Posts tagged ‘Tools’

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

Mindfulness: Fitness for Your Brain

“Any man could, if he were so inclined, be the sculptor of his own brain.”
~ Santiago Ramón y Cajal
, Advice for a Young Investigator

Train Your Brain One of the most common New Year’s resolutions made each year is to exercise more. Whether or not people actually follow through on this intention, it is an indication that people are well aware of the value of physical fitness; but, what about our brain? As scientific understanding of the brain evolves, there is a greater awareness of how important it is to keep this organ in our body fit. According to Dr. Judson Brewer (a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at the University of Massachusetts who uses mindfulness to treat addiction), “[Mindfulness] is just the next generation of exercise. We’ve got the physical exercise components down. Now it’s about working out how can we actually train our minds.”1

The Mindful Brain
Until recently, neuroscientists believed that after early adulthood, the brain no longer is capable of significant change: the viewpoint was that, at a certain point, the brain becomes rigid, no longer plastic. More current research has shown this not to be true. Newer understanding recognizes that the brain remains plastic as we age.2 This means that we are able to continue creating new neural pathways (new connections in the brain), hence new skills, habits and ways of responding; although it takes conscious effort and repetition (training) to do so. It turns out that the brain can keep growing; it’s just that we have been using it in such a way that maintains rigid behaviors. Furthermore, mindfulness is one way to train our brain to maintain its plasticity and ultimately to create new patterns of response, even as we age.

How Mindfulness Changes Your Brain – The Proof is in the Brain Scans
Mindfulness has been practiced for over twenty six hundred years. Over that time, there has been a consistent history of anecdotal experience suggesting the positive outcomes of this practice. Today, with advances in the study of the brain, there is empirical research, using objective measures, that supports and validates many of these anecdotal claims. Modern science now provides physical evidence of benefits of mindfulness:

  • Philippe Goldin, a psychology researcher, headed a study at Stanford University to better understand the effects of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) training for people suffering from Social Anxiety Disorders. After two months of mindfulness meditation training, participants reported less emotional anxiety, reduced depression, and greater self-esteem. MRI scans observed participants’ brain activity before and after the training suggesting that mindfulness meditation might help people view themselves more positively.3
  • Another study by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School and the University of Massachusetts shows that mindfulness meditation physically alters the brain. M.R.I. brain scans of participants who underwent eight weeks of MBSR training showed measurable changes in gray matter density in parts of the brain associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress, while a control group that did not practice meditation showed no changes. These brain scans also found increased gray matter in the hippocampus, an area important for learning and memory, as well as a reduction of gray matter in the amygdala, a region connected to anxiety and stress.4
  • Additionally, Dr. Judson Brewer, an addiction psychiatrist who studies how mindfulness changes the brain at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, brought experienced mindfulness meditators into an fMRI scanner and had them simply meditate while measuring their brain activity. It was found that a region of the brain called the posterior cingulate became active when folks were caught up in thought and quieted down when they were meditating.5 This is the same region that gets activated during states of craving, anxiety, rumination, and even when we are thinking about ourselves. Brewer postulates that training in meditation can help us get out of our own way when we are otherwise likely to get caught by these maladaptive states of mind.

Together, these studies validate that by practicing mindfulness meditation we are actually improving emotional and cognitive fitness of the brain.

Mindfulness is an Experiential Practice Not an Intellectual Exercise
With mindfulness becoming an increasingly popular topic, there is an abundance of books, articles, and videos touting its benefits. Additionally, mindfulness is showing up more often in mainstream media: Oprah has highlighted mindfulness in her programs and magazine over the years; just this year, in his book “10% Happier,” ABC News anchor Dan Harris shared how he turned to mindfulness meditation to address panic attacks and how it has helped him be happier6; and Anderson Cooper explored mindfulness in a segment of 60 Minutes7. Not surprisingly, I meet more and more new mindfulness students who arrive relatively well-read on the topic. This conceptual understanding is useful, however, the benefits of mindfulness do not come from a conceptual understanding; instead, it needs to be actually practiced for associated positive changes in the brain to occur. Just as with physical exercise that trains muscles in the body, it is the repeated experience of mindfulness that develops and trains the brain. For example, if I watch a yoga video, I may understand better how to move my body to attain specific poses, but unless I actually engage in those poses, I don’t gain their benefits. Likewise, mindfulness must actually be practiced in order to impact the fitness of the brain.

