Category Archives: Reduce Stress

The Wisdom of Non-Resistance

resist-change_0In meditation, when things don’t go our way, we tend to resist. Feeling restless? Then fidget incessantly as a way of not feeling the restlessness or what may be behind it. Have a hard time focusing on your breath? Then berate yourself as a bad meditator and despair at ever getting “good” at the practice.

It’s like this in daily life as well. If someone has betrayed us, we might spend a lot of time ruminating about how the betrayal shouldn’t have happened, about how the person had no right to do it, and perhaps float creative ideas for getting revenge. Your candidate didn’t win an election? Then blame those who didn’t vote, or shame certain groups of people as being somehow less worthy of your respect. Or begin fantasizing about moving to Canada.

The problem with resistance is that it tends to make things worse. There’s an old Buddhist teaching about the two arrows. The first arrow that hits you is the inevitable pain of life. The second arrow that hits you is your resistance to your pain. You may not be able to control the inevitable pains and sorrows of life – in fact, count on that. But you can control how you respond to your pain. In a more modern context we can describe it as an equation of suffering, as:

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When our minds are untrained, or when our training is forgotten, our default way of handling a stressful event is to lash out and resist based on our unconscious habit patterns, biases, and personal conditioning. We are on auto pilot and have no chance to accurately appraise the situation. Instead we try to fix, attack, control, rationalize, blame others, or avoid the truth of what’s been happening in the deluded hope that such tactics will somehow make us feel better. When we swat a fly that’s been crawling on us, we may be removing the discomfort of that experience – but we’ll end up knowing very little about flies. This is certainly true for those humans who annoy us as well. We can swat them away but what will we learn about them or what motivates them?

In contrast, when our minds are trained our default way of handling a stressful event is first to allow things to be as they are. That doesn’t mean liking or agreeing with the suffering we’re experiencing. It means giving space to it in a way that helps us metabolize it physically, mentally, and emotionally. Research has shown that when people can be with things as they are, the parasympathetic nervous system is activated. This is often referred to as the “rest and digest” function of the nervous system, or the relaxation response. When we take time to digest the pain we are experiencing, the body can relax and the mind can become still and clear. Not only can suffering be seen clearly, but the natural wisdom of the mind can begin to reveal the appropriate response.

Non-resistance doesn’t mean that we ignore injustice. In fact, non-resistance can help cultivate a more sustainable ability to resist injustice. Because when we can first be with things as they are, letting the shock and anger metabolize first, we then can practice political resistance in a responsive way – not in a reactive way. In other words, you may be fighting against oppression, racism, misogyny, and other forms of harm, but you are in control of your mental states. You are not acting because you are overwhelmed, addled with rage and fear, you are responding with awareness to suffering. Your heart and mind are steady, clear. You will not get burned out in the face of a long struggle for justice, because you are taking care of yourself. And this steadiness of mind in the face of oppression can be supported by not resisting the truth of a bad situation. The bad situation is already here; if we don’t give in to our habitual fight or flight reactions to it, let’s see how the wise and compassionate heart responds.

Take Mindful Breaks for Better Performance

unmindful-breakWhen you’re working really hard and it’s time to take a break, what do you do? What does it mean to take a break? Is a break walking away from your desk while checking out your phone for messages, visiting Facebook for updates from friends, or browsing your favorite news blog? Is taking a break eating at your desk while web browsing? Or is it visiting a colleague to have a business conversation? Many people believe they have to be productive all the time, so even when they take a “break” they have to do something potentially useful. (A student of mine once confessed that when she brushed her teeth at night, she was texting friends with her free hand. She explained that brushing her teeth wasn’t accomplishing enough!) The problem with these kinds of breaks is that they keep the mind focused on conceptual experiences. But a true break means we are giving the brain a break from concepts. Brain scans have shown that when people are focused on concepts – doing work, for example – many regions of the bran light up. The brain is expending a lot of energy when we are doing things that take conceptual focus. When we expend this kind of energy without pause, hour after hour, it can be quite exhausting. When we are exhausted, our performance suffers, our inner sense of well-being declines, and our health can suffer as well. Burnout and lack of engagement often follow.

