Posts tagged ‘Mindfulness’

Taming the Monsters

“In facing these monsters lurking inside us with the courage of a warrior, we find that they are not as horrible as we had thought.  As Rilke put it:

‘Perhaps the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage.  Perhaps everything terrible is, in its deepest essence, something that feels helpless and needs our love.’

Our monsters are only masks worn by those parts of us that feel powerless or unlovable.  They want, most of all, to be met and seen through.”

— John Welwood, Ph.D.
Journey of the Heart

In a previous post, I suggested that there is nowhere to run; nowhere to hide from the fear that resides deep within each of us.  So how, then, can we work with challenging states of mind that arise which may sabotage us, many of these manifestations of the deeper fear that resides beneath them, such as wanting what we don’t have; anger and hatred; laziness and lethargy; restlessness and anxiety; and doubt?

Most peoples’ first reaction to challenging states of mind is to distract themselves.  Keeping busy “doing” by working, shopping, watching TV, engaging on the computer, etc., is a common strategy, as is numbing oneself with substances or sleep.  Anything that keeps a person from having to actually “be” with their self and the truth of what they are experiencing during these difficult states.  Somehow we often believe if we don’t see and feel something, it doesn’t have an impact upon us.  Unfortunately, that is far from the reality – the difficulty is usually still there taking its toll. As the title of a book by Karol Truman points out, “Feelings buried alive never die.”

In actuality, the most skillful way to respond to these challenging states is to use them wisely and take the opportunity to learn from them.  Here are some suggestions for working with difficult states of mind when they arise1:

Observe to understand and develop a new releationship
Rather than suppressing or hiding from difficult states, see if you can observe them when they are present.  See if you can notice, with a sense of curiosity and inquiry, how you are reacting to these difficult states and, perhaps, getting caught up in them them.  Just this insight alone is valuable; by understanding better how you relate to a difficult state, from there, you may have the opportunity to develop a new relationship with it, one that serves you better.  As a metaphor, Gurdjieff, a 20th Century spiritual teacher who based his work on self-awareness, was known to hold mindful work retreats for students.  During one of these retreats a participant was ousted by the others because he was very difficult and generally disliked.  After this participant left the site, Gurdjieff actually found this man and paid him to return to the retreat to give the other participants the ability to work with this challenge.  Gurdjieff recognized that if he allowed the students to eliminate this thorny issue during their retreat, they would avoid addressing the difficulty and thus would miss the opportunity to learn to relate to it in a more effective way.

Promote the opposite state
If a difficult state of mind is overwhelming, try promoting an opposite state to combat the grip the difficult state has on you.  If you can weaken its hold, you then may be able to attend to it more effectively.  For example, it is told that the Buddha first taught loving-kindness to monks who had been dwelling and meditating in the forest.  These monks were fearful of being attacked by spirits in the forest that didn’t want them there and came to the Buddha to seek his advice.  In response, the Buddha taught the monks the practice of loving-kindness, cultivating intentions of kindness and well-being, as an antidote to their fear.  The monks returned to the forest and as they chanted phrases of loving-kindness, such as, “may I be peaceful, may I be happy, may I be safe, may I be free of suffering,” they began to feel safe and see their environment as friendly.   By practicing loving-kindness, the opposite of fear and anger, the monks were able to quell their fear of the spirits in the forest.  Another example from day-to-day life: during those times when you feel lazy or lethargic, by having the will to energize yourself into some more active state (going for a walk, for example), you may be able to weaken the lethargy and, from there, take a closer look at it and your reaction to it.

Let go
With growing awareness, you may develop the ability to let go of the difficult states when you notice they are present, let them pass.  However, the ability to let go requires that you first acknowledge the feelings honestly, without engaging in them, without being seduced into a reaction to them.  If you, instead, evade acknowledging them honestly, you can slip into a state of denial or avoidance, which are common ways of reacting.  Therefore, it is not effective to bypass step 1) of these suggestions; observing and understanding your reactions to these difficult states must first be mastered before you can truly let go of them.

None of these ways of working with challenging states of mind are easy; however, the payoff for the effort is worthwhile.  Try these approaches for yourself and let me know how they work for you.

