Mountain Air Mindfulness

Mindfulness Meditation Classes on Seattle's Eastside

Why Practice Mindfulness

Written by Alisa Burpee, PhD

In a previous post, we provided an overview of how to practice mindfulness, and you practiced observing your breath. So, why practice mindfulness? Perhaps you’ve thought, “I don’t have time to pay attention to my breath, I have too much to do!” And it’s true our lives are full of many demands. But recall the last time you felt so overwhelmed you became gridlocked and had difficulty completing tasks. Or the last time you just wanted to crawl into a sensory deprivation tank. It turns out that, while we are good at doing, we are not ‘human doings’ and we benefit from a different gear called being. Mindfulness offers us the chance to find that alternate gear in the daily pace of our lives which, when practiced, is a sustainable source of replenishment. This is vital if we want to function effectively and optimally. Research shows that mindfulness increases our ability to regulate our emotions (one way is that it decreases emotional reactivity and increases response flexibility), increases satisfaction in our relationships (i.e., enhances our ability to communicate with others as well as our compassion for others), and improves cognitive functioning (by increasing our attentional capacity and processing speed). Studies show these changes reflected in the neurology of the brain and that generally mindfulness has the capacity to re-wire our brains (Davis & Hayes, 2011).

So if you’re not sold yet, why else? Well…the answer might be mulch! Let me explain.  

Recently my husband and I had several cubic yards of mulch delivered to our house and our intention was to distribute it throughout the entire perimeter of our yard. This could’ve gone a couple of different ways. We could have dreaded the task and dragged ourselves through it by judging the experience (“This is so lame, I hate mulch!”), resenting our previous decisions regarding home improvement. However, with mindfulness, the task was transformed into something a bit more interesting and pleasant. I paid attention to the movements of my body. I found myself appreciating what my body could accomplish. I became more invested in and attached to my home and yard, discovering new plants I had not previously known existed. I participated in moments of stillness observing the beating of our resident hummingbird’s wings and my puppy playing joyfully in the yard beside me. By allowing us to be present, mindfulness enables us to notice things we had not previously noticed. We become less caught up in the storylines in our heads and participate more fully in what is right before us. In this way, we can see things more clearly, almost as if peering into a pristine alpine lake. We can get to the bottom of things easier which enables us to respond to life more effectively. As a result, we extract more meaning from life or “Our moment’s worth” (Segal, Williams & Teasdale, 2012).  And it turns out we don’t need majestic backdrops, even a simple mundane task will do.  So, we invite you to try bringing mindful attention to one task or moment throughout your day (i.e., washing the dishes, observing the sun on your face) and notice if and how it changes the task itself.

References

Davis, D. M. & Hayes, J. A. (2011).  What are the benefits of mindfulness?  A practice review of psychotherapy-related research.  Psychotherapy (48), 198-208.

Segal, Z., Williams, J., & Teasdale, J. (2012). Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression. New York: Guilford Press.

 

Taking the Leap

Written by Alisa Burpee, PhD.

The ongoing misadventures of my puppy Rey provide fodder for many a life lesson. This week while visiting the lake, our goal was to get her to jump off the dock to chase sticks into the water (just like those professional Labradors you see on TV). After succeeding at retrieving sticks from the shore line, the next step was to get her to leap from the swim step of the boat into the water (less than a foot drop). We deliberately brought enticing looking sticks along in the boat and fervently encouraged her from various angles. She hemmed and hawed and whined, racing up and down the length of the boat in her frustration at seeing the stick slowly float farther and farther away. She clearly wanted the stick but was too afraid to make the leap in order to be united with it. After about an hour we called it quits and began motoring back toward shore at a moderate speed. From the bow I heard my husband suddenly yell, “She jumped!” Sure enough I swiveled around to see her dark outline contrasted by her orange life jacket bobbing in the wake. We slowed and returned her safely to the stern of the boat where she rested after her courageous foray into the unfamiliar.

