Cultivating mindfulness through regular meditation practice has been shown to produce numerous benefits over time. It reduces stress, anxiety, and emotional reactivity and increases focus, well-being, and compassion. However, meditators sometimes grapple with the question of how to tangibly apply mindfulness skills in day-to-day life, particularly in moments of stress when we notice our buttons are being pushed or we’re edging towards emotional reactivity. It’s not always clear how to take mindfulness from the meditation cushion into the activities of daily life. It’s also no surprise that being mindful in moments when we are dealing with a difficult person or event can be more challenging than being mindful when we are peacefully and comfortably seated on a meditation cushion!
There are a few short practices that are well suited to integrating mindfulness into day-to-day life in order to reap the more tangible and immediate effects of stepping out of automatic patterns of reactivity and grounding ourselves in the present. Weaving these practices into your day in moments of calm can help you go about your daily activities more mindfully and may help prepare you to use mindfulness skills when you encounter stressors. This may interrupt the cascade of negative thoughts, emotions, and actions that sometimes seems to happen automatically in moments of stress or emotional discomfort.
These different practices share elements but also have important differences. Try them and see what works best for you!
This practice is helpful when we find ourselves caught up in ruminative, worried, or otherwise “busy” patterns of thinking or in destructive urges and impulses. It can help us notice our mental state, ground us in the bare facts of the present moment, and insert a pause between our thoughts, urges, and impulses and impulsive (and sometimes harmful) behavioural responses.
The acronym STOP serves as a reminder of each step.
1. Stop what you are doing. Freeze and do not do anything.
2. Take a few deep breaths and step back from the situation. You can continue this deep breathing for a few minutes while paying attention to the sensations of breath in your belly.
3. Observe what is happening inside of you and in your environment without judging or evaluating. Observe the bare sensory qualities of your present moment experience. What is your body doing? What thoughts, feelings, and body sensations are you experiencing? What is happening around you? What sensory information are you receiving from the environment?
4. Proceed mindfully and with compassion. Act with awareness of what you are doing and how it will affect yourself and others. Proceed with compassion for yourself and others.
There are a few variants of this practice but the intention of each is similar. To read more about psychologist Elisha Goldstein’s version of STOP visit http://www.mindful.org/stressing-out-stop/
Psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach teaches this practice. It is helpful for when we feel overwhelmed by painful feelings such as sadness or despair and difficult thoughts of insecurity or unworthiness.
The acronym RAIN serves as a reminder of each step.
1. Recognize what’s going on inside you by acknowledging the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that are present. You might label these experiences by saying to yourself, “sadness is here”, “pain is here”, “self-critical thoughts are here”, etc.
2. Allow the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that are already present to simply be there. Often we react to difficult thoughts and feelings by judging others or ourselves, numbing ourselves to our experience (e.g., by overeating, abusing alcohol, mindlessly surfing the internet). Allowing means willingness to be with these experiences. Allowing also involves noticing if there is an urge to resist difficult thoughts, feelings, and sensations and intentionally relaxing our resistance. Note that allowing does not mean that we agree with our self-critical thoughts or like our painful feelings. It means being willing to observe and make room for what is already present. When we are willing to allow our difficult thoughts and feelings to be as they are, we may be less likely to react in impulsive and destructive ways intended to reduce our discomfort. We may therefore be more able to choose a wise and skilful course of action. Paradoxically allowing may therefore reduce suffering in the long run.
3. Investigating with kindness means bringing a gentle and discerning curiosity to our experience in the present moment. You might investigate whether the emotion or thought that is present shows up in the body (e.g., a lump in the throat, clenching in the jaw, a knot in the stomach, tension in the shoulders or arms), the qualities of the sensations you are experiencing (e.g., tense, throbbing, prickling, solid, fluid), and the area of your body that is occupied by the sensations. You might also notice if resistance to the present experience shows up in the body (e.g., a tightening around the lump, a twitching sensation, an urge to move). Investigating with kindness means bringing compassion and curiosity to difficult experiences in the moment and observing them without jumping to change or “fix” them.
4. Non-identification means not fusing our sense of self with limiting thoughts, difficult feelings, and uncomfortable sensations. This means recognizing that our awareness in the present moment can hold more than just our difficult thoughts and feelings and that we are therefore not defined by these experiences (e.g., sadness, fear, anger, pain). Difficult emotions are shared by all human beings and are simply showing up in the wider field of our awareness in this moment. Non-identification also means recognizing thoughts as mental events rather than “capital T truths” about what needs to be acted upon, fixed, or changed.
For more on RAIN visit http://www.tarabrach.com/articles/RAIN-WorkingWithDifficulties.html
3. Three minute breathing space
This exercise is taken from Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). It is a quick and simple way of taking mindful pauses throughout the day and maintaining continuity in our mindfulness practice. It is also helpful for interrupting automatic (i.e., habitual) and unhelpful thinking patterns that can sometimes spiral into negative moods and destructive behaviours. It integrates two types of meditation (open-monitoring and concentrative) as well as the practices of acceptance, attentional switching, and letting go. The following instructions are from Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression by Segal, Williams, and Teasdale, 2002.
Step 1 - Becoming aware
Start by adopting an erect and dignified posture. Then, if possible, closing your eyes and bringing your awareness to your inner experience by asking “What is my experience right now?”
● What THOUGHTS are present? As best you can, acknowledging thoughts as mental events, perhaps putting them into words.
● What FEELINGS are here? Turning toward any sense of discomfort or unpleasant feelings, and acknowledging them.
● What BODY SENSATIONS are here right now? Quickly scanning the body to pick up any sensations of tightness or bracing, acknowledging the sensations.
STEP 2 - Gathering your attention
Redirecting your attention to the physical sensations of breathing in the abdomen.
Feeling the sensations of the abdomen wall expanding as the breath comes in and falling back as the breath goes out. Follow the breath all the way in and all the way out, using the breathing to anchor yourself into the present.
STEP 3 - Expanding your attention
Expanding the field of your awareness around the breath so that it includes a sense of the body as a whole, your posture, and facial expression. If you become aware of any sensations of discomfort, tension, or resistance, taking your awareness there by breathing into them on the in breath. Then breathing out from those sensations, softening and opening with the out breath. As best you can, bring this expanded awareness to the next moments of your day.
A video of Mark Williams guiding the three minute breathing space is available here.
Natsumi Sawada is a clinical psychologist in Vancouver, BC. Learn more about Natsumi here.
The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogs, podcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or @ConnecteMTL on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.