Mind & Body • 28 Dec 2020
A Guiding Light: Cultivating Wellbeing through Mindfulness
By Jessica Drew de Paz, PsyD
SSIHI Director of Mindfulness Services
The events of 2020 have rattled our world: from the global pandemic, to the resulting recession, to anti-blackness, to the divisive political climate reverberating far beyond the United States, all amidst deeply concerning signs of climate change. To complicate matters, many people are disconnected from their usual support systems due to social distancing measures.
Given this backdrop, it is no surprise a recent survey released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, compared to a similar 2019 survey, found symptoms of anxiety disorder have tripled and symptoms of depressive disorder have nearly quadrupled. 1
There is no denying . . . these are dark times.
Recently, I came across a moving quote by Martin Luther King Jr.: “Only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.” 2
I imagine many of us would agree . . . it is dark enough.
Can you see the stars? What are your guiding lights?
While contemplating Dr. King’s words, I’ve recalled the light that guides me, personally and professionally . . . my north star, which is mindfulness.
An ancient practice embraced by many cultures around the world for thousands of years, mindfulness is defined as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” 3
But what, exactly, should we be paying attention to?
There are many things we can be mindful of: our thoughts, our body, our emotions, our behavior, and we can also cultivate a heart-centered existence.
When we pay attention to our thoughts, we may notice they often wander away from the present moment. A famous study demonstrated how widespread this tendency is by using an app to ping subjects at various times of the day to ask: 1) How they were feeling, 2) What they were doing, and 3) If their mind was on their task at hand or if it had wandered. Nearly 47% of the time, people reported thinking of something other than their current activity. In addition, they were significantly less happy when their minds wandered compared to when they were focused on what was actually happening.
The research concluded: “a human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.” 4
Fortunately, we have the ability to notice when our thoughts have wandered, and assess whether they are serving us (e.g. planning for a safe holiday) or causing stress (e.g. continuously worrying about getting sick). If the latter is the case, we can use mindfulness to redirect our attention back to the present moment.
When we pay attention to our body, we may notice the ways in which we respond to a variety of situations. For instance, when we feel stressed, our heart may pound, our breath may quicken, our muscles may tense, etc. These physiological reactions are triggered by a release of stress hormones and neurotransmitters, referred to as the fight-or-flight response.
Although fight-or-flight evolved as a way to survive life-threatening situations, this response can be activated even while thinking about a threat (while reading the news, for instance). Experiencing stress over extended periods can have detrimental effects on our physical and psychological health, contributing to increased blood pressure, anxiety, depression and addiction. 5
Thankfully, being a passive recipient of stress is not our only option. When we recognize our body as a gateway to the present moment, we can attend to it in ways that actually counter stress.
For instance, we can do a brief practice right now . . . Wherever you happen to be, begin by bringing your attention to your sense of sight. Looking around at your surroundings, without judgment. Noticing shapes, colors, lighting . . . seeing the space as if for the very first time.
Now shifting your attention to your sense of hearing. It might help to shift your gaze downward, as you notice sounds nearby . . . and sounds far away.
Now bringing your attention to your body, and your sense of touch. You might notice the points of contact your body is making with your seat or the floor, you might feel the air on your skin, or other bodily sensations.
Now taking a few moments to focus on your breath. No need to change your breathing in any way. Just noticing the sensations in your nose or your mouth as you inhale . . . and exhale. Again, and again. If your mind wanders, just noticing that it did, and gently guiding it back to your breath.
Lastly, noticing how you feel, how it was to ground yourself in the present moment through your body. Perhaps you found it challenging to keep your mind from wandering. Maybe, instead, it was relaxing. Some people think they should achieve a particular state and feel concerned when they do not.
Whatever your experience, “Mindfulness is not about getting anywhere else — it’s about being where you are and knowing it.” 6
When we pay attention to our behavior, we may notice we often operate on autopilot. Have you ever driven somewhere and upon arrival, realized you had no recollection of the journey? We live much of our lives in this state, across numerous tasks.
Consider handwashing. On autopilot, we might be lost in thought and take just a few moments, use a little soap and water, perform a quick rubbing of the palms, then quickly move on to the next task.
In contrast, we can approach handwashing mindfully. We might begin by feeling our feet on the floor, grounding ourselves in the present moment. As we turn on the water, we might hear the sound of the running water, and feel the temperature and the sensations as it washes over our hands. As we apply soap, we might notice the scent as we make a lather.
We can also notice our intention . . . to get rid of germs. With this in mind, we might lather not only our palms, but in-between our fingers, our thumbs, the back of our hands, under our nails, even our wrists.
As we wash, we can acknowledge that this is an act of kindness for ourselves and for others, perhaps bringing to mind loving words, such as: “May we be healthy, safe, and well.”
