How to Practice Mindfulness
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On this episode, Chuck Gaidica is joined by Carol Hendershot, certified stress reduction instructor and co-founder of the Grand Rapids Center for Mindfulness. Together, they discuss the benefits of mindfulness and how to start a daily practice.
“Mindfulness is simply paying attention to our present moment experience and doing that with curiosity and acceptance, as opposed to judgment and resistance. We’re just meeting our experience as it is.” – Carol Hendershot
In this episode of A Healthier Michigan Podcast, we explore:
- What is mindfulness?
- Mindfulness used as a skill
- How does mindfulness impact the body?
- What is negativity bias?
- How to start a mindfulness practice
- What does the acronym S.T.O.P. stand for?
- Mindfulness apps you can use at home
Chuck Gaidica: This is A Healthier Michigan Podcast, Episode 50. Coming up, we discuss how we can practice mindfulness. What is it? What isn’t it?
Chuck Gaidica: Welcome to A Healthier Michigan Podcast. This is a podcast dedicated to navigating how we can all improve our health and well-being through small healthy habits we can implement right now. I’m your host, Chuck Gaidica. Every other week we’ll sit down with a certified health expert from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and we’ll get into topics that cover nutrition, fitness, so much more.
Chuck Gaidica: And today of course, we’re going to deal with mindfulness. And this is a great idea. It may be the first time you’re hearing about it. I doubt it, but it could be. So as we discuss this, we wanted to make sure we had an expert, a co-founder at the Grand Rapids Center for Mindfulness, Carol Hendershot. She’s with us this morning. She’s also a mindfulness-based stress reduction certified and also teaches a class. Carol spent many years in the business world, has been into yoga and of course, she’s teaching this idea of mindfulness. So we’re so glad she’s here to help us navigate through this. Good morning. How are you, Carol?
Carol H.: I’m doing well. How are you, Chuck?
Chuck Gaidica: I’m doing great and I want to be in the moment with you, so I’m going to focus before my watch tells me it’s time for me to breathe. But it is nice that technology can also help us. It isn’t something that just distracts us, right, from being mindful.
Carol H.: Absolutely. There are a lot of apps out there now that’ll help us be more mindful.
Chuck Gaidica: And what is it? What is mindfulness? What does it mean?
Carol H.: Mindfulness is simply paying attention to our present moment experience and doing that with curiosity and acceptance as opposed to judgment and resistance. So we’re just meeting our experience as it is.
Chuck Gaidica: And when you talk about judgment and resistance, you don’t just mean to other people or someone or somebodies who are influencing you. This resistance could be coming from your own mind, right?
Carol H.: Absolutely. Our minds are always talking to us and often it causes some real challenges because we’re resisting or judging our experience.
Chuck Gaidica: So let’s talk about some of the myths because for a lot of us, we hear this word mindfulness thrown around here and there. Tell us what it is and what it isn’t. What are some of the myths?
Carol H.: Oh, some of the myths are that it’s a religious practice or that it’s a relaxation technique. Some people think it’s New Age or it’s emptying your mind.
Chuck Gaidica: And if it’s none of those things, then it leaves questions in my mind right now. If it’s not that, if I don’t empty my mind to be in the moment, it seems like somehow it may still be related to a few of those things. If I’m going to be in prayer or meditation, being mindful and in the moment with myself or my God may be an important thing. Right? So some of these could still be related.
Carol H.: Absolutely. Mindfulness can enhance our experience in so many ways. If we have a spiritual practice, it can deepen that. It keeps us more connected with ourselves and our higher power. We’re working on quieting the mind, although emptying the mind is just not possible.
Chuck Gaidica: So are we born with this ability to be mindful and we’ve just gotten off the track? I mean, is it something innately in all of us?
Carol H.: Yes. We are born with the ability to be mindful, but because we live in a distracted, fast-paced culture, this ability to focus and pay attention, it gets compromised and it gets kind of rusty.
