The Mindful Way To Charisma: Practices for Projecting Warmth & Presence

May 29th, 2017 by

Some of us are charismatic. Some of us just aren’t. For a long time, charisma has seemed like a magical gift that only a lucky few were given – but research is now showing that charisma is something that we can learn, and that meditation has a lot to teach us.

Charisma has little to do with how we look – we’ve all known people who are good-looking, but not charismatic, and other people who are charismatic but not good-looking. It’s a matter of behavior. In The Charisma Myth: How Anyone Can Master the Art and Science of Personal Magnetism, author Olivia Fox Cabane identifies charismatic behavior as consisting of three essential components: presence, warmth, and power. We express these through our body language, and it’s remarkably difficult to fake them. But the good news is that we can learn to influence our mental state in a positive direction, and our body language naturally follows suit. We too can have charisma.

Mindful Presence
When we’re talking with someone who isn’t present, we can feel disregarded and resentful, as if that person feels something else is more important than their current interaction with us. And if we’re the one who’s distracted, they feel the same.

The mind of the average person wanders almost fifty percent of the time. It’s difficult to be fully present, and even small improvements can have a big effect on those around us. Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” Mindfulness meditation trains us to focus on the present moment, regardless of whether we’re alone or with someone else – and when we are truly present with someone else, that person can feel our attention. They feel heard, respected, and valued. An added plus is that learning to be more in tune with the present moment also helps us to be happier – the more our minds wander, the more unhappy we are likely to be.

Practice:
The next time you’re speaking with someone, try this exercise from Cabane: feel your toes. Even though I practice meditation regularly, I still get distracted during interpersonal exchanges! Feeling my toes, or the soles of my feet, is a quick fix that gets me right back into my physical body in the present moment, and really helps the other person feel that I’m on the ground with them instead of lost in my head.

Compassionate Warmth
The next component of charisma is warmth. Someone who projects attentiveness and a desire for our happiness and success is someone who is attractive, even magnetic. We want people to like us and wish us well – and the best way to project through body language that we like someone and wish them well is to practice actually doing just that. Metta (loving-kindness) meditation is the Buddhist practice of generating and sending compassion – good wishes for yourself and others. In A Fearless Heart: How the Courage to Be Compassionate Can Transform Our Lives, author Thupten Jinpa walks the reader through the Stanford Compassion Cultivation Training course, a program that teaches us how to be more compassionate in everyday life. Sometimes, we fear that being more compassionate means weakness, but compassion doesn’t mean we can’t stand up for ourselves. In fact, it means we can do so more effectively and with greater ease.

Practice:
Cabane shares this exercise: imagine the people around you have angel wings. Smile and silently send them good wishes. When I tried this, I found myself smiling constantly. People seemed nicer, not because they were different, but because I was seeing them differently. And many more people smiled in return.

Grounded Power
Power is the third element of charisma. Power means different things to different people, but it boils down to being able to influence the world around us. It can mean physical strength, social status, wealth, intelligence, expertise, or authority. It can be hard to tell whether someone really is powerful, so people will tend to accept whatever your body language projects.

Because meditation can help us feel more grounded – projecting a sense of ease, confidence, and stability – both mindfulness meditation and metta meditation can increase our sense of power. In addition, anything that helps us realize the potential of our physical body, whether that’s yoga or long walks or weight training, will increase the confidence with which we move. While I’m only 5’5, simply getting stronger made it so that I no longer felt short around others taller than me. This shows up in my body language and posture, and people notice.

Practice:
One of the biggest obstacles to projecting power is the discomfort we feel around uncertainty. Cabane recommends the following visualization: Take several deep breaths, imagining the clean air rinsing away all your concerns. Imagine lifting the weight of everything you are concerned about from your own shoulders, and putting it on the shoulders of a benevolent entity or force – God, the Universe, Life, or anything else that works with your beliefs. Explore the idea of becoming comfortable within the uncertainty, letting go of the need to have an immediate answer.

Putting it Together
According to the research, charisma is the ability to project presence, warmth, and power through our body language and sincere attentiveness. While different people will have different degrees of each, all three elements are necessary. By practicing these mental states, our body language will automatically change to match them and we will be able to project more charisma than we knew we had.

Nurturing a Mindful Mind: Kids naturally take to mindfulness

June 20th, 2016 by

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Talk to any mindfulness practitioner, and they’ll say, “I wish I had discovered mindfulness sooner!” Increasingly, research shows that mindfulness benefits children just as much as adults — maybe even more. Mindfulness practices teach us many valuable skills including how to pause and observe what we’re feeling, how to concentrate, and how to soothe our emotions. Learn early and you’ve got a real advantage!

