Another Dual Focus Meditation: Engaging the Ears

In my ever-continuing quest to maintain my concentration during meditation, I’m constantly exploring different points of focus. My go-to still remains the breath, but I’ve written about sharing that spotlight with focus on sensations in the hands as part of a dual focus meditation.

More recently, however, I’ve incorporated more of the senses into my meditation practice (I mean, we have five so why not?).

Urban sounds can provide a constant din that can be used with the breath as a dual focus sensory practice.

In between the inhales and exhales, there’s space during which I’m notoriously susceptible to distractions. Lately, I’ve been working with sounds. I live in the city on a busy street and there’s rarely a lack of noise, so in the lulls between my breaths, my ears turn on and absorb the sounds transpiring outside my window.

The trick with sounds, however, is to allow them to simply be interpreted as tones and refrain from being drawn into naming them. A siren runs the risk of eliciting thoughts of “where’s the fire?” or similar scenarios. For this to work, it’s important to engage our “beginner’s mind” — our brains are quick to match familiar sounds with a story — and divorce the sounds from associations that we’ve made over the years.

If simply shuttling between breath and sound provides enough fodder for concentration, this might not be an issue.

In that case, street noise can be an effective anchor for its variability, its high tones and low tones, as the passing of cars may morph into ocean wave-like sounds.

Meditation music and meditative sounds abound on the internet. Hunt around and you will find a plethora of offerings to use as a focal point.

However, if urban noises are either too intermittent or too difficult to resist spinning tales around, there are many other options for ambient sounds that will work for purposes of meditation. It’s no surprise that platforms like YouTube have a gazillion listings under “meditation music” that may fit the bill. In addition, apps like “myNoise” (and website myNoise.net) provide customizable background sounds to help mask outside noise and maximize ability to stay focused longer.

As the body moves with the breath, sound will remain in the background allowing attention to organically cycle between the two. From personal experience, I’ve learned that juggling between feeling into sensations in the body (breath) and being aware of sounds coming through my ears results in really turning down the dial on my Monkey Mind, which seems to fade to the distance. This dual focus can close the gap through which mind chatter might otherwise intrude.

If you feel inspired, give it a try and let me know how it goes!

100+ Breaths: Another Back-to-Sleep Option

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”.

So many numbers out there for me to count while I’m not sleeping…

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.

Inhale, exhale, eighty-six…inhale, exhale, eighty-seven…inhale, exhale, eighty-z-z-z-z-z-z-z…

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.

When I Can’t Keep Images Out of My Head

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.

Some days my monkey mind is particularly loud and attention-seeking.

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.

Tree!

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.

The Snow Globe: A Mindful Visualization

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.

When we’re at our busiest, life can feel like a blur.

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.

The Voice of Reason: Why I Love Guided Meditations

If you’ve read my posts, you’re aware that I really like guided meditations. There are a number of mindfulness apps that I use everyday, and if it’s not a meditation, it may just be ambient noise that I have in the background that helps keep me grounded.

The fact is that guided meditations have been a game-changer for me. During those times when I am trying to fall back to sleep and shake off anxiousness, having someone else’s voice in my head makes a huge difference.

When I’m groggy, I’m vulnerable. My thoughts can run away with me and take me to places that will keep me awake.

What do I mean by that? I’ve found that I’m a very visual person and for better or worse, I have a vivid imagination (this seems to be the case for many anxious people). During the day, it’s much easier for me to ground myself with the techniques that I often write about here — and it’s even better if I can find a quiet corner to do so. But nighttime is different. Sometimes I wake up stressed and clearing my head of all the noise feels like a Sisyphean task.

When I am groggy, I am vulnerable. But I certainly don’t want to do anything to make me more alert since my goal is to fall back to sleep, not to practice improving my concentration. That is the perfect time allow someone else to guide me in meditation.

The guidance does this: it allows me to focus on someone else’s voice. That’s enough. I do not want to have to exert effort beyond that required to listen.

The exact topic of the meditation is far less important than the delivery. A gentle voice at a low volume draws my attention just enough that it keeps my anxious “Monkey Mind” occupied and quiet.

The Monkey Mind running loose is a good way to visualize what your thoughts might be doing inside your head, swinging from branch to branch, chattering, jumping and constantly changing directions. It can be a jumbled mess in there. The meditation helps sort it out.

I have tried this on a number of occasions and have been very impressed with how effective a guided meditation is in dulling the clarity of what my mind has cooked up and clings to. It provides space between my worries and my self. And then I drift off to sleep.

As I mentioned, the meditation doesn’t have to be anything specific. While body scans work particularly well, any calming meditation will do as long as its purpose is to relax the listener. Breathing cues can also be highly effective, as can novel ambient noise that pulls you away from your worries.

