By Diane Detwiler-Zapp, MA, LPC
Spirit: A Somatic Equine Workshop is the one that always called to me when I would read through the list excellent workshops offered by The Meadows. So when, at the last minute, the chance to attend this workshop came about, one would think I would be elated. That was far from the case. In all honesty, I was terrified.
I was in the middle of reeling from a health event that was manageable, but for some reason, it had shaken me to the core. I had experienced a heart ablation that was supposed to have cured an electrical issue in my otherwise very, healthy heart. Some of the literature on the procedure stated it was 90%-95% successful. I found myself in a small percent where not only did it not work, but I ended up with a new diagnosis. Add to that a terrible drug reaction making me feel as if I had aged 25 years in a single day. In other words, I was vulnerable and unconnected to my usual coping skills. The last place I wanted to be was in a workshop where all of the feelings I was trying to ignore, would be encouraged. So I gave a few excuses that had some validity, but not really. I felt a little sad to miss the workshop, but I was mostly relieved. And that was that, or so I thought.
I am honored to have a loving friend, Jean Collins, Director of Workshops for The Meadows, who called me and told me that I needed to go. She not only called, but she showed up at my house on Sunday night about 14 hours before the start of the workshop. “In the car,” she said, “I want to show you the way to the ranch, so you get there on time.” Everyone needs a friend like this. At some level I knew she was right, but left to my own devices, I would have stayed with my poor decision.
So Monday morning found me on the way to the ranch. The turnoff from the highway is one of the most beautiful spots in Wickenburg. The morning air was cool; a gift after a long, hot, Arizona summer. The smell of an early morning campfire greeted me. Perhaps this would be good for me. I met the other participants and Buddy Uldrikson, the horseman who was one of the workshop leaders. I already knew the other leader—Colleen DeRango, a therapist trained in Somatic Experiencing ® and an exceptional horsewoman. Colleen’s huge smile of greeting was so welcoming. After the introductions and guided meditation by the fire, I knew I was exactly where I needed to be.
The pace of the workshop and the work with my two horses adopted for the week began to teach me how unregulated my daily pace was. Go, go, go, sit down, and fall asleep was the way I operated when on automatic pilot. I had a meditation regime before attending the workshop, but my experience with the skilled leaders in the ranch setting invigorated my practice and taught me techniques that enhanced my meditation skills. The week was filled with insights and helpful experiences, and I want to share the most profound.
By day two, Tuesday, all of my reluctance had vanished; replaced with impatience. I wanted to work on my issues, and I wanted to do it NOW. A wise voice in my heart told me to calm down and wait until the time was right. More than once, that voice had to remind me that waiting can be creative doing in its own way.
On Thursday, day four, my healing occurred. Colleen talked to me before I entered the round pen with her and my horse that I called Lil Gray. She helped me center myself, and she asked me what I wanted to work on. I spent a few minutes just connecting with my horse. Colleen then instructed me to go to a different part of the pen and just be with my feelings, and when I experienced pain I was to come back to the horse.
The first time I did this Lil Gray walked slowly toward me, and I touched the soft side of her face. I could see my reflection in her eyes. This experience repeated itself two more times. On the fourth time as I approached the mare with tears rolling down my cheeks, she came close to me and rested her head on my chest at heart level. Like all spiritual moments, time stopped for me. I don’t know how long her head rested there, but I do know it wasn’t just a brief nuzzle. I found myself smiling and then laughing with joy. I was strong; I was healthy. Colleen asked, “Now, what?” And I told her that I wanted to work with my horse. It was magical; we were working together. Lil Gray knew what I wanted and did it. We were a team. I was at peace.
Diane Detwiler-Zapp, MA, LPC is a private practice counselor in the Phoenix, Arizona area.
Spirit: A Somatic Equine Workshop combines The Meadows Model, Somatic Experiencing ®, mindfulness, and natural horseman-ship, for a distinct healing experience. The program consists of experiential activities with horses, and addresses self-esteem, boundaries, honoring reality, wants and needs, emotional regulation, and spontaneity. Created exclusively for a small group of no more than five participants, this workshop is an outdoor experience held on a scenic, rustic ranch.
For more details, call 800-244-4949 or use our online contact form. Our Intake Coordinators are happy to assist you between 6:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. MST on weekdays, and from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. MST on weekends.
Dr. Jon G. Caldwell, DO, PhD
During a recent trip to Los Angeles California, I was aroused from early morning slumber by an eerie sensation of movement. As the veil of sleep was pulled from my mind, I gradually registered the meaning of the shaking bed beneath me and the groaning structures above me: earthquake! A shot of prickly energy ripped through my gut and landed in my chest, quickening my heart. Adrenaline sharpened my senses and time seemed to slow as I instinctively made my way to the patio door. I looked out onto the street, half expecting to see creviced sidewalks and toppling buildings. Instead I saw people nonchalantly walking their dogs and sipping their morning coffee.
Despite the apparent banality of the event for local Angelenos, the earthquake was a hot topic at the airport among people unaccustomed to earth-shaking awakenings. As I waited for my flight, I found myself listening to a conversation between two newly-acquainted women.
