#Mindfulness: A New Offensive

About a month ago, I was engaged in a conversation about how certain negative outcomes arise when your culture is problem finding and you are solution driven. It’s a wonderful thing to want to fix and improve things but an emotional drawback could be the sensitivity and ease at which you can be offended. You end up being quite judgmental and get quite attached to what is “the right” thing vs “the wrong” approach. We can really dig our heals into our opinions and be given to gossip or conflict in a culture like that. Furthermore, this is the sort of negative energy that usually surrounds our New Year’s resolution. To experience true freedom and creativity, we have to remain open and stay mindful of how we want to behave when we are engaged in life’s circumstances. Then there is a lot of space available when we remain accessible to possibilities.

new energy.jpeg

I recently went to Plum Village on a Mindfulness retreat in Thailand. Plum Village’s founder is Thich Nhat Hanh, a Zen Master who, if you are a westerner, can thank him if you have heard of the term mindfulness because of his work of bringing this practice outside of Asia. The week was full of a multitude of wonderful practices–things I thought I knew about the practice but have come to understand my deep ignorance. What a blessing to have a revelation like this! One of the monks there asked if we planned to go into the “New Year” with an “Old Mind”? What an interesting question? If I make a “goal” but don’t change my habits or perspectives, how could I really expect 2018 to be any different than 2017?

Which leads me to the practice of mindfulness. What I hadn’t appreciated is how rooted it is in the Noble 8-Fold Path– an essential part of the Buddhist philosophy. (I suppose if Buddhism was a real religion then you could liken it to something like the 10 Commandments traditions because it is supposed to act as a guide for living.) During this retreat, we had to reflect and deepen our practice of how we observe others and their circumstances so that we can cultivate compassion and love. We were invited to make 2 promises: to love people, animals, plants, and minerals; and to seek to understand through deep looking of others and ourselves so that we may bring about more joy and compassion in the world. These 2 promises can be attained through the Noble 8-Fold Path.

“When you look for the good in others, you discover the best in yourself.”
― Martin Walsh

As I prepare to leave this sanctuary at Plum Village, I think about how I might use this Noble 8-Fold Path to transform my problem-oriented mind to one that is understanding- oriented so I can look beyond the circumstances and develop greater compassion. Although this practice is incredibly gentle, I thought that in order for me to really bridge the benefits into the “real world”, then I must take the offensive–prepare myself for the frustration and worries that typically plague me and my world on a regular basis. I must remain driven. But not to be successful, but to be kind, to be present, to be grateful and most importantly… to BREATH.

 

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.

Life in Clouds

fullsizerender-30As I peered out my window this morning, this was my view: a dense mist permeating. Although we have been experiencing the effects of Typhoon Nida, it is not unusual to have misty days like this. It not as heavy as fog, but you feel like you are walking in clouds.

However, as I studied the neighborhood, wondering if I would venture out today, it hit me–this awareness that I have been feeling like clouds. I don’t know how to really describe this, because it’s something that you can’t put your finger on, something that is obscure and unsettling.

And because of this, it has been like trying to coax a 2 year old child to leave a playground to get myself to meditate. I have to grab myself by the arm and force myself to sit my butt down to meditate. And this feeling doesn’t want to budge.

Appreciating that life if full of ebbs and flows, I recognize that this too shall pass. But now that I am aware of this feeling, it is a bit of relief. Now I can find a strategy-cloud-maybe not to make it go away in an instant but a way in which I can be okay with this not okay feeling. To observe this storm inside and to not judge it as good or bad, just a Now.

Maybe my focused breath can talk reason with my inner 2 year old and I get curious about where and how this cloudiness saturates my thoughts. Who knows, maybe life in clouds will prove to be an important part of my personal and spiritual growth?

So perhaps there is a rainbow in this experience.

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.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

The Hear and After

In my last post , Accepting the Journey,  I wrote about how I am grappling with the aging process and hearing loss of my mother; particularly since I feel like I may suffer the same fate, if not worse than my poor mom, as I have partial hearing loss in one of my ears and now my other ear has a dull pain in it, which the doctor told me was nerve damage.  But, I found it quite magical that when I was doing my work for the Mindfulness MOOC, and one of the exercises involved watching a TED video from Julian Treasure: 5 ways to listen better.  I found this video fascinating and timely. Although the video didn’t address hearing loss specifically, it got my mind wandering and wondering–does going deaf have to be inevitable as I age? As I researched ways to improve hearing, I was amazed that so many of the practices of mindfulness came up as the key exercises to “sound” health.

One of the ideas that Julian shared in his TED talk was to take notice and find joy in the sounds of the mundane. So this morning, before I got up, I just listened and tried to count as many sounds as I could in the room. One of those sounds was my husband’s breathing and I decided to folistening2cus in and listen to this sound–a sound that I have probably never really listened to (at least with any appreciation) for the last 11 years. And as I listened with curiosity, gratitude for Ryan began to well up in me. I found this strange and wonderful at the same time, not expecting to generate love and joy as a result of listening to the “mundane”. But what a wonderful way to wake up!

