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.

mindful living, psychotherapy, self-help

Mindful Eating… Before You Get to The Table

MindfulEating1“Eat mindfully” has become a familiar phrase, and something that shows up on a lot of people’s “should” list – along with getting to the gym, bringing our own bags to the grocery store, and flossing daily, to name just a few.  The problems with “shoulds” is that, from as far back as we can remember, authority figures have been telling us (mostly for our own good) that we “should” do this or that.  And we, at least to some extent, have been bristling under those suggestions, bits of advice, and veiled threats.  How many of these “shoulds” were delivered with a wagging index finger?  How often did our mind instantly apply itself to avoiding, finding a way around, or giving the impression that we complied with the “should”, while we attempted to continue to do what we wanted to do?

So I will not suggest that you should eat mindfully, or what, specifically you should do to eat more mindfully.  Instead, I will pose a few questions:

  • Why do you want to eat more mindfully?
  • Why do you want to change your eating habits?
  • What will be different in your life if you choose to eat more mindfully?
  • Why does that matter to you?

Just as children tend to be more willing to follow the rules if they understand why the rules are important, when we stop to consider why doing something is important to us, rather than expect that, as adults, we will respond any better to “shoulds” and wagging fingers, change is more likely to happen.

In fact, it only gets harder when we reach adulthood, as we end up adding a formidable authority figure who is practically impossible to fool or avoid – ourselves!  How many times, on a daily basis, do we tell ourselves that we “should” clean out that closet, or make that phone call, or read that book, or finish that project?  Often we will share our “shoulds” with friends or significant others, hoping that having someone hold us accountable will increase our chances of success.  So many of the “shoulds” seem so simple!  At some point, the other people in our lives may stop hearing our “shoulds” because we are too embarrassed and ashamed to let others know that we still haven’t done what we said so long ago or so often what we intended to do.  The wagging index finger continues to plague us, but it is only seen and felt internally. And what is one of the most common and effective tactics to numb ourselves to the discomfort of guilt and shame?  Stress eating, of course! A vicious cycle!

The answers to these questions can’t be Googled, or found by consulting an authority figure, but rather already lie within you.  The beginning of the journey towards mindful eating is started by mindfully (defined as non-judgmentally noticing and paying attention to present-moment experience) connecting with our own values, which are our guides to what we want our lives to be about, what truly matters to us.  Change is difficult – humans really are “creatures of habit” – but eliminating the wagging finger by bringing mindful attention to our values related to eating can pave the way to change.