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7 Steps to Mindful Awareness

 Do you make regular visits to yourself?

–Rumi 

iStock_000002128470XSmallRecently, while reading the book True Refuge, by Tara Brach, PhD, I was struck by her concept of the sacred pause.  I appreciated her description of the steps involved in pausing and arriving in presence and started playing around with the concepts in my mind.  I began to conceptualize it a little differently because my original introduction to mindfulness, close to 20 years ago, was through the lens of Dialectical Behavior Therapy(DBT), which I started learning when I participated in my first week-long training with Marsha Linehan on how to teach clients mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotional regulation, and interpersonal effectiveness skills.  Beginning to integrate these two  approaches to mindfulness, as well as concepts learned from workshops and courses with Sharon Salzberg, Tara Brach, Ron Siegel and others, produced these seven steps to mindful awareness.

Step 1: Setting the intention

The first step in this process is to decide that it is important to pause and check in with yourself and then set your intention to do it. Setting aside a time and making a commitment to make it a priority helps make it more likely you will actually follow through with it. Meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg put it elegantly: “let the power of intention lead the way.”

Step 2: Pausing

Taking time out from our daily lives so we can reflect on our internal experience and get to know ourselves better starts with pausing.  I believe it is a sacred act because we are pausing in order to come home to ourselves instead of staying in “automatic pilot” mode all the time. 

One way to initiate the pause is to take three mindful breaths.  It is helpful to lengthen the out breath so that it is longer than the in breath, because this helps us to ‘step on the brakes’ by engaging the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, which slows down our breathing and heart rate and calms our bodies. 

Step 3: Arriving

Arriving involves sitting in an alert posture–attempting to find a balanced position that is upright, not slouched, yet relaxed, not stiff or tense–and then focusing attention on an anchor.  The anchor can be internal or external, depending on what keeps you in that state of balanced alertness–focused, but not too intensely, and relaxed, but not sleepy and zoned out. 

Options for internal anchors include continuing to focus on the breath or doing a body scan (see What is an interoceptive body scan meditation?). External anchors involve shifting the focus to become mindful of one or more external sights, sounds, scents or sensations (i.e. the tactile feel of anything you can touch).  An easy way to remember these external focal points is to think of the four ‘S’ senses, since all 4 words start with the letter ‘s’.

In a meditation course I took with Tara Brach through NICABM (National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine), the following was one of the ways she guided us to arrive in presence:

“Take some moments to arrive. You might just make sure your senses are awake so that as
you come into stillness, you find your posture that can support being alert and being relaxed.

As you close your eyes, take a moment to connect with what’s right here for you.
Let’s just notice if you can hear the sounds that are around you – just listen with receptivity.

Feel the life in your body. You might feel the sensations in your hands. You might loosen the belly a little and breathe in deeply. Let the out breath be gentle – feel the letting go. Once again, inhale deeply and then with a slow out breath – just let go.

Feel the breath and feel your body.”

 Step 4: Being Present

Once you have “arrived” you are in a state of alert stillness. The idea is to be fully here now.

Step 5: Noticing

The next step is to mindfully observe your present experience, including noticing what is happening in your body, both internal sensations and impulses to move a part of the body (like when you feel the urge to scratch an itch) and noticing any emotions and thoughts you are experiencing in the moment.  The following way of mindfully noticing is my adaptation of part of the Three Minute Breathing Space from the Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) curriculum that I learned during a NICABM course I am currently taking with Ron Siegel, PsyD on Mindfulness and Psychotherapy.

Now you can take the first step of becoming aware of what is going on with you right now.
Start to become conscious of what is going through your mind: what thoughts are around?
Here, as best you can, just notice thoughts as mental events, observing them without becoming attached to them.

Then note the feelings that are around at the moment. In particular, turn toward any
sense of discomfort or unpleasant feelings. So, rather than try to push them away or shut
them out, just notice them, perhaps thinking to yourself, “Ah, that’s how it is right now.”

