Author Cathryn Abbott Jones: How To Develop Mindfulness During Stressful Or Uncertain Times
Let trivial stuff go. When we are stressed we often focus on stuff that doesn’t matter because it feels like we have more control over that than the big stuff that feels frightening in our lives. We blow little things out of proportion. Try to be aware of that tendency and stop yourself before you start or recognize that is what someone else in your life is doing and let it go.
As a part of my series about “How To Develop Mindfulness And Serenity During Stressful Or Uncertain Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Cathryn Abbott Jones.
Cathryn Abbott Jones is a therapist specializing in trauma transcension and transformation, a meditation guide, coach, mother and former trailing spouse. Cathryn is also the author of the book, The Reluctant Alchemist, a fictionalized memoir about finding the magic within ourselves. Originally from New Orleans, she currently splits time between her hometown and the mountains of Southern California.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
I guess the first thing to know about me is that I don’t have a “specific career path”! From an early age I knew that I wanted to help other people which led me to get a Master’s Degree in Social Work after which I started working with a great community mental health group in Washington, DC. I left that job to stay at home with my son. Soon after my then husband and I had the opportunity to live in Thailand and I became a “trailing spouse”…that’s literally what the company called me. For the next 14 years, I lived in 4 different countries: Thailand, South Korea, Japan and London. That amazing adventure came to an end when my husband and I divorced. I found myself back in my hometown of New Orleans. I had to reinvent myself, restart my career (including taking all the board certifications all over again, 17 years later), and be a mother to my two kids. While I lived abroad I started doing yoga and learning to meditate. I found that when I came back to the States and started working as a trauma therapist it was quite natural to bring in techniques I learned in yoga and meditation to work with my clients. I got certified as a yoga instructor and in Accelerated Resolution Therapy (a specific technique for working with clients who have anxiety and PTSD that is a lot like a guided meditation). I saw that combining these techniques worked really well for myself and my clients.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
That’s pretty much what my book, The Reluctant Alchemist, is about, the story that really sparked me to go deeper into meditative practices. My “career” is intertwined with my life, I use what happens in my life, the real-life experiences that I have, to inform my work with clients and the other content I create for a larger audience. So when I struggle with a particular issue and then have some sort of an epiphany about it, I use that as a grounded example of esoteric ideas and hopefully that’s easier for people to grasp. For example, one of the things I’m going to talk about in this piece is the idea of non-fruitive action. It’s a concept I first found in the Bagvad Gita. It’s the idea that you need to let go of your attachment to any outcome in a situation. We often spend so much time fretting over things we can’t control that we either don’t do something because we are paralyzed by fear or we sabotage ourselves. I went through about 5 complete versions of my book. For a long time I worried about what my friends, my family and even my ex-husband would think about the book and what that might mean, so I wrote it one way. Then after a couple more versions I had worked through that problem and then became fixed on the idea of making it as marketable as possible. But when I got finished with the “more marketable” version I realized it was no longer the story I wanted and needed to tell. I had to release my attachment to the outcome of publishing the book in order to move forward in an authentic manner. I had to let go of any concerns about what anyone else thought…I even had to let go of whether or not I sold very many copies. The journey I took with the book, the writing and rewriting of it had taught me so much about myself, about my spirituality, and about life that it really didn’t matter what happened to it. I had brought the project to fruition and learned valuable lessons. And more importantly there was no point fretting over something I could not control, like how many people decided to buy my book and whether or not they liked it.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
Make sure that you do not create a culture of fear. Fear kiils creativity. When people feel safe, supported and appreciated they can expand and grow and build wonderful things.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Awareness by Anthony de Mello…really anything by him. Tony de Mello had a great talent for grounding spiritual concepts in ways that are simple and illuminating at the same time.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. From your experience or research, how would you define and describe the state of being mindful?
Like the title from the Tony de Mello’s book, it starts with being aware. What are you aware of right now wherever you are? How and where are you sitting? What are you looking at? What can you hear? What can you smell? What are you touching? What parts of your body are touching each other or a chair or a sofa? What song is playing in your head right now or is there a tape running in your head about all the stuff you need to be doing other than reading this interview? It’s being aware of our actions and reactions, being aware of our strengths and our woundedness and how this plays out in our relationships and everyday interactions as well as our attitude toward ourselves. Your body is a good place to start working on awareness.
This might be intuitive to you, but it will be instructive to spell this out. Can you share with our readers a few of the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of becoming mindful?
