When was the last time you really felt a sense of peace or ease?
How often do you take a break to check in with yourself (body, mind, and heart)?
What makes you feel alive, loved, and connected?
Restoring Our Connection with Life and Love
“Be still. Take time for what’s truly important.” —Danna Faulds
If this were your last day on earth, how would you spend it? Would you spend it inside an office or with your loved ones? While this may seem like a drastic question, I believe it helps us put things in perspective. Instead of living from a reactive stance where we’re putting out fires, obsessing over the future, or striving to do more, we pause and shift into the present moment. As we connect to body, mind, and heart, we open to our moment-to-moment experience in a nonjudgmental manner. This pausing to intentionally connect with the present moment can be challenging, but it’s an important step toward restoring balance between body, mind, and emotions.
Try the following exercise. Closing your eyes after reading each step can help deepen your experience.
- Tune into your body. What do you notice? (Tension, pain, energized, etc.)
- Feel the breath as it enters the body. (On inhalation, feel the fullness, on exhalation the emptying out, sensation of the rise and fall of the chest, lungs and abdomen.)
- Is there an emotion present? (Sad, happy, fear, anger, peaceful, etc.)
- Where is the emotion felt in the body? (Tension, pressure, heaviness in the shoulders, neck, chest, and abdomen, etc.)
- What does the mind feel like? (Agitated, contracted, dull, open, etc.)
Take a moment to reflect on what you noticed. What was it like to do this exercise? Perhaps you felt a small shift in energy, or maybe you’re more aware of the mind-body connection. This exercise by itself may not seem very powerful. However, when you practice mindfulness in daily life, it becomes a powerful antidote to the stress of moving through life on autopilot.
Mindfulness Helps Strengthen Our Body-Mind-Heart Connection
“Managing life from our mental control towers, we have separated ourselves from our bodies and hearts.” —Tara Brach
We take in the world through our senses (sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch, and mind). When we’re present to our lived experience, there is a sense of belonging and connection to each other and the world around us. This helps us refocus our energy and build awareness of what we’re paying attention to and how present we are. So I might pause and ask questions such as:
- Am I caught up in thoughts, emotions, or mental stories?
- Is this healthy for me?
- What effect is this having on my mind, body, and heart?
- In this moment, what truly matters? What nourishes my mind, heart, and body?
The Practice of Checking In
As I’m writing this, I take a moment to pause and connect with my surroundings. Looking out from the balcony, I notice the vastness of the blue sky, clouds gently floating by, and the brightness of the sun. I feel the warmth of the sun touching my skin, and my body softens. The birds are singing and twittering; the rise and fall of the different notes creates a natural symphony. The trees sway to and fro in response to the wind. The wind gently stirs the leaves on the trees. As I take in this moment, this connection, I feel a sense of peace and ease in my body and a lightness in my heart. In contrast, prior to writing this paragraph, I was thinking about how many things I still have to do and feeling pressured to get them done. In taking this break, I come into immediate connection with the life within and around me. This is important and sometimes vital, as in making this shift I can help myself restore a sense of balance.
When we move through life mindlessly, we lose our connection to the body and to the world around us. We move from one thing to the next without really being fully present in body, mind, or heart. We’ve all experienced this at one time or another. For example, when there is a project deadline fast approaching and you stay up into the early hours of the morning to get it done. As you sit in front of the computer, all your energy is caught up in thinking, so you don’t notice the tension building in your neck and shoulders until the pain becomes unbearable. Or perhaps you’re working in a garden, under the hot sun for hours, and suddenly you feel dizzy and faint. In the end, it’s not just our quality of life that suffers; it can be dangerous, such as when we get into a car accident as a result of texting while driving. Or when a child dies because the parent forgot and left him or her in a hot car. What causes us to lose this vital and vibrant connection to life?
Mindlessness and the Reactive Dance
“There are two big forces at work, external and internal. We have very little control over external forces such as tornadoes, earthquakes, floods, disasters, illness and pain. What really matters is the internal force. How do I respond to those disasters?” —Leo Buscaglia
Let’s face it: In today’s world, we are constantly bombarded by late-breaking and sometimes tragic news. From natural disasters to man-made problems, we hear about it through social media, radio, or in conversation. This can and does create physical and emotional stress and anxiety. It can trigger the body’s alarm system and keep us in a state of high alert. We become more sensitive to signs of danger, and this leads us to become more reactive. At any hint of imminent danger, our fight-flight-freeze response is activated, and our body, mind, and emotions kick into survival mode.
Once our internal alarm system is set off, it can feel as if there’s a voice in our heads screaming, “Don’t just stand there! DO SOMETHING!” This reaction is at times necessary and can save lives, such as when there is a fire in the house or if we’re being pursued by a dangerous animal. However, when reacting becomes a patterned way of responding to pain, we suffer.
Reacting Transforms Pain to Suffering
Getting stuck in patterned ways of reacting to life can be overwhelming, stressful, and increase feelings of anxiety. When this happens, we’re out of touch with the life that is right here. We get caught up in the world of thoughts, worries, and concerns. Our mind becomes filled with anxious thoughts, and we move into physical action (doing more and more) or get paralyzed as if we’re caught in the middle of a tornado. Consumed with worry or catastrophic thoughts, we lose our ability to help ourselves.
