Dr. Marina Khusid on June 3, 2015
As described in previous blog posts, mindfulness meditation has swiftly gained popularity as a self-care strategy for improving psychological health. It’s not only a hot media topic, but also an exploding area of new research. However, many people are confused about the definition of mindfulness and the different types of mindfulness meditation. In this post, Dr. Marina Khusid, a family medicine physician and chief of Integrative Medicine with the Deployment Health Clinical Center, outlines some important distinctions between common mindfulness meditation techniques.
People think time travel is impossible, but we actually do it all the time.
I drift into the past when I rehearse a conversation I had early this morning, or into the future when I plan my work day. There’s nothing wrong with this unless you get trapped, reliving a sad or traumatic event from the past, or obsessing about something in the future that might not happen. You can learn to stay in the present and stop the cycle of negative thoughts and worry through the practice of mindfulness.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, the pioneer of clinical applications of mindfulness in the West, describes it as “the ability to maintain moment by moment, open, acceptant, non-judgmental awareness.”
When staying in the moment becomes a habit, we can relax, breathe, enjoy the experience, efficiently complete each task, and ultimately reduce psychological and emotional stress. You’ve experienced mindfulness if you’ve had a rare and fleeting moment of calmness and clarity when returning to work after a restful two-week vacation. Some say that training ourselves to observe our feelings, thoughts and reactions with openness and curiosity helps generate self-acceptance and self-love, and fosters more fulfilling relationships.
So can we achieve this state of mindfulness on a daily basis? The answer is yes. We can develop and deepen our capacity for mindfulness through practice of a special technique called mindfulness meditation.
Mindfulness meditation originated from different Buddhist monastic traditions, for example, Zen, Vipassana and Shambhala meditations. The guidelines for each differ slightly on details such as posture, but all involve sitting still and observing the breath. When thoughts inevitably arise, the meditator acknowledges them without judgment, and then brings attention back to the sensation of air going in and out of the body, in a natural and relaxed way. This only takes 15 to 20 minutes a day, yet over time it trains the brain in the art of staying in the present.
In addition to such traditional techniques, which can be practiced at home or at community meditation centers, there are several group mindfulness-based therapeutic techniques developed for clinical environments. These techniques are proven effective in treating mental health challenges such as depression or posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Each combines group training in mindfulness techniques with daily practice tailored to a specific clinical condition, and various forms of follow-up. Ask your mental health counselor whether one of the techniques might work for you.
Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR)
MBSR was originally developed to help individuals manage chronic pain and psychological concerns related to chronic illness. Groups usually meet two hours once a week for eight weeks, followed by a one-day retreat. MBSR instruction emphasizes a curious, kind and non-judging attitude on the present moment, including difficult or unpleasant experiences like chronic pain.
During each class, participants receive instruction in mindfulness meditation, ask questions and practice newly learned skills. They learn to focus and maintain attention on the breath and develop flexibility of attention (that is, to let go of ruminative cycles of thought and return attention to the breath). Two additional exercises are the body scan, in which attention is systematically directed to each part of the body, and gentle yoga. Homework assignments include daily meditation or yoga for 45 minutes per day, and paying mindful attention to experiences in daily life. During the day-long, mostly silent retreat, participants practice mindfulness exercises more intensively.
Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT)
MBCT is a group program integrating cognitive behavioral techniques and mindfulness meditation. It was initially developed to prevent relapses of depression. The program teaches individuals to become more aware of negative emotions and thoughts and to view them as mental “events” rather than accurate reflections of self or reality. Adopting this mode of neutral, non-judgmental observation empowers patients to recognize and disengage from counter-productive, ruminative thought patterns that may trigger habitual negative emotions. Increasing awareness of these patterns provides the meditator with freedom to choose an emotional response, instead of feeling negative and overwhelmed, a pattern characteristic of depression.
MBCT instructors lead participants in eight weekly two-hour group training sessions. Daily homework consists of awareness exercises directed at increasing moment-by-moment, nonjudgmental awareness of bodily sensations, thoughts and feelings. Participants also practice integrating awareness skills into daily life. Specific strategies to prevent depression relapses are also explored. Most MBCT programs also offer up to four monthly follow-up meetings, thus extending guided support for this therapeutic intervention for up to six months.
Mindfulness-based Relapse Prevention (MBRP)
Mindfulness-based relapse prevention (MBRP) was designed to treat substance use disorder. It integrates mindfulness meditation and cognitive-behavior skills to help meditators avoid relapses into substance misuse. An effective combination of these two strategies teaches non-judgmental, open and acceptant observation of cravings as a mental event, decoupling the negative thoughts and emotions that are associated with cravings. The meditator learns to choose a reaction instead of reflexively turning to an addictive substance. Like the other therapeutic program, MBRP is usually delivered by an instructor in eight weekly two-hour group training sessions with daily homework exercises.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed or stressed out, please give mindfulness meditation a try. It’s helped many people. See how taking up this practice can help you too.