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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.


The Benefits of Mindfulness

I have been talking a lot about mindfulness in this blog and I decided it was time to explain why I am so enthusiastic and determined about developing this skill.  Mindfulness involves  focusing on the present moment, non-judgmentally, with acceptance and compassion. This can be done informally, as we go about our daily activities, and in formal mindfulness meditation practice. So the question is: what are the benefits of becoming more mindful and accepting of our present experience?

iStock_000002128470XSmallAccording to Ron Siegel in The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems, “a wealth of scientific evidence” shows that mindfulness can have a profound effect on our lives. Researchers have demonstrated “changes in both inner experience and outward behavior” and have recently been able to show changes in “brain functioning and brain structure” due to advances in  brain scanning technology.

Richard Davidson, a researcher at the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, teamed up with Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, to study the impact of mindfulness training on brain activity. They recruited stressed workers in a biotechnology firm and taught half of them mindfulness meditation 3 hours per week over  8 weeks.  The other workers served as a control group who were not taught mindfulness meditation.  At the start of the study, all the participants had significantly more activity in the right prefrontal cortex, a pattern found in people who are anxious, depressed or hypervigilant (frequently scanning the environment for danger). At the end of the study, the group who were taught mindfulness meditation had significantly more left prefrontal cortex activation than the control group, which is the brain activity pattern for people who are generally content, with fewer negative moods. Additionally, the group of meditators had a greater immune response, indicated by more antibodies than the non-meditators after receiving the flu vaccine.

Sara Lazar, a biological researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, studied MRIs of long-term meditators and non-meditators. She discovered that the meditators had thicker cerebral cortexes than non-meditators in the prefrontal cortex, sensory cortex, and anterior insula. Thicker areas of the brain are indicative of enhanced capabilities in those areas. All three areas are involved in paying attention to sensory input and the prefrontal cortex is also involved in working memory–which helps us keep thoughts in our minds long enough for reflection, problem-solving, and decision-making. Research also showed that the degree of thickness was proportional to the amount of meditation experience and the differences were even more pronounced in older participants.  In another study, Lazar found increased density in a part of the brain stem involved in the production of the mood-regulating neurotransmitter serotonin after 8 weeks of mindfulness practice. The most pronounced changes in density occurred in the brains of those who practiced the most. These individuals were also the ones who reported the greatest increase in their sense of well-being.

A school-based program of mindfulness awareness practices (MAPs) for second and third graders, ages 7-9, was studied by Lisa Flook and her colleagues at UCLA. The program was provided to students two times per week, for eight weeks, for a total of sixteen 30- minute practice sessions.  Children with self-control problems who received the mindfulness training showed greater improvement in their regulatory abilities than children who did not receive the mindfulness training.

To summarize, research has shown significant reductions in anxiety and hypervigilance, improvement in mood, attention, emotional regulation, working memory, and immune response, and promising findings with regards to cognitive functioning as we age.  I am most interested in improving my self-discipline, working memory and ability to shift attention from distractions, which will hopefully also help improve my time management skills. What benefits of mindfulness would be most helpful to you? 

 


Shifting Gears from Automatic Pilot to Mindful Attention

iStock_000002128470XSmallI  neglected this blog for the past few months and it is time to get back on track. I had to add one more task to my routine because of the need to prepare for a major presentation and I discovered that it felt very much like trying to rub my belly and pat my head while juggling, all at the same time. I couldn’t keep up the regular discipline of all four activities I had added to my schedule–blogging, meditation practice, exercise, and brain training–with presentation preparation added to the mix.  I was able to keep doing brain training and exercise, although not as frequently, but meditation and blogging fell by the wayside.

