Mindful Games I Love: Meditating with “Playne”

I didn’t think I needed a video game to help me mediate.

In the description for “Playne” (on the Steam platform), the developer states that the game is designed to help you establish a meditation habit. While, I thought it would be uninteresting for someone who already had a solid habit, the reviews of the game were very positive and the concept seemed inviting, so I decided to give it a try.

After a week of meditation, saplings have emerged.

I had no idea that it would have such an impact on the quality of my meditation. While I often listen to ambiances (such as through the “MyNoise” app and website) and use guided meditations (“Calm”, “Insight Timer”) or similar auditory cues (“Unwind”), what I didn’t have was a visual representation of my meditation practice as it progresses over time. “Playne” supplies that.

“Playne” has three modes: Story, Sandbox and Evolve. This post is about the Story mode, as that’s the one most people start out with and the one I’m currently working on. Sandbox allows to you build your own meditation spaces and Evolve can only be unlocked after 100 days of meditation (I’m still in the 50s).

You have a small selection of meditations to choose from with the emphasis being on learning to sit with yourself.

The game starts out on a semi-barren island with only a tiny flame in a campfire, a stone lantern, several rocks and Sensei Fox to keep you company. There are both guided and unguided meditations to choose from and as you meditate everyday, the fire grows taller and seedlings sprout and grow. With consistency, you unlock different story chapters, which wise Fox relates, gain the ability to change the weather, and most importantly, grow the island into a beautiful meditation retreat. All it takes is patience.

There is a breath bubble to guide your breathing if you wish, and also a ring that serves as a countdown timer. Both can be turned off if they are distracting or unnecessary.

You are given the ability to chose the length and type of your meditation. In addition, you can regulate inhales and exhales (the length of which you can designate) with a breath bubble, keep track of your meditation time with a minute-ring, enable a journaling option (known as “thought pages”, which you can either keep or burn in the fire if preferred), and mark each instance that you become aware that your mind has wandered (as I enthusiastically wrote about here). There are different places on the island to meditate, and as you accumulate more days, you not only get more weather options to chose from, but also access to elements such as birds, fireflies, Aurora Borealis and butterflies. These are quite lovely and make your “Playne” even more inviting.

Be forewarned that there is the temptation to mark your progress and count achievements. I understand why, from the viewpoint of a game, this is necessary but it does go against the concept of mindfulness. On the other hand, I’m really looking forward to flowers and butterflies!

Now for the potential downside: As much as I enjoy all the offerings, there are a few parts of the game that seem antithetical to mindfulness meditation. The game keeps track of “effort”, you gain “achievements” and note your “progress”. As do other meditation apps/games, “Playne” maintains a record of your streak, and depending on your settings, if you don’t log in to meditate with “Playne” on a given day, you run the risk of having the flame in the campfire go out. While I know that this is done to encourage daily meditation, it is also somewhat problematic, as the whole idea of mindfulness is non-striving. I feel that too much emphasis on achievement in the context of a meditation practice goes against being mindful of the present.

Over 50 days into this, my Playne has grown significantly.

Being of a naturally competitive nature, I was reluctant to turn my practice into one where I would be clinging to achievements. Nonetheless, there are enough positives to this game, and it has benefited my practice so much, that I have been learning to let go. That in itself is a significant improvement!

Yes, it’s unlikely that I will risk breaking my streak, but that’s pressure I can live with.

Reservations aside, I am really impressed with the game. I will write about the Sandbox and Evolve modes when I get to them, and post more images as my “Playne” grows. Additionally, there is a virtual reality (VR) option that I am looking forward to playing with. For anyone starting out with meditation, “Playne” offers a solid platform from which to develop and maintain a consistent meditation habit.

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In addition to “Playne”, I am also using other mindfulness media on a regular basis (my favorite ones are here). That makes for a lot of checking in with electronics, unfortunately. I’ve gotten to the point where I meditate about a half-hour to an hour-plus every day. While it’s a priority in my life, there are days that it’s a struggle to find time for it all. Introducing “Playne” has added to this, and the last thing I need more of in my life is stress.

Sometimes I combine “Playne” with other apps to take advantage of the “Playne” ambiance while doing my favorite guided meditations. More recently, however, I’ve also used “Playne” as a way to emphasize unguided meditation, and that has allowed my meditation practice to mature and expand beyond the confines of a computer program and into the rest of my day. That is one of the greatest benefits of this program and the main reason why I have found it so valuable.