The first woman excitedly asked the other, “Did you feel the earthquake this morning?” Leaving no room for a response, she went on, “Wasn’t that something! I mean, have you ever experienced such a thing? I didn’t know what to do – I jumped up and ran around in my nightie like a chicken with its head cut-off!”
The second woman, pulling back a bit from the shared space, cocked an eyebrow and flatly replied, “Didn’t bother me much really. This is L.A. after all – comes with the territory I suppose.” Shifting in her seat uneasily she scanned the terminal while drumming her fingers on the chair’s armrest, “Have you seen a trash can?”
The first woman took hold of the other woman’s arm, causing her coffee to quiver and nearly spill, “I just kept thinking, ‘What will I do if this hotel comes down around me? How will people find me? What will my husband do without me? I mean, he can barely make spaghetti!”
The second woman slowly unhinged her arm from the first and with a shrug said, “I guess if it’s your time, it’s your time.” Slipping out of the chair (and the conversation), she stood up and wandered away while casting a comment over her shoulder, “Never a trash can when you need one.”
As a social scientist, I was fascinated by this exchange. You might be wondering what we can possibly glean from this brief conversation between two strangers? Well, I believe that their interaction can tell us something about their attachment tendencies and their capacity for mindfulness. As it turns out, these two constructs, attachment and mindfulness, are linked by how a person expresses and regulates emotion. Let me explain.
We are social creatures – we enter life ready to attach to other human beings. In fact, our brains are wired for connection and brain development is utterly dependent on input from the social world. Attachment bonds between children and caregivers are the framework upon which the structures of self-regulation are built. In combination with genetic endowment, repeated attachment experiences shape the nervous system and lay the foundation for how a person thinks, feels, and relates to others.
Individuals who have experienced care-giving environments characterized by warmth, sensitivity, trust, and safety are more likely to understand and accept their inner experience, express thoughts and feelings openly and moderately, and manage intense emotions in a way that promotes greater well-being. Having experienced some degree of unconditional acceptance and love from another human being, these individuals recognize their worth and value and they have implicitly learned to treat themselves with care and compassion. Often, adults with this kind of relationship history have a secure attachment orientation and they enjoy greater intimacy and satisfaction in their romantic relationships.
On the other hand, individuals who have experienced close relationships marked by inconsistency, unpredictability, criticism, lack of affection, betrayal, enmeshment, abuse, or neglect often develop defensive strategies aimed at protecting themselves from physical and psychological harm while also maintaining some degree of interpersonal connection. Implicitly, these individuals develop patterns of thinking, feeling, and relating that help them to survive their adverse social conditions, but these patterns can become habitual over time and can lead to diminished well-being in the long run. Adults with this type of relationship background often have an insecure attachment orientation.
For example, individuals who have experienced attachment figures who are inconsistently available – partners who sometimes show love and affection and at other times are emotionally distant or abusive – may unconsciously learn to amplify their attachment needs. How might this strategy be effective? By hyper-activating the attachment system, these individuals increase the likelihood that their aloof, distant, and inconsistent partner will respond to their relational needs, even if temporarily. These individuals are thought to have an anxious attachment style (which is similar to the term “love addiction”).
Individuals who are high in attachment anxiety tend to doubt their own worth and they desperately fear abandonment. They desire closeness and they cling tightly to relationship partners, even when they are unhealthy. They spend a great deal of time worrying and ruminating about their relationships and they are constantly trying to gain their partner’s affection, while avoiding disapproval and betrayal at the same time. They are hypersensitive to relationship threats and can react to perceived threats with strong negative emotion (i.e., anxiety, fear, anger).
In contrast, individuals who have encountered attachment figures who are neglectful, abusive, overbearing, or enmeshing might unwittingly gravitate toward strategies involving deactivation of the attachment system. And why might this be adaptive? When one’s deepest needs for closeness and safety are not met or, worse, are met with harshness or indifference, an individual may tacitly learn to shut down their attachment needs in an unconscious effort to protect themselves by limiting emotional connection and intimacy with others. These folks are said to have an avoidant attachment style (similar to the concept of “love avoidance”).
Individuals who display high levels of attachment avoidance typically find it very difficult to rely on and trust others. They avoid depending on others because they have learned that it is safer to take care of their own needs (“rugged individualism”). Thoughts and feelings that might lead to interpersonal closeness and intimacy often trigger fear and are therefore downplayed or actively suppressed. In contrast to people with an anxious attachment style, individuals with an avoidant attachment style hide their vulnerabilities and suppress their emotions. While this stance discourages connection with others, it can also result in these individuals feeling disconnected from their own tenderhearted feelings.
It is important to remember that these insecure attachment styles make sense in the context an unhealthy attachment relationship. In fact, they can be considered an adaptive response to a suboptimal situation – a person’s best efforts to negotiate challenging interpersonal contexts with some degree of intrapersonal safety. These insecure attachment styles develop because at some level they work… at least in the short-term. They enable people to maintain a measure of interpersonal connection, while simultaneously protecting themselves against loss and pain.