Chuck Gaidica: Yeah, that’s interesting. And I would assume if it does get rusty, whether it’s neuroscience or just your anecdotal evidence of practicing this more and more, you can get sharper at it. Right? I mean, we can get better at it.
Carol H.: Absolutely. Mindfulness is really a skill that we can deepen. And we think about mindfulness in two ways, mindfulness as a practice and mindfulness as a state of being. And what we’ve really been talking about is mindfulness as a state of being. But mindfulness as a practice is carving out a certain amount of time that we can actually sit and practice the skills of being present. And when our mind wanders, we can bring it back. It’s sort of like doing a bicep curl for the mind.
Chuck Gaidica: Oh, that’s an interesting way to think about it. And while we say this isn’t New Age, for some it’s a new idea, but give us some of the history of this. I mean, how far back, I guess we could go back thousands of years to discuss where it really began. But who is it that brought this to the forefront in the US, so we started to think about this now?
Carol H.: Well, it really started with a guy by the name of, Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. And Jon was the teacher of gross anatomy at the medical school there. And he was also a yoga practitioner and also a practitioner of meditation. And he felt that these practices would help people that were falling through the cracks of the medical system, in particular chronic pain sufferers. And so, he went around to the doctors and said, “Hey, would you be willing to refer some of your patients that are struggling to my stress reduction clinic?” And some of them actually did, which was pretty surprising in 1979.
Carol H.: They started doing research right away and found that it was really helpful, especially for those chronic pain sufferers. They found that not only right after the class, the classes are eight weeks, were they experiencing decreases in their symptoms and improvements in their quality of life, but also they followed them for about four years and found those improvements were maintained.
Chuck Gaidica: That’s interesting. Is it the same research or related research that also pointed out that about half the time, we as human beings, are on autopilot? We’re doing one thing while our mind is off doing something else. Did it come from the same study or a different one?
Carol H.: No. There have been tons of studies in the last 40 years on all different aspects of mindfulness, but that particular study came out of Harvard. And a group of scientists there got about 2000 people to download an app on their iPhones and agreed to be contacted randomly throughout the day and answer three questions, what are you doing, are you paying attention to what you are doing, and how happy are you?
Carol H.: And what they found from that research was that we are much happier when we’re paying attention, even if it’s to something as mundane as doing the dishes. And we’re actually not paying attention about 50% of the time.
Chuck Gaidica: Well, some of us would call that daydreaming, but I kind of get what you’re saying. And it’s interesting to me that when you can get lost in the moment. And I think that’s connected to other things, when you’re serving other people, or you’re doing something that’s greater than self, or you hear of these studies that show happiness when people are focused on something that helps them almost lose track of time in a good way. You don’t realize that you worked all day doing something in the garden because you love gardening. You kind of snap out of it and you think, “Oh my gosh, it’s three in the afternoon. I’ve been out here all day,” but you were loving every single minute of it.
Carol H.: Right. That’s a state called flow and they’ve studied that in sports and other activities. And it is really similar to mindfulness because you’re very absorbed in what you’re doing at the moment.
Chuck Gaidica: Why should we try to make things better? I guess, why should we try to practice mindfulness? What are the upsides of why we should even give this any thought?
Carol H.: Well, it has a lot of benefits, reduces rumination and overthinking, it alleviates stress, it enhances our self-awareness, increases focus and creativity. It can improve relationships, decreases our reactivity, improves memory and concentration. So there are a lot of aspects of mindfulness that are very helpful.
Chuck Gaidica: And is the idea that we’re being mindful for relationships, especially? Obviously, men and women often are studied and we think differently. As a broad brush, for instance, in relationships, I’ve read that women really want you to sit next to them and be with them in the moment. And a guy thinks, well, his mind goes to different places, right? And we hear of divorce increasing, even in people that are 60 plus, etc. When you’re looking at this in terms of relationships, isn’t it important that you’re in the moment, you’re mindful of your partner, your spouse, so that we can navigate through this maze of the world that’s coming at us from all different directions?
