Being mindful is a term used frequently in our society today, and the scientific study of mindfulness is relatively new. From self help articles to blog posts to academic literature, there is a wealth of information available and research to show that creating a mindful attitude can help us deal with many of life's challenges. The seminal work in mindfulness is Jon Kabat-Zinn's 1990 book, Full Catastrophe Living. The "full catastrophe" is the suffering that all humans experience in some way or another, and mindfulness teaches that we can live a full and healthy life even in the midst of the catastrophe. Kabat-Zinn founded the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, where he is also the Executive Director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare, and Society. He has created an approach to difficult emotional and physical states called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, or MBSR. Since 1979, over 14,000 practitioners have been trained in this method.
So what is mindfulness? There isn't a widely agreed upon definition yet. However here are a few...
"Mindfulness is awareness. It's paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally." Jon Kabat-Zinn
"Mindfulness is the practice of knowing what's happening in the mind without getting hijacked by it." -Rick Hanson
So what is your sense of mindfulness from these descriptions? Does it seem like a concept that's hard to wrap your head around? Does it seem far removed from the reality of those days with 1000 things competing for your attention?
The way I've described mindfulness lately has to do with a train. I've used this metaphor while teaching yoga classes and in therapy. Take a listen to the train meditation here.
Mindfulness does have to do with meditation and going into the mind, but meditating is not the goal of mindfulness, nor is mindfulness created only through meditation. Meditation provides a place to practice and a window into a mindful state of awareness. This state of of awareness is not a special place you visit while meditating, but rather is just your natural state of being while paying attention to what's happening in the present moment, or "non-meditation."
Kabat-Zinn emphasizes that non-meditation is what we are really after in our everyday life. Because we can't stop, sit, and meditate during the most difficult and busy parts of the day, we need another way to cope with stress. Mindfulness, then, with intentional practice, can be applied as awareness of each present moment as it arises, wherever we are. Learning to be aware of your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations in the midst of chaos is really what mindfulness is about.
Tasks. How many do you do in a day? Countless, right? How do you feel about doing them? Perhaps tired and discouraged, feeling that your tasks don't really have a greater purpose? Or maybe you feel energized and encouraged by some of the things you do in a day? The English dictionary definition of a task is "a definite piece of work assigned to, falling to, or expected of a person; a duty."
Chances are you don't have these words below on your to-do list. I know I don't.
These are five life tasks I derived from Alfred Adler's work, with a little twist: love, work, community, self, and spirituality. These life tasks are connected to another of Adler's major ideas, that humans are goal-seeking and purpose-driven by nature. We naturally engage in tasks that lead us toward desired goals. Goals in the Adlerian sense, aren't necessarily easily defined, static things like "I'll finish college in 2 years," or "I'll save money now and buy a house in 5 years." These kinds of goals, which I'll call outward goals, certainly do drive behavior in our life tasks. However, some goals are more inward, psychological and covert in nature. Some examples of inward goals could be maintaining emotional safety in relationships, maintaining comfort in a career, distancing from problematic relationships, or avoiding emotional pain. The specific way that we work toward all goals is what makes us individuals. One person might maintain emotional safety in relationships by coordinating regular family get-togethers. Another person may distance themselves from relationships by moving out of state or keeping themselves so busy they have no time to visit. Another yet may use drugs or alcohol, gambling, or other addictions to numb emotional pain. Some may come to therapy to work through it, or talk to friends, make art, exercise, etc. As you can see there are infinite ways we can carry out these life tasks as individuals.
What is fascinating about our brains is that sometimes we don't even have conscious awareness of these inward, psychological goals themselves, but our pre-wired survival instincts move us to act on them without forethought. The person who moves out of state to avoid problematic relationships, for instance, may not be aware of the ultimate, underlying cause of their move. Therapy, especially with a mindfulness component, helps nurture awareness of connections between thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and past experiences. I encourage clients understand what their psychological goals are, and then describe the life tasks to see how much energy they are expending on each.