1.  Seeking the Heart of Wisdom: The Path of Insight Meditation, Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield, Shambhala (2001)

“The best way out of a difficulty is through it.
— Robert Frost

November 19, 2010 at 4:54 pm 2 comments

Nowhere to Run; Nowhere to Hide

“Nowhere to run
Nowhere to hide
From you, baby
Just can’t get away
No matter how I try

I know you’re no good for me
But free of you I’ll never be”

— Martha and the Vandellas

Recently, I attended a retreat led by a Tibetan Buddhist nun named Pema Chödrön entitled, Smile at Fear.  The primary questions she raised for the participants during the weekend were, “What is it that scares you?” and “How will you work with that?”  As we approach Halloween, these seem like very appropriate questions to pose.

During the weekend retreat, Pema Chödrön continued by inviting participants to consider the possibility that everything we do, the way we interact, the way we react out of habits, etc., is all related to not wanting to feel our fear – it all arises from our attempts to run away from fear.  As human beings, we are stuck in an unconscious reaction of trying to run and hide from our fear.

However, there is another option.  Awareness practices, such as mindfulness, are a method of being with yourself completely and taking the time to see the underlying challenges, including fear, with kindness and honesty.  As Pema Chödrön explained, this path takes bravery to see yourself completely and not run away.  If you touch into the fear rather than turn away, you find tenderness, vulnerability.  While, instead, running away from fear causes a hardness; we become out of touch with ourselves and the world.  Touching into the fear softens and opens us.  It results in greater appreciation, gratitude and compassion.  So the question really becomes, “How can I open to life?”1

What if we use Halloween as a metaphor for meeting the fear that resides within us and make the attempt to open more to life? For example, when we open the door to greet trick or treaters on Halloween, we meet ghouls and goblins, devils, ghosts, vampires, witches and skeletons in addition to the super heroes, cartoon and Disney characters.  Yet we open the door and we do greet them, whatever they may represent or whoever they may be underneath.  For all of the masks and costumes they are wearing, covering up who they really are, they aren’t all that scary when we actually meet them at the door.

Perhaps we can learn to greet our own inner fears in this manner?  What if we were to open our doors to meet our fears?  We might actually meet the disappointment that is hiding under the anger, or the sense of unworthiness hiding under the lethargy, or the pain hiding beneath the restlessness.  All of these, too, are masks or costumes covering up our genuine nature.

Pema Chödrön told a related story about a friend of hers who was having a series of bad dreams.  Pema’s friend spoke about being disturbed by dreams in which she was being chased by monsters.  Pema asked her friend, merely out of curiosity, “What did these monsters look like?”  Her friend paused and responded that she had never turned to look at them.  This question, however, sunk into her psyche and when she had another similar dream, this time she turned around to look at the monsters that were chasing her.  What she found was that the monsters she was fleeing from weren’t really very scary; instead they more like two-dimensional cartoon characters.  After turning to see the “monsters” in this manner, the power they seemed to have over her diminished.

Here is a suggestion to help you face the monsters that reside within you rather than unconsciously running or hiding from them:

1.     Slow down, maybe even stop, when you notice that you are reacting out of fear.

2.     Instead of keeping busy or falling asleep or distracting yourself so that you can avoid what frightens you, can you instead, take a look at it, very gently and truly see it, acknowledge its presence?

3.     Taking the effort to meet your discomfort and fear in this way, over time, although it isn’t likely to go away, its power over you may diminish.  Out of this effort, you may gradually find more effective ways to respond to these challenges.

As Rumi says in his poem, The Guest House, “This being human is a guest house, every morning a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor. Welcome and entertain them all! Even if they are a crowd of sorrows who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still treat each guest honorably. He may be clearing you out for some new delight. The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in. Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.”

“Someone’s knockin’ at the door
Somebody’s ringin’ the bell
Someone’s knockin’ at the door
Somebody’s ringin’ the bell
Do me a favor,
Open the door and let ’em in”

— Paul McCartney

1. Smile at Fear: Finding a True Heart of Bravery, October 15, 16, and 17, 2010, a benefit for the Northern California Shambhala meditation centers and the Pema Chödrön Foundation

October 26, 2010 at 12:28 pm 8 comments

The Secret to Healthy Blood Pressure

“For breath is life, and if you breathe well you will live long on earth.”
— Sanskrit Proverb

Well, it’s not accurate to say that what I am sharing is a secret.  In fact, most people are familiar with the expression, “Take a deep breath.”  The problem is that very few of us have been taught how to take a deep breath in a way that really serves the purpose of bringing us back to balance.

