Six Honest Ways To Create Mindfulness Now.

Mindfulness is an attitude or a way of perceiving reality just like being identified with thoughts and feelings is an attitude or a way of perceiving reality. Just like everything else in life, possessing an attitude of mindfulness is a choice. A choice that ultimately leads to less suffering. Here are six thing you can do right now to create more mindfulness in your life:

1) Are you identified with negative judgments right now? Not liking someone or something? Wanting things to be different than how they are? Feeling bad or critical about yourself or thinking that you are right and others are dumb? Being identified with negative judgments is like burning ourselves with a flame. It hurts. As long as we identify with our negative judgments we will be unhappy people. It is not that you will suddenly stop having negative judgments, but see if you can just be aware of them without acting upon them or articulating them. Just leave them alone and notice how when you do this they go away.

2) Are you reacting to distressing feelings? Do you continually try and push away, deny or get rid of feelings of distress? Feelings of distress are as normal as the sun coming up in the morning. If we do not learn how to skillfully deal with our distressful feelings we will suffer. See if you can notice when distressing feelings arise in you and then just welcome them. Even though distressing feelings are uncomfortable, who said life should be comfortable all the time? Why keep fighting against it? How about just letting the feelings of distress be there? Become mindful of your distressing feelings and leave them alone. Notice how the moment you welcome them (rather than react to them) they lose their potency and are no longer as distressing anymore.

3) Are you accepting your life as it is in this moment? Or are you trying to change or fix things about this moment? Make things how you think they should be? Good luck. This is a mountain that no one ever reaches the top of. Life just becomes a continual climb to nowhere. Not wanting to feel what we are already feeling in this moment is the surest way to make what we are feeling worse. See if you can just be aware of where you are at in this moment. Notice how it feels. Now see if you can just accept it. Leave it alone. Let it be. Stop trying to swim against the current. Acceptance is the key which opens the door to a more peaceful and calm life. The trouble is that most of us can’t seem to find the key. I am handing you the key. Here. Accept what is right now. Leave it alone. Alan Watts said, “Muddy water is best cleared by leaving it alone.”

4) Are you in a hurry right now? Do you want to get rid of some uncomfortable feeling in your body right away? Do you need to have things the way you think they should be now? Do you have to have everything all figured out and tightened up now? Good luck again. How about being patient? Isn’t patience a fundamental virtue? So just be patient. Leave things alone. Stop trying to change or fix things. Be willing to accept things as they are and then just be patient. Patient requires a kind of faith or trust that everything will work out. When we are patient we are willing to sit with uncertainty and not knowing. We just leave things as they are and find patience in learning to live with the uncertainty. Another way to think about being patient is be willing to be comfortable with the discomfort. This is a fundamental aspect of meditation practice and of living a good life. Life is uncomfortable so it is very beneficial to learn how to be comfortable with discomfort.

5) Daniel Higgs, a poet, wrote, “Anything outside of the present moment is a form of slavery.” Mindfulness is a way of being that is aware of each passing moment. Life is viewed as moments to be lived rather than task after task to be accomplished. As we grow older years seem to pass by in the blink of an eye but moments or even hours seem to maintain a similar duration as when we were younger. When we create so many problems and issues and things to do in our lives we are no longer aware of the passing moments. We are being pulled into the future continually or dragged back into the past all the time. We rarely seem to tend to the passing moments in our lives and then when we reach 40 or 50 or 60 we think, “Wow, my life went by so fast!” Yes it did. You were not aware of the passing moments. Be present. Tend to the moments of your life if you want to live a life that feels longer. If you don’t want to do this, that is fine, but please don’t be surprised when it feels like life went by so fast.

