“Inviting our thoughts and feelings into awareness allows us to learn from them rather than be driven by them.” -Daniel J. Siegel When we choose to try a sitting meditation, we are making a special time and place for non-doing in our lives. The regular practice of sitting meditation provides the opportunity to wake up to this moment, the only moment we truly have. Our lives move at such a hectic pace that it can become a blur of lived but un-noticed moments. It can be as if we are sleep walking through life, moving in a type of automaticity, not noticing how we really feel, what we really think, how we truly want to live. The days can become weeks, the weeks can become months, the months can become years and before we realize it, much time has passed, and we have missed most of our life. Mindfulness is waking up to the present moment on purpose without judgement. It is setting our intention to pay attention and then focusing our attention and observing the underlying attitudes that show up. It’s about letting go – letting go of expectations and letting the present moment be as it is. It’s about developing patience and openness towards ourselves with kindness and curiosity, being aware of the tendency to push to achieve an outcome or to resist those experiences that are unpleasant. It’s about the tendency to judge.
"Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better." -Maya Angelou S-T-O-P Stop: Pause, notice what’s in the body in this moment Take a breath: feel the breath as it flows throughout Observe all that’s here: Stressed? Angry? Anxious? Bored? Proceed: after recognizing what shows up, knowing there’s freedom to choose. We’ve been talking about unknowingly feeding into our anxiety over the last two Musings. What “feeds” do we gravitate towards when feeling anxious? There was an invitation for us to take a mindful moment before surfing our social media by pausing to collect some data before automatically engaging with Instagram, grabbing that candy bar, checking our email or twitter account. Pausing to notice what sensations are here in the body, where they are felt, and what thoughts or emotions are provoked before proceeding. With this information we can ask ourselves, who’s in the driver seat, me, or my anxiety? Here’s a little science behind how this works. It’s called operant conditioning or reward-based learning. Our minds set up habit loops based on the results of our actions. These results are interpreted by the brain as “rewards”. These rewards shape our behavior. With positive reinforcement, we learn to do more behaviors that make good feelings continue.
“Most of the shadows of this life are caused by our standing in our own sunshine.” Ralph Waldo Emerson Understanding the Habit Loop and How We Feed It The definition of anxiety is a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome. Where does anxiety come from? Without even knowing it we may be feeding it or making it worse in attempts to make ourselves feel better. We mentioned “feeds” in last month’s Musing, the endless activities that can consume our time and attention. Feed binging is just one way we may be playing into our anxiety. There is nothing wrong with the feeds depending on but how we are in relationship to them. However, this relationship may be making our anxiety worse. Because anxiety is at an all-time high, it is worth considering. The iPhone was designed after a casino, with all the bells and whistles to keep our attention. It activates our sympathetic nervous system, the flight, fight or freeze system in the body. You get that nice hit on your Instagram and your phone “bings”. Someone “likes” you. This feels good and now you want to post again. You may think, I want to feel good right now, I’m going to post something, and I’ll feel better. This repeated behavior begins to lay down a habit. Post- get a bing- feel better.
“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.” - Alan Watts What is mindfulness training? Mindfulness training is practicing how to operate in present moment awareness intentionally and non-judgmentally. In our current societal state of being driven by distraction, this has become a lost art. Consciously or unconsciously, we tend to choose to distract our attention away from whatever- usually something uncomfortable to something more comfortable. Those cute little puppy videos, Tic Tok, Instagram or our cell phones are good at this. It’s so automatic, we aren’t even aware of it. There are endless “feeds” today in which to spend our time and attention. Although there is nothing inherently wrong with these feeds, they can impact our lives in some unknowingly adverse ways by increasing anxiety. Take a few moments reflecting on how many feeds you find yourself spending your time pursuing. Here are just a few examples of our daily “feeds”.
It’s been a week since the mass shooting occurred at the University when three football players died, Lavel Davis Jr, Devin Chandler and D’Sean Perry, and another football player, Michael Hollins Jr, and a student, Marlee Morgan, were seriously injured. Another student, Christopher Jones, has been arrested for the shooting. Many others’ lives have been irrevocably changed. Grief over the deaths as well as the impact of trauma of the event will persist for a long time, undoubtedly for the duration of their lives for some. How can mindfulness be helpful in such a terrible situation? We can remember that we can just be with whatever arises without judging our experience. There are multiple emotions we might feel-grief, anger, fear, among many- and we can see if it’s possible to acknowledge whatever we’re feeling, even if we then choose to shift our attention to something else. Connecting with others can be helpful in validating what we are experiencing and recognizing that we are not alone. The University did this on a large scale with the memorial service that was held on Saturday at the John Paul Jones Arena. We can cultivate kindness for ourselves because many of the emotions that arise are difficult to be with.
