There are many different types of meditation, with different underlying purposes. Mindfulness meditation is only one type amongst a vast range. In some very popular types of meditation, the aim is to have a silent mind with no thoughts. This is the very opposite of mindfulness meditation. In mindfulness meditation there is no attempt to still or silence the mind or make it free of thoughts. Rather, in mindfulness meditation, one is open to and curious about the thoughts that continually arise. ACT (Acceptance – Commitment Therapy: Hayes, 1999) generally de-emphasizes meditation practices, relative to other popular mindfulness-based approaches. There are many ways to learn mindfulness skills without meditating. (Having said that, many ACT exercises are meditative in nature, and some ACT protocols do include formal mindfulness meditation practices of various sorts.)
There are many different ways of developing mindfulness skills. In the ACT model, there are four main mindfulness skills: diffusion, acceptance, contacting the present moment, and self-as-context. ACT generally places more emphasis on non-meditative mindfulness practices, because they are generally simpler, easier, more acceptable to people, more practical to include in everyday life, and generally more doable.
Relaxation is often a beneficial by-product of mindfulness. But by no means always. If you are being mindful in a genuinely challenging situation you will not feel relaxed! If you are being mindful while grieving the death of a loved one, you will not feel relaxed. If you are being mindful while performing in a sports competition, you will not feel relaxed.
Relaxation techniques are almost the opposite of mindfulness techniques. The aim of a relaxation technique is to control or alter your feelings – to reduce or get rid of feelings of anxiety or stress and replace them with feelings of relaxation or calmness.
In contrast, the aim of mindfulness techniques is to allow your feelings to be as they are; to stop trying to control or alter them. Instead, we aim to be open to and curious about them, and allow them to come and stay and go as they wish.
Mindfulness Vs. Relaxation Techniques
Relaxation techniques are most likely to work in safe, non-challenging, nonthreatening situations. No relaxation technique will relax you in a genuinely challenging or threatening situation.
However, you can be mindful in a genuinely challenging or threatening situation. You can be mindful in states of hyperarousal, in states of ‘fight-or-flight’: anxiety, anger, fear, agitation, etc.
Of course, the higher the level of hyperarousal/fear/anger/anxiety, the more challenging it is to be mindful; but with ongoing practice, you can be mindful at progressively higher levels of arousal/fear/anger etc. Learning mindfulness skills is a lot like learning to play the guitar. When you first pick up a guitar, even the simplest tunes are almost impossible to play; but with regular practice, you’ll soon be able to play a few chords, which will then enable you to play a wide range of tunes. When new to mindfulness, some clients will find it hard to be mindful at even low levels of hyperarousal/anxiety/fear/anger etc. But with a bit of regular practice, they’ll soon be able to stay mindful at higher levels.
Relaxation techniques aim to make you feel calm. Mindfulness aims to help you act calmly while accepting your feelings; to act calmly, no matter how upset, anxious or stressed you are. At times, you may feel calm as a side effect, but at other times, this won’t happen. So when clients express ‘being calmer’ or ‘staying calm’ as a therapy goal, we want to clarify: “Our aim here is to help you to act more calmly – so that when you are feeling stressed, upset, anxious, angry or fearful, instead of getting pushed around by those emotions, you can say and do things calmly?”
If the client says, “No, I mean I want to feel calm”, we might respond with a reply something like, “Ah, I see. Well, that’s perfectly natural. We all like to feel calm. And it’s fairly easy to feel calm when there are no challenges or difficulties in life. But when we are facing challenging or difficult situations, we won’t feel calm – we’ll feel what people feel in those situations: anxiety, fear, anger, stress. Our work is about handling those sorts of feelings more effectively, so they have less impact and influence over you, so you can then act more calmly in difficult situations, would that be useful?”
The word ‘distraction’ comes from the Latin ‘distrahere’, which means ‘to draw away from’. The aim of a distraction technique is to draw our attention away from what is painful, here and now. In stark contrast, mindfulness practices turn our attention towards what is here and now, with openness and curiosity – whether it is painful, or pleasant, or a mixture of both.
Do We Really Need More Distractions?
Distraction is by far the most common method humans use to avoid pain. Have you ever heard of someone that didn’t know a multitude of ways to distract themselves from pain? Most of us have zillions of ways to distract ourselves from pain. Indeed, we are in danger of becoming the ‘distracted society’ – constantly distracting ourselves from discomfort in all of it’s different forms – from anxiety and anger to frustration and boredom. (Mobile phones in particular have made it possible for us to distract ourselves wherever we go.)
In ACT mindfulness we strive to apply new resources and skills. Distraction is not ‘wrong’, but 1) it’s the opposite of mindfulness, and 2) almost everyone already know many ways to do it. So let’s give ourselves something new and different: Mindfulness.
Both clients and therapists often misunderstand or misuse mindfulness techniques. They use mindfulness to try to escape/reduce/avoid anxiety or other unwanted feelings, and replace them with more pleasant feelings. When this happens, they are no longer practicing mindfulness; they are practicing relaxation. Relaxation and distraction are not ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’; but they are very different from mindfulness.
Sounds Like New Age Psycho Babble
That is a common response when introducing mindfulness. But the research on the effectiveness of mindfulness in the treatment of any number of maladies is substantial (See Marsha Linehan’s Dialectical Behavior Therapy, Steve Hayes and colleagues’ Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and Segal and colleagues’ Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy).
Mindfulness is especially effective in the treatment of addictions such as sexual addiction, substance abuse, and gambling. After all, one often resorts to addictive activities in an attempt to distract themselves from the emotional and physical pain they are experiencing or want to avoid. The problem is the pain always returns and more powerful. To use an analogy, distraction starts out as a cute, lovable, adorable new born tiger. But each time we use distraction to avoid the inevitable pain that is part of life it is like feeding the baby tiger. Before long the baby tiger grows into a full grown powerful tiger that demands to be fed more and more lest it devours us.
In mindfulness we non-judgmentally actively invite all of our thoughts, feelings, sensations, and urges. We observe them as a curious scientist and we “thank” our mind for the 50,000 or so thoughts it generates every day. Even the ones that are not uplifting. We examine our feelings, sensations, and urges. Where in the body is the sensation most prominent, does it have a shape, is it hot or cold, what is it trying to tell us about what matters to us? In mindfulness we are purposefully present and aware using all of our senses.
If you haven’t already – give it a try! While practicing mindfulness is quite simple there are numerous books, podcasts, and Youtube videos that will guide you. With a little practice, the next time you are triggered and pre-occupied with participating in your choice of distraction (i.e., porn, drugs, alcohol) you will have a new tool in your toolbox to help you from being pushed around and controlled by your thoughts and feelings.