What is Mindfulness?

When I first wrote The Happiness Trap – back in 2006 – I didn’t even mention the word ‘mindfulness’ until almost half way through the book, because back then almost nobody knew what it meant.

Well, times have changed. In the last decade, there’s been an explosion of interest in mindfulness, and the problem now is that many people think they know what it means, when actually they don’t!

For example, many people think it’s a type of meditation, or relaxation, or positive thinking, or a spiritual/religious practice, or it comes from Buddhism, and none of these ideas are accurate.

Yup, that’s right; not one of those ideas is correct, as you’ll see in the video I have linked to at the end of this blog. But before we get to that, let’s get clear about what mindfulness actually is.

We can think of mindfulness as a psychological toolkit for enhancing your health, wellbeing and life.

And there are many different tools within this kit – which serve a variety of different purposes.

There are tools which help you focus, and refocus, your attention on the task or activity you are doing, and engage in it fully (focusing & engaging skills); others that help you to detach or unhook from difficult or unhelpful thoughts (unhooking or defusion skills); others that help you open up and make room for painful emotions, and allow them to flow through you (acceptance or expansion skills); and yet others that enable you to savour, appreciate and enhance the satisfaction of enjoyable and pleasurable experiences (savouring skills).

And all these different skills have one common factor: they all involve paying attention in a particular way, with an attitude of openness, curiosity, and flexibility.

“Flexibility” means we can direct our attention to wherever it will be most useful. This might be our inner world of thoughts and feelings, or the outer world that we know through the five senses, and it may involve narrowing our focus, or broadening our focus, or shifting it altogether.

And no matter what we focus on – our thoughts and feelings, our words and actions, the world around us, our aim is to do so with openness to and curiosity about the object(s) of our attention.

So we can define mindfulness as: ‘A set of psychological skills for enhancing life, that involve paying attention with openness, curiosity and flexibility.’

In later blogs, I’ll explore some of the many different skills in the mindfulness toolkit. For now, though, I want to end this blog with a link to a short video about the 5 most common myths about mindfulness. I hope you enjoy it.

Dealing with Dilemmas

If there’s one thing that sucks the joy out of life, it’s going through your day trying to resolve some difficult dilemma. We’ve all, at times, had to grapple with really hard decisions and tough choices.

‘Do I stay in this relationship – or leave?’,

‘Do I quit this job – or do I stay?’,

‘Do I enrol in that course – or the other one?’,

‘Do I have the operation – or not?’,

‘Do we try to have children – or not?’, ‘

Do I buy this one – or the other one?’, ‘

Do I want to live here – or there?’

When we’re dealing with these dilemmas, our mind easily goes into overdrive, desperately trying to figure out what to do; to ‘make the right decision’.

The problem is, it can take days, weeks, months – or even years in some cases, such as unhappy marriages or unfulfilling jobs – before we finally choose one option over the other.

And, in the meantime, we can easily spend our days wandering around in a thick psychological smog – endlessly pondering: ‘Do I or don’t I?’ – and, in the process, we make ourselves anxious or stressed, and we miss out on life, here and now.

So, how can ACT help us?

Step 1: Acceptance

When my clients present their dilemmas, hard decisions or tough choices I start off by telling them,

‘You probably will not make your final decision during our session today. It could happen – but it’s extremely unlikely.’

And if you are facing a major dilemma or decision in your life today, this is almost certainly true for you; you are not likely to resolve it in the next 24 hours. Can you make room for this reality? Struggling with it will only make it worse.

Step 2: Common Sense Steps: Costs & Benefits & More Information

Sometimes a dilemma can be resolved by the age-old common-sense method of a ‘cost-benefit analysis’. In other words, write down a list of all the benefits and all the costs for each option.

If you’ve already done this and it hasn’t helped, fair enough – at least you tried. But if you haven’t done this – or if you’ve done it half-heartedly – or you’ve done it in your head but not on paper – then you should definitely give it a go.

When you write it all down in black and white, that is a very different experience than thinking it through inside you head or talking it through with a friend – and it may help you finalise your decision.

Keep in mind that sometimes the issue can be resolved by finding out more information from a reliable source (a book, a person, a website, an organization, etc.) So make sure you have gathered enough information to make an informed decision.

If you are lucky, this new information will make the costs and benefits of each option clearer, and help you decide what to do.

However, the inconvenient truth is this: the greater the dilemma, the tougher the decision, the less likely these ‘common sense’ methods are to be helpful. Why? Because if one option was obviously far better than the other, then you wouldn’t have a dilemma in the first place!

