Mindfulness to Past and Future Moments

Is it possible to be mindful of moments that exist beyond this one?
Is it possible to be mindful of moments that exist beyond this one?

Mindfulness practitioners and teachers talk a lot about the present moment. And with good reason: it is the only moment in time during which we have any ability to truly engage. When we connect with this moment in time, we are honing an ability to focus more effectively on the data that is available and respond in a measured way.

That being said, I had an interesting discussion with a client the other day that caused me to think about whether it is possible to bring mindfulness to past or future moments. And then, I read this article via the always aspirational Real Simple magazine, regarding research that indicates nostalgia can boost good feelings in the present. And what about joyful anticipation of future events?  My sister is getting married next weekend and looking forward to this occasion fills my present moment with joy.

Nostalgia and anticipation are types of thinking- mental events regarding things that have happened or may happen that sift through our mind continually. Sometimes these thoughts take the form of images or judgments, or manifest in emotions or intense body sensations. In each case, however, these thoughts are a direct part of our present moment. Some practices, like metta or lovingkindness meditation, actually involve calling into mind the image or memory of a benefactor and other people that exist in our lives outside of the present moment. And when we work with difficulty in practice, we reminisce about a situation or interaction that caused us some distress, so we can work with the difficulty in the body.

All types of thinking float though our present moment and if nostalgia and anticipation are part of this stream, recognizing that is a moment of pure mindfulness. In addition, it can be interesting to explore what other aspects of our present moment experience are impacted by remembering or anticipating: maybe there is a hint of grief? Or excitement? Or a sensation of unrest in the stomach? Or maybe you experience an impulse to phone that old friend you are remembering?

So, in a nutshell, the answer is Yes! Whatever you are experiencing in this moment, including thinking of all kinds, can be observed more clearly and fully with mindfulness. So, go pull out an old family album, or even better, your high school yearbook. And then bring the focus of your attention to the experience of remembering.

(Image courtesy of Witthaya Phonsawat / FreeDigitalPhotos.net) 

Mindful Weekend: When are You Most Mindful?

What helps you manage your busy brain?
What helps you manage your busy brain?

This week, I want to hear from you. How and when do you feel best able to engage fully with the present moment? Doing yoga? Out for a walk in nature? During seated formal practice? While being intimate with your partner? While eating something delicious? While checking in with difficult body sensations, emotions or thoughts?

I never fail to be amazed at the ways people practice bringing mindfulness into their everyday lives. A friend sent me a link to a service here in Lausanne that promotes birth “en plein conscience”. Which makes me realize how childbirth can be an incredibly mindful experience, wherein mothers are brought into direct and moment-by-moment contact with their body sensations. They are taught to monitor, report and respond non-judgmentally to minute sensations and changes in the body that are often difficult to describe or anticipate.

Please share with me in the comments below how you bring your mind fully to the moment. When and how do you part from “doing” mode and enter “being” mode? What helps you connect most directly to the fullness of your mind in a given moment?

Have a great weekend.

(Image courtesy of MR LIGHTMAN / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Parenting in Real Life: Modeling Imperfection

family

We parents are hard on ourselves. It is no secret that the parenting bar is often set ridiculously high. There is some usefulness for these high expectations- they can sometimes provide a boost of short-term motivation or help make clear what is really valuable. But, more often than not, unrealistic expectations only make us feel… well… crappy.

Funny enough, when we find that we cannot leap effortlessly over that high bar we set for ourselves, a common method for dealing is giving ourselves a stern internal talking-to and setting the bar even higher! Most of the time, this strategy- although based on good intentions- only depletes our sense of self-efficacy and further invalidates the very good efforts we are making but overlooking.

There is an alternative that serves to set up a new pattern of relating to yourself and has the potential to impact your child’s relationship with him or herself. As your child’s primary role model, you have the fabulous opportunity to model imperfection. Just as many parents make an effort to help their children realize that the implausible expectations society places on appearance and physical beauty are not reasonable, you can do the same for behavioral and emotional expectations.

You don’t expect your child’s appearance to fit the photoshopped standards of beauty perpetuated in the media. And more than likely, you do not expect them to go through life without making a mistake or never being disappointed in themselves. And you are in a unique position to show them how to embrace the imperfection that helps to make us who we are as individuals. You get to say to them:  “I was really angry today and I can see it did not help the situation. Next time, I am going to try to handle my anger in another way.”

Or: “Yes, I was very frustrated today when I said those words while I was driving. Normally I try not to say those words because they can be hurtful. Next time, I will try to handle my frustration differently.”

