Spring Cleaning for the Mind

It’s another holiday here in China–May Day, Labor Day, and we have off from school. One of my big projects is to go through my stuff and get rid of things that I don’t plan to bring to Laos. I’ve come to appreciate time off from work, not because I am tired and need rest as insomuch that I appreciate this down time and space to reflect and pursue interests and projects–a bit of “spring cleaning” for my mind. Every little holiday I have a deep need to either travel, to read, and/or to learn something new. I don’t want to squander my time because I know how immensely precious it is. I have come to crave this time in which I can be creative, taking the time to entertain new ideas and challenge my existing dogma. This is the power of creating space and gaps in our mundane lives.

Innnovation happens in the white space, it happens in the gaps between the things we think we are supposed to be doing. But if we are squeezing all of the white space out of our lives by filling it with actiivity, then we are not pruning and saying no to things on occassion then we are not going to have the space to innovate and think.

-Todd Henry- Author of The Accidental Creative

I can hear you thinking: “But Judy, you are lucky–we don’t have the amount of time off that you do!” Well, that is probably true, but there are numerous ways to create this space in your life. I am going to share 5 ways.

Practice Mindfulness

Are you breathing? Good–then you can do this! So, I am starting with the easiest, in my opinion, to do because EVERYONE can spend 1-2 minutes a day being mindful. All it takes is paying close attention to something, most commonly your breath. Right now, you can do this. Close your eyes to limit your distractions, and breath in, filling your lungs and belly with breath. Hold it for 3 seconds and exhale. Repeat 2 more times, paying close attention to your breath. Takes about a minute to do this, but your brain went offline and carved out some new neural real estate for new ideas to emerge in your brain’s network.

Increase Your Bandwidth

Another way to create space and cultivate a higher quality of life is by quitting your addiction to “junk food” for the brain. This could be watching senseless cat videos on YouTube or the latest episode of America’s Next Top Model or Jersey Shore. I know that this seems obvious but many people find “tuning out” a really important way to decompress after their day. The only problem is that this activity doesn’t actually allow for your brain to recover.

The average American is watching television an average of 4 hours a day. 4 HOURS OF TELEVISION.

4 hours of television over the average adult life span means that they spend about 13 years sitting in front of the boob tube. So they are watching television for 13 years–that’s over a decade! People have a lot more time than they think they do.

-Brendon Burchard-

However, there are countless other ways to promote mental hygiene and create some space and relaxation in your life. Going for a walk, exercise or doing yoga are the best replacements because these activiites inspire new cell generation and increase the flow of oxygen to your brain. But if you are feeling lazy then reading a good book or looking at the stars provide you with a brain break and are a fix for the mundane in our lives.

focus on becoming

Build Meaningful and Inspiring Relationships

What you spend time on is just as important as WHO you spend time with.  The quality of our relationships can really impact our emotional lives. Building real relationships with people who can fuel you rather than empty your tank is super important. No one wants to be around a “Debbie Downer” and the reason is that you actually have a chemical response in your brain that depresses you. Surround yourself with positive and interesting people so that this personal network helps you to discover new ways of
thinking and opens you up to fresh perspectives. Bumping into these novel ideas helps you to reframe your current mindset around ideas that may be causing you stress, or at least puts on a “pause” button from your worrying mind.

Schedule some Deep Thinking Work for 1 hour a week.

alberteinstein1.jpgI believe that thinking is becoming a lost art. Our attention to social media makes it so much easier to confuse someone else’s opinion as our own. However, if we were to take some time for introspection, examining our values and beliefs, then we would uncover what is our truth and our purpose in life. That sort of thing is extremely liberating and fulfilling. Spending some time weekly to journal and write about what has inspired and interested you this week makes it easier to prioritize our tasks and can be extremely motivating. This “Power Hour” is game-changer.

