The likelihood of any goal succeeding depends greatly on your state of mind.
Think about it. How long did you stick with your New Year's resolution this year? What was the major obstacle? For many people the culprit is stress. You stopped working out everyday because you just feel fatigued and mentally drained. You spent money that could have gone to a more productive end, but the purchases made you feel less depressed. And, as anyone who has ever tried to cease an addictive habit like smoking can attest, stress will quickly drive you back to using. So, it seems to stand to reason that stress reduction could lead to better goal follow through.
Mindfulness is one such stress reduction technique and it has been practiced for thousands of years. The general idea is to become more aware, to gain insight. Originating in East Asia, mindfulness is the practice of noticing and accepting thoughts or emotions as they come into consciousness. It is a non-judgmental approach to acknowledging thought, emotion, and bodily sensation. Before you write off mindfulness as something that people do in faraway monasteries, Western science has confirmed that practicing mindfulness can actually change your brain structures. Having trouble with fear and anxiety? Mindfulness has been shown to reduce the size of the right amygdala (portion of the brain largely responsible for producing anxiety). Further, mindfulness can change the activity levels in the brain to help combat depression. It has been used to help anger issues, procrastination, fear, doubt, even addiction. This mindfulness practice may be a great addition to your stress reduction measures.
So, let’s try a simple mindfulness technique.
If you run into difficulty maintaining your journey for health goals or if you find everything is too stressful and your brain is too cluttered, try this technique. First, find a comfortable, quiet space and sit with your feet on the floor and your hands in your lap. Rotate your head and let your shoulders rise and fall until you are in a relaxed position. Breathe at a normal pace, in through your nose and out through your mouth as though you are gently blowing out birthday candles. As you breathe, notice the cooling sensation when you inhale and the warm, relaxation that accompanies the exhalation. Close your eyes or focus your gaze downward.
Now imagine: You are sitting under a tree whose leaves are falling into a slowly flowing river. Put yourself there. Is it warm or cold out? Are you shaded or in the sun? How tall is the tree? How wide is the river? Are there any structures around? Can you smell anything? Are you seated in a chair or are you on the ground? Is the grass tall or well kept? Do you have shoes on? Is there any wildlife? Set your scene explicitly.
After you have considered the conditions, settle back and just sit in your imaginal scene. Now, you are likely to have many things pop into your head. Your job is to stay with your tree. Perhaps a thought about lunch comes up. Simply place the thought on a leaf, watch it float down the river, and return to your peaceful scenario. Maybe you have a stray emotion of anger pertaining to a dispute you had with your partner. Notice the emotion, thank your limbic system, and place the emotion on a floating leaf. As you sit, perhaps you notice the soreness in your back from having been seated for so long. Simply thank your body for letting you know that you needed to reposition, place the sensation on a leaf, and watch it casually float away from you and your scene. Continue this practice for about 10-15 minutes. Notice what your mind or body produce, thank them for their input, and place each thought, emotion, or sensation on a leaf to be disappeared downstream.
As you bring your awareness gently back to your surroundings, notice how your mind and body feel after the exercise. Were you able to stay under the tree or did you find yourself being swept away with a particular leaf? If the latter is true, then you may have found this technique to be frustrating. However, try not to be discouraged. With practice, you will not be bobbing along the river as much. Plus, your brain and body are programmed to fuse to thoughts, emotions, and sensations for basic survival purposes. Therefore, try not to be too aggravated. Instead, thank your brain and body for their assistance and return to your tree. Mindfulness is a practice, and, like most things, you get better as you do it. Even five minutes can be helpful, and the benefits of consistent mindfulness practice can be noticed in many areas of your life.
Do not worry if you have a very busy mind. There is no limit to how many leaves you can access from the tree.
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– Richard DeBord, M.S.
Mental Health Specialist | Email Richard