How to Engage in Mindfulness Meditation
It can be particularly difficult to develop new practices and make them part of your routine when you attempt to do it your own. This is true for mindfulness. Therefore, I don’t suggest that you go it alone when learning and developing mindfulness mediation. Here are some ways to learn mindfulness and approach it as a new element of your lifestyle and have the support that is necessary:

  • Take a class: look for an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program offered near you
  • Attend a mindfulness meditation sitting group
  • Go on a mindfulness meditation retreat
  • Find a teacher or coach to get you started and help you develop a practice

Ultimately, you will be the best judge as to how mindfulness meditation contributes to the fitness of your brain.

“Biology gives you a brain. Life turns it into a mind.”
~ Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex

December 29, 2014 at 8:48 am Leave a comment

Lighten Your Load

“We can easily manage if we will only take, each day, the burden appointed to it. But the load will be too heavy for us if we carry yesterday’s burden over again today, and then add the burden of the morrow before we are required to bear it.”
– John Newton

Burden-251x300I’ll begin by sharing with you an often told anecdote.  A lecturer, when explaining the impacts of stress to an audience, raised a glass of water and asked, “How heavy is this glass of water?” Answers called out ranged from 8 oz. to 20 oz.  The lecturer replied, “The absolute weight doesn’t matter.  It depends on how long you try to hold it.  If you hold it for a minute, that’s not a problem.  If you hold it for an hour, your arm will ache. If you hold it for a day, you’ll have to call an ambulance.  In each case, it’s the same weight, but the longer you hold it, the heavier it becomes.”  She continued, “And that’s the way it is with stress.  If we carry our burdens all the time, no matter how minor they seem, sooner or later, as the burden becomes increasingly heavy, it becomes an obstacle for us.”

Likewise, each of us is vulnerable to preoccupations, from the moment we arise in the morning until we fall asleep at night.  Knowingly or unknowingly, we accumulate these concerns and carry them around with us, picking up more and more without freeing ourselves of the previous ones.  As we do so, they become a greater and greater burden.  You may be surprised at how much weight you are hauling day to day.  And that energy can be better employed for things that really matter right now.

Fortunately, mindfulness provides an opportunity for you to lighten your load, to free yourself of these burdens.  By asking yourself to be aware of your experience in the here and now, to be fully in the present moment, you can release the energy you are expending on preoccupations that have been consuming your attention.  Additionally, as you do this, you can become more familiar with the nature of the concerns that pull your attention and gain insight into those patterns.  Recognizing these patterns enables you to allow the preoccupations to arise and pass, without grabbing hold of them, thus freeing you from their encumbrance.

In the midst of a recent group mindfulness practice, one of the participants, Donald, described an experience of his burdens easing in this manner: “And then, between one mindful footstep and another, I realized that I was free. In the moment, I had escaped the weight of the world. The bills, the projects, the politics…  None of that was with me in the now. Nor are they now. I am aware of them, patiently waiting their turn. But I’m no longer carrying them, in the now.”

To help facilitate this process, each time I lead an all-day retreat, as part of an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program, I offer students the opportunity to lighten their load when the retreat begins.  As we check in, I encourage students to hand over to me, for safe keeping during the day, any preoccupations they are carrying with them.  To be clear, these are not burdens I add to my own plate, instead, I place them into a virtual, infinite storage space where they can be housed.  Students hand over things such as concerns about a work project, a child’s soccer game that is being missed, anxieties about health, errands that need to be run, and a variety of other tasks on “to do” lists. This process assists students by freeing up their attention so that they are more able to bring their awareness fully into the present moment throughout the day.  At the end of the retreat, students have the option to collect items they had entrusted to me, or keep them in the storage area more permanently.  There are very few people who end up taking back items from the storage area; only things that still require attention are retrieved.

