You Can Count On Stress, and Mindfulness

Stress is inevitable and sometimes unrelenting. It ranges from mild to toxic, and from helpful to harmful. We’ve all experienced the full spectrum of stress, from being motivated to immobilized, and we know that much of how it effects us is determined by how we respond to it.

This is REALLY good news, because it means we have agency. We can’t stop stress, but we can choose how it will impact us. Just like we can learn to surf a wave or to simply get out of the way, we can learn to manage and reduce stress.

Mindfulness has been studied and taught as a method for stress reduction for over thirty years, and the results are promising. Just as we can count on stress recurring in our lives, we can learn to count on mindfulness as a way to respond to stressful situations and to cope with the feelings and effects of stress.

The first step is to notice that you’re stressed. This may sound like an oversimplification, but we all have moments when stress sneaks up on us. Occasionally, stress gets the better of me and I loose my cool. And it’s usually my kids who put me over the edge.

Afterwards, I feel terrible. I should know better, I think. Fact is, what I know isn’t of consequence in those moments. What makes the difference is how I feel. If I haven’t attended to myself and stress has accumulated, like a glass that’s been filled to the rim, then all it takes is one small thing–one more drop–to cause an overflow.

Sometimes, I don’t realize how full the glass is until I’m in a moment of overflow.

Before deepening my mindfulness practice, these moments were more common. Over the last several years as I’ve become more mindful, they’ve become less and less frequent. I’m grateful for the skillful means to manage stress as it’s helping me set a better example for my children, though I still have much to learn.

One practice that I return to for stress reduction, is heartbreathing.

Once you have taken the first step and identified that you’re feeling stress, the next step is to attend to it. Name it. This is stress. I feel stressed. Then, make a choice to manage it. I’m going to take a few moments to breath and reduce this feeling of stress.

Try this: Heartbreathing

Heartbreathing is a technique developed and taught by the HeartMath Institute. 

  1. Find a comfortable place to sit or stand. Silence is preferable, but not necessary.
  2. Close your eyes, or find a gazing point.
  3. Take several normal breaths, noticing where the breath is in your body. Try to breathe all way into your belly, and then to push the breath all the way out on the exhale.
  4. Now, notice the area around the heart. The front, the back, and each side.
  5. Continue normal breathing. Just noticing.
  6. On an in-breath, imagine that you can breath directly through the chest wall and into the heart. Practice a few of these breaths, imagining that you can breathe directly in and out of the heart. This is called heartbreathing.
  7. Next, notice the sensations around the heart. How does the area around your heart feel?
  8. Return to normal breathing.

When you’re done, notice how you feel. You’re likely to feel at least a little bit more relaxed but, if not, that’s okay. I once suggested some breathing exercises to a family member new to mindfulness and, after trying them, she reported with frustration that she, “just can’t breathe!”I assured her that she could learn to breathe in this new way with practice.

In fact, the only way any of us benefit from mindfulness is through practice, which is also the only way anyone learns to surf a wave, or to cope better with the inevitable stressors of life. The reward for our commitment to practice are moments of calm and ease. I wish you many of both.

 

How to Practice

There’s no wrong way to practice mindfulness meditation, though there are some general instructions that will make your practice more effective. The goal is to live a mindful life, and a good place to start is with daily practice.

When you sit to meditate, you may think that it’s your job to bring your mind to stillness, but it isn’t. The mind is naturally busy. When we meditate, our goal is to notice the busyness of the mind, not to stop it.

Interestingly, as we notice without judgement our mind does slow down and we may find ourselves experiencing a moment of complete mental stillness.

Here’s a basic practice to get your started:

Basic Mindfulness Meditation—Breath Counting

  1. Sit comfortably in a quiet location without distractions. Feet are flat on the floor, back straight, and hands resting in your lap. Close your eyes, or find a gazing point. Comfort is essential, so take a few moments to achieve it. Alter the position as needed to accommodate your body. You can lie down, if necessary. Sitting upright is preferred because we are more attentive when sitting and less likely to fall asleep.
  2. Bring your attention to the breath. Notice it moving in and out of the body. 
  3. Begin to count your breaths on each exhale. Count up to ten breaths to start.
  4. Consider the breath as an anchor, holding your attention in the present moment.
  5. You may want to count more, or less. As you practice you’ll be able to sit for longer periods of time.
  6. As you count your breaths, notice any thoughts and feelings without judgement. Allow them to pass through your awareness like birds flying across a bright, blue sky.

It’s best to practice daily around the same time and at the same place, but if you can’t do that, it’s okay. I’m a busy, working mom of two. Being able to meditate everyday at the same time and place isn’t always possible, and for many years this made a meditation practice seem out of reach. I also don’t have one dedicated place in my home for meditation. I have two spots that I like: one in my living room and one in my office. Even still, I sometimes meditate in my bedroom or in the car when I have a few moments before moving on to the next place or pick-up.

If I can’t sit in the morning, I carve out time during the day, or later at night after the kids are asleep. Sometimes I meditate for very short periods (2-5 minutes) several times a day. I prefer to dedicate 20 minutes every morning, but if I can’t, no biggie. I know I can work my practice in later in the day.

