Mindfulness, Relaxation, Breathing, Meditation. How do these pieces fit together?
This comprehensive article discusses the differences between each practice, what they offer and why they are important.
If you’re feeling stressed or suffer from anxiety, your mind jumps from one thought to another constantly. It feels like this restless mind is your master, distracting you from important tasks and draining enjoyment out of what’s happening in the now. This is often called ‘monkey mind.’ Thoughts may bounce erratically from subject to subject, like monkeys jumping on a bed. Thoughts may also get stuck in cycles called looping, playing on repeat over and over. When you ruminate or have thoughts that are constantly recycled, you’re lost in thought rather than being in the moment. These thoughts are often replays, or your top ten hits.
The practices of Mindfulness, Relaxation, Breathing, and Meditation are all helpful and support emotional and physical health. People give up on practicing because they believe their mind has to be blank or calm. Nothing could be further from the truth. People also give up because they are confused about how these practices fit together. The following recording guides you through a series of steps and explains the difference:
Once you’ve listened, you may feel confident that you can start a few minutes of these practices every day. Think of it as your time to settle in, be quiet, and notice your thoughts and feelings. Sense perceptions in your body. Remember, it’s important to scrub away expectations. You’re not supposed to feel anything in particular. It’s a process of getting to know, of awareness, of noticing. Approach your self with curiosity and notice how you can gently bring your mind back to awareness when you notice it is distracted.
Almost every client I work with learns the skill of Mindfulness at some point in their treatment, hence the reason for this article. Please check out the corresponding video on YouTube titled “Mindfulness for the Masses” where you’ll hear me boil Mindfulness down to its essential elements and bust myths about what it’s not!
Where Do I Find My Mindful Self? How Do I Practice?
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness means to deliberately pay attention to whatever you are doing, right now. It means to be in the present, aware of your mind, body, and surroundings. Everything except sleep can be done mindfully. Mindfulness is the opposite of mindlessness. Mindfulness sharpens your attention over time.
How Do I Do It?
Create a daily mindfulness practice. Sit and breathe for a few moments. Do it in the morning to get out of the fog of sleep. Use what you learn from being still to remain mindful, aware, and present as you move throughout your day. In particular, become aware of your:
- Physiological changes
- Surroundings in detail
Mindfulness therapy means to simply observe what is happening, particularly when stress arises. You may express what is happening either in a journal or to someone else, but there is no intention to change anything. The aim is to become familiar with how the mind works and its habit patterns. You are an observer collecting information. See. Feel. Hear. Know.
- Doing one thing at a time
- Slowing down the pace of simple tasks, doing things deliberately with close attention
- Doing a simple task such as writing or eating with your non-dominant hand
- Studying something closely and describing all its characteristics
- Chewing food slowly, noticing texture and taste
What Are the Benefits of Mindfulness?
Mindfulness sharpens the mind and its ability to focus. Your mind is like any other part of your being. There are benefits from understanding how it works, and you can train it to work better. Specifically, mindfulness practice has the following benefits:
- Stability of mind – maintaining your mind in an alert clear space rather than at the two extremes of a dull or agitated mind.
- Flexibility of mind – the ability to shift your mind to whatever object you choose, rather than having it bounce haphazardly between several issues.
- Self-awareness – being aware of the contents of your mind, how it works with your body, and understanding the typical patterns of your mind.
- Responding rather than reacting – becoming less impulsive, e.g., when you are angry.
Like any other form of therapy, real change will require hard work and commitment. In this case, commit to maintaining your practice six days per week for ten minutes per day. New research shows physical changes in the brain and body after six steady weeks of practice.
But wait, I’m learning other skills such as CBT and EFT (tapping) to combat negative thoughts. How come Mindfulness wants me to simply observe? What about my other skills?
