Mindful Monday

Last week I saw a fast food menu that displayed lower calorie options under the statement “Make Mindful Choices.” It seems the terms mindful and mindfulness are everywhere these days. But what do they really mean? Dictionary.com defines mindful as attentive, aware or careful. That makes sense on the restaurant menu, then, but I think even last year it would have said healthy, not mindful. So even the fast food places are recognizing this is a buzz word. Mindfulness means different things to different people. It is a Buddhist practice, a form of meditation, and a way of living in the moment recommended by everyone from yogis to TV doctors.

At its essence, mindfulness is a state of focus and awareness of the present, in which every thought, feeling or emotion that arises is welcomed. It is a non-judgemental acceptance of what is. During mindfulness practice, I may become aware of discomfort or sadness or worry, but I don’t try to change my experience. It’s all part of this moment, which needs no alteration. Mindfulness means being fully present in this moment, which requires me to let go of regrets about the past, and release worries about the future. Neither the past nor the future is happening in this moment, after all!

Mindfulness practices have been shown to improve concentration, reduce reactivity to stress, and improve the mood. There have been positive studies in chronic pain, anxiety and depression. In other words, there are many reasons to learn to cultivate mindfulness. Ideally, we would all meditate daily, but, as I’ve written previously, we don’t have to have an ideal practice to gain benefits. To learn more about Mindfulness Meditation, I recommend reading Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, or Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat Zinn.

Here are two short mindfulness exercises you can begin using right away. After all, mindfulness at its core is simply awareness.

Sensory Awareness: Start by taking a couple of deep breaths to quiet the mind. Then notice 5 things you can feel right now, like your feet touching the ground, the chair supporting your back, your clothes touching your skin. Really feel these sensations without labeling them or trying to change them at all. Then notice five things you can hear, like the ticking of the clock, the hum of the heater or the traffic outside. Listen and really hear the sounds, no judgement, just experience. Proceed with things you can see and smell, and perhaps finish the practice by drinking some water and really tasting it in your mouth. You’ve just been fully present in your body!

Breath Awareness: Sit comfortably and take a few deep breaths to quiet the mind, then breathe normally. Bring your awareness to your breath. Notice how it feels moving in and out of your nose, following it from beginning of inhale to end of exhale. Notice the pause between breaths. Feel the rise and fall of your belly with each breath, without trying to alter it at all. Simply feel and experience the breath. If your thoughts distract you, release them without reaction and return to the breath, over and over again. Try to stay with it for a full minute.

These short exercises allow us to experience mindfulness quickly and simply, without any special props or time commitment. The more I practice mindfulness, the more likely I am to stay present the rest of the day. It’s easier to release unnecessary worry, and let go of minor irritations. Try taking a moment today to be fully present, and see for yourself what all the mindfulness buzz is about.

Choose Your Focus

There are good days and bad days, for everyone. Even on a bad day, some good things happen, but it can be hard to recognize them if we are focused on the negative. There have been times in my life when I had a truly negative outlook. If you had asked me to name a good thing that happened in a day, I would be hard pressed to think of one. I know it affected my mood. I was irritable, and I expected the worst from everyone and everything. I didn’t even recognize this tendency in myself until I started my psychiatry training. We had a class on cognitive therapy, and I heard for the first time that I could choose what direction my thoughts took. After my mind was done being blown, I started to look at myself, and recognize my tendency to be a Debbie Downer. This started a long effort toward changing that aspect of my personality. At first, I had to think about it constantly. It’s easier now, but far from automatic.

I have also learned over the years that this is a common problem. As beings capable of rational thought, we spend a lot of time focused on the bad stuff! It turns out there is a biological reason why we do this, called The Negativity Bias. In his book Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom, Rick Hanson explains how we’ve evolved to see the negative first. My take on it is this: Primitive humans learned more about survival from negative consequences, like don’t touch fire, run from the tiger, find shelter in a storm. That type of knowledge needs to be accessed immediately, and became stored in our memories to provide quick responses, especially when we are afraid. We remember the good things, too, but in an area of the brain that isn’t as tied to our emotions. Our brains preferentially store the bad stuff, to help us survive. In modern society, however, imminent danger isn’t usually a primary concern. Now, this negative bias creates a tendency to notice bad situations and create stories around them. I don’t have to run from any tigers, instead I wonder what my boss meant by the look she gave me. If we are all wired this way, it will clearly take some effort to counteract this tendency.

