When was the last time you were fully present? Sometimes, the way we’ve structured modern life is in direct opposition to full presence in any given moment. Alerts on our smartphones constantly take us out of whatever we’re doing. There is always somewhere else we have to be or something else we have to do. Even when we’re working out, our minds might be composing emails, creating to-do lists or picking apart our last perceived social disaster.
Enter mindfulness, a staple of Eastern philosophy and more commonly known through the Westernized versions of yoga and meditation. Mindfulness is now weaving its way into psychotherapy as a tool to combat anxiety and depression and help navigate the inherently messy journey of life.
WHAT EXACTLY IS MINDFULNESS?
[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”HEX 0073bb” class=”” size=””] Mindfulness is the state of being intentionally focused on the present moment in a nonjudgmental way. [/perfectpullquote]
Mindfulness is the act of taking in information from the environment, including your own feelings, thoughts or reactions without attaching significance or a grand story to the information. Some Western practitioners, like F.M. Alexander, who created the Alexander Technique, described it as a 50/50: a complete rootedness in sense of self while taking in fully the outer world. Most simply, it means being awake, aware and fully alive.
Even before the invention of computers, smartphones and smartwatches, humans have had trouble staying present. So, Eastern philosophy sought to solve this by creating practices that would firmly root individuals in the present. Anecdotally, these practices have been passed down through yoga and meditation.
Yoga and meditation are the physical embodiment of philosophical ideas, which, when actively applied to clinical symptoms, is psychology. Below are exercises (aka interventions in the psychology world) that bolster mindfulness:
Sitting neutrally or lying in savasana, turn your attention to your breath. Observe the depth of the breath, the cadence, freedom or restriction in any particular spaces. Once your attention is linked with your breathing, empty out all of the air in your body. When you think you’ve hit the bottom, pause and push out any remaining air.
Hold your breath on empty for 4 beats. Inhale completely for 4 beats. Hold your full breath for 4 beats. Exhale completely for 4 beats. Continue this pattern for 3–5 minutes or as time allows. Recognize that thoughts will come and go unrelated to the breath; let them. When your mind wanders away from the breath, gently call it back and pick up where you left off.
THE BODY SCAN
This can be done either lying in savasana or sitting neutrally in a chair. Connect to your breath through square breathing or by noticing the rhythm, depth and quality of your breathing in the present moment. Starting from the tips of your toes and working your way up the body, left and right side, front and back side, describe the sensations in each part of your body. Does this part of you feel sore or tired or tense? What does the fabric of your clothing feel like against your skin? What is the temperature of this part of you? As points of tension emerge, actively squeeze those muscles for 5 seconds, then release. This encourages residual tension to melt away.
Like a boxer wrapping their hands before a fight or a yogi unrolling their mat and lighting their palo santo before practice, we all have routines that make us feel like we’ve arrived. It might be how you start your day or maybe it’s your pre-running ritual. Perhaps your ritual happens just before you go to sleep. Whenever it happens, take this ritual off of autopilot. Fully involve yourself in the moment-to-moment experience. Notice when your attention wanders off of the ritual. Gently guide your mind back to the now by rooting yourself in the physical sensations of the body and breath. Come back to the activity; live fully inside the feelings and thoughts it provokes.
THOUGHT AND FEELING JOURNAL
In modern life, we are constantly bombarded with stimuli. Some of the stimuli are pleasant and some are unpleasant. A Thought and Feeling Journal acts as a way for you to collect and store data on how events illicit your emotional, mental and physical responses. As you catalog more events, you’ll notice patterns. Awareness of these habitual patterns gives you the ability to choose differently the next time. Not all thoughts and feelings are facts. Use this journal to help differentiate feelings and thoughts around an experience from the truth of the experience.
For each event you catalog, briefly describe the event and identify whether it was pleasant or unpleasant. What were the physical sensations? Describe the feelings. What were your thoughts? Include quality of thought as well (i.e., pace, intonation, etc).
This exercise is done with your eyes open. As much as eyes-closed meditation can help us focus our intention inward, most of our life experiences happen with eyes open. This practice teaches us to stay connected to our whole selves while experiencing the outside world.
Standing or sitting in a place of neutrality, ground yourself in the your physical experience, starting with your breath. Notice it’s quality and cadence. Keep your awareness as it moves through the body, scan the mental/emotional and physical body. What places are sore/tight/tense? What places are awake/alive/free? What other physical sensations do you feel and where? What about your heart? How do you feel emotionally today? What about your thoughts? What is their quality? Where are they lingering?
