When emotions are in control there is a tendency to get caught up, sort of speak, in the waves of turmoil. I have the image of taffy being pulled in a candy shop- going this way and that way without a sense of center or direction.
When caught up in emotional chaos, people may behave in out-of-control ways. While this may be a legitimate attempt to control the environment or emotions, sometimes behaving in out-of-control ways leads to shame and embarrassment- and can make problems worse, not better. And sometimes this reinforces the belief that a person isn’t in control of him or herself.
The practice of mindfulness is about sitting quietly and looking at, sort of speak, the contents of our minds. When stressful life situations come upon us, the situation has the potential to take over our life. Mindfulness is about sitting quietly and being able to see exactly what is in front of us. Without being pulled like taffy- back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. Instead we sit still.
Sitting and looking at the stressful events may sound kind of mundane, and may also be experienced as distressing (“But I’m not DOING anything about it!”). However, the experience of being able to sit quietly and look at things as they are can help center us. Ground us in the moment. Give us perspective.
When this happens options open up. We can observe our tendencies to be pulled in certain directions, and we can see where the directions lead us. We can evaluate the pros and cons of actions. We can make decisions from a place of being centered. We can allow for the pain of emotions and the pain of our life situations- and we can bear with it. But unlike taffy, we can pull the sticky stuff of our minds towards a purposeful direction. We can set intentions and have clarity about the path we want to send ourselves down.
Without pulling taffy.
Unnecessary, restless, and agitated energy; difficulty sitting still, feeling a constant need to be “on the go”, fixing things, running around and trying to keep everyone happy- anxiety sometimes gets us to act in a way that perpetuates more distress. Sometimes people feel as if they are not doing something, then things would fall apart. Or maybe they would fall apart. Perhaps, if they were to slow down, they would not feel worthwhile. Thus frenetic action is about trying to feel better. Or different. Or not feel at all. So slowing down is avoided at all costs.
While taking action can bring about a desired result (thus serving an important function), sometimes anxiety loses its usefulness as an emotion. It is too much. It doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t help people accomplish goals, it manufactures more chaos, and it leaves people in a dizzy tizzy. Life is lived in fast forward.
Mindfulness is about pausing living one’s life in the here and now. In just this moment. Sometimes when people start to pay attention to this moment, they start to get in touch with all that busy business they are trying to avoid. The slowing down, the feelings within their body, the unpleasant sensations that accompany worries about being valued, being worthwhile, living up to expectations, and failing. And sometimes it hits hard: the tears, the pain, the realization of change or loss.
Yeah, that stuff.
Overwhelming, perhaps at first. But if you take it taken moment by moment, then you can be mindful of what is right in front of you instead of all that is beyond you. And if you take care of the present moment, you will be taking care of the future.
Recently I watched the movie 500 Days of Summer. (PS Don’t read this if you haven’t seen it and you don’t want me to spoil the ending).
I thought the movie was not only cleverly made, but it really captured the pain of being attached, sort of speak, to one reality and one outcome. The movie follows the lead character who wants very deeply to be in relationship with the person he believes is “the one.”
At some point in the movie there is a conversation in which the lead character is talking to a girl about a place that they both like to go to. The conversation is with someone other than “the one.” The conversation goes something like this:
Girl: “I think I’ve seen you there.”
Guy: “Really? I haven’t seen you there.”
Girl: “Maybe it’s because you weren’t looking.”
I like this part of the movie because, despite the grief, pain, typical “first love”, and the pining after a desired relationship that doesn’t bring about a desired outcome- somehow in all that chaos there is something about starting to be awake to what the universe has to offer on the universe’s own terms. It is time, sort of speak, to “start looking” at what is not being seen.
When I am in a lot of pain and I am pining after a desired outcome, sometimes I am not looking at what is going on around me. I can’t see it. I can’t pay attention to it. I can’t absorb it. My universe is centered around my distress. It takes a lot of effort to attend to a different way of seeing; a different perspective.
Mindfulness as expanded awareness has to do with looking, and seeing, and opening up one’s eyes to what the universe has to offer.
It’s certainly not always easy.
Victoria Cane’s powerpoint on mindfulness: From Western Michigan University
What is mindfulness?
® mindfulness is awareness, without judgment, of life as it is, yourself as you are, other people as they are, in the here and now, via direct and immediate experience.
® When you are mindful, you are awake to life on its terms – fully alive to each moment as it arrives, as it is, and as it ends.
One of applications of mindfulness has to do with focusing attention. When people are emotionally aroused, they become guarded and go into “fight of flight” mode. Their attention becomes pre-occupied with saving face, getting out of a threatening situation, or escaping painful emotions. Attention can be scattered (ie, racing thoughts or rumination) or restricted (perseverating on the threatening person or situation). Attention may be under the control of the threat, as opposed to under the control of the person.
Therefore, the agenda of mindfulness has to do with helping a person control the focus of attention. When attention is under the control of the individual, the person will start to experience himself/herself as having more control over his/her emotions and his/her reactions to situations. Over time, the experience of oneself starts to feel more consistent and less erratic.
