3 Steps to be More Mindful (and Less Reactive)

By Mike Hynes – Psychotherapist


People ask me what my specialty is and I tell them “real people.” That answer creates a puzzled look and a series of curious questions. In fact, you may be thinking a few of them right now, including:

“Don’t you mean people with certain disorders?”

“Don’t your clients all have addictions or major problems?

“I thought only crazy people would come to see you…”

The truth is we all have a few quirks or issues of varying degrees. My expertise is seeing the essence of real people and helping them solve their real problems. I then guide people into and through the process of living deeper, richer lives. The central point to this work is to be present instead of reactive. Here are three steps to help you move into a space of mindfulness:

Manage your reactions – good or bad

Most of us have the experience of “losing it” at some point in our lives – or much more often we get lost in a negative spiral of emotion. This is usually followed by a series of unproductive thoughts and an irrational decision with action. Then a series of regrets and coping mechanisms to recover. Sound familiar? We generally don’t mind our good reactions but the key to a more skillful and mindful life is to pay attention to all reactions. You can develop mindful ways to stay present and keep your cool by practicing the following:

* Notice your thoughts (don’t act on them – you’re not in your right mind when you’ve lost it!)

* Breathe deep – starting with the out breath. Focus on exhalation reduces panic and short circuits any compulsion to act immediately. This helps lower the intensity of the emotion you are experiencing.

* Get curious about the sensations in your body. This step is much easier to do when you are in my office. The basic ideas are to notice muscular tension, posture, streaming or constricted energy. Take note of any action patterns forming in your body. (e.g. “I have the urge to run” or ” I’m about to explode and scream”)

The key takeaway is to stop your automatic reactive behaviour. When we do this we become able to create our responses to life, enjoy more freedom and experience more control. In turn we stop the consequences of reactive states and reduce the associated coping and post-incident recovery time.

Focus inward, not just outward

There is fantastic research on mindful awareness that is starting to get popular attention. One of my favourites is Richard Davidson’s lab where they investigate the neuroscience of various forms of meditation, thought and emotion. The team of scientists in his lab have recruited monks with over 10,000 hours of experience in meditation. They have observed how their brains respond to startling noise, distraction and upsetting emotional sounds. Compared to control subjects the monks are much better at staying calm and focussed. They don’t get mentally distracted and lost for long periods of time after startling noises. Their brains light up and stay in patterns of empathy when they hear someone crying through the headphones.

The obvious lesson for us here is that there is now a growing body of hard scientific evidence that if we learn to look inward and manage thoughts and emotions we get much better at it. We can become experts in our inner lives and much more able to respond to our life circumstance. The details of this research have also shown that our brains are always able to grow and respond, regardless of our genetics.

Practice, practice, practice

A final key piece to being mindful is to develop compassion and empathy – starting with yourself. The monks are experts at mindful living because they have invested thousands of hours in practice. You may or may not want to join a monastery, but you can become an expert in living your life. You may be practicing some patterns you wish you weren’t at the moment. The best way to transform into a more authentic, optimal experience of being you is to start with compassion and empathy.

Think for a few minutes about an experience you have had where you felt completely heard and appreciated. A time when someone has actively listened to you and responded with care. Consider taking a few moments each day to exercise your empathy muscles by holding that space for another person. Notice what works best for you, then begin to apply those methods to your inner self. Remember that repeated over time you will grow into your best self. If you need a mentor or professional guidance to speed up the learning process don’t hesitate to ask for help. It’s a skill that will move you from reaction to action – and help you in every area of your life.

By Mike Hynes

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