By Christine Worrell, MA, LPCC
Psychotherapist at In Focus Counseling PLLC.
I often hear as a therapist and friend, “I don’t do meditation – all that woo-woo stuff is too out there for me.” I have to admit… I love the woo-woo. I get that buzzwords of “mindfulness” and “meditation” generate emotional and sometimes physiological reactions from those who might not have great experiences with dipping their toe in the water of these practices. My hopes in writing this is to provide alternative ways of thinking about the woo. Be open, get excited or roll your eyes, and read on.
I’ve been practicing some form of mindfulness for about the past 8 years. Curious about Eastern philosophies for a very long time, it took some initial reading by Eckart Tolle and Deepak Chopra to spark my interest in taking action and beginning a transformative journey. When I say the word mindfulness, what do you think? Is it about being “Zen” and free from internal struggle for minutes or hours on end? Is it doing yoga? Going for a hike with your dog? Savoring your favorite cup of coffee or dessert without distraction? Is it simply noticing your thoughts and feelings and how they impact your day? The correct answer is: all of the above. Mindfulness is about staying connected to the here and now without judgment or agenda. It’s simply being aware of and observing what is occurring around you and inside of you. It allows you to cultivate the understanding “You are not your thoughts – you are the awareness observing your thoughts.” This spiritual / psychological teaching is one of the most profound things to learn in our lifetime in my opinion.
I love yoga. I practice probably about 5 days a week. It’s not about getting fit or checking a box on my to do list. Yoga is moving meditation for me. It allows me to connect with my body and notice my thoughts trying to distract me from my intention of engaging in the here and now. From my yoga practice I began dabbling in meditation. I was curious about what it would be like to cultivate the ability to sit in stillness, notice my breath, notice my thoughts, gain clarity about who I am, what I want to contribute and how I want to be in this world. I had a deep desire to connect to my true self and base my choices on an inner knowing, an expansive clarity without outside influences. I was hooked.
Everyone has routines that work well for them. Some folks are morning people; some are night owls. I never thought in a million years I’d be one of the former but, now in mid-life, that is my jam. I love getting up early when it’s still dark, enjoying the quiet, setting the lights just perfect, lighting my favorite candle and pouring a delicious cup of coffee. I created a space in my home which brings me great joy and calm. Here is what I’m looking at each day:
I listen to a 15 – 20 minute meditation through my Chopra App, Calm App, Insight Timer, whatever I choose that morning. It is a blissful way for me to start my day, clear my mind, set and intention and give gratitude for all the wonderful things, experiences and people in my life. Sometimes meditations involve mantras (or Sanskrit words with meanings which allow your mind to focus while sitting in stillness), some use English words, some encourage imagery, some use sounds / music. All are effective and it’s about giving it a go until you find something that works for you.
Now a lot of feedback I get from clients is “I know that it would be so good for me but I don’t have time to be mindful.” My answer is ok let’s practice together and then I run them through a 3 – 10 minute exercise in our therapy session. What is the response afterword? “I feel calm.” “I feel like I just went to a spa.” “I feel like I just soaked in a hot tub.” Fabulous. And all of which was created in under 10 minutes. Are we worth 10 minutes a day? Do we actually have the time and we’re just afraid of the woo? Our minds can generate all kinds of reasons and excuses for not trying something new – but that’s our ego wanting to pursue the path of least resistance. We know how to distract ourselves and run around ragged all day with busy-ness. But what would happen if we tried just a little bit of something different. Let’s discuss further.
A fantastic meditation I did on the Chopra app recently was all about clarity. It was led by Devi Brown. Thank you Devi for presenting a metaphor for meditation that I think makes a ton of sense which I have shared with many clients and friends alike! I want you to picture taking a large mason jar down to a creek or lake. Take a big scoop out of the water gathering other items along the sides / bottom. Make sure it’s full to the top. Now shake it up – probably looks something like this:
This is what our insides look like when we are not being mindful and caught up in our thoughts and emotions. The sticks can represent anxiety, leaves anger, sand can be fear, moss shame…whatever. When we’re all caught up in our “stuff” everything is stirred up and chaotic inside. And when there is chaos – how well can you see through the jar?? Not easily.
But, if we set the jar down to let it settle in it’s own time, what happens? We don’t have to do anything to the jar – just let it be and not touch it for a short while. Here’s the result:
How well can you see through the water now? Where is all the other junk in there? Settled calmly at the bottom. Just like what happens with you during meditation. It’s not about getting rid of the anxiety, fear, anger, shame, etc…those are all normal human emotions. But it’s about letting them settle down, rest and not cloud your vision so you can see what you need to do, take action with the activities and people that matter, understand your needs and desires. Without the cloudiness of emotional turmoil.
Our jars get stirred up all of the time. By our roommates, partners, kids, parents, co-workers, strangers, you name it! By cultivating a bit of mindfulness in your life, your ability to settle yourself and engage in a clear way with the values you hold dear increases tremendously. Doing this generates confidence, esteem, peace and joy. You are in charge of your emotions not the other way around. You can’t control when thoughts pop into your head or when someone else shakes your jar but can control how you respond. But it takes practice. It takes curiosity and commitment to learning new things. There is a great big world of woo-woo out there – some exercises you’ll be like “hell, no” some you think “hmm…maybe.” Then one will click and you’ll say “Yep, that’s my jam.”
A simple way to start is just a couple minutes of mindful breathing each morning. Slowly focus on inhaling to the count of four, pausing and exhaling to a count of six or seven. Repeating the words “in” and “out” as you focus your attention on the sensations of your body as you inhale and exhale – even five minutes can make a huge difference!
Go for it – I greatly encourage you to explore the world of mindfulness. Learn about how you already have all that you need inside of you to create the life you want. You just need to settle down and let clarity emerge!
Here is another exercise to try courtesy of Russ Harris, author and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy leader. Check out his wonderful book “The Happiness Trap” to learn more!
Mindfulness in Your Morning Routine
Pick an activity that constitutes part of your daily morning routine, such as brushing your teeth, shaving, or having a shower. When you do it, totally focus on what you are doing: the body movements, the taste, the touch, the smell, the sight, the sound etc.
For example, when you’re in the shower, notice the sounds of the water as it sprays out of the nozzle, and as it hits your body as it gurgles down the hole. Notice the temperature of the water, and the feel of it in your hair, and on your shoulders, and running down our legs. Notice the smell of the soap and shampoo, and the feel of them against your skin. Notice the sight of the water droplets on the walls or shower screen, the water dripping down your body and the steam rising upwards. Notice the movements of your arms as you wash or scrub or shampoo.
When thoughts arise, acknowledge them, let them be, and bring your attention back to the shower.
Again and again, your attention will wander. As soon as you realize this has happened, gently acknowledge it, note what distracted you, and bring your attention back to the shower.