Thursday, June 16, 2011

Mindfulness: Experience the best bite of pizza ever……and decrease stress, anxiety, worry and upset!

Back in graduate school, I was waiting with the other doctoral students for the start of our weekly clinical supervision group when our supervisor walked in with a giant, steaming hot pizza. Pizza was definitely a staple food choice in grad school, and I appreciated our supervisors apparent willingness to indulge us in this as I waited for her to open the lid to the box and to give us the directive to commence stuffing ourselves. But in my first introduction to the idea of mindfulness, she only opened the box top, instructed us to shut our eyes, and then had us breath slowly and deeply as we visualized the pizza, absorbed the aroma, and imagined the taste and warmth of it in our mouths. When we finally did get a piece, we then had to chew thoughtfully, experience all the flavors, textures and smells, swallow slowly, and then imagine ourselves feeling one bite of pizza heavier!

Mindfulness is really a state of active, open attention to the present moment in which one absorbs themselves fully in all of the sensory awareness that is available in that moment, without passing judgment on anything or having their thoughts float to the past or future. But so often, our minds are churning away thinking about things that have already happened, or our minds are going through mental to do lists or what iffing things to come in the future that we don’t experience, let alone enjoy, what is happening right now.

And how can a person truly take full pleasure in and experience all the wonderful expressions, behaviors, sounds, and emotions that are a part of their child’s sporting event or performing arts show if they are thinking about all the things they need to do after it ends or worrying about an interaction they had with a coworker earlier that day? How can someone truly savor their workout routine, walk, cup of coffee, or conversation with a friend if their mind is occupied with extraneous past or future oriented thoughts? How can a psychology grad student even fully experience a bite of pizza?!

We all had different reactions that day…..some felt that it was the best piece of pizza they had ever had, some ended up not even wanting more than the one bite because they had focused in on the oil pooling on the pepperoni and the greasy taste in their mouth, and I realized that after a few bites, I was fairly satisfied even though before the mindful moment I had felt like I could devour the entire pizza.

I talk to and know many people who seem to be almost constantly up in their head with their typical thoughts, ruminations, lists, plans, etc churning away, and this is truly life going by without living it and experiencing it fully. The key to the mindful state is the total absorption in what is going on in the present moment. This can be a difficult state to capture, but I think most people have experienced it accidentally at times……it’s the feeling you get when you’re so engrossed in something that you lose all track of everything else going on around you.

People often describe this feeling when they get lost in a good book or absorbed in a pleasurable activity. It’s similar to the feeling athletes get when they say they are “in the zone” where they are simply feeling their body perform and move perfectly without any interfering thinking or judging from their brain.

So it’s great when those moment occur randomly, but people can get increasingly better at allowing this to happen more frequently by following several important mindfulness strategies. One key is to involve as many senses as possible in the moment. What are all the things that you see…….close your eyes and list all of the scents in your awareness……what do you hear easily and what are the subtle sounds you might pick up on with more awareness……..what do you feel, the warmth of the sun on your skin, a slight breeze, the pressure of whatever you’re sitting on……..and finally, what do you sense that you appreciate, your friends voice or smile, the aroma of the food on your plate etc.

Another important element to achieving mindfulness is to relish or luxuriate in whatever you are doing at the present moment. You can do this with anything….talking to a friend, taking a shower, drinking your cup of coffee, watching your children at play, doing work around the house etc. People that savor life regularly in this way experience more joy and positive emotions and report less stress, anxiety, and depression.

Finally, it is essential to keep your mind out of the way……if your brain is thinking about the past or future or making judgments about what is going on in the present, then your thoughts are keeping you from true absorption in the moment. One way to do this is to even be mindful of your thoughts……an observer of what has popped into your head in a neutral way without judging or attaching yourself to the thought. We have hundreds of thoughts every day and you can observe them floating in and out without getting lost in them and then return all of your sensory awareness to the present moment.

Any experience is an opportunity to practice mindfulness. You can walk mindfully, drive mindfully, interact with others and eat mindfully etc. Attempt this as often as you can and you’ll notice more and more that when you are absorbed in the moment in the manner I’ve described that any stresses, worries, upsets, or mental churnings fade to the background as you become more fully alive and awake to all you can experience from each moment of life.