The following article is about my personal journey through the emerging world of mindfulness. Mindfulness has become a recent buzz within therapy and, as a therapist, I find it necessary to explore or test drive, if you will, new techniques before trying them out with my clients. With all of the talk of mindfulness going around, I viewed this as no exception to my usual vetting methods. Mindfulness can be found within the practice of meditation and yoga, or even something as simple as walking, concentration, eating, general behavior, and taking classes. But what exactly is mindfulness and how can it help to improve mental health?
Mindfulness defined. The simplest explanation of mindfulness is the idea of living purely in the moment. This is not about ignoring or denying your past or failing to plan for the future, but rather, about learning how to appreciate the present moment for what it is regardless of the intensity or the lack of emotions.
My experience. When I first learned about mindfulness, it sounded like nothing more than another ridiculous new age theory. How am I not living in the present moment? After all, I am alive and here. How can paying more attention to my thoughts and emotions actually improve my life – especially when those thoughts and emotions are uncomfortable or even painful to focus on? These questions plagued me at first until I started experimenting with mindful meditation.
Mindful meditation. Perhaps the best way to describe what this is, is to walk you through my own mini meditation technique. The very idea of carving out 30 minutes a day to “meditate” was impossible with my work and family schedule already busting at the seams and consuming so much time. So instead, I came up with, and have been practicing for two months now, little mini-meditations. These mini meditative sessions typically last only 5-10 minutes at a time and can be done anywhere. I choose to do them on a park bench overlooking a pond near my house. Here is the procedure I came up with:
How to practice mini-meditations. I like to sit straight up on the park bench with both feet firmly touching the ground and my hands resting on my thighs. This opens up your airways and helps you to feel solid, but still comfortable. Then I find a single spot on the lake to focus my eyes and begin to breathe deeply in through my nose and out through my mouth, paying close attention to the breath as it fills and empties my lungs and stomach. Any random thoughts that pop up are briefly accepted and then immediately tossed aside. Next, I ask myself, “What am I feeling right now?” Whatever the emotion rises to the surface (which is usually something like anger, guilt, anxiety, frustration, or annoyance), I acknowledge it by saying, “It’s ok to feel this way now, everyone feels this way. I don’t have to figure it out. I can accept that it is there.” Gathering up all of this fully received emotion, I imagine it is a pebble, rock, or even boulder and picture throwing the stone into the lake. In my mind eye, I watch the ripples created by the impact spread across the water, and then absorb into the lake and disappear. I usually repeat this exercise until the emotion I’m feeling is instead of relief, joy, happiness, peace, or satisfaction. To wrap up the little ritual I refocus my breath, say goodbye to the lake, and walk away.
Extras. On occasion, I’ll spend a few moments while walking away from the lake asking, “Where did that specific negative emotion come from?” Usually, I discover it is rooted in some past hurt that has been held onto for much too long or is something in my present moment that I need to assess and change. I set an intention for the day such as, “I want to be more vulnerable with my best friend,” and then decide how specifically this will be accomplished. By doing this I can make sure whatever is causing that negative emotion is adequately addressed. My walk is finished with writing in a journal about three specific ideas: what I need to be free from, how I can continue to grow as a person, and who I can inspire by doing so along the way.
First Outcome. The first thing I noticed by being more mindful is how my morning routine quickly spilled over into the rest of the day. I was no longer plagued by afternoon slump or exhaustion and found myself in a much more relaxing headspace. My need for an entire pot of coffee to survive a full 24 hours was disappearing and I felt less stress despite my normally stressful day of clients. The process as a whole has helped incredibly to release any lasting tension so I can be fully present for each and every client, and then at day’s end to enjoy the moments I get to myself.
60 Second Meditation. One of the reasons I began this journey was because of a client remarking, “Do you need a minute?” before we began our session that afternoon. I understand the reason for their question. The client before her had been yelling, crying, and emoting so loudly that it could be heard all the way in the waiting room, and she could tell I needed a momentary breather. That’s when I hit me that I needed to start doing something different. Now, thanks to my experience with mini mindfulness, I do a 60-second meditation between each session. Much like my morning routine, I breathe deeply and release out my office window any leftover emotions from my client. If needed, I write down on a pad of paper any triggers that I experienced so they can be dealt with before I leave for the day. This has dramatically transformed my ability to be fully present and fresh for the next client.
Unexpected Compliments. A client whom I had not seen in about five years came back to see me wanting to work on her past trauma and abuse. I had recommended this at our last session, but it took her the five years to realize she needed to do this work. During our conversation, she said that her goal was to look as peaceful as me. “What? Me, peaceful?” I thought. I could hardly imagine being described as peaceful. I honestly don’t think anyone has ever said that about me in my entire life. It wasn’t until I went out to dinner with my best friend and she too made the comment that I looked peaceful that I realized I really do feel more at peace – and apparently it is obvious to others. The mini and 60-second meditations actually do work.
Still Learning. As I write this article, I feel woefully inadequate to even be talking about the subject. Admittedly, I am not an expert regarding mindful living. There is still so much more for me to learn, but if in two months I have gained this much experience and knowledge, I am confident that the next few years are looking far better. My journey is just starting and hopefully you will join me on this path to healthy, mindful living.