In 1973, the United States Supreme Court decided the landmark case of Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973), declaring that a woman’s choice to continue or terminate her pregnancy is protected under the U.S. Constitution. To many, the decision seemed like an obvious one - of course a woman has a right to choose what happens within her own body.
Fast forward to 2020, a year in which there were too many extraordinary events happening at once for us to possibly process them simultaneously. One of these events was the passing of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, also known as Notorious RBG. The choice to appoint a conservative Supreme Court Justice to replace RBG tilted our country’s highest judicial body in a conservative direction. One of the most alarming consequences of this shift is that the U.S. Supreme Court is now poised to reconsider the seemingly fundamental right of a woman to choose whether or not she will carry a pregnancy to term in her body. A woman’s freedom to choose is at risk of being diminished or eliminated in the United States.
You may be wondering, “What does Roe v. Wade have to do with mindfulness?”
The issues raised by Roe v. Wade have caused me to consider the precious and perhaps precarious nature of the freedom to make decisions in our daily lives.
Have we been taking our freedom to choose for granted?
How consciously have we been making decisions, large and small, every day?
How can we make choices mindfully, so that we may live our lives fully and meaningfully?
Awareness. Choices. Lifestyle.
So often, we move through our days automatically, going from task to task without much consideration. We fill our time with habitual thought and behavior patterns. Going through the motions of our busy schedules or household chores, we fail to recognize that precious moments of our lives are passing by without acknowledgment. We interact with family members, friends, work colleagues and the media in ways that can sometimes feel unsatisfying or unpleasant. Most of us don’t pay attention to the many moments of each day in which we have a choice between the familiar and the fulfilling.
What would happen if we actually paid attention to the many moments in our lives in which we have a choice to make? I’m talking about the everyday moments, not just the times when we have major dilemmas to address. What would our lives be like if we started to notice those precious moments in our day in which we have the opportunity to enhance the quality of our life experiences and relationships?
As March is Women’s History Month, I invite you to join me in being inspired by a selection of wise and courageous women. Their words and actions encourage you to consider how you can make brave and mindful choices that will empower you to lead a lifestyle of integrity and fulfillment.
“Integrity is choosing courage over comfort; choosing what is right over what is fun, fast or easy; and choosing to practice our values rather than simply professing them.”
- Brene’ Brown
Every time I read or listen to anything by Brene’ Brown, I want to shout, “YES!” A researcher who specializes in issues of shame and vulnerability, Brene’ Brown is funny, relatable, smart and courageous. Through personal anecdotes, she illustrates how the regular practice of showing up, being vulnerable and choosing courage over comfort leads to a lifestyle of contentment and authentic connection.
Thank you, Brene’ Brown, for inspiring me with your “choose courage over comfort” mantra every time I choose to post an article, offer a webinar, teach a yoga class, support one of my sons in taking a risk, say or suggest something outside the box to one of my patients, or speak truthfully and directly in a difficult conversation.
“Here you are! In the sacred present. I can’t heal you - or anyone - but I can celebrate your choice to dismantle the prison in your mind, brick by brick. You can’t change what happened, you can’t change what you did or what was done to you. But you can choose how you live now. My precious, you can choose to be free.”
“The only place we can exercise our freedom of choice is in the present.”
- Edith Eva Eger
Dr. Eger is a 93 year old Holocaust survivor who came to the United States as a teenager following her liberation from a concentration camp. In her brilliant memoir, The Choice: Embrace the Possible, Dr. Eger tells her extraordinary story of survival. She offers the strategies that helped her live through one day at a time under the most horrifying, life-threatening circumstances. After coming to the U.S., Dr. Eger became a clinical psychologist, helping other trauma survivors move forward following devastating life events. Throughout the book, she reminds her patients, herself and the reader that life is happening in the moment, not in the past. She acknowledges that the past is relevant to understanding how we are experiencing the present moment, but that the only time frame we have influence over is the here and now.
