Posts tagged ‘Reminders’

7 Tips to Get Your Butt on the Cushion!

“We must go beyond the intellect into the silence of our intuitive hearts, where separation disappears and knowledge gives way to wisdom.”
~ Ram Dass

Sit Stay Heal Mindfulness is currently a “hot” topic in the media. With the increasing number of books, articles, videos and other vehicles addressing mindfulness, it is relatively easy to learn about this topic. Consuming this information can be inspiring, motivating, and can even develop a sound intellectual understanding of the practices, yet, the impacts of mindfulness are not cultivated in this way. Its benefits are not easily attained; to realize these, some training is necessary, and, moreover, it entails a commitment to ongoing practice. You must go beyond your intellect and actually engage in the practices – it is, ultimately, an experiential process.

You need to make mindfulness a habit! According to Leo Babauta, a writer who focuses on implementing Zen habits in daily life, “If you want to form the habit of meditation, just get your butt on the cushion each day“. Here are some tips to help you do that:

1) Remind yourself of your intention.
Remembering the reason(s) you learned to practice (reduce stress, increase relaxation, minimize depression or anxiety, improve sleep, increase wisdom, etc.) can be a motivating factor.

2) Formalize your practice.
Carve out a specific time to practice each day. For greatest success, practice first thing in the morning – when you are most awake, have fewer distractions, before the momentum of your day builds and the busyness of your mind takes over.

3) Create a consistent practice space with minimal distractions.
Identify a place to practice where you will be comfortable and alert without distractions (turn off the phone, not in view of computer or other digital devices, let your family/roommates know that you do not wish to be disturbed). Try to practice in the same place each day; your mind will habituate to this location and it may become your welcome refuge.

4) Set a timer or use a guided practice so you are not tempted to keep looking at the clock.

5) Eliminate the “time” barrier.
Avoid the “all or nothing” mentality towards practicing. If it helps, start by committing to short practice times and build up to longer periods. When you don’t feel like you have the time for a full session of practice, engage for a shorter time to maintain your habit, such as five minutes, rather than none at all. Even short durations (10 to 15 minutes) of practice done on a regular basis will help your develop your mindfulness muscle and keep it fit.

6) Seek support
Find someone who will commit to practice with you, or attend a sitting group of practitioners. Additionally, there are apps available via your computer or smartphones that can be a means of support.

7) Try out different forms of mindfulness
Learning a variety of ways to cultivate mindfulness can be helpful since a single form of practice may not always feel suitable in every situation. Sitting meditation, body scan, and mindful movement (i.e. yoga, qi gong or walking meditation), can all be effective as part of your tool kit of mindful practices.

Once you’ve developed your habit of practice, extending mindfulness beyond the cushion into your daily active life is skillful, such as when you are driving, eating, conversing, or exercising. However, resist the belief that you can merely be mindful of your active life in lieu of formal practice, otherwise, your mindfulness skills will tend to wane.

“Sitting on the cushion” is where you are rewiring your brain – reinforcing the habit of bringing your attention to your present experience. By practicing on a regular basis, your mindfulness habit will continue to grow stronger, both on and off the cushion.

Forget about enlightenment.
Sit down wherever you are and listen to the wind that is singing in your veins.
Feel the love, the longing, the fear in your bones.
Open your heart to who you are, right now,
Not who you’d like to be,
Not the saint you’re striving to become,
But the being right here before you, inside you, around you.

All of you is holy.

You’re already more and less
than whatever you can know.

Breathe out,
Look in,
Let Go.
~John Welwood


March 24, 2015 at 1:00 pm 4 comments

The Sweetness of Doing Nothing (La Dolce Far Niente)

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
~Blaise Pascal

Doing NothingHave you ever wondered where the emphasis on staying busy comes from?

In the United States, the Puritan (or Protestant) Work Ethic is alive and well, some might say run amok. Protestants were originally attracted to the qualities of hard work and frugality, as well as social success and wealth, because these were thought to be two important consequences of being one of those elected or predestined to be saved; thus, Protestants were supposed to strive for reaching them. This mindset became wide spread; the Protestant work ethic is often credited with helping to define the societies of Northern Europe and other countries where Protestantism was common, including here, in the United States. For example, Proverbs 10:4 of the Holman Christian Standard Bible states, “Idle hands make one poor, but diligent hands bring riches.” Likewise, there are several German proverbs that echo this sentiment, such as: “The devil makes work for idle hands.” Thus, in the United States, it is common for people to feel we are not worthy if we are unable to account for our time with measurable results.