No need to overthink it. Just indulge in a lulling guided practice and get some rest.

When a Little Is Great but More Might Be Better: Exploring Longer Meditation Sessions

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.

Consistency is key when it comes to exercise, both physical and mental.

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.

Any meditation will do you good, but take advantage of those times that you can engage in a longer session.

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.

What My MonkeyMind Needs, Part 2

There’s more to the story I began in Part 1 and what better time than the start of a new decade to relate it?

I have a monkey. Those of you aware of your monkey minds know exactly what I mean.

But at this moment, “I have a monkey” means something more tangible. After giving it some thought, after going through struggle after exhausting struggle over all the negative chatter in my head, it was clear that I needed to change my strategy.

A quick Amazon search provided the result I needed: a gloriously soft, appropriately small, unbelievably cute plush monkey that would serve as my previously-maligned nemesis. It is a physical representation of my MonkeyMind (my little MoMi), but not one that I’d want to stay away from. This one begs for soft cuddles.

(To be clear, I bought a stuffed toy from the Amazon site, not an actual primate from the Amazon!)

How can something so darling be a nemesis? It shouldn’t be.

This is not about avoiding thoughts or wrestling my mind into submission, which I’d been trying to do. This is about acceptance of something that is a part of me.

Instead of tossing and turning at night, instead of succumbing to anxiety, instead of frantically trying not-to-think about what’s bothering me, I take that comfy manifestation of my worries and shower it with affection. I hold it gently, and then I hold my thoughts gently too.

Spread the love in 2020. We desperately need it.

The best part of this is that MoMi, a representation of that which upsets me, is actually so easy to hold and love.

What does my MonkeyMind need? The same thing this world needs a lot more of: LOVE.

May this New Year bring you lots of it.

What My MonkeyMind Needs, Part 1

This post was inspired by Smilecalm’s beautiful combination of words and pictures. He has a very insightful monkey!

I got thinking about my MonkeyMind. Most of the time it’s doing a lot of chattering, distracting me from the present and keeping me up at night. I meditate in an effort to shut it up, but that’s a struggle.

We have had a tumultuous relationship, MonkeyMind and I.

I’ve tried to wrestle it into submission, but WOW does it put up a fight! We stand at odds, I in one corner and my MonkeyMind in the other, dukes up, gritting our teeth.

Headaches result. This is tiring. Something needs to change.

After numerous fruitless boxing matches, I decide to try something else, something I hadn’t thought of before. I invite MonkeyMind into my home. While I had, in the past, taken it by the scruff of the neck and attempted to toss it outside–an exercise in futility–now I’m opening the door…

We stare at each other. MonkeyMind looks a lot smaller sitting on the rug by the front door than when it’s screaming in my ear at 3am. Gentler and less menacing. Even a little scared, unsure of what’s going to happen.

MonkeyMind doesn’t look so scary there on the ground by itself. You mean, this is the little guy who’s been giving me so much grief?

I pat it on the head. Its fur is silky soft! I expected a rough, bristly coat, but it’s nothing like that. I can’t resist, I pick MonkeyMind up and then, as I look down at its anxious little face, I’m struck by an overwhelming urge to hug the little bugger, so I do.

And then something new happens: MonkeyMind burbles contentedly. I’ve never heard that before!

Then again I’ve never held MonkeyMind before. I’ve never given it the attention it required to make its needs known, never been sincerely patient with it, never cuddled it. I’ve just tried to push it away.

This is so much nicer.

Now when I wake in the middle of the night and notice MonkeyMind chattering in my ear, I take it in my arms and rub its tiny feet. I stroke its little back and feel the softness of its fur against my face. We take a deep breath together.

I feel grounded and present. MonkeyMind settles down. We both go back to sleep.

(Read Part 2 of this story here.)

Unpacking the Monkey in the Courthouse; and, Mindful Justice

I wrote my last post about my not-so-mindful behavior in the jury lounge of the local Superior Court, waiting to see if I’d be called to serve as a juror on a case.

I wasn’t, but the situation ended up being stressful nonetheless, and it had nothing to do with my forgetting that I had a metal fork in my backpack and being called out by security for it. (Oops!)

No, what did it was the runaway narrative being played out in my head about potential frustration if I were selected, and whether I could manage all the facts of the case (chemo brain) and the sitting (neuropathy and back pain). While not completely inconsequential, neither chemo brain nor physical limitations were an issue for me as I was sitting in the jury lounge, waiting.

That evening, released from jury duty for another year, I came across an article by beading teacher and author Kristal Wick, who settled on beading as meditation to help her deal with her monkey mind, and in it she wrote about her realization that we are making stress up.

