Phone-Life Balance: Using Mindfulness to Reconnect with Your Real Self and Your Real Life

I am honored to share a blog post I wrote for my friend and colleague Gordon Shippey’s blog: Phone-Life Balance: Using Mindfulness to Reconnect with Your Real Self and Your Real Life (also below). Gordon is a Licensed Professional Counselor in Atlanta, GA who specializes in mental health issues surrounding the Internet and our increasingly technological world, including issues such as Internet addiction, compulsive gaming, and addiction to online pornography. Please check out his website and blog for further information about prioritizing mental health in the technology age!

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We all know it’s true, that nagging voice inside is noticing more and more: We’ve become addicted to our smart phones. First thing in the morning (even before coffee!), last thing before turning out our bedside light, waiting at traffic lights or for tables at restaurants, and even during lulls in conversation with our friends and family, we light up our phones and check Facebook, Instagram, texts, email, news and other apps. For some it goes so far as answering calls during sex, or texting while driving – a fatal hazard! We hardly have time to enjoy a beautiful moment before we’re posing and taking pictures of it to post on our media pages. Our experiences are being hijacked by the cataloging of them, and all to supposedly help us feel more connected, maybe even more alive … but is it working?

Now that social media and the smart phones that put it constantly at our fingertips have been standard items for many years, the research is rolling in on how much better off we really are from these powerful inventions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it doesn’t look good. According to a study at the University of Derby, the average smart phone user spends 3.6 hours on their device a day, with 13% of research participants showing full addiction behaviors. And it’s coming with a toll of less connectedness and increased depression.

11846633_1012552652112111_4359517682162020442_nI’m all for smart phones and social media! I love that I get to know the little goings on in my friends’ and family’s lives, and even “watch” their children grow up despite the sometimes thousands of miles between us. I love that I can quickly search for the nearest taco stand from anywhere that I am. I love that I can follow up on email or pay bills while waiting at the doctor’s office.

But what is the price for these conveniences? And what can one do about balancing the scale between help and harm? Borrowing from the ever-wise world of mindfulness, you may find that disconnecting from your phone for even brief periods of time brings great riches to the present moment you are actually living.

Instead of reaching for your phone first thing in the morning, try:

  • Doing a body scan and noticing where you need to stretch or which parts may need your special attention
  • Checking in with roommates, romantic partners, or children and asking them about their pending day

Instead of reaching for your phone last thing at night, try:

  • Engaging in progressive muscle relaxation where you tense and release the different muscles in your body
  • Checking in with yourself or your partner to share the “best” and “worst” of the day

Instead of reaching for your phone at a traffic light or while waiting in line, try:

  • Taking at least 3 deep, comfortable breaths
  • Really noticing the people and landscapes around you – the unique in the mundane, the little things you’ve passed a thousand times but never really seen

Instead of reaching for your phone while on your lunch break or eating meals alone, try:

  • Using your 5 sense to fully experience your food – what does it smell like, look like in full spectrum of color, feel like against your fingers and tongue, etc.?
  • Giving gratitude for the sun, water, minerals, plants and people who helped make it possible to eat your meal

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Instead of reaching for your phone while with people, try:

  • Listening with deep intent to what others are saying, or if they’re not talking, asking them questions and giving them time and space to fully answer
  • Sharing what’s on your mind – either your troubles or your joys – people won’t think you a complainer or a braggart – they do want to know who you really are!

If possible, push yourself to carve out moments of your day or week where you turn your phone off or at least leave it on vibrate in the other room. Delete apps that you notice are sucking up too much of your time. (I personally did this with much success in terms of improved productivity and time for, gasp, reading actual books!)

Remember, our phones may be really good at lighting up areas of our brain that our brain then interprets as a reward. They may be really good at distracting us from our boredom or anxiety. They may be really good at directions home. But they can’t replace the people in our lives. And they certainly can’t live our lives for us. A perfectly posed picture can’t replace the experience of taking in a gorgeous mountain sunset or your dog greeting you with his merrily wagging tail. And a perfectly choreographed video can’t replace the actual experience of your first wedding dance, new husband or wife warm in your arms.

When we’re plugged into our phones, we miss out on so much. We miss out on our beautifully unscripted and un-catalogued lives. These spontaneous moments are the treasures we all look back on with love and joy. Nothing could be more important.

