5 Easy Steps to Declutter Your Mind With Mindfulness
Mindfulness can help you be present here and now.
Posted Jan 06, 2021
Throughout history, in the East, many people have engaged in mindful mediation, originating in the Buddhist and Hindu tradition of spiritual enlightenment. Many of these principles have been Westernized in the form of mindfulness, and in some cases follow an evidence-based (EB) approach rather than a religious one.
One evidence-based approach by John Kabat-Zin refers to mindfulness as paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally1. Within EB, there are many approaches to mindfulness. The following is a very light version of mindfulness based upon a psychological therapeutic approach called acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)2, which explains how we often get entangled in our thoughts, and how we can get unentangled via exercises such as mindfulness.
In modern society, we have many pressures that we have not evolved to deal with. Our stress system, called the hypothalamic-pituitary axis (HPA) of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), was designed hundreds of thousands of years ago to evade predators and defend ourselves from physical threats. The stress was only supposed to be a temporary response (e.g., run away from a predator), and then rest. However, modern society involves constant stressors such as deadlines, long working hours, relationship problems, family commitments, bills, crime, social conformity, isolation due to pandemic restrictions, etc. All of these can lead to long term stress and anxiety, which can eventually lead to depression and chronic illness impacting the immune system and our health3.
We humans have language, which separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. Though language can help us problem solve, communicate, and invent things, in remarkable ways, it is also a double-edged sword. Through language, we can often get caught up in destructive evaluative judgments in the there and then—events that happened in the past (such as regrets), or things that have not yet happened (such as the things we worry about). These language traps can form into negative judgments about ourselves—e.g., "I’m not good enough," "I’m unworthy of love," "I’m rubbish at everything," "I will fail, so what’s the point in trying?" Crucially, these thoughts can hinder us from living in accordance with what matters. To escape these traps, try some of the following:
1. Noticing the wandering mind task: For 10 minutes, close your eyes, lay back, and allow your mind to wander. Notice how your mind labels, judges and evaluates every mental event. Notice how this evaluation causes change to your emotions. Some thoughts may make you happy, whilst others may cause you pain. This exercise allows us to notice how the mind has a tendency to label, judge, and evaluate everything that passes through it, and how it can impact us, and how we feel.
For a moment try to forcibly suppress a thought, particularly if painful. Did you notice what happened? It was likely that the thought was not successfully suppressed. If anything, the thought may have become more prevalent and had more control over your feelings. This is because our minds automatically judge, and it is extremely difficult to stop it, particularly when using a forceful strategy such as thought suppression. Try not thinking about a pink elephant. What happened? A pink elephant most likely popped into your mind.
Evaluate and judging through language (e.g., "he is better than me") is exactly what minds are designed to do. Judgments and evaluations can clutter our minds, waste our time as we struggle with thoughts, and cause us pain. So, mindfulness is all about learning to be in the here and now in a non-judgmental way.
2. Labeling without judgment, and acceptance task: The second task builds on the first, and in ACT this is called acceptance. This time for 10 minutes, close your eyes, lay back, and notice and label, but do not judge or evaluate, the thoughts that pass through your mind. Simply accept them, and do not struggle or try to suppress any of them. At first, this will be extremely difficult. It’s important not to try too hard, and it's OK if you lose your focus from time to time.
When you find yourself getting entangled by judging and evaluating your thoughts, gently bring your attention back to your thoughts and feelings in a non-judgmental way. Crucially, this task will start to help you create space for painful thoughts and feelings in your life, without struggling with them in a form of acceptance and openness.
3. Establish broader awareness and identify with what is important: As you build your skills, perhaps try to broaden your noticing experience, and control of attention with a greater number of sensations and focus. This can be done, for example, with the body scan exercise, as you learn to discriminate different bodily sensations and without judgment. Focus on your toes, your chest, and your neck for a moment. What do they feel like? Try putting your focus on your breathing for a few minutes, and feel your breaths going in and out of your body. Notice the sounds and sensations around you. Try to have a good and connected relationship with your body and your surroundings.
As you build this self-noticing and mindful space, you may want to begin gently exploring what is most meaningful to you in your life. What direction would you like your life to take? Establishing values orientation is important in ACT, and can be explored best when you can contact the present moment mindfully in the here and now and not controlled by verbal operants (rewards and punishers based on language traps) in the there and then.
4. Learn not to buy into thoughts task: In ACT, this is called cognitive defusion. The leaves on the steam exercise can help you in this. Start by noticing your thoughts coming and going. In doing this, every time a thought pops into your mind, simply visualize putting the thought on a leaf and watching it gently flow down the stream. Your greater capacity for connecting to the present moment mindfully will help you with this task. Learning to distance yourself from the literal meaning of thoughts (i.e., not buying into thoughts) can be very important in this mindful process.
5. Acknowledge that mindfulness is a way of life and not just a 10-minute practice: Though the 10-minute exercises described here are a very useful way to get started with mindfulness, it is important to recognize that mindfulness when best practiced is a way of life and not simply a set of exercises. As you get better and feel more comfortable with being present in the here and now through these exercises, you may want to broaden your mindful capacity to a greater number of events in your life. Notice how you feel when you are upset next. Try to catch that moment and gently bring your attention to the focus of the present moment, in a non-judgmental way, and you may notice that what is upsetting you may have less control over your feelings. Notice what works and build on this. As your skills develop, you can explore and bring mindfulness into many aspects of your life, such as mindful eating, mindful walking, and mindful silence.
As you build these skills, you may want to go further and explore ACT4 in more detail, which will teach you about commitment to values, and how to build psychological flexibility skills further. Mindfulness practice, though, is a really good lighthearted start to get you on the road to leading a life in the present moment.
1. Kabat-Zinn, J. (2003). Mindfulness-based interventions in context: past, present, and future. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10(2), 144–156.
2. Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K. D., & Wilson, K. G. (2009). Acceptance and commitment therapy. Washington, DC:: American Psychological Association.
3. Edwards, D., & Best, S. (Eds.). (2020). The Textbook of Health and Social Care. SAGE Publications Limited.
4. Hayes, S. (2019). A Liberated Mind: The essential guide to ACT. Random House.