Tips & Tricks for the Beginning Meditator

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 If you’re new to meditation, you may find that along with calmness and peace of mind, starting to practice raises a host of questions. The practical insights below should be helpful as you begin your mindfulness and meditation journey.

On Meditation

  1. The primary goal of meditation is not about achieving any particular state of mind. If you go into it with that as the goal, you may quickly get frustrated. Rather, it is about training the mind to consciously control your attention so you can become more aware and mindful. One commonly cited definition of mindfulness is, “Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” (Jon Kabat-Zinn) This is exactly what you do during meditation when you focus on your breath, but the ultimate goal is to use seated meditation as a way to learn to be mindful in the rest of your life.
  2. You can’t just resort to meditation when you think you need to relax or deal with stress. Just like working out in a gym, meditation is something you need to do on a consistent basis. Being mindful and aware are not really natural states of mind for most people, so we need to constantly retrain this skill, aiming to learn how to drop into the present moment more frequently, and automatically, so when we really need calm and clarity, it just comes naturally.
  3. Being in the present moment is really what it’s all about. Our brains have evolved to be really great at re-running the past, or trying to predict the future. Unfortunately, the brain became too good at this and this is often our only way of being, creating a false sense of self, one that defines who we are by what we’ve done or what we think we’re going to do. Identifying yourself as who you were or who you might be is a kind of attachment, and ultimately self-defeating, simply because any kind of attachment leads to suffering (as Buddha so astutely observed thousands of years ago).

On Breath Focus

Breath focus is one of many ways to meditate (other objects of focus include visualizations, mantras, focusing on points in the body, and so on). Focusing on the breath, though, is not the goal. The goal is to learn to identify that moment in time when you have a thought or emotion that distracts you from your object of focus. You can then detach from the thought, not getting caught up in it. By returning attention to the breath, you achieve this. That said, there are a few tricks you can use when you’re having a hard time keeping focus on the breath.

  1. You can use a particular kind of counting. There are 5 general areas in the body where you can most easily sense the breath: the nostrils, the nasal passages, the throat, the chest, and the stomach. So with each breath, and each count, focus on a new area. Breath #1, focus on the nostrils, breath #2, the nasal passages, etc. Once you reach five, count backwards, and move back up the body. In this way, one full round is exactly ten breaths, which for most people takes about one minute to complete.
  2. If you are counting, when you discover you’ve been distracted, instead starting back at the number you left off on, you may want to try just restarting over at one. It becomes a little game: see how high you can count before you have to start over. More often than not, you may not get much past 1 or 2, but with practice you may make it up to 10 or higher.
  3. Another technique is to pay close attention to each breath and mentally note how the current breath differed from the previous. How did it physically feel different (or the same) – in terms of depth, smoothness, length, etc.

On Thoughts

One common way to detach from thoughts is to try to label them in some way. So, when you have a thought or emotion, you simply think to yourself, “Ah, that was a pleasant thought,” or “That was an unpleasant emotion.” It’s important to choose from the right sets of objective adjectives, though. Here are some that seem to work well:

  1. Pleasant or unpleasant (do not use “good” or “bad”, as these are judgments)
  2. About the past or about the future
  3. About myself or about others

You’ll notice these are in pairs. That makes the labeling process quick and easy. You can also combine them, as in “Ah, that was an unpleasant thought about my past,” or, “That was a pleasant feeling about my friend’s future.” By labeling, you are interjecting space between your thought and the next one (which helps you avoid getting carried away), and you’re also building awareness of the nature of your thoughts, so you can decide whether or not they are productive and healthy.

On Compassion

It may seem strange to include something about compassion when speaking about meditation. It turns out, though, that mindfulness and compassion are intricately intertwined. Compassion is simply a way to be less judgmental of others. So, as you learn to be less judgmental of yourself, you’re actually training yourself to be more self-compassionate, and this tends to cross over into your interactions with others as well. You can amp up your compassion for others using another very simple practice:

  • Every day, try to silently wish happiness to at least one random person you encounter. You could use a phrase like, “May you find happiness and live in peace,” (not said out loud, of course!) or find a phrase that resonates with you personally.

This practice is deceptively powerful, and incredibly rewarding. It’s important that the person you choose be random – don’t just wish happiness to friends and family, but even to that guy who cuts you off in traffic or mindlessly blows cigarette smoke at you. You’ll quickly realize that everyone has a story, and you have no idea what that story is. Regardless of what the story is, every single human on this planet deserves to find true happiness and peace. Including yourself! This practice literally changes your entire outlook, to the point that you may find yourself sending good wishes to every person you meet. Luckily, kindness is contagious, and “as you sow, so shall you reap.”

10 Mindfulness And Meditation Questions Answered

1. Mindfulness, what’s that?
It’s simply the idea of paying attention to what you’re paying attention to, and being aware of your thoughts and emotions.

2. Why should I care about paying attention?
Being mindful is seemingly universally beneficial. Mindfulness meditation has been scientifically shown to decrease depression, distraction, anxiety, rumination, and emotional reactivity, while at the same time improving information processing abilities, resilience, cognitive flexibility, immune function, intuition, emotion regulation, and relationship satisfaction. For these reasons and more, companies like Google, LinkedIn, Monsanto, Aetna, and many others offer mindfulness programs to their employees. Mindfulness is also key to becoming emotionally intelligent, a set of skills that has been shown to be important to becoming an exceptionally effective leader or manager.

3. Yeah right, how does it do all that?
The human brain is well adapted to reviewing the past, building models of the world, and predicting the future. Unfortunately, it is so well adapted to these tasks that it often goes overboard, letting these things take over, and then feeding back into itself. There are at least two problems with this. First, when you are thinking, you are not doing, or worse, you are doing things on auto-pilot. Second, this feedback loop can amplify the wrong things, for example, strengthening unwarranted negative emotions or unjustifiably reinforcing how you view yourself based on your past actions. Being mindful simply means that you observe this process in a detached way, and reserve the right to say, “Wait a second, let me decide whether this is the kind of thought or emotion that makes sense for me right now.”

