Tag Archives: Habits

Mindfulness for Athletes

athletes
Mindfulness practice can make an athlete a more effective and happier competitor.

As a teenager, I was a competitive cross country and track runner and later, competed on my University’s triathlon team. The discipline required by the rigorous training and the thrill of racing became a driving force in my life at the time. Unfortunately, back then, I was not yet familiar with mindfulness. And these days, with my athletic glory days in the rearview mirror, I think a great deal about how mindfulness practice could be useful for competitive athletes.

At first glance, it may seem like mindfulness meditation could not be further removed from the physical intensity of sport. But real overlap exists when one considers the single-mindedness and focus required of athletes during competition. When we train our awareness during mindfulness practice, we are intentionally selecting an aspect of our present-moment experience upon which to rest our attention. It is not unlike the awareness that athletes hone during training and competing so that they can respond effectively to what their bodies need or what the situation calls for.

However, there are times when anticipation, anxiety, comparing and remembering muddy the mental landscape of the athlete’s mind. So much energy can be expended while lying in bed before a competition, worrying about what will happen or replaying past mistakes. And that busy mind does not necessarily prepare an athlete for the next day, or does so at a high cost. I propose that it is more effective to use that time to simply come into contact with the experience of that exact moment, and simply observe what is present, without reacting in a manner that detracts from an opportunity to truly rest the mind and body. In effect, to use mindfulness to break free from chronic preparation, superstition, and worry in order to enhance both the experience of competition and life outside of the competition.

There is a time and a place for planning, strategy and learning from mistakes. That time is usually during training and it is incredibly useful for athletic growth. However, if the mental activity inherent to this necessary aspect of competition bleeds over into the myriad other parts of life, it has the potential to impair functioning. As much as training requires a large amount of time, most athletes work hard to maintain balance in life. Intentional and concerted investment in sport as well as in the other domains of life contributes to a full and grounded self-identity that is less vulnerable to the inevitable perils of loss or dissatisfaction with performance. Practicing mindfulness formally and informally can help athletes to connect to those things in their lives that are valuable and that create a sense of meaning both on and off the track, the field, the court, etc.

I believe that practicing mindfulness can contribute to making an athlete more effective, more balanced and a happier competitor. Rather than having energy sapped by unhelpful mental processes accompanied by emotional and physical correlates, athletes can use mindfulness to turn to the richness of the present moment to replenish depleted energy stores. And who better to adopt this practice than athletes, who are already familiar with the rewards that come from diligent and repeated practice of a skill. And the best thing about mindfulness is that, unlike in athletics, there is nothing required- no equipment or gym or sponsor- simply your own mind and an openness to being more aware of what is unfolding in a given moment.

(Image courtesy of nirots at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Getting Started: Wisdom for New Mindfulness Practitioners

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Recently, we started new drop-in mindfulness sessions at le Centre de santé that are open to anyone wishing to come by and practice with a group. It has been very exciting since we have a number of participants who are new to the practice and have bravely decided to see what mindfulness is all about.

I really enjoy having the opportunity and privilege to hear the observations and experiences of those brand new to practice. The comments they offer about their foray into formal practice ranges widely to reveal boredom, discomfort, relaxation, sleepiness, questioning, judging, frustration, ease, struggle, and so on. I remember my first time practicing, as part of a Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) group, and sneaking furtive glances at my watch as the minutes seemed to endlessly stretch on. And I still have days when practice goes like that!

Today’s group got me thinking: if asked, what would I say is one of the most transformative aspects of mindfulness practice for me? What could I share from my own practice that could speak to how I experience mindfulness? What tidbit of my own experience could potentially help a newbie to persist through those moments in practice that are often filled with frustration (“My mind is wandering SO much”), confusion (“Am I even doing this right?”), and underwhelm (“is this IT?”)?

And this is what I came up with (although I am sure it is not an original thought): Mindfulness is not about staying but about coming back, again and again. 

There is much more I could share about what practice is like for me but I am curious to hear what you would say. If a stranger approached you on the street and asked what mindfulness is like for you, what would you say?

