by Christine Wick, Ph.D.

The concept of “mindfulness” has made its way into therapy as a key aspect of mentally healthy living. It refers to awareness of what is happening in the present moment, as revealed through paying attention to one’s thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations.

Most important of these physical sensations is the movement of the breath. Clearing one’s mind of thoughts, and instead noticing the inhale and exhale during breathing, helps calm the body and bring consciousness away from worry about the future, rumination about the past, and habitual self criticism.

This kind of mindfulness practice is sometimes referred to as meditation. Once the province of spiritual seekers on a Buddhist or yogic path, it has now been sufficiently studied by Western science to be declared useful for everyone and need not have a spiritual connotation.

One of the goals of mindfulness practice is to learn to be aware of the moment in a non-judgmental way. It is to note what is happening without labels of “good” or “bad.” There is also an emphasis on being gentle and kind, especially towards oneself. I will often ask a client to bring her attention to her heart, and imagine it softening. In that softening, a sense of compassion can grow.

Mindfulness is not only a specific practice, but also an attitude toward daily living. People can learn to be mindful when walking the dog, driving the car, preparing dinner. This leads to a deeper savoring through the senses — of sights, smells, sounds — and hence a deeper appreciation of our experiences. Many mindfulness practitioners like to include an inner acknowledgement of gratitude.

The impact on depression and anxiety, two common psychological complaints, can be substantial. Depression can be thought of as an inner heaviness, a pall that doesn’t move. By bringing conscious breathing into that pall there can be an emerging sense of expansion and movement, hence a possibility of clearing away the depression. Anxiety is often an overlay of fear, fear of what may happen in the future. By bringing one’s attention back to the present moment, and breathing deeply, a client will often have a feeling of well-being that effectively counteracts the fear.

People interested in mindfulness training can find many resources including books, CDs, and classes. They can also learn mindfulness in psychotherapy, with exercises specifically geared to each client’s unique concerns.

The above article expresses the opinions of the author and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of other members of the Women’s Therapy Referral Service.