Sitting tall on the floor, I close my eyes. I begin to hear sounds in the distance. What is it? It seems close and yet there was a distant echo. The echo drifts into quiet silence. The clock ticks and I think of the faded noise. Could it have been a car alarm or siren? I remember the sound of our house alarm as it was triggered by a faulty sensor last year. I think of my daughter. She is on her way home, but I haven’t heard from her. Tick, Tick, Tick! The clock gets louder and I just notice something. I notice that my mind has wandered on a magic carpet ride.
If you’ve attempted to meditate or simply sit in a quiet area and bring awareness to your breath, the mind takes over.Our lives are constantly flooded with stimuli. In fact, as I write this blog, a stream of “to-dos” flow through my mind. Like leaves on a narrow, winding river in the autumn, thoughts float onto the surface. The currents move and flow attempting to sweep around the protruding rocks. Eddies are formed with swirling currents when the leaves get stuck. As the leaves attempt to break loose, more follow with water lapping over the rocks and frantic whirlpools forming. Our full minds, like the analogy, cascade into a seemingly endless whitewater rapid just waiting to pull us down. The good news is that, with practice, the anxious river can turn into a calm and present stream.
Over the last twenty years, I’ve taught mindfulness. Simply put, mindfulness is purposely paying attention in the present moment without judgement. It doesn’t mean dismissing the unpleasant and only experiencing feelings of joy. It can incorporate breath awareness, body scanning as well as other techniques.
When mindfulness was fresh in my career, I worked with a group of adolescents who had stomach aches with no medical cause. One thing they had in common was increased stress levels. Weekly, each was taught mindful skills. They practiced while they were connected to electrical sensors that assisted them in receiving information about their body (biofeedback). After several weeks of training and guidance, many reported lower stress levels and decreased or absent stomach aches which was my first “real life” observation.
After witnessing the results of mindfulness, I thought there was another group who could benefit. For six months, I traveled the eastern region of North Carolina and trained medical staff on ways to decrease stress and improve resiliency. Calmer states of mind, fewer headaches, less heartburn were discovered. Additional benefits were decreased heart rate and blood pressure which I didn’t anticipate. The results seemed to be indicative of the “relaxation response” I read so much about.
Herbert Benson coined the phrase “relaxation response” after performing multiple studies in the 1960s and 70s. This response is opposite of the “fight or flight” reaction. It helps combat the physiological effects of stress including headache, stomach upset, muscle tension, accelerated heart rate and more.
Stress is a normal part of life. Without it, we’d be bored. Too much stress without any downtime is too arousing to the central nervous system. Chronic stress has been connected with health concerns ranging from anxiety, digestive problems, heart disease and weight gain to immunosuppression. Finding a balance is key. To learn more, I decided to train in the late 90s with the guru and founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Since then, I’ve been assisting diverse populations with stress resilience.
There is so much research indicating the importance and positive outcomes of practicing mindfulness. I’ve personally seen calmer minds, greater productivity and health improvements in those I’ve worked with. What you don’t often read or hear about is the perspective of how these techniques assist the actual mindful instructor.
I practice what I preach but I am human. Some days, weeks, months are better than others. As a yoga, MBSR and meditation practitioner, I teach weekly. In order to provide the best instruction, it’s important for me to feel grounded and center myself prior. When I finish instructing, I feel a sense of calm and that’s a great perk. With that said, there is nothing more valuable than my own personal practice of yoga and meditation. During times of being truly committed, I find that my body, mind and spirit are in harmony. The benefits of the practice intertwine into everyday life so it feels as if I’m practicing mindfulness on and off the mat. I put better quality foods in my body. I slow down and take time to smell the roses. My sleep is more restful. Although my perfectionism is still there, it’s not in full mode. My body feels better, I’m calmer and more patient. I’m in the “flow.”
In positive psychology, the term “flow” describes the mental state in which someone is fully immersed in an activity. Time flies, there’s inner clarity and you’re in the present moment. The ego doesn’t rear its ugly head and the feeling you have is rewarding/intrinsic motivation. It’s a feeling like no other.
Three years ago, there was quite a bit of chaos in my life. We all have those times when everything happens at once and you feel as if you’re riding the roller coaster of life. My mother-in-law was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer without a positive prognosis. She was in a great deal of pain so I spent time supporting my husband, of course, as well as teaching her mindful meditation. I created audios she could listen to when I wasn’t there. You may think that being in the present is the last thing you want to experience when you’re in pain but MBSR was created over 35 years ago for that very reason. She was devoted to her practice. Just a couple of weeks after she passed, we found out that my daughter needed major surgery. Once again, I was using mindfulness to help calm my daughter’s anxious mind prior to surgery. This was also effective during the recovery process. Along the way, I found that I was postponing my own practice. When my daughter got the green light to go back to school, my 56 year old aunt was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. After the turbulent and emotional journey of these circumstances, I decided it was time for me to welcome self-care. I tell my students that to provide the best care to another, we must first take care of ourselves. I had not been faithful to my own advice.
To ensure commitment, I scheduled appointments with myself. I planned mindful meditation sessions at home on my front porch which involved journaling afterwards. Mindful yoga sessions were practiced outside in nature allowing me to focus on my body and breath. I also practiced with teachers at yoga studios. I trusted the process and enjoyed the journey rather than searching for a destination. What I ended up finding was myself and that euphoric byproduct of the practice – bliss. I hadn’t felt this way in many months and did not realize how stressed I had become. Sometimes we lose ourselves and are overwhelmed with life experiences. The rituals and traditions that used to be habit become buried. It was a relief to discover that the embers of consciousness were still burning underneath the wreckage. All it took was self-dedication to have them glow once again.
In today’s society, we are captivated with “doing” rather than simply “being.” Without judgement, be in the present and don’t stress or second guess if you’re meditating or breathing the correct way. It’s not about sitting in the right position or reaching a certain goal or state of enlightenment. It’s turning inward and being in moment-to-moment awareness. The minute you find your mind leaping from vine to vine in the jungle of life, you’ve just become mindful. This is when you come back to the breath, rinse and repeat. With practice, mindfulness becomes easier. The beauty is that you can incorporate mindfulness into daily activities such as washing dishes, standing in line or taking a walk. Once it becomes part of who you are, no matter if life has other plans, it’s still within you.
If you don’t have a mindful practice but are interested in cultivating calm, creativity and happiness, self-healing is just a breath away. Looking for a place to start? Look no more! Try the mindfulness practice below.