 I continued to do informal mindfulness practice, but cut out formal meditation. I was self-aware enough to realize that I was operating on automatic pilot, driven to finish the presentation, and had a vague sense that I was avoiding meditating to avoid facing emotions that felt like obstacles to success. So I didn’t realize that my need to do all the preparation on my own, without the guidance of mentors who had helped me in the past, was due to how unrealistically high I had raised the bar for measuring my success.  I got it into my head that it was time for me to fly solo, that I didn’t need guidance this time, that asking for help would be a step in the wrong direction, away from self-reliance.  Boy was I wrong!

 The night before the presentation, when it still wasn’t flowing, I had to admit to myself that I needed some last minute advice. I called a good friend who talked me through it and helped me to see that I was making it too complicated.  So I cut out some unnecessarily elaborate explanations of concepts and then it all started to flow.  The presentation was a success and I learned some valuable lessons. 

 According to Ronald Siegel, Psy. D., author of The Mindfulness Solution, mindfulness has three main components: focused attention, open monitoring (of any inner thoughts, emotions, body sensations, and urges that come into conscious awareness), and compassionate acceptance of our inner experience.  In this situation, I only had guarded monitoring, limited attention, and compassionate acceptance that I was doing the best I could at that moment. However, I was not open to all emotional experience, because I needed to believe I was more self-sufficient than I really was.  I had climbed way out on a limb and needed to recognize and admit my human limitations in order to get back to solid ground.  Being more realistic about my capabilities and limitations helped me to shine  as a presenter, instead of being handicapped by my unrealistic expectations.

 Did you ever try to go it alone instead of seeking guidance? Did it make it harder to accomplish your goal? Please share your experiences below. 

If you enjoyed this post, you might also be interested in reading: Balancing Mindfulness of Emotions with Lovingkindness.


Harnessing Radical Acceptance & “I Want” Power to Enhance Self-Control

APA-BlogDayBadge-2014The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that persuades you to get up to meditate and exercise when you feel like staying in bed, helps you to resist the extra helping of dessert, and motivates you to start working on the project that you feel like putting off until tomorrow.  According to Robert Sapolsky, a neurobiologist at Stanford University,  the main purpose of the prefrontal cortex is to bias the brain towards choosing to do “the harder thing.” 

Kelly McGonigal describes the three regions of the prefrontal cortex involved in motivating us to make the harder choices as specializing in “I will” power, “I won’t” power and “I want” power. The region near the upper left side of the prefrontal cortex handles “I will” power. It helps you start and stick to boring, difficult or stressful tasks. The right side of the prefrontal cortex specializes in “I won’t” power, helping you resist urges.  The third region, in the middle of the prefrontal cortex, focuses on your desires, goals and priorities and helps you decide what you really want in life, then set the intention to pursue it.  

I am getting much better at “I won’t” power.  I am much more able to resist unhealthy food choices than I used to be and I am successfully losing weight. I have made a lot of progress with “I will” power, as demonstrated by my efforts to add daily meditation and exercise to my routine.  When I do concentration meditation focusing on lengthening the breath in the morning I am much more likely to choose to exercise that day.  I did it 5 days in a row one week and then 3 times the following week. However, it is still very easy for me to fall out of the habit. 

The good news is that I am motivating myself to get back on the horse much sooner than ever before.  Partly this is because I am not judging my lapses in discipline as failures.  I am practicing what Sharon Salzberg refers to as “stealth meditation,” incorporating mindfulness into my day, not just during formal meditation practice. One form of stealth meditation is practicing radical acceptance and self-compassion over and over again when I have setbacks in my efforts towards achieving my goals. That helps me get back on track faster.  The other thing that is helping me get back on track is that I am investing a lot of “I want” power into this endeavor.  I have made a commitment to keep working on developing healthy self-care habits and I am quite persistent when I am determined to accomplish a particular goal. 

In what ways do you use “I will” power, “I won’t” power, and “I want” power? Which of these forms of willpower are challenging for you? What do you do to try to overcome these challenges? Please share your thoughts  in the comments section below.

