EDAW 2015 with Amber Barke

I hope you have enjoyed the line-up of blog posts so far. I am happy to introduce to you my colleague and friend Amber Barke. Amber, LICSW is an psychotherapist, yoga instructor, and mindfulness coach in Cambridge, MA. She favors an integrative mind-body approach in her work with individuals, groups, and in training settings. You can learn more about her here.

You may be wondering why we’re talking about mindfulness in the context of EDAW and eating disorder recovery. I’ll actually be addressing this in an interview I gave for The Mindful Eating Summit (details to come, stay tuned!). But I’ll give you the punchline- eating disorder recovery cannot happen without mindfulness. So without further ado, Amber breaks down some of the confusion around mindfulness. I hope this post helps you integrate more mindfulness into your world.

“I had no idea that mindfulness practice was this simple and also this challenging.”

Mindfulness seems to be all the rage in recovery lately, especially ED recovery, and not without good reason. Medical professionals like Jan Chozen Bays tout the benefits of mindful eating on our physical health. Neurobiologists, like Dan Siegel remind us that mindfulness not only promotes mental and emotional well-being, but literally changes the brain for the better. Neuropsychologists like Richard Hanson and John Kabat-Zinn are helping us Westerners understand and integrate these ancient wisdom-based traditions into our modern day lives to reduce stress, cope with pain, and cultivate a sense of ease in the world. What has drawn me to mindfulness practice is the “try it and see for yourself” nature of awareness. There’s no magic. No one pill cures all. This is just good-ol’-fashioned practice that results in both experiential and scientifically measurable positive change.

Yet, I find that many clients and students are still confused about what mindfulness actually looks like in practice. So, in honor of Eating Disorder Awareness week, let’s take a few moments to unpack what mindfulness is (and isn’t) so that we may more effectively benefit from these practices.

#1 – Mindfulness is not something that we either have or we don’t. It’s an actionable choice. Zinn describes mindfulness as the process of “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment…nonjudgmentally.” What this means is that, since the present moment is always happening, there are opportunities for mindfulness everywhere, at all times. If we can choose to pause, take a breath, and feel our feet in the ground RIGHT NOW, that’s choosing mindfulness. While most of us struggle with the practice of nonjudgment, I recommend starting off by simply noticing when judgment is happening: “This is judging” or “These are judgmental thoughts.”

#2 – Mindfulness doesn’t only happen in the mind, it happens in the body. Even 2500 years ago, the Buddha warned: “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” Why? Because without awareness, our minds end up in the past or the future and cause us a great amount of unnecessary suffering. Just think about what feelings we encounter when we ruminate about the past (guilt, shame, regret?) or obsess about future (anxiety, worry, fear?). Mindfulness asks use to use our bodies to process sensory input as well as to keep our minds anchored in the present. A well-known example of this is to focus on the breath. Thich Nhat Hahn encourages this mantra: “I use my inhale to know that I’m breathing in. I use my exhale to know that I’m breathing out.” Try it. Feel your lungs fill on the in breath. Feel them empty on the out breath. Hear the sounds of your breath coming in and moving out. Notice your feet on the floor or your legs in the chair as you breath, and notice if there are any other sensations present. This is mindfulness.

#3 – Mindfulness ≠Feeling good all the time. This is a hard one. Most of us know, at least intellectually, that “accepting what is” is integral to the practice. As it turns out, the very nature of being human in this world is often very challenging. Things are constantly changing (our bodies included), we experience loss, and many circumstances are out of our control. However, the great news about this is that mindfulness practice does not require external conditions to be perfect or even desirable for the magic to happen. Instead, mindfulness says that this very moment, right here right now, is our teacher. If we can train our minds and hearts to feel calm, neutral, grounded, and open during times of distress, we’ll experience less suffering.

#4- When we do feel good, mindfulness says: be present and enjoy it. Great news!! Since mindfulness is an equal opportunity practice, it asks us to be present for (and, yes even enjoy) the pleasant experiences, too. When we fully inhabit our senses, we can experience the full range of physical sensations and feeling tones, which undoubtedly include pleasure, joy, gratitude, contentment, and ease. Practicing tolerance for the uncomfortable and the unpleasant allows us to more fully experience and enjoy when life happens to be comfortable and pleasant. We’re simply in the flow.

Remember these are life-long practices, and that simple does not mean easy. Be gentle with yourself as you embark upon this process. Find support in mindfulness-based therapies, groups, or individual teachers. And, above all, just continue practicing.