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!

11149290_1010971682267356_918045794022719524_n

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

11888080_10153469547484223_8901698304474151579_n

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.

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.

IMG_0351

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.

IMG_0378

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.)

IMG_0663
“I have lived with many Zen masters – all of them cats.” ~Eckhart Tolle

All content owned by Amanda Bowers.

How To Find Your Inner Voice

You must train your intuition — you must trust the small voice inside you which tells you exactly what to say, what to decide. -Ingrid Bergman

We’ve all heard the sage advice from someone – mothers, mentors, and self-help books – about the importance of finding your inner voice. But what exactly does that mean? And why is it so important? What is an inner voice?

Your inner voice can be called many things: soul, heart, gut, wise mind, conscience, intuition, guide … some may even believe in connection to a certain energy, nature, spirit, ancestors, or as Yoda made ever-so-popular in Star Wars, a connection to “the force.” Yet however you chose to define it, your inner voice is an essential component to living a wise and vital life. Your inner voice is that deeply honest and strangely shrewd voice inside that points you in the right direction toward your goals, smells bad news and people coming from afar, and a part of yourself – your birthright even – that helps you live an authentic and even miraculous life.

When making major decisions, feeling dissonance about something and you’re not sure why, or in moments when you realize you’ve really strayed from the path or type of person you set out to be, your inner voice can offer intense comfort and insightful guidance. So how does one tap into his/her inner voice?

1. Quiet Mind – Before you can listen to your deepest self, you have to tune out all the other voices vying for your attention. Friends, family, colleagues, media, everything. Sometimes this mindless or even well-meaning chatter can make it quite difficult to tune into your own frequency. Whether you need literal silence, such as meditation, or engagement in an activity that Zen-ifies your mind, such as sports or art, a quiet mind is a good place to start when trying to tap your inner voice.

2. Expression – If quieting your mind is your connection to that deep place, expression is the process of bringing what is deep to the surface. You may choose to write whatever comes to mind, or engage in some other form of art or expression that works more naturally to you. You may choose to speak your thoughts aloud to a trusted friend or professional. You may choose to engage in a lucid dream if you are lucky enough to have that talent. Whatever you chose, it is important to block the inner-critic, editor, or otherwise naysayer from this process. This is about allowing what is there to bubble to the surface. It is about a process, not a final product.

3. Say It Out Loud – If you haven’t already expressed what your inner voice is saying in a direct manner, do so now. Say it out loud. Say, “I need to find a job that fits my skills and priorities more closely.” “I need to stop drinking so much.” “This person I’ve been dating is not right for me.” “This person I’ve been dating is worthy of my trust and love.” “I’m going to travel to the coast instead of the mountains this year.” Whatever it is – say it out loud.

4. Calm versus Fear – When in doubt about if you’ve tapped your inner voice or not, consider if you are feeling calm or crazed about what message your inner voice has communicated to you. Sometimes we let our fears guide us and call it our inner voice, such as, “I’m sure this won’t turn out good any way, so I just won’t paint tonight.” Other times our inner voice has something important to say, “You need to refill the creative well with good conversation and inspiration before returning to your craft.” These types of messages can be difficult to distinguish. Even if what your inner voice has communicated to you is a scary concept – a big move, starting a family, lifestyle change – you should also have a sense of calm guided by the wisdom and honesty of that decision. Of course you’re nervous, excited, even self-doubtful, but there is a kernel of groundedness. Think: Am I running from something or toward something? With an inner voice, there is a lack of impulsivity, and more of a vision.

5. Personal Values & Goals – If you’re still not sure what to think of your inner voice’s communication with you, consider your own personal values and goals. If you value security, honesty, and loyalty – it’s probably not your inner voice telling you to have an extramarital affair. If you value creativity and community, it’s probably not your inner voice telling you that you aren’t talented enough to share your passion with others. If your goal is to help others, it may be your inner voice pushing you to leave a retail job and go back to school or work for a non-profit. Catch my drift here? When in doubt, consider the source of the inner voice. And that source is you.

IMG_0631

There is a voice inside of you
That whispers all day long,
“I feel that this is right for me,
I know that this is wrong.”
No teacher, preacher, parent, friend
or wise man can decide
What’s right for you— just listen to
The voice that speaks inside.
-Shel Silverstein

All content owned by Amanda Bowers.