The Gift of This Moment

This time of year gets pretty busy. There are family functions, work parties, and school events. I have food to prepare, cards to send and shopping to do. Throw in some unpredictable weather and you have a perfect recipe for holiday stress. Lately I find myself attached to the calendar and to-do list on my phone, checking, adding or marking off items as I go. I’m constantly reviewing what needs to get done, and planning how and when I’m going to do it. I have to admit that I feel frantic at times, because my mind and energy are all wrapped up in what needs to happen next.

I’m starting to realize that the constant planning and thinking aren’t really helping me stay organized. It is actually making me feel more stressed out! When I worry about the next 6 items on my to-do list while I’m doing the first thing, I find myself scattered and distracted. I am not as efficient, and may wander the aisles instead of going directly to what I need. When I have my head bent over my phone to check my list I may even run into something (yes, I’ve done this. Don’t judge…) Multi-tasking is not increasing my productivity, and dividing my attention between this moment and the future isn’t reducing my stress, it’s making it worse.

Many people get to the end of the holiday season and feel like it has passed in a blur. This is because a distracted mind doesn’t notice what’s happening right now. Imagine driving through the beautiful snowy scenery, all the while planning your list for Costco. Someone else in the car points out a brightly decorated tree, and you murmur mmmhmmm without really looking at it. Your mind is somewhere else, so you will not remember this drive later on. This may not have been a particularly memorable moment, but the same thing can happen when we are trying to enjoy ourselves with loved ones. If we aren’t present in this moment, we will not enjoy it fully or remember the details later.

The best plan to reduce holiday stress right now is to return to the present. Mindfulness brings us back to this moment, where we can handle each thing as it comes up without worrying about what comes next. Try these simple techniques any time you feel overwhelmed, disconnected or scattered.

1. Take things one at a time. Do one thing, complete it, then move on to the next thing on your list.
2. Single task. Do what you are doing, and nothing else. If you’re washing the dishes, just scrub and notice the temperature of the water and the scent of the soap. When you get distracted by thoughts or worries, gently let them go and return your attention to your activity.
3. Take time to pause and check in. Take a few moments in silence, just noticing the rise and fall of your breath. If you are out and about, open your awareness to all the sights around you. Notice each and every color you can see. Hear every sound coming into your ears.

The holidays don’t have to be frantic if we take them one moment at a time. Then we can focus on what really matters, and we will remember it all vividly later. This holiday season, take in the gift of the present moment, and enjoy every breath.

Try a New Story

I spent a lot of time in my youth hating my hair.  In my mind, it had numerous faults including, but not limited to, the fact that it is brown and straight.  In the 80s, when big curly hair was all the rage, I got perms and spent hours teasing and blow-drying it upside down for maximum volume before coating the whole mess with hairspray.  I had the feeling that my hair wasn’t good enough, and changing it would make me better somehow.  My teenaged self-criticism was not limited to the superficial appearance of my hair.  After all, how can you judge one aspect of yourself negatively without feeling that the whole is somehow flawed?

Unfortunately it’s common to live with the belief that we are unacceptable in some way.  This may be based on some event in the past that left a permanent scar, such as being bullied, or it may be a conclusion we reached based on our own self judgment.  Regardless, the internal story becomes fixed: I am imperfect, and I must do something to change.  There are varying degrees of this belief, from “my thighs are too thick” to “I am a monster.”  But most of us will discover some version of this story if we watch our thoughts, or just look in the mirror!

But what if we gave up that old story and decided to tell ourselves a new one?  Maybe something like “In this moment, I have everything I need.”  Or “Right now, I am exactly the way I should be.”  I’m not saying this will be quick and easy, because this is a complete reversal from that old voice inside.  But this new story changes the focus, from the attempt to become something better in the future, to realizing that everything is perfect in this moment right now. This leads to a sense of contentment that has nothing to do with external circumstances, and therefore can’t be taken away.

Try working with an intention and mantra, like those above, that reminds you that you are enough right now. Start each day by repeating your phrase to yourself, and spending a few moments in silence, accepting the sensations of the breath as the intention settles in. When you become aware of self-critical thoughts, or comparisons to others, remind yourself of your mantra. Release judgment and refocus on your breath, accepting that you are right where you need to be, exactly as you should be right now. Content in this moment.

