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Understanding Mindfulness: Free Audio Download

by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.

The following is part of a series of audios to explain mindfulness in greater detail. Developing your ability to focus on the present moment can reduce distress and improve well-being.

The 	Mindful Attitude now available on Kindle!

Step 1--Basic Mindfulness Practice
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Index for Mindfulness Audios

Additional reading:

Some tips for using these audios:

  • A transcript of the audio is provided for your convenience. You can read or listen depending upon your preference.
  • Use the Understanding Mindfulness steps in order.
  • Learn each step thoroughly before beginning the next step. The practice can take weeks or months for each step.
  • For this step, choose mindfulness practice exercises that are pleasant for you.

Transcript of Audio: Step 1--Basic Mindfulness Practice

Since mindfulness is an experience, it is often very difficult to explain in words what mindfulness is to someone who is unfamiliar with the concept. This is especially true because mindfulness has many layers to it and it can be hard to understand the more advanced concepts without an experiential understanding of the basics. Usually I find that it is best to learn it in steps so that as you gain experience with it you will develop a greater understanding of it. As you listen to the steps later in this audio and the following audios they may not be initially clear to you. That is okay. Just focus on taking the first steps with mindfulness and once you have done that you can listen to these audios again. As you move through the steps, the later concepts may become more clear to you.

Making it even more difficult to explain mindfulness is that it often seems so basic and simple that initially people think they understand it when they may not. In fact, I often tell people that mindfulness is one of the simplest things and one of the hardest things in the world. The concept seems very simple but the actual mastery of it means much practice and a gradual uncovering of the layers of mindfulness.

Most people have naturally experienced mindfulness at times. Athletes call it being “in the zone.” Naturists may think of it as “being one with nature.” You may have experienced it while watching a beautiful sunset or when you have been very intent working on a project. It can occur in any number of ways. You might ask “Why should I practice mindfulness if it can occur naturally?” The answer to that is that the practice of mindfulness allows you to bring that mindful state into activities of your life that don't ordinarily create mindfulness. If you think back to times when you naturally experienced mindfulness, you may have experienced a calmness, being at peace, being focused. Perhaps your mind seemed to work more efficiently—it was easier to think, to problem-solve. Maybe you were able to react more quickly almost without thought. Your body just seemed to know what to do. Or, you were able to maintain a more positive, problem-solving focus without getting distracted by negative thoughts. All of these things are possible with mindfulness. That is what we are trying to do with the practice of mindfulness. We are bringing that natural experience into more aspects of our daily lives so that we can experience that peace, that focus, that ability to problem-solve and respond in all the difference areas of our lives.

Hopefully, by now you are asking “How can I begin?”

First, let's focus on trying to further define mindfulness. The best way to define mindfulness is that it is a focus on your present experience. However, even that description can be confusing to people. Sometimes people question “How can I plan for the future or evaluate past mistakes if I am only focused on the present?”

There are two issues with this question. One involves the idea of “always” being in a mindful state and the other is regarding the type of thinking that is present, mindful thinking. First, to my knowledge it is fairly impossible for us to live in a constant mindful state. Maybe some guru on a mountaintop has been able to achieve that. But for most of us, we are living in a world where we are constantly being faced with unexpected challenges. It is natural for us to become caught up in worry or fear or regret. Therefore, developing a mindful approach to life means increasing the frequency of our ability to be mindful in a variety of situations. However, it does not mean always being in a mindful state.

Second, and this is a very important concept in mindfulness, it is HOW we think about the future or the past that determines mindfulness, not just whether we ARE thinking about the future or the past. For instance, you can think about the future with catastrophic fears: “What if something bad happens?” or “What if I can't handle that?” Or you can be developing a plan to face a problem. The catastrophic fear is not mindful because it is not presently real. Maybe it will be real in the future but it is not now. And maybe it won't be real in the future. So focusing on that catastrophic future event doesn't solve the problem but only makes you more tense and anxious in the present. Which can contribute to not being able to focus on what you need to do in the present to solve the problem.

However, problem-solving IS a present, mindful state. If you are focusing in the present on steps you need to take to solve or avoid a future problem, you are engaged in mindful thinking. The same is true of the past. Engaging in regret in which you blame yourself and beat yourself up mentally for a mistake is not being mindful. However, recognizing a mistake, evaluating it, and using it as part of your problem-solving process is mindful.

