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A Practical Guide to Mindfulness

What is Mindfulness?

Russell Kolts

A hands-on guide on how to bring mindful awareness to everyday moments, practice compassion, and improve resilience.

So today I’ll be talking about mindfulness. Mindfulness at its basis is really just present moment awareness. It’s just being aware of what’s happening right now. And that can be what’s happening outside of us, looking around seeing what’s happening in our environment. It can be what’s happening within us. So, for example, what feelings are coming up in our bodies and what emotions we notice in ourselves and what thoughts, what images and words pass through our minds.

So why is mindfulness important? It becomes obvious why it’s important when we notice what happens when we’re not mindful. So let me just kind of give you an example of how this can work, how we can be taken away when we get fused with thoughts or emotions, getting trapped within them.

So in Spokane where I live we have a small backyard that is unfenced because we have a nice wooded area behind, kind of pine forest behind our yard. It’s very nice. And we’ve got a dog named Gwen. Now dogs are very territorial animals and one of the things that can happen is that because our backyard is unfenced and we have neighbours who are the same, occasionally we’ll have another dog wander in from the neighbourhood. And as I said, dogs are territorial.

So when another dog wanders into our backyard, you can imagine what happens with Gwen. What happens, Gwen will see the other dog come into the yard and she’ll size it up a little bit. And if it’s a dog, if it’s a situation she thinks she can handle, she may make a threat display. Maybe her hackles will come up or she’ll growl a little bit, letting the other dog know, hey this is my yard; you need to leave.

On the other hand, if this is a big mean looking dog and she doesn’t think she can handle it, she might do a display of submissiveness. Get herself down really low, kind of signalling: it’s okay, no one needs to get hurt, you know, don’t bother.

So let’s imagine this other dog wanders into my yard, kind of pokes around a little bit, sniffs around, maybe pees on a tree, gets bored and wanders off. Five minutes later, how is Gwen? Five minutes later Gwen is fine. She’s already up to me again asking for a scratch, looking for a snack, things like this.

Now I want you to imagine the same situation, only it’s you and your house. You’re sitting around in your house and a stranger walks in the house. What do you do? My guess is that you would respond in a way that’s pretty similar to the way Gwen did. Your threat response system and your brain would kick in and you’d size up that person.

If it’s a situation you think you can handle, you might respond with not a threat display necessarily but certainly an assertive one like, "Excuse me, what are you doing in my house? This is my place. I’m going to ask you to leave!" On the other hand, imagine when you size them up you become aware that this is a situation you’re not equipped to handle. Maybe they’ve got a big gun or in other ways look big and mean and threatening. In that case you might, as Gwen did, do a little submissiveness display. "Look, no one needs to get hurt. I don’t have a lot of valuables around the house. But if you want some, they’re in the drawer over there. And by the way, we’ve got some cold drinks in the fridge. Please help yourself. No one needs to get hurt."

Now imagine the same scenario. This person wanders around your house, maybe gets a cold drink out of the refrigerator. And after hanging around a bit gets bored and leaves. Five minutes later, how are you? Five hours later? Maybe five days later you’re feeling a little better as you’re watching them install the new alarm system in your home.

But the idea is that unlike Gwen whose threat response system worked exactly as evolution designed it to, threat shows up, her threat response goes up. It stays there until the threat disappears and then it drops away again and she’s fine. That’s how it’s designed to work.

Unlike her, we have these fancy new brain abilities to think, to assign meaning to things, to create complex imagery and to imagine the future. So where Gwen is feeling better and thinking about a treat or a scratch, we’re going over and over in our heads what could have happened. Playing the event again and again like it was a movie in our heads, imagining why did they choose me? What happens if they come back?

And all of that thinking and imagery can feed back to the parts of our brain that process emotions to keep us in that threatened, scared place – unless we’re able to have some mindfulness in the moment, we’re able to observe what’s happening. If we notice, hey, I’m producing all these thoughts and images that are fuelling this sense of ongoing fear in me, at that point a lot of things can become possible.

The first thing we can do is redirect our attention towards something else, like what would be helpful to prevent this happening in the future. But it all begins with that mindful ability to notice what we’re thinking and what we’re imagining and what we’re feeling.

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