Category Archives: Mindfulness

Identifying Emotions

Sometimes a visual reminder is necessaryVisua
Visual cues are useful for planning and problem-solving. But how about using visual cues for emotions?

Practicing mindfulness can help us to get to know and to befriend our experiences, no matter what kind of experience it may be. When first beginning practice, it can be challenging to identify various emotions and their correlated thoughts, body sensations and behavioral impulses.

Identifying emotions is helpful for a variety of reasons. On a physiological level, it transfers energy from the very primal “emotion brain” of the amygdala to the area of the brain dedicated to helping us organize, remember and make sense of information. When we identify and label an emotion, we are essentially activating a part of the brain that can help us to problem-solve, inhibit undesirable behavior or respond more effectively to what we are experiencing. We still may choose to deal with that emotion in a more primal way (say, slamming your fist into the wall) but at least more of our cognitive resources are engaged and this action is more intentional.

Furthermore, once an emotion is identified, you have more information to work with. Rather than trying to slog blindly through a muddy and sort of icky, disconcerting experience, we can instead be more aware of what we’re experiencing, how long it might last, and what kinds of things might be able to make the experience more manageable. That being said, emotional events do not consist only of the “negative” stuff. Greater awareness of joy, pride, wonder, love and all those positive (for most people) feelings can be very useful as well. When we make note of a good feeling, we are essentially saying, “Hey, this is good stuff. I am going to pay attention.” And the more we cultivate emotional recognition, the better we can be at catching and enjoying a similar emotion in the future.

Mindfulness to emotion can be a tricky topic to introduce. We humans are generally great walking cascades of emotion from one moment to the next so pinpointing what is happening takes practice. Plus, we are collections of learned emotional associations that can be triggered by very subtle or even subconscious stimuli, for instance: a barely noticeable but familiar smell -> memory of your first love -> feelings of nostalgia.

One useful tool I’ve found for helping people to practice takes the form of a handy little device, called “Feeling Magnets.” The founders recently offered me a chance to test this little metal box and its myriad magnets with mindfulness class participants. I found it to be a very useful. It is not very technical- always a plus for me- and due to its portability and discretion, facilitates regular emotional checking-in. Plus, it gives the user an opportunity to put words to their emotional experience, explore emotion/behavior patterns and ultimately, to step back and respond to emotions in a more mindful way. Seeing the emotions you are experiencing written in front of you can help to strengthen the neural connections that will ultimately contribute to the building of a new habit: checking-in, recognizing and validating your emotional experience, and choosing how to proceed.

Simple but effective, "Feeling Magnets" help with mindfulness to emotion.
Simple but effective, “Feeling Magnets” can increase mindfulness to emotion.

As a big fan of visual reminders and cues,  I recommend this simple but effective tool to mindfulness enthusiasts and those who are curious about their emotions. Anything that helps us to witness and wonder at the incredible capacity of our mind gets a gold star from me.

(Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Is Mindfulness Indifference?

It is normal to have lots of questions about practicing mindfulness.
It is normal to have questions about practicing mindfulness

During this weekend’s introduction to mindfulness class, a very useful question came up: Does being mindful mean being indifferent to our experience?

This question struck me as being particularly useful in that it helps to capture and put words to the challenge of being non-reactive to our experience. From our first days, our reactions to our physical and emotional experiences are reinforced: a baby cries when he feels hungry and is fed. As we mature, we learn that not every experience requires action, and not every experience means something about the past or future. For instance, as adults, we know that the sensation of hunger does not mean that we will die if we do not eat immediately. Awareness + maturity = wisdom.

Purposeful attention to what is present in a particular moment is mindfulness. Jon Kabat-Zinn describes “non-judgment” as one of the attitudes that provides a foundation for practicing mindfulness. When we notice an experience, be it physical, behavioral, emotional or cognitive, it is very common to judge that experience as important or unimportant, worthy or unworthy, or even desirable or not. And judgment leads to action- whether it means simply putting a thought into a certain mental category or engaging in some behavior. Mindfulness teaches us how to simply notice our experience fully, without being dominated by the habit of judgment or action.

If we mistake the equanimity extended to our various experiences for indifference, we risk missing out on a lot of information. We pass up the opportunity to cultivate discernment in our judgments about experiences and make a balanced response to the full range of events unfolding in a particular moment. Indifference implies that the information we gain during an experience is not important and, therefore, not worthy of our attention. In addition, most of us are not naturally indifferent to our thoughts- quite the opposite. So, it is likely that obtaining indifference to our experience would require striving for a different mind state.

Rather, mindfulness helps us to open ourselves equally to all experiences (whatever our judgment about them) exactly as they are. Being mindful helps us to recognize and validate what is present for us in a given moment (even if it does not make any sense or fit with our values), and to respond to that moment with compassion and acceptance. In practical terms, it has the capacity to create some space around our deeply ingrained mental habits, thereby opening up opportunities to do things differently in life.

