meant to notice and observe things around us and within ourselves. For instance, consider watching a young baby, crawling around, exploring his surroundings. He is not worried about the snack he will get in thirty minutes or the nap he had an hour ago. He is occupied by and fully immersed in his given activity (until he waddles over to the next one!). Our goal, then, is to retrain our minds away from being full (of fears, worries, plans, etc.) and toward being mindful of where we are and what is happening to us and around us. The idea of attending, or being present to, something or someone is vital in many areas of life.


Consider how paying intentional attention to a task at work allows you to do it well and efficiently. Then consider how getting a call, while answering an email, while chewing a sandwich, and while sipping your coffee might distract you from the original task. Research shows that multitasking isn’t really our strong suit; it does not do the human brain any favors and our performance suffers because of it.[ii] It is beneficial to remember that at any one given moment, we can only really do one thing at a time, hence common expressions like “Moment by moment” or “One day at a time.” Therefore, distractions from that one thing, in that one moment in time, do not enhance our ability to complete that task or enjoy it. Instead, we simply clutter our minds with unproductive fullness that lacks the substance to sustain us, like empty cognitive calories.

Mindfulness also has immense benefits for interpersonal interactions. Think about having an argument with your spouse or loved one and missing what he or she is trying to communicate because you are waiting for your turn to rebut, defend, or state your point. This is an example of the mind being too full, to the detriment of being able to attune to the nuance or your partner’s slumped shoulders of discouragement or subtle shakiness of voice that can give you a clue about underlying feelings. As a result, the entire tone of the conversation may change, and the result may be feelings of frustration, invalidation, and disconnect. Work by famed relationship researcher John Gottman demonstrates that attunement is crucial to processing relational wounds, which, if left unaddressed, will lead partners to ruminate about the harmful event (e.g. an argument). Over time, this negatively shapes how one partner sees the other partner through a universally critical perspective.[iii] Conversely, if partners practice mindfulness, they are better able to observe, without judgement, the important signals from their partner and then practice attunement (actively listening and empathizing with one another) to find a resolution rather than continuing a cycle of hurt feelings.


Parenting is another area where we often fall into automatic habits and interaction patterns that at best are ineffective, and at worst are harmful. Many parents describe the experience of having their temper or frustration “creep up on me” or “just sort of come out of nowhere.” While that may feel like the case, there likely were many signs that the frustration or exhaustion were building before the eventual blow-up. Mindfulness can be vital in this arena, as it allows a parent to be aware of his or her own emotions, degree of fatigue, hunger state, etc. A mom who has been up since 5am and ate only half a PB&J and some cold coffee may be understandably testy by 5pm when her toddler throws his freshly cooked (by her) dinner on the floor. She may scold him too severely for the situation or cry out of frustration. But this response could be mitigated if she practiced mindfulness throughout the day and was in touch with what she needed. She might have noticed her hunger cues, observed her headache and taken just a few moments to drink water, get some more food, or ask her partner to take over dinner today because she was over-burdened. She would also reduce the likelihood of the blow-up if she was mindful of her feelings (“I am exhausted and agitated”) or her automatic thoughts (“How am I going to make it through the rest of the day? If anything else goes wrong, I’m going to lose it!”). Furthermore, practicing mindfulness and teaching it to children is very effective in guiding the development of their own emotion regulation skills. So effective is it, in fact, that schools across the country are integrating innovative mindfulness practices and doing things like replacing traditional detention consequences with meditation classes, as research has demonstrated that mindfulness is more effective at offsetting negative, impulsive, or hostile behavior than the consequence of a time out or detention.[iv]