Carol H.: Absolutely. Presence is a big part of intimacy. If we’re constantly thinking about something else when we’re with our partner, then it’s likely that they won’t feel heard and won’t feel seen, and that’s really important.
Chuck Gaidica: You’ve used the word, maybe more than once, negativity. And we’re not just talking about inputs from the world or crazy times on TV news that gets you excited, but negativity is something that can be self-imposed or takes you back to another day when you were a child and you just can’t shake that. Help guide us through this idea of the negative thoughts in your mind and how we try to counterbalance those.
Carol H.: Yes. We actually have a thing called the negativity bias. Rick Hanson, an author on mindfulness calls this, “Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive experiences.”
Carol H.: And what we know about that is that it really comes through our evolution. When we were out on the Savannah or in caves, we really had to pay a lot of attention to the environment and any threats in our environment. And it was a lot better to think that there was a saber tooth tiger out there 10 times when there was only one once instead of missing the one that actually was out there. So our ancestors were really the ones who were nervous because the guys that weren’t so nervous didn’t live long enough to pass on their genes, so we come by this naturally. And it takes about five good things in a relationship, and particularly to counterbalance one bad thing.
Chuck Gaidica: Well, and that’s interesting. Let’s talk about that again. Five good things to counterbalance one bad thing in a relationship. And so if, let’s say, you’ve grown up and you had an abusive relationship with somebody when you were a child or there was dysfunction in, go figure, in a family, those kinds of things could be stuck in your mind, which could lead to ruminating and going over and over. You’re playing the same record, I’m not good enough, I’m not thin enough, I’m not something enough where you’ve got these bad experiences. But when you talk about a good thing, that we need a good thing, what would those good things be? Are they just self-affirmation?
Carol H.: Well, they’re really about paying attention to the good things in our lives, so that we can retrain our brains to have more balance. One of the parts of the brain that is enhanced through mindfulness practices is the hippocampus. And that is part of the brain that’s responsible for translating short-term memory into long-term memory. And the more attention we pay to those good things, whether it’s a kind word from our spouse, or a beautiful sunset, or just a flower blooming, the more that begins to solidify in our long-term memory and it counterbalances that negativity bias.
Carol H.: So again, it really goes back to presence. Can we be present for the wonderful things that happen to us? And it really only takes about 20 to 30 seconds to shift that balance into the long-term memory.
Chuck Gaidica: You know, it’s interesting, I just had a recent experience and fortunate enough to be near a beach with my grandson and my daughter and my wife. And they said, “Let’s go shelling. Let’s just walk the beach.” Now, to be honest, as kind of a Type A guy, and I’m a man and I’ve got all these biases, right, built into me, I’m thinking in my mind, “Well, it’s a, it’ll be a fun thing to do. My grandson is here, my daughter is here, my wife, it’ll be a great thing to do and I’m going to go along for the ride. I’m driving anyway.”
Chuck Gaidica: I got there and Carol, can I tell you that I had not only fun, the day got, it was like hours, two hours just went and I’m walking a beach trying to pick up shells and as I’m doing it, I’m thinking, “Something is happening to me while I’m doing this.” I’m just completely focused on water coming in and out, the sand all looks the same, I’m finding different shells, so there is all the physical part of this, but it was really just a joyful experience. I was experiencing joy from focusing on something that I could just kind of go away and get into it. It was wonderful.
Carol H.: Ah, that’s beautiful. And that’s the gift of mindfulness is when we can bring ourselves to an experience like that, we start to experience joy and contentment and all those wonderful emotions instead of just the negative ones.
Chuck Gaidica: Yeah. Well, let’s talk about this then in terms of practice. So I found a little way that, and I will go back and do it again, some day it’ll be a great thing to do because now I have experienced that this actually works for me, but talk about ways that we can practice mindfulness. For people listening right now, how do we start?