Making a case for downtime
Winnie the Pooh has quite a bit of wisdom to share with children and adults alike. In regard to keeping busy, Pooh makes the assertion, “Don’t underestimate the value of Doing Nothing, of just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.” (from Pooh’s Little Instruction Book, inspired by A.A. Milne) We can also review the Old Testament (Gen. 2:2) as a reminder, lest we forget, that God rested on the seventh day of creation. In fact, Conservative and Orthodox Jews still observe the Sabbath by resting from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. It was only a few decades ago, if any of you were around then to remember, that stores were not open on Sundays to support a day of repose and being with family. Taking such a break can be a reminder that we are not indispensable. Moreover, it can validate for us that the earth will not stop rotating if we take a break from meeting the demands that face us. These demands can be met “all in good time.”

The reality is that not taking enough downtime has detrimental effects:

  • We may become more stupid.
    Constant activity keeps our bodies in a state of heightened stress arousal. In this state, our fight or flight reactivity, our ancient reptilian brain, is dominating our thoughts and behaviors. Thus we have less access to the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain unique to human beings, where our executive functioning (rational thought, judgment and creativity) reside. Taking opportunities to bring ourselves out of stress arousal into greater balance allows us to utilize the intelligence that sets us apart as humans.
  • There are mental health risks to not taking enough vacation from work.
    A study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (2013, August 2) concluded that employees who work long hours with high job demands are more likely to develop depression. And a 2005 study by the by the Marshfield Clinic in Wisconsin found that women who took vacations were less likely to suffer from depression than their counterparts who did not. Ultimately, burn-out and resentment can build when we don’t feel rewarded for overextending our energy, going beyond our limitations.
  • Productivity and job retention may suffer.
    The constant pressure to do more with less, coupled with the belief that being busy means we’re important, is creating an unsustainable pattern. It is worth questioning an unconscious belief that working more makes us more productive. As a case in point, when entrepreneur Henry Ford decreased the workweek of his employees from 48 to 40 hours per week, he found that their productivity actually increased.  Likewise, An internal study done by major accounting firm Ernst & Young in 2006 found vacation time was actually correlated with stronger performance. It concluded that for each additional 10 hours of vacation employees took, their performance reviews from supervisors were 8 percent higher the following year. The study also found that employees who took vacation time were less likely to leave than their presumably burnt-out counterparts.       In my own study of business people who meditate, one of the themes that arose from those who maintained long-term meditation practice was a sense that they were more productive at work, not less, and without adding more time on the job.
  • Health may suffer.
    There is greater understanding that working too much is simply not healthy. Luckily, when we take time away, these effects are mitigated. For example, the Framingham Heart study (a massive longitudinal research program started in 1948) reported that when workers take annual vacations, their risk for a heart attack is reduced by 30% in men and 50% in women.

Thus, there is no need to feel guilty for taking time off of “doing.” For many people, staying busy has become a way of avoiding what you are feeling, especially discomfort or pain (physical or emotional). On the other hand, non-doing gives you an opportunity to meet what is there without judgment and address it more effectively. From this state, you are better able to utilize the executive functioning of your brain (the rational thought, creativity and judgment) and can tap into the inner wisdom that is inaccessible when you are constantly stimulated. As Joseph Campbell stated, “You must have a place to which you can go in your heart, your mind, or your house, almost every day, where you do not owe anyone and where no one owes you – a place that simply allows for the blossoming of something new and promising.”   Moreover, taking time out is an act of self-care rather than selfishness. When you are renewed and feeling more balanced, you are in a better state to respond effectively to the demands in your life.

How to take time to do nothing
Follow Rumi’s advice, “A little while alone in your room will prove more valuable than anything else that could ever be given you.”
Schedule time for yourself in your calendar on a regular basis and keep the appointment with yourself.
Take time when arriving somewhere to sit quietly before initiating your activity.
– Take a few minutes between completing tasks as transition time.
– Set up a Sabbath-like period in which you do not engage in “work” activity.
– Set boundaries on TV time, computer time (periodically turn off your phone and email).

What are ways that you carve out time for non-doing? Please share your ideas with so I can enlighten others.

“You do not need to leave your room.
Remain sitting at your table and listen.
Do not even listen, simply wait.
Do not even wait, be quiet, still and solitary.
The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked,
it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”
~ Franz Kafka

June 27, 2014 at 3:35 pm Leave a comment

Getting Off of the Hamster Wheel of Life

“There is more to life than increasing its speed.”
— Mohandas K. Gandhi

Hamster Wheel of LifeIn over fifteen years of supporting people who are experiencing the effects of stress in their lives, one thing hasn’t changed: people generally feel overwhelmed by the demands they are facing and by their attempts to keep up with them; they are busy— too busy.  This is true whether individuals are students, in professional careers, non-professional workers, unemployed job seekers or retired.  Commonly, newly retired people attend my classes having expected retirement to bring them relief from the busyness of their employed life, only to find a that  they are caught up in different kinds of demands, but still don’t feel like they have enough time.

