shades of grey

With all that’s taking place in our world right now (pandemic, violence, loss of security and even life), it’s easy to slip. No, not with alcohol (although that might be happening much more lately), and no, not on a banana peel, but with our thinking. Negative thought patterns and cognitive distortions flourish in difficult times. If we don’t pay attention to our own thinking (metacognition), we are liable to continue along with the same mental errors.

There is a branch of psychology, known as cognitive psychology, which focuses on mental processes. Cognition, or thinking, shapes our behavior and feelings. Furthermore, thoughts, behaviors, and feelings are in a constant relationship: one affecting the other. If we think of a negative event repeatedly, replaying it over and over in our mind, for instance, we can bet that we’ll feel lousy for the rest of the day. If we feel lousy and are holding onto some ugly thoughts, how do you think we may act or behave toward others or in a stressful situation? From another angle, let’s say that we do something without thinking (against our better judgment), and are left feeling guilty or embarrassed. This can lead to becoming fixated on the event, perhaps even labeling ourselves, or calling ourselves names. A downward spiral has begun with thoughts, behaviors and feelings all fueling each other.

Several decades ago, research by psychologists Aaron Beck and David Burns lead to identification of some of the most common cognitive distortions and the problems they can cause. Here, I will describe a few of them.

Black-and-White Thinking: This dichotomous, either/or thought pattern is also known as all-or-nothing thinking. Things are good or bad, right or wrong – there is no room for any shade of grey. Because the middle ground has been ignored, and only two sides or outcomes are believed to exist, there is little possibility in finding reasonable ground.

Overgeneralization: Does your inner voice like to use the words “always,” “never,” “every,” or “all?” If so, be on the lookout for falling into the trap of overgeneralizing. One or two single events cannot provide a reliable conclusion. We need much more data to make solid generalizations. For example, if you are stood up on a blind date, that doesn’t mean that blind dating is unreliable or that every scheduled blind date will lead to being stood up.

Catastrophizing: When something unpleasant takes place in your life, do you twist it into something potentially ‘off-the-charts’ disastrous? “A person who is catastrophizing might fail an exam and immediately think he or she has likely failed the entire course. A person may not have even taken the exam yet and already believe he or she will fail—assuming the worst, or preemptively catastrophizing.” (borrowed from GoodTherpay.org)

Should Statements: It’s fairly common to direct ‘should statements’ toward ourselves and others, even though the end result is no fun. Be on the lookout for “should,” “must,” or “ought” because they indicate that you are operating here. “She should have told me sooner!” “I should have arrived to class earlier.” “He ought to thank me for all I’ve done for him.” “I must ace this mornings exam!” If you feel guilt, shame, frustration, anger or bitterness, examine your thinking. Is this cognitive distortion common in your mental life? Should statements serve no healthy purpose and typically lead to feeling lousy. Spot them, challenge them and see what you discover.

A full list can be found online in blogs at goodtherapy.org and psychologytoday.com.

From a cognitive therapy standpoint, we can get a grasp on this whirlwind by first identifying maladaptive thinking – those pesky patterns of thinking that do us no good. Without attention or correction, a negative outlook on life can develop. The correlation with depression comes as no surprise. And again, without attention or correction, these negative schemas are likely to stick around, sometimes for a lifetime. This is bad for one’s health and no good for anyone’s long-term well-being.

A beginning step toward resolution, is to slow down and live ‘in-the-moment’ in order to increase awareness of cognitive distortions as they rise. Every time I have shared the above list with a university student or psychotherapy client – I’m talking hundreds, if not thousands of times – each one of them has quickly identified the distortion(s) in which he or she frequently operates. Just know that these are THAT common. Each time I share these with others, I look at my own patterns of thinking again and again. I’m grateful for the practice because thought patterns can become habitual and need frequent examination. It’s good practice to shine a spotlight on shades of grey.

By tracking our thoughts, we have the opportunity to increase our awareness of our own thinking habits. Do they serve us or would it be best to make some changes? This awareness allows us to challenge ourselves and choose more adaptive thoughts for a more positive way of living and being. There is no shame in adopting more thoughtful, enlightened responses and charting a new course.

 

Here’s to clear thinking,

Kim

To get my book, Extraordinary Dreams, CLICK HERE.

the body is always there

When you think about your life, what has been your guiding compass? Maybe it has changed over time, or evolved in some way. Our bodies can be this guiding compass, serving our highest good.

Our bodies are tools or vehicles providing us tangible or visual form to a feeling, a quality, or a state of being. How does this come about? Well, first know that the body is not the servant to the brain, as some believe. Through the practice of embodiment, and getting out of our head, we attend to sensations. From this calm, quiet space, we can gain new knowledge.

Let’s try a simple exercise: As you continue to read the next paragraph, maintain awareness of your posture. Be in your body fully, as you make any physical adjustments, scratch an itch, or shift your weight.

Yes, the body can produce new knowledge if we are patient and make room for it – areas of experience in which we were previously unaware can come forward. Embodiment is a non-verbal human trait. It is the present time felt experience of awareness in a moment as it is happening (Tantia, 2011). Embodied knowledge precedes cognitive awareness. Some have said that our autonomic nervous system is the system of the lived experience. By practicing the skills of embodiment, we may discover that some sensations do not have names or commonly used descriptive elements. That’s okay! One client I worked with earlier this week, used the term “Crinkly” to described his inner experience which was a combination of sensation with visual form located in a specific area of his body. Staying deeply in his body and experiencing what was manifesting in that moment provided him with information beyond what his thoughts, beliefs and judgments could offer. This bodily information system helped him make a decision about something he needed to do; The decision being an informed one from both his intelligence and his inner awareness.

