Relieving Stress through Mindfulness
Mindfulness is about paying attention to and becoming more aware of ourselves and the world around us, without judgement. It is about being more present in our own livesbeing in the moment.
Watch the short video to the right for an overview of mindfulness.
Meditation, which cultivates mindfulness, can be particularly effective at reducing stress, anxiety, depression, and other negative emotions, and therefore at improving our mental health. Rather than worrying about the future or dwelling on the past, meditation switches our focus to what is happening at the moment. Mindfulness meditation is not the same thing as zoning out. Rather, it teaches us how to observe our thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations without judgement. It is this nonjudgmental approach that allows us to promote attitudes of openness with an overall attitude of gentleness and nurturing toward ourselves and others. Fortunately, mindfulness is not something that you have to work at to acquire. It is already within us--a deep internal resource available and patiently waiting to be recognized and used in the service of learning, growing, and healing.
Have you ever started eating an ice cream cone, taken a lick or two, then noticed that you had only a sticky napkin in your hand? Or been going somewhere and arrived at your destination only to realize you haven't noticed anything or anyone you might have seen along the way? Of course you have. We all have! These are common examples of mindlessness, or "going on automatic pilot."
We all fall into habits of mind and body that result in times of inattention--that is, not being present in our own lives. The consequences of this state of inattention can sometimes be quite costly: we can miss some really important information and messages about our life, our relationships, and, indeed, our own health.
Often our reactions to the stressful events in our lives are habitual (that is, they occur essentially outside of our awareness), until, because of physical, emotional, or psychological dysfunction, we cannot ignore them any longer. These reactions can include tension in the body, painful emotional states, panic attacks and depression, and negative self-talk such as obsessional list-making or intense, even toxic, self-criticism.
An important antidote to this tendency to “go on automatic pilot," is to practise mindfulnessthat is, to pay more careful attention and to do it in a particular way. We all have the capacity for mindfulness within us: it is the quality of awareness that enables us to know what is in the present moment. We know what is going on outside our own skin, and we also know what is going on inside our own skin. However we experience life, through all our senses (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, even the mind itself) and mindfulness enables us to know that seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, or even thinking is happening in the present moment.
We can practise mindfulness and become more present. All we have to do is to establish attention in the present moment and to allow ourselves to be with what is here; to rest in the awareness of what is here; to pay attention without trying to change anything; to allow ourselves to become more deeply and completely aware of what it is we are sensing, and to be with what it is we are experiencing. To rest in this quality of being, of being aware, in each moment as our life unfolds.
And, to the extent we can practise "being" and becoming more present and more aware of our life, what we do about it, will be more informed, more responsive, and less driven by the habits of reaction and inattention.
See for yourself what it might be like to pay more careful attention and to allow yourself to experience directly what is in the moment, especially including what is in your own body, heart, and mind. Some possibilities are: beginning a meeting with two minutes of silence and attention to your breathing; taking a few mindful breaths before entering someone’s office; focusing on your breathing before starting your exercise routine. In the middle of an on-going situation or process, bring attention to your breathing or to the sensations arising while washing dishes, eating a meal, walking the dog, doing a job, for example. Or, when you are just waiting, in between the items on your schedule, for example, gently bring attention to your breathing.Or pay attention to the sounds, sensations, sights, or even your thoughts while at a red light, in a line at the bus stop or grocery store, or waiting for someone else to arrive.
In such situations as these, use the sensation of breathing as the "anchor" for awareness in the present moment. Allow yourself to feel the breath as it goes in and goes out, and the pause between in and out. Do not try to control the breath. Simply let it come and go. Bring as much attention, as completely and continuously as you can, to the direct sensation of the breath.
After a while, if you wish, when you have established awareness on the breath sensation, you could widen the focus to include all body sensations along with the breath sensation. Again, don’t try to change anything at all, but simply allow yourself to feel, to be aware of, the changing sensations in the body.
Again, after a while, if you wish, you can further widen the focus to include all that is present. This means paying attention to whatever you are hearing, seeing, tasting, smelling, touching, or even thinking. Just practise being with these different experiences as they unfold, allowing yourself to feel your life in the moment.
Any time you feel lost, confused, or frustrated, gently narrow the focus and return awareness to the sensation of the breath. You may have to do this frequently. It is okay. Or, you may wish to concentrate mainly on the breath, especially if you are new to meditation. That, too, is okay. The important thing is the quality of awareness you bring to the moment. One moment of mindfulness, even one breath when we are truly present, can be quite profound. See for yourself!
You can practise mindfulness in this way throughout the day and night! Practise for a few breaths at a time. And, if you wish, you can make this a more "formal" meditation practice by setting aside some time, from a few minutes to an hour or more; make sure you are free from other activity or distraction so you can devote full attention to simply being present. Over time, you may find that the "formal" practice supports and strengthens your ability to practise "informally" throughout the day and night in different situations.
1. Expect your mind to wander. Practise kindness and patience with yourself when this happens and gently return awareness to the breath sensation.
2. Notice any tendency to "be hard on yourself" or to feel frustrated or a failure. See this kind of judgement as just another kind of thinking and gently return awareness to the breath.
