I’m neck-deep in juggling my day job and studying for my Yoga Teacher Training final exam, so I’m going to keep this short and tell you about a daily practice that I’ve established, as suggested by one of our teacher trainers.
We were to choose one thing to do consistently, something that was just for us and our well-being. And it was something that we should commit to doing everyday.
I chose making myself a tall glassful of hibiscus tea as my daily practice. As it is, I love tea because the process of making it requires that I pay attention to what I’m doing. While we set up morning (decaf) coffee the night before and the coffee maker is on a timer to brew, tea requires my presence.
Between waiting for the water to boil in the tea kettle, placing the hibiscus petals into the infuser, inserting that into the teaglass, pouring the hot water over it…the process becomes mindfulness meditation. And the best part is the visual reward of watching the vivid colors of the red hibiscus flowers seep through the infuser and into the glass, beautiful swirls of vibrant pink that, even if just for a handful of seconds, fill me with a sense of peace and spaciousness.
Feeling my spirit refreshed, I take a deep breath and return to my day.
Another stressful night left me wide awake at 3am again. Not fun when you’ve got a long day of work ahead of you.
I went to my tried-and-true tactic: several guided meditations which usually work to take the place of the worries swirling in my noggin. But this time it wasn’t enough. The voices were soothing but I wasn’t close to falling asleep.
So I came up with a simple impromptu meditation that kinda-sorta breaks the mindfulness “rules”.
I’ve been taught that one can count the breaths to help deal with the chattering “Monkey Mind”, and this can be done in various ways. For example, count each inhale as one and each exhale as two, repeating with the next inhale as one and exhale as two, and so on, never progressing further.
Or counting each breath cycle up to 10 (or any other preset number) and then start again at one. If your focus is lost at any point, start at one again, working your way back to 10, restarting at one if your mind wanders off again.
These types of counting techniques aren’t meant to get you anywhere. The number you reach doesn’t matter. What matters is that you make the breath counts your point of focus, giving the Monkey Mind something to do and keeping anxious thoughts at bay.
But for this particular 3am waking, I decided to try something else: count breaths without a stopping point. Instead of observing the breath without changing it, as is usually done during other mindfulness meditation practices, I counted during the exhale, consciously extending the breath as I thought the number. And as I focused on my breath, I kept track of the ascending numbers. This required a touch more concentration and yet was simple and boring enough to not excite my mind.
Somewhere in the 70s and 80s the numbers started jumbling in my head and I repeated several, not being sure exactly where I was. By the 90s, my monkey brain was muttering. I remember getting to 100 and going past it, but my memory is foggy. Consciousness faded in the one hundred teens, I think.
As far as back-to-sleep methods go, this was not a quick fix, but I was too awake to try anything else. I counted for a good 20-30 minutes. I manipulated the breath, so as I mentioned, this practice didn’t follow the mindfulness meditation “rules”, although it did offer me meditation practice in lieu of spinning my worry wheels.
But in the wee hours of the morning when nothing else seemed to be working, it got me to where I needed to be: asleep.
When the going gets tough, I’ve found counting to be one of the most effective last-ditch back-to-sleep methods, for me preferable to getting out of bed and going out to the couch to read or something. If nothing else, I get in some effective meditation practice. Additionally, this was not a night with a totally hyperactive Monkey Mind. My monkey was awake for distractible.
Note that as I was doing this, I lay on my side, bolster between my knees, white noise playing through my earbuds (yes, I’ve taken to sleeping with earbuds in!). I was in “sleep position” and keeping still, so the only “moving parts” were my brain and the expansion and contraction of my chest and belly.
“Supposing a tree fell down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?” “Supposing it didn’t,” said Pooh after careful thought. Piglet was comforted by this.
A. A. Milne
So, I felt a “lump” under my left nipple, what I refer to as my cancer-side. It wasn’t the same kind of lump that I remember from cancer but when I thought of how I’d describe it (mass, thickening, etc.) I came up with cancer-sounding descriptive words.
This “lump” was also way bigger than my tumor had been.
Now you might think that I would reason with myself. I’d had an MRI in the late summer that showed nothing. A real lump that big would have shown up.
Again, it wasn’t a lump, it was a “lump”. But in the back of my mind, a film starting playing…
I was writing letters to my friends on how much I had appreciated their friendship. Practicing how to tell my kids that I wouldn’t be around to see them graduate from college. Posting my final thoughts here.
It sounds sooo melodramatic but my brain is like a motor boat left unattended with the engine running. And it’s just heading away on its own on a course that no one plotted.
Why do I “go there”?
There is a part of the brain called the Default Mode Network (DMN), which is the area that is more active when you’re at rest and otherwise not focusing on anything. There is a nice “plain-English” explanation here (from an accompanying article to meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness course on Masterclass.com). It describes the role of the DMN in “self-reflection…social evaluations…memories…envisioning the future”. And it also notes that problems within the DMN can predipose people to a variety of cognitive issues, including anxiety.
This would explain a lot about my personal default mode.
The article goes on to describe how meditation can “keep the mind from wandering into stressful territory, like reliving traumatic events from the past or anxieties about the future.”
Well, it’s good that I’m meditating, then. But I’ve already put a lot of practice into panicking. I’m an expert hand-wringer. I have a lifetime of experience helped along by a series of anxiety-provoking events. Meditation is chipping away at my hypervigilance, but it’s a slow process.
The main thing that has changed, however, is that now I’m more aware when the motorboat putters away. It used to blindsight me and before I knew it, I was hit by a tidal wave of anxious sensations (tightening, gripping, nausea…). I didn’t realize that this habit of automatic thoughts was driving my anxiety.
Now, when I start down the road of “what if it is…”, I can stop and ask, “what if it isn’t”?
When I first started my mindfulness meditation journey, I was taught to use the breath as the point of focus. It is a reliable anchor, always there to return to when you inevitably drift off into thought. It is a stable grounding force that keeps us present.
But there are times when it’s hard to focus on the breath. Perhaps when the mind is especially busy. At those times, I switch to other bodily sensations, such as tingling in my hands or pressure from contact with the surface that I’m sitting on. I wrote a post about moving between two points of focus to help the mind maintain concentration without wandering off. That helps too.
And sometimes my chattering “monkey mind” calls for a switch to an auditory focal point such as gentle music, singing bowls, nature sounds or even simply street noises. Those will keep me present as long as I don’t fall into the trap of making stories about the sounds.
But some days are extra tough.
I tend to avoid meditating with my eyes open. Doing so only reminds me that I need to clean my desk or vacuum the carpet (“guilt-guilt, blame-blame”). However, I am a very visual person with a vivid imagination, and opening my eyes immediately grounds me if my thoughts get too pervasive when my eyes are closed.
Sometimes a thought will trigger an uncomfortable and anxiety-provoking feeling simply because a seemingly-innocuous scene has been associated with a disturbing event. The scene flashes before my eyes andbefore I know it I’m down a rabbit hole. Monkey mind is activated.
While staying with bodily sensations would be preferable, some days there are too many opportunities for my monkey mind to run away with me. It can get exhausting and counterproductive to “dodge” these visuals. Yes, we are “supposed to” let the thoughts pass by us without getting caught up in them. But there are days when they agitate me too much and throw me off track.
So I’m cutting myself some slack and turning the “problem” into the solution. On those difficult days, I focus on an image of my own choosing. Something that I can visualize clearly so that it keeps the monkey occupied while at the same time keeping me away from troubling scenes. You could argue that I’m “avoiding” the thoughts. But I see this differently–I’m giving myself a little break from them.
What works best for me? An image unencumbered by potent associations–this is different for each person. A tree, for example, works for me. It might be a thin white birch tree or as majestic and meaningful as Yggdrasil. The tree itself doesn’t matter as much as that I choose it according to what suits me and what soothes me. I can focus on its rough bark, veiny leaves and thick canopy and the sensations that these things evoke to keep away from creating stories.
And if this results in greater concentration, I have the option of hopping back to the breath. Or not.
This might not seem like an earth-shattering revelation. There are relatively popular mountain and lake meditations, so this concept is not new. But with all the emphasis on feeling into your breath in an effort to calm the thinking mind, sometimes it’s simpler to not worry about the “shoulds” and instead see what your own self needs to help it let go and settle into peace.
This is the time of the year that many people make resolutions they hope will catapult their life into a new and positive direction.
