Formal meditation is only one part of mindfulness training. If you want to become more aware and present during the ordinary moments of life, you have to practice noticing.
Our assignment in the third week of MBSR was to keep a daily log of pleasant events, noting our physical sensations, feelings, and thoughts. We also paid attention to how we were “relating” to each experience. Were we pushing it away or hurrying through it? Holding onto it? Or just “being with” it—that is, staying in the moment and observing, not judging.
Most of us rush through our days oblivious to our moment-to-moment experience. When you start looking, you might discover, as I did, how many opportunities for pleasure slip by.
My week of recording pleasant experiences was perfectly ordinary. I wasn’t on vacation in an exotic locale. There were no birthdays to celebrate or parties to attend. I drove to work every day on the Beltway. I came home after work and cooked dinner. I packed lunch for the next day. I paid bills, booked dental appointments, scheduled household repairs, and vacuumed up the dirt the dogs tracked onto the living room rug. Sometimes the weather was dreary and unseasonably cold.
But I was able to discover pleasure in small, everyday events. I enjoyed drinking my coffee on Saturday morning, noticing the aroma of the freshly ground beans and feeling content to have some time to myself. I relished my Sunday ritual of completing the NY Times Crossword (in ink), feeling focused, engaged, and proud to be continuing my father’s tradition. I took in the bright yellow forsythia when I walked out onto the deck one day before work and appreciated the coming of spring. I even observed, while sitting in traffic one morning on the route taking me into the city, the sun glistening on the Potomac, the rowers gliding through the water in their skulls, and the greenery budding on either side of the road. Not a bad way to start the day.
The following week’s home practice was to observe unpleasant experiences in the same way, recording physical sensations, thoughts, and feelings, as well as how we related to the events. Not surprisingly, the predominant way of relating to unpleasant events is to push them away.
But here’s where it gets tricky. If you want to cultivate mindfulness and acceptance—attitudes helpful in dealing with pain, stress, and other aversive emotional and physical states—you need to allow yourself to “be with” the unpleasant experiences rather than avoiding them, bracing yourself against them, or actively pushing them away.
Why, you might ask, would you want to let yourself feel bad? Because, counterintuitive as it might seem, allowing the full range of internal reactions to unfold and observing them without piling on the negative interpretations we usually make can lessen the distress.
My unpleasant events for the week were mundane. They mostly involved driving: sitting in rush hour traffic on the way to work when I was running late, having the driver next to me speed up and cut me off when I was trying to merge into his lane, seeing another car beat me to the parking space I’d had my eye on.
So I noticed my chest tightening and my jaw clenching. My hand balled into a fist and pounded on the steering wheel. I heard myself cursing out loud once or twice. And I tried just to observe.
I can’t say I ever achieved a total Zen state of calm during my commute. But practicing being mindful made the experience a little more interesting and maybe even a touch less frustrating.
In my next dispatch from the mindfulness front, I’ll talk about another challenge: how to keep up with all the mindfulness exercises.
It’s that time of year again. No, I don’t mean the holidays, although their approach certainly can make you want to crawl into a dark cave to escape the strains of White Christmas and the twinkling lights reminding you of how behind you are with your preparations.
I’m talking about the winter blues.
Lots of us go to work before sunrise, sit all day in a windowless office, and drive home after sunset, never seeing daylight. The hours of prolonged darkness can wear on you and even—for those individuals whose biological clocks make them susceptible—cause what’s known as SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). It most commonly occurs in late fall and early winter and diminishes as the days grow longer, but SAD also can affect some people in spring and summer, causing agitation and anxiety rather than the lethargy typical of winter SAD.
Symptoms of winter SAD, like other forms of depression, include a loss of interest in normally pleasurable activities, irritability, withdrawal, lowered motivation and drive, changes in appetite (either overeating and carbohydrate cravings or loss of appetite) and sleep patterns (either excessive sleeping or insomnia), muscle tension and pain, feelings of heaviness in the limbs, lack of energy, poor concentration, and negative thinking.
Winter SAD is most prevalent at Northern latitudes and among women. Its causes are still speculative, with hypotheses suggesting imbalances in melatonin, circadian rhythms, and serotonin.
As with all neurobiological conditions, brain chemistry may make the symptoms unavoidable. But how we respond—our behavior and thoughts—can mitigate the distress we experience.
For instance, if you focus on how tired you feel in the morning, you’re likely to pull the covers over your head and give into the urge to hibernate. But if you can manage instead to drag yourself out of bed and take a brisk walk outside, you’ll feel more energetic and motivated for the rest of the day.
