Mindfulness: A Technique to Deal with Stress
You’ve already learned that understanding the nature of your mind will help you to relieve your stress. In the previous chapters you’ve discovered that:
- You normally are not aware of many of your thoughts.
- These thoughts are often about the past or the future but not typically about the present moment.
- You create stories about initial sensations based on your belief system.
- The belief system developed from your childhood experiences as a means of maintaining the love and protection of your caregivers.
- Your thoughts are impermanent, and are always coming and going.
- The mind spontaneously creates these thoughts.
- Thoughts lead to emotional consequences.
- Thoughts lead to physical consequences.
- There is a definite mind-body connection.
- Stress is harmful!
Having a good understanding of your own mind and stress-response is a great start, but there are many additional ways of trying to deal with stress. Some may work better for you than others. Everyone will have his or her own personal preference. Try to experiment with each technique and see what works best for you. I promise you that every little bit of stress-relief helps! In this chapter, I’m going to outline the technique of Mindfulness, which you can use to reduce your day-to-day stress.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the act of keeping in mind what you’re currently experiencing. It’s an accepting, non-judgmental and compassionate awareness of what’s going on right at this moment in time. When practicing mindfulness, you bring your attention to the present moment without trying to change it. You’re simply present to whatever is being experienced. It’s an absolutely wonderful break for both your mind and your body to focus on the present moment in this way. You actively observe your own thoughts, feelings and sensations.
You normally identify and react to the thoughts that come up in your conscious mind. You might grab onto a thought and expand it, resist it, or deny it, or simply let it pass by as a neutral sensation. The bottom line is that you get caught up in your own thoughts. Your emotions and your body react accordingly. Often, especially during times of stress, your thoughts are worries about the past as well as worries about what might happen in the future. Your emotions and body are reacting as if it’s all occurring in the here and now. The present becomes the best place to give you a break.
Mindfulness is not just being aware of what’s present. It also gives you more insight into how your mind works. This allows you to change the way you relate to your mental, emotional and physical experiences. By mentally creating a bit of breathing space, you don’t have to unconsciously react to whatever arises and you can experience the events in your life from a place of greater clarity and wisdom. By practicing the techniques of mindfulness, you’ll be better able to consciously respond to situations and you will not just automatically react to things in accordance with the long established patterns of your belief system.
In this and subsequent chapters, you’ll learn to be present only to what’s happening in this very moment. You’ll be better able to understand your own conditioned patterns. You’ll be less powerless in the face of the chain of events that links thoughts, to stories, to emotions, to body sensations, to reactions. The practice of mindfulness is a wonderfully liberating process that can free you from the tyranny of your own mind. There is inherent wisdom, peace, understanding, empathy and compassion that reside within the silence of awareness and acceptance.
Think about whether you have ever personally experienced any of the following scenarios:
- Have you ever reacted to a thought with a sudden, extreme, uncontrolled emotional response?
- Do you experience repetitive thoughts that just won’t go away and do you feel very agitated by them?
- Does it feel at times that you have no control over your mind?
- Does your mind seem like it never turns off? Is it very difficult to fall asleep because of all the mental activity?
- Have you ever said something and then regretted it as soon as you said it?
- Have you ever been either happy or sad and heard some news that instantly changed your mood?
These are the types of thought activity that you’ll experience without the clarity that mindfulness brings. Your mind is simply reacting to every sensation that comes its way.
Mindfulness and Awareness
The first important step in the practice of mindfulness is to intentionally be aware (i.e., mindful) of your thoughts, emotions and physical sensations as they pop up. You’ve already been practicing a version of this in some of the previous exercises that I’ve asked you to try. Without this awareness, you’re not conscious of the multiple sensations that are driving your behaviour. You’re just swept along in the tidal wave of anger, sadness, judgment, happiness or whatever strong sensation arises. With mindfulness you can start to break this unconscious chain of reactions.
