Choosing the High Road with Mindfulness
Ever lose it? Shout? Utter unintended harsh words?
Yeah, me neither (ahem)…
On the off chance you do find yourself stressed and losing it sometime in the future, let’s talk about how Mindfulness can offer you an opportunity to react more calmly and with more wisdom.
Defined simply as paying attention to the present moment on purpose with kindness, Mindful awareness consists essentially of our body sensations, thoughts and emotions. Each of these can be thought of as a point on a triangle reciprocally impacting the others, with present moment awareness in the center. When a strong emotion is felt, you can be sure there are some robust body sensations and thoughts accompanying the emotion as well.
To illustrate, imagine the following (fictitious, of course) scenario. It is a school day morning and my daughter has yet to get dressed, brush her teeth and hair. I look at the clock and realize it is now 6:45am, the bus soon to arrive at 7:00am sharp. My first thought is, “She may not make it to the bus stop on time.” My heart rate increases, triggering emotions of frustration and anxiety. I say to my daughter in a slightly high-pitched tone, “You need to speed it up or you will miss the bus!” My next thought is about how if she does, in fact, miss the bus, I will need to drive her the twenty minutes out of my way to school, causing me to be late to work and my first client of the day. Cue the tight jaw muscle, raised shoulders and quickened heart rate. It’s easy to see how my thoughts, body sensations and emotions swiftly affect one another.
Here is precisely where I face the proverbial fork in the road:choosing either the path of Mindful awareness, what neuroscientist Dr. Dan Siegel calls “taking the high road,” or the reactive, Unmindful “low road.”
On a day when I am tired or overwhelmed, I could easily be swept down the low road, caught unawares. I might bark, “Hurry UP! I am tired of rushing out the door in the morning!” Emotionally hijacked, I am no longer aware of my thoughts, feelings or emotions, and even less aware of my behavior, words and actions. This scenario might play out with tears, raised voices, and a good dose of Mommy guilt (“Great parenting, Shonda! What kind of Mindfulness teacher are you anyway?!”).
The view from the high road looks quite different. If I remember to simply pause, notice my body sensations (“Whoa, my shoulders are practically touching my ears!”), take a few breaths and choose my response to the situation (A calm but firm, “Honey, we really need to get moving so we can make it to the bus.”), the chances of my daughter cooperating are much greater and my blood pressure remains within normal range. I am now responding to the stressful situation, rather than merely reacting in an old, habitual, unhelpful way.
When we lose perspective, things feel overwhelming and serious. When we are able to pause and step back, we see the perceived threat was worsened by an emotional hijack. Taking the high road feels infinitely better for all parties involved, and although challenging, does get easier with regular Mindfulness practice.
I would love to say that I live on the high road consistently but that would be untrue and, frankly, kind of boring. No, no, this Mindfulness teacher certainly travels down the low road on occasion. It feels awful. It is humbling. What I have learned to do is forgive myself, apologize to the offended, and get back on the Mindfulness wagon, determined to do better next time. Fortunately, life offers us continuous opportunities to practice, another chance to take the high road surely right around the bend.