Mindfulness and the Creative MInd

February 7th, 2017 by

What do you think of when you think of creativity? Far too many people think of someone other than themselves – art and ideas are for other people, or kids, but not them. But it’s not limited to children and those uncommon individuals like William Shakespeare and Georgia Okeeffe who have been touched by genius; everyone can be creative. While some studies show that creativity can slow with age, other studies show it doesn’t have to – and mindfulness may be one of the keys to maintaining creativity throughout our lives.

Creativity is not restricted the arts and music – scientists and accountants and computer programmers are creative. Creativity occurs whenever you’re producing something both new and useful, whether that’s a book or a building or a pasta salad. Scholars who gave the same creativity tests to artists and engineers got the same spectrum of results: both groups were equally creative. You can be, too, even though creativity tends to peak in our late 30s and early 40s, just when some of us are too busy with kids and bills to feel creative at all.

But creativity is our birthright. Creativity feeds the soul and gives significance to our lives. Part of being your best self is being creative, whether it’s solving the ordinary problems in life, expressing yourself through music or movement, writing a novel, cooking with whatever’s on hand, or joking with your friends. (Humor, of course, is highly creative.)

Mindfulness supports creativity in a variety of ways, some more direct than others. One major component of creativity is divergent thinking, the sort of thinking that generates lots of new ideas. Divergent thinking is important enough that for a long time the term was used as a synonym for creativity, but it’s not the whole story. Creativity is realized when we also use convergent thinking to pick an idea, or combine several, and run with the result. The right and left hemispheres of the brain must work together for us to be creative.

In a 2012 study at Leiden University in the Netherlands, researchers studied the effects of meditation on both divergent and convergent thinking. Participants who engaged in “open monitoring” mindfulness meditation – the sort of meditation in which you observe whatever arises in your awareness non-judgmentally – were significantly better at a task that required divergent thinking.

In the Five Factor model of personality, “openness to experience” is the trait that correlates highly with creativity. Several studies have also shown that openness to experience also correlates highly with meditation practice. Interestingly, creativity – not overall intelligence or openness – predicts a longer life. Scientists theorize that this is because creativity exercises the brain, maintaining the integrity of neural networks. Creativity also allows us to handle stress better, which helps protect our health.

Mindfulness meditation might also support creativity in other ways. Just one night of sleep loss can severely impair someone’s divergent thinking; mindfulness meditation improves sleep. Many creative types need to be in a particular mental starting place to begin work, and find that meditation can help them get there consistently.

How to Meditate for Creativity

Interested in trying meditation to enhance your creativity? Try open monitoring meditation – sometimes called “open awareness” or “open focus” meditation – which is an aspect of mindfulness meditation. After first settling your mind by focusing your attention on something you are experiencing in the present moment, such as the feeling of your breath, allow your thoughts and feelings to move through your awareness, without reacting to them or judging them. As best you can, simply see them as they come and go, but don’t hold on to them or follow them. Similar to the experience of watching clouds passing through the sky, allow your thoughts to be witnessed and released as they move across the blue sky of your awareness. If you notice your attention has become engrossed in the content of the thoughts (rather than simply witnessing the thoughts as temporary mental events), then return to your original “anchor” for attention (for example the feeling of your breathing). Then, when your attention is again settled in the present, expand again to a more open focus in which thoughts, emotions, and sensations can arise, be known, and allowed to pass naturally. Set aside some time each day for your meditation practice. As little as ten minutes a day can be life changing. Try it and see for yourself what creative ideas begin to arise in that head of yours!

Can Mindfulness Meditation Really Slow Aging? The powerful link between mind and body

October 2nd, 2016 by

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Meditation has a lot of benefits for those who practice regularly. New studies are suggesting that meditation can even help slow down the complicated process of aging. While the work is still new, it’s quite interesting and finds support in a wide variety of studies.