The first three tasks that Adler developed were love, work, and friendship. I've used the word community here instead of friendship, because I've found that deep friendships fall more neatly into the love task, while there is a distinctly different task associated with being part of a community. The last two tasks, spirituality and self, were developed by later Adlerian scholars. These five tasks drive our everyday activities, but sometimes they get out of balance. When we don't take regular action toward each of the life tasks, we are likely to feel that something crucial is missing.
So let's break them down further to see what they mean.
Love. This life task refers to our capacity to create and maintain deep and intimate relationships. An intense need to feel understood by others drives the desire to maintain these high maintenance, rewarding, yet difficult, types of relationships. Love, in my estimation, refers to intimate partners, close family, and close friends. Examples of outward goals within this task are getting married, having children, having date nights, attending family reunions, and making lunch dates with friends. Some examples of more inward, psychological goals would be maintaining a specific role within a family like provider, joke-teller, or rescuer, that creates a sense of purpose and value within a social system. Another example may be cleaning the house tirelessly because that's how you express love to your family.
Work. This is the task that allows us to create and produce things or services tangibly in the world around us. It drives us to use our talents, skills, and crafts to survive and thrive in the world. We can think of work in terms of any activity that is productive in nature, whether paid or not. Take a weekend gardener for instance. Though it may be a hobby, much work goes into maintaining a garden, and it gives the worker a sense of accomplishment. That's the essence of this life task...accomplishment. You can see how these tasks overlap when we take the above house-cleaner as an example. Cleaning is work and love in this case, driven by the psychological goal of caring for the family.
Community. This is the task that connects us to the larger world outside our homes and to the fabric of the society in which we live. Voting in local or national elections is a task in this category. Volunteering or donating money to a charity is another example. The tasks tend to feed psychological goals of being a good citizen, fulfilling leadership roles, and fulfilling social roles without the emotional closeness of love tasks. These tasks also serve a basic and primal human instinct to maintain contact with others and avoid isolation.
Spirituality. This task is all about meaning-making, not at all necessarily in conjunction with religion. There are many people who don't subscribe to any religion, but all of us search for meaning in our lives. This task is often associated with existential dilemmas about the certainty of death and the finite amount of time we have on earth. This task is associated with how we make meaning of tragedy, and cultivate resilience in the face of hardship. Outward tasks in this category may be attending church regularly, maintaining rituals in the home like lighting candles, or having moments of silence to honor others. Inward goals here almost always have to do with living an ethical and moral life.
Self. This task is all about creating and caring for your personal being. Outward tasks here include personal hygiene, food choices, exercise, maintaining adequate shelter, and protecting oneself from danger. Inward goals of this task are about creating an identity, and defining ourselves to the outside world. Much of the self-talk that happens in our inner psychological world is an expression of this task. For example, a person who routinely weighs themselves is working toward of goal of a certain body type, and may have alot of internal dialogue about whether they are succeeding toward this goal. Think of all the ways you finish these statements in your mind, "I should be ...", "I shouldn't have...", "I never will...", and "I always am..." It will give you a clear idea of how you carry out the task of self.
How do you carry out these tasks in your everyday life? In your overall goals? In how you make meaning of your experiences? Til next time...go and be and flourish.
I've been hearing a lot about stress and anxiety from clients lately. So I decided to record a guided meditation today with a little intro on the basics of meditation. Enjoy! Please let me know if it's helpful/not helpful, etc. I'd love to hear feedback.
So this discontent that accompanies the holidays is another example of paradox in life...that along with joy comes pain, along with celebration comes sadness, and along with community comes isolation. Do you allow yourself to experience the not so joyful part of the holidays or do you avoid it? Do you accept your dissatisfaction or do you attempt to force yourself and others to be jolly? Is there a way to accept the imperfections of our families, friends, jobs, finances, and moods this holiday season so that we can then have a different... and better... experience?
