Everyone has heard of the Mississippi River (and those of us who live near it know at least a little bit about it). But the less famous river that marks some of the western boundaries of our St. Louis metro region is fascinating in its own right. This river, the Missouri, winds its way around bends, widening out in some segments and narrowing in others.
You might not know that Missouri is the longest river in the United States, starting in Montana and ending in Illinois, some two-thousand miles away. And of course, that river didn’t just appear overnight. Over time the water created from snow melts in the mountains and from smaller tributaries gathering together formed the waterway that runs through our city today.
In a way the river is a lot like our lives, as over time our choices, thoughts, behaviors, the stories we tell and the experiences we have shape us. In actuality, like a river, we become fairly predictable. When it comes to stability, that predictability can often be a source of health. But when it comes to habits we wish to change or trauma we can’t break out of, the river of our life can feel like a vise, an inescapable reality.
To create change we have to become more aware of the rivers we get caught in. Sometimes in therapy you will learn different ways to become more aware, this is called Mindfulness. In Mindfulness we practice the habits and skills of taking account of the present moment. We survey what our 5 senses are experiencing as well as the internal thoughts and feelings that come up. The therapist might even pause in the middle of the session and have us slow down and take account of what is happening. We do this with a curious mind and a posture of non-judgement. We don’t categorize our feelings with “bad” or “good” labels, instead we just notice the emotion and take account of all the other things happening in the moment for ourselves.
Without awareness we are at the mercy of the flow of the river to be carried by every surge and rapid. With awareness we can take control of our thoughts instead of our thoughts taking control of us. Mindfulness is the foundation of change and the beginning of forming new paths.
There are lots of great ways to build mindfulness practices into our daily lives and stretch the muscles of being aware. One great exercise that you can practice at any point in the day is called 54321. I challenge you to practice this exercise at least once a day, there is no best time and you can do this at work, at home or while driving.
54321 Mindfulness Skill
This skill will take you through your 5 senses and can help you stay present in the moment and assist you in getting through stress.
To start, take a few deep breaths in and feel your belly rise and fall. Then:
5 Look: look for 5 things you can see. Then take time to name them outloud. If you are somewhere you need to remain quiet, say them to yourself.
4 Feel: Take a moment to pay attention to your body. What do you feel? Notice 4 things you feel. Maybe you feel your feet in your shoes, your back against the chair or your hands on the steering wheel. Does it feel warm, cold, rough? Say these out loud.
3 Listen: Listen for 3 sounds. Is it the hum of the air conditioner, the sound of your breathing, music in the background. Name them outloud.
2 Smell: Notice 2 things you can smell. Take a few deep breaths through your nose and see if you can distinguish between your smells. If you can, you can move to a different space and smell something else like a flower or the food you’re making for dinner. Name these out loud.
1 Taste: Name out loud 1 thing you can taste. Maybe it’s the morning coffee or the gum you are chewing. If you can’t identify a taste, name one thing you enjoy tasting.
To end the exercise, take a couple more deep breaths from your belly.
Like every skill, building mindfulness takes time. But with practice you can start to become more aware of the moment which can help with making decisions and responding to stress.