An exercise in mindfulness: Thanksgiving turkeys

In my groups, we spend time at the beginning doing some sort of exercise to slow down, pay attention, come into the room, and notice what is going on.  Some of these exercises are specifically directed at paying attention to the breath. When breathing is slowed, paced, and regulated, a person has a better tendency to think clearer and become organized. Using the breath to regulate emotion, attention, and physical arousal is a very critical skill that frequently gets forgotten about in the heat of the moment- especially a very emotional moment.

Breathing exercises can sometimes be difficult. If you were to spend five minutes trying to focus just on your breath, you may notice spacing out, thinking about other things, and generally not paying much attention to the physical aspects of your breath. Therefore, breathing exercises may sometimes be paired with counting, walking, or other more concrete methods to help you get in touch- and stay in touch- with your breath.

Here is an exercise that is a tangible way of following the breath– and can easily be taught to young children as a way to self-regulate. Place your hand on a piece of paper and trace around it. Every time you move up to the tip of a finger, inhale. Every time you move down to the crevice between your fingers, exhale. Try to work on slowing down your breath so that it is even and steady. When you are done, start over. Keep Mindful Turkeygoing until you notice feeling calmer, slower, steadier, and perhaps more connected. Be gentle and notice any frustration if it doesn’t “work” right away.

One way to do this exercise is to keep tracing and re-tracing back your hand on one piece of paper. Another way to do this exercise is to not use paper and pen at all, but to trace your fingers with your other hand. This method can be used when you are out and about, in a meeting, or (depending on subtly it’s done) even talking to other people.

However, if you trace a new outline on new paper each time, you can start to accumulate several pieces of paper. If you’d like to add a beak and draw in some feathers on your “hands”, you can start to ask yourself: How many turkeys does it take to get calmed down? If you get really good and regulating your emotions by regulating your breath, you may find that over time the number of turkeys it takes will eventually go down.

Autumn mindfulness

This week for mindfulness I am asking my participants to look at a leaf as if they have never seen it before. The instructions include observing the leaf carefully, looking closely at its color, breathing in its earthy leaf-smell, and paying attention to its texture.

The leaves of autumn come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Some have bright colors and some have unusual patterns. Some have holes, rips, or tears. Some have started to turn brown and some have black spots on them. Some are wet and slimy and others are brittle and crunchy. Some are visually appealing and some are less appealing to look at.

Mindfulness is about being able to observe what is in front of us, without dismissing or evaluating, without throwing away or ignoring, and without inhibiting or suppressing. Sometimes what we observe is not pleasant. Sometimes we do not like what we observe, or we wish for things to be different. Sometimes we see what others are holding, or observing, or turning over in their palm- and we wish that our leaves were as exciting or pretty.

When we look carefully at the details of an autumn leaf, we start to see things that we haven’t bothered to see. Perhaps we are fascinated by the tiny detail of texture. Perhaps we are struck by the brilliance in color. Perhaps a mottled pattern draws us. Perhaps we notice liking, or not liking, or irritation, or impatience. Perhaps we notice jealousy.

When we can see what is in front of us- reality as it is on its own terms- we can give it our full attention. When we can give it our attention, we can start to get our minds around it. We can go through the necessary- even if painful- steps of what it is going to take to move through it instead of around it. We stop avoiding. We may start to see things not seen before. We increase awareness. We have new information- even if it is clarity about our own emotions.

Look carefully this week at things you don’t want to see. See if you can notice, gently, with willingness and awareness, the things that are easier to ignore or avoid. Allow for this to be.

“But I don’t want to do mindfulness”

“Observing” sounds boring. “Noticing” may sound passive, hopeless, or inactive. “Breathing” may not equip you with the ability to say clever and witty things when someone is giving you a lot of grief.

My initial experience with mindfulness was rather isolating- sitting in a class for an hour with my eyes closed and focusing on my breath did not have the same appeal as interacting and participating with the class itself. I’ve noticed a lot of mindfulness is aimed at within-the-skin experiences; noticing breath, body sensations, or experience. There appears to be a lot less “mindfulness” exercises or activities in the literature on mindfulness that is aimed at relationships and interactions.

I’ve had moments in which I want to skip over mindfulness, not do it in my groups, or make it go quickly. When I stop and think about it- often reflecting on my own life and my clients- I often start paying attention to small things that I appreciate, enjoy, or value. Sometimes I simply want to share the everyday things in an everyday way. Sometimes, when I do mindfulness activities with clients, I notice myself worrying about my clients. I also notice that it is harder to do therapy when I am anxious- and do not make the time for accepting, noticing, and allowing.

I’m always struck by how returning to a simple breathing exercise can be so calming and centering. Sometimes I want to avoid it simply because it seems so repetitive, mundane, or obvious; I want to “move on” to something more interesting. Yet again and again I return to breathing quietly. Sometimes I notice worry or impatience. Sometimes I get tearful. Sometimes I feel centered.

