Mindful Monday - Start Your Week Mindfully With The Central Student Advisory Service
Welcome to „Mindful Monday“, the Viadrina’s very own mindfulness blog, brought to you by the Central Student Advisory Service. Every Monday we post a mindfulness impulse for the new week right here. To try, to meditate, to share. Enjoy a mindful start to your week with the “Mindful Monday”!
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11 November 2019
Mindfulness Impulse #50: Applying control mindfully
|“You cannot control the results, only your actions.”
- Allan Lokos -
Control is a hot topic. We tend to have some pretty absurd ideas as far as control is concerned. There is a persistent assumption that everyone holds the key to their own happiness, that we can achieve anything if we only work hard enough or use the "right" strategy. The message implicit in this is: "It is your own fault if you do not make it. It is only because you have not tried hard enough."
But is that kind of control actually realistic? Most of us wish it were. How we would love to know with certainty that we will pass the exam, get the job or get our message across to the person we are in conflict with. But in the cold light of day this wish is a wishful fantasy because the processes that determine the outcome are too complex by far.
Does that mean that we should stop setting goals for ourselves and pursuing them? Should we stop studying for exams, applying for jobs and having conversation to clear the air? Of course not. Even if we cannot control the outcome, we can still decide what our contribution will look like. Then our actions might not be attempts to force reality in a certain direction, but an expression of our values and intentions. We behave a certain way because there is something that is important for us, that we stand for and want to stand up for.
These motives can be diverse. We might study for an exam because curiosity and a thirst for knowledge are important to us or reliability or stamina. We might have a difficult conversation because we want to stand for honesty or clear boundaries or for the idea that every point of view matters even if it is contrary to our own.
If and how we translate our attitudes into actions is something that we can control. If we succeed at this translation, we might be able to work on accepting - carefully and step by step - that the results are out of our control. The we will not have to continue wasting our energy on trying to control the uncontrollable.
|04 November 2019
Mindfulness Impulse #49: Recognising and Exploring Emotions
|It can be tricky to know what we are feeling. When a feeling is clear and unambiguous, we can label it easily enough most of the time. Identifying the primary emotions fear, anger, joy, sadness, surprise and disgust is not much of a problem for most of us. But when our emotions are more complex or less clear-cut or when there is a mixture of different feelings, it gets a lot more difficult.
Also, feeling something and finding the right name for this feeling are two separate things - and they can both be challenging. Sometimes we are so exhausted, tired or overwhelmed that our emotions seem to be "switched off" and we feel nothing at all. What we need to do in this case is take good care of ourselves and rest, organise support and recharge our batteries. Or, if this has been going on for some time, we might want to find someone we can confide in, someone who will accompany us on the journey back to the signals our body is sending us. Feelings are always body sensations as well.
Sometimes, though, we notice these signals and yet we are not sure which emotions we are experiencing. This opens up an interesting field of discovery: First, we can observe that confusion is in the foreground or maybe insecurity or impatience. Then, we can start to search gently for a name or label that fits what we are encountering in our experience. Sensing and labelling, both are helpful ways to get in closer contact with our experience.
When we try to give a feeling a name, it can be useful to compare what we are sensing with an idea or a suggestion. We can then feel an inner yes or no arise. For some, language is the easier way in. If this is you, you could use a list of emotion words like this one, read through it and notice for which word you feel this "inner yes". For others, images are a better approach. In that case you could use the "Emotion Monsters" (or, in German: "Gefühlsmonster") and observe mindfully which "monster" matches your emotion. Of course, all categories are "blurry" and subsume similiar but not completely identical feelings. This can become a new and interesting arena for our mindful journey through our experience as we become more attuned to our inner world.
What are you feeling at the moment? Which body sensations are involved? What would you call this emotion? And in case you would like to try it out: Which word or which image is the best fit for this feeling? How do you perceive this "inner yes"?
28 October 2019
Mindfulness Impulse #48: Treating experience skilfully and holding expectations lightly
|21 October 2019
Mindfulness Impulse #47: Practising Openness to the Unknown
|„Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get.“
- Forrest Gump -
How can I manage to approach something new, something that I have never tried before, with as little bias as possible? Is there even such a thing as a neutral expectation? Usually, I will have a certain expectation and I will imagine what it is going to be like, what it might be like and what could be the end result. Sometimes we try new things because we expect to feel better afterwards or to get new insights or ideas. Why is it so hard for us to wait and let things happen without any specific notions beforehand? It is exactly these notions that can turn out to be problematic because we are disappointed if they cannot be realised. These disappointments do not occur because it was a "bad" experience, but because our wishes and expectations were not fulfilled. This can be especially interesting when there are larger challenges and when we do not know how our mind and body are going to react to them. Without any experience with such situations we have nothing to fall back on, and yet we usually expect something of these situations. We might replay the situation in our head again and again and consider what could happen in what way, maybe even pondering different options. This way we limit our chance actually to experience the situation. But if we approach unexpected and new experiences as openly as possible, we give ourselves the opportunity to have an experience that has not yet been shaped by our concepts and ideas. We are in touch with our experience of the moment as it really is, prepared to be surprised by what is actually happening.
Why not try in a new situation - it may be small, like walking a new way or using a different cup for your next drink - to form the fewest expectations you can and instead just let things unfold? Wait and see how the situation develops and how you actually react to things in reality.
|14 October 2019
Mindfulness Impulse #46: Celebrating One Year of Mindful Mondays
|07 October 2019
Mindfulness Impulse #45: Friendly Changes
|Mindfulness Impulse #43 suggested a new attitude as the basis for mindfulness practice: Friendship with ourselves instead of goal-orientated self-improvement. Does that mean we should not work on our issues, have no goals and treat all our problems as a given?
No, of course not. Befriending ourselves has nothing to do with resigning ourselves to our fate, quite the contrary. When we like and accept ourselves, we do not have to pretend our problems do not exist. Instead, we can act and adress them because we have an easier time forgiving ourselves when we make a mistake.
What matters is the attitude that underlies our problem-solving and our working towards our goals. How am I doing now, in the present moment, with this problem and without having reached that goal? Do I have the problem or am I the problem? Does this goal motivate me or do I feel inadequate and insufficient without this success? Am I okay - with or without this problem, with or without this success -, or would I like to "throw myself away and become something better", as Pema Chödrön describes it (cf. her quote at the beginning of Mindfulness Impulse #43)? What is driving change: self-judgement or self-care?
So there is not necessarily a contradiction between befriending ourselves and pursuing change. Bringing mindfulness to our desire for change can help us to work on our problems and goals at the right time, in a friendly way and by skilful means. At the same time, mindfulness and meditation support us to befriend ourselves more and more, completely independent of our success or failure with problems and goals.
30 September 2019
Mindfulness Impulse #44: Strategic vs Actual Letting Go
|“If you let go a little you a will have a little peace; if you let go a lot you will have a lot of peace; if you let go completely you will have complete peace.”
- Ajahn Chah -
Last week the topic on Mindful Monday was befriending ourselves. This topic is closely connected to the idea of letting go: Letting go of any attempts to want ourselves to be a certain way, different from what we are like at present. This aspect of mindfulness practice is crucial. But it also contains the potential for a tricky misunderstanding.
The Buddhist monk Ajahn Brahm describes this misunderstanding very pointedly in his book "Opening the Door of Your Heart", using toothache as an example: He talks about how he was in the middle of the jungle, out of the reach of any medical care. He got toothache that felt unbearable and he describes how - after fighting it for a time - he could not only meditate with it but also fall asleep over it. He had allowed it to be there, had let go completely and, in a sense, befriended it. Back from the jungle he talked about this important experience. His listeners, however, assured him that this tactic did, unfortunately, not work for them. They said they had tried it, but letting go had not improved their pain.
As this example illustrates, befriending and letting go are sometimes used strategically. Then, they are really disguised attempts to improve and control. There is some kind of a deal: "I accept myself (this problem) in order for myself to change (the problem to go away) - but quickly, please, I am waiting!" That is not letting go and not friendship, that is control 2.0. Not surprising, therefore, that this strategy does not work.
Even after many years of mindfulness practice I catch myself trying to manipulate reality subtly and achieve certain goals by letting go strategically. It is only when I notice myself thinking that mindfulness is "not working at the moment" that I realise what is actually going on.
This pattern shows once more how much courage it takes truly to let go and truly to befriend ourselves. Of course, the idea is not to force letting go either - that sounds like a pretty futile thing to try - but to notice what is happening.
Are there moments when you feel that mindfulness "does not work"? Or do you feel disappointed that all the letting go and befriending still has not changed anything? What expectations is that based on? How could friendship and letting go be helpful here?
|23 September 2019
Mindfulness Impulse #43: Befriending yourself
|“Meditation practice isn’t about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better. It’s about befriending who we are already.”
- Pema Chödrön -
There are different reason why people start meditating: It might be a desire for stillness and peace (cf. Mindfulness Impulse #41). Or it might be a desire to improve oneself in some way. Maybe we would like to be less stressed, less irritable and more stable emotionally, more relaxed and happier. There is nothing wrong with any of that, on the contrary, it can motivate us to get interested in our own mind and start exploring meditation and mindfulness, which we might not have done otherwise.
