Why You Should Start Cultivating Mindfulness Now – with Erin Olivo

February 13, 2014

Dear friends, please enjoy this inspiring article from clinical psychologist and Sounds True author Erin Olivo on the many benefits of cultivating mindfulness in our lives. Erin is author of the excellent audio learning program entitled Free Yourself from Anxiety: A Mind-Body Prescription, in which she offers a series of simple, yet very effective guided meditations for relaxation and resilience.

Why You Should Start Cultivating Mindfulness Now – by Erin Olivo, PhD, MPH

Have you noticed how the term mindfulness is popping up everywhere? It’s no longer just reserved for Buddhist retreats and Yoga Journal articles. Mindfulness is the hot topic at the office for coping with stress, and the media can’t seem to get enough of it—Time magazine’s cover story this week is on “The Mindful Revolution,” The Huffington Post has a “GPS for the Soul” section, and a search on The New York Times comes up with almost 200 articles on mindfulness in the past year. Mindfulness has clearly reached buzzworthy status.

The first time I heard the term mindfulness was in 1993 while I was getting my masters degree in social work. But it was after reading Thoughts Without A Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective by Mark Epstein, M.D. that I had my “aha” moment with mindfulness. This book explained the unique psychological contributions of the teachings of Buddhism (including mindfulness meditation) and how to combine them with psychotherapy. I was getting my Ph.D. in psychology at the time, and that was exactly what I wanted to do.

So why should you start cultivating mindfulness now? Not because it’s trendy, but because it’s key to Wise Mind Living. If you want to live a balanced life and make choices from Wise Mind, practicing mindfulness is one of the most fundamental skills you’ll need.

But first you need to understand exactly what mindfulness is. In its essence, mindfulness means paying attention to the present moment, accepting it without judgment, and not thinking about the past or future.

There have been countless books written about mindfulness, and you can check out my Resources section for some recommendations. However, I suggest you start by reading this article from Women’s Health that gives a concise introduction to the concept of mindfulness. As the article says, practicing mindfulness can be done any place at any time, and you can bring mindful awareness to any activity.

Over time, the more you practice mindfulness, the more focused and connected to yourself and others you’ll become. Ultimately this will lead to a sense of heightened awareness. A recent New York Times article discussed how mindfulness trains the mind to stay on task and avoid distraction:

“Your ability to recognize what your mind is engaging with, and control that, is really a core strength,” said Peter Malinowski, a psychologist and neuroscientist at Liverpool John Moores University in England. “For some people who begin mindfulness training, it’s the first time in their life where they realize that a thought or emotion is not their only reality, that they have the ability to stay focused on something else, for instance their breathing, and let that emotion or thought just pass by.”

So my homework assignment for you is to set aside 10-15 minutes each day to start your mindfulness practice. Many people find that listening to a guided meditation in the beginning is quite helpful, and you can try using my Mindfulness Practice audio meditation.

If you’d rather do it on your own without a guide, then try this simple exercise. Get into a comfortable position, sit still and just pay attention to your breath. We focus on breath because it’s always there, which means you can always observe it because it’s a part of you, and it’s neutral. When thoughts enter your mind that pull you away from concentrating on your breath, just try to let them come and go like clouds passing through the sky. Don’t try and figure out what they mean, just observe.

And don’t try to change your breath in any way, just pay attention to how it feels. Try to notice how your breath comes and goes in your body. While you’re doing this you’ll likely notice that simply observing the rise and fall of your breath gives you a feeling of calmness when you focus on it, very similar to the way you feel when watching the waves at the beach.

Ideally you’ll incorporate this practice into your everyday life, because bringing mindfulness to your choices will make you more likely to follow through and succeed! Just remember that mindfulness meditation is a skill that does require practice, and the longer you do it the greater the benefits it will produce.

Mindfully,

Erin

Contemplation

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Being Mindful of Not Being Mindful

Modern life is chock-full of habits of mind that get in the way of mindfulness. Be on the lookout for them in your own life. Steering clear of them will be part of practicing mindfulness.