Amanda Carver, LMFT is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Atlanta, Georgia. She specializes in providing Emotion Focused Therapy (EFT) in helping couples create and enjoy lasting love and affection in their relationships as well as helping women create deeply meaningful lives. All written content owned by Amanda Carver.

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Informal Mindfulness: Small Effort, BIG Reward!

IMG_2056Do you frequently find yourself texting while stopped at traffic lights? Talking on the phone while walking your dog? Reading your email while eating breakfast? Or even layering 3 and 4 activities at once, such as scrolling through Facebook while eating dinner, reviewing your to-do list, and trying to catch up on the day with your significant other? We all know on some level the sad state of affairs that has arisen in recent years when it comes to not paying attention, not even to those most important to us, not even to our own selves. We’ve all been there: situations where we’re already posting something on Facebook or Twitter before we’ve even fully experienced the thing we’re so excited to share with others. Dinner dates with friends where a text pulls our attention away from remaining attuned to conversation. Or the nagging urge even when relaxing in front of the TV to check our work email “one more time.” Technology is amazing! I’ll be the first to say it and embrace it in my life. But it’s also become detrimentally distracting. If you’re looking to get back to the basics of simple pleasures and awareness, consider mindfulness as a powerful bridge for getting you from here to there. You can reap big rewards by weaving a conscious effort into the small, everyday routines you’ve already established.

To recap from a previous post, mindfulness is the experience of being fully present to the present moment. Mindfulness is about awareness and participation in life rather than ruminating about the past or worrying about the future. It does not necessarily mean meditation – though meditation is often involved in formal mindfulness practices. It does not mean being happy, or even calm – though those are often the effects of repeated mindful practice. In recent research done by Matt Killingsworth he concluded that people are often happiest when fully engaged in the present moment. (Follow this link to his excellent TED talk.) This makes sense! In a very real way, the present moment is all that exists. Connecting to the present through mindfulness can lead to expanded appreciation of your everyday experiences, improved connection with others, and enhanced union with your wiser self.IMG_2024

If you’re one of those people who experiences herself or himself as too busy, daunted, or unmotivated to establish a formal mindfulness practice, that’s ok! You can still practice mindfulness in informal ways every day. If there’s any single thing someone can do to improve the experience of mindfulness in his/her life, it’s to put down your phone and consciously reduce multi-tasking! As a culture that worships busyness, multi-taskers have long been praised as the go-getters and high-producers of our time. Younger generations are even being heralded as genius multi-taskers due to their immersion in technology since birth. But research shows that multi-tasking is a bit like going through life inebriated or in a fog. We don’t do any of the tasks as well, and we certainly don’t gain the vital enjoyment and knowledge of the present moment when multi-tasking.

Mindfulness in daily routine can happen in the simplest of moments when you allow your attention to focus on only one thing at a time, such as not pulling out your phone on the way to your car after work. But instead checking in with yourself – your mind and your body – at the end of the day, or noting your surroundings – the weather, the landscape, or how the spring light seeps later into the evening hours. Mindfulness happens by paying attention to your driving (imagine that!) and the world around you while driving – familiar yet unnoticed neighborhoods, new businesses splashing up, the same man sitting on the same bench day after day. Mindfulness happens by enjoying your dog’s walk the way he/she does – noting the sights, sounds, and maybe even smells of your journey. Mindfulness happens by nourishing your soul while you nourish your body – savoring the smells, tastes, textures, and nutrients of your food. Mindfulness happens with loved ones, by giving them the incredible gift of your full attention when they’re sharing themselves with you. Mindfulness happens with children, perhaps especially with children, as they are excellent guides to a magically mindful moment. Mindfulness can even happen while checking your phone or sending an email if that’s where you place your full attention. It can happen when brushing your teeth. Listening to music. Embracing your lover. Whatever the task at hand, even if it lasts only a few moments, give it your full attention. Allow yourself to live it, rather than miss it, and potentially miss the little moments that when strung together create a beautifully rich life.

IMG_2047Don’t forget to start small! Pick one thing daily that you’ll do in the present moment: a meal, your commute, showering, your evening jog. Start there. When your mind wanders or you’re back on your phone without even realizing it, don’t judge yourself. Gently bring your attention back again and again to what’s at hand: the present moment – the one and only place you can live a vital life.

