Part Six: Its a Wrap!

This is the last of the six-part series on the practice of mindfulness. To reap the full benefit of everything we have learned from the last six posts, it is important that you start this journey with openness and curiosity. In the absence of an agenda and preconceived notions you will be able to view your experience in a new light. Start this journey with the mind of a child, being open and receptive to whatever you may experience. Paying attention to your energy and attitude towards practice is crucial because if you are forcing yourself to feel calm or expecting something magical to happen as you are meditating then you defeat the whole purpose of being in the moment and letting change happen naturally.

So I ask that you make a commitment to yourself to practice meditation on a daily basis. Whether it be for 5 minutes or 40 minutes, consistency is key. Practice both formal and informal mindfulness with a sense of curiosity and willingness to explore what may unfold for you. Lastly, learn to honor your limits – whether they be physical or emotional.

The key concept of mindfulness is to pay attention on purpose to the present moment without judgment. So no matter where you are or what you are doing, simply be aware of whether you are present (both physically and mentally) to what is going on. From time to time ask yourself, ‘Am I fully awake?’, ‘Am I paying attention to what is happening?’, ‘Where is my mind?’, ‘How is my breathing?’ etc. Tune into the sensations of your body – consciously relax those parts of the body where you feel tension. Tune into your thoughts – be aware of what your mind is up to. Tune into your reactions to people and situations– become aware of how you react to them. What prompted you to react the way you did? The moment you become aware that your mind has wandered from the task at hand bring your attention gently back to the present moment – and do this repeatedly. You are creating new neural pathways in your brain by doing this!



Apologies for the long break in posting. Life happened and blogging was pushed to the back of the line for a while. But I intend on being more disciplined in posting regularly going forward.

To recap this six-part series, we have been learning about the physical and mental impacts of stress; how mindfulness can be used to combat stress; and some of the formal ways to practice mindfulness. In part five, we will look at some of the informal ways in which we can integrate mindfulness into our everyday life in order to break free from habitual thought patterns that may not be helpful.

Part Five: Mindfulness – Informal Practice

While the more formal way to cultivate mindfulness is to practice sitting mindfulness meditation, it may not be for everyone. There are numerous other ways in which one can bring mindfulness into everyday activities. As you drive home from work, you can check in and notice if you are present: notice if you feel the seat beneath you and the steering wheel you are holding; notice if you are fully aware of the buildings and stores that pass by; become aware of how your body feels at the moment; notice any tension in your shoulders from stress you experienced during the day. As you wash the dishes after dinner, you can check in and notice if your mind has wandered off to a faraway land instead of being right there – feeling the warm water, the foam that the soap makes and the smell of clean dishes. When you notice the beauty of the evening sky, do not rush to reach for your camera. Instead, stand still and take in the sight. As you eat, check in and become aware of the taste, texture, and smell of the food in front of you. As you go through your day, take three mindful breaths at various times paying attention and being fully aware of what is happening in the present moment – whether it is a thought, an emotion or a bodily sensation. The next time you experience physical pain, instead of automatically reaching for the medicine cabinet, focus your attention on the pain itself. Try to become aware of the exact sensation of the pain – notice if it is it dull or sharp, is it localized or does it spread? Most often, we needlessly intensify an otherwise tolerable experience by adding our own fear, anxiety, self-pity and aversion onto it. When we learn to approach physical pain with a curious mind instead of with aversion, our experience of the pain changes. We will learn more on how to do this in a future blog.

These are just a few examples of the numerous ways in which to be mindful throughout the day. When you ‘check in’ with yourself in this way you are interrupting the habitual way in which your mind gets engulfed in thoughts, unconsciously reacting to them as you are engaged in these daily activities of driving, washing dishes or eating.

Start off by choosing one activity and set the intention to be mindful while doing it. Notice your bodily sensations, your thoughts and emotions while doing this activity. Notice the particular thoughts or memories that pull you into the anxieties of the future or ruminations of the past and let go of them when you can. Bring yourself back to the present. Do this over and over again.

Using mindfulness to combat stress – a six-part series

Part Four: Mindfulness – Formal Practice

As I mentioned last week ( you can practice mindfulness through both formal and informal methods. Let us look at some of the formal ways to practice this art.

