Remembrance Day: Changing the Mind with Mindfulness

Trail running at Mount Assiniboine

The month of November is a naked month.  All distractions of summer are stripped away, and we come down to the essence of our environment, just moments before the earth is blanketed with a thick white mantle of cold snow.  I love November and how it teaches me about what is most essential in the present moment, about life stripped of distractions, or judgments, or expectations.  As all that is seasonal changes, all that is essential is laid bare; we can see past the flowering beauty of summer to the supporting structures of the trees, to the rocks that shape the landscape, to the movements of the water and the wind flowing over the earth.

This morning on my trail run I used the run as a mindfulness meditation hour: I noticed the breath as I ran, I expanded awareness of the breath to include the bare white birch trunks, the thick soft carpet of yellow leaves beneath the feet, the background of silence that made a rustling squirrel sound like distant thunder.  As I ran I noticed the mind becoming more and more still, as the senses came alive. Sight, sound, touch and smell  soaked in the rythmn of the running, the temperature, and the elements of nature. After 30 minutes (I have a very busy mind) the mind relaxed and opened up, stayed on focus, and was also able to quietly observe the experience of the senses and the surrounding world, in the present moment, with immense appreciation, without judgment.

In my practice as a psychologist at times I encourage clients, when the time is right for them, to experiment with various mindfulness practices (art, running, meditation, yoga, volunteering, writing, music, dance, a sport – everyone finds something different) until they find a practice that they can use to bring their mind into the present moment.  I encourage them to stay with the practice to see what they can learn about the mind, to see if they can increase the abilities of the mind to focus, and also increase the abilities of the mind to open to the experiences of the present moment.  The mind as the filter of our moment to moment experience can benefit enormously from learning the loving discipline of both concentration and open awareness.  Whatever the practice we choose, many of us can benefit from the cultivation of mindfulness in dealing with life challenges.  Using the mindfulness practice that works for us, we can teach our mind to lightly hold a focus.  Often we begin with teaching the mind to focus on awareness of the breath, but the mind can benefit from practicing focus on almost any non-harming sense, once a base practice of focusing lightly on the breath has been established.  Once we have cultivated an ability to focus, we may also wish to gradually develop the ability of the mind to also hold a counterpoint to focus: open awareness of thoughts, sensations, and emotions.

At minimum, many clients find that an increased ability to bring the mind into a light focus on the breath in the present moment releases the mind temporarily from the grip of the many automatic patterns that all humans enact moment by moment in the mind and the body. If the mind is caught in automatic patterns 98-100% of the day, then you may find that you are not accomplishing the goals you desire most, and ultimately perhaps not living the kind of life you value most.  Over time, as they deepen in their mindfulness practice, many clients find that the mind is not only released temporarily from automatic patterns;  with practice the mind gradually shifts its base pattern and is re-patterned into a more flexible, responsive, and often more compassionate and effective pattern of responsiveness rather than a stuck pattern of automatic reactivity.

It is my mission to assist my clients in shifting from being caught in automatic patterns to finding freedom and spaciousness in their lives, so that they can spend their energies on creating the kind of life they value most.  I have noticed in clinical practice, (and research is increasingly supporting the neuroscience basis for this), that cultivating awareness through some form of mindfulness practice enables many people to shift deeply entrenched patterns of thought, emotion, sensation, and behavior.  With commitment and loving intention to bring out the best in themselves, many have found spaciousness and release from the automatic patterns that have distracted, held and derailed the mind, the body and ultimately the gift of  an extraordinary life.

I believe that you can do this too, when you are ready.  However, as my own best mentors and teachers have said to me, “Do not believe what I say; go and test this out in your own life.”

Autobiography in Five Short Chapters

By Portia Nelson

Chapter I

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in
I am lost . . . I am helpless
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

Chapter II

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place.
But, it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

Chapter III

I walk down the same street
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in . . . it’s a habit.
My eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

Chapter IV

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

Chapter V

I walk down another street.

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