Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Practicing Mindfulness




Mindfulness can be defined as a science of attention training. It is the practice of becoming truly aware of your direct sensory experiences (noticing your breath, tactile feelings, ambient sounds…) and thoughts without the distraction of the past or the future, and without judgment. With practice you can learn to direct your attention toward the body and mind experiences in the present moment - “be in the here and now.” This exercise can reduce stress, anxiety, mood swings, impulsivity, ruminations, etc. and increase relaxation, concentration, empathy, and overall well-being. It will allow you to accept, (without judgment), the ups and downs of life and gain emotional balance to manage these changes. It is essentially the art of learning to ‘let go’.

Terminology to consider:

Awareness is consciously exploring and feeling all of the experiences and sensations that are going on at any moment which are ever-changing. It is noticing pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral sensory and mind experiences such as those listed above as well as thoughts, emotions, and mental tones or attitudes.

Attention is the sensation, thought, experience, etc. that we focus our minds on at any given moment. It is a choice that can become conscious and controlled.

A foundational skill in practicing mindfulness is bringing awareness and attention to your breathing. It is helpful in grounding you in the present moment because breathing takes no planning, thinking, or judging and it is not associated with the past or future. It is purely physical. Sitting calmly, becoming aware of your breathing, then focusing your attention on your breathing for even 10 minutes will bathe your body and mind in a sense of relaxation. Anyone can do this! Simply explore the feeling of inhalation and exhalation. What do you hear? Is your inhalation or exhalation longer? Take a moment and try it now.

The next step in mindfulness is investigation into what is going on in your present experience. When you bring your awareness and attention to your thoughts, you will quickly notice that you likely spend most of your time thinking about the past or future, planning, remembering, worrying, experiencing regret, or indulging in nostalgia. These thoughts lead us to compare, criticize, and judge. Now that you are conscious and aware of these thoughts, take a mental step back. Recognize them as what they are. They are just thoughts. There is no reason to judge or criticize yourself for having thoughts. It’s is part of human nature. Learn to objectify them as a conditional, changing, and passing experience. Instead of taking possession of the thoughts - “my thoughts” or “my feelings”- mindfully disconnect from them - “these thoughts” and “these feelings”. Remove the emotions and intellectualization from the thoughts, and they can become just thoughts. Believe it or not, you have control over your thoughts.

Next is the most difficult part, setting intention. Here is where the real power comes in. As you take the time to recognize your inclination to think in a certain pattern (negativity, catastrophizing, blame, etc.), learn to let this pattern go and re-train your thought pattern. Start by bringing attention to a negative or uncomfortable thought. What would be the opposite of that thought? Is this thought serving a purpose of some kind? With practice you can learn to change your pattern of thinking by reframing (rewording) the thoughts and feelings that are causing you discomfort. This is by no means an easy task, and it takes building trust and faith that there is another way of experiencing this moment. Mindfulness takes trial and error, and above all practice.

Taking a moment for mindfulness during your day is like taking a mental break. It allows you to let go of the perceived stresses and distractions surrounding you, and come back to your in-the-moment experiences. Bring your attention to your breathing, muscle tension, and physical sensations. Once you are truly present and grounded, you can soothe and calm your thoughts and emotions. Then, objectively reframe the situation. It’s like pushing the restart button. This practice will bring you the strength to overcome your negative patterns, and choose a different course of experiences. Forgive yourself for the errors that are inevitable, and keep trying. Eventually your new patterns will become habitual.

Set a timer for 10-15 minutes and try this guided mindfulness exercise:

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