Mindfulness is a difficult subject for those of us who struggle with sustained attention, working memory, response inhibition and other executive functions. Many of us think, ‘How can I be mindful if I struggle to pay attention to what’s on my mind?’ You can if you don’t call it “Mindfulness.”
Personally, I prefer “Awareness” instead of “Mindfulness.” The term “Mindfulness” reminds me of trying to remember all the steps for math problem-solving starting in second grade. Somehow, “Awareness” seems easier than thinking about my thinking, showing my work, and making it more likely that I’ll make a mistake. Awareness seems as if there is more than one right answer. In a recent interview, the American guru of Mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn, actually used the word “Awareness” when defining “Mindfulness.”
In my opinion, “Awareness” is about stepping up, stepping back, and figuring out how to step over your momentary failures, flaws, and fears without judging yourself negatively.* In that moment you are struggling, it is important to be able to realize that this one moment does not define your entire life.
Call it what you may, “mindfulness” or “awareness,” you can try working it in one of these ways.
See the Big Picture
Imagine what a Monet painting looks like if you are standing just one inch away from it. You see lots of little fuzzy dots and lines, and t’s pretty hard to make out anything, right? It’s only when you step away from the canvas and take in the entire painting, that you can see the masterpiece Monet intended you to see.
When you are standing in the midst of a problem in life, things can look pretty fuzzy too: it’s hard to make out anything, right? Just like with the painting, when you catch yourself too close to the problems in life, it is important to stop what you’re doing and take time to step back and see both the good and the bad in your life. It’s important to imagine how your problems can help you shape your future. This is how you see the true masterpiece that your life was meant to be.
Recognize Life in the Moment
Have you ever experienced watching an intense movie, like The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, and thinking that you were actually there? When your mind popped out of an especially intense or scary part of the movie, you most likely thought, “Whew, it’s just a movie!” You realize that it’s only lights or pixels on a screen and you don’t have to be so scared. You can enjoy relax, sit back, and enjoy the movie from another perspective.
When you are in the midst of an especially trying time in your life, you should stop what you’re doing, mindfully step out of that time, and think to yourself, “Whew, this is an especially trying time in my life. I’m glad I can look back at all the successes in my life and remember this is just one moment in time” Name your past successes and then take some perspective by asking yourself, “How can I use my strengths to overcome this challenge?” or “How have I been able to deal with these kinds of problems in the past?” Recognizing life in the moment makes it more enjoyable.
Practice Daily Awareness
Awareness/Mindfulness can also take the form of a daily time recording answers to specific questions designed to help you check in with yourself and become aware of what’s going on in your life. For some people, it is helpful to write down your thoughts about four different areas of your life. At the end of the day, answer these questions in quick phrases. Don’t worry about what this looks like to someone else; just try to quickly capture your thoughts.
1. Your Mind
What did you learn today?
How can you apply what you learned today in days to come?
2. Your Body.
How does your body feel today?
What did you do to positively improve your body today (exercise, eat right, etc.)?
What is your plan to continue to improve how your body feels in the future?
3. Your Heart
What went well today? List at least 3 things that went well.
Why did these good things happen? What did you do? What did others do?
What progress did you make today? (What ways did you improve executive functioning or emotional control?)
What can you do tomorrow to continue making progress?
4. Your Spirit
What inspired you today?
What are you inspired to do tomorrow?
How can you move from “what if” to “what is”?
This alertness method requires more daily work on your part, but research has shown that, over time, this process reduces symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Which Will You Choose?
Awareness is not about ignoring your struggles. It’s about putting them into perspective with the rest of your life. Which method can you try the next time you stumble and struggle? Make a commitment to try one of these methods: it will change your life.
Need Help Applying This Concept?
Call 817.421.8780. Dr. Davenport is happy to help you step up, step back, and step over your failures, flaws, and fears.
© 2010-2014, Monte W. Davenport, Ph.D.
*Just to be fair, “mindfulness” is also about stepping up, stepping back, and figuring out how to step over your momentary failures, flaws, and fears without judging yourself negatively.