Also, I do not mean to imply that meditation is useless for managing stress and improving happiness. The opposite is true: Studies have identified many positive effects of meditation by now - which is probably why meditation is gaining more and more traction in healthcare, especially in preventative healthcare.
And yet we are encountering a paradox here: In many other fields, goal orientation is critical for success. When practising meditation and mindfulness, however, being too focused on one's goals is a hindrance. Setting a specific goal and a strategy for achieving it, checking regularly if we are moving towards that goal and at what speed - this approach is familiar to us and very useful for many projects like learning a language, losing weight or writing a paper. Yet with meditation it leads us astray.
Meditation and mindfulness are inviting us to nothing less than a paradigm shift, a new way of looking at and relating to ourselves. They are not a new project for self-improvement, not a cleverer, more effective strategy for self-optimisation. Instead, they encourage us to get to know ourselves just as we are, with all the light and all the shadow. And to befriend ourselves in our current unoptimised and unimproved state. This is the true power of meditation and we are going to benefit from it to the extent we are prepared to undertake this adventure.
What could befriending yourself mean for you? What would it be like to stop trying to improve yourself? What is your first reaction to this idea?
|16 September 2019
Mindfulness Impulse #42: Making Peace with Impermanence
|“Everything that has a beginning has an ending. Make your peace with that and all will be well.”
- Jack Kornfield -
Where is it easy for you to accept impermanence? Where is it particularly difficult? What might help you to make peace with impermanence, as Jack Kornfield suggests? What could that look like?
|09 September 2019
Mindfulness Impulse #41: Mindfulness and the Quiet Mind
|“You might be tempted to avoid the messiness of daily living for the tranquility of stillness and peacefulness. This of course would be an attachment to stillness, and like any strong attachment, it leads to delusion.”
- Jon Kabat-Zinn -
In thinking about the subject "Mindfulness and Stillness", we are traversing rough terrain. There is a pervasive notion that mindfulness is connected to stillness and that meditation, if "done correctly", leads to a quiet mind. This is often a source of immense frustration and can even lead to people giving up meditation completely because they cannot "quieten their thoughts".
In reality, the idea that you succeed in meditation if and only if your mind gets very quiet is a good way to undermine your meditation practice. Instead of trying to force stillness and tranquility through our meditation, we see this more or less subtle desire for stillness for what it is: a fantasy about how things should be different from what they are. There is nothing wrong with this wish. But if we let it drive us and turn it into an expectation for our practice we will experience disenchantment and frustration.
Meditation is not about exchanging the stress and the messiness of life for stillness and tranquility. (That does not mean, however, that we have to make it extra difficult for ourselves by only allowing ourselves to meditate next to a motorway or on a major construction site.) Rather, we try to stay connected to ourselves and not get swept away by the current of thoughts, tasks and emotions - no matter how much stillness or bustle, tranquility or chaos we are confronted with. Paradoxically, when we let everything be exactly as it is, let go of our expectation and abandon our attempts to manipulate reality, we have the best chance to experience moments of stillness and peace.
|02 September 2019
Mindfulness Impulse #40: Discovering the Moment as Your Favourite Time
|“What day is it?” asked Pooh.
“It’s today,” squeaked Piglet.
“My favourite day,” said Pooh.
- A. A. Milne, “Winnie-the-Pooh” -
You only have to take a cursory look at most mindfulness books to encounter the idea that being mindful means "living in the moment". But what exactly does that mean?
If you "live in the moment", you notice what is happening in your body and your mind - instead of "missing the moment" by losing yourself in plans for the future or memories of the past. But Winnie-the-Pooh, this great furry philosopher of the 20th century, is pointing to an additional aspect here: longing for or wishing away certain days. Of course, there is nothing wrong with looking forward to the weekend, a holiday or the time when the exams are over. But if we spend most of our days hankering for these times, we miss a large portion of our lives. So living in the moment could mean acknowledging that this moment is the only time we will ever have to live our lives. And if we can make the present moment our favourite time just as it is, without anything spectacular happening in it, as Winnie-the-Pooh is demonstrating, then we give ourselves the chance to really participate in our life and to truly "live in the moment".
26 August 2019
Mindfulness Impulse #39: Mindful Monkey - If Thoughts Race and Monkeys Perform Somersaults
Do you know how many thoughts the average person thinks every day? It is a mind-boggling 60,000. Unsurprisingly, most of these are not brilliant ideas. When it gets more quite around us and we take time for ourselves, e.g. in meditation, the mind seems to speed up even more. Our thoughts often get louder, take up more space and jump from one topic to the next, sometimes triggering different feelings and emotions in the process. These bouncing thoughts and feelings that put our attention to the test are, tellingly, described as Monkey Mind. Such a monkey can be pretty wired, climb around untamed and do wild somersaults. Sometimes it just enjoys clinging to a single thought and spinning around with it endlessly.
When that happens, we might try to get to grips with the Monkey Mind, to tame or even to cage it. Our mind then reacts just like a monkey that has been caught usually reacts in a cage: it rebels. The situation gets worse and we are more stressed and restless than ever before.
What would it be like to try and replace our automatic reaction with a new and possibly unfamiliar response by not fighting our restless mind and bouncing thoughts? Maybe there is a different way to meet the Monkey Mind: Adopting an accepting attitude towards it and to ourselves without judging or condemning (see Mindfulness Impulse #30)? That takes training because it means we first have to notice how and when our monkey shows up. Only then can we become aware and notice what is happening in our head. This is necessary for us to be able to bring our attention back to the present moment. And maybe observing our monkey will even help us feel more serene and treat it with gentleness.
Is it possible to deal with the Monkey Mind without judgement? What could that look like and what would be helpful for me in challenging situations? The chance to experiment with that might come as soon as the next mindful moment arises.
|19 August 2019
Mindfulness Impulse #38: Effortless Awareness
|Is meditating on your to-do list? Maybe it has even been on there for a while? Or on your (mental or real) should-do-sometime-in-the-future list? Mindfulness as a self-care trend is everywhere and can quickly become one of those things that are "supposed to be good for me" and that I should, therefore, "finally get around to doing". This gives meditation and mindfulness the status of a new "project". The result is an even longer to-do list and an even guiltier conscience.
And yet, mindfulness is as easy as breathing, hearing or seeing is for most of us - and presumably none of those are on our to-do lists. The meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein suggests an interesting experiment to illustrate this point: Raise your left arm. How hard is it to know that you are raising your left arm at the moment? Does it take effort to know this? This natural and effortless knowledge of what is happening in the moment, that is mindfulness.
That does not mean that formal meditation is useless or superfluous. Regularly setting aside time to cultivate mindfulness can be extremely interesting and rewarding, even life-changing. If it is the right step for us now, then there will be something pulling us in that direction, attracting our curiosity and motivating us to meditate in this way. And then we might discover that formal meditation can be just as effortless as knowing that we are raising our left arm.
If, however, the heaviness of a long-procrastinated project descends on us when we think of formal meditation, we could grab a pen and courageously cross this "project" off our to-do list. And then we might - in many little moments and with a lighter conscience - invite this unforced and effortless awareness, which we do not have to work for but which comes to us as automatically as seeing, hearing and breathing.
A big thank you to Amrei Schwalm (www.achtsamkeitundmitgefuehl.com) for providing the inspiration for this Mindfulness Impulse!
|05 and 12 August 2019
Mindfulness Impulse #37: Going on Retreat
|“In order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion."
- Albert Camus -
Summertime, holiday time. Time we are often able to spend more freely than the rest of the year. Some people use the opportunity to dedicate this time to a specific practice or activity and go on a retreat. In a house or centre, often off the beaten track, they spend their days almost exclusively with the practice or activity they have chosen - yoga, meditation, writing, drawing etc. A few members of our team are going on such retreats in the coming weeks.
But a retreat is not only about following some programme or schedule. It is also about, well, retreating deliberately: from everyday life with its duties and demands, from contacts and relationships, from constant availability and in some cases, on a silent retreat, even from communication altogether. The point is not to flee the world but to have a chance to immerse oneself fully in one practice or activity. And to feel the force of one's habits and to check whether these habits are still useful or whether they have turned into automated actions that only produce unnecessary stress. On my last retreat I reached for my mobile phone (which I had turned off at the beginning of the retreat) countless times - only to discover after this week-long "digital detox" that I had not really missed anything vital during that time.
Maybe it is the act of retreating more than anything else that turns a vacation either into a time to recharge or into a workweek in disguise (in front of a prettier backdrop). Those who leave their emails unread or do not even take their mobile phones with them will have a different experience from those who check their messages every five minutes. Those who pack their to-do lists and work materials will not return quite as rested - even if their tasks remain untouched.
In all this it is secondary if you go on an adventure trip or a yoga retreat or if you spend your time sitting in the garden. If we allow ourselves to retreat from our everyday life and its routines, we give ourselves a chance to be fully engaged and present and to return with new insights and new energy.