So it’s also a good time to encourage people to slow down and consider what they hope to achieve and how they plan to get there.
The New Year’s buzz drives us to dream big and leap high, but with all that emotional energy expenditure, we run the risk of overwhelming ourselves, burning out quickly and falling far short of our lofty expectations. And that may make us feel worse about ourselves.
This year, take a step back and consider: it’s the small changes that you make on a daily basis that determine where you ultimately end up. Consider an ocean liner that turns very slowly. It makes little adjustments in its course, but depending on which adjustments it makes, it can end up in very different places.
The real name of the game is consistency. While the big goal may be the shining light you strive for, consistency paves the way. And mindfulness helps you get there.
Focus on what you can do today. Even this hour. Want to increase your activity level? Get up and take some steps right now. That doesn’t mean sprinting around the parking lot for 10 minutes. It means doing something you wouldn’t have done otherwise. Something that won’t give you side stitches and result in wanting to throw in the towel.
Make little decisions to change something. Make them doable. And then make them consistently.
Maintain your awareness, every day, of what you’re doing and why.
And when those changes have become comfortable, do a little more. Keep your eye on consistency, not quantity.
Establish positive little habits the way you’d spread the seeds for a lovely cottage garden. Because here’s the thing: this is not a race. This is your life. You don’t live your life a month at a time–you live it moment by moment. And that’s the way you make changes.
Any decision that positively affects you remains yours to keep, like a little jewel in a box. Did you go for a walk among trees after lunch instead of hanging out in your office perusing social media? No one can take that experience away from you. Tomorrow, if you have a meeting after lunch and must stay at your desk, the positive effect of that walk will still have taken place.
It’s like a little brick that you can use to build a palace. You collect one each time you’re consistent with a behavior. Play the long game.
And when you remain mindful of your behavior every day, you can also step back and see where you, the human ocean liner, are headed. This makes it easier to correct your course. A short diversion does not need to take you in an unwanted direction. One small correction and you’re back on track.
And that thing that you might have called a “failure” in past years and just given up because you’d figure you’d “blown it anyway”? It would be a temporary side trip. Because you are mindful of where you are and where you’re going.
And that’s how you know you’re going to get there.
Since it’s winter in the US and we’re starting to get the first blankets of white around the country, I thought it’d be fun to use snow as a visualization.
While it doesn’t snow where I live now, I grew up in New England and remember the peacefulness of calm, snowy nights when I stood out on the second floor balcony in the midst of snowfall, listening to the gentle “pat-pat” of snowflakes as they landed on the ground.
I draw on those memories when I think of snow globes. Yes, they’ve often been associated with chintzy souvenirs, but there’s really something quite magical about that little underwater world.
They are also quite beautiful representations of the process of settling down.
Shake a snow globe and watch the glitter spin furiously about, swirling like mad with little sense of a pattern. Those are the thoughts of a busy pre-occupied mind, overwhelmed with responsibities and expectations. For some of us this may be what our current life is like. Or perhaps we’re going through a particularly stressful time and feel as though we’re unable to slow down and catch our breath.
Perhaps we ourselves are adding to the chaos by unintentionally shaking things even more, allowing our monkey minds to run with stressful thoughts. With so much “noise” we can’t see through the water. Everything is a blur. We have a hard time collecting our thoughts.
When we stop shaking the globe and put it down…it will continue to swirl for a while and we may feel like we’re getting “nowhere” by trying to relax. But if we trust in ourselves, trust in impermanence–nothing lasts forever–slowly things will start calming down. The agitation will diminish.
Just as the “snow” will begin to settle down, so too will our busy thoughts and our busy lives. The glitter will float through the water more slowly, and the view will become clearer. A few more breaths, a few more moments of patience. The currents inside the globe lose momentum and the snow will gently blanket the bottom until, eventually, everything is still.
No sign of the tempest that once took place. Just silent peace and quiet breaths.
Until the moment the globe is shaken again.
The trick, of course, is to learn how to find peace as the glitter water swirls madly about. Once we can do that, the storm may rage, but we will enjoy bliss.
About a week ago, I lost my voice. This doesn’t happen often (some in my family might say it doesn’t happen often enough) as I tend not to get demonstrably sick beyond a runny nose.
