What is mindfulness and how to increase it

Posted by Reeve Staff in Life After Paralysis on January 03, 2020 # Lifestyle

“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky.” [1]

At some point in life, you may have watched the clouds. Maybe it was a game you played as a child to study how many animal-shaped clouds you could find. Perhaps you imagined the clouds racing each other on a windy day.

Are the clouds like our feelings? In a sense, we can “watch” our feelings mentally, just as we might watch the movement of the clouds in the sky. We can also develop the capacity to watch how our feelings arise and fall. We may feel some relief that the intensity of a feeling, perhaps discomfort, can change. How does it change? Mindfulness invites us to observe this.

“What kind of cloud do your feelings represent in this moment? Are your feelings like a fluffy cloud, just floating in the blue? Maybe your feelings are like a storm cloud? If they are, imagine the angry raindrops just falling away. Maybe your feelings are like a sparkly cloud, full of snowflakes. Take a long breath in and let it all the way out” [2]

Again, the invitation to see what is there. Mindfulness is a way of paying attention to the present moment without judgement. It may mean taking a closer look into what seems foggy, or otherwise uncertain. Simple observation helps us stay present and avoid getting caught up in the feeling, since feelings change. As we know, the fog has a way of drifting and clearing, often just enough to find our way through for a bit of time.

“You are the sky. Everything else is just the weather.” [3]

We know though, that we are not our feelings, not the clouds, or any weather. Not the sun, nor the moon or stars. Maybe you’ve flown in an airplane and watched it travel up through the clouds and then above the clouds. If not, perhaps you’ve seen photos/videos of this. What has happened? The clouds, formerly above us, now appear as a fluffy carpet below the plane. The sky is still that great big canvas; yet our perspective has shifted.

Our perspective also shifts when we practice mindful awareness. We watch what is there, and we are aware that we are watching it. This is called meta-cognition. We first work at becoming aware, and then to being aware of our awareness. We find the space between reaction and action, and we expand it to create precious perspective.

“Conscious breathing is my anchor.” [4]

To do this, most often we focus our attention on the cycles of the breath, or another some sensory data available to us. We just watch. These are present moment experiences to focus upon. We might watch for the space where inhaled breath transitions to exhaled breath, listen for sounds in room without interpreting them, study the touch of air across our forehead or sensations at the nostrils or other parts of the body. It’s that simple; but with profound effects.

“Use the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain and illness.” [5]

Research indicates mindfulness has significant effects for anxiety, depression and psychological distress. Behavioral health professionals have incorporated it into other therapeutic modalities, like mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral therapy (MBCT). As measured over a two-year period, MBCT may even be as effective as maintenance antidepressants for preventing depressive relapses, decreasing residual depressive symptoms and improving quality of life. We’ll talk about more of the terrific benefits of mindfulness in the Reeve Foundation webinar “Using mindfulness to support life after paralysis” on January 8, 2020 at 2:00 p.m. EST.

Here are two additional ways that mindfulness teachers often use to start applying the idea to challenging thoughts, feelings and emotions that arise in life.

R-A-I-N

When we recognize the presence of a strong emotion, we might aim to acknowledge/affirm that it is there. Allowing it lets us bring inquiry to it with kindness and breath. We investigate it with non-judgment. Not identifying with it helps us avoid getting caught up in the emotion. The space created here makes room for our natural wisdom to emerge on its own. It’s recommended to start with milder emotions in the beginning.

S-T-O-P

We begin by finding some time(s) in our day to stop other activities and be aware of the body taking a breath. As your body breathes, you might simply observe the thoughts, feelings and emotions you are experiencing, without analyzing them. When this feels complete, you might proceed with something that feels supportive, maybe a comfortable stretch or nurturing self-hug, and move into the next aspect of your day.

If the word “stop” feels distressing, consider thinking about it as a “pause” instead. In an earlier blog about anxiety, we talked about practicing some pauses, or mindful moments, throughout your day.

Perhaps you can begin each morning with a mindful pause. The moment you realize that you are awake is a powerful time since you are transitioning between brain wave states. Then add another pause just before lunch and dinner to add mental nourishment before eating. A final pause for the day, just before bedtime, can defrag the mind, relax the body and help you float away, right into a blissful session of sleep.

After all, you are the sky.

Remember that each situation is unique. This blog is not intended as medical advice, or to replace behavioral health care. Please consult your healthcare team.

[1] Part one of a quote attributed to Thích Nhãt Hanh, a global spiritual leader, poet, peace activist and mindfulness pioneer.
[2] Adaptation of “How to be a cloud” from Kira Willey’s music and mindfulness for children.
[3] Quote attributed to Pema Chödrӧn, a global meditation expert.
[4] Part two of a quote attributed to Thích Nhãt Hanh, a global spiritual leader, poet, peace activist and mindfulness pioneer.
[5] Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, is founding Executive Director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

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Terry Gupta, MSW, C-IAYT, E-RYT500, YACEP, along with her partner Jay Gupta, RPh, MSc, MTM Specialist, C-IAYT, is co-Founder of www.YogaCaps.org and www.RxRelax.com.