The first objective for attendees was to be mindful as they sipped, to feel the pebbly texture of the Styrofoam cup, to consider the pale yellow color of the liquid, to deeply inhale the inviting scent.
That’s what it means to be mindful: to give yourself over to the present moment, take long, thoughtful breaths and, most importantly, swat away thoughts pertaining to the past or future, according to Amanda Votto, a certified mindfulness-based stress reduction instructor and physician assistant who serves as a master teacher on the topic at Copper Beach Institute in West Hartford, Connecticut.
Votto, who earned her bachelor’s degree from Union College and her master’s degree from the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, was the guest speaker in the kickoff event for the university’s Wellbeing 2.0: Strategies for Thriving initiative.
The collection of events — alternately titled, The Denise J. Fiore Thought Leaders in Healthcare Speaker Series — was made possible through a generous gift from Fiore ’78, MBA ’91, and sponsored by the School of Health Sciences.
The human mind is inclined to wander, forward and back — to the big exam or work presentation, to an unpleasant exchange with a coworker or classmate. What so often gets neglected, Votto said, is living in the moment and “being where you are.”
“It’s really about having the skill and building our awareness to come back to the present moment,” she added. “Our awareness goes two places: it goes to the future or it goes to the past. When it goes to the future, we are worrying, we’re analyzing, overthinking — ‘should have,’ ‘what-if.’ Or it goes to the past, where we think about things that have already happened. All the while, we have this present moment that we’re in, and if we’re not continually training ourselves to stay in it, we’re going to miss it.”
Developing the skills and strategies to stay present and connect with your surroundings is an essential tool in one’s self-care toolbox — especially amid what many have labeled a “pandemic of stress” that has gripped society in recent years. Everyone deals with their own set of stressors and anxieties, big and small. Practicing mindfulness can help regulate our nervous system and mitigate the effects of other associated health issues.
Among the ways to practice mindfulness on your own is to download apps like Headspace, Calm or 10% Happier, which all provide guided meditation and breathing exercises that a user can fit into their busy schedules. Dedicating 45 minutes per day to mindfulness activities will have immediate results, Votto said, but starting smaller, with as few as five minutes, can still have a lasting impact.
Votto, a mother of two, said she was first drawn to mindfulness reading materials as an undergraduate, when her time was more divided than ever. Her website, amandavotto.com, contains numerous recommendations and insights from her 16 years of studying mindfulness and honing her own theories and practices. Asked by an audience member if mindfulness strategies can be uniquely tailored to the needs of children, she drew on her wealth of experience in the mindful parenting realm.
“Children like imagery,” Votto said. “Sometimes, belly-breathing is helpful. While they’re lying in bed, they can see and feel their belly rise and fall as they’re breathing. Or you can do sensory stories with them at night, literally creating an image in their mind. Go to different places. Go to the pyramids in Egypt and feel the hot sun against your face and imagine the sand beneath your feet.”
Another audience member asked Votto about incorporating mindfulness strategies in a team dynamic.
“Mindfulness helps us communicate skillfully with team members, to be aware of our own present moment,” Votto said. “If you’re on a team and there’s a conflict, it helps you to be aware of that, to take ownership of it and learn how to respond. Mindfulness in a team concept helps you to skillfully work together and teaches you how to build connections.”
After Votto’s remarks, those in attendance were introduced to guided visualization techniques and a mindfulness movement activity. The next event in the series, on the topic of Positive Intelligence, is scheduled for November 29 at 5 p.m.
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