If you're a frequent shopper who is overwhelmed by credit card debt, chances are your urge to spend is driven by more than just a desire for goods and services. You may feel chronically stressed at work, for example, and shop to soothe your angst. Or you may feel jealous of a friend's promotion, so you fill your cart with designer threads to boost your self-esteem.
Introducing mindfulness-based meditation to your daily routine may help you identify those personal triggers and overcome them, say experts. All it takes is a little patience and some time to sit with your thoughts and quietly observe them.
"Often, there's some underlying dissatisfaction or sense of lack or irritation or unhappiness that they're trying to fill by buying something," says Stephan Bodian, a Zen teacher in Tucson, Ariz., and author of "Meditation for Dummies."
By pausing to reflect, you can take a step back and make choices about what you're going to buy based on reason, rather than impulse.
"We become more aware of our urges," says Bodian. "By being more aware of them, they don't have the same hold over us as they used to do. They arise, but we're aware of them instead of simply acting on them."
The end result? We're less likely to buy what we can't afford.
What is mindfulness?
"Mindfulness is the practice of awareness in the present moment," says Bodian. It isn't the same thing as simply paying attention. "Ordinarily, when we're paying attention, we also bring in judgment," he says.
The goal is simply to process and observe your thoughts, without criticizing or internalizing them.
"Mindfulness meditation itself is to sit quietly without distractions as much as possible and to pay attention to the coming and going of one's breath," he says. When your mind gets distracted -- which, in the beginning, will be often -- the goal is to simply observe it and return to the breath. "You just come back," says Bodian.
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The process takes practice, he says Bodian. "Like any skill, you can't just go run a mile if you never run. You gradually build up to it."
How it can help
Sitting still with your thoughts and observing your emotions without engaging with them trains you to become more mindful in other areas of your life, including your finances.
"We really do have this busy nature of mind," says Donna Rockwell, a clinical psychologist and meditation teacher in Farmington Hills, Mich.
When you consciously reflect on what's passing through your brain, "you come to see that you have a lot of thoughts that just aren't true," she says. For example, you may see an expensive purse on sale while shopping for a job interview outfit and decide, in that moment, that the purse will make you look more powerful and so will help you snag the job. The reality, however, is that your resume is more likely to make or break your application. "Thoughts are like passing clouds. We don't need to attach to them and follow through on them," says Rockwell.
"What mindfulness does, too, is create more space and time around the decisions," she says. It allows you to be more analytical about the thoughts that enter your mind so that you can consciously decide whether or not an item is worth buying. "Just because my mind is telling me 'buy, buy, buy' doesn't mean I need to listen. I can make a mindful choice in this moment, irrespective of what my thoughts are saying."
Meditation cultivates awareness
Sitting still with your thoughts and observing them can also help identify the emotional triggers causing you to chronically mishandle money, says Janet Zinn, a psychotherapist in New York City who teaches the technique to her clients. That way, you can "work with the issue and be able to handle it rather than feel powerless against it."
You may think to yourself, "I have so much debt I can't get out of it," or "I always have bad luck," says Zinn. Rather than immediately decide those thoughts are true, with meditation you can simply witness the thoughts, then let them pass.
5 tips for practicing mindfulness
Be patient. Cultivating mindfulness takes time. In the beginning, you may have a hard time focusing on the present -- particularly when you're trying to sit still. That's OK, say experts. "Part of the practice is to do it wrong," says psychotherapist Janet Zinn. Be gentle with yourself and don't try to be a perfect meditator. "It's not about getting it right, says Zinn. "It's about having those fleeting moments when you’re present."
Practice when you can. To reap the benefits of mindfulness, you don't have to sit for half an hour, says Stephan Bodian, a Zen teacher in Tucson, Ariz. "It can be 10 minutes, 15 minutes a day. Begin slowly. You may find that you enjoy it and want to do more."
Feel your emotions. When you're sitting with your thoughts, you may feel some discomfort, says Zinn. Don't bat those feelings away. "Part of the process of mindfulness is to be able to be with it, to hold it, to express it," says Zinn.
Engage your senses. "When you're going about your day, feel your environment through all your five senses," says psychotherapist Donna Rockwell. "Really take in your surroundings. That also tends to slow down our racing physiology and bring us back to the present."
Consider a class. Look for a mindfulness center or a place that teaches breath-work, says psychotherapist Lisa Orbe-Austin. "Go to a place that is a fit for you," and "be very open to the process," she says. "Just start somewhere."
Eventually, you'll see that internal biases and beliefs about money -- and about how it should or shouldn't be used -- are influencing how you think and feel, she says.
"With mindfulness comes acceptance and with acceptance comes clarity," says Zinn. Being more aware "helps a lot in terms of being able to release those beliefs," she says.
Cultivating a stronger awareness of your internal environment can also help you get back in touch with the values that drive you, says Emma Seppala, associate director of the Stanford School of Medicine's Center for Compassion and Altruism research. That can help you make financial choices that further your goals, rather than soothe your impulses.
"Practicing meditation can make you more connected to yourself," says Seppala. "When you're more connected to yourself, you're more connected to your values." So you're more likely to spend your money on items and causes that you care about, she says.
Good for the brain
The benefits of incorporating conscious awareness into your day aren't just subjective. A large and growing body of research shows it's also good for the brain, says Seppala.
Studies show, for example, that mindful meditation may cause growth in the areas of the brain linked to impulse control.
"Meditation can help lower impulsiveness," says Seppala, "making us less reactive and more reflective." Research shows that it also helps significantly reduce stress and improve overall well-being, she says.
Mindfulness going mainstream
The growing body of evidence in support of mindfulness-based meditation has led a number of therapists and financial planners to begin incorporating it into their counseling sessions.
Lisa Orbe-Austin, a psychologist and executive coach in New York City, began teaching meditation and breathwork several years ago in order to help clients with money issues break free from self-destructive habits. "I started to realize there's such an emotional component to spending," says Orbe-Austin.
In her early days as a counselor, Orbe-Austin says she never talked with clients about their finances. But over the past few years, she says that a growing number of patients began coming to her with financial problems, among other emotional issues. So she began incorporating mindfulness-based techniques -- which she had previously trained in herself -- to help patients take a step back from their actions and see first-hand how their emotions were triggering their financial missteps.
As long as clients are committed to the process and take the time to actually practice, "it's often very, very helpful," she says.
Peter Blatt, an estate planning attorney and financial adviser in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., says that he, too, began noticing the benefits after asking a number of his most successful clients what they were doing right. Many, he says, told him they were simply focusing on the present and making more mindful choices..
Blatt says he doesn't talk specifically about mindfulness when he is advising clients. But he incorporates the principles, he says.
Jonathan DeYoe, a wealth manager in Berkeley, Calif., who has a master's degree in Tibetan Buddhism, does something similar.
"I don't sit down and say, 'I'm a Buddhist,'" says DeYoe, who also teaches mindfulness to his 8-year-old son. Instead, "we talk about trade-offs." To get clients to see the benefits of mindful spending, DeYoe says he tries to show clients what kind of life they're giving up by mindlessly spending their income on things they don't need.
"There's been quite a bit of literature in the last two years on the fact that people get a lot bigger bang in terms of their long-term financial success by reducing their spending than they could ever get on the return on their portfolios," says DeYoe.
So, he says, he tries to teach his clients: "Let's be mindful of our spending. Let's think about what we want our outcomes to be like. Let's live by design, rather than by default."
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