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. On Mondays (once a week or sometimes once a fortnight) we post a mindfulness impulse right here - to try, to meditate, to share. Enjoy a mindful start to your week with “Mindful Monday”!
19 and 26 October 2020
Mindfulness Impulse #77: "Unmasking" Interpretations
|It has been a while since I read the book Don't Just Do Something, Sit There: A Mindfulness Retreat with Sylvia Boorstein. But one incident Sylvia Boorstein describes there impressed me so much that it stayed with me: Sylvia wanted to register for a retreat and called the retreat centre. She was told she had to discuss her stay with Robert. Over the next few days she and Robert tried and failed to reach each other. The next time Sylvia called and learned that Robert was, once again, not there to take her call, she said to the staff member on the phone: "Maybe this is a sign that I should not do this retreat". "No", the staff member replied, "this is a sign that Robert is not here."
I like this description so much because it is such a good example of how quickly and automatically we add our interpretation to a situation, usually without being aware of it. We give meaning to the accidental - with us as the protagonist of the story and often in ways that restrict our perceptions and actions. When I assume that the circumstances/universe/fate want to tell me something, I will try to decipher the "message" instead of asking myself how I feel about the situation and what I want to do. Mental shadowboxing, which has little effect and can cost a lot of energy.
Of course, this tendency to add an interpretation is not limited to "signs" of an impersonal nature. The behaviour of other people encourages interpretation as well - or maybe even particularly so. The well-known psychotherapist and philosopher Paul Watzlawick describes this very impressively in The Situation is Hopless, But Not Serious. The Pursuit of Unhappiness: A man would like to borrow a hammer from his neighbour. He remembers that this neighbour did not say hello to him the other day and wonders why. The more the man thinks about it, the more he convinces himself that his neighbour does not like him and does not want to help him. In the end, the man visits the neighbour and yells at the completely bewildered man without preamble or explanation that he should keep his stupid hammer.
Had this man paused for a moment, he might have noticed that in reality he knows very little: His neighbour did not say hello. The reason is unclear. What the neighbour thinks of him is unclear. It is also unclear how the neighbour will react to his request. We have a natural tendency to fill such blank spaces. Therefore, it takes practice to unmask our interpretations and recognise them for what they are - and patience with ourselves if we have once again fallen for an interpretation. I find the fact that this happens even to experienced meditation teachers like Sylvia Boorstein very reassuring.
|05 and 12 October 2020
Mindfulness Impulse #76: Using the "Worldly Winds" to Learn How to Sail
|"We cannot direct the wind but we can adjust the sails."
- attributed to Aristotle -
Most of us have the general notion that winning and losing, success and failure, joy and pain are part of life. But maybe there have been situations in your life when you asked yourself again and again: "Why is this happening to me?", when you couldn't stop thinking about what you had lost, missed or suffered. (Often, negative experiences make a more lasting impression on us than positive ones). To me, at least, this scenario sounds familiar.
There is a traditional text that describes pleasure and pain, loss and gain, praise and blame and fame and disrepute as the "worldly winds". I like that image. We don't try to control the wind. We don't take the wind personally. The wind comes and goes as it pleases - and we know that. But we cannot just ignore the wind either; it whirls everything around and demands our attention. For good reason, nobody has a garden party in a hurricane.
What if we took these "worldly winds" as an opportunity to learn how to sail? If we made it our project to react to them skilfully and flexibly and to set our sails in a way that helps us use them in the best possible way? Of course, that takes practice. But if we don't ignore the difficult and don't get worked up about it either, if we meet it with mindfulness and equanimity, over time we gain more and more openness and clarity. And if we can enjoy the pleasurable without clinging to it, our freedom and independence will steadily grow. We can learn to adjust our sails and remain level-headed in ever higher winds.
Which "worldly winds" have you encountered recently? What could it mean to use these winds for sailing practice in this situation? How would you have to set the sails, what would you have to do to deal with these winds skilfully?
21 and 28 September 2020
Mindfulness Impulse #75: Viewing Trouble Realistically
|“Trouble creates a capacity to handle it... meet it as a friend, for you’ll see a lot of it and had better be on speaking terms with it.”
- Oliver Wendell Holmes -
Yesterday I was not feeling well at all. I felt dizzy, tired and overstimulated, everything seemed out of balance. I noticed how my mind began to search eagerly for the cause: “Maybe I didn't sleep enough?” “I really shouldn't eat so much chocolate/ watch TV so late/ work so hard...”
Of course, there is nothing wrong with striving for a healthy lifestyle, eating well and getting enough sleep, quite the contrary. But this leap to the causes, which my mind made so quickly and which is most certainly not just a quirk of mine, points to a more fundamental misunderstanding: That something is wrong when we are ill or have other unpleasant experiences. Many of us walk through the world with the - more or less conscious - assumption that it is “normal” and “well within their rights” to have pleasant experiences and a healthy body, to be surrounded by people who are friendly and cooperative and to have technical devices that do what they are supposed to do. Everything that deviates from this “normal state” is “wrong” and must be repaired as quickly as possible in order to “function” properly once more.
Yet the idea of this supposed “normal state” is nothing but a beautiful and yet completely unrealistic dream. This utopian condition in which we have overcome the current difficulties and no new ones are added, in which life is "as it should be" on closer inspection turns out to be a mirage. We will certainly still have problems tomorrow, we will catch cold, our computers and mobile phones will break down, we will experience anger and sadness and we will have conflicts to deal with. The amount and intensity of our difficulties may vary, but they will certainly always be there. The British monk and meditation teacher Ajahn Brahm remarks that when they go to the doctor, most people say something like: “There's something wrong with me, I'm sick”. In his opinion, it would be more accurate to say: "There's something right with me, I'm sick.” Getting sick and experiencing difficulties is not a bug in the system, it is the system.
This does not mean, of course, that we should not attend to illnesses, conflicts and problems and that we cannot find ways to deal with challenges constructively. But we can confidently abandon the fantasy that one day things will be different, that one day we will have eliminated all these “mistakes”. Instead of fighting it, we could spend our energy on being with everything life brings us, including all the unavoidable trouble. The freer we are from the expectation that life must offer us something specific (pleasant, desirable), the more happiness and contentment we will experience, in the midst of the “full catastrophe” (Jon Kabat-Zinn) of our life.
|31 August to 14 September 2020|
|„Auch die Pause gehört zur Musik." ("The rest too is part of the music.")