Goldie Hawn may be most famous as an actress, but she believes in mindfulness so much she founded the Hawn Foundation in 2003 to create MindUP™, an evidence-based training program for teachers and students. “Mindfulness can help people of any age,” she says. A sixth grader in the program reports, “Being mindful calms me down when I am angry. It helps me not get in a big fight because I don’t want to hurt my friends. It also helps me focus on my work.”

The Mindful Schools initiative trains educators to practice mindfulness themselves and to integrate it into their classrooms. The results have been striking. Studies show that mindfulness can improve a host of outcomes and teach critical life-skills to youngsters. Who wouldn’t want their child to have improved attention and focus, or better grades? How about increased emotional regulation, more empathy, and enhanced social skills? Benefits also include reduced test anxiety, stress, and depression.

Training kids in mindfulness doesn’t have to be difficult. The hardest part might be developing your own mindfulness practice: meditation, yoga, mindful eating. Kids will notice if you tell them to do something you’re not doing yourself! It’s also important to know that mindfulness isn’t going to change your child into a model of good behavior. Kids will still be kids. Mindfulness will help give them the tools they need to work with their emotions more skillfully when they arise.

One popular mindfulness activity for very young children is a “mind jar” — a jar full of glitter suspended in liquid, that your child can shake to reflect their busy mind and then watch the glitter settle as their own thoughts and feelings calm down. A snow globe will also work. Several websites have easy instructions for making a mind jar. [http://www.preschoolinspirations.com/2014/11/13/6-ways-to-make-a-calm-down-jar/]

Kids are naturally curious, so mindfulness practices are a great fit for young minds. One great exercise is eating one raisin mindfully. Ask your child to look at one raisin as if they’d never seen one before. Then guide them to notice the raisin with each one of their other senses, asking them what they notice-— how it feels, smells, tastes, and even the sound of chewing. The inner “aha” that comes from paying close attention to something as simple as a raisin spurs children to see what else they can discover just by paying attention. The Harvard Vanguard blog has a great script for talking your child in mindful eating. [http://blog.harvardvanguard.org/2013/04/smart-kids-practice-mindful-eating/]

Children are very active, so often a movement-based practice works well. Many kids love yoga for its moving and soothing qualities. Mindful walking, especially in nature, can help children connect what’s outside them to what’s inside them. Simply go for a walk and pay attention to the walk itself.

Psychologist and author Daniel Goleman, relates the “breathing buddies” exercise. Even very young children can focus mindfully on their breath with help. You and your child can lie on your backs each of you with a stuffed animal on your belly. Focus attention on the movement of the buddy as you breathe in and out. This exercise is great for improving kids’ attention skills and self-management. They learn to associate the soothing qualities of their breathing with their ability to pause, focus, and soothe themselves.

Some people, including kids, can actually become more anxious when they first start practicing mindfulness — if you’ve never paid close attention to yourself before, you may find a sense of worry living inside. If your child experiences this, encourage him or her to continue the practice and try to determine what part of the experience is causing the anxious feeling. If your child is uncomfortable with negative thoughts, help her to practice letting go of thoughts and returning to the feeling of the breath. If your child is uncomfortable with letting go, help him notice how he feels in his body in the present moment. Ask him to breathe kindness into the part of the body that feels anxious. You might also have your child place a hand on the part of the body that feels anxious, feel the warmth of their own soothing touch, and gently repeat a kind word of their choosing like “soft, soft, soft”. If the problem persists, it may be best to find another mindfulness activity, such as yoga, mindful walking, or mindful eating, that don’t cause anxiety. [http://www.gisc.org/gestaltreview/documents/teachingmindfulnesstochildren.pdf]

Sharing mindfulness with your children can be a wonderful way to help them help themselves. Even if your children aren’t attending a school with a mindfulness program, you can teach them to experience the present moment through your own examples and guidance. Mindfulness is a quality that can be strengthened with practice, and teaching them some simple techniques will serve them their entire lives.

Rx: Meditate in Nature – Wide open spaces are good for the body and mind.

March 28th, 2016 by

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Twenty-five hundred years ago, the Buddha meditated under the Bodhi tree. He was outside, in nature, when he attained enlightenment – not inside a monastery or palace. Whether you believe the story to be myth or history, people have long known that there is wisdom, serenity, and balance in nature.

