Sometimes the easiest tasks can be so difficult to perform.
Mindfulness meditation has always fallen into this category for me. I struggle so much to get myself to sit down and meditate on a regular basis, even though I know from experience that when I sit in meditation for even a few minutes in the morning, my entire day goes better.
The practice itself couldn’t be simpler:
- First, relax your body.
- Next, draw your full attention to your breath as it moves in and out of your body.
- When your mind wanders (as it’s guaranteed to do within 3.5 seconds), notice that mental activity and give it a name (worrying, planning, lusting, etc.). Then, with compassion, bring your attention back to your breath.
- Repeat this process for a few minutes. Then go about the rest of your day.
A growing body of research demonstrates that regular meditation practice heightens our immune functioning, improves the quality of our interpersonal relationships and helps reduce subjective states of suffering. And as authors such as Jon Kabat-Zinn and Dan Siegel have documented, mindfulness meditation is a powerful adjunct to counseling because it strengthens the very skills that lead to positive outcomes in psychotherapy: the capacity to observe and attend to our thoughts and feelings, the ability to stay present to those thoughts and feelings even when they’re unpleasant and the ability to describe and label our mental activity with words. That’s why I teach meditation to nearly every client who comes into my office these days.
But at the same time, I remain puzzled about why I find it so difficult to get myself to sit and meditate in the morning. It makes me feel like a bit of a hypocrite as I persistently encourage my clients to develop a meditation practice of their own. Who am I to be preaching the benefits of meditation when I seem to be the world’s worst meditator?
This dilemma was in the back of my mind one morning as I finally managed to sit myself down on my office floor to meditate for a few minutes before my first client arrived. As I turned my attention to my breath, I felt a familiar sense of calm. Then, as inevitably happens, a thought came crashing into my head.
If only I could remember how good this feels, I’d definitely do it every day.
As I knew I was supposed to do, I tried to direct my attention away from this thought and back to my breath. But the thought was persistent.
Why can’t I hold on to the way this feels so that I can use this feeling to motivate me to sit down and meditate next time?
I tried once again to direct my attention back to my breath. But the force of my thoughts was more powerful than my will. I found myself barreling headlong into a series of insights that would fundamentally shift the way I worked with mindfulness in both my counseling practice and my personal life.
First, I recognized that I was struggling with the same fundamental issue that I was trying to help my clients with every day: I wanted to change my behavior. But then I found myself asking a question I’d never fully considered before. How was I going about trying to make that change happen?
In contemplating this question, I realized that my method, though not uncommon, was faintly ridiculous. I was trying to change my behavior by forcing my behavior to change.
The more I thought about it, the more absurd this seemed. It was like trying to teach a dog to sit by repeatedly forcing it into sitting position. It’s not that you can’t make a dog sit that way, but the change in behavior isn’t meaningful or lasting because all the dog has learned is how to be made to sit.
The real question, I realized, was this: How do you make a dog want to sit?
And the answer seemed clear: You have to start by changing its mind.
So as I sat meditating on my failure to meditate, I asked myself a new question.
How is it that we change our state of mind?
And I realized that meditation itself holds the answer. The calm state of equanimity that meditation promotes is the result of detaching from the flow of our internal experience, separating an “observing” part of ourselves from the “experiencing” part. It’s this shift in state of mind that allows us to step back and make constructive choices about our behaviors. Without this shift, it’s unlikely, if not impossible, to achieve lasting behavioral change.
But a catch remains: How do we get ourselves to engage in the behaviors that lead to a change in state of mind that then allows our behaviors to change?
To put it another way, I still hadn’t figured out how to get myself to sit down and meditate!
As I struggled with this question, I began to consider the various ways I’d been able to successfully enter into a self-reflective state of mind in my own life. Not just the times when I literally meditate, but also the times when I’m able to be mindfully present in my everyday life.
It occurred to me that I’d actually developed a highly effective mindfulness practice that I use regularly in my everyday life. It’s a mental game I play whenever I’m in situations that are inherently boring, repetitive or tedious — standing in line at the DMV, for example, or washing the dishes. I identify a small element of that scenario which I would usually do without awareness — taking a single step forward, for instance, or placing a cup in the dishwasher. Then I ask myself an absurd question. How would I teach this activity to someone who had never done it before? I next come up with simple instructions for performing that activity. Then I follow my own instructions. I try to take a single step as if I were doing so for the first time in my life.
