Tag Archives: mindfulness

Mindfulness in Real Life

When I took the pups for a walk this morning before most of the rest of the neighborhood woke up, I set out with the intention of simply paying attention to my surroundings, appreciating the flowers in my neighbors’ yards, the smell of the air after a hard rain last night, the sound of the birds talking to each other and their babies. It wasn’t long before I was distracted, however, which is akin to what happens sometimes when I sit down to meditate. Some people call it ‘monkey mind,’ but in this case, it was puppy mind. The dogs were pulling me in two different directions, each of them intent on tasting whatever they could – small sticks, bits of gravel, discarded wrappers and chewing gum they discovered on the ground. Over and over again, I tugged one back toward me with a harsh Leave It! I nearly laughed out loud when I realized that this is what I do to myself when my thoughts stray during meditation and I resolved to be more gentle. These puppies are doing what comes naturally to them – exploring their world with their mouths. Anger won’t change that. I can be more gentle in redirecting them (and simultaneously look forward to the day when I can take them for a walk and they will lift their heads up and look forward and walk smoothly instead of letting their noses lead the way in some winding treat scavenger hunt).

(The actual events of the walk did not change with this realization, but my response did.)

THIS IS MINDFULNESS. The recognition that there is a stimulus-response occurring and that I have the power to stretch out that hyphen between them, reflect on it a bit, and change the response to one that is more purposeful, more gentle, more positive without ever trying to change the stimulus.

As we rounded the next corner, I saw a neighbor up ahead walking to work. I didn’t want to shatter the quiet, so I just observed him as he walked into and then out of my field of vision. Once he had passed out of my sight, a small sedan came zipping down the street – going well over the speed limit – a young woman behind the wheel bopping her head to her music and peering in the mirror of her visor. I felt my blood pressure rise and lamented the fact that I was too far away from her to catch her eye and send her some kind of signal that she needed to Slow Down, for God’s sake!! My jaw clenched and my hands tightened around the leashes despite the fact that we were fully half a block from the street she had just raced down. I was furious.

Oh. Yeah. I was furious. THIS IS MINDFULNESS

Noticing the word furious bouncing around in my brain, coupled with my physiological responses and the urge to dispel the tension in my hands and face and chest by yelling or flipping her off was enough to stretch out that hyphen space.

 

Stimulus                                       –                                        Response

 

Was I really angry? Yes.

Why? Fear.

The sudden appearance of this fast moving car on the heels of seeing my neighbor walk along that road sent my mind racing. As soon as I saw her driving quickly down the street, seemingly not paying close attention to her surroundings, I conjured up images of a horrible accident. My mind spun off into horrible scenarios: her not being able to stop in time for the crosswalk right in front of her; not even seeing a small child or pet racing across the street to catch a ball or chase a squirrel; crashing sounds, twisted metal, glass shattering on the roadway.

Even though none of that happened, even though two blocks ahead of her was a stoplight that would surely be red this time of the morning, my conditioned response to fear of potential disaster was anger.

Well, what about next time? She clearly didn’t learn anything this time. She’ll most certainly drive that quickly down this road again and maybe next time it won’t be fine. I wish I could catch up with her and tell her to pay more attention. 

I watched as my mind created stories about her – she was out after a long night of partying and had to race home before her parents noticed she was gone. She was an entitled rich kid (she was driving a fairly new Audi sedan) who only thought about herself. She was looking in her visor to put on her makeup instead of watching the road.

I nearly laughed out loud at the elaborate tales my mind created in order to sustain my anger response. THIS IS MINDFULNESS

All of this happened in the space of about 30 seconds but by remaining curious and separate from my thoughts and physiological responses, I was able to move through the fear and anger and gently redirect my mind back to the walk, the flowers and the quiet and the dogs who were now wrestling with each other on the wet grass at my feet. Instead of holding on to that tightness, elaborating on that story, striding home to tell my kids about the crazy person who sped down the street and nearly killed the neighbor this morning, I took a deep breath and let my shoulders drop.

THIS IS MINDFULNESS.

I may still sit today with my eyes closed and clear my mind for a while in formal meditation. But even if I don’t, I am reaping the benefits of mindfulness practice by doing my best to extend it to the other parts of my life where my stimulus-response mechanism can have enormous effects on my mood and the way I interact with others.