If insecure attachment patterns persist over time, they can influence how a person thinks and feels about themselves and others (i.e., “Am I worthy of love?” or “Can I trust others to be there for me?”) A person’s attachment patterns can have a profound effect on perspective-taking and how a person moves through the world. For example, these attachment-related patterns can play an important role how a person: a) copes with life’s challenges, b) approaches loss and disappointment, c) deals with vulnerability and shame, and d) expresses and regulates emotion. Attachment orientations may also be related to mindfulness, which can be defined as the capacity to pay attention to the present moment, with an attitude of curiosity and non-judgment. (See my recent article on Precious Presence.)
With this information in mind, let’s return to the story of the two women in the airport. When discussing the earthquake, the first woman displayed intense emotion and she seemed to accentuate some of the potential threats. She focused on her vulnerabilities and her need for support and help. In fact, one could even say that she seemed to envision herself being abandoned by the world under a pile of rubble. This cognitive-emotional style is often associated with attachment anxiety.
In contrast, the second woman showed little if any emotion about the matter (although her body language clearly displayed anxiety and fear). In fact, she seemed very uncomfortable with the first woman’s display of emotion and efforts to connect and she vigorously avoided both. As a way of maintaining safety, she erected a facade of invulnerability, as if to say, “death, loss, separation… no big deal.” Of course, this cognitive-emotional style is consistent with attachment avoidance.
So, one can make inferences about the attachment styles of these two woman, but what about their capacities for mindfulness? To my mind, this is a very interesting question! Despite the apparent differences in cognitive-emotional style, both women had trouble talking about the earthquake in an open, curious, present-oriented, and mindful way. The first woman attempted to move into her experience of the earthquake, but she quickly became overtaken by ruminative thoughts and intense emotions. The second woman appeared to have meaningful thoughts and feelings on the issue, but actively moved away from her own experience. In the end, both women struggled to connect with each other and, in a mindful way, with their own life experience.
Recently, my colleague, world-renowned attachment researcher, Phil Shaver, and I published an article in an international relationship journal called Interpersona that examined the connections between attachment orientation and mindfulness. We evaluated nearly a hundred young adults and asked them questions about their attachment style, patterns of thinking and feeling, and their capacity for mindful awareness in every-day life. We found that people with a secure attachment orientation reported the highest levels of mindfulness, people with an anxious attachment style reported lower levels of mindfulness, and people with an avoidant attachment style reported the lowest levels of mindfulness.
What was particularly interesting is that people with attachment-related avoidance and anxiety had trouble practicing mindfulness for different reasons. People with an anxious attachment style indicated that they tended to ruminate a lot. That is, they tended to dwell on negative themes and they were prone to excessive amounts of worry and obsessional thinking. They reported that their tendency to ruminate made it hard for them to focus and manage their attention. It was the combination of rumination and poor attentional control that contributed to their problems with mindfulness.
On the other hand, people with an avoidant attachment style had fewer problems with rumination, but they did tend to suppress unwanted thoughts. They indicated that they frequently avoided or didn’t think about things that might be distressing to them. For individuals with an avoidant attachment style, the tendency to actively suppress unwanted thoughts was associated with less control of attention and these two characteristics both contributed to lower levels of mindfulness.
Again, rumination and thought suppression are responses that can be useful in the context of an insecure attachment relationship. For people with an anxious attachment style, rumination helps to hyperactivate the attachment system and serves the purpose of keeping an inconsistent relationship fresh in the mind, while also guarding against strong fears of abandonment. For people with an avoidant attachment style, suppression of unwanted thoughts is part of a deactivating strategy aimed at keeping attachment-related threats out of awareness so that interpersonal distance and safety can be maintained.
However, as illustrated by this research, these attachment-related patterns of thinking and feeling are associated with undesirable consequences in other contexts, like difficulties in managing attention and practicing mindfulness in daily life. In an insecure relationship, rumination and thought suppression can be protective in some ways, but they can also leave a person with less capacity to effectively manage negative thoughts and emotions and to practice mindful awareness of his or her own experience. Development and maturation always comes with trade-offs – short-term benefits can have long-term consequences.
For many people who have experienced relational trauma and attachment insecurity, there comes a time when this trade-off doesn’t make sense and they become unable or unwilling to continue making the same sacrifices. Sometimes it takes dramatic changes in a person’s close relationships, like separation or divorce, before the habitual attachment-related patterns can shift. Other times, life intervenes in challenging ways and the old patterns just don’t seem to work anymore, on any level. Whatever the impetus for change, often a point is reached where the relationship patterns that were once protective and adaptive become a barrier to realizing deeper connection with oneself and others.
It turns out that mindfulness and self-compassion may be powerful ways to improve the insecure attachment patterns from our past by wholeheartedly stepping into the present moment (see the upcoming third article in this series). Cultivating a practice of kindhearted presence can improve our connection to true self and lead to a greater sense of contentment and peace. Acceptance and compassion for the life that is here results in less need for fearful thinking, rumination, and avoidance of our thoughts and feelings. Gradually, with heart-full practice, it becomes easier to be at home with ourselves. The capacity to be with oneself in a nonjudgmental and loving way can open the door to healthy relationships and greater intimacy. It is possible – don’t give up.
