Every breath you take, every move you make, every bond you break, every step you take, your focus is on a sensation, a thought, an object; something that captures your attention. (Apologies if you have The Police stuck in your head for the rest of the day, I’ll take responsibility for that!)
Mindfulness is being aware of what is taking our attention. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Clinic describes it well: “Mindfulness is paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” In other words, it is knowing what you are doing while you are doing it. Let’s break down this definition and learn some skills for using mindfulness to lead an intentional, holistic, and purposeful life:
The first part is paying attention. Mindfulness begins with focus on a single thing at a given time. We like to call this our spotlight of awareness.
Take the example of driving a car. Most of us drive so often that it feels like muscle memory. Thus, it’s easy to think we can do other things at the same time, such as texting. This, however, takes attention away from the task at hand (driving), which we should be focused on. While multi-tasking may be possible, multi-focusing is not. We can’t actually have our attention in more than one place in a given moment, increasing the risk and danger of driving.
The next part of the definition of mindfulness is on purpose. We take our spotlight of awareness and intentionally direct it onto something. Once we do this, we can then direct it deeper and deeper onto our physical sensations and internal thoughts tied to whatever we are focusing on.
Let’s practice! “5-4-3-2-1″ is an exercise I do in my clinical work with adolescent boys and young adults. This is a sensory orientation practice. The goal is to take our spotlight of awareness and purposefully shift it between the five senses. This is an excellent exercise for when you are feeling scattered or ungrounded.
Consider your five senses—touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound—and determine which sensation is most poignant to you in the moment. Name five things you experience for that sense. Then move to the next sense and name four things, and so on. A student in the field might go through this exercise as follows:
Now, it’s your turn. Try this out wherever you are right now.
In the 30 seconds it took to complete this 5-4-3-2-1 exercise, you shifted focus between your senses, on purpose. This is a key aspect of being mindful! The more practice you get at shifting your awareness on purpose between senses, the better you’ll become at purposefully shifting your awareness between things beyond senses, such as conversations, objects, tasks, and people.
Next up in Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness definition is “in the present moment”. This is an important part of the therapeutic process for students at Open Sky. In the field, you may hear students use the lingo “future tripping” or “past tripping”. These terms refer to being so focused on the future or the past that we are missing out on the present. This can cause spiraling thoughts, unregulated emotions, detrimental communication, and harmful behavior. It can also keep us from experiencing the fullness of the present moment and growing from the joy, heartache, gratitude, disappointment (insert-emotion-here) that we feel in the present.
There is actually a part of our brains called the Default Mode Network, which is responsible for those background thoughts that pass through our minds unprompted. We’ve all experienced this in quiet moments, when random thoughts pop into our head and take us out of the present moment. Through mindfulness practice, you can become more aware of the Default Mode Network, name those thoughts as they enter your mind, and shift focus back to the present.
Please note, it is virtually impossible to be fully present at all times unless you are a master of mindfulness and study and practice it as your life’s work. Part of being human is dealing with distractions and being pulled out of the present with schedules, deadlines, and responsibilities. But by practicing mindfulness, we are more able to shift into the present moment when we are overwhelmed by these external pressures.
One exercise to help focus our spotlight of awareness on the present is through a breath awareness:
Last but not least, mindfulness is nonjudgmental. What exactly does that mean?
How do you talk to yourself? What do you think of yourself, especially in critical moments? Society trains us to be hard on ourselves in order to be constantly improving. For many, including a lot of my students at Open Sky, this pattern leads to feelings of unworthiness and inadequacy.
According to Ruby Jo Walker, the founder of Post-Traumatic Growth Somatic Therapy, “Self-compassion is hard for many of us. Feelings of unworthiness or ‘not-enoughness,’ self-criticism, and negative core beliefs can affect self-compassion—and they are the reasons to do self-compassion.”
In the beginning stages of a mindfulness practice, practice being non-judgmental when your thoughts drift out of the present moment. Don’t be hard on yourself; simply name the thought and let it pass by refocusing on the breath.
An important, yet less familiar term in the sphere of mindfulness is interoception. Have you ever had a stomachache before a difficult conversation with a spouse? Do your hands get sweaty during a big presentation at work? Does your chest tighten when you receive disappointing news? Does it relax with encouraging news? These are all signs that our bodies, emotions, and minds are all interconnected. Interoception is our perception of our interior; the ability to detect and acknowledge these sensations inside the body and understand what they are signaling to the brain.
When we consider thoughts and actions, we usually think about it as a “top-down” process, meaning the brain tells the body what to do. However, the body is constantly communicating to the brain; we just aren’t always aware of this “bottom-up” process. Physical sensations may alarm or notify the brain to act or focus on something. Interoception supports that connection, enabling the body to command the attention of the brain. Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), and other forms of talk therapy are ways of intervening “top-down”. I like to integrate somatic therapy into my work with adolescent boys and young adults. This starts with focus on the body, drawing awareness to how it responds to various activities, people, and other stimuli, and thus how it affects thoughts and emotions.
“Becoming in touch with your body’s sensations not only helps you get out of the state of numbness, but it also increases your emotional awareness. You can use skills to intervene early before the emotions become too intense. If you’re not emotionally aware, then you can’t regulate your emotions. It’s an out of control feeling that you act on without awareness,” said Dr. Ruth Lanius. This quote illuminates the intersection and integration of mindfulness, body awareness, and emotion regulation through interoception. Integrated systems are healthy systems.
In this moment, as you read this article, where is your spotlight of awareness? Mindfulness and interoception are two skills you can develop to become more integrated, healthy, and connected as a human being. You can practice them by sitting down for a formal meditation practice or simply by going about your day. Whether eating lunch, driving to work, reading this article, or vacuuming the house, remember to be attentive, purposeful, present, and non-judgmental.