6) Are you lost in your head right now? Thinking about all kinds of things? Judging what I am writing? Thinking about other stuff? What about your body? What is going on there? Our bodies are always present. Our noses, our toes, our ears, our lips, our lungs, our heart, our knees- they all exist in the present. It is only this small portion of our brain that creates thoughts that usually have something to do with some place other than right now. We have been conditioned to be more identified with this very small section of our brain rather than the other 99% of what is going on with our bodies. Being aware of our senses is an incredible satisfying experience. Notice the various sensations in your body. Notice smells and tastes. See if you can pay attention to hearing, breathing and really notice things that are around you. Mindfulness is a way of fully inhabiting the space where our bodies are already at. See if you can be more in tune with the sensory experience that you are having from moment to moment, rather than ignoring all of this because of being too lost in thought. Sometimes we get so lost in thought that a panic attack seems to be the only way our body can get our attention. It doesn’t have to come to this. See if you can tune your mind into being more aware of your sensory experience as you make your way through your day.

And finally, I forgot who said it but I wrote this quote down in my notebook: “If we love the little moments ferociously, than maybe we can learn to live well not in spite of death but because of it. Let death be what takes us, not lack of imagination.”


The Simple Psychology Of Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a very simple practice. It is a practice of generating more present moment awareness by shifting out of being so tightly identified with various thoughts and feelings and more aware of and interested in where we are at in the present moment (the right now). It is hard to say exactly how many thoughts the average person has from day-to-day, but from what I have read it is estimated at somewhere between 30,000-70,000 thoughts per day. That is a lot of thoughts! If most of these thoughts are negative (worry, remorse, judgment), which they normally are, that is a continual toxic cloud hanging over our lives, every minute of every day.

And yet we continue to pursue finding answers, fixing various issues, being happy in our lives, even while this toxic cloud follows us around. How is that supposed to work out? It is the hamster going around and around on the hamster wheel syndrome. All we have to do to stop going around and around on the wheel is step off to the side, but instead we keep going around and around believing that eventually there is some better place we will get to where we will figure things out. In a sense, this is the current human condition.

Mindfulness can be an incredibly difficult practice for those who struggle to step off to the side (even for just a minute). The vast majority of people tend to believe that there is some better destination up ahead where everything will be fixed and figured out if they can just think about things more. Shunryu Suzuki, the popular Zen Teacher, made the analogy that living like this is like being a bug stuck in a sticky spiders web, anxiously struggling to find a way out, but never really finding one. It is counterintuitive to most people, but from the mindfulness approach the way of getting unstuck from the web is to just step aside. We do this by slowing down and accepting that we are currently stuck (lost in thought). Then we stop being so focused on all the thoughts running through our brain by becoming more aware of breathing, sounds that are around us, feet touching the ground, sensations in our hands and feet, noticing our chest expanding and contracting with each breath, noticing objects that we are seeing. By becoming more fully aware of and interested in where we are in the present moment, we can step off the hamster wheel.

As a psychotherapist, I work everyday with individuals who really struggle with various difficult issues. As painful and life interfering as these issues are they are almost always a result of being too tightly identified with thinking (a mind that will not slow down). As the people I work with learn to not be as tightly identified with their thoughts, as they learn how to more and more pull themselves out of the web created by negative thinking, I witness radical changes in a person’s life. Again and again. So there must be something innately balancing to our brains and bodies by being able to be more present.

Difficulty sleeping, heavy depression, panic attacks, being overly stressed out about the future, chronic insecurities and self doubt, general unhappiness with life situation, addiction, chronic anger and worry and various other difficulties; all these difficult states seem to greatly lessen when a person is willing to step aside more and more in their day-to-day life. A person’s external life situation does not change much, but their inner way of relating to life changes radically. They are able to pull themselves out of the sticky web more and more often.