Naturally this simple exercise has now opened my ears, as well as my heart, and I feel infinitely grateful for the simplicity of it. As I ponder the serendipities that have arisen as a result of this Mindfulness MOOC, I feel encouraged to continue my commitment to this practice. I thought that this was only going to be a class about meditation, but it has turned into so much more. Finding beauty, experiencing gratitude and developing a state of awe are wonderful side effects which I wish for everyone to connect to.

 

Accepting the Journey

This past week we celebrated the 4th of July in Indiana. It was a wonderful time of celebration and patriotism–something that I haven’t experienced in a long time due to living overseas. It also was a time spent with family. And spending time with family in the context of celebration can challenge us because we work hard to avoid conflict and remain in a cheerful mood, even if we discover that there are painful realizations about our loved ones (or ourselves) and some members are going through difficult seasons in their lives. It can feel like forced happiness at times.accept-4 But then, that is the beauty of loving someone–cultivating joy through holding the space of what is possible for someone else and believing in the change that this loved one needs in order to create a shift in their life.

In this past week, I began to see the benefits of mindful communication, by generating more presence and engagement in these conversations with loved ones. Taking my practice “off the mat”, sort of speaking, and into my everyday life, allows me to develop greater empathy and compassion for my favorite Earth travelers–my family.

For me, my greatest struggle was accepting the aging process of my mother. older.jpgI found myself losing patience at first with her because she has become so elderly, embracing old age and submitting to decrepitude. I have come to witness that my reactions to her are a result of my own fear of aging and worry that I may become a burden to others.  My mother is losing her hearing, in particular, and I found myself shouting in order to communicate. At first, I just yelled and I am sure that my frustration came out as I “spoke” to her.  Then I decided that I needed to take a mindful breath as I engaged in conversation with her so that my communication could soften and be more gentle. Whether or not I like my mother becoming elderly is a moot point; she is my mother and I love her. (Perhaps one day my own daughter will have to face some of the challenges I have with my mom–what kind of role model am I being for her? Am I showing her how to be kind and respectful to aged persons?) So I just kept breathing, noticing my feelings and accepting my frustration, until it began to loosen its grip on my me.

Obviously mindful communication is not a one-off practice but a habit that must be cultivated patiently. My loved ones provide rich fodder for my practice, especially since I often engage with them in “default mode” in which I have attachment to my opinions of them and how I think their lives “ought to be”.  And of course, no one pushes  my buttons like them. Bless them! lol

Clearly the challenge now lies in whether I can stay committed to making mindfulness a habit in all areas of my life. And I wonder: Can I really become the person I wish to be?

As I understand that change begins with awareness and then with acceptance. Perhaps in a year’s time, my commitment will create a significant distance toward this goal. Meanwhile, I can be grateful for my loved ones and the struggles, as we journey on the Earth together.

 

Patient Heart

I really appreciated the distinctions and nuances of self-compassion during Dr. Craig and Dr. Richard recap of the “self” . Up until now, I never realized how connected heartfulness is to mindfulness. I always thought it was just about awareness, but now I know that connecting the heart with the mind is a big part of the practice. And there’s plenty of material in our lives in which we get to put knowledge into action. Every time we read or listen to the news, check our social media, and engage in conversations with those around happy daysus–every moment presents a challenge and an opportunity. And now that I know better, the question I have to ask myself: can I do better?

My heart says: Breathe. This is going to take practice. Breathe. This is going to take practice. Breathe. This is going to take practice. Breathe. Keep practicing. Be patient.

My mind says: You can’t do this. You’ll always be impatient and judgemental. It’s your nature. You are hardwired to be critical. Give up, it’s useless.

I feel like trying to coax my mind into a friendship with my heart is like trying to convince a card carrying NRA member that America needs gun control laws–A frustrating endeavor that requires unemotional focus and patience. And I have to wonder, is it even possible? Can my thoughts shake hands with my heart and come into agreement? It seems to me that I have to develop my heart muscle. As I have chartered into a new dimension of my self-awareness through this mindfulness practice, it has become crystal clear that I need balance between my thoughts and emotions. Self-compassion seems absolutely relevant and necessary as I develop into the person I wish to be.
As an aside, I find it uncanny and appropriate how the Chinese character for patience involves the graph for heart, as well as recognizing the possible danger and struggle that can ensue when developing patience.

character for patience

May I be happy.

May I be well.

May I be peaceful.

May I be safe.

May I be me.

 

Can We Stop Gun Violence by Making Compassion a Habit?

If anyone has studied the Chaos Theory, then they have the understanding that nothing is random even though it is unpredictable. Coincidences are an illusion. Even one small act can have profound effects, such as the flap of a butterfly’s wing.

So this week was no surprise that my mindfulness practice mirrored the curriculum of our inherent oneness and the need to cultivate compassion. As my key take away, I reflected on remembering our common humanity–see the WE and not just the ME.