You are aware of what comes into your conscious mind to some degree. The problem is that you immediately identify with the thought, emotion, or physical sensation that arises. Mindfulness involves being aware of what you are aware of. There is a knowing that anger, fear, sadness etc., is present. This gives you space to respond, rather than react, to what arises.
Mindfulness helps you to begin to recognize that you’re constantly being exposed to multiple sensations but are often unaware of them and how they may be influencing you. It’s an excellent alternative to allowing yourself to be absorbed in your own thoughts. You can bring a greater awareness to all of the realms of your experience. You can bring awareness to what you’re thinking, what you’re feeling and what you’re physically experiencing in the present moment.
It’s as if your mind is a log being carried along a river. The log moves according to the flow of the river, being pushed and pulled depending on the water flow. However, with mindfulness you’re now a boat on the river. You can experience the flow of the river but you’re separate from it and you have the ability to control your movements as well.
Give it a try. This next exercise will help you learn to become aware of what you’re experiencing on a continual basis. Be open to whatever sensation arises. It could be a thought, sound, smell or physical sensation. If a thought appears, the moment you recognize it, just say, “thinking” to yourself. It doesn’t have to be out loud, just in your mind will do! If you become aware of an emotion just say, “feeling.” If your arm itches, or your neck hurts, or some other physical sensation comes to your attention, just say something like, “body sensation” to yourself.
Go ahead and set your timer for two minutes. Close your eyes, notice your sensations and as you do, name them as “thinking,” “feeling,” or “body sensation.” Return to the book when you’re through.
This exercise is a way of cultivating your awareness but at the same time distancing yourself from the meaning that you would normally attach to your thoughts and feelings. If you get carried away for a moment and lost in thought, don’t worry about it! It’s absolutely normal for that to happen. Just acknowledge this by saying, “thinking” and return to monitoring and labeling your experiences.
What normally happens is that when an emotion such as anger, sadness, suffering, or joy arises, there is no awareness about what’s happening. You just get swept away by the emotion. You may not even be consciously aware that a particular emotion is even present. You identify so strongly with the emotion that you become the emotional state itself, instead of recognizing that it’s just a state of mind that has arisen.
There are many levels to what you experience in any given moment. It’s important to be aware of why a particular thought or emotion has arisen. For example, if you’re angry, this could actually reflect an underlying fear that you have, which is, in turn, based on previous experiences. We will explore the origins of some of these underlying forces later in the book.
Mindfulness and Labeling
It’s time for another exercise. Remember that this book is actually about you. This time, when a thought, feeling or physical sensation pops up, I want you to go a bit further with your labeling and actually try to name the experience. You’re trying to become more specific about each experience, rather than just generically noting the labels: “thinking,” “feeling,” and “body sensation.” This time, mentally say something like: “judging,” “criticizing,” “sadness,” “happiness,” “throbbing sensation,” or “stabbing sensation.” You get the idea.
Set your timer for two minutes. Close your eyes, notice your sensations and label them specifically, and then return to the text.
You’ve just brought mindful awareness to your experience. Your mind was too busy noticing itself and your body to be engaged in the, often artificial, manufacture of stressful thoughts. You just gave yourself a bit of a break. Way to go!
Short Circuiting Judgments and Encouraging Acceptance
With mindfulness, the goal is to take note of an experience for what it is without any further judgment and without the need to change what’s happening. Ideally there’s no layering over the experience with further, personal, biased perspectives. These biased perspectives lead to either a desire for, or a rejection of, what you’re currently experiencing. Remember that your normal response to an experience is to have an initial judgment of the event. Rather than just accepting this reaction, you tend to amplify it and judge yourself even further.
When Mika’s on a diet and has some ice cream, she feels bad that she gave in to her cravings. She’s angry about what she’s done. Next, she makes the judgment that she’s always making these mistakes, and her pattern of thoughts leads right into her habitual story about how she’s hopeless and so fat that no one could ever love her. All this from a bowl of ice cream!
