Emotional Awareness and Radical Acceptance
By David Mellinger, M.S.W.
Through training in mindfulness meditation, men and women learn to practice mindfulness – an attitude of openness, freshness, and willingness to engage in the comings and goings of our thoughts, feelings, and other mental experiences at this very moment. Mindfulness enables us to focus on the present, to experience mental events separately from taking action, and to refrain from attempting to shut down painful experiences or prolong pleasant experiences.
Mindfulness meditation practice refines or clarifies our attention so that we can connect more fully and directly with whatever is happening. It can raise our awareness of the seminal role of irrational thinking in emotional distress and help us change the processes that feed our pain and confusion, although it does not, in itself, resolve emotional disorders, it. Through mindfulness we can be more aware of our inner thoughts, strengthen emotional flexibility, and train our attention to achieve greater resilience, equanimity and calm, according to Sharon Salzburg (2015), a pioneer teacher of Buddhist meditation practices in the West.
Techniques of “psychological mindfulness” consist of emotional awareness and radical acceptance which can be learned as psychotherapy skills. In this context,
- Awareness means tuning in to all the mental events in our field of experience—thoughts, mental images, sensations, memories, and emotions. Heightening our awareness is analogous to tuning a fine high definition radio in to a magnificent (or dreadful) concert.
- Radical acceptance is the embracing of all our experience right here and now without judgment – neither shunning it, clinging to it, nor pushing it away.
Acceptance augments the benefits of mindfulness when aspects of our current situation aren’t immediately changeable, or when the costs of change are too dear. It’s a conscious process – learnable in therapy or through self-help – which entails intentionally suspending the actions or thinking processes that would embroil us in battling within ourselves or outside ourselves. When disturbing or painful emotions color our perceptions and interpretations of what’s going on, acceptance can help us reduce the suffering that results from continually telling ourselves that the situation shouldn’t be the way it is and can develop into an enduring perspective on our life experience.
The nascent convergence of mindfulness tradition and psychological science is transforming contemporary psychotherapy. Therapists skilled in the practice of mindfulness and acceptance-based treatment – a product of this convergence – can augment cognitive-behavioral therapy by helping clients abide with disturbing feelings rather than getting drawn into negativity; “unsticking” their persistent worry or rumination; preventing bad moods from materializing.
Research shows that mindfulness meditation, as well as mindfulness-enriched and acceptance-based treatments, facilitates clients developing a broader, more workable perspective on emotional distress and helps alleviate or overcome anxiety or depressive disorders. By engaging in therapy enriched by mindfulness and acceptance, people often find their focus, clarity, and concentration improve so they can keep from getting caught up in cloudy, negative thinking. Mental flexibility increases, and they can develop and hold a fuller perspective as they become more aware and accepting of the ebb and flow of their feelings and the movement of their minds. They find they’re better able to keep from becoming lost or overwhelmed in acute anxiety or panic and to overcome immobilization by sticky, negative thinking. Thus, through the practice of mindfulness or through mindfulness-enriched new-wave CBT, individuals can focus more on what’s really happening and the richness of their own feelings, and they ultimately become capable of living more in accord with their values.