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I forwarded the following question regarding the practice of mindfulness and its use in daily life to my esteemed colleague Doctor Monisha Vasa who graciously offered to write a guest blog for me. I am grateful for her response, which is posted below:
Q: What is Mindfulness and how can mindfulness help me when I am feeling sad or anxious?
Mindfulness is probably one of the most simple tools I can describe as supportive to your mental and emotional well being; yet at the same time, perhaps one of the most difficult tools to actually put into practice on a day to day basis. Mindfulness, at its core, means staying focused on the present moment. To expand that a bit, mindfulness means moment to moment awareness of our internal and external environment, in a loving, and non-judgmental way. Mindfulness means noticing all that is going on in the beautiful, ever changing world around us. Mindfulness means noticing all that is going on in the beautiful, ever changing world within us.
The very nature of our minds is to think, to be active, jumping from one random firing of nerves to the next. Eventually we start to identify strongly with our thoughts, as if our thoughts describe and define reality, and who we are. We tend to get lost in our thoughts, whether they are ruminations about events that occurred in the past, or fears about what might lie ahead of us.
Yet you and your thoughts are not one and the same. You are separate and different from your thoughts. You are the being that can take a step back and observe your thoughts. Thoughts occur as a byproduct of the communication between cells in our brain. We can step back and watch this communication, rather than allowing our thoughts to define who we are.
As we get lost in our thoughts about the past and the future, we often find the present moment passing us by. We have all had the experience of leaving home and arriving at work or the store, and not even being aware of how we got from point A to point B. Perhaps that was twenty or thirty minutes of our lives, lives that we could have been fully living. Twenty or thirty minutes that somehow were lost to us, while we were immersed somewhere in our heads.
The irony of living in such a disconnected way, is that there is only one moment that exists in reality. That is the present moment. The one you are living right now. Not even this day, and not even this hour. This very minute is the only minute that exists. This very minute is the only minute we can fully occupy with every sense and every molecule of our being. The past has come and gone. The future exists only in our minds. This very moment is the only reality.
So how do we learn to separate ourselves from our thoughts, our judgments, that harsh voice that can be so critical of ourselves and others? How do we instead learn to observe our thoughts as simply thoughts, all the while staying present in the one moment that we can live and make the most of? The answer is mindfulness. There is an entire body of evidence that is emerging about how staying present in a compassionate, non-judgmental way can relieve a myriad of conditions, including depression, anxiety, stress, and pain.
It is important for me to tell you that you already know, on a deep, cellular level, how to be mindful. Babies and children are intuitively mindful. Animals are intuitively mindful. Learning how to be mindful does not mean learning a new skill. It means unlearning all of the layers that life experience has created, and coming back to the core of what you once understood.
There are two aspects to cultivating a mindfulness practice. The first is how we go about living our lives with awareness of the present. How do we do this? We can use our five senses to keep us from getting carried away to the past or the future. Take for example, the process of washing the dishes. Many of us rush through washing the dishes to get to some imagined point in the future that we anticipate will be somehow “better.” As we wash, perhaps we replay a frustrating interaction with the boss, or anticipate the stress of a weekend full of visiting relatives.
But what would it be like to actually notice washing the dishes? You can use your five senses to pull your awareness away from your thoughts, to the actual moment that you are living. What do you see in front of you? What does the water look like as it pours over the dishes? What does the water sound like as it rushes from the faucet? Can you smell the dish soap? How does the slippery dish feel within your hands? You have transformed what you might have once thought was an annoying chore to be completed, into an act of presence, of noticing. You have made the most of a task that, on another day, would have felt burdensome. You have viewed it with a fresh, new perspective, as though through the perspective of a child washing dishes for the very first time.
Now switch your focus to what is going on inside of you. What do you notice inside of your body as you wash the dishes? Is there tension in your shoulders from the stress of the day? Is your stomach in knots over anxiety about tomorrow’s presentation? Where are you holding your emotions in your body? Can you, with your awareness, simply shed light into that space, allowing for openness and expansion of what was previously dark and tight? Can you, without judging or criticizing your thoughts, emotions, and physical experiences, simply become aware of what is unfolding inside and outside of you as you live this particular moment?
Another way to keep yourself in the present, is by becoming aware of your breathing. Your breath is a constant, a reminder from your body that you are alive in the here and now because of this life-giving force within you. The breath continues, in and out, in and out, despite our best efforts to hold and restrict it. As you find yourself getting lost or distracted in emotion or thought, your breath can anchor you in the present. You can simply notice the path of the breath as it flows in through your nose, down through your throat, causes the rise and fall of your chest and abdomen. Or you can count each inhale and exhale as they occur. You do not need to modify or change your breath in any way, just deeply feel it. Using your 5 senses, or your sense of your breath, allows you to stay present in each moment as you live it, fully aware.
The second aspect of cultivating mindfulness is a daily sitting meditation practice. Many are often intimidated by the idea of meditation. To some, meditation seems esoteric, or accessible only to a select group of highly evolved people. This is not the case. Your meditation practice is your meditation practice. It is deeply personal, and it belongs to you. It can be as brief or as long as you want or need it to be. The idea is to take some time out of your day, in a conscious way, to become still. To disconnect. This could be in the morning time, before starting the day. Or maybe it is a way to unwind and decompress at the end of a day. You choose the time and space that feels comfortable to you. You can sit in whatever position your body needs, or even lie down.
In the amount of time that feels safe and right, simply be present and still. Perhaps to slow yourself, you need to focus on the light of a flickering candle flame, or repeat a mantra that soothes you. Perhaps you simply focus on your breath. Perhaps you simply watch your thoughts as they come and go like images dancing across a movie screen. Perhaps you listen to a guided meditation. There is no right way or wrong way. There is just your way. Even if you choose to sit for one minute and breathe, before carrying on with the flood of daily responsibilities, you have started a seated meditation practice.
You may wonder, how will mindfulness relieve me from my sadness, my fears, my anxieties? Many of our ruminations and worries are based in the past and the future. And as we live, continuously focusing on the road behind or ahead of us, somehow we never quite seize the opportunity to rest in the beauty of what is unfolding in the only moment we actually occupy. Fully living in the present moment, sensing all that is occurring inside and outside of us, allows us to simply take the power out of the thoughts and emotions that can hold us hostage.
Often we realize that, in the present, we are ok. Perhaps in this very second, nothing is traumatizing us. Nothing is scaring us. Nothing is hurting us. And if, in the present moment, something painful does happen to be occurring, becoming fully aware of all that we are feeling can allow us to somehow make sense of the experience itself, instead of disconnecting and separating from it.
Still, there is often an appropriate time and a place for reflection on the past, or preparation for the future. In therapy, talking about our past often allows us to see the connections between our prior experiences and our present behaviors, relationships, or symptoms. With the busyness of life, we often have to think ahead in order to adequately prepare for what lies ahead of us. But mindfulness means being aware of when we are making a choice to think about the past and the future. Not unconsciously reliving the past or accelerating into the future at all times as we move about the world, all the while losing the opportunity to fully live in the here and now.
I invite you to consider what it could be like to bring mindfulness in your life. How could your life be different? Could you fully savor a meal, with all of its colors, aromas, and tastes? Could mindfulness allow you to enjoy your time with your children? Could mindfulness allow you to experience the magical music of nature that surrounds us, or the visual beauty of an early sunrise before us?
Start small. Don’t put pressure on yourself to have to do it right or perfectly. This is your practice, and there is no right way or wrong way, just your way. You can start with noticing the breath that you are taking right now, as you read this. That is the start, end, and all that lies in between, of a complete mindfulness practice.
Doctor Monisha Vasa