Mindfulness Meditation: Mindfulness meditation is a form of meditation that helps build our ability to stay present to our inner and outer experience with patience, self-compassion and acceptance. We sit with our eyes closed, focusing on the breath and using the breath as an anchor to ground ourselves. When we are visited by thoughts we simply become aware of them. We notice the thoughts but do not get caught up in them or react to them. After observing our thoughts, without any judgments, we return our focus to the breath. We do this over and over again, until the ripples on the lake that is our mind settle down.

Body Scan: The body scan is a way to become aware of different parts of our body through progressive and gentle focus on each area, experiencing how each part feels without trying to change anything. It is a way of calming and slowing down the mind; being aware of and connecting with our body; and noticing how stress manifests in different areas of the body. When we observe our body in this way, we are not ignoring or rejecting any discomfort we may be experiencing. Instead, we are simply noticing it with a gentle curiosity without getting carried away in the emotion that accompanies the discomfort. Body scan is a great way to improve attention and get the meditation practice started.

We would start by lying down on the back, arms resting comfortably on the sides (palms facing up and feet falling apart at the ankles) in a quiet, comfortable space, where we will not be disturbed by anyone or by anything. Starting off by noticing the parts of the body that are in contact with the floor, we would gradually shift our attention to the breath. Taking a few deep breaths, noticing the belly raising as we breath in and falling as we breath out, we shift our attention to the right toes. We would notice the sensations in our right toes – maybe the warmth or coolness, or perhaps feeling no sensations at all. That’s just our experience of our toes in that moment. There is no need to wiggle them or move them. Let us just be present to the sensations on our right toes. We can even imagine breathing into and out of the toes. Once we have spent a minute or so focusing on the right toes, we move our attention to the right foot, progressing in a similar way till we reach the top of our head.

Mindful Yoga: Mindful Yoga involves a series of basic yoga poses that are done in a slow, gentle and mindful manner. The entire sequence is considered a meditation. Instead of focusing on what our body cannot do or comparing ourselves to the person next to us, we learn to accept the limitations of our body and stay present to each movement. We start with having the intention to ground our awareness in our body and breath as we flow from one posture to the next, including the in-between time. We do not to push or strain our body while doing these poses. Applying gentle, sustained effort allows the joints and muscles to safely release into the stretch. We let our awareness of our body determine how far to take a stretch and how long to hold it. We use the breath, sending it into the areas of the body where we are working. When we become aware that our mind is thinking, rather than engaging with the thought, we simply notice the thought and return our attention to the body again and again.

These are some of the formal methods to practice mindfulness. Next week we will look at some of the informal ways to be mindful in our everyday life!

Using Mindfulness to Combat Stress – A Six-Part Series

Part Three: Mindfulness

In parts one and two, we looked at the impact of stress on the mind and body ( In part three we will be introduced to mindfulness and how it can help mitigate the harmful effects of stress.

Mindfulness is a state of being aware and paying attention on purpose to what is happening in the present moment without judgment and with kindness. This includes things happening externally as well as, internally in our mind. Mindfulness is the act of suspending all the doing and shifting to a state of being , making time for ourselves, observing the activities in our mind, watching our thoughts, and letting go of them without getting attached to them or driven by them, seeing old problems in a new light and cultivating moment to moment awareness.

When we start paying attention in this manner, we realize that most of the time our mind is either in the past or the future. Because of this tendency of the mind to wander, we are only partially aware of what is happening around us in the present. We go into the ‘auto pilot’ mode barely noticing what we are doing or experiencing. We often let unconscious stimuli and thoughts hijack our emotions and as a result find ourselves in a bad mood or feeling stressed. When we are in this partially conscious state, preoccupied with the inner busyness that is our mind, we miss out on precious moments in our life. Consequently, we are much less happier than we would otherwise be. Mindfulness helps us develop the capacity to be aware of and regard each experience, thought and moment with kindness and tenderness towards ourselves where we realize our full potential for leading a happy, satisfying and meaningful life. It helps us see things more clearly without the preconceived notions, the judgments, the opinions, and the emotional charge we tend to attach to situations. The recognition that the only time we have is the present moment makes our experiences more vivid and our lives more real. Being mindful also helps us become aware of our current automatic stress reactions – which may be harmful to our physical and mental well-being – and make a conscious shift in how we respond to stress.

