By Cindy Reuter ND, MSOM, LAc, MPH, medical director of Integrative Medicine at Alice Peck Day.
Mindfulness — the state of having your mind and body inhabiting the (same) present moment — is something we all know. Skeptical of the idea of mindfulness? Picture a baby, maybe around 6 to 9 months, who is hanging out and observing the world. She's not sleeping, not wanting anything, and not crying or fussing to make something stop. She's alert, curious, and calm. That state of calm awareness is a kind of mindfulness, of being fully in the present moment as it is.
As we get older, we forget that natural state and get wrapped up in the life of the mind, going back over things in the past and thinking ahead to something that's not yet happened. Meanwhile, we try to pull toward us that which we like and want and push away that we don't want, don't like, or is uncomfortable. We expend a lot of mental and emotional energy trying to make things as we want them and, as a result, miss the only real moment — the one we have right now.
Autopilot to Awareness
Difficult life situations, including those with trauma, may send us into these disconnected states as a way to protect ourselves when we feel vulnerable and unsafe. Sometimes the trauma passes and we don't turn off this disconnection and it becomes our typical baseline. Sometimes we have ongoing stress and trauma, and it never feels truly safe to be fully in the present, in our bodies as they are today.
Living somewhere besides now creates disconnection from our bodies. We get very skilled at ramping up and being on, but we lose the ability to wind down and be quiet. This can generate stress, anxiety, chronic tension, and difficulty sleeping. Over time, all we can do is react, and our thoughts and emotions begin to feel like forces totally outside our control. Eventually, our bodies, minds, and emotions may begin to speak in symptoms as a result of this stress.
Building a Tool Kit
Mindfulness is a natural state of being, and many spiritual traditions have practices to help us return to that state. There are also evidence-based programs developed in recent decades to help us build a tool kit of ways to be present and engaged in our lives.
It can actually be hard work to relearn this natural state, so a good mindfulness program helps people start where they are. Maybe 30 minutes of meditation is not practical just now, but 3 minutes of breath awareness is. Maybe a body scan is too overwhelming or feels too unsafe but focusing attention on the palm of your hand for three breath cycles will work for you.
Building the skill of being here now, in our bodies, makes us more in control of our thoughts and emotions, and we begin to act thoughtfully and respond instead of reacting. Our outside lives may be much the same but suddenly we can be with the events and people around us in a different way. We might even notice we have let go of some perfectionism and judgment, becoming a little gentler with ourselves and others.
Bouncing Back with Resilience
The ability to have a bit of breathing room between outside events and our thoughts and emotions in response to them creates a bit of internal buffering or ballast. This is called resilience — the ability to bounce back from a knock or, eventually, not get knocked over.
Resilience is necessary for those of us in healthcare. We are witnesses to the full range of the human experience in our patients and their families — joy, loss, pain, suffering and uncertainty — all the while experiencing the same in our own lives. We need a full tool kit to help us navigate life and be fully present for our own lives and for the people in our care.
Cindy Reuter ND, MSOM, LAc, MPH, medical director of Integrative Medicine at Alice Peck Day, is trained in the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) model (UMass Medical Center Stress Reduction Clinic). She recently brought Google’s “Search Inside Yourself” emotional intelligence training program to APD.