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?
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?
I have practiced yoga intermittently over the past 10 years and every time that I restart my practice after a break, I ask myself the same question: “Why on earth don’t I do this every day?” I find it to be such a refreshing way to practice mindful movement. Not that it is always pleasant… Quite the opposite really. Practicing yoga mindfully reveals a plethora of body sensations that are sometimes uncomfortable but always interesting.
Practicing yoga with the intention to be mindful can open you up to a vast array of sensations in the body. When not being mindful, it is natural to simply find these sensations aversive and to strive to minimize or avoid them. But if you try getting deeper into those sensations- by breathing, softening and allowing them to unfold- their complexity may surprise you.
For instance, last week we invited a prominent yoga teacher to our mindfulness class. She led us through a wonderful set, part of which included the star pose. This pose simply involves standing like a 5-pointed star with legs apart and arms held parallel to the floor. Immediately, I connected to feelings of tingling in my shoulders, which progressed to burning. With each breath I could feel the heaviness of my limbs but rather than dropping them down, I investigated these sensations as if it was the first time encountering them. In so doing, I could step back from my impulses to immediately minimize these feelings and instead, observed that the intensity of these sensations rose and fell- that it was more tolerable than I feared.
Given that mindfulness made its initial foray into medical settings in part due to Jon Kabat-Zinn’s use of mindfulness for managing physical discomfort and pain, mindful yoga is an excellent way to play with the experience of the body and to recognize how much our thinking mind can unintentionally influence our relationship with body sensation.
If you’re curious, check out this 30-minute guided practice of mindful yoga this weekend. I hope that you will be surprised and captivated by what your body tells you when you listen to it.
Following a very fun and thought-provoking workshop about mindful parenting on Monday, I’ve been reflecting on the notion of infusing more self-compassion into parenting. Specifically, how parents can cultivate self-compassion and what responding to difficulty with self-compassion rather than guilt and anxiety would look like in reality. I believe that careful cultivation of self-compassion can provide much needed balance to our habitual reactivity.
First, I think it is important to elucidate what self-compassion is not, as it can easily blend with some of the other “self-” terms that exist in our modern vernacular, like “self-esteem,” “self-indulgence,” or “self-care.” As self-compassion researcher and advocate Kristin Neff explains, self-compassion is not self-pity:
Self-pity tends to emphasize egocentric feelings of separation from others and exaggerate the extent of personal suffering. Self-compassion, on the other hand, allows one to see the related experiences of self and other without these feelings of isolation and disconnection.
Self-compassion is also not self-indulgence. Again, Dr. Neff explains:
Many people say they are reluctant to be self-compassionate because they’re afraid they would let themselves get away with anything. “I’m stressed out today so to be kind to myself I’ll just watch TV all day and eat a quart of icecream.” This, however, is self-indulgence rather than self-compassion. Remember that being compassionate to oneself means that you want to be happy and healthy in the long term. In many cases, just giving oneself pleasure may harm well-being (such as taking drugs, over-eating, being a couch potato), while giving yourself health and lasting happiness often involves a certain amount of displeasure (such as quitting smoking, dieting, exercising).
Instead, self-compassion is an acceptance of our humanness, an acceptance of those things that make us flawed, imperfect and relatable. And it’s about responding to those difficult moments (when those challenging aspects of yourself feel so front and center in your mind that you cannot think of anything else) with kindness and gentleness. Luckily, we parents have an advantage when it comes to cultivating self-compassion because we have a lot of practice with compassion in responding to our kids.
Think about it: when your child comes home complaining about a bully, or feeling sad, or feeling angry- you respond. You likely relate to your child’s suffering and attempt to make your child feel better by responding with warmth and understanding. Ok, now let’s flip the script: what would it be like to respond in this same way to yourself when you are experiencing similar difficulties?
Self-compassion and mindfulness go hand in hand. Mindfulness allows us to be aware of difficulties as they arise, and to be able to observe them without over-identifying with them. With mindfulness, we can simply notice the experience without judgement and without getting swept away in unhelpful reactivity.
But, like all new thinking habits, cultivating self-compassion takes time and a consistent effort to try something different in the face of a difficulty. It takes a) recognition that you are indeed being triggered in this moment, b) stepping back to decide how to respond and finally, c) deciding not to do the same old thing, like talking to yourself with reproach or self-criticism, but instead noting that a mistake was made and that imperfection is normal (and, dare I say it, even desirable!). See if you can replace the punishing self-recrimination with the idea that you are doing the best you can.
