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At Counselling in Twickenham, EnduringMind, I can if you want support the process of counselling with a 10 Step Programme to Mindfulness. When practised regularly it really does become second nature and instinctive, especially when you use it every day to deal with intense emotions, stress, depression or anxiety. In order for you to use Mindfulness instinctively or develop a personal approach of your own it needs to be practised every day. So to help you develop a daily routine for improving your health and wellbeing, I have set out a 10 Step Guide to Mindfulness, designed to support your efforts with an appropriate structure, routine and daily practice. New activities can be carried out each week, alongside or in addition to the practices already learned. None of these individual practices should take up extra time. In fact the mindfulness practice should help you identfy and select what is really important in your life and discard the rest. What really hinders you in your life and takes up time is the energy wasted on relentless procrastination, avoidance and frustration. It is our propensity to worry about worst case scenarios and events which may never occur which take up the most energy and time. Eventually, after some practice and effort all these mindfulness activities can be integrated into your daily routine.
Week 1 – Noticing Your Autopilot.
Most of us pay very little attention to the daily round of routines and tasks we perform each day. Nor do we notice how much our mind becomes distracted and begins to wander. Or how it gets caught up in repetitive cycles of worry and concern like a runaway train. This often causes undue stress as we take on too much, and become frustrated or overwhelmed. I refer to this kind of ‘mindless thinking’ as our autopilot – we do what we do without focus or conscious awareness. An example of this is the way we might drive our car back home at the end of a hard day’s work. We're so familiar with the journey we barely take account of the whole series of decisions we take, or the tasks and manoeuvres we perform as we drive home on automatic pilot. May be you’re not convinced by this, so spend a moment to remind yourself. Have you ever been in the situation where you arrive at a familiar destination without any clear memory of the journey whatsoever? If the answer is ‘yes’; it’s likely you just sat there at the wheel, pointed the automatic pilot and drove without any conscious awareness of the cars, the people, the traffic signs, the road names or the landmarks. When you realise this is happening you have broken the cycle. This is called ‘noticing your autopilot’. Try to do this each day for a week. Remind yourself to reflect on your experience after a routine task, especially where you're most likely to follow a mundane procedure out of habit. Notice whether your sense of focus seems to drift, whether your mind begins to wander, or whether you became detached from your sensations. Slowly, each day, with each new task try to notice what’s missing from your experience as you drift onto autopilot – is it the physical sensations, emotions, your sense of awareness or connectedness to others? Other examples of ‘noticing the autopilot’ are during routine cooking, eating, taking a shower, travelling by train, watching TV, writing a shopping list or making small talk with others. Noticing this, is the first step.
Week 2 – Focus Your Attention on Bodily Sensations.
The following week try to focus your attention on your internal experience and bodily sensations such as your heart rate, breathing or any aches and pains. But do this in a relaxed state of mind by finding a quiet moment to spend by yourself, noticing a wide a range of sensations. Don’t worry. This does not cause introspection, navel-gazing or procrastination if you do it right. Nor should it cause any anxiety. On the contrary, it is a way of focussing your attention on the present moment, as you notice each passing sensation in your body from one moment to the next. An example of this is when you close your eyes and notice the changing surface temperature of your skin as the sun passes behind a cloud and out again. Prepare yourself first with an open state of mind and a sense of acceptance, without prejudice or critical thoughts. Whether the sensation is pleasurable, uncomfortable, painful or distressing try to remain open enough to tolerate its presence without judging it from a positive or negative angle.
This is a form of observation, usinf a ‘body scan’ as your techniques. Start from the tips of your toes and work your way up your body slowly to the top of your head, scanning for sensations inside and out. As you focus on each region of the body, notice sensations such as heat and cold, pain and pleasure, fullness and emptiness, muscle tension or relaxation, the state of your heartbeat, breath, tingling on the skin, butterflies in the belly, stiffness of the neck or joints, sensations on the surface of the skin, or your sense of groundedness. Using the body scan method can be practised while exercising in the gym, swimming, sitting at your desk in the office or travelling by train.
Week 3 – Mindfulness of Breathing.
This only needs to be a 3-5 minute exercise. You may use this breathing practice a after waking or before going to sleep, or anytime you seek relief from anxiety and stress. Gradually settle down to a state of relaxed concentration in a suitable chair with your body upright. Ensure your spine is straight and fully supported by your body’s core with your head gently balanced on your spine, head tilted slightly up. Stretch out any niggling aches or pains from your muscles and roll your neck (ensure you have no injuries you may trigger). Then with your eyes closed begin to breathe more consciously, yet relaxed. Find a rhythm which feels comfortable for you – not too deep, not too shallow; not too fast or slow, but just right. It is however, important to inhale through the nose and exhale using the mouth unless you have any blockages which makes this uncomfortable. Also ensure you are using the full extent of your diaphragm by inhaling until your belly pushes outward and exhaling until your belly pulls inward. This will ensure you use all of your lung capacity to breathe more fully. Experiment awhile until you find a rhythm of breathing that suits you best. Pay close attention to the sensations and sound of your breath in the nose, throat, windpipe and lungs. Notice at the end of each inhalation and exhalation a slight pause before you resume breathing.
