In my last blog post, I wrote about self-awareness, the capacity for coming to know things about oneself. As I mentioned, this is an essential element of healing from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), another functional gastrointestinal problem, or a functional non-digestive medical problem like chronic pain or chronic migraines. In this blog post the focus is mindfulness and how to cultivate it in everyday life.
Why is learning how to be mindful important? Because self-awareness, or cognitively/mentally knowing things about yourself, does not in and of itself lead to change. What leads to change is doing something different. Mindfulness gives you some of the tools you need to be able to do something different in order to shift the patterns driving your functional medical problem.
Before I explain how mindfulness helps you to facilitate change, let me define it:
Mindfulness is the capacity for being present in the here and now with a certain kind of awareness that is non-judgmental and receptive. Simple stated, mindfulness is a state of awareness of awareness. It is being with what is (happening) in the present moment without necessarily having or needing to have an intellectual understanding of what is (happening).
The moment you start thinking of something that’s happening right now in this moment, you shift out of being with what’s happening. Thinking about and being with something are two different processes in the brain that involve different brain structures. Theoretically, mindfulness is considered a right-brain process, while making sense of something you become aware of is considered a left-brain process.
This is an important piece of information. When it comes to healing from a functional medical problem, you need to facilitate new right-brain experiences for yourself, but you also need to integrate these new experiences using left-brain processes. That is how we as human beings learn! And this is how you are going to heal.
When you practice being mindful, you activate a right-brain process that puts you in direct contact with yourself,—your feelings, sensations, thoughts, images, urges, impulses, wishes, desires, and needs—allowing you to work more directly with your Autonomic Nervous System, ANS. This is critical because the ANS, the part of your nervous system that operates without your conscious control, drives the patterns underlying your functional medical problem. Being able to shift into a mindful state of being gives you access to the information generated by the ANS that over time will elucidate the patterns that are not yet conscious to you. This is how you’re going to heal your body.
So just how do you generate mindfulness in your everyday life? Well, traditionally, it is through regular, ongoing meditation in silence and stillness that the state of mindfulness is cultivated. That said, meditation is not the only way to experience a state of mindfulness.
The most important thing is that you 1) develop the capacity to shift into and sustain a state of mindfulness and 2) come to know when it is important for you to do this.
If you have the time and the interest in starting a daily meditation practice, by all means do it unless you suffer from depression. Mindfulness meditation has been contraindicated for some people with depression. By all means, consult with a psychotherapist if you are currently suffering from depression or think you may be.
The added benefit of learning how to meditate is that the process of learning how to sit in meditation teaches you valuable life skills that help to cope with and manage the difficulties of living with a functional medical problem. Sitting in meditation teaches you how to (and this is not a comprehensive list):
- Slow down your pace so you can pay attention to things you ordinarily miss because your brain and body are moving too fast.
- Tune into yourself so you can access parts of yourself that may not ordinarily garner your attention.
- Be more fully present in your everyday life.
- To cultivate self-compassion and greater compassion for others—everyone and everything.
- Make time and space for learning about and attending to our own needs.
- More deeply connect with ourselves and with others.
- How to face some of life’s greatest pains and challenges.
- How to notice your own personal moment-by-moment phenomenological experience.
- How to make wiser decisions.
The above skills along with others not mentioned bring greater ease and flow, reduced stress, pain, and suffering, allowing the body to shift out of a state of chronic stress and to resume more normative functioning. Mindfulness meditation generally facilitates healing, but at some point down the road in your meditation practice, it may begin to impede healing. This is not something to worry about now, but just know that you may need to taper down on your meditation practice in order to facilitate further healing.
There are many ways to get started with a mindfulness meditation practice. You can download an app like Mindfulness App 1 or 2 or Headspace and follow its lead, or you can take a class, which is my recommendation. A good bet is finding a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course, which is a standardized secular eight-week class in cultivating a mindfulness meditation practice. This course is offered all over the world and is based on the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn. If you’re a young adult or college student, you may want to look into taking a Koru class. This is a pared-down version of the MBSR class specifically designed for young adults and offered at universities across the country. Otherwise, finding any kind of beginning class in mindfulness meditation or simply showing up at an open sitting group—often times there is someone there who offers basic instruction on sitting in mindfulness meditation—can get you started.
The key to having a mindfulness meditation practice and to becoming more mindful in everyday life is consistency. It is better to sit daily for five minutes than weekly for twenty or thirty minutes. Start with brief meditations daily and gradually work your way up to a daily twenty or thirty-minute sit.
For those of you who already have some kind of daily mindfulness meditation practice, here’s a question: How are you applying what you’re learning on the cushion to your everyday lives? It is important not to compartmentalize your meditation practice but instead to extract the rich learning that sitting offers and to apply that learning to your day-to-day life. Make sure that you take your mindfulness meditation practice “off the cushion”.
Whether or not you have a formal mindfulness meditation practice, I strongly recommend that you start to modify your behavior in gradual ways to facilitate some mindful moments in your everyday life. I’m going to talk about how to do this in my next blog post. Stay tuned!