Here are three ways to process and accept the not-so-jolly feelings this time of year.
1. Name the negative feelings. Sad, Mad, Guilty, Ashamed, Rushed, Frantic, Afraid. Those are just a few of the many emotions we feel any time of year. But these "bad" feelings seem particularly closeted around the holidays, because really, who wants to be around an sad person at Christmas, or a mad person at Thanksgiving? But there's an important distinction between bringing others down and simply owning your emotions. By naming the feeling, recognizing when it's present, writing about it, painting a picture about it, talking to someone about it in an effort to move past it, you are coping in a healthy way. Complaining, whining, brooding, sulking, exploding, getting drunk or high...these are not healthy ways to express negative emotions because they impair relationships. These methods of expression send your loved ones running for the hills at the prospect of spending extra time with you this time of year. Take time to understand this distinction, then process the negative stuff in a way that will free you from it rather than creating more of it.
2. Choose one negative experience you've had around this time of year that may still trouble you, and write about it in rich detail. Really delve into the memory of it.... with the following important caveat.
Have a loved one or a professional within reach if your memory is extremely painful. Don't attempt to go at this alone your memory is traumatic, meaning it involved physical or psychological violence, a natural disaster, accident, combat, sexual abuse, or something equally disturbing. Use this checklist to help you recall traumatic events in your life. If you have experienced trauma, a mental health professional can help you work through it safely.
If you're memory is not traumatic, rather just unpleasant, continue this rich description process. Remember where you were, who was around (if anyone), what the surroundings looked like, particular objects, scents, and sights you recall from the day. Identify what upset you most. Was it specific words that were spoken, tone of voice used, and/or facial expressions that bothered you? Maybe you had a very negative experience and you were alone. What was the hardest part? Do you recall what was going through your mind? If your event involved the actions of others, what reactive thoughts do you recall having as the event was happening? What feelings did you have? It's important to distinguish thoughts and feelings here. Feelings get imprinted onto a memory and your later recollections of it, like at subsequent holiday gatherings or certain times of year. The feelings are the proverbial "baggage" that we carry. Once you've described your memory in detail, choose the least disturbing detail and bring it into your awareness while consciously relaxing for one minute. Set a timer on your phone, and sit in a relaxed state as you keep ask yourself, "is it possible to not pour more negative energy into this memory?" Then over the course of the next few days or weeks, successively bring the more troubling aspects of the memory, one at a time, into your awareness as you practice relaxation. You are re-training your brain to process the memory in a different way, and eventually it will become less uncomfortable.
Sometimes stepping back, stripping away the labels, and reassessing our thinking can dramatically change our outlook from dreary to hopeful, from hopeless to grateful, from angry to accepting.
This is a very simple lesson indeed, but a powerful one. What wisdom of children!
I feel like there's a racetrack in my house sometimes. We have a sort-of circular floor plan, and if I counted the times I've rushed from my dining room through my bedroom through my office into the kitchen and around again, I'd be in the tens of thousands I bet. Sometimes I feel exhausted with all the rushing and the to-do list that seems to only get longer.
I've noticed I'm usually rushing because of a need to move something, provide something, respond to something, or take a break from something.
Move, provide, respond, take a break...isn't that what's entailed in a busy life? Let's explore more.
There are lots of demands for movement at some point most days, right? Gotta roll out of bed in the morning, stretch the legs, shower up, walk out the door to the car or bus or train...GET SOMEWHERE. For those of us that work a lot at home, especially with kids, we may have instant demands to start moving, especially when they are kicking us in the bed or crying at 5am.
There's alot of physical movement required most days, but there's also the moving of things from one place to another. I find myself constantly taking my kids' things from one part of the house back to their room, things I'd just put away the day before! But here they are again... my daughter's hairbrush on my desk, my son's slingshot on my bed, an upturned bag of those tiny rubber bands for making bracelets in the kitchen floor. Ugh! Won't things ever be in their right place, and just stay there? No they won't, because people and things constantly move (and that, in and of itself is not a bad thing.)
