julief514 /Can Stock Photo
julief514 /Can Stock Photo

Amy Halloran-Steiner: Practicing mindfulness

Stop right there and pay attention — not to the thoughts you might be having, but to the feel of this newspaper between your fingers just now. See the contrasted black and white of the typed words in front of you. Notice the sounds entering your ears. Just for 60 seconds, use your senses.

You’ve now completed an informal mindfulness practice, in which you’ve made a choice to pay attention in the present moment, on purpose, without using thoughts to interpret your experience. You gave your brain information from three of your five senses.

During any kind of mindfulness practice, we focus on the present sensations of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching without judgment about whether something is good or bad, whether you want it or you don’t. Our human brains evolved to use the input of our senses to quickly evaluate whether we are safe or not. At the first hint of danger, the oldest part of our brain, including the amygdala, kicks our body into gear to stay safe: elevated heart rate, upset stomach, the urge to run and muddled thoughts all indicate that your brain made the split-second decision to act in some way. This reaction used to serve us well 10,000 years ago when our surroundings challenged our survival daily and we needed to either hurtle our bodies through space in fight or flight, or shut down our metabolism in freeze.

Guest Writer

Amy Halloran-Steiner is a clinical social worker who counsels individuals and families in private practice and at Linfield College. She also teaches MindfulnessBased Stress Reduction and Yoga Calm®. Amy believes that self-understanding, physical movement, mindfulness and contact with nature greatly enhance mental wellness. She enjoys hiking, swimming rivers and exploring wild places with her family.

Since sabre-toothed cats no longer roam Yamhill County, since we receive most of our food from the grocery store and since (for the most part) people are civil to one another, our watchdog brains still spend some of their energy mislabelling potential outcomes as deadly when they are not. Running late, getting rejected via social media and speaking in public will certainly not kill us, but we still have the racing heart, the acid reflux and the jitters that impede our accomplishment of the fine motor tasks we now daily aim to perform. Our brains of the 21st century have not evolved enough to operate in modern environments without a build up of cortisol and adrenaline that long ago was metabolized with quick and forceful action. We are left with the slowly debilitating affects of anxiety.

If you are like me and the estimated 40 million people who suffer from anxiety, you spend so much time in your head, thinking about what you need to do today, how you might best get it done and whether, indeed, you’ll have the time. You ruminate on something bad happening, not being good enough or you or someone you love meeting a terrible fate. Or maybe you tend to focus on what happened yesterday, why you said or did what you did, and what others might have thought about you.

We humans often spend our time focused not on the information our five senses are constantly collecting for our brains to sift through, but rather on thoughts that calculate, plan, reminisce, judge and expect and, in turn, release the stress hormones that lead to fight or flight. In addition, we think the thoughts we are most accustomed to thinking, the thoughts we’ve had the most practice with. And therefore we spend much of our time experiencing not what is in this present moment, but what our judging mind serves up. If we want to live a life unburdened by anxiety, we must retrain our brains to pay attention not to our thinking, but rather to what is actually happening in the present moment. By returning to your senses, as you did at the start of this article, you (to make a complicated neuro-physiological process more simple) calm down. Noticing what your body is experiencing and what thoughts are passing through this ever-thinking mind will provide relief of anxiety and activation of your emergency system only when necessary for survival.

Awareness of the breath is another tried and true way to bring your attention into the present moment. If you have suffered a trauma, or health challenge, you might find it more comfortable to focus on your hands in your lap or the area around your heart as you practice coming back repeatedly to the present moment.

You will notice that your mind wanders quickly away from the anchor to awareness you have chosen. There is good reason for this. Remember your watchdog brain? It is scanning the environment for any approaching danger, whether an oncoming truck or that pesky to-do list, and it is remembering any number of random past experiences that somehow seem relevant as you quiet down. In fact, it is precisely when you quiet down and intend to pay attention to only one anchor that difficult thoughts, emotions and sensations may occur. Our task, then, is to acknowledge what is arising with an affable “hello” and to refocus on the breath, or hands or heart, as the case may be. We spend so much time trying to get away from uncomfortable thoughts, feelings and sensations, that our brains have become good at that, too.

Practicing mindfulness gives us a chance to meet whatever arises with loving kindness and allow it to pass through, as we refocus (again and again) on the object of our focus (the breath or other chosen site). Practicing mindfulness is challenging. Like any other new habit, it takes lots of motivation and time to build your capacity. You might notice some positive impacts of mindfulness right away. Clients have told me they feel calmer the scant times when they remember to pause and notice what they are physically sensing. They may, in the noticing, remember to take a breath. In practicing, you will certainly begin to notice the patterns of thinking to which your brain is accustomed. This gives you the ability in the future to notice early when your thinking is heading down its well-worn anxious path and to divert it by simply paying attention.

As a result of my own mindfulness practice, I have been pleased to notice when, before a knee-jerk reaction to my kids, I can pause because I have first noticed the heaviness in my shoulders and the clenching of my jaw and the “do-we-have-to-go-through-this-again?” thought accompanied by a feeling of frustration. I now pause long enough to feel my feet on the floor and to notice my breath. And my response can be loving.

If we can pause before we react as the barking watchdog would have us do, our sense of our own coping might strengthen, our relationships might improve and our emotional discomfort might diminish. I hope you’ll take the small amount of time necessary to come to your senses: look, listen, smell, touch, even taste, in order for you to be present to this moment, taking in just the facts.

In the words of Buddhist monk Walpola Rahula, “Mindfulness is simply observing, watching, examining. You are not a judge but a scientist.” We all have the capacity to be scientists in our own lives. Enjoy the experiment! To learn more, visit www.mindful.org or www.greatergood.berkeley.edu.

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