It’s no secret that the use of the word “mindfulness” has exploded in the last decade, but along with this increase in popularity has come an increase in misperception – the term has become a buzzword, used so often that people at this point resign to nod their heads in agreement – It’s too late to admit we don’t know what it means. We use the word to explain itself. Mindfulness is…you know, being more mindful!
But what IS mindfulness exactly? And how can it help you? I’m here to debunk some myths, and to share how the practice of mindfulness can be used to:
- Improve mental health, reducing or managing symptoms of anxiety, depression, PTSD, and ADHD
- Bring awareness to and manage stress, which PHYSIOLOGICALLY lives in and wreaks havoc on the body
- Increase attention and improve the ability to learn and retain information
- Strengthen emotional awareness and contribute to the ability to respond instead of reacting when we experience unpleasant feelings
- Promote self-compassion
- Improve sleep by calming the nervous system
- Foster deeper connections with those around us and improve relationships.
… just to name a few!!
Everyone can benefit from improving these core areas of essential life functioning. At the same time, when I ask my clients to share what they know about mindfulness, words like “hippie”, “Buddah”, and “granola” are commonplace, highlighting the myth that mindfulness is something that only a “certain kind of person” does.
The practice of mindfulness meditation has its roots in Eastern Buddhist traditions, but your practice can be entirely secular, and you certainly don’t have to sit in lotus position to experience the benefits. You can practice sitting on a chair, or laying down anywhere you find comfortable, or in a movement meditation such as yoga or walking.
Simply put, Mindfulness is the opposite of being “zoned out”. Most of us live our lives constantly thinking of what’s next. You wake up in the morning, and you’re thinking about drinking your coffee (mmmm). You’re drinking your coffee, but you’re rushing to pack your bag, help prepare your kids and family members for the day and be on your way and out the door. You get to work, but have no idea how you got there – the drive/ walk/subway ride is a total blur. Your body is at work, school, home, or in transit, but your brain, my friend, is somewhere else entirely– either zoned out or following down each rabbit hole that our minds lead us down – planning for the future or mulling over the past, working tirelessly to make sense of our experiences and integrate them into a neat narrative of our lives. This can contribute to mental health concerns including depression, anxiety, and attentional issues and cause significant stress in the mind and body.
The problem with constantly following the paths our minds lead us down – the planning, problem solving, and ruminating – is that we’ll never be fully satisfied. That’s because we’ve assigned our brains the impossible task of working overtime to ensure that we’ll never experience anything unpleasant. We only want to experience pleasure, we want everyone to like us, we don’t want anyone to not like us, we want everyone to agree with what we say, we don’t want to say something that will make us seem unintelligent, we only want to be good at things, and we only want to experience success at everything we do.
In an ideal world we would only experience pleasure, but the reality is that we’re bound to rub up against embarrassment, failure, and sadness. Each day is rife with micro-disappointments, and mindfulness gives us the tools to handle the inevitable stressors of life with greater ease. When we pay attention, moment-to-moment, we strengthen our ability to become aware of experiences and take them as they are – experiences that simply come and go. We acknowledge unpleasant feelings, feel them in our bodies, and watch them pass. Moment to moment awareness ensures that we’re also able to FULLY enjoy the pleasant experiences, too – whether it’s the coffee we’ve brewed or the conversation we’re having with a loved one, having a mindfulness practice allows us to strengthen our attentional abilities and to fully be present in whatever it is we’re doing.
So! You may be intrigued by what mindfulness meditation can offer you, and no amount of reading about the *practice* will replace the actual act, so let’s get started with a few mindfulness techniques that you can start with today, including:
- Breath awareness
- Practicing self-compassion
- Seeking support on your mindfulness journey BREATH AWARENESS: Paying attention to your breath is a wonderful introduction to mindfulness meditation and body awareness. The breath provides an anchor to focus our attention to and gives us insight into the state of our body and stress levels. It is well known that when we are stressed or upset, we hold our breaths and our bodies become tight and rigid. This happens on a subconscious level, without us even knowing it. It is also well known that when we are stressed, we forfeit our ability to think with the rational parts of our brains (our frontal cortex) and instead move to a more “reactive” part of the brain, the limbic brain that that perceives threat, danger, and is constantly trying to make sense of, label, and sort experiences to help us feel safe.
Allow yourself to start noticing your breath right now (yes now!). There’s no need to change it – simply pay attention. Chances are you were holding your breath – just notice that! Are you breathing through your nose or your mouth? What areas of your lungs does your breath reach? Is it smooth or more irregular/choppy? Take a few moments here just to notice what this feels like.
Now allow yourself here to start to breathe more evenly – a natural byproduct of this will be that the breath becomes deeper, but the key is to think about ironing out any kinks or irregularities in the breath, expanding the lungs with each inhale and softening tension with the exhale. BONUS: notice the pauses between the inhales and the exhales. If you want to slow down your mind, focusing on subtleties of the breath is a fantastic way to get started. Go ahead and set a timer for TWO minutes and breathe in this way. Taking just a few minutes a day to breathe mindfully allows us to bring the cortical regions of our brains back “online”, calming the limbic area of the brain that is responsible for ruminating on the past or constantly trying to predict or control the future.
When we breathe with awareness, our bodies release tension, allowing us to soften both physically and mentally. We start to let go of rigidly held beliefs, allowing space to think more flexibly and tap into softer emotions that help us to better connect with those around us. Which brings me to my next point…
Mindfulness meditation cultivates compassion for self and others and improves relationships:
Let’s say that you’re ruminating on a thought, or you have an unpleasant feeling (nervousness, sadness, embarrassment) – you bring the thought or feeling into awareness, and you become upset at yourself. “I can’t BELIEVE I’m thinking about that, still!” or “I wish I wasn’t so anxious all the time,” or the infamous “everything would be fine if that person would just (insert a number of ways you think people should act here)” Now you have even MORE problems! The original thought and feeling coupled with the associated shame that goes along with having the thought or feeling and wishing with all your might that you weren’t experiencing what you are. Or worse yet, you’re upset about something someone has done to you and you wait for their behavior to change before you allow yourself to be happy and at ease.
Mindfulness teaches us that there is nothing wrong with you, and that people do the best they can with what they have. As a result, you approach yourself and others with compassion and without judgement. You notice a thought or feeling and, no matter what comes up, you see the thought/feeling as something that has visited you, but not something that IS you. When you focus on the breath, you practice letting go of stories that are created in the mind – beliefs that are rigid and that cause tension in the body. Focusing on breath allows us to move towards self-compassion, and you begin to see that people do the best they can – including you. You start to allow your happiness to be within your control, independent of the thoughts your brain create and how others around you act.
So how can you learn to PRACTICE compassion? It has to start with the self. There’s a meditation in the Buddhist tradition known as the “metta” meditation, where you learn to cultivate loving-kindness for yourself first, and only then towards others. This meditation is a powerful tool to physiologically soothe the body while you send yourself self-compassion. Again, on a cognitive level, we may all say that we wish well for ourselves, who wouldn’t? However, we know that sometimes we “know” things on an intellectual level, but true knowing occurs in the body. Think about typing. There’s a chance that at this point you’re not typing with your index fingers anymore. Instead, your BODY knows where the letters are – the words show up on the screen, it just happens. Our belief system is kind of like this, too. We take for granted that our bodies physically hold beliefs about ourselves and others, and that this knowing occurs on a felt-sense level.
An easy way to practice self compassion is to say to yourself, “may I be happy, may I be calm, may I live my life with ease.” You may be surprised at your physiological reactions to these phrases. The practice gradually moves you to be able to send compassion to people who you have trouble with, working to breathe and calm the nervous system while you do this, but it has to start with your own self-compassion first.
Letting go of rigidly held beliefs? Sending compassion to people we have challenges with? Becoming aware of thoughts and bodily sensations? If you’re confused or have a difficult time with incorporating these practices into your life, it’s because mindfulness, observing the body, and calming the nervous system are foreign concepts to many people, and require significant support and PRACTICE before they are integrated into our daily lives. If you do two push ups at the gym, you’re not going to get strong and wonder why it’s not working. The practice of mindfulness and self-compassion are foreign to many people, which brings me to my last point…
Change happens best with support:
Practicing mindfulness has had a significant impact on my life and the lives of the young people and caregivers that I work with. Having said that, the practice is a radical departure from how we tend to live our lives, and practicing mindfulness if you are new to it requires significant support – whether this is a friend, loved one, a mindfulness community, or a therapist, it is helpful to have dedicated time where you meet with others to practice in order to enhance accountability and provide guidance and encouragement.
It also makes sense that we would require support given that when we experience, think about, or talk about stressful situations, our limbic systems automatically kick into full swing – remember, this is the part of the brain that cannot think rationally. It only makes sense that when you’re stressed, mindfulness is going to be the LAST thing you want to do. Having a support person to actually PRACTICE calming the body and mind when your limbic system is active can help you strengthen this ability in order to self-soothe and think more rationally independently, which is the ultimate goal. People tend to seek therapeutic support about challenges that are physiologically experienced in the body, and bringing awareness to the thoughts and sensations associated with these areas in our lives that have us feeling “stuck” can be an effective way to start to move forward productively.
Practicing regularly with support can give you the tools to better manage stressful thoughts or situations when you’re NOT meditating. We work out at the gym not for the sake of working out, but so that we are stronger and our bodies are healthier when we’re NOT at the gym. Mindfulness is kind of like this, too – we practice so that when we are faced with stress, our “mindfulness muscle” is strong enough to foster resilience and bounce back from stressful situations.
If you’re interested in trying out the practice, I recommend trying the tips provided in this article for just a few minutes a day, starting with the practice of simply watching the breath come and go for 2-5 minutes. If you find it challenging to practice on your own, and you’re interested in integrating mindfulness practices to support better mental health, I recommend making an appointment with a therapist who has specific training in mindfulness and mental health. Change happens best when it is supported in relationship, and it can be extremely helpful to have someone there to help soothe and calm the body, and to support in looking at thoughts and behaviors that have you feeling stuck.
To be added to a mindfulness meditation group at the Healing Collective or to book an individual session to learn more, please email firstname.lastname@example.org – I would be happy to answer any of your questions!