Want to learn the best way to reduce anxiety and stress while promoting balance and happiness? This ultimate guide to mindfulness for beginners can show you how. And for those of you who’ve already been practicing for some time now, you’re likely to find some new bits of knowledge in here too.
Mindfulness, like yoga, is an eastern tradition that’s gained momentum in western culture over recent decades. You’ve probably heard of it. From health care to popular culture, it’s the new buzz. And there’s good reason for this.
Mindfulness delivers on its promise to reduce stress and produce a calmer, more harmonious outlook on life. But what exactly is it? And how do you do it? This ultimate guide covers everything you need to know about mindfulness – from what it is, to how to practice it, and even where to find resources in your own community.
It’s a deep dive, so I’ve broken it up into sections. You can dive in and read it all or click a section below to jump to specific topics you’re interested in.
- What is Mindfulness?
- Evidence for the Benefits of Mindfulness
- A Condensed History of Mindfulness
- Difference Between Mindfulness & Meditation
- Sitting Mindfulness
- Body Scan
- Walking Mindfulness
- Mindful Eating
- Mindfulness Throughout the Day
- Mindfulness to Cultivate Compassion
- Mindfulness to Ease Difficult Emotions
- Mindfulness Based Therapies
- Mindfulness for Addiction
- Books on Mindfulness
- Mindfulness Apps
- Mindfulness Retreats
- Local Mindfulness Centers
What is Mindfulness?
A good place to start with mindfulness, for beginners, is to think of it as simply becoming more aware of the present moment. While that sounds easy enough, to actually be in this state of present-moment awareness requires intentional effort. It’s not our ordinary way of being in the world. In fact, as soon as we start trying to focus on the present moment, we discover just how often we tend to NOT be in the present-moment.
Typically, our minds are wandering into the past, replaying scenes that happened moments or even years before. Or, they’re contemplating the future – what might happen, what we need to do next, etc. They can even meander into the territory of daydreaming.
To be mindful means to actively notice only what is happening right now, and to do so without placing a judgment on it. (We’ll talk more about non-judgment later.) We can accomplish this by noticing the direct experience of our senses, or by focusing attention on our breath or an activity.
When You Do Dishes, Do Dishes
For example, if you’re washing dishes in a mindful way, you’re devoting all your attention to the physical act of scrubbing the dishes. You’re not thinking about what you plan to do next, the stressful event that came up at work, or how much you hate washing dishes. You’re paying attention to each particle of food as you scrub it away, the sound of the water, its sensation on your hands, and the careful placement of the dish in the rack.
Mindfulness can seem so simple. You might be wondering what all the hype is about. How can something so basic receive so much chatter? There are two reasons.
The first is, it’s harder than it might seem. It really is a skill that requires effort and practice to cultivate, because it’s basically rewiring the way your brain works. But the good news is, anyone can do it and receive the benefits if they try.
The second reason is, there’s a ton of research coming out to support the incredible benefits of mindfulness.
Evidence for the Benefits of Mindfulness
In the 1970’s, researchers started looking into the health benefits of mindfulness. Since then, study after study has found positive results. And this has led to widespread acceptance of mindfulness as an effective strategy for improving health. Numerous studies support a wide range of benefits. And the great thing is, many of them are accessible even for mindfulness beginners. They include the following:
- Life Satisfaction
- Sense of Autonomy
- Pleasant Affect
- Social Anxiety
- Cognitive Reactivity
- Difficulty in Emotion Regulation
- Experiential Avoidance
- General Psychological Symptoms
Mindfulness meditation, as a practice, has been associated with higher levels of mindfulness, self-compassion, and an overall sense of well-being.
With all this research showing the incredible benefits of mindfulness, it’s no wonder so many people are talking about it. It’s the ultimate life-hack for maintaining psychological well-being. But where did it come from?