Mindfulness helps us focus our efforts on our mind and thoughts. When we are able to view thoughts as simply transitory things that come and go without getting emotionally aroused by or attached to them, they lose their power over us. Whether it be stress created by external factors (over which we may or may not have much control over) or stress created by our own thinking, we have more control over how we respond to the stress than we believe. The stress that is caused by external factors such as experiencing a tragedy, going through an illness, taking care of a sick family member, suffering a loss etc can take a heavy toll on our physical and emotional well-being if we allow it. Similarly, stress that is caused by internal factors (self-created stress) can also take a heavy toll on our well-being if we allow it. Mindfulness helps develop the ability to view our experience with curiosity and compassion, without trying to change it in any way. It helps us become less reactive to our experience, which gives us the freedom to choose how to respond. We become aware of triggers to our stress and aware of what is happening to us when we are in a stressful situation. When we are in touch with ourselves in such a way, we are able to short-circuit the automatic stress-reaction as it is happening and recover from it with calmness and awareness.

We develop the ability to be mindful through both formal and informal mindfulness practices. Formal practice involves regular meditation, yoga and body scan. Once you establish a daily formal practice you will start to notice the benefits and transformation spill into all aspects of your everyday life. This is where the informal practice begins. Informal practice involves a dedicated effort and intentionality to start paying attention to your thoughts, your body’s reaction to these thoughts and breathing at various times throughout the day.

Next week, we will look into some of these practices in detail.

Using mindfulness to combat stress – a six-part series

Part Two: Stress and the Mind

Part One of this series ( looked at the detrimental effects of chronic stress on the body. Part Two will look at the impact of stress on the mind and brain function. In order to get an understanding of this aspect we need to first look at two important areas of the brain: the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and the amygdala. The PFC, which is the most evolved part of the brain, is responsible for higher order cognitive functions such as decision making, logical/reflective thinking, top-down regulation of thought, emotion and behavior, reality testing etc. The amygdala, among other things, is involved in memory; processing of emotions such as fear, anger, and joy; and processing automatic (primitive and reactive) responses associated with emotions.

When stress is caused by sudden physical danger (for eg. being on the path of an oncoming car), it is usually the amygdala that kicks into action giving us the ability to get out of the way. It scans the various senses for any signals of danger and instantly sends a message of crisis to all parts of the brain if it perceives a threat. In this sense, stress can be positive because it prepares the body for action. After the stressful situation is over, the amygdala has time to relax and recover. But if the stress is constant and long-term – something that a majority of us experience on a daily basis – it can be destructive because the amygdala is continuously activated. The chemicals and hormones that were intended to be released only for short periods of time are now being released continually into the bloodstream. When the body and mind are in a constant state of hyper arousal, the hormones that were meant to protect us end up over-secreting and eventually depleting. Unmanaged chronic stress also impairs the executive functioning of the PFC. When the amygdala is over-active, the PFC takes a back seat. That is why when we are overcome by stress we find it difficult to see logic. Rather we find ourselves agitated and emotionally reacting to situations – a clear indication that the amygdala has taken over and the PFC is unable to function efficiently. The brain’s response pattern switches from the PFC’s more reflective and logical regulation to the amygdala’s reflexive and emotional regulation.

This type of reflexive response, along with a misguided perception of various everyday situations, triggers chronic stress. Unlike less cognitively sophisticated species, human beings are capable of turning on the stress-response by simply thinking about stress-inducing situations or scenarios. We call this self-created stress – stress that we put on ourselves by overanalyzing, making assumptions, catastrophizing, jumping to conclusions, unnecessarily worrying and creating thought patterns that have no grounding in reality. For eg., simply thinking that the pain in your stomach is a symptom of stomach cancer could set you off on a downward spiral and cause considerable amount of stress even though in reality it may not be true. We are experts at creating stress out of ordinary life events and blowing things out of proportion in our head, thereby negatively impacting the quality of our life. It is often said that how we see things, how we handle them and the meaning we assign to them makes all the difference in terms of how much stress we experience. William James, who was an influential philosopher and widely known as the Father of American Psychology, once said, ‘Thinking is the grand originator of our experience.’ The way we think influences the way we feel; the way we feel influences the way we behave; the way we behave influences our experience of life. There may be numerous stressors in our everyday life over which we may not have immediate control, but if we are able to become aware of our automatic reactions to these stressors and are able to change the way we view ourselves in relationship to them we begin to alter the negative effects the stressors have on our overall well-being.