In stressful times, it’s not always easy to differentiate between what’s real and what’s not.

I would clarify that by noting that we don’t make up stressful events themselves, but the toll that anticipating what may happen takes on us depends in great part on our reaction to it. And whether or not we want to admit it, ultimately that’s under our control — although if we’ve established a behavior pattern of anxious reactivity (*cough, cough*), it will take practice to rein in those responses.

But the reminder that those “thousand deaths” that I was dying in advance of something that was not real or guaranteed…ahhhh, I needed that.

Next time a calmer, more realistic response, perhaps?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Mindful media blogger Smilecalm wrote a beautifully thoughful account of his experience as a juror, and I found it so compelling that it became fodder for an evening of discussion with my husband and children.

Do we equally offer everyone the benefit of the doubt?

In his post, Smilecalm describes how mindfulness creates a situation where justice truly prevails. Whereas it would have been easy to make a snap judgment and convict someone who seemed, on the surface, to be guilty, pausing and carefully sorting through the facts provided a different picture.

When I think of the concept of “beginner’s mind”, I think of this kind of patience and open examination of what is before you, instead of moving down well-worn paths to conclusions based on circumstances.

I am sure that the defendant in Smilecalm’s case was grateful for the care with which the jurors considered his testimony. I, for one, am grateful to Smilecalm for bringing to light not only the importance of serving on a jury, but doing so with care and compassion.

Who Let That Monkey into the Courthouse?

My right heel has been hurting — for the past week I contemplated
claiming plantar fasciitis to get out of jury duty.

Okay, I knew that excuse wouldn’t fly, but I was stressed about getting pulled out of everyday life, with an already overfull plate, to do my civic duty. The more I thought about it, the more I worked myself up into a lather.

Mindfulness couldn’t cut through the noise in my sleep-deprived head. This agony of anticipation made several things crystal clear:

My nemesis. This monkey will pull your lungs out through your nose.
  1. I ruminate enough to rival a massive herd of cows. Hello, monkey mind! I’d been thrashing through all the unknowns, unfettered irritation and unfounded fears in my head. This was the monkey-on-my-back, screeching madly.
  2. My physiological reaction to even the anticipation of potential stress is out of control. Granted, this reaction was lubricated by a hefty pint of caffeinated coffee from the courthouse cafe. But when the voice over the loudspeaker called out names in alphabetical order, my heart pounded as the list approached where my name would be. I knew what was happening and that it was ridiculous, but simply couldn’t stop.
  3. Instead of patiently waiting to see what happens, I really really really want things to be a certain way. I punished myself by clinging too tightly to expectations. I mean, tight enough to turn my knuckles white (knucklehead that I am).

All of this opened the door to a boatload of suffering. Great. So much for being mindful. My morning as a prospective juror was fraught with anxiety.

Even after several years of daily meditation and mindfulness bells and “take 5” reminders, even after trying to be all zen about it, I was still a mess. Disappointing, by my judging eyes. But also, very human.

Things didn’t improve until I started pacing at the back of the jury lounge briskly enough to feel conspicuous. The motion soothed me, like rocking a baby. It was self care, which is the first casualty of my anxiety.

It was the only mindful thing that I could manage, but it kept the monkey busy as we zigged and zagged around other people to avoid a collision.

Once I racked up a good 3000 steps and a bunch of odd stares (don’t care, don’t care, don’t care), the pressure released a bit. Okay, that and the fact that I’d made it through the first two rounds of juror calls without hearing my name and it was already time for lunch. That combo was like the “pffft” from a fizzy bottle of kombucha. I was feeling better.

I returned from a long lunch break with my reasoning mind in charge, calculating probabilities. Three sections of seats, fifteen rows each, a minimum of three people per row…not counting the folks at random round tables and working on laptops along the walls…hey, that’s a LOT! Safety in numbers! The odds were in my favor, otherwise known as, “if your group is being chased by a hungry leopard, don’t worry about outrunning the cat, just outrun your friends.”

You mean, NONE of this stuff is real???

So the reasoning mind wrestled the crazy monkey mind into a half nelson. But alas, the reasoning mind was still a slave to expectation, with its own monkey-on-the-back. It was a tenuous peace, unstable and easily shattered by the voice over the loudspeaker, but it enabled me to approach the situation with less reactivity even if temporarily.

Guess how this messy day ended: a thousand deaths later (around 2pm, to be exact) the voice from the loudspeaker released us from service, giving me a year’s reprieve and kicking the monkey to the curb. And it was at that moment that I realized how tightly worry had gripped me, and it wasn’t even real. Everything had taken place in the space between my ears.

I thought about how my agony had been self-generated. And that’s a topic for another post.