In Transit

I can hear a bleating gong that seems to signal the coming of the monks for giving of alms.  My neighbors will bring out in bags and baskets food for the monks, as they pass by and give their good wishes and blessings. And this is how the day begins, an ebb and flow of giving and take within my neighborhood. It’s 5:45 am here in Laos and I am trying to prepare my mind for going to school, for a day of unexpected experiences as I am getting to know my new school community as well as the delightful students who are in my care. Not only that but my little nuclear family is trying to figure out what will be our new normal and establish a semblance of routine.  Although I can identify my feelings of unease as a natural part of adjusting to these new concentric circles of culture (my family, my work, relationships outside of work, my neighborhood, Laos)  it doesn’t make them go away and I wonder how long will I stay in this tentative emotional state.

ambivalence.jpg

Although this place is special, it is not unique, meaning that I have encountered so many of the same frustrations in other countries. At first, I found this ambivalence akin to having still not arrived here, feeling that somehow a part of me is still in transit, being processed and on its way to this destination, and was an odd feeling to grapple with.  But I have come to realize that in this new life here, I, like a piece of solid iron, am being smelted by this experience, reformed and fashioned for a new purpose. I know to decide to be happy, to enjoy how quirky and different everything is here, is surely the first step in this appreciating the transformation. I am trying to find some sort of ritual, some sort of antidote to these simultaneous and contradictory attitudes or feelings toward our new life in Laos.

beauty.jpg I am reminded that my thoughts become my words and my words become my actions and my actions become my habits, and my habits become my character, and my character becomes my life. So I have decided to start making lists of things that create small moments of happiness in my life, like air conditioning at a restaurant, the beauty of lightening as it races across the sky, and the contentment I feel when Hannah enjoys local food. I want to find the beauty in this world and in my new life.

So I thank you, dear reader, for allowing this blog post to help me expedite my shift and define who I will become in this new environment, articulating this idea. I hope that wherever you are in the world, you too can find the beauty in it.

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.

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!)

 

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.

 

 

 

Habit Forming

There’s nothing more motivational than developing positive momentum. Since there are areas of my life that I wish to improve,  I read the book The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.  This book really inspired me to think about keystone habits and how I might cultivate them. Since then, I’ve really been researching ways that I might be more successful at converting a new habit into something that becomes second nature. Obviously my practice of mindfulness is a habit that I am working on. Habits-101-Poster

With that in mind, I found a couple of things that have really inspired me and kept me on track:

  • The wisdom shared by Brian Johnson in his video: Habits 101.
  • And this tracker: Way of Life app ( I only use the free version because 3 habits seem like plenty of cultivate at a time.)

These two things have really helped me to sculpt my intention to develop positive habits like meditation, and have also given me a way to celebrate my success as I endeavor to become the best me that I can be. I hope these tools serve you as well.

Keep breathing!

Addicted to Distraction?

report cards keep calmIt’s report card time here for teachers and there’s nothing I’d rather do than NOT write and read those comments. So this week’s journey into distraction and procrastination was perfectly timed.

Did you know that we are wired for distraction?–that every time we get off task, our brain’s get a little dose of dopamine, which is a chemical on the reward pathway in the brain; furthermore, avoiding what needs to be done and letting ourselves wander off task could actually be addictive. So we are screwed, right? Not necessarily because through our directed attention, mindfulness works to subdue our emotions, bringing us back on task and renewing our focus.

 

Also, the attitude in which we pay attention can also determine our ability to stray or come back into focus. I found this video of distraction memeBrendon Burchard’s War and Peace model a reminder that when we want to change something in our life, we must commit to finding every possible solution and accepting that change takes time. I think this is really relevant as I consider that the practice of mindfulness is not just a one-off thing that perhaps I do in the morning or evening, but I need to find ways to seed this activity throughout my day in order for mindfulness to be hard-wired into my brain and become my mind’s default mode. An excellent suggestion was to take a moment to get in touch with the breath as we transition to a task that we may find challenging in order to avoid procrastination. This would help to give attention to what is relevant and necessary to complete a task, instead of allowing the mind to wander into worry or fear. Moreover, extending compassion to ourselves when we do stray off track, helps to decrease and de-activate the stress response that may accompany us when we are in avoidance and procrastination. Not only does it help to alleviate the negative emotion associated with the task, but has physiological benefits such as improved immunity and executive functioning of our brains.

So, I have to wonder, if I can be addicted to distraction, can I also become addicted to awareness? Is that possible?  I’m not sure, but I’m willing to dedicate myself to this challenge….one moment at a time. (: