Afloat in the River of Now: Ten Exercises in Mindfulness and Acceptance

Afloat in the River of Now: Ten Exercises in Mindfulness and Acceptance

A Brief Guide to Psychological Mindfulness
David I. Mellinger, M.S.W. & Steven Jay Lynn, Ph.D.

 

In this paper, you’ll learn about the simple beauty of acceptance and mindfulness. We’ll help you cultivate an accepting attitude toward disturbing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.  We’ll present 10 exercises in mindfulness and acceptance, including meditations that are geared to help you to improve your attentional focus, expand your awareness, and place your thoughts, physical sensations, and emotions in better perspective.

Meditation and mindfulness seem all the rage today.  In 2017, Time Magazine published a special edition titled “Mindfulness: The New Science of Health and Happiness”; and a new magazine – Mindful: Healthy Mind, Healthy Life – recently began publication to a wide popular reception.  Famous people like Oprah Winfrey, actor Hugh Jackman, singer Katy Perry, and Jerry Brown, the governor of California, are onboard the fast-moving meditation express and vouch for its transformative power.  Settings as varied as preschool classes and the corporate boardroom have been infiltrated with meditation practices.  Preschool students in a University of Wisconsin study three years ago were given short lessons in present-moment awareness, mindfulness, and compassion, and consequently earned higher marks in academic performance measures and showed greater improvements in areas that predict future success.(1)

The findings of a 2007 national survey of nearly 24,000 adults in the U.S. wrap statistics around its widespread popularity: 9.4 percent of respondents– which translates to an estimate of more than 20 million people—had practiced meditation in the past year.(2)  Far from the stereotype of meditation practice identified with monks living on the steppes of Tibet, meditation is now an integral part of many modern-day psychotherapies.  And with good justification: In the past two decades, psychologists, medical researchers, and neuroscientists have accumulated impressive evidence of the value of meditation in promoting health and well-being.

You should know that your authors practice the very acceptance and mindfulness techniques we’ll be sharing with you. David has been practicing and teaching meditation techniques to his clients for nearly 11 years.  Steve first learned to meditate when he traveled to India back in 1971 as part of a “sabbatical” from graduate school at Indiana University.  We’ll walk you through the 10 exercises that we practice and use with clients.  The menu of techniques we recommend is more comprehensive than what you’ll encounter in many articles and books about meditation and mindfulness.  Researchers have not yet compared these exercises directly with one another or studied their various combinations.  Still, what we often find is that our clients take to some practices more than others.  We strongly encourage our clients to experiment and learn what exercise works best for them or mix it up and discover what combination of techniques proves most useful.  We encourage you to do likewise.

Though the exercises we describe may seem simple, they require diligent practice to master.  Keep at it; don’t get discouraged.  We hope you’ll discover that the payoff is well worth the effort.

Acceptance

Think of acceptance as an attitude of openness, freshness, and willingness to engage in your experiences at this very moment, without trying to push away or clutch tightly onto particular feelings or mental events.  Clinical psychologist, Buddhist lay priest, and mindfulness meditation teacher Tara Brach calls this quality “radical acceptance” and defines it as “learning to recognize what is true in the present moment and embracing whatever we see with an open heart.”(3)

For most of us, everyday life is fraught with worry about circumstances we can’t change, despite our best intentions and dedicated efforts.   As the author and journalist Christopher Hitchens wrote, “There is no escape from anxiety and struggle.”(4)  The practice of acceptance is often especially valuable when some aspects of our current situation aren’t immediately changeable, or when the costs of changing are too dear.  Acceptance can help reduce the suffering that results from continually telling oneself that the situation shouldn’t be the way it is and from struggling to control negative feelings.  Suppression, avoidance of negative emotions, and compulsive behaviors are striking examples of control strategies that often backfire.  Lack of acceptance can even stand in the way of change.  For example, strong guilt and self-blame about binge eating or substance abuse most often do not lead to positive change.(5) When control strategies are tried and fail, it’s best to accept that, move on, and try other strategies we’ll acquaint you with.

Close-up.  Ashley has worked hard to develop the worry-busting skills she needs to contend with the challenges of the first day on her new job as a preschool teacher in a Head Start program. Still, she didn’t sleep well the night before, her mind assaulted with all sorts of scenarios spun out by the Worry Machine, our name for the tendency to rivet our minds to topics of concern which transforms everyday tension and edginess into disturbing anxiety.

“What if I have to speak in front of a group of parents today?  I’m really inexperienced; will it show?”  “Will my class be observed?” “I didn’t get much sleep last night; what if I forget a few things – will my assistant think I’m flaky?”  On the train to the school, the chaotic thoughts of the night before sometimes pour through her mind, this time with vivid images of the classroom and the children, and of her supervisor standing outside the door, peering through a window. “Will I have a panic attack in class?”, she muses.