Step 3: No Perfect Solution

Next, recognise there is no perfect solution, so whichever choice you make, you are likely to feel anxious about it – and your mind is likely to tell you,

‘That’s the wrong decision’, then point out all the reasons why you shouldn’t do it.

If you’re waiting until the day there’s no feelings of anxiety, and no thoughts about making the wrong decision, you’ll probably be waiting forever.

Step 4: There’s No Way Not To Choose

Recognise that whatever your dilemma is, you’re already making a choice. Each day you don’t quit your job, you are choosing to stay (until the day you hand in your resignation, you are staying in that job.)

Each day that you don’t leave your marriage, you are choosing to stay (until the day you pack your bags and move out of the house, you are staying in that marriage.)

Each day that you don’t sign the consent form for the operation, you are choosing not to have surgery, and so on.

Step 5: Acknowledge Today’s Choice

Following on from the above, kick off each day by acknowledging the choice you are making for this day.

For example, say to yourself,

‘Okay, for the next 24 hours, I choose to stay in the marriage’ or ‘For the next 24 hours, I choose to keep using contraceptives.’

If 24 hours seems too long, then make a choice for the next 12 hours, or 6 hours, or even for the next sixty minutes.

At the end of that time period, reassess and make another choice – for the next 24 or 12 or 6 hours (or even sixty minutes).

Step 6: Take A Stand

Given your choice in step 5 above, what do you want to stand for in the next 24, 12 or 6 hours (or even sixty minutes)?

What values do you want to live by, in this area of life? If you’re staying in the marriage for another day or another hour, what sort of partner do you want to be for that one day or hour?

If you’re staying in your job for another day or another hour, what sort of employee do you want to be for that one day or hour?

Step 7: Make Time To Reflect

Put aside time on a regular basis to mindfully reflect on the situation. The best way to do this is as in step 2: using a diary or a computer, write down the costs and benefits of each option, and see if anything has changed since last time you did this.

You could also try to imagine what life might be like – both the positives and the negatives –

a) if you went down one path, and

b) if you went down the other path.

For most people, ten to fifteen minutes 3 or 4 times a week is more than enough reflection time – but you can put aside as little or as much as you like.

The key thing is, make it focused, in other words, don’t try to do it at the same time as watching TV or doing housework or driving home or going to the gym or cooking dinner. Just sit quietly with your pen and paper or a computer, and do nothing else but reflect, as above, for the allotted time.

Step 8: Name The Story

Throughout the day, your mind will try to pull you back into the dilemma, over and over again. But if this was truly helpful, you’d already have resolved your dilemma, wouldn’t you?

So practice ‘naming the story’. For example, try saying to yourself, ‘Aha! Here it is again. The “stay or leave” story.

Thanks mind. I know you’re trying to help, and it’s okay – I’ve got this covered.’

Then focus your attention on doing some meaningful, values-guided activity. You will probably find it helpful to remind yourself, ‘I’ll think about this later, in my scheduled reflection time’.

Step 9: Open Up & Make Room

Feelings of anxiety will almost certainly arise – again and again and again – whichever option you choose. So practice opening up & making room for those feelings.

Acknowledge to yourself, ‘Here’s anxiety.’ Remind yourself, ‘This is normal.

It’s what everybody feels in a challenging situation with an uncertain outcome.’

Step 10: Self-compassion

Last, but not least, be compassionate to yourself. Treat yourself gently. Talk to yourself kindly. Unhook yourself from all that unhelpful, self-judgmental mind-chatter, using whatever defusion techniques you find best – e.g. thanking your mind, naming the story etc.

Remind yourself that you’re a fallible human being, not some high-tech computer that can coldly analyse the probabilities and spit out an answer.

Remind yourself that this is a very difficult decision – if it were easy, you wouldn’t have a dilemma in the first place! Acknowledge that you’re in pain, you’re hurting.

And do plenty of kind, caring, nurturing, considerate things for yourself; things that soothe, or nurture, or support you in this time of hardship.

This could include anything from spending quality time with close friends, taking care of your body, treating yourself to a favourite leisure activity, making time for yourself to pursue a sport or creative outlet, or even cooking a healthy dinner. It’s often helpful to practice some form of self-compassion practice.

Recycle through these steps every day, or several times a day. And one of three things will happen:

1) Over time, one option becomes obviously more attractive than the other.
2) Over time, one option disappears, it’s no longer available.
3) Over time, your dilemma remains unsolved.