You can do this for yourself.  First, recognize what you are carrying around with you – really stop and pay attention as you consider this. Then, before you go any further, out of kindness for yourself, put down anything that may be a burden to you right now. (There is plenty of room in the virtual storage space for your burdens to be housed, so go ahead put them there.)  Start even for a moment, and if you can, refrain from picking them back up again.  (You may leave them in the storage area permanently.)  Repeat this process on a regular basis to continue to lighten your load.

“It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.”
– Lou Holtz

January 1, 2013 at 5:15 pm 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

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

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

Breaking the Stress Habit

“Harmful habits can be broken. You can break a bad habit of thought, just as you can break a bad habit of action. And you can develop new habits that are more helpful and healthful for you. ”

— Dr. Aruthur Freeman and Rose Dewolf

Without awareness, it is all too easy to fall into habits that heighten your stress arousal and ultimately exhaust your physical, emotional and mental resources.  Do not despair, there is an alternative, and it is never too late to start; however, there is no time like the present!  By recognizing the signs that you are over extended or stuck on the proverbial gerbil wheel – mindlessly running without an end in sight – you can apply these six suggestions to reclaim your well-being:

  1. Turn off your electronic devices when they are not required.  Being available 24×7 is an unrealistic expectation and is sure to drain your internal resources.  Just because you have the technology doesn’t mean that you need to be using it indiscriminately; otherwise, you may find yourself at the end of an electronic leash.  Consciously choose times when you are available to others and times when you are not.
  2. Carve out 10-30 minutes each day to do nothing but sit in the present moment.  Bring your awareness to your breath or another aspect of your moment-to-moment experience (sound, sensation, etc.) provides you with the opportunity to let your mind settle.  Doing so allows you to see your moment-to-moment life more clearly so that you can make better choices for yourself rather than getting caught in reactive patterns.
  3. Say “No” to engagements or commitments you do not really choose to participate in or when you just don’t have the energy to do so.  Make sure to reserve energy to take care of yourself.  Selectively saying “No” is not selfish; instead, by preventing yourself from becoming depleted you may have the resources to be useful when you do engage.
  4. Connect with nature on occasion.  Being in natural settings can provide a sense of renewal that enables you to reset yourself back into a balanced state.
  5. Pet an animal or play with a young child.  Petting an animal has been shown to decrease blood pressure.  In addition, domesticated animals provide unconditional acceptance that is rare to experience from other people.  Similarly, engaging with young children can be very freeing since they live in the present moment and may help to bring you there, too.
  6. When you find yourself in states of heightened stress, anxiety, or anger, stop for a moment to take several deep breaths.  The easiest way to do this is to exhale completely.  Once all of the breath has exited your body, allow the next inhalation to enter naturally, from your abdomen.  Repeat this three times in a row.  Taking a few deep breaths will bring your mind and body out of stress arousal, back towards a balanced state.

“Cultivate only the habits that you are willing should master you”
— Elbert Hubbard

January 1, 2009 at 10:36 pm Leave a comment

When Less Is More Than Enough

“There is not enough time to do all the nothing we want to do.”

— Bill Watterson

Intuitively, most people recognize that the nature of our 21st-century lives presents us with an abundance of stimulation, including information overload via email, voice-mail and cell phones; TV, radio, and the internet; driving in heavy traffic on a daily basis; work and family – to mention a few. As a result, most of us are in a state of heightened stress arousal throughout our waking days – perhaps even during our sleep.

