What is mindfulness? In a previous entry, I provided Jon Kabat-Zinn's definition: “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” There is an elegant simplicity to this description, and this is probably why it has become so widely accepted as a definition of mindfulness. However, while it gives us a great handle on what mindfulness is, it is not very clear on how to get there.
When told to “pay attention to the present moment,” many of us simply don't know what to actually do, and we may actually start stressing about it. It's similar to what happens when we're told to “just relax.” There's a paradox in the way we experience this: The task is to let go of straining to make things happen— and all the while we are straining to find a way to do it!
Now, of course, it makes sense that we find it difficult to “just relax.” Even when the invitation is well meaning, it is a challenge. In any challenge there is a sense of threat, however diffuse it may be. As we all know, threat naturally activates our fight-or-flight response.
So it is important to remember that it goes against your very nature to be calm and mindful when you sense danger. It is very hard to will yourself to be more relaxed or achieve something as nebulous as “paying attention to the present moment” when facing a threat of virtually any sort. Conversely, this comes more naturally as you feel safer. One way to feel safer is to have a simple set of instructions, concrete steps you can take, to be more present.
The various approaches to meditation and mindfulness give people specific advice on what to actually shift their attention to. For instance: your meditation practice may encourage a way of being seated, or of noticing your breath. Paying attention to these specifics is what actually brings you to the present moment. I would like to share with you a simple practice that I find useful in everyday life as well as within therapy sessions. I call it Active Pause.
A simple way to do it is with a little ball. It could be a tennis ball, or, even better, one of those squeezable foam stress balls:
- Hold the ball in one hand and squeeze so that you feel the sensation of the ball in your hand. Shift the ball to the other hand and squeeze. Repeat back and forth between the hands.
- Do this for one minute, closing your eyes, paying attention to the sensations in your hand and arm. You don't need to stop thinking about anything else, just make sure that at least part of your attention is focused on the sensation in your hand and arm as you feel the ball.
What is it about?
- It is a simple way to pay attention to what is happening in the moment.
- You are literally getting in touch with your embodied experience: i.e., directly paying attention to what is happening in your body (the sensation in the hand) as opposed to being completely immersed in your mental activity. There's nothing wrong with mental activity, it's just nice to have access to more than just one of your resources.
- If you are feeling agitated, carried away with your thoughts or feelings, it gives you a chance to notice this fact. Then you may start dealing with the agitation instead of just being passively immersed in it.
- Having something specific to do during the pause helps you make it a more effective pause. For instance, if I just told you to pause for a minute, chances are you would still continue internally on the same trajectory you were on before the interruption.
- Having something to actively do (holding the ball, squeezing it, moving it from hand to hand, and— especially— paying attention to your sensations) engages part of your mind into something other than your train of thoughts. And that break from your default focus, from your status quo state of attention, can be just the thing to break out of ruts or shake off unwanted distractions.
I use this in the course of therapy sessions, as a resourcing pause. Over time, I have come to see how it is more than just a mindful pause: It is also a way to explore embodied experience. For any professionals who are intrigued by this, I'd like to invite you to join a group of therapists who are exploring this within the context of a pilot study. To find out more about Active Pause, exploring embodied experience, and the pilot study, please see ActivePause.com.
Author Serge Prengel is an SEP in New York City. He hosts SEPtalk.com, a podcast of 30-minute conversations with different SE practitioners. Each new conversation explores how SEPs integrate SE into their practice.