Mindfulness has been a hot topic in our culture for some time now. Magazines have entire issues dedicated to this practice and its benefits. Mindfulness has been shown to decrease feelings of stress and depression, as well as contribute to a general improvement of physical health. Checking in with our thoughts, feelings, body sensations, and memories allows us to understand the depth of our experience as human beings. It allows us to focus on the present moment (duh) , which is the only thing that exists (whoa)!
When we are in the present moment, we can make change happen – change doesn’t happen in the past or in the future. So, to make a change, you have to do it now, in the present moment. As I type this (maybe as you’re reading this), these statements seem so obvious. Yet, why, despite its popularity, is mindfulness a task that most folks avoid like the plague? What is it about fully experiencing the present moment that has people squirming in their seats?
Despite all the research about the benefits of mindfulness, putting it into practice is actually incredibly difficult. I have found that folks either 1.) don’t fully understand what the practice entails or what it is “supposed to be” or 2.) don’t engage in the practice BECAUSE IT CAN BE INCREDIBLY UNCOMFORTABLE. Leaning into a thought, feeling, or memory that is incredibly painful is INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT and it literally pushes against all of our defense mechanisms that are in place to help us feel safe, loved, and connected. All of us have developed ways of coping with our pain, either through using substances, shopping, or any other myriad of ways we can avoid dealing with pain. Additionally, being able to “check out” is a useful tool to have in your pocket; if you’re experiencing a trauma, you probably don’t want to be fully engaged in the present moment and it is entirely appropriate to avoid being present.
So, what about the aftermath of trauma? In approaching therapy using EMDR, you are asked to come face to face with some incredibly painful memories, thoughts, and feelings. You are asked to engage with them differently, to look at it from a different perspective than you had at the time, and to learn to literally store it differently in your body and your brain. It’s a challenging process and it takes a lot of courage to be present to that experience. With trauma, your brain and body tend to store that memory in a way that makes you feel stuck. You feel like you’re the same age, in the same place, and reacting the same way. This is an instance where it is so helpful to recognize that you’re not there, in that memory, anymore. You’re in the here and now, with a mind that is able to grasp that you are not in the memory anymore. In my own practice, I have witnessed the positive change that can come from processing through these memories and thoughts by staying present with the thought/memory, while also staying grounded in the present moment.
Additionally, the present moment experience is where connection happens. When was the last time you were fully present with a friend, a partner, or a coworker? Maybe it was today, maybe it was last night, maybe it was weeks ago. We’re constantly connected with our phones and computers, but what does that take away from our present moment experience? Connection with another human being invites its own discomfort; to fully be seen and heard by another, even if you’re making casual, surface-level conversation, can invite anxiety, judgment of self, and worry. Maybe you’re wondering, “Are they judging me? Do they understand what I’m saying? Do they disagree with me??”
In my practice, I often invite my clients to engage in present moment exercises with me, where we each name a thought, feeling, or body sensation that we’re experiencing in the moment. It can be quite uncomfortable and scary; we both take the risk of disclosing information that the other person wasn’t aware of or that the other person can’t understand. From the client’s perspective, I’ve been told they’re afraid I wouldn’t be able to handle what they’re experiencing; on my end, I worry that they will become more concerned about me and my feelings, making their therapy session more focused on me than them. Yet, every. single. time. I have done this activity (using healthy boundaries and considerate self-disclosure), it has fostered a sense of connection, vulnerability, and emotional intimacy that is at the pillar of what makes therapy work – the authentic relationship between the two (or more) humans in the room is the most healing element that we therapists have to offer. Get present, humans, and be well!