The Science of Green

Research, too, shows that green spaces bring benefits to people, more than just being outside. You don’t have to travel miles away from everyone — even your local park can help. A recent study compared walking in an urban park versus walking through urban streets and found participants had lower heart rates, lower anxiety, and greater subjective well-being after just fifteen minutes walking through a park. In another study walkers fitted with mobile EEG sensors were significantly less stressed when they strolled through green space than when they ambled through shopping or commercial districts.

In Japan, walking through the forest is known as shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing”. Research has shown that it improves cortisol levels, heart rate variability, blood pressure, sleeplessness, mood, and other markers of stress. Researchers looked at the components of a forest bathing experience, including sight, smell, sound, and touch, all of which show benefits.

We often meditate indoors. It’s convenient and eliminates some distractions. The outdoor environment is less controlled. There could be traffic noise or kids playing or it might even start raining! While there doesn’t yet seem to be research that directly compares meditating indoors to meditating outdoors, every contemplative tradition includes meditation in nature, in both stories and prescribed practices. Given the evidence-based benefits of both meditation and nature, it stands to reason that we can reap significant benefits by meditating outdoors.

Try Walking Meditation

Any meditation that can be performed indoors can be performed outdoors, as long as you have a suitable space. While you may already be familiar with sitting meditation, the natural world is ideal for walking meditation. Most of the time, we use walking as a means to get somewhere. The hustle and bustle of the street, the hard concrete of sidewalks, our everyday shoes all serve to keep us moving.

A walking meditation, by contrast, has no destination. Wear comfortable shoes, or if the ground is safe go barefoot. Begin by centering yourself. Feel the ground beneath your feet, the air stirring around you, the sunlight or fog on your skin. Keep your gaze softly focused ahead of you. When you begin walking, the pace is not important, but awareness is. Walk at the pace that best allows you to be fully present. Feel the muscles in your hips and legs and feet as you lift each foot and replace it gently on the ground. Just as in sitting meditation, your attention will wander. That’s ok; the value doesn’t come in having perfect concentration, but in continually bringing your attention back to the present moment. Use the feeling of taking your next step to gently anchor your attention into the here and now. Gil Fronsdal of the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood, California notes, “I sometimes find it restful to think of letting my body take me for a walk.”

Realize You Are a Part of the Natural World

When I was working on my Master’s degree in Transpersonal Psychology in Boulder Colorado, our professors took my class into the outdoors for an experiential exercise. Each of us went on our own solitary “walkabout” in the gorgeous foothills of the Rocky Mountains. After a time of walking, sensing, and savoring the beauty and serenity of the natural world, I sat down to meditate among the wildflowers. My experience then is best described as completing a jigsaw puzzle by inserting the last piece that completes the picture. At first it seemed as though the pieces of the surrounding natural environment all fit together perfectly – it was only “I“ that was the last missing piece. I felt separate. However, as I continued to meditate – patiently returning my attention to the immediate experience of the present moment – it felt as though my mental idea of “I” – that concept that separated me from everything else – dissolved. Only then did the last piece of the puzzle find its home in the living experience that surrounded me. All was one. I was no longer separate from nature. I was part of it.

Some Practices to Do Outdoors

Sitting Meditation
Walking Meditation
Yoga
Qigong
Tai Chi

Too Much Cortisol? The Scary Stress Hormone and How to Decrease it

May 15th, 2015 by

If you’ve ever had a panic attack, or remember a close call when driving on a busy highway, then you’re familiar with the effects of the stress hormone cortisol flooding the body. It’s a horrible feeling! But cortisol isn’t concerned with how you feel. It’s concerned with your survival. Your body is an incredible organism with a brain that functions to protect the body against perceived threats. This could be an oncoming car or a recurrent negative thinking pattern. The primitive part of the brain that scans every moment of your experience for potential threats – the amygdala – has a “hair trigger” and would rather be safe than sorry. So, when the Amygdala gets even a fuzzy sense of a threat —whether “real” or perceived—it instantly activates the autonomic nervous system producing a cascade of stress hormones and a host of physical changes in the body to allow you to either fight off or escape from a predator – commonly referred to as the Fight – Flight response.

This phenomenon is obviously essential for your survival in the face of immediate physical dangers (that near miss on the highway requires immediate evasive action), but it can become a huge problem when the perceived “threat’ is actually chronic stress, which may include automatic reactive and negative thinking patterns that originate within your own mind. The amygdala doesn’t know the difference!

