This blog post originally appeared on The Huffington Post.
Finally, after a fulfilling but very long and arduous day of work, and perhaps for some, a foray into getting the kids fed and bathed and to bed, you finally have time for yourself, to unwind, and then eventually, grab some slumber. Sounds dreamy – pun intended. Then imagine the bliss of whatever rest you were able to grab being pulled out from under you by the shrieking of an alarm at the crack of dawn, catapulting your mind and body and brain back to the reality of a new day.
Yes, a new day is theoretically full of potential; a new opportunity to move toward personal and professional goals, a chance to show up for oneself and one’s loved ones with even more compassion and love. Yet, all the newness falls by the wayside as you press the snooze button again, and then are faced with this same jolting shriek-snooze cycle until you finally acquiesce to the call to action to get out of bed and begin the day’s journey.
Not hard to imagine, because this sounds like many of our realities. This daily routine often primes us for anxiety, right upon waking in the morning. Here are some reasons why this time of day is a particularly vulnerable one.
Causes of Early Morning Anxiety
1. Sometimes, the blatant contrast between the sleeping and waking states, often heralded in by the shrieking of an alarm, can be jarring to our senses. In fact, sometimes we are so blindsided by the transition, that we immediately go into fight or flight mode.
2. Fight or flight mode can actually be elicited by the mere fact that our blood sugar has dropped through the night and our brains need more fuel. The symptoms of a low blood sugar response can mimic the feeling of a panic attack, characterized by lightheadedness, dizziness, and increased heart rate.
3. Cognitively, the morning is often the time when we are more apt to engage in unhelpful thinking, given the level of anticipatory anxiety as we envision our to-do lists, and wonder how we are going to get through the day. These kinds of thoughts, though unhelpful, flood our minds in the morning, as we grasp toward trying to leverage control over the rest of the day.
One way to offset this potential morning anxiety is by establishing clear morning rituals to follow as we start to transition into the daylight hours. Aside from just symptom reduction, they also serve as a way to take the time to frame the day in a way that elicits increased overall wellness.
I, therefore, want to share my personal morning routine here with you as an example of how to leverage the rooster within and thrive throughout the day!
Five Ways to Leverage the Rooster Within
Upon waking and feeling any stress or discomfort, my immediate go-to is to find my breath. Engaging the breath provides me with an opportunity to help lower my heart rate that is sometimes elevated in the morning if I’m hyper-aroused out of slumber by a “rude” awakening.
My breath also reminds me that I am alive and that I am able to choose to focus on controlling the sensation of the inhale and the exhale. I like to imagine my breath feeding and rejuvenating my cells with each inhale. It is a great way for me to then literally gain a sense of control to get motivated to start moving in the morning.
For an example of how you can follow this morning routine too, click here for my instructional video of my personally curated breathing exercise.
STRETCH THE PSOAS
Stretching is a great way to relieve the tension or stiffness that’s often entrenched in our body in the morning.
I want to make particular note of how much relief can be felt in stretching the psoas muscles. According to Dr. Christian Northrup, a leading authority in the field of women’s health and wellness, the psoas muscles (pronounced SO-as) may be the most important group of muscles in our body.
They are the only muscles that connect the spine to the legs, attaching from the 12th thoracic vertebra to the 5th lumbar vertebra through the pelvis and down to the femurs. Needless to say, the psoas muscles, therefore, play a crucial role in one’s core structural wellness, especially the psoas major, the biggest muscle of the group.
The absolutely mind-blowing understanding regarding the psoas muscles though, is that they have been actually touted as instrumental to one’s mental well-being as well!
According to Liz Koch, who wrote, The Psoas Book, anatomically speaking, the psoas muscles flank the diaphragm and the many connections between the psoas muscles and the diaphragm literally link these muscles to our breath, which is sensitive to fear. When we are in a state of fear, the breath is shallow and constricted, and the diaphragm isn’t being used to take deeper, calming breaths. The psoas feels this, and holds the fear.
This means that if we are in a constant fight or flight mode, due to chronic stress, then our psoas muscles are also chronically stressed and constricted. This would also mean that an over-constricted psoas, caused by poor posture for example, could actually elicit fear. So, after hours and hours of sitting in a position that constricts our psoas muscles, it’s no wonder we have a visceral feeling of tension that seems to envelop our minds, bodies, and brains.