- Stefan Zweig -
To ensure that we continue to strike the right note with our Mindful Monday posts, we are taking a (late) summer break. We will return with bells on for new Mindfulness Impulses in the autumn. The next one will be posted on 21 September. We wish all our readers mindful days with time for rests and music!
|17 and 24 August 2020
Mindfulness Impulse #74: Meditating with a Mask on – and Testing Assumptions
|"It’s not things themselves that disturb us but the ideas and opinions about them."
- Epictetus -
As a commuter I often meditate on the train, preferably before work. I feel I use the time on the train well this way and it also helps me start my working day differently: more in touch with myself, my body and my feelings. Depending on what the day brings this state may not last long before I start rushing mindlessly from one appointment to the next. Nonetheless, I no longer want to miss my mindful start to the day.
In my meditations on the train I often use the breath as my “meditation object”: I open to the physical sensations of breathing – usually at the abdomen – and feel every inbreath and every outbreath with as much interest and curiosity as possible. When I realise my mind has wandered, which is always does sooner or later (mostly sooner…), I gently bring my attention back to the breath.
When face masks were introduced in public transport, I felt uneasy. The mask makes it harder for me to breathe and I was skeptical about how this would affect my meditation. Of course, meditation is not about feeling any particular way but rather about being with whatever arises. Still, it was not a comfortable idea. But when I actually meditated with a mask on for the first time, I was surprised how distinctly I could feel the air coming in and going out at my nostrils. Although I had worn a mask before, this was the first time I noticed how cool the air was breathing in and how warm it was breathing out. This made me curious and I discovered other new aspects: The differences in temperature made inhaling more pleasant and exhaling more unpleasant. On the inbreath the material of the mask was sucked in slightly, sometimes creating more contact between mask and skin; on the outbreath, the mask moved away again from these areas. In other places the contact the mask had with the skin was more constant; mostly, this contact felt neutral, but it was quite unpleasant at the nose. Interestingly, in this meditation with a mask on it was easier for me than in many other meditations "only" to feel the breath and not to influence it in any way.
Meditating while wearing a mask showed me once again how widely my ideas can differ from what I really feel and perceive in a certain situation. Meditation with a mask – in my imagination exhausting, difficult and frustrating, in reality new, unusual and interesting. Perhaps you would like to try meditation with a mask on and see what your experience is like: Where do you feel the air you breathe on your skin and how do you perceive its temperature? What does the contact between mask and skin feel like? Is the mask moving when you breathe? What else do you notice when you observe your breath at your nostrils while wearing a mask? And: What other ideas and concepts can you think of that you have not yet explored and that you could try out and experience to test them?
|03 and 10 August 2020
Mindfulness Impulse #73: Gratitude Practice
|Because we had some work done, the water was turned off in my flat at the beginning of last week. For a whole day I had no running water. Since I had been informed beforehand, I was able to set aside a few full buckets the night before. Nevertheless, I turned on the tap more than once that day, as I usually would have done, and I was surprised when nothing happened. When the water was back on in the evening, I understood what luxury it is to have fresh water "on tap" at any time - and even in the varieties "hot" and "cold". The day without water reminded me how lucky I am to live in a beautiful flat with running water and electricity as needed, clean air to breathe and enough to eat. All too often I do not even notice this luxury, I have got used to it. However, when I start to think about what I am grateful for, more and more comes to mind and the list grows longer and longer, from life in a democracy and the people who enrich my life to warm chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream.
Psychological research has shown that gratitude has a positive effect on our mental health - and that it can be "practiced": In one study, participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups. The participants in the first group were asked to write down five things they were thankful for once a week, over a period of ten weeks. The second group was instructed to write down five important events from the previous week over the same period, and the third group was told to write down five everyday problems. At the end of the ten weeks, there were marked differences: The members of the "gratitude group" felt much more optimistic and satisfied with their lives than the members of the other two groups.
One danger inherent in this topic is that a "moral imperative" can creep in: "Well, you have to be grateful really...", perhaps coupled with the idea that you should not complain, that, after all, other people are worse off. This has nothing to do with real gratitude. The gratitude which is based on mindfulness does not gloss over anything, it does not whitewash problems and the need for improvement, nor does it ignore (as yet) unfulfilled goals and dreams.
Perhaps you would like to test the happiness-enhancing effects of gratitude for yourself and start a gratitude journal? You could, for instance, take some time each weekend and write down what you are grateful for, like the participants in the gratitude group of the study. You might want to focus on the past week in particular. The things you write down could be big or small - anything you can think of. If a feeling of gratitude arises, that is great, if not, then that is great too - as long as you are open and interested in exploring the good things in your life and do not see the exercise as a moral obligation or as a to-do-list item that needs to be checked off.
And, last but not least: Thank you, dear readers, for your loyalty to the "Mindful Monday", which has already been going strong for over a year and a half! For this and for your feedback, which continues to reach me, I am really grateful! :-)
20 and 27 July 2020
Mindfulness Impulse #72: Enjoying the Journey
|As I am writing this text I am on a train, my first train journey in some time. As a child I got travel-sick on trains and today, as a commuter, I am often annoyed by delays, cancellations and the many hours of precious free time I "waste" on trains. On this sunny morning, however, I enjoy sitting in my comfortable seat in an almost empty compartment watching the world go by outside the window. There is a lot on offer: Panoramic views over meadows and fields, carpets of red poppies, the wide blue sky; on the other hand, smoking industrial chimneys and miles and miles of noise barriers. All this flies past my window in a fast and unpredictable succession. In one moment there is an idyllic nature scene, in the next a grey suburb, one moment brings attractive city villas, the next boring rural wasteland.
But regardless of what I see, this way of looking at the world relaxes me and I realise why: I have no control over what is coming next, nor do I believe I should or could have that control. I am the observer and I notice what comes without wanting to or being able to influence what it is. I settle back in my seat, open and present, but without demanding any specific experience. The scenery is what it is and it is not interested in what I think of it. I do not take the changing scenery personally, of course not, the mere thought is more than a little weird: Of course the poppies do not exist because I am passing them, of course these horses were not placed in this pasture for me to see them. And so I can enjoy the flow of impressions and the fact that I am here to perceive it. Whether the impressions are ugly or beautiful, pleasant or unpleasant, does not matter all that much. I take them as they come and I know that they will change again anyway, there is no alternative, that is inherent in the view from a moving train.
