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Friday, July 26, 2013

Meditation is my meditation

Maybe you've heard people say that they don't need to do sitting meditation because they do other things that have meditative qualities. "My yoga is my meditation," they say, or running or music or knitting or any repetitive activity.

Those are all activities that can be done mindfully, or meditatively. But they're not meditation. And while studies have documented the beneficial effects of meditation, that hasn't been done for other types of mindful activity.
Sakyong Mipham,

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, the head of the Shambhala organization, wrote a book called "Running with the Mind of Meditation" which makes the difference clear. "Running is a training of the body, and meditation is a training of the mind." he writes.

Both are important aspects of our human lives, he says. "When we relate to our mind and body and allow them to harmonize, we feel more alive and strong."
If we train only the body and ignore the mind, the body is getting in shape while the mind is being neglected. We are not relating with mental stress and worry. Conversely, if we focus only on the mind, then the body is neglected, and we feel the ill effects of our stagnant physical demeanor.
The Sakyong lays out ways to run meditatively: with mindfulness, with appreciation, by working with challenges, knowing our intention, and feeling the benefit of the activity. But that doesn't make running meditation -- it makes it an activity that you can do while using techniques you've honed in meditation -- sitting still, focusing your concentration, locating your awareness, learning to untangle your mind from thoughts and emotions, recognizing habitual patterns.

Meditation is not just about sitting on a cushion, but it is about learning skills that you can bring to other parts of your life. The goal is to develop a meditative view that pervades your life, allowing you to be less reactive, less stressed, and more present. But it helps to learn that outside of the cauldron of your daily life and familiarize with the feeling of what it's like to be in balance so that you can bring that into the world.

This Huffington Post article suggests that you can meditate without meditating. Its view of meditation is limited, though, to mindfulness, the practice of knowing what is happening in the moment. To develop mindfulness, though, you need to know your mind -- to become friends with it -- and to learn how to recognize where your attention is and where it tends to go so that you can bring it back.

To be mindful for moments during the day is a good thing, no question. But it won't bring you the "razor-sharp focus, enviable level of productivity and bountiful amounts of creative juice" celebrity meditators cite.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Mindful moments

Mindfulness is a skill we can train in during meditation -- being present with what's happening with awareness, not judgment -- but it's one that works best when carried over to daily life. Be present with what's happening in your life, esteemed teachers and researchers tell us, and you'll enjoy it more.

But the thought of being mindful 24-7 can be intimidating -- and can create a new source of stress. Instead of missing out on the moments of our lives because we're judging them in comparison to other moments or looking at what they lack -- the sunset was better last week, this is a nice beach but I liked it better at the other one, this party would be more fun if Joe was here  -- we're berating ourselves for failing to be mindful.

Here's the thing: The key to using mindfulness to enhance your life is to do it with kindness and friendliness. If your application of mindfulness becomes another way to criticize yourself, it's not helping to reduce stress.

Elisha Goldstein observes that it can be helpful to think of finding mindful moments rather than living a mindful life.

As we practice and repeat something the brain registers it and it starts to become more automatic. With the practice of mindfulness we start to experience more moments of awareness. Maybe it’s the moment that you’re driving shouting at the car next to you that one of those moments arrives. You pause, take a few deep breaths and become more flexible in how you’re seeing that situation and the choices you have before you.

...There are so many moments throughout the day where this kind gentle awareness is available to get us in touch with choice and the wisdom of what matters.

It will help a whole lot if we can drop the label in our minds of aspiring to be a mindful person and instead aspire to have more mindful moments. This simplifies things and takes away the trap of falling short.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

How long was that?

Often after I lead a meditation session, students will ask me how long we sat. It's nearly always 24 minutes, which one of my teachers says is the amount of time it takes for the mind to settle down (and who am I to question her?). But their experience of it is different each time. Sometimes 24 minutes seems like hours; other times they say it feels like five.

Time flies when you're having fun.

A new study finds that meditation alters time perception.

Research has increasingly focused on the benefits of meditation in everyday life and performance. Mindfulness in particular improves attention, working memory capacity, and reading comprehension. Given its emphasis on moment-to-moment awareness, we hypothesised that mindfulness meditation would alter time perception.
In the experiment, participants carried out a task to determine their standards of "short" and "long." They then listened to an audiobook or meditation focused on breath in the body. Then they did the task again.

The control group showed no change after the listening task. However, meditation led to a relative overestimation of durations. Within an internal clock framework, a change in attentional resources can produce longer perceived durations. This meditative effect has wider implications for the use of mindfulness as an everyday practice and a basis for clinical treatment.
My own experience of meditation and time is that when I'm present in the moment, the passage of time seems irrelevant. This moment lasts for the fullness of this moment, then another.moment takes it place. 

Friday, July 12, 2013

It's OK, Dustin Hoffman. I wouldn't have noticed you either

Maybe you've seen the viral video of Dustin Hoffman talking about how he prepared for his role in "Tootsie." He describes how he wanted to experience walking around New York City as a woman -- and how, after makeup and wardrobe, he found two things surprising:

1) He wasn't very pretty.
2) As such, he was invisible to most people.

Hoffman chokes up as he describes his realization that he had missed myriad opportunities to talk to amazing women because he didn't find them attractive and so didn't even notice them.

Many woman love this video because, yeah, they noticed that people don't notice them.

But I have to confess, I wouldn't notice Dustin Hoffman either. My eyes would slide right over a short guy with a big nose, slotting him into the category of nebbish-y short guy who probably needs to make himself feel big by being a jerk. (A category people with men I've encountered in my life.)

So the lesson here is not that men are missing out, or that women are right and we've been saying this since the 1950s -- how nice a man has validated it, but that we're all missing out. We're programmed, by our survival instincts, to seek out friendly faces. We want to find a tribe, and if all we have to go on is appearance, our lizard brains will go for that.

Fortunately, we have human brains too. So here's an experiment for the next time you're in a group that you can observe.

First, notice your own mind. What's there? Anxiety? Arrogance? Openness? Curiosity? Judgment? Comparison?

Then glance around the room. See who's there. Notice who draws you're attention and who makes your eyes move faster.

Check in with yourself again. Sip your drink.  Have some snacks. Look at the time.

Now look around again. And this time, notice who you did not notice before.

They are there, the invisible ones. In every group. If you're feeling brave, go talk to one. They may be interesting.

They may even be Dustin Hoffman.