A Condensed History of Mindfulness for Beginners
The practice of meditation, which includes mindfulness, goes back thousands of years. It arose first in the Hindu and yoga traditions and spread into others, such as Jainism, Sikhism, and Buddhism. Of all these traditions, Buddhism has had the greatest impact on modern mindfulness practices.
Two key elements of Buddhist thought have formed the foundation for how mindfulness is widely practiced today. They are:
Its focus on observing internal states (sensations, thoughts, & emotions) without judgment. Buddhism encourages us to focus on the present moment, or what is right now. In doing this, we’re able to witness how these internal states arise and fall. We come to see them as non-permanent. Over time, this helps us become less attached to our sensations, thoughts & emotions.
Its contemplation on the causes of suffering. These are identified as our tendency to either cling to experiences or to resist them. When we can accept what is, without trying to cling to it or reject it, we can transcend suffering.
Buddhist tradition is not technically a religion. The Buddha himself said he was neither a god nor a prophet, just a human being who found a path to enlightenment and shared it. It can better be seen as a psychological tool or a self-help guide for how to transcend the causes of suffering on this planet. This makes it especially suited for integration into more secular approaches to whole-self wellness.
It prescribes an eightfold path, but only the last two stages on this path correspond to mindfulness – Right Mindfulness & Right Concentration. The intention of right mindfulness is to develop increased awareness of one’s state of mind, while noticing how thoughts and sensations arise and disappear. The goal of right concentration is to reach a state of equanimity. In this state, one no longer experiences thoughts, feelings, or sensations as happy, sad, good, bad, etc. There is just pure awareness.
The Move Westward
In the 1960’s and 1970’s, interest in meditation surged in western cultures. In particular, the Transcendental Meditation movement, led by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, drew a lot of attention. This type of meditation is fundamentally different from mindfulness. (It focuses on clearing the mind through the repetition of a mantra.) However, researchers found it produced positive results, and this helped generate further interest in studying the benefits of meditation overall.
In the 1970’s, Jon Kabat-Zinn began studying mindfulness as a therapeutic intervention. He went on to open the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1979. It was here he developed his renowned Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program, bringing mindfulness to the forefront of meditation studies.
Since then, research has grown exponentially to support the merits of mindfulness practice. The fundamentals taught in the eightfold path’s Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration have been extracted to form the basis of the modern, westernized mindfulness approach. This approach has been consistently described as cultivating a state in which one focuses on the present-moment, without judgment.
The quality of non-judgment is crucial to mindfulness, which is why I’ve dedicated a whole section to it. We can focus on what’s happening in the present moment in many ways. We can find it distasteful, angering, upsetting, or otherwise something we want to reject. Or, we can find it so delightful, we want to cling to it. We may fear losing it, or compare it to other experiences as better than.
None of this is mindfulness. We may be focusing on the present moment, but we’re doing so with a judgmental mind that filters the experience. This judgment keeps us from accessing all those wonderful benefits of mindfulness.
Non-judgment means we allow ourselves to experience what’s happening now simply as it is. We notice the quality of the experience – what sensations are occurring, what actions we’re taking, what we’re seeing and hearing. If we have a thought about it or feel an emotion around it, we notice that too. But we don’t get hooked on the thought or feeling. We just notice it arose.
One way of doing this is to label the experience. If we’re mindfully washing dishes and the thought arises – This is such a waste of time – we simply label that experience as thinking, or maybe judging. Then we return to focusing on the present-moment sensory experience. This is mindfulness.
The Objective Observer
The key to non-judgment – and mindfulness – is acceptance of what is. It’s about not trying to change things, not wishing they were different, and not placing a value of good or bad on them. It’s accessing the part of our brains that simply observes – our objective observer.
We’re not used to that. Typically, our minds want to place a value judgment on everything we encounter, with the goal being to attract more of what we want and less of what we don’t want. While that way of interacting in the world is helpful at times, most of the time, it leads to unnecessary suffering.