Here are some of the most common things that pull people out of mindfulness:

  • Thinking about the past (literally taking you out of the moment)
  • Thinking about the future (ditto)
  • Multitasking
  • Judging, analyzing, criticizing, or evaluating
  • Attaching to thoughts or observations
  • Pushing away thoughts or observations
  • Having a lack of intention
  • Having a lack of compassion
  • Being in denial

 

WISE MIND LIVING PRACTICE

Catch Yourself Being Judge-y

Judgment is one of the most common ways to pull yourself out of mindfulness. Whether you are judging your experience as good, bad, or ugly, it’s an obstacle to be fully present in the moment. And you do it all the time. Everyone does. The way to do it less — the way to not let judging interfere with your ability to be mindful — is to increase your awareness of when you are judging.

Try spending a few days noticing all the judgments you make throughout the day. About anything and everything: “What the hell is that lady wearing?” “Yuck, this food is gross!” “I should not be the one handling this!” Any time you catch yourself playing Judge Judy, notice it, label it as a judgment, and resist the temptation to judge yourself for being judgmental. Then try to tell yourself the same story but with neutral (nonjudgmental) language: “Her shirt is bright.” “Oh, that is bitter.” “I have a task that I do not like.” With enough practice, you’ll begin to make that kind of switch automatically — in mindfulness practice as well as in life.

 

Looking for more great reads?

 

Excerpted from Wise Mind Living by Erin Olivo

Erin Olivo, PhD, MHD, is a licensed clinical psychologist and an assistant clinical professor of medical psychology at Columbia University. She has a psychotherapy practice in New York City. See erinolivo.com.

Erin Olivo: Emotional Literacy

Erin Olivo, PhD, is a psychotherapist and assistant clinical professor of medical psychology at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. With Sounds True, she has recently released the new book Wise Mind Living: Master Your Emotions, Transform Your Life. In this episode, Tami Simon and Erin discuss the evolutionary roots and value of our emotions. They also speak about the cyclical nature of emotions and how they can affect us in seemingly contradictory waves. Finally, Tami and Erin talk about how we approach emotional reactivity as parents—as well as ways to teach our children how to healthily approach their own emotions. (63 minutes)

Why You Should Start Cultivating Mindfulness Now ̵...

Dear friends, please enjoy this inspiring article from clinical psychologist and Sounds True author Erin Olivo on the many benefits of cultivating mindfulness in our lives. Erin is author of the excellent audio learning program entitled Free Yourself from Anxiety: A Mind-Body Prescription, in which she offers a series of simple, yet very effective guided meditations for relaxation and resilience.

Why You Should Start Cultivating Mindfulness Now – by Erin Olivo, PhD, MPH

Have you noticed how the term mindfulness is popping up everywhere? It’s no longer just reserved for Buddhist retreats and Yoga Journal articles. Mindfulness is the hot topic at the office for coping with stress, and the media can’t seem to get enough of it—Time magazine’s cover story this week is on “The Mindful Revolution,” The Huffington Post has a “GPS for the Soul” section, and a search on The New York Times comes up with almost 200 articles on mindfulness in the past year. Mindfulness has clearly reached buzzworthy status.

The first time I heard the term mindfulness was in 1993 while I was getting my masters degree in social work. But it was after reading Thoughts Without A Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective by Mark Epstein, M.D. that I had my “aha” moment with mindfulness. This book explained the unique psychological contributions of the teachings of Buddhism (including mindfulness meditation) and how to combine them with psychotherapy. I was getting my Ph.D. in psychology at the time, and that was exactly what I wanted to do.

So why should you start cultivating mindfulness now? Not because it’s trendy, but because it’s key to Wise Mind Living. If you want to live a balanced life and make choices from Wise Mind, practicing mindfulness is one of the most fundamental skills you’ll need.

But first you need to understand exactly what mindfulness is. In its essence, mindfulness means paying attention to the present moment, accepting it without judgment, and not thinking about the past or future.

There have been countless books written about mindfulness, and you can check out my Resources section for some recommendations. However, I suggest you start by reading this article from Women’s Health that gives a concise introduction to the concept of mindfulness. As the article says, practicing mindfulness can be done any place at any time, and you can bring mindful awareness to any activity.

