The world tells us, “Be prettier. You need granite countertops. Your car is ugly; get a new one. Buy this $50 cologne.” The world tells us, “You cannot be whole or happy without these things,” and that’s bullsquawk. A happy life can be found in being grateful for what we have, instead of continually striving for what we don’t.
DGO talked to Janet Curry, licensed professional counselor and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) teacher at Stillpoint Counseling and Mindfulness Training in Durango, about what it takes to live a more attentive, connected life, on the cheap.
What is mindfulness? A good, working definition of mindfulness is paying attention on purpose to what is happening in the present moment without judgment. That is the kicker. We are judging everything all of the time, “I like this,” “I don’t like that,” “I want more of this and less of that.” Not judging what we are finding is a challenge. Being in the present moment, turns out, is not so easy either. We are constantly doing time travel where we are thinking back into the past or into the future with worries, concerns, agendas, the to-do list, what didn’t we do, regrets, memories. The present moment gets seriously squeezed for most of us and yet the present moment is the only time we are alive in.
Is gratitude becoming a trend that extends past Thanksgiving Day? In the West, we have orientated ourselves toward get more, make more, get the latest of what we already have. We have found that that doesn’t hold up under investigation to making us happier. It’s wonderful that we can rise out of poverty so that our basic needs are met and supported – it’s crucial – but once you reach a certain level of being in terms of income, what is it that then makes us happy? This is why there has been a lot of movement toward practices that support us in appreciating what we already have, even when that is as simple as taking a breath. That’s already here. That’s free.
Are mindfulness and gratitude tough habits to create?Most people I talk to, mindfulness isn’t something they’ve never had. Everyone has stopped and watched a spectacular sunset and thought, “[Gasps] This is wondrous.”
So why does it seem harder to get to that gratitude state?It is interesting to notice that in terms of our evolution, we are biased towards an awareness of negativity. That’s been adaptive in terms of our evolution because being alert to danger has helped us survive as a species. The problem with that now is that that can be the way the mind tips whether we want it to or not. Think about when you get together with your friends, it becomes, “How are you?” and then, “This isn’t that great and that is not going well.”
That’s human and we can have a sense of humor about it but particularly now, as an antidote to all that is going wrong in the world, we need to bolster ourselves to appreciate what is right, and not just right, but miraculous around us.
Are there exercises to lock someone into the present moment?A traditional practice is to bring attention to the breath. Jon Kabat-Zinn, who founded mindfulness-based stress reduction and has been a real pioneer in mind-body medicine and mental health, he says, “As long as you’re breathing, there’s more right with you than wrong with you, no matter what is wrong with you.”
We have this breath that is available 24/7. It’s always fluxing and changing and it is cheap. It is free. We can drop in and notice [breathes deeply several times] that it doesn’t take a lot of work to feel your breath, it is already happening, but we lose touch with it because our minds are somewhere else. That can be a doorway back into the present moment, taking three mindful breaths. Three breaths with awareness.
What are other ways to get in the moment?An exercise that has gotten a lot of recognition – because it is very useful and there has been some research behind it – is the simple practice of writing down three things you are grateful for.
It helps to not make them general and overarching like, “I am grateful for the weather.” Instead, making it very specific: “I am grateful for that hug I got this morning from my partner,” or, “I’m grateful for that exchange I had with the person at the checkout counter at the grocery store.” Writing something precise and asking how did it make you feel.
Are there any books you would suggest on mindfulness and gratitude?I think the best book I know on mindfulness in terms of mainstream America is “Full Catastrophe Living,” by Jon Kabat-Zinn. It’s about the mindfulness-based stress reduction course, but it tells about why one would even want to investigate mindfulness in the first place.
What would you tell someone who says, “I don’t have time to add a gratitude practice to my day.”We are all too busy, but it is interesting to begin to notice, what is the quality of mind you have while you are doing all that needs to be done? Is it fractured and fragmented and overwhelmed? What’s the state of your body when you are doing it? Are you in a stress reaction, fight-or-flight mode much of the day? Then to begin to recognize that how we show up in this moment has a huge impact on how the next moment unfolds and the moment after that. Pouring some of our attention and energy into how we show up in this moment can be an effective way of taking care of the future.
In mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, they’ve developed a practice they call the three-minute breathing space. Everybody has three minutes, or if not three minutes, 30 seconds. I invite people to stay in the bathroom just a few seconds longer. Nobody is going to disturb you. You’re all alone. Why not make use of that to stop and notice where you are, breathe, and maybe feel your feet on the floor and notice that gravity is here holding you to the earth and we’re not just all spinning out into the atmosphere. It doesn’t take much time.
What other affordable resources can someone reach to for a gratitude or mindful practice? Small steps, actual small steps. Often, we get caught up in our heads. People describe to me how plagued they feel by their thoughts and concerns, and it can be interesting to bring your awareness down into your feet. They’re already here. It doesn’t take much effort to feel them in contact with the floor.
There are also a huge number of apps and some of them are really, really skillful. “Calm” is one that I’ve heard lots about and it has gotten rave reviews. There’s another called “Meditation Studio,” by Gaiam, that I have four of my guided recordings on. That’s $3.99 for the app and it’s unlimited access. That can be a wonderful starting point, as well.
How does connecting with ourselves connect us to the world? (Mindfulness) is a lovely awareness and it’s not a new one, but it can be hard to keep in touch with. Walt Whitman, in his poem “Song of Myself,” he wrote, “I am large. I contain multitudes.” Stress contracts us. We end up feeling very small and helpless and, “What can I do in the face of all of these disasters?” For me, in very real ways, practices around mindfulness and heartfulenss can help refresh my contact with all that is available and miraculous around us, and if we go out into the day from that place, we have already impacted the world.
Interview edited and condensed for clarity.— Patty Templeton