By: Danielle Palli in collaboration with Jane Parker, Psychotherapist and Mindfulness Coach
When in the middle of a personal crisis, there are three expressions that are guaranteed to shut down communication between me and a well-meaning advisor: “Everything happens for a reason,” “This too, shall pass” and “Be in the moment.” The sad fact is that I too use these expressions when at a loss for something to say. While they may be very true and relevant to the situation, somehow they do nothing to make me feel any better, and it as if my own words are coming back to mock me at the most inopportune time.
Yes, everything happens for a reason, and sometimes that reason is a poor decision. I have no doubt it will pass … but when faced with an injury or illness, that moment can’t come quickly enough. Will meditation and quiet reflection provide greater clarity for better decision-making in the future? Will it help me get through discomfort with greater ease? Definitely. The problem is, pleasant distractions from the dis-ease provide instant, but not often long-term relief, and being in the moment requires facing a few internal demons, and who the heck wants to do that? Essentially, how do you be in the moment when the moment sucks?
“We avoid mindfulness because our experience is that we are forced into excruciating mindfulness when we are ill, socially anxious or very scared,” Jane Parker, Psychotherapist and Mindfulness Coach tells us. “At those times we are acutely aware of our body and emotions, and we mistake intense feelings of panic for mindfulness. In other words, we have all experienced living in the moment, and it doesn’t feel good.”
According to Parker, there are three universal challenges that we all face during a painful experience: 1) Being unable to become an observer and consider our choices, 2) Negative thinking when we identify that our current experience is the only truth, and 3) Self-judgment and identifying our physical and emotional reactions as weakness.
“At these times” she says, “there doesn’t seem to be any value in being ‘mindful.’ Best to hide, numb, deny, and accept the worst.”
Mindfulness requires work, but the long-term rewards make it a worthwhile endeavor. Here is a three-step process for overcoming resistance and working through those murky spots:
1) Become the observer. One way to approach this is to begin by closing your eyes, and taking a few deep breaths. As you do so, imagine you are on the outside of your experience watching your thoughts. Allow them to surface without labeling them as “good” or “bad.” Just observe. Keep breathing. By watching without judgment or emotion, you are taking on the role of the observer.
2) Notice negative thought patterns. Now that you’ve created some distance between you and your thoughts, you can begin to filter them. Are there recurring thoughts that are unhelpful to you? For example, “I’m always sick,” and “This chronic pain will never change, and I will always be a burden” are common themes that Parker has heard often among patients, along with sentiments such as “I’m a loser at parties,” from those who experience social anxiety. Notice during this exercise what negative thoughts are surfacing. Thoughts, even negative ones, need to be acknowledged and accepted as part of your current experience.
From here the next step is to ask yourself, “What else is true?” Can we add to our thoughts or notice small emotions that might bring a different, more positive message? While we want to increase positive thoughts and gratitude, we don’t want to mask, negate or minimize real thoughts and feelings, no matter what they may be. Instead, we want to take time to observe them, and explore what else might be just under the surface.
To take this concept further, begin to pay attention to your thoughts as they pop-up throughout the day. As an experiment many years ago, for one day I stopped to write down every negative thought that I had about myself as they occurred. When I got to 50 of them, I realized that this was an area that needed my attention.
3) Let go of self-judgment. Many of us believe we should just “get over it,” and begin to blame ourselves for not being physically and emotionally strong enough. Yet, it is the willingness to face these same challenges that make us stronger and more resilient. Personally, in times of stress, I find myself admiring friends who seem to deal with situations with more grace than I. However, we need to understand that everyone’s path and timeline are different. When we’re gentle with ourselves, we learn to accept that we all face challenges and may become overwhelmed – and that’s okay. We may take a little longer to work through them than some others – and that’s okay, too.
By becoming an observer, noticing negative thought patterns, and letting go of self-judgment, we are clearing through the clutter and setting ourselves up for a better mindfulness experience.
In her practice, Jane Parker has witnessed numerous people benefit from mindfulness exercises that might have started off painfully, but gradually evolved into greater feelings of wellbeing. “There is such joy in watching someone become an observer,” she shares, “stepping on the sand to watch the turmoil of thoughts, feelings, and body sensations, and look for the calm peace below the waves.”