So what does Ashley do?   She “presses the pause button,” takes a few deep breaths, and implements a plan of acceptance:  She opens herself to awareness of the moment.  She stops thinking about what could happen if she panics, stops trying to make sure she doesn’t fall short of anybody’s expectations, and lets go of the other stress-driven concerns.  Her heart is heavy, and she feels an inner tightness.  “That’s just my anxiety- first day jitters,” she tells herself.  She notices the advertisements near the ceiling of the train car, the colorful clothing of people to her left and right, the hard feel of the seat. She’s tired, her back and neck muscles tight… she yearns for a massage.  And then she reminds herself to refocus on her game plan with the children, how much she loves working with kids, how she came to other jobs feeling tense, a feeling that inevitably morphed into excitement.  Within the richness of the moment of Ashley’s expanded awareness, her anxiety has dampened and her worries have receded into the background. She is now positioned to focus on what she needs to do, and she doesn’t become undone.

Important Definitions

  • Mindfulness
    • Paying attention in a particular way – on purpose, in the present moment, nonjudgmentally
    • Cultivating a vivid, stable awareness of the here and now(6)
  • Acceptance
    • The ability to remain in contact with moment to moment experience without judging, conceptualizing, or changing it in some way
    • Increases willingness to experience whatever occurs, regardless of the emotional tone or flavor

 

The Two Ingredients of Mindfulness

First, when we’re mindful we clarify ourselves and our experience through becoming aware of what’s going on in our minds.  We attune ourselves to all the mental events in our field of experience—thoughts, mental images, sensations, memories, and emotions.  Second, when we’re mindful we embrace our experience in a nonjudgmental way without shunning it or pushing it away. From a position of mindfulness, it’s as if we’re watching the reflection in a mirror of a lively party boat floating past us on the vast River of Now.

 

Mindfulness is comprised of keen awareness and openhearted acceptance.

 

Psychologists Daphne Davis and Jeffrey Hayes reviewed psychotherapy studies on the benefits of mindfulness and concluded that substantial research supports the emotional, interpersonal, and intrapersonal benefits of mindfulness practice. Not only does mindfulness (including meditation) appear to bring forth positive emotions and promote the ability to control uncomfortable emotions, but it also facilitates greater flexibility in response to thoughts and emotions in general.(7) Mindfulness practice teaches an important lesson: We can learn to experience mental events separately from taking action, focus on the present, and not attempt to shut down painful experiences or prolong pleasant experiences.

Instead of pounding our mental gavels and rendering our anxious interpretations official (e.g., “That would be awful!”  “It’s all my fault.”  “I won’t be able to stand the panic.”), with mindfulness and acceptance-based approaches we can allow our judgments to subside rather than dominate our emotional reactions.  We can learn to allow them to float in the river of our consciousness and ultimately learn to co-exist with our thoughts and feelings with an open heart.

Decentering:  The content is irrelevant. Must our actions automatically and robotically follow our ever-changing moods, thoughts, and feelings?  Don’t we have choices about whether to act assertive rather than meek, leave early or procrastinate before leaving because we’re anxious, or make a sarcastic remark?  We learn in mindfulness training that our thoughts and feelings need not dominate our actions or shape our character.

In fact, in mindfulness and acceptance-based approaches, the specific content, intensity, or frequency of thoughts and feelings is essentially irrelevant.  For example, according to mindfulness researchers James Herbert and Evan Foreman, a person can be filled with anxiety-provoking or angry perceptions and interpretations of other people’s reactions or the situation yet nevertheless can continue to perform effectively.(8) So when anxious and angry thoughts fill your mind, we’ll help you learn to “decenter” yourself from your thoughts and actions and to realize that your thoughts don’t define you:  Neither your thoughts nor your feelings need drive your actions, nor do they define who you are or who you are capable of becoming.

A person can be filled with anxiety-provoking perceptions and interpretations of other people’s reactions or the situation yet nevertheless can continue to perform effectively.

 

For example, an individual engaged in decentering might say, “I am thinking that I feel anxious right now,” instead of “I am an anxious person, doomed to be anxious forever.”  Perhaps it would be helpful to utilize a simile:  “My thoughts are like leaves in a stream, present for an instant before floating away on the water.”  She might think, “I’m feeling uneasy and a little ill, yet I’m perfectly free to choose whether to stay home or attend the barbecue.”  Decentering represents an ability to observe thoughts and feelings as temporary, objective events in the mind, as opposed to reflections of the self that are necessarily true.

Mindfulness Meditation

Now let’s dive into the actual practice of mindfulness meditation. The traditional purpose of mindfulness meditation is to become mentally clear and capable of coping and maintaining in healthy and effective ways. The training in mindfulness we provide to you consists of two formal practices – Concentrating on Your Breathing (COYB) and Mindful Awareness Meditation (MAM).

Exercise 1: Concentrating on Your Breathing (COYB)

The practice of COYB lies at the very heart of mindfulness meditation.  In the words of the Buddha: “The meditator, having gone to the forest, to the shade of a tree, or to an empty building, sits down with body held erect, and sets mindfulness to the fore.  Always mindful, the meditator breathes in; mindful, the meditator breathes out.”(9)

Acquaint yourself with your breath.  Find or create a place that’s relatively free from distraction to start your practice.  Seat yourself in a relaxed, upright position.  Notice your breathing and focus your attention steadily at the place in your body where your breath seems most vivid.  Perhaps your nostrils are the best focal point, or you can rest your hand on your belly with one finger above your navel and the rest below and concentrate on the space between them.  Start getting to know your breath with its associated sensations – the movement of air through your airway, the sounds of breathing in and out, perhaps the coolness of the air going in, the warmth of exhaled air, or the motion of your nostrils, mouth, chest, diaphragm, and stomach.  “Know your breath” is the master instruction of COYB:  Get acquainted with the ins and outs of your breathing and allow all else to glide into the background.

When focusing on their breath, people often judge it at first (“Too fast!” “Too deep!” “Too uneven!”), criticize themselves (“I’m not much good at this,” “I’m breathing wrong,” or “I keep getting distracted.”), and/or become dissatisfied when they don’t get particularly relaxed. At such moments, our judgmentalism is really interfering with our ability to simply become acquainted with our breath.  Sometimes we might even become panicky about feeling unable to catch our breath, thinking catastrophically that we’re getting too short of breath, or worrying that focus on the breathing will lead to a scary loss of mental control.

Our breath takes care of itself and of us. Should you find yourself judging, simply remind yourself to return to observing or just following your breathing (“Where am I?  In…or out?”).  If you become panicky, remember that your breath takes care of itself and of you.  Our breath, controlled automatically and effortlessly by our cerebellums from deep within our brains, puffs wind into the sails of our vitality and sustains us.  So it’s simple: learn to find and follow the breath.  Allow your mind to stay in the background, chattering away —and it will– while tuning back into your breath and keeping it center stage.

In Breath by Breath, mindfulness teacher Larry Rosenberg underscores the importance of allowing the breathing to follow its own nature.   He observes, “Most of us are quite good at controlling. . . Our tendency is to tell the breath how to be, to ride the breath, to push it along, to help it out.  That isn’t the instruction.  The instruction is to let it be, to surrender to the breathing.(10) . . . If we can learn to allow the breath to unfold naturally, without tampering, then in time we may be able to do that with other aspects of our experience:  We might learn to let feelings be, let the mind be.”(11) Psychologist, classical mindfulness researcher, and former Tibetan Buddhist monk Lobsang Rapgay wryly observes that it’s “difficult – but not impossible – for people to learn how to concentrate when they’re disturbingly anxious. . .  However, if you can’t concentrate on your breath for a while, how are you going to concentrate on thoughts and feelings”?(12)

Exercise 2: Crank Up Your Concentration

Verbalize Your Intention

Begin each practice by verbalizing your intention – out loud or in a quiet “mental voice” – to focus on every breath and to notice whenever your mind wanders.

 

Golf great Jack Nicklaus, renowned for his ability to focus on his game in the face of distraction, once commented, “Concentration is a fine antidote to anxiety.”(13)  The next exercise will help you to crank up your concentration to the point where you can steadily maintain focus on your breathing.

Spend a few moments putting everything else aside and then just think about the breathing. Breath in, breath out, counting each set until you count set #7, and then start back at 1, and continue like that.  Notice when you get distracted, disengage for a moment, and start again.  Recognizing distraction heightens your awareness of when you’re mindful of your breathing and when you aren’t.   Once you find you can sustain your concentration long enough to count 10 to 15 breaths, then try to maintain your concentration without the counting.  The counting piece is really dispensable and can be a distraction in itself.  Just keep your body relaxed and balanced, work with your attention riveted to the present to the extent possible and see what you can accomplish.

Try practicing for a total of about ten or fifteen minutes every day, or longer, if you can manage it.  Start each practice by verbalizing your intention to become more familiar with your breath and after you’ve concluded, engage in a little reflection.  Remember the idea of openness?  Allow yourself to be open to the totality of your experience—all of it:  The good, the bad, and the ugly.  We instruct our clients to not be surprised if they can’t even concentrate for thirty seconds at first; but after a couple of weeks we find that many are able to measure the length of undistracted concentration in minutes.  Stick with it, and you’ll probably notice slow and steady improvement in your ability to concentrate.  Yet if you keep having really frustrating difficulties with COYB, and you’re about to throw up your hands, try practicing with the aid of a recording, such as Jon Kabat-Zinn’s breathing meditation or the mindfulness meditation recordings from UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center.(14)

Exercise 3: Informal practice of COYB

You’ll learn concentration on the breath better by meditating informally, as well.  We recommend Pema Chödrön’s informal practice.  First, just pause: intentionally interrupt the nonstop flow of your thoughts and behaviors.  “Stop for a few seconds, take three conscious breaths, and move on. . . Don’t make it into a project.  Pause and allow there to be a gap in whatever you’re doing.” The purpose of this practice is to create a momentary contrast between being completely self-absorbed and being awake and present.(15)  Practice informally as often as possible, preferably numerous times a day.

One-Pointedness: One Thought at a Time

One-pointedness is a term for the frame of mind we can attain through concentration meditation.  Keep this in mind:

We can only think carefully and assiduously of one thing at a one time.  If we’re focused on our breath, we can’t also be focused on something else (like a worry).

When we seem to be multi-thinking about several things at once, we quickly discover that if we try to focus our full attention on one of them, the others drop off our mental screen. After realizing that you truly can only think carefully about one thing at a time and devoting your energy to doing so, you become better at practicing one-pointedness.  A quote by the late screen actor, Omar Sharif, nicely captures the potential value of one-pointedness: “My philosophy of life is that I’m living every moment intensely, as if it were the last moment.  I don’t think of what I did before or what I’m going to do.  I think of what I’m doing right now.”  The ability to wring zestful living from the experience of each moment as it unfolds doesn’t leave much emotional space for worry, does it?

Sticky Thinking is Multi-thinking

Mindful concentration can bust your worries.   Practice sustaining your concentration on your breathing as it’s occurring.  By using one-pointedness on the breath you’ll become more capable of holding in your mind and concentrating on one mental event or thought at a time. Doing so precludes preoccupation with other mental events or activities in that moment.

It’s very useful to adapt concentration meditation to turn our awareness away from sticky thinking.   How would that work? We’re attempting to juggle multiple thoughts whenever we ruminate, or, for that matter, engage in any kind of sticky thinking, such as intense worry, apprehension, brooding, or obsessing.

Close-up.  When Lily thinks: “Reed got me so upset, but if only I hadn’t made that smart remark, I wouldn’t have put him off.  If only I could be more considerate!” her thoughts have multiple associations and dimensions:

  1. Reed behaved in a manner that got her upset.
  2. What she said (loosely translated): “GrrrrSnapSnarl!”
  3. The mental image of offending Reed with her behavior
  4. The notion that she’s an inconsiderate person
  5. The possibility of improving herself by overcoming her irritability

Lily could probably keep from ruminating if she were to shift her energy and focus, turn her attention onto her breath and sustain it. Then she could use her breath as an anchor and proceed to think in a more single-minded way about managing her irritability.  Any time we focus on something other than our troublesome thoughts, it interrupts worry or rumination and – if only for a moment – releases us from getting entangled in sticky thoughts and increases our ability to respond flexibly in the here-and-now.

Exercise 4:  Worry-Busting through One-pointedness on the Breath

  1. Detect your anxiety as early as possible.  Pause, acknowledge, and abide.  If your anxiety consists of sticky thinking, then
  2. Engage in brief, mindful breathing and continue concentrating on your breath.
  3. Once you’ve engaged in a few moments’ mindful concentration on the breath, you’re likely to discover that your sticky thinking has dissipated.

 Close-up.  People often ruminate about interpersonal problems and decisions that provoke anxiety.  Ethan and his girlfriend were planning to move in together, but so far they’d been unable to go apartment hunting.  She came from a wealthy family and her income was greater than Ethan’s, so he’d kept finding himself getting tight inside and avoiding “rental talk” due to his misgivings about the cost of renting together.  He knew his backing away wasn’t an issue of commitment to his girlfriend–not a shying away from closeness–yet lately even trying to create a budget was making him antsy.

Ethan decided that today he would act, rather than react reflexively to his thoughts and anxious feelings. Ethan had been practicing the mindfulness technique of “one-pointedness on the breath” for the past couple of weeks. At the last session of his anxiety workshop he’d committed to experimenting with one-pointedness to free himself up for apartment hunting.  Tyra was showing him a page from Craig’s List and pointed out several attractive-sounding places nearby. This time, rather than reacting with the same tired, negative thoughts in the same old way, he found his mental focal point and concentrated on his breath.  He then released his mental grip on the breath and considered very carefully what she was saying.  This time, he really heard her.  As she held forth on the virtues of the two-bedroom guesthouse, he again focused on breathing in and breathing out.  Then he tuned in to Tyra, without missing a beat – or should we say a heartbeat – and agreed to go house hunting.

Mindful Awareness

Concentration and awareness differ in subtle but important ways.  Think of concentration as an effortful focus on a restricted range of experiences.  When we concentrate, we increase awareness of some stimuli while we de-emphasize or even avoid others.  In contrast, when we practice awareness, we tune in consciously to the “all” of our experience without focusing on some experiences and avoiding others.

Mindful Awareness Meditation (MAM)

Mindful Awareness Meditation (MAM) is among the most common of all mindfulness practices. The technique is simple.  Sit calmly and pay attention to your breathing, develop awareness of your mind as it wanders–because that’s what our minds do naturally–acknowledge or label when and where it wanders to (e.g., “thinking”, “itching”.or “fidgeting”), and gently return your attention to your breath as often as needed.