A true break, on the other hand, is all about letting go of concepts and allowing the brain to rest in a being state. The idea is that when you take a break, really take a break from the doing mode – the mode that uses concepts – and rest in the being mode. An example might be sitting on a park bench, without reading or thinking, but just enjoying the park. Or doing something with your hands like washing the dishes or gardening. Going for a stroll is another being-mode activity (so is walking the dog). Doing 10 minutes of mindfulness practice is another example of resting in the being mode. As is eating a meal mindfully.

When people take a break from concepts and rest in the being mode, scans of their brains show much less activity going on. Their brains are getting rested, which means they are getting the refreshment that is needed to bring about sustainable focus and performance. Jon Kabat-Zinn once quipped that we humans are so busy all the time that you could almost call us “human doings” rather than beings. But being is a fundamental aspect of who we are. Being does not require us to get things done and perform. It has its own power and dignity. And as long as we connect with our being on a regular daily basis, it will not only help sustain our effectiveness, but it will keep our perspective on life open and responsive.

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3 Ways to Tame the Inner Critic

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When we hold our inner critic with non-judgmental awareness, its voice starts to weaken.

Most people in our culture have extremely well-developed inner critics. The voice in our head that tells us we’re not good enough, talented enough, attractive enough, etc. In our competitive zero sum world, we don’t take failure, mistakes, or falling short on our life’s goals very well. Even when we do succeed or doing everything we can to do so, the inner critic can be incredibly harsh. The voice of the inner critic can be hard to resist. It can be very believable, seductive in the way it undermines us. The inner critic’s trash talking, when repeated over and over, can form narrative patterns that psychologists call cognitive distortions. Believing such cognitive distortions can cause great harm. If we believe our inner critic, we can become despairing, sad, depressed, angry, hopeless, anxious, and panicked, and these emotions can have a harmful effect on our bodies in the form of increased heart rates, higher blood pressure, and a weakened immune system. And our natural confidence and sense of purpose can be completely derailed. Sadly, many people never question the power of the inner critic or whether what it tells us is even true.

Mindfulness can be a real life-saver when it comes to the inner critic. If you practice mindfulness formally every day you will notice something that is universally true about every human mind no matter who you are or what your history or background: your thoughts don’t last. They are like soap bubbles, evanescent, appearing out of nowhere, sustaining for a time, and disappearing into nowhere. People who don’t pay attention to their thoughts tend to believe that their thoughts are facts, irrefutable, always true and actionable. People who do pay attention to their thoughts over weeks, months, and years of mindfulness practice, come to realize that thoughts are passing events in consciousness, not facts. When we realize the impermanent nature of thoughts, it is much harder for us to believe the negative narratives spun by our inner critic. Mindfulness helps us develop awareness of our thought processes. Without that awareness we are at the mercy of our thoughts. With that awareness we have a choice about how to respond to the inner critic. Here are three ways of working with the inner critic:

1) The next time you notice that you’re feeling bad about yourself, ask yourself, What thought or story am I believing now? Just asking this question can weaken the power of the inner critic to enthrall you with its negativity, interrupting what Tara Brach calls the “trance of unworthiness.” The key thing here is to get into the habit of noticing your thoughts as objects of experience, like the sounds of traffic or sensations in your body. And also to notice what direction they are taking. The best way of establishing this habit of noticing our thoughts is simply to practice mindfulness every day for at least 10 minutes. Regular mindfulness practice puts us in a more objective relationship to all our thoughts, including the inner critic’s, which gives us more choice about what to believe.

2) Don’t be the critic of your inner critic. That will just put you in a contentious relationship to your own mind, which will cause more shame and stress. Instead, recognize the inner critic as your mind’s misguided attempt to take care of you. Hold your inner critic as a part of yourself that is wounded and in need of healing. When we can hold our inner critic with non-judgmental awareness, its voice starts to weaken.

3) Practice lovingkindess meditation for yourself. Repeating a series of phrases of well-wishing for yourself can help us connect to our basic desire for happiness and our essential worthiness as human beings. The phrases are best when they are simple, such as, May I be safe, may I be healthy, may I be happy, may I be filled with ease, etc. When our hearts are open towards ourselves, our desire for happiness becomes obvious, understandable, and basic to who we are. Repeating the phrases of lovingkindness acts as a direct antidote to the inner critic’s harsh judgments.

