Much Ado About Mindfulness
Are you trying to find ways to deal with continuous stress in your life?
In a conversation with someone I have known for quite a few years now, she described her recent experience facing overwhelming amounts of stress.
“My mind is always racing and I am struggling to keep my head above water — I really am starting to get serious physical symptoms like chronic migraine headaches and recurring chest pains from it all,” she lamented.
When I asked her what her current coping strategies were, her immediate response was a defensive one.
“Ok — I already know how people recommend the new age mindfulness stuff in the media and everywhere — which is probably where you are going with this question. I have to tell you, I am so turned off of seeing that mindfulness word — -there are mindful groups and mindful parents and mindful coaches and mindful living. I think it is really a hidden religious mission to tell people that they need to become Buddhists and meditate to relieve their stress. I’m just not into that new age stuff.”
That was certainly an adamant reaction! And she does have a point here, doesn’t she?
I too, am at the “tune out” phase of the current pop culture craze of describing everything with the adjective “mindful”. It reminds me of the “whole grain” word that pops up on everything manufactured with flour, which is usually used to ascribe a pseudo-notion of healthiness to the processed food we are consuming. I can see how we all begin to tune out things that seem like a band-wagon running amok in the media.
What I do know is that mindfulness is not a religion and it is not a technique. I discovered the notion in 1994 before it became mainstream, when I read Jon Kabat-Zinn’s classic book, “Wherever You Go, There You Are.” Jon is the creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He is an acclaimed pioneer in helping people use their own minds to relieve their stress and to mentally deal with terminal illnesses. I also stumbled upon Ellen Langer, a Harvard social psychologist and researcher on the topic of mindfulness, and her work in the mid-90’s. I was intrigued by the concept and research and set out on a decades-long journey to learn whatever I could about this stress-fighting notion of mind.
So what is it really and how can it help us with stress?
In essence, it is training your mind to just notice from afar what you are seeing, experiencing, feeling, sensing, or doing in the moment without reacting to it or judging it.
Here’s an example, pretty close to home, that illustrates the power of what we are talking about here.
About five years ago, my husband was experiencing an inordinate amount of stress. He has always been an achiever and has a stressful corporate job, but unexpected and serious life events piled on top of that dynamic created a tipping point. At about that same time, he suddenly began experiencing a physical symptom of intense, constant pulsating and ringing in his ear that the doctors feared could be related to high blood pressure and potential heart issues. This notion of course only created fear and more stress, so the condition became increasingly worse. After a series of extensive tests, the doctor’s verdict was in — the symptoms were not heart-related but were being caused by intense stress. The prescription? Manage or remove the stress, or take medication.
Sound familiar? Since we often can’t remove it, we would all manage the stress if we only knew how, now wouldn’t we?
That evening, I took Jon Kabat-Zinn’s audio CD, “Mindfulness for Beginners”, and turned it on. He was pretty much all ears at this point (no pun intended), as he was at his wits end in figuring out what to do about this constant, unstoppable pulsating and ringing in the ear that he was experiencing. Also keep in mind that my husband is very much like my friend at the beginning of this post — skeptical about what he deems “new age stuff”, and the whole notion of mindfulness seemed like an “out there” notion to him. But at this point, he was desperate. So he listened to the CD. Every night. Over and over again — on replay mode as we went to sleep.
A few weeks later — I kid you not — he came to me in almost tears. “It stopped”, he whispered.
“The ear thing–I made it stop. It isn’t happening anymore. The mindfulness thing works.”
He had been practicing noticing his own emotions and racing thoughts when the symptom occurred. He would notice them and then instead of identifying with them or begin to be fearful, just sit with them as an observer, not trying to analyze or control anything. Just sit with it and observe his own anxiety as if it was not his own, as a detached observer. He did this every night — and then his anxiety subsided. Subsequently, so did the pulsating and the ringing in his ear.
My husband is not a Buddhist and does not purport any new age philosophies. He is convinced, as am I, that the power we have over our own minds to reduce our own reactive stress in the world is real.
Call it whatever you wish, but instead of reacting and jumping to control or judge or solve a problem — try practicing just noticing what you are sensing, experiencing, and feeling in the moment.
Just sit and notice as if you were observing yourself from afar, with no agenda and no skin in the game. Do this once a day for even a few minutes — when you are in a meeting, in your car, or wherever. Draw on this state when you feel stressed. Just observe and notice yourself from a detached state rather than just react. And take a few deep breaths.
What you are doing in essence is detaching from your own racing thoughts, calming your nervous system, and training your mind to be still and focus. It is like standing steady in the center point of a spinning circle and observing the spin rather than being part of the spin.
Making it a habit to go to that center point place regularly and observe yourself makes it easier to find it and go there when you catch yourself spinning with stress. Over time, you may be surprised at the silent power you discover residing right there within yourself.
Originally published at www.themanagroup.com.