Have you noticed how much the word “mind” is part and parcel of our lives, how we tell stories and sing songs about the mind, as though it were a phenomenon that operates on its own, separately from “me”? Song titles with the word “mind” abound: the difficult conditions of your mind…Pain of Mind, Mind War, Crazy Out of My Mind, Dead-end Mind, Unsound Mind, Mind Games, All in the Mind, Quiet Mind, Thorn in My Mind, Half a Mind, A Mind With a Heart of Its Own. Then there’s your mind and what to do with it - Say What’s On Your Mind, Send Your Mind, Make Up Your Mind, Mind Control, Relax Your Mind, Free Your Mind, Open Your Mind, Mind Eraser, When the Heart Rules the Mind, Quiet Your Mind, Change Your Mind, Travel With Your Mind, (but while you’re traveling, Don’t Lose Your Mind!) And questions about your mind… If You Change Your Mind, Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind? Where Is My Mind? Can I Change My Mind? And traveling around inside the mind… In the Back of My Mind, First Thing on My Mind, Mind over Matter,
When we see things, we tend to believe what we see is an accurate reflection of the way things are. How many times have we seen or heard the phrase “seeing is believing”? When we see something, usually our automatic reaction is to believe it. Yet there is much evidence that this is an oversimplification, that what we see is not just a simple and accurate representation of the world around us. To begin with, far more information enters our eyes than we could ever process in conscious awareness. This information has to be filtered first, and this filtering occurs automatically without our even knowing that it is occurring. An estimated one gigabyte of information enters our eyes each second, and is filtered down to just a few bytes of relevant data. What is considered relevant depends on context and to what we are paying attention. You may have seen the video of people passing a basketball during which a gorilla walks through.
Summer is here and with it an opportunity to appreciate all the bounties of nature. Trees are green, flowers are in bloom, birds and animals abound. The heat and humidity can be a barrier to spending time outside, and we may find we seek the comfort of air-conditioned space to escape them. My wife and I have been noticing this, and intentionally choosing to sit on our deck, in the shade. The place where we sit is right next to a hummingbird feeder, and we’ve been watching the hummingbirds. Hummingbirds are amazing creatures. They can beat their wings over 50 times a second, and are the only birds that can hover. They have very active metabolisms, and may consume up to half their body weight in a day, visiting as many as 1000-2000 flowers. They are travelers and can migrate up to 2000 miles, wintering in Mexico and Central America. They also have relatively large brains, about twice as large compared to their body weight as humans.
Last month, the Monthly Musing addressed cultivating kindness for ourselves. This month, the focus is on cultivating kindness toward others. There are many benefits of doing both. Extending kindness to ourselves can help decrease the impact of negative experiences and emotions and improve our wellbeing. Extending kindness to others can have similar effects. Often when we are angry with someone or hold a grudge, we may be the ones who feel it the most. If we can acknowledge these feelings and intentionally respond with kindness we may feel better, as may the other person, and our relationships may improve. It may be helpful to revisit the definition of mindfulness that we use in the Mindfulness Center: Intentional present-moment nonjudgmental awareness with kindness. If we are not paying attention, when we interact with others we may react negatively and be critical and judgmental without even noticing it. This happens automatically, outside of our conscious awareness, based on how our past experiences influence our perceptions. These influences are pervasive.
Cultivating kindness is central to practicing mindfulness. A definition of mindfulness that we use in the Mindfulness Center is “intentional nonjudgmental present moment awareness with kindness”. Why is kindness so important? Being with our own present moment experience can be hard, and practicing kindness toward ourselves can facilitate our ability to do this. There are times when we may be feeling stressed, or upset with ourselves for something we have or have not done, or we may be upset with someone else. If we pay attention to our present moment experience, we may notice that we are feeling anxious, or guilty, or angry. These can all be difficult emotions, and we may want to turn away, to distract ourselves, to do anything else but be with what we are feeling. Yet mindfulness is about being with whatever is arising in the moment, whether it is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.