Practicing these techniques will over time diminish the inner critic’s hold on us. The inner critic may still tell its dark tales of our unworthiness, but we’ll believe those tales less and less. It’s as if the thoughts are still there, but their volume is much lower. And in time, the inner critic can become so weakened that its thoughts disappear too.
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A Simple Practice for Hitting the Reset Button

You’re sitting at your desk at work when you realize that you feel disconnected from yourself, you feel anxious and tense, and your mind is full of half-formed thoughts. You seem to have lost your presence of mind, your inner equilibrium thrown off.

At such times, a simple exercise in awareness can totally shift the energy and change your perspective. The Mindful Reset can take as long as 10 seconds or one minute to do.

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Firstly, when you notice that you’re feeling out of sorts, simply stop what you’re doing, close your eyes if you can, and notice your breathing. Follow the breath as it comes in, and follow it as it goes out. Notice what the breath feels like. Is it relaxed and easy from the beginning to the end? Is your breathing tight or squeezed? Noticing how the breath is also helps you notice if there are any sensations of tension or tightness in the body. Follow the breath as it travels through your body to become aware of any sensations of discomfort or contraction that are making themselves known. Notice wherever the body feels tight or tense; acknowledge those sensations without needing to get rid of them. You can invite those parts of the body to relax, but do it softly, not as a command but as a kind request. Simply bringing awareness to how your breathing and body are can begin to relax them.

Secondly, notice what your state of mind is like. What thoughts are present? Are they thoughts of the future or the past? Are they thoughts of worry, planning, remembering, judging, figuring out? Is your mind clear, collected, unified? Or is it dull, muddy, scattered? Just notice what’s going on in your mind without any judgment or self criticism. Again, simply bringing awareness to how your mind is and what thoughts might be present gives you important information about what is driving your behavior right now. When you are aware of what patterns are present in the mind, you are less likely to be controlled by them.

Thirdly, notice what the emotional tone is like in your experience. Underneath those physical sensations and thoughts, what emotions might be present? Is there worry, fear, sadness, anger, anxiety, doubt, frustration? Again, don’t feel like you need to get rid of the emotions. Just noticing the emotional tone of any experience gives you greater freedom in responding wisely.

When you give yourself the space to notice how you are, your mind starts making adjustments that will bring you back to equilibrium. This is called a closed feedback loop. The system of mind-body is working to bring you back into balance.

You can do the Mindful Reset at any time. While at your work space, before entering a meeting, while walking to lunch, or while driving your car (with your eyes opened, of course!).

The Mindful Reset doesn’t magically solve all your problems or remove all your pain. What it does do is put you in touch with yourself from the non-judgmental perspective of awareness. Without this perspective, we contract and tense up when faced with a challenge. We are under the control of the reactive mind. With the non-judgmental perspective of awareness, we release, let go, and see the big picture. We are being guided by the responsive mind. Mindfulness returns us to the clear-headed perspective from which it is easier to see how to meet our challenges and live our lives with more wisdom and balance.

In Relationship to Suffering

Mindfulness has been associated with so many positive things – greater focus, clarity, joy, compassion, emotional balance, resilience, general well-being, and decreased stress, to name just a few – that it’s easy to ignore one of its primary purposes. Mindfulness is essentially a practice of moving towards suffering, of coming into relationship with the challenges, traumas, anxieties and stresses, both large and small, of our lives. Because suffering is an unavoidable fact for every human being, the way we relate to it is critically important.

The moment we sit down to meditate, we force ourselves to be aware of the thoughts, stories, and emotional patterns that drive us most of the time. Many of these patterns are habitual, unconscious, obsessive, and negative. Yet they set the tone for how we respond to events. When we sit down to meditate, we also become aware of the places in the body that are tight, registering tension, or wounded. Because we are so driven by our to-do lists, our non-stop busyness makes it easy to avoid our difficulties, and to avoid our bodies and the stress signals they give us. But that avoidance conditions us to think that our difficulties are mistakes – rather than something we can be in relationship to.

Mindfulness teaches us that rather than avoiding suffering, we need to move toward it, with openness, courage, and curiosity. We become intimate with our suffering not to fix it or change it but to know it fully, to see how it effects our life. When we hang out with our fears, wounds and anxieties without needing to fix them, we bring their energy into consciousness in a way that brings us healing. We clearly see the effect that our habitual thoughts and emotional patterns have on us. We see the suffering that our minds continually create, and we see the tension and stress in our bodies as a form of that suffering. When we see these patterns over and over again through daily meditation, over weeks, months, and years, our perspective changes. Rather then believing our stories, we see that they are just mental events that don’t have to control us.

