Tag Archives: Thinking

The Importance of Being Still

Aare_fishing
Mindfulness gives you the opportunity to practice being still if you don’t have the time for a contemplative fishing trip.

Although I talk a lot about how to integrate movement and activity with your mindfulness practice (hence the name of this blog), today I feel it is important to highlight the equal utility of cultivating stillness and quiet in your practice. In the midst of the busyness of daily life, physically being still and not moving our bodies generally only happens when it has to: stuck in traffic, waiting at the DMV, or logging hours at our desks. And opportunities to cultivate stillness in our minds happens far, far less often.

Of course, mindfulness does not mean emptying the mind of thought. Instead, when I talk about mental stillness, I refer to the practice of intentionally noticing and being aware of the mind’s activity. Resting in awareness of what is present, rather than all of the myriad other mental gymnastics. It means noticing the pull to make that mental shopping list or write that mental email to your boss or to take a mental inventory of your own failings during the week. When being still, it is possible that we notice the movements in our minds and bodies (like that rumbling stomach, your respiration, that ache in your back) even more than we do in other less mindful moments. This awareness may be unpleasant and there may exist a rather strong pull to slide back into the busyness to avoid these sensations. The practice of being still is quite dynamic and changeable- which seems contradictory!

Making time to be still has many benefits, including that it strengthens your brain’s ability to understand and identify complex experiences. Furthermore, being intentionally still is just plain uncomfortable at times (it’s true!) which is a useful state to explore given that discomfort is something that occurs often throughout any given day. If our bodies become better acquainted with it, we can potentially increase our effectiveness in responding to a discomfort-inducing situation.

So, the next time you feel yourself hurtling along with the velocity of life, take a minute to consider being still. Here’s one exercise to try:

Adopt a posture that you can maintain for a few minutes and settle in to your body. Notice the feeling of contact that your body makes with the objects around it, the floor or the chair or your clothing. Open your awareness to the feeling of being still in your body. Notice that you may feel the desire to move, to scratch an itch, to adjust your weight, to fall asleep… Whatever is present, just take a moment to note the associated sensations. Investigate the sensations of the breath in the body and the movement in the body that occurs with each in-breath and each out-breath. Now, bring your attention to thinking and notice what may be present in your mind. Just as you did with noting sensations in the body, simply observe the habits of the mind that are occurring in this moment of stillness. Continue for a few minutes and notice the quality of ease or dis-ease that may ebb and flow over the duration of this practice. When you conclude the practice, intentionally return to movement with some of this expanded awareness and notice what that rejoining with busyness feels like in the body and the mind.

All practice is useful and as this lovely diagram points out, there is possibility for great variety in our “mindfulness diet.” I hope that you will consider a brief moment of intentional stillness even when life provides us with infinitely more opportunities to avoid sitting with ourselves. Or, perhaps you can take just yourself fishing.

No Place to Land: The Expatriate Experience (Part 2)

Expats have developed strengths that help them to face unexpected difficulties in life
Expats have developed strengths that help them to face unexpected difficulties in life

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” –Mary Oliver, 1990 

Life stressors like divorce, health concerns, child educational issues, and caring for aging or sick parents are very difficult no matter the geographical setting. However, when these issues arise for those who are living abroad, they can seem simply insurmountable. I have found that, in general, expatriates are a hardy bunch. They usually feel ready to take on the challenges that living in a non-native country entails. Often they have experience from their childhoods traveling and experiencing different cultures and changing environments. Or they bravely fall in love with someone from a different country and open themselves to the prospect of a multicultural relationship. Sometimes the expat experience beckons to those who are looking for a fresh start and a chance to cast a new die for their lives.

In any case, those who choose this kind of life are usually prepared for the emotional challenges that characterise it. They are not surprised by days that require dealing with language challenges, reaching outside of their comfort zones, and getting lost for hours. But, throw in one or more of the major life stressors mentioned above and these “expat virtues” can be sorely tested.

A client once described to me how living abroad and dealing with a major life stressor left her feeling like she had “no place to land,” that she felt too disconnected from support in her country of origin but also not intimately acquainted enough with support in her adopted country. As a result, she struggled to carry the weight of the stressor by herself, without knowing how to direct the emotional resources she had cultivated through the challenge of living abroad in order to more effectively manage her experience.

Deciding to take the plunge and live outside of your country of origin for an extended period of time is not unlike dealing with a major life stressor. As you consider what life might be like following a major change, it is easy to get caught up in anticipation of the worst-case scenarios or doubt your abilities to manage what might arise as part of this adjustment. However, if this was where the thought process ended, than no one would live abroad. There is a point at which the thinking flips to consideration of all possibilities in a more balanced way. Regardless of how you think about an event, however, there is no certainty about how these thoughts will correlate to the future. So, there is a self-confidence and awareness of an ability to be flexible in the face of the unknown that is necessary in deciding to live abroad.

Once my client could connect to these gained skills and her own quiet strength, she felt more empowered to manage the stressor and was able to develop a plan to deal with it in a way that reflected her values. She came to believe that she could do it, even when there were days when she encountered extreme challenges to this belief. Concurrently, she created a support system that she could turn to for information and empathy. She admitted feeling surprised that increased self-reliance actually helped her to feel better able to seek support, rather than confirming her initial fear that asking others for help would make her reliant upon them. In essence, with hard work and courage, she created a safe place to land for herself.

Although it can certainly be more challenging to deal with major life stressors as an expat, it is not impossible. Those characteristics that often draw people to living life abroad can also be utilized to cope with unexpected difficulties that challenge emotional well-being. The decision to live outside of your country of origin is one that cannot be made without a great deal of courage, hope and belief in your abilities to cope with difficulty. And though we do not get to decide when and how major stressors will arise in life, the same hard-won attributes that help us manage other difficult situations/decisions can be called upon to help us through.

(Image courtesy of smarnad at 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)

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) 

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?