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Mindfulness for Equanimity & Getting Better at Stress

Each year I take out time to reflect on my wellbeing and key areas I would like to further develop.  Being more present was one area that I identified, and from this, prioritising and scheduling mindfulness based practice.  This has inspired me to create some structures that keep me accountable in regular mindfulness based training. Enrolling in a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Program (MBSR)  for one. And  secondly, committing myself to a 3 ½ year Feldenkrais Practitioner’s program, and regular awareness through movement lessons (more on this later). In this article I will explore what mindfulness is and how it supports optimal wellbeing.



Mindfulness is simply the ability to be where you are. Sounds simple? Yet most of us spend more time doing than being!  “Being” mode doesn’t mean being happy or relaxed. It is rather about making space for each moment as it is, not demanding yourself or the world to be different. Being gently focused on your experience and allowing it to arise, allowing it space, allowing yourself just to be.

 




According to Professor John Kabat -Zinn, founding father of forementioned MBSR Program (which has over 40 years of empirical research behind it):

 

“Mindfulness is the awareness that arises through paying attention in the present moment, on purpose, nonjudgmentally.”

 

In other words, mindfulness offers a fresh way of paying attention to our experience in three ways:

  • In the present moment (not rehearsing or rehashing stuff)

  • On purpose (in formal practice but also during moments of the day)

  • With curiosity and care (not being so reactive to what you are experiencing but seeing it clearly and respectfully and without judgement)

 

Most of us however, spend our time with our attention jumping from one thing to another. And often we don’t even notice this. When we do stop, we might notice the stream of random thoughts and random emotional responses and memories and future planning…that is always going on!

 


Mindfulness or meditation?

 

People often get confused about how mindfulness relates to meditation, whether they are the same or different. A simple way to visualise this is by employing a Venn diagram in which mindfulness is a big circle and meditation is a smaller circle within it.


In other words, meditation falls within the category of ways to train mindfulness. You don’t need to mediate to be mindful, yet meditation helps you become more and more aware of what is happening right now. Meditation is like a gym for your brain, allowing you to build and strengthen your mindfulness muscle.

 

Building awareness also helps you pay attention to triggers and automatic reactions. Beware, there is a lot of misinformation out there which argues that mindfulness is a special, non-anxious state of mind, or merely a relaxation technique. Many people have the misunderstanding that mindfulness will: “empty my mind”, or “rid my mind of thoughts.”

 

Mindfulness is not about stopping or emptying, or ridding our-selves of anything. It’s about noticing and observing our internal world (thoughts, feelings, sensations and urges), and external world through our five senses. So rather than changing or not having the thoughts and feelings that make up our experience, mindfulness is about changing our relationship to those thoughts and emotion.

 

Engaging in mindfulness practice helps create space, allowing you to notice, get curious and less reactive to your thoughts and emotions. And to understand and interrupt patterns that are not serving you.

 

“Mindfulness gives you time. Time gives you choices. Choices skilfully made lead to freedom”-Bhante Henepola Gunaratana

 


 According to Dan Harris , neuroscientist and Author of Waking up- A guide to spirituality without religion:

“How we pay attention to the present moment largely determines the character of our experience and , therefore the quality of our lives. Mystics and contemplatives have made this claim for ages- but a growing body of scientific research now bears it out…. There is now a large literature on the psychological benefits of mediation. Different techniques produce long lasting changes in attention, emotion, cognition, and pain perception, and theses corelate with both structural and functional changes in the brain. This field of research is quickly growing as is our understanding of awareness and related mental phenomena.

 

 

According to the Harvard Business Review January 2015:

“Mindfulness is a must have: a way to keep our brains healthy, to support self- regulation and effective decision -making, and to protect ourselves from toxic stress.”

 

To understand  and appreciate more of the neuroscience behind mindfulness, check out these two short videos.



 



 

Mindfulness, stress and our perception of things

 

Mindfulness practice is one of the key areas that I examine in my “Being Vital” wellbeing program. In the Vital Pillar Breathe, I explore stress, unpacking the latest science on how one can reframe stress for improved performance and wellbeing. I also look at adaptive strategies that help you be resilient in the face of stress- mindfulness and breath work taking centre stage.

 

“Feeling stressed” is one of the most common conditions reported by my clients. In reality that experience is different for everyone. In order to better understand stress and respond appropriately, it is important that we define what stress is.

 

Here are a few definitions…

 

“Stress is your body and minds response to a perceived threat or challenge. This response can be physiological, mental, emotional & behavioural.” -Sarah Mc Kay

 

“We feel stressed when we evaluate environmental demands as being beyond our ability to cope successfully. This includes elements of unpredictability, uncontrollability, and feeling overloaded.” -Brene Brown

 

 

In order to feel stressed, you need two things:

 

  1. A belief that action is needed now, and

  2. You believe that you don’t have the resources or capacity to do this

 

Both of these steps involve appraisal- which is our evaluation of what is needed and of our resources to be able to do what is needed. As we become more aware, we can start to notice the evaluations and appraisals that we are making.

 

We can:

  • Start to see if our assumptions are completely true.

  • Open up to other interpretations as well

  • Hold our perceptions more lightly

 

In regard to stress, perception is key! Our perception is how we read a particular situation and what meaning we make of it. Our view of things will affect how we experience challenges in life. Mindfulness practice can give us the opportunity to begin to see automatic ways of seeing the world, our habitual thoughts and the assumptions we make.