There are practical ways to practice mindfulness throughout your day, every day, which do not require a Himalayan retreat and years of discipline to learn. You can try challenging some of your automatic routines and reduce extra stimuli. For instance, if you usually drive with the radio on and eat your breakfast while rushing to work and putting on lipstick or tying your tie as your steer with your knee, try taking a deep breath, turning off your radio and driving quietly with your eyes focused on the road for several minutes. Then add in one thing at a time, take a bite of your granola bar and chew it slowly to taste the flavors and notice the textures of your food. Acknowledge gratitude for the opportunity to eat it and wait several moments before the next bite and observe your sensations. There is no right or wrong, there is just what “is”, and your task is to withhold judgement. If you have judgement, simply notice it as a thought. Then, after arriving safely at your destination (hopefully after steering the entire way with your hands), take a deep breath and take the time to mindfully and slowly tie your tie or finish putting on your make-up. You will not be losing time, as it is merely the perception that doing all of these things simultaneously will save you time. In reality, it creates unneeded risks of distraction, and a sense of being rushed and frazzled, which ironically is what people so often describe when they are talking about the stresses of daily living. An effective antidote is the awareness of perception vs. reality, and this can be done most directly with mindfulness. How? Start by focusing on your breath and feeling it move in and out of your body. Notice if it is going in through your mouth or nose, if you feel yourself breathing into your chest or more with your diaphragm, under the ribs. Allow yourself to sink deeper into your seat, the floor, or wherever you are sitting. When (not if) your mind wanders, that is fine! Just notice that it wandered, perhaps take note of where it went and make an intention with yourself to revisit that thought at a later time, and then bring your attention back to your breath. This can be done for five minutes a day, with thirty minutes being ideal and does not need to be done all at once.[v] If you have time for five minutes in the morning, ten minutes at lunch, and another ten minutes before bed, that is a great place to start. Truthfully, anywhere is a great place to start because, as you practice it, many of the elements will become habitual and you can begin to feel the benefits of awareness, feeling more present in your roles and activities, more connected in your relationships, and more satisfied in your tasks. The other piece of mindfulness is creating space for gratitude. The idea is to intentionally shift the perspective of our life activities from things we have to do (sometimes with dread) to things we are grateful for the opportunity to do. For example, instead of “Ugh, I have to do A (finish my report) and then I have to drive to B (the city) so I can see C (my co-worker),” the perspective can change to “Oh, I get to do A (feel accomplished at completing my report) and then I can drive over to B (the city is interesting) and I am grateful for the opportunity to see C (I enjoy some parts of my time with this person).” Or, rather than, “I am so annoyed that I have to clean up this huge mess of dishes,” take on the more grateful approach of, “We had great food with a lot of people who are important and enjoyed sharing a meal together. The dishes are evidence of a good time.” In both cases, there is still a pile of dishes that may take twenty minutes to clean. The gratitude perspective is what makes those twenty minutes something to ether dread or enjoy (especially if you can manage to be mindful and observe the water flowing over the plate, the soap suds bubbling up, and the glean of the fork as it is placed nice and clean into the drying rack). Over time, our brain begins to form neuro-pathways around habitual mindfulness and gratitude.  This will exponentially continue to make it easier for us to practice these things, because we are literally being re-wired to do so. According to trauma psychologist Eric Gentry, an essential part of self-care is the ability to self-regulate by relaxing the body in context of a perceived threat, which can be achieved through acute awareness of minor changes (e.g. tensed shoulder muscles) and then a deliberate softening of those muscles when they are tight.[vi] He recommends tightening and relaxing the pelvic floor muscles, or any muscle group, with intention and attention, which has the effect of calming the sympathetic nervous system when it becomes activated for “fight or flight” mode in reaction to a perceived threat. Being aware of our body’s state throughout the day is an aspect of mindfulness that can empower us to engage more effectively with how we feel and lead to improved regulation and reduced distress. The tasks of life do not go away, but that way in which we perceive and respond to them can be a powerful shift from a mind full of “stuff” to being mindful of the “stuff” and noticing the detail, nuance, complexity, beauty, and ever-fleeting impermanent state of each passing moment. And so, dear reader, I wish you well in any efforts to be more mindful in any given moment, and I am grateful for your audience.

 

 



[i] Kabat-Zinn, Jon (Author). (2011). Mindfulness, healing and transformation: The pain and the promise of befriending the full catastrophe [DVD Video]. United States: PESI Publishing & Media.

[ii] Keim, Brandon (2012). Is multitasking bad for us? Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/body/is-multitasking-bad.html

[iii] Gottman, John; Gottman, Julie (Authors). (2013). Building trust, love and loyalty in relationships [DVD Video]. United States: PESI Publishing & Media.

[iv] Mindful Schools (2010-2017). Why mindfulness is needed in education. Retrieved from http://www.mindfulschools.org/about-mindfulness/mindfulness-in-education/#why-mindfulness-is-needed-in-education

[v] Marikis, D.A. (2017), The Habits of Stress-Resilient People, Sponsored by Institute for Brain Potential.

[vi] Gentry, Eric (Author). (2013). Compassion Fatigue Prevention and Resiliency [DVD Video]. United States: PESI Publishing & Media.