Perhaps you have heard the term “mindful.” “Mindfulness” seems to be the latest buzzword in treatment circles, not to mention society in general. But actually, the concept of mindfulness has been around for thousands of years. What does the term mindfulness mean? And what does it mean to be mindful?
Not surprisingly, there are many definitions out there. But here is my favorite definition of mindfulness: “To be aware, intentionally, in the present, with judging.” You might have noticed this definition has four distinct parts. We will discuss each of these parts in more detail later.
1. To be aware
2. On purpose
3. In the present
4. Without judging
The opposite of mindfulness is mindlessness. To be mindless means to be unaware. Here are four examples of mindlessness: reactivity, dissociation, automaticity, and multi-tasking. Reactivity means to respond with our instincts or emotions, without thinking first. Trauma survivors tend to be very reactive to anything that reminds them (even subconsciously) of a previous trauma. Dissociation literally means to disconnect from your own experiences; in other words, to “space out” for long periods of time. Dissociation is much more severe than just daydreaming. Trauma survivors tend to be quite good a dissociating as well, since disconnecting or “spacing out” is precisely what helped you survive much of your trauma when it was occurring. Automaticity means to do something automatically, without having to think about it. If you know how to ride a bike without thinking about every single muscle movement required to stay balanced and moving forward, then you know what this concept well. Finally, multi-tasking refers to performing two or more tasks at the same time, such as changing a diaper while answering the phone.
Now notice that there is nothing wrong with mindlessness in and of itself. In fact, we would never have survived as a species if part of our brain did not know how to react without thinking, space out, learn to do something automatically, or perform multiple tasks at once. For example, what if your house was on fire, and no part of brain knew how to react impulsively? What if you had to relearn how to ride a bike, every single time you tried to ride one? Or what if you could only do thing at a time? As you can see, we wouldn’t do so well, would we? Indeed, it is a great gift that our brain can do so many things without even thinking about it.
Mindfulness versus Mindlessness
Therefore, mindlessness is a gift (even though you won’t hear too many therapists tell you that). However, mindlessness alone is also a rotten way to go through life. What if you were always reactive—to everything? What if you were always spacing out, even during your most cherished moments? What if you could only do things you already knew how to do automatically—and therefore, you could not learn new behaviors? As you can see, we still wouldn’t be doing so well, would we? That’s why mindfulness is also a gift. We need both!
DBT is all about the dialectics: The process of finding balance by bringing together opposites. Therefore, one of the first opposites we need to balance is mindlessness versus mindfulness. While mindlessness is a gift to the brain, so is mindfulness. The only problem is that mindfulness is a gift that we have to learn! Unlike mindlessness, mindfulness does come to us naturally.
For practical exercises to learn more mindfulness, please refer to my workbook: DBT Skills Workbook for PTSD: Practical Exercises for Overcoming Trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.