4. So, mindfulness is about stopping thoughts?
Not exactly. It’s more about learning how to recognize when you are thinking or feeling, and then making a conscious decision around whether it makes sense to continue that line of thought or to express that emotion, or whether you’d be better served by letting it go.

5. Wait, are mindfulness and meditation the same thing?
No. Meditation is simply a technique used to train you to learn how to be mindful. It is like a targeted workout for your brain, one that trains you to learn a particular skill: being aware of where you are spending your attentional energy. Mindfulness, on the other hand, is a way of life. It can be practiced in every thing you do. You can walk mindfully, eat mindfully, listen mindfully, speak mindfully – drive, read, play, and love mindfully. Mindfulness is all about being present and aware of what’s currently happening in and around you, encapsulated in these three words: Be Here Now.

6. I’m not a spiritual person, how do you expect me to get on board with this “woo-woo” stuff?
While it is true that historically meditation has been closely associated with various spiritual traditions, there’s no reason you can’t be a complete atheist and still experience the benefits of calm, clarity, focus and productivity that meditation and mindfulness impart. The very fact that nearly all spiritual traditions include meditation in their repertoire speaks to its universality. There are many different types of meditation. Mindfulness meditation is deceptively simple, and completely secular. It simply involves paying attention to your breath, noticing when you get distracted by a thought or emotion, and then returning to focusing on your breath. That’s it. No mantras, invocations, chakras, or third-eyes are necessary if you are not so inclined.

7. Okay, you’ve piqued my interest. How do I go about becoming mindful? It is simple, but not easy. You just need to take some time every day to pay attention to what’s going on in your head and around you. This should be a designated time alone, with no screens or other distractions. Just watch your thoughts, without judgment. Here’s a simple 1-2-3 guide to meditation:

  1. Find a quiet, distraction-free place. Put your phone in airplane mode, but set a timer.
  2. Sit still, in a way that you are comfortable, but can remain alert and not be tempted to fall asleep.
  3. Spend a minute or two getting comfortable, relaxing, closing your eyes, and noticing the sensations in your body.
  4. Bring your attention to your breath, noticing what it feels like in your body. No need to control it, just breathe naturally. Possibly start counting your breath, if that helps you keep focused.
  5. You will naturally get distracted by wandering thoughts and feelings, or even by sounds or smells. When this happens, simply notice it, without judging it. Then, go back to the previous step. Do this for as long as you like, even if it’s just a minute or two.
  6. Do this at least once every day. Work your way up to 10 or more minutes.

8. My mind is too restless, I think I’d be no good at it.
Many people use the excuse that they are “no good” at meditation as the reason they don’t meditate. This makes about as much sense as saying you don’t work out because you are out of shape. The whole point of meditating is to learn how to focus your mind, and to practice that skill. That’s why it’s called a practice.

9. It sounds like meditation will turn me into a spineless accept-a-tron, that’s not what I want!
No, it won’t do that. What it will teach you is that in any challenging situation, if the world is not as you would like, you have more than one option. The first option is to work hard to change the state of the world. This is a valid and important option. The second option, often neglected, is to accept the state of the world and change your expectations, something which is often simpler to do and frequently in line with the natural order. Meditation gives you the space to step back, evaluate both options, and choose the one that aligns with your values.

10. Meditation sounds too boring, I think I’ll give it a pass.
The modern world tends to promote the idea that we must always be stimulated, aroused, and entertained. This “always on” way of living is clearly not a sustainable one, and yet we get into the habit of always wanting to do something, even if nothing needs to be done. It may seem like a bit of an indulgence to take a break, but you will only be meditating for a few minutes. Surely you can afford that, given all of the benefits that will ensue. As you gain more experience in meditation, and explore different styles, you’ll also find it less and less boring. Fundamentally, you’ll be exploring your own thought processes, gaining insights into the ways you think, and understanding how you may be the same or different from others. What could possibly be more fascinating than that?

What is Your Daily Practice?

Practice makes perfect, or so the saying goes. But have you ever stopped to think about what it is that you are practicing, possibly without even having decided to do so?

The dictionary definition of practice is: Repeated exercise in or performance of an activity or skill so as to acquire or maintain proficiency in it. We usually associate this with particular kinds of skills, like playing an instrument, learning a sport, or being a doctor or lawyer. As such, the common definition of practice has a decidedly aspirational quality — you practice something “so as to acquire or maintain” proficiency. But, there is a more subtle form of practice, one where you replace the above phrase with “which leads to.” You can think of this as unintentional practice. Any time you repeatedly perform an activity, this leads to you becoming more proficient in it, whether you intended to or not.

Why is this important? Because fundamentally, you are what you practice. You are your actions, words, thoughts and feelings — these are the fundamental ways you interact with the world, others, and yourself. When you do something repeatedly, it defines who you are. On the other hand, if you are not doing something repeatedly, then it could hardly be considered part of your core self. For example, one day you may give your spare change to a beggar. Does that make you a generous person? Hardly. But if you do it every time you have an opportunity, or if you volunteer regularly to help the homeless, then most people would agree that you are a giving person.

If you are what you practice, it makes sense to make sure that what you do repeatedly is directly connected to what you want to become. If it’s not, then you’re diligently becoming proficient at something that’s just not you. You’re practicing being someone else — a recipe for unhappiness.

To see how your daily practices profoundly affect who you are, I recommend adding a new practice to your repertoire, something I call the Daily Practice Challenge. Here’s how it works: every day, for 30 days, take 5 minutes at the end of your day to think about and answer the following questions about one particular activity you do daily. I recommend you do it in writing.

  • Every Day, I _____
  • I am practicing _____
  • It makes me feel _____ because _____
  • This is (good/bad) for me, and I (should/shouldn’t) continue to do it (this way).
  • Here are some ways I could improve on this: _____

One last rule: you can’t repeat the same activity on different days — every day, you must come up with something new that you do every day. You’ll spend the first week or so catching all of your obvious activities, and then you’ll need to go deeper to come up with new ones. This is where the real gold lies. As you get further along in the 30 days, you’ll have to start paying closer attention to what you do, as you are doing it during the day, so you’ll have something to write about that evening.

