Mindfulness Matters: Essential Tools to Cultivate Your Observer
By Kristen Lutjen
A monthly column by transpersonal psychologist, Kristen Lutjen
Last month I defined being mindful as being present to the now of a moment and paying attention to what is happening within you as well as well outside of you. I described how creating an observer within you allows for closer attention to and being more present in the moment. This month, I’d like to focus on the “essential tools” I use to continue to cultivate my observer.
Being mindful comes easier for me when feeling at ease and content. I often pay closer attention to those around me and how I am being and speaking with them. Mindfulness becomes more difficult when I am uneasy, anxious, or upset; I am less present in the moment and more in need of my observer. I am less connected to what is happening within me as well as around me. This typically generates more upset within myself and disconnection with others.
On this mindfulness journey, there is much unlearning of old habits as well as the learning of new ones. Letting go of practiced ways of being that are unhealthy and unnecessary takes the presence of my observer and an absence of judgment. The practice of new and healthier ways of being, thinking, and speaking takes my presence in the moment with an intention of well-being and the absence of judgment. While there are many tools that cultivate an observer in different ways, this month I’d like to focus on four of the most essential to my own journey, most of which were touched upon last month. Here’s a closer look:
Spending energy on judgment is counter-productive to mindfulness because it serves as a distraction from the moment rather than being present in it. My initial intention as I created my observer was to pay close attention to myself during moments of upset without judgment. Simply noticing certain things about myself sans judgment was not easy at first, because these observations were often followed by justifications, blame, and shame. As I began to practice suspending judgment, I took notice of the stories I was telling myself, including limiting language I used that created the kind of unease and upset that would take me right out of a moment. I became aware of certain patterns to my thinking, speaking, and doing and how these habits only served to contribute to additional and unnecessary upset and disconnection around me and within me.
My observer brought awareness of specific sensations in my body that registered upset, such as tension in my face, neck, chest, and stomach. When uneasy or upset, I tend to be “all up in my head” and disconnected from my body. Noticing how my thoughts and emotions affected my body brought greater awareness to what was happening within me in the moment.
Returning attention to my body, I often notice I am either holding my breath or that my breathing is quite shallow. I notice this and take a deep breath. That first deep breath is often jagged and requires great effort. Followed by another and another, my breathing becomes smoother with each inhalation and more calming with each exhalation. Using counting methods like box breathing is helpful, but I’ve found that just inhaling for as long as I can and then exhaling for as long as I can (without any holding of my breath in between) does the trick for me. No matter what technique I use, even just 30 seconds of deep breathing brings me into the present moment. With deep breathing, there is a pause. In that pause there is the necessary ease and space to shift into new thinking and being.
Shifting into a New Story
Last month I mentioned the difference between phenomenon (what is happening) and story (my understanding/interpretation of what is happening). Breathing deeply helps to slow down my thinking so that it becomes easier for me to distinguish the difference between the two. Then I can begin to entertain alternative interpretations, widening my understanding of it in ways that allow me to respond in better, healthier ways rather than mindlessly react.
While there are a variety of ways to shift into a different story about what is happening, some stories may be easier to believe than others. For me, the trick here is to keep breathing as I find one works in that moment. It might be shifting out of certainty (“I know exactly what she thinks about this!”) into curiosity (“I can’t read minds! I wonder what she thinks about this…”). It might be a word, phrase, saying, or practice that allows the imagination to find an acceptable alternative.
One saying I use, from John G. Sullivan is, “There are at least two ways to look at anything, a small-minded way and a large-minded way. Choose large mind!” With that, I work to create a larger story that provides more ease and greater possibility. For example, what is happening is that my partner tells me about a Zumba class I might wish to join and my story is that he just called me “fat and lazy.” First, he didn’t use those words, and second, that is too painful and small a story for us to live together peacefully. So I shift into telling myself, “Well that’s one way to look at it! Here’s another: he’s helping me take care of myself. He knows I feel better when I exercise on a regular basis and that I haven’t lately. He also knows I love to dance and have fun with Zumba! He wants me to feel good and have fun.” That interpretation feels better, and with it there is much appreciation and no pain.
Practicing a Practice
Additional phrases and practices I use consistently within the pause to shift out of upset and into greater possibility include:
“The Bow” – bow to/accept a person or situation exactly as she/he/it is
“I am pointing to myself” – observe when opposition arises in response to another person or situation and recognize how I am pointing to something within myself
“Words build Worlds” – observe my use of limiting phrases and make a language shift:
From “I have to” to “I choose to”
From “I’m not very good at/ it’s too hard to…” to “I am a beginner at…”
From a “no” or either/or to “Yes and…”
From “but” to “and”
It takes an observer to shift from unease and upset to a place of ease; to be present in the moment and tend to it with care. These four tools are essential for me to tend to any moment with care. The more peace I experience within myself, the more peace I bring into my interactions and relationships with others. As a friend and former colleague of mine says, “That’s just good living!” If one of these is new to you, or it’s been a while since you’ve been in practice with it, try it out at some point this month and see what happens. Whatever this month brings, I wish you good living for the month ahead.