The Importance of Being Still

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Mindfulness gives you the opportunity to practice being still if you don’t have the time for a contemplative fishing trip.

Although I talk a lot about how to integrate movement and activity with your mindfulness practice (hence the name of this blog), today I feel it is important to highlight the equal utility of cultivating stillness and quiet in your practice. In the midst of the busyness of daily life, physically being still and not moving our bodies generally only happens when it has to: stuck in traffic, waiting at the DMV, or logging hours at our desks. And opportunities to cultivate stillness in our minds happens far, far less often.

Of course, mindfulness does not mean emptying the mind of thought. Instead, when I talk about mental stillness, I refer to the practice of intentionally noticing and being aware of the mind’s activity. Resting in awareness of what is present, rather than all of the myriad other mental gymnastics. It means noticing the pull to make that mental shopping list or write that mental email to your boss or to take a mental inventory of your own failings during the week. When being still, it is possible that we notice the movements in our minds and bodies (like that rumbling stomach, your respiration, that ache in your back) even more than we do in other less mindful moments. This awareness may be unpleasant and there may exist a rather strong pull to slide back into the busyness to avoid these sensations. The practice of being still is quite dynamic and changeable- which seems contradictory!

Making time to be still has many benefits, including that it strengthens your brain’s ability to understand and identify complex experiences. Furthermore, being intentionally still is just plain uncomfortable at times (it’s true!) which is a useful state to explore given that discomfort is something that occurs often throughout any given day. If our bodies become better acquainted with it, we can potentially increase our effectiveness in responding to a discomfort-inducing situation.

So, the next time you feel yourself hurtling along with the velocity of life, take a minute to consider being still. Here’s one exercise to try:

Adopt a posture that you can maintain for a few minutes and settle in to your body. Notice the feeling of contact that your body makes with the objects around it, the floor or the chair or your clothing. Open your awareness to the feeling of being still in your body. Notice that you may feel the desire to move, to scratch an itch, to adjust your weight, to fall asleep… Whatever is present, just take a moment to note the associated sensations. Investigate the sensations of the breath in the body and the movement in the body that occurs with each in-breath and each out-breath. Now, bring your attention to thinking and notice what may be present in your mind. Just as you did with noting sensations in the body, simply observe the habits of the mind that are occurring in this moment of stillness. Continue for a few minutes and notice the quality of ease or dis-ease that may ebb and flow over the duration of this practice. When you conclude the practice, intentionally return to movement with some of this expanded awareness and notice what that rejoining with busyness feels like in the body and the mind.

All practice is useful and as this lovely diagram points out, there is possibility for great variety in our “mindfulness diet.” I hope that you will consider a brief moment of intentional stillness even when life provides us with infinitely more opportunities to avoid sitting with ourselves. Or, perhaps you can take just yourself fishing.

Does Mindfulness Numb our Sense of Social Responsibility?

Mindfulness to emotion helps you to respond more thoughtfully than reactively- and perhaps that means reaching out to connect
Mindfulness increases thoughtful responding to emotion- and perhaps that means reaching out to connect

There has been some interesting chatter in the media discussing the impact of mindfulness on people’s willingness to engage effectively in society. Recently, Suzanne Moore of The Guardian suggested that mindfulness is all about the self and neuters impulses that may be useful for creating positive change in the world. She implied that practicing mindfulness may minimize the distress of the practitioner but does nothing to to directly address the distressing event.

In response, mindfulness practitioner and writer Ed Halliwell suggests in his blog that this criticism of mindfulness is normal given recent increasing attention to this practice in the media, and is actually helpful in furthering a constructive conversation. He notes that practicing mindfulness does not cure society’s many and serious imperfections and that, for those looking at the practice from the outside, it can appear to be something of an “opium for the people.”

