Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction teaches us that avoiding “bad emotions,” or labeling as bad or good at all, is how we begin to create suffering. Instead it recognizes that pain is a normal part of life that is best accepted and experienced as it comes. Rather than making a judgement and pushing away bad experiences or emotions, it is suggested that all are welcomed in and accepted. For many new to Mindfulness, this is a new concept that is difficult to understand. The poem below is very old and often used in mindfulness training to help explain this concept.
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
“Mindfulness helps us become more resilientat the same time as it makes us more vulnerable and sensitive.”
– Ronald D. Siegel, PsyD
Most people come to counseling because they want to get rid of their pain and feel better. They do not expect to hear that as they become stronger and better able to manage stress and emotional pain they may actually become more vulnerable or sensitive. Dr. Siegel (referenced above) explained this confusing paradox with a traditional Japanese adage: Which is stronger, a mighty oak tree or a reed of bamboo? Most would think the oak tree. However, when a monsoon comes the oak tree breaks and scatters while the bamboo reed bends and folds to the ground. After the storm passes the bamboo stands right back up again seemingly undamaged.
The true goal must be resilience, the ability like the bamboo to bounce back after a storm, because no one can prevent the storm from coming. Mindfulness helps us to develop bamboo like resilience because it trains us become aware of and accept a full range of emotional responses. As you become more aware of your emotions and with it more sensitive to them, you are vulnerable to feeling joy and pain more fully and deeply. However, when you feel emotions more fully they leave less of a trace. They pass over you like a gentle breeze or the wind of a monsoon. Then you can more easily recover and move on to experiencing the next moment.
photo credit: jscatty
The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems by Ronald D. Siegel
It is difficult to describe a happy, peaceful person. What are they like and what does it feel like to be one? To be honest most of us have never really met one, but if you had how would you know it?
The teachers of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction have pulled from ancient wisdom and given us attitudes that are to be cultivated when you practice mindfulness and meditation. They are helpful because they give us words and concepts to describe our goal. In addition, they give us a picture of what a peaceful person may be like or how they might think.
Consider the 7 attitudes below which based on Jon Kabat-Zinn’s list in the foundation work Full Catastrophe Living.
Non-Judgement – The opposite of typical habits of labeling as good or bad, right or wrong, fair or unfair. Instead simply be aware of experiences as they happen in the moment as an impartial witness.
Patience – A form of wisdom that understands the nature of change and accepts the fact that things must unfold in their own time. Rather than trying to fill up our time with activity or force changes upon ourselves or others, a patient attitude is completely open to each moment and accepts it fully as it is.
Beginner’s Mind – A willingness to see everything as if for the first time. This allows you to notice the extraordinary in ordinary moments like a young child might. Becoming free of expectations based on past experiences often gives us the ability to experience a truer version of the day to day.
Trust – This refers to a basic trust in yourself, your own feelings, and your intuition.As you become more fully yourself you learn to listen to and trust your own being.
Nonstriving – An awareness of where you are now. The opposite of our typical state of pushing toward meeting a goal, improving something, or getting somewhere that we are not currently. Instead of trying so hard that we create anxiety, one simply allows themselves to be themselves while doing the task at hand.
Acceptance – Seeing things as they actually are in the current moment rather than wasting energy denying or resisting what is already fact. This does not mean you have to like everything or passively resign yourself to tolerating current circumstances. Only be willing to see things as they are.
Letting Be – A way of letting things be as they are rather than holding on to pleasant experiences and trying to prevent or get rid of unpleasant, painful, or frightening ones. The suggestion is to instead observe your own mind grasping and pushing away. Simply recognize this and then let go of the impulse on purpose, just to see what will happen if you do.
I find it helpful to reflect on these 7 attitudes and review them in mind as often as I can remember. As I practice my own meditation and observe my own mind, the wisdom in these principles continuesto teach on new levels every day.
We spend almost all our time trying to get somewhere or something. Always a goal to accomplish or a task to complete. Although accomplishing goals is obviously a good thing, have you ever noticed how our constant pushing to get something done or meet some standard gets in the way of the goal itself? Is it much of a mystery as to why we are so stressed when we are pushing to accomplish something from the moment our feet hit the floor in the morning until we finally lay down at night? This constant push to accomplish and strive towards a goal undermines us daily. It becomes an obstacle to actually accomplishing goals as well as to sleep, enjoyment of friends and family, and even our overall health.