I adore stretching my psoas major in the morning to start the day. It literally feels like ten big sighs of relief all in one. Want more information on HOW to release and stretch your psoas? Here’s a great video to follow from GuerillaZen Fitness.
Many suggest that having The Attitude of Gratitude is the key to a better life. And the research concurs: cultivating gratitude has been linked to better health, sounder sleep, and both decreased anxiety and depression.
In fact, gratitude has become a self-help buzzword. Turns out though that the benefits of saying “thank you” aren’t just grand delusions or a bunch of fluff. According to Robert Emmons, a renowned gratitude expert, gratitude has two parts. He says that first, “it’s an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received.” Then, “we recognize that the sources of this goodness are outside of ourselves.”
This definition allows gratitude to become a way for us to appreciate what we have, instead of always reaching for something new in the hopes that it will make us happier. We can definitely feel satisfied EVEN IF our every physical and material need is not met. It also allows us to trust in something greater than us, which can allow us to let go of needing to always control every little detail of our lives, which can be anxiety provoking.
Looking for ways to cultivate gratitude? Here are some examples from Harvard’s Health Newsletter.
At the very least, I like to just simply say “thank you” to whatever out there is greater than I am, for this gift of a new day.
DRINK ESPRESSO – WITH A DASH OF TURMERIC
As you might know if you follow my social media posts and photos, I love my morning espresso routine.
Espresso itself has some touted benefits, but what I really like is the routine. In fact, for the last year or so, I have incorporated espresso into my morning mindfulness meditation practice by really becoming present to every aspect of the process, from the way I fill the water in the machine to the sound the machine makes as the stream of brown sultry liquid emanating from portafilter flows into the shot glass, as the rich crema forms on top, to the aroma, to the first sip.
Aside from this, espresso is rich in antioxidants and boosts the body’s immunity. Yes, there is caffeine, and too much caffeine can mimic the feeling of anxiety, but that is why moderation is important. Just one or two shots of espresso invigorate me to the core, energizing me, and even elicit a sense of cognitive acumen and focus without adding to any morning anxiety. In fact, the ritual relieves me of anxiety, through the mindfulness practice and the promise of the experience each morning (see gratitude!)
I don’t just have espresso though. I try to really foster wellness by adding some spice, literally, by shaking in some turmeric. The compound in turmeric that is both responsible for its hue and its health benefits is called Curcumin. Curcumin has been indicated in staving off heartburn and indigestion, decreased anxiety and improved mood, balancing blood sugar, and helping to relieve stiff and achy joints.
Something to truly look forward to each morning.
PRACTICE TAKING PAUSE
I talk often about taking pause. Taking just ONE extra moment in the morning to STOP can make a difference in how we live our lives each day.
When you wake up in the morning, before you jump into your to-do list, remember to STOP (Stop. Take a breath. Observe. Proceed). This routine gears us up for the day and our lives in general.
There are going to be many moments throughout the day that call upon us to choose how to show up for ourselves and others, and practicing taking this pause can help us with making more conscious choices.
This is true regardless of where or with whom that moment occurs—at home with our children, alone in our cars, at work among colleagues, and so on. In every situation, we can choose to React or Respond. Reacting is a reflexive, and sometimes impulsive, way to behave in a situation. It’s not adaptive and often leads to increased stress and tension.
In contrast, responding is a more mindful approach and can include active listening and a gentler tone of speech. But in order to respond in lieu of reacting, we need to first STOP. Just ONE extra moment to take a step back, regroup, and consider a healthier response can make a huge difference.
Let’s START each day with thriving by calling upon these techniques and our unique morning rituals to look forward to, in order to best leverage our inner roosters and greet every new day with joy and gratitude.
This blog post originally appeared on Mindful.org
It is officially the holiday season! During this time of year there can be so much pressure that unfortunately the joy, magic, and meaning of the season is lost, often replaced by stress. Especially now that Thanksgiving has come and gone, it is hard to ignore the almost instantaneous rush of frenetic energy that ensues as we near the close of the calendar year.
