A lot of our time is spent thinking. Not only do we think a lot, but we think a lot about things outside of any present moment. Thanks to the evolutionary achievement of stimulus independent thought, the human default brain is a wandering one. Due to this wandering state, humans evolved to learn, reason, and plan in ways other creatures do not . Harvard research confirms that people today spend half of their days in this default state, making this useful brain state, often an overactive and sometimes futile one. Thoughts carry people away from present moments to past or future concerns, emotions, worries, and possibilities. Think of a time where being overwhelmed by thinking was valuable, as well as a time where it was not. Overall, Harvard research purports that people tend to think outside of the present moment more often than necessary, and this takes an emotional and physical toll on well being. A wandering mind is indeed an unhappy mind. The remedy is mindfulness.
Mindfulness is about being deliberately aware of whatever you’re doing and thinking. The mindful individual consciously chooses to engage with the present moment and is curious about the significance of the present. Mindfulness practices vary. Finding what works best for you amongst the variety is important. From self talk awareness, to being increasingly intentional and challenging the autopilot brain, mindfulness has significant health benefits. Studies show mindfulness practice can successfully reduce anxiety, depression, and stress. It can also improve sleep, lower blood pressure, and ease pain. With these health possibilities, and the empowerment that comes with being purposeful in thought and action, mindfulness is an important practice for everyone, but especially those experiencing neuropathy. Focusing on the present may be the last thing you want to do on the most painful days with neuropathy. Routine is key. Committing to practicing mindfulness even minutes a day will calm and empower you, providing you with increased fulfillment during the best times, and habituated mental resources for the tougher, more painful times. Simply, brief minutes of mindfulness a day is shown to have positive effects on emotional and physical well being.
Is your mind full or are you mindful? Make time in the simplest aspects of your day! Give yourself the present and experiment with the following practices:
Begin your day by rising with intention. Don’t browse your phone. Don’t moan and slump out of bed. Be present from the moment that your day begins by taking a couple minutes to establish an intention for the day. Sit up in your bed and prop up comfortably with a pillow. Concentrate on calmly breathing while asking yourself, “What would I like to be today?” Allow your responses to wash over you, while maintaining focus on that question. My mind creates one word answers; some positive, some not so much. Let each answer come and go for a couple minutes, until choosing one that you find meaningful and encouraging. Hold this answer with you throughout the day.
While waiting for your coffee to drip, water to boil, or bread to toast, stand or sit for a few minutes purely focusing on your inhalation and exhalation. Then, while eating, savour your meal slowly, appreciating the present moment with all your senses. Consider the different colours and textures of your food and drink. Notice the sweetness, saltiness, and bitterness. Inhale the aroma! Put down your fork between bites and savour your food. It’s amazing how fulfilling this can feel. It can also weirdly feel like an eternity.
Traffic may lead to worry or frustration, from concerns that you’ll be late to lingering anger well past meeting Mr. Doesn’t Use a Turn Signal. Many emotions, whether truly traffic or projections, are tied to the past and the future. Try and find the present moment. On your commute stop both literally and figuratively at the red lights. S.T.O.P or Stop, Take a few deep breaths, Observe, and Proceed, as coined by Goldstein. Pause your mind, consciously breathe, recognize your thoughts, and let thoughts that are of no use to you in the present pass by so that you may proceed empowered rather than powerless to wandering thoughts.
Whether on lunch break or grabbing groceries, while waiting in the checkout line, challenge yourself to keep your attention towards your environment. The checkout line = no checking out your phone! Take this moment as a mindfulness check up instead. Practice a loving-kindness meditation towards yourself, others, or both. Internally repeat phrases that are meaningful and unconditional for you. For example, repeat “May I feel peace” or even “May you feel peace” towards the cashier. Practice in line at any checkout and reflect on how you feel. Are you more present? Do you feel lighter? It may feel wonderful. It may feel strange. It may feel downright ridiculous or mechanical. Even if it does feel lame to you, this practice is powerfully habit forming. Research shows that habit-building with loving-kindness meditation is one of the best ways to counteract the hedonic treadmill. The hedonic treadmill is the human tendency to adapt to positive or negative events, so even after brief spikes or drops in happiness, an individual ultimately returns to their particular constant emotional set-point. Research shows that practicing loving-kindness meditation can lead to outpacing the hedonic treadmill, establishing a new and better emotional set-point for those practicing weekly. Now that’s powerful!
Having your emotional set-point at a higher (happier) level means when your levels drop due to pain or the emotional toll caused by it, you likely won’t sink as low and so you’ll be in a better mind to deal with it.
On the Job
When your thoughts are drifting but you have deadlines to meet, practice mindfulness to attend to the productive moment you are attempting to stay within. Choose a clear phrase to repeat for when you notice yourself losing focus. When you find yourself distracted, purposefully pause. While concentrating on deep breathing remind yourself of that phrase, using it as a trigger to shift back to the task at hand. Try encouraging words like, “Focus,” “Perform,” or “Patience.” Maybe even a reminder of your goal, like “Home,” as in finishing this task sooner means you will be home sooner. Experiment with different words until you find your favourites.
Try a scavenger meditation. While outside, whether in your yard or walking home from work, pick up three to five objects that capture your attention. It might be a strange shaped rock, a bright leaf, or a shiny bottle cap. Then sit somewhere. Finding a bench or the grass in the park, silently focus on each object, one at a time. Notice the feelings and sensations each piece summons. Feeling silly? Laugh at yourself. That’s still you – aware in this present moment. Feeling poetic? It feels good when we find beauty or entertainment in the little things.
