In Making Ants Dance, Part I, we talked about two practices for dealing with our Automatic Negative Thoughts. First, in the Interrogation Method, we looked at disputing them by looking at them impartially and questioning their validity. Then we looked at Diversions as a means of setting them aside when they swarmed us.
Today we’ll look at a way that both dispels and prevents ANTS using the practice of Mindfulness.
The Power of Mindfulness
Jon Kabat-Zinn, the first Western scientist to adapt the ancient Buddhist practice of mindfulness for use by medical patients, defines the technique this way:
“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
In other words, it means you focus your attention on what is going on inside and around you from an impartial vantage point. Without wanting it to be any different than it is, you simply observe whatever is happening.
Its power lies in its immediate short-circuiting of the downward spiral where negative thoughts feed negative feelings that feed negative thoughts, and so on. In a way, it incorporates both the Interrogation and Diversion practices. On the one hand, you look squarely at your negative thoughts from an impartial perspective. And on the other, you distance yourself from them by focusing your attention on other things that are happening along with the negative thoughts.
One Aim, Countless Paths
The one aim of mindfulness is to center your attention in the immediate present. But because countless things are happening in every single moment, even within the boundaries of our personal selves, we need a way to narrow our attention to just one slice of what’s going on.
What Am I Doing?
One of the simplest ways is simply to begin noticing what you are doing in any given moment and to describe it to yourself in detail, paying attention to what your senses are telling you: I am sitting at my desk, reading an article. I see my monitor, and with my peripheral vision I notice my book shelf, the artwork on the wall, the scene out the window. I hear the hum of the computer and the sounds drifting up from the street. The room is warm and I am sitting up straight and comfortably. I can feel the chair beneath me. And so on. It takes only seconds; it’s just a quick check-in that you do from time to time to practice pulling yourself back to your immediate reality.
My friend Cristina Diaz, at The Benefits of Positive Thinking, suggests maintaining a self-observing dialogue as you go through your day, saying, “This is me, getting out of bed.” “This is me, walking to the bathroom.” “This is me, brushing my teeth.” And so on. It’s fun to see how long you can keep your attention on what you often do on automatic pilot. Read Cristina’s article, and give it a try!
Coming to Your Senses
A favorite mindfulness practice for many is stopping now and then to pay attention to what your senses are telling you. Again, you simply observe, without judgment.
Sight: What are you seeing? What can you notice in a familiar setting that you haven’t paid attention to before? Look for patterns of light and shadow, at reflections, at textures and varying shades of color.
Sound: Listen to all the sounds a moment holds. How many can you hear? Each passing moment has its own music, and beneath the sounds, and between them, hear the silence.
Feeling: What is your skin feeling? How balanced is your posture? How tense or relaxed are your muscles? What parts of your body are warm or cool? Relaxed or contracted? What textures are your fingertips detecting? In what part of your body are you feeling an emotion? Your stomach? Your chest? Your throat?
Taste and Smell: Especially use these senses when you are eating. Pay attention to the tastes, textures, and fragrances of food. Notice the smell as you bring food to your mouth. Notice how the taste of something changes as you chew it.
The Ultimate Mindfulness Practice
But beyond all others, the central and ultimate mindfulness practice involves becoming aware of your breathing. Master this, and your awareness of the details of every action you perform will come alive and astonish you with their richness and beauty. Even long before your get anywhere near mastery—for mastery takes a long while—you will see how attention to your breathing makes everything else clearer, sharper, brighter, more exquisite.
How to Practice
In the beginning, you simply pay attention as your lungs move the air in and out of your body:
- Sit in a comfortable position.
- Inhale easily and deeply, feeling the air entering your body, expanding your lungs, raising your abdomen.
- When your lungs are comfortably full, pause for a slight bit, then exhale, feeling the air moving out of your body as your lungs contract and your abdomen lowers.
- If thoughts enter your mind, simply notice them and turn your attention back to your breathing.
Continue the practice for five minutes in the morning and it will help you stay centered all day. Use it throughout the day whenever you want a little vacation from the day’s stress.
I found a beautiful video that will take you through this process as a kind of guided meditation, allowing you to taste the fullness of peace and relaxation it can bring you. I highly recommend that you allow yourself the pleasure of experiencing it. It will root the practice in you so you can call on it in times of stress, or when you simply want to experience the delicious sensations it creates.
Advancing Your Practice
After you have practiced paying attention to your breathing for awhile, you can advance your practice by taking it into your daily activities. Begin practicing mindful breathing as you do routine tasks, paying attention to the details of how you do them and what your senses are telling you while you continue to breathe.
In his awesomely beautiful classic, The Miracle of Mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hahn, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, suggests learning to count your breaths, even as you are performing your normal activities. Each cycle of in-breath and out-breath counts as one. You count to ten, then begin over again. I have been practicing this on my daily commute and am surprised at how aware and relaxed I am behind the wheel.
The Benefits of Mindfulness
As you practice mindfulness, you learn to look at your thoughts as simply thoughts, to watch them rise, just as does your breath, and to let them pass, as easily as you exhale. You do not need to cling to them or follow them down the road. You simply watch them, mere thoughts, without judgment, rise and pass, rise and pass. They lose their power to stir or excite you. You see them as mere thoughts and nothing more.
But beyond that, as remarkable as it is, increasing mindfulness has been shown to:
- Reduce stress;
- Lessen pain;
- Reduce anxiety;
- Produce clearer skin;
- Improve immune functioning;
- Lessen the stress of your own or a loved one’s chronic disability;
- Prevent depression relapse, and more.
The Power of Now
Now, of course, is the only time that actually exists. The past is memory; the future is imagination. Now is your point of power, the only time in which you really exist. When you bring your attention to it, to now, you inhabit your actual life. Otherwise, you’re just dreaming.
The more mindful you are in the moment, the more fully alive you are, the more you experience the richness and fullness and beauty of life, the more clearly and compassionately you see its opportunities and challenges. Mindfulness gives your life depth and zest; it enriches your senses of wonder, purpose and meaning. It’s one of the great keys to building genuine positivity, and for making the best in you even better.
Play with some of the practices here. Put them to work for you and watch how they impact your awareness.
And, as always, I invite you to leave your comments and let the other members of the Positive-Living-Now family know how these practices are working for you.