Experiencing the Joys of Everyday Life Through Mindfulness | Mindfulness Rewrites

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Experiencing the Joys of Everyday Life Through Mindfulness

     by Dr. Linda Miles

For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half-lived life. 
— Herman Melville     

 Do you dwell on the negative in your day? 
Do you want to live more in the present moment?
Do you want more joy in your life?

Meet Leah

Leah, a middle-aged administrative assistant, had a history of depression. She experienced problems in her past relationships, and isolated herself because she felt like a loser. She did not want to repeat that pattern, but her new partner began to complain that she was always negative.

Leah tended to apply a negative filter to her thinking, meaning that she focused on the negative and discounted the positive. Think of Leah's brain as either glue or Teflon, depending on whether an experience was negative or positive. When she made a mistake or received criticism, her negative thoughts that followed were "sticky" and difficult to get out of her mind. When she performed well or was complimented, any positive thoughts that followed quickly slipped away.

Cognitive psychologists have found that this type of despondent thinking is prevalent in those with depression and, fortunately, can be changed.

How Leah Found Joy

Leah sought help to become aware of her destructive thought patterns through mindfulness. She soon realized that she learned this way of thinking as she grew up. Raised in a household with little joy, and ample negative thought and behavior patterns, Leah's model for thinking about the world was formed at a young age and became unconscious. The fact that she could change her thinking and behavior gave her hope.

By gently shining a light on inner-injurious thoughts without judging herself, Leah was able to become aware of why she felt and acted as she did. Through her practice of mindfulness, she could live more fully in the present moment. She started to feel more alive, and her sensory perceptions were heightened.

Leah learned how to experience joy in simple acts like washing dishes. She let herself take in the lemony aroma of the soap. She slowed down to experience the feeling of the soap on her hands. By developing mindfulness skills, Leah became able to focus on the now. Joyful moments became more glue-like while her negative thinking, through practice, became more like Teflon.

As Leah's focus changed to appreciation and celebration of life, she began to notice joy, love, and miracles in the every day. As her inner experience began to change, she smiled more often and developed a better outlook on life. Her depression lifted. This is consistent with research showing that mindfulness shrinks the parts of the brain associated with negative arousal, increases volume and activity in brain centers associated with calm awareness, and reduces depression symptoms.

According to relationship researcher Dr. John Gottman, couples who thrive over time have a 5:1 ratio of positive interactions over negative ones. Leah's improved relationship with her partner bears this data out.

Joy is a Choice

Savoring moments of joy becomes a thought habit, and the brain likes to repeat habitual ways of thinking. As you practice, your brain wires neural networks to fire in the direction of joyful thinking.

As neuroscientist Dr. Wayne Drevets observed, “In the brain practice makes permanent." Fortunately, because of neuroplasticity, we can take steps to reroute our brains in the direction of gladness at any age.

Your Turn

Is your mind like glue for negative thoughts and Teflon for positive ones? Here are some easy ways to begin changing how your brain responds:
  • Imagine letting thoughts pass through your mind like clouds overhead.
  • Visualize a neural railway and that you're laying track toward enticing stations.
  • Look for joy in everyday things; open your eyes and imagination.
  • Practice staying present in your body.
  • Learn to focus as you experience moments in the day.
  • Let your attention come into your senses as Leah did when washing dishes. 

So much of life is spent replaying what happened in the past, or imagining what might happen in the future, that people do not fully experience the present. Developing a simple practice of daily mindfulness can increase your ability to feel joy in the moment. Try this:

  1. Take a moment to close your eyes and focus on your breathing. Breathe deeply using your diaphragm. Let your attention scan your body. Notice places of tightness or tension. Imagine that the tension is a knot and in your mind release the knot gently. Let it go. Feel the tension loosen.

  2. Imagine a time when you were very happy. Allow yourself to experience that feeling. How does your body change as you recall this memory? Open your eyes and look around the room until you see something that gives you pleasure—a picture, a book, flowers. Allow your attention to linger on that sensation.

  3. Train your brain to go to places of peace and joy. Set an intention to focus on joy instead of attack thoughts. As you do this, you may experience small changes in your mood. Over time, your ability to choose joy and peace of mind will increase. 

While this is a very simple practice, most people do not stick with it long enough to really make a difference. To help you commit to a regular schedule of mindfulness practice for the long-term, consider setting a reminder alarm on your cell phone.

You will find if you practice this throughout the day, even for a moment at a time, you will see objects in more detail and begin to experience peaceful joy. There is no right way to practice noticing your past thoughts and recreating them in the present. Keep trying until it feels right for you.

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