And what you are really saying is: “I am not perfect. Sometimes I do things that I am not proud of. But I own that and I am accountable for my mistakes.” That small act of acknowledgment pays dividends. You are actively showing your child how to cultivate self-compassion and how to be vulnerable. Concurrently, you are showing him/her how to take responsibility for their actions, how to be courageous in the face of difficulty and  how to build a innate sense of worthiness.

As discussed earlier, self-compassion is not self-indulgence. Modeling imperfection does not mean that all of the sudden your “expectation bar” is tumbling down to the floor and you spend the rest of your days lying in front of the television with a gallon of Nutella (although that may happen from time to time). It simply means that you make a conscious effort to cultivate a different kind of internal conversation that is more kind, fair and balanced. One that is more along the lines of “Yeah, that did not go as well as I had hoped but I am proud of what I did accomplish” versus the tired old refrain of “Everyone else could have done that and you didn’t. Tomorrow you’ll have to try even harder because failing is unacceptable.”

And how wonderful would it be if you could simultaneously help your children to cultivate this same kind of dialogue?

(Image courtesy of digitalart / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Mindful Weekend: Coping Effectively with Distress

This weekend, I invite you to meet distress in a different way. We all know this feeling of distress- good old distress makes himself known in a variety of different ways, whether it be body sensations, thoughts, or emotions. It can be assured that in moments of unease or discomfort or anxiety, distress will very often be along for the ride.

To boil down its definition, distress means “suffering.” We know that pain is inevitable- we will lose loved ones, we will be disappointed, we will encounter difficulties (big and small) around every bend in life. Yet, in spite of this inevitability, suffering itself is not a given. Pain is the natural reaction of the body and the mind to a difficulty. By contrast, suffering involves our reaction to the pain: the story we tell ourselves about how long the pain will last and what it means, our assessment of our resources to deal with the pain, what we think past pain of the same degree could mean for dealing with this current pain, and on and on.

If we could peel away that layer of suffering, we could deal more directly with the pain and respond to it more effectively. But while we are defining vague psychological constructs, what does “effective” really mean?  One definition, or equation if you will, that I think is very illustrative is borrowed from Dialectical Behavior Therapy:

current reality + rules of the universe + values/goals = effectiveness  

All the variables in the above equation are important to factor in when deciding how to respond in a distressing moment. Yes, there are things that you cannot change about the situation and about how the universe works (for example, life is not fair). Even with all those realities in mind, you can bring your values front and center, ultimately choosing to move in a value-driven direction.

Here is an example. Today I found myself in the midst of a little “road rage,” wherein I thought I had the right of way and the other person thought they had the right of way. The other driver rolled his eyes, gesticulating, lowered his window and tried to convince me that he was right. I tried to prove my case (in French- yikes!) but I could see it was going nowhere and drove away. A part of me wanted to stay and try to convince the other driver that I was right. But, the value-driven part of me said, “what do you have to prove? There are more important things to do today than stay to fight a meaningless battle.” The inner core of my distress in that moment was striking fear that I was wrong, that I made a mistake. After getting home and calming down, it was clearer to me that who was right was less important than the fact that no one got hurt and I have more emotional energy for the rest of the day.

Even when distress threatens to overwhelm you, keep moving in the direction of your values
Even when distress bogs you down, you can keep moving in the direction of your values

Distress can feel like a formidable foe. He takes many shapes and forms and often it can feel like he engulfs rational thought.  But this weekend, I hope you can try to meet him in a new way. Get to know him and he will lose his power. I believe it will then be easier for you to connect to your values and to move back in the direction of the things that matter most to you in your life.

So, when you encounter a distressing moment this weekend, ask yourself: What does distress feel like? Can you notice the thoughts and body sensations that correspond with it? How are you pulled to manage distress? Is it effective?  Does it serve you and your values in the long-run? If not, is there something else you can try?

New Pathways

Even when a path already exists, you can make a new one.
Even when a path already exists, you can make a new one.

As a visual person, I use a lot of metaphors in my work. A personal favorite relates to the development of new habits, and particularly, new thought habits. Over time, we build up a certain way of thinking about a situation or ourselves or a difficulty until it becomes more or less automatic. This thinking habit becomes a well-worn, frequently-trod path through the landscape of our mind.

For instance, when faced with the prospect of making a presentation at work, some of us have developed the habit of thinking about the worst thing that could happen. Or, when receiving a stinging comment from the mother-in-law, some of us may descend automatically into self-criticism (or revenge fantasies). There are hundreds of mostly automatic thoughts zinging through our mind on a given day. It can be interesting to take a step back and slow down to see if it is possible to make a new path.