How often does our need to be ready first interfere with taking the leap itself? In our culture, we’re generally taught to “look before we leap.” This is a useful adage, though often it compels us to “look” in a way that leads to over-analysis. Rey modeled this in her hesitation, which interfered with making her foray in a less urgent, haphazard manner. She compensated by taking an infinitely more dangerous leap at a less opportune time. Also, how frequently in life does it really work this way (acting only once all duckies are neatly in a row)? We hide behind the need to collect more data, perform more due diligence, wait for a sign. These are useful and necessary to some extent, though I’ve heard many speak of waiting for the most opportune of the opportunities only to find that ship has sailed.

So how do we know when we are truly ready? And is it possible to not feel ready but still do the thing anyway? Think of a time in your life when you did not feel ready but did it anyway and reflect on how it turned out. Today, make your intention to take a small leap. Pick something you wouldn’t normally do that is in some way in the service of what matters to you in life and see what happens.

 

How to Practice Mindfulness

Written by Andrea Neal, PhD

Sometimes it can be helpful to go back to the basics.  Mindfulness is a term that one hears and sees a lot these days, but we here at Mountain Air Mindfulness often get questions or hear misconceptions about what IS mindfulness.  So, as Julie Andrews as Maria Von Trappe sang in The Sound of Music, “Let’s start from the very beginning, a very good place to start…”

Our favorite definition of mindfulness is from Jon Kabat-Zinn, who describes mindfulness as, “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, one-mindfully, and non-judgmentally.”

That sounds lovely, but how do you DO that?  The most common practice, which comes from ancient Eastern traditions, is to sit in a still and quiet manner and observe your breath.

“Observe your breath” means to direct your attention to the physical sensations in your body of each in-breath and out-breath.

Do this for just one breath right now:

  1. Notice the sensation of the air entering your body, whether through your nose or your mouth.
  2. Observe the sensations of your chest expanding as the oxygen enters
  3. Notice the rise and fall of your belly as your diaphragm contracts.
  4. Following the out-breath, notice the sensations of your belly falling, your lungs expelling, and the carbon dioxide leaving your body through your nose and mouth.

OK, were you paying attention “in a particular way”?  Check!  This is not how you typically experience your breath, right?!

Was this “on purpose”?  Check!  In this exercise, you were deliberate and intentional in your actions of observing your breath.  Often our breathing is out of our awareness completely, and when we do notice it, it might be in those moments when we notice that we are breathing in a shallow, short, choppy way.

Was it “one-mindfully”?  Well, yes, it was one-mindful if you tried to bring all your attention to your breath, and didn’t do this while driving or talking to someone or planning your day tomorrow.

And “non-judgmentally”?  That is a skill that takes effort and practice to cultivate.  So give yourself a break if you spent half the time criticizing yourself (“I’m so bad at this, what’s wrong with me?”) or maybe criticizing me (“what is she talking about, does she know what she is doing?!”).  You can gently label the thought, “OK, there’s a judgment” and then bring your attention back to your breath.  This is a skill that takes time to develop!

This exercise can be very difficult to do, particularly for beginners (or immediately after an unexpected, tragic break-up, but that is a different story….).  It can feel EXTREMELY uncomfortable – you might feel restless and fidgety, or have very painful thoughts that pop into your head, or start to feel anxious when paying attention to your breath.

So you might try something else.

As I write this, I am sitting at the window seat of my favorite neighborhood coffee shop with people and dogs walking by, an evergreen tree standing tall behind the shop across the street, and a patch of blue sky showing the promise of summer.  One mindfulness practice involves observing what you see around you, and this can be easier than mindfulness of breath for some people or in some situations (e.g. tragic break-up).   Sometimes shifting your attention to things that are outside of you rather than to things within you is a much easier practice.

In my current moment, observing what I see is different from the typical “people-watching” which can involve a lot of judgment: “Why did they leave that miserable dog outside? Cruel!”  “Those shoes are fantastic!”.  People-watching is not necessary one-mindful:  “Oh, that guy looks like my plummer, which reminds me that I need to call him about that bathroom remodel.  Let’s see, what am I going to do about that remodel?  Should I put in new tile?”

So, take this moment to intentionally, non-judgmentally, observe what is in front of you without doing anything else for this one moment.  Notice colors, shapes, movement, without labeling things.  Try to experience what you see as directly as possible, without putting words, meaning or preferences onto them.

Of course, the moment I chose to do this, there were no cute dogs walking by or silly small children or really any people at all.  There were cars and shops, and trees, and mostly clouds.   Aah, the judgments come in so quickly:  “This is so boring?!  Why was it that NOTHING happened the moment I started this exercise?  Typical!”

