I have to admit, when Erica first approached me to do this blog post I felt a little unqualified. Though I consider myself an avid supporter of the gay community, I’ve always kind of seen myself as an outsider. I have the privilege of knowing and being in close relationship with quite a few amazing individuals who identify as gay/bisexual/transgendered/etc. However I don’t necessarily identify myself with that demographic and, therefore didn’t really think I had the words or experience to speak directly to the specific challenges faced by that community. However, as I began to reflect on the matter, I realized that that is actually the crux of the issue – focusing on our differences.
Think about it. So many of the cultural dissonances that are going on right now in our country, our world, our personal relationships, have to do with the fact that we feel disconnected. Like we can’t relate. And, for whatever reason, that scares the shit out of us. So we start to guard ourselves, put up walls, act aggressively in an effort to ‘protect’ ourselves. All of which only adds to the conflict and schisms.
But here’s the thing. When we start to shed the stories of how we are different, and how we’ve been hurt because of those differences, we realize that at our cores we are all the same. We’re human beings living on this little blue dot in outer space all just trying to find meaning to why we’re here. To find connection with each other and to something bigger than ourselves. Yes, that looks differently for different people. However, in my opinion, that’s the beauty of it. When we can begin to realize that we are fundamentally the same and connected (and I’m not talking just intellectualizing this, but feeling it), those fears of being different start to drop. We realize there is nothing to be afraid of. We begin to get really excited and charmed by all the differences around us. We get jazzed about it, instead of terrified by it. It’s pretty cool.
I’m not going to sugar coat it. For many of us, to get to the point of not fearing differences takes work. You have to be willing to work on yourself. Consistently. Every day. You have to find a way to shed the story of being a victim and take responsibility for your existence. You have to allow yourself to forgive and heal and go through the mucky process of letting go of the past and your trauma. It can feel really uncomfortable at times. However, as someone who is continually working through that mucky process, I can tell you it’s worth it. There is an indescribable feeling of freedom and empowerment that comes along with the work.
So you may have read all of that and be thinking, “OK, Jenn. That sounds great. But what is this “work” you speak of?”.
It can look very differently for different people. However I’m discovering that there’s an underlying theme with those individuals who are able to fully embody who they are, and celebrate the differences of others. They all have some sort of mindfulness practice they are fully committed to, and they do it on a regular basis.
And this probably leads to your next question, “What the hell are these mindfulness practices?”
Also a good question.
On a very basic level, mindfulness practices are anything where we’re sustaining attention on something happening at the present moment. A lot of times it centers around breathing or sensations experienced in the body. However, they can range from something as simple as just paying attention to your breath, to stuff as complex as chanting fancy mantras (a word or phrase repeated), using Malas or prayer beads, physical movements like Yoga and Tai Chi, to complete sensory deprivation through things like float tanks or silent meditation retreats. There are many different ways to integrate mindfulness practices into your life.
So then you might be thinking, “Why would I want to do that weird stuff? What does any of it have to do with human connection and well-being?”
Well, for starters, it literally changes your brain. Studies have shown that in as little as two weeks you can start to change the makeup of your brain by simply practicing mindfulness exercises 10-15 minutes a day (though it takes a solid 8 weeks to see a significant difference). It reduces gray matter from the amygdala (the “lizard brain” associated with our “fight or flight” reactions) and increases gray matter in the hippocampus (the part of brain associated with our sense of self and compassion). Which, in the context of brain activity, translates into being less reactive in life. We’re able to take a moment and choose how to act in a situation (Such as remembering that we are all connected and bigger than the stories of our trauma and pain, and that we can move from a place of love and trust, instead of fear).
Not to mention the plethora of other health benefits that have been reported. Anything from lowered stress levels and anxiety, regulated blood pressure, reduced chronic pain, to increased libidos and an overall sense of well-being. This stuff works and science is starting to prove it.
So now that I’ve convinced you that these whacky mindfulness practices might actually have some validity, you may be feeling a bit overwhelmed on where to start. I totally get. People have been doing this stuff for generations, which means there are a lot of options.
The advice I’m always giving students, clients, and whoever else will listen to me is to choose whatever comes easiest to you. Because, again, the important thing here is that you sustain this practice consistently. Like every day. I personally suggest incorporating it into your morning routine. You probably already allot a chunk of time every morning for taking a shower, brushing your teeth and picking out an outfit for the day. Why not also allot a little time to take care of your brain and wellness as well? However, if you’re more of a night owl, bundle into your nightly routine. Just commit to it, even if it’s only for 5 minutes to start.