It is difficult to describe what is like to relate to yourself in this way, which is why the practice part is so important. Although the concept of mindfulness is not technical or metaphysical, we English speakers do not possess the language to easily describe the experience. It is best left to experience to show us how opening to the abundant richness of any particular moment- and letting it unfold exactly as it is- can help in forging a different relationship to thoughts, feelings, behaviors and body sensations.

(Image courtesy of digitalart / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Working with Difficulty: Mindfulness and Grief

Grief is unavoidable but how we respond to it influences its impact on us.
Grief is unavoidable but how we respond to it influences its impact on us.

“Only people who are capable of loving strongly can also suffer great sorrow, but this same necessity of loving serves to counteract their grief and heals them.”

― Leo Tolstoy

As long as we love and care about things in our lives, we open ourselves up to the possibility that these things could end. In loving people, places, pets, and circumstances, we are vulnerable to grief when they are lost or change. However, these attachments are part of what makes humanity work. We have evolved to be creatures that have the ability to form these bonds and connections, and ultimately this ability increases our chance of survival.

You might say to yourself, “Yes, yes, sure- I’ve got it. Grief is necessary. But it still sucks.”

Just like pain, grief is unavoidable. However, the way in which we choose to respond to or engage with grief can have a significant impact on the degree to which it impairs our functioning or makes us more reluctant to cultivate future attachments. Oftentimes, it is the thinking that almost automatically accompanies pain or grief that keeps the suffering alive. For instance, the idea that this suffering is intolerable, undesirable or that is it unfair. These kinds of thoughts can unintentionally kindle secondary emotional processes, like anger or anxiety. And this muddies the emotional soup of grief.

Imagine bringing mindfulness to grief. What would it be like to invite the grief in to your “guest house” and to experience it as it is- just in one particular moment? Is it possible to cut down on the clutter of thinking that surrounds that particular emotional event and to simply ride the wave of the sensations associated with grief? Perhaps your grief feels like burning in your stomach, or tension in your chest, or numbness. There is no correct way to grieve or appropriate timeframe for moving on; there is only one certainty:  the only thing you can really experience is the current moment and the myriad sensations that abound. So, why not stay with it as it is without projecting backward or forward with thinking?

Today on my commute, there was an announcement in the train station that the train would be delayed due to “an event involving a person.” In Switzerland, that is terminology used when an individual has fallen or jumped in front of a train. On the platform, you could feel the collective horror as people went silent, shifting uneasily on their feet, looking at the floor. My stomach twisted and I experienced an unusual sinking feeling that indicated to me that I was feeling grief.

In that moment on the platform, I imagined that we commuters shared a common emotional experience. And that shared humanity in the face of difficulty was a reminder that grief and our symmetric capacity to love unites us all.

(Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici / FreeDigaitalPhotos.net)

Driving while Mindful

Have you ever driven while under the influence of mindfulness?
Have you ever driven while under the influence of mindfulness?

A few people have recently remarked that they feel most mindful during their morning commute.  And these thoughtful admissions have caused me to reflect on what it is about driving to and from work that facilitates mindfulness…

There is the solitude (if you don’t carpool) and the freedom of being in your own space.

There is the routine of it all.

There is the endless forward momentum of the vehicle, an inertia which can often match the cadence and speed of our own thoughts.

There is the inability (unless you are multi-tasking) to impulsively act on any thoughts, in order to remain focused on the road and the task at hand.

There is a requisite heightened awareness to the moment that persists until you pull off the road and as a result, sometimes our vehicles can be environments where emotions are more fully present than in other parts of the day, where distraction is more available.

All of those variables combine to make commuting a surprisingly organic environment in which to practice mindfulness. While driving, you have a chosen point of focus: the road and the complexity entailed in responding immediately and effectively to a particular stimuli. You are intentionally reorienting yourself to this chosen point every time that your attention shifts elsewhere, and likely you do so without judgement. You simply notice you were too caught up in something that was a distraction and bring yourself back into the chosen activity of the moment.

The routine of the weekly commute also makes this an excellent opportunity for placement of a “mindfulness bell,” wherein you are reminded each time you start the car or put on your seatbelt to check in with yourself and with that moment. It can be a cue to come out of automatic pilot and engage fully with that moment, starting a habit that may give your daily routine an infusion of intentionality and well-being.

And for those of us that commute via other forms of transportation, do you find this a good time to practice mindfulness? If you, like me, are surrounded by people busily moving about during your commute, can you still find a connection to your body, your breath, and the moment? I find that it is possible, although more challenging than when inside the personalized interior of my own car. However, now that it has become a habit to be mindful on the metro, I feel out of sorts if I go the trip without practicing- like I would if I did not take my morning shower or skipped breakfast.

