Below is the last part of my interview with associate professor and author Michelle Lelwica, ThD. Michelle talks about the specific benefits of mindfulness, including how it helps us access our inner calm, how we can incorporate mindfulness into our daily lives and just how mindfulness helps to heal a negative body image.
Q: What are the other benefits of mindfulness practice?
A: For me, a major benefit of mindfulness practice is that it has helped me lower my center of gravity as a person so that I no longer live exclusively from my head. When I was a teenager with a full-blown eating disorder, I spent the vast majority of time in my head – counting calories, planning my next binge or starvation diet, comparing myself with other girls and women, fantasizing about the day I would finally be thin enough, etc. Thankfully, I no longer devote mental energy to that line of thinking.
However, as an intellectual working in the academy, there is still a constant temptation to escape into the world of ideas—a world that seems blissfully free from the messiness of reality and protected from the unpredictable nature of our lives and the things over which we have no control. In this light, practicing mindfulness helps me stay grounded in the untidy reality of my life as it is.
Although it doesn’t make those aspects of my life that feel overwhelming disappear, it does strengthen my ability to deal with them. Perhaps more importantly, practicing mindfulness helps me stay grounded in my body, even as it teaches me to use my body—to listen to it—as a way of staying grounded. Whether you are prone to escape through ideas, drugs, food, or fantasies of thinness, practicing mindfulness is a method for making peace with yourself and your life—warts and all—and for learning to deal constructively with the feelings and situations that scare you.
I’d like to share an image I learned from Jon Kabat-Zinn to illustrate another benefit of mindfulness. It’s an image of the surface of the ocean during a hurricane-force storm. There is a great deal of crashing and splashing and turbulence on the water’s surface, and if you happen to be there at that moment, you are in serious danger of getting lost or tossed about or even drowning.
But if you can find a way to go beneath the water’s surface, you have a chance, because the water underneath is not so rough. In fact, the deeper you go, the stiller it becomes, and you can rest and replenish yourself at the bottom. Each of us, no matter how crazy or chaotic or unpleasant our lives feel, has this place of peace and quiet deep inside of us. We need to find ways to access this place of inner calm, Kabat-Zinn explains, even and especially when the stresses and problems of our lives threaten to consume us. Mindfulness is how we practice returning to this place of stillness, the place that is both refuge and replenishment for those of us on the journey toward greater wholeness and healing.
Q: What are some ways we can incorporate mindfulness into our daily lives?
A: One of the main reasons I have found mindfulness practice to be so valuable is that it is so practical. You don’t have to go anywhere to do it. There are no prerequisites or special preparations. At any moment of the day, you can pause, take a deep breath to return your energy to the present moment/to your body. You can become aware of the life within you and around you in a fresh way.
Whether you’re changing a diaper, writing a report, driving to work, talking with a friend, or weeding the garden, the quality of your experience at any given moment can be enriched by becoming present to what you are doing (and/or what you are thinking, feeling, sensing). In virtually every situation you can imagine happening throughout your day, there is the opportunity to be fully conscious. I think this is what Jesus meant when he said “the Kingdom of God is at hand.” It’s not about getting to a better place. It’s not even about becoming “more spiritual.” It’s simply about waking up again and again to the life we already have and using whatever happens—the ups and downs of our daily lives—as opportunities to live more fully.
Though I like to emphasize the infinite ways we can practice mindfulness informally, I do think it helps to have some formal (or semi-formal) kind of mindfulness practice. The most common of course is mindfulness meditation that you can do either sitting or lying down in a quiet place. This entails carving out some time each day (from a few minutes to a half hour, depending on your schedule) to devote to paying attention to what’s happening inside you. Observing your breath as it enters and leaves your body is a simple way of returning your attention to the present moment, but you may find it more helpful to focus on something else, such as a piece of music, an image, or an inspiring word or phrase. However you do it, practicing mindfulness in a formal way is a kind of training through which you increase your capacity to be mindful in situations throughout your day
Q: Anything else you’d like readers to know about mindfulness and body image?
A: Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that poor body image is a dis-ease of the mind—not the body. The practice of mindfulness has much to offer in the way of healing this malaise both because it teaches us to observe how our ideas about “health,” “happiness,” and “beauty” (and corresponding self-judgments) are products of our (and society’s) “mind,” and because it offers a way for us to re-inhabit the bodies from which we feel estranged.
This latter point about re-inhabiting our bodies is a fundamental aspect of healing. It’s very hard to develop a more positive relationship with your body if you don’t want to or don’t know how to live in it. Mindfulness practice is fundamentally about learning to live in your body and tuning into the ebb and flow of the life force both within and around you in the present moment.
The good news is that you don’t have to wait for a better time to start practicing mindfulness. You don’t have to be at a certain point in your life or your recovery to benefit from the practice of getting present to yourself, your body, and your life. In fact, the only time to practice mindfulness is now!
A huge thank-you to Michelle for an incredibly insightful interview!
What do you think about mindfulness? How do you incorporate mindfulness into your daily life?