It is more than possible though to not only survive the holiday season, but to even thrive and connect to your particular observance in a deeper and more profound way. Here are some common stressors that pop up this time this year, and mindful antidotes to help you through the discomfort.
1) Demands on Time
In December, our schedules often fill up quickly with work and personal holiday parties. These back-to-back parties start to feel overwhelming as we try to juggle them with all of our other commitments.
Also, creating the holiday experience we desire for our loved ones and ourselves takes planning. It often starts to feel like we are chickens running around with no heads collecting recipes, buying and wrapping gifts, inviting guests, hosting, traveling, cooking, cleaning, buying trees (or menorahs!), and decorating.
Antidote: Treat yourself!
You do not need to say yes to everything. Giving and giving without stopping is not an altruistic notion. It is important to be mindful of when we might need refueling and to allow that to happen. Self-care can mean many things, but it can be as simple as a night to ourselves that includes a bath and a good meal—cooked by someone else!
2) Loneliness During the Holidays
There is an immense amount of pressure to please the people we love with the gifts that we think they will love. Instead of a joyful endeavor, gift giving becomes a chore, and we often become resentful and unloved if we do not receive something equally meaningful in return.
Pressure can also manifest by way of the longing to spend the holidays with those we love, and those we desire to love. For many, this may create feelings of loneliness.
Antidote: Donate your time to help those less fortunate.
The holidays are a particularly poignant time to practice the art of compassion, to think of others needs before our own. There is great opportunity to give to, and establish meaningful connections with, those who don’t have as many resources as we do. Giving doesn’t have to be monetary or a physical gift. Giving comes in many forms, including smiles, time, and emotional support.
3) Expectations of Perfection
This time of year is ripe with the expectations we put upon ourselves to get it just “right.” Things have to look, taste, feel, and be a certain way. We start to get into this mind space where things have to be perfect, which of course, is not possible. It’s how we deal with this realization that determines our well-being.
While it is nice to take the time to create a mindful, aesthetically, and gustatorily pleasing experience, we often get caught up in the trap of perfection. Not only does this make the holiday journey feel less joyful, but we also set ourselves up to experience a lot of disappointment.
Antidote: Reflect on the meaning of the holidays.
It is hard to stop and smell the roses at any time of year, and it is especially easy to get caught up in the commercial version of what the holiday season means today. But taking the time to mindfully reflect on what matters, whether it be our religion or tradition, or even the healing power of love, helps us to keep our perspective as the year draws to a close.
4) The Indulge/Guilt Cycle
We often seem to let all notions of wellness and health fall by the wayside during this time of year. The problem is not only are we not staying healthy, but we are also setting ourselves up for feelings of guilt and self-deprecation.
A thriving life depends on moderation, and this concept particularly applies when we are inundated with mass amounts of food and drink. By eating mindfully, we can keep our minds, bodies, and brains healthy without the self-defeating thoughts of “we are so bad” “we are so fat,” etc.
Antidote: Take time to enjoy all the flavors of the holiday season.
There are five (A,B,C,D,E) basic ways to begin a mindful eating practice:
- Why am I eating now?
- What am I eating now?
- What else am I doing now that may be distracting?
2. Be grateful
3. Chew, and then chew again
4. Dine (don’t just eat)
5. Engage your attention
5) Stress: Family Anxiety
Family stress shows up in many ways. This has taken on a new tone this year, given that many families made different political choices.
While there might actually be very real difficulties surrounding the interpersonal dynamics of our family, we sometimes get caught up in fuelling the fire, rather than abating it.
However, most of the stress and anxiety around family is often anticipatory. Based on not-so-pleasant past experiences, combined with the upcoming impending mix of different personalities, we start to worry about family dysfunction rearing its ugly head. While there might actually be very real difficulties surrounding the interpersonal dynamics of our family, we sometimes get caught up in fuelling the fire, rather than abating it.
Antidote: Engage in gratitude.
Take the time to step back and bear witness to all that you have, to count your blessings, as they say. Gratitude goes a long way when it comes to overall wellness. During this time of year, a sense of gratitude can easily fall by the wayside as indulgence and the idea of “more” and “merrier” are front and center.
