Mindfulness: Pausing and Accepting

Learning Objectives

  • Understand the purpose of mindfulness meditation in everyday life
  • Develop the ability to observe thoughts and feelings without getting entangled in them
  • Cultivate acceptance of symptoms and experiences in the present moment

With mindfulness meditation, you get in a comfortable position, then bring your attention to the breath. When your attention wanders away from your breath, you gently return it to the breath. Easy to say, harder to do. The word “gently” is key: Gently implies acceptance. Many clients criticize themselves harshly for not being able to stay focused. “Doc, I am a failure at meditation,” they say. ”I cannot keep my mind focused.” They have become entangled in what they perceive as a personal failing. Rather than seek to bring their entanglement momentarily into objective awareness before returning to the breath, they stop meditating.

The purpose of mindfulness meditation is to become mindful in everyday life. The state of being mindful is known as mindful awareness. Change in psychotherapy rarely happens without mindful awareness. Imagine trying to change without ever reflecting on your own situations or processes.

Pausing

Mindful awareness represents a pause. What is a pause? A pause is break or interruption or suspension of normal activity. During the pause, the person is disengaged from whatever preceded the pause and whatever might ordinarily follow. The purpose is not just time out or time away, however. That would be anxiety management, a trap. Instead, the purpose is to be fully present with our current experience. There’s an old saying that by doing the same thing over and over again, you get the same result. To make progress, you have to do something different. Below, we discuss how to use your symptoms as signals. By being mindful of these signals, you discover WHEN you need to intervene and do something differently in order to stop the same old patterns of thought, emotions, and behaviors from unfolding automatically. As you can see, there’s a lot inside this pause.

You are NOT your Thoughts

When you are meditating, you realize that the mind is inherently active. Thoughts and feelings are always percolating up to conscious awareness, with no logical order, and then falling away. Some are happy, some are sad. Some stay longer, some disappear almost as soon as they arrive. The mind becomes a movie screen, upon which thoughts and feelings are reflected. Your mother appears, then your car, then your spouse, then some past love interest, then thoughts about a career change. Each such thought or feeling joins an intriguing stream of consciousness.

What do you learn from this? You learn that the thoughts and feelings are just visitors to the mind. You are not your thoughts. You are not your feelings. If someone knocked on your door, would you immediately drop everything, run to the door, fling it open, grab them by the collar, and hurl them into the living room? Absolutely not. You’d look through the peephole first and determine whether you even wanted to allow them into your home. That’s exactly what we do in the West, where we typically view our thoughts as under control, as part and parcel of our identity. Rather than treat your thoughts and feelings as gospel, you can choose a different path: You can simply note or observe them from a more comfortable distance. From meditation, you learn to see that each thought or feeling as having its own agenda. Each one comes with its own invitation, as if it were saying “Come go down my path and see what awaits you!”

The Back of your Mind

I sometimes hear people talk about what they’re thinking in the back of their mind. The front of your mind is what you’re thinking about at the moment. The back of your mind is what you’re really thinking, your deeper concerns. Sometimes the front of your mind is playing games. The back of your mind knows this, and allows it. When people say that something is “nagging at them,” they are expressing what is at the back of their mind.

During moments of mindful awareness, you try to be of one mind. A divided mind is the very opposite of mindful awareness. A divided mind means that you are actively ignoring something. Mindful awareness requires that you bring forward whatever is at the back of your mind. Perhaps it’s concerns about work, health, or relationships. Perhaps it’s something on your schedule this morning. Perhaps it’s a theme that you prefer not to become entangled with, something that you’re suppressing. Whatever it is, it’s something fighting for acknowledgement. Since it’s actually a part of you, it’s important that you at least acknowledge its existence.

The Observing Mind and the Thinking Mind

To understand mindfulness, we first need to understand the distinction between the observing mind and the thinking mind. In the West, we rarely take time to observe our thoughts and feelings systematically. We mostly assume that our experience is real—a state of cognitive fusion—not the product of stories that we tell ourselves. The “I’m too fat” story, the “I’m ugly” story, the “I’m a failure” story, the “Nobody likes me” story, all are products of the thinking mind. The thinking mind evaluates the current situation, judges whether it is good or bad, and predicts what might come next. If what comes next is predicted to be bad, then our experience is painful.

The detachment of cognitive defusion, however, suggests that there is more to the mind that just thinking and its functions. There is also a part of the mind that notices and monitors, the functions of observing. Because it is removed from evaluations, judgments, and forecasts, the observing mind is also removed from experiences both pleasant and painful.