People vary widely in how they age. One marker of biological age seems to be “telomere” length – the length of the protective protein caps at the ends of the chromosomes housed in each of our cells. The longer the telomeres, the more times a chromosome can replicate itself without errors. Shorter telomeres are correlated with weaker immune function, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease, osteoporosis, and other problems of old age. “Telomerase” is an enzyme that helps keep our telomeres long and healthy, slowing cellular aging. The correlation between cellular aging and bodily aging is still being studied, but new correlations are coming to light.

Many things can cause the shortening of telomeres – primarily, of course, time. The protective protein caps naturally wear down as cells divide and renew themselves, something all cells do. However, research is showing that having a regular meditation practice seems to have a protective effect on this wearing down process thus preserving the length of our telomeres. While the popular idea that your entire body renews itself over seven to ten years isn’t quite true, it’s pretty close – only a few types of cells don’t renew, and some (like heart cells) renew extremely slowly. Lifestyle factors that seem to accelerate telomere shortening include poor diet, smoking, and a sedentary lifestyle.

Stress is another major factor in shortening telomeres. We know that too much stress is bad for us (as is too little: everyone needs some challenge in life!). Stressful thoughts – such as constantly perceiving threats and ruminating – can lead to prolonged periods of reactivity and chronic stress. In contrast, mindfulness meditation increases positive mental and emotional states, including being able to view stress as a challenge rather than a threat. Various studies are linking mindfulness with increased telomere length.

A pilot study of 39 caregivers compared one group who practiced daily meditation to another group who listened relaxing music, and found that the meditators had better cognitive functioning, less depression, and improved telomerase activity after eight weeks. While these results need to be confirmed in a larger sample, they are promising signs that meditation can be helpful for longevity as well as your mental state.

Higher objective stress is associated with shorter telomeres, leading researchers to conclude that higher objective stress actually ages our cells. Fascinatingly, higher perceived stress leads to even shorter telomeres, thus illustrating the powerful influence of our thoughts on the body. Because meditation helps us change our perception of stress, it also changes the physical effects of the same objective amount of stress, even at the cellular level.

A UCSF study of early-stage prostate cancer patients showed that lifestyle changes – diet, exercise, stress-management (including meditation) and social support – over five years lengthened telomeres by 10% The control group, who didn’t experience the lifestyle interventions, had telomeres that averaged 3% shorter than at the beginning of the study. While the study was very small, it’s quite intriguing! The researchers believe that the findings should hold for healthy individuals, as well.

We’ve long known that mindfulness meditation can help keep us young by encouraging mental flexibility and inner peace. How amazing that it can also keep us physically young by helping our cells renew!

Mindfulness Practices
Awareness of Breath Meditation
Body Scan (Similar to “Yoga Nidra”)
Gentle Yoga
Walking Meditation
Tai Chi / Qigong

Saying “Yes” to Anxiety: How Mindfulness Lets You Step out of the Whirlwind and Really Take Care of Yourself

September 1st, 2016 by

 

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Anxiety is worrying about the future. One reason mindfulness helps anxiety is that being mindful means being in the present. The more you practice dwelling in the present moment, the less room you have for anxiety. It sounds simple, and it is – just not easy.

Mindfulness meditation is the practice of bringing your mind to your experience of the present moment over and over again – body sensations, sounds, the feeling of breathing in and out. Minds are distractible. They like to comment, narrate, make judgments, create “stories”. An anxious mind will make up anxious stories. The body responds, for example the stomach churns, the heart races. This can generate more thoughts and emotions that perpetuate a continuous cycle of anxiety. Mindfulness practice enables you to gently bring your attention back to the bare experience of the present moment – your breath, your body, your current real feelings – without the filter of the story-making machine in your head. By learning how to do this, you can step out of the cycle of anxiety and more skillfully manage difficult emotions.

Mindfulness meditation isn’t going to make you happy all the time. Meditation isn’t for distracting you from your current anxiety or trying to “fight” it. Instead, meditation practice teaches you how to stay with your anxious feelings – and just the actual feelings – while seeing, and then letting go of, your thought-induced anxiety about your anxiety. This can take the form of thoughts such as how you are “always going to be an anxious and fragile person”, and how you always “freak out at the littlest things.” Mindfulness meditation, and the skills that come with regular practice, can help you slow down the escalating whirlwind of the anxiety cycle.