Carol H.: Well, the first suggestion I have is to start small because we’re actually forming new habits. It’s really important that we do this every day and it can be just for three minutes. But, it’s that time we’re taking to stop, and be, and pay attention to our breath. So I always suggest that people try to find a dedicated time and place to practice. Find a comfortable posture. Of course, turn off all your devices. And then just turn your attention to your breath or other body sensations.
Carol H.: If your mind wanders, and it will, because that’s what the mind does, the mind was made to think just like the heart was made to beat, thank your mind for doing its job. And then just gently return to your breath. Again, you’re doing those bicep curls for the mind every time you’d return to the present moment. And if you start to judge yourself, just notice the judgment as another experience and return to the breath.
Chuck Gaidica: So as we find that time to do this, we should not discount the fact you can still do this at your desk. You can still find a quiet place at work to step aside for three minutes and breathe. Right? I mean, there are ways to make this interact with your typical day.
Carol H.: Absolutely. And there are so many ways that we can weave this into our days. We can decide that we’re going to take a breath every time the phone rings rather than reaching to grab it right away and just center ourselves.
Carol H.: One of the things that I do is try to remember every time I go through a doorway just to be present instead of be off somewhere else. We can also do informal practices like paying full attention as we’re washing our hair or brushing our teeth. Again, that’s all training for being more mindful.
Chuck Gaidica: And is this idea like I experienced with shelling, is it good that we get lost in something that helps take us away? Is that a good thing to seek out?
Carol H.: Absolutely.
Chuck Gaidica: Yeah.
Carol H.: It’s really wonderful to be fully present with the people you love and with the things you’re doing. And again, that’s sort of a flow state and they’ve found some real benefits from that state. And the more we get into it, the more likely we will be to get into it again.
Chuck Gaidica: Well, I have a quick story for you. So years ago, my wife, Susan and I were fortunate enough to see Christopher Cross in concert. And he sings that song Sailing, which is a very quiet song. It’s a perfect song to play softly, and you hear it. And we know that he sings that song for the rest of the world, but it’s my song and Susan’s song. It’s one of those songs as a couple, we say, “That’s our song.”
Chuck Gaidica: So we get a chance to see him in concert, but we also got a chance to see him in a group with just an acoustic guitar where some, he would actually answer questions from the audience. So someone raised their hand and said, “You know the song Sailing, how did you come up with the lyrics for that song? And he said, “Well, I have to admit something to you. Even though you will see sailboats on the big screen behind me tonight when I sing it, it has nothing to do with sailing a boat,” which was fascinating because it sounds like it would.
Chuck Gaidica: He said, “It comes from the fact that I had a friend, a woman who was an artist and I would go to her studio and I would watch her paint. And as she was involved in the process of painting something, I looked her and I said, ‘How do you do that? What do you, how do you come up with this?’ She said, ‘Man, I just sail away. I just get into it and I sail away.’ And then he said, “Well, I went home and I wrote a song.”
Chuck Gaidica: It’s kind of cool to hear the background on that story. But, it’s what you’re talking about. It’s finding those moments, that thing, that one greater thing that you just literally, you forgot that the two hours went away and you’ve painted a masterpiece.
Carol H.: Absolutely. You’re totally in the moment.
Chuck Gaidica: Yeah.
Carol H.: And you do your best work when you forget about what you’re doing. We do our best teaching when we just let it flow through us as opposed to trying to remember all the bullet points.
Chuck Gaidica: Yeah. I do want to double back on something because I’ve seen in a small circle of people who I know and love this negativity bias. And I love this analogy that these negative things can be like Velcro. That’s sometimes hard to peel off, right, on purpose. That’s the way Velcro was designed.
Carol H.: Right.