Some more guidelines:

  • You’ll find that there are some things you practice that you’ll want to continue, and some that you want to give up. Try not to focus too much on one kind or the other — sprinkle in some good habits with the bad.
  • Don’t just focus on outward actions, try to think about things you say on a regular basis, habitual thought patterns, and regular emotional responses.
  • Get detailed. Don’t just write, “Every day I brush my teeth.” Instead, say something like, “Every day, I brush my teeth twice: first thing in the morning, and last thing before going to bed. I use Colgate Fluoride toothpaste and an Oral-B Extra Soft plastic toothbrush, brush for 1 minute total, and brush before I floss.” Etc. The details will help you really evaluate this practice, understanding whether there is any part of it that is not in line with your beliefs. Maybe you’ll want to change toothpaste brands to a more natural one, or find a replacement to the plastic toothbrush. Whatever it is, unless you call out the details, they’ll likely go unnoticed, and unchanged.

I recently wrapped up 30 days of doing this nearly every day. Almost exactly half of my practices were “good” and half “bad.” They were pretty equally distributed across activities, thoughts and emotions. Here’s an example of one:

  • Every day, I check Facebook many times, esp. if I’ve posted something.
  • I am practicing feeding my ego, getting attention, allowing myself to be ruled by my compulsions.
  • It makes me feel either elated or let down depending if there is a “piece of candy” waiting for me. Regardless, I feel pretty empty afterwards.
  • This is bad for me, and I shouldn’t continue to do it.
  • Here are some ways I could improve on this: Maybe set a specific time window to check, and if I miss it, too bad!

As a result of this reflection, a few days later I gave up checking Facebook altogether. If I had not done this reflection, I would have happily (or, unhappily) continued to obsessively check Facebook, even though it was not good for me.

The Daily Practice Challenge works because it forces you to really look at what it is you do, day in and day out. By coming up with a new activity every day, you end up really examining your daily life, and going deep, to your thoughts and emotions. It also forces you to evaluate your practices, and re-make a “go / no go” decision about things that may have become habitual when they shouldn’t have.

At the end of your 30 days, flip back through your reflections. Find your improvement suggestions, and if you haven’t already, start to implement them, one by one. And, maybe, take the challenge again. After all, making self-reflection a daily practice is “good for you, you should continue to do it.” 🙂

Once you’ve gone through the process once, you can also try folding in these variations:

  • Instead of just focusing on things you do daily, try shifting the time scale, to either longer or shorter time periods (minutes, hours, weeks, months, years).
  • Instead of just focusing on things you already do, try changing the questions to shift the focus back to an aspirational one: Every day I should _____. I will be practicing _____. It will make me feel _____ because _____.

 

 

Yoga: It’s Not (Just) for Posers

I recently wrapped up an incredible journey I started last Fall — an intensive course on yoga given by Jillian Glikbarg at Vibe Yoga in Redwood City. I went from thinking of yoga as simply a method to help maintain physical and mental health, to understanding yoga as a way of life and a system for helping you recognize your one, true, divine Self. Before you start thinking, “Uh oh, Chris has fallen in with those New Age hippies!” let me be clear about what I mean. (You’ll note that I said “a way of life” and “a system,” not “the way” or “the system.”) Yoga, as currently practiced and popularized in the West, is primarily a physical practice — stretches and poses and breathing. What I learned was that this is only the proverbial tip of the yoga iceberg, and that yogic philosophy goes much deeper than the physical practice. Like any system for living, it encompasses psychology, morality, spirituality, physical practices (that go beyond exercise), and much more.

The Class & How I Got There

The course I took was a Yoga Teacher Training — a class designed to certify (via the Yoga Alliance) yoga teachers through over 200 hours of lecture, practice, and homework (reading, book reports, class construction, practice), followed by written and teaching exams and an apprenticeship. All in all, the 15 students in the class gave up eight and a half entire weekends, including Friday night (plus countless hours in between). I was taking the course not to become a teacher, but just for my own enrichment, so don’t expect to see me teaching in a yoga studio or gym anytime soon. The class was probably equivalent in workload to at least a couple university courses, and pretty much all of the students were taking it on top of full-time jobs. The “professor” was Dr. Jill. Okay, as far as I know, Jill doesn’t hold a doctorate degree, but I’m sure that if any university offers a Ph.D. in Yoga, Jill could easily walk in and take the qualifying exam and defend a thesis without even trying — she’s that good. If you’re new to yoga, go to one of Jill’s classes (she teaches at Vibe and also at Yoga Source in Palo Alto). Just go.

Why would I decide to spend so much time on yoga? I first started practicing yoga about 15 years ago, when the start-up I was working for brought in an instructor every week, probably as a way to help us deal with stress. For most of that time, the class was taught by a seasoned yogi named Shastri, who had very strong opinions on the correct way to do the poses, and wasn’t afraid to let you know. Although he sometimes seemed more like a drill sergeant than a yogi, I learned a lot from Shastri, and had a lot of “Aha” moments, as I discovered something shocking: although I was over 30 years old and an active cyclist and climber, I knew remarkably little about my body, and couldn’t really say I was in touch with how I felt (in the physical sense). After a couple years, I moved, and my yoga practice began to consist mostly of DVDs from Rodney Yee. I used yoga, like most people in the West, as a simple way to get a good workout (for free, at home, and with virtually no equipment), one that included stretching, aerobic, and anaerobic elements. What a deal! But my practice was spotty at best.