Traditional psychology says that we need to analyze thoughts and emotions (think more), go deeply into the issues that disturb us and as a result we will make certain connections, learn more about ourselves, resolve certain life long issues and then overcome our psychological duress. When this does not work we are offered a pill to take the edge off, while still engaging in traditional self-analysis. Then (maybe) we feel a bit better. In my graduate psychological training, this was the standard medical model of psychological care that was taught to students and which most psychotherapists advocate for as professionals. I feel that, in the long-term, this just makes things more complex (and profitable) than they really need to be. As much as talking about how you feel and what you have been through with someone who is deeply listening to you can be very healing, I feel like the benefits are short term. Cathartic at best because we are just engaging and articulating the thing that is the source of our problems- negative thoughts. It is not long until a person will find themselves tightly identified with habitual negative thoughts and emotions again.

The psychology of mindfulness is a simple psychology. It is a psychology, which rather than engaging a person’s thoughts and feelings as much, also puts an emphasis on engaging their ability to focus and be more aware in the present moment. Over time the result is that the person is able to be less identified with thoughts and emotions and more aware of what they are doing and where they are at in the present moment. The value is no longer placed so much on “figuring things out” or “resolving issues” but is instead placed on being more present with your life as it is, from moment to moment, breath by breath. This is often called self-regulation.

When we do this more and more, what we experience is that various psychological issues resolve themselves. The web becomes less sticky and we are able to climb out into a better, more present place (even if just for a minute at a time) made less unhappy by that toxic cloud following us around filled with all of our worries, remorse and judgments.

Mindfulness: Managing Negative Emotional And Psychological States.

I just wanted to clarify something that we spoke about at last night’s mindfulness group. Of course I can only speak about what I have experienced personally and what I have witnessed in others who have been practicing mindfulness for quite some time. Also during my psychology training this issue was spoken about a good amount.

Like we discussed last night, the negative (difficult) emotional/psychological states that we struggles with (anger, anxiety, depression to name a few) are often apart of the fabric of who we are- like our blood type, height, hair color, sound of our voice, etc. These negative emotional and psychological states are not only multi-generational (passed down from generation to generation) but they are also a part of our initial conditioning. So often the anxiety, worry, restlessness, depression, unhappiness, etc, that you deal with today has been there for a very long time and will most likely be there for the rest of your life because these personality traits are a part of who you are. They never entirely go away.

The desire to make these personality traits (emotions/psychological states) go away often creates a great deal of struggle, frustration and difficulty for people. With mindfulness practice the idea is that we learn how to become aware of our anxiety, our anger, our depression, our boredom, our loneliness the moment it arises and then fully accept it by not-identifying with it as strongly as we tend to do when we are unaware of it. By just being aware of our anxiety or depression and accepting it fully (I know I am depressed now but I know this too will pass. I am aware of my breathing, feet on the ground and sounds that I am hearing. I continue to bring myself back to the present moment where everything is ok) we can begin to step back from it and it will no longer last as long. Through mindfulness practice we learn how to accept and manage these difficult emotions and psychological states rather than trying to fix or annihilate them.

But here is the catch. Mindfulness is the integration of a new personality trait. The result of adding this more mindful (self-aware) aspect to your personality, greatly reduces the intensity and duration of negative emotional and psychological states that may have once dominated your entire life. (You can “snap out of” these habitual negative emotional and psychological states much quicker.) Through being able to be aware of your depression and then step back from it (accept it as it is) and allow it to run its course, your depression or anxiety or anger no longer lasts as long and it no longer takes you into the depths of despair, self-judgement and/or panic as it once may have.

So by becoming aware, accepting and dis-identifying from these negative emotional/psychological states you no longer suffer from them as much. They take up a much smaller part of your personality. So in this sense the intense and all consuming way that you once experienced anxiety, panic, anger, depression does gradually go away through the integration of mindfulness into your moment to moment life and what you are left with is a more mild, watered down and manageable form of these negative emotional/psychological states. The kind of depression, anger or anxiety that you lived with before mindfulness does go away but you will most likely always live with some degree of depression, anger and/or anxiety. Mindfulness (self-awareness) just gives us the ability to manage these more difficult emotional/psychological states (rather than the difficult states controlling us) that are often a part of who we are.