Cultivating non-judgment through mindfulness doesn’t mean you’re surrendering all ability to distinguish what is good for you from what is not. It also doesn’t mean you’re giving up your power to affect change that needs to happen. It’s simply acknowledging the part of your mind that focuses on these judgments is working overtime. There’s another part of your mind – the accepting, open, and allowing part – that needs exercising.
The more we practice non-judgmental awareness, the more we experience peace, calm, and contentment.
When we cultivate non-judgmental awareness, we’re practicing non-resistance. Think about what resistance means, as well as how it feels in your body and mind when you’re actively resisting something. To resist or reject something is to be in the opposite state of peace, calm, and contentment. And it’s important to note here, resistance can sometimes take the form of clinging. Because when we cling to a person, thing, or experience, what we’re actually doing is resisting or rejecting the idea of losing it. This equally interferes with our state of inner peace.
The Buddhist monks who spend many hours creating beautiful mandalas out of colored sand know their creations will be swept away before they even get started. The whole purpose of creating them is to practice non-clinging (non-judgment), so they can deeply accept the reality that nothing is permanent.
When we accept that nothing is permanent, we cling less. That includes clinging less to thoughts, emotions, and experiences that bring about both suffering and pleasure. We come to know all states of being shift in time.
Going back to the Buddhist roots of mindfulness, the Buddha taught that our judging mind is the source of all suffering. What we cling to, as well as what we resist and reject, is what causes us to suffer. When we develop the capacity to accept what is, we suffer less. This fundamental truth is what makes non-judgmental, mindful awareness so beneficial to our wellbeing.
Difference Between Mindfulness & Meditation
Beginners are often confused about what mindfulness actually is. Many lump it in with past experiences or assumptions they may have about meditation. But an important distinction exists between these two concepts. While mindfulness can be a meditative practice, not all meditation is mindfulness. And all mindfulness is not meditation.
Mindfulness becomes meditation when we set aside time to sit in a still position, or move our body intentionally, as we focus on mindfulness. This usually involves focusing on the breath, but it can also be noticing sensations in the body. Whatever the focal point is, it acts as an anchor throughout a set time to help us stay mindfully aware of the present moment. Each time our mind wanders from our focus, we bring attention back to our breath or bodily sensations. We’re not trying to reach a specific state of mind, other than maintaining an ongoing observation of the present moment, without judgment.
But mindfulness can be practiced in many other ways as well. (We’ll discuss some of these in more detail next.) It’s also a trait that can become a part of one’s general way of interacting with the world – not just during times carved out for meditation. A mindful person is someone who regularly stays in contact with the present moment. Someone who doesn’t tend toward placing judgments on experiences, but rather accepts them through objective observation. A mindful person is aware of their thoughts and emotions but can maintain some distance from them, as an observer.
Meditation, on the other hand, is strictly a practice. It involves concentrated effort to focus, and oftentimes to clear, the mind. There are a variety of meditation techniques, each with different approaches to attaining their goals. As mentioned previously, there’s Transcendental Meditation, which uses mantra repetition. Mantra repetition is also a common form of yogic meditation.
Other forms of yogic meditation focus on controlling the breath and thoughts, to the point of eliminating all thought and arriving at a blissful, empty state called samadhi. Metta meditation is a practice that focuses on developing loving-kindness for one’s self and others.
There are many meditation techniques out there. The main difference between mindfulness and meditation is that mindfulness can be considered a general way of relating to the world, a trait. It can also be a meditative practice. Meditation, on the other hand, is a practice performed in a specific way for a set amount of time.
Sitting mindfulness is a meditative form of practice. As described above, this method involves sitting in a comfortable position and focusing on a single point of attention. Usually, this is the breath.
With each inhale and exhale, the sensation of the breath is noticed at the edges of the nostrils. The awareness of that feeling is sustained as the breath moves all the way in and all the way out. Alternatively, sensations in your body can be the focal point. The way your bottom contacts the ground. The rise and fall of your chest and belly with each breath. Just generally feeling your body’s presence in space.