What if we were to deal with our everyday experiences in the same way we deal with the changing scenery outside the window of a moving train? What if we took what happens in our body and mind no more personally than the horses and the poppies, the chimneys and the sound barriers? In meditation we practise just that: an open and receptive attitude towards what is occurring in our experience, without adding anything to it and without removing anything. Over time we may start to realise that we are not in control of what we are experiencing, that things change all by themselves continuously, that that is their nature. Perhaps this practice can even bring us a joy that is independent of what we experience: the joy of being alive and aware of the ever-changing panorama. Enjoy the journey!
|06 and 13 July 2020
Mindfulness Impulse #71: Mindful Awareness of Unpleasant Emotions
|There can be days, weeks, months... when everything seems topsy-turvy and feels wrong somehow. As soon as I even just think about such times and memories of unpleasant feelings come to mind, I want to suppress them and get rid of them and change back to a "positive" state as quickly as possible.
None of us want to feel sad or angry or hurt. And yet such feelings are part of being human, whether we like it or not. Especially in our current, challenging situation we often wish to escape this state and feel more pleasant feelings again as soon as we can. And yet the pleasant as well as the unpleasant is part of life and comes and goes in waves. Every moment is a new moment, which may already bring new conditions and emotions. There is no stability, changes in any direction are inevitable. The meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein sums it up aptly: "Anything can happen - at any time".
How can we remain mindful in those moments when we primarily experience unpleasant feelings? We can try to explore them with curiosity and an inquiring mind and sense how exactly they feel. We can examine them with interest and openness, without thinking we already know what they feel like. And we can notice what happens to these unpleasant feelings when we are present in this way. Do they get stronger or weaker? Or do they stay the same?
When we turn towards our unpleasant feelings, we may find that the conditions do not have to change for our kind interest to be possible. We may not be able to change the situation, but we can be mindful of ourselves, our feelings and our environment, in the midst of stress, in the midst of the corona crisis, in the midst of the "full catastrophe" of life, as Jon Kabat-Zinn says. We could acknowledge it and allow it to be as it is "in the midst of" these feelings.
What external conditions are you currently in the midst of? What would it be like to be mindful of and interested in your experience, in the midst of all this, perhaps in the midst of all those unpleasant feelings? Does this attitude make a difference and, if so, how do you experience this difference?
A big thank you to Amrei Schwalm for providing the inspiration for this Mindfulness Impulse!
22 and 29 June 2020
Mindfulness Impulse #70: Cultivating Goodwill III
|Perhaps our suggestions in recent weeks have inspired you and you have spent some time cultivating goodwill. And maybe you would like to continue along this path in the future and carry on with this practice.
The practice we have described in the last Mindfulness Impulse (#69) can be done repeatedly over long periods of time and will continue to bring new experiences and insights. Therefore, there is no curriculum to complete and no need to move on to the "next step" as quickly as possible. If you decide to stay with this practice for longer, you care for the "seedling of goodwill" in a meaningful way. Taking it slowly can be a virtue here.
Over time, you could expand the circle of the recipients of your good wishes and add more and more beings to it. Perhaps you have already experimented and sent your good wishes to yourself as well as to your chosen recipient. Both this recipient and you yourself will continue to receive the good wishes in any case. The next step to make the circle bigger would be to select two of your friends, one who is not doing so well at the moment and one who is doing fine, and to send the same good wishes to both of them, one after the other. This way your well-wishing becomes more independent of the circumstances of the recipients and your goodwill takes on different "flavours", sometimes that of compassion, sometimes that of sympathetic joy.
Once you have practised in this way for a while, you could add another recipient and experiment by extending your good wishes to someone you do not already feel a certain amount of goodwill for: You could add a neutral person, someone who does not trigger positive or negative feelings. Maybe it is easy to identify such a person, maybe you find that there are hardly any "neutral people" in your life. As always, the choice does not have to be perfect. Through this practice we abandon the idea that our goodwill is a limited resource that we can only give to beings that have "earned" it. We recognise that all beings want to be safe, happy and healthy. Perhaps we will then notice that being generous with our good wishes increases our goodwill, that it grows the more we share it.
Traditionally, the next step is to send good wishes to someone we find difficult. However, this requires that we feel grounded firmly in our good wishes for ourselves - and this needs practice, perhaps for months or even years. Practising in a group and sharing our experiences with others can be helpful to protect us from false ambition and to find the moment when this step is right for us. Our Open Meditation Group here at Viadrina University offers the chance to practise together in this way.
To end a session of practising goodwill, you could let all limitations dissolve and direct good wishes to all sentient beings.
Of course, this sequence be changed and adapted. An important rule is to make it as easy as possible for ourselves. What could this mean for your practice? Perhaps choosing a different order of recipients, perhaps using images rather than words? What else? Perhaps we can allow ourselves to let goodwill grow and bear fruit in its own time - and adapt our practice accordingly.
|08 and 15 June 2020
Mindfulness Impulse #69: Cultivating Goodwill II
|Perhaps you have identified a living being by way of the last mindfulness impulse, a person or an animal to send your good wishes to with ease. If not, I invite you to read Mindfulness Impulse #68 first and find that being for yourself. Here we will discuss how this positive intention could become a regular practice.
It is important to remember that we do not want to artificially produce any feelings or emotions, let alone force them. We simply cultivate the kindness and goodwill that we as human beings are naturally capable of anyway and we trust that our efforts will help this natural capacity to grow over time.