 

Welcome What Arises

Thoughts affect our emotions, of that there is no doubt.  Many therapeutic interventions are based on this premise.  In cognitive therapy, we are trained to monitor our thoughts and evaluate their validity.  Then we deliberately question the negative or toxic thinking that can lead to a low mood.  Positive psychology asks that we focus our attention on the good things, trying to remain more optimistic and grateful.  These techniques are powerful and effective.  But we are still going to have negative thoughts and sometimes we are still going to feel bad.

We can choose what thoughts get our attention, but we can’t choose what thoughts pop into our minds.  Sometimes negative, judgmental and mean thoughts will arise.  We also can’t control everything that happens in life.  Sometimes bad stuff will happen to us or someone we love, and we will feel bad.  These things are beyond our control.  Even though most of us understand these facts on a rational level, we may still desperately wish things were different.  We push and shove against reality, trying to control our experience.  Or we hide, stuffing down the thoughts and emotions that we have decided are bad.  Neither approach changes the circumstances, but both will eventually create problems for us.

What if we took a different approach?  Mindfulness and iRest Yoga Nidra teach us that the present moment is all there is.  What if we just accept whatever arises during this moment?  Feeling sad?  Welcome the sadness.  Sit with it and feel it.  Ask it why it’s present in this moment, and what it needs you to do.  In this way, the feeling is acknowledged.  We can learn from and eventually move past it.   A regular meditation practice reveals that thoughts are transient.  They come into the mind, and if we don’t attach to them or hide from them, they will eventually move on.  The same is true with feelings and emotions.  They aren’t fixed states, and they don’t define or control us.  When we have received their message, eventually they will also move on.  What a revelation! There is no longer a need to sort out and decide what is acceptable.  Simply welcome it all into this moment, and know that it will pass.  But by then we will be busy living in that moment, welcoming and learning what it has to offer before it passes.  Life is a series of moments.  Welcome each one.

 

 

When the Going Gets Tough

I took a yoga class yesterday that included a number of long holds of poses.  Standing poses, mind you, not restoratives.  My legs shook, my arms ached, and through it all our teacher asked us how we were responding to the challenge.  She knew very well how our bodies were reacting.  She was concerned with our thoughts, asking “Where does your mind tend to go when things get difficult?”  One of the things I love about yoga is that the lessons I learn on my mat are clearly mirrored in real life.  This class was just that kind of lesson.

I observed several different trains of thought during class: focus on the negative, worry about the future, and anger.  Focus on the negative meant I only noticed aches and pains, fatigue and the seemingly endless amount of time we were holding the pose.  Worry about the future added to my internal angst, as I thought about what pose might come next, and if it would be harder and if I would be able to keep up.  This served to fuel angry thoughts about my teacher and why she was torturing us in this way.  I think it’s safe to say these represent patterns we’d like to try to avoid when faced with challenges, because they only serve to bring us down.

Challenging situations create a lot of mental chatter, and if we don’t watch it, most of the time it’s counter-productive.  When facing difficulty, I find it helpful to start with a deep breath.  When I fully experience the sensations of air entering and leaving my body, there’s no room for thinking.  I am not regretting the past or worrying about the future, I’m grounded right here in the present.  Inner wisdom lives in this space, and I may find the perfect response to the challenge.  I can also begin to see ways the experience may allow me to grow, and the positive things that may come from having faced it.  None of this can happen if I’m busy fighting against reality by wishing it were different.  When I reconnected with my breath in class,  my experience changed.  I recognized the strength I was building, I heard the great music that was playing, and I felt grateful for the simple fact that I could go to a yoga class on a Sunday morning with a teacher who cared enough to make me learn this lesson.  Namaste!

Choose a Different Response

I was checking voicemail yesterday and found myself in a familiar state: upset and agitated by one of the messages.  I interpreted a comment as a personal attack, and immediately went into defense mode.  I felt myself tighten up, my breath became shorter and I created a list of several people I wanted to call to complain about this person.  Now I have been down this road before.  Haven’t we all?  Sometimes we are correct, and the person is attacking us, other times we’ve misread the situation entirely. Regardless of their intention, we still get to choose how we’re going to respond.