A few years back, my wife and I joined the local climbing gym, Planet Granite, in an effort to reinvigorate our exercise regime. PG also offers yoga, and that’s where we happened across Jill. She was the one yoga teacher that both my wife and I really resonated with — a no bullshit teacher who seemed to have a deeper understanding of the underpinnings of yoga. She would sprinkle in dribs and drabs of that deeper understanding, tossing in a mantra here, a meditation there, and teaching techniques like bandhas (specific muscular contractions meant to control energy flow in the body). She clearly knew what she was doing. So last summer, after having become a semi-regular in her class for some time and also after having started a regular meditation practice, when she announced she was doing a teacher training, I was immediately intrigued. The time commitment almost scared me away, but in the end I applied my “Would you regret not doing it?” decision criterion, and took the plunge. I had no idea how deep the water was.

Re-discovering an Ancient Science

As the title of this post alludes, the primary thing I learned about yoga was that it is not just about posing. Whereas the physical practice of moving, stretching and holding certain body positions (called asana in Sanskrit), is a key component, it mostly forms a platform on which to build the rest of yogic practices. In the nearly 200 verses of the primary ancient text on yoga, The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, asana is mentioned only once. The rest of the text outlines a science for self-realization and enlightenment. I call it a science because it is based on hundreds (or possibly thousands) of years of experimentation and observation. Yoga also elaborates multiple models of description and explanation, like the Doshas, Gunas, Vayus, Koshas, and yes, the famous Chakras. This type of system of thought and practice exactly fits the dictionary definition of science:

  • science : The observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of phenomena.

In this case, the subject of the science is fundamentally what it means to be a human, and how we can be the best human possible. In other words, how we can realize our one, true, divine Self. Heady stuff, and certainly not what I was expecting going in.

At first I was very resistant to the use of Sanskrit, but as we delved into the history and philosophy of yoga, it became clear that its use is important for at least two reasons. First, it recognizes that the system has ancient origins, and second, it also recognizes that the concepts being described do not always have direct correlates in English. On the other hand, I think the use of Sanskrit terms has the unfortunate side effect of making the concepts seem foreign, mysterious, irrelevant, esoteric, or even backward — rendering the deeper wisdom in yoga inaccessible to many people, especially in the West. This is unfortunate because yoga is a full package when it comes to a system for living, and one that has been refined over a very long period of time. It includes a system of ethics, techniques for developing discipline of self, body and breath exercises, meditation and ways to improve concentration, to name just a few of its many elements.

If like me, you’re fond of acronyms and initialisms, here’s one I came up with that sums things up nicely — Yoga is “Your Optimal Guide to Alignment”. Let’s break that down:

  • Your — Yoga is ultimately a personal practice. Its goal is to help you realize that you are divine. It also has enough different techniques, styles, and branches that you will necessarily end up having to craft your own path towards that realization.
  • Optimal — Not only is yoga trying to help you be your best, optimal self, but yoga itself is the result of the work of all the yogis that came before, who experimented, theorized, and refined the practices.
  • Guide — As I mentioned above, yoga is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Your path will be different than anyone else’s. You don’t have to be alone on this journey, though, and in fact ideally you should have the guidance of a teacher who is further along his or her path than you. They can help you avoid pitfalls and point out opportunities that you’d otherwise be unaware of.
  • Alignment — Alignment of what? Many things — your spine, your intentions, your path to your Self. Yoga helps keep all of these aligned.

Yoga, The SWEET Life, & Jesus the Taoist Yogi

If you’ve read this blog, you may be familiar with a concept my wife and I call the SWEET life. The idea is to simply become aware of and track, on a daily basis, how well you Sleep, Work, Eat, Exercise the body and mind, and connecT with others. By doing this tracking, you are more likely to make decisions that align with your core values. Yoga is like the fully generalized version of the SWEET life framework. Within yoga, there is a concept called the niyamas (our attitudes towards ourselves). One of the five niyamas is discipline, which Desikachar describes in his commentary on the Yoga Sutra of Pantanjali as, “The removal of impurities in our physical and mental systems through the maintenance of such correct habits as sleep, exercise, nutrition, work and relaxation.” The resemblance of this to the SWEET life framework is a reflection that my wife and I had hit upon the same truth the yogis had documented thousands of years ago.

But this niyama is only one of the five (the others being cleanliness, contentment, self-study, and devotion). And the niyamas are only one of the eight components of yoga, each of which also goes very deep (for example, asana is one of the eight). Yoga is quite a comprehensive system.

One insight I had from studying all this was that it feels like all of this wisdom is discovered over and over throughout history. As I studied yoga, I found that a lot of the fundamental truths of yogic philosophy can also be found in other systems of living, like Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity and Judaism, and countless others. I also noticed that most of these philosophical or religious systems were developed from around 1500 BCE until maybe a few hundred years after Jesus. If I had the time, I think it would be interesting to understand why it was that time period that led to such a proliferation of systems for living. (If you know of a book that may discuss this topic, can you send me a pointer?)

My “Final” Sequence

All philosophy aside, the course also taught me the fundamentals of asana practice, how the different poses are classified by spinal orientation and energetic effects, the importance of counter-posing, and the concept of vinyasa krama, or intelligent sequencing of poses, along with the use of mind maps to help build a sequence in a principled way. There are many elements to a yoga sequence that, as a yoga student, you may not even be aware of. In addition to the poses, these include: a theme, narrative (the spoken words as the teacher moves through the class), a primary class of poses including a peak pose, breathing techniques, targeted energetic effect (calming, energizing, integration, etc.), style of savasana (resting at end), as well as possibly the use of mantras or meditation. I also learned some basics of anatomy and physiology, contraindications for poses, the use of alternate poses and hands-on adjustments, and generally just learned a lot more poses. I feel I now know enough to modify my daily practice to meet my needs. In other words, I’m at that “advanced beginner” stage where I know enough to be dangerous, or feel like I can teach my friends. 😉

I also drew a lot of stick figures. Some yoga teachers use sequences of stick figures to help them plan out the flow of a sequence, or communicate a sequence to others — a sort of blueprint for the sequence. Of course, teaching the class never ends up happening exactly as planned, but it’s a helpful guide to have, much like a lesson plan. For the last weekend of the class, we all got to teach a “final” hour-long sequence of our own design to a public class. The theme of my class was something I’ve talked about a lot recently — Cultivating Equanimity. Although I didn’t record my class, you can get a taste of what it was like by checking out my mind map and stick figures.