Because it is the nature of our minds to wander from the present moment, we all experience a parade of thoughts, emotions, desires, uncertainties, etc. when practicing meditation. That’s okay. It’s part of the process. To remain mindful, simply observe these occurrences as they arise, without judgment.
Allow the thought or feeling to rise and fall, just like your breath, without getting attached to it. When you notice you’ve been carried away by a thought or an emotion, simply label it as thinking or feeling. Then bring attention back to your breath or body. This generic label has a detaching effect, making it easier to let it go. You can repeat this process as many times as needed.
Am I Doing it Right?
One of the main things that frustrates beginners to mindfulness meditation is the thought they might not be doing it right. If you struggle with this thought, consider this. So long as you can find your way to seeing this thought as a judgment, you’re doing it right.
Mindfulness is an ongoing practice. None of us will ever attain a 100% mindful state at all times, including in meditation. That’s not even the goal. The intention is to expand your capacity for mindful states of awareness, and you accomplish this by practicing it.
The act of engaging in the practice is what develops this capacity, not reaching some singular, ideal state. During a sitting mindfulness session, it’s perfectly natural to redirect your attention many times. The act of doing so is training your brain to be more attentive, less judgmental, and less invested in your thoughts and feelings.
There are a number of apps that can help you practice sitting meditation, which we’ll discuss in a later section.
The body scan is a very effective way to practice mindfulness, especially for beginners. With its focused attention on sensations in each part of the body, it draws awareness instantly and sustainably into the present moment. As an added benefit, a body scan can ground you quickly if you’re feeling stressed or anxious, and it can be done almost anywhere.
Body scans are best done in a seated or lying-down position. Here’s how it works: To start, take a few deep breaths, bringing awareness to your overall body. Bringing awareness to the body means feeling sensations in your body. This can include feeling points of contact between your body and the ground and/or articles of clothing. It can mean feeling the substance of your body as it exists within the space around you. It’s noticing anything you’re feeling in your body right now.
During the scan, you want to bring all your attention to distinct parts of your body. Sit with awareness of any sensations occurring in each part of your body for a sustained amount of time – long enough to really feel what’s happening there. You can start at your toes or your head, whichever you prefer, but most people begin with their toes.
After attending to your toes, move to your feet, then your ankles, calves, knees, and on up until you reach your face and the top of your head. If you have trouble connecting your awareness to a part of your body, wiggle it a little to help draw your attention there.
(Learn more about this practice, plus find my Guided Body Scan Meditation here.)
Noticing, Not Judging
As with all mindfulness practices, maintain a non-judgmental perspective. If you notice pain somewhere, allow yourself to feel it. You can label it pain or discomfort, but try not to get carried away with thoughts about how to change it or how much you dislike it. Simply notice it. (The exception to this would be if you’re feeling significant discomfort, in which case you’ll want to shift your position.)
The same goes for anything you notice happening in your body. If it stands out to you, label it in a general way. Sit with it for a while without resisting it, and move on to the next body part.
When you’re done, you may find you’re so connected to the present moment you feel primed for a sitting meditation session. If so, by all means, do it. Otherwise, at the conclusion of your scan, take a few deep breaths and gently bring awareness back to your whole body again.
This is a form of moving meditation that can connect your sitting mindfulness practice to everyday life. Because it involves activity and motion, while maintaining a focused mindful state, it can be that bridge that helps you carry what you’re gaining in meditation to the rest of your life.
This practice is best performed with bare feet, because it allows you to be more aware of the sensations occurring in your feet as you walk. However, it can be effectively done in shoes as well.
Find a spot where you can walk. This can be outdoors or indoors. As long as you have space to walk continually – like in a circle in your living room or a long pathway somewhere outside – it works.
Focus on Your Feet
As you walk, pay attention to the sensation of your feet coming into contact with the ground. Feel the roll of each foot as it progresses through each step, one after the other. Breathe steadily. If there are sounds or other sensations around you, notice them without judgment, but let your feet be the primary anchor for your awareness. When you notice your mind wandering, gently bring attention back to the sensation of your feet.