Just as we described COYB as getting thoroughly acquainted with the breath, MAM consists of getting well acquainted with the mind as a whole.

The three main purposes of MAM are:

  • To augment your mental flexibility and clarity
  • To discover that you can actively observe your mind without getting caught up in stories or overwhelmed by cravings (e.g., “I’d really like a cookie”), aversions (e.g., “now that I think of it, I can’t stand that guy”) or other sticky thinking patterns
  • To become familiar with the patterns of your mental functioning while using your ability to resume concentration onto your breath as an anchor

The House of Monkeys: Mindfulness and Feelings

Feelings are a vital part of mindfulness.  In Buddhist psychology, the concept of feelings is known as vendana.   Vendana encompasses both emotional feelings and physical sensations.  Tibetan master and teacher Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche likens our senses and emotions to entryways into a house.  Our ordinary, “restless, untrained mental consciousness” is represented by a monkey that’s set loose in the house (although western traditions often prefer a puppy, because puppies are much more familiar to most of us), acting crazy, “jumping around from opening to opening to check things out, looking for new, different, interesting things. . . But like every other sentient being, all a crazy monkey really wants is to be happy and avoid pain.  So it’s possible to teach the monkey [or puppy] in your own mind to calm down by deliberately focusing its attention on one or the other of the senses, [on mental objects].”(16)  And that – in a nutshell – is what MAM is all about.

Guided meditation sessions often begin with the teacher recommending an “intention,” an idea or concept to plan to notice or learn about during the practice.  Two intentions for the first several occasions when you practice MAM are:

  1. To allow the awareness of the comings and goings of vendana – sensations and emotional feelings – as well as of thoughts and mental images. They arise, pass through your mind, and then are replaced by others.   Try not to get caught up in efforts to control them.  As we’ve noted earlier, feelings, thoughts, and mental images are but temporary mental events.
  2. To notice that awareness of our breath is strong at times, but then it slips out of focus. Our breath is always there, throughout the practice and throughout our lives.  We can always regain awareness of our breath, just as we can attain awareness of the full range of our experiences.

We don’t need to go hunting for our breath:
We can find it just by expanding our awareness.

 

Exercise 5: Practice Mindful Awareness

After choosing a quiet place, sit comfortably upright with your hands resting on your lap or your crossed legs (or you can kneel, or assume the lotus posture, if you prefer), with your eyes shut or half-shut.  As with the concentration meditation exercise, turn your attention to your breathing by keeping quiet and alert and finding your breath in your body.  When you notice different sensations arising, whether pleasant or unpleasant, “let [each] sensation [or emotional feeling] become the object of meditation, making a soft mental note to help keep the mind receptive and nonreactive.”(17)  By “receptive,” we mean to allow yourself to be curious and try to enjoy the discovery of what goes through your mind and the process of mental flow.  By “nonreactive,” we mean that you should see how it feels to try not to take any action in response to things that cross your mind – not to scratch that itch or chase that puppy.  Just observe: Watch each thought, sensation, feeling, or emotion emerge and linger, or emerge and fade, and then let your attention return to the breath.

Don’t interrupt – simply label.   During MAM, don’t interrupt the practice when you’re distracted or “start over” with breath counting the way you did during concentration practice:  When the mental flow feels blocked or you find yourself caught up in distractions, the only action you need take is to label where your mind has gone.

If you get hung up on feelings, thoughts, images, or mental processes, give the experience a simple label like “hearing noises,” “itching,” “nervousness,” “This is distress,” “drifting,” “aching”, “thinking,” “judging,” or “remembering.”

“The key to the art of mindfulness meditation is cultivation of full, steady attention with a grateful and tender heart – the gentle returning of your attention again and again to the practice you have chosen.”(18)

Exercise 6: Informal Practice – The Mindfulness Break

We recommend that you also practice MAM informally using mindfulness breaks lasting three or four minutes.  Begin by concentrating on your breath for eight or 10 sets.  Then spend a minute or so scanning your body, paying special attention, without judging, to the feelings and sensations of your face, in your core – your chest and abdomen – and in your hands and feet.  Finally, spend another few moments letting your awareness expand outward – tuning in to the touch of the air on your skin, then outward to encompass the elements of the physical space where you are, out through the walls, floor, and the ceiling, outward to the horizon and upward toward the firmament.  Practice often and reflect on your experience each time you do.

Exercise 7: Switching Attention

After practice in intensive mindfulness training, the ability to sustain attention increases.  In fact, even limited training in mindfulness meditation can boost attentional control.(19)  Attention shifting can be a valuable means of facilitating attentional control, flexing your mental flexibility muscle, and breaking up habitual, repetitive, negative thinking.  When we’re disturbed by anxious, angry, or depressed feelings or moods, we’re likely to become “sticky” – engaged in apprehension, worry, ruminating, or obsessing.  Our thinking may become tangled and over-focused on very disturbing images or ideas.