For those of us who do practice mindfulness and who bring awareness to our very personal experience of living, we know that this is quite far from the truth. In fact, opening ourselves to the emotions and thoughts and body sensations that may be present in a given moment serves to better acquaint us with distress, sadness and other emotions that usually accompany our appraisal of the difficulties of life. When we open to these emotions, we acknowledge and honor them. Even though these emotions may be painful, we invite them in. Otherwise, the temptation may be to ignore, suppress or deny these emotions because of the automatic or habitual belief that we are helpless to change them or that we will be overwhelmed by their intensity. Yet, with practice and courage, we learn to approach rather than avoid our emotional experience and to just observe what is present in our bodies as we do so.

I would argue that this process of emotional awareness, of connecting to emotion in a given moment, actually prompts more action than the alternative. As a result of recognizing what is present for us in our minds and bodies, we may choose to respond in a way that thoughtfully supports our values and the things that we believe in. The motivation to take action is not out of a desire to rid ourselves of emotion but rather to validate our experience, and to connect to meaningful action.

Here is an example. A client described being deeply affected by the death of Robin Williams. She explained that his suicide prompted her to reflect on the suicide of a close friend and that she was experiencing feelings of sadness, grief, hopelessness and anger. She told me that with mindfulness, she could open to these emotions and ride their rise and fall in response to the thoughts she was having. As a result this process, she decided to reach out to her friend’s mother. She told me that they enjoyed a coffee together and reminisced about her friend, sharing a moment of connection to both one another and to the very natural feelings they have about losing her.

My client found that this action did not minimize her own grief but it did help her to feel like she was “in the driver’s seat” of her experience and that she could do something to recognize the loss. Rather than drown in her own suffering, she created a relationship with the pain that allowed her to respond to it in a thoughtful (rather than a reactive) way. And because she was open to her emotions, she was better able to be empathic when talking with her friend’s mother. Ultimately all of these responses supported her values.

Rather than numb our sense of social responsibility and our motivation to change the injustice of the world, mindfulness highlights the feeling and thinking that make it easier to engage in value-driven action if we want to. And as Ed Halliwell points out, even if our practice does not lead us to reach out and contribute to making the world a better place, simply being able to skillfully manage the distress that naturally accompanies membership in this imperfect world is a radically transformative way of breaking the cycle of unproductive suffering.

(Image courtesy of xedos4 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Mindful Work: 6 Ways to Bring More Intention and Value into Your Work Life

It can be tough to clock in when you are mentally clocked out.
It can be tough to clock in when you are mentally clocked out.

Someone (possibly Woody Allen) once said that “showing up is 80% of life.” Which makes me wonder- what is the other 20% about? Lugging our bodies into the office or to run our household day after day is necessary and the job usually gets done. But, what about beyond that? It makes sense that having our minds show up a bit more at work can increase our effectiveness as well as other aspects of our work experience.

Many of us do not fully enjoy our jobs or some of the tasks required of us as part of our position. Some of us may feel that the company for whom we work promotes ideas or products that run counter to our values.  These discrepancies between behavior (i.e, showing up to do work you don’t enjoy or don’t believe in) and values (i.e, living a healthy life, doing work that benefits those in need, contributing to the greater good) make us feel uncomfortable. The resulting dissonance can make us question ourselves or even impact our mood. However, I want to suggest an alternative way of thinking about this real difficulty.

Even when your professional position or responsibilities do not match some of your more obvious life values, think about the ways in which your work does support your values. For instance, perhaps you value commitment and loyalty which is satisfied when you do your job and assigned tasks to the best of your abilities just because you said you would- even when you’d rather not. Or perhaps you value family and your job helps for you to support that family. Others may value personal growth and even though your job responsibilities themselves do not feel as if they complement this value, perhaps the very act of continuously showing up, doing something difficult and still living a fulfilling, balanced life in spite of it all is a challenge that helps you to grow.

Connecting to what you value and committing to valued action is one way to bring intention and mindfulness to your work life. It provides the opportunity to “clock in” more fully and bring more of yourself to the activities in which you choose to engage. Ultimately, it brings you out of autopilot and into the driver’s seat of your life.

