What do you do when your mind won't mind? When it races or freaks out or can't stop worrying? When you're so anxious that mindful awareness seems impossible?
The breath is our most effective, most powerful means of neutralizing the fight/flight response, downshifting your brain towards calm. Breathing isn't a magic pill or an off switch for anxiety, so you have to keep after it. Simple but not necessarily easy - one of those things that work when you work it and keep on working it, a minute at a time.
Breathe some more...
Here's a few brief-but-effective guided practices from the esteemed Dr. Margaret Wehrenberg's "Ten Best-Ever Anxiety Management Workbook" to try out. If anxiety or stress is a problem for you, do them more-or-less regularly for mental and emotional strength, flexibility and endurance. The main mistake people make is to wait until they're very anxious to try a breathing practice - then think, "Oh, that didn't work for me." Practice now - don't wait.
Here at the Student Health Center, so many of the students coming for therapy are trained to do these breath practices that we sometimes joke that it's a cult - the Cult of Diaphragmatic Breathing. : )
Diaphragmatic Breathing instructions
Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) goes well with MT, especially if you're one of those people who has a hard time sitting still to relax. It's very simple - starting at your head or at your feet, you inhale/tense/hold....exhale/release muscles in each area of your body, systematically working one area at a time. Doing three repetitions in each area before going to the next works best, especially when you're learning how. The first time is a warm up, the second gets stronger tension and by the third repetition you can really let go and fully relax that area.
An effective method to help you relax and release tension at the end of the day. PMR literally teaches the muscles how to release and relax completely. It can surprising to notice just how much tension you're holding without being aware of it. Word to the wise - don't hammer on your muscles and risk cramping - just tense firmly and let go fully.
PMR instructions (handout) from our fav, Dr. Wehrenberg , 17 minute narrated practice below.
Mindful Movement – Simple Exercises to Ease the Body & Quiet the Mind
One of the challenges encountered when practicing mindfulness is that we typically don’t have a lot of experience in telling our minds (thoughts, emotions, sensations, etc.) what to do – usually it’s the other way around!
But what if you start with something that you already know how to control pretty well, something that can hold your attention, then focus on that? That 'something' is physical movement, which you’re able to do (with some exceptions) pretty successfully every day. Since we’re generally much better at controlling our physical activity than our mental activity, we can use the body to lead the mind. Who knew?
Try a short session of gentle movement done with intentional enjoyment helps the body to loosen up, feelings of stress to ease up, and the mind to clear up. It's sort of a sneaky way to tell your mind what to do without it (the mind) noticing. You’ll probably find it takes less effort to focus on movement rather than on the stream of thoughts/sensations/emotions, etc. coursing through your head.
Nothing new about this - many practices develop mindful awareness and focus via moving the body –yoga and tai chi are two prime examples. One very simple practice that anyone can do pretty much anywhere is “Ten Mindful Movements”, from the revered meditation teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh. The exercises are fairly easy to do, not complicated and don’t take long. You breathe on purpose, you smile on purpose, you move on purpose – slowly, gently, not forcing anything - enjoying yourself as you go along.
Using a Box to Clear Your Mind, a Lake to Go Deep & a Mountain to Ground You – Guided Imagery in Mindfulness
The emotional mind learns not by logic (apologies to all my professors), but by association. This non-rational part of the mind responds well to images that evoke feelings, emotions and sensations. The emotional mind loves metaphor and imagery – it’s powerful and worth using. Guided imagery is often much more effective than logic to create and strengthen positive emotional states. It’s like ‘going to your happy place’ and oh so much more.
Here are three different guided imagery practices – one about a box, one about a mountain and one about a lake. The box (or container) imagery helps you clear your mind from the unruly jumble of ‘yack’ in your head – all those thoughts-feelings-memories-judgments-sensations-impulses, etc., by putting them in a strong and secure box. The Mountain and Lake imagery practices aim at cultivating equanimity (definition: ‘evenness of mind, especially under stress’) and self-acceptance.
Links for practice:
Update for Feb 23-26th, 2015
Our focus this week is (as always) on experiencing the present moment as fully as possible, turning off the auto-pilot and filling up with what's right in front of us. Mindful eating is a means of engaging awareness using one of the most ordinary experiences of everyday life.
While mindful eating isn't just about food and eating, it can be a powerful method of bring compassionate and objective awareness to the sometimes complicated and difficult area of emotional eating or even disordered eating.
Ordinary life can be very rich.
Dealing with Difficult Feelings & Petty, Frustrating Crap – Loving-kindness Practices
Ever wonder why negative thoughts and feelings about other people – hurt, resentment, irritation, anger, frustration, etc. can camp out in your head for a long time while positive feelings don’t stick around the same way? Or how about self-critical thoughts and feelings – those are really sticky and can go on looping endlessly. Why do we do this?
Psychologist Rick Hansen, writing about “The Neuroscience of Positive Emotions” describes it like this – negative thoughts and emotions tend to persist due to “…the brain’s negativity bias - as our ancestors evolved, avoiding “sticks” was more important for survival than getting “carrots.” The brain’s default mode is like “Velcro for bad experiences and Teflon for good experiences.”
