This mindfulness thing is everywhere and sometimes in danger of becoming ‘McMindfulness’. In my estimation, you can’t have resilience without some level of mindfulness. Jon Kabat Zinn, who brought formalized mindfulness techniques to the masses in the Western Hemisphere, defines it as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and non judgmentally”. Shall we break that down?
We Only pay Attention 47 % of the Time
First of all, I have been practicing some form of mindfulness for nearly 25 years. I am still learning. Here is my spin on it. Paying attention on purpose is harder to do than most people think it is. Go ahead and try to pay attention to one thing for as long as you can. The mind has other ideas.
Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin has sustained attention. He found we are only really paying attention 47% of the time. So naturally, practicing how to pay attention is a logical way towards improving that number for yourself. Much like exercise helps us to get in better physical shape the more we consistently engage in working out, practicing mindfulness strengthens our emotional muscles and subsequent attentional skills. The more we remember to be mindful, the better we get at it. The breath is the anchor and remote control to helping us cultivate these simple, yet complex, skill sets.
As little as 10 minutes a day of meditation has shown to be beneficial. Breathe in and out perhaps to a comfortable count ( usually 3-5 counts) depending on your lung/ breathing abilities. This will become easier the more you practice. Paying attention to the breath develops skills of focus and concentration needed to be resilient. Eventually, many thoughts will begin to come into your head. Try to just notice the patterns of things that come up.
Everyone is different, but if you are like me, you will notice some automatic negative thinking (ANT for short) patterns that can be prominent. At the very least, many little worries might come up. Try just to notice them like clouds in the sky, that eventually pass. The key here is getting back to your focusing on your breathing.That focus is actually being mindful. Sounds simple. It’s not.
Even if I am not always a mindful person, the years of learning how to think mindfully have been the most useful life skill I believe I possess. I have also been deeply involved in two things in my life that have made this choice to live a mindful life that much easier-athletics and being a therapist. Paying attention in session hones your observation skills. Similarly, for me at least, athletics taught similar observation skills regarding your teammates and opponents. Both taught me about resilience, though initially, I did not know it by name.
The mastery, doggedness, and hope required to be a scholarship athlete, were the skill sets required to cultivate resilience skills that would allow me to bounce back from adversity as an athlete-overcoming the losses, using hard work to move towards my values. Similarly in therapy, witnessing the resilience of clients, or the development of those skillsets when therapist and client are really attuned to each other, uses mindfulness strategies, as well.
Mindfulness Stress Reduction
When we learn to be empathetic and self compassionate, stress is reduced and we are better equipped for future challenges.
So what about this present moment idea? Again, the more we remember to just experience what is happening right now, the better we get at it. Just for a(present) moment, think about the times you are focused only on what has already happened or has not already happened-past and future. We really only have the moment we are in. Learning from the past is all we can bring to the present moment and preparing the best we can in the moment is all we can do about an uncertain future. So try to stay here, stay in the present. Hard to do, but invaluable.
Therapy and Sports
A practice that helped me tremendously to think like this as much as possible was one suggested by Thich Nhat Hahn, a famous Buddhist monk who helped bring mindfulness practices to the West. He says to practice on seemingly meaningless tasks with complete focus, awareness and gratitude. For instance, when cleaning the dishes focus on the importance of having a clean dish for you or another the next time it is used. Be grateful for the dish having held your meal for you. Be careful not to damage the dish so it will last longer and save money. These may sound a little hokey at first, but what if eventually you were able to apply that strategy to anything that came up in your life without hesitation. When I am able to be in that zone, life is much easier in so many subtle, but obvious ways.
Mindful Meditation Techniques
Finally, the non judgmental part. Really tough, as well. If I am trying to meditate and just notice my thoughts, you will be astounded by the judgy things that will come up. “I hate when I can’t concentrate”. “Why can’t everyone see things my way?” “Everyone is a better meditator than I am”. Reframing or looking at the thought differently changes the whole perspective. If I simply notice that I am having these thoughts I can get curious about them rather than angry for having them. This is a really helpful skill for dealing with the inevitable inner critic we all have in us from time to time.
So,I am by no means minimizing how difficult mindfulness can be. I am saying it does not have to be. Like most things, meditation gets better with practice Hope this helps!
Resiliently yours and all the best,Jim
Jim McErath, LCSW-R is a licensed mental health therapist in the state of New York
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