It’s Happening To You… Now What?
Denette Mann is a licensed professional counselor based in Dallas who integrates mindfulness into her counseling practice. This is reflected in the name of her website: LivingBetterWithMindfulness.com. Her belief is that mindfulness can help baby boomers with stage of life issues which Denette will tell us more about.
Frank: Today we have Denette Mann with us. Denette is a licensed professional counselor based in Dallas who integrates mindfulness into her counseling practice. This is reflected in the name of her website which is livingbetterwithmindfulness.com.
Her belief is that mindfulness can help baby boomers with stage of life issues. Denette will tell us a little bit more about that. Denette, welcome to the Aging Boomers. Thank you for joining us.
Denette: Thank you so much for having me.
Frank: Can you tell us a little more about what you mean by stage of life?
Denette: We go through different stages from the time we are born until we die. What we are talking about today is the changes that begin to occur when the last child leaves the house, goes to college, or is fully employed. Maybe we're transitioning out of the work place or at least to a lesser role. We might be dealing with elderly parents, and we might be dealing with our own issues both medically and relationally. Transitions are stressful, difficult, and sometimes create other kinds of problems. It can be a tough time especially from the moment when kids start to be old enough to not be at home as much. It seems like things start to transition and not in the way that we would like.
Frank: I remember! I have two children, and when my youngest left for college my wife was going through that stage of life and took it out on me. I'm sure many have gone through that as well. That's part of life I guess.
Denette: It is. Because stress is involved, even if it's something at the end, later on down the road, we feel like it worked out for the best. If you look at the research any change is stressful and our initial reaction, as our brain goes negative, we try to avoid it. We have a, "Why is this happening to me?" resistance, or denial, and we sometimes need a scapegoat. Hard to carry it all by ourselves so we pass it along.
Frank: You mentioned that's it’s “happening to me”. In your practice you must hear that quite often. Where someone comes to you and says, "I can't believe this is happening to me. This is supposed to happen to other people, not me."
Frank: What advice do you give them?
Denette: I give them, first of all, the permission to feel bad about it, and to recognize that this is a difficult thing, and that it is stress, and that the brain does have a negativity bias. I also let them know that it is something that does happen to everyone. Suffering is part of life and that mindfulness is a way that we can learn to accept rather than resist inevitable things that happen to us. If they are open to it I try to give them some mindfulness skills to help them through the transition in a way that feels better to them. Lowering their stress helps their health, and not only helps the experience of transition, but it also prevents other kinds of problems like health issues showing up.
Frank: You’ve mentioned a couple of times the term mindfulness. Help us understand the difference between mindfulness and meditation, which I know you promote quite a bit.
Denette: I'm glad you asked that because I do think are a lot of questions that people have about the two. Are they the same thing? Do they go together? What's the deal? I appreciate being able to expand on that. Mindfulness is very basically being in the present moment fully and optimally without any judgment, rather than being in your head. An example would be, you walk your dogs in the morning and you try, to notice what kind of weather you are having and how it feels on your skin. Noticing the trees, and the colors, and any flowers that might be blooming, or in the winter how things look cold, and noticing how that affects you physically.
You would be doing that rather than rehearsing a conversation in your head about something that you thought did not go well, or worrying about something that you said or did the day before, and now you're regretting it, and wondering how to fix it. Those are mindless things. Mindfulness is really not doing that, not letting your brain go somewhere else, but staying right where you are.
Meditation, because our brains are designed to want to move around and stay very busy, trains your brain. Just like an athlete that wants to train to swim, they have to practice swimming. If we want our brain to stay in the present moment as much as possible, then the brain needs to be trained. Meditation is one of the best ways to do that. Meditation is strictly a practice in which you focus your mind in order to train your brain to stay where you want it to be. Our brain has changed a lot through evolution. We don't get new brains…we get additions to the brain. We still have that survival first part of the brain that's called the reptilian part and it's what is constantly looking for what's going to get us in trouble. Where's the danger?
It's the part that looks for the tiger who might want us for lunch. As our world has changed the number of potential tigers has risen exponentially. Someone cutting too close for our comfort into our lane on the freeway, for instance, is now a tiger. Because our brain scans for danger every four-seconds we really need to train it to go back to being mindful as frequently as we can. That's where meditations come in.
Frank: Can you give us an example or two of the benefit of meditation as a path to living a more mindful life?
Denette: Okay. One benefit is when I slow down through meditation it is like I'm reminding myself that I can go slow, and that I don't have to be in a rush all day long, and that my body likes that. I actually function better when I'm able to sit and notice things rather than just being in my head. I think when you slow down, not only does the day go better, but you're enjoying the moment more. When you're not doing meditation but you are being mindful, in a meeting you can pay attention and enjoy the benefits of the meeting rather than worrying about when you're going to be asked to speak up.
