A Conversation with Dr. Ruth Baer, Ph.D.
I recently had the opportunity to talk with my colleague Dr. Ruth Baer, a clinical psychology professor and internationally recognized expert on mindfulness. I asked her a few questions to help us better understand what mindfulness is and how it can help with a variety of mental health issues. Here’s our conversation:
DS: Mindfulness is certainly very popular these days. For those who aren’t very familiar with the topic, what’s a simple way to describe what mindfulness is?
RB: Mindfulness means paying attention to what’s happening in the present moment. In any given moment, a lot is going on – usually more than we realize – and we can choose what to focus on. There might be sensations in the body, thoughts passing through the mind, or emotions coming and going. The environment is full of sights, sounds, and scents that we usually ignore.
If you’re doing something, mindfulness means doing it with awareness, rather than on automatic. For example, if you’re washing the dishes, you might notice how the water feels, the sounds of the dishes clinking and clattering, the light glinting off the knives and forks, the scent of the detergent, and the movements of your hands as you work. Mindful awareness also includes an attitude of openness, interest, curiosity, and friendliness about whatever is present, whether it’s pleasant or unpleasant.
DS: What are a couple of short and simple mindfulness exercises someone could try out to see what it feels like to be more mindful?
RB: Here are three interesting exercises:
1) Set one of your hands on a surface, like a tabletop. Feel the sensations in your hand where it’s touching this surface. Does it feel warm or cool, dry or damp, smooth or rough? What else do you notice about it? Focus on each finger separately for a few moments. Then shift to your palm, then the back of your hand. If you don’t feel any sensations in some areas, that’s fine. See if you can adopt an attitude of friendly curiosity about whatever you feel and allow it to be as it is, whether it’s pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Do this for about a minute. At some point, your mind may wander off. This is completely normal. When you notice that your mind has wandered, see if you can let go of judgments about the wandering mind and come back to observing the sensations in your hand.
2) Turn your attention to any sounds that might be present. Notice the qualities of the sounds. Are they loud or soft? Is the pitch high or low? How long does each sound last? What directions are they coming from? Is there silence between the sounds? Observe any reactions you might have to particular sounds. If you’re mind says, “That’s the cat” or “That’s the furnace” or “What’s making that noise?” notice that these are thoughts and accept them as normal. Gently turn your attention back to the sounds themselves. As best you can, observe them with an interested, friendly attitude, whether you like the sounds or don’t like them.
3) Take a short walk and notice the sensations in your feet as you walk along. Then feel the muscles in your legs, then in your arms. Notice anything else that’s happening in the body. Can you feel your breath? If you like, shift your attention to your surroundings. Notice the colors and shapes of what you can see. Hear the sounds. Smell the air. If you get caught up in thinking about something else, that’s totally normal. Just come back to mindful awareness of walking, remembering to let go of judgments. If you get confused about what to focus on, go back to noticing your feet on the ground. Then you can shift your attention to anything you choose.
DS: Mindfulness has been shown to be effective in addressing a variety of physical and mental health concerns. Tell us a little about some of the benefits of mindfulness practice with some of these conditions.
RB: The best scientific evidence is for stress, anxiety, and depression. Practicing mindfulness regularly reduces these conditions for most people. It also improves coping with conditions that can’t be cured, such as chronic illnesses. There’s some evidence that mindfulness helps with addictions and eating problems, increases positive emotions, and improves overall wellbeing and quality of life.
To get these results, it’s a good idea to take a mindfulness class with a qualified teacher. You’ll have regular sessions to learn mindfulness exercises and how to apply mindfulness to difficult situations in daily life. You’ll also be encouraged to practice at home.
DS: You recently spent some time working at the University of Oxford’s Mindfulness Centre. What new insights did you gain there about mindfulness and its benefits?
RB: In Oxford they’re working on several exciting projects. One is about mindfulness training for adolescents in schools. The goal is to prevent mental health problems, like anxiety and depression, that often start in the teenage years. We hope that teaching young people to be mindful of their own thoughts and feelings will help them focus, calm themselves when they’re stressed, and make wiser choices about handling difficult situations.
Another project involves mindfulness in the workplace. Work is a huge source of stress for many people. Making mindfulness training available in businesses and organizations has potential but more research is needed. Mindfulness classes are so popular now that there’s also a need for guidelines about how to become a qualified mindfulness teacher. The Oxford Mindfulness Centre is developing teacher training programs so that high-quality mindfulness classes will be available to meet the demand.
DS: Your book, “The Practicing Happiness Workbook” describes several mindfulness-based strategies to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. What’s one strategy you could share with us?
RB: One of the most useful strategies is mindfulness of breathing. We’re all breathing all the time, so you can always use your breath to bring you into the present. And you can do this without anyone noticing that you’re practicing mindfulness. Take a moment to notice what your breath is doing. Is it coming in or going out? Does it seem fast or slow, shallow or deep, rough or smooth? Observe it for a few moments, without trying to change it. Let it do its own thing and just watch.
Once you’ve settled into awareness of your breath, you can expand your awareness to other things. What sensations are in your body? What thoughts are in your mind? Are you feeling stressed or emotional? Do you have urges to do something you’ll regret later? Pause. Observe with friendly curiosity. Breathe. This will give you a few moments to collect yourself.
Instead of rushing into something that might make matters worse, you’ll have a moment to consider your next move. Maybe you’ll think of something constructive to do. Maybe the best option is to do nothing and let the problem run its course. Mindfulness of breathing provides stability, so you can see what’s happening and make a wise choice.
DS: Is there anything to be cautious about while practicing mindfulness?
RB: Mindfulness is not magic. It won’t solve every problem and it’s not the only way to improve mental health. For some people, other approaches, like physical exercise, relaxation, and various forms of therapy, might be more helpful. Many people have a false expectation that practicing mindfulness should be a blissful experience. The reality is that mindfulness can be uncomfortable. It teaches us to be fully present with all of our experiences, even the difficult, unpleasant ones.
If you have serious psychological symptoms, such as depression or anxiety, or your background includes traumatic experiences, it’s probably best to find a teacher or therapist who understands mindfulness and can help you learn the skills gradually.
DS: What are a few of your favorite online resources to learn more about mindfulness and its applications? Also, how could someone find mindfulness groups and other ways to get more hands-on experience with mindfulness in their local area?
RB: A useful website is www.mindful.org. In addition to the website, this organization publishes a magazine for people interested in mindfulness. The Center for Mindfulness at the University of San Diego has useful information for people wishing to learn more about mindfulness. The Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School has an online searchable database to help you find mindfulness-based stress reduction programs and teachers. You can also Google “mindfulness classes” along with the name of your town or city and see what comes up.
Thanks so much to Dr. Baer for sharing her expertise!
Here’s a question: What can you do to incorporate mindfulness-based strategies into your everyday life? Please leave a comment. Also, please subscribe to my blog and feel free to follow me on Twitter, “like” my Facebook page, or connect on LinkedIn. Finally, if you enjoyed this post, please share it with a friend. Thanks!
About Dr. Ruth Baer
Ruth Baer is Professor of Psychology at the University of Kentucky and the author of The Practicing Happiness Workbook: How Mindfulness Can Free You From the Four Psychological Traps that Keep You Stressed, Anxious, and Depressed. You can contact her via her website.