Make your practice your own, and keep at it. You may find that it becomes more organized and consistent over time. As your body and mind become accustom to this nourishing practice, you’ll want to return to it. It will become a joy, a retreat, a refreshing break that will enrich and deepen your daily experience.

The Unfolding

pp550x550-u4

When we talk about mindfulness, many of us who are steeped in the practice and the literature also talk about an unfolding.

The unfolding feels like a slow opening that seems to have no end, like a flower that blooms to infinity. There’s always another petal to unfurl, another space to create, another way to expand.

The unfolding doesn’t seem to be especially organized, either. Awareness grows exponentially in one area of life for a period of time and then slows, only to move unpredictably to some other area of life.

Looking back on the unfolding can reveal patterns of growth and change–but, since we are always right in the middle of it, the unknown is ever present.

Where will my life open up next? How will my awareness change now? Where is this curiosity leading me?

Depending on how you feel about uncertainty, the constant unknown that comes with the unfolding can be stressful, frightening, exhilarating, or a combination of all three.

It can also be reassuring to know that life is changing. We aren’t static beings in a static world. This is especially true if current circumstances are challenging. But even if life is fabulous right now, it can be exciting to know that more good is to come.

When we resist the unfolding, we hold tightly onto something in the present instead of allowing the natural rhythms of growth and change to do their work. This doesn’t mean that change isn’t actually and truly scary; it may very well be the most difficult change of your life. Resisting it makes it even more so.

So, what to do?

Allow it. Make room for the resistance, the fear, the joy, the excitement,  and the unfolding.

And breathe.

Return to the breath, which will bring you into your body, which will bring you into this moment where everything is as it should be.

 

 

Why Mindfulness?

8f95b1fc691396cc5a304c781978dbe9Since I began deepening my mindfulness practice and teaching it to others, I’ve shared my enthusiasm for mindfulness in many casual conversations. Responses are often supportive, interested, curious, and sometimes suspicious or dismissive.

And I get it.

Mindfulness is trendy, and with trendy often comes superficial. There’s a commercial aspect as people move to capitalize on a concept or idea. So, you’re right to be cautious.

Before you dismiss mindfulness as just another trend or self-help gimmick, I invite you to see beyond the warm and fuzzy quote memes and products to the truth of the practice.

Mindfulness is not new. We in the west have not improved upon it, and it’s essence is so simple and contained that it can’t be adulterated. Perhaps someone could try to turn it into something more or different, but in it’s true form mindfulness is a state of mind that can’t be redefined.

This sets it apart from religion or spirituality, which are subject to multitudes of interpretations and inventions.

Mindfulness is simply directing our attention to the present moment and noticing what’s happening right here, right now without judgement.

How you practice mindfulness is only limited by your curiosity and creativity. The essential practice itself is unchanging.

In my wide and varied study of self-help books and content, I find again and again that at the foundation of any system or theory that is devised to help you change or improve is mindfulness, whether the author uses the term or not.

At the heart of any story about overcoming grief, addiction, depression, or other trial is a moment of mindfulness. A shock of clarity. The hard slap of truth. It’s the moment when all of the noise and nonsense falls away and the individual sees the raw, unfiltered truth and from that place they are also able to see a way out of their struggle.

Mindfulness is a way to heal and sooth the mind and body, and it’s an ability available to all of us.

Mindfulness can lead to freedom from our inner struggles. If we can crack the code on what’s going on inside us and heal it, then the inner hate, fear, criticism, ridicule, and heartache won’t become the outer cruelty, discrimination, inequity, and violence that we see too much of in this world.

So, why mindfulness? Because mindfulness is a way to come home to loving and accepting ourselves and it’s only from that place that we can contribute our best to greater good.

Mindfulness Practice: The Thank You Hug

4923721453_939e852e8e_o

Embrace a loved one, or hold a pet in your lap or close to you, for at least 20 seconds. Longer is even better. During the hug, notice how it feels to hold this person close. How does their body and skin feel? How do they smell? What fond memories do you have of embracing this person? Take in the good feeling of hugging someone you care about. As you experience the hug, repeat to yourself silently or out loud, Thank You, Thank You, Thank You. You are taking in the good through noticing and gratitude.

Negativity Bias

Our brains are wired to protect us from harm. Early humans needed to detect and avoid threats such at predatory animals in order to survive and the primitive part of our brain, often referred to as the lizard brain, helped us do just that. This early survival skill  is what we now call the negativity bias, a tendency to see and react to our environment as though it is a threat.

We can thank the bias for our proliferation as a species. We can also attribute our high stress levels and general unhappiness as a species to the bias. Modern humans perceive everyday occurrences, such as misunderstandings and crowded places, as threats thereby kicking the bias into action.

When it’s activated we are in the reactive flight, fight, or freeze mode rather than in a state of presence and calm. I think we can all agree that more presence and calm in our lives will lead to better relationships and increased happiness and well-being.

Here’s a great resource for confronting and dealing with the negativity bias:

https://www.rickhanson.net/how-your-brain-makes-you-easily-intimidated/