Ideally there would just be the awareness that she has eaten ice cream without the subsequent judgments. She would then accept that she chose to eat ice cream without any denial, guilt, or resistance. This may not have been the best decision that she could have made given her diet, but she doesn’t have to torment herself over it. She can accept and learn from what she has done and act accordingly in the future.
However, as you now know, it is the nature of the mind to compare every event to a personal belief system. If Mika could bring mindfulness to her situation, she would be aware of the mental, emotional, and physical responses and just accept the judgment and anger without needing to deny it or to be totally swept away by it.
It requires a lot of mental energy to either suppress an event or actively seek after it. In fact when you actively try to suppress a mental state it usually gives it more energy to return and persevere. Inevitably, further automatic judgments develop. Mindfulness can help you to simply be aware, that is to stay present, to the anger, frustration, or hopelessness that may arise as a consequence of a decision, without encouraging these emotions any further.
Mindfulness and Equanimity
Equanimity is another feature of mindfulness. When you’re present in the moment to what you’re experiencing, you’re calm and accepting. Equanimity means basically that you accept things as they are. You may not like what you’re experiencing, but how can you change what has already happened? It is what it is!
The action of eating ice cream may not have been Mika’s best choice under the circumstances, but this doesn’t make her unlovable! The action may not have been the best decision, but it doesn’t make her a bad person either. The practice of mindfulness stops habitual thought patterns in their tracks whenever you choose to apply it. You’ll practice just accepting whatever arises, whether it’s the initial event, or the automatic judgments that sneak in before you can refocus your awareness again on the present.
Non-Attachment and Non-Identification: Letting Go of the Velcro Mind
When you say to yourself, “I am angry,” or “I am hurt,” or “I am sad,” you’re personalizing your experience. You’re identifying with the “I” that you perceive is experiencing this emotion. This serves to make it feel more believable, more real and more powerful. If you can learn to describe your emotions with the phrases “now anger,” “now pain,” “now sadness,” you’re distancing yourself by just labeling a generic mental state, an emotion, or a physical sensation. In a way, you’re gaining some much-needed perspective, so that you can stand back a bit.
Recall that thoughts pop up and vanish just as quickly, but when you latch on to them and stick them into a pattern of storytelling, emotions are triggered. It’s all invented, imagined and constructed in your Velcro Mind. The mind likes to attach new experiences to memories of previous ones and to personally identify with what’s occurring. If you can start to take the “I” out of things, you will be practicing what mindfulness describes as non-identification and non-attachment. Think of an emotion that you experience as not ‘your’ emotion per se but just as ‘an emotion’, a mental state that has developed and can just as easily go away. It’s just how your mind works.
It’s important to recognize that the term is non-attachment, not detachment. You’re not walling yourself off from the experience in any way. The experience just becomes a little less sticky and your Velcro Mind, which likes to grab and hold onto things, can let go a bit. You’re just recognizing an experience for its true impermanent nature and labeling it. In actual fact, by doing so, you’re really experiencing the mental state and its emotional and physical expression in its totality.
You As the Observer: What to do? Don’t do anything!
When being mindful, you’re an observer in your own mind and body. This may be the most difficult thing mindfulness asks you to do, but the best way to think about it is that you’re really not doing anything. You’re just being present to what presents itself without reacting, judging or criticizing. Can you just observe what’s unfolding?
On the one hand, it’s a passive process in that you’re not trying to alter your experiences in any way. It can also be a very active personal process, as it initially requires a lot of strength, courage and endurance to allow very strong thoughts, feelings and physical sensations to just be present without wanting to change them and without getting swept up in their drama. It can also be very interesting to see how dynamic and changing any sensation can be as you simply observe it.