Mindfulness: Breaking The Habit By CHOOSING To Shift Your Perspective.

I was waiting to turn at a corner when car after car kept coming by. A minute passed and then five minutes passed. “What the hell?” I thought. I couldn’t back up since there were cars behind me. It was a long funeral procession driving very slowly down the long street. I had somewhere I need to be! This was ridiculous! I noticed my heart rate go up and my chest constrict. I became restless and felt stuck. I did not want to be in this situation and noticed that I was pissed off about it. Then I laughed at myself.
I think this is a normal human reaction (minus the laughing at yourself) when stuck in traffic. But in this situation, there is a distinctive difference between someone who practices mindfulness and everyone else. Most people in this situation would become really frustrated. Their thoughts, heart rate, blood pressure would all speed up, they would take the situation VERY seriously and then they would react. They might mumble curse words under their breath. They might feel frantic and anxious. “I have to be somewhere!” they might scream out. They might feel an intense amount of anger and honk their horn at the traffic slowly rolling by. This is the “normal” (which is really abnormal since being stuck in traffic is hardly a threat to someones survival) stress functioning state of our collective world right now. Maybe this is why so many people are on medications and dependent on doctors to help deal with the ravaging effects of chronic stress?
The mindfulness practitioner becomes aware that they are getting pissed off. They notice their raised blood pressure and heart rate. They notice the flood of judgmental thoughts flooding their brain and they say to themselves, “Wow look at all these judgments about the situation that I am. Wow.” Just becoming aware of all the judgmental thoughts (which are really just an unwillingness to accept what is) (“I don’t like this,” “This sucks,” “This is taking way too long,” “I need to be somewhere else,” “This is terrible!”) immediately begins to calm down the nervous system. The mindfulness practitioner then becomes aware of their breathing, notices the sounds that they are hearing, becomes aware of the sensation of their palms on the steering wheel and relaxes into the situation rather than reacting against it. Within a minute or so the stress is gone, they have accepted what is (“So I am stuck in traffic, such is life. I can still be present with what is right now.”) and as a result avoids the detrimental psychological and physical effects of habitual reactivity and chronic stress. All they needed to do was be willing to become aware of all the judgements in their head.
Mindfulness is really just a shift in perspective. When practicing mindfulness we are shifting out of a perspective that is closed, automatic (habitual), judgmental, unaware and as a result reactive into a perspective that is open, curious and accepting of what is. More so than any other creature on the planet, human beings really struggle to accept what is. We continually judge what is, resist it and want things to be different. As a result we suffer the life depleting effects of continual and poorly managed judgments. Our judgmental minds are mostly conditioned. Chances are, from a developmental perspective, if you had a parent or parents who were very judgmental this is why you have a difficult time accepting what is (I have experienced this first hand since my wife has parents who are not judgmental of much and as a result she doesn’t judge nearly as much as I do!).
Next time you find yourself at a corner unable to turn or in any other undesirable situation, see if you can become aware of the flood of judgments rushing through your brain. It is only through becoming aware (waking up!) that you can then CHOOSE to shift your perspective towards a more mindful one. As a result you will begin to break judgmental/reactive habits that may have been undermining your health, well-being, relationships and quality of life all along.

The Fly, The Stone and The Present Moment

A fly sits on a warm stone, enjoying the morning sun. It looks still, secure and content but suddenly it flies off. Then it is back again, then it flies off again, then it is back again, then it flies off again. The fly can not seem to make up its mind. So much to do, so little time left to live. It is having a difficult time deciding what to do. It returns to the stone, becomes still again for just a few seconds but then is gone yet again. I notice that the fly is flying all around the stone, lands on the dirt close to it but then flies away again.