So how do you carve out this time? Well, one way is to wake up earlier so you have an uninterrupted moment of calm (this is what I do) but not everyone is a lark. So another effective productivity hack includes clustering similar tasks that use the same amount of cognitive power in order to create blocks of time to do work that is meaningful. You can create a theme for the day or for those blocks of time so that you can really focus on converting the “to do list” to be the “to done list”.  You would be so amazed at how a little reorganization in your schedule can have a big effect on your week. Once your time is organized, you will definitely see gaps and space emerge which can be devoted to more exciting pursuits and opportunities to examine solutions to problems you face in your personal and professional life.

Travel

Travel is, in a lot of ways, the easiest way to jostle your brain and expand your horizon. You don’t need to plan a 10-day vacation to Bali to do it either, it can be as simple as driving/biking/walking to work using a different road or path. Or taking a trip to your local museum or park. What about having a picnic outside instead of eating at the kitchen table? No matter how small or large the journey, this break from the norm creates novelty in your brain and builds new networks and connections.

They say that “time is a luxury that most of us can’t afford”, so I hope these ideas inspire you to think about how you might “clean up” your time so that you can engage in more meaningful work or stimulating perspectives.

Plasticine

It’s the second law of thermodynamics that everything moves toward entropy; so you know that things aren’t going to remain static and things are going to be changing. And no matter what you are trying to accomplish in your life, you need to learn how to not only learn how to cope with change but actually how to harness it and leverage it.

-Dr. Norman Doidge

Most of us grew up thinking that our personality and inclinations begin the calcify process when we are about 7 years old and are solidified when we are in our early 20s. But that myth has been absolutely disputed and proven wrong–if you change your mind, you can change your body and transform the quality of your life. We’ve heard countless stories of what seem like anomalies of people getting over incurable disease or other disabling health issues with a thought–one thought–that they could be a better version of themselves.  When we think a thought over and over again, it begins to harden into a belief and our beliefs become our personality which determines the intensity and consistency of our moods from day to day. However, we are merely one thought away from growing, from healing, from becoming a new and improved version of ourselves, and neuroscientistfocus meme.jpg like Dr. Norma Doidge (quoted above) is demonstrating this in spades. They are showing that these beliefs literally rewire our neural connections and, indeed, we are plasticine in nature, with these new ideas shaping our bodies, ergo our reality as well with new synapses being constructed and old ones being pruned. This is a wonderful and simple explanation of your fantastic plastic brain explained, giving a lot of insight into how your brain changes.

Jean Piaget, one of the most influential cognitive psychologists of the 20th century, suggested that one’s intelligence is essentially knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do, implying discernment of our experience and wagering a risk to grow. Carol Dweck adds to this definition by reminding us to keep an open mind to meet challenges and put in the effort to overcome them as the essence of evolving one’s vision and developing life mastery. Her research on “growth mindset” vs. “fixed mindset” is catching on in schools and businesses, and is having a significant impact on changing the way people learn and companies conduct business. It has given license for people to take risks and make mistakes because doing so literally grows your brain and develops you cognitively.

On a personal level, earlier this year, I decided to apply the 2 minute rule to cultivating change in my physical health. I made it a daily goal to get some exercise and agreed that I could spend at least 2 minutes a day towards this goal. I believed that this small investment of time would be worth the effort and could create change. What’s interesting is that, over time, what appeared to be drudgery has now turned into a natural desire. My 2 minutes has easily turned into 20 minutes. And what is fascinating is how it has improved not just my physical state, but also my mental state. I am beginning to not just feel more emotionally content but my attitude has shifted to agreeing that I’m worthy of something better. In other words, I exercise because I’m worth it, and this self-improvement has made a great contribution to my quality of life. I’ve had to detach from who I have been in order to give birth to who I can become. The change in my waistline is just an inevitable outcome of these new physical and mental habits. And it all started with my thought that 2 minutes, well spent, could have health benefits. Now I believe this with every fiber of my being.

This is just one example, but this shift in one area of my life has cultivated momentum in transforming other areas of my life–a snowball is in motion, as I wonder what else do I think is impossible for myself which might actually be a probable outcome if I change my beliefs around it. I double dog dare you to experiment with this concept yourself–change a thought, repeat the new thought over and over again, make a new habit around it and observe the results. I think you will be surprised at you uproot long held beliefs and recreate yourself in a relatively short amount of time.

