The Mindfulwomen ProjectA place to share thoughts
For the last 25 years, September is designated Recovery Month as a way to promote that behavioral health is essential to overall health and well being. Towards the end of 2011, SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration) announced a new definition of recovery: a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential. Over the years of working as a psychotherapist it has become increasingly apparent to me that recovery is for all of us.
While there are various reasons that folks find their way to my office, they inevitably have one thing in common. Many arrive because of loss, disappointment, difficult relationships, depression, anxiety, disconnection, or trauma, and some form of addictive behavior. Addictive behaviors are those things we habitually do to not feel uncomfortable or difficult feelings. These behaviors are wide ranging from life threatening to everyday activities of life; illegal and prescription drugs, alcohol, food or no food, power and control, nicotine, sex, gambling, caffeine, self harm, codependency, work, exercise, shopping, and relationships.
We can choose to step back into our lives and out of habitual patterns of thought and behavior by integrating lifestyle changes and mindfulness practices. Mindfulness offers a non judgmental, compassionate approach to ourselves and our experiences. Through mindfulness practices we can become aware of our habits of thought and behavior and the automatic reactions that control so many of our lives, and find ways to pause. We learn to recognize our challenging emotional and physical experiences and change our relationship to the resulting discomfort.
“What are we waiting for to be happy? Why are we waiting to start celebrating? We can celebrate now. Every step is to celebrate life, thanks to mindfulness, concentration and insight”
… Thich Nhat Hanh
Our brains are wired to seek pleasure and avoid suffering. I had devoted many years to the latter, when I discovered that the way to happiness was by not avoiding what was causing my suffering. The more I resisted knowing my emotions and feelings the more they persisted. It is a paradox that we create suffering by not feeling the sensations of anger, disappointment, shame, and fear.
Most of my life was spent running. Running to work, running errands, running to pick up the kids, running on empty. I remember as a child running from danger in the same dream over and over. I held onto the belief that if I just kept on running, eventually I could celebrate. With all that I had accomplished professionally and personally, happiness was ever more elusive. I always thought I was running towards happiness or something greater in the future, and found that like in my childhood dreams I was running from perceived danger. Running was the habit I had developed to avoid facing and confronting my fears. I had spent most of my life running from feelings and emotions I did not understand or want to feel. Constant running also kept me from hearing the voice in my head, and when that didn’t work I would engage in addictive behaviors to try to stop the madness. I eventually hit a wall. In my pursuit of happiness, I was habitually avoiding feelings associated with anger, heartache, and disappointment. I was suffering from chronic disengagement.
Finding the willingness to be with strong and uncomfortable feelings, experiencing the discomfort I tried so hard to avoid did not come easy. Everything I thought mattered, no longer mattered. Mindfulness meditation required that I do nothing except breathe. This alone was intolerable at times, but I kept practicing, one breath at a time. Slowly I began to lean into my discomfort. I found pockets of time throughout my day to take a few moments of breathing space when things were more challenging, or whenever I recognized I was on automatic. My focus shifted from what I didn’t have to what I have, a shift in perspective. Over time I noticed my emotional life, and had developed the ability to pause and allow for some breathing space to expand my awareness. Life can be challenging and stressful and neither will be eliminated by practicing mindfulness.
“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and non judgmentally.”
… Jon Kabat-Zinn
Mindfulness is attention training. It increases awareness and strengthens our concentration muscle, improving our capacity to regulate emotion, and step out of habitual patterns of thought and behavior. New brain science indicates that we can actually change the structure of our brains through a practice of mindful awareness. Daniel Goleman is a psychologist whose book Emotional Intelligence, recognizes research that shows that happiness and productivity in life is grounded in our emotional intelligence. Our minds are wandering 50% of the time. Emotions in the brain, lead to attention in the brain. Concentrated focus depends on the ratio of concentration to distraction. The more practiced we are at bringing our mind back from wandering and into the present, the more we increase our ability to focus, our ability to concentrate and our ability to change our relationship to our thoughts and feelings.
Stop running and celebrate now!
Mindfulness is a practice of connection… to calm your mind and accept your experience, allowing you to respond to life’s challenges rather than living in an automatic state of reaction… to engage in life from a place of authenticity and compassion.
Mindfulness is about being open to what is and the awareness of your experience of reality in the present moment. I’m not suggesting that women are not living in reality, what I am suggesting is that we are not experiencing what our reality is.
By intentionally practicing mindfulness, deliberately paying more careful moment-to-moment attention, you can be more fully present for your life and the lives of others, and less on “automatic pilot”. You know what I mean…unconsciously going about your day unaware of what you are really doing, thinking, or feeling.
Mindfulness is about observing your thoughts without criticism and being compassionate with yourself. In an open-hearted, friendly way you begin to invite whatever arises in awareness without taking it personally.By paying attention on purpose, deeply, and without judgment we can cultivate the capacity for awareness to balance out thought and catch negative thought patterns before they tip you into a downward cycle.
Mindfulness awakens your awareness of your inherent goodness and possibilities. It is a way to create healthy, positive changes, and happens when we no longer turn away from what it is we wish to change. It puts you back in control of your life. The time to start is now…one breath at a time.