What do you think of when you think of meditation? Images likely come to mind of Yoga poses or sitting with your legs crossed listening to the sound of running water. Whatever your motivation traditional and stereotypical forms of meditation are perfectly fine. There is nothing wrong with them. That being said, if your goal is in any way related to managing emotions you may want to consider re-thinking your meditation practice. You may want to begin to learn about what is called Mindfulness.
What is Mindfulness?
At this point, Mindfulness has become a therapeutic and societal buzzword. People are throwing it around, often times having a minimal understanding of what it means or how to use it. My background in Mindfulness comes from an intensive training in a type of therapy called Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), part of which involves teaching and understanding Mindfulness.
In the way I practice and teach Mindfulness, it is the practice of learning to become more aware of what is going on for you and in your environment in a way that allows you to better manage your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.
How do you learn how to do this?
The best way to learn anything is to practice. When learning Mindfulness, you practice using what are called Mindfulness Exercises. At face value, none of them are rocket science. Brushing your teeth can be a Mindfulness Exercise. Breathing can be a Mindfulness Exercise. Listening to rain sounds can be a Mindfulness Exercise. What makes them an exercise as opposed to just a normal task is how you do them.
While brushing your teeth, breathing, or listening to rain sounds the key is that when you notice yourself getting distracted, notice and re-direct your attention no matter how many times you have to do it. It’s normal for your brain to be buzzing and abnormal and unlikely for it to be blank. You are doing the exercise correctly if you notice distracting thoughts and re-direct your attention. It does not mean you are doing the exercise correctly if you don’t get distracted at all.
How Mindfulness Applies to Real Life
An understandable question at this point is “Ok this sounds ridiculous. Why the hell would practicing brushing my teeth be helpful to me?”. What is important to understand is that when you are practicing noticing distracting thoughts and re-directing your attention back to the exercise of brushing your teeth you are flexing a muscle. Pro Football players lift weights to strengthen the muscles in their arms to throw a football in the big game. You are practicing and building the muscle of being able to manage where your attention goes. Next time you have an argument with your spouse or are receiving some unwanted criticism from your boss, the idea is that you would have practiced and be skilled enough to handle it better. You would notice when you are getting distracted by your anger or frustration and be able to re-direct your attention back to the conversation or situation at hand.
In an ideal world, you would be able to learn these skills immediately and wouldn’t need to start with focusing on your breath. Unfortunately, this isn’t how learning works! You have to start small and then work your way up to the big show. If you are learning how to play basketball you wouldn’t get thrown into the middle of an NBA court after watching a short video on how to play, would you? Absolutely not! You might take a class or watch a video, then watch some players on the court as your teacher explains what they are doing to connect your classroom knowledge to the real thing. Then you might do some practice drills like dribbling down the court or lay ups. Then you might play with some other beginners in a scrimmage while receiving feedback to improve your understanding and performance as you continue to learn. And so on and so forth until you felt ready and were skilled enough to play more seriously. The same is true with Mindfulness. You start small and eventually you will be able to use it when it counts.
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