Uncategorized

Mindfulness When Things Go Wrong

wrecked iphone

Meditation can be intrinsically rewarding – a brief vacation  or respite from the hustle and bustle of daily life, a relaxing or refreshing activity, or even a time set aside to connect with a community of fellow meditators.  Following each meditation session there may be a lingering feeling of relaxation, the sense of being a bit more grounded, and a bit less reactive to challenging events.  The same may be true, however, for a number of activities, like taking a nap or a bubble bath, sitting with a good book, or having a glass of wine with a friend.  With so many demands on our time, why choose to sit in meditation?

When things go wrong, our “fight-or-flight” response takes hold. For our distant ancestors who lived in primitive conditions, surrounded by wild beasts, far from the top of the food chain, the activation of stress hormones that allowed them to spring reflexively into action to save themselves was crucial to human survival.   In our complicated and complex modern world we typically do not encounter tigers or other predators with teeth and claws, but instead are bombarded daily with challenges from social, psychological, financial, electronic, environmental, political, and so many other domains. Because our brains have not evolved to keep pace with such radical change, we tend to perceive and react to all kinds of challenges as if they were tigers – our bodies tense, our breathing becomes shallow and rapid, our attention narrows, and we experience intense urges to either attack or run away from the situation.  When we become caught up in the fight-or-flight response in contexts where it is not called for, our behavior is likely to be counter-productive to effectively responding to the actual situation at hand.

A meditation practice is to mindfulness what regular exercise is to fitness. One meditation session, like a single trip to the gym, is not going to produce significant or sustained results.  Hopefully, in addition to the possibility of some short term positive feelings, the single session will allow us to experience the deeper satisfaction of knowing that we have done something that is contributing to our overall health and wellbeing, and a boost of confidence that despite the inconvenience or discomfort, “I can do this!”  If this sense of deeper satisfaction and confidence boost result in another meditation or exercise session, we may be on track to realizing some tangible benefits.  Just as working our muscles, over time, will result in greater endurance and strength, meditation practice, over time, cultivates the quality of presence we call mindfulness.

Mindfulness, the ability to remain rooted in the present moment, able to take in information from the external environment, and experience sensory changes as sensory changes and not as indicators of imminent physical danger, allows for improved assessment of, and response to things that go wrong.  In most cases, the outcome will be improved by pausing, gaining greater perspective on the situation, considering options, and choosing a response most likely to navigate the challenge successfully. Failure to respond mindfully may even lead to secondary problems, as when we react aggressively (“fight”) and are then faced with consequences our own bad behavior, or when avoid dealing with (“flight”) smaller problems that then grow into bigger problems.  Mindfulness may also prevent the sorts of problems that we frequently associate with “mindlessness”, as when we caught up in distractions that result in losing or forgetting our belongings, missing turns, or saying things without thinking rather than pausing, considering our current circumstances, and responding thoughtfully.

Things will go wrong.  If you start, or recommit to a regular meditation practice today, maybe they won’t go wrong as often, and when they do go wrong, you may be better able to get back on track sooner.

mindful living, mindfulness

Remembering to be Mindful

bracelet photo

Mindfulness, defined as paying attention, on purpose, to present-moment experience, is an act of intentional attention.  If we sit down to meditate, or engage in formal mindfulness, the intention to pay attention can be assumed as part of the process.  The longer or more regular our meditation practice, the more habitual the setting of the intention to be mindful becomes.  We may struggle to remain and/or return to being mindfully attentive during the meditation, but are unlikely to altogether forget to be mindful.

Anything we do can be done mindfully by slowing down, and engaging in and noticing one thing at a time.  Why even bother, when multi-tasking, engaging in more than one activity at the same time, is more the norm, often seen as a necessity, and even considered a valuable skill?  The truth is that many studies and scholarly articles have concluded that multi-tasking is, actually, not more efficient or effective than doing one thing at a time, and has been correlated with increased stress.  Mindfulness has been popularized for its tendency to reduce stress – it is often, erroneously, equated with “relaxation” – but not often understood as a skill that leads to greater efficiency and more effective behaviors, which results in less stress in the long run.

