Posts tagged ‘Mindfulness’

Vulnerability: A Gateway to Inner Strength and Freedom

“When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability… To be alive is to be vulnerable.”
Madeline L’Engle

If you look up the definition of “vulnerable” in the dictionary, you will find it to mean: 1. capable of being physically or emotionally wounded, and 2. open to attack or damage1; It is a state of being exposed or feeling raw.

This level of exposure can feel very scary.  On a daily basis, we minimize this insecurity by creating structures within which we can function with the uncertainties we face:  we craft a public image of ourselves that we project to others and we construct an identity for ourselves as a basis to stand upon.  Residing within these structures we remain protected from perceived harm, often based on former wounding.  However, these constructs also limit us from connecting on a deeper basis with ourselves and one another.

While this protection helps us to get by day to day and even survive, if we begin to rely on these structures as constant and genuine, we can deceive ourselves.  Maintaining the illusion that we can have ultimate control in our lives, we lose touch with the reality that everything is constantly changing.  Whether we like it or not, there will inevitably be times when the sense of identity to which we are clinging no longer serves us, or the façade that we are presenting no longer fits well.  Even when we know this intellectually, it can be challenging for us to release our grip on these structures in which we’re so invested.  After all, it can be very frightening to look inside and find nothing to hold onto.  Worse, if they disintegrate on their own, it can be even more painful; we may face an unavoidable crisis.  As Alison Luterman points out in her poem, Stripping, we are terrified to find out what lies beneath this armor:

I want to strip.  It’s the jewel
at the center I seek; let me be oyster, hoarding pearl.
Let me be coal, sheltering diamond.
Though in my heart of hearts I am afraid
I may be onion, each white circle
of stinky tears hiding another
exactly like it, Or rose:
whose petals are her everything.

Ultimately, we can overlook the fact that we must let go of these old structures if we are to grow.  Consequently, residing with our vulnerability is actually a gateway to our development.  According to Gail Sheehy, “With each passage of human growth, we must shed a protective structure [like a hardy crustacean]. We are left exposed and vulnerable – but also yeasty and embryonic again, capable of stretching in ways we hadn’t known before.”

In our culture, being vulnerable is commonly viewed as a weakness.  Relating without the external layers of protection (the façade or mask), can be likened to Samson cutting off his hair – diminishing one’s strength.  In reality, residing with our vulnerability may, instead, actually enable us to access innate inner strength and a source of power.

How, then, may we embrace our vulnerability?  The answer lies in our willingness to spend time with ourselves, to look more closely at how we are reacting to the uncertainty we face in life and to old wounds that remain open.  As we become familiar with our attempt to create and maintain a protective structure we create the possibility of letting it go when we realize it is causing us suffering.  Mindfulness meditation provides a way for us to meet ourselves in this compassionate manner.  Pema Chödrön speaks to the potential of this effort:

The only reason we don’t open our hearts and minds to other people is
that they trigger confusion in us that we don’t feel brave enough or sane
enough to deal with. To the degree that we look clearly and
compassionately at ourselves, we feel confident and fearless about
looking into someone else’s eyes

Through mindfulness practice, there is an opportunity to reside within the spaciousness of change and groundlessness of reality, rather than to perceive them as a threat.  When we are mindful of and acknowledge our present experience, we have a means of touching the tender places that may be scary.  By hanging out with these raw places in ourselves, in the safe container of meditation, without needing to do or change anything, we can explore what it is like to relate to them with friendliness rather than contraction and what is like to let go of our reaction rather than to contribute to it.

Finally, Gil Fronsdal, the primary teacher for the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City, CA, suggests that adding a contemplation, reflection and inquiry component to mindfulness meditation can be a skillful way to learn more about these areas of vulnerability.  One way to do this is through writing or journaling when you touch these sensitive places in your practice.

Allowing yourself to become more familiar with these intrinsic aspects of yourself, as challenging as it may be, frees you to respond from this authentic place instead of being driven by fear.  Hafiz emphasizes this possibility in his poem, It Felt Love:  “How did the rose ever open its heart and give to this world all its beauty?  It felt the encouragement of light against its being, otherwise, we all remain too frightened.”

