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  • Play with Being Mindful

    The following is an excerpt from Unconditional: Learning to Love Your Authentic Self by Annalisa Smithson, LPC (available on Amazon now!)

    Where are you right now? As you read these words, take notice of where you are sitting. What does the seat feel like beneath your body? Is it hard or soft? Do you feel supported and comfortable? Are there any sounds around you? Any smells? Notice your surroundings. 

    Now look inward. As you read, do you have any new thoughts? Do you experience any new feelings? Perhaps you feel calm or content. Just by doing this, you are being mindful. You are practicing mindful reading. You can do any activity mindfully. 

    You might think, “Oh, I’m not into that mindfulness thing. I can’t meditate. Yoga’s not for me.” Okay, all of that might have been true in the past, but you’re working hard to make changes in your life. You’re learning to love yourself authentically. That means your love is unconditional, your self-compassion is boundless, and your patience with your limitations is gentle and kind. So, ask your inner critic to give you a moment to read before dismissing your inner yogi. Both of them will benefit from a lesson in mindfulness.

    What Is Mindfulness?

    Mindfulness is a state of awareness. When you are fully engaged in something, participating actively with brain and body, you are being mindful. Rather than losing yourself in ruminations about the past or worries about the future, you focus fully on the present. Mindfulness lets you immerse yourself in the here-and-now, both in your surroundings, and within yourself. 

    As you incorporate more mindfulness into your daily living, you experience subtle but meaningful rewards. Mindfulness reduces the symptoms of anxiety (high blood pressure, stiff muscles, shaky legs, sweating) and enhances feelings of happiness and relaxation. It’s almost unfair to call it a “technique” because it is truly just a way of being. Mindfulness is an unbiased, non-judgmental approach to living in the moment. 

    There is a difference between mindfulness and meditation. People often use the terms interchangeably. In fact, there is something called “mindfulness meditation” so the two clearly fit together somehow. But they are not the same thing. It can get confusing. 

    Being Aware

    Recently I took my daughter, River, to the doctor for a wellness visit. After he looked her over and gave her a clean bill of health, I asked River, “Do you have any questions for Dr. Garcia? Anything about your body?” She surprised me by saying, “Yes!” She turned to the doctor and asked, “What does my heart look like?” I have no idea if conversations like this are typical. River is my only child, so I often just go with her flow and wonder later how “normal” we are. The doc seemed surprised, but he went with it. “Here, let me show you.” He Googled “anatomy of the heart” and started teaching my curious kiddo about her body. “The heart is a muscle. It has to pump blood to the rest of your body. It pumps almost every second! Can you believe that? You’ve been in here for ten minutes and you didn’t tell your heart to pump once, but it kept right on working. Isn’t that amazing?” Immersed in thoughts of mindfulness as I prepared to write this chapter, I thought, “You know? That is amazing.” Our conscious mind isn’t in charge of bodily systems like digestion, breathing, or circulating blood. But we can certainly impact those systems for better or worse. What would it be like to have awareness of my pumping heart all day long? Or just for ten minutes? Let’s try it together.

    Mindful Running

    You may be familiar with mindful walking, the classic meditative activity. Jon Kabat-Zinn writes about this in his book, Falling Awake: How to Practice Mindfulness in Everyday Life. He clearly and simply describes the benefits of mindful walking, and a quick Google search will yield instructions on how to do it. If you have never tried mindful walking, I highly recommend it. But I was intrigued by River’s conversation with Dr. Garcia and it inspired me to try something a little different: mindful running. I wanted to feel my heart pumping and practice mindfulness around this extraordinary part of my body. Here is the breakdown:

    1. Lace up your best pair of running shoes and head outside for a jog. But here’s the kicker—leave your headphones behind. That’s right, runners, no music today. If Doggo is feeling up to it, you can mindfully grab their leash and bring them too.

    2. Find a track or trail where you can run straight and true. No distractions or dangers such as cars passing. Avoid a place with tree roots or rocks to dodge. 

    3. Deliberately focus your attention on your feet as you begin your run. In mindful walking, the goal is to notice each part of the movement as it occurs. You might be instructed to notice as you lift your foot, move your foot forward, place your heel on the ground, and shift your weight. After several conscious and purposeful movements, you pause for several normal breaths. With running, it feels a little different. It happens far more quickly and there is a slightly different set of instructions for your body. Mindful running looks like this: 

      1. Start by jogging slowly and take deliberate notice as you lift your foot. 

      2. Now feel the movement as you spread your toes. 

      3. Intentionally place your mid-sole on the ground. 

      4. Feel the shift of your weight forward as you roll through the toes. 

      5. Remember to breathe deeply and rhythmically. (Shallow breathing is a no-no when running.) 

    4. As you pick up your pace, the movements are happening much more quickly, so I use this phrase in my mind: “Lift, Spread, Sole (or Soul if you prefer), Breathe”. Do this in rhythm with your steps.

