Calm Your Body to Calm Your Mind

“Not everything that is faced can be changed.  But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” -James Baldwin

We are in the midst of a pandemic.  Let’s imagine that you sit still to practice mindfulness – the simple art of non-judgmental awareness.  You observe your breathing.  You notice that your breathing is tight and that your body is tense.  You feel anxious.

What do you do next?  Do you continue to sit and observe?  Do you label your emotions?  Do you get up and do something else? What is a wise and compassionate response to an observation of a body and a mind filled with stress?

It can be a skillful choice to call a friend, journal, or go for a walk.  We might practice art, spend time in nature or dance.  It can also be a wonderful choice to practice yoga.  Yoga is an excellent way to calm the nervous system because it links the mind and the body together through the power of breath and movement.  When we intentionally slow down our bodies and our breathing, we often slow down and calm our mind. 

This story begins with an essential element—the power of observation. But what we do when we notice distress – whether we continue observing, try to ignore it, or take an action to intentionally calm our nervous system – is up to us.  Small positive choices can make a big difference over time.

Want to experiment with linking movement and breathing?  Notice how slow, intentional movements affect the state of your body and mind.

While I Lie Awake at Night

The other night I lay in bed, unable to fall asleep.  I was feeling sadness about something that had happened earlier in the day, and I offered myself a little compassion for the difficulty.  I then went through my usual repertoire of things I do when I lay in bed: I thought about three good things that had happened that day, and then I did the 61 points meditation that so often lulls me to sleep.

I was still awake.  So, I repeated the sequence: three more “good things” and another round of 61 points.

Still awake.  Hmmm….  What now?  I wondered to myself.  Should I get up and do some mindful yoga?  Or stay in bed?  Then it flashed into my mind that I could offer myself kind wishes.  I felt compassion for my little sleepless self, and I began to offer myself kind phrases:  May I be safe.  May I be happy.  May I be healthy.  May I live with ease.  I repeated these phrases slowly and kindly in my mind, and it felt good.  Like an extra warm blanket covering me while I lay awake in bed.

At some point my mind dazed off, and eventually I fell asleep.  I feel so grateful for my self-compassion tools (and mindfulness and gratitude practices) that offer me comfort when I encounter the inevitable challenges of daily (and nightly) life.

Note: I have guided audios of 61 points and loving kindness/ kind wishes meditations available if you’re curious to try (maybe next time you can’t sleep). 

Mindfulness Is Not About Being Calm

I recently began teaching a mindfulness curriculum to a group of middle school students in a Milwaukee Public School.  Before I even began teaching, one of the middle school teachers said to me, “Mindfulness doesn’t work.”

Hmmm…..I thought.  Mindfulness is about intentionally being present in the present moment in a non-judgmental way.  To say that mindfulness doesn’t work is like saying, “The present moment doesn’t work.”  The statement, “The present moment doesn’t work,” doesn’t make any sense because the present moment isn’t supposed to “do” anything.  The present moment is simply the present moment.

I shared this with my students and inquired about what it is that they thought that mindfulness was supposed to “do.”  They shared with me that they had been told that mindfulness was supposed to make them calm, and they thought that using mindfulness was not going to “work” to make them calm. 

“Mindfulness is not about being calm,” I shared with my students. “Mindfulness is about being present.”  I then shared with my students a story about how I had practiced mindfulness just before teaching.  I had felt nervous that morning because I had never taught this particular group of students, and instead  of trying to make my anxiety “go away” (which would likely have compounded my anxiety), I turned toward it.  I said to myself, “I’m feeling anxious,” and I reminded myself that it is common to feel anxious before teaching a new group of students.  I brought my attention inside my body and noticed how it felt hot and tight in my neck and shoulders, and there was a buzzy sort of feeling  that radiated through my entire body.  I intentionally brought my attention into the soles of my feet to help myself feel grounded, and I noticed my breathing.  Because I noticed that my body and my breath were indicative of a “fight or flight” response, I also chose to intentionally slow down my breathing.  Regulating the breath is not a mindfulness strategy, but my mindfulness practice of observing the anxiety response in my body helped me to make the skillful choice of intentionally slowing down my breath.

The idea that mindfulness is about being calm is one that I often hear propagated by well-meaning parents, teachers in schools, and even by mindfulness instructors themselves.  I think that the reason that people market mindfulness as a “strategy” to stay calm is because calm is often a by-product of practicing mindfulness.  Research is clear that the long-term effects of practicing mindfulness include the ability to regulate and maintain a sense of evenness or calm in the face of stressful circumstances and emotions.  However, if we practice mindfulness as a strategy to make a difficult emotion or thought go away, we may end up feeling more anxious because resisting an experience often causes a secondary wave of anxiety.  If we instead embrace difficult emotions with a compassionate and mindful awareness, even if the difficult feelings temporarily increase, our long-term trajectory is toward equanimity–a sense of evenness amidst the ups and downs of life.

Even though practicing mindfulness is not about producing a state of calm in the moment, practicing mindfulness over time can help us to stay present and grounded amidst the continual ups and downs of this human experience.  This evenness in the face of difficult experiences in turn sets the stage for us to make skillful choices that can help us to more fully enjoy this journey of life.