Today I had a great, great session with my therapist. Our conversation today centered on mindfulness, meditation and becoming aware of thoughts and emotions and dealing with them. She was the one who first described mindfulness to me, as a useful skill set to help manage my anxiety. All mindfulness is, in this context, is a means to raise one’s own awareness of their emotions and thoughts. As she put it to me today, one of the common misconceptions about mindfulness is that practitioners get to a point where they no longer feel emotions like anger, jealousy, sadness or pain. My guess is that this is partly due to some of the practices mindfulness shares with Buddhism, where we often think of the end goal of meditation as enlightenment or nirvana, where those negative emotions have no place (I should say here that I am not particularly well versed in Buddhist tradition- far from it- so if anyone wants to clarify please feel free to do so). Mindfulness isn’t about never feeling those emotions or having negative thoughts- it’s about recognizing those thoughts when they arise so that they cannot dominate you.
I’ve been reading Jon Kabat-Zinn’s “Mindfulness for Beginners” and it’s an easy book to pick up and zip through- though it’s also the kind of book where going back and rereading passages will help you understand the concepts of mindfulness, thought and awareness. Despite the occasional slip into eye-rolling phrasing (example: “If we are not careful, it is all too easy to fall into becoming more of a human doing than a human being…”), Kabat-Zinn lays things out in a very logical explanatory way. It’s good to understand why part of mindfulness meditation asks you to focus on and return to your breathing- it’s something that while largely involuntary (i.e., our bodies do it regardless of being conscious of doing so, in order to keep us alive) we can consciously interrupt, or speed up, or slow down, unlike, say, your heartbeat. By returning to the breath we have what he calls “an ideal anchor for our wayward attention,” for when our thoughts begin to drift. Because of the rhythmic nature of breathing, by paying attention to each breath, we are conscious of being present in each moment- breathing in- the next moment- holding it- and the next, breathing out. By focusing on the breath and coming back to the breath we are training ourselves to think in terms of the present moment, rather than allow our mind to run off like a dog chasing a squirrel after what-ifs, worries, assumptions, etc. Eventually the ability to pay attention in the moment becomes a habit.
Think of it this way- in golf it’s easy to understand, conceptually, that a soft grip, an easy swing with solid contact with the ball and keeping one’s head down should result in a pretty good shot, provided you have the right club for the distance and have factored in wind. Yet even knowing this, amateur golfers (and even the pros from time to time) grip the club too tightly, swing too hard and bring their head up to watch the shot (which more often than not in those circumstances sails out of bounds). But the more time a golfer spends on the range developing the good habits, the more likely they are to carry those good habits with them on the course. Maybe not on every shot, and each of us has our own limitations physically that prohibit us from becoming pro golfers, but developing and practicing good habits means that a golfer can find some level of proficiency and consistency in their game. Mindfulness works the same way. Think of meditation as time on the driving range, practicing the positive habits in a low-stakes non-competitive environment. By focusing on our breath and the moment, recognizing thoughts as they come, we’re establishing positive habits. Those habits can be called upon at other times in our lives.
I’ll use an example of my own anxiety management. I was anxious yesterday about a meeting I had. Before the meeting, in the car, I could feel the knot in my stomach I sometimes get from anxiety, the fluttering heartbeat… So I closed my eyes (don’t worry, I wasn’t driving) and took two breaths to anchor myself and pull back by focusing on the breathing, not the anxiety. In, out. In, out. Once my focus was off of the anxiety I had a thought come- What if you say something dumb in the meeting? I acknowledged it as a possibility but allowed myself to also say “but you probably won’t.” Anchored in the present moment, I allowed the negative thoughts to come up, I addressed them, and allowed them to pass. The whole thing might have been five seconds, but it seemed like I was there for ten minutes with this internal dialogue. The meeting went very well- I wasn’t nervous when we walked in, I asked some good questions, made some helpful points and left with an assignment. All because I was able to arrest the anxiety by calling upon the habits I’ve developed when I sit at home and meditate. The anxiety wasn’t absent from my day, but because I was aware of it I was able to address it. As I said above, mindfulness isn’t about never feeling those emotions or having negative thoughts- it’s about recognizing those thoughts when they arise so that they cannot dominate you.