    5. While you’re running, listen for your heart. This hard-working muscle is right there with you, fueling your movement with oxygen rich blood. Be mindful of how it feels in your body. Be grateful and gentle with it. Let the pounding of your chest set the pace for your mantra as you continue thinking, “Lift, Spread, Sole, Breath”. 

    6. If your mind wanders, acknowledge it. Be okay with it. And then bring your mind back to your heart as you once again direct your body, “Lift, Spread, Sole, Breath”. The mantra puts me in mind of a bird launching off a high branch to soar into the sky—or perhaps my own soul spreading its wings and ascending.

    Try mindful running for ten minutes and then take inventory. What was it like? How do you feel? Any thoughts about your heart, your lungs, your feet? Your soul perhaps? Jot a few words in your journal. 

    Mindfulness in Daily Activities 

    You can practice mindfulness in any of your daily activities. This could be eating, washing your hands, hugging your partner, folding laundry, or petting the dog. Try it this morning as you prepare your coffee or tea. Breathe in the rich scent of the ground beans or dried leaves. Feel the warmth of the cup in the palms of your hands. Notice the wetness against your lips as you take the first sip. Enjoy the sensation of the liquid moving down your throat. Breathe deeply as you appreciate the aftertaste in your mouth. How do you feel after just a few minutes of a simple mindful activity?

    Before I started enjoying the luxuries of the middle class and got myself a dishwasher, I used to wash my dishes by hand in the sink. For a long time, I dreaded the task. But when I started incorporating mindfulness into the experience, it became a chore I carried out willingly. Feeling the warm water flow over my skin, breathing in the sweet scent of soap, appreciating the shine of a clean glass, all of these are opportunities to be present in a surprisingly pleasant experience. It just took a deliberate shift in my thinking—or non-thinking. A rewiring of my thoughts, if you will. I learned to feel content while doing the dishes. 

    What is an activity that you find annoying or just repetitive? Is there a way to approach it mindfully? Can you make the chore work for you by incorporating it into your daily meditation habit? What would it be like to feel content with most of your daily life? 

    Mindfulness with Doggo 

    There is no better ambassador to a life of mindfulness than your pet. Spend an afternoon at the dog-park and you’ll understand. (You’ll also enjoy free entertainment and an ab workout from all the belly laughs. Dog-park politics are hilarious!) Dogs live fully in the present moment. When they find a fun toy, a smelly substance, or a crunchy snack (edible or not), they go all in. There are no thoughts about the past beyond instinctual safety measures. There are no thoughts of the future, period. They simply enjoy the toy, poop, or treat. Cats are also masters of the here-and-now. They curl up in your lap, inviting you to scritch their belly or pet their furry little heads, content to snuggle you, right up until they’re not. Scratch, hiss, goodbye. They have no shame in using you for their here-and-now pleasure. Adorable little jerks. 

    Mindfulness with Doggo (or The Cat) asks you to let go of any distracting thoughts and follow your furry friend’s lead. Grab their favorite toy—ball, frisbee, laser pointer, etc.—and play. That’s it, just play. Lose yourself in the moment. Notice how their tail wags or twitches. Feel the texture of their fur when you touch them. Laugh at the wetness of their tongue if they give you a lick or a nibble. Use all your senses to be present with your pet. Simply put, experience mindfulness of doggo with doggo.

    Mindfulness with Kiddo

    That same principle—“Mindfulness with Doggo”—can be applied to your kiddo. Let yourself enjoy the moment with them next time they ask you to play. Jump into the pool and splash alongside them. Run through the field and give the soccer ball a kick. Deliberately employ your senses to experience the joy as fully as possible. Sip some chocolate milk and savor the flavor as you pass the glass to your munchkin. Feel the cool milk on their warm skin as you wipe away their milk mustache. Breathe in the scent of their kiddie shampoo as you give a kiss on the head. Let their loud, unabashed laughter resonate in your own heart. Mindfulness can bring you to a new level of love, compassion, and joy if you let it. If you let go. 

    Progressive Muscle Relaxation Exercise

    If you sometimes feel disconnected from your body—like your thoughts are so scattered or rapid that you just can’t be present—there is another mindfulness exercise you can try. It is called Progressive Muscle Relaxation. This exercise is especially helpful for folks who experience anxiety, as the symptoms of anxiety often show up in the body. This exercise helps to soothe and relax the muscles simultaneously with the mind. Have someone read this section aloud for you, or go online and follow along to my recording:

    • Find a quiet place to sit comfortably. You may also lie down if that feels more natural. Unfold your arms and uncross your legs so you can move your muscles freely. Close your eyes if you wish, or if you prefer to keep your eyes open, simply soften your focus on the floor in front of you.