Paying attention to what you want to pay attention to can be especially difficult to do, especially under threat. Therefore mindfulness can be rehearsed or practiced when not under threat. Even then, focusing attention can be very hard!
Here is another way of thinking about mindfulness:
“You don’t want to fall into your problems, sink in them, become them. Conversely, you don’t want to run away from them, ignore them, or repress them. Those approaches are usually not fruitful.
There is a third way, a much more useful one. It is the inner act of distancing oneself from what is troubling you but still keeping it before you. You don’t go into the problems. You stand back just a little way- far enough so that the problems no longer feel overwhelming, but close enough so that you can still feel them.
Stand back a few feet from your problems. You can walk up and touch them if you like, sense them there, as though with your fingertips. And you can pull back whenever they begin to get too threatening.”
by Eugene Gendlin, in Focusing, page 72.
Here is a quote from Thich Nhat Hanh, in The Miracle of Mindfulness, page 49:
“We are life, and life is limitless. Perhaps one can say that we are only alive when we live the life of the world, and so live the sufferings and joys of others. The suffering of others is our own suffering, and the happiness of others is our own happiness. If our lives have no limits…our self also has no limits. The impermanent character of the universe, the successses and failures of life can no longer manipulate us. Having seen the reality of interdependence and entered deeply into its reality, nothing can oppress you any longer.”
The following is by Bhante Henepola Gunarantana, from the book Mindfulness in Plain English(p. 139).
“We can’t examine our own depression without accepting it fully. The same is true for irritation and agitation, frustration, and all those other uncomfortable emotional states. You can’t examine someting fully if you are busy rejecting its existence. Whatever experience we may be having, mindfulness just accepts it.”
Looking at a painful situation with open eyes isn’t easy. Radically accepting something includes accepting pain, loss, death, or even one’s own intense emotional response. Times when I’ve had the most difficulty accepting is when I didn’t want something to be true and I couldn’t get my mind around the fact that was. Looking at the facts clearly not only helped me move through the situation, but it also gave me realistic information my environment. Seeing that other people are not willing or capable of giving me what I want is somehow freeing. It isn’t always about me. It is not about being flawed, or being bad, or being incapable. Those are just ways in which my mind has tried to interpret reality. It has not worked. Accepting anger, rage, disgust, and pain is part of being alive and grieving. We want the universe to stop for us but it doesn’t. And that’s a hard thing to let go of.
As always, I’m looking for answers to the question “What is mindfulness?” so that my readers can understand. Here is a truly lovely quote about mindfulness that I discovered recently. The author is MJ and you can visit her at www.mydbtlife.com, where she offers a free weekly blog dedicated to the teaching of DBT.
“The basic concept of mindfulness is that in order for us to open up options for ourselves when we are suffering, we need to be fully aware of the circumstances surrounding that suffering. These circumstances may appear to be self-evident. However, there are so many things going on with us when our suffering is at its greatest. Going on inside and outside. Our environment has a lot of factors that are weighing in on our level of suffering.
Believe it or not, when we are not suffering, most of us are only aware of a fraction of all that there is to be aware of within us or around us. When we are suffering our awareness shrinks even more. There are options for every action, effective or ineffective. Options to speak, think, feel, or behave. These options are limited if we are not aware of everything that contributed to what we are experiencing. To bring about a self-awareness that will improve our chances of effective choices, we need to practice being in the moment we are in, for what that moment truly is.”
I have a plan. I want to find out the answer to the question “What is mindfulness?”
There is a type of research called phenomenological research that is done by asking the same question to multiple persons. If the phenomenon in question (we’ll say, “mindfulness”) is asked about over and over again, and if you ask enough people, eventuallly you would start hearing the same or similar things. Themes and common answers show up.
The thing is, the concept and teachings of mindfulness has really become a powerful presence in healthcare. We have mindfulness based cognitive therapy, mindfulness based treatments for depression, acceptance and commitment therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, and functional analytic therapy. We’ve got a lot of well known people writing books and teaching mindfulness. Jon Kabbat Zinn even said recently at a conference that kindergarden teachers and Monet knew about mindfulness, but would never have called it that. I listened to Jon Kabbat-Zinn for a few hours, but if I didn’t know anything about mindfulness I would have had a hard time summing it up at the end of those few hours.
Mindfulness to me is one of the gifts that DBT has given me to be creative, to engage people, and to approach a concept in a clear way with one specific path. I would say lots of different things if asked the question, “What is mindfulness?” I believe the difficulty in teaching mindfulness is that it can be overly simplified if not well taught (So what about breathing? I don’t get it) or overly complexified if not made experiential (so the teachings are too much in-your-head). Mostly what I try to do is give my clients a simple explanation, a simple exercise, and get a bit of feedback. But the brief point and the experience can be different all depending on what the mindfulness exercise and experience is that day.
So I am on a quest to find what people are saying when asked the question “What is mindfulness?” and to start posting it on my blog. I want to quell the curiousity of my readers. I want to give information that is based on what is being taught in the community for behavioral healthcare problems. And perhaps even find out what clients are saying who have had DBT and really felt like they “got” what mindfulness is all about. So stay tuned…