The Saga Continues…

I mentioned a few posts back that in addition to stopping letrozole (an aromatase inhibitor) which had originally been prescribed to me as long-term endocrine therapy for breast cancer, I saw a cardiologist. I was experiencing what felt like irregular heartbeats. Since arrhythmias have been associated with aromatase inhibitor use, I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t going from one problem to another.

The cardiologist I met with ran an EKG, listened to my heart and told me he really didn’t think I had any issues. However, he ordered an echocardiogram and a Holter monitor just to be on the safe side. I did both tests.

A week ago, I met with him to go over my results. He was pleasant as always, asked me how I was feeling–I was feeling great, actually, since I was pretty positive that I’d imagined any heart issues because I’d experienced little since I turned in the Holter monitor for analysis. So, if anything, I was a tad embarrassed for blowing things out of proportion. Geez, I’m such a hypochondriac!

That’s good, he said, equally pleasantly. “Because we found something.” Equally pleasantly.

Hang in there, baby!

I had not expected that. What I was expecting was, “everything looks normal.”

However, looks like there were some arrhythmias: supraventricular tachycardia and supraventricular ectopics.

My doc wasn’t concerned. He said that based on other data (72% left ventricular ejection fraction [LVEF]) my heart was healthy and strong.

Ooookay. But I was a little shaky that my concern about extra beats had been confirmed. Because I hate fearing that something’s wrong and finding out that I was right in fearing it! I’d prefer that it be all in my head.

Then we delved further into the echocardiogram. I shifted uncomfortably in my seat.

On the plus side, lots of things were normal. That’s good.

However, way back in early 2018, while I was receiving infusions of Herceptin, my then-cardiogram showed pericardial effusion (fluid where it shouldn’t be), but in a subsequent echo it had “fixed” itself. Well, that was back now. Also trace mitral and tricuspid regurgitation: my valves are a touch leaky. My cardiologist wasn’t too concerned about it. “Wear and tear,” he said.

But he also noted that I had a marginally “dilated proximal ascending aorta.” Right after which he noted that I was tall, suggesting that there could be error in the extremes. But neither one of us was 100% sure whether that was a change from the previous echo, based on how the report was written. And he questioned some of the values, saying that echocardiograms weren’t perfect or always accurate.

Get off one ride and right back on another.

At the same time, he wanted me to come back in a year for another echo. Just so that we can be sure that the dilation hadn’t progressed. “Then we worry,” he said.

I left the office with questions swirling inside my noggin and decided to do some computer research, which I immediately regretted.

First of all, “dilated proximal ascending aorta”, when googled, brings up a gazillion results about aneurysms.

ANEURYSMS.

I know I don’t have an aortic aneurysm. But I have to wait a year to see if the dilation progresses. That’s 365 nights of staring at the ceiling. And I have to make sure to remain calm and not harrass myself into elevated blood pressure, because that can put more stress on the blood vessel and dilate it even more.

Oh, and the supraventricular tachycardia and ectopics? Those are improved by exercise (um, yep, been doing that) AND by staying calm.

Try yoga and meditation, the websites suggest.

Okay, yep, been doing that too.

So where am I with all of this now? Obviously, I need to keep doing what I’ve been doing. But this really does underscore a couple of things:

1) Meditation and mindfulness are critical to our well-being. These are habits to establish now (yesterday!) and not stop. Ever.
2) Cancer casts a long shadow. You might be fortunate enough to earn the title of “cancer survivor”, but that doesn’t mean that it’s all giggles and rainbows afterwards. Cancer treatments are tough and while we’re furiously obsessed with doing whatever we can to minimize the chances of cancer returning (because that’s Job One), someone at some point needs to start thinking about what happens once the cancer is gone and we have to clean up after the long-term effects of the treatments.

Could my heart “issues” (I don’t know if they are serious issues yet) have been caused by Herceptin infusions, radiation to the chest and aromatase inhibitors? Yes, they could have. But could the fact that I am highly reactive and have a strong response to stressors played a role in this? Yes, of course.

Time is moving forward and I’m going to have to keep up.

And does it really matter? No, in all honesty it makes no difference. Whatever happened has passed. My only path through this is a calm heart and solid grounding on the Earth. I’ll know more about my physiological state in a year, which gives me another twelve months of daily meditation and exercise, and an even better appreciation of how my mind generates agony.

Maybe this is what I need to help me get better.

