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A few weeks ago I applied to refinance my mortgage. It’s been an annoying and cumbersome process of finding paperwork, signing paperwork and getting others to sign paperwork.

There was a set of documents that I had to get signed by my coop.  Each original document was already signed by the bank and my coop made me jump through a few hoops before they signed it.  On Thursday, I got the papers back, (somehow placed into my mailbox) finally all signed and ready to return to the lawyer handling the deal. That evening, I was busy getting ready to have a bunch of people over for dinner. In my effort to clean up I tried to sort all the junk mail mail from the mail I wanted and started setting the table and preparing food. Then it was a whirlwind couple of days, filled with lots of activities.

A couple of days later, I sat down for my before-bed mindfulness practice and all of a sudden the thought came to me that I didn’t know where those papers were.  I hadn’t thought about them since.  It would be a major hassle as well as an embarrassment to try to start from scratch with the documents. As soon as I got up I started scurrying around trying to find them.  While I was sitting, I had a feeling and a memory of the frantic clean up process and the envelopes I had thrown out with the junk mail and the awful thought occurred to me that I may have thrown the documents away.

After looking in a couple of places I checked the trash.  There, near the bottom, were the documents. Had I not sat quietly for the fifteen minutes that I did, that thought would never have occurred to me–at least not until it was too late.

I imagine all the mindless, murky chatter and distraction that was going on in my mind that didn’t allow me to focus on what was important. I’m glad that it was finally able to come to the surface.

Rosh Hashanah is one of my favorite holidays.  It is known as the birthday of the world–the beginning of creation. It comes at a beautiful time of year, when school is starting and the weather is getting cooler and it is filled with the promise of new beginnings.

The most prevalent symbol of the Jewish New Year is the shofar.  For Jews, one of the requirements of the holiday is to hear the blasts of the shofar. I’ve always found that interesting because most “mitzvot” or commandments, are about doing something active. Like saying a prayer or wearing a head covering.  This one is different. It’s about listening.

The shofar is not an easy thing to get a sound out of. Some of the  best players are often those who have experience playing brass instruments. Fortunately, you don’t need to be able to play the shofar, you only need to be able to hear it. The sound is amazing. If you close your eyes, you can imagine yourself looking up at a hilltop and seeing an ancient shepherd alerting people for miles around of a momentous occasion.  It is loud and it vibrates and fills the room.

The sound of the shofar shakes us from our fog and forces us to sit up and pay attention.  It makes us aware of the moment.  It’s literally a wake-up call. Now that we are awake, now what?

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Mindfulness meditation, also called insight meditation, is an exercise that trains your mind to stay present.

What it isn’t

It is not a practice that clears your mind. This is probably the biggest misconception about mindfulness. If you were to clear your mind of all thoughts and awareness, you’d be unconscious. But the effect of practicing mindfulness is that there is a lot less clutter in your mind.

Mindfulness is not about intense focus.  Focusing alone will get you deeply involved in a thought.  Mindfulness meditation helps you be aware that you are having a thought or feeling, helps you note it and then you can once again pay attention to your breath.

What it is

Mindfulness looks like this:

You sit erect (imagine standing at attention.  Now change that to sitting, with the same posture, but not the stiffness of standing at attention.)

You observe your breathing. Every single detail is important. How your chest rises and falls, your belly rises and falls, how the air fells coming into your nostrils, how it feels going out of your nostrils and anything else that you can notice about your breath. Pay attention to the details, notice the changes–and most importantly–do not not control it but follow it.  Observe it without changing it–to the extent that that is possible.

It very simple.  What’s hard is what actually happens while you are doing this. You, (no matter how highly practiced you are) will find your mind wandering away from its job of attending to the breath. You’ll start thinking about something you should do, or something you shouldn’t have done or something someone said or you’ll have a great idea that you’d like to think about.

When that happens, note it. Say to yourself, “I was thinking about the fact that I forgot to write a meeting in my calendar,” or “I’m feeling scared.” Go back to the breath. You might have even spent a few moments on this thought or feeling before you realize that you got away from paying attention your breath. Be gentle about this transition. Don’t judge yourself in any way. This is the way the mind works.  If you meditate for ten minutes, you may find yourself noting your thoughts and feelings scores of times and going back to the breath.

Jack Kornfield has compared mindfulness practice to training a puppy.  If you want the puppy to sit, when it runs away, you gently place it down again and show it what sitting is. You don’t berate the puppy or force it. You gently bring it back over and over again until it learns.

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Yesterday was a really bad day. Nothing really bad happened. What was bad was going on in my mind but I was reacting to it and my day went from bad to worse. I didn’t even realize how bad I was feeling until sometime around 10:00 a.m. I snapped at someone. For nothing. I found myself answering emails in a tone that reflected the annoyed way I was feeling.

It all started with feeling overwhelmed. Trying to work on four projects at once at work while doing the writing I try to do every day and a couple of outside projects and personal commitments–it was all adding up. Then there was the constant self-imposed barrage of digital information. A guest post I wrote for another blog went up but the site went down and then the results were disappointing. I was checking email and Tweetdeck and feeling more and more stressed out. Worrying about a routine annual medical test later in the day didn’t help.

When I got home I spent a couple of hours on my computer distracted, trying to finish work I didn’t get done during the day. Then about 9:00 p.m. I did what I knew I needed to do. I turned everything off. No T.V., no lights, not computer, no phone.  Setting my meditation timer I sat for 20 minutes and when the bell rang, I sat for 20 more.

I felt better than I had in days.  This was not a one day event. I had been hurtling toward it for a week. The result of spending too much time doing things and being with people who were out of sync with what I needed.

