May is Mental Health Awareness Month y’all! Is a month of awareness adequate for a nation of people who are getting sadder and more disconnected every year? Of course not, but it’s a fine excuse to check in with yourself and others if you wouldn’t otherwise. I’m choosing to focus on mindfulness today because I’m finding it uber helpful at the moment. (That’s kind of a mindfulness joke…)
So, mindfulness. I think I have about a 35% grasp on what it is and I can practice it about 10% of my waking hours. Let’s have someone smarter than me define it. Good ole Google gives two definitions. The first is, “the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something.” Sounds easy enough. Just pay attention and remain conscious. Oh, if it were so simple.
Let’s say you get food on your shirt and that mark is going nowhere for the immediate future. We’ll call it a stain. Do you look at the stain and think, “Oh, hi stain,”? Or do you think:
- “I’m such a slob.”
- “I always do this. I am recalling every time I’ve ever spilled something on me ever as proof.”
- “My coworkers/friends/people in the checkout lane are going to see this and vomit in their mouths.”
- “This is going to ruin my day, my week, my chances at love, and I’m going to go broke on stain remover and new shirts.”
- All of the above. Over and over and over.
If you want to be bummed about the stain for a minute or a few seconds every time you see it, that’s understandable and probably healthy. This actually applies to everything. Anything that happens to you, whatever is or isn’t true about you or your life, deserves a healthy amount of thought or action. Anything beyond that, whether it’s dwelling, negative self-talk, judgement, giving it way too much weight, making it mean something for the future that frankly you have no actual knowledge of, or saying it’s the result of everything in your past well…sucks and it makes you unhappy. That brings us to the second definition which sheds some light on what it means to be mindful:
“A mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.”
Well that complicates it. Maybe it’s just me, but that is hard. We have these brains with all these memories, childhoods, hangups, insecurities, and fears of the future. Not to mention whatever current situation we’re in socially, financially, romantically, physically, and how long it’s been since we last ate. Add feeling responsible for the health and happiness now and forever for someone who you love and cherish more than air (aka being a parent) it feels almost impossible.
That’s why I feel mindfulness is so powerful, because it’s hard, but it’s effective. Manage to be just a little bit more mindful of one moment out of your day and ahhhhhh. It’s nice. A little goes a long way. For parents not only does it help you, but then it helps your kids, so it makes sense why it’s maybe twice as hard, you get twice the reward. It doesn’t always have to be hard though. You don’t always have to go through pain to gain. Sometimes it’s the opposite. If I gave you the option of sitting and stewing in some self-hate, or saying “huh” and going about your day, that probably wouldn’t be that difficult of a decision. You aleivated some pain AND practiced mindfulness which only gets you better at it the next time. Win fricken win.
If I’m presumably so terrible at mindfulness, why am I handing out advice? I believe it helps to hear from someone you can relate to. If you’re a super mindful person who has a meditation practice you are comfortable with and you can name one Buddhist temple in your town, then there are definitely people you should listen to instead and you probably already know their names. Otherwise, if you think mindfulness sounds like a nice word you’ve heard a couple times or if you kinda sorta think you know what mindfulness is, but would fake a coughing fit if someone asked you to explain it, then I’m your gal!
Reading random articles about mindfulness from my phone’s news feed and really going all in at yoga led me to believe I was just walking around in the Now like I ruled the place. I registered for an Early Childhood Family Education (kind of like baby and me) class called Mindfulness in Parenting because it was the only one available that didn’t conflict with my baby’s nap time on a weekday I regularly have the car. I honestly thought I’d be bored with the mindfulness part because of the whole ruling of the Now. Oh, the laughing inside I’m doing right now.
By the time the class started, months after registration, I was actually in a much more receptive place for some mental improvement i.e. not feeling great and one diagnosis code away from postpartum depression. I was waiting to hear back from a handful of psychology clinics for an appointment. I was feeling depressed and incredibly anxious for the first time in twelve years. I hadn’t yet realized that becoming a parent meant that everything I had “dealt with” years prior through therapy and with the help of medications would need to be completely re-dealt with through this new lens of being a mom. So come day one of Mindfulness in Parenting I was all kinds of ready to be brainwashed into happiness, because that’s how it works, right?