So, I could definitely putter around my house all day putting things back where they go, but I'd get nothing truly important done. So I have to be ok with a bit of a mess. I have to be content with things out of place, and without order in every corner of the house. I have to let movement be graceful and come from a true need, rather than an obsessive desire to get somewhere, put things somewhere, or control my environment. I have to find balance between moving and being still. I have to find stillness when the urge to move will distract me from what is really important.
Sometimes the being busy comes from the need to give, to create, to deliver, to provide something. Whether it's a meal, a service, a phone call, a lesson, a document, or anything else, the pull towards giving can easily become unmanageable. Because what happens when you don't live up to a demand to provide something??....GUILT, that's what. It really should be a four letter word, this most tricky emotion!
Here's the mental commentary we may experience:
"I gotta provide what is being asked of me...or what I expect of myself...but I'm exhausted from all this moving and doing...I need a break...if I take a break, I won't be productive...I won't be providing, and how can I possibly live with that?...I can't live with that so I keep giving and providing."
It's a self-defeating cycle of feeling unworthy. So when you feel the need to keep on providing, take a moment of self-awareness to inventory what you've already done. Whether it's doing the laundry, making lunch for a loved one, writing a paper, seeing a client, completing a project, or anything else, acknowledge it and give yourself gratitude. Even if no one else says thanks, you can give thanks to yourself.
Have you gotten those emails yet?
What about those voice mails?
Can you stop what you're doing real quick and answer a question?
The trickiest part of multi-tasking is responding to the needs of others. We not only have to know what's on the to-do list and work on it, we also have to juggle the things that come up in the midst of an already packed day. We have to decipher what is important and what can wait. Who needs immediate attention and who will be ok until later today or tomorrow? And if we do stop and respond, how in the world do we get back where we left off? Especially if we were really in a good flow and accomplishing things. Is it even possible to get the momentum back if I stop and respond?
It's no wonder our brains hurt and we get headaches with all the mental work it takes to handle multiple demands.
When you're multi-tasking, do you even realize you're doing it? Next time you feel overwhelmed, stop everything you're doing and name all the tasks on your mind at that moment. Write them down or make a star next to them on your to-do list. If you have more than two or three, and especially if they are complicated tasks, it's time for a new approach. Otherwise, you'll spend time moving between tasks and not making progress rather than wholly focusing on one or another.
Prioritizing is key. If you don't know what's most important, ask yourself. "If this task isn't done tomorrow, will someone critical in my life be disappointed?" If the answer is no, then it can wait. You can also ask, "Can I accept my efforts today even if this is not done tomorrow?" If the answer is yes, it can wait.
4. Take a break....
Ahhh, that's just what will help when all the moving, providing, and responding becomes too much. Getting away for a quiet moment, taking a walk, gazing out the window, grabbing a snack, locking ourselves in the bathroom for a moment or two...it helps right?
It sure does, but it's hard to get a break most of the time. Sometimes we don't get to choose when to take a break, we just have to snag it when the opportunity arises. It's critical to seize those opportunities and to savor quiet and stillness. Will you allow yourself to be still, even while the to do list looms, the phone rings, the iphone dings, or someone calls your name? Cultivating stillness in the midst of activity is part of what yoga can teach us. That's why I use yoga in counseling, because it helps calm nerves, ease fears, and see the beauty of the moment.
The bottom line is that all of this moving, providing, and responding is important. It's what keeps us connected to the external world, with all of its beauty and all of its chaos. It's what keeps our social connections healthy, and our communities fertile. We just have to learn to be still within all the movement.
Kambria Kennedy-Dominguez, Counselor and yoga teacher specializing in mental health, substance abuse and wellness.