We are not that different from this fly. The warmth, security and contentment that is experienced on the stone is a metaphor for the present moment and the fly is a metaphor for how our brains work. We struggle (some more than others) to remain present. We are like the fly who keeps coming back to the stone, then flies away again. The moment that we become present we notice that we feel a great relief. We feel happier, calmer, more secure but then we are gone again. Off to do something, accomplish tasks, judge others or ourselves, check something that we feel we are missing out on, worry about what might or might not happen in the future and before we know it we have returned to a state filled with anxiety, dissatisfaction, unfulfillment, anger and stress.

But then some of us are able to bring ourselves back to the present moment. Most of us remain here for just a moment or two before we fly off again, pulled away by our speedy and judgmental brains. The entire point of regularly practicing mindfulness meditation is that we are training ourselves to develop our capacity (which, we all have) for living more and more in the present moment. In a world where there are flies buzzing all around us, out of control- without regularly practicing mindfulness meditation it is very difficult, if not impossible, to cultivate the capacity to remain present. We practice mindfulness so that we can remain grounded on that stone for longer periods of time, experiencing more contentment, security, calm and relief. As a result we live much more satisfying, fulfilling and less tormented lives.

The fly has not yet returned to the stone.

CHAOS and Why You Keep Creating It

Chaos abounds. It is everywhere. Just walk out your front door and you will find it (unless you live in the woods). If you are like most people in our complex and “civilized” society, you probably experience an equal or greater amount of chaos in your own head and relationships, as the chaos that you notice in the outside world. The macrocosm is just a reflection of the microcosm, so the ancient saying goes.

So what can we do about all this chronic chaos in our lives? Can we live chaos free? Why not? After all, the chaos is more threatening to our health and longevity than most of what we eat, drink and breathe on a daily basis. The chaos is equally as addictive as alcohol but like excessive alcohol use, it also creates disease. So it is in our best interest to learn to live without out chaos before we are forced to learn this lesson through tragedy or illness. Those who are already ill, might want to consider listening to what shamans have been saying for thousands of years and devote themselves to a steady course of chaos-free-living, since ultimately this is where healing grows from.

Just like our skin color, our hair, our toes and our height, we are genetically predisposed to chaos. Chaos (behavioral patterns) is passed down through families, just like money and possessions are. Behavioral patterns are partly genetic, but they are also a learned behavior. If chaos was all genetic, it would be impossible to stop creating it. But since creating chaos is also a learned behavior (we learn it in our childhoods from those who are our primary care givers and we learn it from the world we perceive around us), there are alternatives.

First, it is important to realize that 98% of the chaos in your life is self-created. Chaos is what you create because you do not know how not to. At a neurobiological level, your limbic brain is running the show. The limbic brain (lower brain functioning) is focused on survival, and when we are in its grip we see threats and danger everywhere. Childhood traumas (physical and emotional) often activate our limbic brains, causing us to spend a lifetime under threat. When our limbic brain is running the show we are often responding to life like a trapped animal. Raw emotion overtakes us and we become paralyzed with fear, anxiety, worry, anger and rage. Thinking straight becomes impossible. As a result, we continually create chaos.

I could go on and on about this but I often grow bored when reading about neurobiology, so I do not want to bore you. I will say that when we practice mindfulness we are stimulating the neocortex (higher brain functioning). The neocortex is often referred to as “the new brain” because it is that part of our brain which allows us to become more aware, present, creative, focused, curious and open to new learning experiences. When the limbic brain is in charge, it shuts down the neocortex. When we practice mindfulness we might feel good for a bit but the moment that the limbic brain kicks back in, our more aware, present and focused experience flies out the door. This is why it is important to practice mindfulness daily in order to combat a chronically hyperactive and easily stimulated limbic brain.

Chaos is to our limbic brain what peanut butter is to jelly. They go together perfectly. When we practice being mindful, we are strengthen the neocortical regions of our brain, which in turn overrides our more chaos making behaviors. Aggression, emotional withdraw, excessive worry, problem making and other destructive behaviors are quieted down when we are engaging our neocortex brain through mindfulness practice.