Mindfulness, like all skills, is learned and strengthened through practice.  You can’t learn to ride a bike by reading about how to ride a bike, and you can’t learn to be mindful by just reading about mindfulness.  If not committing to a meditation practice, it is easy, as we go about the business and busyness of our daily lives, to forget about mindfulness altogether.  However, using some of the typical activities and experiences of daily life as reminders to be mindful can be quite helpful.  These can include, but are not limited to the following:

  • Take a few moments before getting out of bed in the morning to notice the feelings in your body, and notice when your first foot comes in contact with the floor
  • Consciously inhale the aroma from your first cup of coffee, and feel the warmth of the cup in your hands
  • Pause at your doorway, before leaving home, and take a few conscious breaths before opening the door
  • When you are stopped at a traffic light, notice the feeling of the steering wheel in your hands, notice the contact between your body and the driver’s seat, or notice your breath, or take a moment to look at the sky
  • Take a few deep, conscious breaths between meetings, or tasks, or during times in the workday when there is a transition
  • If you are at home with children, pick a transition time during the day to take a mental snapshot, or pay attention to the feeling of your child’s skin, or scent, or sound

You may find these moments of mindfulness to be pleasurable or relaxing.  However, by engaging in brief, but routine moments of practice such as these, you will be cultivating a skill that will leave you more resilient in the wake of the unavoidable challenges and stress of everyday life.  If you can remember to be mindful on a daily basis, over time you will notice that your ability to respond to challenges in more calm, focused, and effective ways will improve – and likely the people you live and work with will notice, too!

 

 

getting unstuck, mindful living, mindfulness, self-help

Set your GPS for Successful New Year’s Resolutions

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The New Year’s Eve ball has dropped, 2019 has begun, and we’re returning to “life as usual” after the disruption of routines that occurs during the holiday season.  For many, making resolutions for the new year – often related to habits that we would like to change – is a tradition associated with this place in the calendar.  Unfortunately, the pull of habits acquired in previous years is strong.  A number of people who would like to make changes eschew resolution-making as a set up for certain failure.  Perhaps by approaching resolutions differently, rather than abandoning hope, we can benefit from this age-old practice.

The “all-or-nothing” mentality created by the concept of “keeping” or “breaking” resolutions is a set up for failure.  If we have to be perfect in keeping our resolution, failure is likely.  If we accept that there will be mis-steps, and that each moment is an opportunity to either stray further from the new path we are choosing, or take a step that leads us back towards that new path, the resolution is still guiding us.

Mindfulness, awareness of what we are feeling, thinking, and experiencing in the present, is like a GPS – tracking our progress moment-by-moment, and suggesting a way to get back on track whenever we go astray.  Some simple mindfulness-based practices for effective resolutions include:

  • Starting the day with a reminder of the change you would like to make
  • Visualizing yourself engaging in the desired behavior
  • Noticing when you are vulnerable – feeling tired, under the weather, stressed – and give yourself the compassion and self-care that you would offer to a loved one who is in need of some kindness
  • Accepting recurrences of undesired behaviors as normal “bumps in the road”, or detours on the road to the desired behavior, rather than failure
  • Re-committing to the desired behavior NOW, rather than tomorrow, next Monday, next year….

Best wishes for your 2019 journey towards the person you want to become!

mindful living, self-help, time management

A Brief Blog about Time (because I know you are busy)

There ARE “only” 24 hours in a day, AND we do have “enough” time.  It’s as if we all think we are somehow the exception to the rule, and while everyone else should be able to find the time to do everything they want, need, and are expected to do, we can’t possibly make it work.  If this does not pertain to you, then please stop reading this article, and get back to your life, already in progress.  If,

pexels-photo-707676-e1540674760422.jpeghowever, you do find yourself feeling stressed by your lack of time, please try the following:

  • NOTICE when you are having thoughts such as:
    • “I’ll never finish….”
    • There’s no time for….”
    • If only I had more time….”
    • If I could ever find the time, I’d….”
  • Then PAUSE.
  • Take 2 or 3 DEEP, CONSCIOUS BREATHS
  • Ask yourself: WHAT IS MY PRIORITY IN THIS MOMENT?