Fortunately, if the skill of taking a deep breath to engage in its health benefits was a secret, it is less so now since it was recently broadcast on the national evening news.  ABC World News aired a segment, Just Breathe? The Secret to Lowering Blood Pressure, in which a cardiologist, John Kennedy, described how using the breath can reduce blood pressure.  Nothing is new about this information – for thousands of years, people have understood the power of the breath for health (see my blog entry: The Power of the Breath from August 2002) – this physician adds value by accompanying this claim with supporting data from his patients.

You can take advantage of this “secret” for yourself.  First, you can learn how to breathe in a way that benefits your health.  Secondly, you can understand how breathing this way works to balance your body.  Finally, you can even measure the personal effects of this practice.

How to breathe in a way that benefits your health:

1.     Emphasize your exhalation! Breathe in normally and as you exhale, make sure to push all of the breath out of your body completely, until there is nothing left to release.  (If you can, exhale out of your mouth.)

2.     Let the next breath enter your body naturally, there’s no need to force it.  The breath will likely come in deeper and more fully than it had at first.  (If you can, inhale through your nose.)

3.     Repeat this at least three times in a row.  If you feel light-headed at any point, allow your breath to normalize and that feeling will subside.  As you become used to this way of breathing, you can add additional breaths to the sequence.

4.     Practice this method of breathing deliberately three times each day, whether you need it or not.  (This will help bring your body back to balance when you didn’t even notice that you were in stress arousal; In addition, it will help you ingrain a new habit so that this way of breathing will be more accessible to you when you need it.)  Also try to practice this method of breathing when you feel stressed or triggered by a strong emotion.

How this method of breathing works to balance your body:

Survival is the strongest unconscious motivation for all beings on this planet, including us humans. To support your survival, your body is designed to protect you against any treats to your life.  At the core of your survival mechanism are the most ancient parts of your brain, including the amygdala and hypothalamus.  The role of the amygdala is to signal your body if a stimulus may indicate some kind of threat.  If a threat is indicated your hypothalamus releases stress hormones (including adrenaline, cortisol, testosterone in men and prolactin in women) and the sympathetic branch of your autonomic nervous system activates your “fight-or-flight” responses: adrenaline increases your heart rate to pump more blood as the arterial contraction gets blood your major muscles (a corresponding increase of blood pressure and pulse occurs); muscle contraction takes place in your major muscle groups, enabling you to flee or fight; and cortisol shuts down non-essential activity, including your reproductive system, digestion (metabolism is reduced), and your immune system (while adding an anti-inflammatory effect in case you are wounded).  Cortisol also lowers serotonin levels in the brain.  This is what is happening when you are in stress arousal and I’m sure you are very familiar with what this feels like.

However, when you emphasize the exhalation in your breath, as you force the breath out of your body, your diaphragm eventually contracts.  As your diaphragm contracts, it stimulates the vagus nerve, which extends from your brain stem down to your stomach.  The vagus nerve is involved with the parasympathetic branch of your autonomic nervous system.  When stimulated in this way, the vagus nerve helps to bring your body back to homeostasis or balance:  specifically, it activates the parasympathetic branch of your autonomic nervous system to reduce your heart rate and blood pressure.  Your muscles relax and your hypothalamus inhibits the release of stress hormones.  Therefore, when you breathe by emphasizing the exhalation, you can counter the effects of stress arousal.  See if you can feel the difference when you breathe in this manner.

Measure the effects of this method of breathing:

The simplest way to measure the effects of emphasizing the exhalation in your breath, beyond subjective measures, is to track your blood pressure.  Take a base-line measure of your blood pressure when you are at rest.  Then practice this method of breathing every day, several times each day.  Take your blood pressure, on a weekly basis at the same time, under the same conditions each week.  Notice if there are any positive changes in your blood pressure over time.

Smile, breathe and go slowly.”
— Thich Nhat Hanh

September 29, 2010 at 10:25 am Leave a comment

Set a Distance to Remain Mindful

“Direction is more important than speed.  We are so busy looking at our speedometers that we forget the milestone.”
Author Unknown

The wandering mind is so commonly dominant and pervasive that even setting an intention to be present often isn’t enough to bring your awareness into the moment, especially during practice in everyday life activities.  It helps to have ways to encourage the mind to stay in the present moment; and, it helps to keep those methods bounded.  Expecting your awareness to remain in the present moment without fail during daily activities just isn’t realistic, particularly given the design of our brains, which are tuned to be on high alert for any potential threats to our survival.

