Struggle with Professional Challenges New York City

Mindfulness In Everyday Activities - Facing Challenges with Presence

By George Marino, CPC, CMMT

Facing Challenges with PresenceAutomatic patterns or what is often referred to as ‘reactivity” occur outside our conscious awareness. That is, when we are not consciously aware of our own behavior. Some researchers believe that 90% of our behavior is carried out automatically. A clear example of this is driving a car. If you are an experienced driver, you will most likely not be aware of the process of changing gears, the movement of your feet while doing so, and the way you hold the steering wheel. Automatic patterns develop through repetition. By repeating a certain action, it gradually becomes automatic, thereby reducing the need for conscious attention.

Automatic patterns are not limited to behavior, like driving a car. Thought patterns or coping with setbacks or stress can also become automatic. Although in some cases automatic behavior is very useful, it can also cause problems.

Life situations can cause feelings, emotions, thoughts and bodily sensations that can trigger automatic reactions like worry and anger for instance. In these situations, we are not in conscious control of the reaction. The reaction is the result of an unconscious tendency. Consciousness is not involved in the relationship between the triggering life situation and the worry/anger reaction. This way of dealing with the situation is referred to as impulsive or reactivity.

Automatic reactions can be changed through alert attentive presence and mindfulness practice. Therefore, becoming aware of automatic patterns helps us by noticing these patterns and returning to our breath as an anchor for presence. When we do that, space opens up between the situation and our tendency to react with worry or anger. It is vital to realize that these automatic patterns are not bad or good, but rather allow us to notice and return to mindfulness with a gentle heart. This compassionate process of mindfulness, loving kindness and the recognition that we are part of a common humanity is the basis for mindful self- compassion.

Mindfulness promotes attention to feelings, thoughts and sensations in the here and now. In the early stages of mindfulness practice, it is especially important to practice when there are no significant challenges. If we experience an emotion like anger, mindfulness helps us pause for a second and pay attention to the experience. By paying attention to the emotion and staying connected to the experience, the chance of reacting impulsively is reduced, especially so when we have been building up presence so to speak within us. Thus, instead of automatically reacting aggressively (for instance raising your voice at another person), we direct our attention to our own emotional experience, through consciousness. Ultimately, a conscious choice rather than an automatic response will guide the reaction that follows. Research findings show that mindfulness helps reduce automatic reactivity.

Automatic reactivity can cause us to get stuck in a negative cycle of feeling and thinking. Imagine you receive a “bad” evaluation at your job (situation). An immediate result of this news is a feeling of sadness or frustration (feeling or emotion). Often, we automatically start thinking “this should not be happening” and produce negative emotions like irritation or regret. Regardless of what the trigger was, when we are not aware of the link between thoughts and emotions, we get caught in a cycle of thinking and feeling for a period of time. We become trapped in our thoughts; we lose awareness of what is happening. This leads to excess worry and ruminating (repetitive and negative thinking about the past).

When we pay attention to the thoughts and feelings that are present in the moment, we can disrupt the cycle and create room for awareness. This awareness (presence) allows us to observe the cycle between thoughts and emotions without identifying with them as a sense of self. As mentioned, if you receive a “bad” evaluation at work that automatically triggers negative thoughts, mindfulness involves taking a step back, so to speak, and noticing these thoughts. It becomes important to gently pause and return to noticing the breath with a kind focused attitude to yourself. Then become aware of what is going on inside you. What thoughts are currently running through your mind? What kind of feeling is present in the moment? Where in your body do you notice these feelings? By witnessing these thoughts, feelings and sensations without judgement as right or wrong, we break the cycle of automatic reactivity. If you notice that thoughts and feeling start to take you over again, gently return to noticing the breath and see what happens. Forgiveness is another key aspect of mindfulness practice.

Note that we are not trying to change thoughts, feeling and body sensations, but rather we are trying to observe and acknowledge the experience.

An opportunity to help us build mindful awareness is the eating mindfully exercise. Eating is a daily habit that involves automatic processes. Eating does not always require focused attention. We can easily have dinner and watch television, send an e-mail, or have a conversation at the same time. When we do so, we become less aware of the process of eating and tasting the food. Our attention is not focused on the sensation of eating but on the television, e mail or the content of our conversation. When this happens, we tend to enjoy the food less.

Like the body scan exercise, a certain aspect of eating process becomes our anchor for presence, such as taste, smell and texture of the food.

When we eat mindfully, we can notice how many times our attention is drawn away from eating by thoughts or other distractions. The notion is to gently direct attention back to the anchor, the experience of eating. Research has shown that mindfulness reduces emotional eating. Mindfulness reduces the speed of eating and therefore satisfies hunger earlier and we end up eating less. Here is a guided meditation on “facing challenges with mindfulness” which can be helpful when we are distracted by thoughts, emotions and body sensations.

Facing Challenges with Presence


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