By now, most of us have heard about “mindfulness,” which is generally associated with meditation. If you aren’t a fan of meditation then you will unfortunately discard this powerful practice as a new age spiritual fad. But mindfulness as a concept has very little to do with meditation or spirituality. Mindfulness provides us with a new way of thinking and conceiving reality. It transforms how we react to stimuli from our environment and how we perceive information coming through our senses.
The dictionary defines mindfulness “as a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment.” Today, we hear people tell us to “be more present.” Being in the present moment is supposed to help us feel calm and relaxed. However, many of my clients report feeling agitated when they are “present.”
“Being present” can agitate us because it highlights the thoughts in our mind and discomfort in our body. So, how do we begin the process of letting go of our thoughts like in the drawing below? This article will briefly delineate a simple step-by-step process that can help us “take hold of our minds,” and put mindfulness to work in our lives.
Below you will find my favorite step-by-step guide for putting mindfulness to work called, “Taking Hold of the Mind.”
But before we start, let me share a quote to inspire you:
“The mind is a superb instrument if used rightly. Used wrongly, however, it becomes very destructive. To put it more accurately, it is not so much that you use your mind wrongly—you usually don’t use it at all. It uses you.” -Eckhart Tolle
A Guide for Taking Hold of the Mind
First, we must calm our mind and body before attempting to take hold of the mind. Meditation has been used for thousands of years to help calm the mind and body. Meditation techniques can include breathing exercises, body scans, half-smiling, mindful walking, sitting meditation, and ‘one mindfully in the moment’ practice. (See the description of 7 meditation techniques at the end of this article). Three conscious breaths are a good start, but ideally we should meditate at least 10 minutes before beginning the process below.
STEP 1: Become the “OBSERVER,” the “WITNESS” of Your Mind
Step back and observe your mind without taking every thought or feeling seriously. You can practice this by being curious and interested in what you think and feel. You can also notice your feelings or thoughts without trying to make them stronger, weaker, or go away. Most importantly, notice the story that your mind has created. Then practice stepping back to observe it.
Basically, our mind creates a variety of different stories so thinking about our thoughts as stories to be observed and witnessed rather than reacted to or taken 100% seriously is a critical first step in taking hold of the mind.
The following questions will assist you in stepping back as an observer of your mind:
- Is this problem, situation, or event happening now? Is anything wrong right now?
- How does thinking about this problem, situation, or event help me right now? Can I do anything about it at this moment?
- In the story that my mind has created, what roles do the different people play (enemy, victim, friend, lover, savior, martyr, etc)? What is my role in the story?
STEP 2: Describe What You Observe
When you tell your story to yourself or someone else, make sure to focus on the facts rather than your version of the story. Don’t paint a colorful picture with words, or magnify a situation with words. Only use words to describe your experience.
- Try writing out two versions of your story: one stating the facts, the other expressing all your unfiltered feelings and thoughts.
- Compare the difference between the stories. What do you notice? The story in which you focused on the facts may seem manageable whereas the emotionally based story may seem unmanageable.
STEP 3: Take a Non-Judgmental Stance
Just focus on the facts. Focus on the “what,” not the “good” or “bad,” the “terrible,” the “should” or “should not.” Non-judgment is a powerful way to take hold of the mind and always leads to more effective solutions.
- Set a goal to suspend judgment for the moment. Then step back to observe how this changes the story and your outlook. What do you notice?
As you take hold of your mind, you experience more peace, calm, clarity and stability. Many of the stories in your mind disappear or become easier to manage. All of us can set and achieve goals to take hold of our minds by following this simple step-by-step process. As a result, we can put mindfulness to work in our lives.
Benefits of Taking Hold of the Mind
When we practice “taking hold of our mind,” we no longer take the story of ourselves or our lives so seriously. We learn to “be in the world but not of the world.” We discover who we truly are, and find our “being” outside of “form.” Our form identity (our story, our thoughts, our feelings, our physical body, our roles, the material things we own) is not who we are. There is a deeper being that encompasses us. When we connect with our deeper selves by disrupting the stream of thoughts, suspending our minds, transforming negative emotions, and connecting with our bodies, the world and what happens in it has almost no power over us. Even when our body declines, we can smile and know this is not who we are.
We develop wisdom (the ability to blend emotion with reason when making decisions), and no longer make decisions based purely on our emotions or intellect. We become more conscious rather than unconscious. We feel at peace during challenges in our lives or during stressful situations. We no longer ride the roller coaster of life, even though things can still make us sad, happy, angry, irritated, or ashamed. We have space now between our thoughts or feelings, and space between our reactions to other people and our life situation. Therefore, we make better decisions.
If we only practice meditation, and do not practice taking hold of the mind, we limit the impact that mindfulness can have on our lives. The practice of taking hold of our mind, teaches us that we construct our thoughts and feelings as stories. The stories that exist in our mind are stories, not reality. When we stop taking our stories seriously, we can see what is truly beautiful in ourselves, in others, and in our world. We might suddenly notice how special our loved ones are or how beautiful the sky is. Colors seems brighter, we are more grateful, and love and joy can flow through us more easily. Things become simpler. It is easier to do chores, go to work, deal with traffic, and manage screaming kids. Life does not change, we change. The world and what happens to us has very little control over us. We no longer take everything that happens outside of ourselves or inside our bodies as seriously. We learn to laugh and smile at the voice in our head, and say to ourselves:
“What a liberation it is, to realize that the “voice in my head” is not who I am. Who am I then? The one who sees that.” -Eckart Tolle
Contact me. If you need help setting mindfulness goals, please email me via LinkedIn or contact me at my office. As a licensed clinical psychologist and practitioner of mindfulness, I help hundreds of clients transform their lives with mindfulness.