Walking mindfulness can be especially useful for people who find sitting practice difficult, whether it be due to discomfort or an inclination toward wanting to move the body, as in ADHD. For some people, focusing mindful awareness on movement is easier than focusing it in stillness.
Eating with mindfulness can change your whole relationship to food. Not only does it make you notice, and therefore enjoy, the flavors more, but it also helps you make choices that are healthier for your body.
It slows down the process of eating, so you notice when you’re full. It also encourages you to pay attention to how the food you’re eating makes you feel, so you’re more likely to choose healthy options. And, of course, it offers yet another way to develop an overall mindful way of living.
Mindful eating means focusing all your attention on the act of eating. It’s a very intentional practice, unlike the way most of us typically eat, i.e. while watching TV, holding a conversation, or doing something on our phones.
In this food I see clearly the presence of the entire universe supporting my existence.Thich Nhat Hanh
A Self-Care Ritual
Before taking a bite, the appearance and smells of the food are contemplated. A deeper contemplation can include acknowledging the source of the food, as well as all the work that went into cultivating it and getting it onto your table. Every bite is chewed carefully and completely, with attention to the tastes and textures of the food. When the snack or meal is complete, dishes are washed and put away, with this task also practiced mindfully.
Mindful eating turns the act of eating into an intentional self-care ritual that serves to nourish your body and mind at the same time. While you may not be able to practice total mindful eating at every meal, most people can set aside one meal or one snack a day to practice. And when at a table with friends or family, you can still implement some aspects of mindful eating. Just pay as much attention as you can to the sensations of your food and take time to chew your food completely. I’ve written a whole, separate post about mindful eating, which you can find here if you’d like to learn more about this beautiful practice.)
Mindfulness Throughout the Day
Mindfulness is a way of being. It’s an intentional way of relating to life. So its benefits become most notable when we start bringing the mindful way of being into our daily routines.
Literally everything you do can be turned into a mindfulness practice. All you have to do is choose to do it mindfully, using the same basic principles as a sitting practice. Those are: attending to the present moment and doing so without judgment.
A great way to start bringing mindfulness into your everyday life is to kick off your day with the intention by practicing it in the shower. The shower can be a place where we ruminate, plan, worry, or daydream. Everything we do in the shower is habitual. It doesn’t require much thought or intention, so our minds feel free to wander anywhere and everywhere.
But the shower can also be the perfect place to practice mindfulness. The continual sensation of water hitting your body makes for a strong focal point for your present-moment awareness. The same goes for the feeling of your fingertips shampooing your scalp and your washcloth scrubbing your body. A mindful shower can cleanse and clear your mind, preparing you for a calmer, more balanced day.
Another great time to practice mindfulness is when doing chores, like washing the dishes or folding laundry. Again, these are tasks that are, for the most part, habitual. They don’t require a lot from us mentally, so we can easily incorporate mindfulness into the picture. All it takes is a continual connection to the present moment through sensory awareness (sight, sound, touch, smell), and a practice of non-judgment about whatever arises (whether sensory, thoughts, or feelings).
The great thing about doing chores mindfully is it turns what might otherwise have felt like a tedious task into something that feels meaningful and pleasant.
Driving is another time we can utilize mindfulness. Given that many of us spend many hours commuting to and from work or other activities every week, this time can offer an abundance of opportunity to practice mindfulness.
When mindfully driving, you can focus on the sensations felt in the car – from your hands gripping the steering wheel to the wind blowing through the vents or the window. You can also listen mindfully to the sounds of traffic, wind, and the car itself. As always with mindfulness, you can simply focus on your breath. All that matters is there’s an anchoring focal point for you to stay in contact with.