As we practice mindfulness, we cultivate a more heightened awareness of what is happening in the here and now. We begin to notice our habitual thought patterns, for example, tendencies to replay difficult moments from our past or worry about potentially upsetting circumstances in the future. Once we are aware of these patterns, we can choose to take steps to change our habits. As most of us know, changing habits is never easy. Mindfulness helps us change habits by strengthening the mental muscles needed to direct our attention to whatever is happening in the moment exactly as it is. With consistent practice, we expand our capacity to stay with the experience of the moment we are in, rather than drifting back into the familiar grooves of regretfully recounting events of the past or flooding ourselves with future worrying. Adding lovingkindness, tenderness or self-compassion to the moment helps us soften to any emotional pain or hurt that may arise.
In my role as a therapist, I frequently encounter patients who struggle with feelings of regret or remorse, including individuals who perceive themselves to be trapped in unhappy marriages or unfulfilling careers. As a result of the “negativity bias”, our human tendency to focus attention on problems and see the negative instead of the positive, these individuals spend a lot of time and energy replaying their unfortunate decision and its consequences. Inspired by Dr. Eger’s words, I encourage my patients to compassionately acknowledge the circumstances surrounding their past choice, help them explore all available options in the present moment to make today as good as it can be, and join them in embracing the possibility that tomorrow will be better.
“Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.”
- Ruth Bader Ginsburg
How often do you promise yourself or others that you are going to change an unpleasant behavior, have every intention of making that change, and almost immediately fall back into old habits? For most of us, this is a familiar trap. Fortunately, mindfulness can help us generate real, enduring change, once choice at a time.
Mindfulness practices improve the quality of our lives by, among other things, offering us skills that help us pause before we respond. These practices help us notice our patterns of thoughts, feelings and behaviors, enabling us to reflect on the habits that keep us stuck in unsatisfying or frustrating ruts.
Mindfulness also helps us pay attention to our bodies, allowing us to become aware of the sensations we are experiencing in response to a triggering situation.
From a position of enhanced awareness, we are better able to make choices that reflect our deepest desires. We can choose to act in ways that enable us to connect more authentically with others, feel ease in our bodies and follow through with our intentions to change behaviors we want to change. Courageous choice by courageous choice, we can empower ourselves to establish satisfying relationships and a more fulfilling and meaningful lifestyle. Our transformation happens just outside the comfort zone.
The following is a step-by-step guide for mindful decision-making, a process of slowing down, noticing and making decisions that will help you respond consciously instead of reacting. I hope you find it helpful.
NOTICE that you are feeling triggered by an external event or by an internal source, such as a thought, belief or memory. Your body may communicate that you are triggered through the language of sensation. You may feel your heart rate increase, your stomach tense or your chest constrict. You might notice a behavior, such as yelling, wringing your hands, stomping your feet or storming out of a room, indicating that you are triggered.
PAUSE and say to yourself, “I am triggered.”
BREATHE in, aware that you are breathing in
Breathe out, aware that you are breathing out
Repeat this breathing practice at least two more times as long as it is helpful
CHECK IN with your body to notice any sensations or emotions arising
Are the sensations and emotions tolerable or do you feel overwhelmed?
If you’re feeling overwhelmed or close to it, your best response here may be to do nothing.
If you’re able to tolerate the sensations and emotions you’re experiencing, consider all available responses that make sense under the circumstances. Take your time to think them through.
Check in with your body again - Which available options for responding feel right? Which options don’t feel right?
DECIDE how you will respond
Check in with your body again - Explore any sensations letting you know if your choice feels right and informing you that you are ready to respond in a way that serves you well.
RESPOND with clarity and courage
REFLECT - Assess how you feel and how your response affected the situation. Did it have an escalating or calming effect? Do you feel more or less connected to yourself and if relevant, to another person? Would you respond this way again or adjust your choice for next time?
During this month of honoring women’s history, United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, AKA Notorious RBG, you are remembered for your clarity and courage. In your honor, may we always remain aware that the freedom to choose is precious.