In many Asian languages the word for “mind” and the word for “heart” is the same word. So when you hear the word “mindfulness,” you have to hear the word “heartfulness” simultaneously to understand or feel what mindfulness really is. That is why mindfulness is sometimes described as an affectionate attention and why I encourage you to practice with a very light touch, bringing an attitude of gentleness and compassion to yourself at every turn.
– Jon Kabat-Zinn, “Mindfulness for Beginners”
Mindfulness can initially sound like a pretty nebulous concept. Because of its seemingly abstract nature, when learning the skill, its helpful to initially focus on the more practical aspects of mindfulness. At the same time, its important to maintain a connection to the essence of what mindfulness is all about.
What is mindfulness all about? Mindfulness has been described, simply, as focused awareness of the present moment. From a DBT perspective, the goal is to use this awareness of the present moment to get ourselves into Wise Mind. By hitting the pause button and noticing the moment we are in we can acknowledge our emotions, identify our current state of mind (Emotion Mind, Reasonable Mind, or a synthesis of the two, which is our Wise Mind), and take note of what is driving our behavior. This process is referred to as taking hold of the mind. By choosing where to focus our attention we gain control over our mind and, ultimately, we can take the wheel and drive our actions.
As skills trainers, after facilitating an understanding of taking hold of the mind, we teach the steps for what to do and how to do it with the What Skills and the How Skills. The emphasis here is on the doing. Facilitating trainee mastery of a skill requires this initial focus. As the skill of Mindfulness is cultivated, a broader concept of Mindfulness can be incorporated with the notion of Heartfulness. Heartfulness, a beautiful embodiment of the spirit of mindfulness, encapsulates the affectionate and compassionate presence that comes with being mindful and being human. The How Skill of doing things Non-Judgmentally is the closest representation of Heartfulness in the DBT skills manual. By engaging in judgmental thinking, we are fighting against reality by imposing our will on how we think things should be. When we fight against what is, we end up raising our emotions and we keep ourselves in a more emotional place. By removing judgment and focusing on the facts, it helps us accept reality and access our Wise Mind. Heartfulness takes non-judgment a step further. It goes beyond simply removing judgment and encourages we approach the world with a shared sense of humanity and kindness to ourselves. While subtle, I would liken this to the difference between noticing the moment and accepting the moment. Heartfulness is very much a way of being where the goal is not only getting into wise mind. The goal is being your wise mind.
As Jon Kabat-Zinn encourages, it would be helpful if we all approached our mindfulness practice with Heartfulness. In the Distress Tolerance module, we learn to be kind to ourselves in moments of intense emotion by self-soothing. Heartfulness allows us to be gentle and compassionate to ourselves and those around us in every moment. Whatever the moment brings. If we approach our emotions, behaviors, and thoughts with Heartfulness, we allow ourselves to gracefully accept all that enters our experience without judgment or acting on impulse. And in the moments that we do judge and act impulsively, which we all do, we once again access our Heartfulness. We kindly accept ourselves for being human. And we continue to work on nurturing a focused awareness of what it is to be human and what it is to be wise. In this moment…and this moment…and the next.