When you are aware of your own wounds, you become aware of your triggers. Your triggers are your knee-jerk reactions in various situations. Being mindful of these reactions allows you to consider where they came from and if they are actually appropriate or helpful to you. Often our reactions happen without thought, through mindful awareness you learn how to respond as opposed to react to things, people, situations. You are no longer acting from subconscious patterns. It’s like the difference between just getting in a boat and going down the river without any idea of where the shallows and the rocks or other hazards are. You blindly bump into stuff and just react as you hit things. Maybe you overcorrect or turn your boat over and then you have to figure out how to get back in your boat and keep going unaware of where the next dangerous spot is. Or you can survey the river a bit and know where you might get into trouble, make a plan for how to deal with it or avoid it all together. After doing this for a while it becomes second nature and you learn to move in an entirely different way. You will find more peace in your relationships and more joy and less anxiety in your life. And learning to think differently changes the actual chemistry of your brain. So doing this work has very concrete and quantifiable results.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. The past 5 years have been filled with upheaval and political uncertainty. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the pandemic have only heightened a sense of uncertainty, anxiety, fear, and loneliness. From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to develop mindfulness during such uncertain times? Can you please share a story or example for each.
Step One: The very first thing is to develop that awareness of what is making you feel anxious, fearful or sad. Identify when during the day you are the most anxious for example. When does it start? What does it feel like in your body? So many of us are divorced from our bodies unless we are in pain or seriously ill. Different bodies have different reactions to anxiety, sadness, fear. Start paying attention to how your body feels and how you label that feeling. For example: do you feel more anxious after watching the news? How does your body feel before and after you watch the news. You know we went for a long time when we learned news only from newspapers and then it progressed to once or twice a day on the television. Only in the last 30 years do we have 24 hour newsreels and news that is ratings driven. What drives up ratings? Fear. So if you are someone who becomes more anxious or fearful after watching the news or engaging with social media, I strongly suggest that you go on a news diet. Social media often makes people angry or sad. Is this necessary to your life? Are there other ways you can engage with friends or get the information you really need? Keep a journal or even just notes on a pad to keep track of when you are most anxious, what’s going on and how it feels in your body. Also notice when you are most calm during the day and what you are doing and feeling. See if you can find some patterns.
Step Two: Once you have identified what activities increase your anxiety and how those feelings manifest in your body, it’s time to think about what action you might take. Can you limit your intake of news or social media? If it’s aspects of your job that make you anxious it’s not as simple, but the principle is still the same. Notice when and where you find your anxiety increasing. If it’s interactions with your boss that increase anxiety at work, you can mitigate those feelings. Ask yourself what is it about your interactions that you make you anxious or fearful. Is your boss a yeller? Are they condescending? Or are you really hard on yourself and constantly afraid you’ve done something wrong? Whatever it is try and become an observer of the situations that make you uncomfortable. Imagine being a third person in the room who is watching the interaction. In meditation this is called “cultivating the witness”. When we can step outside of ourselves even for a moment we can get clarity about a situation that is hard to find when we are caught up in an interaction. Observe yourself, what is your posture? What is your tone? How does the other person respond or react to you? Did you notice how nervous the other person is? I remember a colleague once left a nasty note on my door about a rather trivial event in the office. I was glad that I took a moment to breathe before I responded. My first thought was, “This response is way out of proportion to the event…I wonder what’s going on because I don’t think this is about me.” It turned out her father was dying and she freaked out over a non-event. She later apologized for her over-reaction. Try not to take things personally, most of the time it’s not about you. You can often see this more readily if you step back and attempt to observe a situation instead of just reacting to it. Taking a breath in that moment can give you the space to respond instead of react. Just like dogs circling for a fight…most of the time if one of them doesn’t respond with fight energy, it never happens.
Step Three: In a quiet moment try and recall where you felt the anxiety in your body if it has dissipated. If it’s still there, close your eyes and breathe. Breathe through your nose if at all possible. Panting through your mouth is a signal to your autonomic nervous system to prepare for fight, flight or freeze. The simple act of breathing deeply through your nose can help turn that switch off. I like to use a technique I call square breathing. Close your eyes and trace a square in front you as if you were tracking a pin light. Starting at the bottom left corner, count to four…one, two, three, four…slowly. The turn the light up the right side and count slowly to four. Come across the top to the left for four and then down to meet where you started for four. Do this as many times as you need to until your heartrate slows and you can breathe easily. Sit or lie down and scan your body from head to toe. Notice where you are holding tension. Imagine breathing light in through the top of your head and watch that light fill your body with warmth and heat chasing the smoke of the tension out your toes and fingers. We hold onto tension in our bodies and the more we can process it out, the better.
Step 4: Stop playing the If/When game. If I can just make this much money, get this job…When the pandemic ends things will return to normal…If I could just find…If I could just lose 10 pounds, I would be happier. The problem with the If/When game is that you are constantly waiting for something in your life to be different from what it is BEFORE you will be happy or fulfilled or whatever. Hanging all your hopes on some uncertain future date or event has several negative consequences. For one thing, it keeps you from appreciating whatever good things are going in your life right now. You cede control of your happiness to an uncertain future that often doesn’t solve all the problems we hope it will. Losing 10 pounds might help you get back into your skinny jeans, but it won’t turn your life around if you are still busy beating yourself up every time you eat ice cream or berating yourself for not exercising. It’s the negative tapes playing in your head that are the real problem, the ten pounds are just a distraction for your mind. They are an easy thing to focus on that may keep you from doing the hard work of changing how you think about yourself and react to others which would make a real long term difference in how happy you are on any given day. You don’t always want to be putting off your joy for some time in the future. We got to 2021 and it has been crazy and difficult too…if you were waiting for the turn of the year for things to get better, you may find yourself even more depressed now. It would be better to figure out how to be at your best and happiest while in the middle of the storm because then you know that happiness is unshakable and real. The current state of the world gives us a great opportunity to explore our own triggers, fears and anxieties because there is no where to hide. Pay attention, become of aware of your own stuff and start taking control of how you think and how you feel.