Kirk, a student in one of my mindfulness classes, shared the following helpful way of encouraging more mindful moments during motion-driven activities.  Try it out and tell me how it works for you:

“As I was riding my bike the other day, attempting to be present, I noticed that my mind quickly wandered. It was an exquisite day, and I really wanted to be in the moment. My mind kept wandering, and it seemed hard to keep it from wandering.  I then had an idea to set a certain distance, rather than time, to remain present.  I tried it on a short, quiet, beautiful stretch of road, and found it to be much more effective to set a distance to be mindful, rather than just trying to be present constantly.  [Being mindful] constantly may work eventually, but not yet for me.

“The same may be true for other motion driven activities that cover space: walking, hiking, driving, biking, swimming, things that you cover ground, set a goal in the distance, and keep focused on that distance, rather than the time.”

What methods work well for you to maintain your mindful awareness in the midst of everyday activities?

September 9, 2010 at 5:26 pm 2 comments

Using Your Senses to Calm an Agitated Mind

“When you start using senses you’ve neglected, your reward is to see the world with completely fresh eyes.”
— Barbara Sher

We have a handful of senses built into our human experience that provide us with information about our environment.  A common aspect of each of our senses is that they are occurring right now; they are part of our direct experience, not an abstract concept directed to the past or future.  Thus, they have the power, when we are aware of them, to redirect our attention to our direct experience when we become preoccupied or agitated by thoughts.  And, they are always available to us.

One of my students, Maryanne, shared a method she uses to bring herself back to the present moment using her senses when she finds herself preoccupied in thoughts; it is a way she extends mindfulness into her everyday life to free herself from the impact of an agitated mind.  Whenever she notices that her mind has wandered in the midst of an activity or when lying in bed, she uses her senses to bring her awareness back into the here and now.  More specifically, she asks herself, “what are five things that I hear, what are five things that I see, and what are five things that I feel?”  (The number five is arbitrary, of course.)  Maryanne finds that she can use this practice at any time: when she is on a walk, when she first wakes up in the morning, or when she is trying to fall asleep and worrisome thoughts make sleep seem impossible.  It has been extremely helpful for Maryanne, and she hopes that by sharing it, it will be helpful for others, too.

As an example, Maryanne describes how she uses this mindfulness practice when she notices that her mind has wandered while she is walking her dog:

  1. “First, what are five things that I can hear?  When I am walking my dog, I almost always hear her feet clicking on the pavement, the sound of traffic, and birds singing. One thing I can always hear is my breath!”
  2. “Second, what are five things I can feel on my body?  The leash in my hand, the breeze on my cheeks, my feet in my shoes, and always, again, my breath going in and out.”
  3. “Third, what five things can I see?  Sometimes I make it ‘what five things can I see that are yellow,’ maybe ‘five types of leaf shapes,’ ‘five different flowers’, ‘how many colors blue or gray in the sky?’  And if it’s really cold, there it is again, my breath!

Maryanne notices that the breath is one of the common experiences in her awareness, no matter which of the senses she is attending to.

“What I found,” Maryanne explains, was that I was often walking my dog and paying no attention to my surroundings.  Meanwhile, my head was spinning with worry and anxiety.”  She continues, “Now, I take a deep breath, listen, look and feel.  Sometimes my mind wanders, but when it does, I bring it back to what is happening right now, right here.  I have found it very helpful in reducing worry and to be more mindful in anything I do.”

I’m sharing this practice with you in the hopes that it will be useful as you attempt to bring mindfulness into your everyday life.  Try it out.  And, if you have a practice that helps you be mindful and reduce stress during your daily life, please pass it on to me so that I share it with others.

