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What is Mindfulness?
I think of mindfulness as the state of being aware of my mind, observing and experiencing, rather than getting swept up and becoming my thoughts and emotions.
For example, if I’m angry at something my friend has done, a non-mindful response would be to shout, blame, judge, sulk, or maybe find some way to get back at him. Or I might hide my anger and pretend everything is ok, burying my emotion deeply — on purpose or without even really knowing or acknowledging my anger.
Let’s compare that to responding with mindfulness. The physiological response is the same, but I recognize and pay attention to those sensations — the racing heart, the feeling in my chest — and also note the thoughts of blame, shaming, etc. but I don’t “fall” for them, to recognize them as ideas and let them go. I don’t get hooked.
It’s like observing a race, with cars speeding by. I’m not trying to climb in, just note they are there and let them go. I keep light attention on my breathing and put the bulk of my focus on the physical sensation of the anger: feeling the burn, the intensity rising and falling as the rush of neurotransmitters returns to normal. Without words (internal or external) to fuel my anger (or any other emotion), the physical sensation fades within a minute or two.
Then I might look at what feeling is under the anger to see what I really feel. Anger indicates some sort of expectation violation and underneath it there’s another emotion, sadness, shame. I look at the needs that are not being met. When I first did this, I routinely pulled up the NVC Feelings Inventory and Needs Inventory on my phone.
Once I know how I am feeling, and what I need, I can self-soothe with breathing, revisiting a memory made by Taking in the Good, meditation, or other mindfulness strategies. If it’s a situation that would benefit from talking through with the other person (I need to set a boundary or request a behavior change) I can use NVC or some other compassionate approach to talk with my friend and sort out the problem.
Here’s a scientifically measurable definition of mindfulness from Psychology Today: “mindfulness is the self-regulation of attention with an attitude of curiosity, openness, and acceptance.” I like that operationalization because it’s broad enough to include the many ways to be mindful, and specific enough to tell if something is mindfulness or not.
Mindfulness practices allow us to observe the chatter and silence of our minds. It’s not so different from being curious and simply watching a group of dogs at the park, without an intention of control, judgement, etc. The practice of being able to focus one’s attention in this way has a huge laundry list of benefits
Breathing in a steady rhythm or breathing out longer than you breathe in releases calming neurotransmitters, basically like your body’s natural opium. We discussed the 4-7-8 breathing exercise at the beginning of the last section and I’ll share a few more below. As with most breathing exercises, breathe in such a way that your abdomen puffs out when you inhale and goes back in when you exhale. Your chest and shoulders should be steady while doing this “diaphragmatic breathing.”
Breathing exercises can be done by themselves or as part of other meditation. Breath work can be done alone or with a partner, including a human or even your dog (although the dog won’t know s/he is part of it!)
Focus just on your breathing. If you start thinking about something else, don’t worry or shame yourself, just return attention to the breath.
- Doubling. The idea here is to breathe out for twice as long as you breathe in, while also slowing down your breathing rate by half at each breath cycle. I made this up, but I imagine I wasn’t the first one to do so. Exhale completely. Next, breathe in for 2 seconds, out for 4, then double those numbers each time: in for 4, out for 8; in for 8, out for 16; in for 16, out for 32 (or as long as you can). Then allow your breathing to return to normal.
- Box Breathing (or square breathing). This technique is taught in the US military to help soldiers handle stress. With this type of breathing, you’ll inhale, hold, exhale, and hold, all for the same count. You can make up the count.
The longer you do each side of the box, the more relaxing it is. So for example, you’d first start by exhaling all of your air. Then breathe in for a count of 4, hold for 4, breathe out for 4, hold for 4, and repeat. Do that for a while and then switch to a count of 8 for the sides of your box. I do this kind of breathing to calming music (but it even works for music not designed to be relaxing). I use the numbers 4 and 8 because most western music is to a count of 4 or multiples of 4.You can breathe with your mouth or nose, whichever works for you, but breathing in with the nose and out with the mouth is helpful. For one thing, it gives you more to focus on and keeps your mind quiet. For another, there is some data saying that this particular way of breathing helps.
Feeling Emotion in Your Body
This is an extremely important aspect of mindfulness. To use the metaphor of trying to help the border collie in your head settle down, learning to physically feel and identify your emotion is as essential as learning canine body language.
If you have any young people in your life (or if you like reading kids books), I highly recommend Listening to My Body by Gabi Garcia and Ying Hui Tan. For adults, I really love Meeting The Dragon: Ending Our Suffering By Entering Our Pain, a short but intense book by Robert Augustus Masters.
Here are some ways to become more aware of your body.
This is helpful at bedtime or any time you want to let go of tension.
Ideally, start out by breathing with purpose for a few breath cycles, with your out-breath longer than your in-breath. The 4-7-8 is a good one, as is even breathing, doubling, or box breathing.
Now for the scan. Starting just above the top of your head, shift your attention gradually down to your toes, slow and steady, like liquid sunlight dripping down. I think of it sort of like an MRI scanner, where I’m creating a sort of snapshot of the current state of my nervous system, muscles, everything. In my scan, I get information from the nerves all along my body, not in verbal form, but as sensations. If any thoughts come up, I let them go and put my attention back on the physical sensations. Usually I do it for just a minute or or two but sometimes it’s a quick scan and sometimes I take longer.
Try it out for yourself for about one minute. Did you feel any resistance during this exercise, either in your body or in your mind? Do you have any muscles that are still tight? Any “yes, but,” thoughts? Don’t try to immediately get rid of your resistance and please do let go of any judgement. As the saying goes, “what you resist, persists.” This popular saying probably came from Carl Jung’s quote, “What you resist not only persists, but it will grow in size.”
Just observe your resistance. Knowing what you resisted in this self-love exercise is powerful information.
When you repeat the exercise above, ask yourself the question, “who or what are you resisting?” Ask in the third person, like you’re asking someone else. It’s not meant to be answered in words, just mentally say the question and let that plant the seed of curiosity in your consciousness. Who or what are you resisting?
Speaking of resistance, I had the coolest experience last year. Or, I should say, the hottest. I started having some hot flashes. I had a hysterectomy in 2010 so I was told I might have early menopause. I don’t know if it’s the start of perimenopause or what, but what I do know is that it was amazingly fascinating. It was like a jolt of hot electricity taking over my body, gradually spreading and turning up the temperature. I felt like I had a superpower!
I could have resisted the hot flashes, getting into some downward spiral about age or just wanting to be a certain temperature, something much cooler. I could have thought, “not fair!” and turned on a fan or iced my forehead. Fortunately, I wasn’t in front of an audience nor even in public when they happened, so I could sweat it out and just roll with it, undistracted, excited and curious about the currents of heat rushing through my body. I was enthralled.
When the first electric tingle started and I knew a flash was beginning, I would slowly scan my body and follow the changes—bringing awareness, but no judgement or attempt to change anything. The hot flashes lasted a few minutes at first and then they gradually got shorter. In a few weeks, they stopped happening.
During those couple of weeks, I learned how to turn on a hot flash (yay! Superpower!), although I can’t do it all the way to sweating hot any more (too bad, I guess?). The skill I was able to keep was to be able to increase my core body temperature at will. At least, to me, it feels like I am warm, which is all I really need in a cold room. Being able to do that still amazes me!
Part of the reason I was able stay present and learn from my the hot flashes is that I had already been practicing the skill of staying present during a similar experience what I could call “emotional hot flashes.” I highly recommend trying it. I basically wrote about that above in the intro to mindfulness, but it’s so important that I’ll put a variation in its own section next. I’ll write this about dogs but you can do this with anything.
Observing Emotional Hot Flashes
Practice being present with your emotion. The next time your dog does something that triggers a negative emotional response in you (anger, frustration, fear), take these steps.
- Turn off the storyline. If you begin thinking any words, just gently let them go and return your attention to the exercise. It’s not rude to just walk away from a conversation with yourself! Sometimes I imagine my verbal mind is like a dog asking for attention. My awareness gives it just a quick “All Done” signal and looks away.
- Take 3 deep breath cycles (in through the nose, out through the mouth), and then breathe naturally.
- Locate the feeling of the emotion in your body. Mentally scan for tension, heat, energy, etc. that feels like it’s related to the emotion. If you can’t locate the feeling, focus on your heartbeat or your breath moving in and out of your nose.
- Keep your attention on the sensations without forcing anything. Allow tension to release on its own.
This is a great one to do when you feel a little scattered, when you are tempted to fall into an old habit that you want to change, as a road trip exercise with bored passengers (or to wake yourself up),. or when you just want to feel grounded and present for any reason.
- 5 things you can SEE
- 4 things you can FEEL (physical sensations)
- 3 things you can HEAR
- 2 things you can SMELL
- 1 thing you can taste
I can’t always detect two different smells without moving to a different location or smelling some part of my body, so I figure that’s fair game.
My son an I play this game a fair bit, trading sensory experiences back and forth. It can be done locally or long distance. Being present and communicating what we notice often starts some interesting conversations.
Digging Deep into Trauma Emotions with Meditation/Hypnosis
Exploring trauma is best done with a therapist, but I also have had really great success with the Trauma Care Guided Meditations by Roland Bal. They are an excellent way to do somatic work on trauma, getting into the cellular level of stored trauma.
One caveat – I have the support of a professional therapist. I think working with my therapist and the other work I have done have made these meditations more effective and help me know I have support in case I break something loose inside that needs further processing.
Here’s a video from his YouTube:
One of my favorite Zen Buddhist kōans is “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” I see Kōans as stories, conversations, or puzzles, designed to basically shake a student out of their old thinking and test their progress toward enlightenment. Zen isn’t a major area of study to me, but I love this kōan.
That’s probably because I’ve chopped a lot of wood and carried a lot of water in my life. I grew up without electricity and running water. But I digress…
One of the takeaways from that kōan is that going about our everyday tasks with mindfulness is both a vehicle to enlightenment and enlightenment itself.
In other words, live your life. Truly live it. Don’t be so busy seeking experiences that you miss the fact that you are actually having experiences in every moment.
This is a great example. With each bite, savor the food. Without using words to describe it, have an experience. This can be done for drinking tea or even water, too. If you are dining with someone else, see if they will cooperate and also share this meal with you in silence. Even if you’ve had this dish before, consume it with “beginner’s mind,” i.e., with an attitude of curiosity and discovery.
- How does it smell?
- How does it look? Are their colors? Shapes?
- What is the texture? How does it feel on your tongue?
- What does chewing feel like?
- What does it taste like?
- Does eating make any sound?
- How does your body feel as you consume the food? When you are no longer hungry, stop eating (not full, just no longer hungry). (I recommend putting the food away and have more if you get hungry again.)
- Visualize (without words if possible) the many people and beings who contributed to this meal, from the plants and insects that nourished them to the people who grew the food, brought it to you, maybe even prepared it into a delicious meal. Allow a feeling of gratitude to arise, if you can.
- Savor the faces of the people (or dogs) around you. Smile, make eye contact, laugh, as you enjoy this food together. If you are grateful for their presence, allow yourself to feel that. If you aren’t, allow yourself to feel that, too.
- If you feel like ending with a sort of ritual, you can say “namaste” which means “I salute the divine in you.” Or you can just say “thank you!”
Washing the dishes (chop wood/carry water)
This is another everyday task that can be a lovely call to be present. Turn off your ruminations, the words in your mind, and focus on the task at hand. It may help to start out with a breathing exercise from the top of this post.
- Feel the water on your hands
- Look at the soap bubbles
- Feel the satisfaction of making a dish clean
- Your attention WILL wander. Just gently return it to what you are doing.
Having a specific daily habit of meditation really helps me keep my life in perspective. Meditation is exercise for your ‘refocusing’ muscles. It can be done seated, lying down, walking, or even while walking your dog.
I adore the Headspace app, because it has guided meditations on all sorts of subjects, including some single-session recordings and a ton of 10-, 20-, and 30-day packs. I listened to the Grief Pack over and over when my husband died, and I found it immensely helpful for getting to sleep and quieting my “what if” questions.
Plus it’s gamified — it keeps track of how many minutes I’ve meditated, how many days in a row I’ve meditated, and just that is enough of a “goal” for me. There’s also a way to add friends so you have your own kind of online sangha, meditation community. This kind of meditation isn’t for everyone, but it can be really helpful. Headspace also has a section of guided tools for sleep. My favorite is actually the one designed for 9-12 year old children.
If you’re seeking a local community with a mindful approach to life, I highly recommend attending a regular meditation group or a yoga class with meditation. Places offering meditation have many different flavors, some more ‘religious’ than others. I find Insight Meditation to be a good group but there are many options. Having said that, people can be spiritually mature and still not emotionally mature. So make sure you are true to yourself and have healthy boundaries.
Dog Breath Meditation
This is a great exercise to do when your dog snuggles up next to you (or on you).
If your dog gets up during the exercise, just let him go, as long as he’s not doing something unsafe or unacceptable. Allowing your dog to move away while you’re trying to meditate is good practice in non-attachment.
- Observe your dog’s breath. Look for a spot on his body where it’s most obvious when he’s breathing in and out. If you do that, then go ahead and do the exercise. I try to do this whenever I notice my dog breathing. In otherwise, dog breathing becomes the cue for this meditation exercise.
- Get settled. Start with your body in a position that lets you have a straight spine. You don’t have to be sitting cross-legged in lotus. You can be on a chair with your feet on the floor or even lying on the ground.
- Double breathing. See above
- Take in your surroundings. For about a minute, let your senses take in the world around you – feel the surface beneath you, let sounds come to you without really thinking about them, be aware of smells, temperature, etc.
- Count 60 in-out cycles of your dog’s breath, keeping attention on the counting task. Just as your dog begins to inhale, mentally count “1”. When your dog breathes out, silently say a slow “Yes.” I think of it as marking the exhale, like you would with a clicker, only the Yes is just in your head.