So, while in the midst of the tumult of the holiday season, try to re-center by consciously being grateful for the multiple aspects of this season, and our loved ones, that we are blessed to engage with.
This post originally appeared in The Jewish Week
Have you ever lost your train of thought and found it elsewhere? How about “spaced-out” while reading, listening to a lecture, watching a show or even driving?
This could be your mind, wandering.
Mind Wandering refers to the phenomenon of being unable to focus on any single topic for a long period of time. As it turns out, it is very common. There is even evidence that indicates that mind wandering may constitute a psychological baseline; research shows that our brains’ daydream so easily and effortlessly that it appears to be our default mode of thought (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17188554).
In a culture obsessed with efficiency, a wandering mind is often derided as a lazy habit, and a threat to happiness. In fact, Freud regarded mind wandering as an example of “infantile” thinking, a sign of procrastination, the very opposite of productivity. In a similar vein, in 2010, Killingsworth and Gilbert wrote in Sciencemag.org that: “A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind (http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/images/application_uploads/KILLINGSWORTH-WanderingMind.pdf) .”
Yet, on the flip side, a study from the University of British Columbia found that while mind wandering is usually associated with “laziness or inattentiveness,” the human brain is actually very active while daydreaming. (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/05/090511180702.htm).
In that study, psychologists used brain scans to study participants as they performed easy, mindless assignments and found that their brains did indeed wander – but it was also during that period that the section of the brain known as the “executive network” was the most active.
This executive network, incidentally, is what we turn to when confronted with a high-level, complex problem. So daydreaming, according to this study, could help us solve some of our most pressing problems.
This suggests that mind wandering isn’t quite as mindless as it was previously considered. A daydream seems to produce parallel processing in two supposedly oppositional neural networks: the active executive part and the resting default.
How do we resolve this apparent contradiction? Let’s consider that the explanation resides in the fact that it’s not enough to simply daydream. Letting the mind drift off is the easy part. What’s much more difficult (and more important) is maintaining a touch of meta-awareness, so that if you happen to come up with a useful new idea while in the shower or sitting in traffic, you’re able to take note of it. In other words, “zoning out” might not be such a bad thing, as long as there is a conscious ability to hone and nurture what happens during that time.
To take this even further, research suggests that if we are somewhat mindful of where our minds are, without judgment, of course, the act of mind wandering might be essential to conjuring deep thoughts essential to living a connected and balanced life.
So, in an ironic riff on the idea that mindfulness is rooted in being “here and now”, when we are mindful of our mind wandering, it becomes functional.
I can’t help but realize how apropos this idea is during the time of the Jewish festival of Sukkot (“Huts”). This holiday is literally the quintessential WANDERING holiday! It commemorates the time that the Israelites spent wandering (yep, wandering) in the desert. The only shelter that they had at that time was from the temporary huts, or dwellings, that they erected during their 40-year journey.
What makes the journey distinctive is that while traveling in the desert, the Israelites were not wandering aimlessly from place to place, though it might have appeared that way. They were consciously connected to something greater than themselves. In the desert, for the first time in their history, they truly grew into one nation connected to their ancestry and progeny, to their culture and religion, and to a “higher power.”
In today’s day and age, The flimsy sukkah structure returns those who observe the holiday to this time in Jewish history, while also catapulting us into our future as we make new memories for the next generation.
In addition to this generational interconnectedness, dwelling in this transient “home” also connects us to the tenuous nature of life. Just as our thoughts come and go, so does life. The temporary sukkah reflects our impermanence. Yet, sitting in the sukkah symbolizes at once the fragility of life, and also all that is at our fingertips to celebrate, if we choose to be mindful of it. This is the real beauty of the sukkah; that in the midst of the transience, there is the opportunity to experience joy and hope.
In honoring the nomadic, wandering lifestyle and in building our literal and metaphorical “sukkah,” we are allowing ourselves to continue to connect ourselves with our past, present, and fruitful future.
So go ahead, I dare you…wander.
Let’s wander toward thriving, together,
Dr. Jen/Jennifer Wolkin, PhD
This blog post originally appeared on YogaCity.