All of this I notice, and all of this is my experience. I allow it to be. I accept it fully. I let it orient me to the moment; to the clients in my front of me and the space I share with them.

Sustained and focused attention

When emotional arousal is super high, attention and concentration gets fragmented. Thoughts race, conclusions are jumped to, and worse case scenarios play themselves over and over again in our minds.

The business of being mindful has to do with purposefully directing our attention towards something. That is, we control what we pay attention to. If we control what we are paying attention to, then we are less prone to be being distracted and overwhelmed with racing anxiety and non-useful scenarios.

Out tendency to act without thinking has to get interrupted, thwarted, and re-directed. Ranting and raving, calling or texting people multiple times to seek assurance, and speaking very rapidly are some examples of what people do when on emotional overwhelm. Stopping yourself from doing these things can be very hard and take multiple tries. Especially when you’re on a roll, and your emotional energy is behind you!

The agenda of learning DBT skills is to learn how to slow yourself down. In other words, if you are clear and calm when you interact with people, they will be more likely to take you seriously. In fact, you might even be more able to take yourself seriously!

Focusing on one thing in the moment is one of the distress tolerance skills. Focusing on one thing at a time can be very “moment-to-moment”. Since the moment is constantly changing, you will have to constantly be refocusing. Sound hard? I can’t always do it either.

I was reminded a week ago of how pleasant it can be to work on a task for a sustained period of time without interruptions. (In fact, I was painting cartoon elephants!). I placed my interrupting gadgets away from me and put on some favorite music. I felt different. I was reminded of the difference in how it felt to concentrate on one thing, vs. how it felt to constantly be jumping to many different tasks in the course of an hour.

I have to say, it felt really good.

Take five minutes

The whole thing about sitting quietly and noticing is hard to do. The whole thought of it may sound boring. But the thing about noticing is that it gets us to decrease auto-pilot behavior. Auto-pilot behavior is the kind of thing we do when emotions take over, and we are not in the pilot seat flying the airplane.

So here is an exercise on noticing. Sit quietly and get in touch with your breath. Then try to sit still for five minutes. Focus all of your attention on the rising and falling of your breath.

Here are some of the things you might notice:

An urge to get up, change position, or do something “worthwhile.”

An itch.

Discomfort.

A desire to shift your position.

Difficulty staying in touch with your breathing.

Thoughts about your future, past, or present.

Emotional pain.

Problem solving, ruminating.

Thinking about what you are going to do after the exercise.

Lethargy.

Thinking about what you are going to say to someone.

Thinking about what you said to someone.

Physical pain.

Wondering what is the point of the exercise.

Wondering if this will help you solve problems.

Boredom.

Wondering if there is something else that would work better.

Hearing sounds or noises in your environment.

Feeling your heart beating.

Having your cat, pet, or child interrupt you.

Tension in your body.

Wondering if you turned off the coffee pot or the stove.

A desire not to do the exercise.

Wondering how much longer you will have to sit still.

Wondering if you timed yourself for five minutes, if the five minutes is up or not.

Difficulty paying attention to your breathing.

Feeling anxious or energetic.

Having a phone conversation or other conversation in your head.

Trying to figure out how to tell your DBT skills therapist or meditation instructor that you have ADHD, and that this not only impossible, but indeed rather silly.

Annoyance.

Agitation.

So if you could try to notice for five minutes…Hard to do? Absolutely. When I took my mindfulness based cognitive therapy class, they made us sit for a whole hour and do this sort of thing. Can you imagine??

Taking in information with your five senses: Marjoram mindfulness

Last week in mindfulness I introduced my clients to the herb marjoram. Getting acquainted with marjoram was something of a new experience. We went through the different senses by looking, touching, smelling, and tasting marjoram. We did it slowly and quietly, to give reverence, sort of speak, to the marjoram. As in if marjoram was, for the moment, the only thing in the universe.

Using the five senses to pay attention to what the world has to offer, however simple, is one way of getting in touch with experience. Lots of my clients complain about numbing out, going on auto-pilot, or getting stuck “playing the part” without any real connection to their experience. They survive, sort of speak, like they are puppets responding to their environments instead of being “there” inside their own bodies.

How do we know that we feel? How do we know what we feel? First we have to pay attention to sensory information.  If we’re so busy ignoring this information, however small or simple, we might miss out in a major way. Paying careful attention to what our bodies tell us includes getting acquainted, sort of speak, with the small things that may or may not seem so obvious. When is the last time you smelled, touched, or tasted fresh herbs?

Living in fast forward

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.

Mindfulness as expanded awareness

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 Crane on Mindfulness

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.

Using mindfulness to regulate attention

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!