One of the best antidotes to a depressed mood is to engage in a variety of pleasant or competence-inspiring activities. Go out for a leisurely meal with friends or family, or stay in and cook one to share. Play with a pet. Get some exercise. Learn a new language. Practice a musical instrument. Listen to music. Solve a crossword puzzle. Knit a sweater. Peruse Pinterest or Houzz to get ideas for a redecorating project. Clean out a closet. Visit a museum. Go to a movie or play. You may need to adjust your activities to accommodate the weather, but you can still find plenty to occupy you.
Modifiying your attitude is another way to boost your mood. Instead of focusing on the shortened days and punishing wind chills, find enjoyment in a steamy mug of hot chocolate or a crackling fire. Try to accept the moment instead of wishing for it to be different.
Maybe as a consequence of my regular mindfulness meditation practice (which helps cultivate acceptance), I haven’t dreaded the advent of winter as much this year as in the past. But I do sometimes catch myself slipping into old thinking habits, as I did one day at my last CSA pickup of the season. Inundated with apples, I felt the negative thoughts starting to build: “I don’t like apples very much. I wish it were still summer. I want peaches. I’m sick of apples. I want watermelon.”
You don’t need to sell me on the merits of an apple a day. But it wouldn’t be my snack of choice, except as an occasional vehicle for peanut butter. On the other hand, apples in dessert form—gussied up with cinnamon and nutmeg, topped with a crust or a crumble, and served with a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream—are an entirely different story. So I decided to adjust my attitude and stop complaining.
You know the old saw about what to do when life gives you lemons? Well, the season was giving me apples.
So I made apple pies.
My Australian Shepherd Freddie has much to commend him. He’s loyal and loving to his family. He doesn’t chew up underwear, move pillows from room to room, or snatch sandwiches from the kitchen counter like my Golden Retriever Calvin used to do. He’ll turn on a dime and come when he’s called, even off-leash. He walks jauntily by my side without pulling. And he’s incredibly smart—bilingual, in fact. The repertoire of commands he understands both verbally and by hand signals alone includes not only the useful basics (sit, stay, heel, come, leave it, down) but also many tricks I’ve taught him to keep us both busy. He can spin (clockwise), twirl (counterclockwise), sashay sideways, shake, salute, wave, march in step with me, backup, roll over, play dead, speak, play peek-a-boo, balance a treat on his nose and catch it, grasp an umbrella between his paws, weave through my legs, jump over and crawl under a bar, fetch a toy from another room by name, and take a bow.
But Freddie’s intelligence (along with an acute hypervigilence, endemic to herding breeds like his, to every sound and sudden movement) also makes him hard to live with at times. He barks. At everything. Incessantly.
Most annoying is his reaction to the TV. It’s impossible to watch a show when he’s in the room because he runs up to the screen and, in his most menacing big dog voice, tries to scare off the intruders. He gets really worked up when he sees fighting or hears raised voices. And since my husband and I favor shows like Breaking Bad, Dexter, and Homeland, with plenty of violence and bad guys, Freddie is always on his guard.
You’d think I’d be able to train him to lie at our feet for the duration of an episode. Believe me, I’ve tried. I tell him to “chill” (which he’s been taught means “stretch out and rest your head on your paws”) and toss him treats for being quiet. It works, for a while. But as soon as the plot heats up, so does Freddie.
The problem has gotten much worse since our Black Friday purchase of a 55” TV. It’s twice as big with a far sharper picture than our previous model. If the escalation of his barking is any indication, Freddie feels even more threatened by the outsized images on the new screen.
I wish he would curl up and sleep peacefully next to me on the couch like our other dog Baxter. Wouldn’t it nice to be able to kick back and relax with two warm, furry, quiet canines at my side? But since exciteablility is part of Freddie’s temperament, I doubt I’ll ever be completely successful in training him not to bark at the TV. So I’m coming to terms with not having the dog of my fantasies and learning to live with the real one in my house.
When you’re stuck dealing with a situation or person you’re not entirely happy with, the best option is to find a way to accept it. Jon Kabat-Zinn describes this as “the challenge of mindfulness.” Rather than trying to force your experience (or a difficult spouse, coworker, or pet) to be different, “be present for your experience as it is.”
I can’t quite muster the equanimity to tolerate Freddie’s barking throughout a TV show. It’s just too hard to hear the dialogue over the noise. So I’ve come up with a way to accept him and also enjoy my TV viewing.
I put him in his crate with a bone to occupy him. It works for both of us.
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