Practicing Mindfulness Leads to Self-Awareness

As the weather changes and the birds start singing, we are ready to experience joy, excitement and hope. Maybe a change for the better in ourselves.

But our lives may be weighed down with old habits of depression and anxiety, unnecessary worry and suffering, impulsive reactions to others or a constant churning restlessness.

For many of us, the stress of midlife, with the double separation of launching children and declining parents, is a perfect storm to increase stress and unease. Appreciating these moments as huge opportunities is not so easy.

By now, we might have learned that constant self-criticism is not the path to change or healing of any kind. We don’t find the wisdom we need by planning the next vacation or other constant distractions. Lecturing ourselves to “accept reality” or “let go” rarely sticks, because we don’t have the tools we need to change.

Many psychotherapists have practiced helping clients gain insight into the roots of their behavior as a way to find relief. This is still the most widely available method of trying to change one’s life. But many people are finding themselves wanting more to help them deal differently with the rest of the week, outside the therapist’s office.

The practice of mindfulness is generating an enormous amount of buzz—for treating stress-related illness, depression, anxiety, chronic relationship issues and general struggles with life.

Authors such as John Kabat-Zinn (Wherever You Go, There You Are and Full Catastrophe Living) offer an entirely different approach to our daily challenges.

It involves the powerful idea that you are not your thoughts.

Mindfulness practice gives daily tools to begin to observe your mind and to become more awake and accepting of your present life just as it is. The idea of changing the outside or the inside is less important than becoming able to live fully in the moment. This phrase has become a cliché, and can seem tired and irrelevant. But in actuality, clients who begin to practice—who begin to sit and meditate for even brief, inconsistent periods of time—begin to see changes.

Their lives begins to seem lighter, the emotional ups and downs more expected. There starts to be more energy for joy, more calm, more stillness. The mind-body connection becomes a gut experience instead of a theory. This can happen whether one is 14 or 74. Whether one is just starting puberty or is in the throes of old age or illness.

I just finished teaching a class on mindfulness at the Women’s Exchange in Winnetka, where a group of women from 40 to 74 joined me in sitting, learning simple meditation techniques.

We were all able to laugh at the common worries that come up, such as “I can’t meditate” or “my mind is never quiet” or “I can’t sit on the floor!” We also explored how becoming awake to all aspects of life—good and bad—is entirely different than practicing positive thinking.

It is more specific than the meditation that many of us have practiced in yoga class. There is a lot of juicy stuff to learn about the mindful way of looking at life. Some of us choose to begin mindfulness-based psychotherapy or take a mindfulness-based stress reduction class (MBSR), while others begin to read books or take a local class.

If this sounds worth a try, I would recommend adding it to your to-do list. But I wouldn’t call it cleaning or detoxifying. … I might call it awakening—just like the bulbs and birds and budding trees—to the inner wisdom we already have and to the beautiful life we already lead, in all its complexities, just as it is.