Chuck Gaidica: But, the negativity bias of us trying to practice everyday finding wins, can that also include getting people around us who help? They don’t even know they’re being a coach, but just the notion that you’re creating your own little kitchen cabinet of people around you who are surrounding you with love or positive inputs because you do have a choice. You can either get a lot of other Debbie Downers who go down the same path with you, or you can find people that have positive ways of looking at life that maybe can influence you as well. Right?
Carol H.: Absolutely. The people you surround yourself with make a huge difference because you spend so much time and interaction with others and to have those positive influences can change your life.
Chuck Gaidica: Can you coach that? Do you work with people who you literally can coach them toward ways of stepping out of their, the negative past, the baggage, if you will, that sometimes many of us live with?
Carol H.: Yes. We teach an eight week class and some shorter classes as well. And it’s really just teaching people different ways to either practice mindfulness formally, so that it becomes a part of who they are or doing those informal practices that we talked about.
Chuck Gaidica: And some of those informal practices, I know you’ve said things like you can make this pretty basic. You can start small, right, which is great for all of us, whether it’s a lifestyle change, as some would call it a diet, or whether it’s trying to be more mindful. You can be mindful while brushing your teeth or washing your hair or washing the dishes. What do you mean by that? What am I supposed to do to practice mindfulness while I’m brushing my teeth?
Carol H.: Well, you put the toothpaste on the toothbrush and you smell it. You look at it and then you put it in your mouth and feel the movement of the toothbrush around your mouth and the taste of the toothpaste. So again, your mind will wander, but then you just bring it back to what you’re doing right now. And over time, you can actually probably stay present for at least half the time you’re brushing your teeth.
Chuck Gaidica: That’s intriguing. Back to my little story on shelling, when we got back and we were sharing our experiences with other family members about how great a day we had together as a family, somebody asked a question that I know I was lost in the moment looking at shells, but they said, “So where you were, what color was the water? Was it blue? Was it Aqua? Was it more green?”
Chuck Gaidica: And I thought, that’s a really interesting question that leads to mindfulness. To be honest, I wasn’t really paying attention. To me, it was the last thing I thought about to pay attention to the color. The exact color, is it Caribbean blue? Is it green? And I thought, that person must really pay attention when they go places and they’re in the moment paying attention to the color blue. That was intriguing to me.
Carol H.: Well, it is interesting because of the fact that we do pay attention to different things.
Chuck Gaidica: Yeah.
Carol H.: You were probably paying attention to the shells and your grandson and that person might have just been gazing at the water and really taking that part of it in. We have a limited capacity for attention and we have to pick and choose what we pay attention to.
Carol H.: Again, that’s something that mindfulness strengthens is our ability to choose what we pay attention to. We can choose to pay attention to our partner when they’re talking, or our kids when they come home from school and have a project that they want to show us, or we can be off in some other world with the problems at work.
Chuck Gaidica: Yeah. And I know there is an anacronym that you know as STOP, S-T-O-P. Tell us what that means and how we can put that into practice in our daily life.
Carol H.: STOP is, as you said, an acronym and the S stands for stop. That’s the easy one. The T, take a breath. The O is observe because we narrow our attention when we’re stressed. And so when we can open our attention, we open ourselves to creativity and new possibilities. And then once we’ve done those three steps, we can just proceed. And sometimes the P stands for park because we realized that whatever we’re paying attention to just isn’t in our power to do anything about. So stop, take a breath, open your awareness to what’s around you and then proceed.
Chuck Gaidica: And then again, I know you’ve talked about this in so many different ways, but just give us the upside, the benefits of why we should be practicing mindfulness even in the small ways throughout our day. What is it that’s going to change in us and what is it that’s going to help us become better human beings for ourselves and for those around us?
Carol H.: It slows us down and it gives us a chance to take a moment to decide how we want to respond. Often, we’re just reacting to our environment and we don’t really realize what we’re doing. Something happens and we run away, or we react with anger and it just gives us a chance to slow down and make a choice.
