Giving Thanks!

Giving Thanks!

Gratitude is a fantastic and scientifically proven way to re-route those negative neurons in our brains and actually bring about happier feelings and less negativity. Not only does mindfulness help us to notice when our mind is tight with negativity, it also helps us to notice so much of the richness of life.

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TV-mind

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about thinking. And it’s been easy to get carried away with it. I’ll start thinking about thoughts and what role they have in mindfulness practice and the next thing I know I’m thinking about planning a talk, then I’m drafting a blog, then I’m imagining how many likes it will get on Facebook, and then I start questioning my social media strategy. Strategy? That sounds like I’m going to war. Hmm. That video I just watched of John Lennon and Yoko Ono was touching, the two of them were all about peace. Peace is good. If only all of these thoughts would stop so I’d have some peace…

I think you get the picture.

When many people first hear of mindfulness I think they might get the idea that it’s all about clearing the mind of thoughts to get some peace, or that we’re supposed to be thinking only about the present moment.

With some types of thinking this view of mindfulness is accurate. The mind likes to keep busy, drumming up memories and hopes, imagining scenarios and playing them out over and over. A surprising amount of our thinking is like white noise, a dull hum in the background that can be both comforting and annoying. Left unattended to, this white noise starts to crank up the volume. It reminds me of having a few TVs on in the background, each with different home-shopping or infomercials playing. Sure, we could grab the remote and switch them off, but that necklace looks interesting, and can you believe how much that towel can absorb?! It’s easy to get sucked into these TV programs even if we’re not really interested in the products they offer. With this type of thinking our mindfulness practice helps us to identify the thoughts and then let them go. Once we notice that the TV is on, we can grab the remote and turn it off. The mind wandering that happened when I started thinking about thinking is a good example of this TV white noise.

But mindfulness is not solely about turning off our thinking. In fact, if we spent all of our time turning thoughts off I think we’d miss out on the transformational magic that mindfulness can have on our experience. Mindfulness is about meeting our experience and experiencing it fully, without adding the story of why or why not the experience is ok.

It is about transforming the relationship we have with thinking, moving it from one of clinging and aversion to one of wonder, inquisitiveness and discovery.

Our challenge then is to meet our thoughts and get to know them, especially the thoughts that seem to be emotionally charged or filled with self-judgment. Why do some keep calling over and over? What story am I perpetuating about myself with these thoughts? How does my body feel when I think that thought?

As we continue practicing mindfulness, we begin to see different patterns in our thinking. We can more easily detect when the TV is blaring white noise as opposed to when it is playing a breakthrough documentary about our inner workings. As our discernment develops we are less easily carried away by cascading thoughts. And not only that, but we don’t get so easily tricked into believing that everything we think is the truth. What we see on the TV of our mind is just like what we see on TV--images in a box. They're just energetic patterns flitting around our brains, light projected on a screen. Sometimes they can be informative and useful, but a lot of the time they're just white noise.

Mindfulness practice helps us choose what channel to watch, or if we want to watch TV at all. And when we choose to watch the TV of our minds, mindfulness practice helps us to remember the adage: don't believe everything you see on TV.

6 Tips to Help Jumpstart Your Meditation Practice

I first came to meditation out of desperation. As a sophomore in college, I had been struggling with a challenging course and was filled with anxiety and having minor freak-outs ahead of each class session. I remember feeling like I had to do something to take care of myself or I wouldn’t make it through the semester.

So every Wednesday morning before that class, once my roommate had left our dorm, I would sit my college-issued desk chair in the middle of our common space, close my eyes, and take a few minutes to breathe.

The result: I was calmer and less nervous about the class. I think I may have even gotten an A. When the semester ended, I wasn’t so committed to meditating each day, and my pittance of a practice fell by the wayside.

It wasn’t until the following summer when I attended a couple of residential meditation retreats that I decided I wanted to make meditation a more consistent part of my daily routine. In the decade since then I’ve gone through spells of time when I’ve been less than consistent in my daily practice. But on the whole, since I first made that commitment during my retreat, I’ve kept at it. Along the way, a few suggestions have bolstered my practice and kept me coming back (to the breath).

If you’re considering starting a meditation practice here are a few things that will support you.

1.     Make a commitment, set your intention, and make it do-able. First thing’s first, you have to decide you want to do this, and it will help if you’re reasonable in your expectations. Don’t start your meditation practice by forcing yourself to sit for at least three hours a day, each day. Chances are, you’ll get sick of it and will quit before you even see the magic that meditation can work on your life. Set yourself up with a goal you’ll be able to keep. It could be as small as five minutes for five days a week a day at first.