In an effort to tame the anxiety, we may try and distract ourselves by engaging in toxic and unhealthy behaviors (overspending, drinking, obsessing over our own or someone else’s behavior). We may put off dealing with issues by procrastinating. Avoidance and distractions only compound the problem, and we’re left feeling stressed out, lost, angry, ashamed, and confused. When we’re stressed or overwhelmed, the effects may show up as irritability, resentment, exhaustion, or physical illness. If it goes on for too long, it can morph into anxiety or depression. When we see life through the lens of anxiety or depression, the world becomes a place of pain and suffering. It’s as if you’re looking at the world through dark sunglasses; the sun is shining, but you don’t see it. So how do we help ourselves?
Living from a Place of Intention
“Our minds, through our intentions and thoughts, are the creators of our own happiness and unhappiness.” —Elisha Goldstein, PhD, and Bob Stahl, PhD
Living from a place of intention helps us to be more conscious of how thoughts, words, actions, and behaviors affect us. As Goldstein and Stahl state in their book, A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook, we become aware of how:
- Our intentions influence how we think and communicate.
- Those thoughts and words influence our actions.
- Thoughts, words, and actions shape our behavior.
- Behaviors are expressed through our body language.
- Body language fashions our character.
- Our character hardens into what we look like.
So the way we think, communicate, and act influences the choices we make and how we see and respond to the world.
Let’s play out this scenario. Say I have a tendency to react with anger toward criticism or disappointment. When I hear any hint of criticism in my loved one’s voice, my body reacts physically by tensing up, I can feel my heart beating faster, my mind is filled with negative self-talk, and eventually I lash out at my partner by criticizing and blaming. This reaction happens within a few moments and I’m not consciously aware of it. All I know is that my partner said something that hurt, and to defend against the hurt I lash out.
If I am mindful of my experience, I’d begin by noticing how anger affects me (body, mind, and heart) and those around me. I begin to recognize the stories or beliefs that trigger this angry response. At the same time, I recognize how my body and emotions are reacting to these thoughts as if they’re real and how painful this is. If I can take responsibility for this angry reaction, without shaming myself, I can shift from reacting to responding with kindness and compassion toward this experience. As Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, stated, “Once we recognize our anger, we embrace it with a lot of awareness, a lot of tenderness.” We bring compassion and acceptance to the anger as we would in soothing a hurt child.
As we develop our capacity to be more attuned to our internal and external world, we become more intentional in our approach toward life. Living from a place of intention frees us, so that we are more present and open to experience all of life; joy, passion, sadness, etc. Instead of clinging to what’s pleasant and resisting or running away from the unpleasantness of pain, we learn to be with our experience and respond in compassionate and healing ways. So, it’s not that the world changes and suddenly becomes a wonderful place—it’s that we become aware of when we’re reacting to what’s happening in the world around us and help ourselves shift to a healthy response.
The Power of Mindfulness Practice
“Practicing mindfulness is a powerful means of taking an active role in self-care and improving overall wellness.” —Bob Stahl, PhD, and Elisha Goldstein, PhD
Mindfulness is a powerful practice that helps us reestablish our connection to the present moment. Using the breath as an anchor helps us stay present to our lived experience, helping us to bring body and mind back into balance.
The practice below comes from A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook and can be used as an informal way to practice mindfulness. Incorporating this practice on a daily basis is a way of increasing mindfulness of body, mind, and heart. Take a moment to practice these four steps (based on the acronym STOP—easy to remember!):
- S = Stop: Pause what you’re doing to come into stillness.
- T = Take a breath: Feel the breath as it comes into the body.
- O = Observe: Notice what’s happening in your body, thoughts, emotions, and sensations.
- P = Proceed: Continue what you were doing.
Taking a pause to connect with what is happening right now helps us attune to our needs. It wakes us up out of habitual patterns of ruminating, catastrophizing, and judging. For instance, when I’m stressed or anxious I feel restless; my neck and shoulders tense up, and anxiety shows up in my stomach as a swirling, buzzing sensation. I feel pressure in my head as the thought-making machine in the mind goes into overdrive trying to think and plan a way out of distress. I get caught up in the land of judgment, tension, and worry, and am unable to help myself.
When I pause to connect with my body and notice this tension, I can begin to respond by taking in a slow, gentle breath and feel the sensation of the breath coming into the body. As I breathe out, I begin to soften my neck and shoulders. The breath also helps me to slow down the thinking mind and connect with the emotions that are present. Connecting with my emotions means I acknowledge what I’m feeling and soften around it. I allow the feeling to be there with an attitude of acceptance and compassion. This helps me to shift from reacting to responding compassionately. It also helps me shift my perspective and proceed with a more balanced and peaceful mind, body, and heart.
Take Time to Pause, Breathe, and Feel
Creating time to connect with moments of peace, calm, and happiness in everyday life helps us maintain balance and meet challenges in more responsive and caring ways. Our connection to the self is just as important as our connection to others. When we tend to ourselves in loving and peaceful ways, we strengthen our ability to be present for others, and in doing so we give from a place of love and generosity rather than obligation and expectation.
I love this quote by Leo Buscaglia, who encourages us to, “Live now. When you are eating, eat. When you are loving, love. When you’re talking with someone, talk. When you are looking at a flower, look. Catch the beauty of the moment!”
Be open to life and love because it’s what connects us to each other and it’s what helps us to focus on what matters most.
May you be well!
© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Cindy Ricardo, LMHC, CIRT, Mindfulness-Based Approaches/Contemplative Approaches Topic Expert Contributor
The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.