If you're playing with grandchildren you get to enjoy the kids in a different way than if you are worrying about what you are going to fix them for lunch, for instance. That's one benefit I think. I also think that we feel calmer, and safer, and more relaxed. Stress by nature makes us feel less safe and meditation brings that back, it is actually part of the nervous system that makes us feel safe, and connected to people, and that is when we are happiest. We know that through research as well. That is when we can connect better with people, to our lives, to ourselves. I also think another benefit would be when we are not resisting and focusing on the bad stuff that happens to us, we have more energy and we are more positive.
Bottom line is life becomes more joyful and novel. We look at things with fresh eyes.
Frank: When I think of meditation I think of somebody sitting in a yoga style position, and in a nice quiet room with eyes closed. That's not the only type of meditation. Can you describe various types of meditation.
Denette: You're right. I would say by far the most common way of meditating is to try, and be in a quiet place where you can sit and notice your body in space, and not be disturbed. That is a great asset I think. If people can do that on a regular basis then you get the most results. Yes, you can be mindful in moments. There is such a thing as walking meditation, there are lying down meditations. I have an app on my phone that has this very nice little ring and I can set it for how often I want it to go off. When I hear that ring it is a reminder to me that I'm going to spend a moment and check in with my body, and notice if I've got an emotion coming up, if my body is comfortable or uncomfortable. I'm going to notice those things so that I can be aware of them and be present with what I need to be doing next rather than allowing them to get in the way.
I have a 12 minute meditation on my phone that has me flexing my body and stretching a little bit just to notice how I'm feeling and doing things to make myself feel better either emotionally or physically. It's 12 minutes, so, at the end of my lunch break if I want to do something like that before I start my afternoon, I can do that. There's many ways to do this.
Frank: I think that is just like exercise, the biggest challenge is consistency and doing it everyday, or every other day. Many times we exercise and we're more focused for a couple of months, then boom it stops. Is that similar to meditation?
Denette: Absolutely! You will get the best benefits from a daily practice. Optimally, I'd say 20 minutes but I wouldn't start there. There are times when it will be harder and times when it will feel easier. Working through that, just like you work through an exercise routine is an important part of this. The other thing about it is you can make it fit for you. I would recommend to somebody, it's usually best 15 minutes in the morning or right before bed. That might be the most recommended or the most common but if that doesn't work for a person they're free to do whatever works for them.
If the mornings or evenings don’t work, if they only have five minutes to start, or if they want to do it in their car before they leave, there are all kinds of ways to get started. When I first started trying to do more meditation and mindfulness one of the ways that I got better at it was I decided to take 3 deep breaths every time I got in my car during the day. Then 3 deep breaths before I got out of the car. Those were moments during the day when I would remind myself of this practice just so that it would become easier to remember and become more natural.
Yes, it is like anything. There are stages that people go through with meditation. There's the excitement phase, and then the disillusionment phase, and then the phase that you get to where you realize the long term benefits. You are seeing them, you are experiencing them, and you are committed. It is like most things in life—to get to the good part you have to know that there is going to be some struggle.
Frank: I'm going to be putting you on the spot a little bit, and I've never done this on our show, but could you run us through a meditation session for our listeners. What do you think?
Denette: Of course it is possible. That will show how easy it is. Here's what I would recommend. As I understand it you have people who are possibly sitting down, but may not. People maybe driving or walking. For those who are driving, you can certainly listen to get an idea of what you might do, in terms of thinking of it as a meditation-just notice how your hands are on the wheel, or modify it to make sure you're staying awake and aware of the road, or do not pay attention to this part, and you can go back to it later. Walking, you can do it as a walking meditation. Certainly, if you're in a place where you can sit quietly and won't be disturbed that would be the best.
Okay. It may feel like a long time. How much time do we have?
Frank: How much time do you need?
Denette: What I'd like to do is five minutes. I think that if you're not familiar with meditation you will realize how long five minutes can actually be when you are simply being rather than doing. That in itself, I think, is important. Learning that life can be slowed down and can be full of things that can happen in a short period of time. We'll do five minutes and I will be guiding it. If you're just starting out in meditation I would highly recommend that you start with guided meditation before you try to do it on your own with no guidance. That can be CDs it doesn't have to be in person. Just to have total silence can be very hard to keep your mind focused. Guided meditations can make it easier. I will do a guided meditation and at the end you'll hear the sound of my bell. That will indicate that you want to come back into the room and open your eyes if you've closed them, reorient yourself, and just pay attention, and notice where you are, how you feel emotionally, and how you feel physically.
We're just going to do this as if you're sitting down and make those adjustments as necessary. Sit in a comfortable position but in an upright position that helps you stay awake. You might notice your feet on the floor. Ground yourself, noticing what you're sitting on and how that feels. Feeling supported by the couch, or the chair, or the floor wherever you happen to be. Start by taking a few very slow deep breaths with a longer out breath than an in breath. The reason for the breaths is we go into that more relaxed stage physically when our out breath is longer. It puts us in that safe relaxed part of the central nervous system. Try that for two or three breaths. Breathing in, breathing out. As you do, notice any changes that might occur in your sense of comfort level i n your body.