2.     Create a space where you can practice. These days I have my own altar and meditation area; but when I started out, it was the middle of the dorm room, the top bunk, and eventually a corner in my bedroom. Find somewhere conducive to taking a few minutes alone that you can reserve for just this practice (so not near a TV or where people gather in the house to chat).

Photo By: Gregory Crespo  You don't need an altar like this! A dedicated space in your room would work. :-)

Photo By: Gregory Crespo

You don't need an altar like this! A dedicated space in your room would work. :-)

3.     Set a consistent time to meditate each day. I like to meditate first thing in the morning before my head gets filled up with the day. Maybe it’s easier for you to set aside a few minutes of your lunch hour each day. Or perhaps bedtime will work better for you. Put it into your calendar like any other appointment, and I bet you’ll soon appreciate the value of having an appointment with yourself.

4.     Find a community to support you in this effort. It can be challenging to stick to your commitment when you’re alone in it. When I first committed to meditation practice, I was lucky enough to find a sitting group that met twice a week on my college campus. These days, I meditate with friends online once a week, and have a group I meet with in person once a month. Having even just one other person to be accountable to, to share your experiences with, and support you in this endeavor will make a huge difference in helping you keep your intentions.

5.     Be gentle with yourself and stick with it! While somewhat simple and seemingly easy, meditating, and sticking to a commitment to meditate each day, can be very challenging. You’ve been wiring your brain a certain way for your whole life, so it’s not surprising that the rewiring that comes with consistent meditation practice may not happen overnight. It can sometimes be discouraging when it feels like meditating is nothing more than glorified worrying or list-making with your eyes closed. But do not fret! The simple act of setting your intention and following through each day is enough. Being kind to yourself during your meditations and about your meditation practice is imperative for it to have a chance to take root and eventually blossom.

6.     Lastly, remember, you can do this!

You CAN do this! And if you’d like, I can help!

You're invited to join me during the month of October when I’ll be posting 15-minute guided meditations online each day. You can sit with me!

If you’ve never meditated before, or perhaps you’ve dabbled but not yet committed to a daily practice, or perhaps you just want to see me each day, then now is your opportunity! In addition to providing you the basics of mindfulness meditation, those of us sitting together each day can support each other as a community (see #4!), plus I’ll be kind to you (see #5) and will cheer you on the whole time (see #6). As an added bonus, you can reach out to me with any questions or concerns you're having with your practice. I'm here to help!

Set your intention (see #1) and sign up to “Sit With Me in October.” I’ll send you all the information you’ll need to jumpstart your own mindfulness practice.

Woohoo!

Checking Your Weather

Earlier today I was reflecting on taking an internal weather report and the refrain of a 90’s rap song kept going through my head, “You better check yo’self before your wreck yo’self.” Given the rest of the lyrics in his song, I don’t think Ice Cube was necessarily referring to mindfulness. But if he was, I think he might have been onto something that is key to living mindfully: paying attention to what’s going on inside right now so as not to exacerbate our suffering.

What’s the weather inside of you like right now? Are you a turbulent ball of anger and frustration, chest and face heating up with contraction and short breaths? Are you light and airy, floating on a cloud of joy and excitement bubbling up as you approach some much anticipated event? Or are you feeling kind of heavy, dull and sluggish, trudging your way through this blog as a distraction from the boring, never-ending pile of work on your desk?

We’ve probably all had our own experiences of each of these internal weather patterns, and in all likelihood, we’ve already had a handful of different weather patterns today. Getting up and feeling a bit dazed or sleepy, feeling alert and ambitious after that first cup of coffee, feeling the sting of embarrassment and a stab of fear upon hitting “Reply All” instead of “Reply,” or feeling the lightness and calm of taking a quiet walk during your lunch hour.

The practice of mindfulness helps us to notice the weather as it is happening inside of us and once we notice it, we can choose a compassionate and skillful way to respond to whatever tempest, frost, or spring dew we are experiencing. You know, like Ice Cube suggests, checking ourselves before we wreck ourselves. Because without an awareness of what’s going on inside, it can be difficult to prevent the volcano from erupting and destroying everything in sight.