Repeated activation of the Fight-Flight response, even for “threats” that come in the form of thoughts and emotions, like excessive worry, anger, and rumination, means long-term exposure to cortisol. Such exposure has been linked to everything from hypertension, cancer, infertility, high blood sugar, aggression, and more. Excessive cortisol makes the brain more sensitive to pain and exhausts the adrenal glands, which brings a whole host of ailments including insomnia and weight gain. Additionally, cortisol suppresses happy hormones like serotonin, leading to depression.

And it gets worse! Cortisol also effectively turns off the body’s innate repair mechanisms – anything not needed for immediate survival. Think immune system, reproductive system, and digestive system. Cortisol ramps down the functioning of these systems and ramps up those needed to deal with the stressor: especially the cardiovascular and adrenal systems. You can see how long term exposure to cortisol is not a healthy way to live.

How can we rebalance this mind-body system? As Dr. Lissa Rankin points out in her book Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself your body has natural self-repair mechanisms that fight infections, slow aging, and boost immunity. But these mechanisms cannot operate while the nervous system is stuck in “Fight-Flight”. What’s needed are ways to engage and strengthen the body’s parasympathetic nervous system: the part that soothes and calms the amygdala.

There are many simple mind-body practices that activate the soothing parasympathetic nervous system: meditation, yoga, tai chi, qigong, aromatherapy, and physical exercise. To keep yourself in balance, and protected from the damaging effects of cortisol, you must carve out time for self-care, and practice regularly. These practices are protective and healing and have no side effects!

Years ago, before I discovered meditation and yoga, I lived in a chronic state of Fight-Flight and cortisol saturation. I had the chronic pain, weakened immune system, and regular panic attacks to show for it. Now, having practiced and taught meditation for several years, I was recently invited to participate in a university study that examined the cortisol levels of meditation teachers. To my delight, I learned that my levels of cortisol were significantly lower than the average. I have no doubt that my mindfulness meditation practice is responsible for that. Take care of your body-mind. If you don’t, who will?

Mind-Body Practices for Reducing Cortisol

  • Mindfulness Meditation
  • Restorative Yoga
  • Chair Yoga
  • Tai Chi
  • Qigong

The Kind Mind: Mindfulness Nourishes Self-Kindness

December 12th, 2014 by

The best advice I received when learning to meditate was “Be kind to yourself.” This was challenging, since my mind drifted (a thousand times!) during meditation practice. How could I be kind to this frustrating, unruly, disobedient mind? Through mindfulness practice we become aware of the nearly constant chatter of the mind, observing how it seems to replay certain thought patterns over and over, and seeing how this activity ends up driving much of our day-to-day experience. When we sit down to meditate, with the intention of simply following the rise and fall of our own breath, we see how busy the mind really is. This is totally normal and something most people encounter when they first try to meditate. However, struggling against, or trying to control, the busy mind is futile. Rather, in mindfulness we cultivate an interior environment of patience. Just as we would create an environment of safety and kindness while teaching something new to another, mindfulness asks that you do the same with your own busy mind. But most of us aren’t so kind to ourselves. Why is that?

One of the reasons I began to study and practice mindfulness meditation is that I longed to feel at ease in my own skin. Others seemed to have this quality, and I wondered why it seemed so elusive. I’ve learned that the degree to which we experience this ease depends, in part, on the strength of attachment bonds developed early in life. The strength of these bonds affect the formation of our “internal working model” of “self” in relation to others – who we can trust, and whether we see ourselves as worthy of love. Research shows that people with insecure attachment bonds have less compassion for themselves than those who feel securely attached. In early childhood what we perceive as our reflection in the eyes of others, especially our primary caregivers, becomes a dominant influence on how we see and treat ourselves.

But there is good news! Internal patterns of self-judgment and inner criticism, just like the brain itself, are changeable! We can cultivate inner kindness and compassion for ourselves through the practice of mindfulness. Studies show that people who are able to pay attention to their present moment experience not only have greater emotional balance; they also have a greater ability to respond rather than react to difficult or unpleasant situations. Kristen Neff, PhD, author of Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind notes, “Self-kindness, by definition, means that we stop the constant self-judgment and disparaging internal commentary that most of us have come to see as normal. It requires us to understand our foibles and failures instead of condemning them. It entails clearly seeing the extent to which we harm ourselves through relentless self-criticism, and ending our internal war.”

Mindfulness is a means through which we can notice, be present with, and befriend the inner critic – during our meditation practice and in daily life – for example, when we make a mistake or fail in some way. Mindfulness practice trains us to be aware in the moment when we’re allowing the inner critic to dominate our inner landscape. With mindful self-awareness we have a choice in the moment – we don’t have to automatically believe the inner commentary! We create the conditions for the arising of what’s been called the “sacred pause” – that moment when we can actually stop in the midst of reactivity and adopt a kinder, more understanding view toward ourselves– just like we would do for someone else who was hurting.