All content owned by Amanda Bowers.

Gratitude: The Cure for What Ails You

I come to the page this morning to share something that’s been on my heart and mind, a practice that is my no. 1 go-to for moments of frustration, anxiety, inertia, and even hopelessness. Even when mindfulness seems like too much energy to muster and I am stuck in a place where my mind refuses to grant me a moment’s peace, I can always count on gratitude to help me take that next step forward in a healthy direction.

I practice Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) with kids and teens, teaching the skills of mindfulness and coping on a near-daily basis to those whose brains can barely grasp much less practice the concepts, and to those whose hearts and minds have been harmed in ways unfathomable. Yet I keep teaching it, because at the heart of this behavioral treatment, there is a depth of wisdom, a philosophy even, that can powerfully change lives. One aspect of this treatment is the ability to hold two seemingly opposing concepts at the same time – “I am doing the best I can and I can do better.” As well as shifting perspective, back and forth between the forest (life goals) and trees (mindfulness). Gratitude is an excellent way to quickly shift perspective. In the midst of feeling there’s too much of this and not enough of that, you stop and recognize what already is and how absolutely perfect the present moment can be.IMG_1785

For some, taking a moment to reflect on gratitude may come quite easy. You stop and think, “My family, my job, my health.” For others, perhaps those in great pain and loneliness, it may be more difficult. Yet I am here to tell you that one doesn’t have to search far to find something or someone to be grateful for. Even with my most pained clients, all it takes is some gentle nudging to get them on their feet and smelling the roses of gratitude. It doesn’t cure a problem. It is not an ever-lasting happiness pill to pop. But in that moment, it can give you the oomph you need to take the next step toward your healthy life.

I invite you to take a few moments right now and consider at least 10 things you are grateful for in this present moment. Things that do not need to come to fruition in order for you to be grateful, but what you are grateful for right now. If you’re having a difficult time getting started, start with the basics: you have met enough of your basic needs to be here right now (food, shelter), you can read, you at least have the desire to desire more for yourself (you want to want, which is a start). As you gain in ability to open your heart in this way, consider even more specific and “simpler” things: the exact gift of the bird song outside your morning window, the freedom of feeling the earth beneath your bare feet, sipping your favorite tea from your favorite mug, and as I always say, the sweet summer perfection of strawberry rhubarb pie.

My 10 Things

1. getting to sleep late right in the middle of the bed, surrounded by pillows and the dabbling of morning light
2. looking back and seeing how I always get back on the horse, no matter how hopeless that may have seemed at times
3. fresh berries – blue, black, rasp, or straw
4. in the midst of summer, everything is gorgeous green – and the flowers!
5. these clothes that cover me, often softly
6. these feet that take me where I ask, usually without complaint
7. the Internet – seriously. So much knowledge, so many connections right at my fingertips
8. just how often I remember my dreams, the glimpses into my deeper struggles and knowing
9. human touch on a daily basis, hugs are profound
10. the cardinals, blue jays, squirrels and chipmunks who make it worth being outside despite the mosquitoes

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All content owned by Amanda Bowers.

From Do to Be: 12 Mindfulness Activities

After writing about mindfulness recently and suggesting 3 steps to create a more mindful life, it occurred to me that sometimes we need something more concrete in order to learn new skills. In this post I offer 12 simple mindfulness exercises to jump-start your mindful life!

1. Sitting at Your Desk: Take a few moments at your desk to pause and really experience the moment. How does your chair feel against your skin or fit against your bones? What smells can you detect? Is there music playing? What can you see without getting up to move? The point of this exercise is not to relax or even necessarily enjoy your surroundings (though that may be the outcome!). It’s to become aware of this place where you probably spend large amounts of time. What is this place – your desk? How does it feel to be sitting here?

2. Eating Breakfast: Instead of rushing out the door with a granola bar and a smoothie, set your alarm 10-15 minutes earlier and take time to eat breakfast before you leave for your day. Sit down with your meal, and focus your attention on the colors, tastes, and textures – even the life behind your food. Such as, this is an orange, but it is also of the sun, earth, rain, the farmers who nurtured the tree, etc. If you are able, you can experience the oneness of life and death in the eating – even for vegetarians, something had to die to nurture the soil that grows your food. And yet this food is life, sustenance.