If we notice the tightness of a clenched jaw and a stomach tying itself into knots, we can look a bit deeper to uncover what may be the cause of our tightening. Knowing ourselves, we can then take better care of ourselves. Maybe we can pause for a few deep breaths, or open the mouth to stretch out the jaw. Or perhaps we could even remove ourselves from the situation that is causing such distress—if only for a few moments to regain some composure. This way instead of acting out of our clenched jaw, tight stomach, red-faced self, we can come back to a more centered and calmer place to address the situation at hand.

When I practice sitting meditation, I typically fluctuate between any number of weather patterns during my time on the cushion. Upon noticing the shift in my internal barometric pressure, I gently bring my awareness back to the feeling of the breath, finding a place of calm in the storm. It’s this repeated practice of checking the weather in the safety and comfort of my home that prepares me for life off the cushion. Having practiced it a zillion times before, I am comfortable checking myself throughout the day. And having noticed the multitude of shifting weather patterns in my daily sits, I am comfortable and less fearful when a big storm shows up on the horizon—I trust it will pass in time, and so, do not wreck myself.

So now is your chance to follow Ice Cube’s advice. Set aside a couple of times in your day to check your internal weather. It might help to set an alert on your computer or phone to remind you throughout the day. At the appointed time, take a moment to get still, taking a few deep breaths. Turning your attention inward, notice how you feel. You can notice physical sensations, recurring thoughts, emotions, or the absence of any of these. Pay attention too, to your reaction to your internal weather—do you want it to change? Do you want it to stay like this forever? Do you wish you’d feel something? Keep in mind, this experiment simply asks you to notice what’s going on; there is no need for it to be a certain way or for you to feel a particular way. Each feeling and thought is worth noticing. 

Having now checked yo’self, you can proceed in your day without wrecking yo’self. 

Getting Comfortable with Change

Sunday morning at about 3:20 I opened my eyes and looked over at my husband. The bed was shaking, we were shaking, the house was rattling. We were feeling an earthquake with its epicenter about 30 miles away from us. I remember thinking to myself that I was glad I’d installed some extra supports under our shelving last week.

After the shaking stopped, we hopped out of bed to survey the damage. Thankfully, apart from some rattled nerves everything else was just as we’d left it before going to bed. However, I know that for the thousands of residents living closer to the epicenter, life was turned upside down in those thirty seconds of shaking.

Everything is constantly changing. The sun sets, the moon rises. Leaves change colors and fall to the ground. Children grow up. Sometimes the inevitability of change can numb us to its effects and we forget that today’s experience will be different tomorrow. Other times the change happens in an instant, like Sunday’s earthquake, and we’re reminded quite suddenly of the impermanent nature of our existence.

Photo Credit Gregory Crespo  Even that which seems permanent is subject to change... and trees!

Photo Credit Gregory Crespo

Even that which seems permanent is subject to change... and trees!

The fact that things are always changing can be a reason for suffering, disappointment or aversion. I remember when I was a 12 year-old at summer camp and my favorite counselor from the year before had not returned for my session. The other counselors kept reassuring me that “change is good,” but my tweenage self replied, “but cash is better.” Unwilling to accept the fact that things change and grasping at my past experience, I spent a good chunk of my time at camp bummed out about personnel issues instead of enjoying my experience.

At other times change can be a cause to rejoice. (I’m glad that my 12 year-old attitude changed and matured through the years!) When I get the flu often my first fear is that the body aches, fever, and malaise will last forever. But once I remember impermanence, I begin looking forward to healthier days and wishing away my present experience. I'm not really sure how sick I feel because so much of my energy is spent bracing myself against the pain and wishing that it would go away. 

I’ve learned through mindfulness practice that neither of these extreme reactions to change feels very good. Each reaction—grasping for the past or longing for the future—is a denial of what is actually happening. There is a happy middle way to approaching change that does not involve either of these extremes: just experiencing life as it comes. Something magical happens to aversion, grasping and impatience when I give my attention to my present experience. They don’t quite disappear, but they do become somewhat less gripping. I can be more comfortable in my discomfort.

So how can we learn to be with what is without wishing it away or trying to hold onto it forever? Mindfulness can help! (After all, this is a mindfulness blog!) Here are three things to try out today that will help prepare you to face your next change with grace and joy:

  • We can get familiar with change by following the breath for a minute or two. Close your eyes, let your body get still, and let all of your attention rest on the sensation of the breath as it comes in and out. See if you can notice the subtle shifts that take place. Does the temperature stay the same? What about the pace or depth? Can you inhale or exhale forever? What is it like to experience the breath as it changes?
  • We can take some time to feel gratitude during each day so that we honor what is and are sure to enjoy the present while it happens. For a week, keep a gratitude journal as you go to bed, writing three things you’re grateful for from the day. Notice how your heart and mind feel as you go to bed feeling grateful for the day you just experienced. How does this impact your experience of the present moment? Can you practice feeling grateful throughout the day?
  • Lastly, we can practice getting comfortable with the uncomfortable. Find a comfortable position, and sit perfectly still for 5 minutes. Don’t scratch, don’t adjust your legs or hands, don't clear your throat. Watching how our minds work and react to discomfort (like a leg falling asleep) will prepare us when change comes and we feel uncomfortable. What is it like to simply be with that discomfort? Bring some curiosity and scientific investigation to the process. What does it feel like to react to discomfort? What exactly does the discomfort feel like? Tingling? Burning? Itching? Tickling? 

When it comes down to it, we can only respond to what is in front of us when it arises. Hopefully the next time you're faced with an uncomfortable change, you can fall back on one of these exercises—taking some time to breathe, finding one or two small things to be grateful for, and spending some time getting to know the uncomfortable—so that you can remain in the present moment, riding the waves of change instead of getting pummeled by them. 

The Ice Cube Challenge: To Raise Awareness... Generally

Lately I’ve noticed that the internet has been abuzz with something called the ice-bucket challenge, wherein people film themselves getting drenched in ice water and then challenge friends to do the same in order to raise awareness for various causes, most recently it’s ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease.  I hadn’t thought much about ALS until this started blowing up my Facebook news feed, so I guess the ALS Association has succeeded in raising awareness.

I’m all about raising awareness, particularly as it relates to the present moment and understanding our human experience. That’s why today I thought it would be fun to try the (drum roll please…) Ice Cube Challenge: To raise awareness… generally.

This challenge is to raise our awareness of our sensory experience, pain, pleasure, and the accompanying thoughts and emotions. To do it, all you’ll need is a cube of ice on a plate and a bit of quiet time. You don’t have to challenge any friends and you don’t have to post a video online. And rather than a challenge, I’d say it’s really more of an experiment. (But that’s not as catchy, is it?)

Take a moment to become still, bringing your attention to the sensation of the breath as it comes in and out. After a minute or so of this (or about 10 slow, quiet breaths if your kids are taking part), slowly place the ice cube on the palm of your hand. Notice what happens—in your mind and on your skin.

Pay attention to the sensation of the ice, perhaps noticing stinging, burning, or tingly sensations. Pay attention to what story is in your mind, perhaps it is one of needing to wait it out until the cube melts, or feeling scared you’ll damage your skin, or thinking about last winter and the snowman you made. Simply notice what goes on in your mind. Are you feeling particularly averse to this? Hoping it will end soon? Or maybe it’s a hot summer day, and this feels particularly soothing. Watch your thoughts, your physical sensations, and any emotional response you have to the experiment.

Photo Credit: Gregory Crespo  The thoughts going through my mind: How long will it take for Greg to take this picture? The water is getting on my feet! Cold, cold, cold!

Photo Credit: Gregory Crespo

The thoughts going through my mind: How long will it take for Greg to take this picture? The water is getting on my feet! Cold, cold, cold!

When you’re ready, put the ice cube down.

Notice what thoughts, emotions, physical sensations are happening now. Relief? A desire to try it again? Feeling cold all over or just in your hand?

You did it! You raised your awareness! Nice work!

This experiment reminds me of the incredible impact that mindfulness can have on how we experience pain. Instead of getting caught up in the stories of the pain—“I’m getting frostbite, I’ll lose my fingers!” or “My head is going to hurt like this forever!” or “How could I have stubbed my toe, why wasn’t I looking where I was going?”—with mindfulness we take a gentle and compassionate approach to investigating the sensations of the pain as they arise. Without awareness, our aversion to pain can exacerbate our suffering, causing us to tense up and focus only on the worst-case scenario. If we can soften to pain, and look at it lovingly (instead of with frustration, fear, or annoyance), it will often transform before our eyes. Our own silent judgments often inflict their own kind of damage.

Taking a moment to feel our pain and let go of the judgments and the stories offers pain a chance to be felt. What did you notice with the ice cube? Did your fingers fall off? Did the stinging cold last very long, or did it shift as you paid attention? We might notice that the headache we thought would last forever actually comes in spells of intensity, waxing and waning, throbbing here, barely a dull ache there. And while the pain might not change too much, with mindful attention, your relationship with the pain will likely have shifted.

As the oft-quoted maxim states, “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.” There will be headaches, cuts, bruises, stubbed toes, and ice cube experiments. What we do with this pain is up to us—we can dwell in it, wallow in the stories and judgments, or we can feel it and show it our love.

I challenge you to see what happens the next time you have a headache. Get quiet and watch it for a bit with some gentle attention before you take any action.

Happy In(ter)dependence Day!

In the United States tomorrow there will be plenty of hooting and hollering surrounding our annual festivities to celebrate our independence from Great Britain. Red, white and blue bunting will hang in communities throughout the country, and children will revel in the miracle of fireworks exploding above them. But more exciting to me is that tomorrow is a day when communities come together—there are BBQ’s, parties, family reunions and parades—all celebrating our independence. However, I see them as a celebration of our interdependence.

Sure, we’re all glad to be free from colonial rule. But I can’t say I spend too much of my day-to-day thinking about the Townshend Acts or worrying about British soldiers being unfairly quartered in my home. (Ok, there was a period of time when these thoughts were often on my mind—but I’m no longer a U.S. History Major living in Colonial Williamsburg, so now it’s easier for me to focus on other aspects of the holiday apart from the history.) However, what’s pretty cool about this holiday from my perspective as a mindfulness teacher bent on compassion and empathy, is that during this time of year as Americans we have an opportunity to remember our interconnectedness and common background.

Tomorrow is a chance to celebrate “Interdependence Day!”

We can remember that we’re all in this together. As independent as we may like to call ourselves, we could not make it without each other. Heck, we probably could not have won our independence without the help of French forces! Tomorrow is a chance to remember that the shirt on your back, the food on your plate, and the friends surrounding you are all here because of someone or something else (have a look at the Gratitude Webs as a reminder of how connected we are).

Our interdependence spans borders and so much more. From humans to animals to plants to the water cycle, our current existence hinges upon the existence of everything else. To me this thought is a wellspring of gratitude.

You don’t have to be an American to celebrate “Interdependence Day.” Here are a few ways you can celebrate:

  • You can take a moment to reflect on who and what got you to where you are right now and then offer some gratitude in their direction.
  • You can take tomorrow as an opportunity to connect with someone with compassion. Remembering that we’re all in this together why not be nice?!
  • You can make sure that those around you feel your love and gratitude—be it an extra hug, a kind note, or an act of compassion.
  • You can even send some gratitude to yourself! Shoot some love to each and every part of you that makes you YOU. Your heart that keeps beating, your lungs that keep breathing, and your brain that keeps running the show, each of these parts deserve thanks too!

What will you do to celebrate our interdependence?

On Talking Dirty

The title of this post is a bit misleading, because I’m not writing about a bunch of naughty stuff here—after all, this is a kid-friendly website! But I did want to spend a little time to explain how to clean up our speech and why doing so can help us gain some peace of mind.

Speech is powerful, something as seemingly innocuous as a few words can make or break your day. Think about the last time you received an unsolicited compliment, or worse, an insult. The compliment may have brought with it a little tingle of joy, and the insult may have been more of a stinging slap to the ego. Our words carry weight, and can leave an impact long after things quiet down.

So it seems that being aware of what we say and how we say it could help make our days better for ourselves and for those around us.

Wise speech is a topic in Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, and many other religious, spiritual and ethical discourses. Recognition of our words’ inherent power calls for some personal responsibility, which is probably why many of these texts include guidelines for speaking. Instead of delving into a long-winded comparative exploration of these texts, I thought that the following two bullet points might be useful for cleaning up our talk.

  • First, pay attention to what you say. Without an awareness of what we’re saying, positive or negative, it’s going to be rather difficult to make any changes to our habits.
  • Second, before you speak ask yourself the following two questions:
 

Is it true?

Is it helpful?

 

If I can’t answer YES to BOTH of these questions it is an indication to me that I should probably rethink whatever I’m about to say—or maybe not say anything at all.

This has proven to be both a challenging and fulfilling practice for me. Even though it wasn’t easy at first, I soon saw the benefits of speaking cleanly. As difficult as it was initially, it now offers me a surprising amount of freedom. I can more actively listen to those around me and I’m not worried about being right or proving a point; instead, I’m more focused on creating a situation that is beneficial for each of us in the conversation. I don’t have to look over my shoulder to see if the subject of my gossip is entering the room. I am no longer worried about whether or not I have hurt someone’s feelings with my careless speech. I don’t have to juggle any white lies in my mind. And I feel good about the things that I have said. In fact, I find that the practice encourages me to give honest compliments when I’m not sure what to say to someone.

It’s a work in progress for me, and there are still plenty of times when I get to practice self-forgiveness when I’ve not been the wisest with my words. But it’s something I see the value in continuing. I hope you will too!

Try the two bullet points above for an hour today and see how it feels. Does it change the way you write emails? Does it change how you’re connecting with those around you?

Stay tuned for more on cleaning up our words—next time I touch on this topic I’ll talk about cleaning up our internal monologue.



Sounds True

Just a quick offering today for those of you looking to try out some mindfulness meditation. Have a look at this link from Sounds True where you can download some free guided meditations along with some relaxing meditation music. I think all you have to do is provide them with an email address and they'll give you six downloadable meditations plus nine tracks of calming tunes (you can always unsubscribe from their list if it isn't your thing).

I downloaded the guided practices today and am looking forward to listening. The downloads include some of my favorite teachers and musicians: Sharon Salzberg, Jack Kornfield, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Jai Uttal, and Nawang Khechog!

Let me know what you think. Maybe one day you'll be downloading a guided meditation by me! :-) 

Your Inner Superhero

What does it feel like to be a strong, brave superhero? How does it feel to cower in fear?

Two young Super-Butterfields. :)

Two young Super-Butterfields. :)

Take a moment and pretend with me that you are a strong superhero, fueled by empathy, compassion and a brave heart. I don’t know about you, but my chest puffs up and my shoulders roll back—I feel fearless and courageous with each deep breath. Now try the other option, cowering in fear from an unknown assailant. My breath shortens, my shoulders tense up, and my stomach is already in knots.

Ok, so thankfully that wasn’t real life. But it’s incredible to me to see how much the mind can impact physiological responses in my body. Just by calling these scenarios to mind, I was able to conjure up a physical reaction.

In real life, that sort of thing happens all the time. I get stressed about an upcoming deadline—my heart rate quickens, my shoulders tense, etc. Or, I think about something I’m feeling grateful for—my heart opens, I relax, and my body loosens.

How do we teach children the impact that their minds have on their bodies?

Through play of course!

Take a few minutes with your child to come up with a handful of personalities to act out together. Here are a few I came up with:

  • A ballerina or musician nervously getting ready for opening night
  • A brave lion
  • A grumpy troll
  • A joyful child, filled with wonder at his or her first trip to Disneyland
  • A business person on the way to a very important meeting
  • An elderly person
  • A superhero, ready to save the day
  • Someone feeling suspicious of the people surrounding them
  • A lost tourist
  • An explorer mapping new terrain
  • [Your ideas here!]
  • I’d love to hear what other personalities you come up with! Please post them in the comments!

Together, write your ideas on slips of paper and take turns drawing them from a hat to act out together or for one another. If you don't have a child, you can always act some of these out with a friend or at your mirror!

Once you have exhausted all of your ideas discuss which personality you each enjoyed the most. Why did you like that particular personality? Which personality was the most uncomfortable to do? What did each of you notice happening in your bodies during your play-acting? You may need to offer some examples that you noticed: tense shoulders, happy heart, scrunched forehead, etc.

The next time you or your child feels anxious or nervous about something, try parading around the house like a brave superhero for a bit and see what happens. :-)

Getting Out Of A Rut

Ever find yourself in a rut? Stressed out at work, too exhausted to cook dinner, anxious thoughts flitting through your head all evening to the point that they’re keeping you up at night, then not sleeping well and feeling unable to focus the next day? That’s pretty extreme. Maybe you’re just feeling kind of blah about stuff and aren’t sure why or how you got to feeling this way.

Photo Credit: Greg Crespo  Stuck in a rut, it's easy to miss the beauty surrounding us.

Photo Credit: Greg Crespo

Stuck in a rut, it's easy to miss the beauty surrounding us.

I just finished reading Mark Williams and Danny Penman’s book Mindfulness: An Eight Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World, and it had some helpful ideas for how to get out of the ruts in which we so often find ourselves stuck. In addition to advice on getting out of your rut, the book provided straightforward and easy to follow instructions on cultivating a mindfulness practice of your own. I found Williams and Penman’s perspective refreshing and realistic. While the book offers eight weeks of mindfulness meditations and contemplations, I will just focus on the “habit releasers” that they include with each week of practice.