A Daily Practice

Perhaps most importantly, as a result of the class, I’ve begun a daily practice consisting of asana and meditation, which I’ve been able to maintain for the last 5 months. Maintaining a daily practice of any kind beyond showering and brushing and flossing my teeth has eluded me for most of my life, so I’m particularly gratified with this outcome. What’s so important about a daily practice? On the surface, moving the body and resting the mind are two things we all need to be healthy, and they need to happen on a daily basis. At a deeper level, though, I’ve come to realize: you are what you practice. If you run around in a frenzy all day, by definition, your life is a frenzy, and your natural response to any situation will be a frenetic one. Likewise, if you spend your time thinking about the future, you never live your life in the present. What you practice, every day, every hour, every minute — that’s who you are. By including regular interludes of calm, focus, and disciplined pursuit of physical and mental health, I can naturally and constantly embody those attributes in the rest of my life. I have a lot more to say about this concept, so look for another blog post on this topic soon.

Thanks

My thanks go first and foremost to my wife, who, despite the poor timing of the class with respect to what was going on in the rest of our lives, remained understanding and supportive throughout. My deep gratitude goes to my teacher, Jill, whose dedication to the training and the students was truly unbelievable, even after she sustained a very serious (non-yoga) injury. My sangha (community of classmates) was amazing — I love you guys, and have learned something from every one of you. You are some of the most genuine, caring, down-to-earth, and downright authentic (and divine!) people I’ve ever met. Finally, thanks to Vibe Yoga, and its owner, Rebecca Bara. Your generosity in holding the space for the class went above and beyond.

Namaste


What’s the Resolution on that?

When I was younger, I used to think making New Year’s resolutions was for suckers. My thought process went like this: 99% of the time resolutions are broken within days (or at best, weeks) of being made, so what was the point? Shouldn’t you just always be resolved to do the things you know you should? My approach has become a bit more nuanced these past few years, and now I embrace the New Year as a time for re-examination, re-direction, and yes, re-solution.

The word resolve is a fascinating one. If you look up the modern meaning, you’ll see it’s mostly about breaking things down so as to come to a decision that, when acted upon, improves on the current situation. For example, some interpretations revolve around moving from dissonance to consonance, others talk about elimination of a pathological state. Its sister word, resolution, is equally interesting, in that it adds the dimension of degree of detail (as in, the resolution of an image or scientific instrument). Back in the day, resolve meant to dissolve or melt. In other words, breaking down to such a degree of detail that all gross level form is eliminated. When you just look at the surface form of the word it means “to solve again,” implying that something has gone amiss, and moving forward, a course correction is necessary. All of these meanings include a subtle yet distinctly important concept: by breaking things down into their basic building blocks, we’re able to remove restrictions and obstructions that have built up over time, rebuilding things as they once were and should be. When applied to one’s Self, resolutions are all about removing the barnacles that have collected and are obscuring your ability to be the one true you.

In our household, it’s become a bit of a tradition to use this time of year to do a “hard reset.” As the character Roy in the old Britcom The IT Crowd used to say at any sign of technical trouble, “Have you tried turning it off and on again?” That’s what we do, we take this time to quite literally detach, reflect, redirect our attention, and yes, resolve to do a few things. The resolution (detail) of these resolutions (decisions to act) is deliberately coarse, but we only do this very high-level direction setting infrequently. The expectation is that these coarse goals will naturally lead to finer-grained ones as we progress through the year.

If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ll know that I’ve spent the last year or so focusing on awareness, listening, and mindfulness. In a way, all of these concepts are about continuously resolving, with high resolution, to be present. They are quite valuable for making sure you do not get too caught up in the distant past or far future, and also for training your brain to remain focused on a goal. However, occasionally, one must step outside the flow of life, lift one’s head and look to the horizon to make sure one is on course. That’s what New Year’s resolutions are about for me.

To make it concrete, you can think about it this way. Every moment, you resolve to be present in that moment. Every day, you resolve what you intend to accomplish for that day. Every year, you set goals for the year. You can add in weeks, months, decades, and any other time scale you wish — the same principle applies. Resolutions happen on a continuous and continual basis, at varying degrees of detail and granularity.

My resolutions for this year are private to me, but I will share one glimpse into them as it relates to this blog. My guiding principles for 2015 include: Simplicity, Discipline, Gratitude, Generosity, Compassion, Honesty, Truth. Initially, I had set some goals around blogging for the year, but as I applied these principles and was honest with myself, I was going to have a hard time meeting those goals while also meeting some other, more important goals, and keeping my life simple. I’m not saying I’ll stop blogging, just that I won’t be blogging nearly as much as I had originally hoped. With any luck, my occasional posts will be more packed full of goodness. 🙂

Cheers, Peace, and Happy New Year!

Chris

Up Next: Your Day in Review

There’s nothing like formal seated meditation for training the mind in the art of equanimity, but seated meditation can often seem intimidating or time-consuming. I’ve recently been experimenting with a lightweight form of meditation that is not hard and won’t take a single minute out of your day. It may even give you a few minutes back by helping you fall asleep more quickly. I call it the Day in Review, and here’s how it works.

Unlike most meditation, you do this one by laying down in bed, with the lights out, at the end of the day. The technique is deceptively simple — you simply visualize everything you did today, starting from the moment you woke up, right up to the moment you started to review your day, in as much detail as you can remember. Here are some guidelines to keep in mind:

  • Every detail matters. It’s not enough to just think, “And then I brushed my teeth.” Instead, try to visualize exactly where and how you were standing, what the toothpaste tasted like, what you were thinking about as you did it, where you were looking, what sounds you may have heard, etc. Bring in all five senses, and try to relive the experience. You might be amazed at what you end up remembering — like the model and color of a car you were following, or the pattern on a colleague’s shirt, or even the exact wording of an email you wrote.

