Often our bodies can be busy doing something, such as driving or washing dishes, while our minds are planning the rest of the day, or rehashing a conversation from earlier in the week. Mindfulness refers to bringing together our minds and bodies using all our senses. For instance, while eating, notice all the colors and textures of the food; smell the odors in the air; notice bodily responses to the food in front of you; and taste each morsel. The current Western, psychological notion of mindfulness is defined by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn as intentionally bringing moment-to-moment awareness to the present experience.
Let’s try mindfulness. Take a few deep breaths. If it is easy to do so, gently let go of any tension around your eyes or mouth. Feel your feet on the ground and your hands in your lap. Notice the breath moving in and out of the body at the nose or mouth. Feel the temperature of the air on your skin. Notice the smell of the air and sounds around you. Open your eyes after a few minutes. How did it feel to practice mindfulness?
“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response.” – Victor Frankl
Mindfulness is also called heartfulness, reflecting a compassionate awareness towards ourselves and others. We have the opportunity to respond to our experience with kindness. When starting to practice mindfulness, some people notice that they are constantly judging themselves and others. I can’t believe he said that! Why would she do that with her kid? I should have done this earlier. It goes on and on. Try letting go of the content and responding to the feeling behind the words. For instance, if you are being critical of yourself, you may try softening your tone—easy to say, hard to do.
Techniques to manage thoughts and emotions
With mindfulness, we can practice new ways of relating to thoughts.
First, we can put all thoughts in the same category, regardless of their importance or content. I heard a meditation teacher say that the mind produces thoughts like the mouth produces saliva. Mindfulness does not aim to make thoughts go away; rather it allows us to relate to them differently. See if you can start conceptualizing thoughts as a distraction from the moment, much like noises or an itch. If you would like to spend more time with a thought, choose a time to do so rather than allowing your thoughts to distract you at any time.
Second, allow thoughts to occur. Meditation teacher Tempel Smith suggests imagining thoughts as the Thanksgiving Day parade passing by. Some floats may be silly, some interesting, and others fun. Allow each thought to move in and out of your awareness, rather than getting on the float to dance with the characters! You may be having the thought, but you can choose whether to engage with it or feed it.
Emotion and thoughts go hand in hand. Emotions can set off a storm of thoughts, and vice versa. Memory is mood-dependent, meaning that when we are upset, it is easier to think of other times that we felt the same way. Instead of trying to “think” your way out of the problem, which can be called ruminating, explore what the emotion feels like in your body.Through evolution, our body registers “threats” such as worries by tensing, contracting, or bracing. Expanding your awareness to include body sensations can allow the storm of emotions to take its course rather than feeding it with thoughts. As difficult and counterintuitive as it seems, try your best to sit with the pain; breathe with it rather than trying to explain it, change it, or make it go away. There is a rhythm to emotional experience and if you are open to observing it, it will ebb and flow. Even the most intense experiences subtly change from moment to moment.
An alternative technique is to take a break from the emotion. Know how much intense emotion you can withstand. When you are ready for a break, you might ask yourself, “What would make me feel a little better right now?” It may be as simple as going for a walk or drinking a cup of hot tea. You may also get support from a friend, partner, or therapist.
Another way to take a break is to develop curiosity about different emotions. Rather than saying, “I am an angry person,” try thinking of anger as a visitor with a lesson to teach. You may wonder, “Which situations cause me to be angry? What thoughts come with anger?” This exercise can help you to take a step back from the experience rather than fusing with the emotion. It may also allow you to see the whole picture, rather than feeling like you will be stuck in an emotion forever.
Like many other healthful habits, continuity and sustained practice are required to build momentum when using mindfulness, particularly to alter our relationship with thoughts and emotions. Practice, be patient, be forgiving, and get support.
For more information, read Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn or The Mindful Way Through Depression by Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Jon Kabat-Zinn and Zindel Segal; find a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) class; or try Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT).
Vickie Chang, PhD is a psychologist in private practice in Menlo Park. She uses mindfulness and other strategies to help adolescents and adults to manage stress and to develop a grounded sense of well-being. She can be reached at (650) 351-1305 or www.vickiechangphd.com.