We parents are quite adept at helping our children to cope with the stressors and difficulties that they encounter everyday. But, somehow, it is far less easy for us to treat ourselves with the same understanding and kindness. You’ve likely seen that the “carrot works better than the stick” with your kids, that they are far more motivated and effective when rewarded for good behavior rather than punished for the bad. And what about for you? What would it be like to modify your internal dialogue and talk to yourself more like you talk to your children? With time, you may find that intentionally cultivating self-compassion can help you to be a more effective parent.
We’ve all heard the phrase “fake it ’till you make it” and this concept has come up frequently in my clinical practice this week. When you find yourself struggling to implement a new skill or persist with a new behavior or routine, this idea of acting “as if” can be particularly useful.
It is important to recognize what one is feeling or how one may be pulled to behave but mindfully implementing this idea can do so much good. For instance, on those days when I am tired and daydream about only getting out of bed to refresh my coffee, I find that it is useful to act as if I am energized. And going through these motions (rather uncomfortably at first) can help to augment my momentum until the behavior feels more natural.
Oftentimes, our behavior can impact our thought patterns in powerful ways. When our minds observe our bodies acting in certain ways, we take that as evidence regarding how we are feeling. And because our minds do not like it when our behavior and our thoughts and feelings do not line up, they shuffle things around a bit so that it all makes sense. If I am singing in the shower to my favorite song, my mind says “Hey- she must be feeling ok. Let’s get pumped up for this day!”
It sounds a bit tricky but I invite you to give it a try. Even in subtle ways, our bodily activity can jumpstart our thinking in very productive ways. A simple way to play with this concept is by wearing a gentle half-smile throughout otherwise mundane activities. Research indicates that because of the bi-directional relationship between behavior and emotion, simply changing our facial posture can trigger a cascade of seratonin and dopamine that results in feeling more positively.
So try putting the cart before the horse and acting “as if” when approaching a difficulty. We sometimes have more direct control over our behavior than our emotions. Therefore, this concept is a useful way to practice self-validation, by recognizing your emotional needs, while gaining a sense of mastery by responding effectively to those needs.
(Image courtesy of vectorolie / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)
Your weekly mindful weekend challenge is as follows:
Try to catch a pleasant experience as it is happening. Focus your attention on the details of the experience by answering the following questions (maybe write them down as you go to maximize the impact of this exercise):
What is the experience?
How does your body feel, in detail, during this experience?
What moods and feelings accompany this event?
What thoughts are going through your mind?
The rationale for engaging your awareness in this manner is to help you to be better able to simply experience and appreciate the pleasant moment as it is, without adding additional thinking to the mix. Good luck!
This exercise is adapted with permission from Williams, Teasdale, Segal, and Kabat-Zinn (2007).
The following experience is generously contributed to this blog by a mindfulness enthusiast who wishes to remain anonymous but hopes that sharing this story may inspire others to try something different in their lives.
These days, I can’t remember the last time I went to the gym. Even so, if I close my eyes, I can still recall the drumming of footsteps on the treadmill, the distinctive smell of sweat and disinfectant and coffee, and the damp strain of my perspiration-soaked teeshirt. Throughout the formative years of my life, exercise was a constant companion, so much so that when I could not exercise, I felt jittery, couldn’t sleep, wasn’t hungry. What many people call “discipline,” for me became “addiction.” It is with hindsight that I now recognize that my quest for fitness, and the time and mental energy involved in maintaining this elusive quality, was not healthy. In fact, it interfered with my functioning and the quality of my life.
In university, I often chose a workout over studying for exam. I meticulously planned my daily academic routine around a two-hour allotment of gym time. During a summer research tenure abroad, my first thought was “how do I find a gym?” Anxiety-driven runs punctuated even the seemingly all-encompassing early days with the man who became my husband. He regularly found amusement in my early morning treks through massive unplowed snowdrifts to the nearly empty gym.
