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.

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.