Keep all of the information you’ve gained about the way you arrive in the present moment. Keep this connection to yourself. Allow 50 percent of your attention to take in the environment: other people in the space, the color of the walls, the type of furniture, the sounds floating in from beyond the windows and walls. Notice how your body/mind/heart respond to the subtle shifts in your environment.
THE LOVING KINDNESS MEDITATION (METTA BHAVANA)
Sitting or lying in a comfortable position, ground yourself in your breath. Imagine a glowing orb of light in the heart center. In the yogic tradition, the heart is the center of compassion and love. Imagine these words, or ones similar to them, emanating from this glowing orb:
May I be happy and free.
May I be free of mental suffering or distress.
May I be free of physical pain and suffering.
May I feel safe and protected.
- Imagine a person or group of people you care for deeply. Genuinely repeat the meditation for this person (i.e., May Susie be happy and free).
- Imagine a person or group of people you neither like nor dislike. Genuinely repeat the meditation for this person or group.
- Imagine a person or group of people you are in conflict with or strongly dislike. Genuinely repeat the meditation for this person or group.
THE ART OF LOW REACTIVITY
Clinical psychology has been riding the wave of mindfulness since the ‘80s. Therapists harnessed the power of mindfulness to combat impulsivity, emotional reactivity, chronic stress, anxiety and depression in the most vulnerable of populations: high-risk youth.
With a battery of mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) available, many group and individual treatment plans include Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). Both MBSR and MBCT have been proven effective treatment in clinical and non-clinical diagnoses. Psychologists looked at areas of mental health like cognitive and emotional reactivity, rumination, worry, psychological flexibility and self-compassion.
Our bodies are hardwired to respond to stress. A little stress helps motivate us. Too much stress wreaks havoc on immune system functions and well as mental well-being. Awareness of our habitual patterning, when confronted with stress, gives us the option to choose differently. When confronted with a stressor some of us have high reactivity and some low. Think of cognitive and emotional reactivity as the irrational impulses we have when confronted with negative stimuli. The impulses to explode or cry or attach personal significance to the event in an extreme manner are considered highly reactive. On the other hand, taking in the event without allowing it to get under our skin is low reactivity.
When the practices above are applied to real-life situations like getting rear-ended, missing the train by seconds, getting injured during a training session or having a horrible day at work, we have an opportunity to reframe our perception and response. In the yogic tradition, we call the concept of non-reaction, sometimes explained as non-attachment to feelings or stories of significance we create, aparigraha. In any mindfulness practice, one of the key tenets is to notice thoughts and feelings without being consumed by them. The stories we tell ourselves, particularly those surrounding our emotional experience, tend to carry unwarranted importance. In the mindfulness practices, we learn to take in the information of the physical, mental and emotional reactions without identifying with them. Who we are as people is not defined by every single thought or feeling we have.
THE ABILITY TO FOCUS ON THE PRESENT
Anxiety is a product of living in and worrying about the future. It is fear provoked by something that has not yet happened. Depression is precisely the opposite. Rumination, or obsessively reliving events from the past, leads to depressed mood. Mindfulness roots us firmly in the present. It offers insight into emotional reactions we have to particularly stressful events, therefore allowing us to reframe our perceptions. When we practice non-attachment, thoughts and feelings do not necessarily have to be true. So often our memory or fear of the event is tightly wound with feelings and thoughts that masquerade as facts. With our newfound ability to observe thought and feeling, as opposed to attaching to it, we unchain ourselves from our impulses and being conscious beings.
Have you ever wondered why yogis have the ability to “go with the flow?” Mindfulness increases emotional, cognitive and behavioral flexibility (if yoga is your mindfulness practice of choice, then physical flexibility, too.) Fixed patterning means a person is unable to grow or change. Essentially, they are “locked in” to the way they view the world. Flexible mindsets have the ability to take in new information and grow or change from it. Mindfulness asks us to observe things as they are, not how we wish or fear they are. In doing so, we accept reality without being restricted by expectations. Mindfulness shows us how to absorb information from the environment and learn from it.
The loving kindness meditation, in particular, cultivates positive emotions and compassion. Positive emotions lead to positive outcomes in social and psychological aspects of life. By genuinely wishing ourselves and others happiness and freedom, we learn to have compassion for even the darkest parts of our being. Compassion for making mistakes, for being human, ultimately bolsters our own sense of worth and value.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Stress and anxiety are inevitabilities. They do not have to control our lives. The tools for navigating this messy and unpredictable journey with grace live with mindfulness practices. By incorporating mindfulness into our every day, we have the ability to change our relationship with stress and anxiety from impairing to motivating.