And Here We Go Again…

If there is a time that I’m going to feel anxiety, there’s a good chance it’ll be during my yearly mammogram. This year it came around the same time that my oncologist gave me permission to stop letrozole (and there was stress preceeding that appointment), but also great fear associated with my perceived cardiac arrhythmias, for which I have several visits with a cardiologist lined up.

Sometimes it feels like the stressors keep coming and coming.

To top that off, a family stressor followed on its heels, which I won’t go into but one that portends difficulties in the future. This last anxiety-provoking event used the previous stressors as a springboard and exploded into something even bigger. I was primed for anxiety and it took me for a ride until I found the traction to dig my heels in and slow down.

The worst part is, none of this stuff will simply go away.

Often, when people speak of anxiety-provoking events, they’re described as stressful things like a tense meeting with the boss or college finals or tight work deadlines. Admittedly these are all nerve-wracking, but they are also time-limited.

Then we have something like cancer.

I remember listening to a talk about anxiety where the lecturer tried to give the audience perspective about what was really going on, and he asked: what’s the worst thing that could happen? “You’re not going to die,” he assured us. And it’s true: let’s say that you fail all your final exams, but you’ll survive, even if you have to retake the classes.

Cancer survivors can attest to the fact that we suffer a different flavor of anxiety. There is no deadline on our stresses. They are thick and cling to us, like caramel sauce on the inside of a coffee cup, thinned by the passage of time, but leaving a film on our lives. Our hope is to get past the two-year mark, then five. Ten, if we’re so lucky.

Often, we hear about the success of treatments only to realize that the success is based on the majority of patients lasting until the end of the study, which might have been only five years.

Having someone tell you that you have a 95% chance of surviving five years is, well, underwhelming, especially for those of us who had premenopausal breast cancer. I mean, yeah, I HOPE I can last five years.

When you are here now, negativity fades to the background. Even if only for a little while.

So, what to do? If there were ever a time to practice non-attachment, this is it. For some of us (present company included), it is excruciatingly difficulty to release expectations–I want, even NEED, to be assured that everything will be okay and then rest easy with that.

But I promise you, clinging to the desire for things to be different only causes suffering. It also robs you of the joy of what you are experiencing right NOW–a beautiful sunrise, the softness of a pet’s fur, the richness of a cup of coffee, the coziness of a warm blanket. We are so wrapped up in fears of what the future holds that we miss the magic of what is before us.

Now is the only moment that exists, so truly, it’s the only moment that is real and certain.

Everything else is either history or what we concoct in our minds.

So this time of the year, I have to sit back and sense the Earth under my feet, feeling into how it supports me. This is what it feels like to be here now. No matter how many times I remind myself of this, I know I’ll have to do it again when the next stressor hits. That’s okay.

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This isn’t the first time I’ve written about anxiety and it certainly won’t be the last. But practicing mindfulness, every time I go through this experience, I reign in my emotions a little earlier and start feeling better a little faster. When I look back at what happened I realize I’m making progress, and that’s what really matters.

My Top 4 Mindfulness Apps

This time of the year is stressful for me because it’s the anniversary of my breast cancer diagnosis. That means it’s time for the scans that determine whether I can continue to consider myself “cancer-free”. Scanxiety, anyone?

This week is going to be a doozie, since I have my diagnostic mammogram on Tuesday followed by a cardiologist appointment on Thursday, the latter of which has become, ironically, the major stressor as I try to determine whether I’m suffering from “cardiac anxiety” or an actual arrhythmia (one of the possible side effects of aromatase inhibitors). To top it off, I get my first COVID immunization Friday, which brings its own stressors since I’m a bit “side effects-shy” these days.

Given all this, it’s a good time to talk about what apps I use the most to help calm my anxious mind. I’ve written about quite of few of them in my “Mindfulness Apps I Love” series, but here are the one I keep coming back to (all have generous free offerings; both Calm and Insight Timer have had major upgrades since I originally posted about them):

The app I started my meditation practice with. I use it at least once a day, every day.

Calm
This was the first mindfulness app I downloaded and it’s the one I’ve used every.single.day since March 13, 2017. I find the voice behind the app, that of Tamara Leavitt, very soothing. Since I started with it, Calm has added a number of elements featuring voices of celebrities, music, movement, classes, sleep stories, background sounds and other features that I haven’t even used.