If you have a holiday coming up: What would you like to retreat from during this time? What could that look like in practice? What would you have to do, before and during your retreat? What could support your retreat? And if you do not have a holiday coming up: Is there a way to retreat from certain things for some time in the midst of your everyday life? What could that look like?
29 July 2019
Mindfulness Impulse #36: The Subtle Difference
|You would think that a thought and a body sensation are easy to tell apart. Conceptually, at least, the difference is crystal clear. In our experience, however, it can be surprisingly subtle. If, for instance, you want to feel your right big toe, an image of your (or some?) big toe might flicker automatically before your mind's eye. Or you might begin to think more verbally about your right big toe. Depending on how familiar or unfamiliar feeling body sensations directly is for us, it can be easy or a little harder for us to do.
Today for Mindful Monday, therefore, an invitation to a short practice to investigate this difference in a little more detail:
|22 July 2019
Mindfulness Impulse #35: Getting Closer
|"How are you doing?" How do you usually answer this question? Automatically, with "Fine, thank you, how are you?"? Or with an honest and more or less detailed account of what is happening in your life?
We often choose one of these two alternatives when asked this question: We give an automatic answer or we tell a story. And if we ask ourselves how we are doing, we will probably tell ourselves a story as well: "I'm so stressed out because I haven't slept enough and I haven't had my coffee yet. And there is this difficult meeting coming up this afternoon, who knows what I'll have to deal with there..."
Mindfulness opens up another option for us to answer this question: getting closer. What is happening in my body, my thoughts and emotions right now? What does "stressed out", "tired" and "worried" feel like, how do I know I am having these experiences? What is in the foreground at this moment? What is this experience really like if I do not just "tick it off" and treat it as an exact copy of the feelings of stress, tiredness or worry of the past?
To get closer we need to make space within us, set our stories and judgments aside for a while and invite interest and curiosity. We let go of our explanations and interpretations and look with fresh eyes at what is actually happening. In this way, we get in touch with ourselves, our bodies and our emotions and are able to use all the information the moment offers to shape the next moment. And we can decide if "Fine, thank you, how are you?" is not the best answer for this person in this situation after all.
|15 July 2019
Mindfulness Impulse #34: Compassion as Foundational Attitude Number Eight
|Which feeling arises within you when you look at this photo? Take a few moments to experience and explore this feeling.
Perhaps you experienced a kind, warm, tender feeling when you were looking at the picture. Maybe you had to smile or made an involuntary "Awwwww" sound.
When a feeling like the one you might just have experienced comes up during a difficult or distressing experience, compassion or self-compassion results (depending on whether you yourself are having the challenging experience or whether you observe someone else having it).
Compassion has nothing to do with pitying yourself or others. Pity is the result of a distant, "cold" and often condescending appraisal. Compassion, on the other hand, is warm and connected and develops out of the realisation that we all have difficult experiences, that we all share the human experience and the challenges that come with it.
If you meditate for more than two minutes, you realise that challenging experiences are an inevitable part of meditation, from the unpleasant tingling in the toes to the feeling of restlessness that seems to make you almost jump out of your skin. Therefore, compassion is the eighth and additional foundational attitude that is a part of mindfulness and also facilitates it (cf. Mindfulness Impulses #27-#33 for the other seven foundational attitudes). When we have unpleasant or difficult experiences during meditation, we try to meet them like the bundle of kittens in the photo: with warmth, kindness and compassion. Here - as is so often the case - meditation is not a special context that is set apart and separate, but the "training ground" for the rest of life.
What would it be like to react to the inevitable difficulties in your life with kindness and compassion towards yourself? What difference would that make? Which other person could you treat with (more) compassion this week? What would be different then - for you and for the other person?
|08 July 2019
Mindfulness Impulse #33: Letting Go as a Foundational Attitude
|“In the end, just three things matter: how well we have lived; how well we have loved; how well we have learned to let go.“
- Jack Kornfield -
I have lost my favourite scarf. One night, after a long day, it was gone. I searched and sifted through all my things, in a relatively calm way at first, then with mounting panic. Later I asked absolutely everyone I had met on that day and walked everywhere I had gone. To no avail.
That was almost two years ago. And yet, I still catch myself sometimes looking around searchingly when I am in the same places I visited the day I lost my scarf. There is still hope, at least a little, that it will maybe, one day, somehow find its way back to me.
If you cannot muster any particular affection for scarfs or do not tend to be sentimental where clothing is concerned, you might be shaking your head now considering my reaction exaggerated and materialistic. And even I have to admit that my life went on without my favourite scarf and that it was of course, in the end, "only" a scarf - in spite of the story that was connected with it for me. But how attached I still am to my lost scarf shows me who difficult letting go can be. And that it was just a scarf only goes to show how much more difficult it can be: plans, dreams, relationships, stages of life, at worst even people we love - letting go is hard. And the last thing we want to hear when we grieve what we have lost is: "Should you not start to let go of that?"
What could it mean then to "learn to let go" if we do not want to (mis)understand it as a moral imperative? Maybe first to notice our clinging and grasping. Not to sidestep it but to feel the emotions that are connected with it. And to say goodbye consciously and delibertely, in our own way. Of course, that will look very different depending who or what we say goodbye to. If we can grant ourselves that, then we might - sometimes - be able to smile at our tendency to dig in our heels and fight inevitable change. At least if it only concerns a scarf.
|01 July 2019
Mindfulness Impulse #32: Non-striving as a Foundational Attitude
|“Suffering is asking from the world what it can never give you.“
- Ajahn Brahm -
I do not know about you, but I am an expert at striving or even, admittedly, at trying to force things to go my way. If that were an Olympic discipline, I would be guaranteed a medal. And I would most certainly make sure I got that medal, no matter what, you can bet on that!
It is not easy to realise that we are striving or trying to force something while we are doing it. Tension, tightness and repetitive, "loud" thoughts tend to be the symptoms, coupled with a negative and irritable mood: "This HAS to work!" "There HAS to be a way!"
Not necessarily, though. The truth is that we do not control life. Just because we want something really really very very badly does not mean that it will happen. Of course, we can apply ourselves and work towards it, but only very rarely is the result 100% under our control. And the tension and fretfulness that accompany our striving and forcing do not necessarily contribute to a positive outcome.
In meditation - and in any mindful moment - we practise loosening the grip on our fixed ideas. And being kind to ourselves when we notice that we are, once again, trying to squeeze ourselves and the world into our mould of how something should be. We take a breath and notice what is happening. This gives us the space to decide what we can actually do for our goal and to use our options sensibly and creatively. And it gives us the chance to discover new possibilities that we might not even have considered before because we were so fixated on the result we were striving for and on our predefined way of getting there.
Which situations have you striving and trying to force things through? What do you do in those situations? What makes you realise that that is happening, what are the "symptoms" for you? What difference would it make to bring mindfulness to these situations?
24 June 2019
Mindfulness Impulse #31: Trust as a Foundational Attitude
|“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.“
- Oscar Wilde -
“It is impossible to become like somebody else. Your only hope is to become more fully yourself. That is the reason for practicing meditation in the first place.“
- Jon Kabat-Zinn -
"Be yourself!" - this appeal is not new, nor is it particularly original. After all, few people would doubt that it is worth living in a way that reflects your values, convictions and your personality. But what does "be yourself" actually mean? How do you - in practical terms - live a life in which you are "becoming more fully yourself"?
One important aspect is having clarity about the significance of other people's solutions, ideas, suggestions and advice. Living mindfully means practising a kind of "radical trust" in the wisdom of your own body and your own emotions. That does not mean that we ignore the expertise and insights of others and believe that we always inevitably know best. But we allow ourselves the last word where it concerns us as a person since we are the only ones inhabiting our life and our body and the only ones embodying our feelings and experiences.
Equipped with such a useful perspective we set out on the journey towards ourselves. We can only trust the messages of our body and or emotions when we hear them in the first place. Mindfulness is a method of listening to these messages and receiving their meaning from moment to moment. Of getting in touch with ourselves and the wisdom inherent in our experience of the present moment. So the question is not "Who am I?" in an all-encompassing, philosophical sense, but rather "Who am I in this moment - and what does that mean for how I want to shape the next moment?".
What could it mean for you to "be yourself" this week? What would tell you that you have succeeded? In which moments could it be especially valuable to connect to your inner experience?
|17 June 2019
Mindfulness Impulse #30: Acceptance as a Foundational Attitude
|Blocking cookies, accepting thoughts and emotions
Different situations can trigger thoughts and feelings of varying intensity in us. Some people are troubled when they have missed a train, others agonise over an argument between friends and engage in energy-sapping rumination - and still others seem to remain unflappable.
To continue with the example of the argument: After a quarrel with people we care about we might be overcome with feelings of disappointment, sadness and anger. Old wounds might open up or we might mull over who could have reacted differently in what situation and what if... Our automatic reaction to challenging emotions is often to fight them and try to get rid of them. In this way, we focus on the problem completely and direct all our attention to it. By trying to get rid of unpleasant emotions often we actually reinforce them (cf. Mindfulness Impulse #15). On the other hand, the attempt to get rid of an emotion can also manifest as the opposite of this "overthinking" and "plunging into it" - as disregard and the search for distraction. This, in turn, can mean that these emotions will be expressed in a different way, e.g. in the form of physical symptoms. Then, an argument makes us feel queasy, gives us a headache or keeps us awake at night.