It is hard to just notice something (whether it is gray skies or intense sadness) and not want it to be different.  Yet that is mindfulness practice, to pay attention to something, and to try to let go of wanting it to be different.

Difficult, yes, and also life-changing.  Stay tuned to hear about the benefits in our next post.

 

 

 

 

 

Ambiguity Part II

Written by Alisa Burpee, PhD.

In the last blog we explored how ambiguity and uncertainty inevitably arise in the course of our lives and our tendency as humans to view this negatively and often seek ways to avoid it. However, we also discussed how avoiding uncertainty can actually create more suffering in certain circumstances.

So what can we do in these painful moments? What other options are available to us? Since we are limited in the level of predictability and controllability we can yield over the world and life, learning to tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty is of huge benefit to our well-being and resilience. It means we can respond adaptively even in the midst of discomfort. This is where mindfulness comes in…which involves shifting your attention to your physical sensations, thoughts, emotions, and urges.

The first step is awareness and learning to ask “What is happening for me?”. This means recognizing that reactivity is occurring (i.e., these are the alarm bells that go off in our brain, often referred to as the fight-flight-freeze system) by noticing what is happening in the body. People often notice things like: racing heart, tightness in throat or chest, sweaty or clammy skin.

Then, reflecting: “What am I telling myself about this situation?”. “What story is my mind coming up with?”. “Am I telling myself it might or will go wrong and how realistic/helpful is that? “What effect does that have on my nervous system, emotions, anxiety?”

Finally, inquiring “Is it possible for me to hold that story lightly?” If I did, “What would that free me up to do and choose?” “How do I want to live in this moment?”

These steps help us to be with our discomfort in a way that rather than amplify it, encourages us toward healthy actions.

In my life, my miniature Australian Shepherd Rey is on my top ten hit list of worries. I can find myself obsessing about her health and safety (i.e., “Was that a poisonous plant she ate?” “Is that dog at the dog park going to attack her?” “Is that sound she’s making normal?”). Now sometimes we do need to take action, but for the most part this looping pulls me unnecessary out of the moment – the moments that could be providing comedy, love, or richness. If something dangerous truly happened it would be very painful and upsetting for me. But most of the time she is okay. When I can hold the stories about her in my head lightly, I am free to notice the warmth in her eyes, the joy she displays when fetching, and the comedic things she does daily.

Image courtesy of Fanpop.com

In the movie Finding Nemo, Nemo’s father (Marlin) endures a painful search for his lost son. At one point in the story, Marlin and his comrade Dori end up in the vacuous mouth of a Humpback whale. Marlin becomes enraged as Dori attempts to “speak whale” and communicate their predicament to the whale. Dori claims the whale understands and has a plan…to send them to the back of his throat. Marlin interprets this as “He wants us for lunch” and given this interpretation is rightly scared they will be rushed into the depths of the whale’s stomach never to be seen again. Barely holding on by one fin to the whale’s bumpy tongue as it tips backward, Marlin desperately asks “How do you know everything is going to be okay????” to which Dori replies “I dooooon’t………. You just have to let go….!” As Marlin releases his hold, they swish down, down, down and suddenly are shot out of the whale’s spout to glorious freedom.

The truth is we don’t know. And things might go poorly. But if we want to live a full life, we can ask ourselves in those trepidatious moments what matters most to us. Would the fear of being swallowed be a good enough reason not to let go? Not if your goal is to get out of the whale’s mouth. In fact, the only way to ensure the unwanted outcome (getting swallowed by the whale) is to not act. So, asking “How do I want to live in this moment?” can direct us to what matters most and encourage us to take the step or risk in spite of what our mind and the butterflies in our stomach are telling us.

Ambiguity – Part I

 Written by Alisa Burpee, PhD.

Did I turn the stove off? Can I park here? Is this mole normal? Will my partner and I make it? How will this event go? How do I measure up compared to…?

Anyone who can connect with the familiarity of questions such as these knows that ambiguity is a part of life. And most of us can agree that our minds don’t like it. Have you ever wondered why it is so uncomfortable?