Are you anxious about feeling anxious?
Research shows that how we feel (and think) about our feelings affects us as much, or more, than our actual feelings. If we’re anxious about our anxiety, if we believe it’s an inherent part of who we are, or we judge ourselves harshly for it, the anxiety will have more negative effects on our minds and bodies than if we simply allow the initial anxious feelings to be present. Meta-emotions (how we feel about feelings) are powerful. We learn them from our parents, we use them for – or against – ourselves, and we teach them to our kids.

One reason meta-emotions are so important is that they govern whether we’re ok with feeling our feelings, or not. Feeling our feelings isn’t the same as reacting to our feelings. If we’re mindful we can see how feelings of anxiety are often followed by an instantaneous and unconscious reaction to the anxious feelings – typically something like “if I don’t make this go away right now I’m going to feel this way forever!” You can see how this drive to make the anxious feelings go away can lead to unhelpful behaviors (eating when you’re not hungry, or eating the wrong things, over-spending, alcohol or substance abuse, procrastination, the list goes on). Mindfulness enables a pause between the actual physical feeling and our automatic reaction to it. This ability to pause and feel your feelings as they are, without trying to make them go away and without magnifying them through runaway thoughts, enables you to stop the cycle, assess what you really need, and then do something that might actually be beneficial and healthy.

Just say Yes!
Jeffrey Brantley, MD, is the founder and director of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program at Duke Integrative Medicine. The following practice is adapted from his book Calming Your Anxious Mind.
The Yes Practice
The simple practice of saying “yes” to experiences as you become aware of them, coupled with mindful awareness, can release you from the deep habits of reactivity and help you stay connected to the present moment. The instructions are simple: As you are practicing mindfulness formally or informally, and you notice any pain or resistance arising, name the pain or upset that is present, and respond with a friendly “yes” to that experience, as if talking to it directly. For example: “Fear about my health, yes!” “Pain in my tooth, yes!” “Anxiety and worry about my job, yes.” You may want to try this in informal practice (the situations of daily life). For example: “Stuck in traffic, not moving, yes!” “Angry about what my coworker just said, yes!” “Frightened by the people walking toward me, yes!” The “yes” practice is a way for you to activate openheartedness as you pay attention moment by moment. Being mindful – noticing what is happening as it is happening – implies making space, being accepting, and not becoming lost in aversion and reactivity.

Going With Your Gut: How Mindfulness Meditation Develops Insight

May 18th, 2016 by

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Call it a hunch, gut feeling, intuition – that immediate sense of truth, without words or reasoning, is one of your most important faculties. It can tell you where you want to move in life, what you need to let go of, and how to best relate to challenges. But how can you develop your intuition?

Seeing Clearly

Meditation is one way to tap into your “gut” feelings. Mindfulness meditation is sometimes known as “Vipassana” – an ancient word from the language of the Buddha which means “insight” or “seeing clearly”. Vipassana or mindfulness meditation is the foundation of most Western meditation practices. It’s also the most studied by Western scientists.

“The insights of meditation are intuitive, not conceptual,” writes Joseph Goldstein, author of Insight Meditation (1993) and co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society. “Intuitive in this sense does not mean some kind of vague feeling about something; rather, it means clearly, directly seeing and experiencing how things really are.”

Rather than trying to solve problems with the thinking machine in the head, we practice mindful awareness, training our attention to “just be” in the present moment by focusing on an anchor like the breath, footsteps, sounds, or body sensations. As we become more skilled in being “present”, we can begin to see creative solutions to sometimes very big problems in our lives. These solutions arise spontaneously from within, through feelings and an “inner knowing,” and not through thoughts or concepts. We simply know.