About The Author
Dr. Jon G. Caldwell, DO, PhD, is a board certified psychiatrist and clinical researcher specializing in the treatment of psychological trauma and addiction. He is a lead psychiatrist at The Meadows and an Assistant Clinical Professor at the University of Arizona. His approach to healing has been heavily influenced by his graduate work at the University of California, Davis in human development and by contemplative teachings and practices like mindfulness and loving-kindness. He has published a number of articles on childhood maltreatment, attachment theory, emotion regulation, and mindfulness (www.drjoncaldwell.com). Dr. Caldwell is a noted international speaker and trainer on these and other topics. He resides in Arizona with his gurus… his wife and two children.
Carol Juergensen Sheets LCSW, CSAT, PCC
Recently I interviewed Dr. Jon Caldwell, a psychiatrist from The Meadows who is helping sex addicts to look at their urges and cravings differently. This is an excerpt from my internet radio show on sex addiction that you can download on iTunes if you wish to hear the whole show. If you struggle with urges and cravings you might want to give these techniques a try.
If you would like to hear the whole show, please click here.
Carol: You have been doing a lot of important work around this topic. I thought, if you could express and explain to our listening audience, in your opinion what is mindfulness?
Jon: Mindfulness really has grown out of contemplative traditions, religions and traditions that come from Buddhism, from contemplative traditions in Christianity and Sufism. Many religious practices have thought that trying to really spend time with our raw experience just as it is, noticing the present moment and noticing the experiences of the present moment have a lot of value for general well-being. These practices have been around for thousands of years actually, and in the last 3 decades or so here in the US, we have been studying these practices. Generally the way that most people talk about it is mindfulness. The definition that’s mostly used for mindfulness was given to us by Jon Kabat-Zinn, and it’s really bringing an unconditional nonjudgmental attention to our experience in the present moment.
Carol: That is really important, isn’t it, to be nonjudgmental.
Jon: That’s right.
Carol: So many sex addicts have so many negative thoughts about themselves and about this disorder, so you just did a great job of explaining mindfulness. Now you actually believe that there is a science to this, that it can be studied and it can be measured, is that correct?
Jon: Yes. There has actually been quite a lot of research done in this area. Again, Jon Kabat-Zinn is really the father of mindfulness in the US and in the West. Nearly 30 years ago, he developed a stress management clinic at the University of Massachusetts, and he started working with patients who have chronic pain, patients who are not able to get relief through typical medical treatment. From that beginning, he developed an 8-week course that helps people to learn the skills of mindfulness and self-compassion. He taught them some yoga, so they had more awareness of the body, and then he began to study what happened to these folks as they spent time in this 8-week course. What he found was that people had real genuine improvement in their pain, and they also had better quality of life. There are at least 2 things happening. One is that it seems to have a biological effect on the body. If you think about the toxic effects of stress and chronic stress, including things like pain and disease and psychological stress, then this is a way for people to learn to work with the body that alleviates some of that stress. It’s a form of a coping mechanism, a way of being with our experience in such a way that it helps to reduce the stress and the strain on the body and the mind. In addition to that, it seems to really help with general well-being and positive emotion. There’s more joy and happiness and peace and calmness that comes through this practice.
Carol: This is a subjective question, but would you say that addiction is one of the most powerful stressors in a person’s life?
Jon: We know that people who find themselves in an addiction oftentimes have been dealing with very stressful things for some time, and the addiction is a way to try and manage what’s happening in their life. They’ve probably been dealing with stress for years, if not for most of their life, and they’ve turned to the addiction as a sort of way to manage that. The tragedy of course is that the addiction ends up being more stressful. Not only does it cause a lot of strain in people’s social lives with family members and in their workplace, but it has a lot of stress and strain on the body itself. This includes anything from food addiction, substance addiction, sex addiction; all of these addictions create tremendous stress in the body and in the mind. So yes, I do agree with that.
Carol: My feeling was that oftentimes you’ve got these terrible traumatic experiences from childhood on up, and then in addition to that what ends up happening is you develop the addiction and now you have that double stressor of feeling bad about the trauma, sometimes even reenacting the trauma, and then having the addiction to cope with the trauma which makes you feel worse about yourself. So with mindfulness, what do you work on first?
Jon: Mindfulness and the different techniques that go with it are sort of interesting. The techniques can be specifically applied to the addiction or to the trauma, but they can also be applied quite generally and help both conditions simultaneously. When you think about it, some of the Buddhist psychology says that the source of our suffering here in this life is not necessarily the pain that we will all encounter, the pain of being in this mortal existence. We’re going to run across problems with our body, and we’re going to grow old, and we’re going to lose loved ones and we’re going to have changes in our role and what we’re able to do in terms of functioning. Ultimately, we’re going to die. All of that is sort of the natural pain of life, but the Buddhists said that we don’t have to have suffering piled on top of that. What we end up doing so much of the time, we push our experience away. We resist our own experience. We either avoid it, suppress it, repress it, or we find some pleasure like sex, food or drug, and we hold onto that as a way of avoiding what is really here, the emotions and the thoughts and the various pains that just come with being alive. There is a tendency to avoid what is uncomfortable and to hold onto what is pleasurable. In some ways, that basic tendency, that basic human conditioning, is present in both how people deal with trauma and in how they deal with addiction. These techniques I do with mindfulness are really helping us to not move toward holding onto something pleasurable or avoiding something painful, but instead to learn to be with our experience just as it is; to have a measure of acceptance and allowance, and sometimes even being able to befriend our experience. To be able to really welcome our experience and come home to ourselves in our own experience is the wonderful benefit of this work. It allows us to be here with what is here and not always run from our experience into addiction or into some sort of emotional upheaval that comes with trauma.