As someone who teaches mindfulness to parents and teens, more important than sitting in formal meditation is this ability to unpack our immediate reactions and really pay attention to the stories we tell ourselves nearly every minute of every day. That kind of mindfulness has such an enormous impact on our relationships with others, and when you’re a teenager, relationships are the most important thing in your world. With any luck, teaching teens to examine the stories they tell about their world can lead to looking at the stories they tell themselves about who they are, and it can have an effect on their self-worth. Challenging those stories that are often untrue (but convenient) is the first step to really opening up and recognizing that so much of what we think is true is simply fabricated. And it gives us the space to relax, to be, and to create what we want in that place the old story left behind.

 

Charged Conversations: How to Keep it from Getting Personal

Most of us don’t like conflict, so when we go in to a meeting or gathering where we know there will be disparate ideas and positions, we worry that things might get ugly. Maybe it’s the annual budget allocation summit, or a discussion about social justice or even a conversation with your teen about driving rules or curfew – any of those scenarios can go sideways pretty quickly if two people have different viewpoints or values. But if we want to have a constructive dialogue and actually make some progress toward a shared goal, we need to keep things on track. Here’s one way to approach it that keeps things from getting personal:

Disagree with the idea, not the person.

It is sometimes hard to separate the two, because of the way we’re conditioned, but it’s really important if you want to keep the conversation going. Challenge yourself to change the way you talk about something you disagree with and you might be pleasantly surprised.

Instead of saying something like, “How could you say that?” or “You’re wrong,” or “You’re a horrible person. Don’t you know _________________?”  try to disentangle the idea from the person who suggested it.

This might look like, “Hmm, that idea doesn’t really jive with my personal experience because __________,” or “Here’s a different idea that I think is valid and deserves some attention.”

Yes, the person who suggested X did so for a reason (maybe their values or their life experience led them to it), but if what you’re after is a solution that works for everyone, it’s important to remember that we all have slightly different values and life experiences, and if we can extract the ideas and vet them on their own merits without attacking the idea generators personally, the conversation stays more focused.

This is especially hard when we come in with preconceived notions about who might pose which solution and why, but if we can set those things aside with an eye toward moving the conversation forward, we can be more efficient. In most cases, whether or not you personally like the people you’re working with on challenging issues doesn’t really matter unless you make it personal by too closely associating them with their thoughts. Helping others see things from a different perspective is easier if we are simply trying to get them to look at new ideas, instead of trying to change who they are as a person.

I used this tactic the other day on a local social media forum where folks were talking about the issue of homelessness in our neighborhood. I was tempted at one point to lash out at someone who was characterizing all of the homeless folks as “junkies” and “losers who choose homelessness,” but I resisted. We obviously didn’t end up solving the issue, but we were able to have a productive dialogue without alienating each other or leaving with hard feelings and since I have to live here, I’m pretty  happy about that.

When Mindfulness is Better Taken Out of the Mind

Sometimes, it seems ironic to me that my mindfulness practice is so much about not getting caught up in my thoughts and stories. Especially when I am feeling intense emotions, I know that the best thing I can do is NOT engage with my rational mind.

From the time we can form words, we use them to make sense of our world by creating stories about what we see and hear and feel. We make assumptions and connect dots and come to conclusions that may or may not be accurate but as long as they fit our view of the world, we rarely challenge them. And over time, those stories become habitual and we launch in to them without even taking a moment to realize that’s what we’re doing.

Mindfulness is about taking a moment. It’s about recognizing that the stories are just that. And it’s hard to do, which is why I use my body to interrupt my mind when I’m feeling scared or sad or angry or frustrated. I like to imagine that these intense emotions trigger a severing of my body from my brain so that I can really direct my attention to my physical being and ignore what my mind is telling me is happening.

When I am “in my body,” I use this opportunity to ask questions:

Where am I feeling this emotion? Is there a burning in my gut? A tightness in my face or jaw? What are my hands doing? How am I breathing? How am I moving?

What happens if I breathe in to the place where I’m feeling the most intensity? Can I close my eyes and imagine the intake of breath sending warmth to a specific area? Can I relax it or slow it down? What does that feel like?

Once I’ve really tuned in to my body and maybe calmed down the physical reaction, then I can turn my attention to my thoughts. Because I’m not in the throes of the emotional reaction anymore, I can be more objective about what’s happening in my head. I can stand aside a bit and witness the story without being caught up in it, and at this point, I can assess whether it’s real or if I’m filling in blanks without having all the information.

It seems a little odd to call this “mindfulness” when I start out by completely divorcing myself from my mind’s reaction, but this is the best way I’ve found to make sure I can keep from getting immersed in the story when I’m in the midst of a fiery emotion.

