The holiday season can be a paradox. We celebrate miracles that could only have existed because people were guided by their listening, witnessing, sensing, believing, and willingness to come together and be aware.
Yet, in our personal here and now, with holidays imminent, we are apt to turn away from community and away from ourselves as we drown in mind chatter of could-haves, should-haves, comparison, criticism, and unrealistic expectations of self and others. Often this chatter leaves us with spiraling feelings of disappointment, disconnection, and isolation.
The antidote to a mind that wanders through darkness and distraction? Be mindful.
While that might seem daunting, Chicago mental health professionals help break down what it means to be mindful and how to incorporate some of these practices in our daily life.
Attending to our minds
Mindfulness keeps us in the present moment. It encourages us to feel sensations, rather than judge them.
“Mindfulness is a practice of embodiment, a moment-to-moment awareness that doesn’t just include our thoughts but also our emotions, which are events in the body, and physical sensation,” explains Rebecca Bunn, manager of mindfulness at Rush University Medical Center’s Road Home Program. The program provides mental health programs for veterans and their families.
Sensation — whether as awareness of breath, movement, or thought — happens in real time in our body. But when we think about breath, movement, and thought we often apply judgment that removes us from the present. By attending to ourselves through the purity of sensation, rather than story, we are able to live embodied in our physical experiences.
“We are all mindful already, to a certain degree,” says Marita McLaughlin, a licensed clinical professional counselor, meditation teacher for more than 40 years, and Buddhist chaplain for more than 20 years. Getting dressed, choosing what we will eat, and decorating our space are all mindful activities, McLaughlin says.
Rebecca Davis, a psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker who is formally trained in internal family systems (IFS), describes an IFS therapy session as a meditation led by the therapist.
Westerners typically think that meditation is about clearing or quieting the mind, she says. “When we listen to the mind with criticalness, we are not really listening,” Davis says. Mindful meditation can help people tune in to what their mind is saying with compassion and tenderness.
Meditation helps clients attend to the mind, Bunn says. “I think one of the most valuable aspects of meditation is that it can change our relationship with our thoughts,” she says. We can become aware of the presence of a thought without necessarily becoming engaged with it. “Not all thoughts are useful,” she adds.
“It makes a lot of sense that we don’t feel calm, we don’t feel peaceful all the time,” Bunn says, citing the prolonged period of uncertainty, unknowns, and heightened stress that we collectively have been experiencing during this pandemic.
Starting a mindfulness practice
At the Road Home Program, mindfulness offers veterans compassionate connection with themselves, first and foremost. Veterans are encouraged to find a kind, nonjudging awareness of their emotions, thoughts, and sensations that can then support their connection to others.
Sometimes it seems easier to support other people than to support oneself. With the veterans, Bunn says, “It is truly remarkable the really natural, deep, and lovely instinct to care for and support one another, while at the same time feeling like, ‘Oh, it’s so hard for me to do the same for myself.’”
When we are gentle with our self and build up tolerance for our own foibles as well as strengths, then we are able to extend it outward to others, McLaughlin explains. “If we start with compassion for ourselves, then there will be compassion for others that will naturally arise out of that self-awareness.”
Tips for mindful meditation
So, how can we be more aware, more present, more self-kind? Here are some tips to begin a mindfulness practice:
— Set doable expectations. Choose a realistic number of times that you can commit to practicing meditation during the week, McLaughlin advises. Perhaps once a week is possible, perhaps three times. McLaughlin suggests starting with five to 10 minutes. Set an alarm so that you are not watching a clock.
— Choose good timing. Time of day is important, too. Some prefer the morning, others the evening. McLaughlin advises against meditating before bed. “Meditation is not about shutting oneself down or shutting away. It’s about really waking up to our life, waking up to the present,” she explains. McLaughlin suggests having some space around you as you meditate, open to the environmental experience, with minimal visual distractions.
— Build the capacity to be stable in the present moment. McLaughlin suggests meditating seated and attending to the following:
- Allow your knees to be lower than your hips.
- Relax your shoulders.
- Feel your sitting bones on the chair, your feet touching the floor.
- Place the tip of your tongue just behind your upper teeth.
- Slightly tuck your chin, elongating the spine.
— Pay attention to your breath. After feeling the body in this upright, noble posture — not too tight, not too loose — McLaughlin suggests paying attention to the movement and rhythm of your breath, however it is occurring in the moment. Then, begin to notice thoughts. Don’t expect that you are going to stop thinking or that you are going to stop having feelings or emotions, McLaughlin says.
— Notice where your attention goes. “While we are using the breath as an anchor for our attention, we are acknowledging that other things are going to come and go. As they do, notice,” McLaughlin says. “Use the moment of noticing as a reminder to bring our attention back to feeling the breath, with gentleness, without judgment, without criticism. Every time we notice and come back, we are strengthening the mind, we are taking responsibility for our experience.”
— Be honest in your present. In any calendar year, the holidays can include feelings of disconnection, isolation, or loneliness. During this Covid-19 time, we are being asked to separate ourselves further from one another. “One of the most mindful things we can do, rather than expect ourselves to feel peaceful and calm in the midst of real challenge, is to admit to ourselves how tough it is right now,” Bunn encourages. In this acknowledgment, Bunn suggests we offer ourselves some comfort.
— Peel the sticker. When we are stressed and upset, it is often difficult to move forward because we can’t separate from the very thoughts and emotions causing us distress. For example, Davis says, when clients say they are experiencing anger, they often also say they feel frustration toward that anger. To reduce the added stress and distraction of frustration and to better tune in to the original feeling of anger, Davis asks her clients to “imagine peeling the frustration off like a sticker and holding it in their hand. I’m not asking to banish the frustration or throw it away. You’re just trying to get a little bit of separation. It’s almost like you’re imagining holding it, rocking it, and taking care of it, like a little baby. In the moment that you’re peeling it off and holding it, you’re beginning to get separation. And, once the separation starts to happen, you can look back at the anger and say, ‘Oh, I’m not surprised that the anger came up. I’m not totally crazy, and maybe I have a little bit more understanding and compassion now.’”
— Attend with curiosity, compassion, and no agenda. As you meditate or increase your mindfulness in other ways, Davis suggests bringing curiosity and compassion to your noticing. For instance, if you are noticing sadness, Davis suggests asking questions such as, “I wonder how long I’ve been holding this? I wonder how old this feeling is?” This type of curiosity will help you connect without agenda. Conversely, when we try to force things to go away, they often get bigger and more persistent. When we can access curiousness and compassion, then the wounded inner aspects of self get to relax, Davis explains.
— Listen to how your body is responding. During the pandemic, Davis has found that people who have been practicing self-connection have felt less isolated because they have themselves. They are not missing things. They are recognizing the silver linings, such as the chance to relax or reboot, even with the emotional and financial difficulties, she says.
— Use technology and virtual classes. Apps such as Headspace and Insight Timer offer easy access to meditations for every occasion and every level. Check out virtual meditation classes, such as those through the Chicago Shambhala Meditation Center, Marita McLaughlin, and Rush University Medical Center. If you are a veteran, find out more about services at the Road Home Program. Find internal family systems therapists through the IFS Institute.