Essentially, we can thank our evolutionary heritage for this. As the caveman analogy goes, if the shadowy figure on the hillside was a blueberry bush, we got lunch, while if it was a bear, we were lunch. Thus, in primitive times, the stakes for survival rested upon our ability to analyze, predict, and determine what was what with certainty. The “evolutionary imperative is that it’s better to miss lunch than to be lunch. We’re capable of missing lunch many, many times, but we can only be lunch once” as Drs. Wilson and DuFrene detail in their book Things Could go Terribly, Horribly Wrong (2010). Furthermore, the genes of those individuals who were the most cautious were the genes that were passed down. Wilson and Dufrene say these individuals “were the ones who assumed what’s bad is bad and what is ambiguous is bad too.” Thus, we tend to experience discomfort when faced with ambiguity. We are inclined to view it as a problem to be solved or an unpleasantness to be avoided even when the avoidance itself perpetuates our suffering.

Avoidance can look like:

  • sinking ourselves into video games or Netflix
  • focusing on others’ problems
  • not attending a social event we were invited to
  • not asking for the promotion we know we deserve or applying for the new position we know we want
  • not asking someone out or saying “I love you” first
  • not going to the doctor when a concerning symptom lingers
  • generally not taking risks

We also avoid in more subtle ways:

  • seeking certainty and solutions (think about the last time you looked up a worrisome symptom on the internet)
  • trying to control things
  • getting busy, cramming as many “productive” tasks into our day as possible
  • rushing or speeding through tasks and life experiences

 Take a brief moment to consider the ways you notice avoidance showing up in your life…

It’s not that being productive or distracting ourselves from negative emotions and distress are bad. In certain cases, these strategies are useful. However, these approaches when overused can become avoidance strategies that actually heighten stress, foster exhaustion, and further diminish our tolerance for ambiguity and coping with life’s uncertainty.

While we can thank our evolutionary wiring, the tendency to assume ambiguity is bad is less helpful to our current day situations. After all, we rarely encounter bears although the threats we do encounter (i.e., deadlines, taxes) can feel just as intense as a lurking predator. Also, there are many ambiguous situations that actually turn out well or surprise us with unforeseen benefits (e.g., having someone say yes to a request, positive feedback from colleagues or loved ones after taking a risk, meeting someone you connect with at a social gathering you dreaded attending, finding out you have a very treatable medical condition). Sometimes the benefits are less obvious, but no less important. For example, think about the last time you endured a painful situation that in some way widened your lens…perhaps helped you cultivate increased compassion or understanding for others in some way.

Our intent this month is both to normalize our human reactions to ambiguity and to crack open our perception of ambiguity. In addition, the intent is to begin to increase mindful awareness of the personal ways you respond to ambiguity. These are the precursors to making way for new, beneficial ways of responding.

Stay tuned! The next blog will delve further into this topic, specifically cultivating adaptive responses.

Beginner’s Mind

Written by Andrea Neal, PhD.

Traditions are lovely when they create connection – to childhood memories, our family, or our community.

Baking is my favorite way of keeping family traditions alive.  This week I will be baking my German mother-in-law’s Vanillekipferl Cookies, my mom’s Date Ball recipes, and, of course, the quintessential holiday cookie – Grasshoppers.  That’s right, I make those cookies that involve a microwave, chow mein noodles, chocolate chips and peanut butter (you might know them as “haystacks” or “grasshopper legs”).*

Traditions have their downsides, too, of course, because they can bring a strong sense of pressure, obligation, or a sense of missing out.  During this time of year, we are inundated with messages about what we are supposed to be doing and feeling.  Sometimes (oftentimes?!) our experiences don’t match what we are seeing in the commercials, on Facebook, or in the Hollywood holiday movies.  When we start to get caught up in how things are “supposed to be”, we suffer.

Mindfulness practice is about observing our present-moment reality, as it is and without judgment.  One concept in mindfulness practice is “beginner’s mind”, where we try to experience the present moment as if we had never experienced it before.  That is especially difficult at the holidays because we are surrounded by expectations.

Of course, there are times when we want to reminisce about the past.  When I am baking this week, I will surely think of my mom doing the same thing throughout my childhood.

