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The Practice of Mindfulness: A Stress Management Technique for Difficult Times

Written by: Lane Gormley, EdS, LPC, NCC

Have you ever stopped and considered how many things compete for your attention? Do you ever lie in bed at night with thoughts that won”t stop? So many problems and challenges can spiral through a restless and fragmented attention span: a friend”s or relative”s illness, the grocery list, watering the grass, the possible solution to a computer problem, prom dresses, cut-backs at work, the uncertain Dow Jones, deadlines for paying fees and school enrollment, getting the dog to the vet, final exams, an aunt”s birthday… The thought stream seems essential, repetitive, and unstoppable. Things to worry about remind us of other things to worry about. The last thought loops back to the middle or beginning one. Some Eastern thinkers call this unfocused, jumpy thinking the Monkey Mind, and mindfulness is one way to calm and focus it.

It is important to understand that, in bed at night, there is usually nothing that needs to be done about most matters. Thursday”s sales meeting will not take place until Thursday, right? Last week”s argument is officially over. I have a rule: if there is anything that I can do about a given situation, I do it. Otherwise it goes onto the imaginary shelf in my attention span. When it”s time to act on it, I”ll do it. At night, by my conscious choice, only stars and perhaps a new moon fill the dark, quiet night.

Mindfulness is focused awareness of the present moment. It is said by practitioners of mindfulness that most of our thoughts go back and forth between the past (which is no longer here) and the future (which is also not here). Spending most of our time in those two imaginary places, we miss the only moment that actually is – the present one. In The Miracle of Mindfulness, Buddhist monk and author Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that we try to be present for each moment of our life. When we are washing teacups, for example, we should try to lend our entire attention to the task. When we treat what is happening right now as trivial, as a throw-away, we are wasting the actual material of which life and experience are made.

One way to rise above the Monkey Mind is to be aware of it. I watch my mind jump from thought to thought, and after a while, it is obvious that my mind is neither logical nor coherent. Stream of consciousness is kind of… well… random. If my thoughts are random, it makes it easier to step back from them – atoledo at least at certain times – and not take them so seriously.

Another good way to be mindful is to become aware, or conscious, of our breathing. Breathing is an autonomic function, which means that it goes on involuntarily, in the background of our lives, at all times. Mindfulness can be increased if we bring breathing to the foreground of our attention and engage in conscious breathing. When I worked at the hospitals, I often did breathing exercises with my Clients in group therapy to calm, relax, and center them in their healing process. Some spiritual thinkers believe that the breath is eternal. They say that we come here at birth with the breath and that, at death, we leave here with the breath to continue the eternal journey of the soul across time.

This morning, at the end of my Yoga class, we were lying in Corpse Pose to let our bodies recuperate from the active poses and stretching. As I lay on my mat, my eyes covered with a lavender-scented cloth placed there by my teacher, my thoughts were several miles down the street at the Publix. Did I remember my grocery list? Wait… What was I supposed to get? This is not mindful, Lane. When I catch my thoughts far away in some past or future moment or task, I focus on my breathing. I re-situate myself in the center of my breath; and I am back here again, lying on my mat, feeling my stretched arms and legs, centering in my slightly expanding and contracting diaphragm, smelling clean lavender air. I”m back to the only moment there is, the only moment there ever will be – this one. As Eckhart Tolle tells us in The Power of Now, “It”s always going to be Now.”

If mindfulness is helpful to many of us, it can be a life-saver for Clients suffering from depression. When interconnecting, repeating thoughts are consistently sad, angry, and hopeless, the brain may bog down as though reluctant to continue the exhausting and defeating cycle. This may be why depressed clients frequently evince slowed thought patterns and speech. This is why, when you ask them a question, the answer may not be immediately forthcoming. One of my hospital clients described her depression to her fellow patients in group therapy: “It”s like a net thrown over my brain.”

Mindfulness can also help someone slow the “racing thoughts” of uncomfortably elevated moods (mania) when Clients are not too enamored of those moods. It”s easy to fall in love with them – it is apparently like having a drug factory in your own head. When someone is really advanced in the manic stage of a Bipolar cycle, it”s hard to stop “spinning” and come home to the Now.

There are many ways to practice mindfulness. You can find mindfulness exercises, books, and other materials in bookstores and on the Internet. Two of my favorite books about mindfulness are the ones I mentioned: Thich Nhat Hanh”s The Miracle of Mindfulness and Eckhart Tolle”s The Power of Now.

Mindfulness is not only helpful to you and to me personally. When we are fully here and present to life, we make better decisions for ourselves, for our children, and for our planet. What if we were consistently conscious of our thoughts and feelings? What if we could learn to make them more positive and happier? What if our diets were conscious? What if we prayed consciously without just rattling off the words? What would we eat if we were really conscious of what goes into our bodies? What if we were truly aware of the interrelationship between each of us and all living beings and the planet and even the Cosmos? If you are willing to consider these possibilities, you may be ready to read Eckhart Tolle”s A New Earth. Among other things, Tolle writes that, if our technology continues to develop faster than our consciousness, we may destroy our planet and ourselves before very long. If you read that book and if you like it, would you please ask your friends to consider reading it?

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