Each day I live in a glass room unless I break it with the thrusting of my senses and pass through the splintered walls to the great landscape.”
— Mervyn Peake

June 26, 2010 at 6:27 pm 1 comment

Recognizing & Reducing Stress “Creep”

 “For many men that stumble at the threshod are well foretold that the danger lurks within.”
— William Shakespeare


In engineering, creep is the tendency of a solid material to slowly move or deform permanently under the influence of stresses. It occurs as a result of long term exposure to levels of stress that are below the yield strength of the material.1 The yield strength of a material is defined as the stress at which a material begins to deform non-reversibly. It generally represents an upper limit to the load that can be applied.  Prior to the yield point the material will deform elastically and will return to its original shape when the applied stress is removed.2

As human beings, we experience a similar phenomenon.  Often stress in our lives is not acute; rather, it is a slow accumulation of stress without release.  When we don’t recognizing this accumulation of stress, eventually it may build up to a breaking point where the consequences of the stress are more severe for us. It is possible, however, to dissipate the stress that has accumulated, if you recognize its presence, and, in this way, minimize the emotional and physical wear and tear that you ultimately experience.  Awareness is the key to this process.  Recognizing that stress has been accumulating requires that you periodically check in with your body and mind to notice your state.  If you can identify tension in your body, or an uneasy mind, then you have the opportunity to address it before it reaches a threshold.

Bryan’s story reflects this process.  He first started becoming aware of residual tension in his body when he would lie down to being his yoga practice or sit down to start mediating.  Even though he believed he was relaxing in a comfortable position, Bryan noticed that his shoulders, in particular, were tense.  When he paid close attention, he could feel that his shoulders were creeping up approximately two inches toward his ears.  Once he noticed this tension, he could let it go.

After this experience, Bryan started to consciously check in with his body periodically throughout the day.  When he checked in, he, again, discovered tension in his shoulders that he was not aware of.  Bringing his attention to his shoulders, Bryan found that he could drop them down about two inches as he released the tension in that region of his body.

Moreover, Bryan discovered that his body was reflecting the state of his mind.  He noticed that when his shoulders were holding tension, his thoughts were also agitated.  Accordingly, Bryan found he could use his body as a measure of his actual stress level, like a thermometer.  When he found tension in his body, he recognized that he was stressed.  And by releasing the physical tension in his body, he realized that he could positively impact his mental and emotional state.

You, too, can reduce the accumulation of stress in your body and mind.  Here are a few ways you can release some stress when you take the time to check in with yourself:

  • Take several deep breaths (see The Power of the Breath in my blog postings)
  • Do some mindful shoulder rolls and/or neck rolls to release the stress in your shoulders and neck.
  • Remove yourself from the stressor, or environment, and go for a walk.
  • Engage in some postures to stretch out your body or do a balance posture.

The key is to find triggers or methods of checking in with your experience even when you don’t know that you are stressed, rather than waiting until you hit a point of breakdown!

“Men who know themselves are no longer fools. They stand on the threshold of the door of Wisdom.”
— Henry Ellis


1  Wikipedia –
2  Wikipedia –

April 2, 2010 at 1:50 pm Leave a comment

What are you willing to let go of?

“We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the life that is waiting for us.”

Joseph Campbell


2010 has arrived. We have entered into a New Year.  This milestone, although an arbitrary marker, is a customary time of year when people reflect on their lives and make or renew resolutions to improve their quality of life; it is an opportunity for new beginnings, for initiating changes.  According to a Marist poll taken in December 2009, 48% of Americans stated that they are somewhat likely to make resolutions for 2010.  However, the same poll found that of those who made resolutions in 2008, 65% kept their commitment for at least part of the year, while 35% never made progress.  In general, the goals that are commonly set as part of New Year’s resolutions are only temporarily met, if at all.  No matter what goals people set for themselves at the beginning of the year, even though well intentioned, eventually their ingrained habits most often persevere. So perhaps setting New Year’s resolutions is not the most effective way to make positive changes in your life.

Instead of making resolutions, the best way to attain your goals may be to minimize the obstacles that are in your way, the obstacles that you are, in fact, holding onto, intentionally or unintentionally.  To do this, I recommend becoming aware of what you are willing to let go of.  You can start this process by asking yourself what is in the way of you being the person you want to be or you having the quality of life that you seek?

Take, for example, one of the most common resolutions that are made at the New Year: losing weight.  Without taking a look at attachments that drive you to eat when you aren’t hungry or eat foods that aren’t healthy for you, such as an emotional pain that you are soothing with food, those attachments are likely, sooner or later, to sabotage your attempts to maintain new eating habits.  Whereas by acknowledging and releasing the emotional attachments that drive your undesirable eating behaviors, you can be more successful adopting new eating behaviors for the long term.