The question becomes, is all of this busyness, with the wear and tear it is taking in our lives, really taking us somewhere worthwhile?  Or instead, are most of us merely caught, knowingly or unknowingly, on the hamster wheel of life, running faster and faster without a meaningful payoff?

Tim Kreider, in a recent essay he wrote entitled “The ‘Busy’ Trap1,” spoke to this trend of being too busy: “Almost everyone I know is busy. They feel anxious and guilty when they aren’t either working or doing something to promote their work.”  “The present hysteria,” according to Kreider,” is not a necessary or inevitable condition of life; it’s something we’ve chosen, if only by our acquiescence to it.”  Kreider asserted that in our current culture, busyness is often “a boast disguised as a complaint.”  “It makes you feel important, sought-after and put-upon.”  And this complaint is coming from those who are “busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.”  Furthermore, he maintained that “busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.”  He said, “I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter.”  On the other hand, Kreider advocated the value of inactivity: “Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets.”  He concluded by stating, “Life is too short to be busy.”

If you are not convinced of Kreider’s argument in support of slowing down your busyness, you might be interested to read the top five regrets of the dying2, as compiled by Bonnie Ware, a nurse who spent several years working in palliative care, caring for patients in the last 12 weeks of their lives. The regrets of the dying recorded by Ware support the conviction made by Paul Tsongis, “Nobody on his deathbed ever said, ‘I wish I had spent more time at the office’”:
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
Ware comments about regret number five are particularly significant: “This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again.”  Too often, people do not see the cost of remaining caught up in their busyness until they no longer have the choice to make changes.

This does not have to be your fate, however.  I was fortunate to have my eyes opened to the dangers of getting caught in what Kreider referred to as “The ‘Busy’ Trap” many years ago when I took a time management class.  Most of that day-long class was spent identifying very detailed goals for the next month, three months, six months, one year, three years, five years, ten years, and on through the next 100 years of our lives.  It was a taxing and exhausting process.  Toward the end of the day, we were told to write the goals for two more periods: the last six months and final one week of our lives.  We were then asked to review the goals for the next 100 years of our lives to see if we incorporated the goals that we identified for the last six months and final week of our lives.  Many people in the class, including me, realized that the goals for our final days did not show up in the goals we set for the next 100 years of our lives.  The point was clearly made in this experiential process:  if the goals for the last six months and week of our life tend to reveal those aspects that are most meaningful to us, why, then, do we go through life on a daily basis without incorporating them into our life!  Pablo Neruda answered this question most eloquently in his poem, “Keeping Quiet” when he said, “If we weren’t unanimous about keeping our lives so much in motion, if we could do nothing for once, perhaps a great silence would interrupt this sadness, this never understanding ourselves and threatening ourselves with death.”

Accordingly, I offer you the invitation to slow down periodically with the intention of recognizing what is most meaningful to you in your life.  Ask yourself, if you knew that you only had six months to live, how would you employ that time?  And if you only had one week to live how would you choose to spend that week?  Then see how you can consciously integrate and prioritize those features into your day-to-day existence.  Continue taking baby steps in this direction and you will find that you have the capability to step off of the hamster wheel!



 “For fast-acting relief, try slowing down.”
— Lily Tomlin

October 1, 2012 at 3:50 pm 4 comments

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

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.”

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

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


1: a respite or a time of respite from something : intermission
2: a scheduled period during which activity (as of a court or school) is suspended
3: a period spent away from home or business in travel or recreation <had a restful vacation at the beach>

— Merriam-Webster Dictionary

The kids are out of school. The weather is warm. It is summertime and a common season of the year during which to take a vacation. All too often, however, the vacation that ensues has the same quality of busyness and demands that people are intending to escape. People often joke that upon their return, they really need a vacation to recover from their “vacation.”

Instead of choosing travel or highly active recreation for your vacation, in a manner that continues the busyness reflected in your day-to-day life, consider truly taking some time off. If your life is filled with a demanding schedule, the most effective vacation may be one in which activity is suspended for a period of time. Taking time for reflection, rest, and relaxation may be called for. Rather than adding stimulation to an overextended lifestyle, this kind of “down-time” can be rejuvenating and nourishing for your body and mind. In addition, you don’t have to wait until you’ve accrued a week or more of vacation to take this kind of “down-time” for yourself – even a quiet three day weekend from time-to-time spent in the presence of nature can be a breath of fresh air as a break from the non-stop activity of everyday life.