If you would like to try the following meditation, allow yourself 10-15 minutes in which you will not be disturbed. Find a comfortable posture and set a timer so you will not have to keep track of the time yourself. Take a few moments to arrive and "roll out a welcome mat" for yourself, e.g. by taking a few deeper breaths and feeling your body in the position it is in. Now bring the recipient of your good wishes to mind. Perhaps an image will emerge, perhaps a physical feeling of the presence of this being, perhaps their name will be at the centre. If the recipient of your good wishes is present for you in some way - at least to some extent -, begin to direct your good wishes to them. You could use the traditional phrases "May you be safe ... be happy ... be healthy ... live with ease" or you could find your own wording. Try not to be too specific; we are cultivating kindness, not conjuring up any particular result. Therefore, "may you be healthy" is more suitable than "may you get rid of the cold you've had for a week and not get hay fever this year”. Repeat your good wishes at a pace that feels natural to you. When you notice that your mind has wandered away, bring it back with kindness. How you return your attention to the being and the phrases is an additional opportunity to practise goodwill towards yourself!
If you like, after about half of your meditation time, you can widen the circle and extend the good wishes to the other being and also to yourself at the same time: "May you and may I, may we both be safe ...be happy ...be healthy ...live with ease".
You may experience positive feelings during this meditation or you may not. Try not to let your mood decide the “success” of the meditation. If you practise this form of meditation for longer, you will experience it all: positive feelings, neutrality and also challenging emotions. If you want to know about the success of your practice, look for it outside of formal meditation in everyday life. After all, we do not meditate to become proficient at meditation. If you practice regularly in the way I have described, you may notice that you will start to act with more goodwill, empathy and equanimity “automatically”.
Looking for opportunities to connect and deepen your practice? Join us online for our Open Meditation Group!
|25 May and 01 June 2020
Mindfulness Impulse #68: Cultivating Goodwill
|When was the last time you wished someone a happy birthday? Perhaps we were taught as children that that is “polite” and “good manners”. If we were, we might do so rather reluctantly or out of a sense of duty. But when it concerns people who mean a lot to us, we might feel less obligated and more aligned with our good wishes. Our wishes for their happiness, health, joy, ease and other positive things might come from the heart. Yet, even when our wishes are heartfelt, we know that it is not up to us whether the birthday boy or girl will actually experience these things in the future. Even so, our good wishes are sincere.
Have you ever wished yourself a happy birthday? At first glance, this may seem a strange idea. But what would it actually be like if you were to wish yourself all the best, knowing full well that you cannot influence whether or not this wish will come true?
And why do we limit our good wishes to this one day a year? Couldn't we expand that and create more opportunities to wish well for ourselves and others?
In the tradition there is a meditation practice consisting of just that. That practice is, however, not at all about producing certain feelings – and it is most definitely not about pushing away, suppressing or glossing over challenging emotions. With time our good wishes turn into a kinder, more benevolent attitude naturally and seemingly “ by themselves even though we may experience little or no positive emotion at a given moment of practice. Just as we water our houseplants regularly whether they are flowering or losing their leaves; only in this way can they grow and develop over time.
And why should we cultivate more goodwill? Will life alter to consist only of cotton candy, rainbows and unicorns? Probably not, at least not in my experience. But what our mind is inclined towards tends to influence what we see, especially in complex and ambiguous contexts. Did person x not say hello because they do not like us or because they were lost in thought and did not even see us? Our general attitude and inner climate will decide what we consider more likely. Of course, that does not mean that we cannot or should not recognise and call people out on obviously rude or harmful behaviour.
If you feel like extending your “well-wishing practice” beyond the birthdays of your loved ones: Who would be the easiest person for you to focus on? Which being would be the most uncomplicated recipient for your good wishes? A friend, your pet, you yourself? Or, less specifically, a kitten or a puppy? What feels right (without necessarily involving “big emotions”)? And what could your good wishes be for this being? Perhaps safety, health, happiness, ease, joy, connectedness?
11 and 18 May 2020
Mindfulness Impulse #67: Treating the Environment with Mindfulness
|Since Corona became part of our everyday lives, we have spoken mostly of a crisis. And to do so is justified in many respects: with regard to the illness itself, of course, and to the suffering it has caused, but also with regard to the economic uncertainty that many people face. However, there is also a noteworthy positive development: Nature has had a chance to breathe. It has been able to regenerate and recover a little. The environment is the beneficiary of the current situation: Jellyfish have been sighted in the canals of Venice, deer in the streets of Paris, peacocks in Madrid etc.
It is reasonable to ascribe these developments to the significant decrease in traffic on the roads and the virtual cessation of air traffic - in other words, to lower CO2 emissions. Also, contact restrictions usually meant that we did less shopping: Virtually all the stores were closed and could not sell anything, so we were “forced” to consume considerably less. And perhaps cancelling our holiday plans and shopping less was not as bad as we had expected. Despite the - understandable - disappointment, we might have been able to cope quite well with the changed situation.
Perhaps we can take some questions about ourselves and our consumer habits into our post-lockdown future: What do we really want to consume, which products do we really want to buy? What is necessary? Which journeys do we really want to or need to undertake and how (by aeroplane/train/car/bicycle/on foot)?
Maybe we can support nature’s recovery in this way. Wouldn't it be nice if we looked back on the Corona crisis in a few years’ time and saw positive changes in the way we looked after nature and protected the environment?
|27 April and 04 May 2020
Mindfulness Impulse #66: Taking Lessons from the Crisis into the Future
|„Our heads are round so our thoughts can change direction.“
- Francis Picabia -
Very slowly and in small steps we are moving back towards "normality" and "everyday life". But what is everyday life and what do I mean by normality? Was the state of things before the "crisis" actually what I had chosen, what I had wanted? Do I want to get back to it or do I want to change something and what would that be?
Through the measures implemented by the government we have all been forced to slow down to a certain extent, we have not really had a choice. This has not always been pleasant, but it has also freed up a lot of time and room to experiment, which had not usually been available before. Even if this situation is and was not easy by any means, many of us were able to enjoy at least parts of it. We developed new rituals, had more time to realise creative projects and to reflect on what is really important to us in life. Some rediscovered a hobby they had long forgotten, others were able to make more space for a hobby in their daily routine and still others gave up a hobby because they no longer remembered what had attracted them to it in the first place. We have all come to terms with the new situation in our own way and found ways to deal with it.
Now we have the opportunity to look back on these changes and developments with mindfulness. We can ask ourselves how we want to manage ourselves and spend our time in the future. These questions have the potential to turn our short-term experiments born of necessity into new, sustainable long-term perspectives. As soon as some Corona measures are lifted and we are given more freedom to do as we please, we can consider which new insights and ideas we want to include in our lives moving forward, which new paths we might want to take. Perhaps we have also realised how many things were already amazing and we look forward to finally being able to do them again. In any case we can decide to use this chance to reflect mindfully on the past weeks and the changing situation.