Possibly the Most Challenging Mindfulness Exercise You’ll Ever Do

Ready for it?

Don’t disagree with anyone for an entire day. (pick a day when you don’t have to be at school or work because many of these interactions rely on you speaking up and offering new perspectives)

You might ask why this is considered a mindfulness exercise and here’s what I would say: anything that causes us to stop and really question our habitual reactions to things we encounter a lot is mindfulness in my estimation.

So can you do it? Can you spend an entire day noticing when your instinct is to rebut someone’s statement or explain why your idea/belief is better and tamp that down? Can you hear the voice in your head saying “that’s not true” and keep it from coming out of your mouth? Can you pay attention to how often it happens in any given day and dig a little deeper to discern what your body’s response is? Does your jaw tighten or your belly clench?

As the day wears on, does it get easier or harder? Are you storing up arguments to use tomorrow or are you learning something. Notice what happens to the quality of your interactions with people around you when you don’t automatically respond with a clarification or a rebuttal.

I’m not saying that you should never disagree with anyone. In fact, I think that the hallmark of good relationships is the ability to hold different viewpoints and still maintain connection, but many of our interactions with other people are more like competitions or power plays than they are about learning and exploring new ideas. Maybe at the end of a day spent agreeing with everyone around you, it will be easier to discern when it is important to speak up and disagree. Many of us have become conditioned to try and prove our point whether it really matters or not, and it is my hope that this exercise will give you some insight in to whether that is true of you.

I’d love to hear how it goes in the comments.

When “Why?” is Not Important

In general, I think that “why” is the most important question. I think that, if we are hoping to become more mindful, staying curious is one of the first things we do after taking a breath and giving ourselves space. If we can begin to understand why we react with anger or fear or defensiveness to particular situations, we can start to break those old patterns that keep us from living our values.

But sometimes, that space requires more than a breath or two. Sometimes, when our emotions are either incredibly intense or seem to come out of nowhere – like deep sadness and grief or body-shaking anger – the most important thing we can do is just stop. If we jump right in to asking why, we can create a situation where we feel the need to justify or deny our own emotions.

Why am I so sad?  can lead to I shouldn’t be so sad. Nothing happened/it’s not that big a deal/my life is so great.

Why does this  make me so angry? can lead to I’m over-reacting.

If we don’t take the time to let those very strong emotions wash over us, and we immediately begin spinning stories in our heads, we risk giving the emotion more time to do damage and creating a narrative that plays on a loop in our heads. We can think we’re being mindful, but what we are really doing is perpetuating the pain we feel.

So what do we do during that extra-long pause?

Short, concrete observations are incredibly helpful at disarming the intensity of emotions.

I am feeling really sad/angry right now. This seems overwhelming. I don’t want to be feeling this feeling. My chest is really tight and I feel like I might cry/scream. 

Staying in the present and resisting the urge to explain or defend these emotions, while it seems silly, is a powerful tool. And recognizing that we feel like screaming or crying and letting ourselves do that is also a way to release some of the energy (although if you are around other people, I’d recommend screaming into a pillow or something else that muffles the sound – the last thing you want is for someone to come running to ask you what’s wrong because you end up going into explanation/defense mode).

If it feels like not all of the pressure or intensity is released by simply repeating descriptions of what you’re feeling, another helpful thing to add is this:

I won’t always feel like this. I feel like this now, but it won’t last.

If the feeling of sadness or anger persists or comes back over and over again for a period of hours or days, it is important to resist the urge to begin asking why. Instead, please seek help from a professional who can guide you slowly through what you’re feeling as you unravel the emotions. The more you try to dissect it yourself, the more likely you are to engage in self-talk that is harmful or negative.  And, if you are considering self-harm or harming another person, please find help immediately.

Got Well-Being?

We all want to be happy. But we can’t be happy all the time – no matter how much we wish we could. So what is the next best thing? Well-being. A state where, even if things are going wrong, we feel safe and secure and optimistic that life will improve and we’ll return to a better place.

Well-being means that we can accept our current circumstances with calm and grace, that we don’t freak out and convince ourselves that this will end in the worst possible way, that life will never be good again, that we are doomed.