For information about Mental Health Blog Day and to read other contributor’s posts, follow this link:  http://ow.ly/wSKlZ 

 

If you are interested in reading more about Kelly McGonigal and “The Willpower Instinct,” you can read the following posts:

A Willpower Tug-of-War Between Different Parts of Self

Can Simple Breathing Exercises Enhance Self-Discipline?

For more information about Sharon Salzberg’s meditation strategies, you can read:

Seeking the Middle Way

Balancing Mindfulness of Emotions with Lovingkindness


The Greatest Love of All

The greatest love of all
     Is happening to me
I found the greatest love of all
     Inside of me
                                                  The greatest love of all
                                                       Is easy to achieve
                                                  Learning to love yourself
                                                       It is the greatest love of all

iStock_000002128470XSmallThe song, The Greatest Love of All, has a lot of meaning for me.   I resonate with its lyrics on a deep level.  And I love to sing.  Singing is one way I express myself.  I have fond memories of belting out the words of this song, with great feeling, with a close friend. It was a very empowering experience.

Singing can also be a form of meditation for me.  I choose a song that speaks to me and sing it mindfully, several times in a row, while reflecting on its meaning and how it impacts me and my life.  On several occasions, I have meditated on this particular song.  One thing that I have reflected about is that learning to love myself was not “easy to achieve.”  It was a journey that involved many years of therapy and other growth work. But once I reached that destination, I discovered how powerful self-love can be. 

I’m not saying that I am perfect at it.   I still have occasional doubts.  During the Real Happiness Meditation Challenge  this month, I discovered that these moments of doubt are more easily overcome with regular meditation practice.  I came to appreciate that mindfulness of emotions, letting go of emotions and thoughts, lovingkindness meditation, and shifting the balance to more frequent mindful noting of the  positive, were a powerful combination of practices that have already helped me to strengthen my self-awareness, self-compassion, self-acceptance, self-regulation, and self-love.

It has been two months since I began to develop my daily meditation habit. Now, even when I falter for a day or two, I easily get back on track.  It no longer feels like an effort to meditate daily. It feels like a part of me. 


Balancing Mindfulness of Emotions with Lovingkindness

It is the 17th day of the Real Happiness 28-Day Meditation Challenge. For the past two weeks, I have been working on mindfulness of emotions at night.  I have mostly been using a guided meditation by Sharon Salzberg that encourages noticing what emotions arise while initially focusing on the breath, which can be found on the CD in Real Happiness and on the Workman Publishing website: http://www.workman.com/realhappinessebook/.  I have also tried Ron Siegel’s Stepping into Sadness and Stepping into Fear meditations, which can be found in his book, The Mindfulness Solution and on the website for the book: http://www.mindfulness-solution.com/DownloadMeditations.html.  These two meditations helped me to fully experience difficult emotions.

iStock_000002128470XSmallSharon Salzberg, Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach all talk about a four step process of becoming mindful of emotions that can be remembered with the acronym RAIN – recognition, acceptance, investigation and non-identification.  Achieving balance involves noticing, accepting and exploring our emotions, while being careful not to identify with them. We strive neither to avoid nor to cling to our emotions, but to be mindful of them in the moment and notice how they come and go, like waves in the ocean.

I noticed some lingering sadness about a couple of losses that I experienced over the past couple of years and focusing on it during meditation helped me to fully experience the sadness and move past it.  Then one night I realized I was delaying meditating because of unacknowledged fear.   Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  I think it would be more accurate to say, “The only thing we have to fear is the fear of fear.”  It is the fear of fear that causes us to avoid it and try to block it from our minds.  When we face our fear, it becomes more manageable. 

Once I acknowledged the fear, I was able to face it. And once I faced it, I was able to overcome it.  During my meditation I went from noticing anxiety, rising doubt, a little fear, some regret and then hopefulness that I could overcome this obstacle.  And once I started feeling hopeful, the fear faded away.  Avoiding the fear made it seem insurmountable.  Facing the fear made it quite tolerable and fostered a sense of hopefulness that helped me to overcome it.

