In a Crisis, Taking Time for Mindfulness?

Why would an intensive counseling retreat devote part of the process to mindfulness and meditation, you might wonder.

In the midst of a marital, family or employment crisis, or when grappling with addiction early recovery, is it wise to slow down and focus on breathing? For a number of reasons, yes. Mindfulness may sometimes be the most impactful, and easiest to implement, new behavior one can add to a chaotic life situation or an overstimulated nervous system. Here are a few reasons why.

Think of mindfulness as direct access to the control panel of the mind, and the nervous system. Robust research has repeatedly shown that with even basic mindfulness skills, practitioners lower their blood pressure, heart rate and bloodstream cortisol (the “stress” hormone) level. MRI research has made quite visual the effects of mindfulness on the brain: The self-regulating center, or PFC, becomes more active, and the emotional “pump” of the brain, the amygdala, quiets down. It's not a magic cure (nothing is), but it's a hands-on way to begin to improve self-regulation and emotional steadiness. It begins to prime your nervous system and brain to be of help.

In the midst of personal crisis, or when stuck in self-limiting patterns, mindfulness is a way to cultivate “beginner's mind”, a mind state of greater clarity, where we see our unhelpful patterns and distorted beliefs more clearly, from a fresh perspective. We see new options too, ones that had perhaps never seemed accessible. 

Mindfulness builds the habit of pausing to assess before acting. If impulsive, addictive or simply habitual behaviors have been running you, the simple practice of stopping to pause before making decisions can make a world of difference. As the writer Viktor Frankl famously said: “Between the stimulus and response there is a space. In that space lies our power to choose our response.” In mindfulness we strengthen our ability to perceive that space, and the power to choose.

Mindfulness shows us how to step back from thoughts and emotions, rather than acting on them. From this slightly non-attached mindset, we have more clarity and objectivity about our inner turmoil. We don't take our own thoughts and feelings as gospel truth, but rather as changing inner experiences we are learning to observe and allow to pass by. We learn to leave troubling thoughts and feels alone, and capitalize on the helpful ones.

Mindfulness derives from a tradition of contemplation, of monks in robes who have detached from the world to seek deep insights about the nature of consciousness and human existence. But it is also highly practical, and helpful for those who need to learn to manage their own emotions, develop grace under pressure, and make better real-world choices. In a mindfulness-based intensive counseling retreat, we use the practice always with an eye on 'real-world' applications: To better respond to the problems and challenges of your life situation.