Here are a few other suggestions for bringing more mindfulness into your daily responsibilities, whether you work in the home or outside the home:

1.) Place a “mindfulness bell” in your schedule. This is a routine cue which reminds you to check in with yourself- like every time you start up your computer or walk to the bathroom or make your coffee. And checking in with yourself just means  finding the breath, seeing what is present in thinking/feeling/the body and then proceeding from a more mindful place.

2.) Take yourself out to a mindful lunch. At least once a week, eat lunch quietly and without conversation. Focus on the sensations of eating and the sensory qualities of the food. Choose foods with different textures or temperatures and whenever the mind wanders, just gently bring it back to the meal.

3.) Try “falling awake” after lunch. During that post-meal period of lowest energy, take 15- 20 minutes to settle into the body and feel the sleepiness in your body. Each time you feel yourself falling asleep, explore that feeling and use that as an opportunity to be mindful of these very vivid and surprising sensations.

4.) Walk mindfully throughout the day. If you have time to walk, you have time to walk mindfully. As you walk around the office, tune in to the sensations of walking including the various parts of the feet involved in the movements of walking. When you sit back down, take a moment to notice the feeling of warmth or looseness that may be present in the muscles after moving.

5.) When you get stuck, zoom out. If you find yourself getting stuck in a particular way of thinking or reacting, take a step back. Close your eyes and just notice what kinds of thoughts are present. Notice how big they feel or how quickly they go racing across the movie screen of your mind. Remind yourself that for the moment, you are simply observing your mind and there is nothing else that needs to be done.

6.) Practice mindful listening. When you want to bring more of yourself to a moment, use the voice of a speaker (whether in a meeting or conversation) to anchor you to the present. Just as you might with the breath, notice when your mind has wandered and gently escort your attention back to the voice.

I hope some of these ideas may help you to bring 100% of yourself into your work life and, ultimately, into any moment.

 (Image courtesy of jesadaphorn / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Identifying Emotions

Sometimes a visual reminder is necessaryVisua
Visual cues are useful for planning and problem-solving. But how about using visual cues for emotions?

Practicing mindfulness can help us to get to know and to befriend our experiences, no matter what kind of experience it may be. When first beginning practice, it can be challenging to identify various emotions and their correlated thoughts, body sensations and behavioral impulses.

Identifying emotions is helpful for a variety of reasons. On a physiological level, it transfers energy from the very primal “emotion brain” of the amygdala to the area of the brain dedicated to helping us organize, remember and make sense of information. When we identify and label an emotion, we are essentially activating a part of the brain that can help us to problem-solve, inhibit undesirable behavior or respond more effectively to what we are experiencing. We still may choose to deal with that emotion in a more primal way (say, slamming your fist into the wall) but at least more of our cognitive resources are engaged and this action is more intentional.

Furthermore, once an emotion is identified, you have more information to work with. Rather than trying to slog blindly through a muddy and sort of icky, disconcerting experience, we can instead be more aware of what we’re experiencing, how long it might last, and what kinds of things might be able to make the experience more manageable. That being said, emotional events do not consist only of the “negative” stuff. Greater awareness of joy, pride, wonder, love and all those positive (for most people) feelings can be very useful as well. When we make note of a good feeling, we are essentially saying, “Hey, this is good stuff. I am going to pay attention.” And the more we cultivate emotional recognition, the better we can be at catching and enjoying a similar emotion in the future.

Mindfulness to emotion can be a tricky topic to introduce. We humans are generally great walking cascades of emotion from one moment to the next so pinpointing what is happening takes practice. Plus, we are collections of learned emotional associations that can be triggered by very subtle or even subconscious stimuli, for instance: a barely noticeable but familiar smell -> memory of your first love -> feelings of nostalgia.

