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.

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.

The Ultimate Power

“Words only weigh as much as the air used to breathe them unless you give them the ultimate power.”–my mind has been musing over this quote from B.A. Hunter for nearly a week now.  I’m often amused by what comes out of my mouth when I am in a conversation, but more often it’s the words that are unspoken, bobbing around as my thoughts, that are the most elusive. Obviously as I try to “quiet” my mind, it leads to a deeper exploration of  my mind’s “search engine”, as I observe the needs, beliefs, and emotions that seem to color my perspective of reality. What am I focusing on? Because what I focus on gives it meaning, and that meaning produces emotion; this emotion produces my action. What’s my model of the world?–how do I feel about the state of my world.

henry-ford-airplane-quoteWhich has got me thinking about my auto-pilot: how can I create a positive mindset that is programmed and automatic? After watching Habit’s 101 , I made it a daily dedication to study how I can create proactive habits in my life. Now that I recognize that my mindset mostly dwells on the past, and my past=my future,  I can set the intention to get new habits of mind that promote the changes I wish to see in my life.

So then focus becomes my ultimate power and my point of change. Noticing that I have a pessimistic view point seems to be the most obvious place to start. You can’t change what you aren’t aware of, right? Then once I am aware of it, I have the opportunity to pivot when I encounter a negative/ non-self serving thought. It takes deliberate practice, but with effort, comes the change. This is where the rubber meets the road!

In order to transform my perspective, I have to DECIDE that I can do this– reframing ‘impossible’ to I’m Possible–cheesy but true. Currently my confidence comes from finding some ideas that inspire nudging me in the right direction. Here are some strategies that I have found and am willing to try out:

  • Generating positive emotion by exploring possibilities with “What if”.
    • Example: What if I made that goal? What if I had more time?
  • Dr. Daniel Amen has a a strategy for countering what he calls “ANTs” (a negative thought).
  • Tony Robbins suggests that we can DOUBT IT OUT! He says “we doubt we can succeed when we should doubt that we could fail.
    • Pondering 5 Reasons why the “worst” may not be true.
    • Finding “exceptions” to the rule.
  • Influenced by Daniel Kahneman’s research on our thinking processes, David Casti suggests redirecting those mental movies to transform guilt and regret with using the sentence stem: “Next time, I intend…..”
  • Change the focus from having resources to being resourceful. This cultivates appreciation and considers how contributions are being made for improvement.
  • And I love this idea from Brian Johnson about playing Angel’s advocate and finding “what can go right” in a situation.

You know what I find so ironic and cool, that the minute I start researching how to modify my mindset, I find a warehouse of resources and tools that are out there. Most of them are super simple and take minimal time.  I also find exercises like the ones I’ve listed not only mind-opening but also alter my emotion and lift my spirit. Win-Win!- I dig it!

So,  I’ve decided to amplify this approach by using  my new favorite app: Way of Life. I understand that what I measure, I can improve; so if I keep track of it, then I suppose “shift happens”.

Until next time….Keep Breathing!

 

 

Just Drop IT

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects. ”  The Notebooks of Lazarus Long, Robert A. Heinlein.

This excerpt reminds me of the great pressure we put upon ourselves to be “perfect”-diligent, resourceful, competent and clever. Multi-tasking has been a dream that all have aspired to in our current day and age. But is it really making us better and more efficient humans? “Survey SaysX!” (Family Feud game show allusion)

Attention switching, aka multi-tasking, has now been proven to make us actually less productive and switched off than ever.And this attention residue lingers when you switch from one task to another, making it harder to focus on either effectively.

Lately I’ve been inspired by the idea of deep work–work which is rare and valuable to produce because of the intense focus and emphasis you put into it; it is produced through blocks of time dedicated to it. And what I find some fascinating is how wonderful it is for our brains–we get a myelin workout whenever we remove distractions and pay attention intensely to a task at hand. Turn off the phone and the device cartoonnotifications and banging out a project or task with a single-minded purpose is quintessential–not just for our productivity but also our brains.

Mindfulness is brain candy? Turns out to be so–and I love this!

 

Moreover, not only is mindfulness handy  with completing work, but also in our social interactions. UCLA scientists found that sixth-graders who went five days without even glancing at a smartphone, television or other digital screen did substantially better at reading human emotions than sixth-graders from the same school who continued to spend hours each day looking at their electronic devices. (Learn more: reading emotion in digital communication ).  So it seems that just dropping your need to be on your device temporarily can make you more connected–not just to your work but to others around you. Seems like a simple solution in a complicated world.