Today I woke up feeling much better. At the train station, which is on the Hudson River, instead of spending the time I usually spend waiting for the train checking and answering emails, I turned to face the river and took it all in. It was a beautiful scene over the Palisades with the moon still visible high in the sky.  There were a few wild flowers growing by the river bank on this, the first chilly morning of the season. A warm and friendly woman starting a conversation about how beautiful it was.

During the day–a much more productive and enjoyable day–I conjured up the image of the water and the sky if I felt myself slipping into a distracted state. I haven’t fell this good in a while and I owe it all to having had a really bad day yesterday.   If you’re not paying attention, something like a really bad day is going to happen but it’s all in the service of helping you wake up.

750 Words A Day

I discovered the site 750Words recently and started writing.  The idea is that you get an email reminder each day to write in this private journal online and you write whatever. . . usually stream of consciousness.  It’s based on the book “The Creative Way” which suggests that as part of your journey to be more creative, you write 3 pages in longhand every day (which is about 750 words) and don’t edit yourself or worry about how it comes out.

You get points for writing but much more interesting is that you can compare your content to other peoples’ content.  The system analyzes your words and theirs to give you graphs of how your writing has been over time, vs. the last 7 days, vs. the rest of the 750 Words writers.  The idea is to gain access to your unconscious mind by analyzing the type and tone of words.

The results ring true for me in some cases and are surprising in others.  I’m not sure who the people are that they refer to as “the rest of the world,” but I am fairly certain they are not your typical people.  The tip-off is that they are writing much more than 750 words and doing it in 50 minutes.  Who are these people?

I’m o.k. comparing myself to a high level of baseline.  The results are fascinating.  The system rates you on your orientation toward the past, present and future, whether you talk about yourself or others more, how happy, sad, or fearful you are and even the level of cursing, violence and sexual content of your writing. And that is not all. . . as they say in the infomercials.

I haven’t been writing for very long on the site but there are clear difference between me and what they call “the rest of the world.” One was my rating on uncertainty.  I’m well ahead of them on that one.  So I became more conscious of this when writing and more conscious of this in general and realized that I need to get clearer and be more proactive.  That’s just one of many scores, some of which seem to make sense and some of which are questionable.  I will need to write for a longer period of time to see.  What will be interesting is that I will be able to see the change in my own state of mind (according to their algorithm).

There is also a nice feature where you can keep track of certain things.  You just write the thing you are keeping track of followed by a colon and then the number or info next to it.  The system maintains that data for you.  If you want to keep track of how much coffee or alcohol you drink, how much sleep you get, what movies you see–you’ll have it.

Writing is like its own oil. It is a practice that gets easier when you do it.  That’s why it makes sense to commit to write 750 words a day, even if they are far from art and even if they are not even interesting, sensible or smart.  Eventually, better stuff comes out.

It’s like meditation.  It becomes more natural as you do it more. It involves watching your own thoughts. It is like a muscle that gets stronger as you use it.

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Limitless

I saw the movie Limitless over the weekend. It’s about unrealistic, overachieving, materialistic desires fulfilled by taking a pill that gives a person access to all of their mental capacity.  What did this movie keep making me think about? Meditation.

Some of what the film portrayed was out of synch with how meditation can help. For example, the main character, Charlie, learns languages and high level math overnight. But there was much to connect the experience of having access to more of a person’s abilities with meditation.

What struck me were the scenes that depicted the change in Charlie after he took the pill.  The visual presentation of what he was feeling looked and felt like being fully present.   The film shows time slowing down and Charlie seeing both the scene in front of him and himself, from the point of view of an observer of everything.  His eyes become clear. His posture becomes straight. He looks confident, centered, ready for anything that comes at him.  The chaos of what is happening in front of him is separate from him. He doesn’t react, he observes and then responds.  His mind is taking it all in, weighing his options and coming to a smart, creative solution.

The movie is science fiction but anyone who has had even a brief experience of being fully present knows the feeling is real.  I have spoken about a period of time when I meditated consistently every day for a year and there have been other times as well, when I’ve felt more creative and centered.   I could literally feel the synapses firing, just like they did in the movie.

Charlie uses his powers to play the stock market.  At one point the big time investor he is working for played by Robert DeNiro says, “what’s your secret?”  Charlie’s answer:  “Medication.”  Jon Kabat-Zinn has observed that the similarity between medication and meditation is not a coincidence.

I know that claims of super powers resulting from meditation are antithetical to the entire concept of the practice. Yet, I have had experiences after an extraordinary yoga session or period of meditation, that felt like scenes in the movie looked.  My mind was highly focused and sharp.  I experienced the feeling of being in the scene and being an observer at the same time. I felt more confident and able to deal with whatever came my way.

I wondered after seeing the movie, if the writer was inspired by taking mind altering drugs or by meditating.  I also wonder what others think about the movie.  You may have experienced that feeling of being “on”– of feeling sharp and confident and strong.  What do you think helped you feel that way?

There’s an inviting challenge taking place at a simple, inspiring website called Gimme Presence where you get a random saying to use as a writing prompt.  Here’s my prompt:
Notice how you are holding your pen, your posture, your facial expression. Can you relax it a bit?
—————————————————————————————————————–
Look up. Notice how the sky looks right now, the shade of blue, the way the clouds move. Can you take a deep breath?
It’s not just a writing prompt but a mindfulness prompt.  Whenever I realize that my mind is chattering and I’ve forgotten to pay attention to where I am and what I’m doing, I look up at the sky.  There are an infinite number of things to notice about it it.  Like paying attention the the breath, it anchors you in the here and now.  It’s what’s happening now.  The thoughts are not. Ironically, it’s how I ground myself.
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