This brings up another confusing concept of how does grief relate to mindfulness? You might say that grief is related to past events, mistakes, or regrets so if I am being mindful I should never grief. However, this is inaccurate because grief is a natural healing process which is necessary to help us cope with the losses we experience in life. So again, the issue is similar to what I described regarding future thinking. It is HOW you focus on grief that determines mindfulness. Grief is actually a PRESENT experience even though it is focused on a past event. It is feeling the loss in the present. When we engage in the natural process of grief we allow ourselves to experience whatever emotions are present. However, we become stuck in grief when our thought process becomes blaming, demanding, or fearful. For instance, when we focus entirely on criticizing and blaming ourselves or someone else, it prevents us from fully feeling the sadness of the loss. Although it may be normal to blame initially, mindfulness allows us to move through the emotions of grief rather than getting stuck.

Another example is that some people demand that they shouldn't feel the normal emotions of grief: “I shouldn't be angry because no one is at fault” or “I am weak because this bothers me.” Not allowing the normal feelings can also cause a person to be stuck. In this case, mindful grieving is accepting the emotion no matter what it is even if it may be anger or blame for a time. Another common reaction to grief is that a person may fear the future because of the loss: “How will I ever survive this?” or “How will I ever be able to handle another loss like this?” Mindfulness recognizes the fear but doesn't focus on it. In this case, mindful recognition is that the focus is on handling the loss, the emotions, NOW, not in the future. When the future is the present, then the future emotions can be dealt with.

What about a positive focus on future or past events? Some people may wonder whether such a focus is mindful since it is not attending to the present but to the future or past. Again, the issue is HOW you are thinking about the past or future. If it is with desire or dreams but not demand or avoidance, then it can be mindful. For instance, you can have pleasant dreams and goals about the future which can give your present a focal point, something that can direct your decisions and behavior. As such, that is a mindful focus on pleasant aspects of the future. However, if you demand that the future HAS to become what you want, then you are not being mindful. In the same way, a focus on pleasant memories from the past can be mindful because they enhance your present experience. However, if you dwell on memories of the past to avoid the present, then you are not being mindful.

Finally, I want to discuss one other common misunderstanding about mindfulness. Many people initially confuse mindfulness with relaxation. Some of my clients have reported back to me after initial instruction that it was dangerous to practice mindfulness while driving. This shouldn't be true because mindful awareness while driving would actually be a good thing because you are more aware of everything around you. So when people have this experience with mindfulness it indicates they were turning inward with a relaxation technique rather than developing external awareness.

Although mindfulness can often be relaxing, it is not the same as relaxation. When you use deep relaxation techniques you are turning your awareness inward. Although this could actually be considered mindfulness as your present focus when doing relaxation IS your internal experience, it is not the entire concept of mindfulness. Mindfulness is a state of being focused on whatever your present experience is. So it is not just being in a state of relaxation. In fact, if your present experience involves a crisis, you may be much removed from the internal focus of relaxation but you can still be in a mindful state. Similarly, if your present focus is relaxation, then you may be mindfully focused on relaxation which can enhance the relaxation experience.

I know some of this may seem confusing if you are just beginning to learn about mindfulness. However, over time it will become more clear. Just focus on the step you are learning now, and when you are ready listen to the next step and it will become more clear.

With these things in mind, let's focus on the first step of learning mindfulness. I believe that the state of mindfulness is a place that your brain is attracted to. Therefore, as you give your brain the opportunity to be mindful, it will more naturally want to be in that state and will find opportunities to seek out mindfulness. Because of this I think it is best to focus on just practicing mindfulness rather than trying to BE mindful. In fact, trying to BE mindful can be an unmindful demand. However, as you practice mindfulness and your brain experiences mindfulness more and more you will develop a more automatic pathway of mindfulness that your brain will more naturally pursue. This is similar to an athlete developing muscle memory. As the athlete practices a skill again and again, muscle memory is developed so that eventually the body can engage in that skill more automatically.

One of the best ways to practice mindfulness in the beginning is to take a minute or two at a time and focus on your present experience, whatever it may be. This is the nice thing about mindfulness practice: you do not need to take time out of your day to practice mindfulness. Instead, you practice it with whatever you may be doing. If you are doing dishes, you can practice mindfulness. If you are having a conversation, you can practice mindfulness. If you are waiting in line, you can practice mindfulness. As I said, you can practice mindfulness with whatever you are already doing. You do not need to make the time to practice mindfulness.

To help guide you with this, I have created a number of mindfulness practice audios. The audios are not actually mindfulness practice themselves. They are not meant to be imaginal exercises like the relaxation audios. Instead, they are only to give you the idea of how to focus. Once you have the idea, then you can engage in mindfulness practice when the activity occurs during the course of your day. The transcripts are also included with the audios so you can just read them if you choose. Initially, focus on practicing mindfulness with pleasant or neutral situations. We will discuss practicing mindfulness with discomfort in the next audio.