Over time, the more you practice mindfulness, the more focused and connected to yourself and others you’ll become. Ultimately this will lead to a sense of heightened awareness. A recent New York Times article discussed how mindfulness trains the mind to stay on task and avoid distraction:

“Your ability to recognize what your mind is engaging with, and control that, is really a core strength,” said Peter Malinowski, a psychologist and neuroscientist at Liverpool John Moores University in England. “For some people who begin mindfulness training, it’s the first time in their life where they realize that a thought or emotion is not their only reality, that they have the ability to stay focused on something else, for instance their breathing, and let that emotion or thought just pass by.”

So my homework assignment for you is to set aside 10-15 minutes each day to start your mindfulness practice. Many people find that listening to a guided meditation in the beginning is quite helpful, and you can try using my Mindfulness Practice audio meditation.

If you’d rather do it on your own without a guide, then try this simple exercise. Get into a comfortable position, sit still and just pay attention to your breath. We focus on breath because it’s always there, which means you can always observe it because it’s a part of you, and it’s neutral. When thoughts enter your mind that pull you away from concentrating on your breath, just try to let them come and go like clouds passing through the sky. Don’t try and figure out what they mean, just observe.

And don’t try to change your breath in any way, just pay attention to how it feels. Try to notice how your breath comes and goes in your body. While you’re doing this you’ll likely notice that simply observing the rise and fall of your breath gives you a feeling of calmness when you focus on it, very similar to the way you feel when watching the waves at the beach.

Ideally you’ll incorporate this practice into your everyday life, because bringing mindfulness to your choices will make you more likely to follow through and succeed! Just remember that mindfulness meditation is a skill that does require practice, and the longer you do it the greater the benefits it will produce.

Mindfully,

Erin

Contemplation

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The Place You Awaken

Establishing a place for regular outdoor meditation and nature observation is often referred to as a “sit spot” or “medicine spot”.  Like the Buddha, who found his own tree of awakening, we too can go to nature and practice being awake to the reality of the present moment.  This practice can also help us become more intimate with all the qualities of the land we live with.  

If one day I see a small bird and recognize it, a thin thread will form between me and that bird. If I just see it but don’t really recognize it, there is no thin thread. If I go out tomorrow and see and really recognize that same individual small bird again, the thread will thicken and strengthen just a little. Every time I see and recognize that bird, the thread strengthens. Eventually it will grow into a string, then a cord, and finally a rope. This is what it means to be a Bushman. We make ropes with all aspects of the creation in this way.” 

San bushman

Guided Sit Spot Practice

  1. Go to a place in nature that is close to where you live and that you can visit regularly.
  1. Take a few moments to center yourself, breathing in and out, and arriving fully in the present moment.
  1. As you are ready begin to walk mindfully with an intention to find a spot that calls out to you, a place you can sit and deepen your relationship with this place.  The spot should feel welcoming, safe and comfortable.  It could be under a tree, beside a boulder or in an open space.  Often, east facing spots can be nice for early morning sits.
  1. When you find a spot that feels good, in your own way, ask permission of that place and wait to see what comes to you.  If you feel invited, sit.  If not, keep looking.
  1. Once in your spot, sit comfortably and become as still as you can.  Imagine that you are melting into the earth, becoming a part of the land.  Sit for at least 15-30 minutes, noticing any movement, sounds, or other sensations and activities.
  1. Return often.

Find more practices for connecting to nature in Rewilding: Meditations, Practices, and Skills for Awakening in Nature by Micah Mortali.

Read Rewilding today!

Sounds True | Amazon | Barnes&Noble | Bookshop

Pema Chödrön: “Compassionate Abiding”

How do we find a sense of stability when everything seems so groundless? Pema Chödrön is celebrated around the world for her ability to help us turn toward things that are difficult and embrace our uncertainty. In this week’s podcast, Pema joins Tami to share her one-of-a-kind guidance, including a special practice she calls “compassionate abiding.” Tami and Pema also talk about how to stay embodied when panic arises, accessing the wisdom inherent in our emotions, and the importance of cultivating “unconditional friendship” and befriending even those parts of ourselves that we want to reject.