One technique we’ve found useful is to invite our clients to be aware of each body part, starting with the top of the head, paying nonjudgmental attention to what is experienced, and then releasing the attention from the designated part to refocus attention on the breath.  We like to proceed in this manner, and you can try this on your own: “Start with what you experience at the very top of your head…what do you notice…what are you aware of?  What sensations, if any, can you feel?  Whatever it is, whatever you experience, just notice, be aware… now release your attention gently from the top of your head, and turn your awareness to your breath… just notice the ins and outs of it …perhaps you can be aware of the still point between inspiration and exhalation, or the warmth or coolness of the breath…what is it you notice?  And now, gently and easily, bring your attention to your forehead muscle and the area around your eyes… whatever you feel there, whatever you experience, let it be…no need to judge… just let it be, as it is; and, yes, that’s right… now release your awareness from that area of your body and bring it right back to your breath…that’s it, right back to your breath, learning how to release and move your attention in a flexible way, carrying your breath with you…wherever you go, whatever you do.” Continue in this manner until the entire body is scanned, from head to toes, always returning to the breath.(20)  If you like challenges and want to raise the level of difficulty of this exercise, add a breath count as well, as you shift from body part to breath, and start counting at 1 if you forget the count.

Exercise 8: Techniques for Enhancing Attention, Calm, and Acceptance

Here are some other things you can try to promote attention, awareness, calm, and acceptance:

(1) Letting be – Scan for “tension spots,” then disengage, releasing your attention from these areas and returning to the breath.

(2) Breathe in and out – Breathe in acceptance, compassion, tolerance for self and others, or forgiveness, and breathe out judgmentalism, self-criticism, tension the body or mind does not need, or other specific qualities of experience.

(3) Attention switching by paying bare attention – Paying bare attention to what’s inside or outside you helps you to stay in the present moment of your experience. Bare attention consists of engaging in being aware, without thinking, of a or a spot or object in the environment or a part of your body. Set this as your intention and devote between thirty seconds to several minutes to this practice.  When you were learning COYB, you were cultivating bare attention exclusively on the breath.  And when we practice MAM, we’re training to be “barely attentive” – to focus awareness during meditation, simply and with clarity, on each of the feelings, or mental objects, in our minds right now. Following once again the analogy of COYB, after each instance of bare attention – just like with each outbreath – disengage.  Let it pass on.

Exercise 9: The LLAMP Technique for Mindful Worry-Busting

We advocate use of the LLAMP Technique (pronounced “lamp”), our modification of a worry-busting strategy derived from Chad LeJeune’s work, The Worry Trap, an Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Treatment Manual.(21)  LLAMP is an acronym for Labeling, Letting go of Control, Acceptance, Mindfulness, and Proceeding in a valued direction.   When you discover you’re worrying intensely or when the time arrives to work on your sticky thinking, to use LLAMP, you would proceed by following these steps:                                     

  1. L. The first L is labeling – Simply identify the type of cognition or anxious disturbance that’s occurring now that you’ve realized you’ve become anxious, such as “criticizing myself,” “worrying,” “obsessing,” “thinking panicky thoughts,” or “frightening myself.”
    L – Next, tell yourself that you are “letting go of control.” That is, acknowledge that you’ve decided for now that you won’t get anywhere by trying to force your sticky thinking to a standstill.  This is another way of abiding.  Turn off your “struggle switch” while holding your issue in awareness.  We recommend you actually say to yourself, “I’m not in control of my anxiety” or “I find that right now I’m caught up in panic (or obsessing, worrying, ruminating, or anticipatory anxiety)” or “I’m not going to battle with myself right now.”

A & M – The next step is a combination of acceptance and mindfulness.  For a few moments, realize what your state of mind is right now.  Let yourself be openly aware of your state of emotional distress, as well as your sense of how you’d rather be, if that’s what’s on your mind.   Try for the moment to accept yourself without judging and mindfully focus your attention on the present moment – perhaps by grounding yourself, taking a few mindful breaths, or practicing bare attention.

P – Proceed in a valued direction. The final step has to do with values.  We sometimes get so bogged down in repetitive thought patterns that we lose sight of what’s meaningful, important, and precious to us.  Because we can only focus on one thing at a time, our anxieties can obscure the values we bring to situations.

Below is a list of many areas of life that people consider meaningful and valuable.  Examine the list and consider the areas that are important to you.

  • Friendships and social relationships
  • Physical wellbeing, health, nutrition, self-care
  • Employment, meaningful work
  • Marriage, couples, intimate relationships
  • Parenting
  • Other family relationships
  • Recreation, hobbies, creative and artistic expression
  • Acting with clarity and confidence
  • Spirituality
  • Life organization, time management, discipline/self-discipline, finances
  • Citizenship, community, activism, altruism
  • Other areas

Go through your “mental list” of values, select a value you hold dear, and take valued action.  If social relating comes to mind, call a friend on the spot; if time management seems important at the moment, then plan how to spend the next little while or the following afternoon; or do a yoga stretch or exercise on a treadmill that might satisfy your yearning for enhancement of your physical wellbeing.  Decide what it is you’re inclined to do more of right now. Ask yourself, “What’s the next right thing to do?” and do it.  Punch the values that you aspire to right now into your mental GPS, and, if you feel comfortable doing so, add the value of mindfulness practice to the list.

