Last updated September, 2016.
It's time for another installment of "Question and Answer Tuesdays!"
"I started meditating to develop patience and not be so emotional around my husband and kids. I enjoy meditating, but to be honest it hasn't helped much with the patience and temper part. Is there a secret to moving to the next level (so to speak) where that happens?"
How do I get the benefits of meditating?
Behind the common misconceptions that exist about mindfulness and meditation, your question is the biggest issue for people who undertake the practice: how do I get it to help with what's going on in my life?
How do you use it to reduce stress, help deal with anxiety and/or depression, increase focus, or any of the myriad of reasons that bring people to meditation?
Realize that the natural state for most of us is living on autopilot. In your example, your husband says or does something that causes you to (in most cases, automatically) have "x" thought and feel "y" emotion. As a result, you take "z" action, which manifests in what you refer to as a lack of patience or a short temper.
Meditating is a formal practice that allows you to develop the skill of observing your compulsive mind and non-stop mental noise without getting caught up in it. It's only half of the equation, though. The problem is most people approach meditating like a chore or another item on their "to-do list," and they never think about the other half of the equation: mindfulness (being mindful while not meditating).
And that half is the answer to your question!
Mindfulness is applying the skill you develop while meditating to your "non-meditating" time. Returning to our example above - now, instead of going down the path that culminates in the actions and reactions you find unskillful, you can choose to observe "x" thought when it arises and feel "y" emotion that comes with it. When you observe, you are no longer lost in the mental noise. And, as a result, you no longer have to take "z" action.
Another way of looking at it is we are all in one of two states at any given time: (1) lost in thought, which means we are living on autopilot, or (2) aware of our thoughts, which means we have the ability to more skillfully choose our actions and reactions.
You want to move from the first state to the second state, and mindfulness helps you do that.
Which brings us to the how part of your question...how do you get to that second state (or, as you phrased it, the "next level")?
Applying mindfulness is a function of two things: (1) a consistent meditation practice, because you have to continue developing the skill of "observing without getting caught up in," and (2) pausing as you go through your day to make sure you are present and not "lost in thought" and the conditioned behavior it leads to.
Being mindful: the pause.
I suggest my students create a visual or audio cue to aid in pausing as they go through their day.
These cues are built around the question "Where's your attention at?" Here are a few suggestions:
Anything can be a "mindfulness cue" - make a pen mark on the back of your hand!
When you see or hear your cue, pause. Ask where your attention is at, and take a minute to explore the answer. Is it caught up in your mind, lost in thoughts and emotions? If so, bring it back to the present moment, and whatever you are doing right here and now.
As you train yourself to do this, the next step is bringing it to daily situations that trigger the actions and reactions you find unskillful.
When those situations occur, make your first response be to pause. Ask where your attention is at - is it being dragged down a path fueled by thought and emotion? If so, recognize you are now observing this activity, and you no longer have to follow it.
Bring your focus back to right here and now. Breathe. Explore your options. It's simple, but it does take practice. If you work at it, however, you'll probably see results faster than you imagine.
In summary, there are two parts to the equation. Developing the skill through meditation, and apply the skill through mindfulness. To see the benefits of your practice, you need to do both.
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