3. Walking Around Your Block: Some evening this week after dinner or before breakfast, take the time to mosey around your block. Do this with the purpose of really seeing your neighborhood, maybe for the first time. Again, focus on your 5 senses. What can you see in gardens, architecture, wildlife? What do you smell? Taste in the air? How does the ground crunch or remain solid beneath you? Take time to smell the roses.

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4. Lover’s Eyes: You’ll have to gain your partner’s cooperation for this one. Maybe even invite him/her to join! Take a full 3-5 minutes to stare into your lover’s eyes. No kissing, talking, or anything other than noticing the exact shapes and colors, the mix of golden and stormy hues. How do his/her eyes look in the light, in the shadows? Can you see yourself reflected in the pupils?

5. Notice Your Breath: Tried but true, when needing an immediate anchor for mindlessness, return to the breath. Focus on how it feels coming in through your nose, cold perhaps down the back of your throat, shoulders rising or belly expanding, and then hot back out, warming you up. If your mind wanders (and it will!), there is no need for judgment. Just notice the wandering and then bring your attention back to your breath. Try this for just 5 minutes at first.

6. Read Your Favorite Poem: If you have a beloved poem, passage, or even song, take a moment and read it aloud. Really feel the rhythm and the words as they take shape on your lips. Notice what emotions rise for you as you read, how your body changes in tension or relaxation, in ache or weightlessness.

7. Just Listen: Turn off the TV and iPod, and just listen. Listen to the silence. The empty space. Listen to the train passing in the distance. Your children playing in the backyard. Listen to the electric hum of lights and machines. The creak of old wood. A bird calling just outside the window. Listen to the sound of your own breathing. Open your ears … what do you hear?

8. Notice A Certain Color: This is a fun exercise for the whole day. Pick a color (any color!) and every time you see it, take a moment to be mindful of your surroundings. “There’s orange!,” for instance, and then take a breath and really notice where you are. This is a double mindfulness, because you are remaining mindful of noticing this color (I bet you’ll see it more than you think), and then the promise of further connection to the present moment when you encounter that color.

9. Play with Kids (or Animals): Kids have amazing aptitudes for mindfulness. The world has not yet taught them to be self-conscious, running a to-do list in their heads, or how to worry incessantly about the past or future. This is a mindfulness practice of participation. Can you open yourself to the moment? The sand castle, the tea party, the made up game of cops and robbers with the rules changing at every turn? Can you be fully present to the excitement and joy of imagination? Let go of your conscientiousness, your worries, your need to be in control or productive. Just play.

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10. In the Shower: This is an activity that is often done in haste and without thought. Instead of running your shower routine mindlessly,  pay attention to the feel of the water on your back and face, the smell of your shampoo and soap, the way your razor or washcloth feels over your skin. Take a moment to breathe. Take a moment to just be naked and tender and alive with yourself.

11. Dancing: The idea is to actually lose yourself in the music, and let your body express what it wants to express. If you’re a little hesitant to do this at the club or in front of others, close the door to your bedroom and crank up the volume on your favorite song. Turn off the critic, and see what your body might enjoy sharing about this specific beat or those catchy lyrics.

12. Waiting in Line: Next time you’re waiting in line at the post office or for a table at a restaurant, rather than pulling out your smart phone, take a moment to take in your surroundings. Allow yourself to really breathe, and notice the people, the chatter, the white noise, the music, the art on the walls, the smells of food. Take a moment to notice where you really are, and who you’re sharing this space with for a short time.

I cannot iterate enough that the purpose of mindfulness is not to relax or even to feel content. The purpose of mindfulness is to be alive in the present moment as it is – to notice what is and enter into what is with a purpose that focuses your attention and strengthens your anchor to vitality. The purpose of mindfulness is to slow down and experience. To be alive in the moment you have, which is always and ever, only this one. The past is gone. The future may or may not happen in any certain way, or at all. Live this moment. Don’t let it pass you by in a string of missed opportunities. There is beauty all around you. Heartache, too. It all deserves your attention.