This means the brain treats every day hassles, a.k.a., petty frustrating crap, as important, responding the same way it does to serious threats, focusing and re-focusing attention on them. Our attention is drawn preferentially to what’s wrong; the mind assumes that the possibility that something bad is going to happen is way more likely than the possibility things are basically safe and okay. The mind’s automatic setting is ‘I-am-the-center-of-the-world’, so if I get what I want it’s all good, and if I don’t it’s all bad. Little kid meltdowns are good example of this point of view – and we all still have our little kid selves inside. Thus, the small stuff can feel really big and the truly big stuff can feel overwhelming.
So what can we do about this? Are we doomed to view each day through the filter of our brain’s negativity bias, like looking at the world through a pair of really crappy shades? And, if we were to somehow not assume the worst, wouldn’t that leave us exposed and vulnerable - unprepared if something bad really did happen?
Like everything else, when you’ve got some awareness of what’s going on in your head there’s a chance to choose being mindful rather than mind-less. Everybody’s had experience with the clarity (and relief!) that comes when you see the big picture and can put things in perspective. But to see the big picture you have to get past that ‘I-am-the-center-of-the-world’ autopilot, which can be tough to do.
Here’s the connection with Mindfulness Training and this week’s practice – Loving-kindness. Building from the foundation of focusing-refocusing attention on the breath and non-judgmental/non-reactive awareness of the moment to moment thoughts/feelings/sensations stream, Loving-kindness practice involves intentionally evoking feelings of compassion and appreciation by turning your attention to thoughts and memories of being loved and feeling loved, deliberately thinking kind thoughts towards yourself and others (whether you believe those thoughts or not is unimportant) and thinking about the fundamental connections we all have – we all want to be happy, to be safe, to love and be loved. It’s like a reminder to the deepest part of you that things can be okay, counterbalancing the 24/7 data stream of drama and pain.
And guess what? Practicing Loving-kindness doesn’t make you a sucker or wussy and it certainly doesn’t mean that every day is actually going to turn out peachy – painful, profoundly unjust and heart-breaking things do occur all the time. It’s just that it doesn’t help to try and prepare by focusing on the bad stuff. Loving-kindness practice makes you bigger inside, cultivating resilience - the strength, flexibility and endurance to deal with whatever difficulty, pain and heartbreak that comes your way.
Our instinct-driven minds need a regular reminder of this, a quick dip into the pool of compassion, gratitude and appreciation.
This week, try a couple of Loving-kindness practices. They might feel good in the moment or they might not, but hang in there – you’re going for the big picture.
From the MT Resource list (with a few extra thrown in)
Guided practice - audio only
If you’re interested in learning more about Lovingkindness and Metta meditation, two highly regarded teachers are Pema Chodoron and Sharon Salzberg
A brief overview of recent research on the benefits of Lovingkindness practices, ‘18 Science-Based Reasons to Try Loving-Kindness Meditation’
Have you ever wondered what other people feel while doing MT? Been unsure of whether your experience is unusual or weird? It's not.
Here's a list from Jon Kabat Zinn's 2005 book, "Coming To Our Senses", Even if your particular sensations/feelings/thoughts isn't here, you can see that 'normal' encompasses a wide range of experience.
Physical sensations you might notice
Emotional reactions you might notice
Thoughts that may occur
What kind of relationship with do you have with your body? You know, that part of you that carries your head around? Your temple, right? Do you have a friendly, supportive, appreciative and tuned-in relationship? Or maybe it’s a relationship with plenty of frustration, criticism and being ignored or taken for granted? For most of us, there’s a mix.
Since we all get only one body in this life, it’s nice to work on making friends. This week, we’ll be practicing mindfulness of the body through attention to alignment, doing a one-minute STOP and a body scan practice. Simple stuff, just takes a little practice.
This week’s practices: the Body Scan, versions of which can be found on all of the websites on your resource list and the one minute S.T.O.P. Try for at least two body scan practices, short or long, and throw a S.T.O.P. or two into each day.
A few words about alignment and posture… “Posture” sounds like something that moms nag about. However, proper alignment is a big deal – with it we’re more comfortable and don’t get tired, achy or restless as quickly. Here’s a fun way to think about alignment - when standing, imagine you had a tail...
Handouts from Week One
This week’s practice is Mindfulness of the Breath – from the resource list, here are some specfic practices to try on your own:
Skill this week:
Mindful Breathing – you know, there’s just no such thing as too much breathing. For a short practice to do on your own, try this 5 minute guided Breathing Meditation, courtesy of UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center. MARC is awesome.
Food for thought this week:
Check out this ASAP Science YouTube video, “The Scientific Power of Meditation”. It’s fun, it’s fast and it’s amazing how much info those folks can cram into 3 minutes.
List of online resources for learning about and practicing MT
Be well & we’ll see you at Mindfulness Training!