7 Meditation Techniques
Below I have provided a list and description of seven meditation techniques to help facilitate the process of taking hold of the mind.
1. Mindfulness Software for Electronic Devices
The first thing I suggest is to install mindfulness software on your computer, smart phone, or apple watch. You can also use a conventional watch as well. Ideally you should have the mindfulness bell go off every 15 minutes while working at your computer and take 3 conscious breaths. You do not have to do anything special for this breathing exercise except to breathe deeply three times in through your nose and out through your nose. If every 15 minutes sounds unrealistic, try every 30 minutes. Most of us do not realize that monks who work at their computers install a mindfulness bell on it, and take 3 conscious breathes every 15 minutes!
2. Headspace’s FREE Take 10 Program
Many of my clients will follow a free 10-minute mindfulness meditation created by the amazing Andy who has demystified mindfulness meditation. My clients have had great success with Andy’s Headspace Meditation app. You might start by arriving to work 15 minutes early and listening to the 10-min Headspace mindfulness meditation in your car. If you do not want to arrive early to work or cannot, practice it before bedtime. If bedtime does not work, take that 10 minute break that you never take at work and go to your car or a quiet room and practice the 10-min Headspace meditation.
3. Mindful Walking
Personally, I am a huge fan of mindful walking. You can do it anywhere, at work, at home, on a hike, anywhere. Basically, you silently count your steps. I will usually count to 30 and go back to 1, if I am on a long walk. If I am walking around my house or office, I count my steps for however long is needed to reach my destination. I might also practice breathing instead of counting while walking. According to buddhist monks who developed this technique, counting is NOT thinking it is a way to suspend thinking and sometimes you need to walk rather than sit to meditate.
4. Breathing Exercises
Counting your Breath. My personal favorite is counting your breath. Remember, counting is not thinking, it is a way to suspend thinking. Sit in a comfortable position on the floor or in a chair, lie down, or take a walk. As you inhale, we aware that “I am inhaling, ONE.” When you exhale, be aware that “I am exhaling, ONE.” Remember to breathe from the stomach. When beginning the second inhalation, be aware that “I am inhaling, TWO.” And, slowly exhaling, be aware that “I am exhaling, TWO.” Continue up through 10. After you have reached 10, return to ONE. Whenever you lose count, return to ONE.
5. Body Scan Meditation
One simple body scan meditation that you can easily do is to “scan” your hands and feet. Sit or lay down. Close your eyes and see if you can sense the energy, heat or any sensation in your hands and feet. You might start with trying to sense your feet, which can be a bit easier, and then try to sense your hands. If this is too difficult for you, try to follow the guided Body Scan Meditation by Jon Kabat Zinn two or three times per week. The full body scan is 45 minutes but you can stop it after 15 minutes or move forward to the middle or last half of the meditation.
6. The Half-Smiling Exercise
If you would have asked me 10 years ago if I thought half-smiling was a useful meditation practice, I would have told you, “No.” Mainly because I thought it was silly. But once you get past the silliness of it, half-smiling is a powerful technique that has been used by monks for over 2,500 years! I regularly half-smile now while folding laundry or doing other mundane tasks, and it almost immediately transforms the boredom or irritation. Below are instructions for half-smiling developed by psychologist, Marsha Linehan.
- How to Half-Smile: Accept reality with your body. Relax (by letting go or by just tensing and then letting go) your face, neck and shoulder muscles and half-smile with your lips. A tense smile is a grin (and might tell the brain you are hiding or masking). A half-smile is slightly up-turned lips with a relaxed face. Try to adopt a serene facial expression. Remember, you body communicates to your mind.
- Half-Smile while at your Computer: Put a sign on your computer or desktop that reminds you to half-smile. Take hold of your breath for a minute or two. Then inhale and exhale for three gentle breaths while maintaining a half-smile.
- Half-Smiling while Irritated or Worried: When you realize, “I’m irritated,” or “I am worried,” half-smile at once. Inhale and exhale quietly, maintaining a half-smile for three breaths.
7. One Mindfully in the Moment
One mindfully is another ancient technique that is now supported by neuroscience research It helps to calm the mind and improve present moment awareness.
- DO ONE THING AT A TIME. When you are eating, eat. When you are walking, walk. When you are working, work. When you are in a group, or a conversation, focus your attention on the very moment you are in with the other person.
- If other actions, thoughts, or strong feelings distract you, LET GO OF DISTRACTIONS and go back to what you are doing—again, and again, and again.
- CONCENTRATE YOUR MIND. If you find you are doing two things at once, go back to doing one thing at a time.
About the Author
Dr. Christine E. Dickson is a cognitive psychologist in private practice who specializes in mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral therapy. She is the owner of Tri-Valley Psychotherapy where she offers consultations and therapy both virtually and face-to face. Christine is a regular guest on local TV where she provides self-help advice to nearly 200,000 viewers. Her work is also featured in Wikipedia, the world’s largest online encyclopedia. To learn more about her workshops, coaching, and counseling services, please visit her website.