I’ve been reading a lot of books about mindfulness lately.  Luckily, I had just started reading “Taking the Leap: Freeing ourselves from Old Habits and Fears” by Pema Chodron.  She says right in the beginning that if we stay present, we can use our “natural intelligence.”  It will always guide us to the right reaction in any situation.  But first we need to remove all the emotional baggage that is clouding our thoughts. I had to resist an impulsive reaction, and allow myself to be with everything that was present.  Even the uncomfortable thoughts and emotions.  So, I took a deep breath and sat with my feelings.  I recognized that I was triggered because of my own doubts and fears, and I remembered that in the past, gossiping and complaining did not help me feel better.  It just created drama.  I don’t like drama.

In the end, I decided to let the comment go.  This person might not have meant anything by it, and even if they did, what someone else thinks of me is not my business.  In other words, I saw that the right reaction was to not take it personally.  I have felt good about this choice, because I am not obsessing over the comment, I’m not plotting revenge, and I’m not endlessly stirring it up again by discussing it with anyone who will listen.  I honestly haven’t given it another thought.  Right now I’m almost grateful that it happened, because I learned that I can choose to respond in a different way, even when I’m upset.  This doesn’t come naturally, so I’m sure I’ll have to learn this lesson many more times.  But the ease of knowing I made the right decision seems worth the effort.

Live Each Moment

I heard about a viral video of a woman walking down the stairs onto a subway platform.  Except she didn’t notice where she was, and she kept walking right off the edge, falling to the track area below.  Luckily she wasn’t hurt, and neither was the child she was carrying.  It’s easy to judge this situation, thinking how on earth could she have missed what was right in front of her?  This example is extreme, to be sure, but I can see how this could happen.  She might have been tired, thinking about where she needed to be and the errands she had to run.  Or she might have been worrying about the route she’d chosen, thinking she should have gone another way.  In other words, she may have been living like most of us do, our bodies in the present while our minds are stuck in the past or the future.

Our brains are designed to think about things, so there’s nothing abnormal about this tendency.  But this is just a different form of distraction.  We are multi-tasking, doing things with our bodies while our heads are wrapped up in something else.  But if we aren’t careful, our lives may move on around us while we’re busy stuck in thought. The moments we allow to pass by unnoticed are still deducted from our time on earth, but we aren’t living them.

The cure for distraction is choosing to do just one thing at a time.  This is what is meant by staying present, or being mindful.  It’s simple, really.  Just do what you’re doing, while thinking only about what you’re doing and experiencing it with all your senses.  If you’re eating, sit and eat.  Think about the food in your mouth, the texture, the flavor and the smell.  If you’re folding laundry, feel the warm clothes and smell the clean scents and think about the precise corners you’re deliberately making in the shirts.  If you’re walking, feel the earth beneath your feet, see the people around you and hear the sounds of the cars.  You won’t miss a thing.

You may notice an amazing thing happening.  You may start to enjoy what you’re doing.  Even washing the dishes!  Without thoughts judging the activity or creating anxiety about the other chores that need completing, this moment of warm soapy water and a stack of clean dishes can be a pleasure.  Every moment is worth this amount of attention.  This is presence. This is a moment lived.

Stop the Mindless Eating

I once saw a tongue-in-cheek list of ways to avoid gaining weight.  It included things like “Always eat standing up” and “Eat the broken cookies because the calories have all leaked out.” Like all good jokes, it was funny precisely because it contained so much truth.  A lot of us have complex relationships with food, to say the least, and have developed habits of mindless eating that aren’t healthy or helpful.  This can vary from silly “rules” for eating, to snacking out of boredom, to eating on the run.  All of these have in common a pattern of disinterest in just how and what we put into our bodies.  I have to admit to standing at the counter and “cleaning up the edges” of the pan of brownies, believing I’m only eating a small amount.  But studies have shown that this type of behavior actually results in eating more, rather than less.  The worst part is, I don’t even realize it because I’m not being attentive.

Mindless eating also includes something I’ll call the multi-task meal.  You know, where you’re really too busy to stop for lunch so you eat at your desk while answering emails.  Or while driving.  Or while on a conference call.  The multi-task meal means eating has been relegated to just another thing on the to-do list.  I can say from experience that food eaten this way is not enjoyed.  In fact, it’s probably barely even tasted.  As eating this way becomes a habit, it becomes less important what we choose to eat.  Clearly this is a stuff-and-go operation, so quality of taste and nutrition aren’t a priority.  Once we lose sight of the value of the food, the simple pleasures of a meal are ignored altogether.  We eat on autopilot, whatever we can get and eat the fastest so we can get back to doing something more important.  Yikes!  What could be more important than giving our body the fuel it needs to be healthy?