Hugging Practice
Pick one routine activity you do every day. For example, brushing your teeth, washing your hair, drinking your morning coffee, or walking from your car to work. Make it your practice to do this activity mindfully for at least one week. Let your senses be wide open as you gently hold your attention on your present moment experience – the buzz of your toothbrush, the sensation of shampoo and warm water against your scalp, or the feel of each foot touching the ground as you walk. When your mind is pulled away from your immediate physical experience – for example, thinking about what you need to do when you get to work – simply note this in a kind and friendly way, and gently bring your attention back to your present moment experience. You’re building your muscle of paying attention to the present – the only moment where change is possible.
Physical touch releases Oxytocin – “the hormone of love and bonding”. Increased levels of Oxytocin boost feelings of trust, calm, safety, generosity, and connectedness and also strengthen the ability to feel warmth and compassion for ourselves. Oxytocin reduces fear and anxiety and can counteract the increased blood pressure and cortisol associated with stress. Self-Compassion expert and author Dr. Kristen Neff recommends this practice when you notice you’re feeling tense, upset, sad, or self-critical: “try giving yourself a warm hug, tenderly stroking your arm or face, or gently rocking your body.” It seems a bit silly at first, but your body doesn’t know that. “What’s important,” she says, “is that you make a clear gesture that conveys feelings of love, care, and tenderness.” If others are around, fold your arms in a non-obvious way, gently squeezing yourself in a comforting manner. You can also imagine hugging yourself if you can’t make the actual physical gesture. Notice how your body feels after receiving the hug. Does it feel warmer, softer, calmer? You’ve just tapped into your body’s Oxytocin system and changed your biochemical experience.

 

 

 

 

Rewire Your Mind and Heart for Love: Mindfulness Brings Intimacy to Life

November 21st, 2014 by

By now you’ve probably heard that mindfulness is good for you. A regular practice in moment-to-moment awareness can make us happier, healthier, and kinder. Recent studies linking mindfulness and women’s sexual response are garnering a lot of attention. (More on this later!) As it turns out, the benefits of mindfulness that improve life in general – increased self-awareness, more self-compassion, less anxiety, and improved attention – also heighten our experience of loving, and being loved. While mindfulness benefits both genders, women experience special benefits when it comes to intimacy. Why? As Dr. Elizabeth Kavaler, a urologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, notes, “the biggest part of sexuality in women is emotional and mental.”

The Physical

Now, about those studies. Brown University researchers measured the effect of mindfulness on sexual arousal. Women who underwent mindfulness training experienced faster and more intense sexual arousal than a control group. The study’s lead author, Gina Silverstein, attributes the difference to increased “interoceptive awareness” – the ability to observe and describe what’s happening inside your body and mind without judging the experiences as “good” or “bad” or trying to change them. By practicing this skill, says Silverstein, we can “turn off the autopilot.”

And there’s more. Brain scans of long term mindfulness meditators reveal structural changes. Specifically, increased folding (“gyrification”) of a part of the brain called the “insula”. A Dartmouth study reported that women with more gyrified insula experience more intense orgasms.

The Mental

If you’ve ever tried to sit quietly and follow the rising and falling of your breath, you quickly learned that the mind soon has other ideas. Namely thinking – about things you needed to do, things you forgot to do, worrying about something that might happen, or regretting something that already happened. Anything but simply feeling the sensations of breathing! This constant mental chatter can prevent a woman from feeling sexual stimuli. Mindfulness training quiets this chatter.

Another aspect of the mind that is troublesome for intimate relationships is our hard wired “Negativity Bias.” An ancient survival mechanism, Nature ensured that negative experiences made a lasting impression on the brain (such as that close call with the hungry tiger!) Forgetting such encounters tended to shorten one’s lifespan! But today’s world is less about physical threats and more about psychological ones – often of our own creation. Our constant mental chatter tends to be negative – our interpretation of an offhand comment, anger at being delayed by traffic or someone’s forgetfulness, rumination about feeling disrespected, or anxiety about health or finances.  Unfortunately, the body doesn’t know the difference between actual physical threats and our tendency to dwell on and rehash unpleasant psychological “threats”. It churns out long-lasting stress hormones regardless. Not a recipe for blissful intimacy.