Carol: You used those words like repression and suppression, so for our listening audience, repression is when you absolutely forget about the pain and you ignore it and you avoid it and you don’t even know it’s there, whereas suppression is you minimize that. You’re saying that those 2 things are coping mechanisms. They can actually be helpful initially but ultimately end up interfering with that acceptance process which is so important in dealing with whatever pain and suffering we’ve experienced.
Jon: Yes, I totally agree.
Carol: So that is a difficult concept for anybody out there listening who has been, unfortunately, I use the term “fighting” their sexual addiction. You’re actually encouraging them to surrender to it, and to accept it as part of life so that they can then work with it and go with the flow.
Jon: Yeah, this is a very interesting point, Carol, I appreciate that you brought it up. There is a little bit of friction that’s inherent in this process. When I’m working with people with sexual addiction, many of them when I bring up the topic of mindfulness and acceptance, they really struggle with how to incorporate that into their recovery process.
Here’s just one practical example of a way I use mindfulness in my practice with people with sexual addiction. Sometimes what I find is that people can really get into a struggle with the addictive tendencies. This can be applied to alcohol, drugs, all the rest as well, but what they oftentimes do is many times especially in recovery, there’s this struggle with what’s happening in the mind, the cravings that are coming up around sexual addiction. People can sometimes find themselves really battling inside of their mind with the stuff that’s coming up. I’ve had a number of people in recovery who say, “It feels like I’m just as distant and not present and struggling now that I’m in recovery than when I was actually dealing with all these cravings.” As if the thought of don’t do it, don’t look, don’t go to that side; all of that tension in the brain saps a lot of their energy and their awareness of the present moment. One of the things I find a practical technique is actually to try and release people from that struggle within their mind.
For example, if somebody in recovery from sexual addiction has a thought that comes up, a trigger; let’s say they drive by a billboard and there is an image on the billboard that really triggers them into some thinking and maybe even an old memory about their addiction, the tendency for many people is to say, “Oh no, I can’t think about this.” There’s this strong resistance to what is happening. The mindful approach would be to just notice that there is a craving there, and to step back from the experience and you might just label the craving with something very neutral. Again, non-judgmentally, label it as I like to use the term “desire.” The person would look at the billboard and say, “Ah, desire.” Desire is a natural human tendency. We all desire. We all have sexual desires. We have desires for food. We have desire for pleasure, so we just label it very gently with something called desire, and then just notice there is this triggering happening in the body and in the mind. Instead of either latching onto it and following that trill to an old memory or resisting it very strongly, you just step back from the experience of what’s triggering and just notice what’s happening. You might be able to pay attention to your breath, or you might pay attention to the feel of your hands on the steering wheel, and just notice this desire or feeling inside of the body happening. You don’t have to do anything with it. You don’t have to push it away. You don’t have to change it. You don’t have to run from it, but you can have a momentary experience or desire and then come back into something in the present. That doesn’t mean you have to just sit there and wallow in that. You may pick up the phone and call your sponsor. You may decide I have to hit a meeting tonight, but you’re not running from it or pushing away your experience, you’re just recognizing that this is part of the process to whole-hearted living, to fullness, just being with our experience the way it is.
Carol: Is that what you would consider self-compassion? When you feel something, and instead of attaching shame and guilt to it, you just have that mindful awareness of it, reframe it, call it something like desire, and then move on from it.
Jon: That’s right. It’s been shown in a lot of studies now that the practice of mindfulness really seems to facilitate greater self-compassion. Whenever I work with people in recovery and I’m using mindfulness as a technique to help them, I always incorporate some tools around self-compassion. You’re exactly right, they go hand in hand. Many times when we start to open to our own experience, we encounter some difficult feelings and thoughts, and it takes a lot of gentleness and self-compassion and care to really hold our experience in a loving and self-compassionate way so we can be with what we find there. The tendency for many people is when that desire comes up, when they’re triggered by something in the environment or even something inside; let’s say they remember a past event that has a trigger to it. The first thing they might think is oh great, here I go again, I can’t believe I’m still in this place where these things trigger me. Why can’t I get over this? Why can’t I do this better? There’s a lot of negative self-talk that goes along with it. This approach brings a lot of gentleness and compassion, so you might say I just noticed I got triggered inside. Again, back up from your experience; take a breath, and say, “So this is still part of my recovery process.” These thoughts still come up. I notice desire right now.