Carol H.: There is a beautiful quote by, Viktor Frankl and it’s, “There is a space between stimulus and response. And in that space lies our power to choose our response. And in our response lies our growth and our freedom.” And that really speaks to what we’re cultivating in mindfulness. It’s that space to choose.
Chuck Gaidica: Yeah, it is something. I also remember back when my late father was having high blood pressure issues and we knew that practicing mindfulness for him could be, could be, impactful. So we sat down and encouraged him to take those moments to breathe, do some deep breathing, and think of a place he wanted in his mind to sail away, whatever it was, it would work.
Chuck Gaidica: And what was fascinating was while he had one of those portable cuffs on his arm, we’re not at the doctor’s office, we’re in the dining room, to literally watch his blood pressure come down, to watch the number right before my very eyes see the impact of a very brief, but impactful few minutes where he practiced mindfulness. It was just the proof of the pudding.
Carol H.: Yeah, it’s really powerful. I’ve had students in my class who come in with high blood pressure and by the end of the class, the end of the eight weeks, they’ve actually decreased their blood pressure to near normal or normal.
Chuck Gaidica: That’s great. And you’re not opposed to technology, right? So as I mentioned early on in our dialogue here today, me having a watch that tells me it’s time to breathe multiple times a day, that’s, that is my app. It’s reminding me to do something that maybe I forgot to do and I’m actually happy it’s doing it.
Carol H.: There are a lot of really great apps out there. One is the Insight Timer. I’ve actually been using that for almost 10 years now and it keeps track of your meditation time. It shows you all the other people in the world that are meditating. It has all kinds of guided meditations. They even have some classes on there that you can do.
Carol H.: Another one is the Calm app. And those apps, as you said, will tell you to breathe and slow down and give you opportunities to practice formally with someone guiding you.
Chuck Gaidica: Well, I’m so glad that we connected today because you’ve also, you’ve taught me a lot, but you’ve taught me this idea that there is balance to this whole idea that somehow even if my mind wanders off while I’m trying to practice mindfulness, I can forgive myself and just bring it back. I don’t have to judge myself. Even if I drift off, it’s okay, I can bring it back home and it’s okay.
Chuck Gaidica: And I think so many of us think, well, once that happens and I’ve now gone off to the next bright shiny object, well it’s all over. I can’t really fix it. Well, no, maybe if you practice it, like you said, and you’re lifting weights like it’s your biceps, practice makes perfect, you’ll get better at it.
Carol H.: You definitely do get better at it. And a lot of people think when they try mindfulness because they do have really busy minds that they can’t do it. And that would be like going to the gym one time and looking at your bicep and saying, “Hey, nothing’s improved. I can’t do this weight lifting thing.”
Chuck Gaidica: Yeah.
Carol H.: So you just have to do it for a while and it makes a huge difference. For me, it was my struggle with anxiety and depression and it’s made a huge difference in my life.
Chuck Gaidica: Well that’s good to hear because that’s, actually that was an issue with my dad, and that was something that was an offshoot of the mindfulness that we tried to practice with him. And I’m glad to hear that you’re well and you’re doing well. But thanks for all that you gave us today. Carol Hendershot, it’s been so wonderful connecting with you.
Carol H.: Thank you, Chuck. I really appreciate your time as well.
Chuck Gaidica: Carol Hendershot certified mindfulness-based stress reduction instructor and co-founder of the Grand Rapids Center for Mindfulness, an expert in this field, for sure.
Chuck Gaidica: We want to thank you for listening to A Healthier Michigan Podcast. It’s brought to you by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.
Chuck Gaidica: If you would like to know more about the show, you can check us out at ahealthiermichigan.org/podcast. You can leave reviews there or a rating on Apple Podcast or Stitcher. And you can get this episode. You can forward them to people you know and love. You can get the previous episodes as well. On your smartphone or tablet, be sure to subscribe to us on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app. I’m Chuck Gaidica. Enjoy the rest of your day.