All content owned by Amanda Bowers

3 Steps to Mindful Living

Meditation. Zen. Mindfulness. These are now words of mainstream 21st century consciousness. Yet many don’t really know what they mean, or more importantly, how to use these concepts to enrich their lives. Some people envision monks meditating in monasteries at the tops of foreign mountains, others think of yoga practitioners twisting themselves into ever complex poses, and yet others may think of a blank slate heart where perpetual serenity whitewashes emotions off the canvas of life. In truth, all of these ideas are true. And yet they don’t have to be your truth. It is entirely possible to enjoy a more mindful life without devoting hours in meditation or yoga, and while still enjoying the stirrings of passion, hope, and what this Southern girl likes to call sweet sassy molasssy spunk.

So what is mindfulness? I’ll be the first to admit I am in no way an expert on the definition or practice of this art. The more I read about mindfulness, and the more I talk to people who value a mindful lifestyle, the more I realize that mindfulness is a subjective concept and practice. For me (and for others who share this mindset), mindfulness is more about living than reflecting. It’s more about being in the present moment than remembering that ugly altercation with a co-worker, running your to-do list over and over, and looking forward to dinner with your partner such that you don’t notice the lunch you’re eating now. (And we all know that dinner can then be filled with looking forward to dessert, to sex, to sleep … fill in the blank.) Mindfulness is a way of life that helps you slow down, enjoy the present, experience more novelty, and enhance your connection with yourself, those precious to you, and the world around you in all its beauty and strife.

So how can one become more mindful without signing on for hours of additional “work”? The easy and difficult task of it, is simply this:

1) Attention: We live in a world where our concentration is pulled in more and more directions at once. We can be bathing a child, planning tomorrow’s staff meeting, and casually glancing at work emails to which we feel we must reply as soon as possible all at the same time. We can be eating dinner, watching T.V., and remembering yesterday’s sorrows all at the same time. Mindfulness asks us for our full attention. Something we’ve probably not mustered to that extent since grade school when learning multiplication or creating a splendid holiday craft were all our minds could hold at any one time. Children and animals are exemplary models of mindfulness, yet as adults we have the ability to sustain our attention, and experience meaning from that attention in ways that a child never could. When mindful, we are in the present moment. That is all. You can be in the present moment listening to Prince, or eating a gourmet hamburger, or marveling at the exact curves and taste of your lover’s lips. You can be mindful when you’re driving to work or responding to emails or cooking dinner. Ask yourself to slow down and focus on this moment and this moment alone. Ask yourself, “How can I give this moment my full attention?”

2) Awareness: Now that you’ve slowed down enough to even realize what you’re doing or how you’re being in the moment, allow your awareness to blossom. Not sure how to do this? You can start by paying attention to your 5 senses: What do I touch, taste, hear, smell, see right now? What is this person really trying to communicate to me? What am I really trying to communicate to this person? How does my child’s hair smell right now, and now after I’ve bathed her? How many different colors are in this flower? How many different tastes in this strawberry rhubarb pie? How can I experience this moment instead of going through the motions of this moment? How is it different from all the other moments, even from other similar moments? This doesn’t mean you must get lost in all the intricacies of the particular: the early morning splash of light, the sound of an ambulance passing by, the photocopier oozing ozone into the air. But it does mean that as you remain in touch with your task, you recognize what you are doing as you are doing it, and what the world is offering back.

3) Participation: You’ve slowed down, you’ve noticed the moment, now release yourself to be in that moment. We all have our daily agendas. And agendas themselves are not to be discouraged. Yet getting from point “A” to “B,” or marking this and that off your to-do list does not mean you have to be mindless along the way. You can dance when your favorite song comes on the radio. You can compliment a co-worker’s new hair cut. You can savor the sweet sunshine you taste in your orange juice. You can notice your feelings and neither avoid or cling to them. You can merge into the moment – energetically – such that you experience flow. A flow from this to that to this. Nothing is ever the same. Each moment is always only what is. And when you’re really looking, what is, is so so much.

(Ideas about mindfulness influenced by Marsha Linehan’s Dialectical Behavior Therapy, a type of psychotherapy practice.)

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“I have lived with many Zen masters – all of them cats.” ~Eckhart Tolle

All content owned by Amanda Bowers.