Knowing What You Really Want

Often, we don’t really know what drives us. We are moved to do something, because it’s the expected thing to do in life or because it seems like a reasonable choice. But if we understand our true motivations, maybe we would do things differently. Before she began her meditation practice, a friend of mine bought a lovely house. It seemed like the logical and “right” thing to do. However, she soon noticed that she really didn’t even like having a house! She wasn’t handy and felt like she was rattling around in the extra space. Once she began meditating, however, she gradually had the insight that want she really wanted was not a house, but a home. She realized that had she continued to rent, and work on developing more close personal relationships, her life would have been moving more in the direction of her true needs and desires. Meditation created the conditions for her to see and feel her true feelings. When she sold her home, she felt immense relief.

Compassion for Your Own Experience

Meditation is the practice of staying present in the moment without judgment, even those moments we’d like to escape or avoid. It’s a skill that grows with patient practice, and it enables us to have insights in how we work with difficulty, including pain. In my mid-forties, I developed chronic pain in my hip, and I became quite angry about it. As my pain increased, so did my anger and attempts to get rid of the pain, which included physical therapy, electrical nerve stimulation, and giving serious consideration to a hip replacement. One night, as I lay awake with the throbbing pain, I had the insight that anger and resistance were not relieving my suffering. I tried a different approach: instead of resisting the pain, I tried to get to know it. I brought my attention right into it and discovered a part of my body that was holding a tremendous amount of suffering and yet was trying to do the best it could to keep functioning.

When I came up close to my pain without judging it, as I had learned to do from my meditation practice, I felt spontaneous compassion for this part of my body that was suffering. As I continued to work compassionately with my pain, the change was dramatic. Although I still have some pain, it’s manageable now and I know it’s a signal to take care of myself (think yoga). Having compassion toward pain in my body (and heart) is an insight I credit to my meditation practice.

The skill of mindfulness, developed through meditation, allows us to experience things they really are, without the distracting and often intensifying effect of our judgments, beliefs, and thoughts. Sometimes what we discover has been long hidden by the activity of the chattering mind. It’s only when we train the mind to become quiet that these realities become known, whether it’s our desire for a home or compassion for our own pain. Learning how to sit quietly and just “be with” our own unfiltered experience allows us to receive insights that can transform our 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

Client Stories: Wendy Berg

January 1st, 2016 by

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I’ve been thinking about how your MSBR class has changed my life. One area I haven’t heard many people talk about is mindfulness and athletic performance. Your class helped me become more aware of my body and to tune into the messages it gives me. When I used to run, I mainly distracted myself from what I was doing with music, thoughts, or TV. I still do that some of the time but most of the time I am aware of what is happening. I am now running, biking, swimming, doing strength training, and yoga as I train for a triathlon sprint. I do body scans while exercising, checking in with each part looking for issues, discomfort, pain, or fatigue. I check on my technique and form. Do I feel strong? Can I go faster? Further? Do I need to change my stride? My gear? My reach? My hip rotation? Or do I need to scale it back? Catch my breath? Walk for a minute? In the past, I never listened to my body and just pushed myself to finish whatever I set out to do even if it meant injuring myself. Ok, I’m still pretty goal oriented and almost always finish my daily plan, but I’m doing it in a kinder gentler way. I am more accepting of what is. I am okay with just doing my best no matter what that is on any given day. I’ve been able to do so much more without pushing so hard. I’ve let go of so many ideas I had about being too old to do something, and what I expected my body to be like in my 50’s. I am now in better shape than I’ve been in a long time, maybe ever. I’m still a little overweight and slow, but I no longer beat myself up over that. Now, I celebrate what my body can do and enjoy pushing the limits set by my mind and by society. And the back pain I’ve dealt with for 14 years is practically nonexistent. I’m not sure if that is from being in better shape, meditation, actually paying attention to my body, or a combination of everything. I find myself able to accept, appreciate, and celebrate what is in all areas of my life. Thank you for helping me along this journey. Feel free to use this if it may be helpful to share the benefits of MSBR and your class. Wendy Berg

