Mindful Weekend: What Went Well?

sunflowers
Take time to notice what is going well

We humans are a tricky species. Thanks to our ancestors from way, way, waaaay back,  our brains have developed an ability to focus on threatening situations in order to help protect us from harm. For instance, I might think  “Hmm, I could get mugged on the metro so I’d better pay attention to my purse.” As much as this way of thinking is often helpful, it can just as often be overblown, for instance, when I overestimate the likelihood of a mugging or avoid public transportation altogether. Luckily, thanks to good old neuroplasticity, we have the ability to gradually change how we perceive and organize information, and effectively problem-solve.

This exercise from positive psychology trail-blazer Martin Seligman is a way to cultivate a greater attention to what is going well and to effectively analyze a situation to increase the likelihood that things continue to go well.  In his new book, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being, Dr. Seligman suggests we try to regularly engage in the following exercise to practice strengthening these useful mental muscles that help us notice information that contributes to our contentment and sense of well-being.

At the end of the day, think back on three things that went well from the day. Write down each of these events – they do not have to be major, life-shaking occurrences- just three positive events. Next to the event, write down one reason that this event might have gone so well. Try this out for a week and see if it has any affect on your mood.

As an example, here’s my list from yesterday:

1) Event: I got to a meeting on time. Reason: I planned ahead and was organized and ready when the time came to leave the house.

2) Event: I made a good dinner for my family. Reason: I was more creative in the kitchen than usual.

3) Event: My son had a great time playing with his friend. Reason: My son really enjoys the company of his friends.

It may feel strange at first but keep at it and see what happens. Good luck and let me know how it goes for you!

New Habits: The Power of Intention

teeth

I am from a generation and culture for which orthodontia is the norm. This meant that as a child, I had some kind of metal apparatus in my mouth for more years than not (actually even past childhood)… One of the main culprits was my tongue and its apparently unhelpful intrusion into my speaking patterns. The orthodontist described that I would have to train my tongue to rest at the roof of my mouth rather than against my teeth, its favorite place to hang out when not busy creating a subtle lisping in my speech.

At first I could not imagine being able to change the natural resting place of one of the strongest and most useful parts of my body. The orthodontist threatened that spikes along the back of my teeth might be needed if I could not make the change myself. Rather than risk the social trauma that might have resulted from my teenage mouth’s spiky surprise, I decided to see what I could do to change my tongue.

Perhaps this was one of my first encounters with the power of my body’s ability to change a deeply ingrained habit. After months of intentionally checking to see where my tongue was lying (just for a moment), and then adjusting its position, this pattern became routine. After a while, as soon as my tongue touched the back of my teeth, it was cued to move on back.

After this experience, I am convinced that simply noticing when a physical, cognitive or behavioral action occurs and then deciding how to respond to what is present in that moment of awareness can provoke lasting physiological change. And, the abundant research on structural neuroplasticity supports my anecdotal enthusiasm.

What this all suggests is that practicing mindfulness is a habit like any other. Training yourself to check in and notice what is happening in a particular moment does not become routine overnight. It requires consistent and gentle intention over an extended period of time. Some days will feel easier than others. Some days it will feel impossible to switch out of autopilot. But the feeling of satisfaction that results from deciding to cultivate a desired behavior and nurturing it into a habit is incomparable.

(Image courtesy of adamr / FreeDigitalPhotos.net )

Mindful Weekend: Walking in the Snow

Luckily, Switzerland has so far escaped the polar vortex of the Americas. Even so, the Suisse Romande had a fresh snowfall last night which, for this native Floridian, never fails to excite and inspire.

Someone was out walking early this morning!
Someone was out walking early this morning!

For the next few weekends, I will endeavor to suggest an exercise with which you can practice being mindful. I am hopeful that these exercises will demonstrate the great breadth of practice opportunities while inspiring you to play with how being mindful can bring new life to automatic activities.