What I use most: The curated “Daily Calm” meditations are my do-to first thing in the morning or if I wake up in the middle of the night with troubling thoughts swirling in my head — Tamara’s voice gives me something to focus on and shoos out the scary negative self-talk.

Why I like it: Because all the material is created specifically for the app, I always know what I’m going to get. It’s predictably high quality using a consistent format, and for me, it works. Also, once the meditation is done, the background sound continues and provides a soundtrack for drifting back to sleep or continuing meditation on my own, if that’s what I need. Finally, since this one was my first app and I ended up investing in a lifetime membership, I get access to everything it has to offer. If you’re not ready for such a loyal commitment to this app, you might not have quite as much to choose from.

By far the largest selection of meditations, classes, music and more that I’ve ever seen anywhere. You’ll need time to look through the offerings, but relax, there’s a search function. 🙂

Insight Timer
This app offers a large collection of many meditations, music, classes and whatnot by a huge array of teachers. You need to search around because you don’t always know what you’re going to get, but if it’s out there, it’s in this app. I’ve played around with meditations that I might not otherwise just because they were available to try out. And now new, there are live events that include meditations, concerts, even yoga classes that you can join to help maintain a sense of community–so important at a time when so many in-person venues are closed.

What I use the most: I’ve settled on a handful of teachers with voices and styles that I prefer. Often, I use this app at the end of the day, when I’m trying to clear my head and settle into sleep, but it’s also great for any time when I want some guidance for settling down and am looking for variety.

Why I like it: OMG, the selection! Not only is there just about every type of meditation available (secular, sacred, shamanic and so much more–and now the app allows you to filter out the ones that make you, shall we say, “uncomfortable”), but there is a vast array of languages in which to listen. I speak a specific European language from a small Baltic nation, and yep, Insight Timer has a meditation in it. This is really worth looking into and most of everything is available for free–but donations in support of the app and teachers are very welcome.

Unwind has lulled me back to sleep after nighttime wakings with too much swirling in my head. It’s prevented me from throwing myself headlong into anxiety, as I’m reminded that breathwork is a tool to put the breaks on runaway fear.

Unwind
This is an app that I recently reviewed here, and as I’ve gotten more into breathwork and vagus nerve relaxation, it has become invaluable to me. The combination of ambiances that you can select from paired with a gentle guiding voices that cues breath inhales, exhales and holds has made this perfect when I don’t want a guided meditation but I do want something to focus on.

What I use the most: Lately I’ve been opting for the “box breathing” pattern (inhale, hold, exhale, hold). It is perfect for calming my mind without straining my breath. I pair that with the “River Under Bridge” background ambiance that is a nice combo of gentle bird sounds with soothing running water.

Why I like it: Unwind has gotten me out of some anxious moments, specifically too-early wakings brought on by a racing heart. Instead of throwing in the towel and deciding that I’m just going to have to start my day at 4:27am, I’ve been able to lull myself back to sleep; again, the spoken breath cues provide guidance but are unobtrusive enough to allow drowsiness to set it. Additionally, Unwind is ideal for those times of my day that I need to eke out some head space and take a break from work pressure. Even a few minutes is enough to get my breath under control.

MyNoise helps me put distance between myself and my fears. It generates the mental space that enables me to step back and observe what’s going on without being pulled into it. And of course, the wide selection of sounds will mask just about anything.

MyNoise
I posted about this app in late January. It’s the most recent one that I added, but it is amazing! MyNoise consists of sound generators that you can manipulate to your liking, to create unique and changing background sounds for literally just about any mood or need that you can imagine! In addition to the app, there is a website (mynoise.net) that provides similar generators. Both the app and the site offer so much, but when I’m working on my computer, I’ll usually listen through the website since my eyes do better with the large screen.

What I use the most: I tend to prefer nature sounds with running water or else drones and more meditative music. My daughter, who is also a MyNoise afficionado uses the sound of medieval scribes to create an atmosphere conducive to doing college work remotely.

Why I like it: S P A C E. MyNoise creates space by masking unwanted ambient noises (busy street, noisy neighbors, etc.) and thereby provides breathing room and headspace. I have used this for mental breaks throughout the day, or for times when I feeled overwhelmed and need help staying present. There are no discernable loops in the sounds and because each sound generator is made up of different elements that can be manipulated by sliders, you literally can create a totally custom sound environment. It has to be experienced to be believed and it’s well worth experimenting with.