So how do we achieve that? It varies from person to person, but there is some evidence that well-being is a neurological state, and since our brains are continually growing and changing, that means that we can influence our own well-being. So even if you haven’t been a particularly optimistic person in the past, you can affect your future ability to be well. The four neural circuits that have been shown to promote well-being are:

  1. Attention – People who have honed their skills at being present and paying attention to what they are doing in any given moment are primed for well-being. The skill associated with focus and intent (as opposed to multitasking or mindless, habit-driven acts) is key to developing a sense of contentment. [basic mindfulness meditation strengthens this neural circuit, as does simply paying close attention when you are doing every day things like eating or driving or walking]
  2. Outlook – Do you have the ability to see the things in your life that are positive right now? Do you spend time savoring the things that put a smile on your face or the times when things went right? [a gratitude practice can really build this ‘muscle’ in the brain because it helps you focus on the things we often take for granted]
  3. Generosity – Individuals who routinely think of and help others have a strong sense of well-being. Not only because doing good makes us feel good, but because it strengthens our sense of connection and community which is vitally important for a sense of happiness and contentment. [lovingkindness and compassion meditation have a significant impact on the brain centers associated with well-being]
  4. Resilience – There’s a real chicken-and-egg feel to this last one because the faster we recover from adversity, the more calm and relaxed we are, and the more content we are with our lives, the faster we recover from unexpected events. But we can only really develop resilience if we are truly paying attention to how we feel and we work through (as opposed to denying) our struggles. [mindfulness meditation can teach us how to handle challenging times by allowing us to sit with unpleasantness and discomfort without trying to change it or fight it]

If you need help with any of these areas, check out the links to specific meditations on our website.

Why Mindfulness is Good For Every Classroom

 

By Bing – Flickr: Austrian Bakery, CC BY 2.0

“Mindfulness” is a word that may inspire eye-rolls, thanks to its near-constant use in many different aspects of pop culture. But, regardless of its “buzzword” status, it can have far-reaching effects for adolescents who are encouraged to use it throughout the day.

Mindfulness is simply the ability to interrupt the cycle of reflexive thought responses that we all have in order to focus our attention. In my ten or so years of practicing mindfulness, one of the most impactful effects it has had on me is that it leads me to curiosity – it literally forces me to open my mind to possibilities I wouldn’t otherwise consider. And that is one reason why it can be incredibly useful as a skill to cultivate for committed, focused students.

When the tasks in a classroom are prescriptive and it is accepted that the purpose of a lecture or activity is to get from Point A to Point B, a student’s ability to get curious is limited. Think about it like this: if you are baking a cake and you have the recipe in front of you, and you only have a certain period of time to get the cake done, you will follow the recipe step by step. While this will probably get you to the end point you desired, chances are, because of the way the human brain works, you will have let your mind wander off task as you measured the ingredients and mixed them together and followed the rules. There are only certain portions of your brain that become active when you are following a set of instructions to get to a known outcome, and that allows you to not completely focus on what you’re doing, which means that the next time you bake this cake, you will likely have to consult that recipe again because you didn’t really learn much from the process.

If students are encouraged, however, to play with the order of things or design their own ‘recipes,’ or told that the outcome is not predestined, they are more likely to get curious about the process. This is a much more expansive opportunity that engages them and, perhaps counterintuitively, sharpens their focus. Think about it – if you are walking through a room in a building you are in frequently and there is plenty of ambient light, you won’t pay much attention to the details because you believe that you already “know” what’s there. But if you are blindfolded and sent in to a room you’ve never been in and asked to find your way out the other end, your attention becomes sharp. You listen for clues, use your hands and feet to feel your way, and begin to create a mental picture of where you are. Chances are, by the time you find your way out, you will feel like you know that room very well. This is mindfulness. This is paying attention. This kind of activity lights up the portions of the brain that are involved in memory encoding and learning.

Mindfulness leads to curiosity. Once students learn to find that pause in their regular mind-chatter, they can begin to question their own assumptions and motivations. The more they practice mindfulness, the more likely they are to lead with curiosity in situations where there seems to be little room for it. There are so many time and content constraints placed on educators that it can seem impossible to create a lesson plan that encourages flexibility instead of recipe-style activity or lectures, and this is why students need mindfulness skills. Because when they find themselves in those kinds of classes, they can still create room for curiosity on their own and impact their own ability to learn and find meaning, as well as enabling themselves to focus on the task or subject at hand.

Three Questions to Ask About Compassion

This is a follow up post to last week’s thoughts on selfishness and compassion.

Helping others makes us feel good, right? There is all sorts of research that shows that when we are compassionate and altruistic, we are happier. But can you remember a time when you reached out and helped someone else and resented it or felt worse afterward? It turns out that why we choose to be compassionate has a lot of impact on how compassion affects us.

