Dr. Laurie on imagining a wet washcloth

Well here we are in the new year, and our resolutions and intentions are already being tried. Or at least mine are, and I’m guessing about yours!

One of the issues my clients and I keep returning to as the new year begins is how our thinking affects our bodies and our experience of illness.

In an article in the Nov./Dec. 2012 Spirituality and Health, Anneli  Rufus quotes a recent research publication in the July 2012 Journal of Psychiatric Practice.  Their findings emphasized again that Zen meditation and the related practice of mindfulness lessens depression, anxiety and pain ( italics added).

Lessening the effects of pain – what an amazing byproduct of mindfulness practice!

Rufus quotes Rick Hanson, the author of Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom.” Hanson uses a great metaphor to describe how mindfulness practice works.

He says to imagine a wet washcloth.  Whatever you drape that cloth over, it takes the shape of that object. In the same way,” your mind takes the shape of whatever it rests upon. If you routinely rest your mind on self –criticism, anger, or anxious rumination, your mind will take a negative shape.”

And this shape has implications for our experience of depression, anxiety, and pain.

Mindfulness is the practice of noticing where our minds habitually rest. When we focus on our breathing, and simply allow breaths, we are also allowing thoughts to flow into whatever channel has been created. Some of us notice that when we rest our mind, it worries about money, or what someone said yesterday, or what we need to do tomorrow. Sometimes our mind flows into a channel of worry about our health, or the health of someone we love. This channel is the shape of our mind at rest.

When we are mindful, we notice.

We may choose to create another channel – another place of rest. Some people use scripture, or poetic reminders of life’s goodness. Some practice resting their minds on gratitude, or blessing, or acceptance of what is. Some focus on the feeling of being loved, or being rocked in wholeness and grace. Others imagine a place in nature or being held in the gaze of a loved one.

All of these practices require a willingness to notice where we habitually go, and then gently, without judgment, choosing another place to rest the mind.

How often must I do this to get results? That is the question many of my clients ask.

What makes the difference is not how long we can heroically do this, but how regularly we practice. It makes more difference what we do every day than what we do once in a while. If we can consciously rest our minds on a loving gentle shape, several times a day, even for as little as a minute, we will notice changes.

As Hanson describes it, thought or mental activity sculpts our neural structure. “mental states become neural traits.” This is what makes the changes in our bodies and can lessen anxiety, depression and yes, pain.

As with every practice, our daily intention and focus – doing it, not just thinking about doing it, makes the change in our wiring.

This is what most of our 2013 intentions point to: a desire to think and act differently.

It begins with where we habitually rest our minds.

Where is yours this moment?

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