But mindfulness and beginner’s mind can be helpful in the moments that are less sweet and heart-warming, like when you are caught up in what you think you (or others) SHOULD be doing/feeling/thinking.

You could practice this by just describing to yourself what is happening – both within you and around you – at this moment.  Like, “hmm…I’m having the thought that I wish my sister was with us right now, and I am feeling sad.  I’m noticing that I am here with my brother, and that he is looking relaxed and happy, and when I notice that, I feel happy too.”  Could you bring some compassion to your experience?    You could say to yourself, “I feel tired and grumpy right now.  Wow, I am expecting an awful lot of myself.”

May your holiday season be filled with twinkly lights, laughing children, and sweet memories.  And when those less pleasant experiences show up (you know, the irritation, the exhaustion, etc.), may you add a sprinkling of awareness, kindness and peace.

 

 

 

* My German mother-in-law and the family moved from Germany to Texas in the 70s.  I don’t know how it happened, but for some reason she started to add grasshopper cookies to her holiday cookie repertoire.  They would be beautifully displayed on the cookie platter next to five or six distinct, delicious, and rather intricate German cookies each holiday season.  My husband loves them.  They make me laugh.

 

 

Under the Sea

Written by Alisa Burpee, PhD.

When I was a child I was afraid of the automatic pool cleaner. Later in childhood this fear embarrassingly transferred to perhaps the most innocuous of sea life: seaweed and kelp. My friends will attest, I avoid the shores of Lake Washington, and its weeds, like the plague. When I was a teenager my mom took me snorkeling and the bag of fish food we brought tore open, attracting a school of ugly, large, aggressive fish (not the pretty, dainty tropical variety I had expected) that nipped at my legs and caused me to flee the otherwise tranquil waters of the tropical bay. During the year my husband and I lived in Hawaii, while snorkeling at one of Oahu’s most scenic beaches, we encountered a blacktip reef shark. Despite being a strong swimmer and having a love for the ocean (the idea of it anyway – sea turtles, surfing, whales), all of these experiences together made me a wary ocean-goer. However, on a recent vacation to Mexico, where my husband and his father frequent Cozumel for its world-renowned diving, I decided to try scuba diving. You can probably asses how far outside of my comfort zone this idea was. I felt extremely brave and got a rush just thinking about the huge sense of accomplishment that was imminently forthcoming and would be followed by a moving Facebook post about overcoming fears. This was not how it went.

True to my ambitious (otherwise known as impatient) nature, I enrolled in a Discover Scuba class which meant that rather than spending two weeks in a pool drilling skills and building confidence, this was all going to go down over the span of about two hours: pool to forty-feet under open water. In retrospect, this was probably not optimal for gradually and tactfully building my confidence. After a twenty-minute video and about thirty minutes in the pool, we headed for the dock to board the boat that would take us to the off-shore reef. My husband accompanied me, my dive instructor, and my fleet of photographers that were to capture my impending revelation. Upon descent, my mask filled with water and panic shot through my body like a lightning bolt. My body became tense and my mind fused with the idea of imminent death. Because I am so accustomed to breathing through my nose, even though I rationally knew I had oxygen available, the water in my mask obscuring my vision and periodically entering my nostrils made me believe I was going to drown. I was SCARED and I felt completely out of control. I thought seriously about returning to the surface and ending the extreme discomfort that had set in but in contrast to my earlier experiences, this time I chose not to flee.

While my fear brain sent alarm bells, my mindfulness training snapped into place creating the briefest pause. That was enough time to make a choice – and I chose to latch onto the smallest shred of willingness to be with the experience – even though the decision was re-considered every few painful seconds. In that brief moment, I saw real live fan coral, bright purple, waving in the sea. Then my attention contracted back to fear again. My instructor coached me through clearing the mask, but I never really mastered it which meant it was a constant task and therefore constant threat. Again I thought about fleeing but realized that to flee would be to potentially risk other forms of death (i.e., lungs bursting, etc.). Again I chose to stay.

