Lessons from September’s Mindfulness Challenge

I’m late to update you all on the lessons I learned in September by practicing mindfulness. September was a busy work month for me. I spent most days writing, so I had little motivation to write for fun.

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I finished up the challenge by spending the last weekend in September without clocks. I took down or covered up all the clocks around me, including on my phone! I spent Friday evening through Sunday totally time-free.

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The point of going all weekend without being able to tell the time was to be more in touch with myself: sleep when tired, eat when hungry, etc. What I found after doing this was that I really did feel more in touch with myself, and allowing myself to operate according to my own body’s schedule kind of took some of the pressure off. I felt a general sense of easiness – like I didn’t have to do anything but check in with myself and act accordingly. That was nice. But it was also helpful that I didn’t have much going on that weekend, and I wonder if someone who has an active social life or kids would find the experiment to be rejuvenating or stressful. I personally liked it. I couldn’t make it into a lifestyle, especially because scheduling anything with anyone is virtually impossible if you can’t set a specific time, but as an occasional break, I think I wouldn’t mind doing it again.

In general – here are some of the overall lessons I’m taking away from September’s challenge:

#1: Life is full of noise. 

We are surrounded by noise! I learned this every time I had to meditate during September. I would settle myself down and begin to meditate, but would always be astounded by how incredibly noisy everywhere was. Even if it’s relatively silent there is still noise – planes flying overhead, the sound of traffic, the sound of birds, people walking by, someone in the house watching TV. This is something that, eventually, became so overwhelming to me. In my quest for silence, I could never really find it. Even during my moment in nature, it was still noisy. Now, I’ll take the noise of birds and breeze over the noise of a dump truck any day of the week, but I longed for the absence of sound. At one point, I actually put in ear plugs during my meditation so that all I could hear was my breath going in and out. Even then, I would hear the ringing in my ears. Everywhere, at every moment, there was sound!

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#2: Meditation can quiet the noise.

I eventually found that, as noisy as the world is, I could eventually drive it out during meditation. Not only would I quiet down my noisy mind, I eventually quieted the noisy world. By focusing on my breath and trying to calm everything down, eventually things got quieter. There were still noises, but I didn’t really register them. In other words, I couldn’t find the absence of sound, but I could find silence.

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I know, right?

#3: Yoga is okay, I guess.

I’ve never been a huge fan of yoga, which I briefly explain in this previous post. But I’ve been doing yoga more and more over the past couple of months, and it can be really nice as a form of meditation and a way to quiet the world. I don’t think I’ll start up yoga as a form of working out, but doing it to get in touch with my breath and my body has been quite nice. I’m going to take a yoga class over the next couple of weeks to keep up with the meditation aspect. But I don’t think I’ll become a yogi anytime soon.

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All things in moderation

#4: Habits are hard to break. 

In my last post I wrote about behavioral links – behaviors that, through the force of habit, I tend to do together. Well, even after a month of consistently challenging those links, I am still struggling with them. I suppose they took a while to get cemented, and cement breaks down really slowly. I know that my habits will take a long time to break down, and that I’ll have to continue using these mindfulness tools to make that happen.

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This is totally a metaphor for my life…

#5: When I feel the least able is when I need mindfulness the most.

There were so many moments in September when I didn’t want to meditate or when I was getting so utterly tired of not being able to multitask. I mentioned earlier that September was a busy work month for me, filled with lots and lots and lots of writing and intellectual theorizing. I wanted so many times to just veg out with some popcorn in front of the TV, and I would get so irked that I couldn’t do it. But then the challenged forced me to interrogate what I was really after: relaxation and turning off my brain (and a snack!). By forcing myself to ask, “What am I really seeking in this moment?” I was better able to give myself what I needed in a conscious, deliberate way. Likewise, there were moments when I really, REALLY wanted to multitask. I often wanted to check my email while riding the bus. I would think, “Ugh, it would be so much more efficient if I could get that out of the way!” But, again, I had to reflect on myself and my state of mind in those moments. I had to ask myself why I wanted that kind of efficiency, if there was something stressing me out that made me resent the few minutes I had to sit on the bus listening to music. I could usually find the motivation that was causing me that stress, then I could meditate on it. I would imagine it was a tight, knotted ball of string somewhere in my body, then I would breathe and imagine that with every out-breath the knots slowly loosened. That was enough to help me get through a frustrating moment, but the same stressful feeling would return again the next day (or a few hours later!). Each time something like that happened, when I started to resent the challenge, is when I knew I needed the challenge the most. When working through each of those moments, I knew I was doing myself a favor.

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That’s it for September’s challenge!

Thank you to Julia for thinking of such a great challenge for me.

Stay tuned, I’ll be posting about October’s challenge later tonight! 

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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! 

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!!