This step will be easier if you make a short list for yourself, maybe after you finish reading this article, of your uppermost values, the things (somewhere between 4 and 6, perhaps) that are most important to you (think relationships, health, career, etc.).  FYI, “values” represent issues of enduring importance.  They are not the time-sensitive items that appear on your “to-do” list.  KEEP THIS LIST IN A PLACE WHERE YOU WILL SEE IT.

  • Now CHOOSE the task, from your to-do list, that is aligned with the priority that is most important right now.
  • ENGAGE MINDFULLY in the task – bring your attention to it, redirecting your attention back to the task at hand whenever you become distracted – esp. by thoughts of “not having enough time” – until you have completed, or made sufficient progress towards completing the task.

Like all mindfulness-based strategies, the above is easier said than done, and can only really become useful with practice.  As so many sages in the realm of mindfulness frequently remind us, the only moment over which we have any control is THIS moment.  So I encourage you (as I remind myself many times each day) to commit to pausing at just those moments when you are either about to enter into a frenzy of activity, or, perhaps, to distract yourself from the stress with some mindless activity (eating, binge viewing, immersing in social media, to name just a few).  In the words of Thich Nhat Hanh:   “We have more possibilities available in each moment than we realize.”  The key to mindful use of time is bringing our attention to this moment, instead of allowing our  thoughts to steal it from us.

mindful living, psychotherapy, self-help, Uncategorized

Mind Driving? Drive Mindfully!

Boston_traffic_re-routed_Ted_Williams_tunnel,_2006Mindfulness practice can take place anywhere, and need not involve a specific time of day, quiet environment, cushion, or even closing the eyes.  Cars are, in fact, an ideal place for informal mindfulness practice.  Chances are, the next time you get behind the wheel, you will experience something that you find annoying, inconsiderate, infuriating, or maybe even alarming.  This can be a perfect opportunity to practice:

  • Notice what thoughts arise when you see driving that takes you out of your peaceful, or just benign place. My mind starts sending me thoughts like:  “What’s wrong with that person?” and “What a jerk!” or “Why are people able to get away with driving like that?!!”
  • Notice what feelings you experience in your body. Where in your body is the tension most prominent- your jaws? neck and shoulders? chest? What do you notice about your breath? Notice any change in temperature?
  • What urges do you experience? The urge to yell?  lean on the horn? wave your fist?  accelerate until you are virtually on top of the car in front of you?

Noticing, or being “mindful” of the ways in which we react to situations allows us to respond in ways that are more effective and less stressful.

  • Dwelling on, ruminating about, and continuing to justify our anger about these momentary experiences keeps us anchored to an event that is over and done with, and over which we have no control.
  • Focusing attention on the thoughts, feelings, and urges, which are happening in the present, is the beginning of being able to move forward.

Allowing thoughts, feelings, and urges to control us is like being “hijacked” by some random stranger, encountered on the road, who will never be seen again. The stranger is none the worse for all of my seething and ranting, but I no longer have the benefit of enjoying my commute, or arriving at work in a calm, relaxed state of mind.

Notice what happens to the thoughts, feelings, and urges when you just allow them to be there.  Bring a sense of curiosity to what is happening “under the hood” of your own “vehicle”, notice the feeling of your hands on the steering wheel, talk a few deep, conscious breaths, and then redirect your attention to the road ahead – looking through the front windshield rather than being fixated on the rear-view mirror.

mindful living, psychotherapy, self-help

Mindful Living

balance-110850_1280Mindfulness meditation provides an opportunity to truly experience the present moment for the duration of the meditation session, and has been shown to improve the health and wellbeing of people who meditate on a regular basis beyond the practice session. Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “Paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” During meditation practice, the breath often provides the focal point, giving the mind something to pay attention to that is occurring this very moment. In mindfulness meditation, as we practice returning to awareness of the breath each time we are distracted by external events such as sounds and activity around us, or internal events such as thoughts and feelings, we gain skill in directing our attention and maintaining focus on the breath.