    • Begin by taking a deep, full breath. Inhale for four counts. Hold the breath at the top. Then exhale for four counts. Pause at the bottom. Now take another, deep, full breath into your belly, this time for five counts. Hold at the top. Exhale for five counts, letting your belly deflate. Pause at the bottom. This next breath will be the deepest, most satisfying breath of your day so far. Breathe in for six slow counts. Hold at the top. Open your mouth and sigh out the breath, making an “ahh” sound as you exhale.

    • Now focus your attention on your feet. Curl your toes, feeling all ten of them. Now point them away from you, enjoying the tension in your ankles. Finally, flex them, allowing your arches to stretch fully. Relax your ankles with a gentle little roll as you continue breathing deeply. 

    • Bring your attention to your legs now. Tighten and tense the muscles in your thighs and calves. Place your palms on your legs and feel the muscles tightening from the outside in. You may notice a little shaking as you continue to tighten your muscles. Hold the tension for a few more moments. Now release the muscles and let all the tension fade. Breathe deeply as you observe the difference between the tension and the relaxation. 

    • Now tighten the muscles in your glutes. Let your sit bones shift as you tighten and tense the muscles all around your hips and buttocks. Hold the tension for a few moments. Then relax back into your chair. Breathe out and let all the tightness go. 

    • Focus on your stomach. Tighten up your stomach muscles, letting your back arch and your chest lift. Feel your entire trunk tense and tighten. Hold the tension for a few moments. Now exhale your breath in a full, relaxing motion as you release your stomach muscles. 

    • Arch your back and lift your chest once again as you tighten your shoulder blades. Let the muscles bunch across your back and feel the strength of your body. Tighten the muscles a little more and hold the tension. Hold it. Now relax. Let all the tension go. Relax into an easy posture and gently roll your shoulders. 

    • Now move the tension down into your arms. Tighten your upper arms, lower arms, and hands. Hold the tension as tightly as possible in your fists. Hold it until the muscles of your arms begin to tremble. Now relax. Release the tension and gently shake out your hands. Continue to breathe deeply. 

    • Finally, place your attention on your face. Scrunch your eyes closed. Wrinkle your nose. Press your tongue to the roof of your mouth. Tighten your cheeks. Make a funny face. Hold the tension in your facial muscles for a few moments. As you release the tension, soften your eyes once more and notice the relaxation in your chin, cheeks, and forehead. Take another deep breath.

    • Continue your deep belly breathing, inhaling for six counts, pausing, and exhaling for six counts. Observe the relaxed feeling in the muscles of your entire body. Notice any lingering stiffness and try to relax further into those muscles. Continue breathing. 

    • Take any final movements, such as rolling your neck, shrugging your shoulders, stretching your arms, or pointing your toes.

    • End this progressive muscle relaxation feeling relaxed and calm. 

    How do you feel? Try to locate the feeling in both your body and mind. Jump to the Worksheets section of this book and search the table of emotion words. 

    Getting Grounded

    This grounding technique is especially useful when you are feeling overwhelmed. Sometimes anxiety and stress can take us out of our bodies and out of the present moment. Our thoughts begin to race, and we get caught up in worries, fears, or catastrophic thinking. This technique will bring you back to the present, into your body, and down to the literal ground.

    • Take a seat. Place both feet on the ground. Place both hands palms down.

    • Take a restorative breath. Begin speaking, slowly and deliberately.

    • Say aloud five things you can see with your eyes.

    • Say aloud four things you can hear with your ears.

    • Say aloud three things you can touch with your hands or body.

    • Say aloud two things you can smell with your nose.

    • Say aloud one thing you can taste in your mouth. 

    Assess your feelings of being overwhelmed on a scale of one to ten. Wherever you land, can you be one point lower? Try the grounding technique again, this time even slower or more intentionally. How do you feel? 

    Today’s Act of Unconditional Self-Love

    Choose a mindfulness activity from this chapter to practice, or apply the practice of mindfulness to a favorite pastime in your day-to-day life. Be creative! The important part is that you attempt to be present and focused on the activity you choose.

    Today’s Journaling Prompts 

    • Which mindfulness activity from this chapter stood out to me? Why?

    • How does my mind react when people talk about meditation, mindfulness, yoga, or similar activities? Why?

    • What was it like doing today’s act of self-love? Was it easy, hard, comfortable, strange? How come?