Happiness Habit #1: Mindfulness
Mindfulness has been practiced for thousands of years and has historically been rooted in Eastern religious and spiritual institutions, including Hinduism and Buddhism. Jon Kabat-Zin is considered the father of mindfulness in Western culture. He studied under several Buddhist teachers, including Thich Nhat Hanh, and integrated Eastern mindfulness with Western science to develop the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program. This led to the development of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MCBT) aimed at treating Major Depressive Disorder. The Insight Meditation Society (IMS) was founded in 1975 by Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, and Joseph Goldstein, and they are credited with popularizing mindfulness in the West with clinical and non-clinical populations. Mindfulness became even more popular with the mainstream after Kabat-Zinn was featured in a 40-minute segment on a PBS television show, Healing the Mind, which looked at traditional Chinese Medicine and other examples of alternative healing methods. The series won an Emmy Award and Kabat-Zinn’s book, Full Catastrophe Living, became a bestseller.
Mindfulness is becoming even more popular in our culture and there is a growing body of research that is documenting the effects of mindfulness practice and how it promotes mental wellbeing. In fact, it is so popular you may be sick of hearing about all the ailments mindfulness can cure, and there is some backlash about the for-profit industry of mindfulness and not informing people of the risks of mindfulness.
What exactly is mindfulness, you ask? Here are some definitions. I particularly like “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” - Jon Kabat-Zinn. Being present without judgment.
Being present. Whew this is a difficult skill for us to practice! There is so much NOISE in our world, so many stimuli coming in from every direction that we have trained our brains to not be present. And not only do we have external stimuli, but a common complaint I hear from clients is they can’t turn their brain off, so we are fighting internal stimuli as well. Their brain is constantly thinking about the to-do list, worrying about this stressor or that stressor, regretting past choices, or ruminating on the darker side of life. Technology has programmed us to believe there is something better behind the screen than what is in front of us, so we have the urge to be engaged with technology either because there is something more entertaining on the phone/tv/iPad or it provides an escape from the present when that present is unpleasant.
How many times have you been around your kids and on your phone scrolling through social media and you’re zapped back to reality when they start yelling and your irritability immediately shoots up? How many times have you been on your phone and missed something that your child was really proud of doing and they wanted you to see it, only to be disappointed that you missed it? How many times have you been out to dinner with your spouse/partner and spend the majority of it on the phone rather than engage in conversation or just quiet time together enjoying the ambience? Or better yet, how many nights do you and your significant other fall asleep in bed with each of you on your individual devices? We’re all guilty of these moments and it’s about developing an awareness of how this is impacting you and your relationships.
We miss out on so much of life, so many of those little moments that can bring us joy by not being present. It also robs us of feeling connected to those around us, which is a one of our hardwired needs. We only have one shot at this thing called life, don’t let it pass you by.
(I could get on my soapbox about technology, social media and the premise that it all connects us more, but if that is the truth, how is loneliness an epidemic in this country? Alas, I will save that for another post.)
Without judgment. Also, a very difficult concept to practice. We have expectations of how we should act, how others should act, and what should happen. (By the way, how often does everything fall in line according to our plan? Ha!). We are constantly comparing ourselves and our lives to others to see how we measure up. When our self-talk is negative and critical, we tend to think and speak negatively and critically about others. So, without judgment “is opening to or receiving the present moment, pleasant or unpleasant, just as it is, without either clinging to it or rejecting it.” - Sylvia Boorstein. This also pertains to not judging our thoughts or our emotions, but rather having an acceptance of them. This does not mean we like the emotions or the thoughts, but we don’t fight against them or tell ourselves we “shouldn’t” be feeling a certain way or beat ourselves up for thinking a certain thought.
So how do we start practicing mindfulness?
My approach to teaching mindfulness to clients when they are first learning the skill is the idea of teaching your brain what to focus on. For many, the idea of quiet meditation time is frightening because the barrage of thoughts and emotions floods them and it is the opposite of what they are seeking (peace, a quiet mind, pleasant experience). The attentional capacity of our brain is like a computer processor. There is a limit to what our brain can focus on at one time and it has to prioritize which tasks get more of the attention. For example, when you started learning how to drive (a new skill), 100% of your attentional capacity was focused on the task. You had to think about switching your foot from the gas to the brake, which direction you flipped the turn signal to indicate left or right, and had to actively think about the rules of the road. There was little to no room for your brain to be thinking about anything else. However, as you practiced driving and it became an automatic skill, it then required very little of your attentional capacity and your brain started performing on auto pilot (akin to a program running in the background on your computer). This leaves a lot of capacity for your brain to be thinking about other things while you drive, which is why many of us experience mild dissociation while we drive. Many, if not most, of our daily habits and routines are automatic, which means we can constantly be thinking about other things – hence increased anxiety, increased emotional distress, and constant chatter up there.
