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Friday, January 31, 2014

Real Happiness Week 1: Meditation in the maelstrom

I am already pretty happy at work. I like what I do, and I like the people I do it with. I know exactly what I'll be doing, but I never know what I'll be doing. (I'm a newspaper editor, and the schedule is the same every day but the content is different.) Nevertheless, I experience stress at work. I'd like to experience it less.

So of course I clicked on a link that offered seven ways to reduce stress at work. Unfortunately, most of the tips weren't applicable. And one that suggested reducing interruptions made me laugh.

I shared that with a co-worker, who comment, "But interruptions are our business." That and multi-tasking.

Which makes concentration, the first week in Sharon Salzberg's 28-day guide to "Real Happiness at Work," a challenge. At any given moment, I may be editing a story, talking to a reporter who has an update on another story, waiting to have a page proofread, and wondering if I can hold a story for a day. And in the next moment, I'm checking email, checking the wire services for breaking news, looking at faxes dropped on my desk, and answering a colleague's question about grammar or word use (what we call "style").

Sharon notes that "human beings seem to be cognitively unable to multi-task." When we think we're tracking several things at once, we're actually switching our focus rapidly from thing to thing. Multi-tasking, she says, can "stimulate us into mindlessness, giving the illusion of productivity while stealing our focus and harming performance."

I don't need a study to tell me that. I know that I do a better job when I'm not interrupted, when I can focus on one thing. But that's not the reality of life in a newsroom.

So I've been working with one of Sharon's "stealth meditations." I can't exactly find a quiet place to meditate in the maelstrom, but I can do this: "Feel your hands. See if you can make the switch from the more conceptual thought 'These are my fingers' to the world of direct sensation -- pulsing, throbbing, pressure. You don't have to name the sensations, just feel them."

I tried that this week, in those short breaks between tasks (frantic multi-tasking is interspersed with brief no-tasking) -- just feel my hands. And it brought me out of the swirl of thoughts, into the present moment, into my body. It let me come back with more clarity, less brain fog.

During February, Sharon Salzberg runs a 28-day meditation challenge based on her books Real Happiness and Real Happiness at Work. People who are taking part post abut their experiences here. Read, comment, take the pledge, or just lurk.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Is there an Inner Grumpy Cat?

January is the Interdependence Project's Responsible eConsumption Month, and I've been observing it by not turning on electronic devices during the first hour I'm awake. The experience has been as different as the days.

For most them, it's been pretty lovely. The day is quieter, obviously. It finds its own rhythm rather than having it dictated by my choice of music. I even get out of the house a few minutes earlier, a plus. Truth be told, I'd say it was a revelation -- rather than adding to the day, my habit of putting on music was covering up the quiet.

And then there was Wednesday. The previous two Wednesdays were holidays, and I got to sleep in. This past Wednesday was a workday, the third day in a row that I was up and out of the house before the sun was up.

I was cranky. I noted this as I was making coffee and getting breakfast ready. My thoughts were on a repeating loop of why-am-I-awake? and I-would-prefer-to-be-asleep, a constant drone of pervasive dissatisfaction. Then I was dissatisfied with my dissatisfaction. What would stop this?

Music, my habit mind said.

No, my thinking mind replied. You have made a commitment not to listen to music in the first hour of the day.

Fuck that, said habit mind. I'm CRANKY. Get me music, something poppy and mindless. Unleash the true funk soldier.

Caving to habit mind's intensity, I hit the on button on the CD player. The party got started.

I turned it off.

What is the practice here? one of my minds asked. If this was happening during meditation rather than breakfast, what would the practice be?

Note the aversion. Note the repetitive thoughts. Right now, it's like this. But is this a permanent state? Is there, in truth, a solid, permanent Grumpy Cat somewhere inside me? Look for it. Can it be found. No.


Oh good, coffee. There's my mug. There's my cereal and almond milk. A clean spoon in the drawer. Life is good.

On a regular day, I would have turned on music, maybe danced a few steps between the coffee maker and the table. I would have bypassed that moment of crankiness. But this way, I realized its insubstantiality, its impermanence. This way, I didn't skip over my bad mood or suppress it or talk myself out of it, I saw it, I accepted it as how things were in that moment, and I moved into the next moment.

And that was better than the best song ever.
IDP invites everyone to become more mindful of their use of cellphones, computers, televisions, and all electronic consumption starting in the New Year.   Join the month-long Responsible eConsumption practice.
Grumpy Cat photo from Grumpycats.com

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Meditation May Ease Mild Anxiety and Depression

A new study by Johns Hopkins University finds the 30 minutes of mindfulness meditation a day may relieve mild anxiety and depression -- as effectively as medication.

The study looked at the degree to which self-reported symptoms or various conditions, such as insomnia and fibromyalgia, changed in people who began to practice mindfulness meditation, described as a form of Buddhist self-awareness designed to focus precise attention on the moment at hand. They say it shows promise in alleviating some pain symptoms as well as stress.

"A lot of people use meditation, but it's not a practice considered part of mainstream medical therapy for anything," says Madhav Goyal, M.D., M.P.H., an assistant professor in the Division of General Internal Medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and lead author of the paper in JAMA Internal Medicine. "But in our study, meditation appeared to provide as much relief from some anxiety and depression symptoms as what other studies have found from antidepressants."
Goyal noted that mindfulness meditation is not just sitting down and doing nothing. "Meditation is an active training of the mind to increase awareness, and different meditation programs approach this in different ways," he said.

Mindfulness meditation -- emphasizes acceptance of feelings and thoughts without judgment, along with relaxation of body and mind -- showed the most promise, he said..

More study is needed, he added.  And individuals are different -- the study looked at those with mild anxiety and depression; some people with symptoms may need more than meditation, like therapy or medication.

But in the meantime, meditation won't hurt.