When I was in the height of my most stressful years, I never thought I would be able to manage my anxiety and ADHD symptoms in a natural way. It was painful. I turned to my best friend…my mom. I knew that anything she had to offer would be gold. She shared a few effective tools that she used (because…ya know…the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree!) to help herself feel calmer. One of those tools was practicing mindfulness.
My introduction to practicing mindfulness through presence
Of all of the tools my mom taught me that day, THAT was the tool that stuck out the most. At first, I wasn’t really familiar with it. I was willing to try anything though. I just couldn’t continue to live life as the uber anxious psycho hose beast that I thought I was! Most days I felt like someone or something other than myself was at the steering wheel, and I was at the mercy of whatever rash decisions “it” decided to make for me. Being a single mom of two little girls, I felt I NEEDED to get my act together or they might just grow up thinking that their mom was completely insane.
To be honest, I spent a good part of the time, back then, feeling ashamed of my anxiety and the “whatever” that seemed to be ruling my brain…because it sure as hell wasn’t me.
Mom suggested that I read a book called The Power of Now by Echkart Tolle. Given that I had really minimal time to sit and read a book (Ha! What a luxury!), I gave in and purchased the audio version so that I could listen to it in my car as I carted my kids from one place to another (all over Germany). I had to get my self-help in there somehow! If I didn’t have the time to go to therapy (which I desperately needed but wasn’t ready to commit to...so I didn’t have the time for it), I could at least try to learn by osmosis, right?
Starting out was HARRRRDDDD
It was not easy to begin a mindfulness practice. Mind you, this was around the same time that Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert came out. When I got to the part where she went to the ashram in India, I just about died.
YES! Dang it! My mind was ALL over the place. How in the hell is anybody expected to sit in one spot thinking of nothing? I mean…does this really happen?! And THEN there is the cultural narrative that if we have nothing in our minds, then we aren’t smart. So if I was sitting there with all of these thoughts in my head (whether or not they were healthy, constructive thoughts), it was supposed to make me smarter?
Just a note…the more you think about this stuff during a time when your mind is *supposed* to be quiet, the more you will think about it. It’s like asking people not to think of a purple cow and then giving them 10 seconds to not think about a purple cow.
But what Tolle’s work taught me was that presence and practicing mindfulness is not about sitting quietly and driving yourself berserk. Rather, it’s about bringing awareness into every single moment of life, and sucking the delicious nectar out of every single moment while you’re in it.
I learned how incredibly powerful simply sensing your feet on the ground is. Forget about what happened 5 minutes ago. Or a decade ago. RIGHT NOW. Sense for your Being-ness. It’s a crazy thing.
Right here, in this moment, the past doesn’t matter. The future doesn’t matter. Right now, I am breathing in and out. My fingers are typing on my computer keys. Nothing is stressful when I notice what is true right in this moment.
Everything is peaceful. Everything slows down.
Did you know that if there was no language, it would not be possible to hold on to the past, or to perseverate on it? It’s true. People have this crazy knack for assigning meaning through language. When animals experience something that annoys them, they don’t hold onto it. They experience it…and then they do whatever it is that they need to do to get that energy out. Dogs bark. Cats hiss and dart away. They don’t hold on to the narrative like we do. In processing the information that happens to them on the spot, they are able to go on living their lives, in full and blissful awareness of “the now”.
Which…in most cases…isn’t threatening. The same goes for people. The problem is, the parts of the brain that are in charge of keeping you safe aren’t the same parts that remember events in your life, or timelines. To those parts of your brain, a thought about something that happened 20 years ago is just as triggering as something that is happening right now. Your brain’s response is to send all of your response systems into high alert, therefore causing you to feel anxious.
This is a HUGELY important response…if you’re being chased by a madman. Which, in many cases, you’re not.
So if you find yourself engaging in activities that throw your brain into high alert (such as watching boat loads of news stories, scrolling on Facebook, or looking in the rearview mirror to see police lights flashing), it is going to do exactly what it has been created to do to keep you safe. It will trigger what needs to happen to flood your body with stress hormone so that you will get the heck out of Dodge.
It’s not your brain’s fault. Those parts simply haven’t evolved enough to know the difference between life 10,000 years ago (when your life depended on it), and life now…safely tucked under a blanket with your computer in your lap.
What practicing mindfulness does…
When you practice presence through mindfulness, you are basically informing those parts of your brain that are constantly on high alert that they can, indeed, chill out. That you are not under attack. That there honestly isn’t anything that is threatening your life in that moment.
It allows you to take in what is happening RIGHT NOW, and allowing you to claim your space.
Strategies for practicing mindfulness
There are a few strategies that can help you access presence through mindfulness that really are quite effective. I’ll list them below.
I’ve gotta be honest. I was never really into the hippy-dippy mind-body stuff when my mom introduced me to all of this mindfulness hullabaloo. But eventually I was introduced to the idea of using mindfulness in the education setting (I took a class…and then another…and then another). Shoot…as a teacher, I was ALWAYS in high alert. Practicing presence through mindfulness? Why not?
Some days I thought my first graders were going to eat me whole, so of course I needed a way to manage my stress, and I was already aware of the presence thing. Well, I fell in LOVE with this. So much that I started teaching it to my students. They started teaching it to their parents (in a military community with a high deployment rate…so you know the parents needed some chill in their lives!). Parents would come to me and ask me what sort of fairy dust I was sprinkling on their children.