And with sensations in the body, ask yourself, “Are there sensations of tensions, of holding,
of letting go? Are there any other sensations in the body? Are there any urges to move any
part of the body?” Become aware of them, simply noticing whatever is arising in this moment.

 Step 6: Accepting

Marsha Linehan talks about radical acceptance.  This means you are accepting even that which feels unacceptable about your present experience without judgment. However, recognizing that we are only human, we may not always be able to suspend judgment. Then it is important to radically accept our difficulty being able to accept what we are experiencing.

 Human beings are not able to achieve perfection, even though we strive for it.  Therefore, it is logical to accept our imperfect attempts at pausing and being mindfully present.  Research has demonstrated that we are distracted from our immediate goals an average of 47% of the time.  Therefore, it makes sense to accept mind wandering as inevitable.   Also, the urge to avoid unpleasantness and discomfort is a natural impulse, so we deserve acceptance and understanding when we resist facing uncomfortable realities.  So it becomes evident that this step is needed every step of the way, not just in chronological order.

Step 7: Returning

 The final step is one which is also necessary every step of the way, not just after completing the other six steps.  There are two important ways that we practice returning.  We gently  return our attention to mindful awareness of present experience when we notice that the mind has wandered, over and over again.  We also return our attention to our chosen anchor whenever we start to become too uncomfortable or overwhelmed by our present experience. Then we return to focusing on our broader experience again when we are ready.

 

What do you think of the concept of the sacred pause? How do you pause and become mindful of your internal experience? If you tried the above method, please share your experience below.

If you enjoyed this post, please share it with others. You may also enjoy reading, Seeking the Middle Way and Balancing Mindfulness of Emotions with Lovingkindness.


What is an Interoceptive Body Scan Meditation?

iStock_000002128470XSmallI have completed my first month of daily meditation and it is going very well.  I have been doing a combination of breath awareness, body awareness and lovingkindness meditation. 

The body scan is a form of body awareness meditation that involves shifting attention from one part of the body to another, observing any sensations that you become aware of with an attitude of curiosity about your somatic experience, while systematically covering the entire body.  I have been doing a variation of the body scan taught by Dan Siegel, author of the books Mindsight, The Mindful Brain, and The Mindful Therapist.

Dan Siegel incorporates interoception into his body scan.  Interoception is the skill of sensing our internal bodily states. He refers to it as our sixth sense and a crucial aspect of our self-monitoring function, that also serves as a gateway to our ability to attune to others.  So in addition to focusing on external body parts, his body scan includes tuning into internal organs, etc.  I have created my own version, that also incorporates aspects of HeartMath heart coherence training.

Heart rate variability is believed to be an important indicator of autonomic nervous system (ANS) balance, physiological resiliency and behavioral flexibility, which reflect a person’s capacity to adapt to stressful circumstances.  The two branches of the ANS (the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches) are continually in the process of speeding up and slowing down the heart, like the accelerator and brakes of a car. That is why the interval between two successive heart beats is never identical. This heart rate variability (moment-to-moment and beat-to-beat variations in heart rate) is a sign that the accelerator and brake are working properly.  Too little and too much variability in heart rate are both detrimental.

Heart coherence training is like giving your heart a tune-up.  With practice, you can develop a finely tuned brake that can be counted on, even when circumstances are difficult, because the ANS is more flexible and responsive and easily adjusts to stressors.

The steps of the HeartMath Quick Coherence Technique are as follows:

  1. Heart Focus- Focus your attention on the heart region of your body
  2. Heart Breathing- Imagine breathing through your heart
  3. Heart Feeling- Think of something or someone for which you are grateful

Here is an audio excerpt of my body scan meditation:

 andrea_goldberg_body_scan_meditation_excerpt

I would love your feedback about this post. Anybody who leaves a comment will receive an audio file of the full 10 minute version of my body scan, as a token of my appreciation.