I’ve been advised by friends that practicing mindfulness would help reduce my anxiety level. Is that true? What exactly is involved, besides just meditating?”

In contemporary cognitive psychology, mindfulness (often used interchangeably with awareness) is generally viewed as involving two processes:

  • The first process is focusing your attention on your experience of the present, to the exclusion of past or future.
  • The second is deliberately adopting a stance of open appreciation to that experience — as opposed to making judgments about it.

For most people, mindfulness practice is tied to meditation. Not the focused spiritual meditation of AA’s Step Eleven or the practicing Buddhist, however. You don’t need to strive for conscious contact with God or the Universe. Simple awareness and acceptance of the present is enough.

(By the way, I ran into one AA member who told me he was in the fellowship for a year before realizing the Eleventh Step didn’t read ‘Sought through prayer and medication…”)

Mindfulness therapies are a way of stepping outside your everyday attitudes and beliefs — those automatic to your thinking — in order to consider alternatives that might improve your life. With an attitude of detachment, you can permit yourself to simply observe what happens rather than commit to action. Events that might otherwise provoke anxiety seem harmless and distant. In a sense, you’re seeing them for what they are.

One individual described it thus: “Terrible things had happened to me, and not just in combat. I was afraid to think about them. Lived in fear of my own thoughts. Then I learned to meditate and when those thoughts came, I felt safe. Outside of them. They were in the past. And the past couldn’t actually hurt me. The fear faded.”

A good observation. Anxiety lives in the future, partly through our belief that the future is somehow controlled by the past. Mindfulness exercises help us set aside that belief in favor of simply living.

My comparison: I used to feel sick on roller coasters. Then I realized that was because I had automatically stopped taking breaths. So I tried deliberate deep breathing. The nausea disappeared.

You know what? Roller coasters are fun.

Maybe life is like that.