  • You don’t have to relive every second, but if something changed (e.g., you finished brushing and started spitting and rinsing), then you should review the new activity.

  • Don’t worry about skipping something if you can’t remember anything about it.

  • Most importantly, keep yourself on track. In other words, when your mind starts to wander off onto future events or things you did some other day, gently remind yourself that you can think about those things some other time, right now is your review time.

  • Also, don’t cheat and jump ahead to the “juicy” or “important” events. The really juicy stuff is actually all of the other things you did. Try to remain a detached observer of your life, without looping back on the same “good” or “bad” experiences.

  • Try to keep it a little challenging. Some of us are much better than others at visualizing and remembering. If that’s the case for you, just reach for the next level of detail, the one that makes it a little bit hard to recall.

  • There’s one basic rule: You must review everything you did today, in the order you did it. It’s okay to get sidetracked, and you’ll probably want to replay some scenes, but you should always come back to your timeline review wherever you left off as soon as you realize that’s happened.

By the way, I rarely make it much past my memories of this morning’s breakfast before I fall asleep. And that’s okay. In fact, it’s a happy side effect!

You may be thinking, “That’s not meditation! There’s no paying attention to the breath, there’s no sitting upright, there’s no focus on the third eye or visualizing of lights or mantras!” Indeed, there aren’t any of those things, except for the use of visualization. But the core activity of any meditative practice is control of your attention and maintaining your focus on something. That something doesn’t have to be your breath – it can be just about anything, and in this practice it’s the story of your day and how you moved through the world in the last 16 or so hours. The practice of always returning to the true story of your day, as an external observer, will help you learn how to view your life with both detachment and acceptance. It may also motivate you to have more awareness during the course of the day, so that your nightly review can be that much more detailed.

I really like this practice for a number of reasons, and not just because it’s easy and helps me fall asleep. First of all, it’s different every time I do it, so there’s no resistance on my part from being worried it may be boring. Second, like some other forms of meditation, it’s the re-telling of a story, but this one doesn’t involve any memorization and is super personal and relevant. Third, it’s a nice way to put “bookends” on the day, closing today’s chapter and letting you file away the good, the bad, and the ugly — resetting your mind to start the next day anew.

 

Cultivating Equanimity

“I found the secret to life. I’m okay when everything is not okay.” – Tori Amos

What if you could have mental calmness, composure, and presence of mind, especially in difficult situations? That’s the definition of equanimity, a state of mind that exemplifies the polar opposite of what many of us experience in our daily lives – anxiety, stress, and distraction. It doesn’t take drugs to achieve this state of mind, just a simple mental exercise for 10 to 20 minutes a day, every day.

Life is constantly throwing new things at you. To deal with them, you could take one of three approaches. You could stand your ground, like a rocky crag in the ocean, resisting and striving to fight against the barrage. However, ultimately, resistance is futile. The ocean of life is stronger than you, and it will break you down if your only response is resistance. Alternatively, you could try floating on the surface, like a cork, just going with the flow. Although this approach seems safe, as a piece of flotsam you risk being dashed against the rocks or thrown upon the shore. The third approach is the middle way, a buoy that is tethered to the ocean flow, allowed to rise and fall with the waves, but not to get thrown around. The buoy exhibits a kind of equanimity, a centered resilience that allows it to survive in any kind of weather.

Or consider the entertainer who spins plates balanced on sticks. Life is like their trusty assistant, who is constantly throwing new plates into the mix. The entertainer also has three options. He could try to catch them all and keep them all spinning, but eventually there will be too many, and he will fail. He could try to dodge the plates, but he would be missing important opportunities, and there would be a lot of broken plates. Or he could develop a way to catch each plate and quickly decide whether to spin it or gently set it aside. Obviously, this way requires practice and focused attention, just as it does in real life. But practicing focused attention is not something most of us do, or even know how to do.

Much like exercising our bodies to keep them functioning optimally, we all need an exercise regimen for our minds. Humans have been wanting equanimity for thousands of years, and a very specific technique has been honed over that time to cultivate the presence of mind that results in calmness and composure: mindfulness meditation.

Mindfulness meditation is not mystical or religious. Like working out in the gym, it is also not hard to learn, but does take some discipline. And it really works. The scientific evidence demonstrates that mindfulness meditation results in overwhelmingly positive effects. It has been shown to minimize rumination, emotional reactivity, distraction, anxiety and depressive symptoms, while simultaneously improving emotion regulation, cognitive flexibility, resiliency, relationship satisfaction, immune function, intuition, and information processing speed.

As humans, we all have shortcuts for handling the onslaught of events and information in our lives. Emotions and habits are two such shortcuts that serve as real, useful strategies, but which, like some drugs, we come to rely on too heavily. The primary shortcoming of both emotions and habits is that they take the conscious mind out of the decision making loop, and it’s not uncommon for the resulting behavior to be completely out of line with our goals. Mindfulness meditation teaches us to insert two important steps between an event and our response to it: noticing and reflecting.

Mindfulness meditation is a mental exercise that repeats a simple 4-step cycle: 1) focusing on your breath (this is the “action” or “response”), 2) inevitably getting distracted by a thought or emotion (this is the “event”), 3) stepping back and noticing that you’ve been distracted, 4) reflecting on the thought or emotion without judgment and letting it pass (this prevents you from perseverating on it), and then 1) returning the attention to the breath. During the course of a given meditation, this cycle is usually repeated dozens or hundreds of times. Each time it’s repeated, it’s kind of like doing “reps” at the gym – you learn to make noticing and reflecting default responses, instead of relying on other habits or emotions.

Mindfulness is so closely linked with equanimity because it directly teaches you to take the middle path – to not resist or cling to things, and to not just let things happen to you willy-nilly. You quite literally train yourself to notice and reflect before responding, and as a result, your behaviors become reasoned, conscious responses.