So this week, I’m honoring my commitment to be present and switching off so I can switch on.

 

 

 

Where do you get Soul Oxygen?

I’ve been really reflecting lately on this idea of static vs. dynamic action lately. I saw this video by Brian Johnson that really inspired me this week with a reminder that we need to pay attention to our own self-care so that we can manage life’s constant ebbs and flows; he refers to this as the Law of Rhythms. This reminded me a bit of Eckart Tolle’s A New Earth, in which he reminds us that “this too shall pass”–both the “negative” and “positive” emotion. I can’t tell you how often I’ve relied on that mantra-This too shall pass– in a multitude of situations, whether it is a moment of frustration at work or a joyful moment with my daughter, so I must soak up the essence of this emotion and appreciate its brevity.

There’s been a lot going on at work lately so I’ve been really putting in the effort to keep my head on straight while we undergo a shift in our school culture. I want to become more resilient and focus on developing the creativity and patience to weather this low point.  I find that I must find the source of oxygen for my soul so that I might find the good in this. I am gatherieffortng  more and more emotional and mental evidence that I must not only sit and quiet my mind, but I must also move my body. No matter how “bad” I feel, I must find at least 5 minutes to meditate and 5 minutes to exercise!! It’s not an option–this small effort keeps me engaged with the dynamic nature of life, so that my perception of the “problem” does not become static and rigid. These “mini-movements” help me to not only lower my stress levels but also nudge my habits towards those that benefit my body, mind and spirit on a more consistent basis.

So “in the event of a crash landing”, I am coming to derive soul oxygen from mindfulness and movement. As I open my mind by emptying it of (negative) thoughts through mindfulness, I can now expand this practice to include moving my body in a thoughtful way so I can engage fully and be prepared for the next season of my life’s rhythm.

Where do you get your soul oxygen from?

Big IFs

Have you ever read the poem, IF, by Rudyard Kipling?

If you can keep your head, while others around you are losing theirs…..If you can wait and not be tired of waiting….If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two imposters just the same….

This poem comes to mind as I reflect on my practice–not just when I have my eyes closed, meditating, but also when I am engaged in my life’s daily events. It’s really those times “off the mat” (to steal a yoga phrase) that I know mindfulness is truly being cultivated. Indeed, it is how I approach those those difficult moments that I am able to recognize that my effort is worthwhile.

I have to celebrate the process, the journey, and the struggle of mediation.  Although noticing that my mind is wandering may seem like a failure at first, however, over time, it is becoming the evidence and validation that my practice of mindfulness is paying off. This awareness is the essence of a mindful moment.

What surprises me is the development outside of my meditation- not just the awareness of the emotion that I am experiencing but also theHeart-Rate-Variability the shift in my perception. I can look at challenging people and situations and find something within these experiences to have gratitude for. It’s like these emotionally gritty experiences are turning dirt into pearls of wisdom for me. Of course, to become attached to this transformation seems to contradict the point of mindfulness as well. However treating my successes and failures with the same openness is something I can strive towards. Though cultivating  mindfulness as my preset default mode seems to be a BIG If, but nevertheless, its pursuit is worthy of my effort.

 

 

It’s in the Refrigerator

the refrigerator

Eleven Rings by Phil Jackson was one of the books on my summer reading list. I chose it because I don’t know anything about basketball–about any sports, really, for that matter.It was a challenging text for me because it is so out of the context that I am aware of, but reading it meant that I would have no expectation, good or bad.  Surprisingly this Zen Basketball Coach offered a fresh perspective on difficult experiences that made me deeply reflect on my role as a leader. And, I almost want to watch basketball now. (almost)

I feel like in order to move forward with the future challenges of this year, I have to accept the losses of last year. Get over it. Move on. Phil Jackson reminded me that “the soul of success is surrendering to what is”.  Zen Master Jakusho Kwong also suggests being an active participant in experiencing loss and understand on some level that loss is a catalyst for growth. Not only do I have to embrace the mistakes, the confusion and grief that resulted in some of the decisions made last year, but I have to “put it in the refrigerator”–realizing that it’s over, letting it cool and later appreciating the lessons that come from them.

Yep, letting go and closing the door on that chapter!