So, these are the four apps that I’ll be working with a lot this week as I make my way through scans, tests and immunizations. Each app has their own little something to contribute to maintaining my peace and I appreciate the portability of having such effective soothers in my hand, on my phone.

Mindfulness Apps I Love: “ZenView”

ZenView is a sweet little app that has been around for a number of years–I downloaded mine way before I even considered breast cancer as a possibility in my life. Note: I use the iPhone app and cannot recommend an Android version.

This is the default “theme” that comes up. It’s been my favorite for a number of years. The menu is accessed via the cross at the bottom right.
The menu is intuitive and easy to navigate. Here, you can select from a number of themes on the left.

ZenView is designed to offer you a respite from a hectic day and it accomplishes this very simply. It provides you with a soothing nature image and the ability to create raindrops in it, as if you were looking into a puddle.

The interface is easy to figure out. Click on the little cross at the bottom right of the screen to bring up a minimalist menu. You can chose from a variety of “themes”, which are basically background images (8 free and 8 with a paid upgrade). Then select the type of rain you’d like: “soft sprinkle”, “light shower”, “heavy storm” and even a “clear sky”, so you can place raindrops on the image with a fingertip and watch the ripples fan out.

Here, raindrops fall on the bamboo theme. The photo doesn’t do it justice, as it does appear as if you’re looking into a puddle as the rain comes down. The movement of the ripples is soothing and calming.

If the provided images don’t suit your fancy, you can use your phone’s camera and get a calmer, rainy-er view of your world through its lens. I’ve found that this is a great way to quickly put some space between myself and a real-life stressor.

The raindrop sounds feel immersive, perfect for taking me away from the stress du jour, no matter what rain intensity I choose. And the sounds can be turned off completely if that’s what you need at the time.

I used the free version of ZenView for years and only recently unlocked the premium themes–I was completely satisfied without them, which is one of the loveliest things about this app: the free version is quite enough.

Ultimately, I upgraded to support the developers, particularly since the cost was only $0.99. Given how much I’ve used this little app over the years, I felt that it was time.

I would encourage you to try this out. It’s not a complex app, but it delivers what it promises: a zen view of the world.

Mindfulness Apps I Love: “myNoise”

Note: Technically, this isn’t a “mindfulness app”, but it’s perfect for creating a peaceful atmosphere conducive to concentration, reflection and meditation.

These days I’m still working in my COVID-office–my bedroom–and trying to create as expansive a space as possible in a small room, and achieving this has involved modifying ambient noise.

There’s a generous selection of sounds from which you can chose. I’ve expanded my list by purchasing the entire collection.

I stumbled upon the myNoise app in an AppStore ad and found it to be perfect for this. Background noises/music have always been a favorite part of the meditation and breathing apps that I’ve used, but myNoise raises those sounds to a completely new level.

The app is well-designed and intuitive. Here’s what makes it really special: clicking on a soundscape brings you to its screen, which contains a 10-slider, equalizer-like panel. You can signficantly alter the sounds as you see fit by using the sliders. This is particularly useful when trying to mask noises (snoring, dog barking, tinnitus) by increasing the sliders that correspond to the pitch you’re masking–relatively easy to determine by experimenting with the sliders.

The equalizer-like sliders provide a lot of control over which tones are expressed and make it easy to modify them to your liking.

On top of that, there are presets that allow you to customize the slider settings according to various elements, such as Scene (aspects of the environment and how the sound emanates from it), Color (brown, pink, white, etc., as it relates to the quality of the sound) and Frequency (in Hz and kHz). In addition, you have the option of animating the sliders to create something truly unique and ever-changing, using a range of animation speeds (Zen, Subtle, Moderate, Allegro and Wobbler).

The presets allow for quick customization of the soundscape.

This means that you can create a completely new sound experience every time you use the app. Add to that, you can combine up to five of these soundscapes to play at the same time with the Super Generator, and the experience is really phenomenal. I was surprised at how beautifully the sounds melded together; I was expecting cacophany but instead I got depth and fullness.

The free version of myNoise has a generous repertoire of various soundscapes to choose from, but I jumped at the opportunity to significantly expand that list for $9.99. I appreciate flat-rate purchases where I’m not locked into monthly fees and this one has really paid off for me.

Animating the sliders means that no two listening sessions will ever be alike.

So all of this alone would make this my uber-favorite sound app, but as I was preparing info for this post, I happened to search online and I found myNoise.net. And then the clouds parted, the sun shone down and I heard choirs of angels sing out.