Step 5: I mentioned earlier: Release your attachment to the outcome of a situation. Can you control the Pandemic? Politics? Other people? No. In a way, we have a gift with these particularly difficult times, diamonds are created under pressure after all. The truth is times are never certain, we were just under the delusion that they were…or could be again. So lean into it, acknowledge that you don’t have control over these things. The only thing you have control over is yourself: how you react or respond to any given situation. And if you think about it, that’s great, because you DO have control over yourself. You are not a victim and there are very specific ways to teach yourself to respond to situations that will reduce your anxiety and increase your joy factor. So acknowledge that first. Crazy people can only drive you crazy if you give them the keys! Keep the keys.
In any given situation you can ask yourself a couple of questions: Did I do my best? Did I have the best intentions? If your answer to those two questions is yes, then you have done everything you could, and letting the out come go is now the only thing to do. You turned in a project at work having given your all and with the intention that it will benefit the company in some way. Will it do you any good to spend another moment stressing about how it will be received or what will happen next? No, you don’t control that part. We often vortex about things like that. I call it vortexing because we just get into a spin cycle of similar thoughts which only serves to raise our anxiety. Tell yourself, Stop. You can even imagine a big stop sign. Keep doing that. You will probably be astonished at how long your mind attempts to keep going down that line. Laugh at yourself, you are human.
From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
- Practice active listening. Often our friends and loved ones just need a place to talk when they are stressed. Often they don’t actually want advice, just someone to listen. Work on being a good listener who doesn’t try to fix anything.
- Check on each other. People are feeling very isolated these days, make extra efforts to keep in touch with loved ones.
- Let trivial stuff go. When we are stressed we often focus on stuff that doesn’t matter because it feels like we have more control over that than the big stuff that feels frightening in our lives. We blow little things out of proportion. Try to be aware of that tendency and stop yourself before you start or recognize that is what someone else in your life is doing and let it go.
- Be kind to yourself. We are all struggling with a new world here and there is a lot that is scary. Try not to be too hard on yourself especially as you are trying to learn new skills. When you are more compassionate toward yourself, you are more compassionate toward others.
- Offer to help a neighbor…watch the kids for 30 minutes, run an errand for someone who is sick…put a kind note in the mailbox. Little things mean a lot and they mean even more right now. Plus doing something for someone else is a sure fire way to lift your own spirits.
What are the best resources you would suggest for someone to learn how to be more mindful and serene in their everyday life?
There are free and cheap apps out there for people who have smart phones. These apps offer introductory suggestions for learning to be still and/or meditate. And one of the best free resources are your own five senses. If you find your self getting anxious, drop into your senses. Ask yourself these questions: What am I seeing? What am I feeling? What am I smelling? What am I touching? What am I hearing? For instance if you are washing dishes at the sink, what does the soap smell like? What does the water and the soap feel like on your hands? Are you barefoot? How are you standing? Is there more weight on one foot than the other or more weight on one part of the foot than the other? Are my shoulders tense? Scan your body from head to toe. Take note of everything. Then maybe focus on one thing like everything you can hear (with the tv and the radio off!). You can hear the water running in the tap, maybe you can hear birds chirping outside or traffic going by, you can hear someone talking in the distance or your dog sighing at your feet. Cast your hearing wide and catch every sound you can. Focusing in this way will take you out of the vortex of the mind.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
“What is essential is invisible the eye, it is only with the heart that one can see clearly.” Antoine de Saint Exupery from the The Little Prince. It’s meaning has evolved for me over the course of my life. When I used it as my senior yearbook quote it meant that love was more important than material things. Now it’s more about working from my heart every day. Seeing everyone and everything with the more compassionate “eye” of the heart, including myself.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
One good thing the Pandemic has the possibility of doing is showing us how we are all connected. For example, how lack of health care for some people can have a deleterious effect on all of us. Even the lack of vaccine in a developing nation could give rise to a new variant of virus which threatens us all. I wish that this had not been politicized in the way it has because as awful as it is, it does have the power to show us a lot about ourselves and how we view the needs of others. We are connected to each other and the world around us…what we do every day has consequences that reach far beyond us. I would wish that all of us had a deeper understanding of that connection and what it means.
What is the best way our readers can follow you online?
People can connect with me online at Liladas.com and via TheReluctantAlchemist on Instagram and Facebook as well as my Youtube channel, Cathryn Abbott Jones, which has videos about dealing with stress and anxiety.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!