The Power of Mapping Your Emotions

It’s in everyone’s best interest to learn to remove the emotional blinders and identify emotions accurately, both the uncomfortable and the upbeat ones. After all, unpleasant emotions are normal and natural, a fundamental part of being human. Emotions fluctuate on a daily basis, often several times in a given day. If you didn’t experience negative feelings now and then, the positive ones wouldn’t be as noteworthy or joyful; your emotional life would likely be unnaturally narrow. You would also be deprived of the opportunity to glean important insights into yourself. Feelings, both the good and the bad, are silent messages, alerting you to pay attention to something in your personal or professional life, in your behavior, or in the world around you.

Instead of separating emotions into categories such as good or bad, positive or negative, happy or sad, it’s better to view all your emotions as useful information, as “evolutionarily evolved responses that are uniquely appropriate to specific situations,” says Karla McLaren, MEd, author of The Language of Emotions. “When you stop valencing, you’ll learn to empathically respond to what’s actually going on—and you’ll learn how to observe emotions without demonizing them or glorifying them.”

Being able to recognize and express what you’re feeling helps you better understand yourself (leading to greater self-knowledge); validate your emotions and tend to your own emotional needs; and take steps to address those feelings directly by communicating and responding to them effectively. Having emotional self-awareness can motivate you to make healthy changes in your life, take action to improve the world around you, and become more psychologically resilient—that is, better able to cope with crises and rebound from setbacks.

Learning to Unpack Your Emotions

For some people, engaging in free association can clear the cobwebs from their minds, almost like opening the cellar door to a musty basement and letting in light and fresh air. To do this, you might take a break and consider how you’re feeling about what you’re doing, reading, seeing, or thinking every few hours throughout the day. If a general word comes to mind—such as stressed, anxious, or angry—dig deeper and ask yourself what other emotions you might be feeling (maybe fear or annoyance) along with it. If you do this out loud in unedited, private moments, you might find yourself blurting out what you’re really thinking or feeling, revealing the emotions that are taking a lot of energy to keep inside. This is really about unpacking your suitcase of feelings, or untangling the knot of emotions that is taking up space inside you.

When you think about this in the abstract, it can be hard to pinpoint how you’re feeling. You may just see a swirling mass of a feeling quality such as “dread” or “foreboding” rather than recognizing the specific emotions you feel. To get to the root of your feelings, spend five minutes looking at the word cloud below—no more than five so that you don’t have time to filter your responses—and choose the emotions that resonate with your mood-state lately.

If reviewing these words evokes other feelings for you or if words or phrases that apply to you were not on this word cloud, jot these down in the blank word cloud that follows. Give yourself another five minutes to think about your recent state of mind and jot down phrases, images, or words that occur to you. This is your opportunity to personalize it without any limits or restrictions. If you feel stymied or draw a blank initially, think about your recent responses to current events or situations in your personal life or on the world stage. Try to be as honest as you can by focusing on how you’re really feeling when no one is watching—free-associate without judging, censoring, or revising what you write down.

Once you’ve finished your list, look at the order of the words you wrote down: Did they progress from all negative to increasingly hopeful? Do they portray an internal tension or friction in going back and forth between various feelings? If all the words are positive, consider the possibility that you may be in some degree of denial, focusing only on the window dressing rather than the emotions that lie beneath the surface. Also, consider this: Is there a pattern of shallow, visceral reactions that came out initially, followed by more complex thoughts and feelings? If so, think about whether you’re giving yourself enough time in your life to reflect. If you came out with highly intellectualized words or phrases first, it might suggest that you put on a bit of a facade when engaging with the world, and you might benefit from striving for a deeper engagement or familiarity with your emotions.

This is an excerpt from Emotional Inflammation: Discover Your Triggers and Reclaim Your Equilibrium During Anxious Times by Lise Van Susteren, MD, and Stacey Colino.

Buy your copy of Emotional Inflammation at your favorite bookseller!
Sounds True | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Bookshop

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