Through mindfulness practice you train your mind to ignore distractions – those arising in our own minds as well as those from the outer environment. Over time (changes happen in a matter of weeks) the mind learns a new way of being – and literally rewires itself! Mindfulness also strengthens your ability to refocus on the present when life’s normal ups and downs occur. With practice, these skills become stronger and stronger. The chattering mind, with its negativity bias, begins to quiet down. We learn to simply “abide” in this moment, which is not nearly as bad as we think. In fact, we find that it’s often quite wonderful! Perhaps not perfect, but wonderful nonetheless.

The Emotional

Mindfulness is about more than presence of mind. It’s also about presence of heart. It shows us our infinite capacity for love and compassion – starting with ourselves. The more we pay attention to our “mental chatter,” the more we learn just how much of it is critical, harsh, and destructive. From this place of awareness, we can befriend and soften that harsh inner critic. We discover that we’re actually complete and whole, with a loving heart that is limitless. Compassion, forgiveness, connection – all are natural outgrowths of this practice of kind, loving attention. And it may just be the best formula for intimacy there is!

 

 

Mindful Communication – A Key to Better Relationships

October 10th, 2014 by

One of the significant characteristics of mindfulness training is that once you begin to feel confident in your practice, and start to notice the benefits of mindfulness in your daily life, you begin to see relationships evolve and change. Mindfulness “ripples out” from the practitioner and affects those around her. Several times I’ve heard the question from new students – “How can I get my spouse to do this too?”  My response is always the same – the key is to work on yourself, and only yourself. You are one half of an interconnected “system” called a relationship. By changing yourself, the relationship will, of necessity, change. I often tell the story of how I tried “for 20 years” to “change” my husband  – and it never worked. It wasn’t until I started to change myself that he began to change. Interesting huh?

Your Mindfulness Ripples Out to Others

Each of our relationships –  with our significant other, our kids, friends, and co-workers – is a dynamic system. Systems naturally tend toward a state of equilibrium or a “steady state”. Each relationship is a unique mixture of what each person brings to it. However, our “steady state” relationship with our spouse may be the result of unconscious and habitual patterns of behavior each of us automatically relies on when we interact. Examples are patterns like reactivity, defensiveness, and blame. These patterns are sure to kick in when we try to “change” someone else. The interesting thing is that when you begin to change yourself  – by cultivating your own mindfulness – you bring a new and transformed way of being, and relating, to the relationship. Because the system will naturally seek to regain equilibrium, the other half must change in some way. This is how your mindfulness “ripples out” and affects others.

Did You Hear Me?

The practice of mindful communication, especially mindful listening, can make a world of difference in potentially every interaction you have. David Rome and Hope Martin, creators of “Embodied Listening” workshops note, “Unsatisfying communication is rampant in our society.” It seems that most of us are talking, but no one is listening! “Poor listeners” they point out, “are frequently unable to separate their own needs and interests from those of others. Everything they hear comes with an automatic bias: How does this affect me? What can I say next to get things my way? Poor listeners are more likely to interrupt: either they have already jumped to conclusions about what you are saying, or it is just of no interest to them. They attend to the surface of the words rather than listening for what is “between the lines.” If this describes you, you’re not alone. Many of us are poor listeners, but we’re seldom aware of it. How can we become more aware of our communication patterns? By paying attention. This is where mindfulness – the skill of paying attention, on purpose and nonjudgmentally –  can work wonders!

Mindfulness Meditation Makes Us Better Listeners

In mindfulness meditation practice, “we learn to settle, returning over and over again to the present moment, and allowing our thoughts to come and go without acting on them.” This practice shows us how our focus on “self” keeps us from experiencing the world directly. “Letting go of the “web of me” is the first step toward seeing and hearing others more fully,” advise Rome and Martin. By building our self-awareness through the practice of mindfulness, we begin to befriend ourselves, based on an attitude of kindness, gentleness, and non-reactive noticing of our own impulses and patterns. Rome and Martin identify mindful self-awareness as “the ground for listening and communicating well with others.”

Better listening skills through self-awareness are the natural outgrowth of a regular formal mindfulness practice, like meditation. However, the informal practice of mindful listening is something you can do anytime – and the more you practice, the better you get. There’s nothing quite like observing the face of someone as they discover you’re actually listening to them. Typically their face will begin to light up, their voice and stance will soften, a scowl may turn into a smile! Even the most unpleasant conversation can be improved by the practice of mindful listening.