Thanks to the new snow, why not try mindful walking in the snow? When approaching this, see if you can find some new aspect of this movement upon which you can let your attention rest. For instance, the sound of your footsteps or the feeling in your muscles when they work to stabilize your body or the way your arms swing along. Perhaps you can even break down your steps into three distinct parts: Lift, place, shift. Vary your pace and see how the differences feel in your body and against the rhythm of your breath.

When your mind wanders (and it will), gently escort it back to the sensations of the walk. And if some part of the experience feels particularly vibrant, try using it as an anchor to bring you back into the moment. For those lucky folks in warmer climates, try it with sand.

Wherever you are in the world, I wish you a mindful weekend.

Mindful connection

We are social creatures from the day we are born
We are social creatures from the day we are born

It is true that being mindful invites you to check into your awareness, to gently notice what is happening in your body and mind. When we talk about mindfulness, we spend a lot of time noticing aspects of ourselves: from the breath, to body sensations, to thoughts. But just as mindfulness helps you to turn inward, it can also help you to turn outward and to connect more deeply and intimately with the world around you.

We humans are programmed to be social. Not so many generations ago, our survival depended on the connections we made to the people around us and the networks of support we formed. From our first days after birth, we seek human contact to sustain us. And not much changes as we age. Of course there are individual differences in our characters that influence the personal value and meaning of social connection but at the core, we all seek to find meaning through our friendships and family lives.

Mindfulness can powerfully shape the quality of relationships we have in a given moment. Listening mindfully- without judgment and in the present moment- can open up a new level of conversational connection. So often in talking with others, we are already shaping our responses, planning our next verbal move, impatient to have our voices heard, add our two cents and be recognized by the other. Totally normal but this way of  conversing may not leave room for really being with that person in that moment.

And sometimes, these moments of connection can uplift us. When we feel heard, we feel valued. We feel a sense of belonging that comes from sharing vulnerability. When we speak (or blog for that matter), we have just risked sharing a part of ourselves (how we feel or what we think) with another person. And listening – really and truly listening- is as active a process as speaking.

Being mindful is not about shutting out the rest of the world to focus only on yourself. Mindfulness means being fully present in any moment- whether it is at work, on the bus, arguing with your partner, or sitting on your meditation cushion. And since we humans are surrounded by other humans most other moments of our busy lives, it can be useful to see how intentionally tuning in can influence relationships. You may find some delightful surprises.

Being mindful when the clouds roll in

A perfect day makes being mindful seem easy
A perfect day makes being mindful seem easy

In Switzerland, we all have had those days when it is breathtakingly, this-just-can’t-be-real beautiful. There is a full blue sky, framed by the mountains and usually some body of water that makes the view eerily reminiscent of a postcard or scenic calendar. And, on days like that, it is easy to connect to the moment- to exist in a moment of absolute appreciation for the world around you.

But, as in our emotional lives, it becomes more challenging to be mindful and intentionally move our attention to our experience when the blue sky is clouded. It doesn’t come as easily to check in with what’s going on right here, right now when what you’re noticing is… cloudy. Or, downright uncomfortable.

However, the more we practice moving the spotlight of our attention to our internal experience- whatever weather conditions may be present- the more information we can gather about how to effectively respond. When we take time to really look at that cloudy sky, perhaps we will decide to take our umbrella when we go outside, or stay home and take a warm bath. Or perhaps we will notice that the clouds are not as dark and ominous as we thought.

Like the flow of the weather, many of our thoughts, feelings, and body reactions are transient. Getting to know the patterns of our behavior, minds and bodies can help us to cultivate self-compassion and enhance our ability to problem-solve. Mindful awareness provides the opportunity for you to find spaciousness between you and your internal storms, and thus to respond more effectively rather than automatically. With practice and patience, making it a habit to check-in with yourself can eventually become as routine and informative as checking the weather.

Welcome!

I am excited to step a foot onto the wide stage of blogging. I hope that this space becomes a place where people can both give and receive: sharing their experiences with mindfulness and mental health, while receiving support and inspiration to continue their practice of mindfulness or general self-care.

As a psychologist and mindfulness enthusiast, I will select relevant and appropriate material that I hope will provoke you to explore deeply and inspire you to connect with whatever is present for you in this moment.