Below are three really simple mindfulness practices that you can try. This is by no means an exhaustive list. Think of it more as a starting point to pique your interest. You can do just one of them or, if you have the time, combine two or three of them into a fuller practice. Either way, it’s important that you make it yours, and something you actually kind of enjoy. You want it to be something you look forward to coming back to every day. You may even consider creating a little ritual for yourself – light a candle, burn incense, put on a cozy sweater…whatever makes you feel good and comfortable.
Three Easy Mindfulness Practices to Try
1. Mindful Breathing
This can be done seated, standing, or even lying down (though I recommend seated, with a tall, straight spine).
Bring your attention to your breathing. Don’t try to change anything. Just notice.
After about 5 rounds of regular breathing, gently relax your belly so that you can drop your diaphragm and fill up the lower half of your lungs as you inhale. Your tummy will puff up a bit as you do this. Keep the shoulders relaxed and the jaw/mouth soft. With your exhale, allow your body to relax as your tummy slowly and gently contracts to push the air out of your lungs.
Begin to slowly count to 5 on your inhale (while keeping the belly relaxed) and to 5 on your exhale. If that count comes easily to you, increase the number up to 12. Let this be relatively effortless. If you notice any part of your body tensing up, lower the number.
If your brain starts to create commentary about your breathing or the experience, keep gently and consistently bringing your attention back to your breath and the counting, and keeping the tummy relaxed.
Strive to sustain this focus for 5-10 minutes. If that amount of time is excruciating, go for 3 and slowly build your way up to 10 minutes each day.
2. Body Scanning
Can be done seated, standing, or lying down. This is also a great relaxation technique to do before you go to sleep.
Begin by checking in with your breathing. Simply follow your breath for about 5 rounds of inhales and exhales.
Bring your attention to the top of your head and get really curious about all the sensations you feel in that part of your body. The connection of your hair follicles to your scalp. The top of the skull. The space between your skull and your brain. Let the attitude you bring to this curiosity be similar to how you look around your kitchen before you go grocery shopping. No emotional attachment, just taking inventory.
Slowly and methodically move your awareness down to the sides of your head, to your temples, ears, inside the skull to your brain. Notice the mass and weight of your brain. Then move your attention to your forehead, your eyebrows, eyes, bridge of your nose, etc…
Continue this process throughout your entire body. Include as many details as possible (fingers, fingernails, spaces between your fingers, etc.). Do your best to stay curious and really notice sensations you may not regularly pay attention to.
When you get to the bottoms of your feet and have finished the body scan, pay attention to how your body feels as a whole. With your inhale, sweep your awareness up the body. With your exhale sweep your awareness down the body.
There are countless mantras or affirmations you can choose from. Again, this is your practice, so you want to use something that really resonates with you. I recommend starting out really simple. Use phrases or words like “Let Go”, “Strength”, “Love”, “Focus”, “I am safe”. Take a little time to think about what you need at that moment. Refine it down to one word or phrase, and commit to it for the practice. Let it be a positive mantra. Something you are striving for, as opposed to something you are trying to get rid of or overcome (for example, I wouldn’t recommend using “I’m not a victim”. Instead use “I am empowered”).
This can be done seated, standing, or lying down. It can also be practiced throughout the day when you’re needing to reign your monkey brain in.
Once you’ve chosen your mantra, begin by checking in with your breathing. Simply follow your breath for about 5 rounds of inhales and exhales. Relax your shoulders, jaw, forehead and belly.
With your next inhale, silently state your mantra/affirmation. Hold your inhale for about one second. As you exhale, silently state your mantra/affirmation in your head. Hold the exhale for about one second. Repeat.
Strive to continue this cycle for at least 10 minutes. Again, if that amount of time is excruciating, start small and slowly build up over the coming days.
One final note on mindfulness practices and meditation. I hear the excuse all the time, “I can’t get my mind to shut up! I must be doing something wrong!”. That is hogwash.
A friend of mine once described meditation like going to the “consciousness gym”. You don’t hit the gym for the first time and think you’re going to be able to bench press 250 pounds. You go in with a goal, work towards that goal, and slowly, over time, make small steps in that direction. Meditation is exactly the same way. Some days will feel “easier” than others. It doesn’t matter. Each time you step into this practice you are doing something to support yourself and your wellbeing. It is very much cumulative. So keep plugging away at it and see what happens.
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