Now, take a moment to just do a short scan from the top of your head slowly moving down your body. Don't forget your face, mouth, neck, shoulders, arms, hands, fingers, torso, stomach, upper legs, knees, lower legs, feet, and toes. Just notice what you notice. If you feel tension in any part of your body take a breath and let the breath breathe into that part that's feeling tense and just notice without expecting anything to change. Just notice if there is a change. With meditation we are not trying to achieve anything other than to keep our focus where we are choosing to keep it focused. There is no doing it wrong. There is no getting it right, it just is “what it is”. You may feel a relaxation in that part of the body or you might not.
There may be parts of your body that feel really good, and you might enjoy just sticking around with that part, and enjoying the fact that you feel so good noticing that as something you don't want to miss. When you've done that go back to your breath and let it find it's own rhythm, whatever is natural for you. To make it easier to stay focused on the breath you might say the word, "In," as you breath in and, "Out," as you breath out. If you want to extend the word so that you're saying for the entire length of the in breath and the entire length of the out breath that can help you keep your brain focused on your breath. Do that for a few minutes.
Our breath is always there. It does it's job without any effort on our part. It's vital to us and yet so natural. It's always there, always providing us with what we need. Then you might just take a moment to check-in emotionally and see if there is a particular emotion that's coming up. If there is, can you notice where in your body you feel that emotion? Some of us carry emotion in different places, neck, head, shoulders, stomach, legs. If you find stress or an emotion that's showing up in a particular place see if you can allow that rather than trying to change it, or move it, but simply letting it be what it is. Knowing that it will change, nothing ever stays the same.
This part of the practice actually helps us tolerate pain more easily. Now take another deep breath. Bring yourself back into the room or wherever you are. Get ready to hear the bells. (bell rings)
Frank: Well, I'm certainly more relaxed.
Denette: I'm glad to hear it. I am too.
Frank: That was great. Thank you for doing that.
Denette: Yes, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Thank you for letting me.
Frank: You are based in the Dallas area. Why don't you remind people how they can learn more about your services, and your consulting practice, as well as how people might be able to find resources in other parts of the country.
Denette: I am primarily a therapist. I also have a practice for both mindfulness and self compassion. For teenagers I call the program “making friends with yourself”. I think that makes more sense for adults as well. The self compassion piece is an addition to the meditation and mindfulness because it’s showing that it has even more benefits to the practice. I also do presentations, I do training locally. SMU has an adult education program where you can take classes of self interest. This one is even considered part of business, to take my classes. I do a mindfulness self care class two or three times a year through that SMU program. I facilitate meditations at a museum in the local Dallas area on occasion, and do some things for children, and some groups.
Those are the things that I'm doing. I'm doing more and more of them. I'm about to run my first mindful self compassion course which is very similar to MBSR, which I think is a better known program. That stands for mindfulness based stress reduction. That's been around since the '70s and it was started by Dr. John Cabot Zinn and it was started in a hospital. The MBSR programs and trainers for that are much more prevalent in the country than the mindful self compassion piece that I do. I'm thinking that if you want a practice, or an introduction where you can do it with a group, and have the discipline of going to a place and learning more about this, finding a local MBSR class might be a really good way to get started.
If you don't want to do that, I would suggest CDs to do your own meditations because they're guided and you can try different kinds and find the ones that work for you because not all meditation practices are going to be right for everybody. John Cabot Zinn and several other people have them as well. There are books that can help people learn more about the science behind it, and what's actually happening in the brain, and then those books also have practices that you can try yourself. John Cabot Zinn would be another source for that. There's a man named Dan Harris who has written a book called “10% Happier”. I think it's really good for people that are coming out of a high stress corporate environment because that was what he was in. He didn't trust it. He didn't believe in it. It's his true story, so it's really cool.
Jane Siegel has done a lot of work with mindfulness and attachment in the brain. Then Tara Brach is very well known. She has books and she has CDs as well. The newer apps you can buy on your phone—there are three I think are particularly good. I’ll mention those. The first one is called “Insight Timer”. It has lots of options. I really like it. You can even choose the sounds of the bells that you use and you can personalize it a lot. That is a good one. Another one is Calm, C-A-L-M. That is an app. Then the other one is called “Mindfulness”. All of those, I think, give people different ways to use it in a way that works for their life, their day, and their personal preferences. I think there's something out there for everybody. Whatever you're most interested in trying first.
Frank: Great, Denette, you've been a wealth of information. I've really enjoyed this. Thank you so much for joining us. Check out Denette's website: livingbetterwithmindfulness.com. Love to have you back in the future, Denette.