Therefore, we often behave habitually, as we typically would, based on our individual experiences. These patterns can, as we have said, look very different for different people: Some retreat after an argument and ruminate on a response that might solve the problem, some fly off the handle and provoke a confrontation and some distract themselves by busyness or binge-watching Netflix. So, what follows from that? Actively fighting thoughts and emotions as well as ignoring them requires enormous effort sooner or later and often results in the oppositve of what we want. "Well, great", you might think now, "so I cannot change anything either way".
Exactly. Perhaps, for a start, not changing the situation nor wanting it to change is an option. To let the resulting thoughts and emotions be as they are for a moment: To let them happen, to experience them and to tolerate them. That is a form of acceptance. It might not work at the first attempt because if our buttons are pushed our habitual patterns may take over. But it is worth taking a minute, recognising them and asking if they are actually really helpful in that moment. This is not about having to find unpleasant thoughts and feelings particularly great or about reinterpreting them but about trying to accept them for what they are - thoughts and emotions.
The chance to practise acceptance is there every day - not only when the question pops up if I want to accept "cookies that are stored on this website". After all, practice and repetition make for improved - if not perfect - acceptance.
Which things can I change - and which can I not change? How could accepting be helpful to me? What would I like to accept today? What pattern of behaviour keeps me from doing that and how could I try a new, maybe unfamiliar, accepting attitude?
|03 and 10 June 2019
Mindfulness Impulse #29: "Beginner's Mind" as a Foundational Attitude
|"In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”
- Shunryu Suzuki -
Do you remember what it was like to take a train for the first time as a child? How did you feel? You may have been excited and a little nervous and - if you were not too scared and you had not been pressured into taking the train - you probably soaked up all the impressions: the feeling of movement and acceleration, the world outside rushing past your window, the conductor in uniform checking your ticket. You probably felt curious and alive.
And what is it like for you today to get on a train? You might wonder whether you have forgotten anything, whether the train will be on time and how crowded it will be. Interest, excitement and awe will probably rarely be part of your experience. What has changed?
You now know exactly what it is like to take a train and what you can and cannot expect. You have become an expert at taking trains. While you explored curiously what it means to take a train as a child, nowadays all the possibilities are clear to you: going fast or slowly, hearing some standard announcements or none, being late or on time, more or less pleasant people sitting next to you.
Of course, the crucial point is not to be fascinated when taking a train - the point is that so often we live in the same way we take trains: We look at the world through our expectations and we experience what our expectations have predicted. That way, a unique, unrepeatable moment of our life can become boring routine we need to get through.
|The foundational attitude of "beginner's mind" counteracts this tendency by reminding us to meet each moment with interest and curiosity - as if this were the very first time we are doing or experiencing something. In meditation we feel every breath as if this was our first in-breath, our first out-breath. We try to approach our experience as we approached taking the train as a child: with curiosity, maybe even wonder, as an adventure.
Which experience could you approach with beginner's mind this week, by trying to bring fresh eyes and leave your expectations aside? Which person in your surroundings could you meet in this way, attempting to put aside your own thoughts and ideas about them and to meet them as if it were the very first time?
|The next Mindfulness Impulse will be posted on 17 June 2019. The Mindful Monday team wishes all readers happy holidays over Whitsun!|
27 May 2019
Mindfulness Impulse #28: Patience as a Foundational Attitude
|"Grass does not grow faster if you pull on it."
- African Proverb -
Spring has progressed quite far by now, but only a few short weeks ago the leaves were just starting to break through on the bushes and trees. As I so often do at that time of year I felt like winter had already been way too long and I could not wait for spring to prevail, for leafy green trees, blooming flowers and longer days. I would have liked to pull on the grass quite literally. But forcing a bud open destroys it instead of helping it to flower.
This is glaringly obvious to most of us, few people would actually try to interfere in these natural processes to speed them up. We tend to be not as lenient with ourselves. We often want to have completed all our tasks yesterday and, usually, the more we demand this from ourselves the more we also ask it of others. Of course, there is nothing wrong with good time management and efficient organisation. But the line to straining and forcing is easily crossed, often without our realising it.
Yet we know from brain research that our brain continues to work on tasks and problems while we sleep or during breaks. Even - or especially - during these times our knowledge and our creative solutions continue to "grow". Growth that we deny ourselves if we constantly "pull on the grass", wanting to get everything done quickly and overtaxing ourselves in the process.
Mindfulness tries to grant all developments their "proper time". We practise patience with ourselves and the process of our life by giving all experiences of the moment space within us, whether they fit our ideal of how things should be or not. Instead of trying to wrench the grass and flowers out of the ground impatiently and pointlessly, we feel our impatience and our longing for spring and we familiarise ourselves with winter, with our experience as it is. And we treat this experience not as a transition phase to something that is supposedly more desirable but as the only moment we have, the only moment when our life can ever happen.
In which situations is it easy for you to be patient? When in particular do you experience a lot of impatience? What would it be like to make room for all experiences in those moments, even for impatience? What would it mean to grant all developments in your life their "proper time"?
|20 May 2019
Mindfulness Impulse #27: Non-Judging as a Foundational Attitude
|Jon Kabat-Zinn, who has put together an intensive programme for the cultivation of mindfulness with his curriculum in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), describes seven foundational attitudes in his book "Full Catastrophe Living". These attitudes are the basis - the "soil" - on which mindfulness can grow. The next seven Mindfulness Impulses are dedicated to these foundational attitudes and will try to provide an opportunity to understand and (especially) to experience them.
As I am writing this post, it becomes clear to me once again that writing is such an interesting training ground for mindfulness. I am trying to word this post on the topic of "non-judging" while my mind is rejecting phrase after phrase as "too trite", "too complicated" or "too long-winded". Letting go of judging, even for a moment, is hard. Our mind evaluates things automatically and at lightning speed and puts them into categories like "good" and "bad", "right" and "wrong", "like" and "dislike". Most of us have had decades of training in judging. How, then, could we get closer to non-judging? And is judging the judging not a judgment in and of itself?
Dealing with judgments mindfully does not mean that we condemn ourselves for them or that we force ourselves never to judge anything ever again. Instead, we notice what is happening. That is the crucial step: to know that we are judging in that moment and to observe what this judging feels like. By doing that we move from judging to feeling.
When we know that judging is happening and how it is happening, we can decide whether or not it is a help or a hindrance in that situation. Too little judging and this text would have been incoherent ramblings. Too much judging and this text would never have been written. Of course, the useful measure of judging depends on what we are doing. Writing a text others are going to read requires more judging than doing the dishes, which in turn requires more judging than sitting in meditation.
Therefore, it is not about getting rid of judgments, but about consciously calibrating the right measure of judging for the current task in the present moment. Because we have been trained to judge so thoroughly, it can be useful to create contexts in which we can open to our experience completely and in which we can perceive that judging is happening without having to react in any way. Formal meditation practice, such as sitting meditation (cf. Mindfulness Impulse #22), is such a context.
How do you know that judging is happening in your mind? Which thoughts are connected to it and how does it feel in your body? What does too much judging feel like - and too little? Are there activities that are accompanied - out of habit - by very many or very few judgments? While meditating, what is it like not to react to judging and instead return to the bare sensations again and again?
|13 May 2019
Mindfulness Impulse #26: Watching the Grass Grow
|Today's Mindfulness Impulse is a guest post by Lothar Schwalm. Lothar has been offering Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) - among other courses - in and around Berlin for 16 years and has been practising meditation himself for over 30 years. He is a member of the teacher team for the Resource Project at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences and an instructor in the "Basic Training Living Mindfulness - Teaching Mindfulness". To find out more about Lothar Schwalm and his work visit www.mbsr-bb.de.
The other day I was so tired after a course that I fell asleep on the train on the way home and missed my stop. I had to walk back a few kilometres because there was no more train going back. The path led through the woods. I love nature and I am not afraid of it even at night, but I became very awake and alert again. My mind was not only looking for the right way, it also constantly scanned the surroundings for moving objects. My intellect knows that there are no bears or tigers in our woods, but for my Stone Age brain moving objects are attention magnets. Therefore, it can hardly be impressed by my tiredness or by such soothing thoughts and it will not be dissuaded from collecting information about possible threats. There was only a light breeze so that the trees stood pretty still - all was well, a wonderful night-time stroll.
In the Stone Age people also collected as much information about their surroundings as possible to recognise danger well in advance and to hunt their prey. An important channel of perception was "motion perception", i.e. recognising that an object is in motion somewhere before an unmoving background (e.g. the forest). People who are blind probably do something similar through hearing. Information provides us with orientation and security, the more we can have the better. But nowadays there is so much movement that it is sometimes difficult to perceive the unmoving background at all. And most of the moving objects are neither prey nor a real danger.