With this quality of attention, we have transformed handwashing into a meditation to enjoy several times a day, and increase our hand hygiene in the process. 7
When we pay attention to our emotions, we may notice a tendency to gravitate toward those considered “pleasant” (e.g. happy or relaxed) and away from those deemed “unpleasant” (e.g. sad or angry). We might even distract ourselves from difficult feelings through a variety of methods (e.g. work, food, substances, gadgets, etc.). Yet, the very act of turning toward unpleasant emotions (rather than away) actually paves the way for us to feel better.
Putting words to our feelings, known as “affect labeling”, and expressing them in spoken or written fashion helps to manage difficult experiences, not only in the moment, but potentially long term. 8 Preliminary research examining the mechanism at work found labeling emotions diminishes the response of the amygdala, a set of neurons deep in the brain responsible for our fight-or-flight response. 9
So, go ahead . . . express your feelings. I’ll kick it off: “When I think back on 2020, I feel depressed and exasperated!!!”
There . . . I feel better already.
Lastly, when we pay attention to cultivating a heart-centered existence, we may notice our tendency to extend loving kindness more naturally to others, rather than to ourselves. Perhaps we have not yet realized we, too, are worthy recipients.
Drs. Neff & Germer, pioneers in the field of self-compassion, developed an array of practices to tend to ourselves in transformative ways. We even have the power to activate our mammalian caregiving system, which releases oxytocin (our “love” hormone), reduces cortisol (our “stress” hormone), and calms our cardiovascular stress 10, by offering ourselves kind words and tender touch. For example, in times of stress, we can take a “Self-Compassion Break”, which consists of:
- Acknowledging that we are experiencing a moment of suffering
- Recognizing our common humanity with statements such as “Suffering is a part of life” or “I’m not alone”
- Incorporating gentle touch, perhaps placing our hands over our heart, or on our cheeks, or our arms, and
- Offering supportive messages to ourselves, such as “May I learn to accept what I cannot change” or “May I be kind to myself”
Practices such as these cultivate greater self-compassion, which is consistently linked to lower levels of anxiety and depression. 11 What a liberating way to soothe our own suffering!
When we pay attention to our thoughts, our body, our behavior, our emotions, and cultivate a heart-centered existence, we are utilizing evidence-based mindfulness practices to nurture our wellbeing.
This guiding light lies within each of us, and can shine bright even in the midst of these dark times. The only thing needed is a practice of paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.
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- Czeisler MÉ, Lane RI, Petrosky E, et al. Mental Health, Substance Use, and Suicidal Ideation During the COVID-19 Pandemic – United States, June 24-30, 2020. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2020;69(32):1049-1057. Published 2020 Aug 14. doi:10.15585/mmwr.mm6932a1
- King, ML Jr. “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” Mason Temple, Memphis Tennessee. 1968. https://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkivebeentothemountaintop.htm
- Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness. New York: Bantam Books, 2013. (xxvii)
- Killingsworth MA, Gilbert DT. A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science. 2010 Nov 12;330(6006):932.
- Understanding the stress responses: Chronic activation of this survival mechanism impairs health. Harvard Health Publishing. (2011) https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response
- Szalavitz, M. Q&A: Jon Kabat-Zinn Talks About Bringing Mindfulness Meditation to Medicine. Time Magazine. 2012
- Gilmartin, H, Saint, S, Rogers, M, Winter, S, Snyder, A, Quinn, M, & Chopra, V. Pilot randomised controlled trial to improve hand hygiene through mindful moments. BMJ quality & safety. 2018 27(10), 799–806. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjqs-2017-007359
- Tabibnia G, Lieberman MD, Craske MG. The lasting effect of words on feelings: words may facilitate exposure effects to threatening images. Emotion. 2008;8(3):307-317. doi:10.1037/1528-35126.96.36.1997
- Lieberman MD, Eisenberger NI, Crockett MJ, Tom SM, Pfeifer JH, Way BM. Putting feelings into words: affect labeling disrupts amygdala activity in response to affective stimuli. Psychol Sci. 2007;18(5):421-428. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.01916.x
- Neff, KD. The Physiology of Self-Compassion. Our bodies know how to feel care. Psychology Today. 2012 https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-power-self-compassion/201207/the-physiology-self-compassion
- Neff, KD. The science of self-compassion.In Germer, CK & Siegel, RD (Eds.), Wisdom and compassion in psychotherapy: Deepening mindfulness in clinical practice. 2012 (p. 79–92). The Guilford Press.
- MacBeth, A, Gumley A. Exploring compassion: a meta-analysis of the association between self-compassion and psychopathology. Clin Psychol Rev. 2012 Aug;32(6):545-52. doi: 10.1016/j.cpr.2012.06.003. Epub 2012 Jun 23. PMID: 22796446.