An extra benefit of practicing mindfulness while driving is that it calms you at a time when you might be inclined to get frustrated by drivers, traffic lights, and other obstacles in your path. Because you’re actively cultivating non-judgment, your reaction to these hurdles is less aggressive and anxiety-producing.
Mindfulness on the Job
Taking a mindfulness break at work can shift your whole outlook. You can do a sitting practice at your desk, go for a mindful walk outside, or enjoy a snack or cup of tea mindfully. Or, use a mindfulness-bell app to remind you from time to time to simply take a few mindful breaths.
Inviting mindfulness into your work life can help you reduce stress and approach your work with greater focus.
Mindfulness to Cultivate Compassion
Generally, mindfulness means paying attention to the present moment while accepting it as simply what is. Cultivating compassion is a more specific practice that supports you in developing overall mindfulness. The reason for this is, compassion helps us progress in our ability to be non-judgmental. When we judge ourselves and others, we’re not engaging in compassion. Instead, we’re looking at flaws and placing blame of some sort.
Compassion is, at its core, the awareness of suffering in the world – both our own and that of others. It’s knowing and accepting that we’re all flawed. We’re all struggling in one way or another. And when we see this, we feel a tenderness toward ourselves and others that overrides our instinct to judge.
Moving Beyond Judgment
When we focus on developing compassion, we’re choosing to move beyond judgment to a place of understanding. It is this capacity for moving beyond judgment that connects compassion practices to mindfulness.
It can be very difficult to adopt a non-judgmental stance when we’re ashamed or otherwise critical of ourselves. Likewise, when we’re hurt or somehow disturbed by another person. Because a compassionate stance acknowledges the plight of suffering we’re all burdened with, it helps us to accept perceived flaws in ourselves and others. It doesn’t mean we excuse harmful behavior, or that we allow ourselves to continue to be harmed. It just means we expand ourselves enough to see the suffering that lies beneath the surface of hurtful behavior.
Metta – or loving-kindness – meditation is a great way to develop compassion. It involves three things:
- Holding a person in your awareness.
- Visualizing and acknowledging that person’s suffering (the more specific the better).
- Wishing for that person’s suffering to be eased.
It’s best to start with practicing compassion for yourself. After you’ve acknowledged your own suffering, your wish for yourself might go something like this: May I be held in the heart of compassion. May my pain and suffering be eased. May I be happy, healthy, and whole.
Once you feel comfortable with that, move on to someone you feel close to and who is easy to feel compassion for. Repeat the whole process, from visualizing the suffering to extending the wish. Then, move on to someone you feel neutral about. Next, someone you dislike, and finally send it out to all beings everywhere.
Keep in mind that compassion is not an easy practice. It asks a lot of us. But it gives a lot in return. The less tied to judgment we are, the more we’re able to live a harmonious, peaceful, and balanced life.
Mindfulness to Ease Difficult Emotions
Sadness, grief, anxiety, fear, shame, anger. These are all powerful emotions that have the potential to disrupt our lives significantly. Mindfulness can help us manage them. As we practice and grow in our ability to stick with the present moment without judgment, we learn to regulate our emotional reactions. This is one of the biggest reasons mindfulness has been correlated to improved psychological states.
Here’s How it Works
While we’re practicing mindfulness, we’re training our brains to be observers of our internal states. There’s a distancing that occurs, which allows us to notice these states without having to act to change them and without feeling the need to place judgment on them.
We also notice how fluid these states can be. How they change. How they arise but also dissipate. We get a sense of this too will pass when we witness the fleeting nature of sensations, thoughts, and emotions in our practice. Consequently, we develop greater flexibility and openness to uncomfortable states along the way.
Now, when a big emotion like anger shows up, most likely our first response isn’t mindful. We may get whipped into the whole visceral experience of the fight-or-flight reaction that’s been triggered – heart racing, blood pressure and adrenaline surging.
But if we’ve been practicing mindfulness, at some point, we become aware of all these changes occurring in our body. We notice that we’re yelling, if we are. Or how we’re stewing, if we’ve stuffed it. We can choose to bring mindfulness into the equation.