After awhile of breathing you might notice the ‘endless chatter of the mind’, as your mind begins to wander. Accept its presence and continue breathing, while turning your attention to your breath. Do not fight any thoughts, ideas or images which may arise, but don’t allow them to settle either by following a train of thought as your mind becomes distracted. Instead, imagine the thoughts like a bubble rising to the surface of the pond, and letting go as they drift into the sky. Do not fight thoughts or resist them, this will only get you caught up in them more. As soon as you notice your mind is distracted or wandering, turn your attention back to the sensations of your breath. Do this again and again until you find relief. The chatter in your mind is normal and everyone fights it first time around. However, gently give yourself permission and continue. Do not judge yourself, or get frustrated. The purpose of this practice is to remain aware of the present moment; letting go of the past or anticipated fears for the future, while remaining focussed and relaxed. This will significantly reduce the way your body holds onto anxiety and relieves you of its pain.
Week 4 – Focus Your Attention on One of the Five Senses.
For this exercise it is necessary to become more aware of your five senses. This mindfulness practice will allow you to move away from intense feelings you have generated internally and focus instead on external sensations. Rather than get locked into a pattern of introspection, or become fearful of distressing sensations in your body, this practice allows you the freedom to let go and move out into the world. It allows you to focus on one sensation at a time as you connect with your five senses, attune yourself to your environment and adapt to each passing moment. This is a spatial-temporal exercise which requires you to build up an awareness of your place in the outside world. For this practice it yields beneficial results if you focus on one particular sense at a time, as this will train your mind to observe your experience from a different perspective; to take a pause from the relentless train of mental events and concentrate instead on one of your five senses as a focal point.
Our senses are also an essential source of information about the world while perceiving events, formulating ideas and problem-solving. But we often prioritise so-called rational thought at the expense of our five senses and neglect them as the true source of evidence aboutour place in the world. You can develop this kind of mindfulness practice in a relatively natural environment while walking in a park, resting in your garden or being by the beach. For example, I go to a park and sit by the river in a quiet spot beneath an overhanging tree turning my undivided attention to the sound of the river chiming, the rush of water through reeds, the songbirds, the distant sound of children or leaves rustling in the wind. This allows me to focus my attention on the ever-evolving moment, without following the distractions of my thoughts. Equally you may create a practice of your own, such as ‘mindfulness of eating’, exploring the sensation of taste and smell; or mindfulness of swimming, as you focus your attention on the sensations of moving through the water.
Week 5 – Looking Inside-Out – what am I feeling now?
This kind of practice is similar to the one above only this time more of your attention is focussed on the relationship between your body and the outside world, noticing how you respond internally to the external stimuli and events in your environment. This is a much more subtle and nuanced approach as it requires you to explore internal and external states simultaneously, such as how your body reacts to a changing environment through its internal states. For example you might notice physiological responses to environmental changes as you regulate your body temperature to harmonize with ambient conditions.
This kind of practice helps you understand and become more aware of the interconnectedness of things. Rather than view them as a single isolated event with a specific cause and effect, we notice the relationships. It also helps us in relationships to become less judgemental or narrow-minded, as we stand back to broaden our perspective and evaluate situations from others' points of view, rather than seeking our own biased version of reality. This can often lead us to becoming too self-centred and is of very little value when trying to adapt to the environment. A good example of practising ‘Looking Inside-Out’ is when you notice that you're feeling the internal sensations of stress, while wondering whether this is a response to external conditions. For example, picking up on other people’s anxious states, sitting in an uncomfortable chair, a sudden drop in temperature, or a response to imminent danger. This kind of practice makes us less likely to have a reflex reaction which automatically triggers perceived danger from the past or anticipated catastrophes. And we begin to stop seeing those internal events in the mind ‘as if’ they were happening now.
Week 6 - 10 of Mindfulness Practice continues on the next page...
Mindfulness begins when we recognise the tendency to live our lives on automatic pilot; deeply unaware of our being in the world and caught up in everyday events without focus or reflection. The first aspect of Mindfulness is the ability to notice how busy and scattered the mind can be; learning to transform our awareness of bodily sensations. This offers the possibility of becoming more focused, grounded and unified in our experience. We make a firm commitment to learn how to step out of our autopilot and become more aware of each moment. Rather than getting caught up in events or allowing our mind to wander or become distracted by its ‘endless chatter’.
This means practising mindfulness in a state of relaxed concentration - purposely focussing attention around the body to acknowledge our reactions to everyday events – causing us to get caught up in an automatic reflex. The mind is most scattered when it tries to avoid situations or escape unpleasant emotional states. Mindfulness offers a way of staying in the present, to view things from an objective perspective and evaluate each situation as it occurs. Relating differently to others by offering a sense of tolerance and acceptance. ‘Allowing’ things to remain as they are, without trying to make them different. Such an attitude of acceptance is a major part of taking care of oneself and seeing more clearly what, if anything, needs to change. The negative mood states and thoughts that accompany stress restrict our ability to appreciate life. These states cause us to take a defensive posture and anticipate distressing events. With Mindfulness however, it is liberating to realise that our thoughts are merely thoughts, our memories merely memories, our fantasies, fantasies, even the ones that make us feel ‘as if’ we're in imminent danger.