Likewise, if you want to change the toxic nature of a relationship you with have someone, it is best to begin by letting go of any lingering anger or resentments that you are holding against them.  As Ann Landers pointed out, “Hanging onto resentment is letting someone you despise live rent-free in your head.”  Only after releasing animosity that you are holding towards someone can you freely choose the manner in which you would prefer to relate to this person, whether that is to engage with them differently or minimize their presence in your life.

Letting go can be a difficult process, one that we most often resist.  After all, it is human nature to hold onto and repeat patterns that we know well, even those that aren’t serving us well. “People have a hard time letting go of their suffering.  Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.” (Thich Nhat Hanh)  However, to make effective changes in our lives and to improve the quality of our lives, letting go is necessary.  Lao Tzu said it best: “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.”  This year, instead of making resolutions that are likely to fall through, endeavor to cultivate the skill of letting go of those things that are in the way of having the quality of life that you seek and deserve.

“As I started to picture the trees in the storm, the answer began to dawn on me. The trees in the storm don’t try to stand up straight and tall and erect. They allow themselves to bend and be blown with the wind. They understand the power of letting go. Those trees and those branches that try too hard to stand up strong and straight are the ones that break.”

Julia Butterfly Hill

January 3, 2010 at 4:30 pm Leave a comment

Thriving in an age of attention deficit

“Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense.”

Gertrude Stein

Living in the 21st century is an exciting time.  One of the advantages of our technology is the breakdown in barriers we have to information.  The increased access we have to information is amazing, but also comes along with its challenges; the same information that adds value to our lives can also, at times, be overwhelming.  Each of you knows what it feels like to be on “information overload,” saturated with more information than you can absorb or respond to effectively: too many channels on the TV to find something that you are interested in watching, emails arriving in your inbox faster than you can read and respond to them, social media that keeps you connected to your network of friends and colleagues but provides more than you need to know.

One of the downsides of our information age is the development of a chronic attention deficit disorder in the general population – not a clinical diagnosis, rather, more of a societal plague we are suffering.  You can see the signs of this around you:  trying to have a conversation or meal with someone when they are in the middle of emailing or texting, people talking on the phone or texting while they are driving, being in a meeting in which other participants are online reading/responding to their email or texting, or even feeling the persistent need to check email or FaceBook.   I experience people all around me who live as if they are on an electronic leash, constantly wired to incoming information, persistently reactive to their electronic devices.  More than once, I have taught a mindfulness program in which a participant insisted on engaging with their Blackberry throughout a class that is intended to teach them to pay attention to the present moment; the irony of this needs no explanation.  It points to the challenge that many of us have dealing with the onslaught of information at our finger tips and the expectations that we will respond immediately to requests placed upon us 24/7.  Whereas Jon Kabat-Zinn’s second book on mindfulness is entitled, “Wherever You Go, There You Are,” I suggest the title, “Wherever You Go, There You Aren’t” more accurately describes the reality of our day-to-day existence.

This symptom of chronic attention deficit disorder in our society is beyond overwhelming; in addition, it takes a physical, emotional, and cognitive toll on us.  The attempt to consume and respond to an excess of information contributes to your body being in a heightened state of stress arousal, which ultimately creates wear and tear on you, challenging your well-being.  At a minimum, you may have trouble focusing, may become exhausted or start feeling burned out; worse, you may begin to have health problems that force you to slow down, or even come, involuntarily, to a screeching halt.

Before you reach these physical, emotional or cognitive limits, you can learn to relate differently the information that surrounds you.  Unplug!  Take the example of some companies that have initiated the “topless” meeting, in which not only laptops but iPhones and other tools are banned, to combat a new problem they are calling “continuous partial attention.”  You can set similar boundaries for yourself.  Although the plethora of information accessible to you can be very seductive, try to notice when your attempts to consume it leave you depleted rather than feeling better off.  Be more deliberate about how and when you give your energy away.  For instance, try driving without doing anything else, including listening to the radio.  Choose some specific times to turn off your cell phone and be away from your computer so that you aren’t accessible to incoming requests or interruptions at all hours.  Limit the time you spend absorbed in social media.  Pay attention and reclaim your energy for yourself so that you can make conscious choices about how you expended it.  By doing so, you can thrive in an age of attention deficit.