By telling our mind to focus on the present – being attuned to what is happening here and now, and engaging with our five senses (What do I see, hear, taste, smell, and feel?) – then we direct our attentional capacity to this moment and tell our brain to give it 100% of the processing speed. This reduces space for thoughts about anything other than what is happening right here, right now. Quiets the mind. Our brain has the ability to be in different time orientations – past, present, and future. For many, thinking about the past leads to negative emotions and thinking about the future leads to worry and stress. When we reattach our heads to our bodies and get in touch with the present moment, then we will hopefully reduce some of the emotional distress caused by thinking about the past (which we can’t change) or the future (which we can’t control or predict). And there is more acceptance of what is (not what was, what should have been, what will be or what if).
Here are 5 ways to start practicing mindfulness daily:
1. Deep Breathing
Our body and breath are always in the present moment. Doing deep breathing can ground us in the here and the now and also serves to regulate our emotional state. There are different methods you can use for deep breathing. The 4-7-8 breathing exercise is a description of one such method.
Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.
Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
Hold your breath for a count of seven.
Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight.
This is one breath. Now inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths.
The most important part of this process is holding your breath for eight seconds. This is because keeping the breath in will allow oxygen to fill your lungs and then circulate throughout the body. It is this that produces a relaxing effect in the body. This can be practiced anytime, anywhere and our minds, disrupt negative thought trains, and ground us in the present.
Or you may just pause to notice the rhythmic feel of your breath. This simple act will take you out of your mind and into your body.
2. Time in Nature
Courtney described the ancient practice of Forest Bathing or Nature Walks in her blog post. Being in nature is good for our soul. If you don’t have enough time to go for a walk or a hike in nature (or live too far from nature) then spend 10-15 minutes outside just observing the nature that is around you. Sit on your back deck after work for 10 minutes and notice the leaves rustling on the trees, the sounds of the birds, the shapes of the clouds and how fast they are moving, how the sun feels on your skin, notice the breeze, the smells of nature, observe the insects or animal life you can see, just pay attention and observe the nature around you.
3. Eating Mindfully
When you scoff down your meal on autopilot while distracted by the television, computer or constant conversation, you miss out on the delicious taste and smell of your food. You're also less likely to feel satisfied and nourished, because you 'missed out' on the fact that you ate. Your brain is not paying attention to the signals from the stomach that it is full, it is paying attention to the other task at hand. When you eat, notice the texture of the food, how it sounds when you bite down, all the flavors you experience, the aroma of the food, and the colors you see. Again, getting in touch with your senses in any activity will cultivate mindfulness and presence.
4. Listen Wholeheartedly
Most of us do not practice active listening and truly focus on what someone is saying to us. We’re too busy planning what to say next, judging what they are saying, or being distracted by something entirely not present. A way to practice mindfulness is to fully listen to what the other person is saying to you and trusting you will know how to intuitively respond when it is your turn. This helps cultivate presence and connectedness.
5. Experience Flow
We all have activities or hobbies that we enjoy doing just for the sake of doing it. That could be cooking, dancing, singing, crafting, playing an instrument, running, swimming, painting, reading. We love them so much we give all our attention and focus to it, we lose ourselves in that activity (out of our heads), and experience flow – being “in the zone” or having energized focus and enjoying the process of the activity. Prioritize time to incorporate more flow activities into your weekly routine.
Are you ready to take small steps to practice mindfulness a few times a day? Just a reminder about forming new habits: This does take practice and patience with yourself because we are really good at what we practice, and as of right now, you may be very good at distracted living because that’s what you’ve been practicing. If you start to practice mindfulness, your mind is naturally going to want to wander and start thinking about other things. That’s ok. It will happen. Gently bring it back and keep training it to come back to the present. The more you practice that, the more that will become your norm.
This is a brief introduction to the mindfulness habit. If you would like to learn more ways to practice mindfulness or work with me to create new happiness habits, email me to schedule an appointment.