Any activity can be done mindfully, by slowing down and directing our 5 senses to experience what we are doing in this moment. If you have ever mindfully eaten a raisin, or a sandwich, you will have undoubtedly noticed that the flavor was incredibly more intense than when you grabbed a handful of raisins on the go, or quickly consumed a sandwich at your desk as you worked through lunch hour.   See for yourself the difference between walking from wherever you are sitting right now to the nearest door, and mindfully walking back to your seat – slowly, noticing the contact between your foot and the floor, the many, subtle movements and adjustments that we typically make without any awareness, in order to maintain our balance and move our bodies forward in space. If you’ve never tried washing the dishes mindfully, focusing on the plethora or sensory experiences, rather than being caught up in thinking about all the things you’d rather be doing, or the feeling of resentment that you are stuck, again, doing those dishes, I highly recommend you walk mindfully to your kitchen sink and give it a try right now!

Best of all, life can be lived mindfully. By identifying, and remembering to pay attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally, to the values we hold dearest – relationships, professional integrity, health, spirituality, community, etc. – in the presence of all of the internal and external distractions, we can experience mindful living. Using our values as a compass, we make choices that are informed by, and lead us towards our values. I ask myself, in this moment, what choice, or response to what life may be throwing my way, will result in being the kind of parent, partner, friend, citizen, colleague, etc., that I aspire to be? Of course there will be challenges, and, of course, being human, we will lose sight of our values, go on “auto-pilot”, react to internal and external challenges rather than respond mindfully to situations. But with every moment we have the opportunity to re-focus on what is most important, just as we re-focus on the breath every time we become distracted during mindfulness meditation practice.

Mindful living isn’t easy, but living life in alignment with one’s values is well worth the effort. All journeys begin with a first step. Before you move on to the rest of your busy day, notice, really experience, a couple of deep, mindful breaths. If you didn’t jump right up to try any of the suggested mindful activities, consider trying one of them right now. For inspiration, check out Jon Kabat-Zinn’s classic Wherever You Go, There You Are (1994). Or for further instruction, guidance, and support for mindful living, see the course and program options at Needham Psychotherapy Associate’s Center for Mindfulness.

mindful living, psychotherapy, self-help

Lessons in Mindfulness from The Food Network’s “Chopped”

onion-2162071_1920Four contestants race against the clock to make an appetizer, main course, and dessert using the odd and/or incompatible ingredients found in three “mystery baskets.”  They then present their creations to a panel of chef judges, and one contestant is eliminated after each round.  On its surface, “Chopped” projects the antithesis of “mindfulness”: people boasting and posturing, running, shouting, grabbing, multitasking, performing advanced cooking techniques in fast motion, and sweating profusely. Watching “Chopped” certainly does not produce a calm and centered state for the TV viewer, who is watching the contestants’ frenetic behavior, observing the transformation from initial bravado to desperation to avoid being “chopped”, and noting the constant ticking down of the clock. Certainly, the judges’ critiques and ultimate determination of winners and losers do not exemplify the non-judgmental awareness that is so integral to mindfulness meditation.  So what are the lessons in mindfulness that I am suggesting?

I do not believe that “Chopped” exemplifies mindfulness meditation. Meditation requires committing to focus on just one thing – one breath, one sound, one word, one image, etc. In mindfulness meditation practices involving movement, the movement is deliberate and intentional. I do, however, believe that many of the participants, especially the more successful ones, are able to bring mindfulattention, and attitudes that are often cultivated through mindfulness meditation to the task at hand, and that we can all benefit from emulating this as we race to fulfill all of our daily tasks, knowing that the clock is always ticking.