Trying to write my dissertation jolted me into a realm of self-blame and self-criticism. I procrastinated because it was a burden, a dragon whose fiery mouth I wanted to avoid at all cost. I was anxious and I struggled with that internal voice of doubt that whispered, “are you sure you are good enough for this?”
Early on, immersing myself didn’t feel good. I definitely did not expect it to be easy. Nothing worth doing gets done without hard work ever is – but I certainly couldn’t have predicted the negative energy that I allowed the dissertation to create.
So I avoided it in an attempt to make all the negativity disappear. Of course, the more I avoided it, the bigger it became.
Then I began to devote myself to a modest practice of yoga to find more tranquility, focus, and calm. At first it was nearly impossible. My mind raced with thoughts: thoughts of fear, uncertainty, worthlessness, inability to succeed, and even thoughts about thoughts.
My initial poses were haphazard, pretzel-like and ungraceful. My breath pattern was quick and shallow, reflecting my difficulty holding the asanas as my mind strayed in all directions. “At least,” I kept telling myself, “I was coming to the mat.”
As long as I carved out my space, a little rectangular niche of my neon green rubber yoga mat, I was going to be okay. By the time savasana approached I could at least surrender my self-deprecating thoughts to some indescribable energy created by the convergent effects of movement and breath.
Yoga gave me perspective, which I craved, and I began to practice up to four days a week. Soon, the natural progression of my day became a yoga practice and then hours of writing. The energy generated through yoga was evident in the organization of my thought and ability for my thought to be transferred coherently into words. To do yoga and then write was a logical pattern I fell into.
Ultimately, I chose to bring my journey both off the mat, and out from behind my computer. I let go of the striving to finish it, and the attitude of just “needing to get this done and over with.” Slowly but steadily learned to reinforce the small steps, as I remembered my practice and the way my once quick and shallow breath slowed down and became more melodic, deep, and visceral, to the little baby steps I made with my balance until my physical core and my spiritual core became stronger.
In this way, the yoga was an organic foray into learning about mindfulness and how to engage any process through a more mindful lens. As I cultivated my ability to focus on the breath as I moved in and out of asana, my mind wandered less; instead, I became present to the moment as it was unfolding. Being present, it turned out, was more enjoyable and fulfilling than remaining on autopilot, and, at the whim of my wandering mind. With the same practice off the mat, the dissertation no longer became something I just did, but became a journey, which I appreciated and sometimes even savored, at every stage.
Yoga practice fostered a lens by which I could see my dissertation as a metaphor for living life in general. That is, as Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “on purpose.”
In the end, neither yoga nor mindfulness will eliminate life’s pressures. Yet, take it from me: embracing life as a journey of poignant moments to be lived fully over the course of a lifetime makes me feel like I’m thriving.
This post originally appeared on Mindful.org
When you watch the Olympics, you can’t help but imagine the countless hours of training all of the athletes have devoted themselves to in order to accomplish the unfathomable feats of stamina, incomprehensible shows of endurance, and extraordinary acts of skill.
And that kind of rigorous training, steeped in competition, often can’t be fully actualized without training the mind as well.
Some of the athletes have been vocal about their penchant for mindfulness meditation as an integral part of their quest for gold. For example, Tom Daley, a diver from Great Britain, told the Telegraph: “You can only do so much in the gym or in the pool.” He continued, “Every morning I do 10 minutes of mindfulness where I do meditation and I use that in competition and every day life… It’s helped me massively and I feel like that’s one of the reasons why this year I’ve been the most consistent that I’ve been in competition.”
Other athletes might be practicing mindfulness without knowing that’s what they’re doing—they just experience the flow state that comes with focused attention.
But what’s clear is that the very mindful way these athletes approach their craft can be seen in their actions. Here are 4 lessons in mindfulness we can learn from the Olympians:
Focused Attention is a Skill
A main component of mindfulness is that it helps cultivate awareness by paying attention, on purpose, and in the present moment.