Four Things Mindful People Do Differently

July 10th, 2015 by

Research continues to support the many health and quality of life benefits of mindfulness practice: stress reduction, greater physical well-being, and a happier, more stable mental state. Did you know that if you practice mindfulness, you are more likely to be successful in making positive behavior changes in your life (think weight loss, exercise, productivity), and you’re less likely to catch a cold or the flu?  Media personalities are also causing us to take a closer look, including ABC newsman Dan Harris, author of 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Really Works — a True Story. Anchorman Anderson Cooper recently participated in a meditation retreat led by mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn as part of a segment on CBS’ 60 Minutes. Cooper reports that because of the benefits he has experienced, he is now a mindfulness practitioner. They’re getting our attention. But why should you build time into your day for mindfulness practice? How are the daily lives of mindfulness practitioners different from the lives of those who have yet to discover this millennia old form of meditation?

They Don’t Ride the Emotional Rollercoaster

Sure, mindful people have emotions—we all do, we are human! The difference is that mindful people are aware of their emotions in a different way. Their mindfulness practice trains them to be aware of and feel their strong emotions without automatically reacting to them.  When emotions arise, they are able to observe them from the safety of neutral ground rather than being yanked around by the ups and downs of the emotional rollercoaster. Over time, and with practice, they have learned from their own experience that even the most intense feelings are impermanent.

They Keep Calm and Carry On

Because people who practice mindfulness have practiced working with their difficult emotions, their reactions, decisions, and sense of self are less influenced by their emotional state when things “go wrong” or don’t turn out as planned.  Practitioners are more able than others to remain calm and effective in stressful situations, actively listening to others, and responding skillfully based on what’s called for in the moment, rather than reacting automatically.

They Pay Attention to Their Bodies

Mindfulness practice is about bringing awareness to the present moment, noticing thoughts and feelings as well as bodily sensations. People who practice this type of awareness have learned that it is OK to “be with” discomfort, knowing from experience that it too is not “fixed” but changeable. Mindfulness invites us to “hold” and attend to  discomfort in the body with kindness rather than resistance —whether it is the racing heart of anxiety, the burning tightness in the chest of anger, or the heartache of grief. By learning to turn toward what’s difficult in the body, and to explore it with curiosity, they have discovered that pain is often blanketed with layers of thought, resistance, and strong emotion. While everyone experiences pain, mindful people have discovered that without these layers of added psychological pain, their true physical pain is actually manageable. And by staying attentive to the body, they know when and how to take care of themselves, for example with a timely yoga stretch, exercise, or rest. Because they are more embodied than others, mindful people experience the fullness, richness, and aliveness of their embodied human experience.

They Practice Compassion

People who practice mindfulness and meditation tend to be less afraid of thoughts and emotions because they have looked at them and discovered that thoughts and feelings are fleeting and illusory. By the same token, they have willingly embraced deeply painful emotions and felt them in their entirety. Consequently, mindful people are more inclined to connect with and reach out to others who are suffering, and offer them empathy and compassion. The late great Tibetan meditation master Chogyam Trungpa referred to the “genuine heart of sadness,” or the tender, open, fearless heart of compassion that is awakened through practicing mindfulness. By knowing our own pain we connect more intimately with the human experience of others.

Tips for Mindfully Working with a Difficult Emotion

Sense into your body with kindness and curiosity. What sensations are associated with this emotion? Where are they located?

Notice what happens as you observe.  Do the sensations stay the same, intensify, diminish, or shift in some way?

Name the emotion. Is what you are feeling anxiety, fear, anger, sadness, loneliness?  Research shows that developing the skill of naming our emotions in the moment they arise helps loosen their grip.

Practice “just being” every day. Give your mind an “anchor” to pay attention to, for example the sensations of your breathing, or the sensations of movement during yoga. Notice when the mind wanders into thinking. Patiently return your attention to your chosen anchor, allowing thoughts to drift through your awareness like clouds in a vast sky.