If either 1 or 2 happens, the decision is made, there is no dilemma any more.

If 3 happens, then at least you get to go through each day mindfully living by your values, instead of being lost in a smog of anxious indecision.

Plus, you’ll get plenty of practice at developing self-compassion.

Being Right – Part 2

In part 1 we explored some of the problems with our very natural tendency to want to ‘be right’. Let’s now have a look at what we can do about this.

If we want to change any self-defeating behaviour, a great first step is to increase self-awareness. We want to notice when and where we are clinging to ‘I’m right’, and notice what effects that has on our behaviour – usually it leads us to speak in ways that are unkind, harsh, judgmental, critical, arrogant, egotistical, or aggressive.

And we also need to notice what effects it has on our relationships. Not surprisingly, it almost always makes them worse because no one likes to be spoken to in such a manner. And we need to keep in the back of our mind this question: ‘Would I prefer to be right or to be kind?’

If we wish to build healthy relationships with other people, where they feel cared for, respected, and well-treated, then the answer is obvious.

Being kind trumps being right. Even if we are right, and the other person is wrong, it is rarely helpful to point it out. And on those rare occasions where it is useful to point it out, it is so much better to do so with kindness, caring and respect, than with arrogance, condescension, or righteousness. After all, when you screw up or do something wrong, how would you prefer to be spoken to?

So, how can you tell if you’re too caught up in ‘being right’? Well, indicators may include: A lot of judging and criticising others, feeling superior or looking down on others, intolerance, condescension, smugness, refusing to back down, apologise, or admit that you made a mistake, continuing arguments on and on, long after they have become pointless, justifying your position continually (either to others or inside your own head), or loved ones saying things to you like, “Okay. You’re right and I’m wrong, yet again!”

So, if you think this issue applies to you (and I suspect it applies to some extent to almost everyone – it’s certainly something I struggle with!) then as soon as you realise you’ve been hooked by the ‘I’m right’ story – pause.

Pause and take a long breath. Then silently label what is happening inside your head: “Aha! Here I am trying to be right!” or “Aha! Here’s the ‘I’m right’ story again.” Or more simply just label it, ‘Being Right’.

Then pause a bit more and remember the question: ‘Would I prefer to be right or be kind?’ And finally, go to that kind place in our hearts and find a way to speak with warmth, kindness and respect, instead of righteousness.

Then notice what happens over time. You’re sure to see your relationships improve – and surely that’s better than being right. Right?

Being Right – Part 1

“There are two cardinal sins: Looking good and being right”.

I love this quote from my mentor, Steve Hayes. In a later blog we’ll cover ‘looking good’ but for now, we’re going to focus on ‘being right’.

‘What’s the problem with being right?’ you might be wondering. Good question. And the answer is… it depends.

It depends on the situation. In many situations, being right is not a problem at all. For example, if a doctor is right in his diagnosis and treatment of your illness, that’s great! But in other situations, being right can be very destructive.

For example, consider what happens in our relationships with loved ones when we are convinced that we are right.

If I insist that, ‘I’m right’, and then by default, ‘you are wrong!’ And how does it feel to be wrong? Not good.

When we believe we are ‘in the wrong’, we may feel guilty, sorry, ashamed, anxious, regretful, dumb, stupid, inadequate, incompetent, and so on.

And how does it feel to be right? We feel powerful, strong, righteous, correct. We feel totally justified, infallible, superior. Much better than being wrong.

‘I’m right, you’re wrong’ takes many different forms. It might be, ‘Here, give it to me. You don’t know how to do it!’ or ‘See! Look what happened! I told you!’ or ‘You know you’re not very good at this. Let me handle it.’ Or ‘I’m driving!’ or ‘Wrong!’ or ‘You’ve done it again!’ or ‘No!!!’ or ‘Why do you always do that?’ or ‘Why do you never listen to me?’ or even, ‘See? I was right!’

There are at least eleven thousand, two hundred and sixty three different ways of communicating, ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’ from rolling eyeballs to frowning to tut-ting to numerous variations on the phrases above.

And if we’re honest with ourselves, we do quite like to be right. Why? Because it makes us feel strong, smart, powerful, superior, or something similar. But unfortunately, it makes the other person feel weak, dumb powerless, inferior or something equally unpleasant. And that is not good for our relationships.

So what can we do about it? We’ll cover that in part 2.

