Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) is a blending of Mindfulness and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy techniques. It was developed in 2002 by Segal, Williams and Teasdale for the treatment of depression. It was specifically developed to prevent recurrence of depressive symptoms after a successful therapeutic intervention. MBCT is composed of eight sessions, or lessons. During the first session, participants are taught to differentiate between Doing Mode and Being Mode. They are also taught the Mindfulness skill of observing, as a way of moving from Doing Mode to Being Mode.

Observing begins by learning to pay attention to an object. Any object will do. In fact, the more mundane the object is, the better for practicing observing skills. The idea of observing is to be entirely present in the moment with the object being observed, using all of the senses. If you can engage senses ordinarily not associated with the predominant characteristics of the object, then so much the better. For example, most people know what an orange looks like, and tastes like, but have you ever considered what an orange sounds like? If you were blindfolded and someone held an orange up to your ear and squeezed it, would there be a distinct sound that would identify the orange to you? The purpose of observing in this way is to see things in a way we have never seen them before.

The first step in observing is to eliminate as many assumptions as possible about what we are observing. We all make assumptions every day about the world around us, and many of these assumptions help us to navigate and survive in the world around us. When a traffic light turns green, you automatically assume that the person coming the other way will stop. If that assumption is incorrect, we put ourselves in great danger. But if we did not make that assumption, we would never be able to go anywhere. So our assumptions are useful to a point. But what if our assumptions are incorrect or unhelpful?

Suppose you are at work one day and your coworker, Bob, frowns at you. You could assume that you have done something to upset Bob. If that is your assumption, you will probably interact differently with Bob than you would if you had assumed that perhaps Bob is just having a bad day and his facial expression has nothing to do with you. If you assume that Bob is upset with you, and you act accordingly, what is likely to happen if you discover your assumption was incorrect? Will you act differently with Bob based upon your assumptions about his intentions? Will Bob act differently with you based on his assumptions about your intentions?

When practicing the skill of observing, the observations should be made without drawing any conclusions regarding their content. Observing should be done without making any assumptions.

One way of engaging in observing is to picture yourself an artist, about to draw the object that you are observing. It may be an object you have looked at a thousand times, but if you look at it through the eyes of an artist, suddenly you will see it in a new way. You will begin to notice how light and shadow fall on the object, and how colors transition into each other. You will notice the depth of the object, and its perspective. Now explore the object with the rest of your senses. Pick it up. How heavy is it? How does it feel as your skin makes contact with it? Is it hot or cold, soft or hard? Smell it. Does it have a distinct aroma? What does it sound like? What does it taste like? Observe the object as if you have never seen it before, with Beginner’s Mind, free of assumptions about the object.

When you have gained some practice with observing objects, you may move on to observing your own internal states. What are you feeling at this very moment? What is your emotional state? Remember, the goal is to simply observe this internal state, without drawing any conclusions or making any assumptions about it. Practice the skill of observing with both your thoughts and your emotions. The more skill you gain with observing, the more you come to realize that emotions and thoughts are just mental processes. They are not who you are. They are not your identity.

Kingston et al (2007) looked at the effectiveness of using Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) in the treatment of residual depression. They found that those who continued to practice MBCT had a continual decline in the recurrence of symptoms of depression. One significant departure from these results was in the area of rumination. While rumination scores decreased in the test population as well, there was a statistically significant correlation between higher rumination scores and rates of relapse. In other words, those who were more prone to ruminate were more prone to relapse.

Rumination could be defined as “coming to conclusions about observations of my own internal state,” as rumination is associated with worrying about a particular problem or observation. Since the goal of observing is to note your internal state without drawing conclusions about it, or without making assumptions about it, observing tends to reduce the tendency to ruminate.

Mathew, Kate & Whitford, Hayley & Kenny, Maura & Denson, Linley. (2010). The Long-Term Effects of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy as a Relapse Prevention Treatment for Major Depressive Disorder. Behavioural and cognitive psychotherapy. 38. 561-76. 10.1017/S135246581000010X.

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