Try It, You’ll Like It

Chad Meng-Tan, in his book Search Inside Yourself, describes the practice of mindful listening as giving the gift of your full attention – the gift of “air time” – to the speaker, while at the same time maintaining some mindfulness on your body. While this practice isn’t appropriate for every conversation, it can be wonderful and effective when the time is right – which is more often than you think. As the other person speaks, notice whether you’re really listening or instead planning what you will say in response at the first opportunity. Try to just listen openly and non-judgmentally. “Don’t try to remember everything,” he says, “If you really listen, you’ll hear.” Notice your own impulses to interrupt and, as best you can, let them go and return to just listening. You may “acknowledge” what the speaker is saying – for example by nodding, or saying “I see” or “I understand”, but don’t “over-acknowledge.”  When the speaker is finished, practice closing the loop of communication by saying something like, “What I heard you say was  . . . .” and then reciting back the essence of the speaker’s message as accurately as possible, without your own embellishment or interpretation.  Observe closely how these communications go, and polish your skills by practicing often.

photo credit photostock via FreeDigitalPhotos.net

HEALTHY Mind Matters: Sometimes Unplugging From the World Helps You Connect With Yourself

July 31st, 2014 by

It’s always difficult to explain to friends and acquaintances why I go away each year for an extended silent meditation retreat. For the past five years I’ve traveled to Barre, Mass., home of the Insight Meditation Society (IMS), for 10 days of intensive mindfulness practice: sitting, walking, eating and yoga—all in an environment of silence. Approximately 100 other yogis (the word “yogi” is used generically to refer to both male and female practitioners of yoga and meditative practice) gather here from across the country and around the world to immerse themselves in this unique experience —to strengthen our capacity to be “present” with life, moment to moment.

Above the massive front door at IMS, the word “Metta” is inscribed. In Pali, the ancient language of the Buddha, this word is sometimes translated as “unconditional loving kindness” or “unconditional friendliness.” It’s an openhearted welcome. As I step into the foyer, I feel the unmistakable sense of coming home.

Settling In
Upon arrival, each yogi is invited to choose a space in the meditation hall—a huge, tranquil space with large windows, dozens of meditation cushions arranged in rows, and chairs for those with less-flexible limbs—where he or she will meditate during the five to six formal meditation sessions we will have over the next 10 days. I find my spot and arrange what I’ll need—a blanket and a “zafu” or meditation cushion that will become my home base or “mind central” during my stay. As a symbol of our “renunciation” of the complexities and trappings of modern, daily life, we’re invited to voluntarily relinquish our cell phones, which will be locked in the main office—safe from temptation—until the end of the retreat.

The retreat center is set up entirely to support the community of practitioners. In the large dining hall, we share our (amazing) all-vegetarian meals in silence, except for the occasional sound of a chair sliding across the floor, or footsteps. During the retreat, I completely slow down and begin to savor every meal. After all, there’s nothing else I need to do, and nowhere else I need to be. Good food is even more delicious when you slow down and pay attention.

Sharing Rituals
In addition, every person is given a “yogi job.” We all contribute to the operation of the center while on retreat as a practice of mindfulness, interdependence, and generosity. On this retreat a woman, who I subsequently learn is an attorney, runs load after load of dishes through the steamy dishwashing machine as silent yogis line up after lunch with their plates, bowls, and cups. A surgeon sweeps the floor and wipes-down tables after the dinner period. My yogi jobs over the years have included vegetable-chopper, pot-scrubber, and dining room-cleaner. Shared work creates a sense of community during the retreat. Everyone is equal.

For the first few days of silence, my mind/body system seem to be in withdrawal—from the usual bombardment of sensory input I occupy day after day. I notice my mind wanting to fill up the silence with many thoughts. As a regular meditation practitioner, I’m quite used to letting my thoughts go and returning my attention to the present moment by linking it to an “object of attention” such as the breath or sensations in the body. But now the barrage of thoughts seems unstoppable. I find myself annoyed, thinking, “These thoughts are interrupting my meditation!”

Over time, I realize it’s my relationship to my thoughts that is the problem. Once I begin to cultivate Metta—that is, an openhearted friendly relationship with the activity of my mind—the thoughts slow down. The space between thoughts expands. My mind becomes quiet and peaceful, for the most part.

Finding Peace
On retreat, my body and mind have the opportunity to process experiences and feelings that I never deal with in “normal” life. Most of us live largely unaware of what lies beneath the surface of the mind and heart, as we rush through the busy and distracting momentum of life. When you become still and receptive for a while, whether it’s a few days or a few months, in an environment of safety and tranquility, the mind and heart can begin to reveal things you haven’t looked at in your life—and process them with Metta, that loving kindness that we all need and all possess.

