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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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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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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?

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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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I’m an obsessive studier. If I don’t pull myself away from the computer, well. . . I’m likely to stay on it most of the day and night.  The virtually limitless possibilities of all the information there is like crack to an addict.

There is always another blog post to read. There is always the possibility of a Tweet with an enlightening link. When not on the computer, I’ll probably be listening to a podcast that I might learn from or read a book.

But, it’s only the time I’m apart from the information stream that there is the possibility of being creative. It’s necessary to assimilate all that information, to step back and let it percolate, let the ideas connect in order to create something new. Filling my head with other peoples’ thoughts makes it impossible to have my own.

Looking for information elsewhere is what I get a break from when I practice mindfulness. What I know, but what I can’t seem to remember, is that everything  I need to know is right in front of me all the time. All I have to do is look at it mindfully. What I also know, but this one’s even harder to remember, is that it is also inside me, and that’s why I practice mindfulness.

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I connected three stories from three different people who spoke at Wisdom 2.0 that all pointed to one powerful message about the art of leadership.

The first was Soren Gordhamer’s decision to start the Wisdom 2.0 conference. He came up with the idea, found one person willing to present with him, committed to “losing $10,000” if necessary, then launched it and never looked back.  Would he be able to get 400 people to atttend? Yes, and a waiting list, and a virtual audience that viewed the conference over 200,000 times.

The second was Meng Tan, Google’s creator of the “Search Inside Yourself” program, the engineer who might have been a monk, a man with a goal to create world peace in his lifetime. He talked about his vision of a company where he would be the CEO.  At this company, there would be a photo of himself on the wall and the photo would be of the back of his head.  Why? Because he would be marching forward and people would be following him.  As the CEO of the company, he is not looking backward; he is looking ahead.

The third was a comment made by one of the presenters at the conference who said, “I am sure that Ghandi or Martin Luther King did not constantly look back to make sure they were being followed.”

It’s so easy not to take a stand, not to go for something.  After all, people will doubt you, disagree with you, laugh at you, and of course, you are just as likely to doubt yourself.  I recently read Seth Godin’s Poke The Box and heard facets of this lesson in that book.  You don’t have to create world peace or help liberate a group of people to be a leader.  All you have to do is start something and see it through, no matter what.  As Seth Godin would say, think about something that is worth doing that no one necessarily gave you permission to do.  Go, do that.

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Soren Gordhamer opened the conference with a story about playing hide and seek as a child, and how at some point, when not everyone has been found, the leader calls out “allie, allie in come free” and asks those who are still hiding to come out in the open. He spoke of having the goal of bringing mindfulness practice out in the open for everyone.

The following day he described his first attempt, last year, to get this conference up and running. He was prepared to spend $10,000 of his own money and he had gotten Chris Sacca to speak. He figured, if no one else would speak, then he and Chris would put on the first Wisdom 2.0 together whether 200 people or only 2 people came. This year, there were 400 people in attendance with a long waiting list of others who would have attended and the livestreamed conference was viewed over 200,000 times. Clearly, something has clicked with people.

It was a brilliant move to start with the biggest Silicon Valley companies. Facebook, Gmail, Twitter, Zynga and eBay, moving at lightening speed and for all the good they do, are also having the effect of distracting hundreds of millions of people and speeding up their lives in stressful ways. Jon Kabat-Zinn described it as our being so hungry for the next moment that we are missing the current moment of our lives. This was not the intention of the builders of these companies. Many of them had very good intentions to connect people for good but the reality of what is happening is that peoples’ attention is becoming more scattered. The fact that arguably, many of the most powerful businesses in the world are willing to step back and take a look at what has happened and to walk the walk in their own companies is a hopeful sign.

Rich Fernandez, head of learning at eBay showed perhaps the most convincing slide of the conference for business people who are skeptical of implementing mindful practice internally for the way they treat employees and the way employees treat eachother. It was a comparison of the 100 top companies to work for with the Russell 2000 and there was a 10 to 1 ratio of success in financial terms. I hope he makes his slides available publicly because every one of them was fascinating.

As Roshi Joan Halifax said in the first panel addressing Kevin Rose, Chris Sacca, Eric Scheirmeyer, and Bradley Horowitz: “You are the role models.” These four men spoke of the fact that they could not accomplish what they have without honing their ability to pay attention. Eric described using martial arts to hone his attention. Chris Sacca said that everything that led him to be successful in his business is related to mindfulness and health. For Kevin Rose, “be mindful” was at the top of his New Year’s resolutions. He took up drinking tea as a way of slowing down and learning to pay attention and opened a chain of tea rooms in the San Francisco area to share that experience, called The Samavar Tea room. As Kevin said, when he described the super high powered, high stress lives that these guys all lead: if you don’t stop and reflect and take a break, bad things will happen. Bad things like serious health issues they all described including bleeding ulcers and panic attacks. Bradley Horowitz, who heads up Google apps, said at any one time, he is working on products that effect hundreds of millions of people and so millions of them may be dissatisfied at a given moment. It is daunting to imagine trying to manage that responsibility emotionally at a time when things happen in your personal life, including, for him, the death of a father and diagnosis of his mother with terminal cancer. His meditation practice helps him manage through the crises and remain productive.

Bradley Horowitz described how at Google he implemented a process where the attendees of meeting will pause before the meeting starts, acknowledge who is there, and set an intention for the meeting. There is a requirement to arrive on time to respect everyone’s time and for one person to “own” the responsibility for making the meeting productive and for distributing the notes. There is permission for anyone at any time to “call bullshit” and walk out of the meeting if it deteriorates. The result is shorter and fewer meetings.

Throughout the conference there was the recognition that technology could be used for good or for evil. As Bradley Horowitz added it can be a force for creating revolutions for for being a time waster. Chris Sacca commented that the more that the transparencies of social networks grow online the more difficult it is to fake anything. “Truth,” he said, “is surfacing.” On the other side of the coin Kevin Rose pointed out that “going all in on technology will eventually tear you down.” His story of using tea to slow down was referred to many times during the conference by speakers. There are many different ways to be mindful.

Kiva, the micro-financing organization, was the perfect example of another theme of the conference, “small actions that can have big impact.” This has implications for how organizations can start the process of being more mindful. If every organization, whether it is a corporation, a family or the local PTA, can do some small things to appreciate people, to recognize people, to pause for a moment and think about what they are doing, it will be the beginning of big changes.

In the background of the conference were the people attending. Everyone I met was involved in fascinating work that consciously helps others. The point of going here is to learn from others, but as it was pointed out several times, you can’t change anything until you create the conditions to learning in yourself.

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