At a certain point, even though my distress was still at an extreme level, something brief but magical happened. I had a conversation with a stingray. Normally the presence of a ray would have freaked me out but I told this guy “Hey buddy, I have bigger things to worry about.” In that moment I began to make peace with the things in my life that may hurt me but that I choose to be proximal to anyway (e.g., stingrays, aggressive fish, eels, one thousand pounds of water, mac trucks on the freeway, people I love and care about and allow myself to be vulnerable with). I was also reminded of how messy life, change, and confronting our fears is. I wanted it to be clean and compact, to fit into a pretty little bento box (like Brene Brown says), and have a catchy caption or hashtag…but it didn’t. I didn’t revel in the beauty and mystery of the ocean or delight at how good it felt to finally just let go of control – in truth while I am proud of myself for doing it, it pretty much sucked. And it was okay. Things don’t always conform to our expectations or turn out the way we expect and that doesn’t mean they are wrong or bad. The more we can accept life on life’s terms and learn to appreciate the mess, the better off we are.

The Challenges of “Getting Away from It All”

Written by Andrea Neal, PhD

Last month I visited the mountains and valleys surrounding Leavenworth, one of my favorite places in Washington State.  Despite the beautiful landscape, I found myself engaged in the typical patter in my head:   planning, fretting, stewing, judging.  This quickly led to an adversarial conversation with myself. “But this is my personal retreat!  This is ‘getting away from it all?!’  Why am I thinking about this petty stuff when I am surrounded by all of this beauty?  Where are my mindfulness skills?!”

Maybe you can relate.

As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “wherever you go, there you are.”  I have found this literally to be true.  I can remember travelling in a stunning, ancient city in Croatia, and yet still fretting and planning about things that happened a month ago or may happen a month in the future.  I typically bring these same habits of mind to any place I go, no matter how lovely and interesting it is.

Mindfulness practice provides techniques for how to respond in these moments, so that we are more present to who and what is around us, whether it is an awe-inspiring landscape or our loved ones seeking our attention.  The concepts of awareness, non-judgmental stance and present-moment focus can be helpful.

Awareness

A friend of mine attended a ten-day silent retreat.  He started to notice patterns in his thinking as he sat on a cushion meditating for hours each day.  He said that observing all of his typical worrying and self-criticisms led him to experience these thoughts as boring, like a song on repeat.  Recognizing our typical patterns of thinking can help us to take the thoughts less seriously, and this is one step toward getting out of automatic pilot.  You don’t need to go on a Buddhist retreat or to the mountains for ten days, or even two days, to notice where your mind goes.  At this moment, you could bring your attention to what you are thinking:  Where is my mind wandering?  Am I judging?  Worrying?  Planning?

Nonjudgmental Awareness

In mindfulness, we strive to bring a nonjudgmental awareness to our experience.  Try developing an accepting, compassionate, curious attitude when you notice that your mind has wandered, without judgment and without tension.  Getting nonjudgmental about our thinking is not easy, of course.  What does seem to be easy is to direct that fretting and stewing toward oneself – “why can’t I just enjoy the mountains?!  What is wrong with me?!”

Yes, what IS wrong with you (and me)?  Well, you are human, and this is what our mind does.  Our minds think like our hearts beat, so, yes, the mind is likely going to be busy trying to solve some problem, whether it is in the past or the future, whether it is real or imaginary, and whether it is important or completely trivial.  Bringing acceptance and compassion when you become aware that you are engaging in one of these habits of thinking can help us to shift our attention back to the present moment.  When we judge ourselves for our distracted (or self-critical, or judgmental, or worrying) mind, we have added another layer of tension and self-criticism to the moment, thus taking us out of the experience as it is.

Present-moment Focus

Once we have brought nonjudgmental awareness to our experience, the next step is to try to gently shift our attention to the present moment.  Oftentimes, the present moment is more pleasant and less stressful than what we had going on in our heads, although certainly not always.  In another post, we will talk about how bringing mindfulness to unpleasant experiences is helpful too, but I am getting ahead of myself.

In formal mindful practice, taking a present-moment focus means that once you have become aware that you are distracted, you gently shift your attention back to whatever is your chosen focus of your attention.  This might mean shifting your attention back to your breath in a traditional sitting meditation.  However, one can do this throughout the day in an informal practice, when you have noticed that your mind has gone to some unpleasant, unhelpful place.  You may choose to look up and observe the colors of the sky or the trees, listen to the sounds of the birds or the traffic, or feel the sensation of your feet on the ground.  For, indeed, wherever you go, there you are.

 

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