When children wake from a nightmare, crying and disoriented, one of the things we do as parents is first, comfort them, and second, help them re-orient to familiar surroundings. We bring them back from that liminal space between dreaming and waking, to the present moment. We reassure them that they are safe and okay.
Therapists call this grounding. Just as parents teach their children to self soothe, we therapists teach our clients to ground themselves by practicing mindfulness when they are experiencing distress, such as:
- Having a panic attack
- Living through a flashback
- Waking from trauma related nightmares
- Dissociating (or disconnecting)
When we teach our clients how to self-soothe and call themselves back into the present moment, we are effectively teaching them mindful awareness, or Mindfulness.
Life on automatic pilot: a routine form of dissociation.
You don’t need to be a trauma survivor to dissociate. Most of us experience a more ordinary and routine form of dissociation in our everyday lives – we call it going on “automatic pilot.”
While on automatic pilot, we spend our time locked inside our own heads and habitual patterns. We live life once removed, disconnected from our bodies, our surroundings and our significant others. We miss out on the life we could be experiencing without even realizing it.
Being on automatic pilot is like arriving at a destination without really experiencing the drive. We are too busy immersed in our secondary processes – i.e. planning, ruminating, brooding, plotting, fantasizing, day-dreaming – to notice the beauty of the landscape that surrounds us in the present moment. Our secondary processes become our safe, familiar comfort zone, and we become lost in our Default Mode Network (DMN). Whatever fills our attention, wherever we park our minds, becomes our reality.
Think of Mindfulness as the ultimate grounding.
When practicing Mindfulness, we ground ourselves in the here and now, experiencing life just as it is in this present moment. We are completely aware, sensing, noticing, experiencing, appreciating, and delighting in it all. Fully present, fully alive.
Human beings have a distinct preference and need for stability, security and safety. This occupies a significant place in Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and is in stark contrast with the nature of the universe, which is transient, chaotic, impersonal and uncertain.
Such uncertainty is the source of the background, existential anxiety that leaves us feeling unsteady and afraid. When trauma occurs, it turns our lives upside down. There are few things we dread worse than not knowing what will come next and feeling powerless to control an outcome. We want life to have guarantees. Therefore, we do our best to make our lives familiar, predictable, structured, safe and secure.
If you desire and seek certainty in life, there is only one place to find it: the present moment.
There is one caveat, of course: it will not last. One moment unfolds into the next, and so on. Still, for this moment and this moment only, you will know who you are, where you are, what you are doing and who you are with. You can be absolutely certain of that and certain of what you are experiencing, because you are consciously experiencing the present. And you can be certain, no matter happens next, no matter how events may change and unfold, at this moment, you are alive and living your one life fully.
If we train ourselves, with dedicated and faithful practice, to be constant in our mindfulness of each moment, we will one day find ourselves living in constant mindfulness more and more with each passing day and season.
What we embrace, we embody.
Through the Mindfulness process, we can be certain of the fruits of our practice: happiness, contentment, inner harmony, peace. We can be certain of our inner goodness. We are certain, because we experience it, we express it and we share it with others.
He received his undergraduate degree at the University of Detroit, an MDiv at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. and an MSW from Grand Valley State University.
As a therapist, David is trained in cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, narrative therapy, motivational interviewing, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy, and mindfulness based cognitive therapy.