And a good chunk of the exercises we did were focused on breathing.
So why is this so effective?
Just think of what happens when you’re freaking out, in a panic state. What happens to your breath? For me, I know that my breath tends to get super erratic. I may hyperventilate. I may even stop breathing.
So what happens when you begin to take conscious breaths, is you are actually telling the overactive parts of your brain that YOU are in control. That if there was a madman coming at you, you would deal with it. But for now, nothing is actually wrong. There is no Saber-toothed tiger coming after you. You are safe. You are in the present.
Of course there are a bazillion ways to play with the breath, but this is one of my favorites that are on the interwebz:
TRY THIS! Of course, one of my FAVORITE ways to get my zen on is to use this Body Scanning Technique. It helps me go from HYPER ALERT to super chill in no time!
2. Be like your dog
Have you ever seen a dog in the park that saw a cat, but refused to bolt after it because he got into the trash and ended up having to spend the afternoon in his dog crate? No. When he is out in the park acting like a total jackass, he is LOVIN’ the park. When he’s sniffing a tree, he’s only thinking about that tree and that sweet smell of some other dog. That’s presence.
So that is my suggestion to you. Be like your dog (or if you don’t have a dog/don’t like dogs, you can choose to be like a squirrel, or a pelican…or whatever your favorite animal might be). Whatever it is you do, channel the wisdom of that animal and approach everyday tasks from that angle. It’s almost taking a magnifying glass to various actions you take throughout the day. If you’re putting on your socks, think of nothing but your socks. In this strategy of practicing mindfulness, notice the way they feel as you slide them onto your feet. Notice the smells and sounds that are around you as you carry out that task.
I’ve gotta tell you…when I started approaching everyday mundane tasks from the perspective of my dog, the entire world turned into a much more joyful place.
3. Get out in nature
This goes along with the above suggestion: Be Like Your Dog. We are people that came from places where there were no buildings, machinery, or devices. As I said above, your limbic system is still struggling to keep up with what is happening in the outside world while it hasn’t quite evolved yet to deal with it.
Getting back to nature is an amazing way to give your limbic system what it desperately needs. It’s like a “reset” button. Schedule some time in your busy schedule to take a hike, go to the park, or hang out at the beach. Yes, it’s true that there will be a part of your brain that will say that you just don’t have time. However, I might dare to say that nature is medicine. It will make a WORLD of difference for your stress and anxiety.
THEN be like your dog and just observe everything. You can pee on trees too. Just make sure nobody’s watching.
4. Do something creative. Find your flow.
Have you ever been doing some sort of task, and the next thing you know, your friends and family have called out a search party to determine your whereabouts because you haven’t been seen or heard from in HOURS? Chances are, you were in a creative flow. I’ve written about creativity before. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again…it doesn’t matter WHAT type of creative practice you have, just as long as you have one. You don’t need to be crafty to be creative. You just need to be in the process of creation.
And it’s right there…when you’re in flow…that you are experiencing the most amazing sense of presence, and this is an amazing way of practicing mindfulness. Imagine, you are painting little tiny figurines with a fine paintbrush, and you are tasked with marking intricate details. If you think of anything at all, your lines will end up wobbly. You will find that your breath syncs with your movement naturally. So find your flow and watch your anxiety take a back seat.
5. Focus on one thing at a time.
We have adopted this weird fascination with multi-tasking in our culture. It’s like we somehow can earn merit badges for doing 20 things at once. I have to ask: How many of those things really get done well? Honestly, I was a card-carrying member of the Multitasker’s Task Force (I totally made that up, but it’s cute…right?). Unfortunately, it had my bells and whistles blaring SO loud ALL. THE. TIME. I felt like I was never getting anything done!
But then…I moved to Germany. I was astonished by the way that people in this country worked. I would go to the phone company, and there would ALWAYS be a line. But the thing was, once I got to finally see a customer service rep, I was all theirs. They would stop every other thing they were doing that they would ONLY focus on what I needed done. If I went to the dentist, it was a one-and-done deal. They just didn’t mess around. When they said they were going to do something, they didn’t stop until the task was done.
Eventually I adopted this way of getting tasks done and I was AMAZED with how much lighter I felt. So much less frazzled. A lot less like I had loose ends that were burning. If something came up while I was completing another task, I would just add that task to the task list to be done. I stopped segmenting my time. This made me much more efficient AND effective with whatever it was I wanted to get done.
Practicing mindfulness through presence takes time and patience to cultivate, but the payoff is well worth it. It took me a few months to really get the hang of each one of these strategies, so that is my suggestion to you: Pick one strategy, and focus on it until you have it down (remember the thing about the multitasking?).
Once I did get these down, most of my symptoms of anxiety and ADHD diminished. This was a miracle, especially because the meds I was taking were making me feel NOT like myself. I needed something natural that would work. People at work noticed how I calmed the f*** down and was able to get so much more done…all because I started to practice presence! It’s been a life-saver.
I want to know what questions you have about practicing mindfulness through presence. Do you find it challenging? If so, what are those challenges?
Want to read more like this? Make sure you check out 10 Tools For Dealing With Anxiety Like A Boss.