I’m not sure how I developed this habit, but in addition to entertaining me, it never fails to bring me into a focused, present-moment awareness. Try it for yourself right now with whatever materials are at hand. What instructions would you give, for instance, to teach a person how to turn a page in a magazine? Spell out the steps in detail, then try turning the page by following your own instructions. Notice how different this routine experience feels when you do it this way. Notice the shift in your state of mind.
It began to dawn on me that I’d been thinking about mindfulness in much too narrow a way — and I’d been inflicting this narrow view on my clients as well. It occurred to me that a casual, lighthearted approach to mindfulness could be very helpful to my clients who, like me, struggle to sustain a traditional meditation practice. So I set to work writing a series of playful five-step exercises to help others cultivate a mindfulness practice that could be done within the nooks and crannies of their daily lives. Some of these exercises were based on my personal experience, some were based on therapeutic techniques and some evolved during my work with clients. In turn, these exercises became the basis for my book, The Next Ten Minutes: 51 Absurdly Simple Ways to Seize the Moment.
The best way to describe this process is by giving an example of one of the exercises.
The Exercise: Procrastinate
Make use of the secret technique that all therapists learn on their first day of training: In situations where there is no imminent danger (i.e., nearly all of the time), doing nothing will cause no harm.
What you’ll need
A pressing task from your daily life.
How to do it
1) Choose a task. Identify whatever feels like the most stressful thing that you should be doing right at this moment. It doesn’t have to be an objectively important task. Ideally, it will be something that you feel external pressure to do, but what matters most is that it is creating stress in your life. It might be an apology you know you need to make. Or bills that need paying.
2) Focus on the task. Don’t try to ignore it or put it out of your mind. (That is an advanced step that can come once you’ve mastered the basic technique.) Feel all the pressure that comes with the task and all the emotions that come from not doing it. Imagine your loved ones all around you, looking on with disappointment, clucking their tongues, lovingly scolding you.
3) Vigorously fail to do the task. Refuse to do it.
4) Pause. Take a deep, slow breath. Notice whatever thoughts and feelings rush in. Notice what happens in your body. Say to yourself: “I will do it in 10 minutes.” Repeat this phrase as often as necessary, continuing to focus on the task that you aren’t doing.
5) Go about your business. It is irrelevant to the success of this exercise whether you return to the task or whether you ever actually get it done.
Embracing the stress
Plenty of people out there will tell
you that the art of procrastination is an antidote to the stresses and pressures of modern life. In general, the idea is that you should give yourself permission to delay doing things without guilt, let
yourself indulge fully in a sense of
lazy relaxation. This approach to procrastination misses the point. It’s like telling someone who’s depressed that they should just try to be happier. If you are able to truly avoid thinking about things you’re supposed to be doing, then it’s not
To experience the true benefits of procrastination, you’ve got to really embrace the stress. Because procrastination isn’t about “doing nothing,” it’s about not doing “something.” Ten minutes of procrastination is good for you not because it’s relaxing, but because you’re acknowledging the reality of your life and acknowledging your power to act … or not.
Variations: Other ways to not do things
Experiment with distractions. The natural impulse when going about our daily, usually unconscious practice of procrastinating is to try to avoid awareness of the thing we’re supposed to be doing. The basic version of this exercise intentionally eliminates distraction to heighten the experience of procrastinating. Once you have mastered the basic exercise, however, it can be very enlightening to reintroduce distraction. Do the first two steps of the exercise as described above, then at step three, try to force yourself to think about a subject that has nothing to do with the task at hand. Start with easy distractions — food, sex and money. Then move on to more boring, and thus more challenging, distractions. Are you able to distract yourself from an important task by focusing on balancing your checkbook?
Use visual aids. (For advanced practitioners only.) These are the big guns of procrastination, and when we’re trying to put something off, we usually go for them first: computer games, the Internet. Using these things to procrastinate is like taking heroin to cure a headache. They work so effectively that they don’t give us the opportunity to experience the full spectrum of the procrastination experience. Using these sorts of tools to procrastinate will call on all your skills, so make sure to master the basic techniques first.
