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“To meditate means to go home to yourself. Then you know how to take care of the things that are happening inside you, and you know how to take care of the things that happen around you.” Thich Nhat Hanh
I signed up for a class in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction several years ago because I recognized that my low tolerance for stress had me…well…stressed out. My stress centered around parenting, my job, driving in traffic…you name it and I was stressed about it.
I was feeling signs of distress in my body: headaches, neck pain, insomnia and just a low level of constant anxiety that lived with me from the first sip of my coffee to bedtime. Easily frustrated when something did not go exactly right and irritation at the drop of a hat were behavioral clues that I lived with for years.
A Different Approach than Therapy
I had heard about Thich Nhat Hahn and Jon Kabat-Zinn from other people in my life, but had little idea how this Mindfulness thing worked. Given that I am 98% in the past or the future: worrying about what I did wrong and what could go wrong, I truly had not lived in the present since I was a young kid.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the state of being completely in the present without self-judgment. Think about a day from hell when just about everything that went wrong did go wrong. First, your kids decided they did not want to go to school that day so getting them to get dressed and out the door took Herculean efforts. You then messed up on a work project and found yourself behind. When you got home from work—later than you anticipated, you were faced with making dinner, helping your complaining kids with a last-minute project due the next day, and, on top of that, you and your spouse had an argument—you get the point.
That night, you lay in bed thinking about all the things you could have done differently and judging yourself for feeling frustrated, angry, stressed.
How often do you allow yourself to feel these challenging feelings or thoughts without trying to control them, push them away or to simply feel like a failure for being overwhelmed? It is part of the human experience to try to control or fix what feels broken or to beat yourself up for it.
But, what if you could just allow yourself to notice your very human reactions and all that comes with them without judging yourself? What would life be like then?
When you cultivate your own witness, you can stand back and notice what you usually don’t–all those things around you such as what is in front of your eyes, sensations in your body, the sounds in your environment.
Ask yourself this question: how often are you noticing what is happening right here and now?
Even challenging emotions are worthy of notice because they are part of your experience in the moment.
Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction
Taking an MBSR course requires a level of time, energy, motivation and commitment that many people don’t have. 8 classes for 2 ½ hours weekly, then each day an average of an hour of meditation homework including yoga can be a major stretch for most of us. If you can make it through this experience, I fully recommend you do it, because it could transform your life. But, you don’t have to go to an M.B.S.R. course to get started. However, if you decide to invest in the class, I recommend that you truly commit to it. It takes the willingness to give yourself over to the experience without trying to control it. It is worth it.
The Process of Mindfulness Meditation:
Simply put, Mindfulness meditation has you take deep breaths and focus on your breath while allowing thoughts, feelings, sensations of the present moment to enter your experience as an observer. Sitting still and focusing on your breath sounds stunningly easy, doesn’t it? Well, I am here to tell you, it is not. At first, I gave myself permission to use that hour to daydream and the time went by fast. Hey, I thought, this is fun! I get to carve out an hour a day to daydream! Who wouldn’t enjoy that? But when I realized I was simply to focus my attention back to my breath whenever my mind wandered, I could barely get through 15 minutes without wanting to jump out of my skin. Now there was a lesson for me in pushing through that discomfort. It is often difficult for us to face boredom, grief, anger or sadness. We are taught to push through it, to distract ourselves and not think or feel.
What would it be like to give yourself the gift of space and time to allow yourself to feel and breathe?
Most of us won’t be able to spend that time on a class. For many of us, it is challenging to find even a half an hour a week for self-care. For those of us that are too busy to find an hour at least out of our day, I recommend a Mindfulness Lite approach.
The soundbite version of Mindfulness…is to just…notice and breathe.
For 30 seconds….1 minute. Take a deep belly breath, take a bite, notice the texture of the food, the smell. Truly savor the taste. Take a look around you, feel your feet on the floor, the rise and fall of your chest as you breathe. Be aware of the thoughts and feelings that are moving through. Notice with wonder and curiosity.
These experiences are part of you.
Making it a Part of Your Day
But, first, you will have to find a way to remember to do it. Mindfulness practice is just like any new habit—you start in small steps and commit to it by scheduling it in.
Put an alarm in your phone to breathe for 30 seconds before you start work or before bed or during a work break. You can slowly work your way up so you are meditating for longer periods of time. For luddites, a sticky note might be just as efficient.
You will find that the more you do this, the more this becomes part of your routine. Then when it really counts during those tough times, the persistent practice of mindfulness becomes a way of being that can help you develop self-compassion and perspective.
As always, “peace is every step”. -Thich Nhat Hanh.