Backstage Thoughts and Behavioral Links

Hello there! I’m almost two weeks into September’s Mindfulness challenge and, while I have only made some minor adjustments to my lifestyle and mindset, I’ve notice some pretty powerful things. As a reminder, for this challenge I have two on-going tasks: I have to meditate 2-3 times per week and I’m not allowed to multitask for the month. Really, the challenge forces me to go beyond simply avoiding multitasking. Rather, I have to be mindful of the fact that I am switching my awareness from one thing to something else. So I have to consciously think, “Okay, now I’m focusing on this thing” and then start doing that thing. This is to avoid mindless distraction, which seems to be my permanent state these days.

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In addition to the ongoing activities (meditating and avoiding multitasking), I also have to complete four concrete activities: attend a “Meditation in Movement” style yoga class, spend one weekend practicing intuitive eating, spend one weekend without clocks, and spend some time being still in nature.

During the past two weeks, I have spent most of my spare engergy trying to get a handle on doing the ongoing activities. They are relatively simple, but I feel like I have learned a lot. So, here we go!

MEDITATION

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I have meditated a total of 5 times in the past two weeks (I know, not a lot). Meditating always feels like such a pain when I sit down to do it but by the end of 15 minutes I feel so much better. The feeling I get after I meditate makes the chore of sitting down to do it worthwhile. Most of the time I meditate while sitting in a chair or lying down. I also like using guided meditation rather than sitting in total silence by myself. I find that doing the latter is much more difficult because I don’t get the reminder every so often to reign in my thoughts. It’s so easy to let my thoughts run wild that I don’t even notice it’s happening. But with guided meditation, I get a reminder and  realize my thoughts have drifted away, so I can gently pull them back again. So, I find that guided meditation is more effective and pleasant. BUT, I can’t help but giggle because I use the Spotify app on my iPhone to find and listen to guided meditation tracks, which is hilarious considering that two months ago the goal of July’s challenge was to become LESS attached to my smartphone. Sorry, Chelsea!

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It is interesting to me how much I internally writhe when I first sit down to meditate. It’s like I think it won’t be a valuable use of my time, so by sitting down to do it I’m somehow wasting time. Usually I have to rid my environment of distractions, so that usually means I have to separate myself from other people. Maybe I just don’t like that process of separation? Either way, I really have to force myself to do it, and if I don’t force myself to do it I will put it off and ultimately forget to do it entirely. Then I remember it later and rush to get it done before I forget again.

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I know there was somethi…..oh yea!

All this is to say, I have to be MINDFUL about the fact that I need to meditate. I have to keep it as a focal point in my thoughts, otherwise it won’t happen. That’s pretty amazing to me, and I wonder how many other things would change if I reordered what my mind was focused on. I don’t mean reordering what I consciously think about all the time, I mean reordering what’s available to think about at any given time. I’m definitely not actively thinking about meditating all the time. But I’ve had to give it some priority in the list of things that are always going on just in the background of my conscious mind. You know what I’m talking about, right? We all have that running list of things we are always ready to think about. Sure, we’re not thinking about them ALL the time. But as soon as we are done focusing on whatever immediate thing is in front of us, those background thoughts are there, poised and ready to jump to the foreground of our thoughts. They live in the background most of the time, but they enter into the foreground multiple times a day, commanding our attention. I call these thoughts my “Backstage Thoughts,”  and Backstage Thoughts are really needy.

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So needy….

I know exactly what kinds of things are my Backstage Thoughts. At any given moment, the running list of Backstage Thoughts include: Why aren’t I working? I should work more/harder. I don’t deserve this. I’m uncomfortable. I hope I’m not about to get sick. I should be more athletic. I should lose some weight. I should be more fun. I should have more friends. I should be more calm.

What does your list of Backstage Thoughts look like? What are the things that you’re always thinking about, even when you’re not thinking about them? Forcing my self to meditate has had the consequence of forcing me to shove “I want to meditate” into the already crowded list of Backstage Thoughts that are running in the background of my consciousness. But I can’t help but wonder, what would happen if I took some of those out and replaced them with things like: I want to cultivate positive energy. I love myself and all the people around me. The earth is amazing. Everyone, including me, is worthy of love and respect. I value stillness. I am strong.

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I think I’m onto something here…

What are some of the Backstage thoughts that you can stand to lose? Which of your Backstage Thoughts are doing nothing for you? Which of them are actually detracting from your life, your happiness, or your well-being? What kind of thoughts can you replace them with? I’m going to keep cultivating “meditation” in my Backstage Thoughts, and add another about positive energy. I want to actively push these thoughts into the list and, when I notice the other ‘typical’ backstage characters creeping up, acknowledge their presence then give them the day off. Those thoughts must be tired from following me around all the time, because I’m definitely tired of being followed by them.