Oh yeah, and cancer, but that’s beside the point.
I was coordinating a lectureship that was to take place on a Monday and Tuesday (luckly, I was not the speaker, just the one making arrangements), and on the previous Friday evening my voice disappeared. I could only manage a whisper as the event approached.
And I noticed something funny. As my voice became quieter, so did the voices of my family members. When one of us is not speaking loudly, others don’t have to either. Everyone is heard. Like magic!
As we all lowered the volume, I found myself less anxious about work. As I became quieter, it felt as though the world slowed down a bit too. Things felt a bit calmer.
This made me wonder how much I was adding to needless noise clutter at home…and how much I was responsible for driving the hectic state.
It also reminded me that even when things felt “out of control”, that was just an illusion. They were most definitely within my control. I could turn down the rush of anxiety. I just had to remain aware of what was happening and that I had a choice in the matter.
Now, none of this is a miraculous revelation. I’ve known this since before I started meditating. But knowing something is not the same as putting it into practice. And sometimes to put it into practice, you have to realize that even though you “knew” it, you didn’t truly believe that you could do it.
I need that reminder now and then. That’s the gift mindfulness has given me. And even then, I still might need a nudge.
And the lectureship? It came and went, a little hiccup here and there, but under the circumstances everything worked out well. No voice required. And more importantly, no anxiety required.
I’m not going to pretend that it’s easy to switch off anxiety. If I knew how to do that I would be living a carefree and very wealthy life. But just being aware that we have a crumb more control than we thought we did…brings us one step closer to a little more peace in our lives.
I’m perpetually on the lookout for different ways to ground myself.
When things get tough and I feel my anxiety rising, I’ve gotten better at pausing and pulling a grounding technique out of my “mental tool bag” before the feelings become too intense.
One that I came up with recently works quiet well, especially if you can take a quick break and find a quiet corner.
The idea behind this one is that you take a few deep breaths to help slow your breathing down, and then start imagining that your breath is going down into one arm, inflating it.
I’ve visualized it in two ways. The first being breathing into the arm as if it were a balloon that inflates in all directions, all the way down to the fingertips, until it’s completely full. I imagine it glowing from within.
The second entails imagining the breath filling the arm in the way that a fern leaf unfolds. The expansion starts at the shoulder, then upper arm, elbow, lower arm, wrist, hand and finally fingers. As the arm fills with the inhalation, it brightens. This visualization is best when your breathing has already slowed considerably, as it may take a longer breath for your entire limb to sense the serial expansion down to your fingertips.
Either way, I wiggle my fingers at the end of the in-breath, and then as I exhale, the fingers fall still again and the breath exits my arm as it arrived.
Then I do the same with my other arm, followed by one leg and then the other.
On days that I’m really rushed, I might only have time for one limb, particularly if I’m sitting at my desk at work. But that’s okay. Even that short bit is better than letting stress run away with me. That little pause may be exactly what I need.
If this “extremity inflation” sounds too complicated in the heat of the moment, I urge you to try it when you’re lying in bed with your eyes closed. Then you can focus on the sensation of expansion and get familiar with it, so that when you need to call upon it in a stressful situation, you’ll have an easier time bringing up that imagery.
What I particularly like about this visualization is that it’s a touch more complex, and therefore requires more attention from you. The inhalation all the way to the wiggling fingers makes it more difficult to be thinking about other things. So while it may demand more, I feel that it also delivers more, since everything else decreases to a dull roar in the background as you visualize the air rush in and inflate your body.
And of course, there are different variations of this that you can play with, such as expanding your entire body.
If you are able to practice with this, or even duck out to the bathroom for a few moments of eyes-closed peace, I think you’ll find it a lovely way to give your nervous system a needed break.
So the recurring theme in my posts about meditation is the struggle that I have with maintaining focus. This has been complicated by breast cancer medications that are associated with cognitive effects, not to mention the eventual menopause and “brain fog” that has resulted from them.
And while I’ve taken all sorts of classes and scoured meditation how-tos, I used to wonder, am I even doing this “right”? Shouldn’t I have an easier time with this by now?
A recent “Daily Trip” contemplation on the Calm smartphone app, narrated by meditation teacher Jeff Warren, reminded me that it’s important not to overthink what we’re doing.