Join me next week as I talk about mindfulness and its role in reducing the negative impacts of stress.

Using Mindfulness to Combat Stress – A Six-Part Series

Do you find yourself going through life on auto-pilot mode, mechanically checking off your to-do list only to start all over again the next day? Or are you constantly stressed out, frantically trying to manage everyday struggles, worrying about the future and ruminating over the past while life passes you by? If your answer is ‘yes’, you are not alone. Join the millions that feel the same way. We, as a culture, have grown to accept stress as a part of everyday living. Some of us may be good at recognizing stress and the havoc it wreaks on our mind and body if it is not properly managed but, from what research shows, the majority of us seem to be oblivious to its negative impact. In order to combat and mitigate these negative impacts we need to first stop living in an auto-pilot mode – a mode in which we live mechanically, paying little or no attention to what is happening around and within us. We let old patterns of thinking and behavior take control while we sit in the back seat helplessly, often reacting to situations based on a perception that is habitual. Breaking from this mode involves us getting behind the wheels, enjoying the view as we drive, being aware of our responses to things we encounter along the way and understanding that we always have a choice on how we respond. This six-part series on stress and mindfulness is an attempt to help you get started on this process. We will try to understand stress; the impact stress has on our mind and body; mindfulness exercises that can help manage and reduce stress; ways to enhance our potential to be happy and to fully live in every moment of this beautiful journey we call life.

Part One: Stress and the body

Imagine for a few moments that you are lying down in bed after having spent a relaxing day at the beach or spa. Or you simply had one of those lazy, uneventful, and restful days. Your body and mind are relaxed and you are just about to slip into that peaceful state of slumber, when all of a sudden you hear your kitchen window breaking. Within a fraction of a second, your pupils dilate, your muscles tense, your mouth goes dry, your hands start to sweat, and your body starts to shake. Before you are even aware of it, your body is no longer in the relaxed state it was just a few seconds ago. This is because the body goes through tremendous turmoil when it experiences a stressful situation. Stress causes secretion of certain hormones (cortisol, adrenaline etc) and inhibition of others; our heart rate increases, blood pressure and breathing rate go up. Our body goes through all these changes within a few seconds of encountering a stressful situation, in an effort to provide nutrients, glucose and oxygen at a greater speed to those muscles that need it most. Long term bodily functions such as digestion, immunity, reproduction, and growth are inhibited. Since these functions require a lot of energy, the body slows them down in an effort to use this energy to mobilize the muscles and tissues needed to fight or flee the stressful situation. This stress response of the body helps us stay alive when our survival is threatened and it acts as a protective response of the body to keep us safe in an emergency. But when our body starts to respond to life’s everyday hurdles (being late to work, sitting in traffic, having an argument with a loved one, being worried about a future catastrophe) as if they were an emergency, stress can become chronic and that is bad news for our physical and psychological well-being. If the immune system is continuously suppressed for long periods of time we are likely to fall sick more often and our ability to fight off infectious diseases is negatively impacted. If our blood pressure is always high we are at risk for cardiovascular diseases. Our reproductive and sexual capacities are negatively impacted by chronic stress as well. More and more recent research shows that chronic stress is becoming an unpleasant fact of life and a huge health crisis in the US.

We now have a basic idea on how stress impacts our physical functioning. Stay tuned for next week’s blog on stress and its impact on the mind and our psychological well-being.

I Can’t Breath.

I was moved by an article in the New York Times written by a black woman about shielding her 7 year old son from news about racially-biased incidents that have recently transpired. The article had me thinking about our children and the psychological impact that racial discrimination may have on their development. As parents we teach our children how to steer clear of danger, at the same time providing them with a sense of agency and confidence as they explore the world around them. In addition to being influenced by their parents’ view of the world, the social experience that children encounter plays a critical role in the formation of their perception of the world. When they witness or experience inequality, powerlessness and discrimination, not only does their perception about the world as a safe place change, it also has a tremendous impact on their psychological and physical well-being. The pervasive exposure to racial discrimination, either through lived experience or through witnessing it, is a chronic stressor that adversely impacts all aspects of children’s health, including their self-worth, self-esteem, and psychological development. Moreover, the psychosocial stress children face as a result of racial discrimination could inhibit future academic and economic success. It boggles my mind that we do not give the needed attention to these adverse psychological effects that racism has on our children.