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Again, when I’m through with the meditation I ALWAYS feel better. I have yet to feel anything but better after meditating. I think that’s because I feel rejuvenated. Spending that time with my breath reminds me to love myself. It reminds me that my body deserves my love. In general, I feel more calm and more loving after, and it only takes 15 minutes to get to that place. I’m looking forward to continuing to meditate regularly, and I hope I can make this part of my routine even after the September challenge is over.

MULTITASKING

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I have also had to avoid multitasking this month. And I never realized just HOW MUCH I multitask until I had to actively think about not doing it. The biggest culprit?? THE TELEVISION.

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You know it’s true – there is something about that boob tube that encourages you to tune in, check out, and enter a temporary vegetative state. After all, isn’t that the ENTIRE reason anyone watches TV? We all say we enjoy being ‘entertained’ by television, but I think part of that entertainment is the seductive power of the television to make us turn off our brains. This shut off is welcome in a world where our brains are constantly going, all the time. That’s why people like to watch television to “relax,” because relaxation involves not thinking for a while.

In this state of non-thinking, it is easy for me to divert my attention to other activities, such as eating, browsing Facebook, or texting, while watching TV. But I’m no more mindful in these secondary activities than I am in watching TV. I’m equally mindless. Yes, my attention is diverted between two things, but I’m not more mindful about one or the other. I’m just a mindless blob doing two mindless things instead of one.  Instead of just mindlessly watching TV, I’ll mindlessly watch TV and eat a meal/snack. I’m not sure if being mindless makes either activity more or less pleasurable, because I’m not paying enough attention in those moments to actually stop and take stock of how I’m feeling. After all, the TV has done its job of getting me to check out.

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So what happens when you insert concerted, conscious mindfulness into this mindlessness equation??

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Short answer: you realize just how much what you ‘want’ is triggered by habits rather than actual desire. 

I am seriously amazed by this. I’ve always known that I tend to eat mindlessly while watching TV, but I never understood the power behind that habit until I was no longer allowed to indulge it and was forced to just sit with it for a while. As soon as I make a meal, I feel a desire to sit in front of the television to eat/watch. I don’t actually want to watch TV, especially if I know there’s nothing really on to watch. But I feel a strong desire to relax by eating while watching TV. The entire time that I am eating, I feel that urge. At other times, I’ll be watching something on TV that I do actually want to watch (Jon Stewart, FTW!) and while I am watching I will feel a desire to eat. This happens even though, when I consciously think about it, I’m not actually hungry and there’s no particular food item I actually want. This challenge has forced me to acknowledge these feelings when they come up. But simply acknowledging them doesn’t dull the desire. I know its just a habit, and yet I still feel a strong desire to satisfy it. Sometimes, it’s seriously distracting!

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Seriously, what the hell…

Ladies and gentlemen, behold the power of behaviorism. We’re all a bunch of Skinnerian pigeons and Pavlovian dogs. The repetition of watching television while engaging in other tasks solidifies the behavioral link between watching TV and doing those things. For me, I eat in front of the television so much that when I start to eat, I trigger a behavioral reaction of wanting to watch TV. When I watch TV, I trigger a behavioral reaction of wanting to eat, that’s how closely those two things are fused. Discovering this incredibly strong behavioral link has been powerful, but merely discovering it has not been enough to erase its power. Forging that link took time, so breaking that link will also take time. And I think to lead a more mindful life, that link has got to be broken.

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Boosh!

But the TV-Food link is not the only behavioral pattern I’ve cultivated over the years. Not being able to multitask has forced me to become aware of all the activities I do in tandem, meaning when I do one I immediately desire to do the other. Here are some of the other behavioral links I’ve discovered:

  • Brushing my teeth/walking around (usually putting on jewelry or perfume)
  • Eating breakfast/driving (I have a smoothie for breakfast almost everyday)
  • Drinking coffee/browsing Facebook
  • Walking/texting or talking on my phone
  • Checking email/eating or drinking something sweet (oddly specific)

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I feel pretty excited to be learning these things about myself that I take for granted. While the behavioral links have not necessarily gotten weaker despite my knowledge of their existence, doing each of these things without the behavioral ‘noise’ of doing the other is actually making me do each thing with more intention and, as a consequence, better. For example, forcing myself to stay in front of the bathroom mirror and watch myself brush my teeth is actually making me brush my teeth more thoroughly. That branches out into other areas too – I find that I’m flossing more these days and actually rinsing with the mouthwash that I own but always forget to use. When I stop to think about it, I guess that’s not so surprising. As Ron Swanson thoughtfully put it…

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What kind of behavioral links do you notice in your life?  What kind activities do you feel the need to do in tandem? Try thinking about this for a while, and pay attention to yourself. Maybe you’ll learn a few new things about yourself.