References:
1. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/vulnerable
2. John Welwood, “Vulnerability and Power in the Therapeutic Process” in Awakening the Heart (1983).

“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”
— Brene Brown

 

September 9, 2011 at 12:23 pm Leave a comment

If You Believe You’re Practicing Mindfulness “Wrong,” Think Again.

There are no mistakes. The events we bring upon ourselves, no matter how unpleasant, are necessary in order to learn what we need to learn; whatever steps we take, they’re necessary to reach the places we’ve chosen to go.

Richard Bach

The wandering mind is the often the most dominant experience when anyone first attempts to learn mindfulness practice.  Although it is a natural characteristic of being human, most of us don’t realize how busy our minds are until someone asks us to pay attention to our experience, such as the breath, for an extended time; we are generally unaware that preoccupations about the future or the past have such a strong grip on us.  Therefore, many people interpret that they are “doing the practice wrong” when they realize that their mind is wandering so frequently and that they are ensnared by those thoughts.  They judge themselves as not being good at practicing mindfulness.

Instead, it is helpful to understand that you free yourself of the grip of your wandering mind by noticing when you are caught by it.  It is in that moment of noticing that you are preoccupied by thoughts that you have the opportunity to bring your awareness back to the here and now. Ultimately, you foster the increasing ability to bring your mind into the present moment by noticing when it is not present, and learning to welcome it back, rather than punitively judging yourself when you are not paying attention.  You are not “doing the practice wrong,” this is actually how you develop the practice of mindfulness.

Mindfulness is a process, like building a muscle that gets stronger with use over time.  Physiologically, you are creating new neural pathways that support your ability to bring your awareness into the present, and each time you repeat that pattern, the neural pathway becomes stronger and the signal becomes faster.  With greater use, that pathway is easier for you to access.  So, to cultivate mindfulness, follow the advice of Saint Francis de Sales, “If the heart wanders or is distracted, bring it back to the point quite gently …. And even if you did nothing during the whole of your hour but bring your heart back …, though it went away every time you brought it back, your hour would be very well employed.”

Carl Jung asserted, Mistakes are, after all, the foundations of truth, and if a man does not know what a thing is, it is at least an increase in knowledge if he knows what it is not.”  Accordingly, knowing that your mind is not in the present moment, that it, instead, has been wandering, is a valuable experience.  This helps you to learn to differentiate when your mind is actually present.  Also enables you to develop insight about the patterns of thought that pull and preoccupy your attention.  As counterintuitive as it may sound, learning more about your wandering mind, and your tendency to get seduced by it, helps you develop the capability to be present more often.

The same is true regarding any aspect of your experience, not merely your wandering mind.  In her poem, Unconditional, Jennifer Paine Welwood suggests,

Willing to experience aloneness,
I discover connection everywhere;
Turning to face my fear,
I meet the warrior who lives within…

Opening to my loss,
I gain the embrace of the universe;
Surrendering into emptiness,
I find fullness without end.

For example, if you feel impatient, rather than fighting against that feeling and trying to force yourself to act patient, instead you may learn about patience by exploring and becoming more familiar with your experience of impatience – acknowledging it fully and getting to know it more intimately.  Patience then comes from your ability to be free of impatience.

Similarly, rather than pushing away experiences of pain to try to minimize your discomfort, see what it is like to be willing to explore your experience of pain.  By turning your awareness in towards it, taking a very close look at the pain, noticing how it feels in your body, separately from the thoughts that are triggered, you may at some point notice moments of being free of the grip the pain has upon you.

Instead of judging yourself, congratulate yourself for noticing when your mind has wandered, or that you feel impatient or what the experience of pain feels like.  This is the heart of the mindfulness practice, insight, knowing what your experience truly is in the moment.

A man’s errors are his portals of discovery.

James Joyce

August 9, 2011 at 9:21 am Leave a comment

Driving Yourself Sane

“Patience is something you admire in the driver behind you and scorn in the one ahead.”
— Mac McCleary

Driving is an activity that most of us do on a daily basis.  It also tends to incur a significant amount of stress.  In fact, commuting to and from work may be the most stressful part of the day for some people.  It is, at a minimum, a contributing factor to the accumulation and cycle of stress within daily life.  Therefore, this an especially fruitful place to apply mindfulness skills.

