How to Handle Difficult Emotions Part 6: Mindfulness Exercises
Mindfulness of Thoughts
This exercise helps to develop a mindful awareness of the environment, of the body, of the breath and of thoughts and emotions. You can practice the exercises as a whole, or in parts - using any part of the exercise.
As you're walking, or just sitting quietly somewhere, start to notice things as though you were a visitor to this place. As you look around you, notice sights, sounds and smells as though you had never seen, heard or smelled them before. You can imagine you are a visitor from another area or culture, or from a decent species, even an alien visitor. Seeing or hearing things for the first time, from a completely different perspective. Spend a little time just looking and listening noticing.
When 'Dr Who' regenerates into his new body, he immediately checks out his new body. As a newcomer, new awareness or a visitor, star to imagine being in your body for the first time. Notice what that feels like - what bodily sensations do you notice?
How does it feel to move around, stretching those muscles, standing up or sitting down. What do those hands feel like as you move them about, stretching and wiggling those fingers, clenching those fists? As you start to walk, how is that? What do you notice about your legs? Your upper legs, feet and toes?
Move your head around and notice what your neck and shoulders feel like. Bend, stretch and move about. What are those physical sensations? Spend a little time just noticing those bodily sensations and imagine taking your body for its first walk or any everyday activity.
What would you, as a new awareness or visitor to this new body, notice about the sensations of breathing, as you breathe in, then out? Notice the sensations in the abdomen, the chest, the throat, the mouth and nose. You can notice how your attention wanders, as thoughts come in, sometimes crowding in, and your attention can follow those thoughts.
Just notice as your attention wanders, then gently bring your focus back to your breath. Minds do wander, thoughts will come and thoughts will go, that is the nature of the human mind. As a visitor, you can stand back, notice the thoughts, feelings, sounds and sensations, and keep bringing your attention back to your breath.
Thoughts and Emotions
Then you can start to notice, as a visitor, the thoughts and images, feelings and emotions that come and go, in this your new body and mind. You're brand new to this body and mind, and there are no expectations for you to react to any thought, image or emotion - you can just notice them, and not respond.
As a visitor, you can notice that they are just words and images, sensations and feelings. Merely notice them as you would as an alien visitor to this body and mind. Words and images, sensations and feelings: they come, and they go, and that's okay, because that's just what the human mind does.
Leaves in the Stream
When learning mindfulness skills, it is usually recommended that we start practicing mindfulness of the breath, then mindfulness of the body, before moving on to mindfulness of the thoughts.
The Leaves in the Stream metaphor is often used as an exercise to help us distance ourselves from our almost constant stream of thoughts. To stand back and observe our thoughts rather than get caught up in them. We can notice that thoughts are simply thoughts, passing streams of words that we don't need to react to, we can just notice them.
Whilst sitting quietly, bring your focus to your breath, then start to notice the thoughts that come into your mind. As you notice each thought, imagine putting those words on a leaf as it floats by on a stream. Put each thought that you notice onto a leaf, and watch it drift on by. There's no need to look for the thoughts, or to remain alert waiting for them to come. Just let them come, and as they do, place them onto a leaf.
Your attention will wander, particularly so at first, and that's okay - it's what your mind does. As soon as you notice your mind wandering, just gently bring your focus back to the thoughts, and placing them on leaves.
After a few minutes, bring your attention back to your breath for a moment, then (open your eyes and) become more aware of your environment.
Clouds in the Sky
Some prefer using clouds in the sky rather than leaves in the stream for mindfulness of thoughts. When you notice a thought come into your mind, just put the thought on a cloud as it drifts across the sky, or dissipates.
Defusion involves distancing, disconnecting or seeing thoughts and feelings for what they are (streams of words, passing sensations), not what they say they are (dangers or facts).
Stop, step back, observe (the thoughts and feelings, what's happening to/for the other person).
Notice what's happening - your thoughts, physical sensations, emotions, images, memories. Notice the way you're interpreting what they mean, and how that's affecting you.
Notice the unhelpful thoughts. It can help to say them differently, in a non-threatening way: slowly, in a squeaky or comic voice or write them down.
Identify the emotion you're feeling, and label the unhelpful thoughts.
A feeling or sensation
An unhelpful thinking habit: mind-reading (assuming we know what others are thinking), negative filter (only noticing the bad stuff), emotional reasoning (I feel bad so it must be bad), catastrophizing (imagining the worst), the internal critic, etc.)
*Check back next week for part 7
* Artwork by Michael Parkes