"In some ways, training your mind to be present is no different from training your puppy."

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Episode 121 -- June 10, 2021

Almost Mindful: Training Ourselves to Stay Present

In Almost Anxious: Is My (or My Loved One's) Worry or Distress a Problem? Harvard Medical School professor and clinical psychologist Dr. Luana Marques and Eric Metcalf offer a fresh way of thinking about anxiety, explaining that anxiety exists along a spectrum and that while having some anxiety is not a bad thing, having too much—even a little too much—can affect our well-being. They define "almost anxiety" as a level of anxiety that reduces the quality of our life but is not severe enough to be considered a full-fledged anxiety disorder.

In this excerpt, we learn about the benefits of practicing mindfulness and techniques to troubleshoot our mindfulness practices, especially when we're getting started. Those of us in recovery can use mindfulness to help us navigate our anxieties, stay focused on our daily recovery, and find more enjoyment in life.

This excerpt has been edited for brevity.

"Mindfulness" is a simple concept that generates a variety of impressions among my patients. Some take to it immediately. Some struggle with it until it feels natural. Others give it a try and lose interest before they reap its benefit.

A good definition of mindfulness is "the experience of paying attention, in the present moment, non-judgmentally." In the past decade, mindfulness-based therapies have received a lot of attention for treating anxiety and depression, as well as physical health problems.

When you're mindful, you're not mourning the past. You're not fearing the future. You're not generating scenes of catastrophe that could strike you. That's because none of these anxiety-producing worlds really exist! Instead, your mind is attuned to the sights, sounds, and sensations around you right here, right now. When your mind starts to drift, you gently allow it to recenter on the present moment. That's mindfulness in its simplest form. But attaining it isn't so simple.

Mindfulness is a way to stay anchored in the present moment, which many people have trouble doing in this modern world. An inability to stay present isn't surprising, given the increased demands on people's time, combined with a common desire to stay connected with others via email, cell phones, and social media. People feel pressured to always stay "on," plugged into a virtual world that keeps sending them input and requires their constant attention.

You and I are encouraged to do more things faster, and all at the same time. The resulting overload can leave you feeling like you have been hit by a tsunami, one that flings you into the past (stewing over the opportunities that you didn't take), into the future (worrying about threats and challenges that haven't arrived yet), or into dozens of other people's lives (via Facebook status updates and Twitter feeds). All of these scenarios completely rob you of the gift of the present moment.

When you aren't living in the moment, you're not performing at your optimal level. In one study, researchers compared reading comprehension between participants who were and were not instant messaging while reading a passage. The researchers found that while participants in both groups performed equally well on a reading comprehension test, those in the instant messaging group took significantly longer to read the passage (not counting the time that they were messaging). These results suggest that distracted, divided attention comes at a cost.

Much like many of the skills in your anxiety tool kit, mindfulness takes practice, patience, and self-compassion. It also requires you to keep reasonable outcomes in mind. If your goal from mindfulness is to always be calm and to not experience any anxiety, then you will likely become frustrated while trying to practice it. However, mindfulness might be an excellent practice for you if your goal is to

  • be more present in your own life.
  • become an observer of your experiences.
  • live with your thoughts in the current moment instead of the past or future.

Troubleshoot Your Mindfulness Practice
Once you have established an attitude of mindfulness, be aware that you are likely to hit bumps along your journey. There are three main challenges that, like my patients, you might face.

Anchoring in the Present Moment
Most of my patients have trouble staying present in the moment. That is especially true for those who are battling worries, since their minds are usually in the past ("What did I do wrong?") and in the future ("How is this going to turn out?").

One of the visualizations I share with my patients that many find helpful for staying in the present moment is anchoring their boats. When life grows more stressful and you are feeling worried, visualize a Titanic-size anchor being dropped deep in the ocean as your personal steadying point. It's not pulling you under but rather is keeping you from being swept away. Picturing a stable anchor tends to hold me steady, no matter how choppy the ocean of my life gets.

The Desire to "Train Your Puppy" in One Day
During a recent yoga retreat to the Kripalu Center in western Massachusetts, I got a massage from a thoughtful young man named Nathan. We were discussing many of the difficulties that come with cultivating mindfulness, covering many of the issues I've discussed in this chapter. Nathan provided me with a beautiful metaphor that I would like to share with you.

Often Nathan's students tell him that they are unable to meditate, having tried and failed at it. When Nathan asks about their attempts, many report that they've usually tried it only a few times, giving up in frustration over their "monkey minds." Nathan's response is always the same: "What if you were just bringing a new puppy home? Would you expect him to be potty trained on the first day? Of course not! That would be unrealistic."

The same is true for mindfulness. In some ways, training your mind to be present is no different from training your puppy.

Dealing with Your Own Times Square
Another frequent challenge to mindfulness is people's environment. A patient of mine, who recently moved from New York City to Boston, commented that she had found it impossible to be mindful while living in New York's constant stimulation. I agreed with her that it is challenging to practice when literally millions of people are surrounding you, lights are flashing in your eyes, and your city never sleeps. But it's not impossible. You just have to take yourself out of this environment for a brief time. In her case, I asked if she ever strolled through Central Park—a calm green oasis amid the maelstrom of Manhattan—on a mindful walk.

Even if you can't find a quiet place, you can still center yourself in the moment. I recently attempted this by practicing mindful walking through Times Square while visiting a friend in New York. It was indeed challenging to stay present in the moment while being bumped by people and hearing a din of jackhammers and taxis. Yet, by focusing, I was able to fall into a mindful walk even in this place.

Now think about your own life. Where are your "Times Square" places in your life that would present uncommon challenges to practicing mindfulness? Take a moment to prepare for how you could center yourself in the present moment at these times and write down your ideas for future reference.

About the Author:
Luana Marques, PhD, is an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, the director of psychotherapy research and training at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, and the director of the Hispanic Clinical Research Program at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. Her groundbreaking research focuses on the presentation and treatment of anxiety disorders, with a particular focus on cultural differences in the phenomenology of anxiety as well as the dissemination and implementation of empirically supported treatments for anxiety to minority populations.

Eric Metcalf, MPH, is a writer and health communicator based in Indianapolis. He has coauthored or contributed to more than a dozen books on health and fitness and written widely for magazines and online publications. He's also a producer and contributor for the weekly Sound Medicine public radio program.

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