We all know the pitfalls of a fast food diet, including obesity and heart disease.  Mindless eating also has a negative impact on health.  As I mentioned above, we may choose less healthy foods, but we also tend to eat more, and more quickly, when we aren’t paying attention.  This can result in indigestion, heartburn, weight gain and irritable bowel symptoms.  The rushed feeling of a multi-task meal can also increase feelings of stress.  Meal times were designed to be a break in the action of the day.  Our bodies actually need to be in a relaxed state to even digest food, so eating under pressure works against our most fundamental biology.

So how can we take back mealtime?  One way is to apply mindfulness concepts to eating. Mindfulness means being fully present, and at home in all of our senses.  We cannot be aware if our attention is divided, so the first thing to do is simply eat, with no distractions.  Turn off computers, phones and the TV.  If possible, leave the office altogether at lunch time and eat in a relaxed setting.  Focus on the sensory experience at hand, including the smell, taste, and texture of your food.  Eat slowly, and put your fork down between bites.  Savor the meal and enjoy the time out in the day.  Eating this way has been shown to allow us to recognize when we’re full, so overeating becomes less likely.  Some studies have shown this can lead to weight loss.  These changes also decrease the stress response at meal time, so digestion will improve.

We can start with meals, and then bring mindfulness to all of our eating.  I can start by assessing why I’m choosing to eat in the first place.  Am I hungry?  Do I just want something sweet?  Or am I bored and lonely?  Awareness of my motivation should drive my next action, and I can be sure I’m making conscious choices.   Then, I remind myself that every bite of food is worthy of my full attention.  Therefore, every snack should be put on a plate and eaten sitting at the table.  No more mindless grabbing of food, I eat slowly, savoring the experience.  Over time, these habits create a consistent pattern of awareness that will improve health and well-being.  Eating should be a multi-sensorial experience, a pleasure for every human being.  Mindful eating can return us to that state.

What’s the Rush?

I was on vacation last week.  We were very busy, but we didn’t have a set schedule.  I noticed something interesting a few days into the trip.  Even though there was nowhere we had to be at any given time, I still found myself rushing to get places.  I was hurrying to get from one park to the next, and even irritated if we were in a long line of cars.  I wasn’t late for anything at all, so what was going on?

We live in a fast-paced world, and a lot of our time is over-scheduled.  This leads to a constant sense of urgency – to get somewhere, to finish something, to move on to the next big thing.  It’s so ingrained in us to rush, we can’t shut it off when we finally get some down time.  And as our bodies hurry from one place to the next, our minds jump ahead, too.  As I waited in line for one attraction, I was thinking and planning about what we were going to do next.  I finally realized that my push to get to the next fun thing was sucking the pleasure from the experience, because I wasn’t present to enjoy it.

Vacations always seem to teach me something.  Last year I learned to stop counting down the days and dreading the end of my time off.  This year I had to force myself to slow down, to look around and notice things, to hear music and laughter and taste my food.  I had to let go of the need to do everything in order to savor the experience at hand.  I can’t say I walked more slowly, but I allowed myself to rush with the thrill of the moment, rather than the need to check another item off the agenda.  I think it’s always easier to remain mindful when I’m relaxed, so vacation is the perfect time to practice.  I’m happy to take this lesson back into my real life this week: slow down and enjoy this moment, the present is where the excitement lies.

Release Expectations

I use my Google calendar to record every appointment and event.  I make sure to allot plenty of time to drive to work, and I check the weather so I know how to dress myself and the kids.  All of this makes me feel in control.  But what about when things don’t go as expected?  Last week I faced waking up to a sick child, finding the dog in a pile of torn up tissues when I was ready to walk out the door, and forgetting a container of chicken on the counter that I’d planned to use for dinner.  No huge emergencies in the grand scheme of things, but none of these were in my plans!  How I handle these kinds of curveballs is directly related to how attached I am to my expectations.