Mindfulness and mindfulness mediation teaches us to find a new balance between doing and non-doing in a principle known as “non-striving.” Mindfulness meditation is the practice of non-doing. It has no goal other than to be yourself. The irony is that you already are. The practice of Mindfulness points you towards this crazy paradox and teaches a new way of seeing yourself. By trying less you can be more. As you find a balance between doing something but not too much, you can learn how to operate out of your true self more often.
This movie clip is hilarious and it also helps to explain this confusing paradoxical truth about life.
In addition to meditation practice, consider intentionally cultivating the attitude of non-striving. We often begin a task by setting up our intention. “I am going to go into work and work extra hard today.” By doing this you introduce the idea in your mind that you should be doing more and are not okay right now. Soon you get distracted, make a small mistake and begin thinking, “if I were only smarter, more focused, calmer, or my knee didn’t bother me, I would be okay…but right now I am not okay.” Instead of all this trying, striving, and judging simply begin your daily tasks the intention of paying attention to whatever is happening. Whether there is tension, pain, disappointment, or satisfaction just watch.
Information about mindfulness principles found in Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness by Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD.
Mindfulness is defined as present moment non-judgmental awareness. Generally mindfulness skills are taught to individuals to help individual problems such as stress, anxiety, depression, impulsive habits, and other medical conditions. Mindfulness Meditation has been shown to have many positive effects. It is discussed frequently in current news reports, and most people have some idea what mindfulness is or wonders if meditation might help them. However, a lesser know fact is that learning mindfulness can also help your intimate relationships.
Individual Mindfulness to help your Relationship
Of course simply reducing your own stress level can help your relationship. We all know the ease enjoying our partner is much increased when we are not feeling stress. However, there are several ways individual mindfulness may help your relationship beyond the obvious. First, mindfulness practice teaches you to become more aware of your own thoughts an emotions as they arise. Our intimate partners can trigger an emotional reaction that we later regret more easily than anyone else. As you become more mindful you may be able to observe these emotional responses as they arise and make a decision about how to respond. Additionally, common mindfulness practices can be applied to relationships.
Savoring – Savoring is the practice of being mindful of positive experiences. In long term relationships the positive experiences with one another are often found in small everyday interactions. Good feelings towards your partner are usually deeper but more subtle than the big, overwhelming emotions of a new love. Try using savoring of positive experiences such as the time of day when you partner always remembers to bring you coffee or simple physical touch.
Gratitude – The idea of making a gratitude list is often taught along with other mindfulness skills. Simply making a list of the things we are grateful for helps to balance out our brain’s natural tendency to focus on negatives more than positives. This effect of remember the bad and forgetting the good definitely applies to long term relationships. Try listing all the reasons you are grateful for your partner.
Compassion – Loving-kindness meditation (also called compassion meditation) is a common mindfulness practice. By repeating phrases describing kind wishes towards ourselves and others we can grow our capacity for empathy and compassion like a muscle. Compassion can be defined as kindness in response to another’s sorrow or stress. Building compassion skills and the ability to stay with and hold the difficult emotions of yourself and others can greatly improve intimate relationships. Our life partner is often the primary witness for our lives. An increase our ability to hold one another with compassion during painful and stressful times grows our bond.
Practicing Mindfulness Together
Practicing meditation together in the same space can be an intimacy building activity. There are also interactive meditation practices that can be done together by focusing on the breathing of yourself and the other person, using silent eye contact, and attending to the felt sense of connection or disconnection as it flows and changes. However, many will find the informal practice of simply being together without having to say anything or do anything for a few minutes a day deeply connecting and restful.
Finally, there are several ways to describe how to apply mindfulness skills when communicating with another person.
Waiting to speak and speaking slowly – With mindfulness conversations about important topic can be easier and everyday interactions can go deeper. This involves letting go of your own thoughts, judgments, and analyzing while the other speaks. Also, try only listening rather than trying to fix problems or change uncomfortable emotions. Pause when another is done speaking taking a moment to relax your mind and body and attend to your present experience of connection with the other. Then when you speak do so slowly enough to stay connected to your body and heart.
Embodied listening – This is the practice of listening from the neck down. Attempt to feel in your body what the speaker is saying as well as listening with your eyes and ears.
Three objects of awareness – When you listen to another person try to keep your attention on (1) Your body sensations, thoughts, and feelings (2) Your partner’s words, body language, and facial expressions (3) Your felt sense of connection and disconnection with your partner.
For more on building intimacy with mindfulness, including in person training and coaching, consider couples counseling with a therapist trained in mindfulness.
References: The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems by Ronald D. Siegel, PsyD and Mindfulness and Psychotherapy edited by Germer, Siegel, and Fulton