What Happens When You Bring Mindfulness to Emotions?
The initial consequence of bringing mindful awareness to the anger is that we’re distanced from it, even if just a little. Rather than having all our attention focused on the source of our anger, we can now also see that this is an emotional response, called anger. We know we’ve felt it before, and that it will pass.
We can sit (or walk if that feels better) with focused attention on what’s happening in the present moment. What’s happening in our body. What the emotion feels like, and where we feel it most in our body.
We do this without judgment, so we’re not trying to push it away. We’re just noticing it, perhaps by saying something like this is what anger feels like. Again, this further distances us from the experience. We’re acknowledging it without having to be swept up in it.
We continue to hold it in our awareness, without judgment or adding fuel to the fire, until it passes. It’s as if we create a safe container in which this emotion can play itself out. Once it’s played itself out, we can determine what we want to do about the situation that provoked the anger. And, as often as needed, we can repeat the mindful holding of the emotion.
The process described above can be applied to all emotions. And the result of long-term practice is that our emotional responses become more regulated, less charged. We grow more comfortable with allowing ourselves to feel emotions, because we come to trust that we’re bigger than them. This generates a reliable steadiness that helps us cope more skillfully whenever big emotions arise.
As research has grown in support of mindfulness, several therapeutic interventions have been developed around the practice of mindfulness. Below you’ll find a brief overview of each:
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction
Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) introduced the first systematic mindfulness intervention for mental health. This 8-week course teaches people how to use mindfulness to alleviate stress, anxiety, depression, and pain. MBSR training has been associated with brain changes that reflect positive emotional states and emotional regulation. Thankfully, some of these courses are now available online for free.
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (MBCBT) is an 8-week group intervention that focuses on treating depression, especially for people with recurring episodes. It’s been found to be effective in reducing symptoms of depression and in preventing relapses into depressive episodes. It’s gone on to be adapted for individuals who suffer from bipolar disorder and social phobia as well.
Dialectical Behavioral Therapy
Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) was initially developed to help with suicidal and other self-harming behavior for people suffering from borderline personality disorder (BPD). It combines elements of CBT with Zen philosophy to help regulate emotions. There’s a strong focus on self-acceptance and reducing avoidance of difficult emotions.
DBT has been found to be effective for reducing suicide and self-harming behaviors, as well as in reducing substance use for people who have co-occurring BPD and substance abuse problems. Modifications of DBT have proven useful for treatment of eating disorders and depression too.
Acceptance & Commitment Therapy
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) begins with the premise that psychological distress is often caused by our attempts to control or avoid negative thoughts and emotions. However, rather than providing relief, these very attempts actually tend to lead to a greater occurrence of the negative thoughts and emotions we were trying to avoid. This, in turn, produces negative experiences that serve to further reinforce our negative thoughts and emotions.
It’s like a vicious, self-feeding cycle. All of this ultimately prevents us from living in a way that aligns with what we actually want, or value, for our life. ACT uses mindfulness principles to generate present-time awareness. The goal is to create distance between one’s self and one’s thoughts/emotions, and to encourage acceptance. It’s been shown to be effective for anxiety, depression, and substance abuse, and has proven more effective than treatment as usual for improving social function.
Mindfulness for Addiction
In addition to the above mindfulness-based treatment approaches, Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention (MBRP) offers a unique approach for people struggling with addiction. It was developed at the Addictive Behaviors Research Center at the University of Washington and has been shown to be more effective than treatment as usual.
MBRP combines methods from Mindfulness-Based CBT, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, and standard Relapse Prevention. It focuses on developing the capacity for identifying high risk situations for substance use, including early warnings signs for relapse and internal & external triggers. Additionally, it works to develop coping skills and self-efficacy.