Additionally, there are virtual tsunamis of "pseudo movements". For hours, we follow the changes of our display, looking at images, letters and videos. We see the movements of objects that exist before us only in our imagination. We do not even notice that we are staring into a laptop or a smartphone (e.g. right now!). Moreover, this imaginary world moves in a way that does not or hardly ever occur in nature: In modern videos, there are often several cuts or changes of perspective per second and one click opens a new window with a new world. Nature changes this rapidly only when there are thunder and lightning. Otherwise things move rather slowly in nature: Plants grow and flower and wilt, clouds pass through the sky, sun and moon rise and set and the rivers flow. Only the zeitgeist is speeding up more and more. Maybe it has some sort of ADHD? The abundance of information that the “motion perception” of real and illusionary objects brings does not make us more orientated or secure but often yields the exact opposite. I think we do not have to keep on running at this speed. We could stop once in a while and watch the grass grow.
What if you had brief pauses in your everyday life to stand still and look at the unmoving between or behind all the moving objects? If, for instance, you watched the sky behind the flying migrant birds? Or the asphalt of the street that the cars are driving over. Or the house that a person is passing by? The branch of a tree that is only moving very gently in the wind or not moving at all? Or your left hand, which holding your smartphone in such an easeful way? Just taking a deep breath for a moment, relaxing the body and calming the nerves.
|06 May 2019
Mindfulness Impulse #25: Thinking and Mindfulness VI
|„Jeder Mensch erfindet sich früher oder später eine Geschichte, die er für sein Leben hält.“ ("Everybody invents himself a story which he thereafter takes for his life.")
- Max Frisch -
Over the last few weeks we have explored our thinking in the Mindful Monday's Mindfulness Impulses. In the spirit of mindfulness, which can only ever unfold in the present moment, we have focused on thinking as it is happening in the present. To round off the series "Thinking and Mindfulness" we will examine the topic from a longer perspective. After all, what we are thinking does not only influence how we experience the here and now. The story that we tell ourselves about ourselves again and again will, at some point, determine who we consider ourselves to be. It shapes our identity.
We generally consider our identity as stable and solid, we do not usually experience ourselves as its creators. But we forget that our stories about ourselves are rarely based on objective facts. To use a somewhat simplified example: Whether I think "I am smart" or "I am stupid" will seldom be based on a scientifically sound IQ test - but rather on early experiences and on stories that others have told about me in the past, stories that I have adopted and embellished. Finally, these stories have been shortened to "I am smart" or "I am stupid". These summaries then often remain unquestioned and "feel" true subjectively. They can have profound consequences on how I feel and how I act: how confident I am, what I think I "deserve", how I deal with failure and so on. All this will impact how my environment reacts to me, which opportunities I will or will not get, what others think I can do - until my life circumstances reflect my initial conviction. In short, they become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
That does not mean that these stories are easy to change. They have been told and retold and elaborated over many years and have become fixed and often unquestioned convictions. It can be immensely liberating to get to know yourself and your story/stories and to (re)order the past - especially when the stories cause suffering, limit your potential and do not fit your life any more. Not for nothing are there plenty of ways to work with your own story that have proven helpful, in coaching, counselling and psychotherapy. But first we have to notice how we think about and talk to ourselves, a process we are often not aware of. That is where mindfulness can help.
Which story or stories do you tell yourself about yourself? Which advantages and disadvantages do these stories have - where are they supporting you, where are they limiting you? Which parts of the story would you like to hold on to, where could a "new edition" be helpful?
29 April 2019
Mindfulness Impulse #24: Thinking and Mindfulness V
|Perhaps you have already tried to put the Mindfulness Impulses of the last weeks into practice by viewing your thoughts as an observer, noticing what happens in thinking without being pulled into the content of thoughts. And perhaps you have realised how difficult that is and how unaccustomed you are to this way of dealing with thoughts. That is not particularly surprising. After all, you have been pracising thinking, i.e. thinking about something and being completely identified with the thoughts, for many years. Now that you are adding a new option to this old mode of handling thoughts, it will take a while to even remember this new option. It will take even longer to establish it as an additional habitual way of dealing with thoughts.
The more personally meaningful we consider our thoughts to be, the "stickier" they will be, i.e. the higher their tendency will be to bind our attention thinking about them. Our stickiest thoughts usually concern "me" and "mine".
To counteract this tendency, the meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein suggests an interesting experiment: Sit in the usual way (cf. the description of sitting meditation in Mindfulness Impulse #22, the week before last). The only new aspect: While you are meditating, pretend that your thoughts do not come from you but from the person next to you (or, if you are alone in the room, from a person in an adjacent room). Everything else stays the same: When you notice that thinking is happening, you observe the content of your thoughts and return to your object of meditation. Maybe you would like to try this little experiment in your next sitting meditation.
Which difference has this change of perspective made? Were you lost in thought more, less or just as much as usual? Was it easier to observe thinking without getting caught up in the thoughts - or not? Did you react differently to thinking and the content of the thoughts when they were not "your" thoughts?
|18 April 2019
Mindfulness Impulse #23: Finding what is hidden
The best surprises often hide in the most unexpected places. But to see them we sometimes need to look a little more closely...
We at Mindful Monday wish all readers a very happy Easter! The next Mindfulness Impulse will be posted on 29 April.
|15 April 2019
Mindfulness Impulse #22: Thinking and Mindfulness IV
|The last Mindfulness Impulses (#19 , #20 und #21) have outlined why mindfulness has nothing to do with an empty mind, why we have to take our thoughts less personally than we tend to and what the "Default Mode Network" is all about. Maybe they have inspired you to try out and practise this new relationship to your thinking.
Every moment of our life can be a moment of mindfulness if in it we are aware of what is happening. In this regard every moment in which we are aware that "thinking is happening" in our mind is such a moment of practice. But it is not always easy to integrate such moments into our day - and not always appropriate either. It makes sense for me to identify with the content of this text while I am writing it. It is the only way that the fleeting thoughts moving through my mind can become a text others can read and understand. We have also seen that the wandering mind can be useful (cf. last week's Mindfulness Impulse #21).
Therefore, it might be helpful to create a context in which we can practise this new approach to our thinking systematically and deliberately - a context in which we do not have to perform a certain task and in which we decide explicitly to work with our wandering mind.
Sitting meditation is such a context. There are different ways to practise sitting meditation. This option is suitable for beginners as well as more experienced meditators: Find a position that supports you in being relaxed as well as in staying awake and that you can maintain for a while. Set a timer for the time you want to meditate, maybe five minutes to begin with. Close your eyes or let your gaze soften and direct it to the ground in front of you without focusing on anything. Find an "anchor" for your attention, an "object" that you can always return your attention to. The breath is a classic meditation object; you could observe where you can feel it most distinctly: as the air streaming in and out of your nostrils or as the rising and falling of your chest or your belly? There you could "settle down" with your awareness and observe with interest, openness and curiosity what you notice, which direct body sensations tell you that you are indeed breathing. (As an alternative to the breath you could observe the feelings in your hands or around your eyes.)
After a short while you will become aware that your attention has wandered elsewhere. Instead of observing your breath (or your alternative meditation object) you are thinking about something - perhaps you are remembering, planning, judging, fantasising... Congratulations! The moment you realise this is a moment of mindfulness. To be clear that "thinking is happening" in your mind in this moment you could label this experience explicitly as "thinking" - and you could observe where your mind has wandered, what you have been thinking about. This will probably break the train of your thought. If it has, return your attention to your original object. If the thinking continues, take a moment to observe how it is happening all by itself without your actively thinking about the content of your thoughts before you return to your meditation object. In any case, bring yourself back with as much kindness and gentleness as possible.
This is one way to practise this new approach to our thinking, which sees thoughts as events that arise in our experience. A thought is not necessarily true or meaningful simply because we think it. The less automatically we consider our thoughts to be personally significant truths, the more room for equanimity and conscious decisions we will have.
|08 April 2019
Mindfulness Impulse #21: Thinking and Mindfulness III
|“For most of us, thinking is like being kidnapped by the most boring person on earth and being told the same story over and over again.”
- Sam Harris -
When there is no specific task for our brain to solve, the so-called "Default Mode Network" gets activated. In this state our thoughts wander to the past or the future trying to safeguard against potential threats to our safety or well-being. We might think about something we have said or done - especially if it could cast doubt on our competence or character and threaten our reputation or social status. Or we might think of a future challenge and plan to protect ourselves from potential difficulty. In the vast majoritiy of these thoughts we are the protagonist. When other people do feature in these thoughts, it is usually in relation to us: what they think about us, how they treat us, how we could influence them etc.
This "default mode" can be useful - e.g. to "rehearse" different behaviours for an upcoming challenge like an exam or a job interview by playing them out in the mind. However, these thoughts are often repetitive and rarely contain creative new solutions or perspectives. Also, psychologists at Harvard University have found out that a wandering mind (i.e. an activated default mode network) contributes to feeling unhappy. In their article "A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind" Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert describe that the subjects in their experiments felt less happy when their minds were wandering than they did when they were present and aware of what they were doing - regardless of what they were doing at the time. Even if the activities were not pleasant, subjects were happier when they acted consciously than when their thoughts strayed from their tasks.
