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Mindfulness through the holidays

Thu, Dec 24th, 2009
Posted in Health & Wellness

Researchers, parents, and helping professionals are constantly on the lookout for ways to reduce the incidence of child abuse and domestic violence. Wouldn't it be great if there was a method for improving family relationships that was inexpensive, effective, and readily available to everyone? Turns out that just such a method exists-it is called mindfulness. This simple process dramatically reduces conflict in interpersonal relationships and has the potential to significantly improve connections between family members.

What is mindfulness? It is paying attention moment by moment to your present experience as it unfolds. One notices all their sensations, feelings, and thoughts in the present moment. This sounds simple enough and yet it is far from easy. Our minds enticingly invite us into our "thought stream" carrying us away from the moment into the past or the future. An example is what typically occurs during our morning shower. In that moment we are experiencing thousands of tiny droplets of water bombarding our skin. Soap, shampoo, and towels are all available to provide us with a rich sensory experience. Unfortunately many of us use this time to plan our gift giving, think about the problems of yesterday, or otherwise "leave" our shower and enter into the thought stream. This habitual way of thinking accompanies us throughout the day rarely placing us in the present moment, always seeking what is to come or what has already occurred. By developing mindfulness we learn to step outside the thought stream and back into the present.

If we consistently practice staying present two amazing things happen. First we increase our tolerance for intense emotions. This increases the likelihood that we will respond skillfully when times of conflict, tension, and stress occur-like when things aren't going well with our children or when dealing with the stress of the holiday season. Secondly, we tend to not take things other people say and do so personally. Some people notice this when they are interacting with someone else's children, conflicts seem less personal, more manageable, and not so emotionally intense.

So, how can we all get some of this mindfulness? The only way is through practice. Just like gaining physical strength requires concerted repetitious practice so, too, does mindfulness. It requires intentional, focused effort to bring ourselves back over and over to the present moment. If we become adept at staying present with our life, moment by moment, we notice our sensations, emotions, and thoughts in new and different ways. It opens the door for responding more positively and skillfully to the sensations, emotions, and thoughts of others. Ironically, by creating some distance from our usual "thought stream"-our personal story, we develop an openness to others that has the potential to enrich and expand our connection to those most important in our lives. This connection significantly reduces the possibility for undesirable thoughts and behaviors.

The price is right: free to those who take the time and energy to develop skill in being present in the moment. The effects are immediate and the present moment is in unlimited supply. A little practice goes a long way. Mindfulness won't give us all the answers in situations of stress, conflict and difficult times, but its development will make it much more likely that we will respond in skillful, thoughtful ways. By reducing stress and tension, we will increase our connection and understanding of others. This will strengthen our relationships with our children, spouses and others, making it much less likely that abuse or violence will occur. It will assist us in identifying priorities and enjoying the season for what it is-a time to enjoy those that matter.

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