No seriously, this website is mind-blowingly fantastic. It is like the big brother of the app, but on steroids. The repertoire of sounds is beyond expansive–over 200 and growing!–organized in a way that makes it easy to navigate to whatever soundscape tickles your fancy. I spent several hours playing Cat Purr alone.

And most importantly, many items on the website are accessible for free, which is truly keeping in the spirit of mindfulness. The developer, a research engineer and sound designer, certainly accepts donations, so if you use myNoise.net, consider supporting him (note: donations open even more options, including the entire list of sounds). I have done so and felt that the money was well spent. But lack of funds won’t prevent you from enjoying much that he has to offer.

Since I mainly used (and loved!) the myNoise app and only recently discovered the myNoise.net website, I haven’t even begun to scratch the site’s surface, but if you enjoy ambient sounds and/or have noise in your environment that you need to mask, I encourage you to set aside some time to explore it. Given the range of incredible atmospheres available, you’ll be able to locate the perfect flavor for your taste.

When I Think I Don’t Have Time To Meditate

This being the last week of 2020, it’s a good time to write about establishing new positive behaviors. I myself am working on biofeedback practices to increase my heart rate variability, commonly referred to as HRV, and balance my autonomic nervous system (ANS) since I have a history of being very “sympathetic”-heavy (that is, “fight-or-flight”).

This is particularly critical for me as a cancer survivor since stress is closely associated with inflammation which is linked to cancer. So bottom line, I consider getting good at calming myself a matter of life or death. Most of my life has been a runaway train as far as stress is concerned.

To achieve this, I’m using a smartphone app called Elite HRV (but I’m sure there are others). In the biofeedback section, the app recommends two daily breathwork sessions of at least 20 minutes each. Now, that got me thinking about whether I had that kind of time available. As it is, come hell or high water, I meditate at least 30 minutes a day, often using a variety of apps and a mixture of guided meditation and breathing practices, in addition to informal meditation sessions.

“I just spend three hours doing WHAT???” Sometimes, when we’re busiest, we’re also most vulnerable to completely zoning out.

But adding another 40 minutes? Seems unlikely, since I’m often going from morning to night without much of a break, especially because my bedroom is also my COVID-office.

Still, is it really unlikely? Yes, it’s true that I’m working longer hours, but I’m still making room for non-work things that are critically important to me, like exercise. So I find time for what matters.

And if I review my workday, I know I experience periods of “zoning out”, often when something on my computer or phone catches my attention. These breaks aren’t long, but it’s not uncommon for me to get caught up in focusing on something else along the way…before you know it, that can be 10 or even 20 minutes.

And sometimes it’s really long. Case in point: over the weekend, my daughter and I ended up (and I seriously don’t know how we started on this, but…) watching several hours’ worth of YouTubers streaming video games. I don’t even play a lot of video games, but I was tired and became transfixed. And we did do this for several HOURS because one YouTube video often leads to another. That’s a chunk of my life that I will never get back, and in retrospect, that time could have been spent more wisely.

Now I realize that it would have been so simple to retreat to my bedroom for less than the length of one of those videos and eke out some quiet time to turn inward. I could have returned to the videos afterwards without feeling like I’d missed anything.

Leave yourself a reminder to pause activity and simply BE.

All I need is that little reminder, the mindful awareness that meditation and breathwork are available to me at literally any time. Even if it’s not a full 20 minutes. Five or ten minutes interspersed throughout the day will still offer benefits, so they’re still worth doing–and I’m talking about in addition to my regularly scheduled sessions. And who knows? Once I begin, I may find it possible to stretch those few minutes into a few more minutes. And a few more.

This is particularly important because as lovely as it is to have a longer calming meditation, the ultimate goal for me is to seamlessly incorporate mindfulness into my everyday activities, so that I am always able to take a deep breath and pause before my ANS gets triggered into “fight or flight”. It is especially those little blips of meditative time–a minute or two here or there–that help reset my nervous system.

Taking a mini-break for mindfulness may seem so simplistically obvious but I’m willing to bet that many of us don’t even entertain that possibility. We’re convinced we can’t shoehorn another thing into our busy days. If a sticky note by our computer reminds us to take five deep breaths, for example, and we begin incorporating that into our day, we see that there is more room for pausing than we imagined. Just opening up that breathing space can not only invite more consistent practice, but also slow the hectic pace of our lives.

We could all use that.

