By Mark Clingan

Do you ever have trouble coping with stress? Do you ever feel anxious thinking about something you do not have but that you want? We all do these things at times. I know I have done both.

The stress during a former job was at least partially responsible for a disease that caused me to have two surgeries in a two-month period. These surgeries promoted my interest in mindfulness and meditation. No one is immune to stress from these sources.

I want to tell you about a practice that can help reduce stress and that can help you cope with the stress that will inevitably come your way.

Behavioral mindfulness is a system for teaching mindfulness that can help with the problem of stress. While it is not a cure all, it can help reduce stress and improve our skills of coping with problems.

Mindfulness can also increase good feelings, and can even help the brain be healthier.

Before I go on, let me explain a little about what mindfulness is, what it is not, and what I mean by behavioral mindfulness.

First, mindfulness is not the same as formal meditation, though meditation is one of the tools that helps us learn to have mindful awareness. Mindful awareness is awareness of the present moment without judging that moment. We might say that mindful awareness is neutral.

If we are mindful, we are aware of our life as we are living it. When we are not mindful we are missing the only time we have for living—the present or NOW. Not being aware of the present, in itself, can cause tension and stress. In addition, during those times when we are drifting, we often have thoughts which can lead to more painful and destructive stress.

You may be wondering about the difference between mindfulness and behavioral mindfulness. There are many similarities, but the main difference is that behavioral mindfulness uses the science of behavior analysis to teach mindful awareness.

Behavioral mindfulness uses verbal behavior, in the form of your thoughts, to help develop mindful awareness and to remember to practice during daily activities. Traditional teaching of mindfulness often has people avoid thoughts since some thoughts cause awareness to move away from the present moment. In behavioral mindfulness, we practice using our thoughts in ways that facilitate mindfulness and avoid thinking that can impair it.

One last point about this distinction, behavioral mindfulness is secular and not religious in nature. It does borrow from thousands of years of traditional contemplative practices which are often rooted in religion. These ancient practices have a lot to teach us, but behavioral mindfulness also adds valuable new scientific findings to those traditional approaches. Behavioral mindfulness adds to the contemplative practices and it also respects them and those who use them.

As I mentioned earlier, meditation is one of the ways that we learn to be more mindful. It is a practice that can relax, energize, and de-stress. The basic reason for practicing mindful meditation is to develop awareness of the present moment without giving added positive or negative value to that awareness.

A Simple Mindfulness Practice

Now for a brief description of a mindful meditation practice that you can use in small segments of time and that can help with stress. Before I do that, if you are interested in this approach, I want to recommend more formal training through a class or one of the on-line applications like Headspace or Insight Timer. (Personally, I use Insight Timer which is a free application for Apple or Android.)

Following is a practice I call “meditation in the cracks.” What I mean by this is that we can do brief meditative procedures in the cracks of time. We all experience brief periods of time ever day in which we are waiting or when we are just not doing anything. Anytime you have 2 or 3 minutes you can practice meditation in the cracks and come back to the moment.

Meditation in the cracks can be done any time you have a minute or two. A great time is when you are at home with nothing better to do and you have 4 or 5 minutes to “kill.” Instead of killing the time you can spend it practicing and learning to have more mindful awareness. You can also practice when waiting for a stop light to turn, in a traffic jam, in line at the grocery store, while in the waiting area of the doctor’s office, or anywhere you have the time and no pressure to do something else for the next few moments.

Try It For Yourself

When you are in your home, find a comfortable place to sit. Get comfortable and relaxed but keep an upright posture that is conducive to alert attention. The goal of this meditation is to increase awareness not to find a special state or even to find relaxation. You may find yourself relaxing and feeling calm, and that is good, but it is not necessary or always going to happen.

After you are comfortable, close your eyes and simply pay attention to your breath.

Move your attention and awareness to your abdomen and get in touch with the sensations involved with the rise and fall of this area as you breathe. Experience the entirety of your breath from the beginning to the end. Observe all of your inhalation and all of your exhalation.

Do not try to control your breath, just watch it.

Your breathing may be fast, slow, deep, shallow, or varied. No matter how breathing occurs, just be aware to your inhalation and your exhalation.