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I still have plenty to do for the rest of the challenge, but I’m looking forward to keeping up with meditation and continuing to avoid multitasking. They have both contributed to some new awareness about myself. Stay tuned for further updates on September’s mindfulness challenge! 

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Being Mindful in September

Hi everyone! I am really, REALLY excited for this month’s challenge, which is brought to me by my friend, Julia.

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Isn’t she lovely???

For the month of September, I will have to practice some mindfulnessIf you’re not really sure what mindfulness is, it generally means focusing on and accepting your present state without judgement. Mindfulness is about getting out of your head and being present, and its something we all could use a bit more of. Think about it, when was the last time you really stopped and focused on the act of brushing your teeth? Can you recall the last time you really savored every bite of a meal without distractions? In my own experience, I know that I live my life “in my head.” I’m constantly thinking about things other than what I’m doing, and I have the tendency to harbor thoughts that are self-critical, judgmental, or all together unhelpful. I’m the kind of person who races from one thought to another, like I have a bunch of ADD bunnies skipping across my neurotransmitters.

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Always being in my head has really shaped my life. On one hand, it has really helped me in my personal, academic/professional, and intellectual life. Since most of the work I create is intellectual, being able to think (and think A LOT) has been helpful (not to mention necessary). When reading academic work, I can think and read simultaneously. When writing, I can think about what has to logically come next and what still needs to be explained, making writing  a significantly easier and more enjoyable task. Also, I really like thinking about things. Thinking is enjoyable to me, it’s a nice way to spend my time. I really like pushing myself to think about new things and learning through imagination. I’m one of the few people I know (apart from other academics) that regularly engages in thought experiments.  Yes, there IS such a thing as thought experiments. They’re awesome.

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But being an overactive thinker has also contributed to my life in some negative ways. Chiefly, runaway thoughts have often been a symptom/cause of anxiety for me. I have the potential to be overwhelmed with thoughts about how everything can go wrong, then start imagining all those scenarios playing out. Because I am an active thinker, I can begin to imagine these horrible situations in vivid detail, like a movie playing in my head that seems real. I can, instantly and involuntarily, visualize my plane crashing, my health declining, loved ones dying, being humiliated in my profession, and more – and all in the span of about 5 minutes. In addition, my active thinking has sometimes caused strains in my interpersonal relationships, mostly because I can get so lost in my own thought-world that I lose focus on the people around me.

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So this month’s challenge will push me to get out of my head. Here’s what Julia had to say about the motivation behind the challenge.

The challenge for you this month is to engage with more mindfulness and learn to be still, especially mentally still. It’s about learning to slow down, and be in your body, and be mindful of what’s going on without being in your “intellectual brain.” So to be more in your “body mind” (as opposed to your “thinking mind”). I have noticed that you tend to intellectualize your experiences. And although I LIKE that you are intellectual and think a lot, I think that you could benefit from being able to periodically disengage from that. Learning how to periodically stop thinking is valuable, and it doesn’t have to be anti-intellectual. I think this seems like a natural continuation of your last month’s challenge to let go of control. Mindfulness is a way of acknowledging our lack of control sometimes. And it can also make way for some spontaneity. Because if you’re in your body you can embrace what’s going on in the here and now. 

Much like last month’s challenge, I will have to do a series of things to get me out of my head. In addition to these tasks, I will also be prohibited from multitasking for the duration of the month. Here are Julia’s rules for multitasking:

Well first, let’s acknowledge that there’s no such thing as multitasking. Nobody’s actually capable of doing two things at once, you’re always just diverting your attention between two things. But that’s not the same as having something going on in the background that isn’t getting your attention, it’s just kind of there in the background. So when you eat and watch TV, or talk on the phone while in front of a computer, then you’re dividing your attention. You pay attention to one thing for a second and then switch attention to the other thing, back and forth. Or you’re letting something become background and not paying attention to it at all. So what I’m asking you to do is be mindful of the fact that you might be dividing your attention, keep your attention on one topic at a time, and if you switch between them then be mindful of the fact that you’re switching from one to another, and make it a conscious choice. So generally I think you should avoid eating and watching TV, being on your phone/computer while watching TV, messing with your phone while driving, being on your phone while walking, stuff like that. Or when you’re working, if you have a tendency to let your mind wander or get distracted and go from thing to thing, then I would try to reign that in. And if you find that not being able to be distracted is disruptive to you, then we should talk about it to see what about your writing process is making you want to be distracted. And it’s less about disciplining yourself and more about being aware. You don’t want to discipline or judge yourself, you want to be aware and make a conscious decision to do something or not. 

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Whoa. That was insightful. 

In addition to no multitasking, I’ll also have to do the following.

