What Is Mindfulness, What Does It Have To Do With You, And Why Is It So Necessary?

Mindfulness is a particular way of paying attention to 1) expand awareness or 2) focus attention. Below is some brief information on these two applications of mindfulness as it relates to your life and to the practice of psychotherapy.

AWARENESS

What are the benefits of awareness?

  • Increasing awareness increases options (less experiences of feeling or getting “stuck”)
  • Increasing options for how to react to stressors increases a sense of confidence and self control when confronted with life circumstances
  • Increasing awareness helps people understand why they behave the way they do and what controls their behavior
  • Increasing awareness helps people to identify patterns of responding, or repeating themes that may show up again and again, and can be better understood with curiosity and analysis
  • Increasing awareness helps to clarify, understand, and organize behavior in a more meaningful way
  • Increasing awareness (ie, awareness of anger) helps people to be assertive/ proactive, solve problems, and organize action

What problems accompany limited awareness?

  • Repeating patterns of getting stuck
  • Minimizes flexible and adaptive coping
  • Can be likened to zoning out, dissociating, not paying attention, missing out, or failing to show up for one’s life
  • Can increase vulnerability to do, say, or behave in ways that are acquiescent/ compliant; no self-awareness leads to responding/ reacting to environment (reduced autonomy, reduced control, reduced capacity for interpersonal influence/ power)
  • Limited awareness is associated with not knowing oneself, what one likes/ doesn’t like, wants/ doesn’t want
  • If you can’t know yourself (trust experience) how you can you know how to pursue a life that would be fulfilling and rewarding to you

Ways Awareness can bring pain

  • Losses associated with missing out on ones life
  • Grieving times/ time in life when things could have been better (had a person been more aware)
  • Awareness of hope and possibility can feel risky or unfamiliar
  • Familiarity and predictability help people feel consistency/ stability, thus awareness of alternatives can be uncomfortable/ unfamiliar
  • If a past history of problematic responses evoked a particular set of behaviors (escalated conflict results in nurturing/ attentiveness from partner), awareness of alternative ways of behaving may be initially aversive / won’t get immediate desired response

Things to be aware of:

  • Emotions, actions, urges, desires, hurts, want
  • Physical sensations, sensitivities, breath, body awareness, gut feelings, instincts, intuitions
  • Your behavior; how you behave/ change behavior, react in certain situations, which people, in different contexts
  • Your history of behavior; how behavior started, what it means/ meant, how it served a purpose/ had a function or role for you
  • How your behavior impacts others
  • How others’ behavior impacts you

FOCUSED ATTENTION

 Why is obtaining skill to focus one’s attention important?

  • Thoughts, emotions, pain, sensation, restlessness, boredom, etc. can sometimes interfere with a person’s ability to live their life in a valued direction.
  • Thoughts and emotions can create problems, be distracting, and get us derailed
  • Obsessive thoughts, unwanted thoughts, self-defeating thoughts, self-hating thoughts, anxiety thoughts, and non-useful thoughts can threaten to take over attention, control action, and inhibit needed action
  • Staying focused can help a person be less prone to intense, unwanted, or problematic thoughts or beliefs
  • Action urges, emotional reactivity, and other behaviors often happen “automatically”, thus practicing focused attention increases your options for limiting your reactivity (For instance, if you are a person that “flies off the handle” staying focused can help you stay grounded)

Does focusing attention get rid of pain?

No, focusing attention helps a person not get consumed by other things that threaten one’s focus (ie, obsessing, ruminating). Pain is considered a normal part of the human existence; focusing mindfulness activities are not done with the purpose to destroy, get rid of, or inhibit pain.

Focusing on sound exercise. For the next 3 minutes (set a timer if you’d like), try to focus all of your attention on sounds you can hear. Pay all of your attention to the sound, and see if it is possible to do this for 3 minutes. You will likely have multiple other thoughts, sensations, experiences, or distractions that don’t keep you 100% attentive to “just sound.” Likely if you had a painful thought, the thought took you out of the exercise. So, instead of heeding that thought your attention (buying into the thought, thinking the thought, rehashing, problem solving, etc.) you simply be aware of that thought (“oh that thought is showing up again”) and gently return to focusing on sound.