If left to its own devices, our human mind habitually wanders away from the present moment. When we’re not in the here and now, we dwell in the past, grasping and replaying it, or we project into the future, trying to anticipate the unknown (and often catastrophizing).These habitual thought patterns don’t serve our ultimate well-being. This kind of thinking is unhelpful for an athlete who can’t stop thinking about their last failed performance, or one who can’t stop obsessing over what this performance will mean going forward.Have you ever heard a sports announcer say that an athlete must have “been in his head” too much – which caused them to make a simple mistake, but one that cost them the game or race? When we are too focused on what we need to do to win, we lose ourselves in that thought and forget to remain in the moment.
This year, Wilhem Belocian of France, bolted a split second before competitors. The false-start alarm rang out, and the 21-year-old’s hopes of winning a medal in Brazil were over. It was heartbreaking to watch as he collapsed to the ground and punched the pavement before laying on his back with his hands over his face, clearly in agony.
Present moment awareness, honed, is true gift. Equally important is allowing ourselves to grieve, and then forgive ourselves, and move on
Compassion is Essential
Mindfulness is more than sitting on a cushion, eyes closed, back aligned, thumbs grazing forefingers, hands resting on thighs. No doubt, this is a feasible and efficient way to cultivate mindfulness, but it’s not the only way.The essence of mindfulness practice is learning to live with more integrity, by nurturing the power to choose our response in any given situation. We begin to live mindfully when we start to cultivate a way of being that embodies mindfulness-based principles like gratitude, loving-kindness, and compassion.
When we are too focused on what we need to do to win, we lose ourselves in that thought and forget to remain in the moment.
For an Olympic athlete, this kind of mindfulness practice is perhaps most reflected in the ability to engage in “good sportsmanship.”A prime example of this is reflected in the actions of Abbey D’Agostino, a Team USA 5,000-meter runner, and Nikki Hamblin of New Zealand. They both collided during a run, fell, and subsequently chose to spend the rest of the race encouraging one another, despite the fact that this had the potential to snuff out either’s chance to qualify for the next run. If someone who has trained and competed for years for this spot can forgive and help out their competition, surely we can see the bigger picture in our own lives as well.
Stress is Manageable
Stress-reduction has been noted as a useful byproduct of the practice of mindfulness.
But an appropriate amount of stress is actually adaptive. For athletes especially, the stress-response (also knows as “fight or flight”) elicits an acute surge of adrenaline, and stimulates an increase of blood pumping to the limbs, which helps them as they race towards the finish line. While this mental pressure to beat out the competition is often crucial to success, sometimes the physiological stress response never turns off, and for many of us, stress begins to take the form of negative and unhelpful thinking styles that are often paralyzing.That’s where mindfulness comes in.
A foundational element of mindfulness entails focusing on the sensation of the breath. Engaging the breath provides an opportunity to help lower your heart rate. Diaphragmatic breathing, or “belly breathing,” utilizes the diaphragm, and allows for a fuller, slower, and more rhythmical breath. This is a technique used to reduce stress by breaking shallow patterns of breathing that use the abdomen and the chest. It works, because the breath is intimately connected to the autonomic nervous system and the mind
Autopilot is Detrimental to Your Health
The practice of cultivating our attention to the present moment also prevents us from living on autopilot. When we live on autopilot we often fail to notice our automatic thoughts, our innermost feelings, and the subtle physical messages that our bodies send us.For an athlete, who is constantly putting their body through high-intensity training, it can be easy to let minor sensations slide, as the adrenaline itself drowns out some experience of acute pain. Mindfulness particularly allows an athlete to cultivate an acute awareness of their body, to know when and how to take care of it; when it needs a break, when it’s okay to push harder, when it needs to refuel, and when it needs a longer respite to heal.
When we live on autopilot we often fail to notice our automatic thoughts, our innermost feelings, and the subtle physical messages that our bodies send us.
To use Abbey D’Agostino as an amazing example again, after tearing ligaments in her knee, she understood that her season was over. But her message that it is more important to honor where her body is at, than to put it through activity that might exacerbate her injury beyond repair, prevailed nonetheless, and to many, she is still an Olympic winner—the true embodiment of what it means to be an athlete on the world stage.
Sometimes life takes us out of the race that we are in, out of the path we saw ourselves on, but at the same time, this change allows us instead to succeed in things we never imagined.