 

 

Mindfulness On The Go: Apps and Audio to Facilitate Your Meditation Practice

April 3rd, 2015 by

The technological age is amazing! From apps to podcasts to audio books and videos, everything we need or want to learn is just a Google or YouTube search away. We also have remotes for just about everything to up our convenience factor. With mindfulness having been profiled in both Time magazine and on 60 Minutes, people want to learn how to practice mindfulness (yes, it takes regular practice), and how to make practice more convenient. Dozens of mindfulness apps have emerged in the past few years that include guided meditations, information for beginners, timers, and reminders to become “present” throughout the day. The trick, I’ve discovered, is to find an app that is straightforward yet dynamic enough to facilitate mindfulness practice for both beginning and seasoned meditators without too many distracting bells and whistles. Below are three rock-star mindfulness apps to consider trying, as well as a few other recommendations if apps feel too fussy for you.

Apps

Insight Timer for Android, iPhone, and iPad is my personal favorite! As a meditation timer, it allows you to set your practice time for however long you like. In addition, it has many other features that make it really special. Among these is a selection of beautiful Tibetan bell tones. Select your favorite to not only alert you when your session is over, but also as an “interval timer” to alert you during your session to bring your attention back “to the present” if it has wandered). You can set the duration for your session for as few as 5 minutes up to several hours. You can meditate in silence, or listen to one of eighty guided meditations led by internationally noted teachers (including several of my teachers).

What I love is the app logs the duration and frequency of my practice sessions, and gives me “milestones” that show me the number of accumulated sessions and days practiced. The app rewards you for consistency, and seeing your stars accumulate is great encouragement to continue your practice (not to mention all the quality of life and health benefits you’ll be noticing!)

Another great feature is seeing a real-time world map that displays everyone across the globe meditating with the app. You can also join groups based on mindfulness traditions, location, and interests, or create your own group and invite “friends”. If you want a simple, elegant app that will guide you into the practice of mindfulness, keep you motivated, and connect you with the worldwide community of mindfulness meditators, this is the app for you! Free.  InsightTimer.com

Stop, Breathe, & Think is an app for iPhone and Android offering several basic meditation exercises that vary in length and type, including a mindfulness mediation, loving-kindness meditation, and body scan practice. There is also an emotional awareness component that prompts you to input your emotions and then makes relevant suggestions for meditation practices. Free.  StopBreatheThink.org

The Mindfulness App for iPhone and Android made it on a few Best Mindfulness App lists for 2014 thanks to its no-frills format and dynamic session options. It offers guided meditations spanning anywhere from 3 to 30 minutes as well as silent meditation sessions that the user is alerted to begin by the sound of gentle bells. The user can, of course, set reminders for guided meditation sessions as well, and can even personalize his session. $1.99 Mindapps.se

For those looking for brief, consistent guided meditation sessions, Headspace (on-the-go) is a convenient option. The app provides 10-minute meditation sessions starting with a short body scan and then a guided meditation focusing on the breath. Animated explanations of the inner workings of the mind, as well as mindfulness tips, are included as well as reminders and tracking options. $7.99/month Headspace.com

If apps aren’t your thing, many local libraries offer audio books and e-book downloads. Many mindfulness teachers like Jon Kabat-Zinn, Pema Chodron, the Dalai Lama, and Thich Nhat Hahn have wonderful mindfulness books whose audio versions are easy enough to find at your local library or on Amazon.

 

 

 

On the Job Mindfulness

February 27th, 2015 by

For most of us, working is an unavoidable fact of life, and with jobs comes stress. Even if we’re self-employed or have a flexible schedule, stress is an inevitable part of our workday. Most of us spend most of our time at work. So, how can we work with our stress?

Typically we begin a new job or project with gusto, filled with hope and enthusiasm about the newness and possibility ahead. Promises of a perfect impression or the potential to advance motivate us to perform well and maintain a positive attitude. Eventually, however, smiles may begin to fade, and once-promising prospects become burdensome, when expectations are not met, or old patterns of thinking, feeling, or behavior creep in. The same phenomenon can happen with promotions, management changes, or new spaces; enthusiasm wears off once “reality” sets in. This scenario is so common that we seem doomed to repeat it at work. Fortunately, through mindfulness practice, we can be proactive and reclaim the optimistic mindset we thought we’d lost.