As creatures of habit we have a tendency to get into habitual ways of thinking and acting, and in turn, glossing over some of our lives with conditioned ways of being. Think about it the next time you drive somewhere. How much do you actually have to concentrate on the act of driving? What else are you thinking about during that time?

Once we train our brains how to do something, the neurons fire along the same course in our heads, carving out a well-traveled path. In many cases these well-traveled neuro-pathways make our day-to-day living much easier. Imagine if you had to put a lot of thought into the act of putting your pants on each morning. Unfortunately though, we sometimes put ourselves on autopilot without really meaning to. Williams and Penman explain, “You can easily end up thinking, working, eating, walking or driving without clear awareness of what you are doing. The danger is that you miss much of your life this way."

It is possible to be more mindful or aware of what is going on moment-to-moment. While having a daily mindfulness practice will help hone your skills and ability to maintain moment-to-moment awareness, you don’t have to have an established practice to try shaking things up a bit with these habit releasers that Williams and Penman suggest in their book:

  • Sit in a different chair or move the position of the chair you typically sit in for your next work meeting or at the dinner table. What is the view like from this new perspective?
  • Go for a walk. Try to make it at least 15 minutes long. Even if you can’t get out in nature, see what nature you can find sneaking out of the world around you. What new things, people, or places did you discover? Pretend you are an explorer in uncharted territory.
  • Value your devices. Before plopping down in front of the T.V. or Ipad for a night of mindless entertainment, decide what show you really want to watch or what website you really want to visit that evening. Make a point to only turn on the T.V. or Ipad for the program or website you have picked out, and to turn it off once it’s over. At the end of the evening, make a note of how it went, what it felt like to only watch or read what you wanted to.
  • Go to the movies at a set time and choose whatever movie looks best to you at that time. Don’t go with the movie picked out ahead of time. Even if none of the movies really appeals to you, go to one of them anyway. Let yourself be consumed by the film you chose. Williams and Penman explain, “Often what makes us happiest in life is the unexpected—the chance encounter or the unpredicted event.”
  • Plant some seeds or take care of a plant. Studies have shown that just the act of caring for another living thing can improve one’s life. Enjoy watching the mystery of life unfold as you tend to your plant. Notice the smells, colors, and textures. Soak it all in.
  • Think of something that used to make you happy that you don’t do anymore. Maybe it’s riding bikes, flying a kite, drawing or cooking. Set some time aside this week and just go do it. Don’t wait until you feel like doing it—just do it and see what happens.
  • Do something for someone else. You could let someone else go ahead of you in line, or send a thoughtful note to a friend. It can be as small and as simple as smiling at your neighbor. Notice what it feels like to connect with a smiling heart.

I dare you to try one these this week. Just see what happens. You might find you agree with Williams and Penman that “it’s difficult to be curious and unhappy at the same time.”

Do you have any habit-releasers that have helped you get out of a rut? Please share below in the comments!

Packing and Waiting: Tips for Mindful Travel

We’ll be heading out of town tomorrow for a family trip, so I thought I’d share some resources I found helpful in preparing for our journey. My friend Jared Gottlieb has written two blogs for National Geographic about traveling mindfully. Tapping into the wisdom of meditation teachers Jonathan Foust and Sharon Salzberg, Jared gives some great pointers on packing and traveling mindfully.

Packed and waiting...

Packed and waiting...

As I lay out my clothes, toiletries and other necessities for our travel, Jonathan Foust’s advice about packing is at the forefront of my mind.

"Jonathan says that while packing light is a priority, the decision-making process should always support a 'sense of safety and preparedness.' … It’s about being conscious of what’s important to you, Jonathan says. 'When I’m really mindful about what I carry, I feel more secure — I’m more open to the unknown.'"

Knowing that I have the essential items I'll need helps me to relax into the experience of traveling. I'm not constantly thinking about whether or not I brought the right stuff because I already spent some time figuring out a plan.

Once I fill up my backpack for the trip, I know I’ll be turning to these ideas from Sharon Salzberg to help me to best “appreciate the journey, especially the more unpleasant parts.”

When I remember to, I like to “wait with lovingkindness” as Sharon recommends, cultivating “a sense of benevolence or recognition that our lives are connected and that everybody wants to be happy.” Standing in line for security is less stressful when I’m wishing my fellow travelers a safe flight and happy travels.

