Making mindful choices to support your wellbeing
So much of the time we run on autopilot, allowing habit to make our choices for us. Sometimes when driving you may even find yourself at a familiar destination like home when you had meant to go to the market. Your body remembered the way home and your mind was focused on the argument you just had or on your upcoming performance review at work – in other words, your mind was everywhere but in the present moment. Autopilot also comes into play in our thinking, our feelings and reactions to situations, and our ways of interacting with others. Without realizing it, we come to treat our thoughts and feelings as facts and come to view our reactions and patterns as unchangeable. When you add to this equation a history of trauma and the experience of post-traumatic stress related symptoms, we can feel trapped in our pain and suffering, fully believing there is nothing we can do.
Mindfulness offers one way to ease such suffering as well as the opportunity to feel empowered to take back control of your own experience. Mindfulness harnesses the discovery in neuroscience that the brain has the capacity to change throughout life, and that we can make conscious choices to bring about healthy and adaptive changes.
Learning to be more fully in the present moment and to bring full, compassionate attention to just what is (rather than what was or what might be) can begin right now, and these few tips will help you on your way:
The “What” skills of mindfulness – “What” is mindful presence
Observe – Use the five senses to observe – without labelling – exactly what is present in the moment, such as touching a rock, listening to a bird, smelling a cup of coffee, looking at the sun hitting a tree, tasting a piece of chocolate. Notice the thoughts flowing through your mind and the sensations in your body.
Describe – Describe what you experience through the five senses, stick to the facts and notice judgements but let them go as if they are clouds floating by. For example, say to yourself ‘the sky is cloudy’ rather than ‘it’s such a crappy, gloomy day’ or say to yourself ‘the girl next to me is wearing a red dress and black boots that are shiny’ rather than ‘the girl next to me is so pretty and her clothes are better than mine.’
Participate – Throw yourself into the present moment fully, focus only on what is happening in the present moment.
The ‘How’ skills – “How” do you practice the “What” skills
One-mindfully – This means letting go of worries about the past or the future, refraining from making a mental ‘to do’ list in your head rather than attending to the present moment (unless that is your current task).
Non-judgmentally – Notice when judgments arise, because they will – we’re human, after all – and allow them to pass by as if they are clouds in the sky. Judgments may arise about things, people or events, and you may even find yourself judging yourself for having judgments! This is all normal, the task is to identify them as judgments rather than facts and allow them to pass through your awareness without holding on to them.
This is challenging because judging is something we do all the time without even realizing it. When we have to squint in the sunlight, we say “it’s too bright” when in reality sunlight is neither good nor bad, too strong or not strong enough, it simply is – but when it makes our eyes hurt, it elicits distress and we don’t like it so we make a value judgement that is based on our dislike and discomfort. The first step is to notice when judgments arise and to play detective to discover what thoughts and emotions lead to the value judgement. The next step is learning to let go of the judgment – as if they are clouds floating by.
Effectively – Keep your goals in mind, and do just what is needed in the moment. Focus on the goal and outcome rather than on the desire to be right. For example, if you are in the car with a friend on the way to a restaurant and you both disagree about the best and fastest route to take, focus on the desired goal to have an enjoyable meal with this friend rather than the desire for the friend to take the route you think is best – is it worth ruining the evening with a fight, or might it be more worth it to change your relationship to the problem and say ‘if it takes longer to get to the restaurant, it means I’ll have that much longer to spend with my friend’?
The best part about mindfulness is you don’t have to wait until you have 15 minutes of free time, you can practice this anytime – washing dishes, walking to the mailbox, washing your hands – and each time you do, you strengthen healthy and adaptive pathways in your brain. When you attend fully to the moment, you are more able to take in beauty and joy when it’s present, and you are more able to hold your own experience with compassion and respect without getting stuck in the trap of assuming your emotions and thoughts are facts.
Chandra Reber, M.A., L.P.C.A.
Mindful.org – A page with multiple helpful mindfulness apps for smartphones and tablets:
Bender, S. (1995) Everyday sacred. Harper One; New York, NY
Kornfield, J. (2008) The wise heart. Bantam Books; New York, NY
Hanson PhD, R. (2011) Just one thing: Developing a Buddha brain one simple practice at a time. New Harbinger Publications; Oakland, CA
Hanson PhD., R. (2009) Buddha brain: The practical neuroscience of happiness, love, and wisdom. New Harbinger Publications; Oakland, CA