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

Jack Pearson Buys a Car Through an ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) Lens

phpThumb_generated_thumbnailMy apologies to those who may be asking themselves, “Who is Jack Pearson.” For the rest of us, who are dedicated fans, leaning forward each week on the sofa so as not to miss a single word, tissues in hand, Jack is a beloved and inspirational character on the Emmy-winning show This Is Us. In a recent episode, Jack, accompanied, of course, by his family, is shopping for a new car. I, as a mindfulness-based, ACT therapist, couldn’t help but make a connection between Jack’s unique response in this typically mundane situation, and the approach embodied by ACT to life’s challenges, big and small.

Jack’s ability to always maintain his focus on what is most important to him, his family, is evident from the time he enters the showroom. The fact that the buying of a car becomes a family outing sets the tone. Jack goes on to clearly articulate his focus on the wellbeing of his family and his commitment to meeting their needs to both his wife, Rebecca, and the car salesman. Both Rebecca and the car salesman hear Jack, but proceed to focus on the most compelling problem at hand, namely, the need to be frugal with the family’s resources, rather than focusing on selecting and pursuing the car that checks all the boxes in term of the family’s needs. By the end of the clip, Jack, Rebecca, and the triplets are piling into the perfect car. Clearly, the salesman was no match for Jack’s passion and clear focus on the intention to always do right by his family.

Jack models behavior that is different from the ways in which people often react to challenges. Typically, we focus our attention on the problem – how big, unfair, frustrating, and painful it is – rather than maintaining our focus on the value or values that we hold most precious. An important piece of any ACT therapy is the identification and clarification of values. Values provide an important sense of direction. Behaving in ways that are aligned with our values, that move us “towards” our values, we attain a sense of purpose that, for most, is rewarding even when our efforts are not as successful as we might like. In ACT, we seek out and highlight such behaviors, and label them “committed action.” And, certainly, not engaging in behaviors associated with our values is a prescription for increasing a sense of failure and hopelessness.

Jack is continually praised and idolized by the other This Is Us characters. The other characters don’t seem to recognize that Jack has all the same human vulnerabilities that we all have, like fear, insecurity, uncertainty, anger, regrets, etc. When Rebecca, in a touching conversation with wise Dr. K, says that she cannot succeed as Jack did because “he was never afraid,” Dr. K sets her straight, enlightening her to the fact that Jack frequently revealed his fears and other vulnerabilities in conversations, over the years, and that he was able to persevere nonetheless. ACT accepts the presence of the full range of human experience, and helps to teach strategies and skills to enable individuals to engage in committed action, aligned with values, in the presence of challenging emotions. This is Usviewers know that Jack did not always possess the strength and skill needed to respond to challenges in healthy ways. Addictions exemplify ways in which we try to cope by covering up or just trying to push away unwanted feelings. Unlike committed action, addictions and other unhealthy means of coping rarely lead towards values, and frequently result in greater problems.

By clarifying and increasing our attention to our most important values, and committing to behaviors, big and small, that are aligned with these values, we can feel ourselves moving forward, moving in the direction of a fulfilling and rewarding life. Engaging in mindfulness practices, like meditation and yoga, can help us to stay on track when challenges – from everyday life, and from our emotions – make us feel stuck or throw us off course. As we embrace This Is Us as viewers and fans, we can embrace our values and enact (enACT) them in our own lives.