Remember, you are plasticine.

Awareful

That’s not even a word, so my spell-checker tells me. And it doesn’t even have any suggested alternatives but I swear it’s real. I’m going to attempt to define it through this post.

Have you ever heard about the Dhamma Brothers?  Years ago, I watched the documentary about these high-security prisoners that were taught Vipassana meditation and how much it changed them, inside and out. It’s profound, but you can hear about its synopsis in the TEDx talk below.

 

I think what I love most about this story is that they learned to not be victims anymore, to take personal responsibility for their lives (past and present), and recognize that they have a choice. Even in their environment of violence and despair, they can take a moment to reflect on how they feel, what thoughts they are having and the quality of their relationships. We all have that opportunity–we all have that choice, to recognize how our actions, words, and deeds can impact, not only ourselves but others. This is how I am going to define this word: AWAREFUL

I believe that most of us going through life thinking that we are victims of circumstance-someone did something and now we all are paying the price for what THEY did to US. Maybe it’s the politicians or the bankers or the teachers or the lawyers or our neighbors or our families. It doesn’t matter who you think did what when you blame another, you give away your inherent freedom of personal choice. Even in the most oppressive environments, one has the power to choose. Choose what? Your attitude!

Your attitude is the sum of your beliefs about life and your place in “the big picture”. Do you feel powerful or powerless? Do you feel connected or disconnected to others around you? Do you feel well being or sickness? Do you feel happy or discontent? However you feel, it makes a difference in your behavior and affects the “vibe” you bring wherever you go.

You don’t have to convince me about that–I teach 3-5 year olds! They are sponges and act like mirrors. I know that I have to get my attitude in order if I am to teach them or they get completely nutty. I may jest that “it must be a full moon or something” but I know in my heart that they are just responding to what I am projecting upon them through my energy, words, and reactions to them. They provide excellent personal data, I tell you what!

With that in mind, being awareful is a chronic habit timg_3278hat I have been developing. Throughout the day, I have these reminders on my phone that go off, suggesting that I take a moment to breathe and get in touch with my body or ask me how do I want to feel? I want to develop my focus so that I can be more mindful in my actions. It is my intention to develop proper attention. And some days I’m awesome at it, and other days…..um… I could improve. lol  But I know, I always have a choice, and if I don’t choose to be mindful, then it’s MY choice–no one else is in control of me. And me taking personal responsibility for that choice? –well, that’s a work in progress! But at least I am aware that it’s a choice of mine to make.

Year of the Cock (or Rooster for the young and modest)

This is my final year living in China, and how I will miss it so. I know for many people, especially those of you who have never peeked behind its red curtain, you will never appreciate what a delightful place it is to live.  For the last 4 years, my motto has become, “you can’t make this sh$%t up” because this place is so full of surprises. So, I’m dedicating a series of blog posts in an effort to commemorate this special time in my life and summon some love for China–because, quite frankly, there’s a lot to love about this crazy place.

We are still in the midst of holiday season here, as the Chinese New Year is fast approaching and commences around the  27th of  January, depending on the moon. There’s a lot to this holiday, so today I only plan to focus on the Chinese Zodiac, which is based upon lunar cycles and has some fascinating elements behind it.

First of all, in the creation story,  Buddha (or God) wanted to make a calendar before departing from Earth. He summoned all the animals to a race, and the first 12 animals to cross the finish line were the ones who were awarded the privilege of the zodiac for this calendar. So, you could say that no matter which Chinese Zodiac sign you are, you are a winner! hahaha

chinese-zodiac

2017 is the Year of the Rooster, which is most unlucky for you if you are one. Yep–your Zodiac Year is 365 days of confusion and misfortune–or so the belief is. Don’t distress, however, because wearing red (especially something given to you from an elder) helps to ward off ill fate and create harmony in your zodiac year. But for all of us other signs, it means a year of hard work is ahead. No sitting on your loins and procrastinating. Get busy! If you put in the effort, then this is supposed to be a good year to increase your wealth and health. So, if you have been slipping on your New Year’s Resolution, then it’s time to get back on track because the rewards will be plenty for those who are diligent.

