Fully Participating

Fully participating can be described as a state in which we are in the present moment, devoid of thoughts or anxiety about the past or the future. Fully participating is most closely associated with Baer’s “act with awareness” factor of the Five Factor Model of Mindfulness. To participate fully in any activity is to be aware in every moment, and to act out of that state of awareness, with purpose and intention.

Mindful awareness allows you to experience every aspect of an activity. We have a tendency, when in thinking mode, to see things and activities as either “all bad” or “all good.” This is not necessarily an accurate depiction of reality. In reality, there is a little good in most bad things, and a little bad in most good things.

In Mark Twain’s book, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Tom gets his friends to help him whitewash a fence by convincing them that fence painting is one of the most fun and enjoyable activities in the world. There is an element of truth in Tom’s deception. Most activities aren’t inherently good or bad. We’ve taught ourselves to think of them in such terms, but we can also teach ourselves a different way.

Think about an unpleasant activity that you have to engage in on a regular basis, such as washing the dishes or taking out the trash. Can you think of any pleasant aspects of these activities? For example, the last time I hand-washed dishes, I found myself fascinated by the bubbles in the sink. I watched the way the light played across them, generating myriads of rainbows that danced and moved across the surface of the bubbles. I was so entertained by this, that I was done with the dishes before I knew it.

There are enjoyable aspects to every experience, if we train ourselves to look for them. Even if we find ourselves caught in an activity in which we can find no pleasure at all, at least we have the pleasure of thinking about how good we’ll feel when the activity is over!

Mindful Awareness teaches us the art of acceptance. Emotional reactions to our circumstances are natural, but that doesn’t mean that we have to respond to these emotions. The mindful skill of acceptance teaches us that we can experience these emotions without engaging in cycles of behavior that lead us to negative consequences. Acceptance teaches us that we are not our thoughts, and that we are not our emotions. At any time we can choose which thoughts and emotions we wish to respond to.

If, at any time, we should engage in thoughts and behaviors that lead to negative consequences, this does not mean that we have become bad persons. This simply means that we are human beings, and as humans we are entitled to make mistakes. Each mistake is an opportunity for growth and learning. Forgiveness is a skill and an art. The place to start with learning the art of forgiveness is in learning first to forgive ourselves when we make mistakes.

Clients with chronic pain issues can benefit from the art of fully participating by realizing that the pain is not something alien, but a part of their daily experience. Instead of fighting the pain, they learn to accept it. A result of this acceptance is that their perception of the pain lessens because they are no longer fighting it. By fully participating in each moment, chronic pain sufferers get back a part of their lives that the pain had taken away (Isenberg, 2009).

Fully participating can also help clients with chronic anxiety problems, stress or depression. By learning to accept the depression or anxiety, clients lean not to fight the problem. By not fighting the anxiety or depression, we avoid setting up the self-perpetuating cycle of avoidance and anxiety enhancement. If the client learns not to try to avoid depression and anxiety, and instead accepts it openly, then there is nothing to fight against, and the downward spiral stops before it begins.

Fully participating can also be very useful to therapists. Grepmair, et al (2007) found that therapists who practiced Zen meditation themselves actually had better success rates with their clients than therapists who did not practice meditation.

One potential explanation for this is that those who practice mindful meditation have developed their capacity to fully participate. By being able to fully participate in what the client may be telling them in a given session, they are better able to offer solutions.

The more the therapist is able to participate in a given session, the more validated the client feels. If you’ve ever experienced a therapist who kept glancing at the clock during a session, you know what an invalidating experience that can be. By learning to fully participate in each session, a therapist or counselor strengthens the client/clinician bond and enhances the chance of success for an intervention.

Grepmair, Ludwig & Mitterlehner, Ferdinand & Loew, Thomas & Bachler, Egon & Rother, Wolfhardt & Nickel, Marius. (2007). Promoting Mindfulness in Psychotherapists in Training Influences the Treatment Results of Their Patients: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Controlled Study. Psychotherapy and psychosomatics. 76. 332-8. 10.1159/000107560.

Isenberg, Sarina & Maragh-Bass, Allysha & Ridgeway, Kathleen & MPH, Mary & Knowlton, Amy. (2017). A qualitative exploration of chronic pain and opioid treatment among HIV patients with drug use disorders. Journal of opioid management. 13. 5. 10.5055/jom.2017.0363.

Ortet G, Pinazo D, Walker D, Gallego S, Mezquita L, Ibáñez MI. Personality and nonjudging make you happier: Contribution of the Five-Factor Model, mindfulness facets and a mindfulness intervention to subjective well-being. PLoS One. 2020 Feb 4;15(2):e0228655. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0228655. PMID: 32017791; PMCID: PMC6999907.

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