So here we are, living in a world where a watch not just tells you the time, but brings a world of information right to your wrists with a simple glance. If we have the intellectual capabilities to produce such technological marvels, shouldn’t we be capable of recognizing the utter ridiculousness of according privilege based on the color of a person’s skin?! Well I guess we could blame this idiocy on the contention that humans only use 10% of their brain. So maybe the capacity to understand that the color of our skin is nothing more than the level of melanin pigment in the skin cells and the level of hemoglobin present in the veins of the dermis is deeply logged in one of those untapped areas of the brain. Until we as a cognitively advanced species can start using the brain to its fullest potential, let us figure out how to minimize the psychological damage our children experience as a result of this madness.

Shielding our children from racism or from the barrage of news on social media about incidents that bring into question the basic morality of this country is not the solution. Rather, we as a society need to provide an environment where children feel safe to talk about their reactions to incidents like Michael Brown or Eric Garner, to nurture a strong sense of ethnic identity in the face of racial calamity, to offer school programs that foster psychological resilience to racial discrimination and more crucially, school environments that promote diversity. And as parents, let us begin by having open dialogues with our children about racism, let us recognize and break the silence that fosters misunderstanding and hostility towards people that look different from us, let us help them ask the hard questions and most importantly, let us try our best to answer them.

Managing those tantrums

Now that you have a basic understanding of what goes on in your child’s brain when they have a meltdown (please refer to my previous article ) you can try a few strategies that may help them calm down. The first thing to understand is that every child is different. Children have unique personalities and temperaments and your responses to their misbehaviors or emotional meltdowns should take this into consideration. When you realize a strategy is not working, try a different approach. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. This might be the hardest thing to do (speaking from experience), but staying calm and centered while your child is having a meltdown is crucial. The reason being, losing patience, getting frustrated or yelling just makes the situation worse – for you and your child. In addition, you are giving the tantrum more power than it deserves. When children are upset, they lose their sense of coherence and are often uncomfortable with how they are feeling. At this point, they need someone to provide a safe environment and help them through the storm. Seeing you lose your cool is scary, unsettling and confusing to them, resulting in an escalation of the undesired behavior.
  2. Keep your voice calm and gentle yet confident when you talk to them. This not only gives them the reassurance that everything is going to be ok and that you will help them calm down but it also shows them that you will not give into their demands.
  3. Acknowledge their feelings. Instead of saying ‘Don’t be mad’ or ‘Don’t be sad’, or ‘Stop crying’ say ‘I understand why you are mad’ or ‘I know how you feel right now’ or ‘I’m sorry you feel so sad’. This teaches them that it is perfectly ok to experience different types of emotions and that there is no shame in being angry, sad, anxious or whatever emotion they might be going through.
  4. Sometimes simply seeing you respond in this way might be enough to start the process of de-escalation. When you see this happening try giving them a hug and let them feel your slow and deep breathing. Most of the time when children are upset their breathing becomes shallow. When they feel the calmness in your breathing, they unconsciously start to mirror your breathing. The act of simply bringing their breathing back to a normal pace has tremendous physiological effects.
  5. If the meltdown still continues after you have acknowledged their feelings and set your limits, let them know in a calm way that they can come to you whenever they are ready and that you will be there to hear them out. Now starts the part of letting the meltdown or tantrum runs its course. Go about doing your work ignoring the screaming and crying as best you can. But when they are ready for connection, pay full attention. If they need to be hugged, hug them. If they need to talk, hear them out. It always helps to sit down or kneel while doing this, so they do not have to look up at an ‘authority’ figure while feeling emotionally vulnerable. It also shows them that you take them seriously and care about what they have to say.
  6. If you are in the habit of giving time-outs, remember that explaining to your child why they are in time-out or asking them what they could do better next time, while they are in time-out may not be very helpful. Talking logic to a child when they are emotionally agitated is useless. Instead, take them to the time-out corner after announcing to them that they are on time-out and then stay quiet. Talk to them about the behavior after the time-out, when they are calm and able to see logic.
  7. When your child is in a better mood tell them that it is ok to feel such strong emotions, but that there are nicer ways to express them. For eg. It is ok to be angry, but it is not ok to throw things.