It is possible that some of the contestants practice mindfulness meditation. It is certain, however, that most of them have spent hours learning, focusing on, and practicing core techniques such as knife skills, efficiently cracking eggs, and filleting fish, to name just a few. Cutting, cracking, and filleting can absolutely be mindfulness practices, as each requires focusing of the attention to sensory experience in the present moment and redirecting the attention whenever a distraction arises. The skill level exhibited by trained chefs cannot be acquired through book, classroom, or online learning. In committing to and practicing behaviors that focus the attention, mindfulness is cultivated, alongside, and very much like, muscle memory.

An attitude of acceptance is fostered by mindfulness. Contestants cannot negotiate to change the basket ingredients, increase the amount of time allotted for each course, or allow ingredients from the “pantry and ‘fridge” that may be more appetizing or familiar to upstage the basket ingredients. No matter how unappealing the ingredients or seemingly impossible the time limitation, contestants use what they have to do the best that they can. If a contestant becomes caught up in thoughts of what they wish were in the basket, or how if only there were more time, he or she takes valuable time and attention away from the materials they have to work with. Accepting the things in my life, or in a given situation, that I cannot change results in more focus on what is right in front of me  and a greater likelihood that I will make the most of the resources that I do have.

This leads to another quality of mindfulness, which is awareness of and contact with the present moment. To the extent that contestants are able to utilize the minutes that they are allotted for each course to “transform the ingredients”, they will achieve success. Re-living a previous round, or anticipating the next are likely to result in being “chopped”. It is only in the present moment, which we perceive through our senses,  that we can choose to behave in ways that are more effective. Contestants’ attention to their sensory experiences – the sight, smells, tastes, feel, and sounds – which can only be perceived in the here-and-now, and not when preoccupied with the past or the future, is crucial to the mission of creating dishes that are judged on appearance as well as taste. It is through our senses (e.g., keeping our eyes on the road), and not by daydreaming, “spacing out”, dwelling, anticipating the future, etc., that we can most safely and directly go from Point A to Point B.

Focusing the attention on what is most important in this moment, rather than allowing the attention to be diverted by distractions, external (noise, lights, people, objects) or internal (thoughts, memories, fears) is key to success on “Chopped” and in life. The materials we have to work with, and the time we have to live our lives is finite. When we are not able to focus our attention on what matters, in this present moment, we lose precious opportunities to add a pinch of salt here, or achieve the perfect sear there. Focusing attention also allows us to experience our activities in a way that is intrinsically rewarding. I may be sitting on a pristine beach, but if my mind is dwelling on a stressful work situation, second-guessing an interaction from last weekend, or beating myself up over something that happened years ago, I am not able to benefit from the experience right in front of me.

Four contestants begin each episode of “Chopped”, but only one is standing at the end to be declared the winner.  Each eliminated contestant is briefly in the spotlight, and has a chance to comment on the experience. While a contestant will occasionally use this opportunity to express disappointment, or even more rarely say “not fair”, overwhelmingly contestants describe the experience as positive, and seem pretty upbeat. Is this just covering up true feelings for the sake of the camera (not to mention the millions of viewers)? I believe that, generally speaking, the “losers” probably did enjoy the experience.

Engaging mindfully and giving the activity that we experience through our senses, mindful attention, “being in the moment,” produces, at least in this moment, a sense of wellbeing – from quiet contentment to downright ecstasy. Typically, this feeling lasts only until our mind begins to judge, or to tell us stories about the experience, for instance, “It would have been so much better if I’d won!” Or “It’s embarrassing to have been beaten by someone with so much less experience!” Or “There are so many things I could have done with that $10,000 prize!” Becoming familiar with the chatter of our judging and storytelling minds, and learning to redirect our attention to the present experience, does not guarantee that we will become a “chopped champion,” but it is a recipe for being and feeling our best.