Some Helpful Metaphors

A number of metaphors have been used to help describe the observing mind. In one metaphor, an eagle soars overhead, looking down at the animals below. These surface-dwelling creatures graze, reproduce, fight for territory, and sometimes kill and feast on each other. The animals below are so involved with each other that they never notice the eagle, who views their goings from a secure position above. The eagle represents the observing mind. The eagle soars overhead and watches events unfold, without becoming involved in the lives of the animals. In contrast, the animals are completely entangled in a struggle for survival, in their thoughts. Be the eagle.

Another metaphor features the sky and the weather. Your symptoms are the weather. They come and go. Some days are better, others are worse. No matter how bad the storm, however, the sky always remains. The weather rages, but it cannot harm the sky. The sky is simply a container for the weather, ever-present and eternal. In this metaphor, the sky represents the observing mind. The weather represents your entanglement with your symptoms, a product of the evaluations, judgments, and forecasts of the thinking mind. Cognitive defusion allows you to discover that the sky exists. Before you understand defusion, your life is all about the weather. After you understand defusion, you become the sky and observe the weather.

At this point, you cannot simply will yourself to become the eagle or the sky. But you do understand the concept of creating an observer inside you, and that alone is a profoundly positive step in your recovery. You can now distinguish between noticing your symptoms versus reacting strongly to, and becoming entangled with them. Harris (2009) suggests the distinction of looking at thoughts instead of looking from thoughts, noticing thoughts instead of getting caught up with them, and letting go of thoughts instead of holding onto them and reprocessing them. Whatever the phraseology, the point is to detach from and observe the symptoms. Like the sky, the observing mind is calm and secure.

Acceptance of the Stream of Experience

Acceptance is another frequently misunderstood concept. Most people know acceptance through the serenity prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Some misfortune or tragedy has occurred, and we are powerless to reverse it. Whether it’s a death, a personal failure, or even a betrayal, there is an experience of irrevocable loss. We grieve and grieve, but at some point the normal course of life must resume, no matter how much the heart hurts. Nowhere in the prayer is mindful awareness mentioned.

Acceptance as conceptualized in the context of mindfulness meditation, however, means acceptance of your own stream of experience, as it occurs in the moment, whatever it might be. So if you’re trembling, sweating, or experiencing heart palpitations, then you try to simply note this, without reacting strongly against it and freaking yourself out further. Acceptance of the symptoms involves being aware of them as they occur, and just letting them be whatever they want to be. No suppression, no distraction. Just being with the symptoms. Accepting the symptoms necessarily means exposure to the symptoms, which reduces your fear of the symptoms.

Are you going to feel some symptoms? Of course you are. You understand that going in. You also understand that recovery requires your willingness to your get outside your comfort zone and practice observing and accepting. You do this because its really your anxiety about anxiety that you’re working on. You’re working on not being afraid of anxiety and its symptoms. You are NOT working on symptom suppression and control. That only makes things worse.

At the most basic level, observing and accepting are really just two sides of the same coin. You cannot be a dispassionate observer without acceptance, it’s logically impossible. You cannot be a dispassionate observer by resisting. When you limit your reaction to simply noticing, this means not getting involved with, or reacting strongly to, your thoughts. It’s the thinking or experiencing mind that gets caught up in judgments and evaluations about your current situation and about yourself and makes up stories that explain and prophesy. For the observing mind, there is no good or bad. There is only the stream of awareness. If the mind reacts strongly to some thought or feeling, then notice this reaction and detach. Resume the posture of observation.

Acceptance of the Symptoms

Note that acceptance is NOT verbalizing to yourself the phrase “it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay.” Nor is acceptance simply repeating affirmations silently to yourself. Attitude is everything here, the whole point. Acceptance means changing your attitude toward anxiety in your heart. Acceptance means detecting resistance and changing it. Strong examples of resistance include “I hate this, I hate these symptoms” and “I just can’t take this anxiety.” Acceptance is “I’ve done this before, it’s okay.” If you are experiencing intense physiological arousal based on the symptoms, that’s fine. You are changing your experience of the symptoms. You are no longer resisting the symptoms, you are giving them permission, allowing them, making space for them, even welcoming them.
Acceptance is the opposite of management and control. When you work on acceptance, you are working on the cure.

Another level of acceptance is acceptance of your fear of the symptoms, the catastrophizing and mental “what if games” about what the symptoms could become. This level of acceptance is about the interpretations you impose on the symptoms, that is, your stories. When your mind screams, “You’re going to have a heart attack!”, you just shrug, yawn, and say “Whaaatevvvva.” Again, you are giving it permission based on a change in your own attitude.

Why do any of this, why is it necessary? When you accept the symptoms as they occur in the moment, your acceptance is poison to anxiety. Think about it. The point at which you are no longer reacting strongly to the symptoms is the point at which their extinction begins. Everything in the universe wants to survive and reproduce. To survive acceptance, anxiety needs to mutate, needs to change its form. Each “what if” thought is one such mutation. If you become afraid, then extinction stops, and anxiety has secured its survival.

