I wrote briefly on mindfulness in a previous blog but really didn't do the topic much justice. Since that blog I have had clients, friends, relatives, and even colleagues express interest in the topic for various reasons. Some wish to incorporate it into their own practice, some seek the calming benefits that come from being mindful, and some are just curious and want a better understanding. Regardless of the reasons, I am always more than happy to share some of my own insight into the topic. I am no expert myself, but as you will discover in this blog, I have removed any judgment of myself for not being as mindful as some may think a therapist should be. In fact, I have done my best to remove the word "should" from my vocabulary. It is a harmful and unnecessary word in the mindful realm.
Mindfulness has become a sort of pop culture craze lately but it has been around for centuries, as many ancient religions have a mindfulness component built right into their faith. The scientific study and clinical implications of mindfulness really took hold in western culture in the 1970's. I recently saw a Time Magazine cover with the word "Mindfulness" written across the top and a woman's closed eyes and forehead covering the rest of the front. This imagery often results in a gross misunderstanding of what mindfulness is. I have many clients tell me they tried that "mindfulness crap" before and when they meditated they couldn't quiet their mind. In trying to be open to their experience, I asked where this idea of mindfulness came from and often they reply that it was from a magazine, a self-help book, or a Google search. I then will go on to ask if they would be willing to try again, only this time allow the thoughts to come and go without attaching judgement (ideas of good or bad, right or wrong) to them and certainly not judging themselves for having them. I also explain that mindfulness is more than just meditation and that it becomes a way of life that we carry with us and practice as often as we can daily. Just like anything in life, the more we practice, the better we get at it. Below are some very basic ideas and explanations of mindfulness practice that hopefully you can begin incorporating today!
1. Remove Judgement - "When we remove concepts of good and bad we open up our minds to new possibilities." - Unknown
We are conditioned from birth to believe there is a right and a wrong or a good and a bad, and these beliefs about the world directly affect the way we filter information that we take in. This concept often limits our ability to see the whole picture or at the very least to allow ourselves to see alternate possibilities. I heard a story at a training one time that illustrates this point.
A man had a horse ranch and one day he was sitting outside talking with his neighbor when the horses broke the fence and they all got out. The neighbor yelled, "Oh what a tragedy, all of your horses are gone!" The rancher simply stated, "we'll see." The next morning the horses returned with several wild horses and the ranchers herd doubled. The neighbor exclaimed, "what a great thing, you doubled your number of horses!" The rancher said, "we'll see." That evening the rancher's son was trying to train one of the wild horses and he got bucked of and broke his back. he was confined to a wheelchair after that. The neighbor brought over cookies his wife had baked and said sorry for such a tragedy and the rancher said, "we'll see." A few weeks later an army recruiter came to the door and said they've re-instituted the draft and your son has been selected to fight overseas. Upon seeing he was wheelchair bound he was excluded from service. The neighbor said, "well, at least something good came of it and the rancher said, "we'll see."
The story goes on all the while illustrating the point that concepts of good or bad made no difference in the outcome and the opposite ended up occurring. The rancher was using a non-judgmental approach and taking each experience as it came. By not adding judgment and just living experiences we open up to all kinds of possibilities that are not limited by good or bad value judgments.
2. Be Present - "Anxiety come not from thinking about the future, but by trying to control it." - Khalil Ghibran
I will often challenge my clients to answer a very simple yet profound question in session and that is, "what is actually happening to you, in this very moment, to cause you any anxiety or depression?" They will almost invariably start off with predictions of things to come or reflections of things from their past and I will ask again until they hear what the question is actually asking...what is HAPPENING in this moment. They then will usually answer, "nothing" and suddenly an awareness arrives that it is only their thoughts about past or future events that are impacting their emotional state, not the present moment itself. In most cases, when we ask ourselves this question, the answer will be "nothing."
The brain is a magnificent problem solving machine, however, and it is wired to focus on perceived problems or threats in order to solve them. It takes repeated and concerted effort to train our brains to spend less time in problem solving mode and more time in the moment.
3. Be Immersed - "Is doing any activity with your full attention not itself a form of meditation?" - Unknown
This simply means whatever you are doing, do it with your full attention. In our culture, people who can "multi-task" are thought very highly of. Unfortunately, there is no such thing. We cannot attend to and accomplish two separate tasks at the same time. What we are really doing is task hopping which keeps us from ever fully engaging in what we are doing now. I often decide I am going to multi-task when cleaning and I end up with a washer of clothes that needs re-washed due to mildew, a bucket of cold water with a mop in the kitchen, a half-made bed in the bedroom, toys are still scattered everywhere and I am exhausted. This "monkey-brain" as I like to call it (imagine a bunch of loose monkeys wreaking havoc inside your head) often creates a great deal of unnecessary anxiety, limited motivation, decreased accomplishment, and at times may lead to feelings of hopelessness and depression.
Instead, try mopping the floor first, while attending solely to the area that needs mopped, the water as you wring it out each time, the difference between the mopped and not mopped sections, the smell of the cleaner, etc. until the mopping is complete. The move to your next task, trying to anchor yourself in those tasks as deeply as possible.