Remember:

  • No one is denying you are in pain
  • You are not denying you are in pain
  • You are not refusing to think about that situation, you are simply redirecting your attention for the time you try mindfulness
  • You are increasing your control of what you pay attention to and when
  • You may need to come back to your pain at some point and solve some problems, but for the three minutes this is not your task
  • Urges, cravings, desires, urges to take action/ do something, urges to eat something, etc. may all come and go
  • You are learning over time to increase control of all of this

Often, if your life is disrupted by intense, extreme, demanding emotions your actions often follow. You may feel as if you are controlled by your emotions and your actions. Focusing attention helps people to be more “aware” of urges, emotions, disruptions, or urgency around fixing or doing something NOW. Learning to control what you pay attention to will help you control yourself; your emotions may DEMAND your attention. Focusing attention exercises can help calm you down, settle you in, and even relax you a bit.

What if I’m wrong?

Here are a couple of thoughts on the business of being “wrong.” First, the question itself begs a certain dichotomy to form in a relationship. It implies a one-up, one-down position. It can make one person more powerful, keep another at a distance, or in extreme circumstances serve as an opportunity to belittle or berate. What does being “wrong” imply about the relationship, the importance of keeping a relationship, or the way that people will continue to relate to each other? Is it worth it to damage or hurt a relationship to be “right”? If one person is “wrong”, then how is the relationship handled in the future? How do people move forward?

Next, being “wrong” might be rephrased as being technically inaccurate. If you are responding in a way to that does not match reality in a reasonable sort of way, you may be considered “wrong.” However, in some circumstances this begs the question of differences in opinion, perception, feelings, and agendas. A person can have a valid point of view, see things differently, or see aspects of a situation that another person is not able to see. This can prevent communities from being rigid, thinking “inside-the-box”, refusing to consider alternatives, or being racist or non-diverse in their thinking. Trying to understand the validity in where others come from can help us be more understanding, have better relationships, be more forgiving, and become less “stuck” in the right/wrong dichotomy. If you are technically “wrong”, this also might be your opportunity for self-correction, learning, or growth. Consider teasing out the differences of being “wrong” vs. being technically accurate, and if being “wrong” has anything to do with conflict around perspective, perception, intention, or emotion.

In addition, there is a certain cost to being “wrong.” Everyone at some point in their life has probably had an experience in which they thought something to be true, accurate, or reasonable but found this to not be the case. The cost to being “wrong” is often related to embarrassment, shame, humiliation, or perhaps the loss of trust or leadership. Are you able to correct your actions based on what happened? Can you tolerate the pain of your own humiliation and consider what really matters? If the inability to bear the cost of being “wrong” results in isolation, criticism, withdrawal, and becoming more adamant that you were “right”; you may want to give some thought to what it is costing you in terms of your relationships.

Here are some final questions for you to consider:

  • What are your intentions? Sometimes we are in long term work, romantic, or family relationships that must be giving careful consideration.
  • What are the intentions of the other person? (Are you sure, or are you assuming? What evidence do you have?)
  • What is the true cost of being told you are “wrong”? What do you have to gain by making sure others know you are “right”?
  • If you are “wrong,” can you tolerate your embarrassment enough to grow, learn, regroup, or reconsider how you will handle future situations?
  • Is it more important to be right than to be effective? (Consider what the relationship means to you and if your own self-respect in handling the situation is on the line).
  • Are you unforgiving of other people when they are “wrong”, thus unable to forgive yourself? Is your own criticism preventing you from moving on, getting unstuck, or responding in a way that is potentially painful but perhaps necessary?

When Things Fall Apart by Pam Chordron

Here are some paragraphs from this book:

“When the bottom falls out and we can’t find anything to grasp, it hurts a lot. It’s like the Naropa Institute motto, ‘Love of the truth puts you on the spot.” We might have some romantic view of what that means, but when we are nailed with the truth, we suffer. We look in the bathroom mirror, and there we are with our pimples, our aging face, or lack of kindness, our aggression and all that timidity– all that stuff.

This is where the tenderness comes in. When things are shaky and nothing is working, we might realize that we are on the verge of something. We might realize that this is a very honorable and tender place, and tenderness could go either way. We can shut down and feel resentful or we can touch and I met throbbing quality. There is definitely something tender and throbbing about that groundlessness.

Things falling apart as a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: Room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”

(pages 7-8).

What to do instead of criticize yourself

Try softening your stance, gently relax your face, and allow your muscles to become loose and less tight. Put a hand over your heart with an intention of lovingkindness, and try repeating the following statements with a tone of voice that conveys self-compassion:

May I bear this pain with kindness to myself

May I safely endure this pain

May I accept the circumstances of my life

May I find peace in my heart

May I let go of what I can not control

May I remember that others are also suffering

 

A mindful approach to self-hatred and self-criticism

Often people with self-hatred, shame or self-criticism get “caught up” in a thought process that includes a fair amount of self-attacking. This thought process can include arguments with oneself, reasons a person should not be the way he/ she is, or a rationale for how he/she “should” be feeling. Sometimes this thought process is associated with muscle tension, headaches, the suppression of emotion, the inhibition of interactions, or the shutting down of expression and experience.