The practice of mindful driving entails paying attention to your experience (what you see, hear, feel, smell) while driving rather than getting engaged in other stimulation or being preoccupied by your thoughts.  There is plenty to pay attention to while you are driving.  In fact, for many people, driving is a very stimulating experience on its own, even without adding other distractions.  So when we then engage in additional stimulation, it can be overwhelming to our system.

Here are some suggestions for driving with more mindful awareness:

  • Turn off all optional sound (radio: music/news/talk; CD/tape; mp3 player)
  • Eliminate other distractions (phone, food, etc.)
  • When you are stopped, either at a red light or in heavy traffic, use that as an opportunity to check in with yourself.   Notice if you are holding tension in your body and see if you can release that.  Areas particularly vulnerable to tension while driving are your jaw (notice if you are clenching your teeth) as well as your arms and hands (notice if your fists are tightening).  Notice if your mind is preoccupied and see if you can return your awareness to the moment.  Taking a few abdominal breaths can be helpful to bring yourself back to balance.
  • When on the freeway, select one of the right-hand-most lanes and drive at or close to the speed limit, unless conditions demand that all drivers slow down.  Allow other drivers to pass you if they seem to want to exceed your speed.  People commonly have a misconception regarding how much time will be saved by going faster.  It may surprise you to learn that calculations estimate by increasing your speed from 65mph to 75mph you may only save 1 minute 14 seconds every 10 miles.  According to Natural Resources Canada, speedy and aggressive driving burns excessive fuel and money and only saves a matter of minutes.
  • In heavy highway traffic, pick a lane and stay in it, but not the fast lane. Over the course of many miles, all lanes will go approximately the same speed. In the end, excessive lane changing will not get you to your destination any faster, and ultimately only makes traffic run more slowly overall. It also increases your chances of a collision.  According to some statistics, 10% of crashes are due to lane changes.
  • Leave a few minutes earlier than you think will be required to arrive at your destination.  Giving yourself this buffer may be one of the best ways to reduce the stress that arises from time pressure.  Tip: Google Maps will not only provide you with driving directions to your destination but you can also ask to see up-to-date traffic conditions to help you plan your route before you leave.
  • And if you are running behind schedule while you are on the road, or get caught in unexpected traffic, accept that you will arrive whenever you arrive.  Let go of your tendency to strive to make up for lost time or change the circumstances you are in.  Once you are on the road, you have fewer means to significantly impact when you will arrive.

Driving need not be a necessary evil.  Instead, it can be another opportunity to bring mindfulness into your daily life.  Try some of these suggestions to see if you can reduce the toll that driving takes on your health and well-being.

May 10, 2011 at 4:06 pm Leave a comment

Let My People Go: Mindfulness as a Path to Freedom

“Freedom is from within.

– Frank Lloyd Wright

Every year at this time, seven or eight days honor the Jewish festival of Passover. Passover is the Jewish holiday that commemorates the story of the Exodus, in which the ancient Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt.  As told in the Book of Exodus in the Bible, God instructs Moses to confront the Pharaoh and tell him to “Let my people go.”  This departure was just the beginning of the long journey of the Israelites out of Egypt, through the wilderness to Mount Sinai. And it is this time each year when Jews all over the world celebrate their escape from bondage and release of oppression.

Whether you are Jewish or not, you can celebrate the meaning of this holiday.  After all, we each value, and aspire to have, freedom in our lives.  And, through mindfulness practices, we all can attain a greater experience of it.  Just as it is told that Moses led the Jews on a journey out of slavery to freedom, mindfulness is a path to freedom as well.  This path, however, is an internal one.

To understand this better, it is first helpful to distinguish that the interpretation of “freedom” in the West revolves around the rights of the individual.  We tend to think of it as the freedom to do what one wishes; it is determined in many ways by our external environment. While in Buddhism, “freedom” refers to a release from the traps of personal desires or attachments; this state arises from within.  More specifically, according to Buddhism, suffering is understood to exist as a universal phenomenon, and every individual has the potential for liberation from it.