Let me explain.   If I live my life believing I can actually control it, then I also believe that things ought to happen exactly as I expect they will.  My calendar contains the events of the day, recorded at the times they will actually occur.  When that inevitably doesn’t happen, I will be frustrated and angry because my thoughts will spin a tale of how unfair this is and how it shouldn’t be happening this way.  Or, I’ll be anxious and overwhelmed as my mind carries on about how I’ll never get everything done now.  My attachment to expectations has successfully ruined my day.  I may react by trying even harder to control tomorrow!  Conversely, if I do my best to plan ahead, but recognize that I don’t actually know what is going to happen each moment, my mindset will be completely different.  Things will come up, but I can watch each situation arise and address it as it comes.  Then my thoughts aren’t tied up in fear or frustration, and I can focus on solutions.  Two opposite attitudes with two different emotional outcomes, like two different ways to wade in the ocean: One stands rigidly, waiting to be knocked over by the waves, while the other floats on top.

Trying to control life is as futile as trying to direct the waves of the ocean.  That doesn’t mean we should give up planning and organizing, it just means we have to recognize the limits of our control.  Set up a daily schedule, but keep an attitude of acceptance when things come up.  What happens when I’m trying too hard to control life?  I feel a tightness in my belly and a pounding heart while I have repetitive thoughts about forgetting something important.  When I recognize these feelings, I know I have to stop and take some deep breaths.  I practice lengthening the exhale, until it’s double the length of my inhale.  Then my body becomes calmer, my mind more present.  My breath reminds me to release my expectations and ride the waves of each moment.  Mindful living means acceptance of this moment, as it is, rather than wishing it would turn out the way I expected.

Mindful Monday

Last week I saw a fast food menu that displayed lower calorie options under the statement “Make Mindful Choices.” It seems the terms mindful and mindfulness are everywhere these days. But what do they really mean? Dictionary.com defines mindful as attentive, aware or careful. That makes sense on the restaurant menu, then, but I think even last year it would have said healthy, not mindful. So even the fast food places are recognizing this is a buzz word. Mindfulness means different things to different people. It is a Buddhist practice, a form of meditation, and a way of living in the moment recommended by everyone from yogis to TV doctors.

At its essence, mindfulness is a state of focus and awareness of the present, in which every thought, feeling or emotion that arises is welcomed. It is a non-judgemental acceptance of what is. During mindfulness practice, I may become aware of discomfort or sadness or worry, but I don’t try to change my experience. It’s all part of this moment, which needs no alteration. Mindfulness means being fully present in this moment, which requires me to let go of regrets about the past, and release worries about the future. Neither the past nor the future is happening in this moment, after all!

Mindfulness practices have been shown to improve concentration, reduce reactivity to stress, and improve the mood. There have been positive studies in chronic pain, anxiety and depression. In other words, there are many reasons to learn to cultivate mindfulness. Ideally, we would all meditate daily, but, as I’ve written previously, we don’t have to have an ideal practice to gain benefits. To learn more about Mindfulness Meditation, I recommend reading Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, or Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat Zinn.

Here are two short mindfulness exercises you can begin using right away. After all, mindfulness at its core is simply awareness.

Sensory Awareness: Start by taking a couple of deep breaths to quiet the mind. Then notice 5 things you can feel right now, like your feet touching the ground, the chair supporting your back, your clothes touching your skin. Really feel these sensations without labeling them or trying to change them at all. Then notice five things you can hear, like the ticking of the clock, the hum of the heater or the traffic outside. Listen and really hear the sounds, no judgement, just experience. Proceed with things you can see and smell, and perhaps finish the practice by drinking some water and really tasting it in your mouth. You’ve just been fully present in your body!

Breath Awareness: Sit comfortably and take a few deep breaths to quiet the mind, then breathe normally. Bring your awareness to your breath. Notice how it feels moving in and out of your nose, following it from beginning of inhale to end of exhale. Notice the pause between breaths. Feel the rise and fall of your belly with each breath, without trying to alter it at all. Simply feel and experience the breath. If your thoughts distract you, release them without reaction and return to the breath, over and over again. Try to stay with it for a full minute.

These short exercises allow us to experience mindfulness quickly and simply, without any special props or time commitment. The more I practice mindfulness, the more likely I am to stay present the rest of the day. It’s easier to release unnecessary worry, and let go of minor irritations. Try taking a moment today to be fully present, and see for yourself what all the mindfulness buzz is about.