Monday, May 5, 2014

Creating a 'Practical Mindfulness Practice'

As caregivers, the central theme that we all share is that we put others' needs before our own-- which is the main reason why purposefully choosing to engage in self care is so important for all of us. 

When we embrace the role of a caregiver- whether it be as a part of a profession or part of a role as family member or friend- we commit to giving of ourselves. We may give our emotional support, our spiritual support, or we may need to literally give of our physical strength to hold someone up, to carry them, or to restrain them from hurting themselves or others.  All of these forms of giving take a toll on our own spiritual, emotional, and physical well-being.  And on top of that, take up A LOT of our time.

This is why it can be so difficult for so many of us to envision how we can possibly make time to take care of ourselves throughout our busy days.  My message to you today is this: it IS possible to practice small acts of self care. It is just about figuring out how to fit it into your daily life, in a practical way. You CAN create your own "practical practice." I recommend starting with a mindfulness practice.

While there are many definitions of mindfulness, my favorite is from the mindfulness expert, Jon Kabat Zinn. He describes mindfulness as, "paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally." 

If you are not familiar with the practice, I suggest searching YouTube for guided meditations by Jon Kabat Zinn or Thích Nhất Hạnh. These are two amazing mentors who will guide you through the basics of the practice. 

Mindfulness asks you to slow down, to pay attention to your breath, and to observe yourself without judgment.   For caregivers, who feel like we barely have time to think about anything else but the needs of others, it may sound daunting, or even impossible, to find the time to meditate or practice mindfulness. BUT- the best part of mindfulness, is that you can practice it pretty much anytime and anywhere.

Once you have a general understanding of mindfulness, and have practiced it a little bit, you will find that you can practice mindfulness in walking, eating, even in sitting at a red light, or answering a ringing phone.  Thích Nhất Hạnh suggests using a red light like a meditation bell. Instead of being frustrated that the light is stopping you from getting where you are going, you can learn to actually love the red light in this moment (this may sound impossible, I know!). 

When you begin to look at the world through a lens of observation and awareness, it will become possible for you to make the shift from wanting to curse the red light, to thanking that red light for giving you the opportunity to stop for a moment. In this new awareness, you may look at the light as the universe giving you permission to slow down, even for just a few seconds. The light is giving you the opportunity to take some time to nourish your body and mind with your breath, to become present, and to clear your mind of any judgmental thoughts that are not serving you. You may find that when the light turns green, you feel a little more calm and centered, instead of more stressed and frustrated.

Another practical way to introduce mindfulness into your busy day, is to use the ringing of the phone. The sound of a phone ringing can often be stress-inducing for caregivers, especially if you are caring for a loved one who is ill, or if you are on-call for crisis situations at work. The sound of that ringing can trigger anxiety and dread for what bad news may be at the other end of the call. The challenge here, is to use that ringing, similar to the red light, as a signal to slow down, to take some breaths, and to become present in the current moment.  

In the Buddhist tradition, it is recommended that we build a mindfulness community with people who can share and encourage your practice. So for this phone exercise, have a conversation with the community of people who may be calling you with caregiving-related news. Make an agreement that at both ends of the phone call, you will each take three rings to breath deeply and become present before the conversation begins.  In those few moments, when you are both separated but listening to the same ringing, you become connected in mindfulness practice. 

Then, when you do pick up the phone, the conversation will come from a place of presence and non-judgment that otherwise may not have been possible. Even if there is difficult news to hear on the other end of that ringing, the connection and presence you bring to the moment will allow you to respond with compassion instead of react out of fear. 

This shift can be powerful on a physical and emotional level. Shifting from responding out of presence and compassion, instead of reacting from fear and anxiety, can protect our hearts and nervous systems from the rush of adrenaline that comes from anticipating the worst. Any time that we can reduce the body's fight or flight response, by changing stress triggers into mindfulness reminders, we reduce physical levels of stress in our bodies.  In doing this, we are performing small acts of self love that will help us sustain our emotional, spiritual, and physical well-being, so that we can show up as our best selves for those we are caring for.

"When you love someone, the best thing you can offer is your presence. How can you love if you are not there"
          - Thích Nhất Hạnh

Happy Practicing!

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