Rebuilding Trust

If we have been badly hurt, threatened, betrayed, cheated, deceived or abused by others, often we find it hard to trust again.

This especially likely if the people that did this to us were close friends or family members, or someone in a high trust position, such as a doctor or police officer. But if we go through life never trusting anyone again, that makes it hard, if not impossible, to build deep and meaningful relationships with others.

So when building relationships with new people, it’s useful to distinguish two very different kinds of trust: “blind trust” and “mindful trust”. “Blind trust” means trusting someone completely without taking the time to assess whether they are deserving of our trust. “Mindful trust” on the other hand, means wisely taking the time to assess the character of the person we are dealing with, before placing our trust in him or her.

Mindful trust involves paying curious attention to how honest, open and truthful this person is. In my experience, there are 4 qualities to look for when mindfully assessing how trustworthy someone is: sincerity, reliability, responsibility, competence, and respect.

  1. Sincerity: How sincere is this person? Does he truly mean what he says?
  2. Reliability: How reliable is this person? Does she follow through on the things she says she will do?
  3. Responsibility: How responsible is he?  Does he consider the consequences of his actions? Does he own up to it, and apologise or make amends when he does something wrong?
  4. Competence: How competent is she? Is she actually competent to do the things she says she’s going to do?

As we get to know someone, we are able to directly assess whether they are sincere, reliable, responsible, and competent, based on our direct observation of their actions.

Armed with this knowledge, we can then establish mindful trust, or withhold our trust if we deem the other person unworthy of it. “Blind trust” is risky; but total distrust of everyone prevents building close relationships. So “mindful trust” gives us a useful way to prudently and safely build the sorts of relationships we want. 

Donkeys, Carrots, & Sticks

I’m guessing you’ve got a pet donkey to help carry your goods to the marketplace (unless you’ve upgraded to a camel). Now, what’s the best way to motivate your donkey?  To whip it with a stick?  Or to offer it a carrot?

Both methods will get your donkey to carry the load for you. But over time, the donkey that is mainly motivated by whipping will get more and more miserable, battered, and bruised, whereas the donkey motivated by carrots will be healthy and content (and have really good night vision).

Now, as it happens, humans have a lot in common with donkeys (some more than others!). And unfortunately, when we try to motivate other humans to behave the way we want, we often use far too much of the stick and nowhere enough of the carrot.

The stick takes many forms. It can include criticizing, judging, demanding, insulting, threatening, or intimidating. It often involves sharing or blaming or evaluating the other person negatively or speaking in harsh words.

And it frequently involves deliberately withdrawing things that we know the other person wants, such as affection, caring, warmth, kindness, gratitude, company, or “someone to listen”.

The technical psychobabble jargon term for “using the stick” to motivate others is “coercion”. We all have a natural tendency to rely on coercion because…well, the fact is it very often works.

Very often, when we use coercion with others, we get our needs met. They do what we want them to do. But what effect does coercion have in the long-term? How does it affect your relationship with the other person – whether it’s your friend, your child, your partner, your employee?

The research on this is clear. The more we rely on coercion, the worse the relationship gets. The more coercive the parent, the more stressed and unhappy their children. The more coercive the manager, the more stressed and depressed their employees. The more coercive the spouse, the worse the condition of the marriage.

Just as big sticks make donkeys sick and miserable so does coercion create stressed, unhealthy humans.

So what’s the alternative? You guessed it: Carrots! Lots and lots and lots of carrots!

Just like the stick, a carrot can take many forms. Carrots include kindness, gratitude, thank you, talking calmly, being respectful, warmth, openness, caring, open-mindedness, genuine interest in the other person, understanding, empathy, compassion, etc.

Basically, the aim is to catch the other person behaving the way you want and actively reward them for doing so. The reward may be anything from a smile, a “thank you”, a pat on the back, to a gift wrapped boxed set of Game of Thrones Seasons 1 to 5.

“Hang on”, you may be thinking “I shouldn’t have to thank them, or smile at them, or be kind to them – they should just do it!”

It’s completely natural to have such thoughts – and if you don’t care about the long-term quality of the relationship and the health and wellbeing of the other person, then sure – stay with this stick. But if you want better relationships and you care about the health and wellbeing of your friends, employees, managers, co workers, children, partner, parents, etc., then best start shifting to the carrot.

The magic ratio of carrot to stick is at least 5:1. In other words, at least 5 times as much of actively rewarding the behavior you like as trying to punish the behavior you don’t like. This doesn’t come naturally for most of us, but it’s a habit well worth developing!