There’s some buzz around mindfulness lately as people look for healthy ways to cope with stress and manage destructive emotions. Meditation and mindfulness are scientifically proven to enhance the brain, but there’s some misunderstanding about what mindfulness is, and how meditation can be done, so I’ll be digging into those ideas in this post.
- Training stability of awareness to understand arising thoughts, emotions, and body sensations.
- De-centering: Learning how to relate differently from habits of mind – impartial observation vs. emotional reactivity.
- Shifting how one responds to pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral experiences with an attitude of acceptance and kindness.
Mindfulness is NOT
- About relaxing or clearing the mind.
- About controlling thoughts.
- Quick fix to unpleasantness.
- Necessarily easy or enjoyable in the beginning.
Some people say, “I need to be in the present. Does that mean that I am not going to be a person who plans for the future and has ambitions?” And, of course, being present doesn’t exclude ever thinking about the future.
You can still plan for the future and have ambitions, but you are not clinging so tightly to your ideas about the future. Instead, you surrender and let things unfold. That way, you don’t suffer from whatever happens if you don’t reach that goal because you did not associate yourself with that goal.
In meditation, one learns to become more realistic, and one also creates space for inspiration. I see possibilities I never considered or noticed before. I’ve actually found my productivity skyrocketing because I’m not bogged down in self-judgement. Coming from a place of gentleness with myself, I am more easily able to see where I could use some improvement, and make corrections without all the negative self-talk that derails my momentum and erodes my self image.
We can easily apply meditation and mindfulness to ourselves when we remember that thoughts are not facts. Thoughts are what makes your emotions. It’s not so much the situation, but how we interpret the situation that determines our reaction.
Breath focus meditation…
helps train the mind to settle, let go of mental clutter, and focus in the present moment. It also helps connect mind with body. So how can you begin to meditate?
Find a comfortable position, either laying down on your back, in a chair or on a cushion on the floor. Your spine should be erect, but not rigid.
Do a body scan. A body scan is where you begin at your head, and progressively notice and release tension in your body working from your head to your toes.
Start with your head, feeling your hair and your scalp, and work your way down your face. It’s common to carry tension in the jaw, for example, so become aware of the sensations there and consciously inhale, and relax the tension on the exhale. Keep moving through your head, your tongue, your neck, your shoulders, and so on, until you reach your feet. Imagine that you are releasing tension through your fingertips and toes, or exhaling it as a fine mist.
When your mind wanders, notice, and gently guide attention back to the breath. Do that as often as needed. Again, be gentle with yourself. Your mind will wander – particularly in the beginning. Your are developing the power of focus, and so many good things come from that. However, like training a muscle, it takes time.
Practice this breath awareness and body scan meditation for 5 to 20 minutes daily for lasting positive results.
Focused attention meditation…
involves focusing attention on a chosen object in a sustained fashion.
Open monitoring meditation…
involves non-reactively monitoring the content of experience from moment-to-moment, primarily as a means to recognize the nature of emotional and cognitive patterns. In plain English, this means becoming aware of your thoughts, and the meanings created in your mind from moment to moment, without judgement.
These two common styles of meditation, focused attention and open monitoring, are often combined. These can be combined in a single meditation session, or over the course of your meditation practice.
Meditation on the fly…
In a moment when you notice yourself feeling angry and aggressive, turn your attention to the feeling. Where is it in your body? What’s going on?
Breathe mindfully for a few breaths, and notice your body sensations change. Listen to your thoughts without adding to the inner dialogue, or trying to silence your thoughts.
What are your thoughts saying? When you’re offended, you’re usually holding onto a rigid definition of yourself and what you can accommodate.
It can take some patience to stick with the unpleasant feelings, but remind yourself to come back to observing the anger in this moment with self-compassion. Anger can teach you things. It can signal areas or your life that need attention, change or growth.
If you like, you can finish with an affirmation for yourself. You can say to yourself silently, “Now I find the resources to understand and transform my anger,” or “Now I take care of the pain I’m feeling, and care for the pain in others.”
Managing sadness and trauma…
One of the most helpful ways to let sadness be there without trying to fix it right away is to counteract the withdrawing tendency of sadness a bit. First simply contemplate others who have felt sadness, grief, and loss. Think of how your mother felt when her father died or the loss a parent felt when their beloved child moved away. You can also simply think of the sadness generated by war or oppression. In this way, rather than my sadness, it can become THE sadness.
Do you see how that is more general and less personal? My warning here would be that sadness can feed sadness. If you have depressive tendencies, this may not be the best practice for you. I find gratitude to be helpful in minimizing my sadness in a given moment.
Alternatively, a great way to distance yourself from a destructive or disruptive emotion is something called dissociation. Dissociation involves stepping back from yourself in your mind’s eye, so that you’re watching yourself have the disruptive emotion from a distance, mentally. This mental distance removes some of the immediate pain, and is very useful in managing trauma.