I Am An Imperfect Meditator

I meditate. It is a daily habit that I engage in with the best intentions, but I am a victim of my wandering mind. Some days are better than others, most days I struggle with distractions.

Often, I can be halfway through a sit before I realize that I’ve been clenching my jaw or tensing my brow or gripping some other part of my body, thinking I’ve been relaxed but I’ve been kidding myself.

There are times that I’ve managed to stay with my breath, and then start getting excited that I’ve stayed with it that long, and then start imagining how I might look, staying with my breath…and of course, then I’m no longer meditating.

Yep. Welcome to the noise in my noggin’.

So it goes, day in, day out. Everyday, once or twice a day, or maybe even more. Some days feel like a complete waste, like I’ve got a freeway running through my head and have no idea what I’m doing.

But once in a while, I get a few moments of golden light. They may just flicker in and out, but when I look back at those moments I know everything flowed.

And those mindful sessions make all the other ones worth the effort. Every time I pause before reacting. Each time I recognize my body’s physiological response to a stressor. When I remember that I don’t have to respond with anxious energy. That I get to chose what happens inside my head. That I can just say, “Sh-h-h-h.”

That I can stand back and observe the storm without getting sucked into the whirlwind.

I meditate and often don’t do it well. But I still meditate. As of this posting, 1,380 days in a row, originating with the most frantic breaths shortly after my cancer diagnosis. Even through chemo, when I thought I wouldn’t make it through the night. Sloppy meditation sessions that seemed to be going nowhere.

Change doesn’t require force, it requires consistency.

Those imperfect meditation sessions have changed over time, imperceptable on a daily basis. Perhaps they have worn away a few rough edges the way constant drops of water oh-so-gradually wear away a stone. And just as an indentation forms where the drops hit, so meditation has molded a little basin for me, a bit of extra space in my mind that provides just that much more breathing room.

I am still at the very start of my mindfulness journey, so imperfect and stumbling. But even with the little that I have achieved, I am light-years ahead of who I was before I started, wide-eyed with fear and not knowing how to stop the rush of emotions.

It was terrifying then because I didn’t realize what was happening. Now I know, and that makes all the difference.

The Magic of the Exhale

If there is one thing that I can point to that has had the most profound effect on my reaction to anxiety-provoking stimuli, and also brought more calm into my entire day, it is deep, diaphragmatic breathing.

Diaphragmatic breathing (sometimes referred to as “belly breathing”) is an effective way to bring air into the lungs than simply inhaling into the chest. As the belly pushes outward, it pulls the diaphragm down, allowing the lungs to fully inflate.

This deep breath, in conjunction with my favorite breathing pattern — Dr. Andrew Weil’s 4-count inhale, 7-count hold, 8-count exhale — is what I call my magic pill. I have found this type of breathing to be very soothing. Dr. Weil based the 4-7-8 pattern on pranayama, an ancient yogic breathing technique, but the benefits are well-supported by modern science (Gerritsen & Band, 2018, Front Hum Neurosci, for example).

Neuroscientifically Challenged presents a short video introduction to the vagus nerve: “2-Minute Neuroscience: Vagus Nerve (Cranial Nerve X)“. It’s everything you never knew you really needed to know about the vagus nerve.

For me, it is the extended exhalation that is key. When the length of the exhale equals or particularly exceeds that of the inhale, a signal is sent to the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is the 10th cranial nerve, and the longest one, running from the brain down to the abdomen, innervating a number of major organs along the way. The vagus nerve is also a major part of the parasympathetic nervous system (think: “rest and digest”) (Breit et al., 2017, Front Psychiatry).

The extended exhale has been shown to increase heart rate variability (HRV), slow down the heart rate itself and relax the body. HRV “represents the healthy fluctuation in beat-to-beat intervals of a human or animal’s heart rate. … Higher HRV is associated with stronger vagus nerve function, lower chronic stress levels, better overall health, and improved cognition” (Bergland, 2019, Psychology Today).

When I notice that I’m rushing through my day or experience wakefulness in the middle of the night, I have learned to turn my attention to my breath. Regardless of whether or not I’m feeling anxious, I often find myself breathing more rapidly and shallowly (chest breathing). As soon as I become aware of this, I take a deep, diaphragmatic breath and deliberately extend the exhale.

That first deep breath makes me realize how much I needed to slow things down.