Dr. Jon Caldwell
Over a decade ago, in the early stages of my own process of awakening, a colleague intuitively noticed that I was having a particularly difficult day and suggested that I “try to stay in the present moment”. My mind was reeling, my emotions were on overdrive, and I’m sure I was focused on some temporary, self-destructive fix. He caught my frantic, darting eyes with his and gently implored, “Just try to be right here, in this moment, just as it is… being present for our own experience can be pretty cool.”
Needless to say, I really didn’t understand what he was talking about. I had heard about “transpersonal meditation” and “being in the now”. But these phrases typically brought to mind images of bald guys in flowing robes chanting “Ooooommmm” in a remote hill-top monastery. These notions, naïve as they were, seemed to be completely at odds with my hectic, restless, and discontented existence at the time. I remember thinking, “Who has time for the present moment?!”
As I progressed in my self-reclamation journey, I began to recognize that my incessant running from the-here-and-now was associated with tremendous suffering. The constant busyness and perpetual mind-motion was probably meant to fill some void within myself. Yet, despite my frenetic void-filling behaviors, I still felt a lot of emptiness inside. Eventually, the pain of my situation was enough that I decided to try something different; I got curious about what I was running from and what it would be like to stay with my own experience.
I didn’t know it at the time, but this simple inquiry – “what is really here and can I be with it” – has been at the heart of various contemplative traditions for thousands of years. Within the traditions of Buddhism, a style of meditation practice known as vipassana involves training the mind to have greater awareness or insight of bodily sensations, thoughts, and emotions. Today, this type of practice is generally known as mindfulness and can be defined as “bringing attention to the present moment without judgment.” In recent decades, numerous scientific studies have shown that mindfulness techniques can improve relationships, health, and general wellbeing.
Mindfulness can be practiced in formal sitting meditation where the mind is trained to observe or notice what is happening in relation to the brain and body. Mindfulness can also be practiced in everyday activities by applying non-conceptual awareness to the raw experience of life: the sensation of water on the body while bathing, the ebb-and-flow of mental activity while stuck in traffic, or the actual embodied feeling of grief when hearing a particular story on the radio. The daily practice of mindfulness enables a person to become a witness to their own experience.
Becoming an observer or a witness of present-moment experience can foster a profound shift in perspective and consciousness! When we can learn to take even a small step back from our experience, and observe it with less judgment, we can gain valuable insight into how the mind and body are connected. We can begin to see what sort of situations trigger us into self-defeating thoughts and emotions. We recognize that we don’t have to completely believe our thoughts and that our emotional landscape is constantly changing. As we become more adept at observing our moment-to-moment experience, our human tendencies for mindless reactivity can gradually give way to wise responding.
Sounds great, right? But how do we start to circumvent our strong conditioning to leave the present moment – usually by avoiding what seems uncomfortable or clinging to what seems pleasurable? This is certainly our natural human tendency, but it isn’t necessarily our destiny. Greater awareness and presence is possible! Our brain is a thought-secreting organ… over eons of evolutionary time it has learned to plan, scheme, ruminate, control, avoid, repress, and deny. However, our brains also have the profound capacity for neural plasticity. That is, humans have the unique capacity to use their minds to literally shape the structure and function of their brains.
Interestingly, the brain-sculpting capacity of the human mind relies heavily on the body. That’s right, the body is the quintessential guide to greater mental awareness and progressive neural plasticity. Strengthening the connections between the brain and body is a powerful way to bring our awareness into the present moment and experience relief from self-limiting patterns of thinking and feeling. Gently bringing our attention to various sensations in the body – literally coming to our senses – awakens us from habitual patterns of reactivity into the rich and dynamic experience of the here-and-now.
At this point, you may be feeling a bit lost… like I felt when my colleague encouraged me to, “stay in the present moment”. Let’s talk practicalities: how do we come home to our own experience? Well, I think it has to start with a sincere intention to welcome the life that is here, just as it is, with as much acceptance and compassion as possible. For example, we might start each day with the words of Rainer Maria Rilke, “I want to unfold. Let no place in me hold itself closed, for where I am closed, I am false.” Carrying in our hearts a commitment to unfold, to truly open to all aspects of our experience, can flavor each moment and each interaction in a way that fosters greater mindfulness.
With our sincere intention in heart, we can then establish and sustain a regular practice of present-moment awareness. This practice might take the form of sitting meditation, yoga or Tai Chi, contact with nature or animals, or simply moving through daily life more mindfully. Many people find that a regular contemplative practice within a community of similarly-intentioned individuals is extremely useful in establishing healthy patterns. Regardless of the method, it will take practice! Our human conditioning to trip off into the non-now is so strong that practicing re-mindfulness is the rule, not the exception. With practice, we can remember the pathway back home to presence. We will inevitably trail off into thoughts and feelings, so we lovingly invite ourselves back home… again and again.
Whatever our pathway to presence, the body is a reliable companion for the journey. In any given moment we can let the mental chatter fade to backstage as we bring the rhythmic sensations of our breath to the forefront of our mind. We can simply allow our awareness to ride the waves of inhalation and exhalation, no need to change or control it… just letting it be, as it is. In those precious moments of presence, we can rest in an embodied awareness and centeredness of being while observing the dynamic flow of sensations, feelings, and thoughts. We can touch into a deeper sense of who we are – something more than our habitual fears and cravings – an awareness of presence itself, complete and whole.