The main objective of mindfulness practice, therefore, is to free ourselves from the fundamental causes of suffering.  In this context, the roots of suffering are considered to be certain mental events that are afflictive, that cause us pain.  The primary afflictive mental events are described as desire (craving or greed), hatred (the wish to harm), and delusion (which distorts our perception of reality).  There are others, too, including pride and envy.1  It is through the practice of mindful awareness that we can begin to recognize when we are caught in these afflictive mental states and only then have the choice and opportunity to release ourselves from the suffering they bring about.  In other words, with mindful awareness we can start to recognize the triggers and preoccupations that cause us to react in habitually unhealthy ways and instead choose a response that may serve us better.

Instead of Moses confronting the Pharaoh with the statement, “Let my people go,” we can remind ourselves to “Let our attachment go,” whenever we notice we are caught in these unhealthy states of mind.  By doing so, we can free ourselves of that suffering.  This freedom from the suffering that arises within us is something we can each do for ourselves, regardless of the external conditions in which we reside.  It is an ongoing practice, however, not just one pilgrimage.  As we embark upon this life-long journey, the more we recognize and release our attachments, the freer we become.

1. Ricard, Matthiew.  Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill.  New York: NY, Little, Brown and Company (2006)

Between stimulus and response there is a space.  In that space is our power to choose our response.  In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

– Viktor E. Frankl

April 19, 2011 at 10:46 am Leave a comment

What, Me Worry?

“I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.
– Mark Twain

“What, me worry?” is the signature phrase of Alfred E. Neuman, the fictional mascot and iconic cover boy of Mad magazine.  His mischievous character is depicted as not having a care in the world.  Unlike Alfred, many of us are plagued by worries from time to time.  In fact, there are times when you might relate more to Ray Lamontagne’s lyrics from his song, Trouble: “Worry …  Worry, worry, worry, worry.  Worry just will not seem to leave my mind alone.”

Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a worry as a “mental distress or agitation resulting from concern usually for something impending or anticipated.”  From a cognitive-behavioral psychology viewpoint, a worry is a type of distorted thought, one that is exaggerated or irrational – out of balance from reality.  More specifically, worry can be categorized as a form of catastrophic thinking: believing that something is far worse than it actually is.  These thoughts can stem from an event, from which you think of all of the worst consequences, dwelling on the worst possible outcome.  Or they can come from your own imagination of the future, anticipating all of the possible things that can go wrong, thinking of all of the “what If’s,” or expecting disaster.

In a mindfulness class last year, I asked my students whether worries are really necessary for our lives to function well.  One student, Kirk, inquired further, “If you aren’t worrying, does that mean that you don’t care?  Will things still get done if I don’t worry about them?”  He pointed out that sometimes we get into the habit of believing that worry is a representation of how much we care about someone or something.  So if we aren’t worrying, we are afraid that we don’t care or things won’t get done.  In fact, worry can become so habitual that lack of worry may feel foreign or unsettling.  Kirk pointed out that he was even worried about not worrying.  Another student, Gloria, felt the same way.  She then started to question whether the results of things were different when she worried or didn’t worry about them.  In her exploration, she found that the results were the same whether she worried or didn’t; therefore, the worry wasn’t necessary or helpful.  A third student, Arlene, suggested that it can be detrimental to try to go “cold turkey” reducing worry.  Instead, she finds it more helpful to have something to replace it, such as a song, or a poem that is affirming.

Sometimes we start to believe that our worry is what is responsible for keeping things from happening.  For example, I may unconsciously think that as long as I worry about a certain possibility, it won’t happen.  One student, Robert, told a illustrative story about a man who watered his lawn even when it was raining.  When neighbor asked why, the man replied, “To keep the elephants away.”  When the neighbor pointed out that there weren’t any elephants anywhere near, the man claimed, “See, it works!”  Sometimes, we rationalize that the worry is working – keeping bad things at bay.  And then, when bad things don’t happen, we attribute it to the fact that we worried, thus, reinforcing the pattern. In this way we can mistakenly develop an illusion that we actually have control over the outcome of the future, merely from our thoughts about it.