Whether you go about your day via train, plane or automobile, why not give a mindful commuting a try? You may find that establishing a regular mindfulness practice is easier  and more accessible than you imagined. Bonne route!

 

Mindful Weekend: Practice with your Partner

 

This weekend, do your practice with your partner
This weekend, try practicing mindfulness with your partner

How does your partner feel about your mindfulness practice? Whether they are enthusiastic participants themselves or reluctant skeptics, why not invite them to practice with you this weekend? To start, just take 15 minutes to do a body scan together. I recommend this video as a guide. A body scan is typically an excellent exercise for those new to the concept of formal mindfulness practice.  Once you’re comfortable with meditating together, you may want to try a seated practice back-to-back with one another.  Or, even holding hands during practice and using the sensations of touch as anchors to the present moment.

Doing a formal mindfulness practice together could result in a feeling of closeness and intimacy, or perhaps a moment of shared shyness resulting from doing something novel together. When you’re finished, you can ask your partner what their experience was like, what they noticed in their body. And make sure to share your own experience- including all the difficulties (e.g., boredom, judgment, feeling self-conscious) inherent to practice.

And why? Among many reasons, research indicates that regular practice of mindfulness increases activity in the anterior insula of the brain. This is the region of the brain that helps our bodies make sense of all of the sensory information present in a given moment. So, what that amounts to is that more activity in this region is linked to intensified pleasure, sensation and physical attunement during sex! What other reason do you and your partner need? Now go get busy… meditating!

Wishing you a happy and mindful weekend.

(Image courtesy of arztsamui / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Mindful Relationships: Rewiring for Compassion and Effective Communication

Being mindful can jumpstart your relationship
Being mindful can jumpstart your relationship

I don’t know about you, but my partner really can push my buttons. Sometimes he does so intentionally but oftentimes it happens without him knowing it.  In either case, when my buttons get pushed, I typically react in anger. Or, my fallback: passive aggression. As you can imagine, this can lead to the formation of some pretty unhelpful patterns in our relationship.  Usually it results in him getting defensive and me feeling hurt.

When we choose our partner, we usually do so with the assumption that our partner will help to support us in all avenues of life. I think most relationships start with both people oriented toward this ideal: that the relationship is good and that they want to do what is reasonable to keep the relationship on this positive track. But almost always, wires get crossed along the way. And we develop patterns of reacting in our relationships that result in undesirable and distressing experiences.

Bringing more mindfulness to relationships can provide a jumpstart to a relationship, whether it is decades or days old. Mindfulness can help each partner check in with their internal experience and communicate that experience more effectively to the other.  Being a mindful partner can potentially rewire long-standing unhelpful patterns of communication while enhancing compassion and promoting authenticity in that relationship.

For instance, let’s meet our mindful couple, Archie and Veronica. Archie’s hot button is tone of voice. When he feels that Veronica’s tone is critical or harsh, he shuts down. When he does so, Veronica feels like Archie is ignoring her and she feels hurt and angry. She wants him to respond to her and thus, ramps up her efforts to communicate what she is saying. This cycle of communication is self-defeating. With time and practice, Archie and Veronica learn to check in with themselves in that moment that their buttons are pushed. They become familiar with the patterns of emotions, thoughts, body sensations, and behaviors that are triggered. And then, if they wish, they can communicate what is happening for each of them and discuss ways to more effectively manage the conflict.

Veronica learns that sometimes, when it’s too late and Archie has withdrawn, she can manage her distress on her own and revisit the topic with Archie when he is not overloaded. And Archie learns to assert his need to take a brief timeout when he is emotionally flooded so that he can better attend to what Veronica is saying. They both can now take responsibility for their part in a conflict because they feel safe being vulnerable.

Mindfulness is not rocket science. It simply involves consistent effort to attend to the full experience of the present moment. In a conflict with a loved one, it is tempting to get overwhelmed by one particular aspect of the experience, for instance, thinking. So, with Veronica, when Archie was shut down, she was swept away by the distressing (and incorrect) thought that “He doesn’t care about me. He doesn’t listen to me. How could I be so stupid to choose someone who doesn’t want to listen to my needs?” Rather than checking in with other aspects of the experience (for instance her body sensations) and attempting to soothe herself until that distress could pass and more logical thinking could return.

It takes time, practice and patience to rewire old patterns of thinking and reacting. Luckily, our fantastically plastic brains have the indelible capacity to form new connections which result in new beliefs and behaviors. As this excellent blogpost describes, better connecting with yourself via mindfulness can have a transformative effect on the relationships in your life. The relationship we have with our partner is one of the relationships that most impacts our daily lives and thus, I believe that it’s one that deserves consistent care and attention.

(Image courtesy of khunaspix / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

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)

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?