Do it … but only half-heartedly. A final way to vary this exercise involves harnessing your capacity for passive-aggressive behavior. Don’t procrastinate, but don’t do it well either. We all do this at times, but usually we do it more or less unconsciously. Try bringing full awareness to a task while you’re doing a half-assed job on it. Can you stay focused on your refusal to do the task well even as you are doing it?
Counselors will undoubtedly recognize the therapeutic strategies embedded within these instructions. I’m using a classic paradoxical intervention — “prescribing the symptom” — to put the reader in a therapeutic double bind so that regardless of whether she continues to procrastinate, she will have been tricked into recognizing that the responsibility for making this choice is hers alone.
But the point of this exercise is not to help the individual solve the problem of procrastination … any more than the point of meditation is to actually empty your mind. Rather, the point is to slow down our mental activity and observe ourselves in a habitual behavior so that we can use the behavior itself to strengthen our capacity for mindfulness.
In actual counseling practice, I weave mindfulness practices and techniques into the give-and-take of therapy itself, allowing “exercises” to evolve spontaneously, creatively and collaboratively in the flow of the therapeutic conversation. The target is usually a problematic behavior that the client brings in. But the exercises inevitably direct the client’s attention away from the behavioral concerns themselves and toward a mindfulness practice about the behavior.
For example, I recently started working with a man who complained that his wife was always asking him to do things for her that she could do perfectly well for herself. He didn’t know why she did this, and it drove him crazy. He knew there were times when it was appropriate for him to say no to her requests, but he just couldn’t make himself do that. Instead, he found himself repeatedly doing things for her that he didn’t want to do.
Rather than making a plan to try to change (or even to understand) his behavior, I asked him to continue doing exactly what he had been doing, but to experiment with a simple mindfulness exercise as he did.
“Every time you find yourself in this situation,” I told him, “I want you to notice it. And when you do, I want you to say to yourself: ‘I’m doing something that I don’t want to do.’”
He looked at me like I was crazy. But he was willing to give it a try. When he came in the next week, something clearly had shifted.
“You know,” he told me with a smile, “I think I’ve been giving too much of myself away. And I think that isn’t healthy for me in the long run.”
Over time, he did in fact wind up changing the behaviors that were troubling him. But that change came not from focusing on the behavior itself but rather through the mindful observation of his own thoughts and feelings. Now when he feels a moment of marital stress approaching, he has taught himself to do a quick mindfulness practice that keeps him from becoming overwhelmed and allows him to remain grounded and to assert himself appropriately. He even came up with his own term for this particular form of mindfulness practice. The term reflects his background in business: “just-in-time meditation.”
I’m convinced our universal task as counselors is not to change our clients’ behavior but rather to help them learn how to change their states of mind. No matter what our theoretical orientation, we all (even the most strict behaviorists) ask our clients to do a version of the same thing: move from an immersion in the flow of their experience to a reflective observation of that experience. It’s this shift in perspective that leads to meaningful behavioral change.
I still teach the formal technique of mindfulness meditation to nearly every client who walks in my door. But I no longer worry about whether my clients are actually able to sustain a formal meditation practice. In fact, I have more and more compassion for how strangely difficult the “simple” practice of meditation can be.
At the same time, I’ve become increasingly convinced that just-in-time mindfulness practices — which can be extremely brief, silly or even badly done — can be just as beneficial as an adjunct to counseling as “proper” meditation. Because in the end, the goal is not meditation itself but rather the shift in perspective that meditation facilitates. Mindfulness might be a single destination, but there are innumerable paths leading us toward it.
“Knowledge Share” articles are adapted from sessions presented at past ACA Annual Conferences.
Andrew Peterson is a psychotherapist, composer and author of The Next Ten Minutes: 51 Absurdly Simple Ways to Seize the Moment. He maintains a private practice in Missoula, Mont., and teaches graduate counseling classes in ethics and diagnosis at the University of Montana. Visit his website and blog at thenexttenminutes.com, and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Letters to the editor:
I invite all therapists to take a look at my website, mindfulhub.com. It is a free site with a focus on using mindfulness professionally and personally. Please you the articles in free worksheets in your practice. Let me know what you think!
Donna Torney, MA, LCMHC
This is a wonderful article, thank you for publishing this. Mindfulness is very beneficial and very powerful. Stressig the importance of self awareness to our clients is one of the major tenets of counseling. You cannot change what you do not know about.
Sometimes the hardest things to carry out are the similest ideas.
Laura Clevenger, MT, MFT