People sometimes think that by punishing themselves in a self-hating dialogue is an effect way to change thoughts, feelings, or reality. Almost as if they are somehow being “deserving” of “bad” things someone sets things right. The difficulty is, it typically is not an effective strategy for changing thoughts or feelings! It might temporarily suppress feelings, shut down hurt or sadness, make one feel more empowered or less vulnerable, or even distract from other problems. But the bottom line here is this: Does actually work to reduce suffering? Does it get rid of emotions in the long term?

Being mindful, or starting to observe this process, is really the first step towards making some changes in this process. Being able to notice the thought, step back, practice using a gentle tone of voice, and practice saying “I am noticing the thought that…” is one way to start to just notice thoughts, rather than try to change them.

Next, assess your willingness to “shift gears.” Often people who are stuck in a ruminative process somehow believe that if they keep ruminating, something will change. That’s not to say you have the power to immediately “stop” ruminating, it just starts to get you thinking about an alternative.

If you feel miserable, want to stop hating yourself, and invest a lot of unproductive energy into engaging in self-hating thoughts, the option of doing something different just might be appealing. Once you decide to try something different, you can try softening your facial expression and relaxing your shoulders. Consider being curious about the physical sensations in your body that accompany the thought. What uncomfortable sensations might you be pushing aside in order to invest in the thought? Practice accepting physical discomfort and think about how you might approach or move towards it instead of away from it. If you could be curious about your pain and your emotion, you might be able to work with it a little bit differently. Remember to stay non-judgmental.

Finally, try out the phrase, “May I be at peace.” Try stating this phrase quietly and softly to yourself. Make sure you keep your face and shoulders relaxed, and practice acceptance. Try doing these steps several times throughout particularly difficult days, knowing that practicing new behaviors (and getting “good” at them so they are more automatic) takes effort and rehearsal.

Three mindfulness exercises to use right now to quiet your mind and focus your attention

One of the reasons mindfulness is used is to get yourself calm. If you are a person with a lot of anxiety, your anxiety might get in your way of handling problems, thinking clearly, or addressing something with your full attention.

Mindfulness is one way to lower emotional arousal, center yourself, and help you get back on track. When emotional arousal returns to baseline, accessing the problem solving part of your brain becomes easier.

1)   Inhale to the count of one, exhale to the count of two. Keep going until you get to the bottom of six. Start over. Do this for about three minutes. If you get lost or distracted simply start over. The point is to have something to focus your attention on; which helps cut the distractions of your mind.

2)   Trace your hand. Inhale on the way to the tips of your fingers, exhale on the way to the crevice. This can be done with pen/ pencil on paper or with the finger of the opposite hand. This is a tactile way to “trace” your breath and focus your mind. Keep your attention on your breath.

3)   Pause for three minutes and focus your attention entirely on sound. Try to tune in to every possible nuance of sound. See what you can hear that you typically don’t pay attention to. If your mind drifts, bring it gently back to the experience of hearing.

10 Reasons why you need The Emotional Extremist’s Guide to Handling Cartoon Elephants book this holiday season

1. The Cartoon Elephant book, after being temporarily unavailable through Amazon, is now back on the market. The retail price is $26.95, but sometimes Amazon will let it go for a bit less.

2. Cartoon Elephants approach painful emotions with humor. If there is an elephant in the room in your family, this book is the starting point for approaching avoided conversations. You will recognize yourself and others in this book. There is no finger pointing or blaming.
 
3. Cartoon Elephants is something you can put on your coffee table. Because it is a graphic book with pictures and fun fonts, it is an easy read. The elephants will fit nicely next to big picture books about Africa and Asia.
 
4. The Cartoon Elephant book is being used to teach people in Dialectical Behavior Therapy skills groups about emotions. Loaded with psycho-educational material and teaching points, it cleverly accomplishes the task of making people think they are reading something fun yet giving them something valuable.
 
5. This book is not hard to read. There is no “plugging away” at chapters. If you want to bring something to someone’s attention in a way that is universally applicable, this book will do the trick. You don’t need to have painful emotions to appreciate elephants- you just need to have emotions.
 