When you’re able to observe your mind’s own actions from a distance, by just focusing your awareness, this creates a separation from the activities of the mind. This is the much-needed ‘step back’ that we talked about earlier. You become the witness, the observer to the experience rather than the “I” who is experiencing the event. You can then come to the moment with curiosity, interest and acceptance. Awareness is very valuable, as it allows you to be present from a place that is not your usual thinking, evaluating, judging mind. By observing your thoughts and stepping back, you realize that who you are, is more than just the sum of your thoughts.
Mindfulness and Compassion: Be Kind to Yourself
Compassion is an integral part of mindfulness. When you’re present to the wild thoughts, emotions and physical sensations that your mind and body are throwing at you every second of every day, it’s important to recognize that all this simply reflects your own unique makeup. What makes you uniquely you, is significantly influenced by your inner child and its need to be loved and accepted. The inner child is a part of your mind that still reacts to events in a child-like manner.
There is only one you. Have compassion for the child you once were and the difficulties inherent in the human condition. Have compassion and understanding for yourself, as you go through a process of trying to change long-standing patterns and deeply held beliefs by observing them with your newfound knowledge and awareness. You need to accept, as best you can, your own humanity and cherish who you are. You do not deserve to be rejected and criticized (especially by your own judging mind!) but you do deserve to be honored and loved.
Mindfulness and Letting Go: Don’t Ride the Train!
When something happens that you feel strongly about, you probably cling to the story and thoughts surrounding the event. You identify with the event and embellish it. This feeds the event and along with its accompanying storyline and emotions, it has more energy to remain front and center in your awareness. It’s important for you to try to experience something only as long as it naturally persists without prolonging it with amplification, attachment and identification. There is a constant train of thoughts that you’re receiving. You have the choice of riding on the train and letting it take you wherever it goes, or stepping off the train and just watching it go by without ever climbing on board.
Mindfulness and the Origin of Thought
We previously examined the origin of thoughts. We discussed the fact that the mind measures every internal and external sensation against a conditioned belief system in order to determine whether the sensation is valuable or not. Your belief system primarily originated back when you were a child. You internalized your parents’ standards and acted accordingly, in order to feel safe, loved and protected. The fear of abandonment is one of the prime motivators of a child’s actions.
The child creates a story in response to every new sensation, which leads to an unconscious, conditioned, habitual response pattern. This is the foundation of your belief system. If you can consciously recognize this, then you will be better able to appreciate the fact that, as an adult, some of your responses are actually controlled by the belief system of a four-year-old child; the child that you once were!
This may have been a very effective belief system and response pattern for you when you were four but that was many years ago. Your thoughts should seem a little less powerful and meaningful as you consider that their origins may be your early childhood.
Mindfulness and the Emptiness of Thought
Mindfulness is not just about cultivating an awareness of the present moment. It’s important to also see the true nature of your experiences. You are often so caught up in the content of your experiences that you believe them to be real, rather than an interpretation created by your busy mind. You can’t let go of what your mind is creating, its stories and drama, and so you strongly identify with this interpretation as being who you are.
Think about the following questions briefly to help you better realize that your thoughts are temporary and illusory: Can you see a thought? Can you feel a thought? Can you point to a thought? Do you think a thought or does it arise spontaneously? Can you find the “I” who thinks a thought? Review the practice and summary sections of chapter 3 to reconnect with the idea that your mind is quite the storyteller and that your thoughts are not the whole truth.
As we progress in this book, I will outline additional techniques that will demonstrate how your mind creates its sense of reality and from that, its sense of suffering as well. In examining the process of thought development, from initial experience to story-creation and subsequent emotional and physical responses, you will see how the mind takes every experience and changes it according to your belief system. One such technique involves having a conversation or dialogue with your inner critic. You will see that the origin of your belief system is your own inner child trying to be safe.
When you can see how your thoughts are your own mental creations, empty illusions and fabrications, you’ll have the key that will allow you to let these thoughts go. This key is nothing more than a clear understanding of the process of thought development. It will give you the tools to see through the smoke of your conditioned experiences and realize an underlying truth; each thought is basically empty. This is what’s so liberating about mindfulness.