These patterns of thought are not harmless.  Preoccupation with our worries may keep us from noticing the toll that it actually takes physically, emotionally and interpersonally. The energy that you are spending worrying may actually be reducing the quality of your life in each moment.  For instance, if you check in with your experience when you are in the midst of worry; you may notice physical impacts, such as tension in your body, digestive disruption, inability to sleep or even pain; you may notice emotional impacts such as anger or frustration; you may notice interpersonal impacts, such as not listening to other people when they are trying to communicate with you.  Additionally, you may begin to notice a chain of distorted thoughts that get triggered, escalating this state or keeping you engaged for a prolonged period. By paying attention, you might recognize that there is a cost to your worry, not only for you but for others around you!

There is an alternative, however.  Instead of allowing your worries to continue to take a toll on you, try working with them in a more mindful way:

  1. Start to notice when you are caught in worrying thoughts
  2. Write the worrisome thoughts down to make a record of them when they occur along with some notes about how you are feeling physically, emotionally, interpersonally (how you are reacting) and other thoughts that may get triggered.  This helps you develop greater awareness not only of the thoughts themselves, but of the price you are paying as you engage in them.
  3. You may begin to see patterns emerge: what conditions trigger these worries, or how you end up feeling physically, emotionally or interpersonally.
  4. The next time you catch yourself engaged in worrisome thoughts, try rebutting those thoughts with a more balance or affirmative alternative.


An example of this process:

Situation: Your teenager when out to a movie with friends in the evening.  It is raining very hard and he was supposed to be home by 11pm.  It is now 11:30pm.

A catastrophic thought: “He was hurt in a car accident or in some other terrible situation.”

A rebuttal to that thought: “He is a teenager and may not be paying as much attention to the time as I’d like him to.  He might still be having fun with his friends instead of recognizing how late it is.”

With mindful awareness, you have the opportunity to minimize the amount of time and energy you spend worrying.  You may find that your life continues to function well without it and, moreover, you may actually find that the quality of your moment-to-moment experience improves.

In every life we have some trouble
When you worry you make it double

– Bobby McFerrin

March 28, 2011 at 1:11 pm Leave a comment

8 Reasons For Business People to Meditate

It is no secret to those who know me that meditation, and mindfulness in general, is one of my passions. Like many others, I originally developed a meditation practice to address challenges I was experiencing in my daily life.

Upon graduating from college, with a background in engineering and a progressive attitude, I chose a career in the high tech hardware and software industry in the Silicon Valley. The high tech industry is excessively demanding—those who work in these environments undergo highs and lows similar to being on a roller coaster and are faced with constant and rapid change, as well as arduous time commitments and workloads that can take a toll on other aspects of one’s life. “What life?” some may ask! This has not been an easy path, especially as I have matured and increasingly taken on more responsibilities besides my work. To thrive under these conditions, I turned to my mindfulness practice with the intention of achieving greater balance, satisfaction, and effectiveness in my life.

Role models I met along the way had been advocating the value of meditation in the workplace, Les Kaye and Lewis Richmond among them. Inspired by their values of integrating meditation into one’s work life, along with my personal experience attempting to do so, I set out to explore the effects of meditation for people who work in the business world as my doctoral thesis for a PhD in psychology, “Business people who meditate: The impact of the practice on their experience in the workplace.” *

This study explored the impact of a long-term meditation practice on business professionals’ experience in the workplace. The participants consisted of business people (4 females and 4 males, ranging in age from 37 to 63) who maintained long-term meditation practices. The duration of participants’ meditation practice ranged from 2.5 to 33 years with a mean of 11.8 years. Participants held a variety of professional positions, including 2 executives, 1 manager, 3 individual contributors, and 2 consultants. One-on-one in-depth interviews were conducted to investigate the effect, if any, their meditation practice had on their experience in the workplace.

Analysis of the data revealed 8 major themes related to aspects of the participants’ work life. Take a look and see if you can relate to any of these themes, and if they motivate you to continue to practice:

  1. Improved inner state
    100% of the participants in this study reported being less stressed and calmer or more patient at work as a result of their practice, enabling them to interact more fully with coworkers, cope with difficult situations, or face adversity. Moreover, several of the participants described this as the most significant impact their practice has had on their experience in the workplace.
     