Often in mindfulness meditation, we’re taught to use different aspects of our breath as an “anchor” or point of focus. The breath is a nice anchor to use because it helps us move inward while still staying present. It’s also a moving target, so to speak, so it might be more interesting to watch (and therefore focus on) than a static sensation.
But people are different, and if it’s really not working for you, or if focusing on your breathing actually makes you feel more anxious, you can switch to another focal point. How about the sensation in the hands, the feeling of your body’s weight against the surface on which it rests, or the distant sounds around you?
Maybe you even use several anchors within a single meditation (consider dual focus). The idea is to remain present and aware of what is happening now, even if you have open all your senses in order to do so. What anchor(s) work(s) best for YOU? It is, after all, YOUR meditation.
And then, instead of worrying about maintaining focus, what if we let go of that? It’s okay, even expected, for your mind to drift off. I would argue that losing focus is an integral part of mindfulness meditation. Because it gives us the opportunity to be aware that we are no longer focused. And once you realize this, you have returned to the present. Nice job!
The more you practice this back-and-forth, like tossing a beach ball between your anchor and your errant thoughts, the more adept you will become at realizing that your thoughts have carried you away. The more you do that, the easier it will become to return to your anchor, and that’s the whole idea.
I am a believer in the idea that, for developing proficiency in an undertaking, consistency is more importat than what you do on any given day. It is true for workouts and it certainly holds true with meditation too. Exercises, whether physical or mental, need time to show beneficial effects and that requires patience and persistence on the part of the practitioner.
However, there comes a point where maybe what you’re doing, consistently, might need to increase in order to enable you to progress.
When I started out with meditation, I had very little guidance outside that from the Calm app on my phone. The curated daily meditations there lasted about 10 minutes, so that’s how long I meditated. I did so ever single day, true to my perfectionist nature. I earned a gold star for consistency.
At that time, my life was in turmoil–I was only a few weeks out from a cancer diagnosis. Meditation helped me breathe through the early sleepless hours of the morning, when I would wake, feeling frightened, alone and angry.
But it wasn’t until almost a year later, when I started the Mindfulness-Based Stress Management (MBSR) course originally developed at the UMass Medical Center, that I learned how much meditation could do for me. Our “homework” was 45-60 minutes of meditation a day, no joke when you’re used to 10-minute stints.
But during that time, something unexpected happened. As I meditated, somewhere around the 20-30 minute mark, I felt myself settling in and releasing. This, for a bundle of nerves like me, was a novel experience. I don’t think I could have gotten that with 10 minutes a day. But a glorious hour? It was transformative.
Giving myself permission to simply BE for the entire length of time was not easy. There was guilt involved in being “unproductive” for so long, not to mention the difficulty of dealing with intrusive thoughts. But once my monkey mind accepted the fact that all I was going to do for the entire hour was feel into my breath or pay attention to bodily sensations, it started settling down, gifting me with a stillness that I hadn’t experienced during the shorter meditations.
It was the most soothing act of self-care that I had ever allowed myself to do.
So right now I want to clear the air of the “never good enough” idea, by which I mean the concept of, “Oh, you’re only meditating for 10 minutes? You should be doing it longer.” That is a total motivation killer and goes completely against the acceptance that mindfulness teaches. And that’s not what I’m suggesting at all.
There are great benefits to short meditation stints, one of which being that when you “drop and give 2 minutes” of deep breathing, or however else you choose to express your mindful self, you are actually doing a great job of integrating mindfulness into your everyday experience. Remembering to ground yourself in the middle of a hectic moment allows for a respite from the busyness of the day and helps build a mindful life.
But if you find yourself with extra time, such as a day of travel (where you’re the passenger!) or a prolonged sit in a waiting room–jury duty, anyone?–or even the decision to turn off the electronics and retire to bed early, it is well worth giving yourself a nice chunk of extended time to engage in the self-care of turning inward and being still.
Tip: If you’re not used to prolonged meditation sessions, start with an extended guided body scan meditation, readily available free online through YouTube, MBSR websites and apps such as Insight Timer, for a few examples. It will give your monkey mind enough to do so that your thoughts don’t completely wander off, and yet little enough so that you can feel completely into each body part.