“…in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it”

–Herbert Simon

September 27, 2009 at 1:37 pm Leave a comment

Living in the Gray Areas

Life isn’t black and white. It’s a million gray areas, don’t you find?”

– Ridley Scott

 So often, when working with people to help them develop a new lifestyle practice, I notice that setting up rigid expectations can get in the way of their success.  You know what it is like when you are trying to change your exercise or eating habits?  In your attempts to make these changes, you tell yourself that you will get to the gym four times every week, or that you will eliminate the sugars from your diet. These intentions may be taken on with your best interest in mind; however, it can be difficult to live up to the agenda that you set for yourself. You may only get to the gym once or twice during the week and you feel as if you have failed, so next week you aren’t motivated to go at all.  Or you may have dessert while eating out with friends, so you abandon your attempts to change the way you are eating.

 Similarly, after asking students to practice a new stress-reduction exercise each day for 30 minutes, I find a common obstacle when I check in with them the following week: all or nothing thinking.  More specifically, the common response is, “I didn’t practice every day because I couldn’t find the 30 minutes I needed to do so.”  The barrier to their practice becomes the timeframe I suggested: If they aren’t able to practice for 30 minutes, they don’t practice at all.  By getting stuck in all or nothing thinking, the students sabotage their intention to practice each day and, ultimately, lose the benefits of the changes they want to make. 

 To overcome this obstacle, when you get caught here, the key is to allow yourself to live in the gray area, or middle ground: Consider what subset you can do rather than how you can’t meet your entire expectation all at once. For example, Insight Meditation Society co-founder Joseph Goldstein makes the following suggestion to meditation students to encourage their practice:

 “Try making a commitment to getting into the meditation posture at least once a day. You don’t have to sit for any particular length of time, just get on the cushion. A lot of times, the hardest part is getting there. Once you’re sitting down, you think, ‘I might as well sit for a few minutes,’ and more often than not, you’re getting full sessions in.”1

This same suggestion can be applied to other intentions we have for ourselves.  Taking small steps toward the direction of change you are seeking can be less overwhelming and, ultimately, more effective than trying to do it all at once.

The imperative:  Identify a lifestyle change you want to make and break it up into manageable steps.  Commit to taking one step at a time and build up to the goal you are intending to meet.  Let go of the black and white limitations; instead, allow yourself to explore the gray areas.

If everything isn’t black and white, I say, ‘Why the hell not?’
— John Wayne

1. Tricycle, Fall 2007:

June 29, 2009 at 12:08 pm 1 comment

Becoming an Naturalist

“You can observe a lot just by watching”

— Yogi Berra

Columnist and author, Marilyn vos Savant, once said, “To acquire knowledge, one must study; but to acquire wisdom, one must observe.”  This skill of observation is the primary tool used by naturalistic researchers for the study of subjects or phenomenon:

“Naturalistic observation occurs when a scientist conducts observations in a naturally occurring situation, without becoming actively involved. In conducting naturalistic observations, a scientist makes no attempt to control or change what happens. The research task is to make a detailed record of the events that occur and of apparent relationships between events, without having any effect on their occurrence.”1

Each of us has this capability to become a naturalistic researcher.  And, in order to develop wisdom, you are actually your best laboratory for observation.  In the words of Benjamin Franklin, “Observe all men, thyself most.”

You might ask, what does this ability for observation have to do with reducing my stress?  The answer is that without observing our moment-to-moment experience, we can become its victim.  Unaware of our inner experience, we are often at its mercy as we unconsciously are pulled into a reaction to it: pushing away what we don’t like or grasping onto what we don’t want to change – wanting things to be different.  These reactions cause us significant suffering and even result in physical and emotional wear and tear over time. This where the power of observation arises: once we can see and acknowledge our own experience, we are more able to respond out of choice rather than becoming engaged in these unconscious reactions.  By developing the ability to respond more effectively to our experience, out of wisdom, we can find ways to stay more balanced in our day-to-day life or return to balance when find we have been pulled away from it.  Equanimity is possible with growing awareness of your own inner experience and the wisdom that is derived from that.  The imperative: simply observe.

“Use your five senses. Learn to see, learn to hear, learn to feel, learn to smell, and know that by practice alone you can become expert.”

– William Olser 

1. The City College of New York:

March 30, 2009 at 10:56 pm 1 comment

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