Do not set the goal of reducing stress or of accomplishing anything else, instead just see if you can be completely absorbed in the experience of the sensations of your breathing. Setting a goal, like reducing stress, for this kind of practice can often thwart the goal. If you just watch your breathing with no goal but observing it, you may find that stress reduction is a happy side effect.

Inevitably, what will happen is your attention will drift. This is normal and can even be helpful. When you notice you are no longer aware of the sensations of breathing, simply acknowledge that you have floated off and gently come back to observing the sensations involved with breathing.

No need to get upset with the fact that you drifted for two reasons. First, it is normal, and second, when you bring yourself back in a calm gentle way, you are building your ability to have mindful awareness. This is just like exercising a muscle, by performing repetitions of the exercise the muscle gets stronger.

When out of the comfort of your home, you will do this exercise slightly differently.

First, you may not have control over time. Be prepared to end the exercise when the situation changes. If you are doing this exercise at work before starting a project or just when you have two minutes available, you might close your eyes, but it is not always necessary. If you are at a traffic light, you will start driving when the light turns green even if you only practiced for 15 seconds and not for 2 minutes. If you are in line at the grocery store you will probably be standing and may need to take a step or two as the line moves.

In addition, and obviously important, you will keep your eyes open so that you are ready for any changes in the situation that need your response. Allow yourself to be relaxed but ready to act at any moment. As in your home, bring your attention to your breathing. Watch the entire cycle of your breath and when you have a distraction that takes you away from the experience of breathing, simply gently bring yourself back to the sensations of breathing. Again, remember it is normal to be distracted by thoughts or things in the environment. Coming back with acceptance and love is what builds your mindful awareness muscle.

A good question is, “how much time do I need to practice meditation in the cracks?” The answer is that it is certainly nice to have 2 to 5 minutes to practice. However, it is alright and useful to do it for one breath.

When you only have time to observe one breath, you have still practiced and in a good way. You will find many, many cracks in time that allow for you to practice mindful observance of one breath. You can gain from really watching one breath in this way.

Getting into the habit of finding these small cracks in time through the day and by watching one or two breaths you will likely help to reduce your stress load.

An important clarification – I am not recommending that you do not be aware of those things which are important for things that require attention like operating machinery or responding to your supervisor when he or she comes into your space.

When at work and your co-workers are talking, you may not achieve the same degree of mindful awareness as when meditating at home, but that is OKAY. It is all a matter of degree. Moreover, the kind of attention you will be cultivating with mindful awareness is the same kind that is usually helpful for doing other activities.

Mindful awareness is attention that is not distracted or emotionally disrupted—it is attention that is more clear. When applied to something like a boring meeting, mindful awareness can help us to pick up important points and do so with less stress. Similarly, when driving a car, it is good to pay attention to driving and the clearer we are with that attention, the better chance we have of driving safely. Has your attention ever drifted when reading a book or a report? Then working on mindful awareness can be a useful tool there too.

Remember these points:

1. When practicing mindful awareness, the situation determines what is important. Various situations require attention to different features of the environment. Paying attention while driving a car, attending a business meeting, during a training, reading a book, listening to music, meditating, or listening to a friend all require attending to different features of the environment for the most satisfactory results. It is important to note that while the object of attention may be different, mindful awareness is the same for each activity.

2. The way to know if you are doing mindfulness in the cracks right is that you are bringing yourself back gently when you find you have drifted and you are observing without judgment of yourself, or your meditation skills. A lot of people try to judge their practice by feelings, relaxation, or some mystical criteria. The point of mindful meditation is to build awareness that is not muddied by emotions. In other words, awareness that is not judgmental.

3. Bring yourself back to the moment with calm gentleness. Bring yourself back to your breathing and the sensations involved with your breathing. Then, it is a bonus if it helps to reduce stress.

4. Last, I recommend you give it a shot. How about right now? I am guessing, since you are reading this, you have 2 or 3 minutes. See how it works. As you give it a try, when you feel a little pleasure—put a small smile on your face.

While mindful practices can give serious benefits, it is good to approach them with a light heart.

Have fun with this, play with it, and smile just a little.

 

Would you like to learn more practices to reduce your stress and calm your mind?  To sign up for Mark’s class on Behavioral Mindfulness, click here, enter your info, and indicate you’d like to sign up for the class!