Come to Your Senses
Come To Your Senses
If you’ve been googling any self-help topics lately (how to not be stressed, how to communicate with my spouse, how to deal with my boss, how to be a patient parent) you may have found a commonality in the suggestions made in these articles. That is Mindfulness. Mindfulness is paying attention to the present, without judgment or thoughts about the past and the future. Why is it so helpful? Taking a moment to be mindful is like stopping on the trail to pull out the map to make sure you’re going where you want to be going. So often we get walking down a well-worn path in our minds and behavior and don’t look around until we realize we’re on the trail that ends at the dirty old trash heap again.
Have you ever had the same argument or discussion with your spouse over and over again? He brings the thing up (again) you know where this is going so you say the same thing you always say, one of you goes on the defensive, the other one retreats and you spend the rest of the evening in silent frustration. Mindfulness works in a situation like this because it helps to slow things down. When you learn how to be mindful you can stop in your tracks, see where this path is taking you, and choose to do something different. When interacting, we’re participating in a reciprocal pattern of influence. He says one thing, you say another thing. He says a different thing, you say a different thing. Mindfulness helps to realize when you’re stuck in a pattern of behavior that isn’t working.
The thing is that mindfulness is hard to use when you need it without practicing first. I like to think of mindfulness as a muscle that needs strengthening, and daily mindfulness practices can help to do that - like lifting weights for your brain. With enough practice, you will eventually be able to call upon your mindful awareness in a moment that really matters. It’s these small changes that add up to big changes in the direction of living the life you want to live.
Would you like to try being mindful? Here’s one of my favorite practices that I share with my counseling clients in Asheville. It can be done anywhere, but I find being outside is helpful.
1. First become aware of the fact that you are breathing. Breath is an excellent anchor for mindfulness because it is nothing but present. We don’t think about past or future breaths, the most important one is the one you’re having right now. Don’t try to change your breath, just notice your chest or belly expanding or contracting with each in and out breath. Think to yourself “I’m breathing in...I’m breathing out…”
2. Do this for a few breaths, then you will begin a process of checking in with each of your senses. You’ll want to try to do this nonjudgmentally, but it can be hard at first. If you’ve decided to practice while walking down a busy street, you may notice your mind saying “Hmm, what do I smell...oh car exhaust! This place is disgusting. I can’t wait until I get to where I’m going.” But that judgment unhinged your awareness and sent you off into a future thought. When you’ve realized you’ve made a judgment, notice that and come back to your breath. Don’t judge your judging.
3. If you find you get distracted, which you will, gently bring your awareness back to your breath, and move on to the next sense. A friendly reminder, your senses are hearing, seeing, touching, tasting, and smelling.
4. The whole practice will take about 2-5 minutes. You won’t necessarily feel anything different when you’re finished. When you’ve lifted a 20 pound weight one time, your muscles don’t automatically get bigger. Change happens with repetition, over time. And it’s not about not becoming distracted, it’s about noticing when you do, and bringing your awareness back to the present moment, over and over and over again.
And with practice, when you feel yourself wandering down the same old unhelpful path, you'll be able to stop, check the map, and change your path to lead where you really want to go.