Mindfulness and Impermanence
A thought, emotion or physical sensation doesn’t last forever. When you’re in a certain frame of mind it sure feels permanent and you probably believe that it is. However, if you really observe whatever you’re experiencing, you’ll see it change. You may have some truly terrible thoughts about yourself or something that happened to you, but ultimately your mind lets go of it all. You then, at least temporarily, start thinking about what you’re going to have for dinner, what to wear tomorrow or what shopping you have to do.
If you can get your mind around the idea that all mental states are temporary and impermanent, it can give you the courage to face what life is throwing at you. Be comforted by the knowledge that however bad it may appear, it will change in time. Remember that thoughts are like clouds in the sky that come and go across your field of consciousness.
Mindfulness and the Light of Awareness
It’s very interesting to observe what happens to any sensation when mindfulness is brought to it. When a sensation is observed, it changes. Just think about doing something like singing, playing sports, or talking in public. How does it feel when you know that someone is watching? How does it change the action? When you bring a mindful awareness to your sensations, it has the same effect.
It’s time for another exercise. Think about something that has given you some difficulty recently. When the story arises, begin to label the emotions that pop up, just as you practiced earlier. Say things such as “Now sadness,” “Now anger,” “Now pain.” Bring your attention to what you’re experiencing. Just be the observer. Don’t start thinking about it! Simply observe what happens to the story or emotion. Be curious. How does it change? Does it become stronger or weaker? Does the emotion keep growing or quiet down? Does the story continue or stop?
Set your timer for two minutes, close your eyes, notice what happens to a difficult memory as you observe it and then read on.
It’s fascinating to observe the power that mindfulness can have over your sensations. When your mind is watched, it seems to know that and it changes its behaviour. When you bring mindfulness to your sensations, it decreases their intensity. They often stop all together.
Mindfulness is a technique that I personally have found to be a liberating experience. I’m no longer always at the mercy of my mind and the stories it tells. I have the ability to respond appropriately rather than reacting unconsciously to what arises. It truly is a path to a peaceful mind!
There are several things you can do everyday to start practicing mindfulness:
- For five to ten minutes in the morning and/or in the evening, sit quietly and simply observe the thoughts, emotions and physical sensations that arise. Label them as you notice them e.g., “Now thinking,” “Now sadness,” “Now a squeezing discomfort,” etc.
- When a negative, or unpleasant event occurs, stop and observe the thoughts, emotions and physical sensations that arise as a consequence of the event.
- When a happy, or pleasant event occurs, stop and observe the thoughts, emotions and physical sensations that arise as a result of the event.
- During the day, whenever you can, try to label whatever internal or external sensation comes into your consciousness.
- Choose an environmental cue that will help you to be mindful. This could be, for example, before you eat, brush your teeth, shave, shower, take a walk, or answer the phone. Set your wristwatch or cell phone so that an alarm goes off every hour. Whenever a cue occurs, stop and try to be mindful of what you’re thinking, feeling and physically experiencing at that moment.
- Put Post-it notes up around the house, in your car, or at your place of work to remind you to be mindful.
- You constantly identify with your thoughts and emotions.
- Mindfulness is an accepting, non-judging, non-attached and compassionate awareness of your experience as it unfolds in the present moment.
- Mindfulness is the cultivated ability to be present to what you experience without having to react to it or change it.
- Mindfulness encourages you to be intentionally aware of your thoughts, emotions and physical sensations whenever possible.
- Mindfulness encourages you to accept them as mental energy that arises and then as quickly moves on.
- Be an observer in your own mind and body and try not to identify so strongly with your thoughts and emotions.
- Practicing more compassion for yourself is an important aspect of mindfulness.
- By mindfully focusing on what occurs in your body during emotional responses, you can learn how to calm yourself sooner.
- Thoughts, emotions and physical sensations don’t last forever and will change or go away. Just be patient.