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Posts Tagged ‘mindfulness’

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.

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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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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?
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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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