Speaking of Chinese New Year–no, it is not the custom to make New Year’s Resolutions during this time; however, it is a time to pay off debts, clean the house and look spiffy with a new hairdo.

So there you have it, that’s a brief rendering of this wonderful element of Chinese culture.

 

Getting off My “but”

Do you know that 25% of people abandon their New Year’s Resolution after 1 week? I’m not sure why this is, but I reckon that it has to do more with the confidence in its achievement, rather than the unattainability of the goal. However, I also believe that upfront planning for its success, will yield greater “stick-to-it”ness and keep a person on track.

With that in mind, as I sat down to write out my goals for this year, I remembered that no matter what I put down, I have to CHOOSE it.  It had to be so compellingjohn-burroughs and juicy that I have the endurance to meet its challenge, especially if the distance from where I am is far from where I want to be. Did you know that Khloe Kardashian worked out five to six days a week for two and a half years before she reached her fitness goals? Although I am not a Kardshian fan, I have to deeply admire her level of commitment. I get bummed out after a month of sloppy adherence to a regimen so the fact that someone can last a whole 2 years, well, I honor and am inspired by them.

However, my past does not have to equal my future, to paraphrase Tony Robbins. I just have to get off my “but” with a no excuse approach to meeting my goals. Just because I have attempted to do something in the past and have failed, doesn’t mean that I ALWAYS have to fail; it just means that the strategies I used weren’t effective at making the change that I wanted and I have to reevaluate them. I think I also have to be more honest about the time it may take to achieve that goal.

Have you ever read the Art of War by Sun Tzu? In it, he talks about the 9 situations in which one engages in combat and the propensity for retreat. He suggests that one must “burn all the boats” so that there is nothing left except for winning. And I wonder how I can apply this to my goals. I’ve thought the best way to do this is to make a list of all of my “buts” and how I will overcome them when and if I encounter them. For example, let’s say that one of my goals is to get into great shape through strength training, and one of my excuses to not workout is when I get sick or have a cold (which is a very likely “but”). So then I come up with at least 3 ways in which I can counter that:

  1. I want to get into my best shape ever through strength training but I have a cold. So I will bounce on the rebounder to get my lymphatic system going for a minute and then do 1 rep of a circuit (maybe 2 mins long).
  2. I want to get into my best shape ever through strength training but I have a headache. So I will give myself 2 pain relievers, wait 10 mins,  and then do 1 rep of a circuit (maybe 2 mins long).
  3. I want to get into my best shape ever through strength training but I have the stomach flu and feel too weak and ill to work out. So I will give myself 1 day off, but never 2 days off in a row in order to keep my momentum, and I will do a light workout the next day, even if it is for 1 minute.

Working off my BUT

Now that I have some ideas on how I can counter those obstacles, then I am more likely to follow through with my alternative plan. Planning really makes all the difference. And I do believe in the adage that “if you fail to plan, you plan to fail”, which is why I think so many of us fall short on our goals. I’ve never used this strategy before so I am looking forward to trying it out this year, and I believe that I will find more success when I approach challenges in this way. I also think that this strategy will help me to become more patient with my progress, because when we make effort and develop momentum, we are more likely to stay on track.

So good-bye “but”, and hello “so”!

 

2017: Awesome and Wonderful?!

I miss the admonishments of my British friends for my overuse of the word ‘awesome’, claiming that applying it incessantly to everyday circumstances diminished its meaning. But what if 2017 is the year of the AWESOME (and Marvelous, darling)?