  2. Increased functioning at work
    Participants reported positive effects of their meditation practice such as improved ability to listen to coworkers or clients and truly hearing what they are saying, increased productivity, improved concentration, and greater mastery or competence in their work. Instead of getting caught up or agonizing over all of the things that needed to be done, participants reported being able to do what was in front of them, working each problem as it comes up, minimizing procrastination and, ultimately, being more effective.
     
  3. Improved perception of self
    Participants reported greater compassion for, or acceptance of, themselves, increased self-esteem or self-confidence, and improved ability to trust and forgive themselves. In turn, they believed that this has had a positive impact on their work experience in a number of ways, such as being more positive, more willing to contribute, or more at ease.
     
  4. Increased sensitivity toward others
    All of the participants in this study revealed that their meditation practice has impacted the way they see their colleagues and customers. Without exception, the responses indicated an increase in sensitivity and openness toward others in the workplace: greater compassion; ability to have and show more respect for individuals at work, regardless of their position; and more forgiving.
     
  5. Shift in priorities of work toward greater balance
    Participants reported that they invested less of themselves in work: they worked fewer hours or were not as compulsive about work. For example, one participant said she wasn’t “willing to drive [herself] 80 hours a week anymore. Another said, “I’m not 110% devoted to the success of the business at the expense of every other aspect of my life. (It is relevant to note that this shift in priorities did not come at the expense of perceived productivity; instead, participants reported increased productivity, as stated in the second theme above.)
     
  6. Increased focus on ethical behavior
    All of the participants discussed ways in which they have increased their focus on ethical behavior in their work as a result of their meditation practice including greater attention to ethical speech, greater attention to ethical actions, increased ethical standards, and more selective business associations. Half of the participants acknowledged having always had ethical values; however, their practiced has confirmed and enhanced those innate values for them in their work.
     
  7. Improved relationships
    A majority of the participants reported a positive impact of their meditation practice on their relationships in the workplace: paying more attention to relationships and experiencing less conflict in relationships. Several of the participants described this to be one of the most significant impacts their meditation practice has had on their work experience: enriching their work, making it more enjoyable, and providing greater personal satisfaction.
     
  8. Integration of practice with life
    100% of the participants indicated that their meditation practice permeates all aspects of their life. Moreover, the participants reported that they are no longer able to separate their practice and its impacts from the rest of their life; their life and practice have become integrated. As one participant stated, “It’s apparent to me, in a way that it never has been before, that I can’t differentiate. The practice is not something different than my life. And I’ve often thought of them as little bit dichotomized or zero/one. That’s just not true anymore.”

These results suggest that long-term meditation practice may have positive impacts for not only the individual in the workplace but also for coworkers, customers, and the organization as a whole. As a mindfulness teacher and practitioner, as well as someone who works in the business world, I am grateful each day for the benefits I receive from my practice. I’d like to hear more about how your mindfulness practice impacts your experience in the workplace. Please let me know.

* Forbes, J. (1999). Business people who meditate: The impact of the practice on their experience in the workplace. UMI Number:9958678.

March 14, 2011 at 7:42 am 1 comment

Mindful Change: Living From the Inside Out

“I’m not afraid of storms, for I’m learning how to sail my ship.”
– Louisa May Alcott

A person came to me recently very frustrated as she was struggling with a difficult situation.  She was in lot of emotional pain and she desperately wanted her situation to change; she wanted things to be different than they were right at that moment.

Her circumstances are not different from those many people are facing and hers is likely a situation that is familiar to many of you.  If we are honest with ourselves, there are aspects of our lives that feel as if they are out of our control and at times we find ourselves challenged, or even overwhelmed, by this experience.  You are not alone if you relate to this.  Be assured, this is a common experience, part of the human condition, and often causes us quite a bit of suffering.