Goldstein (1993) noted, “Practicing mindfulness of the body is one of the easiest ways to stay present in daily life…Our body is quite obvious as an object of attention, not subtle img_5092like thoughts and emotions. We can stay aware of the body easily, but only if we remember to do so” (p. 139). Are you still aware of your posture, in this moment?

With practice, we can experience embodiment while going about our day. If you are new to this, I invite you to put your electronic device down and close your eyes if that is comfortable for you. Take a few conscious abdominal breaths. Notice various sensations. Any areas of tension or numbness in the body? This is a beginning step which can expand embodied awareness with time dedicated to practicing.

Remember, the body is always there. Consider it a trusted guide, a lifelong friend, a forbearer of self-knowledge.

May we continue to blossom along with the coming spring season,

Kim

To order my book, CLICK HERE.

References:

Goldstein, J. (1993). Insight meditation: The practice of freedom. Boston, MA: Shambhala.

Tantia, J. F. (2011). Viva Las Vagus!: The innervation of embodied clinical intuition. The USA Body Psychotherapy Journal, 10(1), 29-37.

mindfulness

Everything I have shared here over the past four years, through the Conscious Chimera blog, has had an impact on my life. Every anniversary article, like the one I am writing this month, is extra special because they highlight subjects that are not only impactful, but have a special status in my life. Lucid sleep was the topic of Conscious Chimera’s 3rd anniversary article, and this month, for our 4th anniversary article, I will focus on mindfulness – it’s been over a year since I wrote on this subject. Mindfulness is a term that some have come to dislike. Is it because it is unclear, in vogue, an umbrella term, or something else? I don’t know, yet in this article I will provide some credible definitions and explanations to start. Mindfulness is so important because without an aware, mindful state, maintaining lucidity in dreams can be nearly impossible. Mindfulness practices support conscious dreaming and a conscious waking life.

So what is mindfulness? Mindfulness may be considered both a trait and a state of being, as well as a skill, and it may also be considered a practice or style of meditation. Through the cultivation of such a state, mindfulness expert Joseph Goldstein (1993) explains that mindfulness “uncovers the characteristic nature of experience itself.” But let’s not jump too far ahead. Becoming more mindful can be simple.

There are numerous ways to enter this “wakeful” state: anything that brings attention into the here-and-now by way of body, breath, and sensation, Goldstein (2013) explains. Consider these additional explanations by others in the field:

Mindfulness is bringing “neutral attention and non-judgmental awareness to body, breath, and sensations as well as anything passing through the field of awareness” (Desai, 2017, p. 230). Jon Kabat-Zinn, in a 2012 interview, stated, “Mindfulness is about love and loving life.” How perfect for this time of year – I’m a big fan of Valentine’s Day. Rick Hansen explains mindfulness in simple terms. He says, mindfulness means “being able to stay in the present moment, moment after moment after moment.” Sounds easy, but even simple tasks like this can be challenging. After all, most human minds are used to doing what they want to do, whether that be fixating on an issue from the past or imagining what can be cooked for dinner later that day.

Even with the simplest and most clear definitions, mindfulness is a huge topic, to include a variety of diverse practices, with no single agreed upon meaning (Davidson & Kaszniak, 2015). Disciplines such as yoga, tai chi, or qi gong cultivate mindfulness. Anyone can benefit from these.

As a psychologist who serves a lot of parents in my psychotherapy practice, I often get asked if mindfulness can be taught to children, and how to go about that. Yes, we can definitely teach mindfulness to children. According to Goldstein (2013), second graders have said, “Mindfulness really gets me calm,” and “Mindfulness helps me get better grades.” Isn’t that what every parent wants to hear? Other children have said “Mindfulness helps me calm down when I get upset. It also helps me with sports and to go to sleep at night.” Further more, second graders have stated, “Mindfulness is the best thing I have done in my life,” and “I love mindfulness.”

Both adults and elementary school aged children can begin their mindfulness journey in the simplest of ways. For example, attending to sensation while washing your hands is img_4983one way. What does the soap feel like on the skin? And the sensation of the water running over the skin? Is the water hot, warm, cool, or cold? Another way of practicing mindfulness is to ring a chime or bell, then stay completely focused on the sound until it is no longer detectable. After, notice all other sounds in the environment. A third example could be to smell some things in your environment and really stay with the scent. If your lunch is in front of you, that makes this easy. If not, look for flowers during a walk, or a bouquet at the office. From the two photos here, you probably have an idea of what I love to smell – haha! Seriously, if you are at all like me, you might even carry a sachet of dried flowers or an essential oil in your bag. This is one of the reasons why I make dream pillows (see my product page for an idea). A final example for this article would be to stay connected to your breath. Notice each inhalation and each exhalation. Are you img_4965taking long deep abdominal breaths, or are they shallow, in the chest? Just noticing and staying connected to the senses and the body are ways of entering a mindful state. I hope you are encouraged to bring mindfulness into your daily life.

Research on mindfulness reflects numerous benefits of a sustained mindfulness practice for both body and mind. If you live in Northern California, consider attending my upcoming March presentation: The Art of Presence 101

Interested in knowing more about mindful-based practice? Write to me at kmascarophd@gmail.com

May you be mindfully aware in your daily tasks and your wildest dreams,

Kim

To order my book, click here!