One useful tool I’ve found for helping people to practice takes the form of a handy little device, called “Feeling Magnets.” The founders recently offered me a chance to test this little metal box and its myriad magnets with mindfulness class participants. I found it to be a very useful. It is not very technical- always a plus for me- and due to its portability and discretion, facilitates regular emotional checking-in. Plus, it gives the user an opportunity to put words to their emotional experience, explore emotion/behavior patterns and ultimately, to step back and respond to emotions in a more mindful way. Seeing the emotions you are experiencing written in front of you can help to strengthen the neural connections that will ultimately contribute to the building of a new habit: checking-in, recognizing and validating your emotional experience, and choosing how to proceed.

Simple but effective, "Feeling Magnets" help with mindfulness to emotion.
Simple but effective, “Feeling Magnets” can increase mindfulness to emotion.

As a big fan of visual reminders and cues,  I recommend this simple but effective tool to mindfulness enthusiasts and those who are curious about their emotions. Anything that helps us to witness and wonder at the incredible capacity of our mind gets a gold star from me.

(Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Driving while Mindful

Have you ever driven while under the influence of mindfulness?
Have you ever driven while under the influence of mindfulness?

A few people have recently remarked that they feel most mindful during their morning commute.  And these thoughtful admissions have caused me to reflect on what it is about driving to and from work that facilitates mindfulness…

There is the solitude (if you don’t carpool) and the freedom of being in your own space.

There is the routine of it all.

There is the endless forward momentum of the vehicle, an inertia which can often match the cadence and speed of our own thoughts.

There is the inability (unless you are multi-tasking) to impulsively act on any thoughts, in order to remain focused on the road and the task at hand.

There is a requisite heightened awareness to the moment that persists until you pull off the road and as a result, sometimes our vehicles can be environments where emotions are more fully present than in other parts of the day, where distraction is more available.

All of those variables combine to make commuting a surprisingly organic environment in which to practice mindfulness. While driving, you have a chosen point of focus: the road and the complexity entailed in responding immediately and effectively to a particular stimuli. You are intentionally reorienting yourself to this chosen point every time that your attention shifts elsewhere, and likely you do so without judgement. You simply notice you were too caught up in something that was a distraction and bring yourself back into the chosen activity of the moment.

The routine of the weekly commute also makes this an excellent opportunity for placement of a “mindfulness bell,” wherein you are reminded each time you start the car or put on your seatbelt to check in with yourself and with that moment. It can be a cue to come out of automatic pilot and engage fully with that moment, starting a habit that may give your daily routine an infusion of intentionality and well-being.

And for those of us that commute via other forms of transportation, do you find this a good time to practice mindfulness? If you, like me, are surrounded by people busily moving about during your commute, can you still find a connection to your body, your breath, and the moment? I find that it is possible, although more challenging than when inside the personalized interior of my own car. However, now that it has become a habit to be mindful on the metro, I feel out of sorts if I go the trip without practicing- like I would if I did not take my morning shower or skipped breakfast.

Whether you go about your day via train, plane or automobile, why not give a mindful commuting a try? You may find that establishing a regular mindfulness practice is easier  and more accessible than you imagined. Bonne route!

 

Mindful Weekend: Practice with your Partner

 

This weekend, do your practice with your partner
This weekend, try practicing mindfulness with your partner

How does your partner feel about your mindfulness practice? Whether they are enthusiastic participants themselves or reluctant skeptics, why not invite them to practice with you this weekend? To start, just take 15 minutes to do a body scan together. I recommend this video as a guide. A body scan is typically an excellent exercise for those new to the concept of formal mindfulness practice.  Once you’re comfortable with meditating together, you may want to try a seated practice back-to-back with one another.  Or, even holding hands during practice and using the sensations of touch as anchors to the present moment.

Doing a formal mindfulness practice together could result in a feeling of closeness and intimacy, or perhaps a moment of shared shyness resulting from doing something novel together. When you’re finished, you can ask your partner what their experience was like, what they noticed in their body. And make sure to share your own experience- including all the difficulties (e.g., boredom, judgment, feeling self-conscious) inherent to practice.

And why? Among many reasons, research indicates that regular practice of mindfulness increases activity in the anterior insula of the brain. This is the region of the brain that helps our bodies make sense of all of the sensory information present in a given moment. So, what that amounts to is that more activity in this region is linked to intensified pleasure, sensation and physical attunement during sex! What other reason do you and your partner need? Now go get busy… meditating!