You can dissociate as many times as you need, so that dissociated self can again step back and watch the other dissociated self watch you have your disruptive emotion. The more mental distance you create, the less the emotion troubles you in the moment.
Another practice that helps to moderate sadness and grief is a walking meditation in a natural setting This can be done solo, or with others. Find a place, like a woodland trail, where you can walk in nature silently and semi-slowly for 30 to 90 minutes.
Walk quietly. Feel the sensations in your body, take in the sounds and sights, while still keeping a steady pace and looking mainly ahead. Try not to engage anyone else you meet. When you’re finished, do something nice, and don’t dwell too much on the darkness.
A way to practice letting go of jealousy, envy and greed, is to do a reflective meditation on a highly desirable object that you do not, and might never possess. It can be anything: the crown of England, the rainforest, or some pretty bauble in a store window, art gallery or museum.
So, you find something beautiful and desirable. Next, sit or stand and admire the object for five minutes or more. Let the feelings of desire increase. Feel the longing to grasp and possess it.
Now, simply let those feelings go. Abruptly let go! Embrace the object for what it is, brilliant, without needing to possess or protect it.
Ironically, when we let go of our attachment to things, our feelings of abundance and contentment increase. When you feel content and abundant, you might be shocked at how those feelings continually increase.
Name that fear…
The very intense energy of fear, when we’re able to let it dissipate, can become a powerful driving force. It’s nothing other than the energy of life. Fear is your primal survival instinct trying to protect you. It is not bad, but it must be managed.
Being able to recognize that fear is present can be hugely important in not allowing it to control you. Fear comes from the most primal part of the brain, and is processed quickly and subconsciously. This means that fear can be controlling your actions before you even realize you’re afraid.
As you notice your heart pumping more, your chest tightening, your back stiffening, let an imaginary alarm bell go off in your head. WARNING!! WARNING!! Fight or flight mode detected. You get the idea.
Take 3 or 10 or 20 deep breaths, however many you need to slow your body down. Place your hand on your heart if that will help.
Placing your hand over your heart can help release the tension you’re feeling in your chest. There’s also a practice called Heart Activation Breathing that involves putting your hand over your heart and imagining breathing in and out through your heart. This is designed to bring your head and heart into greater alignment.
Acknowledge to yourself, “I’m scared. I’m afraid.” Name the fear so you automatically create a bit of distance between yourself and the intensity of the emotional reaction.
Then, say a few phrases of well-wishing toward yourself and for others:
- May (I/others) see the source of our fear.
- May (I/others) be safe and free from fear.
- May (I/others) be happy and at ease.
Lean into fear…
Whenever you feel the energy of fear, don’t avoid the feeling. Sit with it. As fearful thoughts of dread and worry continue to arise, approach them with friendliness. Don’t treat them as a threat.
Fear feeds fear, as sadness feeds sadness. Denying your fear only pushes it out of your conscious mind. It will still be there, controlling you until you find the courage to acknowledge it and deal with it.
Be kind toward yourself for being afraid. It’s a natural response any living thing has towards a threat. Your brain is trying to protect you. Say to your brain, “Hey, good looking out. I know you’re trying to protect me, but it’s okay. I got this.”
Then, see what happens when you hold your ground and let the fear rise in your mind. You may find confidence within.
I know 100% for certain that any change will cause your brain to be fearful. If you want to create change or improve your life in some way, it will cause the fear response to activate in your brain. Therefore, learning to manage fear, and use it to drive you forward instead of keeping you stuck in place, is a necessary party of becoming successful.
For love—as with anger—shine the light of awareness on your thoughts and feelings, so you can discern the differences between openness and clinging. Keep noticing, without judging, what’s happening in your mind and body.
Wish everyone well…
Another beneficial practice is to broaden our love and caring to encompass more people. Universal love is beneficial to our own well-being, and to those around us. It can also reduce clinging in all kinds of relationships because it takes the focus off of “me.”
Visualize others and repeat phrases of well-wishing. Perhaps start by being kind to yourself, then think of a loved one, then someone neutral, then someone difficult who you don’t particularly like, then the whole world.
Repeat the following phrases a few times with each type of person:
- May (I/they) be unharmed.
- May (I/they) be happy.
- May (I/they) be healthy.
- May (I/they) be at ease.
Every “Negative” Contains the Potential for a “Positive”
Mistakes help us learn and grow. In any negative experience, there is the potential for an equally positive experience to come out of it.
For example, jealousy, greed and envy stripped of their aggressiveness can become a drive to go beyond oneself. The sense of inadequacy becomes simply a phase to pass through. All the energy we put into comparing and contrasting, finding the other better and ourselves wanting, can be channeled into reaching beyond ourselves.
Be gentle with yourself and others as you go through a negative experience. The lesson here is to look for the positive.