How It Helps
What makes mindfulness especially suited for addiction treatment is its focus on the awareness of internal states. And more specifically, the greater tolerance for uncomfortable states that mindfulness supports. For example, the uncomfortable feeling of craving. People struggling with addiction can learn to sit with that feeling of craving, observing how it rises and then dissipates – just like any other sensation, thought, or emotion – without having to act on it.
Addiction often co-occurs with other mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, or PTSD. The powerful emotions that arise from these mental health disorders can lead a person to attempt to eradicate their discomfort through substance abuse. Mindfulness is a useful skill to increase tolerance for these uncomfortable emotions as well.
MBRP focuses on developing self-compassion, as well as the ability to interject a pause in what would otherwise be automatic, habitual behavior. This helps people struggling with addiction to be gentler with themselves. It helps them break repetitive cycles of thought and behavior so they can choose healthier coping mechanisms.
Mindfulness Recovery Groups
Beyond MBRP, there’s a growing community of mindfulness-based recovery support. Refuge Recovery offers online resources as well as local and online recovery support groups. The Buddhist Recovery Network also offers an online resource and directory of support groups meeting around the world. Most local Zin and Shambhala centers have recovery support groups that incorporate mindfulness and meditation.
Books on Mindfulness
If you want to dive deeper into mindfulness, there are plenty of great books that can inform and inspire your practice. Here are a few of my favorites:
- Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn
- Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn
- The Art of Living: Peace and Freedom in the Here and Now by Thich Nhat Hanh
- The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation by Thich Nhat Hanh
- How to Meditate: A Practical Guide to Making Friends with Your Mind by Pema Chodron
- The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself by Michael A. Singer
Mindfulness apps are a great, convenient way to practice mindfulness. So often, our phones can encourage us to be distracted from the present moment. But these apps do the opposite. They turn your phone into a tool for developing mindfulness and help you access its benefits throughout the day. Here are a few good ones to check out:
Headspace: Meditation & Sleep Includes exercises and instruction on mindfulness and meditation. They’ve got a free Basics course that’s great for Mindfulness Beginners.
Mindfulness Coach Find mindfulness exercises and a library of useful mindfulness information.
Insight Timer Offers guided meditations & talks from mindfulness experts, as well as a meditation timer.
Plum Village: Zen Buddhism Meditations Thich Nhat Hanh’s meditation community’s app. Guided meditations, teachings, and a bell you can set to go off periodically to remind you to take a mindfulness moment.
If you’re really wanting to dive in deep and take your practice to the next level, you can immerse yourself at a mindfulness retreat. These retreats offer an opportunity to learn from experts, practice in traditional as well as unique ways, and connect with a community of practitioners.
Shambhala Mountain Center: Located in the Colorado Rockies, this center offers a wide variety of programs in a beautiful, serene setting.
University of Massachusetts Medical School: The University of Massachusetts Med School’s MBSR site provides a directory of upcoming mindfulness retreats.
The Mindful Way: Offers retreats based on the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program.
Plum Village: Thich Nhat Hanh’s mindfulness community also offers retreats.
Local Mindfulness Centers
Most cities have mindfulness meditation centers where you can develop your practice with a community of meditators, called a sangha. This can be a great way for both longtime practitioners and beginners to grow in mindfulness. You can use this Meditation Finder link to locate a center near you.
Zen Centers: To find your local zen center, just type the name of your city and “zen center” into your search engine. Zen centers hold regular meditation sessions and typically have longer meditation immersion experiences on the weekends from time to time.
Shambhala Centers: You can find your local Shambhala center in the same manner described above. These centers offer group meditations, courses, and even one-on-one instruction with a meditation teacher.
Whether you’re new to mindfulness or have been practicing for some time, I hope you found something useful in this Ultimate Guide to Mindfulness for Beginners. If you want to bring mindfulness into your life in a more intentional way, download my free mindfulness-based Guided Meditation. It can help you set your intention for mindful living at the start of each day.
May your practice bring you peace, joy, and contentment!
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Where are you at in your mindfulness journey today?