What insights come up for you when you look back over the last few weeks? Which interesting new possibilities have you discovered and which of them would you like to carry over into the future? How could you do this in practice?
|20 April 2020
Mindfulness Impulse #65: Investigating Aversion
|"If the day was not your friend, at least it was your teacher."
- attributed to Lao Tzu -
One of my neighbours loves DIY. Passionately. He seems to view the current social distancing recommendation in particular as a welcome opportunity to realise some eagerly awaited home improvement projects. Yesterday was obviously a productive day for my neighbour - judging from the near-incessant drilling that started at 8 in the morning and continued until 4 in the afternoon.
In the beginning I felt relatively neutral towards the drilling: "Just sounds. Listening is happening." As the drilling went on I became increasingly irritated, then angry, then furious: "What the hell does he think he's doing, that's outrageous, doesn't he understand I'm trying to work here..." and so on and so forth.
At some point, after I had successfully upheld my anger over some time and even managed to increase it considerably, I noticed what was actually happening: I was experiencing aversion. No less, but no more either. I did not want the reality that presented itself to me, I wanted a different, drill-free reality. But no matter how much I longed for it, that was not the reality I was experiencing. I started to become interested in the aversion and in the process that brought it about and kept it going. I noticed that the aversion consisted of a range of different body sensations and thoughts and I realised that I suffered from the drill-free moments too because during those I waited anxiously for the drilling to start up again.
Through all this the drilling never got pleasant and I did not suddenly become a fan of the DIY next door. If I could make my neighbor take up a noiseless hobby instead, I would do so without hesitation. After all, mindfulness has nothing to do with masochism. And if you are thinking that I could simply have talked to my neighbour and asked him to reduce his do-it-yourself activities, you are absolutely right of course, that too would have been a good way to deal with the situation. But for me my DIY-loving neighbour become my "teacher" and reminded me that it is possible – in this moment and (almost) any other moment - to turn towards what is happening, even if it is unpleasant, including aversion. Through this shift a new relationship to the experience becomes possible. For me, this possibility offers great freedom. After all, in many cases when we experience something we do not want, it is just not possible to ring the doorbell and complain. With mindfulness we do not even have to get rid of not wanting something, we can include everything, even aversion, in our interest for ourselves and our experience.
Where are you currently experiencing aversion in your life? Perhaps in connection with the Corona crisis? Or in a completely different context? How do you feel about the idea of getting interested in aversion - not to whitewash the situation or the aversion itself, not to increase it or get rid of it, but simply because it is part of your present-moment experience?
Mindfulness Impulse #64: Celebrating Easter Mindfully in Times of Corona
|"Act always so as to increase the number of choices."
- Heinz von Foerster -
It is Easter - an Easter unlike any we have ever experienced before. Much of what we normally do at Easter is not possible this year. Maybe we had planned to visit relatives, meet friends, attend an event, eat out, take a trip. We will have to do without all that this year. How do you feel about Easter in times of Corona? Are you disappointed, sad or frustrated that so many Easter activities fall through? Or are you relieved that visiting certain relatives is not an option and happy that you will get a chance to recharge instead?
How could mindfulness support us at Easter this year? Mindfulness invites us to acknowledge what is, as it is. This is very different from liking the situation or trying to convince ourselves that it is, in fact, "not that bad". We do not have to suppress our feelings. But we also do not have to spend our energy fighting reality. We can give ourselves permission to stop this fight and open up to what is true for us. When we do that, we might even find that our experience of the situation is not as one-dimensional as we initially thought. Maybe we are disappointed and relieved about not seeing our relatives or angry about our cancelled plans and curious about what ideas will occur to us spontaneously. With mindfulness we do not have to decide, we can let all feelings, even those that seem contradictory, be there and be true at the same time.
And when we stop struggling with the current state of affairs, perhaps space for creative solutions and alternatives will open up. This week I was at an online birthday party on Zoom for the first time in my life. We even sang "happy birthday" for the birthday girl - though, admittedly, in a somewhat asynchronous fashion. This event was very different from any other birthday party I have ever been to, and yet it was a lot of fun. The last few weeks have shown me that you can feel close and connected even though you are not in the same room. This insight makes me happy because it opens up a world of new possibilities.
What could your Easter holidays be like if you opened up to new and perhaps unusual or even bizarre ideas? How could you increase the number of choices? What might be worth a try? Who could you brainstorm with, where could you find inspiration?
The "Mindful Monday" team wishes all readers happy Easter! The next mindfulness impulse will be posted on
|06 April 2020
Mindfulness Impulse #63: Practising Simplicity
|In this time full of complex and complicated challenges, I would like to invite you to practise simplicity. Perhaps life seems anything but simple to you right now, but full of difficulties and worries. And yet in every situation there are some aspects that are simple: Every inbreath is followed by an outbreath. Every outbreath is followed by an inbreath. Simple. Everything we experience has one of three qualities: It is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. Simple. Our body is always in the present, in this one moment that is truly available to us. Simple. In every moment there is something happening in our body and mind and we can notice it as it is. Simple. :-)
It often gets complicated and difficult when we get too attached to our thoughts and believe the stories we tell ourselves. "I'm sure I'll get Corona soon, I'm sure there will be a food shortage, I'm sure the economy will collapse." Thoughts like these put on such an impressive show in our inner world - with strong emotions and images racing through our mind in HD and with Dolby Surround - that we can become completely captivated by them. We forget that thoughts are just as natural and cyclical a phenomenon as breathing: they come, they stay for a while and then they leave. We do not have to confuse them with reality, we can let them arise and pass away in their own time. This is certainly not always easy. But it is very simple.
A big thank you to Amrei Schwalm for providing the inspiration for this Mindfulness Impulse!
30 March 2020
Mindfulness Impulse #62: Slowing Down as an Unintended Effect of the Current Situation
|How often do we rush through our everyday life and appreciate that a moment was beautiful only in retrospect? In today's society our busy schedules make it hard to take the foot off the gas. I get asked a lot if I do not want to take a break now and then and schedule fewer things? My usual answer: There is no window in my calendar for that. But secretly I wish I had more time for myself - to wind down, to relax and not to prioritise my to-do-list every time. At the same time, I find it difficult to cut down on my social engagements because I simply love to be around people.