Personally, since adopting a daily mindfulness meditation practice of about 20-30 minutes per day, I’ve noticed a myriad of positive, equanimous effects. My relationships with my closest loved ones have improved significantly. I’ve relearned the importance of listening and noticing, and am experiencing a rebirth of my child-like sense of wonder and amazement. My resilience, persistence, and willpower have improved, making it easier for me to get things done. I feel centered, grounded, and able to weather any storm. My tolerance for “disagreeable” things has increased, and I’ve started to feel the beginnings of a true sense of compassion for others.

Convinced that you’d like to try to cultivate equanimity through mindful meditation? Try taking a class – they are becoming common as parts of well-being programs in corporations and through healthcare providers. Look for classes that teach MBSR (mindfulness based stress reduction). You can also try using one of the many meditation apps – Headspace is a particularly good one for beginners. To make it stick, try joining a meditation group. Making it regular and consistent will have you on the middle-path to equanimity in no time.

This article was adapted from a talk entitled “Cultivating Equanimity” given at Convox 2014. Click through to see a video and slides.

Putting Yourself “On Notice” – A Fun Mindfulness Game

As a child, I used to notice all kinds of things. I was often fascinated by the patterns of rugs or tiled floors. I noticed when the screws in a piece of furniture were different styles — meaning someone had repaired it at some point. I remember focusing in on a tiny detail of the illustration on my mother’s cookie tin sewing kit, letting my imagination run wild about just why that little child whose face appeared so forlornly in the window of the stagecoach was being whisked away, alone.

Like most of us, as I grew up, I learned that these kinds of details didn’t “matter,” and so I learned to ignore them. They did not help me directly achieve whatever it is that modern society values, nor what (I thought) I wanted to achieve. It was better, I thought, to focus on my studies and my work, squeezing every ounce of “productivity” out of every day, hour, and minute. This approach helped me achieve some degree of “success,” but in the process, I lost most of my sense of wonder and amazement, and with it, some of my creativity and passion for life.

As I’ve started rediscovering my inner child, I’ve been looking for ways to focus on the here and now, to remain accepting of where I’m at, in the present moment, and notice what’s actually going on around me. In other words, ways to be mindful. Meditation is certainly one practice that helps immensely with this, but it’s not the only one. I’ve written before about tracking as a means to build awareness, about the importance of snatching spare moments to practice mindfulness instead of busying the mind with checking your phone, and even about using your left hand instead of your right to force you into the now. Here’s another practice I’ve recently started, inspired by remembering my inner child and what it was like to care about all those little details. The technique is in some ways similar to the childhood game of “I Spy,” in which each player in turn finds something they can see but others may not, and announces, “I spy, with my little eye, something that starts with the letter…”

My version of “I Spy” is a solo game that I simply call “On Notice,” and it works like this:

  • The game is played by simply trying to notice and count details of your environment that you haven’t noticed before. The color of paint, a chip in the wall, the pattern of roots around a tree, the number of hinges on a door — anything counts, so it’s “easy” to get a high score, especially when you first start playing. It becomes especially gratifying when you are in environments where you spend a lot of time — like walking down a familiar hallway at work, or in your bedroom. You’ll be amazed at your ability to still be able to find new details, even in these well known places.
  • If you want to drop in to the present moment habitually, it’s best to link playing “On Notice” with a trigger action that you do frequently during the day. I use walking as a trigger — any time I’m walking someplace alone, I remember to play the game. I walk a lot during the course of the day, so using it as a trigger works well for me. If you don’t do much walking, you can try other triggers, like the act of sitting down or standing up, stretching, going to the restroom, or anything else you do frequently.
  • Use all of your senses, not just sight. Hearing, smelling, feeling (temperature, pressure, wind, humidity) — they all contribute to the makeup of where you are right now.

Playing “On Notice” puts you back into a childlike mindset, increases your wonder, and gives you a renewed passion for life. It opens up your mind to discovering new things, and creates a space for creativity to play a role in whatever you are doing. It brings you into the here and now, and forces you to experience where you are at, instead of losing yourself in your thoughts.

More importantly, “On Notice” is lots of fun and often brings a smile to your face. Just this morning, I was approaching a snail attempting to cross the sidewalk, and as my shadow crossed over it, it recoiled back into its shell. For some reason, I got a good laugh out of that — maybe it was the way it looked liked a person when it recoiled, a lot like when someone touches a hot surface unknowingly. I also heard a bird calling that I’d never heard before (wish I could have pinpointed it visually), and smelled some spring flowers I most likely would have ignored if I wasn’t in noticing mode. My little game of “On Notice” during my morning walk set a positive tone, and I’ve carried a smile on my face for nearly the whole day.

Are you ready to put your inner child “On Notice”?

 

The Left Hand of Mindfulness

Tonight I ate my dinner with chopsticks, using only my left hand. As a right-hander, this was no small feat, and involved some laborious maneuvering (especially when trying to pick up tiny softened garlic slices!). It wasn’t the result of a dare or bet, but rather a playful technique I use to practice mindfulness in a fun way. Instead of whipping out my phone to entertain myself as I ate alone, I brought myself into the present moment, quite forcefully, by making it impossible to trundle down the well beaten path of shoveling in the food mindlessly.

This is a general technique I try to employ often to trick my brain into being “in the now” – using my non-dominant hand to perform everyday tasks. Brushing teeth, using a computer mouse, or even just putting the keys in the opposite pocket. By doing an end-run around the habitual motor pathways, you make your brain focus on what it’s actually doing, instead of wandering off on some unnecessary tangent.

Aside from noticing that broccoli that has had a chance to sit in the stir fry juices for several days gets quite soft and quite scrumptious, I also learned that all of the advice I give to beginner chopstickers is generally good advice, but I expect them to pick it up way too fast. This is a common bias that I see all too often in other settings – experts expecting novices to pick up subtle nuances of expertise faster than they themselves did. It also reminded me of the importance of distinguishing knowledge from skill via that age-old bit of wisdom: practice, practice, practice.

