“It’s a lot. Be here.”
This is a message I have needed to repeat to myself so much lately. When life is really busy, I find myself caught up in hurried thinking, planning, rehashing, judging, or dwelling instead of being rooted in the right now. My brain has been choosing my focus for me more than I’d like and it’s often a million miles away. Do you notice how often this happens to you—you’re here but you aren’t because you’ve become caught up in the internal whirl of physical sensations and past and future thoughts and emotions? I like to call this getting lost in “The Noise.”
I think of The Noise as a zany bunch of internal friends and family. We’re all on pretty good terms these days, but sometimes they get a little more rowdy and distracting than is helpful. You might find another name for your whirl of internal stuff and make friends with it, too. Don’t get me wrong, some of what they are nagging about is true and/or important, but often the brain would have us believe all of it is truth and it’s all urgently important and needs figuring out right this very moment. When it feels like our brains have taken over in this way, it is difficult to hop off the merry-go-round of mental experiencing.
This happens to all of us, and although our brain may not stay in hamster-wheel mode all the time, sometimes it can begin to feel like the norm. When it does, we miss out on what is happening here and now–the important experiences the present moment has for us. We are here, yet absent. Another byproduct of getting swept up in The Noise (or whatever you’d like to call your over-zealous brain hamster)–we may react to ourselves and others with less compassion or thoughtfulness.
Can you relate to this?
Let’s try something.
Just for a bit I want you to stop reading this…well wait, maybe finish this last paragraph. Please stop doing anything and take a handful of minutes to sit comfortably and breathe. That’s it. Wherever you are—the bed, the couch, a chair, just place your attention on what it’s like to sit and breathe in this moment. You can close your eyes if you want. Try to hang in there for 5 minutes. Most importantly, I’d like you to do this without judging what it’s like or how easy it is to sit and notice. If your brain gets judgmental, that’s OK, too. Just notice it. That’s all you need to do. I’ll do it with you.
(ommmmmmmm….ding) (Are you really doing it? Please try…)
Welcome back! I’m wondering how easy that was. Even though we’re human “beings,” we live in a culture of constant “doing” and we have trouble slowing down sometimes. If you’re like me, it’s also likely your mind was all over the place, moving into past and/or future thinking and feeling and pretty far away from noticing your breathing lungs and perching bum.
How about a judgey voice? Did you find yourself criticizing the experience, i.e., “This is weird. Ugh, this is too hard and it’s a waste of time.”? If you didn’t, that’s nice to hear. If you did, you’re so very normal and it’s OK. We make judgments frequently about pretty much everything…what we think, how we feel, what we’ve done, and what other people think, feel, and have done. Depending on context, sometimes judgments help keep us safe. Often, however, judgments contain a great deal of shame and criticism for ourselves and others and they aren’t really helpful to us.
Our brains are busy. 24 hours a day they are working to take care of us. They analyze, judge, assess for danger, solve problems, plan, react, figure things out, rehash things, while at the same time telling us when we’re in pain, breathing for us, sending blood to our organs, and keeping us alive! With all of that going on, our brains don’t settle easily and I’m not sure they accept something new very easily, either, once beliefs and habits are in place.
The awesome thing is that our brains learn pretty well, and it is possible for us to help our brains develop healthy ways to settle and focus and become more accepting through something called mindfulness.
Some of you may have heard the term. Mindfulness has become increasingly more popular in Western culture, so much so, that it runs the risk of becoming a buzzword. This can dull the power of a very important concept and practice. So what is it, for those of you who haven’t heard the term? I like this definition from http://www.wildmind.org, “Mindfulness is the gentle effort to be continuously present with experience.” A little more elaborate is the definition by Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way…on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”
The practice of mindfulness can occur during quiet reflection and meditation, and it is also a way of experiencing the day-to-day world. Let’s practice some more and expand on the sitting/breathing mediation we did earlier. This will give you some direct experience with mindfulness.
I’d like for you to stop reading again and sit comfortably. This time gently attempt to focus your attention on the sensation of your breathing or possibly the soles of your bare feet planted on the floor. For some people with anxiety, focusing on the sensation of breathing, particularly the rising and falling of the belly, can create more anxiety, so feel free to focus away from the belly breathing. You can also focus on the sensation of air entering and leaving your nose. As you sit, notice the experience and anything that comes up. When you become drawn to the past or future or caught up in a lot of emotion or even distracted by something outside of you, recognize what has happened without being hard on yourself or analyzing what’s there (don’t get on the train). Then thoughtfully bring your attention back to your breath or the soles of your feet. Try to hang in there for 5 or 10 minutes if you can. If you can’t, that’s just fine.
Welcome back again! Interesting, huh? You’ve just done a sitting mindfulness of the breath meditation. As I mentioned previously, this isn’t the only way you can practice. The process of nonjudgmentally bringing your awareness back to your present experience can be done throughout the day, while working, driving, or spending time with loved ones. There really are no limits to when and where you can do this.
Here’s an example of something that might happen in daily life and how mindfulness can help. Perhaps we are with a friend and become lost in thought and feelings of regret about a conversation with someone else we had earlier in the day that didn’t go as we had planned. That past conversation is over, but we are still caught there and not actively engaging with our friend. Mindfulness allows us to notice we are pulled away and to make the choice to shift from the past experience back to the present moment connection.
When practicing, remember that external and internal events will distract you. This is normal. When you find yourself distracted, bring you mind back to your breath, soles of your feet, or to the present moment activity. This repeated distraction and refocusing is the mindfulness practice, and it doesn’t mean you’re doing something wrong if you notice you are caught up in external or internal experiencing.
By cultivating mindfulness in our lives, we have the opportunity to observe thoughts, emotions, and other experiences without becoming overwhelmed by them, lost in them, or judging them, ourselves, or others. When we choose not to “dive in” to something the brain is presenting, we can also make the choice to shift away from it, not in avoidance or denial, but in our decision to stay present with what is happening now and not where our brain would have us in that moment. Perhaps later we may choose to come back to the thought or emotion if it still needs our attention. Your brain will let you know.
There is a growing body of research evaluating the effectiveness of mindfulness combined with psychotherapy to mitigate symptoms of mood disorders, such as major depression disorders, anxiety disorders, and other mental health diagnoses. Potentially, this is a powerful practice for people coping with experiences that often feel consuming.
If you’re interested in learning more about mindfulness and mindfulness research, I’ve included a few links I have found helpful both personally and professionally:
- American Mindfulness Research Association–https://goamra.org/ (mindfulness research)
- http://www.getselfhelp.co.uk/mindfulness.htm (easy to understand handout on mindfulness mediation and practice in daily life)
- ULCA Mindful Awareness Research Center–http://marc.ucla.edu/ (check out the many free guided meditations)
- http://www.mindful.org/ (website encouraging and celebrating mindfulness in all aspects of life)
I encourage you to read a little about mindfulness and practice a lot. That is where the power lies.
It’s a lot. Be here.
Wishing you peace,