Especially for those of us who find it difficult to stand up for their needs and make time for themselves, the unintended effect of slowing down that the Corona virus has had for all of us is a wonderful gift. Of course, it is also a limitation, which is not easy to deal with at first glance and can bring anxiety and fear. But maybe it is also worth facing the current situation as it presents itself and think about what we can do to support ourselves in this unplanned time we have been given? Reading books, painting, crocheting, going for a walk, just sitting there and looking out of the window, watching the clouds go by, listening to the birds chirping away... For me new ideas for Mindfulness Impulses are popping up left, right and centre and I put it down to this new slowness, which can help new things develop. What would you like to do for yourself in these precious free moments you have been given?
|09 to 23 March 2020
Mindfulness Impulse #60: Anger and Mindfulness
|As I am writing this piece, I am angry. Very angry, in fact. I feel pressure in my chest, my breath is shallow, my heart beats quite fast, my face is tense, I am finding it difficult to sit still. My thoughts revolve around the thing that annoys me and supply me with lots of arguments why x is totally unfair and completely beyond comprehension and why person y, who said x, is crazy. Every time these thoughts take one more spin around my mind and give me their arguments, I feel a new wave of anger, as if the anger is reactivated. Its appeal is crystal clear: "Fight back!"
Unfortunately, the anger has rather archaic views of what fighting back might look like. That is because we have inherited it from our Stone Age ancestors who had no qualms about attacking enemies they considered weaker than themselves, thus ensuring the survival and expansion of their tribe. The anger wants to support this course of action, so it provides the energy and tension necessary for an attack. To explain to the anger that such behaviour has no place in our civilised, post-Stone Age society is like trying to teach a duck to play the piano: a lot of work and ultimately completely pointless.
But this does not make the anger a superfluous relic of the past, quite the contrary. It has great value as a signal, it shows us that an important need of ours has been disregarded or that one of the values that are significant to us has been violated. When I listen to the signal my anger is sending me, I realise that - in my current case - it is about the need for justice and for recognition. When we understand its signals, anger can motivate us to stand up for our needs and values.
Therefore, a problem only arises when we do not even realise that we are angry, when the anger takes possession of us and we blindly act out of the emotion. In that case we react instinctively and without awareness instead of responding deliberately. We say or write things that we might regret later and that make a constructive resolution to the conflict less likely. Such a resolution becomes much more probable if we are aware of our anger and its "message" and thus give ourselves the chance to choose a more appropriate course of action. And now, if you will excuse me, I urgently need to revise the draft email I wrote before this post.
|24 February and 02 March 2020
Mindfulness Impulse #59: The Mindful Earworm
|Have you ever had a really stubborn earworm when you just could not get a song out of your head? How did you feel about that? Maybe it was a song you liked and you were humming along merrily. Or maybe it was a song that was catchy and annoying in equal measure, and the incessant music in your head got on your nerves.
A song that I neither like nor know very well has been playing in my head all day today. The same two lines of music have been sounding through my brain in a continuous loop. For quite some time I was irritated and wanted to turn off this "noise". And yet - and this only became clear to me after a while - an earworm like this is such a fascinating meditation object.
Normally, it is difficult for me to observe my thoughts. When I realise that I am thinking, the thoughts usually evaporate. And when they return, I am - whoosh - right back in the middle of their "story" without being aware of their presence. Only when I deliberately " summon" a thought, can I observe how it unfolds when I intentionally think, for instance: "The sky is blue". But that then feels quite different to other thoughts, artificial somehow. The only exception is an earworm. The music is playing automatically and I can sit back and observe it. This makes me realise: The thinking that "is happening" there is largely independent of me as the "thinker". It takes place on its own, without me contributing anything to it and, for the most part at least, whether I want to or not. Often - and certainly in this case - "thoughts are being thought", just as the breath is being breathed of its own accord.Perhaps this is a chance to stop taking other thoughts so very personally too, and to question the automatic and implicit assumption that they are "the truth". And that is certainly an interesting and worthwhile experiment. Therefore: Thank you, earworm!
10 and 17 February 2020
Mindfulness Impulse #58: Mindfulness and Sleep
|What is the first thing that goes through your mind when you hear "sleep"? Maybe "What a waste of time", "I'll do that when I'm dead" or "Hopefully, it'll be the weekend soon"? If that is you, then you are not alone. Many consider sleep to be an annoying necessity that can easily be moved to the next weekend.
Not long ago it was a mystery to researchers why we sleep at all. The laconic answer: "to reduce sleepiness". Not a very satisfying explanation. Accordingly, sleep was held in low esteem. I remember my - otherwise great - biopsychology textbook, which encouraged readers to get by on five or six hours of sleep a night for long periods of time. A certain decline in efficiency when performing monotonous routine tasks was the worst outcome of this sleep deprivation, the readers were told, even if this was not how it felt to them.
Today this notion seems almost ridiculously naïve. Researchers now know about the many vital tasks the body performs while we sleep - from the "therapy sessions" that are our dreams to the reorganisation of memory content to the breakdown of proteins that foster the development of Alzheimer's disease and other important "clean-up tasks". If you would like to dive deeper into this topic, I recommend the fascinating and comprehensive book Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker, a sleep researcher at the University of California, Berkeley.
"That's all well and good," you might be thinking, "so sleeping is healthier than we assumed. But what does that have to do with mindfulness?" Well, quite a bit, actually:
1. Instead of relying on recommendations from "experts" (à la: five hours of sleep is enough), we have this masterpiece of nature at our disposal, which tells us at any time, in real time, how we are doing and what we need: our body. If we are mindful, we connect to our body and learn to understand and trust its signals.
2. How we - individually and as a society - think about sleep might be an indication of how we deal with our limited resources in other areas as well. Mindfulness turns towards this, not away, and so helps us to use these resources wisely without overstretching them.