  • Engage in mindfulness meditation 2-3 times a week all month (10-15 minutes each; if I go to meditative yoga/tai chi once a week that will count for one meditation session)
  • Attend at least 1 class of MIMSY yoga (a form of gentle, Hatha yoga. It stands for “Meditation in Movement Style Yoga)
  • Spend 1 weekend without clocks (The intention for this is to have me tune into my body and follow what my body is signaling it needs. For example, eat when hungry rather than because “it’s time,” sleep until my body wakes up, go to bed when my body feels tired. Also, I’m supposed to do what my body wants to do without making set plans, just see how I feel. As Julia phrased it: “Just try to tune into what you want or need and not let your regular life dictate the schedule.”
  • Spend 1 weekend practicing intuitive eating (more details on this later)
  • At some point, go out and be in nature. More importantly, be still in nature.

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At the end of the challenge, here is what Julia hopes I’ll get out of the experience:

I’m hoping you’ll be able to understand how to be mindful when you want it, and be able to appreciate when people tell you that you’re being in your head too much without it meaning you’re being too intellectual. And I’m hoping you’ll be able to experience a moment of stillness in nature, and then be able to tap into that sense whenever you want to. 

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I am SO JAZZED about this month’s challenge. I think its going to be amazing. Just being mindful of my multitasking over the last few days has been crazy. I multitask WAY more than I thought! I can’t wait to keep practicing mindfulness this month, I know I’m going to learn a lot! Awesome!!

Lessons from August

Yes, I know its already September and you all are dying to know what my next challenge will be. But before I can get into that, it’s important for me to take a moment to reflect on the lessons I’ve learned over the course of August’s “Losing Control” challenge. In case you forgot, the point of the challenge was to intentionally put myself in situations where I couldn’t control what would happen. The goal was that I would learn to be open to the new experiences that might await if only I loosened the reigns a bit. For the challenge, I had to:

  • Let a stranger decide my coffee order
  • Let a stranger decide my food order
  • Let a friend of a friend  buy my groceries for a week
  • Join 1-2 Meetup groups and go to at least one Meetup alone, with no backup
  • Climb a rock wall
  • Go rollerskating
  • Spend a half-day doing something that someone else plans
  • Do Mom’s “Surprise Activity” with no questions asked

So, what have I learned after forcing myself into these situations?

First, I learned that some pretty cool stuff can happen when you let them.

Letting a stranger decide my coffee order worked out splendidly, because they picked something I knew I would enjoy but normally wouldn’t have ordered. Letting a stranger decide my food order was AMAZING, because I discovered a new dish that was not only delicious, it also had history. Without letting go of control, I probably would have never discovered a boxty, and now my life is changed! Okay, maybe it wasn’t life changing, but it was damn good! I trusted my mom and Elisa to plan activities for me, and I ended up having whole days worth of fun! I mean, a trampoline park?!?! Seriously?!? And even though Ellen bought me a LOT of groceries, most of which I don’t normally buy on my own, I ended up cooking some delicious culinary creations with those ingredients – things that I probably wouldn’t have cooked for myself otherwise. All of the activities could have ended up being ‘just whatever.’ But they weren’t! They were awesome!

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This brings me to the biggest lesson in the challenge. Which is really simple but also really difficult to accept.

It’s okay to trust the universe because everything just, kinda, works out (most of the time). 

What amazed me most about the challenge was the fact that things would work out even when I wasn’t in the driver’s seat. I didn’t have to make things happen, they just did. I didn’t have to work to make things turn out well, they just did. Of course, this didn’t come about by magic. It came about because I am blessed to have people in my life who have my best interest at heart. Like my mom, Elisa, and Norman – who made sure I was still safe while also forcing me to reach out of my comfort zone.

It also came about because of the benevolence of (relative) strangers, who didn’t want to give me shitty coffee, nasty food, or ridiculous groceries. They could have, to be sure. But they didn’t – because in general, people are okay. People are nice. Sure, there are some people that aren’t so nice (like the guy at the Happy Hour meetup). But even when you encounter a bad apple or an awkward situation, most people try to make the best out of it. And sometimes, you don’t even have to talk with anyone to feel the collective niceness of people. Sometimes all you have to do is go to a park and attempt to do some yoga while in the presence of gentle strangers.

I also learned that, quite often, my best interests are also in the best interests of others. I could trust in the rock climbing gym and the zip lining staff, because my safety was not just my priority, but theirs! They can’t have people falling off zip lines and rock walls willy-nilly! Even the ropes I used to belay or the cables that supported me on the zipline – even those inanimate objects were built with the intention of keeping people safe. This realization, that our best interests are tied to each other, is immensely powerful to me. It makes me think about how being kind and looking out for people not only helps them, but also helps me.

In general, I think it’s okay to trust in the universe. Of course, sometimes things won’t work out. But I guess that’s just part of life. Plus, the few times things don’t work out are easily overshadowed by all the multiple times they do!

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And now for my final lesson.

Rollerskating is still stupid. 

It just is.

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Peace out, lovelies! More info on September’s challenge coming tomorrow!