On a Walk
Observing your environment, walk slowly. Maintain focus on how your body and breathing feels in the atmosphere, from the warm afternoon sunshine on your skin to the damp morning air in your lungs. With each step, internally whisper “Here” as a reminder to exist in this present moment. Possibly produce a mantra of your own or practice a loving-kindness meditation. Another meditation to try involves walking, breathing, and intention (4). While walking, with every inhalation think of something you would like to welcome into this moment and with every exhalation think of something you would like to release. For example, with each inhalation you may think, “Energy in” or “Joy in” and with every exhalation you may think, “Anger out” or “Pain out”. Turn a stroll into a mind reset.
Exercise is beneficial to our bodies and minds, and so is mindfulness meditation. Research shows that combining the two has considerable benefit and is a wonderful way to fit both into our busy lives. Though a nice walk is an awesome opportunity for this combination, so are other aerobic activities. During any exercise, focus on your awareness of the present by concentrating on what you hear for five to ten minutes. This may be the chirping of birds, the rustling of trees, or the humming of cars. Whatever it is, focusing on sound connects you to the present moment. Try paying attention to present sounds while walking, stretching, biking, or swimming.
Too often in conversation we are listening to respond, rather than truly listening and processing what another individual is saying. If we are already thinking about our response while another person is speaking, we may miss what they are even communicating. Challenge yourself to actively listen, fully working to understand what another is sharing, rather than passively hearing. Observe their body language, nod to show understanding, and listen until they are finished speaking rather than interrupting, even to show agreement. Goldstein asserts that communicating in this mindful way is “quite relaxing, because any stress and anxiety felt in social situations is usually a result of thinking and rehearsing”. Be patient when listening and be patient with yourself before speaking.
After a long day, a mindfulness gratitude meditation is calming and uplifting. Lie comfortably, focusing on breathing deeply. With each inhalation and exhalation, think of something that was good about your day. It can be big or small. There is no sizing on goodness. Maybe you had a nice visit with a friend! Or you had the yummiest snack on work break! It could be that odd bird you saw. It could be that you even got out of bed that day. Whatever it is, think of three things you are grateful for, as you breathe deeply in and out, recognizing your connection to your day. To further this gratitude technique you may even want to remain accountable with a friend, family member, or partner. Write your list down each evening. Share them with each other, whether regularly or once in a while. By being aware of and sharing your most significant daily moments, your awareness of the present as an individual and in relationships, will grow. This is mindfulness-based cognitive therapy technique. Be aware of your day. Be aware of your moments. Celebrate them with yourself and each other!
For those of us with health issues it’s easy to get wrapped up in the negativity of it all, mindfulness gratitude helps us remember there are really good things in our lives.
So Is Your Mind Full Or Are You Mindful?
Mindfulness fits into the simplest aspects of our days! Research shows even brief minutes of mindfulness has positive health benefits, so find those few minutes daily! Challenge yourself and commit to be mindful during at least one daily activity, like eating breakfast. Experiment with what times of day work best for you. Enjoying giving yourself the present? Check out #44: Rethinking Self Talk or for further mindfulness exercises explore:
– Danny Penman: http://franticworld.com/free-meditations-from-mindfulness/
– Sharon Salzburg: https://www.mindful.org/loving-kindness-takes-time-sharon-salzberg/
– Sam Harris: https://samharris.org/how-to-meditate/
Alderman, B. L., Olson, R. L., Brush, C. J., & Shors, T. J. (2016). MAP training: combining meditation and aerobic exercise reduces depression and rumination while enhancing synchronized brain activity. Translational Psychiatry, 6, e276, 1-9. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4872427/
Fredrickson, B. L., Cohn, M. A., Coffey, K. A., Pek, J., & Finkel, S. M. (2008). Open Hearts Build Lives: Positive Emotions, Induced Through Loving-Kindness Meditation, Build Consequential Personal Resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(5), 1045–1062. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0013262 Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3156028/
Goldstein, E. (2015) Uncovering happiness: overcoming depression with mindfulness and self-compassion. NY: Simon & Schuster Inc.
Gregoire, C. (2017). Your Mindful Day. (cover story). Prevention, 69(9), 80. Retrieved from: http://search.ebscohost.com.elibrary.calgarypubliclibrary.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=sch&AN=124766241&site=scirc-live
Harris, S. 2018. How to Mediate. Sam Harris. Retrieved from: https://samharris.org/how-to-meditate/
Harris, S. (2014). Waking up: A guide to spirituality without religion. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.
Killingsworth, M.A., Gilbert, D.T. (2010). A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind. Science. 330(6006), 932. DOI: 10.1126/science.1192439 Retrieved from:
Penman, D. 2018. Free meditations from Mindfulness. Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World. Retrieved from: http://franticworld.com/free-meditations-from-mindfulness/
Salzburg, S. 2018. Why Loving-Kindness Takes Time. Mindful. Retrieved from: https://www.mindful.org/loving-kindness-takes-time-sharon-salzberg/
Williams, M., Penman, D. Mindfulness: A practical guide to peace in a frantic world. UK: Little, Brown Book Group.
Zeidan, F., Martucci, K. T., Kraft, R. A., Gordon, N. S., McHaffie, J. G., & Coghill, R. C. (2011). Brain Mechanisms Supporting Modulation of Pain by Mindfulness Meditation. The Journal of Neuroscience : The Official Journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 31(14), 5540–5548. http://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.5791-10.2011 Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3090218/
Lisa-Marie McLennan is a University of Calgary graduate, holding her Bachelor of Arts: English Literature major & Psychology minor. Also see: https://calgaryneuropathy.com/about-us/ to learn more about Lisa Marie.