There are other practical ways to let our body guide us back to the experience of now. When we have the good fortune to notice our mind has wandered, we can nonjudgmentally refocus our attention back to our hands, letting them relax and feeling them from the inside out. We might try cultivating more awareness of the textures and flavors of our food – slow the process down and mindfully savor each bite. During a heated discussion with another person, try scanning the body for areas of tension (i.e., raised shoulders, clenched jaw, hard belly) and allow the body to soften with each outbreath. When gripped with strong emotions, let go of the storyline stay with the sensation of the emotions in body: notice the prickly heat on the skin, the tightness in the throat, or the ache in the pit of the stomach. Listen to the body – it knows the way.
Of course, after more than a decade of practice, I still have difficult days when I appreciate a reminder to “stay in the present moment”. However, now, instead of feeling lost by such a suggestion, I often try to pause, notice my breath, and let the corners of my mouth turn up. Over time, the body-brain connections supporting mindfulness and compassion have been reinforced and those supporting mindless reactivity have diminished to some degree. My body has become a valuable companion and guide on the pathway to greater present-moment awareness. The hectic, restless, discontented existence that was so familiar has shifted to one with many moments of calm centeredness and wondrous awe. Unexpectedly, moments of precious presence have become a form of spiritual awakening… a homecoming to true nature. It’s been right here all the time.
Dr. Caldwell is a board certified psychiatrist specializing in the treatment of adults with relational trauma histories and addictive behaviors. For a number of years he has taught students, interns, residents, and professionals in medicine and mental health about how childhood adversity influences health and wellbeing.
Dr. Caldwell's theoretical perspective is heavily influenced by his PhD graduate work at the University of California at Davis, where he researches the affects of early childhood maltreatment and insecure attachment relationships on cognitive, emotional, and social functioning later in life.
Dr. Caldwell's clinical approach has become increasingly flavored by the timeless teachings and contemplative traditions of the mindfulness meditation practice.
The New Year is upon us. It is time to make those resolutions that will bring about happiness for us; losing weight, re-doing the kitchen, taking a class, exercising more, eating more vegetables…you know those resolutions…the ones we never get around to and, then, add to our resolution’s list the following year, right? This year I am going to challenge you to make just one New Year’s Resolution; to build a path to a new you through mindfulness! If you are ready to take this challenge, read on!
In this article, you will learn how mindfulness is beneficial in everyday life and how it can enhance your recovery and your life. Let’s start by defining what mindfulness is. As all the great leaders of mindfulness, such as Thich Nhat Hanh and Jon Kabat-Zinn, teach us; mindfulness is about paying attention to what you are doing and what is going on around you. Mindfulness is the art of paying attention with a non-judging, patient and accepting mind, moment by moment. Mindfulness is about living with openness – as if seeing things for the first time and experiencing possibilities by paying attention to all feedback in the present moment. This sounds easy, yet mindfulness takes practice. This article will help you learn how to practice mindfulness.
How do you begin incorporating mindfulness in your life? You can begin by instilling certain qualities in your daily life. Mindfulness incorporates many important qualities. Let’s consider four of the most important qualities of mindfulness:
Rebecca Wingo, one of the founders of The Mindfulness Center of Southern Maine, gives the acronym C.O.A.L to help people to remember to be mindful. C.O.A.L stands for curiosity, open-minded, acceptance and loving-kindness. Incorporating these four additional qualities adds to your practice of mindfulness.
Mindfulness can lead us cultivate the happiness we deserve and to nurture the ability to balance our minds and our lives. When looking at nurturing, we are going to consider four concepts: The Circle of Liberation, Gains for Practicing Mindfulness, Self-regulation and Creating a Vision of a New You. Think of mindfulness as a tool to nurture yourself and your relationships.
THE CIRCLE OF LIBERATION
The Circle of Liberation is taken from the book, Cultivating Lasting Happiness by Terry Fralich. The Circle of Liberation is a guide to use for mindfulness meditation or just a few minutes of practicing and sitting mindfully in the present. The Circle of Liberation first brings us to focus. In practicing mindfulness meditation, we first focus on exhaling; holding our focus lightly, then inhaling. Because we are humans, inevitably, the energy of the mind will take our focus away, leading to distraction. Examples of distractions might be noises we hear or they might be thoughts we are having, such as, “Did I remember to pay that bill?” or “What am I going to prepare for dinner tonight?” When distraction happens, we might notice an ache or pain in our bodies or we might become nervous, anxious, impatient or restless. This is expected! It is not a personal failure or defect in your brain. It is proof that you are human.
Thus, the circle reminds us that it is not possible to stay focused all the time. So, just notice the distraction and notice what is going on in your mind, with your emotions and in your body. As you can see in the circle, distraction is at 3:00. When you notice that you are no longer paying attention to the distraction, you can than move to the 6:00 point of the circle. In noticing the distraction, you have done something very important; you have come to AWARENESS! You have successfully switched back to being mindful. You have opened up to spacious awareness.