I also had that wonderful child-like experience of discovering something for the first time again, of turning a meal into a little game, and a gentle grounding of myself back in my body as I tried to ward off the hand cramps. All of which I think is infinitely more important than the latest tweet from some venture capitalist I’ve never met and likely never will. Besides, the tweet can wait, but the broccoli won’t.

Mindfulness isn’t just about sitting still and watching your breath*. It’s about being here, now. Experiencing life in the real world, and not in your head. What can you do with your “other” hand?

* For a laugh, watch Eckhart Tolle’s imitation of formal meditation, 34 seconds into this video:

Do You Want to Know A Secret? Listen…

What would you reply if someone asked you, “What’s the secret to a happy life? What’s the single most important life skill that I should develop?” Would you say it was discipline, persistence, conscientiousness? How about compassion, gratitude, or humility? Would you suggest they develop their empathy or instead focus on being as efficient as possible? I’m increasingly of the opinion that listening is the most critical core life skill. Listening acts as an enabler and foundational component for most of the other useful life skills.

Listening showed up at the top of the list of “best advice” when I analyzed CNN Money’s articles on the topic in Thrice Filtered Leadership Wisdom. Listening is also typically mentioned or lauded by anyone teaching leadership or communication skills. For example, in How To Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie encourages the reader to be a good listener, let the other person do a great deal of the talking, and try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view. Likewise, one of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is to “Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood.” Of course, how can you possibly understand someone else if you haven’t listened to them?

Few would argue the importance of listening, but what makes it critical and foundational? What is the power of listening? Aside from the many obvious benefits, like exposing you to a broad range of ideas, building trust and rapport, and establishing a common narrative, listening also sets you up to build and develop the other life skills that in turn make you happier, healthier, and more productive. Here’s how…

Awareness and Agility

On the surface, listening is just “paying attention to sound,” but of course there is much more to it than that. Auditory listening is just one manifestation of a more general type of listening, namely being aware, being conscious, and paying attention. As I mentioned in Living the SWEET Life, Daily, awareness lets you short-circuit your habitual thought processes. This in turn leads to agility: the ability to rapidly adjust based on the current state of affairs, with little effort. Thus, listening, and paying attention in general, lets you be dynamic, limber, and agile. Awareness fundamentally allows you to be in the moment, consider all options, and actively self-correct.

To understand its power, it’s helpful to think about what listening is not. If you are not listening, then what are you doing? Usually, you are absorbed in your own thoughts. You are distracted, your attention is elsewhere, and not on the person who is trying to communicate with you. If you are not aware of what’s going on and being said, and you only check in haphazardly or reactively, the input to your decision making apparatus (i.e., your brain) is limited and biased, making it more difficult to react in a timely and appropriate manner. Why would you starve your brain of potentially useful information at the outset, without even considering it? Are your own thoughts really that important and productive?

Other Ways of Listening

If listening leads to agility in communication, imagine what it could do for you when you apply it to more than just conversations. What does that mean? Communicating with others is just one possible modality of gathering information about your world, and other people are just one source of information. You can get so much more from using all of your senses, and focusing not just on others, but yourself and your environment. For example, what if you decided to “listen” to what your nose and tongue were telling you, as you ate or even just as you walked down the street or met with another person? What if you could really absorb and be aware of everything in your visual field of view, including the facial expressions and body language of people you were talking to, as well as knowing exactly what’s around you physically, how it’s moving, and what it’s likely to do next? What if you decided to listen to your somatic sensations, really listen to your body? Wouldn’t it be amazing if you could sense the smallest twinge of pain or really be able to notice when some part of your body was inflamed, or be aware when your body has dumped cortisol and adrenaline into your bloodstream? Most importantly, what if you listened, really listened, to your own thoughts and emotions? You might be surprised, or even enlightened, by what you hear. This kind of awareness is not the stuff of superheroes and science fiction. It is achievable and, remarkably, not that difficult to learn, although it takes lots and lots of practice.

Becoming an Active Listener

We spend most of our lives learning to habitualize and ritualize our thoughts, beliefs, and actions. But this approach of laying down default behaviors and then strengthening them with repetition over time is exactly the opposite of what makes us most effective at dealing with the dynamic, changing world we live in. Listening, paying attention, and being aware of our inner and outer world, in every way possible, is what fundamentally enables us to be good communicators, effective leaders, and agile, facile contributors to ourselves and others. It places the conscious mind back into the loop. Listening is one of the few habits we would all do well to ingrain deep in our psyche.

Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to lose the habit of being a great listener. How do you learn to listen? It turns out to be disarmingly simple – learn to listen by practicing listening! For example, here’s a simple exercise you can do to practice auditory listening: whenever you are conversing 1-to-1 with someone, and you are about to inject your opinion, experience, amusing anecdote or advice, simply stop and hold it back. Let the other person continue until they’ve completely spoken their piece. Then (and only then) return the favor, but before expounding on your own personal thoughts, try to let the other person know you’ve heard them by simply summarizing what they’ve just said (this is sometimes called active listening), and let them respond. You may end up never getting to make your point, and that, in itself, is the point.

Inward Listening

It’s been said that the greatest gift you can give someone is your undivided attention. Imagine, then, the enormity of the gift of learning to listen to yourself. If you could hear and understand all of the activity going on in both your body and mind, you could be agile about adjusting to it, developing it, and improving it. This is what I meant earlier when I alluded to listening helping to make you happier, healthier, and more productive. True listening also involves developing the ability to attend to all sources of information (one’s self, others, one’s environment) from all modalities (senses, emotions, thoughts). Again, to learn to do this, you must practice. Luckily, this is already something that’s been well understood for thousands of years, and the techniques for practice are meditation and yoga. Or, if those sound too intimidating, just simply practicing mindfulness (it really is quite easy).

Discipline, persistence, conscientiousness, compassion, gratitude, humility, empathy and efficiency – all of these are laudable traits. And all of them are amplified by the agility imparted by listening and awareness. When will you start your listening practice? It’s easy, and only takes a few seconds or minutes each day. Here’s a recent article to help you get started. And here’s a Beatles song to inspire you…