What is Mindfulness with Heather Horton

In this series we ask people around campus what mindfulness means to them and how they are surviving and thriving in the new circumstances we find ourselves in. Here, we talk to Heather Horton, director of the Colorado College Wellness Resource Center.


What does mindfulness mean to you?

Mindfulness practices are about being present in the current moment — whatever that moment is. Our observations of the here-and-now offer us so many gifts that we miss if we’re too busy moving on to the next moment or worrying over the last. The old adage about stopping to smell the roses is really about mindfulness. When we are mindfully present, we might get pleasure or joy from that smell, or from the light on the rose petals. But of course, sometimes stopping to sniff the air brings less pleasant smells. Regardless of what I’m sensing, I find taking the time to really notice it is very grounding; it allows me to take perspective about what is constant and what is changing in the world, and in myself. Stopping to be in the moment and paying attention to my thoughts and feelings helps me recognize the cues my body and mind are giving me, and allows me to be responsive. I also think that mindfulness is a very important component of strong interpersonal connection. Being mindful in our interactions with other people, allows us to truly listen with curiosity so that we’re not making assumptions or judgments. Mindful interpersonal engagement allows us to be tuned into ourselves and to that other person. I find that when I’m able to do this, my interactions are more meaningful and satisfying.


How is mindfulness different from calmness or relaxation? 

While the non-striving and non-judgment that are key parts of mindfulness can indeed be liberating and relaxing, mindfulness also allows us to be present for our profound grief, fears, and anger. These are emotions that we often try to avoid really feeling, but they are simply signals to us about things that are happening in ourselves and in our worlds; when we avoid them we stifle our own growth. I’ve always loved the way May Sarton puts it:  “To close the door on pain is to miss the chance for growth . . . Nothing that happens to us, even the most terrible shock, is unusable, and everything has somehow to be built into the fabric of personality.”  Being mindfully present to ourselves in these moments of pain and suffering helps us move forward — by allowing ourselves to be compassionate and loving to ourselves; by revealing how those feelings shift over time; and by revealing to us our own humanness.


How does mindfulness help at a time like this of uncertainty and worry?

As human beings, we like to feel like we’re in control all the time. Events like the Coronavirus pandemic offer daily (many times daily?) in-your-face evidence of how little we actually control.  “Letting be” is an important component of mindfulness practices. We simply bring our awareness to what is happening in this moment, and accept it as it is. There is something incredibly liberating about being able to say, “what is, is” about the things we can’t control and re-focusing our control instincts toward the things we can actually control — how we respond to our feelings, how we fill our time, proven strategies for reducing the spread of illnesses like washing hands and social distancing. If we’ve done that, at the end of the day, we can say “I’ve done what I can, and I’ll do the same tomorrow.”


How are you cultivating it at this time?  

I’m finding that the current moment is offering me lots of moments to let go of things I cannot control! Whenever I hear myself saying something like “this is not OK” or “I have to make X happen,” I’m using that as a cue to stop and engage a mindfulness practice. Often when I’m responding to my own worry and uncertainty, my mindfulness practices are focused on seeing the shifts over time in my thoughts, feelings, and sensations that help me take perspective and be responsive to myself. Also, because I’m spending so much time looking at screens, I’m really trying to make sure that I’m engaging with analog, tactile things in my world in a mindful way.


What are some of your favorite practices that you’re leaning on at this time? 

These days I mostly find myself using a body scan practice, or sensory-focused practices like alien object, which is where you engage with an object as though you are an alien who has just landed on earth. You explore the object through your senses (sight, smell, sound, touch, taste). It’s great for practicing approaching objects (and other things) without assumption or judgment. It allows me to recognize that even with something that I might have seen and interacted with many, many times, there are often aspects that I have overlooked or forgotten about. It opens me up to curiosity and creativity, and it helps ground me in my sensory world.


What resources does CC offer that can help students, faculty, or staff right now who want to cultivate mindfulness?  

The Wellness Resource Center is offering a weekly Mindful Stress Management workshop (Wednesdays at 4 p.m.), and we’ve been building more online resources on our webpage https://www.coloradocollege.edu/other/wellness/ and YouTube channel, too. We continue to be available to consult with folks and connect them to resources and skills that will help them thrive. The Chaplain’s Office offers many mindful meditative and contemplative practices each week, and they have also developed an online resource repository. Chaplain Kate Holbrook is a wonderful resource for people trying to build meaningful mindfulness practices into their daily life. Our colleagues in the Counseling Center are a great resource for students.  The folks in Outdoor Education are great resources for engaging mindfully with the natural world. Creativity and Innovation has Mindful Thursdays as well as some fantastic online resources.  It’s wonderful to be a part of a community that offers so many opportunities and supports!


What suggestions can you offer to someone who might be struggling to be mindful now? 

It’s important to know that mindfulness practices don’t have to be big. We can build mindful moments into our lives in so many ways.  For instance, as you take your shower, you can spend just a few moments noticing all the sensations — the smell and texture of your shampoo, the warmth of the water hitting your neck, the feeling of your feet planted on the shower floor—and you can say to yourself, “I’m grateful to myself for taking this time to ground myself in this moment.” It is a gift you can give yourself, and you are worth that investment.


Thanks Heather, for taking the time to answer our questions, and may you be well.