We know that external motivation isn’t as effective at building long-term behavior patterns as internal motivation is. That is, if we help others because we think we should, we won’t feel as good as if we had done it because we truly wanted to.

Sometimes, we help others because we feel sorry for them, but it turns out that this doesn’t generally make us feel good, either. It makes us feel superior, but it doesn’t make us feel good.  Consider this quote from Pema Chodron:

Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It is a relationship between equals.

It is also common for individuals to self-identify as “helpers,” which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can prove to be difficult over time. If we derive our self-worth from helping others, we can find it harder to accept help from others when we need it.

Engaging adolescents in conversations about compassion, rather than simply imploring them to act in ways we define as compassionate, can be an incredibly powerful tool as they begin to build habits of thought and action. The following three questions can spur some impactful discussions.

  1. Why do I choose to act compassionately? Does it depend on the circumstance and the people involved?
  2. What, if anything, do I get or hope to get out of acting compassionately? Does that depend on the situation?
  3. How do I feel when others act compassionately toward me?

The more mindful we all are about when and how and why we choose to be compassionate, the more we can begin to understand how to make our actions count in big ways. And if adolescents are taught that having personal boundaries is not incongruent with compassion, they can begin to develop a better sense of self-compassion as well.

“Why” is Your T(w)een’s Best Friend

If you’ve ever been around a toddler, you have heard the question, “why?” a lot. If you’re like most people, it drove you a little nuts.

Why is the sky blue? Why is my nose on my face? Why do I have to wash my hands?

As most of our kids go through school, they learn to whittle down their reasons for asking why, and learn that they can take some things at face value. But it is important for adolescents to turn that question around and point it at themselves. With more independence comes more responsibility, and they don’t always know how to make choices that are safe and healthy and mindful, but this one simple word can be a powerful way to focus their attention and help them make better decisions.

Asking why not only helps t(w)eens develop a sense of self-awareness, but it also reminds them that they have the power to control their actions and decisions. They have choices, and they are making them every day, all the time, whether they know it or not. They might as well understand why.

Without asking them to share their answers, I often encourage my daughters to get curious about the things they do. (Asking them to say it out loud is often a strong deterrent – they don’t want to be judged for their choices any more than anyone else does, and certainly not by their mother).

Why am I posting this picture online? What am I hoping to get out of it?

Why do I feel this powerful need to binge on sugary foods right now? What is going on in my life that is making me think this will help?

Why am I so upset at that comment Peter made? What is it about his words that affected me so strongly?

Developing a habit of inquiring about their motivations and choices can often shine a light on the inner voice that shames and blames and judges. And remembering that they have the freedom to choose how they react to any given situation can give them a sense of control over their lives that most adolescents are desperately seeking. As an added bonus, taking the split-second to ask “why” can offer enough space from an emotionally-charged incident that some of the emotion can dissipate and they can think more clearly.

After asking why, they may not make a different decision, but at least they will have gone through the motions to begin to be more self-aware. And the more we know about why we make the choices we make, the easier it gets to identify patterns of behavior.

Why Mindful Parenting is Important

Whether they would ever admit it or not, the way we relate to our children sets up patterns and expectations for their future relationships. As parents, we are our kids’ first testing ground for how they ought to be treated. Interacting with our kids in purposeful ways as much as we can (while allowing ourselves to make mistakes and acknowledge them in front of kids) is important for many different reasons.

We know that children watch us and learn. While we often wish they would do what we say, the fact is, they are more likely to weigh what we do against what we say our values are in order to see what they ought to do. The next time you are in a position to teach your child something, ask yourself what you’re modeling. What do we want for our kids, do we want them to find people in their lives who wield power over them or do we want them to be with people who respect them as equals? Would we rather they experience relationships as power struggles or as fertile ground for collaboration and an exchange of ideas? Do we want them to be with people who are always telling them how to do things or with those who encourage them to think for themselves, examine their own values and beliefs, and act on them?

Mindful parenting asks questions, teaches introspection, helps our kids figure out why they do what they do and how to do better without us prescribing it for them. It lets our kids know that we value them for who they are, not for how well they follow someone else’s rules. It encourages creativity, independent thinking, and sets healthy boundaries for relationships.

For more information on mindful parenting techniques, check out or information here or email kari@theselfproject.com to ask about forming a group in your area. Stay tuned for The SELF Project for Parents coming out in book format soon.