I have been practicing lovingkindness meditation in the morning, focusing on wishes for myself, specific family members, friends and clients, as well as a general wish for all beings everywhere. I have found that this helps me to have a positive attitude, even in challenging circumstances.

May I be safe, May I be healthy, May I be free from suffering, May I be peaceful, May I be balanced, May I be happy.

May you be safe, May you be healthy, May you be free from suffering, May you be peaceful, May you be balanced, May you be happy.

May all beings be safe, May all beings be healthy, May all beings be free from suffering, May all beings be peaceful, May all beings be balanced, May all beings be happy.

I decided it was time to shift the balance even further, by actively fostering positive emotions during my nighttime meditation. I started listening to Sarah McLean’s soul-centered guided meditations and plan to try more of them, as they have already had a powerful impact in a short time.  Ocean Visualization & Self-Love Affirmations; Gratitude Meditation & Appreciating Your Life;  Transcendence & Loving Yourself; I am Aware – The Intention to Awaken…  These and many more of Sarah McLean’s meditations can be found on the Winter Feast for the Soul website: http://winterfeastforthesoul.com/index2.php?dest=meditations_mclean.

I intend to continue working on balancing negative and positive emotions in meditation and in life.  How do you work on achieving this balance? 


Seeking the Middle Way

iStock_000002128470XSmallIt is the ninth day of the Real Happiness 28-Day Meditation Challenge.  I meditated 5-10 minutes every morning and 20 -30 minutes at night on work nights as planned, except for one night when I came home late.  My initial intention was to shut off the TV and computer at 11 PM to meditate and I came close to this goal.  There were a couple of nights that it was more like 11:30 or 12, but overall, I was still winding down and going to sleep earlier than usual. 

At night I was doing both the breathing meditation and meditation on emotions from the CD in Sharon Salzberg’s book, Real Happiness.  During the 14 minute breathing meditation, I noticed that I was able to maintain concentration without difficulty.  I encountered problems with two aspects of breathing: the first was that focusing on the breath led to breathing a little heavier than natural, and the second was that I couldn’t just focus on one aspect of the breath, like the air flowing through the nostrils or the rising and falling of the abdomen. My struggle was to decide when to just be mindful of my breathing exactly as it was without trying to change it and when to try to change my breathing to try to make it lighter and to try to improve my single-minded focus.

In reading Real Happiness at Work, I discovered some wisdom to help guide me in this.  In chapter 1, there is a balanced breathing meditation that focuses on cultivating both tranquility and energy by striving for a balanced state of mind that is both calm and alert. Finding this balance involves finding the middle way between being too relaxed and falling asleep and too intensely focused and breathing heavily, as I was doing.  Sharon suggests using the image of holding delicate, fragile glass in our hands; if we hold it too loosely it will fall out of our hands and break and if we hold it too tightly it will shatter in our hands.

I decided that it made sense for me to set my intention before I start the breathing meditation each night to focus either on balanced breathing or mindful acceptance of my breathing as is.  For the next week of the meditation challenge, I am going to focus on balancing my breathing and then decide where to go from there.  Mindfulness will still be an aspect of this practice because I will still need to mindfully accept the quality of each breath once I make my best effort at balance.

The instruction to focus on one aspect of the breath created a different challenge for me.  I thought I was having trouble with it when I not only focused on the air flowing through my nostrils, but also noticed my abdomen rising and falling. Sharon’s analogy of looking for a friend in the crowd was helpful to me in understanding how to approach this.  My new understanding is that I do not have to block out all other aspects of the breath.  It is ok to notice the crowd even though I am looking for my friend. I can still notice other aspects of the breath in the background, even while concentrating on the aspect of the breath that I choose to focus on.

In what ways do you need to work on balance in your meditation practice or your life?  What can the lesson I learned teach you about seeking the middle way?