Parenting can be a tough job. And we make it tougher by putting unneeded pressure on ourselves to be the ‘perfect parent’. As I tell my 5 year old perfectionist, ‘perfection’ is simply an illusion. So the next time you are in the midst of a chaotic situation that involves your little one, take a few deep breaths, remind yourself that your child’s tantrums are just a cry for help and know that it is not a reflection of your parenting. Everyone goes through uncomfortable emotions and children just need to learn how to handle them in a healthy way.

Understanding your child’s tantrums and meltdowns

If you are a parent I am sure you have experienced your child’s inevitable tantrums, meltdowns, mystifying shifts in mood, totally embarrassing and dramatic public displays of emotions at the most inappropriate of situations. You do your best to calm your child, trying to keep your sanity intact at the same time. But have you ever wondered what might be going on physiologically inside your child’s brain that causes such strong reactions? Understanding what is happening in your child’s brain when they are throwing tantrums, having meltdowns or simply too upset to hear a word you are saying, may shed some light into what they are going through at such moments. Instead of emotionally reacting to the child’s meltdown, you may be able to see their situation with empathy and react in a more informed manner. So here is a very basic Brain 101 for you.

In simple language, the front part of our brain is called the prefrontal cortex (the ‘smart’ part of our brain) which takes care of decision making, planning, reasoning, moderating social and other complex cognitive behaviors. This part of the brain in children is still a work-in-progress and gradually gets fine-tuned as they grow older. The amygdala (the ‘alarm’ part of the brain) located in the limbic system is located towards the lower back part of the brain and is responsible for emotions, emotional response, and motivation. This primitive part of the brain gets activated (within milliseconds) when our safety is threatened and primes our body for fight or flight, which is crucial for our survival. For eg., when we hear our bedroom window breaking in the middle of a quiet night our amygdala prepares our body in an instant for fight or flight. At such times, the alarm part of our brain acts much quicker and is more powerful than our prefrontal or smart part of the brain. There is no time to think logically – our body simply instinctively responds to the danger. Now, the amygdala gets activated not only when we face danger but also when we encounter things that greatly upset us. So when your child gets uncontrollably upset at not being able to eat that candy right before bed time, her amygdala has taken control and caused an instinctual, automatic emotional response that does not see logic. It has overpowered the prefrontal cortex and at this point no amount of logical explaining is going to help the child calm down….not at least until the emotional arousal caused by the amygdala simmers down.

What can you do to help with this simmering down? Stay tuned for my next article on ways to help with this process.

Mindful Awareness – Living in the Moment

Mindfulness is the act of gently bringing your awareness to what is happening in the present moment every time you catch your mind drifting into its own version of reality. It is the act of acknowledging the thoughts and recognizing them for what they are – JUST thoughts. It is a state of being that is free from judgments and simply accepting what is.

A simple way to start the practice of mindfulness is finding five or ten minutes every day to do mindfulness meditation. Sitting in a comfortable position, with your back straight and eyes closed tune into the sensations of breathing. Focus on your in-breath as it enters your nose descending into the belly. Notice how the belly expands. Then notice how the belly contracts as the out-breath rises to be expelled through the nose. You can also imagine breathing in wellness and vitality and breathing out any sickness or negativity. Continue to focus on this cycle for five or ten minutes.

During this activity, your mind will get distracted with thoughts numerous times. The mind is a natural wanderer, so do not be disappointed or discouraged if you have to bring your mind back to your breath a hundred times. The key to being mindful is being aware that the mind has wandered away and non-judgmentally bringing it back by paying attention to your breathing. Tuning into the sensations of breathing even for a few minutes allows the mind to pause in its often convoluted journey. There is great value in being able to pause and have the presence of mind to be aware of thoughts and impulses before acting on them. Instead of blindly reacting to situations, developing the ability to respond with thoughtfulness adds immeasurable benefits, not only to our relationships but to our mental well-being. I have found that the simple, yet profound benefit of mindfulness is in helping us understand that thoughts are just thoughts and that it is our emotional attachments to these thoughts that is the root of suffering.

So friends, heres to a week filled with clarity, understanding, peace and mindful awareness. Happy Monday!