Before moving on to this week’s subject matter, take a moment to look back at last week’s themes and exercises.
How was it to switch from the mode of doing to the mode of being? What kinds of things did you find yourself thinking about in your mind? What kinds of things were the most natural for you to experience directly through your body and senses? How could you benefit from practising experiencing things and situations directly through your body and senses?
Did you practise mindfulness in everyday life? If you did, write down your observations on doing the exercise.
Next, you can move on to this week’s themes. But before that, do the familiar three-minute meditation exercise.
The mind cannot control the mind
Many people struggling with depression have heard comments such as “depression only exists in your head” or “just think positively and things will work out.” Comments of this nature are misleading, as we cannot simply think depression away. In actuality, we cannot think away any seriously difficult emotions. Somewhat paradoxically, the way to mitigate difficult emotions has nothing to do with thinking. Or you could say that we can access healing thoughts via other routes altogether: through our body, motion and our senses.
Mindfulness and the body
Many people find practising mindfulness easier on the move than sitting still. This week and next week, we will try various physical and motion-based mindfulness exercises.
Breathing is the only autonomous bodily function that we can consciously regulate. This makes it a unique bridge between the conscious mind and the body. Be regulating our breathing, we can directly affect our mental state. Conversely, by becoming aware of our breathing and familiarising ourselves with it, we can learn to interpret signs related to our mental state and mood.
Accordingly, many mindfulness exercises focus on breathing in particular. The aim is not necessarily to change our breathing, but to examine it with an accepting and curious attitude. When breathing consciously, we can observe things such as what the movement of air feels and sounds like in our nostrils or mouth, in which part of our body our breathing causes movement, or whether our breathing is calm, rapid, shallow or deep.
Next, try a short breathing exercise.
10-minute breathing exercise
Depression is associated with a plethora of symptoms, some of which are bodily. For example, weight gain or weight loss, changes in appetite, slower movements, insomnia or an increased need for sleep, fatigue and listlessness are very typical symptoms. As such, depression is far from an illness that only occurs in the mind.
Increasing physical activity is recommended to many as a way to treat depression. It has been known for a long time that exercise has a highly positive impact on a person’s mood. The latest research information also supports the notion that exercise should even be used as one of the very first treatment methods for depression. Physical activity can be anything, and as such, you should think about what is realistic for you when planning exercise. If your ability to function is significantly lowered, you can start from something small, such as walking consciously from room to room at home. You can then increase the distance to your post box, to the street and gradually further away from home.
Many people suffering from depression also lose connection with their body. They are unable to notice their bodily sensations, and their own body can feel very alien to them. You can strengthen your connection with you own body by using your body diversely and doing mindfulness exercises in which you focus your attention on your body. Try the tension and release exercise, for example.
Tension and release
Contemplate: how did it feel to do the exercise? What kinds of sensations, thoughts or emotions did you notice during the exercise? Write down your thoughts.
Body scanning is a slightly longer exercise than the ones you have tried up to this point in this programme. It combines conscious presence with body awareness. You focus your attention on one body part at a time and then shift it to the next one in rhythm with your breathing. The exercise may feel very difficult at first – but try to do it to the best of your ability today. Remember that you cannot do the exercise wrong.
Contemplate: how did it feel to do the exercise? What kinds of thoughts, sensations and bodily sensations did you notice? Did your mind start to wander during the exercise? Write down your thoughts.
This week, your aim is to practise body scanning several times. If you do not have time to do the exercise in full, you can do a part of it. Alternatively, you can try a shorter and slightly different exercise: conscious leaning.
There is no one right way to do these exercises. Each practise session can also be very different. Your experience with the exercise will be what it will be – the objective is not to achieve a certain state, such as relaxation or calmness. The exercises can stir up a wide variety of sensations and states – including restlessness and even anxiety. Whatever your own experience during the exercise is, let it be as it is.
Physical exercises can sometimes give rise to intense emotional states. The aim is not for the exercises to cause suffering – unpleasant experiences are allowed to arise during the exercises, but if the exercises cause unbearable emotions, you should stop. Such intense emotional reactions are often related to some kind of an experience of insecurity.
Physical exercises can give rise to a wide variety of thoughts and emotions. Our body may react to an unpleasant memory or feeling of insecurity as if there was danger in the present moment. This causes our heart rate to elevate, our palms to sweat and our breathing to grow more rapid, and we can feel very restless. Dual awareness means noticing these bodily reactions while also noticing that there is actually no danger here and now.
We can develop this dual awareness by practising mindfulness and refocusing our attention onto bodily sensations.
Practising mindfulness affects our body: it changes the functioning and structure of our brain. In turn, these changes affect the operation of our nervous system. The next video sheds more light on what makes mindfulness effective.
How does mindfulness work?
Exercises for the week
This week, you will practise body scanning on four days. Try to do the entire exercise in accordance with the recording on at least one practice session – preferably several, if possible. If you want to change things up, you can do conscious leaning during a few practice sessions.
Practise observing your breathing as well. Do the exercise by following the recording. You can also stop at any point to observe your breathing, even if just for a few respiratory cycles.