Awareness, Part 2, or You CAN Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

This is the fourth in a series of Stress Reduction blog posts which are also being featured on the website of my great friend and colleague, Tom Sterner, author of The Practicing Mind: Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life.  By now, you are probably ready for some easy answers to the question: “How can I change my current unhealthy responses to stress?”  So let’s get started………

In the previous blog post, “Awareness, Awareness, Awareness”, through the magic of virtual exploration, we became aware of our unique stressors and our habitual physical, mental and emotional responses to those stressors.  Now it’s time to further expand our awareness in the non-virtual world to help us begin to understand the role that awareness can play in changing our experience of stress.

Let’s try a few exercises to BRING YOUR AWARENESS to your physical and emotional responses and thoughts.  First, find a quiet spot and a comfortable chair.  Set a timer for two minutes, close your eyes to eliminate distractions, and try not to think for those two minutes.

DING.  Time’s up.  What did you experience?  If you are like most of us (even many of us who meditate), you probably experienced something like this: “Uh oh, I just had a thought…………….I don’t know how to keep from thinking.  OK, I think I can do this………..Hmmm, I wonder if I turned off the coffee pot this morning.  Woops, that was a thought.  Oh, no, and THAT was ANOTHER thought.  OK, try not to think……….  Why can’t I do this – I’ll never be able to do this”.

You get the picture.  The lesson here is that our minds naturally seem to resist stillness.  And now we are AWARE of how our minds resist stillness. How is this related to our stress response?  When we are experiencing stress, our minds are often anything but still. They are out of control, and play a large role in the vicious cycle that is the stress response. We jump into the future, with thoughts like “what will happen if….” or “this is so overwhelming, it feels as though it will never end”. We also visit the past as we struggle to figure out why a stressful situation is occurring, or worry about what we might have done to cause it. It’s easy to see how non-productive this is.

OK, let’s try another exercise.  This time, see if you can stand on just one foot for 30 seconds (without holding onto something for dear life).

DING.  Time’s up again.  What did you experience this time?  Chances are, you were so focused on not falling down that you didn’t think of much else except staying upright.  You were in the present moment – no past, no future.  Just the present.  Another way of expressing this experience is to say that you were being mindful.

So what is the connection between being in the present moment and reducing your stress?  There is a very basic connection.  When your mind is still, when you are focused and centered, it is not judging or evaluating.  It is just focusing on the task at hand.  And it is not experiencing stress. Being mindful, or in the present moment, is a wonderful opportunity for us to begin to change how we experience stress.  One of the ways that you can experience this is through the practice of meditation, which you just did in the last exercise!  More on that later.

To explore in more depth how to replace your old habitual responses to stress with those new and improved versions I mentioned earlier, and understand how awareness continues to play a key role in this process, check out the next blog in this series:

NEXT UP:  Putting It Into Practice: A Few Basic Truths

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