One of the foundational practices of mindfulness meditation is the “Body Scan,” introduced by Jon Kabat-Zinn in the early days of his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction courses at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. If you haven’t tried it, this link will take you to me guiding a 20-minute version of the practice.
Wishing you and yours an excellent holiday weekend. If you need to create a bit of space for yourself over these next few days and keep up your practice, I recommend that you try the 3-Minute Breathing Space exercise. It is a very portable exercise perfect for Easter traveling. Best wishes!
One of the biggest obstacles that deters people from practicing mindfulness on a regular basis is the idea about how much time is needed. The formal practice of mindfulness conjures the image of people sitting quietly for many minutes. And while these bigger chunks of practice will help make mindfulness into a habit more quickly, informal practice is also useful. Mindful movement, or the intentional tuning in to the movements of everyday life, is one such way to practice informally.
I invite you to consider mindful stair-walking for your practice this week. Whether you’re at work, at home, or out and about, you can give this a try.
1) Stand at the base of the stairs. Feel the anticipation of movement building in your muscles.
2) Intentionally give the command to initiate the climbing movement. Perhaps repeating to yourself “lift, place, push” will help you to stay tuned in to each part of the step. Take it slow so that you can observe sensations as they arise.
3) Name physical sensations that you notice. Perhaps “burning” or “tingling” in the thigh muscles. What does it feel like when the heart beats faster? Can you notice your breath coming faster?
4) When you get to the top, take a moment to come to a standing position and notice how it feels for the body to be at rest.
5) Repeat on the way back down, feeling the momentum of the body working with gravity.
You could repeat these steps (no pun intended) more quickly or more slowly, or over a given number of minutes to experiment with noticing sensations of fatigue or impatience. This is a great practice to try on a day when your mind is quite busy or sleepy and you need a more vivid anchor to the present moment. It is also a fun way to practice in a public place and a good “mindfulness bell” for your daily routine.
Although it is potentially a very short practice, when repeated throughout the day, walking the stairs mindfully can provide a very effective and routine way to check back in to the moment at hand. So next time you’re standing in front of an elevator, try taking the stairs instead!
Many of the clients who I see in my practice seek support as a result of unknowingly avoiding some or all of their emotional experience. Avoiding a painful or confusing emotion works really well in the short-term. So well that it often comes as a shock to people when it is suggested that they try something different. In real life, avoiding emotion often looks like avoiding certain situations or people, not a particular emotion itself. It is only when people grow frustrated with the results of living their life within these very particular confines that they begin to question what is truly driving the avoidance. Throughout the process of psychotherapy, they can begin to explore what it feels like to approach an experience rather than avoid it. In doing so, great richness can be found in relationships, opportunities for growth and a compassionate, empowered sense of self.
Take the example of a client I am seeing. As a child, she was the victim of prolonged sexual abuse by one of her primary caregivers. In order to survive this horrific experience, it became adaptive for her to eliminate feeling. The emotions one naturally feels were disabled so that she could navigate the world around her. She describes how, as she matured, it was difficult for her to turn her emotions back on in relationships after they lay dormant for so many years. As a result, she felt unable to express her opinions, frustrations and desires to her partner. She found herself avoiding conflict and intimacy. Resentment and hopelessness grew.
In our sessions together, we work toward enhancing her ability to identify her emotions earlier in the “cascade”. For her, this has meant tuning in to body sensations and the “bristly” feeling she experiences as a cue that something is going on for her emotionally. She can now label the emotions that she feels and is working to be able to express them in a way that empowers her. Although this work was initially very frightening for her, bit-by-bit she was able to challenge the belief that “emotions are dangerous” and instead see them as an important part of her psychological landscape.
It can be very confusing to recognize that not only do we avoid painful emotional experiences, but sometimes avoiding pleasurable experiences becomes a habit as well. As can be the case with depression, positive emotions can seem very threatening and the fear of disappointment can drive people to avoid acknowledgment of their own strengths, building healthy relationships or taking care of themselves. Although for the short-term this can result in a sense of self-sufficiency and insulation against pain, in the long-term it can lead to isolation and suffering.
Psychotherapy combines helping clients to see how avoidance worked for some time and how it was adaptive in order to cope with a stressor or painful situation. We talk about how reasonable it is to develop some way of keeping it together. At the same time, we discuss how this habitual way of responding usually does not work over the long term. We talk about how emotions, although powerful, do not have to overpower. My hope is that by cultivating their ability to approach rather than avoid, clients learn how to integrate their emotional experience with their values and long-term goals.
Last week, I was on vacation in Florida. We spent a day at the beach during which I found myself mindfully aware- really awake- to sensations that were previously mundane. I watched my young son playing in the sand and wondered what this was like for him, given that he was experiencing this beach day as a true beginner. I tapped into my “beginner’s mind” and opened my awareness to all sensations equally: the sand between my toes, the breeze on my face, the warmth from the sun, that distinctly oceany smell. When I noticed my mind clinging to any particular sensation, I took note and then expanded outward.