3. If you meditate without having had enough sleep, you make it difficult for yourself. Not for nothing is "sloth and torpor" (along with restlessness, aversion, greed and doubt) one of the traditional obstacles to meditation. Of course we can welcome, explore and become familiar with sleepiness, treating it just like anything else that arises in meditation. That is only possible up to a point, however, because sooner or later we will fall asleep over it. So if you sleep enough, you are also helping your meditation practice.
But the laboratory of mindfulness is and always will be our own experience. Over the next few days you could become interested in how you experience your body when you are well rested and, in contrast, when you have not slept enough: How does your body feel? How can you tell that you have had enough/too little sleep? Maybe you would also like to do an experiment and sleep more for a whole week. (For ethical reasons I would rather not recommend sleeping less...) What changes do you notice, physically and emotionally?
All that remains is to wish you many good and restful nights to come. Sleep well! :-)
|27 January and 03 February 2020
Mindfulness Impulse #57: Making Decisions Mindfully
|Do you find it easy to make decisions? Or are you an expert at the back and forth between "yes" and "no", "option A" and "option B"?
When we cannot decide, two parts of us fight within us. They usually represent different needs. "Should I take the exam for this course or not?" could bring out a part of our personality that wants us to develop and achieve our goals. Its answer could be: "Sure thing, go and do it, what are you waiting for?" At the same time another part of us, one that is interested in relaxation and recreation, might show up and answer: "No way, you had better rest and take it easy!"
Often we are not even aware of this inner tug-of-war. We may experience it only in the form of pressure to make a decision - while simultaneously feeling unable to make it. In that case pros and cons lists offer little help. We are stuck. To get rid of this unpleasant feeling of inner tension we may postpone the decision and forget that making no decision is a decision too, namely for the status quo. Or we might make some random decision just so that we no longer have to deal with it.
Mindfulness encourages us to be with the not-knowing and the uncertainty and to listen to both inner parts. What are their needs, why is it so important to them that we choose option A or B? We do not try to force or get rid of anything, we accept that we do not know the answer at the moment. But we do not avoid the decision, we stay with the uncomfortable feeling and with what the two inner voices have to tell us. If we turn to our experience in this way and give it some time, a feeling for "Yes" or "No", "A" or "B" - or for a previously unknown "C" - will develop. If we give our friendly attention to these inner voices and truly learn to understand what they are about, a solution will emerge that both inner voices can live with.
Which decision is difficult for you right now? Is it possible to be with the uncertainty, perhaps even to feel it fully and deliberately? Which inner voices want a say in the decision-making process? What are the needs of these inner parts, why is "their" option so important to them?
|13 and 20 January 2020
Mindfulness Impulse #56: Beginning again (and again)
|Happy new year, dear readers! Hopefully your 2020 has started well!
How do you feel about new beginnings? If you believe Hermann Hesse, then there is magic in every new beginning. For some people, the start of a new year can bring out that magic. But this does not apply to everyone. A new year can also be overburdened with good intentions and ideas about how everything will now finally be different - and better, of course.
The truth is that very few of us experience such a turning point, where everything suddenly changes for the better. Anyone who wants to change a habit or learn something new will experience setbacks and failure. Development takes time and is only rarely linear.
The good news is: We can always remind ourselves that we can begin again - and not only remind ourselves once, but again and again and again!
In meditation we can practice this. We feel our breath and soon our wandering mind does what it likes to do: it produces thoughts and carries our attention away, usually into plans for the future or memories of the past. When we notice this, we return. We get in touch with our breath again and start anew. And we may do this in a friendly way, we do not have to condemn ourselves for it or be annoyed by it. After all, these new beginnings are not a mistake in our meditation, they are part of the meditation.
Perhaps we can allow ourselves to apply this view to the rest of our lives as well and to begin again (and again) with a friendly attitude towards ourselves. Not only for the new year but in every new moment.
16 December 2019
Mindfulness Impulse #55: Taking a Stand Mindfully
|„We don’t meditate to get better at meditating. We meditate to get better at life.”
- Sharon Salzberg -
Christmas is just around the corner. For many of us this involves more or less obligatory family gatherings, which we are more or less enthusiastic about. There, we may find ourselves in situations that challenge us, our values and our point of view.
Now there is the idea that mindfulness means quietly enduring everything that others do or say, with a serene smile if possible. After all, thoughts and emotions are just elements in an ever-changing stream of experiences and therefore ultimately meaningless. Or are they?
This phenomenon of using mindfulness to avoid important issues and not stand up for one's values and convictions is sometimes called "spiritual bypassing". This has very little to do with real mindfulness. Mindfulness helps us not to get sucked into a vortex of reactions and emotions and to react with more awareness. It does not encourage us to silently bear or even condone everything that happens.
Picture this situation as an example: At our family gathering we meet a family member whose political position is diametrically opposed to our own. After the third mug of mulled wine, this family member starts expressing their political views very vocally. In mindless mode we might stumble into a mixture of disgust, anger and frustration, which will - depending on our temperament - automatically manifest itself in either icy silence or a furious tirade. In the mode of "spiritual bypassing", on the other hand, we might sit there mutely, smiling and secretly feeling far superior to everyone else. We might see ourselves as a member of the mindful minority, one of the chosen few who really understand what holds the world together at its core. We may have found a cosy ideological corner for ourselves. But we are not really connected, neither with the other people nor with the moment, not even really with ourselves.
If, however, we are mindful in such a situation - and we are allowed to be kind to ourselves and remember that mindfulness is a path of practice than we can and will leave time and again -, if we are mindful, we notice our automatic thoughts and emotions. We perceive what impulses to act come up. And we can feel what the moment requires of us. Perhaps it is speaking our mind with clarity. Perhaps it is persistence, asking questions and trying to understand. Perhaps it is encouraging or comforting ourselves and taking a deep breath first. Or perhaps it is turning up the music for a start and making coffee instead of mulled wine. When we are mindful, we dare to meet the situation with openness and we bring ourselves as we are, including our values and our point of view.
On that note, the "Mindful Monday" team wishes all readers mindful holidays and a happy new year 2020! The next Mindfulness Impulse will be posted on 13 January.
|09 December 2019
Mindfulness Impulse #54
|It is late. I am tired. No, exhausted. My week was very stressful and I am beat. But there is still the "Mindful Monday" post. "Come on, think of something inspiring," an inner voice demands. "If you don't, all your faithful readers will be disappointed."