Mindfulness is a skillful way to address these feelings of pain and suffering that arise in your day-to-day attempts to survive.  It is important to understand, however, that by cultivating mindfulness as a means of addressing the stress in your life, the circumstances of your life are not likely to go away; they may not even change.  Instead, changes are happening internally, within yourself; the work you are doing is from the inside out.  As you cultivate awareness in the here and now, you have the opportunity to transform the way you relate to the difficulties you encounter.  By developing mindfulness, you enable yourself to see what you are experiencing more clearly and become more familiar with your habits of reacting to that.  With greater clarity, you may have the possibility of responding more effectively to the challenges in your life rather than reacting automatically, falling into the same in-grown patterns that keep you stuck.  Responding with greater awareness, over time, frees you from the maladaptive reactions that otherwise continue to keep you in a cycle of suffering: either reacting as a victim to the circumstances around your, or instead, being caught in denial.

You probably have experienced the futility of changing your circumstances from the outside, without addressing your internal reactions.   Some examples are:  quitting a job that isn’t working only to find the same problems creep up once you are in a new job, ending a problematic relationship only to find yourself experiencing the same dynamics in the next one, or finding yourself repeating the parenting styles of your parents even though you vowed you would never treat your own children in that manner.  Unless you become familiar with your ingrained habitual reactions and gently work with them to explore new ways of responding out of choice, you are destined to stay stuck, a prey to your circumstances, and endure the pain that results.

However, there are options and you do have significant influence in your life, even if control is illusive.  As you develop new ways of responding to the challenges in your life with awareness, not only can you minimize your own pain and suffering, but you can also become a role model for others in your life: children, spouses, co-workers and friends.   As Gandhi said, “We must be the changes we wish to see in the world.”

When you are feeling the pain of dealing with challenges in life, before you react, see if you can take some time to direct your attention inward, toward your own experience.   With continued practice, you may begin to be able to explore new options and respond, with choice, out of your growing awareness.

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Viktor E. Frankl

February 22, 2011 at 11:00 am Leave a comment

Mindfulness Can Change Your Brain: improvements in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking

Most people come to learn mindfulness meditation with the hopes of improving their well-being and quality of life.  However, one of the challenges of undertaking a commitment to mindfulness practice is that the changes you experience may be gradual and subtle.  The benefits are not always obvious to the practitioner as they develop over time.  Therefore, it can be helpful to receive reinforcement for your on-going practice.

Here’s some reinforcement for you.  Encouraging results were released in a study published in the January 30th issue of Psychiatry Research: Imaging.  In this study, MRI images were obtained from 16 participants before and after taking an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program and compared with a control group of 17 individuals who did not take the program.  The MRI images from those who practiced mindfulness every day found increases in gray matter concentration in the left hippocampus, an area important for learning and memory.  Increases in other areas of the brain were also identified in the MBSR participants as compared to the control group.  “The results suggest that participation in MBSR is associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.”

Take these affirmative results to heart and have confidence that your mindfulness practice may improve your memory, emotional regulation, empathy and perspective in life.  Let this be encouragement for you to continue to practice mindfulness, return to your practice if  it has waned, or begin a practice if you have not tried it yet.  And as more research is performed, I look forward to sharing more information on the positive effects of your mindfulness practice.

January 28, 2011 at 12:06 pm Leave a comment

Practicing Mindfulness With Training Wheels On

“Meditation is training for life. If we want to be free, it is important to learn how to directly experience the unbroken chaos and impersonal confusion of our own minds without being disturbed by any of it. Only if we can bear it will we be able to take responsibility for it. If we cannot calmly endure our own minds, others will inevitably suffer the consequences. If we cannot handle our own thoughts and emotions while we are simply being still and paying attention, then how are we ever going to be able to make the appropriate choices when we are walking, talking, and engaging with others? Meditation is training for life.”
Andrew Cohen

Meditation is training for life.  And, as one responder to this quote asserted, “Life is training for meditation.”   Most of us undertake mindfulness practice with the intention of improving well being in our active day-to-day life.  However, to do so, it takes significant effort grounded in a consistent practice, just sitting on a cushion or in a chair with ourselves.

Gil Fronsdal, the primary teacher for the Insight Meditation Center, likens our formal meditation to practicing mindfulness with training wheels on.  He suggests that when we carve out this time to practice, we give ourselves the ability to meet experiences in this protected setting that are more challenging for us to address in active daily life.  It is a safe place for us to explore complicated feelings, sensations, judgments and reactions that are an essential part of being human.

