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! 

2 thoughts on “Backstage Thoughts and Behavioral Links

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