And her advice to “be where you are,” is keeping me grounded today, as I sit with anticipation and excitement about what is to come. For now, I am here in my home, my feet tapping with a hint of anxiety and eagerness for tomorrow. Tomorrow, I will be someplace else, and I will work to pay “attention to what’s happening around [me]—and within [me].” Because I trust that “when [my] attention is focused on where [I am, I’ll] arrive at [my] destination in the best possible state of mind.”

There are more tips and practical advice on the two National Geographic articles. Check them out before the next time you hit the road! 

Listening Safari

Here's one for the kids (and any grown ups who like to act like kids)! Practicing mindfulness can be quite fun!

I have found that a great way to get children interested and engaged in mindfulness training is by inviting them to participate in a way that they already feel comfortable doing.

Most children are eager to let their imaginations run free. The animal ears activity is a fun way to bring mindfulness into creative play.

Perk up those ears! What do you hear?

Perk up those ears! What do you hear?

The intent here is to foster mindful listening—an open awareness of sound without judgment. Inviting children to pay attention to the sounds around them is an easy entry into mindfulness. And getting to do so through play makes it all the more fun.

With your child, brainstorm some animals that have good hearing. Each of you can choose one of these animals to ‘be’ for this activity. Together, put on your animals’ ears. Now pretend that you are out in the wild and need to be extra still and extra quiet in order to listen to all of the sounds around you. You may even invite them to close their eyes so that they are relying only on their animal ears.

Try this for about a minute, or longer if they are enjoying it! You could even try it in a few different environments--inside, outside, at the park, etc.

After you have finished listening to your environment(s), share what you heard. Did you hear loud sounds? Quiet sounds? Sounds from inside your body? Other animals? Vehicles? Ask your child how the different sounds made them feel. As an animal, did it make him want to run and hide? Go out hunting? Stay still?

Finally, invite your child to draw a picture of some of the sounds she heard that she doesn’t usually hear.

You can take a listening safari together at home, or even on a walk outside (though, you may want to keep your eyes open for that!).

I’d love to hear in the comments what animals you were, and what sounds you noticed. :-)

Love love love

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Last weekend I attended the funeral of a friend's father. What struck me most about the remembrances that his family and friends offered was how much everyone spoke of his love. He loved his family, he loved life, he loved his friends, he loved his neighbors, he loved his patients. And they all knew it. Because he had told them and shown them so each day.

I want to live a life with that much love.

Let's keep the Val in Valentine's Day... or something like that. Let's not forget what this is all about. Let's make sure that today is a day that we are open and generous with all our love. One thing I've learned about love is that the more I give out to the world--to my family, my friends, strangers, enemies--the more fantastic I feel. 

In addition to the normal ways we think of expressing love, my mindfulness practice has shown me how fostering gratitude and kind wishes for others and myself has increased my capacity to love.  Today I'll be boosting my gratitude and kind wishes quota and I invite you to join me!

Gratitude: Try this simple gratitude activity today. Quick, come up with 5 things you are grateful for! They can be small, simple things like the smell of your coffee or a hug from a friend. Or they can be BIG, complex things like the Internet or your family. 

Especially when I'm down, stealth gratitude like this helps me gain some perspective, and often reminds me that we're all connected in one way or another.

Here's what I came up with this morning: 1) I'm grateful for all of the support and love I've felt as I launch this teaching program; 2) I'm grateful for my husband Greg's design sense and unwillingness to quit while updating my website; 3) I'm grateful for a ride to San Francisco this morning so I can go to the Wisdom 2.0 Conference; 4) I'm grateful that there's a conference all about mindfulness and technology happening only 45 minutes away from my house! ; 5) I'm grateful for the chance to share with you . 

Kind wishes: This one may take a little practice because it can sometimes feel forced at first. But I've learned it's the kind of thing that you can fake it 'till you make it. Try sending yourself three or four kind wishes for the day.

Here's what I'm feeling for myself today: May I be calm, may I be happy, may I welcome new surprises with ease and joy, may I be open to all possibilities. 

If sending them to yourself is too difficult, try sending them to someone you see almost every day who makes you really happy. You can send personalized and specific ones like the last two of mine, or you can do broader wishes like my first two.

Try doing these for a couple of days and notice how you feel.

Ok, that's a lot of 'self-love.' I found that I've got to build that up before I can genuinely go forth and spread my love around to others. 

My favorite way to share my love is through attention. Giving someone my complete attention when I am with them seems like the biggest gift I can offer.

How do you show your love? However you do, make sure you do!

Love love love.