Mindfulness practice makes it much easier for us to slip into present moment awareness whenever we notice that we are about to create chaos or are creating chaos. When we are able to experience life through present moment awareness, we are then able to become aware of the numerous resources that are available for us to create a healthier, more creative and chaos free life. It is possible to live a life free of chaos, to live in a world surrounded by chaos but to be free from it (this is what practicle enlightenment is). We just have to make the choice to stop living our life on automatic pilot, to stop allowing learned, habitual and often unconscious behaviors to run the show. It is a choice. A chaos free life is a wonderful thing, but in order to live it we need to be able to cultivate more present moment awareness and less identification with ruminative and often destructive mental chatter. Mindfulness practice is the key.

Give it a try and see if you can spend just one day chaos free.

Mindfulness, What Is It Really?

Lately, I have noticed meditation practitioners being parodied or satirized in the media (television and film). It seems as if popular culture has some issues with meditation and the states of being that it can create. Meditators are often parodied as being neurotic, stressed out, head cases who find temporary relief, peace and love in the higher states of consciousness that they find through their meditation practice. But of course, it is not long before these blissed out head cases fall back into their same patterns of anger, rage, anxiety and self-hatred. And I admit- this can make for some good entertainment.

I suppose to some degree these parodies are deserved. Meditation has been appropriated by multi-millionaire self-help gurus like Tony Robbins, Deepak Chopra and many other corporate meditation gurus. They have intelligently packaged meditation in pretty new age wrapping and sold it to mainly white people in the business world who are looking for more centeredness, efficiency, focus, less anxiety, more space, less reactivity and more positive meaning in their lives. It is true that meditation has been dumbed down and become another high price commodity sold by “the athletes of positive thinking and health (and greed)” to people and corporations who want to be able to maximize their positivity, health and performance.

But everything I have spoken of above has nothing to do with what mindfulness is. The meditation sold by Tony Robbins is as far from authentic mindfulness practice as we are from Mars. Mindfulness has nothing to do with generating positivity, love or money. It has nothing to do with optimizing performance (although this can be a pleasant side-effect of mindfulness). All mindfulness is is a practice of becoming less identified with thinking and ego and more aware in the present moment.

In mindfulness practice, awareness is referred to as the 6th sense. There is touch, smell, sight, hearing and seeing. But there is also the sense of awareness. In our culture we are so conditioned to be identified with our ego, with our never ending thought processes, that we are very rarely aware of experiencing our five senses- let alone our sixth. But just like our pancreas, liver and our spleen- awareness is always there even if we are not aware of it. Mindfulness is a practice of stretching our attention beyond our narrow focus on obsessive thinking so that we can become more open and aware of our lives in the present moment. The psychological, relational and physiological benefits of being able to do this are too numerous to name here.

The corporate meditation approach of training individuals to always be in a state of positivity, high energy and bliss is like expecting the blue sky to always be blue. No rain clouds, no fog, no thunder clouds- just blue. This is ridiculous, shaming and impossible to do. Clouds are as natural to the sky as our various darker emotions and feelings are to our awareness. But when practicing mindfulness we develop the skill of being able to be aware when the clouds of anger, worry, sadness, stress, anxiety, depression and/or excitement are present- without getting caught up in them. Just like a food critic who cultivates her sense of taste, mindfulness practitioners are cultivating their sense of awareness so that they can be less reactive to the clouds and more fully accepting of life as it is.

And this is all mindfulness really is- developing the skill or art of being more aware and present in life rather than being lost in thought and becoming reactive to every little cloud that moves through you. Through mindfulness we become more grounded and aware within ourselves and less enslaved by our conditioning (we also become less dependent on things outside of ourselves). You rarely see this kind of mindfulness satirized in films or television programs because in truth there really is nothing funny about a person who is being mindful.