Learn these basic mindfulness techniques
As part of Mental Health Awareness Month, we are sharing strategies, key ideas and tips from our therapists around different themes. This week’s theme is mindfulness with posts from Michael Maslar, Psy.D., Director of our Mindfulness and Behavior Therapies Program.
Tip #1: Here You Are!
05.11.2020 Mindfulness practice is like one of those signs you see in malls, with a map of the stores and corridors, and that arrow labeled, “You are here.” Right here, this is where your life is happening! Based on what is going on at the moment, sometimes we want to be here, sometimes we don’t.
When things are going well, we may have little difficulty being present. Yet sometimes we may be distracted and miss the things in life that are important to us. Then there are the times when events are not going the way we planned, and we might wish we were anywhere else but where we are.
No matter how much we might try, however, we can’t really get away from, “You are here.”
Mindfulness practice is exercise for the mind. It gives us improved ability over time to be present in life. More present to the pleasures and the rewards in life, and more peacefully present to cope when things get tough.
If you already practice mindfulness, great! Keep going! If you don’t, take a moment to get started right now. Bring your attention to your breath. Become aware of what it really feels like to breathe in. Become aware of what it really feels like to breathe out. Spend a minute or two doing this. When your attention wanders (of course it will!), just bring it back to your breath.
That’s all it takes, and that’s a wonderful start! Catch you back here tomorrow.
Tip #2: Present to What’s Pleasant
05.12.2020 Yesterday, I suggested that you take a few moments to pay attention to your breath, to notice when your mind wanders, and then bring your attention back to the breath. The breath is a useful point of focus in mindfulness because it is something we always have with us. No matter where we go, or what we do, we can pay attention to the experience of breathing.
Focusing on the breath gives us the opportunity to practice maintaining our attention on one thing at a time. The more that we maintain our attention, the more present in our life we can be.
Yet the point of mindfulness is not to get better at feeling our breath. The point is to be more present in life so that we can live more fully. So today, I want to invite you to look for opportunities when something pleasant happens, to bring your full attention to that experience. Whether it is a smile your partner flashes to you, the sunlight as it streams through the window, the smell of your morning coffee or anything else that you find pleasant: pause for a moment, and do your best to be fully present to that experience. Give yourself time to savor it. Do this often throughout the day. Notice your feelings of enjoyment.
Have fun, and see you tomorrow!
Tip #3: Present to What’s Unpleasant
05.13.2020 Yesterday’s mindfulness practice was to bring awareness to pleasant events throughout the day. While our attention still likely wanders with this practice, being aware of pleasant experiences is often one of the easier ways to use mindfulness.
Yet life, of course, is not all fun and games. No matter who you are, your life has its share of unpleasant things in it. Is there any benefit to bringing mindful awareness to unpleasant events? There are actually many benefits.
Practicing mindfulness of unpleasant things allows us to be more present during difficult times, and that means we can be better able to deal with events that are challenging. It also turns out that learning to be mindful of unpleasant experiences also helps us be more present to what is pleasant in life. If we tune out during tough times, it’s not that easy to tune back in when things are easier.
Another benefit of practicing mindfulness of painful experiences is that we learn, over time, to bring a greater sense of calm and peace to the pain we experience in life. More so, even though it seems counterintuitive, moving toward pain rather than away, can even reduce how much we suffer from that pain. In fact, one of the most effective treatments we have for chronic physical pain, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, is based in mindfulness practice.
Today then, take opportunities to bring awareness to unpleasant events. If you are having major crises in your life currently, you needn’t start there. Just pay attention to small discomforts over the course of the day. Spend a few moments looking directly into that pain in your knee, your irritation over how long it’s taking in the checkout line, or the sting of your partner’s critical remark. Look closely, and then move on.
Tip # 4: Who Are You?
05.14.2020 On Monday, the practice was for you to pay attention for a moment to your breath. On Tuesday, it was for you to pay attention to pleasant experiences. On Wednesday, it was to pay attention to unpleasant events. What is one thing that all those practices had in common, besides using your attention? That common element was you!
You were there each time you paid attention. But just who are you?
We have different ways of defining and experiencing ourselves. Sometimes we think of ourselves as facts about us, like where we were born, where we went to school, and who is in our family. Another way we often think of ourselves as, “I’m the kind of person who likes the outdoors,” or, “I love really good food.” Yet another is that I am what I believe and what I feel.
There is still another experience of self, however, that we might not as often consider. When you pay attention to your breath, or a pleasant or unpleasant experience, each breath and each experience comes and goes, but it is you that is aware of each of those things. It is not a you that is defined by facts. It is not a you that defined any particular preference or value or belief. It is you that lives in each moment, that is in some way beyond all those other things.
For today’s practice, pause for different moments throughout the day, and pay attention to different experiences that come up. The sound of your family members talking, the taste of some food you just placed in your mouth, the scent of coffee as it is brewed. And then notice who is noticing. Follow that experience back to who is aware. What is that experience of you exactly like?
Tip #5: Where do I go from here?
05.15.2020 If you found the practices this week helpful, you might consider making mindfulness a kind of ‘mental hygiene.’ We brush our teeth. We try to eat right. We exercise. What do we do for the mind?
If you are interested, you can continue the practices we did this week. These can benefit you as they are. You might want to try more formal practice, by sitting for five, ten, fifteen, twenty minutes or more each day in mindfulness meditation. You can do this on your own. There is quite a collection of apps these days that can guide you. Each has its own pros and cons. Pretty much everyone can be helpful in its own way.
Mindfulness can have a lot to offer, that goes beyond the physical and mental health benefits that you can easily read so much about online these days. It can affect our ongoing sense of who we are, and our place in this huge and amazing universe.
If you want to go further, find a mindfulness teacher, attend retreats. There are so many ways that you can carry this forward.
And it can simply be, just be aware right now that you are reading this — thanks for following along this week!
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