story by Dr. Nicole Davis Psy.D., J.D - a gifted teacher and guide for those seeking to integrate Mindfulness into their wellbeing practices.
It must’ve been my first year of licensed practice, now that I think about it. I had a client during that time, let’s call her Maria, who was struggling with moderate to severe chronic depression. We’d been working together for a few months with little noticeable change in her mood. She was frustrated with therapy, and (candidly) I was frustrated too. Even armed with all of my years of education and supervised practice, along with a heart full of compassion and a fresh desire to help, we were stuck in a therapy rut and I was feeling a bit hopeless that I could help. One day, out of a combination of desperation and trying to get her off of the hamster wheel of melancholy, I asked her “is there anything at ALL in your day that you find even a teenie tiny bit enjoyable?” And after some serious deliberation, she decided that her morning cup of coffee was pretty much all that brought her any semblance of daily joy. So I assigned her some therapy homework that later became a staple in my mindfulness tool belt – to take the time to really BE with that coffee the next morning. Smell it like she’d never smelled coffee before. Swirl it around in the cup and in her mouth like she was a coffee sommelier. Savor every last sip until it is gone, and allow the experience to envelop her entire being for however long it took her to slowly, mindfully drink it. Best. Coffee. Ever.
It wasn’t until years later, after formally studying Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (the seminal secular mindfulness program developed by Jon Kabat Zinn in 1979) and engaging in my own (mostly) consistent mindfulness practice that I realized I actually had been teaching this beginner’s mind perspective taking (and other mindfulness techniques) to clients over the years without knowing it was “mindfulness.” And that these techniques, in combination with talk therapy (and sometimes with psychotropic medication), appeared to be really helpful for my clients. Teaching others to harness their own already-present ability of mindful awareness was empowering them to engage in their lives in an almost third-person way – freeing them up to see how they were experiencing themselves in their worlds without reacting in an automatic way. Bringing awareness to their internal processes as well, so that instead of living on autopilot, they could bring objectivity and insight to their patterns of thinking and behavior. Only by allowing themselves to get in touch with reality, rather than their particular version or story around a situation, were they able to create the opportunity for choice - for responding intentionally from a clearer, wiser, and calmer place. I learned later, though I already had seen this in action, that the object of mindfulness is not to change our experiences or situations, but rather to change our relationship to experience. And this shift for so many people was beyond liberating.
Mindfulness, ultimately, is simply about awareness. It is not a panacea, and it isn’t the magic bullet that will cure all ills. But it IS a game changer for many people who have treatment resistant depression, anxiety or relationship issues. It is about using our ability to “see” (not with just our eyes but with all of our senses cumulatively) what IS. It is about listening to the message we receive through our body sensations, our thoughts and our feelings, taking what works for us, and letting the rest go. It is about finding out we are enough, have enough and can handle whatever life throws at us, and don’t need to put ourselves through the ringer every step of the way. You see, most of us experience ourselves and our worlds passively, and do not realize we have the capacity to observe our experiences … thoughts, feelings, sensations … and having an internal dialogue where we get to decide if that’s the way we want to experience or react to them. Did you realize that you had that much power? I didn’t for a long long time. Even I thought I was destined to feel overwhelmed, or angry, or scared at times, and often ran from those feelings by self-medicating in a number of destructive ways, because those feelings and tandem thoughts were big and uncomfortable and I just wanted to be happy because feeling bad felt bad. But what if feeling bad didn’t feel so bad? What if I (we!) could accept life’s discomforts as normal, temporary, even as gifts? Opportunities for learning and growth? Maybe notice that harsh inner self-critic and give it a little love? While thinking and feeling are natural and helpful parts of our human experience, they do not have to lead to chronic psychic distress. We just have to learn to notice and realize we are not defined by these experiences … that they are a part of who we are but not ALL of who we are. Practicing mindfulness helps us to do just that.
Oh and what ever happened to Maria? We parted ways after working together for about a year, and she’d experienced some stints of relief from her depression in our time together. And she often joked that she’d never enjoyed coffee so much as she had after working with me.
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