Due to the shooting in Orlando, FL in America, I was deeply moved, not just by the violence of the shooting, but by the reaction to the trauma. I wondered if people could experience greater compassion if they would feel that they need to cling to their guns to provide them a sense of power. Could embracing the notion that we are ONE despite our religions, our ethnic backgrounds, our political leanings, our level of wealth, etc.. and recalling that “we are our brother’s keeper” be a powerful enough reminder to curb our need to “protect” ourselves from one another and stop using the 2nd Amendment as a shield from our feeling of powerlessness? Now we could argue if owning a firearm is really a right or is it a privilege and hence the need for gun control, but that’s not the point. As I see it, it is the cause for such a horrific act of violence that needs to be argued–why would anyone feel a deep malicious desire to kill others? And I am not referring as so much the mental state of the perpetrator, but the underpinning lack of consciousness that seems be prevalent in these senseless crimes, in which there is a lack of connection to people, emotionally unplugged from the beauty, love and grace in life.  And it wasn’t just the shooter, because so many other hateful things have risen to the surface and have been brought to light as a justification for killing innocent people.

viktor-frankl-quote

So here is the flapping of the butterfly wing. Me, thousands of miles away, feeling the impact of this atrocious event. I reflected and wondered about my own acts of violence (not bullets, of course, but the things I say I do which create harm) in my life–toward myself and toward others.) I tried to take note of these moments, offering the wishes, “may you be happy, may you be well, may you be peaceful, may you be safe.” It helped me to cultivate gentleness towards myself and others. As I think about the importance of practice, I wonder if I was to really commit to this and create a habit in which my default mode was compassion, who I would be in 1 year from now? And I am curious–how long would I need to practice this in order to cultivate this hard wiring of compassion? Would keeping these people in mind (as well as Sandy Hook and so many other senseless mass shooting victims) who were shot down be enough to keep me focused?–Remembering that the world needs LOVE and UNDERSTANDING.

If I was to create this habit of compassion, is the risk that this practice might ripple out in the world to make a difference enough to solidify this worthy goal into the fabric of my daily life. Could you imagine what serendipity might ensue from a cascade of events that arose from a moment of compassion, understanding and love? In this way, there might be some sense made from the murder  For surely this too is the flapping of the butterfly wings as well.

May we be Happy.

May we be Well.

May we be Peace.

May we be Safe.

May we be WE.

Good bye, Hello: Resilience

The end of the school year always makes one emotional. For most teachers, it is sweet relief but there is regret–regret you didn’t do or complete something with your students and colleagues. So much unfinished business!  But I feel like a bit of me is experiencing grief, like there is shock and there is sadness. This is partly because, as an international teacher, you are among a unique group of people–people who are curious about other cultures and are keen to seek adventure. These people become a second family to you and you feel sad when they move on. And I worry, maybe you do too, that you didn’t express enough love and gratitude to them–that they don’t know how much care for them. That’s true for any loved one of course. But I wonder, if something was to happen to them, would they know that they mattered to me; and that as a result of our friendship, I have become a different person, hopefully more loving, more open-minded and full of life. This is heaviness I feel in my good byes.

Resilience

It’s kind of serendipitous that this week we focused our mindfulness practice on self-compassion. It is true that we respond to suffering of others much better than we are to ourselves. So I have been confronted with the fact that I am more likely to offer gentleness and understanding to others than I am to myself.  Despite my positive intentions, I have still made mistakes, said or did things that I felt were “wrong” and I really beat myself up for them. I linger on my errors, on words or deeds that just aren’t “perfect”, and have a hard time forgiving myself and being self-critical. Saying my “good byes” has really acerbated this feeling for me, especially since I have had such a stressful year. I wonder if I have let down people who I care for–not just friends that are leaving but also loved ones because I have been so self-involved that I may have forgotten about them. I’ve had so many emotions surface this week, that having some self-compassion was a tool that has become indispensable to help me overcome my feeling of loss.

The 3 main components of this practice are: self-kindness, common sense of humanity and mindfulness. Self-kindness comes in handy when we are struggling with these kinds of emotion, as we turn away from judgement and bring to these emotions a sense of understanding and acceptance.It is completely normal to feel this way and recognizing my humanity helps me to feel connection to others in the inevitability that I will make mistakes as a human. I can then extend some goodwill towards myself, just like I might to another suffering person such as a friend. While bringing mindfulness to these emotions provides the opportunity to observe them, not only in my mind but also in my body. I can create some space between me and my thoughts and generate love towards myself, despite my flaws.

What-is-Self-Compassion

What I find so fascinating about this practice is that it creates physical changes in the brain. Offering self-compassion not only generates the “tend and befriend” response (as oppose to flight or fight response) and generates the love connection hormone, oxytocin, but it also causes neurons to fire and wire together. The more we practice self-compassion, the more we are fine tuning these circuits in our brains, which can become hard wired and the default mode. In other words, I can develop resilience and bounce from my negative emotion, more often and faster, with each time I practice.

Thus, in the face of suffering and self-criticism, I can shift my awareness and start to develop a new pathway. Obviously this is the sort of thing which lifts us up out listeningof a state of despair and moves up into hopefulness and positive expectation.

With that in mind, I can feel the appreciation for the people I have come to love, and experience the blessing of our meeting–even all the crazy parts in-between! And before I know it, I will begin the new friendships that will come in the future; hopefully, one of those friends will be myself-and that friendship is one that will last a lifetime.