Killingsworth and Gilbert could show that our minds wander, on average, 46.9% of the time. So we spend almost half of our time in that state. Of course, it is not about fighting or eliminating this natural state. But Killingsworth and Gilbert demonstrate convincingly that practising meditation and gradually quietening our default mode network and our wandering mind contributes to more daily happiness and, in the end, to a happier life.
|01 April 2019
Mindfulness Impulse #20: Thinking and Mindfulness II
|On Mindful Monday last week we mentioned in Mindfulness Impulse #19 that there are two ways to experience our thoughts: identified with their content or as observers when we watch how our thinking is happening of its own accord. Most of us have a lot more practice in the first way and experience thinking as the result of a process they themselves have initiated and controlled. They are the thinkers, active "producers" of their thoughts. This view seems so self-evident that you might be wondering why it is even worth mentioning. After all, everyone can easily verify it with the following little experiment: Intentionally think the thought "water is wet".
Did you have any trouble doing that? Was ist difficult to think this sentence? Probably not. So it is quite possible to produce a certain thought as a thinker. Case closed. Or is it?
Anyone who has ever struggled to concentrate on a task knows it is not that simple. A lot of the time our thoughts wander here and there completely by themselves without our contribution, sometimes despite our efforts to stop them. Interestingly, we cannot predict where our thoughts will go next. The moment we try to make a prediction what we are probably going to think next, we have already had that thought. In that sense the meditation teacher Sam Harris is right when he says I do not know what I will think next any more than I know what you will think next. In this respect thinking is something that happens to us - even though it might subjectively not feel that way.
What does this have to do with mindfulness? Well, this perspective can encourage us not to take our thoughts so very personally. The more we can let go of the notion that our thoughts are produced by us and therefore belong to us, the easier that will be. Few people follow the weather with the same emotional intensity they invest in their thoughts.
Of course, it can be useful and/or pleasant to immerse ourselves in our thoughts and be identified with them - two examples of many are "taking an exam" and "reading a captivating book". We will not lose this ability to identify with our thoughts, not matter how much we meditate. But there are also numerous examples of how our identification with our thoughts can cause problems: Maybe we have said something we consider stupid and cannot stop thinking about what an idiot we have been, maybe we are afraid of a test or a presentation and our impending doom is playing on a continuous loop in our thinking. Here the ability to observe our thinking with kindness can have real practical value. When we practise it regularly, we expand our repertory in dealing with our thoughts and gain more freedom and flexibility.
25 March 2019
Mindfulness Impulse #19: Thinking and Mindfulness I
|“Clearing your mind is impossible unless you’re enlightened or dead.”
- Dan Harris -
There is a persistant rumour that meditation and mindfulness entail "clearing the mind" and "emptying it of thoughts". Many people say they are unable to meditate because they cannot manage to do that. Here is a short experiment related to this point: Set a timer to 30 seconds, close your eyes and try as hard as you can not to think of a pink elephant until the time is up. Give it a try!
How did it work? Were your thoughts full of pink elephants? Then you are part of the overwhelming majority of people. If you really managed not to think of a pink elephant in those 30 seconds, it probably took considerable effort to focus your attention on other thoughts intentionally.
Our brain is not built not to think, as this exercise has illustrated. Besides, it shows that we are a lot less in control of our thinking than we often assume. So how could we deal with our thoughts mindfully if not thinking and "clearing the mind" is not an option?
Instead of trying to suppress our thinking we could change our relationship to it. Instead of identifying with the content of our thoughts as per usual we could notice that thinking is happening and be curious where our mind is wandering. We can turn to our thoughts with the same open and inquisitive attitude that we have towards the sensations in our body and our emotions.
The meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein compares our everyday thinking to watching a movie. We are sitting in the cinema and our thoughts are absorbed in the story. When we are emersed in the story in this way, we experience real emotions. But we could also step out of the story and notice that we are sitting in a darkened room, looking at a white screen with changing colourful forms projected onto it. In a similar way we could also step out of the contents of our thoughts and notice how the internal process of thinking is happening, without reacting to the contents automatically.
In meditation we purposefully practise relating to our thoughts in this new way, by repeating this process again and again and again (and again...). The moment when we realise that we were lost in thoughts is the crucial moment of mindfulness. When we start a meditation practice, it might take minutes of being absorbed in our thoughts before we notice that we are thinking. The longer we practise the more often we will experience such mindful moments. With time we might approach our thoughts - and ourselves - a little more lightly and what we are thinking might "trigger us" a little less automatically in everyday life. And this might have a more positive influence on our life than a mind that has temporarily been "cleared". When we practise in this way, we do not have to fight the way our brain works. Rather, we can cultivate a more conscious and mindful way of dealing with our thoughts - with gentleness, kindness and respect for the make-up of our brain.
|18 March 2019
Mindfulness Impulse #18: Pain vs. Suffering
|"Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional."
- Haruki Murakami -
This morning I got out of bed on the wrong side. I was tired and cranky and I thought about all the things I would have to do today - in addition to all the appointments in my full diary. I got more and more bad-tempered as I imagined how stressful the day would be and how unfair it was that I had to do all these things.
Today was, of course, not the first day when I woke up tired and not the first day when I have a lot to do. How is it, then, that we suffer from these situations on some days while they hardly bother us on others?
Here the difference between pain and suffering is useful. Pain can have different forms and levels of intensity: physical and emotional pain, intense pain and discomfort like my tiredness this morning. We cannot avoid pain; to be human means sometimes to experience pain. Suffering, on the other hand, occurs when we fight unpleasant experiences and refuse to acknowledge that we are experiencing pain in a particular moment. The US-American meditation teacher Shinzen Young has developed a formula to illustrate this difference:
Suffering = Pain x Resistance.
That means: The bigger the resistance, the bigger the suffering. If we do not fight the pain at all (resistance = 0), we do not suffer (suffering = 0 because pain x 0 = 0). In this case the pain alone remains. That does not mean, however, that the pain itself gets smaller or disappears.
Therefore, if I had remembered this connection this morning, I would still have been groggy - which would still have felt unpleasant. Also, I would have thought about my long to-do-list. But I would have been able to feel the unpleasant body sensations of tiredness and I would have noticed how my thoughts revolve around the future. That is all. Discomfort without suffering.
That is not to say that resistance is reprehensible and should be fought or repressed. After all, it is more than understandable that we want to get rid of pain and unpleasant experiences. Yet when we recognise resistance as resistance, we are able to take a step back. Then we are able to turn towards the pain we are experiencing in this moment - perhaps even with some kindness for ourselves. The more we manage to do that, the less we will suffer.
24 February to 11 March 2019
|The Mindful Monday is taking a break. We will go on holiday, recharge our creative batteries and do... nothing. Perhaps you would like to join us in doing nothing? If you are new to doing nothing or can only invest very little time, you could click here to find a suggestion for two minutes of doing nothing. Those of you who are already more experienced or would like to apply themselves more fully, could take part in the "Do Nothing Project", which the Canadian meditation teacher Jeff Warren has initiated and where you connect with others online to do nothing together (click here for more information). Mindfulness Impulse #18 will be posted for Mindful Monday on 18 March 2019.
|18 February 2019
Mindfulness Impulse #17: Challenging Emotions and Mindfulness III
|"No mud, no lotus."
- Thich Nhat Hanh -
Not wanting to have an experience that challenges us, that is unpleasant or even painful, is more than understandable. All the more important, therefore, that we value our baby steps and treat ourselves kindly when our old and familiar avoidance strategies have kicked in before we have even realised what has happened.
But "no mud, no lotus" promises more than learning to cope a little better with challenging emotions. It promises that something unique and beautiful can develop, especially in the difficult, unpleasant, "muddy" places. That does not mean that the mud turns to gold dust - it is still disgusting brown sludge. But the more familiar we become with our emotional "mud", the more we can connect to others, who are all too often stuck in the mud as well - and the more we will be able to react with genuine empathy and true compassion.
|11 February 2019
Mindfulness Impulse #16: Challenging Emotions and Mindfulness II
|Mindfully dealing with challenging emotions - what exactly could that look like? The mindfulness teacher Michele McDonald has developed the R.A.I.N. model, which will be introduced here in a slightly modified version. The acronym R.A.I.N. stands for Recognise – Acknowledge – Investigate – Non-Identification.
R: Recognise: First, we recognise that we are experiencing a challenging emotion in the present moment and we name the emotion: "This is anger." "Oh, sadness." "There is loneliness."
A: Acknowledge (Allow): The next step is to acknowledge that this emotion is currently part of our experience. We do not have to be happy about it, but we allow the feeling to be there and do not try to fight it, repress it or get rid of it in any other way.
I: Investigate: Then we explore our experience of this emotion - with as much kindness, curiosity and openness as possible. We "investigate" the emotion by turning towards the bodily sensations that accompany it. As best we can we feel the sensations in our body directly, like heaviness, warmth, tingling or muscle tension. Perhaps we can even observe how our thinking contributes to the emotion by watching our inner film or listening to our inner monologue. However, we are not trying to think about the feeling or to analyse it. When we notice we have got lost in thoughts, we return to our direct bodily experience.
N: Non-Identification: Finally, we appreciate that we are having this emotion, we are not identical to this emotion. We have just investigated the emotion, so there is a part of us that can perceive the emotion without being angry, frightened or sad itself. The body sensations and thoughts that are connected to this emotion, maybe we can even see these as phenomena that move through our experience and that we can react to - or not.
It is impossible to overstate that R.A.I.N. - just as mindfulness in general - is not about getting rid of anything or manipulating experience in any way. We only adopt a different position from which we relate to our experience and allow everything to happen that is already happening in our body and mind.
|04 February 2019
Mindfulness Impulse #15: Challenging Emotions and Mindfulness
|"Whatever you repress goes straight to the basement to train weightlifting."
- Anonymous -
Each and every one of us knows feelings they would rather not have. Some find sadness particularly challenging, others anger, yet others loneliness. Shame is very hard to stand for most people. Only natural and totally understandable, therefore, that we will try anything not to feel these feelings - or at least not as frequently, with such intensity or for so long.
On the other hand, there are times when we plunge into an emotion completely until it has taken full control and we do not exist outside of this feeling anymore.
When we turn to an emotion with mindfulness, we realise that what we call "anger", "disgust" or "guilt" consists of two parts, a physical and a mental one. When we are sad, for instance, we might feel a heaviness in our body, anger may be accompanied by bodily sensations of warmth and muscle tension. And our thoughts provide the matching soundtrack by judging external events accordingly: "Outside it is only ever grey and miserable.", "He is such an idiot!" etc.
When we feel these sensations and notice these thoughts without avoiding them and without getting carried away by them, we see how they change by themselves after a while. To keep an emotion alive over a longer period of time we have to replay the situation that triggered it again and again in our mind's eye. (Paradoxically, that applies even when we try to convince ourselves that we do not have to feel or should not feel guilty, sad or disappointed in this situation.)
This is not to say it is useful just to let feelings pass by every time they arise. They can be valueable as a signal and show us that something is not good for us and we should take action. But it is a lot easier for us to receive this "message" when we recognise and acknowledge the emotion instead of pushing it aside or drowning in it.
Which emotion is especially difficult for you? How do you normally react when it comes up? Which bodily sensations and thoughts does this emotion consist of? What could be its message? Which inner images and thoughts keep it alive?
28 January 2019
Mindfulness Impulse #14: Mindful Writer's Block
|I will admit it: It was hard for me to write this post. I was racking my brain for something I could write about, but all the topics I could think of felt forced and artifical, not like "lived experience". I started thinking about other things I could do instead and began persuading myself that these other things were much more important and urgent and that I could write this post later. Then I felt into my body and noticed tension in my jaw and neck and an unpleasant clenching in the pit of my stomach - fear.
When we notice an emotion, it is tempting to analyse it and think about where it might come from. I decided just to feel what was happening in my body and my thoughts and I realised that this mix I was experiencing is called "writer's block" - a good old friend of mine. Then I got curious. I had never observed writer's block closely before; instead I had always used one of two strategies: ignore it and fight through it or cave in and do something else.
When I started investigating this block, the fear and the unpleasant sensations in my body increased. After a while they lessened and then came in waves, their intensity decreasing a little with each wave. As I am writing this sentence now, there is still a bit of fear, the clenching in my stomach is still there, the tension in my jaw and neck is gone, my thoughts revolve around how to phrase this sentence.
I absolutely do not mean to say that this experience is normative in any way, much less that it is a clever "trick" to get rid of writer's block. "Feel it and heal it" requires that we truly get in touch with what is there instead of opening to it "strategically". "I will feel you in order for you to disappear" will not work and has nothing to do with mindfulness. Perhaps we could allow whatever appears within us to surprise us and meet it with curiosity and kindness.
Have you ever experienced writer's block? Which body sensations, thoughts and emotions did it entail? What did you do next? Could you try and bring mindful awareness to writer's block next time?
|21 January 2019
Mindfulness Impulse #13: Drinking Tea or Coffee Mindfully
|For many of us a cup of coffee or tea in the morning is a must. Since habits are, by definition, something we do frequently and often under similar circumstances, they tend to be carried out automatically, on "autopilot" as Jon Kabat-Zinn calls it. We perform the action without awareness of what we are doing.
That does not mean that habits are a bad thing. They help us simplify our life and reduce the need for decision-making; this way we save energy. Imagine having to decide every morning whether or not to have a shower, brush your teeth, have breakfast, wear shoes. The bigger part of your energy for the day would be used up before you even leave the house. But there is also the risk that we sleepwalk through our life habitually, hardly ever really present for what is happening.
By bringing mindfulness to our habitual actions we interrupt this "sleepwalking while awake". We are taking part in our life again, awake, aware and attentive (which does not limit the energy-saving capacity of habits because our decision-making skills are still not required here).
The mindfulness impulse this week is to drink the tea or coffee that you habitually consume with mindfulness. Use your senses: How does the mug feel in your hands, how does the liquid feel on your lips or in your mouth? What are you seeing, smelling and tasting? See if you can notice a difference between thinking about these questions and directly experiencing this (unique) coffee or tea. How does drinking mindfully change your experience?
|14 January 2019
Mindfulness Impulse #12: New Year's Resolutions And Mindfulness II
|Perhaps you identified a resolution last week that is rooted in a friendly attitude towards yourself and that truly fits your life. Maybe you would like more health, flexibility, relaxation or presence for yourself. If your intention is infused with kindness, chances are your resolution will not fizzle out, but become a new habit in the long run. Here are some tips that might support you on the way there:
1. Start small - and celebrate small successes. Taking the stairs instead of the lift, meditating for a minute in the morning, having a coffee without sugar - aim for small triumphs rather than big unreachable dreams.
2. Allow for failure. Genuine change without setbacks is extremely rare. Think about how to deal with failure appropriately, without dramatising and abandoning the whole project.
3. Acknowledge your needs. Your past behaviour had nothing to do with stupidity or laziness but with your needs. Binge-watching some series may have been an expression of your need for solitude or relaxation, unhealthy food may have been an attempt to reward yourself and meet your need for approval. Which needs has your previous behaviour been connected to and how can you make sure these needs will be met in the future?
4. Find the fun. What we like to do, we do more and more frequently. Ask yourself what might be fun about your new habit. "Healthy" and "sensible" activities might have unexpected sides to them that mean fun, joy and pleasure for you. Allow yourself to be surprised.
|07 January 2019
Mindfulness Impulse #11: New Year's Resolutions And Mindfulness
|“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”
- Carl R. Rogers -
Many people make resolutions for the New Year: more exercise, healthier food, losing weight, less stress or something similar. On New Year's Day they are highly motivated, but motivation has often faded by the beginning of February - at the latest. By then, their cookbooks are gathering dust and only cardio they get is by giving the fitness centre a particularly wide berth.
If we want to bring mindfulness to this process, we can ask which emotions accompany our desire for change. Are we feeling bad because we do not measure up to some ideal image we have of ourselves? Are there feelings of dissatisfaction, inadequacy or anger, self-recriminations or even self-loathing? Or is our desire to change fuelled by a positive intention for ourselves and our life?
Whatever ideas for change we may have: Now, in this moment, things are what they are. We have not yet become fitter, slimmer or smarter. And yet, this moment is a moment of our life, the only one that is truly our own - not just a transition period on the way to our goals.
To acknowledge the situation as it is now is a prerequisite for change. But this tends to involve unpleasant feelings, which we try to escape - often automatically and therefore subconsciously. And so we take comfort in the thought that everything will get better soon. Paradoxically, this is exactly how we maintain the current situation. Only when we get acquainted with our experience and immerse ourselves into all aspects and facets of it, are we truly able to decide what to do with our desire for change.
Which New Year's resolutions have you made? What does the situation feel like now, as it is at the moment? Which thoughts and feelings accompany your desire for change? Can you be kind and supportive towards yourself regardless of whether or not you decide to change? How could you do that?
Merry Christmas from Us at "Mindful Monday"!
|We at Mindful Monday wish all our readers a very merry Christmas and a happy and healthy 2019, filled with many "mindful Mondays" - and Tuesdays and Wednesdays… :-)
In the coming year, we will continue to post a mindfulness impulse every Monday, the next one on 07 January.
|17 December 2018
Mindfulness Impulse #10: Mindfulness at A Family Gathering
|"If you think you are enlightened, go and spend a week with your family."
- Ram Dass -
Christmas - and particularly celebrating with the family - is overloaded with ideals hardly any family can reach: Ubiquitous peace and joy, sparkling lights and glowing faces, happy family harmony. Aspirations that are near impossible to fulfil and that make reality only seem harsher, more depressing and filled with even more conflict.
Mindfulness invites us to try and loosen the tight grip of these ideals and become familiar with our reality: How do I really feel about Christmas and about my family? What am I looking forward to, what am I afraid of, what am I dreading? And how do I want to deal with the inevitable conflicts and annoyances? How could I support myself in these situations? If you answer these questions for yourself in advance, it will be easier when conflicts appear.
Having a "safe haven" within the body can help not to get dragged down by challenging emotions: You could be aware of one breath before you react to what has just been said. Or feel the floor beneath your feet and how it supports you no matter what. Or notice how your spine keeps you upright - "this is where I am standing, this is my 'stand-point'".