With training wheels on, in a mindfulness meditation practice session, you can try to reach beyond your current comfort zones and you have the freedom to make mistakes without dire consequences.  Here, you have the opportunity to invite and explore your own experiences of pleasure and pain, avoidance and desire.  In a meditation practice, you can take risks to see yourself more honestly, to allow yourself to be more vulnerable, and to become more familiar with those things that trigger you along with your habitual reactions to them, gaining insight as to whether they serve you or hinder you.

And then, there is a time when it is valuable to get off of the cushion and extend mindfulness into your active daily life (where the rubber hits the road, where you are likely to get triggered into reaction).  Take off the training wheels!  Try living your life more mindfully. You may fall down; you may get bumps or bruises.  Nevertheless, this is where life becomes training for meditation.  This is where we learn to balance better.

Most of us have no other choice than to be engaged in daily life. However, it can be tempting for some people to hide out in their meditation practice, safe from the impacts of daily life until they think they are ready to face it.  Yet, as an unknown source pointed out, “If you wait until you are sure you will never take off the training wheels.” The point of our mindfulness practice, ultimately, is to maximize our well-being within the challenges of everyday life; to live fully.  If you fall down, or lose balance, you can get up again and know that you can always come back to your cushion and put the training wheels back on.   

In the end, with mindfulness practice, it is important to put the training wheels on regularly to cultivate, maintain and maximize equanimity in your day-to-day life.  Accordingly, develop your skills and confidence by working with your training wheels on for some time every day!

“The most important part of education is proper training in the nursery.”
Plato

January 18, 2011 at 4:37 pm Leave a comment

For the Best Results, Start Small

It is better to take many small steps in the right direction than to make a great leap forward only to stumble backward.”
Chinese Proverb

It is customary at the beginning of a new year to make resolutions, to set new goals.  I personally find this tradition problematic and believe that we frequently set ourselves up for disappointment.  It is not so much the envisioning of intentions that is the trouble, but in how these objectives are commonly approached where most of us falter.  Once a person sets a goal for him or herself, he or she often becomes stuck focusing on the end result rather than paying attention to the process of how to get there.  To be more effective, rather than getting preoccupied with and striving to reach goals, my suggestion, instead, is to start by take small steps in the direction you’d like to go.  And continue these small steps, one after the other.  As Rita Baily said, “Start wherever you are and start small.”

What we are really trying to do when we make any change in our lives is to alter our habits.  This is true when learning a new skill, such as mindfulness.  For example, the intention when practicing mindfulness is to be present in each moment, to be aware of your experience as it is.  However, becoming mindful is not simple journey, as those of you working on this ability know; developing this skill can be very challenging.  The best way to cultivate mindfulness is to start small, practicing by noticing when your attention gets pulled by minor preoccupations (slight annoyances, trivial distractions or captivating stories), and bringing your awareness to your breath to return to the here and now.  Doing this over and over, whenever you notice you are caught in these types of thoughts, you begin to train your mind to a new habit.  With continued practice, eventually, when more challenging fixations arise (set in anger, deep-seated fear, intense rumination or acute pain), you may have the ability to return to the present or even maintain yourself in the here and now regardless of the nature of your experience.  But it all starts with one small step and then continuing to take further steps; working with the small challenges, you are building up the skills to address the larger ones.  “He who would learn to fly one day,” Nietzsche asserted, “must first learn to stand and walk and run and climb and dance.”

John Wooden described the process in this way: “When you improve a little each day, eventually big things occur. When you improve conditioning a little each day, eventually you have a big improvement in conditioning. Not tomorrow, not the next day, but eventually a big gain is made. Don’t look for the big, quick improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens – and when it happens, it lasts.“

The process of making changes in our lives takes patience and persistence.  It requires us to continue taking one step at a time when we would prefer to see some substantial results, already!  But don’t despair; if you happen to find you have fallen off of your intended path at any point, you can get back on by taking one small step in that direction.

Ask yourself, right now, what small step you can take to continue in the direction you want to head.

“What saves a man is to take a step. Then another step.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupery

December 29, 2010 at 6:12 pm Leave a comment

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Julie Forbes, Ph.D.

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