The Buddhist conception of insight.  COYB is a type of concentration meditation (samatha in Pali, the language in which the early Buddhist scriptures are written), whereas MAM is an introductory practice of what’s called Insight Meditation (vipassana in Pali). The terms mindfulness meditation and insight meditation are often used interchangeably.  But concentration meditation is typically used for calming and learning to really focus and as a preparation for the work of insight meditation, whose purposes are to reveal how the mind was restless and stirred up to start with, leading to wisdom, understanding, and expansion of awareness.   In order to become insightful in this sense, meditators often intersperse concentration meditation with insight meditation.  In other words, sometimes we practice focusing our attention and sometimes we practice expanding our minds (and hearts) – our awareness – in the widest possible way to enrich our experience.  In Buddhist tradition, insight also refers to clear, immediate awareness of the role of the Three Laws of Wisdom in our mental experience.

The Three Laws of Wisdom

When we carefully, actively attend to our mental experience, we ultimately discover that all the thoughts and feelings, cognitions, and mental images that arise soon pass away— an expression of the Law of Impermanence, the first of the “Three Laws of Wisdom” in Buddhist tradition.(22)  We can deal far better with our anxieties and worries when we can describe and/or perceive them as temporary mental events that come and go, like the bottle that’s bobbing past us down the stream.  The second Law of Wisdom holds that the root of all suffering is our natural tendency to become attached to positive experiences, to try to prolong them, and to push away or avoid negative experiences.  But when we avoid negative experiences, we find they often rebound right back at us; and when we remain attached to positive experiences after they are over, what we often find ourselves with is emptiness, heartache, or longing.  The Third Law of Wisdom acknowledges that we‘re forever changing.  We don’t actually have “enduring selves” that exist independently of our ongoing experiences, our stories, and our beliefs. Although most of us wake up feeling like the same person we were last night, according to the third Law of Wisdom this is only an illusion that can contribute to confusion and suffering.  Passing thoughts and feelings needn’t forever define who we are nor constrict our activities and joy of living.  Ideally, mindfulness meditators can reach the point of “insight” – of constant attunement to the manner in which the Three Laws of Wisdom are always shaping our experience.

How the Insights Produced by Mindfulness Help with Anxiety

  • Empowering the “disengager” – As we become skilled in mindfulness, we become facile at disengaging from unhealthy over-identification with sticky thinking and disturbing themes without making a big deal of it.
  • Less reactivity to anxiety –Even if we get stage fright or feel anxious while we’re interacting with others, for instance, our worries about their reactions, scrutiny, and judgments needn’t impact us substantially. Through practice of mindful awareness, our growing capacity for “bare attention” helps us be less reactive to anxiety.  This decreased automatic reactivity, in turn, enables us to function better even when we’re highly anxious or panicky.
  • Letting be – Mindfulness enables us to “let it be.” We become increasingly capable of letting the awareness of sticky thinking “touch us and go,” because, in essence, we aren’t fused together with our sticky thinking anymore.  As we continue to practice, we become increasingly and more swiftly attuned to impulses to engage in anxiety-driven behavior –  as they occur, closer and closer to the moment of onset.  Like the breath, they arise, and then they pass. “Letting be” is this process of attunement to the comings and goings of anxious impulses as simple mental events that need not trigger actions inconsistent with our aims or values.

 Finding the Quiet Inside Our Heads

According to Buddhist tradition, we need to be capable of still, lucid awareness before we can fully attain insight. “Better than a meaningless story of a thousand words is a single word of deep meaning which, when heard, produces peace.”(23)

Even when we’re mindful, words and ideas keep pouring through our minds, like moving water, like swirling clouds. Ironically, helpful phrases and adages, anti-anxiety coaching instructions, and even pearls of wisdom detract from mindful absorption in the present moment.  John Teasdale, a research psychologist at Cambridge and co-developer of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (MBCT), describes this as the “conceptualizing/ doing mode of thought.”(24)  When in this mode, the relative impersonality and detachment we experience interferes with our ability to gain the upper hand over emotional distress. In fact, we might get caught up in sticky thinking all over again.  According to B. Alan Wallace, scholar, teacher, and former monk, the final condition needed for mindful composure is “the elimination of conceptualization that is compulsive, mechanical, and unintelligent, [mental] activity that is always fatiguing, usually pointless, and at times seriously harmful.”(25)

Exercise 10:  Thought is Like a Bubble

Wallace suggests a way to get closer to a state of still, lucid awareness:  By becoming aware that we’re “indulging in thought” while meditating, we can imagine that a particular thought is a bubble (like in a cartoon);(26)  Or

 

Lama Surya Das, the most highly trained American lama in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, teaches that “true inner silence puts you in touch with the deeper dimensions of being and knowing – [spiritual] awareness and innate wisdom. . . Silence is the song of the heart. . . a natural melody open to anyone, even the tone deaf or religiously challenged.”  Try going out into the woods or sitting within earshot of the wash of ocean surf.  Sit atop a hillside or overlooking the city or town from a rooftop.  “Look up at the bright stars at night; open your mind’s inner ear and listen to the lovely song of silence.”(27) As you discover that you’re increasingly capable of “walking your talk,” facing your fears with less and less anxious thinking, we think you’ll find that much of the helpful instructions you carry in your mind have already served their purpose. If you need them again, save this paper!