What could support you at your family gathering over the holidays? How could you take care of yourself during that time? And what could be the "safe haven" in your body that you could return to as needed?
|10 December 2018
Mindfulness Impulse #9: Giving Presents Mindfully
|Christmas time - the time of giving presents. Finding the right presents and completing the shopping marathon that goes with it can be stressful and frustrating. Therefore, today we bring you four tips for buying presents mindfully:|
|1. Connect to your intention. Presumably, you buy presents to give joy to others. Try to bring this intention deliberately to the hustle and bustle of the high street when you do your Christmas shopping. Does that make a difference in how you experience the situation?
2. Ask yourself how it could be easier. Is there a less stressful way to express your positive intention? By asking this, you are showing generosity and kindness to yourself as well as to others.
3. Look for the common humanity. In all probability the other shoppers feel like you do. They also want to treat others to some nice gifts and they too are stressed, annoyed and under pressure. How does looking at others in this way, aware that they are just like you, change your experience?
4. Observe what is happening within you and around you with mindfulness. Mindfulness can let everything be as it is. Notice with openness and curiosity how rushing and stress - or whatever else you might be experiencing - are feeling in your body.
|03 December 2018
Mindfulness Impulse #8: "Kindfulness"
|Being mindful means perceiving things as they are. If our experience is pleasant or neutral, that is not very difficult. We do not have trouble perceiving how the aroma of our favourite food reaches our nose or how our body relaxes on the sofa after a long day. We might not want these perceptions to stop, but to be aware of them is easy and pleasant. Neutral perceptions might bore us, but we do not feel inclined to fight them.
Unpleasant experiences are different. It takes courage to turn towards the unpleasant, which we would normally ignore or fight. And yet, sooner or later we will be confronted with such an experience in our mindfulness practice - maybe our foot gets numb during meditation, maybe we are surprised by challenging emotions during a mindfulness exercise. When that happens, kindness (or "kindfulness", i.e. kindness and mindfulness combined) towards ourselves becomes our indispensable companion. It helps us determine when we can turn towards an unpleasant experience without its overwhelming us and when we had better change our position or focus our attention elsewhere. And it warms our gaze when we have decided to stay with a slightly unpleasant experience mindfully for a short while. As a result, we do not look upon our experience coldly and clinically, but with interested curiosity and with compassion.
26 November 2018
Mindfulness Impulse #7: Beyond the Concepts
|In a flash and without our being aware of it, our brain compares new sense perceptions to previously stored information and labels them: "This is a tree." "This is a fence." "That is a man." "That is a woman." "This is pain." "This is joy." This categorising is useful for us, it saves time and helps us deal with the wealth of information flowing in through our senses.
But the categorisation also has its downside. We look at the world through our concepts. We do not see what our senses actually perceive, but we see the concept that is already in our mind and that matches these perceptions to some degree. That also means that we only see what is familiar, that we do not have eyes for the new and unexpected. We have already subsumed our perception under a concept before we have really seen, heard or felt what is there.
Mindfulness tries to slow down this automatic process and dive into the direct experience, inquisitively and curiously: "What am I perceiving right now, what are my senses receiving?" "Which are the actual (bodily) sensations that I call 'pain' or 'joy'?" This way we see beyond the concepts and (re)discover the richness contained in our "ordinary" everyday experience.
|19 November 2018
Mindfulness Impulse #6: Meditation "on the Go"
|A young woman is sitting on the ground in an impressive place in nature, her legs artfully folded like a pretzel. This is what many would imagine a "typical" meditation setting to look like. They would be mistaken. After all, it is possible to meditate anywhere and in any position (and, naturally, for any individual, regardless of age or gender).
Maybe you would like to try a walking meditation this week. Walking meditation can be done formally by picking a stretch of road and walking it up and down, back and forth, for the time of the meditation. But it can also be done informally, any time you are walking somewhere anyway. In informal walking meditation, you walk just how you would walk in any case - only your whole attention is on the act of walking: You notice how your feet switch places - first, one of them is in the air, then the other one, and so on. Or, if you are walking more slowly, you feel how your foot lifts from the ground, moves through the air and, finally, how your heel and then your whole foot are placed on the ground. For both feet alternately, step by step. When you notice your mind wandering, you kindly bring yourself back to the sensations in the soles of your feet.
Which short stretch you are walking regularly could you use for informal walking meditation this week?
|12 November 2018
Mindfulness Impulse #5: Mindfulness and Judgements
|"Out beyond ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing there is a field. I will meet you there."
- Rumi -
We often carry an "inner measuring stick" around with us, which we use to compare our current experience and our actions to an ideal: "This is the right way." "This is the wrong way." "That was good." "That was not enough." In a lot of situations this measuring stick is useful. Without it we would have no successes to celebrate, we could not improve and our learning would be confused and disoriented. But we also need spaces in which right and wrong do not matter, in which we can simply be who we are. Otherwise, our lives become constricted and all too demanding.
It is surprisingly difficult not to judge our experience. Quickly we start judging our judgements. We might even start to judge the fact that we are judging our judgements. At this point our head is probably spinning and our brain starts to hurt. Instead of getting caught up in this spiral we could notice our automatic judgements when they arise and return - again and again - to what we perceive through our senses, to our direct experience.
What helps you let go of judgements? Which spaces in your life are nearly or entirely free of judgements? Where is your field "out beyond ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing"? And are there people you would like to meet there? What could that look like?
|05 November 2018
Mindfulness Impulse #4: Mindfulness Anchor
|"80 percent of succes is just showing up."
- Woody Allen -
With everything else that is going on in life, it can be a big hurdle to more mindfulness simply to forget the intention to be mindful. The more frequently we remember our intention to practise mindfulness, the more opportunities for mindfulness we will have and the more mindful moments we will experience. How can we remember to "show up" for mindfulness in our everyday life?
One way to be reminded of mindfulness regularly is a "mindfulness anchor", e.g. red traffic lights. Every time you wait at red lights this week, you could deliberately feel your body: What position is it in? What can you notice? Tension or relaxation, warmth, coolness, points of contact with the floor? What else is there for you to feel, what shifts to the foreground when you do not look for anything in particular? Be present in your body whenever your mindfulness anchor appears - curious about what you will find there in this moment.
29 October 2018
Mindfulness Impulse #3: Mindfulness in Autumn with A "Mindfulness Leaf"
Mindfulness means meeting any experience with the same open, friendly and inquisitive attitude. Where we direct that attitude, the "objects" of mindfulness, can vary. On way to practise mindfulness is to choose an external object and to notice mindfully all sensory perceptions that arise in connection with that object.
|22 October 2018
Mindfulness Impulse #2: The Mindfulness Power Move
Mindfulness asks: "What is my experience like, right now, in this moment?" - with openness, curiousity and kindness. This question is a "power move" because it helps us to get out of our usual reactive patterns we might not be aware of. When we realise we are angry and we are able to acknowledge our anger, we can look for an appropriate way of dealing with it - instead of snapping at the next person that crosses our path. An experience we are fully aware of does not control us.
The simplest way to practise this is to ask ourselves regularly: "What is there, what can I notice in this moment?" With this question we can approach our body and our emotions. We can ask ourselves (and you can do this now while you are reading this text if you like): "What am I noticing in my body in this moment?" There might be warmth or coolness, tension, relaxation, tingling, itching, movement - or something else entirely. Maybe the sensations are sharp or vague, stable or fluctuating, maybe hardly anything is noticeable. What if all of this were equally valid, equally welcome?
We can also ask: "What is happening now, in this moment, in my emotional experience?" There might be a strong emotion we can name with certainty, like anger, fear, sadness, joy or relief. There might be a vague mood or a mixture of different, blurred emotions. Or we might not be able to notice anything in particular. What is the difference between noticing your emotions and thinking about them? Are you able to switch back and forth between the two?
Try to be curious about the answers you find when you ask about your present moment experience - no matter what these answers look like. The more we practise turning to our experience with kindness and interest, the more we will be able to do this "power move", even in challenging situations.
|15 October 2018
Mindfulness Impulse #1: Mindfulness - What could that be?
To be mindful means to see things as they are - without trying to get rid of them and without clinging to them. Recognising what is there. For most of us, this is a very unusual thing to do. We are stressed out, tired or annoyed and we try to change how we feel and get rid of our unpleasant feelings - often without realising we are doing it. Or we might enjoy the moment and we try to extend it and get more of the nice feelings. Mindfulness is the space that opens up when we become aware of what is happening - including all our efforts to change our experience.
It is not possible to use mindfulness strategically. To accept the moment in order to make it change is not possible. Instead, we try to find the place inside of us that allows us to observe everything and let it be just the way it is. This is not a skill that we can learn, master and utilise but an ongoing process. You are invited into the practice, the experience, the moment. The journey, the adventure right here, right now, in this breath, in this sensation. To come to this place of "just noticing" again and again, no matter how often you leave it or forget it, means to practise mindfulness. Why you should do that? If you set out to find that out for yourself, you are already right in the middle of the mindfulness adventure.