As National Eating Disorders Awareness Week 2018 nears its end, let’s talk about mindfulness. The term is everywhere, but there are many misconceptions about it. Mindfulness can, but does not have to include meditation. It is not about de-stressing or relaxing, though those two things can be a result of mindfulness. Mindfulness is not something you learn once and that’s it.
Mindfulness is the practice of bringing your full attention and non-judgmental awareness to the present moment. (For more on mindfulness, read here.) In other words, mindfulness requires intentional engagement using the five senses to notice what is happening right now. It is something that we must choose again and again and again (though it becomes more automatic over time). Our “monkey minds” have well-worn neural pathways that either send us back to the past to ruminate on things that have already happened or blast us forward into the future with feeble predictions usually based on fear or past experiences. These pathways are so well-used that most of us do not really know what it is like to be fully present to the here and now. But all of us are capable of mindful awareness.
Mindfulness has been increasingly researched as an effective therapeutic modality for the treatment of mental illness. Depression (in which the mind is stuck on things past) and anxiety (in which the mind is fearful of the future) both respond well to treatments that include mindfulness. Mindfulness is also helpful in the treatment of eating disorders.
My practice of mindfulness began as a simple cognitive exercise early in my recovery. After every binge, my therapist told me to tell myself, “That was the past. There is only the present.” Doing so helped me break free from the self-loathing I engaged in after a binge and focused my attention on how I felt right now. Later, my mindfulness practice was a little more involved. After a binge, I described the physical sensation to myself without judgment. That was so difficult at first! My mind kept saying, “I feel disgustingly full.” Or “I feel fat and horrible”. Over time, though, I learned to describe the sensations without judgment: “The sensation feels like a stretching across my lower torso. The sensation covers an area about three inches tall and twelve inches wide. There is some warmth in that area.”
Describing things as they are gives us the opportunity to detach a bit, to observe things from some emotional distance. It serves the purpose of severing the link between our behaviors and who we are. After all, if I am “out here” observing my sensations, who is “in there” having the sensations? Mindfulness is a powerful reminder that the true self, the soul, our “center” (whatever you call it) is unchanging and that is where our self-worth lies…not in our behaviors or words or choices and not in our past or our future. As such, our self-worth exists before we’re born and cannot be diminished by anything we say or do. This may be difficult to believe if you’ve received messages such as “You’re worthless unless you…”, but it is absolutely True. Self-worth is not conditional.
At this point, years after I’ve broken free from the cycle of bingeing and self-loathing, I use mindfulness as a tool in my daily life. It is an anchor to the present when I find that my monkey mind is running the show. I use all kinds of ways to bring my awareness back to the present, but the easiest for me is to focus on my breath. Without trying to change the quality of my breathing, I simply notice the air coming in and going out. I notice the physical sensations of breathing. Mindful.org has a five-minute breathing meditation you can try, though you really don’t need more than a few seconds of awareness in order to practice mindfulness.
Mindfulness has so many applications and is such a healing practice. Unfortunately, it’s surrounded by misconception. Take some time to read about it and notice your response (thoughts, sensations, feelings) while reading about it. That, too, is mindfulness!