Go For the Gold
We all have our own golden pursuits. And we all have our own hurdles in life to jump, targets to aim for, and sand traps to avoid. But the real gold medal is a life of thriving, cultivated by paying attention to fully living and enjoying every moment. It really isn’t the destination that matters, but the journey that we take to get there.
How will you take these Olympic gold messages with you as you reach for your life goals?
This blog post originally appeared on About Meditation.
As a psychologist, I often use elements of mindfulness practice with my clients, and before I do, I talk to them about what mindfulness actually means and how it can help cultivate wellbeing.
In today’s day and age, mindful and mindfulness are buzzwords that are used colloquially. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve been told to “BE MINDFUL.”
Yet, what is mindfulness and what does it really mean?
What Is Mindfulness?
There are many definitions. My favorite is the one posited by John Kabat-Zinn, the pioneer of Mindfulness Meditation’s use in Western psychological interventions. He proposes that mindfulness is “a state of greater awareness cultivated by paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
Part of why I like this definition is because it speaks to the components of mindfulness that are important in cultivating its benefits.
Let’s break this definition down.
When we don’t hone our focus, as Kabat-Zinn says, on purpose, we remain on autopilot. In this busy, hyper-connected world it’s too easy to lose ourselves in autopilot for much of the day….every day. Living this way we often fail to:
- Notice the beauty of life
- Hear what our bodies are telling us and
- Get stuck in mechanical ways of thinking and living that may be harmful to ourselves or others
When we’re in autopilot mode we get lost in ‘doing’ so we find ourselves striving and struggling and ‘getting stuff done’ instead of living.
In contrast, when we are attentive on purpose, we start to live more consciously. We’re more awake and more fully ourselves.
In this age of mass distraction, there is nothing more important. There are so many ways to disconnect and distract ourselves from ourselves. We easily disperse our energy, leaving little or none leftover to nurture ourselves.
In The Present Moment
If left to its own devices, our human mind habitually wanders away from the present moment. When we’re not in the here and now, we dwell in the past, grasping and replaying it, or we project into the future, trying to anticipate the unknown (and often catastrophizing). These habitual thought patterns don’t serve our ultimate well-being.
When we don’t allow ourselves to attend to the present, we:
- Place ourselves at greater risk for depression and anxiety, because we ruminate and regret the past or fantasize about the future.
- Fail to notice what our bodies and minds are telling us at the deepest levels.
We like to hang out in the past, because although sometimes painful, it’s known and comfortable. Or, we hang out in the future, because we think we can control it!
Instead, when we’re mindful, we hone our clarity and focus as we attend to every sensation as it unfolds, engaged and undistracted in the present moment experience. We let go of the tension caused by wanting things to have been or to be different, and instead we accept the present moment as it is.
When practicing mindfulness, we’re not trying to control, suppress, or stop our thoughts. I believe this is the biggest misconception many of us have when delving into practice.
Through mindfulness we don’t want to push our thoughts away. Rather, mindfulness helps us to pay attention to our experiences as they arise without judging or labeling them in any way. This, I think, is the essence of mindfulness.
When we cultivate a state of clarity in which we suspend judgment, we become witnesses and watchers of our present moment experience. Sure, there’s temptation to judge our experience as good or bad. Yet, letting go of judgments helps us to see things as they are rather than through the filters of our patterned and conditioned modes of thinking. This way, we are less likely to mechanically play out old habitual ways of thinking and living.
In the end, mindfulness doesn’t eliminate life’s pressures, but it can help us respond to them in a less reactive, more adaptive and healthy way. It will help us recognize and step away from unconscious emotional and physiological reactions to everyday experiences.
It also provides us with a scientifically researched approach to cultivating clarity, insight, and understanding. Practicing mindfulness allows us to be fully present in our life and work, and improve our quality of life.
Many have found that one of the surest ways to begin to hone clarity and focus is to pay attention to the one thing that is always within us, our breath. By paying attention to the breath we learn to stay present with it. At the same time, we learn to let go of the judgments when our focus is challenged. During this personally curated exercise, I help you become acutely aware of the sensation of diaphragmatic breathing. By breathing fully through your diaphragm, you are creating a relaxed physiological state. By sustaining your attention on the breath, you are training your mind to focus on this sensation as it unfolds in the moment.