Start by noticing when you are in a negative frame of mind. Like anything that is part of an automatic response pattern, we must bring this from subconscious into conscious awareness. Then we can begin to change our focus. I like to keep meaningful things around, so I can look at fresh flowers, or a picture of my family, and immediately remind myself of what’s good in life. Another thing that changes my outlook is gratitude. I list three to five things for which I’m grateful, and quickly remember how positive my life really is. Lastly, I turn to mindfulness. Inhaling and concentrating on the miracle of my breath, I am aware that this moment is always positive, just as it is. Some days I need a lot of cues to focus on what’s good, but as soon as I do, I feel my mood lighten. It’s so wonderful to be able to choose a positive focus, positive attitude, and positive mood!

It doesn’t have to be perfect

New Year’s Eve is now a few weeks behind us. How are the resolutions going? This is the time that many of us lose steam, as life gets in the way of our best intentions. The amount of time it takes to commit to change can be hard to find. If I follow recommendations for a healthy lifestyle, I will need at least 30 minutes to exercise, another 30 or more for seated meditation and who knows how long for planning and preparing healthy meals? It can be discouraging.
Then a funny thing can happen: my mind starts to talk me out of the very things I am trying to achieve! Today, there’s not enough time to go to the grocery store, so I may as well eat pizza. And since I didn’t make a healthy choice, I’ve already blown it for the day, so how about a brownie for dessert? Tomorrow there isn’t time to exercise for 30 minutes, and 15 minutes doesn’t meet my goal, so forget it. I’ll try again another day. Or maybe I won’t! You know what? I can’t keep up with my goals, I’m obviously failing, and I should just forget it. Maybe next year I can get healthy.
Sound familiar? These are examples of all or nothing thinking. If I can’t do it perfectly, I shouldn’t do it at all. This type of thinking can derail the best intentions, and it is surprisingly common. When I first started offering yoga and mindfulness practices to patients, I unintentionally fed into this tendency. I would write out an energizing yoga sequence and ask my patient to practice it every morning. Or I’d teach a 15 minute meditation practice, suggesting they should do it every night. Then, they returned for follow-up looking sheepish, telling me “You’re going to be mad at me, but…” They weren’t doing the practices. The excuses varied, but most represented a form of all or nothing thinking. “If I can’t do it exactly the way she recommended, I shouldn’t do it at all.”
Needless to say, I’ve changed my language a lot. I recommend that each person strive for a goal of daily practice, but commit to what they can. I feel consistency is more important than the time spent in practice. So, for me a 5 minute meditation on a busy day is a great break to allow myself to relax where I can, and is much better than ignoring my need for silence altogether. Parking farther from the door and taking the stairs is better than no exercise at all. Sometimes, just taking a deep breath and becoming aware of the sensations I feel while breathing is the only practice I can manage. That single moment, though, demonstrates a commitment to self-care, that I am worthy of that presence. I acknowledge that my practice may not be perfect, and I’m not doing it all. But I recognize the importance of self-care, and keep showing up each day. And that’s enough.

Start Where You Are

I’ve been doing yoga for about 5 years now, but when I first started, I was practicing at home. It took me months to attend a class because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to keep up. I had seen photos of yogis with serene faces, their feet over their heads in a perfect headstand, or arched into a beautiful backbend. I thought I was expected to be able to do those things, too. I was busy comparing myself to an advanced yogi, and finding myself coming up short.
When I finally worked up the nerve to walk into a yoga studio, I found a lot of beginners like me, as well as some people with years of time on the mat. I spent a lot of time watching the other people, wondering if I was doing it right. Then the teacher started to give us options. She said to listen to our own bodies and choose what feels right. She even told us not to look around the room, because it doesn’t matter what anyone else is doing. I finally realized that yoga is about starting where you are, not where you think you should be.
Of course, my yoga mat is not the only place I tend to compare myself to others and try to keep up. But I’m learning that we each have our own journey, and we are not all at the same point. It’s easier to let go of the shoulds when I remind myself of this. I see other people struggle with comparing and competing, too. Many people with depression think they should be able to smile themselves out of it. I often hear things like “I shouldn’t feel this way, my life is really good.” They feel they should be able to function like their coworkers, or family members. The comparison invariably makes them the loser, as opposed to just on a different part of the journey.
Instead of wasting energy feeling inadequate or less than, why not start each day exploring where you are today? Maybe tiredness or illness will tell you to take it easy, and that boot camp class will have to wait. Or perhaps a new interest will motivate you to start something new. Try allowing your mind to acknowledge your starting point, then you can be confident that the choices you make are the best ones for you. It becomes clear that today is different from yesterday, and you are different from any other person on this journey.

Half-full or Half-empty?