6. If you are going to buy someone a self-help book for Christmas, this is safe bet.
Whether they believe it or not, everyone has cartoon elephants. The research proving this to be true is cited in the back of the book.
 
7. This book can be used and re-used, read and re-read. You can share it with family members, friends, or long lost relatives. It won’t go out of style. Emotions, as a rule, will be with you as long as you live.
 
8. You will get some food for thought about how and where you see yourself in relationship to your elephants. This is great for discussion groups, weekend retreats, and writing workshops.
 
9. This book is great for people of all ages. If you’re trying to get your kid to read something important, heavy, and deep, you can give them this book. It won’t take long to read and it is much more fun with illustrations.
 
10. The book will be the perfect introduction for my live series on emotions starting January 20, 2014. Of course you don’t need the book to sign up, but if you have the book you will have a better appreciation for cartoon elephants in general.

 

 

Cartoon elephants (emotions!) up close and personal: When you don’t like what you see

Sometimes, if you look closely at what actually feel, you won’t like what’s there. Sometimes it’s just too much. Here are some tips on what to do when you get up close and personal with your elephant, and this

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may be what you find.

  • Start with whatever is present in the moment. See if you can notice and allow for what is there vs. actively trying to ignore or push away.
  • See if you can get yourself to willingly tolerate all sensations, discomfort, or urges associated with the emotion. Noticing if there is anything holding you back from doing so.
  • Bear in mind that the better able you are to tolerate, you will be better equipped to survive the moment. Redirect your attention back to your elephant and practice the gentle yet curious gaze.
  • Tolerating sensation does not mean that you have to approve of reality, take action, or fail to take action.
  • An unwillingness to tolerate what is there will not make cartoon elephants disappear. (You can’t have a life without cartoon elephants!) A refusal to tolerate can actually create more problems later.
  • What you pay attention to= what your life is about. Do you want your entire life to be characterized by the struggle of not looking at your cartoon elephants?

 

The cartoon elephants are here!

Click here for The Emotional Extremist’s Guide to Handling Cartoon Elephants: How to solve elephantine emotional problems without getting run over, chased, flattened, squished, or abandoned by your true cartoons.

Here is a sneak preview of the book chapters:

Part I: The problems of cartoon elephants

  • The non-existence of cartoon elephants
  • The weight of cartoon elephants
  • The equilibrium of cartoon elephants
  • Stampeding, out-of-control elephant situations

Part II: The basic steps for solving elephantine problems

Part III: When your cartoon elephants are in danger: How to cope with critical obstacles

Part IV: When solving elephantine problems seems impossible: What to do when stuck beneath an elephant’s foot

Part V: What to do when elephants end up on your back

Part VI: What to do when your cartoon elephant turns blue

Here are some FAQ’s about the book:

Is this book for children? The intended audience for this book is adults (hey, adults need cartoons too!) and is fine for adolescents. Younger age ranges may have some difficulty with the abstract reasoning and the metaphors, and may not grasp all the concepts and big words. However, the big pictures, changing fonts, and fun graphic design makes this an attractive book for young kids (my 9-year nephew zipped right through it).

Why are the elephants in the male gender form? I used “he” and “him” when referring to the elephant to make the book simple and less wordy. I did not have any gender specific intentions. If you experience your elephants in the female form, you are welcome to take your own copy of the book and change all the pronouns.

Peanut

What you can do in the next 10 minutes: The skill of radical acceptance

Acceptance is an option for managing really painful things when solving or fixing it is not an option. The next time you think “I just can’t stand this any more” consider trying acceptance based strategies for the next 10 minutes. If you want, you can even rate your distress before and after you try it. See if your stress goes down. Remember- the only way this works is if you do it willingly.

  • Try to remember that being able to accept the next 10 minutes is not the same as accepting your life. If you can be accepting for the next 10 minutes, then right now you don’t have to accept fate, hopelessness, or any foreboding feelings that this is the way things will be forever.
  • Try to think of acceptance as one small step. It is what you could do right now that will help you get through this situation better.
  • Consider acceptance as an exercise in acknowledgement: What is, is. When we can simply see what’s going on around us for what it is, it can help us to stop fighting reality. When we see reality for what it is, we will have more resources for addressing it.
  • Acceptance doesn’t mean that you don’t have to feel the way you feel. In fact, it may even be helpful to consider being accepting of what you don’t want to feel.
  • Try softening your body, facial expression, or muscles. Melt into the moment. Accepting reality will not make it go away, but if it feels better to get through the moment without clenched jaws and a big fight, why not take advantage of it?