Every moment can become an opportunity to practice mindfulness. 8 Keys to Practicing Mindfulness (W.W. Norton & Company, 2015), by Manuela Mischke Reeds, invites you to sharpen your awareness and ask yourself with more frequency, “What do I notice right now?” or “How do I need to respond to this situation?” The following excerpt includes selections from several chapters, and will introduce you to the first steps to loving your body and emotions.
You can realize mindfulness in a single moment—while in the middle of cooking dinner, walking your dog, tucking your kids into bed, or sitting in a business meeting. Suddenly you notice your breath or your posture, how you are feeling, the tone in your voice, the expression of a child or colleague. You watch yourself noticing. The experience is fresh and new even though you have been there many times before. This awareness fundamentally changes your experience.
Many mindfulness teachers have said, “Start where you are.” This is an important teaching, because when you start where you are, you are already becoming mindful by making peace with yourself in this moment. This is the first big hurdle. It’s not about achieving anything, going anywhere, doing anything special, or setting up the right circumstances, but rather realizing that whatever you are dealing with can be observed. You can literally start anywhere, at any time.
Mindfulness experiences can be brief or extended, and respecting your own pace is crucial. This will enable you to take what you’re doing seriously and reap the benefits. Allow yourself to start where you are and find your own way with the stories, explanations, reflections, and exercises. If you feel challenged, that’s a good sign: It means the exercises are working and you are encountering new terrain. Only by exploring uncharted territory will you gain new insights.
Befriend Your Body
Because most of us are not fully attuned to the rhythms of healthy eating, sufficient sleep, and stress regulation, it’s important for us to focus on the body. We often don’t know when to turn down the relentless assault of electronic information and stimulation. But when we slow down and take the time to listen, our bodies can become a great resource. For instance, my client Cindy worked for years as a night nurse in a hospital. She had become so accustomed to this work rhythm that she didn’t notice how it was affecting her health. She didn’t realize that her symptoms of restlessness, insomnia, digestive disturbances, and tardiness for therapy appointments were related to a reversed circadian rhythm. She was used to the night routine she had created, but her body didn’t agree with it. When she began to practice mindfulness, she began to tune in to her body and discover her fatigue and disconnect from the “normal flow of life,” as she put it. Cindy began to listen to the sensations and feelings in her body, and they became a guide for her decision to change her work life.
Paying attention to stress symptoms in this way can help you attune to your body’s interoception (internal state). During initial sessions, clients often describe how they brush aside stress symptoms, can’t concentrate, or fail to pay attention to headaches, stomach aches, digestive problems, and the many other symptoms that tell them that their body is overwhelmed and needs a different pace. By learning to pay attention to physical cues as indicators of your health status, you can rely on your body as a compass that points to the healthiest direction.
In a study by Royal Holloway (Ainley, 2013), female volunteers ages nineteen to twenty-six took a perception test in which they had to count their own heartbeat, thus tuning in to their body’s interoception. The objective of the study was to determine how women perceived their body image when they became aware of themselves from the outside versus the inside. In the study it was observed that when the women were more in touch with their bodies (and not perceiving themselves as objects), they were less likely to suffer from eating disorders and depression. Anecdotally, I have seen in my practice how learning to tune in to the cues of the body strengthens a sense of self-perception and well-being. Others may judge you, but this doesn’t affect you as much when you’re connected with how you feel on the inside.
You have also been learning that noticing without judgment is an essential part of practicing mindfulness. You will further develop the capacity to notice how you are and not judge or dwell on why you are, since the “why” may give you preconceived answers and get in the way of healthy change. Again and again, I encourage you to return to sensing your body and breath as a way to help you measure how you are doing in the present moment. This may be accompanied by some discomfort, but as you cultivate body and breath awareness, you may begin to tune in more often without judgment to the sensate and emotional terrain of your experience. With practice, you will be able to delve deeper into your physical and emotional states and discover mindful awareness during the most difficult moments. This should bring you more into balance as you gain the tools to be with yourself and make healthful choices.
Trust Your Sensations, Tame Your Emotions
Just as you worked to notice and befriend your physical sensations, you will work to get curious and suspend judgment about your emotions. Once again, slowing down is essential, but now allow yourself the adventure of getting to know the feelings you may not have previously felt or observed. The mindfulness journey is full of surprises, and you will need to be flexible, open, and accepting about what you find. You can even be open to resistance and the emotions you don’t like.
Bringing mindfulness into your life as a regular practice can help you change your mental health and well-being by showing you how you organize your thinking and what you truly believe. You discover what matters inside and what needs focus, and step by step, moment by moment, you work on this. Because of the brain’s amazing plasticity (at any age) and its ability to shift and adapt with each new encounter, you can grow with each experience that you knowingly embrace. Of course, you want to mindfully strengthen the experiences that are beneficial and let go of the emotional dramas that damage.
Seeing clearly your natural self instead of your triggered self is part of the mindfulness journey. This isn’t always easy, as you may come up against emotions you would prefer to push away. Whether you are aware of them or not, you are driven by strong feelings, and most of your decisions are based on how you feel. The key is to see emotions not as problems but as discerning helpers on the path toward a more balanced life. Tuning in to your sensations and your body feelings can be helpful in this process.
Reprinted with permission from 8 Keys to Practicing Mindfulness: Practical Strategies for Emotional Health and Well-Being by Manuela Mischke Reeds and published by W.W. Norton & Company, 2015.