Henry David Thoreau (from Walden, Chapter 4) can serve as a role model for recharging your batteries with a vacation of suspended activity:

“I did not read books the first summer; I hoed beans. Nay, I often did better than this. There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of the head or hands. I love a broad margin to my life. Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a reverie, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sing around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time. I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been. They were not time subtracted from my life, but so much over and above my usual allowance. I realized what the Orientals mean by contemplation and the forsaking of works. For the most part, I minded not how the hours went. The day advanced as if to light some work of mine; it was morning, and lo, now it is evening, and nothing memorable is accomplished. Instead of singing like the birds, I silently smiled at my incessant good fortune. As the sparrow had its trill, sitting on the hickory before my door, so had I my chuckle or suppressed warble which he might hear out of my nest. My days were not days of the week, bearing the stamp of any heathen deity, nor were they minced into hours and fretted by the ticking of a clock; for I lived like the Puri Indians, of whom it is said that “for yesterday, today, and tomorrow they have only one word, and they express the variety of meaning by pointing backward for yesterday forward for tomorrow, and overhead for the passing day.” This was sheer idleness to my fellow-townsmen, no doubt; but if the birds and flowers had tried me by their standard, I should not have been found wanting. A man must find his occasions in himself, it is true. The natural day is very calm, and will hardly reprove his indolence.”

July 1, 2008 at 5:31 pm Leave a comment

Seeing More Clearly

“If you let cloudy water settle, it will become clear. If you let your upset mind settle, your course will also become clear.”

— From Buddha’s Little Instruction Book
(Kornfield: Bantum Books, 1994)

The word “Mindfulness” comes from the Pali word “Vipassana,” which, if translated directly into English, means “to see clearly.” Accordingly, the practice of Mindfulness consists of cultivating the ability to see our experience more clearly. As we develop Mindfulness, we become aware of our patterns of reaction, which are otherwise unconscious or automatic. Instead of getting caught in these automatic patterns of reacting, from this place of clear seeing, we can make choices that are more effective – that serve us better. By reducing our tendency to get caught in the automatic reactions of pushing away what we don’t want or holding onto what we do want (in other words: wanting things to be different), and instead seeing what is true and responding to that, we can minimize the stress and maximize the well-being in our lives. This is the possibility that developing greater awareness provides us.

Applying an analogy may help to understand this dynamic better. Imagine that your mind is like a pond full of water. If you stir up the water in a pond, it becomes muddy, cloudy and opaque; likewise, your constantly agitated mind becomes busy and murky. However, if you stop stirring up the water in the pond and let it sit idle, the sediment will sink to the bottom, leaving the water clear. Through this clear water, you can begin to see what is actually in the pond: rocks, fish, plants, etc. In the same way, if you sit for a period without agitating your mind, your thoughts will settle down, allowing you to see more clearly what your experience truly is. You will have the opportunity to notice what is underneath all of the busyness of your life so that you can respond to it more effectively.

In order to make positive changes in your life towards improved well-being, you first need to recognize what is keeping you stuck where you are; then you can make new, constructive choices. Taking time each day to practice Mindfulness, cultivating awareness of the present moment, is a process that can take you in this direction. At risk of quoting Dr. Phil, “You can’t change what you don’t acknowledge.”

April 6, 2008 at 5:22 pm Leave a comment

Independence Day


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.

Each condition I flee from pursues me,
Each condition I welcome transforms me.

— Jennifer Paine Welwood

In the United States, Independence Day commemorates the day the Declaration of Independence was first adopted by the Continental Congress – declaring independence of the United States from the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1776. This was the day our democracy was born. This legacy of freedom has had a major impact on the manner in which citizens of this country live our lives, our values, and our responsibilities.

In spite of the external independence that a democracy provides us, most of us are not truly liberated. Instead, we have become imprisoned by patterns of unconscious reactions that have become habituated and, although at some point earlier in our lives they worked to help us survive, they are no longer serving us well.

To put these unconscious habituated patterns in context, first it is important to acknowledge that there is inevitable pain (an affliction) that comes with being alive. It is not possible to be born, to live, and to die without experiencing a variety of pain.

Additionally, and even more impactful, there is often an enormous amount of optional suffering that accompanies the core pain – it is related to our experience of the pain itself. This option suffering arises when we react to the pain either with aversion (pushing away what we don’t want) or attachment (holding on to what we want to maintain). We are frequently unaware of these reactions of aversion and attachment that are the source of our suffering; they are part of the automatic patterns we’ve internalized. Although we cannot avoid the affliction of pain that arises in life, we do have the ability to free ourselves from the optional suffering that results from our reactions to this pain.

The key to freedom from optional suffering is to develop greater awareness of our automatic patterns of reaction. In seeing these reactions with our own eyes, we develop the skill to respond with choice rather than to be stuck, reacting out of habit. Ultimately, we have the capability of relating differently to the pain in our lives – the potential to meet it directly, without adding optional suffering – letting go of the habitual reactions that have kept us trapped. Freeing ourselves from this optional suffering, to whatever extent we can, we can approach true independence.

“Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.”
— Jean-Paul Sartre

July 3, 2007 at 5:01 pm Leave a comment

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