In Part 1, we talked about why our defacto mode of mindlessness perhaps developed and is exacerbated by this high tech-world of ours. We touched on some of the reasons why we might want to develop this skill of being awake that Dan Harris has dubbed a “superpower.”
In this blog, I want to dive right in to some practices, but first a quick note. Pairing everyday mindfulness with formal meditation, can help strengthen our mindful muscles. It’s easier than ever to start a meditation practice these days as there are tons of good apps out there. However, formal meditation is not a requirement as mindfulness also can be used as a stand-alone practice. A find this little disclaimer helps disarm some people and make the practice less daunting. The point is to start using it today in whatever way you can apply it.
Here are 3 practices you can incorporate immediately. If spirit moves you, experiment with these exercises as you read and try 1 of them out at some point in your day today. God knows, life gives us ample opportunities!
The first practice I want to touch on is called Dropping the Anchor. This is a fantastic grounding exercise that can be applied anytime, but I find it particularly helpful when I am overwhelmed, going too fast or about to transition into something that I don’t want to miss, like being with my kids or wife. It can be helpful to think of attention as a spotlight for this exercise. You get to decide where to shine in it and instead of having it solely beamed on the mental world, this exercise can help you expand attention elsewhere. It helps you to “drop the anchor” out of your head. In this exercise we use the acronym ACE.
- Acknowledge the thoughts and emotions that are here. What is the mind pre-occupied with? What emotions are here and where are they located in the body? Answer those questions briefly by naming the story the mind is playing (“there is the work story”) and the emotions present (“anxiety is here right now). Then watch it all for second or two (or longer) with the attitude of a curious scientist observing a test subject.
- Come back in the body. Scan from your hair to your toenails. No trying to relax any of it or anything esoteric; just feel the sensations present that we call “body.” What does it actually feel like it?
- Expand into the world and then Engage in what you are doing. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you taste? What do you feel? What do you smell? Don’t force any of it; let whatever you are actually doing be your guide.
This second practice that I have found particularly helpful when I am frustrated, tired or annoyed and concerned that I may take it out on someone else or myself is called the 4 A’s. This practice comes from George Mumford, Mindfulness consultant to top athletes like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Shaq. It is a great exercise that allows me to step out of unhealthy habit loops that we talked about in Part 1.
- Same instructions as above. What’s here in mind and body? When anxious and stressed, acknowledge that feeling and name it — “OK, anxiety is here.” Then drop below the head and sense into what it actually feels like as a bare sensation. Where in the body is this feeling that we call “anxiety?” Then we can be aware of the stories and mental movies that are playing in the mind. Knowing those thoughts are the product of an anxious mind and are thus “flavored” by this feeling of anxiety helps to lessen the believability of them.
- Choose to take an attitude of welcoming as though an unexpected houseguest just swung by. If I had had a choice in the matter, I would not have invited this houseguest, but it’s here and my resistance will only add suffering. Therefore, let’s drop the struggle. Literally, say, “This is allowed to be here right now.” If you want to get really good, invite it in and say, “More please, I can take all that you have.” This taps into our competitive spirit.
- Act aligned with love or your values
- You can’t control how you feel or what the mind is saying, but you can control what you do with your hands, feet and mouth. Decide to act in a way that aligns with your values. Do I want to throw the ball with my kids even though I feel overwhelmed and tired? Or do I want to numb out in front of the TV? Do I want to act on that impulse to criticize my wife’s decision or be supportive and compassionate in that moment, knowing that piling on will only cause more pain? You get to decide and if you don’t actively decide, circumstances and habit will decide for you. Sometimes, inaction is what the situation calls for. I can just sit here with it all and not need to numb out or avoid it. Just being anxious in the moment which allows it to pass through on its own time, knowing something else is coming right after it.
- Assess with self-compassion
- So, how did you do? As George says, “Mistakes are feedback and if we don’t listen and learn from them (with healthy amounts of self-compassion), then we are missing prime opportunities to grow.
The third practice is called RAIN. It is a popular practice created by Tara Brach. There are a lot of guided meditations out there on it. I find it particularly helpful to handle my internal “stuff” when there is no clear move in terms of an action to take. It helps me to make room for and allow the difficult emotions that pass through from time to time.
- Notice a theme? The first two steps are usually the same in these practices. When anxiety, sadness or craving comes knocking on our door, do we recoil in horror as though it is a burglar coming to rob and kill our family or do we treat it as though it as an orphan that is lost and cold?
- Drop below the head on this one. Physicalize the emotion. Literally, imagine it as a physical object. Where are you feeling it most? Is it at the surface or throughout your body? What color, size and shape is it? Is it solid, liquid or gaseous. Sit with it for a bit as though you are sitting with that orphan that wandered up to your door.
- See if you can see it as an object, something you are aware of, just like your phone or kitchen table. It’s part of “what is” and it’s only considered “me” because that’s how we have learned to use language. If this seems too New Agey, don’t strain, skip it.
- Self-Compassion (Bonus Step)
- Recognize that this “being human” ain’t easy! If you can muster it, put your hand over your heart and tell yourself something that rings true like “It’s all right, Parke, you’re doing a great job.” Alternatively, visualize a loved one, alive or deceased, who gave you unconditional love. Picture that person’s face, smiling and saying something warm.
For this step of compassion, I picture my grandmother the last time I saw her. When I asked how she was doing, she said, “I’m good now, I’m talking to my man,” referring to me. She passed away the next day. The memory of her face and words are seared into my mind and I’m glad I was awake enough in that moment to appreciate it.
If you find that you are lost in thought more often than you are awake for life, then reach out to talk about how therapy can help.