The first couple classes were normal parent/child class topics which was disappointing. Then we got to the good stuff. Homework. They handed out a sheet of Seven Essentials of Mindfulness Practice adapted by Dr. Frank Lipman from Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book Full Catastrophe Living. We were to look at the list, pick one that we felt we needed to work on, and try to focus on improving in that area for a week. Just looking at the list I panicked. Each one of the essentials (or principles as they are also called and I will do so from here on out) were a weakness of mine. Not being able to do these things was why I was depressed and anxious. I had just had my first therapy appointment and from the sounds of it, it was going to take a lot of deep and painful work to get to a better place. When it got to me to share with the group which principle I was choosing I just picked one that seemed the least traumatic to tackle, Acceptance. It is what it is.
The next week we were supposed to pick a new one. Ha. Ha. I was nowhere near mastering acceptance and I knew I never would if I had moved on. The class has been done with the principles for weeks now and I’m still on my third principle, but I’ve learned and grown so much. Three months of just awareness of what mindfulness is and having the “7 Attitudes of Mindfulness” taped above my dresser and I’m definitely feeling the effects. Also helping is therapy, though we don’t really talk about mindfulness in particular, but the work we do I can relate to the principles. I am also slowly reading a few different books while booby trapped: Slay Like a Mother by Katherine Wintsch, Everyday Blessings: Inner Work of Mindful Parenting by Jon Kabat-Zinn and Myla Kabat-Zinn, and I’m half-way through, but already loving The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brené Brown.
A helpful key I’ve learned is there is no such thing as “mastering” mindfulness. It’s a practice. Like eating a salad or going for a walk. You can’t undo eating well or exercising, but the more you keep it up the better. I am ten times more mindful than I was a few months ago and it feels really nice (if you’re into math, that means I was 1% mindful before, which was all accidental). My irritability is drastically reduced which has been the best part. When someone does something I wouldn’t do quite the same, which is fairly common, my mind doesn’t make a big deal about it. This is all helpful too as my baby is transitioning into a toddler. She’s about to be part of the least mindful group on the planet and the more mindfulness I can model for her the better for us both.
Side note: None of this means that I practice, encourage, or teach my daughter that if something bothers you or you see something wrong in the world that you should just accept it and let it go. If something keeps you up at night and you can do something about it, make a plan and get some rest so that you are ready to tackle it tomorrow. Can’t do anything about it? Just dwelling on something that isn’t serving you? That’s where this comes in.
Take a look at the principles/essentials. Any of these pressing a touchy spot in your brain, throat, heart, or stomach? Then I’ve got homework for you! There are so many different approaches to mindfulness. This is just the way that worked for me, so that’s what I’ve got.
- Take one principle. Write it on a sticky note or two and put it where you will see it two to three times a day. In the front of your wallet, where you get ready in the morning, on your dash, etc. Alternatively you can print the whole thing, tack it up on your mirror, and just mark the principle/attitude you’re focusing on.
- Start with the easiest one. Whatever doesn’t give you shivers. (That might be just me.)
- Don’t bombard yourself with it, but do take a second to really read it when you can and think about it for two seconds. That’s three seconds of homework, twice a day, for a grand total of 6 seconds of homework per day. That’s less than a minute per week.
- For extra credit, take a deep breath in while you read it and a deep breath out after.
That’s actually it! Don’t force it. Don’t tell yourself you have to do this or else. Mindfulness is just creating an awareness, not forcing anything to be anything else. Just notice when you are being mindful (practicing the principle) or not and say, “Huh. That’s interesting.” Then move on. If you notice that you’re not a fan of how you feel about something or how you are reacting to it and want to try to apply a principle go for it.
After a week see how you feel about it. Has it become almost second nature or should you keep at it? Keep it going if you think it would be helpful, but after three weeks move on either way. This doesn’t mean you forget about it, it just means it’s time to let that one do its thing and give the others some love. If one feels particularly uncomfortable to tackle alone call for backup, however that feels right for you. For me, I use therapy, books, and talking about it to my partner and friends.
I hope this helps. It helps me. I also think it is pretty interesting and fun. How often do we study ourselves compared to how much research we do before we buy something online, decide on a recipe, or see what everyone in our graduating class is up to these days? We pay more attention to the weather than our thoughts yet we spend maybe an hour outside and every waking minute with our mind. Show it a little extra love this month.