3. Expect to feel some relaxation, especially if you practise for even a few breaths or for a few moments. This relaxed feeling is an ally. It helps us to be more present, more mindful. Relaxation alone is not what mindfulness is about, however! Rather, it is about being present with awareness.
4. Expect to become more mindful with practice. Expect to notice more things, including painful things. This actually represents actually progress. You are not doing anything wrong. Quite the opposite is true: you are increasing mindfulness for all things. When you begin to notice painful things, see if you can hold yourself with compassion and kindness, and continue to bring open-hearted awareness to the experience that is unfolding. By practising staying present, not turning away from the pain in our lives, we can learn to remain open to all the possibilities in each situation. This awareness increases our chances for healing and transformation in facing the pain we freel. And it gives us a way to be present in those situations when there is nothing we can do to "get away from the pain." We can discover that the quality of mindfulness is not destroyed or damaged by contact with pain, that it can enable us to know pain as completely and fully as it can any other experience.
5. Be careful not to try too hard. Don't try to make anything happen or to achieve any special states or effects! Simply relax and pay as much attention as you can to just what is in the moment, whatever form that takes. Allow yourself to experience life directly as it unfolds, paying careful and open-hearted attention.
(Note: How to Bring More Mindfulness into Your Life was adapted from material produced by Jeffrey Brantley, MD. Jeffery Brantly is a consulting associate in the Duke Department of Psychiatry and the founder and director of the mindfulness-based stress reduction program at Duke University’s Center for Integrative Medicine.)
When you practise meditation at home, choose a quiet place where you will not be disturbed. Find a comfortable place to sit. Keep your posture straight but relaxed, feet flat on the floor, hands in your lap, making sure you are not rigid or stiff. Do not slump or slouch. Or, if you wish, sit cross-legged on a cushion on the floor. Now, close your eyes.
You should feel comfortable, but not so comfortable that you fall asleep. While practising mindfulness, it is important to stay alert.
Focus on your breathing.
Concentrate your attention completely on your breathing. Become aware of the sensations inside your air passages as the air enters the nose. Just become aware of that feeling as your breath goes in and out. Do not attempt to influence or check your breathing; just let it happen naturally. Marvel at the quality and precision of internal sensations that are normally ignored. Wonder at how deeply you can sense the air inside you. Just allow yourself time to be aware of the air going in and out, and nothing else. Keep your mind on your breathing; become your breathing.
It’s okay if thoughts come into your mind; the mind will not clear completely. Just examine the thoughts for what they are, as if they were some strange animal that wandered into your sight. When these thoughts come into your mind, allow them to wander off on their own and wish them well on their way. Do not get involved in the thought. Just notice that it is there and return your focus to your breathing.
Treat each thought as a guest. When a thought or feeling arises, simply observe and acknowledge it. There is no need to interpret it or to use it. You might wonder where it came from, what caused it to surface at that particular time, and what purpose it serves. Notice it like a precious jewel, turning it this way and that. If you feel yourself drifting away on a thought, then just return and refocus on your breathing. Use your breathing as the anchor for your mindfulness.
Stay in the moment as long as you can. Continue to focus on your breathing. Aim to clear your mind completely for five minutes. With practice, you will be able to extend the time to 20 minutes or more.
Notice the repeating thoughts. As you progress, you will come to recognize that the same thoughts are appearing over and over, even in your calmest moments. Notice them and let them pass by, returning your attention to your breath.
Following the meditation exercise, ask yourself these questions:
How was that for you?
Were you able to keep your attention focused on your anchor?
Could you experience your breath?
Where did you feel it?
What sensations did you feel?
Did you experience a wandering mind? It is very persistent, isn’t it?
Can you see how a wandering mind might get you into trouble if you are not aware of where it has wandered off to?
Did you notice your patterns of thought and with no judgement?
Were you able to bring your attention back to your anchor each time it had wandered away? It takes a lot of practice doesn’t it?
As you awaken in the morning, bring your attention to your breathing. Instead of letting your mind spin off into the previous day or the next, take mindful breaths. Focus on your breathing and sense the effects of breathing throughout your body.
Instead of hurrying to your usual routine, slow down and enjoy something special about the morning--a flower that bloomed, the sound of the birds, the wind in the trees.
On the way to work or school, pay attention to how you walk, drive, or ride the transit. Take some deep breaths, relaxing throughout your body.
When stopped at a red light, pay attention to your breathing and enjoy the landscape around you.
When you arrive at your destination, take a few moments to orient yourself. Breathe consciously and calmly, relax your body, then begin.
When sitting at your desk or keyboard, become aware of the subtle signs of the physical tension and take a break or walk around.
Use the repetitive events of the day (the ringing telephone, a knock at the door, walking down the hall) as cues for a mini-relaxation.
Walk mindfully to your car or bus. Can you see and appreciate something new in the environment? Can you enjoy walking without rushing?
As you return home, consciously make the transition into your home environment. If possible, after greeting your family or housemates, give yourself a few minutes alone to ease the transition.
As you go to sleep, let go of today and tomorrow. Take some slow, mindful, deep breaths.
By following the main elements of mindfulness, combining awareness of your breath and by focusing on the activity at hand, you will be able to experience every moment as fully as possible.
Sponsored by the Government of Manitoba, Department of Healthy Living.
© 2009-2011 Klinic Community Health Centre • Winnipeg Manitoba Canada