Draw a pig and come to your “senses”


Enjoy this monthly mindfulness post from Dave Johnson, PhD, CNS, BC, LMFT, employee assistance specialist.

I was teaching our Inspirational Leadership Series recently, and I had them do an icebreaker activity I use frequently. For the exercise, I have each person take a piece of pink paper and draw a pig in 60 seconds. I don’t give them any other instructions. I then have them reflect on their drawings. The group quickly figures out the less artistic members of the bunch because their images look only remotely (or nothing) like a pig. I love the laughter that comes with comparing artwork.

I then go through some pseudo psychological leadership profile information. I share that if the images are drawn toward the middle of the paper they have a realistic orientation to life, toward the top they are more optimistic, toward the bottom a bit more pessimistic. They listen intently to see if the psychological profile captures their image of themself. I go on … Is the pig looking to the right, left, or facing forward? Are the ears big or small? Did you draw four legs? I innuendo that the length of the tail is very significant (always brings a good laugh). I ask them to consider how some of their drawings have a ton of detail while others are mere stick figures. I look on as they sort through what it all means.

Satisfied, I stop the fun to confess that I’m actually uncertain about the psychological science of this drawing and their leadership profile. I smooth it over by offering that I am sure of the fact that they used their senses (smell, hear, see, touch, feel, balance), which taps into a very different part of the brain than the part we access to problem solve and think. This, of course, is very important for leaders to know, and is the essence of mindfulness. They are practicing the noticing of where our brain focuses (thinking versus being). 

We obviously need both. I go on to share a bit about mindfulness and the limbic system (the feeling part of the brain) and how the emotion of fear undermines leadership and emotional intelligence and is often used by bullies to control (not effective leadership). But more to come on this in the future …

In my years of doing therapy and counseling, I’d say that fear, anxiety and worry have been the greatest robbers of joy for the folks I work with. Anxiety seems to be the “common cold” of many mental health issues. Helping people to notice what they are “thinking about” was and is very different then what is in the now, which is sensory based. Thoughts come and go and ebb and flow just like the clouds in the air or the waves of the sea. Fear quickly dismantles joy, peace and happiness. Getting stuck thinking about our fear and anxiety absolutely undermines our ability to find or maintain calm and certainly is disruptive to many lives. Antianxiety medications are some of the most frequently prescribed drugs in America and, while I know they are helpful to many, I also recognize how helpful and possibly underutilized Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction can also be in the storm of anxiety and fear.

Some mindfulness tips for the journey

  1.  Notice the storm.  Recognize the difference between being in a storm and thinking about the storm. The storm can be a very dangerous place and fear is helpful to motivate us to move toward shelter and solve the problem. But reliving and reviewing the storm over and over stimulates fear and anxiety over and over. 
  2. Mindful meditation is a “sandbox” to practice noticing and sensory awareness. While practicing mindful meditation, we begin to notice how the brain and thinking ping pongs along, sometimes randomly. We can recognize that when we are in a sitting meditation that we don’t have to do anything about the bodily sensations of anxiety or fear (dry mouth, tense muscles, interior nervousness, etc). Indeed, anxiety and fear are not needed in this moment and perhaps we can catch a bit of relief or the edge of calmness beneath the wave of anxiety.
  3. Remember the pig drawing as a metaphor. Recall big eyes, big ears, long tail, and grounded with strong legs. When we remember to come to our senses we are in the now. Breathing our body and noticing that we are noticing is helpful. Have awareness of what things look like, sound like, feel like in real time. Stay curious to how quickly we can be drawn away from this moment with fear and anxiety when we get hijacked, and then bring intention to come back to our senses. 
  4.  Writing about our fear and anxiety can sometimes help us let go of it. Review “Taming ‘monkey mind’ through journaling and mindfulness”.
  5. Practice mindfulness regularly. I tell folks at our meetings at the Parkview Center for Healthy Living to develop a “regular practice”. Getting in touch with deep relaxation and calmness soothes the nervous system and in doing so 5 - 7 times per week one will begin to trust the capacity to deal with anxiety and worry. Sometimes we begin to notice that we can sustain calm even when we’re actually in the storm. Cultivating the sensitivity and belief in one’s capacity is important to meeting the challenge, especially with storms of anxiety and fear.
  6. Notice some thoughts carry more electrical charge than others. Yep, not all thoughts are created equal when sparking fear or joy. Practice noticing and paying attention informally to everyday events. Begin to set the intention of noticing that when you feel anxious or fear that you are in your “thinking head”. Negative cognitions of doom and gloom, insecurity and pessimism carry a lot of punch and reactivity. Also notice thinking that is basically neutral (little or no energy). Finally, notice thoughts that spark joy. The work here is simply noticing and recognizing that thoughts impact emotions and are actually quite fleeting. Like the pig exercise, our thoughts may be about the past or future, and may or may not be based in reality or truth. Often we just need to remind ourselves of that and come to our senses … all of them!

Taking time for practice. 
Find a relaxing space and follow along as Dr. Johnson leads you through a brief mindfulness practice*.


Mindfulness-based stress reduction practice has been extensively researched and proven helpful for coping with changes, grief, healthy eating patterns, pain, anxiety, depression and many other chronic disease and autoimmune disorders. For more on stress management programs and techniques, contact the Parkview Center for Healthy Living at (260) 672-6500. Dr. Johnson also provides on-site guidance for teambuilding and transformational leadership, among other topics. To learn more about Employees Assistance Programs for your company, call Business Development at (260) 373-9013.

 *Dr. Johnson cautions anyone practicing this meditation to avoid doing so while driving or doing any other activity that requires your absolute concentration. 

Other resources:
Free 1:1 Stress & Mindfulness consultations (telephonic or in person) OR Free Stress Relief Mindful Meditation Practice sessions With Dr. Dave Johnson:  Call Parkview Center for Healthy Living (260) 672-6500 

For Dr. Dave’s TedX talk on Integrate Mindfulness Watch:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YuBXYJikaSc&list=PLsRNoUx8w3rOzQw1WASl0IuWfrfRsfEbZ&index=14

Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990) Full Catastrophe Living.  Delta Trade Paperbacks.

Follow Dr. Johnson on Facebook, Integrate Mindfulness, for helpful links, articles, films, and more regarding MBSR

More on Grief 


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