 

“Between stimulus and response is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.”    -Viktor Frankl

 

Mindfulness is the practice that allows us to discover this space. In this space we have an opportunity to change our experience of stress. The interesting thing about stress is that we can activate the physiological response for stress just from cognitions happening in our internal world- our thoughts and feelings.

 

Indeed thinking is both a blessing and a curse. It has allowed humans to learn from the past while imagining and planning for the future. The same cognitive process is also responsible for worry and rumination. Indeed, our habitual thoughts and how we interpret the world can trigger the stress response.

 

“I have experienced some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.”

- Mark Twain

 

The beauty of mindfulness is that it can help you learn to treat thoughts as mental events rather than facts. Through regular practice you can begin to see thoughts as images, words and voices that come and go in your stream of consciousness. As you practice mediation, you begin to see thoughts are constantly coming and going in your mind- just as sensations come and go in the body.

 

Observing with some distance can help you take thoughts less seriously. You may begin to discover that although it may feel like the truth, a “thought” is simply a representation of your perspective at a particular moment. Thoughts often feel very powerful because they are acompanied by feelings. Yet even when feelings are strong, this is simply how you are thinking and feeling in the moment. Although we may not have  control over what thoughts and feelings arise in the moment, with mindfulness we do have a choice on how we receive and meet them.

 

“Meditation does not involve trying to change your thinking by thinking some more. It involves watching thought itself. The watching is the holding. By watching your thought without being drawn into them, you can learn something profoundly liberating about thinking itself, which may help you be less of a prisoner of those thought patterns- often so strong in us- which are narrow, inaccurate, self-involved, habitual to the point of being imprisoned in, and also just plain wrong.”      Jon Kabat- Zinn

 

 


Mindfulness- where to begin?


In every waking moment we are sensing; hearing things, seeing things, tasting things, smelling things and feeling our posture and actions. We are also experiencing a rich “internal world” comprising of thoughts, emotional states and urges.

 

A useful metaphor is our life as a stage show: On the stage are all your thoughts & feelings, and everything you can touch, taste see, hear & feel. And there is a part of you that can sit back & watch the show & zoom in and see the details and zoom out and take in the big picture.  And this show is changing all the time. You can dim the lights and shine a spot light

 

Mindfulness is paying attention to the present with openness, flexibility and curiosity. Not only are we noticing the external world (what we can see, hear, smell, taste & touch) but also our internal world thoughts and feelings. Acceptance of our experience in the here and now is intrinsic to awareness. There are many exercises that can illicit mindfulness. Mindful breathing, eating, stretching, walking, body scan or moving mindfully (X) etc.

 

Any mindfulness exercises revolve around a similar process to build awareness:

  • Notice X with curiosity and openness. This could be your breath, what you hear, touch (body sensations), see and smell. Also your internal world - thoughts and emotional states.

  • Notice when your attention wanders

  • Notice what thoughts “hooked” you

  • “Unhook” and refocus on X. Do this lightly and without judgement

  • Repeat…This is the practice!

 

 

 

Moving Mindfully

 

From my experience, sensing through moving is a preferable practice for developing awareness if you are starting out, or have previously struggled with meditation. Sensing through moving is a particular way of linking together the body and the mind. What we do with our bodies affects our mind and what we do with our minds affects our bodies. Mindful movement is an opportunity to  bring attention to our bodies, to listen to our bodies and see what kinds of transformation are possible for our nervous system, state of mind and how we experience our body and the world around us.

 

Tips for mindful movement practice:

 

  1. Allow yourself to explore your body and its limits, rather than push past them. It’s about “noticing”, not “striving”.

  2. Practice bringing the mind to your body sensations of the moment.

  3. Notice any judgments that arise.

  4. Be open to any pleasure or discomfort that may arise when moving.

  5. Notice how different movements change the way you breath.

  6. Pay particular attention to the transition from activity to rest. Notice changes in your body contacting the floor with a body scan

 

Connecting to your body sensations when moving can help you to:


  • Regulate and calm the nervous system.

  • To feel and sense the body more vividly and precisely.

  • To know the difference between tension and release. Notice what you are “holding on” to?

  • Develop a sense of ease and safety in your body.

 


Move mindfully for active recovery

 

From my perspective “Active Recovery” is an activity that brings balance back to your system. It helps recharge you physically, mentally and emotionally. When over stressed, your sympathetic nervous system can be on overdrive. Active recovery allows you to put the metaphorical brake on, helping your autonomic nervous system switch gears to a parasympathetic, rest and digest dominance. This is critical in a healthy stress response and building resilience.

 

Mindful movement activities can be great for this. Some examples are the Feldenkrais Method, Tai chi, Qigong and some forms of Yoga. Although movement based, these activities are less intense than regular exercise and focus on body/ mind integration.

 

Engaging in your own forest bathing (mindful movement through a natural setting), is another great option. I also like to get my hands dirty in the garden. Such an activity does not need to be vigorous. Any gentle activity that helps you find a flow state, will move you more in a direction of feeling relaxed and recharged.

 

 

Feldenkrais Training

 

As some of you may already know, I have embarked on a 3 ½ year course to become a Feldenkrais Practitioner. In my next blog I will discuss in greater depth The Feldenkrais Method and the many benefits for mind and body. In the interim, I have links to two articles that shine a light on this powerful modality for change. I see this as adding another string to my bow in helping busy and stressed professionals: Slow down, create alignment, foster equanimity, & boost vitality so that they get more out of life. :J


 


PS if you would like to explore mindful movement.... Get in touch jason@vitallifestyle.com.au

 


 

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