My desperate quest was not about weight or appearance (for the most part), but about wanting to maintain evidence supporting my narrow view of what an athlete should do. Since discovering my penchant for long-distance running in middle school and the recognition my success in this area garnered, I became obsessed with maintaining work out regimens that I felt revealed my level of fitness. No matter that very often these regimens were actually sabotaged by the extreme dedication I showed in their pursuit: the six stress fractures in high school, the anemia that depleted my energy, the dehydration that resulted in a miles -long blackout running along a busy road, and the fatigue and depression from being trapped in an endless loop.
If I couldn’t run exactly 7.6 miles per hour for 45 minutes on a treadmill with a 1.5 percent incline that day, I was obviously just days away from muscle atrophy and loss of cardiovascular fitness and ultimately, losing my identity as an athlete. Vacations were plagued by anxiety and furtive runs were crammed in among planned pleasurable pursuits. My mood could swing from post-workout elation to an extreme irritability resulting from what felt like the worst cabin fever imaginable.
With the benefit of hindsight, I recognize that each workout was avoidance of what I feared most: being unfit and what that could mean. And if I weren’t fit, or an athlete, or dedicated to the pursuit of my physical maintenance, I did not know who I was. It took having a child and a move abroad to face this difficult reality but by the time I chose to steer my life in this direction, I was ready for change.
However, the real key to unlocking the cage of exercise addiction was the practice of mindfulness. At first I found the practice of sitting with myself, with no distraction, for minutes at a time, to be exceedingly uncomfortable. But, I made it my goal to confront my doubts about this motionless mental exercise and keep on practicing.
It was by establishing a regular mindfulness practice that I finally became more comfortable in my skin, doing whatever my body happened to be doing, feeling whatever happened to be present during that moment. When I could not exercise, I directed my attention to the movement in my body during routine activities like walking to the grocery store, doing the laundry or washing dishes. Additionally, I opened to the anxiety I felt, befriending it and getting to know its ebbs and flows. Rather than this increasing my anxiety, this approach helped me to manage it and continue to live the life I valued. By facing my fears, I gathered evidence that the worst would not happen- that I would still be a human being worthy of connection, value and belonging.
With time and mindfulness and doing things differently, I have slowly and steadily forged a different relationship with exercise. I recognize that it is not the exercise itself that caused the problem, but rather my relationship with it and its power to influence how I felt about myself. I am grateful that these days, I know I am a hard-working and healthy person who makes the time to invest in the things that I find important: friends, family, my work, and even, sport.
In high school and college, I was a competitive runner and triathlete. In high school, I placed in the top ten for my state’s cross country run. After repeated injuries, I started swimming and found triathlon to fit nicely to my interest in exercising as much as possible. A simple formula developed: a good race = pride and a feeling of accomplishment; a bad race = anxiety and self-punishment. After this frantic roller-coaster ride of a life, I decided to abandon competitive sport. For some time after college, I was so paralyzed by the threats posed to my self-image by athletic competition that I refrained from racing competitively at all. I preferred the quiet, easily controlled and anonymous comforts of the gym. I convinced myself that sport was overrated and that I simply enjoyed working out.
But I missed the community of sport, the joy of a big road race and the enthusiastic supporters clapping as the runners passed their front lawns. I missed the dialogue and the thrill of connection to the world of my sport. I now realize that this approach to managing my anxiety was not satisfying.
Now, I practice mindfulness during my run. I intentionally choose to run for the love of movement and from the moment I start to lace up my shoes, I am tuned in to my experience. During my runs, I experience a sense of freedom and the feeling that each step is a gift. I am grateful to be outside, to be moving, to be in my body and with my thoughts. When I am uncomfortable, I adjust my body to compensate. Rather than try and maintain some arbitrary metric that I can use to compare myself to during the next run, I open to the sensations in my body and decide how to respond to them. And I compete! I smile at the supporters and feel proud that I am engaging with the community around me. I open my eyes and look at the things I pass as I am running. I notice if my mind gets stuck on anxious thinking or comparing and bring the focus back to my breath or to the sound of my feet on the pavement.
It is thanks to both sport and mindfulness that my relationship with myself and with exercise is balanced and flexible. Most days, I am comfortable in my own skin and can respond with compassion to impulses that do not match my values. I am happy on the days that I can get in a run but am equally content when days pass and my main activity is building a Duplo tower with my son. I am grateful that even in the early stage of this new way of relating to exercise, I already feel stronger and more powerful than I did when I was more physically fit.
(Image courtesy of digitalart / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)
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!
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 )