That first deep breath is like putting the breaks on a runaway locomotive. It make take several more breaths to fall into that full pattern. I don’t force it — I simply allow each breath to be slower and deeper than the previous one. The sense of grounding feels amazing. I keep a lot of tension in my neck and shoulders, so I take care to release those muscles with each exhale. The result is that I feel a gentle sinking and relaxing.

One of the ways that I’ve benefitted most significantly by taking a “breath break” like this is that it has linked my formal, “on-the-cushion” meditation to the rest of my life. Even after I had established a daily meditation practice, I struggled to bring that same sense of calm into the rest of my day. Breathwork was the missing piece of the puzzle.

This deep breathing slows the overwhelming rush of sensations and provides an immediate connection to “now”, inviting stillness and spaciousness. Noticing my breathing in the midst of chaos exercises mindfulness. All this results in a sense of contentment and well-being.

Who wouldn’t want that?

How Mindfulness Helped Me Enjoy Cleaning

Full confession here: For years (ahem, decades), I disliked cleaning. I understood the importance of keeping things clean and tidy. But I never connected a positive feeling with it. Even as an adult, I would put it off. And off. And then someone would want to stop by and I’d be filled with dread. Never was the disheveled state of my home as apparent to me as when an outsider walked though the front door. Suddenly, I saw everything with fresh eyes, and it didn’t look great.

My approach to cleaning changed when I did one small thing: I noticed that my life was not one big overwhelming mess. It was a series of little challenges. So, too, my home. I stopped looking at everything as a whole. The whole was overwhelming. The whole meant a day spent cleaning and organizing. It didn’t have to be like that.

Just as life is in flux, so is the order in your home. Think of is as a wave, never, standing still. Things fall out of order and then are put back in order. Consistency in effort is what gives music to the dance. So you never have to “miss it”.

When I started looking at the work as distinct items, it was so much easier to take care of things. A small pile of papers. Scrubbing out the kitchen sink. Cleaning three windows.

It was that simple. I stopped thinking about “all the stuff I need to do”. Instead, I thought, “Oh, look! This is done already.” The boost of positivity that I got from taking care of the finite tasks was infinitely rewarding.

Most importantly, I made this a working meditation. My focus was on “now”. Scrubbing this spot of the bathtub. When it was done, I went to another spot. And that way traveled around the bathroom and out to other rooms until I was done for the time being. The rhythm made the day bright.

My personal strategy for cleaning mindfully:

  1. Set a timer for a reasonable amount of time, say, 10-15 minutes — you will quickly find a time that’s right for you based on how much you bristle when it’s time to start. Pick out a manageable “project” (or perhaps several) that you can get done during that time. Start when the timer starts. When the alarm rings, you’re done.
  2. Whatever you are doing, do it with a focus on the present moment. Give your full attention to what you’re working on. This is not the time to worry about what else needs to be done — stay with what you’re doing now, just as you would stay with your breath during meditation.
  3. Decide to do it again tomorrow. That stuff you did today? It’s done and no one can take that away from you, so whatever you do tomorrow only adds to the satisfaction of moving forward. Consistency is what makes this strategy work.
  4. Bring lightness and joy to the task. Play music, run an essential oil diffuser. Mark your success with staying on task by bringing in fresh flowers, even just foliage clippings in a colorful vase. Help yourself feel positive through the process. THIS IS NOT A PUNISHMENT.
  5. Pick up after yourself throughout the day. There is great power in putting things away right after you’re done with them. It feels so silly to even have to write that, but trust me, it’s a useful reminder, and one that I needed until it became a habit. (Who am I kidding? I STILL need the reminder.)
  6. The corollary to #5 is not to procrastinate on starting. If you start now and recycle five papers that you don’t need, there will be five fewer papers cluttering your desk. If you do that again tomorrow, that will be ten. Do it now. I have missed out on so many wonderful opportunities in my life because I put things off, a clean home being the least of them.
  7. Notice how good it makes you feel to invite order into your life.
I feel unsettled simply looking at this image. The disarray elicits anxiety, like I’ve lost something important, with little hope of easily getting it back.

I’ve found that the state of my surroundings is representative of my emotional state. And my emotional state likewise responds to the environment around me. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, my world crumbled around me, physically and emotionally. Everything felt out of control and my surroundings reinforced that sense of despair. It took months for me to finally get a grip and move past the overwhelm.

Bringing order into my life was like an anchor that helped me recover, in many senses of the word. When I focused on what was good in my world, I spent less time worrying about what was wrong.

I’m betting you have 10 minutes in your day…