We have introduced you a realm of therapeutic applications of mindfulness and acceptance.  Equipped with new wave skills, we believe you’ll discover that you’re more able to face your fears with a new attitude, face everyday worries from a different perspective, and start dealing with fright, anxiety, and catastrophic thinking with greater composure, presence, and balance.

Reference List

[1] Tyrrell, Kelly April (6/11/2015). “Kindness in the Classroom”, On Wisconsin   Magazine.

[2] 2007 – Survey of meditators in the past year.

[3] Brach, Tara (2003).  Radical Acceptance:  Embracing your life with the heart of Buddha.  New York:  Bantam Books, p. 4.

[4] Hitchens, Christopher (2004).  Love, Poverty, and War: Journeys and Essays.

[5] Robbins, CJ and Rosenthal, MZ (2011).  Dialectical Behavior Therapy. In Herbert, JD & Forman, EM (eds.). Acceptance and mindfulness in cognitive behavior therapy: Understanding and applying the new therapies. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Sons.

[6] Thompson, Evan (2015).  Waking, Dreaming, Being.  New York, NY: Columbia University Press, pp.87-88.

[7] Davis, DM, PhD, and Hayes, JA (July/August 2012), What are the benefits of mindfulness?  APA Monitor on Psychology (43, 7), p. 64.

[8] Forman, EM and Herbert, JD (2011).  The evolution of cognitive behavior therapy: The rise of psychological acceptance and mindfulness.  In   Herbert, JD & Forman, EM (eds.). Acceptance and mindfulness in cognitive behavior therapy: Understanding and applying the new therapies. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Sons.

[9] Anapanasati Sutra. Buddhadasa Bikkhu (1980). Quoted in Rosenberg, Larry (1998).  Breath by Breath: The liberating practice of insight meditation. Boston, MA:  Shambala Publications.

[10] Rosenberg, Larry (1998).  Breath by Breath: The liberating practice of insight   meditation. Boston, MA: Shambala Publications, p. 24.

[11] Ibid, pp. 20-21.

[12] Rapgay, Lopsang  (2011).  Personal communication.

[13] Palank, Edward (2000). The golf doc: Health, humor, and insight to improve your game. London: Jones and Bothwell, p. 66.

[14] UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center (2011). Recorded breathing meditation instructions: http://marc.ucla.edu/body.cfm?id=22     Downloaded on November 4, 2013.

[15] Chödrön, Pema (2009). Taking the leap: Freeing ourselves from old habits and fears. Boston, MA: Shambala Publications, p. 8.

[16] Mingyur, Yongey Rinpoche (2007).  The joy of living:  Unlocking the secret & science of happiness.  New York: Three Rivers Press.  p. 143.

[17] Goldstein, Joseph (2003). One dharma: The emerging western Buddhism. San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, p. 94.

[18] Kornfeld, Jack (1993). A path with heart: A guide through the perils and promises of spiritual life.  New York:  Bantam Books, pp. 56-57.

[19] Wend-Sormaz, Heidi (March/April 2005).  Meditation can reduce habitual responding. Alternative Therapies (11, 2), 42-58.

[20] Malaktaris, A, Lynn, SJ, Condon, L, Maxwell, R, Cleere, C (2012). Post- traumatic stress disorder: Cognitive hypnotherapy, mindfulness, and     acceptance-based treatment approaches. American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis (54, 4).

[21] LeJeune, Chad (2007). The worry trap: How to free yourself from worry & anxiety using acceptance and commitment therapy. Oakland, CA:  New Harbinger.

[22] Rosenberg, Op. Cit.,1998, p. 5

[23] From the Dhammapada – Sayings of the Buddha. Quoted in Das, Lama Surya (1998). Awakening the Buddha within: Tibetan wisdom for the western world. New York: Broadway Books.

[24] Teasdale, JD (1999).  Metacognition, mindfulness and the modification of mood disorders. Clinical psychology and psychotherapy, 6, 146-155.

[25] Wallace, BA (1993). Tibetan Buddhism from the ground up: A practical approach for modern life. Boston, MA:  Wisdom Publications, p. 108.

[26] Ibid, p. 114.

[27] Das, Lama Surya (1998).  Awakening the Buddha within: Tibetan wisdom for the western world. New York: Broadway Books. p. 192.