Things just don’t feel right. All around you there are signs that you should be happy, and yet you ache with a nagging sense of discontent.
In the news we are hearing how Facebook is linked to depression. Perhaps. But depression, discontent, generally feeling in a funk are states of mind, body and spirit that have roamed this earth long before Mark Zuckerberg made his mark. So where can we lay the blame? We start to rummage around in the past, trying to find clues for where it all went wrong, but if the problems are here in the present, isn’t that where we should look?
When I sit with clients I often see how hard they strain away from their present skin, whether that is because they are longing to see a future change that may or may not ever happen, or because they are caught in a prism of mirrors that they hold up to a past that changes each time they look at it. They are lost from the present, either because what is here and now is too painful, or perhaps simply they have formed a habit of constantly looking back or forward.
The funny thing about the present is that it is always here for us to look at. We do not have to flick through photos to remember, or drum our fingers as we count down the days to a future possible. It is here for the taking, and that carries a measure of control with it. We have the ability to control how much we immerse ourselves in the here and now, accepting what is without trying to change.
Sometimes the present is too painful. We have all developed coping mechanisms, and avoidance is one form of coping mechanism. In the case of extreme trauma we can suffer post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and in this case we dissociate from our present feelings (we become emotionally numbed) because if we were to connect with them we might become overwhelmed.
In less extreme cases, we may be avoiding the present because we believe the pain would be too much to handle. Sometimes the fear of unravelling is too much, so we keep it all held tightly in. In this case, perhaps we could try small steps towards awareness of the present. I am a firm believer that we cannot achieve change until we have become fully aware (and accepted) what is. So I see the process of change as –
1. Awareness, and only then…
2. Acceptance, and only then…
A useful starting point with awareness and acceptance is a mindfulness technique called the ‘Three Minute Breathing Space’. There are many versions of this widely available, and I originally discovered this in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s ‘Full Catastrophe Living’ (2001) but below is my version. In my version I have separated out the three dimensions of our awareness into…
1. Our thoughts,
2. Our feelings, and
3. Our sensations
In this three minute breathing space we are simply becoming aware of the present. We are not trying to change anything, we are simply using our breath to anchor us in the present and accept what is. It is not necessarily a relaxation exercise, because accepting what is in the present may be acceptance of a state that is far from relaxed!
Sit in a quiet room where there are no distractions. Let your breathing be the anchor to hold you in the present. Just notice your breath, and do not try to change anything. As you breathe –
1. You may become aware of thoughts bubbling up into your mind. Let them bubble up, and do not try to change anything. Just be aware of your thoughts, and consider that you are not your thoughts. They do not define you, and they cannot harm you. They are just thoughts. If your mind wanders, let it and then gently bring your awareness back to your breathing, so that it anchors you in the present.
2. You may become aware of sensations in your body, such as discomfort, tightness in certain parts. Again, just notice these sensations and try not to do anything about them. Gently bring your awareness back to your breathing so that it anchors you in the present.
3. You may become aware of feelings, including frustration or anger, perhaps sadness. Allow these feelings to bubble up and try not to change anything. Just be aware of the feelings, and gently bring your awareness back to the present by focusing back on your breathing.
The most important aspect of this exercise is your experience of it. If you experience thoughts of ‘mumbo jumbo nonsense’, a sensation like a tight steel ball in the pit of your stomach, or feelings of anger, that is already giving you more awareness than you may have been experiencing before the exercise. Give it a try. I would be interested to hear how you experience it.
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Chris Warren-Dickins LPC , Licensed Professional Counselor with an office at 162 E Ridgewood Ave, Ste 4B, Ridgewood, New Jersey. Sessions are also available online
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