Lea Ray, LCSW
Mindfulness for those of us who don't like to meditate
Mindfulness has gotten a lot of press in recent years. Celebrities are talking about it, classrooms and daycares are teaching it. It’s become an important component of many types of therapy. I teach kids mindfulness in my individual therapy sessions, and I recommend that parents help their kids practice mindfulness to manage anxiety and impulse control problems.
But what is it, exactly? Here is a better overview than I can give. The super short version though, is that mindfulness means bringing your attention to the present moment. We often operate on autopilot, thinking about other things as we drive, take a walk, or do chores. Mindfulness means stopping to just notice our immediate surroundings, our breath, and how our body feels, rather than thinking about what we have to do today, or that funny show we just watched, or that embarrassing conversation we had with the other parent at the park. This is most commonly accomplished through sitting and meditating. However, I have a confession to make: I hate to meditate! I’m very distractible and even when I try to do a 5-minute guided meditation on YouTube, I find that I’m squinting one eye to peek at the video every 30 seconds, thinking surely it must be almost over!
But even though I don’t like to meditate (and I bet I’m not the only one), I can still practice mindfulness. And there’s good reason for me to do so. Mindfulness is a powerful antidote to stress, anger, and sadness. When you slow down your body and your mind and stop your thoughts from racing, your whole nervous system calms down. When you feel angry or sad, just taking a few moments to deeply feel the emotions of anger or sadness, and the accompanying sensations in your body (knots in your stomach, tightness in your chest or jaw), actually helps you to heal. When we’re not doing that, we’re usually obsessing over whatever happened to make us angry or sad. Processing things that happened to us is important, but when it reaches the point of ruminating or obsessing, it becomes counterproductive and doesn't make us feel better.
We keep learning more about how unhealthy long-term stress is for our bodies. Mindfulness, by contrast, can help us to be healthier and stay youthful longer.
I watched a seminar last year in which the presenter said that even one mindful breath is beneficial. Even I can take one (or two or three) deep breaths and try to focus on my body and my surroundings. A mindful walk is fun – trying to put all my focus on the scenery, my surroundings, and the sensation of my feet touching and lifting off the ground. I don’t try to engage in mindfulness for an entire walk, maybe just 5 minutes. And of course my attention drifts throughout the five minutes, but that’s the cool thing about mindfulness: it isn’t a test or even a milestone to achieve. It’s fine if your attention drifts -- you just notice it drifting and gently bring it back. Repeat as often as necessary.
Adult coloring books, knitting, or crafting activities that engage your attention but don’t require planning and strategy are also perfect opportunities for mindfulness. I learned the hard way only to practice mindfulness with activities that I actually enjoy. I attended a seminar many years ago that suggested “mindful dishwashing:” noticing the texture of the soap, the feeling of the water in your hands, and so on. It sounded cool, but in practice it was excruciating! I realized that for me, washing dishes is already painfully boring, and I get through it by fantasizing about winning the lottery the whole time. I hate to notice the way the dishes look in the water and all that! But mindful coloring is really enjoyable for me. I can give that my entire attention without getting bored.
Most kids are like me. It’s hard for most kids to sit still and meditate (although some kids love it). But kids can also enjoy games that involve paying attention to the present moment. Lying on your backs and watching the clouds is a great one. Shaking your bodies to the beat of a drum, while varying the volume and tempo, is another great way to be in the moment. Here’s a link to more mindfulness games for kids. Kids will reap all the same benefits that adults will: decreased stress, ability to manage strong emotions, and increased focus and concentration.
I would like to point out that although mindfulness has become very popular in the U.S. in the last several years, it originated in Buddhist tradition and has a long, rich history in India and much of Asia. Although we can all benefit from mindfulness, it behooves us to learn about and appreciate the cultures that birthed it.