Mindfulness asks you to observe without wishing anything were different. Other therapy skills teach you to manage anxiety, depression, and pain assertively. Clients find it confusing when this skill of just being is introduced. Think of mindfulness as a way of living, not a skill. The powerful awareness it offers means you can decide what to do in any situation from a centered, calm place. You may decide to let the situation go, but you may also decide action needs to be taken. This action includes changing the thought, stopping the thought, distracting yourself, etc.
Ellen Hendrickson, Ph.D. busts four myths about mindfulness: #1 Mindfulness is not: A vacant mind. Your mind is designed to be anything but vacant. All day we think, notice, and concentrate. Mindfulness isn’t asking your mind not to think; it’s asking it to focus its attention. #2 Mindfulness is not: Flow. Mindfulness is often mistaken as a state of deep concentration or absorption. Mindfulness is this moment, not what’s happening in it. #3 Mindfulness is not: Joy. While you can certainly be happy while being mindful, mindfulness itself is not a feeling. It is the space in which consciousness arises. #4 Mindfulness is not: Peace. I’ve seen mindfulness described as “an oasis of calm in which our problems melt away,” which sounds great – sign me up! But relaxation often implies passivity, while mindfulness can require a lot of work.
Final Thoughts on Mindfulness
- We often experience the self as the ‘mind.’ We have been conditioned to think we are exactly what we think or feel. The self is awareness. The mind is a product of our brain. Our thoughts, perceptions, feelings, and reactions are separate from awareness, which is pure consciousness.
- Depression, restlessness, distress, and anxiety occur in the mind and the body. Our awareness, our self, is separate. We are not our depression or anxiety. Once you learn to separate your awareness from your symptoms, you will be more able to tolerate them and see them as by-products of the mind.
- Connection to our awareness increases our tolerance of discomfort, helps us to accept pain or distress, and comforts us in the knowledge that discomfort is temporary.
- Where is it? Focusing on the center of the forehead, the mind’s eye, can help you first connect to pure consciousness, or awareness. Eventually, you will feel this awareness throughout your body. It will hum. It will occur along with your breath. I call this state ‘living in higher energy’. The hum you feel when you connect to your awareness has a corresponding frequency that shapes sand. Positive energy shapes cells.
- Mindfulness is not avoidance, distraction, or actively engaging thoughts and feelings. It is not an analysis or judgment of what you are feeling or thinking.
- Visualize: your thoughts passing by, your emotions washing over you. Notice they come and go.
- Mindfulness is resilience. Life denotes suffering, so mindfulness can help us to see suffering as inevitable. We can see our most pure self as separate from the suffering caused by our mind and body. In this way, we acknowledge that we are spiritual beings embedded in physical matter.
- Mindfulness is a precursor to other active work on the self as you sit in spacious awareness. It’s what you do before you journal, change thoughts, use a distraction, practice an affirmation, etc.
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If mindfulness can be described as sharp attention, relaxation can be described as letting go. This dichotomy between a sharp awareness versus a softening of the body often leads to a discussion with my clients about balance or the Middle Way as described in Buddhism.
Relaxation means to soften the body, noticing and breathing through tense areas. Relaxation is a somatic (in-the-body) process, gradually scanning from head to toe, progressively relaxing. Relaxation practices also vary: there is progressive relaxation, expanding/contracting (threshold relaxation), and autogenic relaxation. Relaxation can be guided or self-guided. Flowing music or nature sounds help to enter into relaxation.
Breathing Is a Simple Way to Help Stress and Anxiety
Breathing is one of the first techniques you should practice as you collect skills for a more Vibrant Mind. Breathing is a key element of mindfulness, CBT, meditation, and many other wellness practices. Breathing is a path to better health. It is referred to as your primary axis. Without breath, there is no life.
10 Reasons You Should Become a Breathing Pro
- Breathing helps mental focus. It helps you to create intention, conviction, and commitment. Breathing helps determination. Breathing is what we do naturally as we prepare for a difficult task.