As a result of this regular intimacy with our pain, we become more whole as a result, and more free. And we start to think and act in ways that reflect that wholeness. You may not learn this in the next magazine article on mindfulness you read – but it takes courage to be mindful. Because facing our suffering is quite challenging, and also quite necessary for a fully lived life.

Not Retreating from Life

salineI recently returned from a 9-day intensive meditation retreat focused on the practices of concentration and mindfulness. The first four days of the retreat presented me with the usual struggle – re-learning how to slow down, quitting caffeine, abandoning cell phones, blogs and the internet, and mostly, just watching the habit patterns of my mind replay themselves ad nauseum. By day five I was really settling in nicely, my mind was calmer, clearer, and more focused, and I was able to steady my attention on the breath – and even more interestingly to me – the stillness of knowing the breath. I was really beginning to hit my stride and was looking forward to deepening my concentration in the following final days of the retreat. But on Sunday night, instead of listening to that night’s talk on practice with my fellow practitioners, I found myself in the emergency room of the nearest hospital with an IV drip of saline in my arm.

I would later find out that I had heat exhaustion. That Sunday the temperature had reached 105. The day before when it was 95 I noticed that my steps were a little unsteady, and that I was slightly light-headed. I did not understand what these symptoms might mean. I felt great otherwise and thought I was drinking plenty of water. (Later I learned that I was drinking far too little water, and even if you do walking meditation in the shade, the intensity of that heat leeches the water and electrolytes right out of you.) So that Sunday night, my body began speaking to me more loudly, and I finally had no choice but to heed its message. A kindly person from the retreat center drove me to the hospital and waited with me as I lay on a gurney in the emergency room and they triaged me, monitored my vital signs, and did blood tests. I lay there for more than two hours before anyone told me what was wrong with me. I had no choice but to allow the experience to be just as it was; no point to resist what was happening. My body was the boss, and so my mind, pliable and at ease because of five days of concentration, relaxed and let things unfold. So I lay there the whole time watching the rising and falling of my chest. On the other side of the curtain on my left a man was in the process of passing away. I witnessed the doctor explain the nature of a “devastating injury” to the man’s family. Down the hall to my right, another man may have been dying as well (we never found out for sure) and doing it very loudly, with lots of screaming and pain. The screaming went on for about a half hour. And then there was a chilling silence. In the meantime emergency room nurses, doctors and technicians rushed back and forth, doing the best they could. As I lay there I understood then that I was in the midst of life. Or, as they say in Zen, in the midst of the great matter of birth and death. The gurney was now my practice cushion.

When I learned that I had heat exhaustion, was stable, and could go, I rose from the gurney as if a stranger in a strange land, filled with gratitude and sadness. Later, back on retreat, I reminded myself that you never get the retreat experience you want – maybe not even the one you need. When you go on retreat, birth and death do not stop happening, they just change their form. If anything, being on retreat is really just a way of experiencing life more directly, with more intensity. Retreat is just one form that life takes – but wherever you are, life doesn’t stop being life. It never does.

Great is the matter of birth and death,
All is impermanent, quickly passing.
Awake! Awake!
Don’t waste this life.

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Work Life Balance is an Activity, Not an Event

Seeking Perfection in the Midst of Change

“Work Life Balance” is a popular theme in today’s always on and information-loaded workplaces. We are told that work and personal life are two powerful forces that we should strive to bring into balance with each other. As if work life balance were an external goal that can be realized if only we balance the scales properly. But life is always changing. Our jobs change, our colleagues change, the economy changes, industrial conditions change, our bodies change, our minds change, our families and friends change, the world changes….Is there anything in life that doesn’t change? And because conditions are always in flux, we will always need to make changes to our own personal scales of work life balance.

An Inner Equilibrium

Instead of thinking of work life balance as an external state to achieve, it may be more useful to think of it as an inner equilibrium that we can cultivate every moment we are alive. Like a tightrope walker who is constantly making micro-adjustments to keep from falling, work life balance becomes an ordinary activity that we can do all the time to make sure that we are living our lives sustainably.

To Understand What is Needed

An example of work life balance may be something as simple as remembering to notice your breath during a meeting, or turning off notifications on your smartphone when you get home from work, or driving to work without the radio on to build greater focus while you commute, or consciously choosing to say no to that event invite that is just one too many, or remembering to call old friends you’ve been wanting to catch up with, or deciding to put your work down and go for a walk. Above all, work life balance is about being sensitive enough in each moment to understand what is truly needed.