In order to undo patterns of negativity, let’s take a look at how they work. While we start a job or project on the right foot, intending to carry that energy throughout the length of our career, the brain has other priorities. It is wired for survival, and part of the brain constantly scans for threats and stresses in our environment.  Its job is to identify patterns and categorize events in order to protect us from actual physical threats to our survival.  We need this protection, but if we aren’t careful, we can easily become run by over-learned patterns of perceived danger and conflict which are much more symbolic than physical. This autopilot mode of fixating on stressors has become a modern hindrance. If we let it, it will cloud our perception and block creativity. By employing mindfulness at work, we can become aware of how the body and mind are “reacting” to a stressor, and we can see our automatic reactive patterns as they emerge. And here is the critical thing: we do this without judging ourselves. We become a neutral observer of the situation, and this helps us to see it more clearly. Even just a moment of presence gives us an opportunity to respond with skill rather than react automatically. To echo the late Tibetan meditation teacher Chogyam Trungpa, there is no problem in the present moment.

The beauty of mindfulness practice is that it allows us to choose accountability. Instead of being victimized by thoughts and circumstances, we can choose not to buy into them. Instead of being run by repetition, we can bring a freshness and new life to our work and attitude. Here are three ways to bring mindfulness into your work:

1. Watch Your Mind
When you start to notice your chest tightening in a heated meeting or your palms beginning to sweat during a presentation, turn inward and notice your thoughts. Is there an internal dialogue going on about how the situation should have gone but isn’t? Are old mental patterns dictating your response before you even have a chance to consider whether they still hold true for you? By bringing awareness to our thoughts, we begin to unravel their hold on our perception.

2. Listen
Do you find yourself formulating a response to a statement from a colleague before she’s even finished talking? This is hearing, but not listening. Try this: before entering into what may be a difficult communication with someone, make a decision not to talk. It can be for 1 minute, 5 minutes, whatever feels appropriate. By spending a meeting just listening, you may discover that there’s a wealth of information you’ve been missing because you were too busy coming up with a response or a defense.

3. Breathe
A good way to de-escalate an automatic reaction, or unplug a negative thought pattern, is to bring attention to the breath. By shifting your focus from the mind’s chatter to the sensations of your breathing, you instantly bring attention to the what’s actually happening rather than rerunning stories and scenarios through the mind.

How can you begin to bring mindfulness into the workplace? What techniques do you already employ?

 

photo credit Ambro via Free Digital Photos

 

Taking Mindfulness in Stride

December 23rd, 2014 by

Looking for a way to quiet your mind that doesn’t involve sitting still and following your breath? Walking meditation may be for you. It is just as beneficial as sitting meditation, with some differences. Obviously you’re walking instead of sitting, but the focus of your attention is also a bit different. Rather than attending to each breath, in walking meditation you gently attend to the experience of each step. When the mind wanders away from the feeling of walking, the practice is to patiently bring it back.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare, and Society at the University of Massachusetts and the pioneer of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), explains that mindful walking differs from regular walking in that, “you’re not going anywhere.” It’s an opportunity to bring awareness to an aspect of life, like so many others, that has become quite automatic or “mindless.”

Walking meditation shares the same 2,500-year-old tradition as sitting meditation. Ancient texts state the Buddha himself taught that meditation should be practiced in four different “postures” – sitting, standing, walking, and lying down.  The idea seems clear – train the mind to abide in the present moment in a variety of contexts, and become “present” for the whole of your life.

Walking meditation is done very slowly in a “lane” in which one walks back and forth. Remember, you’re not going anywhere. Beginners often like to use the phrase “lifting, moving, placing, landing” to help them focus their attention on the four components of each step.

For even more of a beneficial boost, take your walking practice outside. Research from Japan has shown that walks in nature, compared with urban walks, produced a 12.4 percent decrease in the stress hormone cortisol, a seven percent decrease in sympathetic nerve activity (“fight or flight”), a 1.4 percent decrease in blood pressure, and a 5.8 percent decrease in heart rate. Participants had better moods and less anxiety.

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