On the other hand, friends of mine recently spent a week on an island resort in Fiji. At the resort, there was no TV, no radio, no cell signals, no internet, no newspapers, no bars, and no stores. Outside of their dwelling were lounge chairs and a private hammock on the beach and, of course, access to the ocean. The little 18-hut resort did offer some activities, but you could do absolutely nothing if you chose to. The motto at this resort is “Where less is more than enough.” 1

Not all of us have the near-term opportunity to travel to a place that eliminates the excess of activity we are exposed to on a daily basis, and even that would only be temporary. Still we can minimize the stimulation we are dealing with in small ways in our day-to-day lives. Without escaping to a remote island, you, too, can become aware of and manifest how less can be more than enough!

The key to having this be successful for you is to take on small lifestyle changes, one at a time. First, recognize what is causing you to feel over-stimulated or what is usurping your attention the most. Then challenge yourself to determine a way to reduce that in a small, doable manner for one week; set yourself up for success. After attempting the lifestyle change you identified for one week, check in with your experience to acknowledge whether or not it has made a positive impact for you. If it has, consciously continue that small lifestyle change for another two months to encourage it to become more of a habit. Otherwise, make a modification to the lifestyle change you attempted, or choose another that might work better for you.

A few examples:

  • Turn off all of the optional sound (radio, CD, phone) while driving in your car; there is an excess of stimulation and information to attend to without adding any of your own.
  • Take a break from reading the newspaper, watching the news on TV, or listening to the news on the radio for a week. Be selective in terms of the source and type of information you are taking in. Often, watching, listening to or reading news becomes a habit – a repetition of, or unnecessary, content day after day – rather than a source of new and useful information.
  • Next time you have a gift-exchange with a friend or family member with whom you would like to spend more time, instead of using time to shop for a gift, consider using that time in a way you can spend together: by having a meal at a restaurant you’ve been wanting to try, getting tickets to a performance you’d both enjoy, or doing something related to an interest that you share.

References:
1. Yasawa Island Resort, Fiji

January 1, 2007 at 4:47 pm Leave a comment

Goal Setting for Positive Change

“It is only when we have the courage to face things exactly as they are,
without any self deception or illusion, that a light will develop out of events,
by which the path to success may be recognized.”

— I Ching

As we experience the end of 2003 and transition into the New Year, I encourage you to refrain from making New Year’s resolutions. Resolutions made at this arbitrary time of year are often based vastly on emotions and rarely include a realistic action plan that has been defined for your success.

Instead, I encourage the practice of setting goals for yourself. Goal setting is an ongoing skillful practice – all year round. Moreover, it is a practice that can help you experience successful change, if engaged in realistically and with awareness.

In setting goals for yourself, a concrete plan can keep you on course and increase your commitment. Start with a bite-sized, realistic goal, something that you will be able to accomplish in the next several weeks. If you have a large goal, break it down into smaller steps that will be less overwhelming and more reachable. Try putting together a plan that includes the following elements:

· Specific
Set a concrete goal that addresses behavior and results, not emotions.

· Measurable
You must be able to tell when you arrive, and to set milestones along the way.

· Agreed upon
Don’t be the Lone Ranger; ask others to help you and support you.

· Rewarding
Make your behavior change as much fun as possible. Decide how you will reward and acknowledge yourself; both for achieving your main goal and for passing the milestones along the way.

(Source: Stress Management, Beaverton, OR: Great Performances, Inc., 1987)

Example
Goal: I will develop a regular stress reduction practice over the next six weeks.
Measurable: I will begin by practicing mindful yoga or meditation 20 minutes, three days a week for the first two weeks, work up to practicing 20 minutes, four days a week for the second two weeks, and practice 20 minutes, five days a week by the end of the six weeks.
Agreed upon: I will share this plan with my sister and check in with her each week about my progress.
Reward: At each milestone, I will by myself some flowers for my office at work.

December 7, 2003 at 3:13 pm Leave a comment

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Julie Forbes, Ph.D. photo
Julie Forbes, Ph.D.

STRESS MANAGEMENT
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