Like Clouds Passing

Clouds in a blue skyThe human mind is beautiful, but also dangerous. Our thoughts and emotions can be powerful drivers of our behavior. Since many of our mind-states are negative, our actions are often at the mercy of our thoughts. Gloomy and pessimistic thinking, long established from habit, creates rigid and stereotyped narratives psychologists have labeled cognitive distortions. You probably know some of these stories from your own experience. They often begin with, “I’ll never be good at this because,” or “I’ll never be loved because,” or “My pain will always be like this because,” etc. These stories become so familiar to us that they define who we think we are or can become. And the actions we take in the world reflect the limitations of this thinking.

But negative thinking itself isn’t the problem; it’s how we relate to our thinking that’s important.

One of the most powerful things about mindfulness practice is that it gives us the space to observe and witness the activity of our minds directly. With mindful awareness we see that thoughts come and go constantly, they can’t be held onto or controlled. We see that thoughts are not solid or fixed, that they are not our destiny, that they aren’t facts that force us to act, but are rather like clouds passing through the sky of awareness. With this perspective, which is cultivated through regular mindfulness practice, thoughts are seen to be ephemeral events in consciousness. When we see the impermanent nature of our thoughts, we begin to dis-identify with them. With this increased awareness, we have a choice about how we relate to our minds. And since thoughts and emotions drive much of our behavior, when we make the mindful choice to focus on thoughts that serve us instead of hurt us, our actions in the world will more likely be of benefit to ourselves and others.

Meditation Helps Preserve the Brain

“A study from UCLA found that long-term meditators had better-preserved brains than non-meditators as they aged. Participants who’d been meditating for an average of 20 years had more grey matter volume throughout the brain — although older meditators still had some volume loss compared to younger meditators, it wasn’t as pronounced as the non-meditators.”
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Giving Yourself Space

Mindfulness is an act of self-care that gives us the space to feel what we are feeling and to know clearly how we are. The practice of mindfulness is simple, but it is far from easy. What we often discover when we pay attention in the present moment is our own pain and sadness and anxiety, our unhealthy habits of thinking and reacting, and our mind’s tendency to revert to auto-pilot mode. But as our practice deepens, we discover ways to be more fully present and awake for all our experiences, even the painful ones, in a way that puts us in alignment with life instead of in opposition to it. Even in the midst of a serious crisis, in the midst of heartbreak and fear, practicing mindfulness can help us live our life with more ease, flexibility, responsiveness, and wisdom.

8 Ways to Practice Mindfulness in Daily Life

  1. Remember to notice your breath throughout the day, as often as possible. If the breath feels tense, acknowledge it. The simple act of acknowledging often has a healing effect. If your breath is feeling stressed, chances are that you are too.
  2. Notice the touch points and felt sense of your body as often as you can. When your awareness is grounded in the body it is easier to rest in present-moment awareness and life is much easier as a result.
  3. Learn to acknowledge how things are right now. Practice self-compassion and do not judge yourself for feeling a certain way or for being imperfect.
  4. Be aware of the effect what you consume has on your stress level. Too much coffee or TV or E-mail can create a sense of being disembodied and cause stress.
  5. Use moments of down time – like walking down a hall to see a colleague or down the street to catch a bus – to cultivate present-moment awareness.
  6. Re-learn the art of doing one thing at a time. Think “single-tasking” instead of multi-tasking.
  7. Practice mindful eating. Enjoy the sensations of the food without watching TV, going online, texting, having a conversation, or reading. Just eat & know that you’re eating.
  8. When you get home from work, get out of your work clothes and into more comfortable clothing as soon as you can.

Mindfulness Raisin Exercise

Demystifying Mindfulness: The Raisin Exercise
Take a raisin and look at it closely like you’ve never seen one before. Notice its shape, texture, color, smell, sound, the light reflecting off it, the feel of it as you roll it between your fingers. Take your time. Linger as you inspect the raisin. Reflect on all the conditions that brought you this raisin today – conditions of light and water and earth and time, of all the people that touched it in some way. Then, place it in your mouth, feel it rest on your tongue for a moment, then slowly, with awareness, chew, notice, taste. Savor.