"I don't care", another inner voice answers. "I am not an inspiration dispenser!"
Now I have to laugh. Letting be what is. Giving space to it all. Again and again, in every new moment. Sometimes that inspires me. And sometimes it allows me to turn off the computer.
|02 December 2019
Mindfulness Impulse #53: Procrastinating Mindfully
|Procrastination, the tendency to postpone things that are considered personally significant, is an issue for many of us and often a particularly persistent problem. Interestingly enough, we not only postpone tedious tasks, e.g. when we really ought to clean the kitchen, but also things that are really important to us (final exams and theses come to mind...), and even things that are supposed to be enjoyable, like travelling or sex.
Procrastination is, therefore, a complex phenomenon. But all procrastination scenarios have one thing in common: Something in us resists doing this or that because we are afraid: of failure, of change, of being visible, of criticism, of being the centre of attention, of not knowing what to do, of burnout, of boredom etc. etc. And there is almost no other phenomenon where our desire for change is so strong. "If only I weren't procrastinating, then I could have... I would have... I would already be..."
For this reason in particular, it is an interesting experiment to meet procrastination with mindfulness. What happens when we turn to our experience in a specific situation where we "actually should" and "really wanted" to do xyz? How does procrastinating feel in the body? Is it fear we are experiencing or is our emotion called somthing else - or does it not have a name at all? What thoughts go through our head when we think of the task? And above all: What happens if we stay with the experience? If, instead of distracting ourselves or forcing ourselves to complete the task, we allow our feelings, thoughts and body sensations to flow through us and observe with curiosity and kindness what is happening inside of us?
25 November 2019
Mindfulness Impulse #52: Breathing for Mindfulness or Relaxation: Exploring Two Different Paths
|Breathing in, breathing out, breathing in, breathing out - it is not that hard, is it? Our breath accompanies us our entire life. From the first to the last second it supplies our blood and thus our whole body with oxygen.
We do not have to remember to breathe. It happens automatically because our respiration is controlled by the autonomic nervous system, just like heartbeat, body temperature or digestion. You have probably already noticed how some external circumstances automatically affect your breathing. When our nervous system registers physical exertion or certain feelings, it adjusts our breathing according to our energy requirements. In moments of stress it accelerates and becomes flatter; in moments of relaxation it slows down.
Therefore, the breath is an indicator of the state of our body and our emotions. And it seems "boring" only at first glance. When we make contact with it, it reveals a great deal to us and brings us back to the moment and to ourselves. A reliable anchor which we can connect with at any time when things are in turmoil in us and around us.
In meditation we try, as far as it is possible for us, to let the breath be as it is: deep or flat, all the way down into the belly or only into the upper chest. If the breath gets deeper during meditation: great, if not: just as great. As always with mindfulness, we try, as far as we can, to be with everything that is, as it is.
But in some situations we might sense that this is not what we need at that moment. We long for relaxation and want to " take a deep breath". In this case, instead of mindfulness meditation, we could do a breathing exercise that takes advantage of the fact that, unlike the other functions of the autonomic nervous system, we can deliberately influence the breath. Because our breathing interacts directly with our heartbeat by consciously breathing in and out more slowly we can adjust the heart rate to produce a relaxation response (hectic breathing does the opposite). This is a unique process in the human body that we can use at any time to relax. Slow exhalation allows us to release any form of tension, activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which is considered the calming part of the autonomic nervous system. In contrast, inhaling stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, which increases activity. It helps to remember that balance is key, namely the balance of tension and relaxation. A recommended technique for achieving this balance is four-second breathing. You inhale for four seconds, exhale for four seconds and count. In order to give the breath as much space as possible, one can try to breathe into the abdomen deliberately and let the air take up as much room as possible. If this feels strange at first, it is helpful to put your hand on your stomach and breathe against it.
Relaxation and mindfulness are not the same. Mindfulness is aware of what is happening - that may relax us because we are not fighting against our experience, or it may not. A relaxation exercise like the one described above, on the other hand, specifically wants to bring about relaxation and get rid of other states. One is no better or worse than the other. But there are different intentions - to relax on the one hand or on the other to be present in a different way for the "full catastrophe " of our life, as Jon Kabat-Zinn calls it, and to practice a different attitude towards it. Both are useful, both have value. But we should be clear about what we are doing and with what intention. With enough clarity we can achieve both, more freedom and more relaxation, depending on what the moment requires.
|18 November 2019
Mindfulness Impulse #51: Questioning Our Tendency to Take Things Personally
|It can be hard sometimes not to take things personally. At least in my experience. Of course, I realise that most (if not all) comments about me - my personality, my behaviour, my appearance - have much more to do with the person expressing them than with me. And yet it can be a challenge to really leave such remarks with the other person and not take them personally.
And is it not actually interesting that we make this distinction between things that are meant "personally" and "not personally" or that we "take personally" or not? As if judgements about us "as a person" were actually possible under some circumstances and as if there could be someone who has the right to make such judgements. When we consider the matter, this seems quite absurd.
Taking things personally also has another dimension: Most people - at least if they have not yet had anything to do with meditation - take what happens in their body and mind very personally. And is that not completely justified? What could be more personal than our own thoughts and feelings?
Most of us are used to thinking this way. From a mindfulness perspective, however, these phenomena are by no means as stable and personal as they seem at first glance. They are processes that often just occur, without our intervention and sometimes without us even knowing why. Our feelings and body sensations, even our thoughts, are often something that "happens" to us, a kind of "inner weather". And we do not tend to take the weather personally. Hardly anyone ever asks: "Why is it raining today? What have I done wrong? Why does the rain hate me so much?” We accept that weather phenomena are processes that begin, take their course and end, all by themselves and regardless of our behaviour. (Leaving climate change aside for the moment...)
Of course, this is not the whole truth about our experience. We can ruminate sadness into existence but not the rain; we can feed and prolong our anger but not a thunderstorm. Yet this view can open up a new perspective for us that helps us gain more distance and thereby more freedom.
What does someone have to say to make you "take it personally"? And what to make you think "he or she didn’t mean that personally"? What if nothing were ever personal? What would change in your life if you took your experience and thoughts as "impersonally" as the weather? What would be easier then? Would that also cause problems?
|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.