Yes, I think it is easier to be mindful of sensations that are inherently pleasurable and evoke positive emotions. But my overall pleasant experience of the beach was no less interesting. I watched as my mind worked harder than usual to cram all the goodness in, almost bingeing on the details of the experience. Simultaneously, I saw my mind never letting go of the idea and images of what we were not experiencing back in Switzerland (which my mind deemed “bad”): cold, cloudy, wet days of winter. I was aware that my mind was both enjoying the feast while preparing for the famine. There was a hurried and almost gluttonous pace to my practice that day.
Now that I am back in Switzerland (where it is indeed cold, cloudy and wet), my mind often boomerangs back to the memories from that beautiful day. I notice a range of emotions- longing predominant among them. Yet when my awareness widens beyond the images of the beach, I notice the less exotic but pleasurable sensations of contentment, warmth, ease, the breath. I recognize that this is a “famine” that I can manage.
I have heard happiness described as “the lack of sadness.” This definition suggests that the contrast between states is responsible for generating the emotion, or perhaps recognition of the emotion. However, being mindful showcases the possibility of many emotions existing together and that the recognition of difficulty sometimes makes ease feel sweeter. Practicing mindfulness illustrates that the mind is a wonderful, curious and incessantly complex lens through which we experience our circumstances.
As I go forward with my mindfulness practice in 2015, I intend to bring this lesson with me: that experiences can be wonderful and mundane and thrilling and uncomfortable all at the same time. And that the feast and the famine only exist as such because that is how my mind labels them in a given moment. Each experience is colored by the context of our thinking and that is absolutely ok.
As a teenager, I was a competitive cross country and track runner and later, competed on my University’s triathlon team. The discipline required by the rigorous training and the thrill of racing became a driving force in my life at the time. Unfortunately, back then, I was not yet familiar with mindfulness. And these days, with my athletic glory days in the rearview mirror, I think a great deal about how mindfulness practice could be useful for competitive athletes.
At first glance, it may seem like mindfulness meditation could not be further removed from the physical intensity of sport. But real overlap exists when one considers the single-mindedness and focus required of athletes during competition. When we train our awareness during mindfulness practice, we are intentionally selecting an aspect of our present-moment experience upon which to rest our attention. It is not unlike the awareness that athletes hone during training and competing so that they can respond effectively to what their bodies need or what the situation calls for.
However, there are times when anticipation, anxiety, comparing and remembering muddy the mental landscape of the athlete’s mind. So much energy can be expended while lying in bed before a competition, worrying about what will happen or replaying past mistakes. And that busy mind does not necessarily prepare an athlete for the next day, or does so at a high cost. I propose that it is more effective to use that time to simply come into contact with the experience of that exact moment, and simply observe what is present, without reacting in a manner that detracts from an opportunity to truly rest the mind and body. In effect, to use mindfulness to break free from chronic preparation, superstition, and worry in order to enhance both the experience of competition and life outside of the competition.
There is a time and a place for planning, strategy and learning from mistakes. That time is usually during training and it is incredibly useful for athletic growth. However, if the mental activity inherent to this necessary aspect of competition bleeds over into the myriad other parts of life, it has the potential to impair functioning. As much as training requires a large amount of time, most athletes work hard to maintain balance in life. Intentional and concerted investment in sport as well as in the other domains of life contributes to a full and grounded self-identity that is less vulnerable to the inevitable perils of loss or dissatisfaction with performance. Practicing mindfulness formally and informally can help athletes to connect to those things in their lives that are valuable and that create a sense of meaning both on and off the track, the field, the court, etc.
I believe that practicing mindfulness can contribute to making an athlete more effective, more balanced and a happier competitor. Rather than having energy sapped by unhelpful mental processes accompanied by emotional and physical correlates, athletes can use mindfulness to turn to the richness of the present moment to replenish depleted energy stores. And who better to adopt this practice than athletes, who are already familiar with the rewards that come from diligent and repeated practice of a skill. And the best thing about mindfulness is that, unlike in athletics, there is nothing required- no equipment or gym or sponsor- simply your own mind and an openness to being more aware of what is unfolding in a given moment.
(Image courtesy of nirots at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)
Recently, we started new drop-in mindfulness sessions at le Centre de santé that are open to anyone wishing to come by and practice with a group. It has been very exciting since we have a number of participants who are new to the practice and have bravely decided to see what mindfulness is all about.
I really enjoy having the opportunity and privilege to hear the observations and experiences of those brand new to practice. The comments they offer about their foray into formal practice ranges widely to reveal boredom, discomfort, relaxation, sleepiness, questioning, judging, frustration, ease, struggle, and so on. I remember my first time practicing, as part of a Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) group, and sneaking furtive glances at my watch as the minutes seemed to endlessly stretch on. And I still have days when practice goes like that!
Today’s group got me thinking: if asked, what would I say is one of the most transformative aspects of mindfulness practice for me? What could I share from my own practice that could speak to how I experience mindfulness? What tidbit of my own experience could potentially help a newbie to persist through those moments in practice that are often filled with frustration (“My mind is wandering SO much”), confusion (“Am I even doing this right?”), and underwhelm (“is this IT?”)?
And this is what I came up with (although I am sure it is not an original thought): Mindfulness is not about staying but about coming back, again and again.
There is much more I could share about what practice is like for me but I am curious to hear what you would say. If a stranger approached you on the street and asked what mindfulness is like for you, what would you say?