Yesterday I saw a woman who was up for a promotion at work. She really wanted it, and had gotten to the final interview. Then she was told they were interviewing two other candidates. She told me with a big sigh, “I only have a one in three chance of getting this.” She went on to tell me how things don’t go her way, and clearly she was destined to fail this time, too. Since it’s my job to help people recognize the things they can change, we started to work on these thoughts and beliefs.
Pessimism is defined as the expectation that bad things will happen, while optimism is the tendency to expect the more favorable outcome. Classic glass half-empty or half-full question. We may be born with a personality that trends toward one or the other, or we may change due to life events, depression or other circumstances. However, we can change our thoughts and beliefs with vigilance and effort. The first step is to become aware of our tendencies, then we can subtly change them when we notice a negative pattern.
For example, my patient can continue with her current beliefs that things don’t go her way. She will then be less likely to seek and apply for a better position. She may even feel a hopeless attitude that things can’t get better, so why try? Optimism, on the other hand, creates motivation. She believes she has as good a chance as anyone else, and applies for new opportunities. A pessimistic attitude may hold us back from positive changes in our lives.
Our thoughts and beliefs also create energy that affects our moods. Think of the statement “I ONLY have a one in three chance” versus “Hey, I have a one in three chance!” One sees that two other people may win, the other recognizes that she has already beaten many others to get to this point. As you say each phrase out loud, notice what you feel, in your body and in your mood. The more negative statement may cause a subtle slump in the shoulders, and sadness. The opposite statement may lead to a smile, or a feeling of confidence. Which feels better?
Once we recognize a pessimistic attitude, the key is to substitute the opposite. I don’t mean an unrealistic belief that everything is sunshine and roses, but a subtle shift of balance in a positive direction. Instead of “nothing ever works out for me,” substitute “I have as good a chance as anyone else.” Replace “if I don’t try, I won’t fail,” with “if I don’t try, I won’t succeed.” we have choices all day long about what to think and believe. With practice, it becomes easier to recognize self-limiting beliefs and attitudes like pessimism. Luckily, we can change our thoughts and actions. Maybe my patient won’t get the promotion. But if she believes she has a chance to get a better job, she will apply again. Maybe she is a perfect fit for the next one. That is seeing the glass as half-full.

Happiness Inside

A bright green envelope arrived in the mail the other day.  It proclaimed “Happiness Inside!” in bold letters, begging to be opened right away.  Of course this piece of junk mail didn’t contain a secret elixir of joy or a magic happy pill that would make my job obsolete.  Instead, I found a coupon for $10 off my next pair of shoes.  Happiness?  Probably not.  More likely a fleeting sense of satisfaction that wears off before the shoes are even out of the box.  This envelope wasn’t really telling me to find my own happiness inside, it was suggesting that I need to look somewhere else.

It’s not uncommon to search for something to make us happy.  Perhaps it’s the next new car (or pair of shoes), the next boyfriend, or even the next drink.  We look to external sources for our own happiness.  Entire industries are based on this tendency.  How many advertisements can you think of that show beaming, beautiful people enjoying new “stuff” of some kind?  Those people appear to have what we want, and whatever product they’re promoting seems like the best way to get it.  Obtaining new stuff does release dopamine, which activates the pleasure center in the brain.  We feel good, satisfied, perhaps even happy for a brief period of time.  However, as time passes, that feeling does, too.  We are left wanting more.  Luckily, my new coupon has arrived to lure me back into the shoe store for another hit.

So lasting happiness doesn’t come from more stuff.  How about another person?  There’s nothing like a new relationship to create a giddy, joyful feeling where nothing else seems to matter.   Love certainly gets those pleasure centers humming.  This feeling, too, fades with time, hopefully to be replaced by mature feelings of respect and connection. A loving relationship is a wonderful thing, but someone else can’t make us happy.

So where do we look for real happiness?  The green envelope actually had it right all along. We need to look inside. True happiness is not dependent on having everything perfect in life. It is a felt sense of joy that is always present inside if we take the time to sit in stillness and look. It is the present moment, the gratitude for each breath we take, and the inner knowledge that nothing needs to change to allow us to be happy. Happiness takes effort to find each day, as our experiences and our thoughts about our experiences affect us. But think of happiness as a deep, vast ocean. On the surface, winds and rain create waves and turbulence, but the depths remain calm and quiet, unaffected by the elements above.  When I need to remind myself it is there, I take time to focus on my breath, in seated meditation or yoga.  Then the surface storms dissolve into the depths and I know.  Happiness is indeed inside.