- Breathing paces (slows) your thinking. It gives you a chance to think rationally. Thinking rationally, with a wise mind, enables you to refrain from emotion-based thinking.
- Breathing helps you to resist the impulse and reactive behavior. It enables a pause or space between a thought and a poor choice. You can see how breathing might help to change patterns of addiction or compulsion.
- Breathing gets you through a workout or physical exertion. Once your breathing is in rhythm, your body performs to its potential.
- Breathing helps you stay calm under pressure. It regulates the hormones and neurochemicals that can flood you when you are stressed.
- Breathing reduces illness, injuries, and softens muscle tension. 70% of toxins are eliminated through breathing. As well as helping eliminate toxins through respiration, breathing heals cells from within.
- Breathing controls the psychological experience of physical pain.
- Breathing helps posture. Proper breathing encourages you to lift and expand your chest and drop your shoulders back. This opens up the airway and straightens the spine.
- Breathing boosts mood. Natural endorphins are produced from an oxygen high.
- Breathing helps insomnia and anxiety due to its calming effects. A bonus is that it’s a natural approach to mental health issues with only good side effects.
How Do I Breathe Properly?
- DON’T get focused on counting and holding.
- Everyone breathes at a different rate.
- DON’T force anything and hurt your body. Breathing is flow.
- DON’T worry if you can feel your heart beating fast, just let the sensations pass.
- DO relax your jaw, your shoulders and your brow. Relax your belly and focus on opening the chest and heart center gently as the lungs expand.
- DO find a nice slow pace.
- DO practice for 5 – 10 minutes every day.
- Try breathing on the floor for a super relaxing practice. Just Breathe.
Meditation is a practice, whereas mindfulness is a way to live. If mindfulness is a state of being, meditation is a tool to get you there. Meditation is an excellent way to grow mindfulness, presence, and strength of mind.
A morning meditation practice lasting only 10 minutes has been shown to benefit the mind and health. This is the best way to cue mindfulness throughout your day. Guided meditation or self-guided meditation are equally effective. Most beginners report that starting with guided meditation (someone talks you through) is the best way to start. Guided meditations often use visualization or imagery, music, scripts, or all of these elements to help the listener cue awareness and presence in the now. A visual such as a lake, mountain, or beach is often used to bring the listener into a state of attention.
You can lie, sit, or walk for your meditation time. Cue mindfulness (sharp attention) and somatic relaxation as you focus down the primary anchor of the breath.
The mountain meditation by Jon Kabat Zinn offers a lovely visualization and script to help us soothe stress. He has you imagine a mountain, with the axis of your mountain being your spine. You then imagine that life’s stressors, your moods, and turbulent emotions are simply weather that travels around the immovable axis and surface of the mountain. The mountain weathers but doesn’t budge. This teaches you perseverance and strength in the face of distress.
Mountain Meditation Adapted From the Famous Meditation Written by John Kabat-Zinn
As you sit here, let an image form in your mind’s eye of the most magnificent mountain you know or have seen or can imagine…, let it gradually come into greater focus… and even if it doesn’t come as a visual image, allow yourself to sense this mountain, its overall shape, its lofty peak or peaks high in the sky, the large base rooted in the bedrock of the earth’s crust, it’s steep or gently sloping sides… Notice how massive it is, how solid, how unmoving, how beautiful, whether seen from afar or up close…
Perhaps your mountain has snow blanketing its top and trees reaching down to the base, or rugged granite sides… there may be streams and waterfalls cascading down the slopes… there may be one peak or a series of peaks, or meadows and lakes.
Observe it, noting its qualities and when you feel ready, see if you can bring the mountain into your own body sitting here so that your body and the mountain in your mind’s eye become one. You share in the massiveness, the stillness, and majesty of the mountain. You become the mountain. Grounded in your posture, your head becomes the lofty peak, supported by the rest of your body, affording a panoramic view. Breathe in the view for a moment. Feel how you are rooted into the earth.