Anxiety about Anxiety Thoughts

Another level of acceptance is addressed to anxiety about anxiety. This includes thoughts like “What if this damn anxiety never stops?” This is called ”anxiety about anxiety.” To accept anxiety about anxiety, maintain the observer perspective. When the thought, “When is this damn anxiety going away?” arises, instead of reacting strongly, simply note the thought. Perhaps you say, “Ah, another anxiety-about-anxiety thought, that’s okay.” Perhaps you say, “Whatever, more anxiety about anxiety thoughts. Anxiety, you have my permission to be whatever you want to be. If you want to give me these thoughts, go ahead.” What you say is not as important as your attitude. Monitor your own internal resistance. Make sure that you are not observing in the front of your mind and resisting in another part of your mind. If you continue to resist anywhere in your being, your efforts will be less successful, and a complete recovery will take longer.

Anxiety about Meditation Thoughts

You may also encounter anxiety about your ability to maintain the observer perspective. You may continue to feel yourself getting pulled into your catastrophic stories, and conclude “This isn’t working!” and “I’ll never get to acceptance!” If you’re new to meditation, you might encounter thoughts like “God, I hope I’m doing it right” and “What if I’m doing it wrong and I don’t know it? Then this is going nowhere.”

Such thoughts are all part of the game that anxiety is playing with you. Expect it. You might even say, “Hi, anxiety…you’re here to feed again. That’s okay. Hang around as long as you want.” Just observe and accept these thoughts, as well.

Acceptance as Dropping the Struggle

Not all avoidance and resistance is about fear of experiencing symptoms, like shortness of breath. Some avoidance and resistance involves ambivalence. Assume you receive an award. Assume further that you’re invited to a picture-taking ceremony. You want to go, but you wonder if you should. In the back of your mind, a little voice says “You had a lot of anxiety some mornings…it’s probably going to be bad in front of people, so it’s best that you stay away from the ceremony…you could have a panic attack there.”

At this point, an internal struggle starts. Are you going to the ceremony, or not? While it’s true that this struggle appears to exist because of your anxiety, your ambivalence creates its own additional coping burden. You think about the ceremony, and the symptoms notch upward. You think about missing the ceremony, and then you feel guilty.

How can you reclaim some of your coping energy? You wake up in the morning and say “I want to go to the ceremony, but I notice some anxiety symptoms when I think about it.” At this point, you are aware that a struggle might be starting. Instead of getting involved with the struggle, however, you just say, “Okay, I’m noticing a temptation to struggle…I’m ambivalent about going…isn’t that interesting…I’m just going to accept these symptoms and let them be whatever they want to be…I’m not going to resist them or suppress them, just let them be.” No more ambivalence. You go. Observing your symptoms and dropping the struggle makes room for you to take constructive actions in pursuit of a more meaningful life.

Notice that nothing has changed in your circumstances. You haven’t done anything to reinterpret the ceremony in a less threatening way. Instead, you just accepted the symptoms and ended your ambivalence. In doing so, your choice is no longer either-or, the ceremony or the symptoms, mutually exclusive. Now it’s the ceremony AND your symptoms.That freed up enough coping energy to make the ceremony possible. You do both.

Reading Comprehension Questions

1. What is the purpose of mindfulness meditation in everyday life?

  • A. Controlling thoughts and feelings
  • B. Suppressing symptoms
  • C. Observing present experiences
  • D. Achieving serenity

2. What does the observing mind represent in mindfulness practice?

  • A. The mind’s evaluation and judgment
  • B. The mind’s involvement in thoughts and feelings
  • C. The mind’s ability to notice and monitor experiences
  • D. The mind’s resistance to symptoms

3. What does acceptance mean in the context of mindfulness?

  • A. Suppressing symptoms and distractions
  • B. Verbalizing positive affirmations
  • C. Changing attitude towards experiences
  • D. Avoiding exposure to anxiety triggers

4. How does acceptance contribute to the reduction of anxiety symptoms?

  • A. By eliminating the symptoms completely
  • B. By suppressing anxiety about anxiety
  • C. By changing one’s internal resistance
  • D. By avoiding exposure to symptoms

5. What does dropping the struggle involve in relation to anxiety?

  • A. Trying to control anxiety symptoms
  • B. Engaging in ambivalence and resistance
  • C. Accepting and observing symptoms without struggle
  • D. Ignoring anxiety and avoiding triggers

Answers

1. C. Observing present experiences

2. C. The mind’s ability to notice and monitor experiences

3. C. Changing attitude towards experiences

4. C. By changing one’s internal resistance

5. C. Accepting and observing symptoms without struggle