The idea is to take the concepts from the audios and practice mindfulness 10-15 times every day for a minute or two at a time. Being mindful is not just the focus on present experience. The practice of being mindful is really about how you refocus your attention. To me, this is the core of mindfulness that helps provide us with a sense of peace and a reduction in anxiety, worry, and depression. This aspect of how we refocus attention eventually teaches us to tolerate discomfort and unpleasantness.

So let me be more specific about what I mean. Let's say you decide to practice mindfulness while doing a simple activity such as eating a snack. Probably within a few seconds distracting thoughts will enter your mind. Those thoughts might be unrelated to the process of eating or they could be triggered by the behavior of eating such as being critical of your food choice. Whatever the trigger of the thoughts, what they succeed in doing is directing your attention away from your mindful practice.

That is okay. In fact, it can even be good. Because what you really want to practice is how to refocus. Being aware of your environment is a simple activity. But refocusing your attention to that activity, especially when there are strong distractions, is the core of bringing mindfulness into your everyday life. How often are the problems we experience not due to the immediate problem with which we are confronted, but due to how we think (or try not to think) about the problem? For instance, self-criticism doesn't help us solve a problem. It only makes us feel bad or discouraged which may even interfere with solving the problem.

Therefore, you WANT to learn how to refocus your attention when you get distracted by irrelevant thoughts or negative thoughts or catastrophic thoughts. So the practice of mindfulness means learning to refocus your attention away from those thoughts. The more you practice doing that, the better you will be at refocusing when confronted with difficult situations in your life. That is why it is okay to have distracting thoughts while practicing mindfulness. It gives you the opportunity to practice refocusing.

What do I mean by refocusing? First, it does not mean to try and get rid of the thoughts. That is because the harder you try to get rid of thoughts the more you are focused on them. Which then further distracts you from the mindfulness practice. Instead, you let the thoughts just be and very gently refocus your attention back to the mindfulness practice. I think of it like a mental shrug as if you were saying to the thought “Yes, I know you are there, but right now I am focused on this.” You can think of it like a child demanding your attention at an inconvenient time and you need to tell the child “I'm sorry, but I really need to focus on this right now. I will be with you in a minute.” As that example illustrates, we HAVE the ability to refocus. We just need to choose to use the ability and refocus away from the unhelpful and distracting future-oriented and past-oriented thoughts that interfere in our lives.

I emphasize engaging in a GENTLE refocusing. Too often when people are initially practicing mindfulness, they are overly critical of themselves. When they get distracted, they might even berate themselves: “See! I can't even be mindful for a minute.” Instead of being critical, just gently refocus your attention with a mental shrug of “That's okay but I'm focused here right now.” Not that you necessarily need to use the words but are just gently refocusing your attention.

This is also the reason I suggest practicing only a minute or two at a time. It can sometimes be discouraging initially when you may need to refocus many times in that minute. And feeling discouraged interferes with mindfulness. However, I said needing to refocus multiple times provides you with more opportunity to learn how to refocus. And that is the skill that will be useful in your daily life. To be able to refocus when caught up in negative self-talk, worry, or obsessing can help alleviate much of the daily stress you experience. To be able to experience an event for what it is without the demands and self-recrimination is easier, no matter what the event is.

As you begin your practice, do not think that just a few times of practicing mindfulness will develop a mindful state of being. Sometimes people give up at the beginning because it doesn't seem to make a difference right away. Your body needs to get into the habit of mindfulness. Therefore, you need to give yourself at least a couple months of consistent practice as I described. If you are just beginning your practice, you might only remember to practice the mindfulness a couple times a day. In fact, remembering to practice is one of the difficult aspects of initial mindful practice. That is okay because it IS difficult to get into the habit of engaging in mindfulness practice. However, count your couple months from the time you are able to engage consistently 10-15 times a day for a couple minutes. In a couple months you may not be fully skilled with mindfulness but you are likely to begin to experience some of its positive effects. In that time, you might find yourself being able to focus more on your present experience which can help you feel more calm and centered. Hopefully, you will experience enough to encourage you on your journey with mindfulness.

What I have presented in this audio can be somewhat confusing and overwhelming if you are new to the concept of mindfulness. It may take a number of times of listening to the audio (or reading the transcript) to fully understand this step of mindfulness practice. That is normal and okay when confronting such an unfamiliar concept. Allow yourself to just start with the concepts you do understand and then gradually incorporate the other aspects of mindfulness as you are ready. Once you have developed your basic mindful ability, the other steps described in the following audios will make more sense.

Mindfulness and Relaxation Methods
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Kindle Books by
Dr. Monica Frank

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