You can then move to the 9:00 point; returning to release and letting of the distraction. Keep in mind that the distraction might not instantly disappear, yet with awareness, you can return your attention to exhaling, inhaling and making the breath the center of your attention. The distraction will, then, move to the edge of awareness, becoming softer and quieter and may disappear completely. After release, you can return back to 12:00 and complete the circle with gentleness and kindness for yourself.
The Circle of Liberation is useful because it gives us a clear, straightforward way of opening our minds to a practice of mindfulness. The thing to keep in mind is to keep the practice simple; focus, notice the distractions, become aware, release and return to focus. When we practice mindfulness using the Circle of Liberation, we are nurturing skills that are useful in everyday life.
GAINS FOR PRACTICING MINDFULNESS
We can gain a sense of peace and joy in our daily lives by practicing mindfulness. Let’s explore other gains/benefits of mindfulness and mindfulness meditation:
Self-regulation takes into account all the concepts and benefits that we have discussed in this article. Self-regulation is about maintaining a sense of mindfulness when faced with a crisis. Self-regulation means to recognize challenging thoughts and reactions and, then, manage these thoughts and reactions. We can begin self-regulation with mindfulness; switching from auto pilot to identifying that we are getting triggered. When we experience fight, flight or freeze, the earlier we pay attention, the better we can use the wisdom of our body to regulate our mind. Pay attention to the wisdom of your body to bring yourself back to calm; stop, breathe, reflect and choose your reaction.
One way to accomplish this is through imagery. Imagery helps us move to the positive and helps us get rid of old messages that have had a hold on us.
Here are some guidelines to Imagery:
Guidelines for Self-Regulation Imagery
(From the book: Cultivating Lasting Happiness; A 7 Step Guide to Mindfulness by Terry Fralich)
Self-regulation is a key to mental health and general well-being. Here is a four word reminder to help you build a practice of self-regulation:
Another way to practice self-regulation is to visualize a safe place. This is similar to the “Guidelines for Self-Regulation Imagery.” Visualize a safe place for yourself. This might be at a lake, in the mountains, or in your own back yard. Visualize yourself there with the worries of the day and the stresses of life melting away. See yourself sitting or lying down on a blanket, or whatever feels safe for you. This is a place where you can just be…and be safe to have your thoughts and feelings. Spend some time visualizing this safe place and the comfort this place offers you. Know that any time you need to or want to, you can return to your safe place.
CREATING A VISION OF A NEW YOU FOR THE NEW YEAR!
A vision of a new you is about honoring yourself and becoming successful in being open to a new vision of yourself. Creating a vision of a new you is about building a foundation for the life you want, taking into account that you need to take risks. Sometimes, we need to resist getting stuck in the security of the familiar. We stay in jobs or relationships far too long when they make us miserable or diminish our sense of self. This is human nature. We cling to what we know for fear of what is unknown. What would it be like to face these situations with a new vision of who you are? I challenge you to open your imagination to the possibility of who you are. Mindfulness can lead to a realization of your true basic nature, your true potential and your true greatness!
A big part of creating this new vision of yourself is forgiving yourself. When we practice forgiveness for ourselves and others, we allow ourselves to become more fully open to a new vision of ourselves. The truth is that harming others and being hurt will happen in the human world. When others do things that bring pain for us, we might carry resentment and anger. When we do things to ourselves that bring pain, we carry guilt. This resentment, anger and guilt undermine our sense of self. Carrying resentment, anger and guilt closes our hearts to our true nature and to awareness of possibilities that are available to us. If you continue thinking you are justified in carrying anger or resentment or you believe you deserve guilt or self-hatred, continuing to carry these prevents achieving what you truly desire in life. Keep in mind that forgiveness does not condone hurtful behaviors. Forgiveness brings opportunities to learn from mistakes and set the intention to make healthier choices. Incorporating mindfulness in your life offers a vehicle for setting and maintaining the intention of forgiveness.
WRITING A PERSONAL VOW FOR THE NEW YEAR
Now, that you have learned how mindfulness can help you build a path to a new you, let’s go back to that old idea of a New Year’s Resolution and change that resolution to a personal vow you will make for yourself for 2014. Writing a personal vow is about honoring aspirations to awaken your better self – what a great way to begin the New Year! When we write a personal vow, we call upon help and send messages to the universe. These messages reverberate back to us and bring us to awareness. Writing a personal vow helps us on the path to transformation. The personal vow is a four line promise we make to ourselves. The four line phrase is as follows:
Here are two examples:
So, are you ready? Take time now to write your own personal vow for 2014. Place your written vow in a place where you will see it every day. Make your “resolution” for the New Year to be about honoring yourself by practicing awareness and mindfulness. Break away from the tradition of writing resolutions that often bog us down or we never can get down. Build a path to a new you through honoring your one personal vow and practicing mindfulness throughout 2014!
Cultivating Lasting Happiness – A 7 Step Guide to Mindfulness by Terry Fralich
Mindfulness and the 12 Steps by Terese-Jacobs Stewart
12 Steps on Buddha’s Path by Laura S
Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn
Wherever You Go, There you Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn
Peace in Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life by Thich Nhat Hanh
The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh