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Breathe Into It: Using Mindfulness to Create Change

As a Counselor Intern, I feel fortunate to have a full-time job and see clients at the Austin Mindfulness Center on weekends. During the week, I counsel young adults with learning exceptionalities – many whom have been diagnosed with Autism, ADHD, or anxiety. Come to find out, my students and clients share some of the same challenges. For example, many struggle with acceptance of self or others; awakening from the trance of unworthiness and the tyranny of not enough-ness; embracing Life on Its terms; fostering healthy relationships; taming distractibility; and discovering promising paths and new possibilities in life. Not surprisingly then, when our students were surveyed about what group themes they found appealing, they indicated an interest in Mindfulness! When tapped to teach this 15-week Mindfulness Series to a group of 7 students, how could I say no?! While Mindfulness may be trending now, it is also one of the most skillful means to break free of outdated patterns and breakthrough to greater health and well-being.  Oftentimes referred to as “inner strength training”, mindfulness is essentially a practice whereby we pay attention to what is, on purpose, in the present, without judgment. Just as an Olympian invests in physical training to achieve excellence in their sport, mindfulness can not only heighten our performance, but also help us relieve stress, achieve emotional balance, improve relationships, and aid in our self-development – all of which can lead us to feeling empowered and able to fully engage with ourselves, others, and life.

In the easy-to-use manual, Learning to Breathe, psychologist Patricia Broderick, Ph.D., spells out a mindfulness curriculum for adolescents. Using the acronym BREATHE, her wise guidance offers insights and practices for cultivating mindfulness skills through body awareness, thoughtful reflection, emotional acceptance, focus and attention, self-care, and healthy habits of mind. Below are a few suggestions for how to utilize mindfulness practices to make meaningful, lasting changes whether you’re a teen or adult. Body The body is an easily accessible “tool” for cultivating mindfulness. By attending to the breath as well as our physical sensations while engaged in a body scan or movement practices such as yoga, Tai Chi, walking meditation, dance, or martial arts, we are encouraged to focus on the here-and-now, leaving our past and worries about the future behind us. If doing this on your own, notice the color, temperature, texture, intensity, and location of physical sensations while refraining from judging them or getting pulled away by noisy self-talk. Take your time, soften towards uncomfortable sensations, and listen to your body.  Reflections Reflections are thoughts and, as most of us can attest, our thinking is never-ending. Moreover, much of it is repetitive and unhelpful. At the center of noticing our thoughts is the ability to question the truthfulness and workability of them. One mindfulness skill that helps is “distancing from thoughts”. While most of our thoughts may seem automatic, and we may even think we are one with our thoughts, we nevertheless have the choice to stick with them. Some popular practices for allowing, then defusing, from our thoughts and stories—especially those that trigger unpleasant emotions, drudge up drama, or lead us to hurt ourselves and others—are open inquiry, “The Work” of Byron Katie, and especially meditation. Such efforts guide us to see, identify, and question thoughts that cause our suffering and address it with clarity. Emotions You may have heard the adage, "You can’t heal what you can’t feel." It’s true, but embracing our emotions can be scary because doing so compels us to acknowledge our vulnerability. Moreover, while feelings are a natural aspect of our humanity, few of us have been instructed on how to navigate them. Even so, if we can learn how to approach emotions mindfully, we will recognize them as “energy surges” or waves in the ocean. Rather than repress or deny our feelings, we can greet them by paying attention to them, accepting them as they are, and watching them come and go with patience, understanding, and self-compassion.  Here’s a tip. Next time you experience a difficult emotion, PAUSE. Take a moment to recognize and allow what you’re feeling. Ask yourself: “What is happening right now?” and “Can I let this be? Take note of what you're feeling (i.e., sad, angry, scared, etc.). Retreat to a private space, if possible. Resist complaining or blaming others for your discomfort. Do not seek out company right away. Let the feeling come, intensify then pass away. Afterwards, notice: you survived. While feelings are temporary, if some regularly resurface over a long period of time, you may want to reach out to others you trust for on-going support. Attention You’re not alone if you are someone who struggles to stay focused on one task at a time. At any time of day or night, we have options for how to direct our attention. While it can be helpful to multi-task and we are often asked to do so, single-tasking is at the core of mindfulness practice. It allows us to dedicate as much of our focus as possible to what we are doing in the moment. Paying attention then, encompasses a combination of conscious intention and discipline effort. Some mindfulness practices that are helpful for improving concentration include: active listening, eliminating distractions, working in a quiet environment, mindful eating, candle-gazing meditation, setting aside blocks of time for tasks, and taking time-outs. Tenderness Tenderness means we treat ourselves with kindness, compassion, and self-care. It does not mean letting ourselves off the hook or not expecting very much of ourselves. On the contrary, it’s recognizing we don’t help ourselves when we don’t take care of our insides as much as our outsides. Self-compassion helps us do that as it invites us to not only accept ourselves as we are, but also accept Life as It is here-and-now.  According to Dr. Kristen Neff, author of Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, the three components of self-compassion are: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. Self-kindness allows us to tenderly care for ourselves the same way we would care for a friend who is struggling instead of harshly criticizing them. Common humanity connects us with our fellow human beings who are also imperfect. Mindfulness entails taking a balanced and accepting approach to our difficult emotions. While it may seem counter-intuitive, especially to our “Inner Critic”, practicing tenderness with ourselves has multiple benefits. Such rewards may include a more stable sense of self, self-worth even in the context of failure, and self-esteem without the pitfalls of social comparisons, narcissism, or defensiveness that can accompany it. In addition, we are likely to experience less depression, stress, anxiety, and perfectionism along with more harmonious relationships because we are more forgiving and accepting of others too.  Habits of Healthy Mind Habits of a healthy mind are developed over time through consistent practice. Consider from the multiple options above what mindfulness practices are appealing to you. Ask yourself the following questions: What have I learned about mindfulness? How could I use what I have learned? What can I do to remind myself to be more mindful in my daily life?  Some things that may be helpful: following through on your intention to engage in new practices; scheduling time for practice; taking classes; connecting with others who share an interest in mindful living; and utilizing books, magazines, websites, and more as resources. The Austin Mindfulness Center website, for example, features an extensive collection of guided meditations Empowerment Mindfulness empowers us, gives us an inner edge, and help us be our best self! There is no time like the present.  Take a moment now to commit to at least one method for cultivating more mindfulness through embodiment practices, defusing from troubling thoughts, establishing emotional equanimity, mastering attention for optimal performance, or softening into self-compassion for a kinder way of living. With mindfulness skills, you are not only bound to break out of old patterns and breakthrough to greater well-being in time, but also acquire the strength, positivity, and bandwidth to embrace anything life throws your way, transform yourself and situation, and live full-on, full-out the fullest expression of who you are.

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