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Saturday, November 25, 2017

Increasing Awareness

Melissa’s Mindful Moments

Increasing Awareness

Have you noticed that everyone seems to be talking about mindfulness these days? From Oprah and Arianna Huffington to therapists and elementary school teachers, the term “mindfulness” has made its way into the American lexicon. For those of us who have been practicing for a while, names like Thich Nhat Hanh, Deepak Chopra, Tara Brach and Eckhart Tolle are among the modern spiritual leaders and teachers of the ancient philosophy, practice and way of “be-ing”, while leaders in the fields of neurobiology, mindfulness research and education include Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. and Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD.

However, with increasing awareness of the term comes increasing confusion and inquiry into what EXACTLY it means to be mindful. Some people confuse mindfulness with meditation. While the two are related, they are not necessarily the same thing. Mindfulness can be used in meditation, and there is a form of meditation called “mindful meditation,” however, there are other forms of meditation that are not necessarily mindful meditation.

For me, the practice of mindfulness is most clearly defined as, “The ability to be aware of your thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, and actions- in the present moment- without judging or criticizing yourself or your experience” (McKay, Wood, & Brently, 2007, p.64).

The practice of mindfulness begins with close observation of “what is.” Once we can stay in the space of merely being an observer of “what is” we can begin to incorporate this awareness of being an observer into a meditative practice.

What does this mean? The awareness of being an observer of thoughts allows us to take a step back from thoughts that we have previously identified with or that creep, invited or not, into our mind. For instance, thoughts that begin with “should, ought, must” and the like are the types of thoughts that lead us away from acceptance and into rigidity and judgment. Likewise, thoughts that begin with “if only” and “what if” lead us away from the present and reach too far into the past or future, thereby creating more anxiety than necessary. When we learn to become aware of and identify these thoughts as only thoughts, we also increase mindful awareness of our ability to observe the thoughts and emotions that follow. We can then choose not to identify with or judge, but only observe and make a choice to let go of what does not serve us- which is usually a reactive rather than responsive behavior- in the present moment.

The first step to increase mindfulness begins with identifying the difference between a thought and an emotional feeling. Many people try to express their emotional feelings by expressing their thoughts. Sentences that begin with “I feel that….” are actually statements of thoughts about a situation. For example, “I feel that he does not respect or love me” is actually a thought. If you find yourself beginning expressions of feeling in this manner, you can take a step towards becoming more mindful by first recognizing that you are actually declaring a thought that might need to be challenged. Often times these types of thoughts feed into painful emotions such as anger, resentment and hurt.

If you catch yourself using sentence stems such as “I feel that…” or using phrases such as “should” and “what if” you have already increased present moment awareness! Just that brief moment of recognition gives you the space to remove yourself from identifying with the thought and becoming a mindful observer.

The next step is make an effort to name, accept and own the emotional feelings and reactions that arise out of your thoughts about a situation. I teach my clients to use this formula, “I feel _______(emotion), because I think____________. When I feel ______________(use the emotion previously named), I tend to react by ____________(behavior).” Using the above example, a more mindful, authentic, and therefore, more empowered statement might be, “I feel scared and hurt because I think he does not respect or love me. When I feel scared and hurt, I tend to react by isolating myself.” This statement shows a mindful and accepting awareness of “what is” in the moment for this person. It also provides this person with ownership and empowerment.

Ultimately, once we increase awareness into the relationship between our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, we are able to make more mindful choices and responses rather than react in ways that no longer serve us. However, most important to this practice is the ability to be aware of the ability to be aware. This releases identification with, and tendency to judge, the experience. Being able to identify reactivity gives us the space to choose another response, but it also allows us a space to look at ourselves with compassion. I will address compassion for ourselves in my next blog.

To begin a mindful practice, pay attention to the types of thoughts that fuel negative emotions and reactions. It can be helpful to journal. Be sure to use the above formula to assist you in making a distinction, without judgment, between your thoughts and feelings. Then feel free to drop me a line and let me know how this works for you!

McKay, M., Wood, J.C., & Brantley, J. (2007). The dialectical behavior therapy skills workbook: Practical DBT exercises for learning mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, emotion regulation & distress tolerance. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

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Allen, TX 75013
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