4. Practice Relaxation/Self-Compassion - "While meditating we are simply seeing what the mind has been doing all along." - Allan Lokos
There are many relaxing ways to be mindful. We can create a daily meditation practice for starters. As alluded to earlier, we do not seek to "empty" our mind in meditation but only to bring to conscious awareness what the mind is doing. The brain is always trying to automate processes so we can shift our focus to things that require our immediate attention. In mindful meditation we allow thoughts to come and go and simply observe them objectively, like examining a butterfly you just caught!
We can also do some deep breathing exercises, progressive body scans, nature walks, Yoga/Thai Chi/Qigong, hot baths, fishing, exercise, etc. are all mindful activities as long as we are fully engaged in them.
We should also strive to use kind verbiage towards ourselves. If you saw someone sitting alone on a park bench and they were sobbing because of a negative event that happened to them would you say, "suck it up" or "you should be feeling better by now?" No, you would say something like "you're doing the best you can" or "it's going to be alright". Why should you deserve any less compassion for yourself than what you would give to others?
Doing things for ourselves is also a form of self-compassion. Unfortunately, our culture has us believe that to do something for oneself is selfish. The reality is that we cannot pour from an empty cup, and that if we truly want to benefit others (without expectation of something in return) we have to first fill our own cups and feel really good about where we are. Try taking some time to make a list of things you've always wanted to do and, without any parameters set for time, (avoiding self-judgment) begin doing them. Examples might be learning to play an instrument, planting a garden, woodworking, crafts, etc. There are literally thousands of activities people can do that are enjoyable and stress free.
5. Be Accepting - "Letting go does not mean that you don't care about someone anymore. It's just realizing that the only person you have control over is yourself." - Deborah Reber
There is a good reason why Elisabeth Kubler-Ross ended her "Stages of Grief" with acceptance. It is truly the only path to peace. The simplest way to illustrate this would be through an analogy. Our day to day experiences are a lot like a perpetually flowing river in which we are standing. We can opt to push back against the river with no real success or we can learn to swim in it understanding that the current may at times get a little faster and that there will also be times when it gets a little slower. The more we try to push back the more frustrated we become and the more we lose ourselves in the process.
Mindfulness' role in all of this is for us to be consciously aware of when the current is changing and learning the best individualized ways, in the moment, to swim with it. This will become easier as we learn to be open to those changes as opposed to resisting them.
6. Be Aware of Ourselves - "The ability to monitor our feelings from moment to moment is crucial to psychological insight and behavioral change." - Daniel Goleman
We often react to external events through previous repeated (and reinforced) impulses. For instance, if, during childhood, you cried and cried until eventually your parents relented and gave you what it was you wanted and this happened over and over again, your brain would eventually automate this process as a problem solving skill. Unfortunately, that skill doesn't translate well into the adult world (though there are undoubtedly those who still test it.) The mindful person would explore the upset emotion, understand it and try to reach some acceptance, or failing that, compromise.
I'll use infidelity in a relationship to further illustrate the point. The brain has already experienced significant hurt because your partner was unfaithful and will scan for old ways that this was dealt with in the past. For many, this now means controlling the partner (and feeling there is a right to do so). Coping behaviors like checking phone logs, hacking into their Facebook accounts, or even restricting them from going out with friends are all common controlling behaviors, The emotionally intelligent person would examine their feelings of hurt and insecurity when their partner is headed out for a night on the town and come to the understanding that the only person we truly have control of is ourselves. The conclusion reached would eventually be the gradual removal of controlling behavior or deciding with confidence that trust cannot be re-established and ending the relationship.
In both cases illustrated above, there is no behavioral change is we don't first make ourselves aware of and examine the unpleasant emotion driving it.
7. Serve Others - "The only happy people I know are the ones who are working well at something they consider important." - Abraham Maslow
Altruistic acts are also mindful in that we are tapping into our natural predisposition to help others This stands in stark contrast to our culturally conditioned mentality of caring only for oneself. The latter is not to be confused with self-compassion where you are doing what is needed to get or maintain your own wellness. These acts can be very small in scale such as helping an elderly neighbor with chores or expressing gratitude to a man or woman in uniform. These acts actually change brain chemistry by releasing the "love" hormone, Oxytocin, which improves positive feelings and increases self-esteem. Kindness is also contagious, and I think we can all agree that our communities need an outbreak of the kindness disease now more than ever.
There are many other ways to be in the service of others including volunteer opportunities, doing work through your church or other faith based organization, offering to teach something you excel at for no cost, organizing communities to do charitable acts. These are all great ways to be mindfully engaged and create some real positive vibes as well. Ultimately, life will only give us back what we are willing to first put into it. The more kind acts we do the more we will eventually get in return (without the return being the motive.)
Mindfulness is not immediately effective. It will not suddenly make you feel better and, if that is the expectation going into it, you will likely not derive any benefit as expectation, by default, cannot exist with openness. In other words, begin your journey by simply stating "I am going to start my journey and see where it will lead!"
Derik. S. Berkebile, LCSW