Making a new path does not mean that you can never use the old path. It just means that you are opening up options for yourself, consciously cultivating a different type of thinking (that perhaps is more rational and compassionate) that can ultimately impact how you respond to a situation. It will take time and patience to create that new path, just as it did to create that old one. But the beauty is that as a result of this new response flexibility there is greater awareness of choice and of freedom from (as Jon Kabat-Zinn puts it) “the tyranny of thinking mind”.

Change takes time but our mind is an amazingly flexible vessel for our thoughts and motivations. What kinds of new pathways would you like to create for yourself?

Mindful Weekend: Sensations

Why not bask in the sun during your practice this weekend?
Why not bask in the sun during your practice this weekend?

This weekend, I invite you to play with mindfulness to sensation. In a nutshell, this process involves investigation of a sensation (pleasant or unpleasant) as if you’ve never encountered it before. It is a great opportunity to use beginner’s mind to approach an experience as if it is novel. Once you bring your attention fully to the sensation, try using the sensory qualities as your present-moment anchor.  You may even find that mentally labeling aspects of the sensation is useful; breaking it down into basic sensory terms as you connect with the experience.

Here are some ideas for you to explore with your five senses.

Touch:

Stroking your cat or dog’s fur

Folding towels

Washing your hands

Holding a cup of coffee or tea

The breeze on your skin

Smell:

Household cleaning products

Fresh laundry

The outdoors

Incense

Taste:

Something crunchy

Something spicy or sour

Something minty

Sound:

Soft or loud music

Ambient noise

Water

Laughter

Sight:

A candle’s flame

Different colors of pens or paper

Bubbles

Shadows

Not only is this practice an interesting way to explore more fully the sensations that surround us, it is also useful for self-soothing when overwhelmed by distress. Psychologist Marsha Linehan, developer of Dialectical Behavior Therapy, suggests that seeking out sensations (especially pleasurable sensations) and experiencing them more fully in this way can be useful in managing emotional crisis.

If you’d like, let me know what you try or what other ideas I should add to this list. Wishing you a wonderful and mindful weekend.

Slowing Down

The Grand Canyon did not form overnight
Slow but concerted effort can create incredible change- in a landscape or in human behavior

The other day, I was late for work. I missed the metro and here in Switzerland, when you miss your first mode of transportation, you can be sure that you will also miss your connection. So, there was nothing to do but wait for the next metro and catch the next train to Lausanne.

Knowing that you will be late is an uncomfortable feeling. For me, there is a simultaneous rush of anxiety and irritation and helplessness that sets my heart pounding and shortens my breath. It is safe to say that I find this experience extremely aversive and do what I can to avoid it. But then I remembered something that I say so often in my practice: When you feel the impulse to avoid, try approaching instead.

And so, I relaxed my body, brought my focus to the breath and then watched the anxious thoughts flooding through my mind. By slowing down and intentionally investigating my internal experience, I found that I could step back a bit, remind myself that even though my thoughts felt like facts, they likely were not. I could bring in a different “voice” to counter these anxious thoughts: If I came to work 15 minutes late, I would still have enough time to prepare for my first client and even if I didn’t have enough time, I have enough experience to be able to manage just fine.

Once the wave of “lateness distress” peaked, I decided to see if I could enjoy this small gift of time I had unintentionally received. I channeled my first mindfulness teacher, Dr. Andy Moore at the University of Wisconsin, who once told us that “If you’re late, you’re late. There is no amount of thinking or worrying that will get you there any faster.” It was so nice to be able to stroll to my connecting train, observing the rush of the morning commute. I listened to the street musicians in the terminal. I stood in a sunny spot on the platform. Honestly, I enjoyed myself!

And three days later, I remember those pleasant moments more than I remember the stress. Even though I do not intend to try and be late in the future, I do feel more empowered to manage this experience when it inevitably happens again. Research indicates that it does not take major changes to routine or behavior to form new habits, it just takes brief but repeated moments of intentionally trying something different. This post is headed by a photograph of the Grand Canyon because I think it is a nice metaphor for what can be created as a result of slow but sustained effort. Turning toward difficulty with kindness and self-compassion can become more routine and automatic with the help of gentle intention practiced over time.

For me, slowing down is a habit I hope to cultivate- even in the face of difficulty and unease. And how about for you? What ways of thinking or behaving would you like to deepen in your life?