I wouldn’t describe a retreat as “fun,” but it’s definitely healing. I go on retreat to discover and become receptive to the truth of my human experience: the fear, joy, sorrow and awe lying just beneath the surface waiting for my kind and openhearted attention. My job is to stop and feel what’s really here. With each retreat, I become more comfortable with the peaks and valleys of my own inner landscape, and more at ease just being me. I depart knowing that this retreat has been time well spent.

photo credit Stuart Miles via FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

 

 

Living a Sacred Life

August 11th, 2012 by

The Cranes Return Image: alicepopkorn bit.ly/QCjDfA

“In the day to day unfolding of our busy lives, all that is so precious to us at the end of our life, is usually skipped over most of our life.”

This is a beautiful summation by Dr. Illana Berger of why it is so urgent and fundamental for us to learn how to live our lives mindfully.

Image: AlicePopkorn

Saying Goodbye

July 23rd, 2012 by

I’ll be sending my only child, my son Jordan, off to college in a few weeks. The moment I’ve dreaded since he was born will soon be upon me. I don’t know what the actual moment of “Good-bye” will be like. At orientation the college advisors instructed us parents not to “break down” or “lose it”, as this will only make the child worried about us, and will take away from the fun experience of starting off in college. Hmmm. I will certainly try. But it may be like trying to stop a tidal wave. Last night and today, and maybe a few other days in recent months, I’ve felt waves of emotion. Today, as I sat during my morning meditation practice – “being” in the present moment – feeling myself “in” my body, noticing the sound of the raindrops outside the window, I recalled a letter I had received from my aunt when Jordan was probably 8 or 9 years old. She had never met Jordan and asked me about him in the letter. “How does he grow?” she asked. Those words “How does he grow?” seemed so expansive and open to the experience of watching a boy travel through his childhood, and change, and express his uniqueness.

Lately I’ve been thinking about how a moment, such as the one I’ll face in a few weeks, brings so much together – all those experiences and frustrations and laughter, arguments, excitement at Christmas, anger, talks, talks that should have been but weren’t, worry, mistakes (mine), hugs, broken hearts, messy rooms – they add up to what this whole experience was. It all begins to come into a kind of stark and pregnant focus as the day of release approaches. Sort of like how you procrastinate when you’re planning to go on a trip, and then, suddenly, the day to leave on your trip is here, and all the things that you’ve been thinking about in your head that need to be done are either done, or they aren’t. The day has arrived.

All the experiences that add up to a childhood – You don’t always experience how special they are until you realize that the time has come for that period of life to end, and a new period of life to begin. Was I present enough? What about the times I got ridiculously angry and childish? Did I show him enough love? Did I listen enough? Was I a good teacher, a good parent? Did I cherish the times with my boy as he grew? Did I cherish them as deeply as I’m grieving the end of my day-to-day connection with him now?

I think of how he is a wonderful, loving, and kind human being – ready to start out on his own adventure of life, to have his own triumphs and make his own mistakes, to learn to work with his own strong emotions, just like I am now. I know “Good-bye” will be tough for him too. I’ve already seen waves of emotion moving through him at times, and we’ve shared long bear hugs seemingly out of the blue lately. I remember my own experience of being alone and away from home for the first time – those pangs of loneliness and fear.

I’ve been recalling guidance I received from my teachers, and which I share with my own meditation students – “turn toward” the emotion, not away.” “Emotions want to be felt.” Practice saying “It’s OK, let me feel it.”  As I sat on my meditation cushion this morning I remembered my aunt’s words, “How does he grow?” I felt something physical spread through my body, as if moving through and inhabiting every cell. “It’s OK. Let me feel it.” I recalled a friend of mine sharing the experience of her own daughter’s departure from home. It brought tears to her eyes as she spoke, some twelve years later. I thought of another friend whose son, just a young man not yet twenty, recently died. What must it be like for her? How does she handle the grief?

As I sat with my eyes closed, I could feel tears rolling down each cheek. I felt them move along the jaw and join together at my chin. I felt the cells of my body warm with sadness. It’s here, I thought. Sadness is here. It’s part of my human experience at this moment. I held this experience in full awareness and breathed some space for it to be. Nestled within me. Cared for. Safe. Beautiful and poignant. Part of this amazingly rich and varied experience of being alive. How “will” he grow? How will I grow? The adventure and the experience continue to unfold.

Image: © tia_maria (used with permission)

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