So, if that indeed is my intention, then how I am going to cultivate a genuine Awe for my life? How can my life be more Wonder-Full? Before I go forward in any argument towards marveling at the mundane, what are the indicators of it? I mean, how should I define it so I can catch it? As I reflect on this, these are some characteristics that I think can signal that something is awesome:

  • It leaves us surprised and curious.
  • It puts us in the NOW.
  • It touches the heart and penetrates our soul.
  • It puts us in any anticipatory state, in which you feel the joy in advance of the experience.
  • It overwhelms us with beauty and attunes us to the divine.
  • The experience is uncontainable and must be shared.
  • You feel privileged to have had the experience.

Also, I think the easy yet difficult part is to CHOOSE it–choose to put my antennae up and tune into it.  I know that miracles happen every day so why wouldn’t today be the day? Of course it’s possible! I have to be disciplined enough to take personal responsibility for my joy, and not be satisfied with my day until I find something that was utterly remarkable about the day. Seek and ye shall find. 

Of course there are big things that I wish to accomplish. I love this idea and inspiration from Ray Edwards:

“In the next twelve months, what must I become or do so that I grow in every area of life—and how can I enjoy the process?” ‘What do I most want to be thankful for one year from now?’ I write the answer down, and it becomes a focus for the new year.”

So, as I look at that quote, it summons within me a desire to do things differently in the year to come. “Enjoy the process!?-since when do we humans enjoy change, you say??- this is why so many people quit their resolutions!”

Perhaps, but...

a-mans-bewilderment-is-the-measure-of-his-wisdom-quote-1I think cultivating a habit of relishing in the mundane in pursuit of beauty and the divine is a resolution that is worthy of devotion. I wonder if my dedication will wane but I am curious about the result if I were to make consistent steps towards this goal. What if extraordinary things would ensue just by virtue of my openness to the possibility that something amazing could happen today?

And at the end of the day, I’d rather say that I bore witness to something utterly astonishing, that my eyes and ears were open to the extraordinary around me, and I could experience it as awesome, standing agape at the marvels of my life. To be in that state of expectancy I imagine would bring about a peace and fascination with life that I have yet to know yet in my life. So, in this year–2017–I am now hitherto for christening it as the year of the AWESOME. It is my wish for you too, dear friend, to experience more moments of profound gratitude and joy in the year to come:

May you be happy.

May you be at ease.

May you be free from danger.

May you be loved.

 

the Beginning or is it the End?

Here we go again. Another MOOC. This time has been Sit Less, Get Active which butterfly-lao-tzuis offered through the University of Edinburgh. I’m not an athletic person, in fact I think most sporty things I like to do involves sitting like biking and canoeing. I noticed about a month ago that I started to get pain in my right hip, which I later learned was caused by sitting too much. I literally have a ‘weak ass’, which causes my hip pain. Fact.

Well something like an irritation is a gift in disguise.

Recently I was listening to a talk about some of the content that is in the book Spark by John Ratey, in which he talks about the importance of exercise for our brains. Our brain is like a muscle, so when we exercise, it too gets a work out which contributes to a decrease in diseases such as dementia and ADHD. However, he explains that from an evolutionary perspective, our brain was designed for movement; so in effect, if we don’t move it (as in our bodies), we experience cognitive decline from our sedentary lifestyle.   Dr. Ratey illustrates this point with an explanation of a Sea Squirt (pictured here), which is a little piece of coral which breaks off and looks similar to a sea horse. When it does this, it develops a primitive bsea-squirtrain and neurocord in order for it to move, swimming for roughly 12 hours, until it sits down, takes “roots” , in order launch a new coral. What is fascinating is when this creature finds its new spot, it literally eats its brain, which gets reassimilated into the new growing coral structure. As I take in this example, it provides greater fodder for movement and exercise in my life.

 

So, with that in mind, I consider this revelation as a new beginning for me, in which I start to reshape my mindset to not see exercise and movement as an inconvenience but more like an opportunity to transform my mind, as well as my body. Perhaps too, it will put me on a path of self-discovery, in which I see my personal development in a more holistic way–literally re-creating who I am, cell by cell.   Needless to say, I’m excited by the prospect of transformation and hope that this too inspires you to get up and move, just as you were genetically designed to do.

Keep breathing. (And Keep Moving!)