Wishing you a happy and mindful weekend.

(Image courtesy of arztsamui / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Mindful Weekend: When are You Most Mindful?

What helps you manage your busy brain?
What helps you manage your busy brain?

This week, I want to hear from you. How and when do you feel best able to engage fully with the present moment? Doing yoga? Out for a walk in nature? During seated formal practice? While being intimate with your partner? While eating something delicious? While checking in with difficult body sensations, emotions or thoughts?

I never fail to be amazed at the ways people practice bringing mindfulness into their everyday lives. A friend sent me a link to a service here in Lausanne that promotes birth “en plein conscience”. Which makes me realize how childbirth can be an incredibly mindful experience, wherein mothers are brought into direct and moment-by-moment contact with their body sensations. They are taught to monitor, report and respond non-judgmentally to minute sensations and changes in the body that are often difficult to describe or anticipate.

Please share with me in the comments below how you bring your mind fully to the moment. When and how do you part from “doing” mode and enter “being” mode? What helps you connect most directly to the fullness of your mind in a given moment?

Have a great weekend.

(Image courtesy of MR LIGHTMAN / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Mindful Weekend: Coping Effectively with Distress

This weekend, I invite you to meet distress in a different way. We all know this feeling of distress- good old distress makes himself known in a variety of different ways, whether it be body sensations, thoughts, or emotions. It can be assured that in moments of unease or discomfort or anxiety, distress will very often be along for the ride.

To boil down its definition, distress means “suffering.” We know that pain is inevitable- we will lose loved ones, we will be disappointed, we will encounter difficulties (big and small) around every bend in life. Yet, in spite of this inevitability, suffering itself is not a given. Pain is the natural reaction of the body and the mind to a difficulty. By contrast, suffering involves our reaction to the pain: the story we tell ourselves about how long the pain will last and what it means, our assessment of our resources to deal with the pain, what we think past pain of the same degree could mean for dealing with this current pain, and on and on.

If we could peel away that layer of suffering, we could deal more directly with the pain and respond to it more effectively. But while we are defining vague psychological constructs, what does “effective” really mean?  One definition, or equation if you will, that I think is very illustrative is borrowed from Dialectical Behavior Therapy:

current reality + rules of the universe + values/goals = effectiveness  

All the variables in the above equation are important to factor in when deciding how to respond in a distressing moment. Yes, there are things that you cannot change about the situation and about how the universe works (for example, life is not fair). Even with all those realities in mind, you can bring your values front and center, ultimately choosing to move in a value-driven direction.

Here is an example. Today I found myself in the midst of a little “road rage,” wherein I thought I had the right of way and the other person thought they had the right of way. The other driver rolled his eyes, gesticulating, lowered his window and tried to convince me that he was right. I tried to prove my case (in French- yikes!) but I could see it was going nowhere and drove away. A part of me wanted to stay and try to convince the other driver that I was right. But, the value-driven part of me said, “what do you have to prove? There are more important things to do today than stay to fight a meaningless battle.” The inner core of my distress in that moment was striking fear that I was wrong, that I made a mistake. After getting home and calming down, it was clearer to me that who was right was less important than the fact that no one got hurt and I have more emotional energy for the rest of the day.

Even when distress threatens to overwhelm you, keep moving in the direction of your values
Even when distress bogs you down, you can keep moving in the direction of your values

Distress can feel like a formidable foe. He takes many shapes and forms and often it can feel like he engulfs rational thought.  But this weekend, I hope you can try to meet him in a new way. Get to know him and he will lose his power. I believe it will then be easier for you to connect to your values and to move back in the direction of the things that matter most to you in your life.

So, when you encounter a distressing moment this weekend, ask yourself: What does distress feel like? Can you notice the thoughts and body sensations that correspond with it? How are you pulled to manage distress? Is it effective?  Does it serve you and your values in the long-run? If not, is there something else you can try?