Experience in your body a sense of uplift from deep within your pelvis and spine. With each breath, become a little more like a breathing mountain, alive and vital, yet unwavering in your inner stillness, completely what you are, beyond words and thought, a centered, grounded, unmoving presence.
The sun travels across the sky, the light, shadows, and colors change virtually moment by moment in the mountain’s stillness. The surface teems with life and activity. Streams, waterfalls, plants, and wildlife. As the mountain sits, see and feel how night follows day, and day follows night. The bright warming sun is followed by the cool, night sky studded with stars. There is always the gradual dawning of a new day. Through it all, the mountain just sits, experiencing change. It just sits, being itself. It remains still as the seasons flow into one another, and as the weather changes moment by moment and day by day. Calmness abides all change. In summer, there is no snow on the mountain except perhaps for the peaks or in crags shielded from direct sunlight. In the fall, the mountain may wear a coat of brilliant fire colors. In winter, a blanket of snow and ice. In any season, it may find itself enshrouded in clouds or fog or pelted by freezing rain. People may come to see the mountain and comment on how beautiful it is or how it’s not a good day to see the mountain, that it’s too cloudy or rainy or foggy or dark. None of this matters to the mountain, which remains at all times its essential self. Clouds may come and clouds may go, tourists may like it or not. The mountain’s magnificence and beauty are not changed one bit by whether people see it or not. Seen or unseen, in sun or clouds, broiling or frigid, day or night, it just sits, being itself. At times it is visited by violent storms, buffeted by snow and rain and winds of unthinkable magnitude. Through it all, the mountain sits. Spring comes, trees leaf out, flowers bloom in the high meadows and slopes, birds sing in the trees once again. Streams overflow with the waters of melting snow. Through it all, the mountain continues to sit, unmoved by the weather, by what happens on its surface, by the world of appearances… remaining itself through the seasons.
In the same way, we can embody a central axis, an unwavering stillness and groundedness in the face of everything that changes in our own lives. In our lives and in our meditation practice, we experience constantly the changing nature of mind and body and of the outer world. We have our own periods of light and darkness, activity and inactivity, and moments of color or drabness. It’s true that we experience storms of varying intensity and violence in the outer world and in our own minds and bodies. We are buffeted by high winds, by cold and rain, we endure periods of darkness and pain, as well as the moments of joy and uplift. Our appearance changes constantly, experiencing a weathering and aging of our own.
By becoming the mountain in our meditation practice, we can link up with its strength and stability and adopt them for our own. We can use its energies to support our efforts to encounter each moment with mindfulness and clarity. It may help us to see that our thoughts and feelings, our preoccupations, our emotional storms and crises, even the things that happen to us are very much like the weather on the mountain. We tend to take it all personally, but its strongest characteristic is impersonal. The weather of our own lives is not be ignored or denied, it is to be encountered, honored, felt, known for what it is, and held in awareness. In holding it in this way, we come to know a deeper silence and stillness and wisdom. Mountains have this to teach us and so much more.
So if you find you resonate in some way with the strength and stability of the mountain in your meditation, it may be helpful to use it from time to time in your meditation practice, to remind you of what it means to sit mindfully with resolve and with wakefulness. Explore how you can use this imagery in moments that you feel stressed.
Okay, so I get how each of these practices works. So what? What’s in it for me?
- Greater awareness of what is happening around you
- Immense self-awareness
- Intentional living
- Listening and speaking well
- Respond versus react
- Attending to one thing at a time
- A slower pace of doing things – deliberate, skillful action – good decisions
- Greater compassion and forgiveness for self and others
- The ability to see every state (pain, depression, anxiety, hate) as an experience that is separate from the essence of you
- Over time, less distress to both internal and external stress
Finally, and most importantly, these practices support and promote your health due to their ability to grow your intuitive connection with your body.
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Traci Baxendale Ball, LMSW, CAADC is the founder of Vibrant Health Company LLC
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