- Take in your surroundings again.
- Ponder the experience. How was that? How did it feel to take this time to pause? It’s not always a good feeling, and that’s ok too. It might have just made you notice how active your mind is! That’s common at first. If your dog got up during the exercise, you may want to practice in a place where he’s more likely to stay put the whole time.
I do this exercise with Bean and if he’s airscenting something, it can be hard to find when his inhales and exhales are happening. In that case I just wait for his breathing to settle back down, I do the same meditation exercise with my own breathing, or I switch to my other dog, Zuki.
This exercise can be done with your own breathing, but I like doing it with the dogs at least some of the time, because then I really just pay attention instead being tempted to control my breathing. When you count your own breaths, try to just lightly pay attention to the breathing. Avoid steadying your breath or controlling it in any way while counting. That’s easier said than done and a wonderful exercise for dog training enthusiasts, who tend to have something of a control streak. 🙂
Variation: At step 0, try using your hand to feel your dog’s breath going in and out. For example, if it won’t disturb your dog, rest your hand on your dog’s chest or in front of his nose. If you can detect the timing of the breath by feel, then close your eyes at step 3 and open them at step 6. I like this variation, but sometimes when I try to do this with my dogs, I can’t quite tell in from out. I think this is easier with bigger dogs.
Variation: Without analyzing, simply notice how your dog’s breathing is not always the same. For example, sometimes they heave a big sigh and then don’t inhale for a while. Some breath cycles are short and others are longer. This is good to keep in mind for when you are counting your own breaths.
Variation: This can be done with other species, not just dogs. If you have children, you do this exercise with them in the role of the ‘dog’ when you put them to bed at night (counting out loud might be helpful).
Variation: Count your own breaths instead of your dog’s. Start with your hand on your belly (or wherever you can most easily detect in and out breaths), watching your hand move. In later sessions, close your eyes and do it by feel, hand still on your belly. After you’ve done several sessions that way, switch to just counting the breaths without using your hand, and eventually just focus on the breath for a certain amount of time using a timer. Don’t rush through the variations! I think it’s useful to experience each one many times, even if you can already do the later versions.
Try to build these exercises into your day. For example, if you’re a trainer who does house calls, take a few minutes to do the last variation of this exercise before notifying the client that you’ve arrived. If you have kids, meditate just after they fall asleep. I meditate with my dogs and the cat almost every morning before their walk, just after I have my post-breakfast tea. They’ve already snuggled in beside me on the couch for the tea drinking routine, so it’s perfect timing to slip into meditation. Those few minutes set the tone for a good connection.
One way I have built more compassion for myself is to look at my inner child as a puppy that has been trained to behave a certain way. I work with dogs who growl, bite, or run away when they are actually perfectly safe. I don’t label these dogs as “vicious” or “bad dogs.” I see their behavior as just something they learned to get their needs met. We all need to feel safe, to belong, to be satisfied.
When I see behavior (including thought patterns) in myself that I don’t want, I can bring it back to my inner puppy…what was she trying to do with this originally? Can I honor the fact that this was the best thing she could come up with at the time, that this kept me safe, gave me a sense of satisfaction, or helped me fit in? Does that emotional or behavior rule that my inner puppy came up with match my reality as an adult? Can I picture meeting my needs in a healthier way?
I’ll share this as a series of visualizations. Read this all the way through before practicing. Imagine cradling your inner puppy in your lap. If you have a calm dog or other animal you can pet while doing this, go for it. You can go through all three visualizations at once or practice them individually.
This exercise is meant to be done only with visuals, with little or no verbal thinking. If at any point you notice words in your head or you are envisioning something off topic, just gently let it go and return to the exercise.
- Take 3 deep breath cycles and close your eyes on the last breath (unless you’re walking!) Let your breathing return to normal.
- Without words, communicate to your inner puppy how much they are loved and cherished. Feel love flowing from your heart, into theirs, and back again. Surround them in a soft bubble, like a hug made of pure love. Tell them that they belong, just as they are, that they don’t have to be any certain way to be accepted.
- Send a visual to your inner puppy of your strong, smart, adult self, that you will keep them safe as long as you live, that together you can bounce back from anything life will throw at you.
- Give your inner puppy permission to be curious and free. Visualize them being guided by their own authentic drive for healthy satisfaction, tempered only by compassion. Picture your inner puppy tired after a long day of joyfully following their dreams. Feel that in your body. Take a deep breath and let out a big satisfied sigh of contentment.
Tip: When you visualize, it’s like watching a movie in your head, as if it’s already happening and you’re just now paying attention. If you have trouble visualizing, feel free to get out some drawing tools and sketch it out. My drawings are just stick figures, but they still help me walk my brain through a visualization.