Time-Out for Mindfulness – Part II: Cultivating Mindfulness

Most of us wish to be mindful and present in our day to day life.  Between our to-do lists, personal commitments, and professional obligations, we often are electronically connected from dawn till dusk.  I regularly speak to people who feel they live in a perpetual time crunch. It’s been said that it’s the little things that make life worth living, and there is no better way to achieve this than by practicing mindfulness.

The Art Of Being Present

We all know at least one person who, every time you are with them, makes you feel as if you have their undivided attention. This is a shining example of the mindful art of being present. How do they do it?  They may have as equally full a schedule as the next person, but they have mastered the art of setting all else aside but the present moment.

A good way to be more present is simple – silence your phone and step away from the electronics. If you are face-to-face, eye contact is essential. Take the time to engage first. Sincerely ask how their day is, and really listen. Ask questions about previous conversations. Also, take some time to respectfully observe the person —to notice how they present, what they are wearing, the joy or concern in their tone.  This will take practice to achieve, and certainly won’t be 100%, but practice makes perfect.

mindfulnessparttwo

Stop And Take 10

Meditation and deep breathing exercises can work wonders in terms of mindfulness. A common misconception is that you need to invest a significant amount of time for both, but 10 deep, mindful breaths can be enough to reconnect. Jon Kabat-Zinn of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program developed the STOP model—which can be practiced anytime, anywhere.

  • S: Stop whatever you’re doing now.
  • T: Take a breath and reconnect to the body.
  • O: Observe what’s happening now in your body, what thoughts and feelings you’re having, what sounds you hear around you.
  • P: Proceed with what you were doing.

Active Mindfulness

Cultivating mindfulness has become so popular, there are endless options of mindful practices to choose from. Knitting, coloring, mindful eating, or mindful listening are just a few that can be incorporated into daily living.  Even, maybe especially, on the busiest of days, we must allow ourselves to be more than our schedule. Ten minutes of listening to meditative music or a soothing guided meditation can work wonders for how we feel going through the rest of the day, particularly on the days we are feeling a bit overwhelmed.

The benefits of mindfulness are many:  reduced stress, improved quality of life, increased immunity, a sense of purpose.  And please remember that you don’t have to do it perfectly.  The point is to make it a consistent part of your life.  I hope these ideas will help you get started.

Should you wish to explore the topic of mindfulness further, I’ve included a list of resources below!

 

Books & Articles

Wherever You Go, There You Are, by Jon Kabat-Zinn

Full Catastrophe Living (Revised Edition): Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress… by Jon Kabat-Zinn

Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the Present Moment–and Your Life, by Jon Kabat-Zinn

The Mindfulness Revolution, edited by Barry Boyce and Shambhala Sun – Leading Psychologists, Scientists, Artists and Meditation Teachers on the Power of Mindfulness in Daily Life.

Multitasking does not enhance wellbeing and productivity. This article discusses some of the latest research on how it affects the brain, efficiency and performance:   http://www.forbes.com/sites/travisbradberry/2014/10/08/multitasking-damages-your-brain-and-career-new-studies-suggest/

Useful websites and information:

Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care & Society – University of Massachusetts Medical School; http://www.umassmed.edu/cfm/

Pocket Mindfulness; http://www.pocketmindfulness.com/ Great site for those new to mindfulness practices as well as those more advanced.

UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center:  http://marc.ucla.edu/

Greater Good – The Science of a Meaningful Life: http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/mindfulness/

Time-out for Mindfulness – Part I

Do you ever feel as though you are living on autopilot?  Going through the day without a sense of being present in your daily round?  Having a conversation with a friend or spouse, while thinking of everything that needs to be done by the end of the day?  (Guilty!) Maybe you accomplish everything on your to-do list but still feel stuck in an endless cycle of “busyness.”

You’re not alone. The topic of mindfulness has become popular over the past several years, for good reason. Work and family responsibilities, coupled with never ending communication in the form of calls, texts, emails and the like tend to occupy much of our waking moments, leaving us in a more or less constant state of stimulation. Technology, for many of us, is always on.  Before the internet and email, most of us could leave work at work and just go home.  Now, we can be plugged in to work anytime, anywhere.  And, if we’re not plugged into work, we’re often plugged into something else – our phone, Facebook, surfing the net.  That’s a lot of stimulation that adds to the mix of our hurried lifestyles.

It’s really essential for wellbeing to take time daily to cultivate inner quiet and a positive mind-body balance.  That’s where mindfulness comes in.  And it doesn’t have to be one more thing to add into our day.  Mindfulness starts right where you are.

mindfullness

Jon Kabat-Zinn is considered a pioneer in mindfulness and MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) and started the first MBSR program at the University of Massachusetts.  He says that, although mindfulness can be cultivated through formal meditation, that’s not the only way. “It’s not really about sitting in the full lotus, like pretending you’re a statue in a British museum,” he says. “It’s about living your life as if it really mattered, moment by moment by moment by moment.”

So our working definition of mindfulness is going to be this:  Full non-judgmental attention to what you are engaged in, what you’re working on, the person you’re talking to, and the environment you are in.

Why is mindfulness important?  Studies over the last 35 years or so have shown that practicing mindfulness can have physical, psychological, and social benefits.  Some examples:

  • Mindfulness is good for our bodies. One significant study found practicing mindfulness for just 8 weeks boosts the immune system’s capacity to fight off illness.
  • Mindfulness is good for our minds.  Studies have found that mindfulness increases positive emotions, and reduces negative ones.  It’s also been shown to decrease feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression.
  • Mindfulness impacts our brains.  Research has found that it increases density of the gray matter in brain regions linked to learning, memory, emotion regulation, and empathy. Practicing mindfulness can help improve concentration and memory. Mindful awareness helps us to be more aware of our emotional state in the moment and enhances our ability to control our reactions and impulsiveness.
  • Mindfulness promotes compassion and altruism.  Research suggests mindfulness training makes us more empathetic, and increases activity in neural networks involved in understanding the pain of others and regulating emotions.  Data suggests it might boost self-compassion as well.
  • Mindfulness enhances relationships.  Research suggests mindfulness training can help couples feel more satisfied in their relationship, more optimistic and relaxed, and more accepting of and closer to one another.
  • Mindfulness can help us be better parents.  Parents who practice mindfulness describe being happier with their parenting skills and relationship with their kids, and their kids were found to have better social skills.
  • Mindfulness helps health care professionals cope with stress, connect with their patients, and improve their quality of life. It can also help mental health professionals by reducing negative emotions and anxiety, and increasing their positivity and feelings of self-compassion.
  • Mindfulness helps in prisons.  Evidence suggests mindfulness reduces anger, hostility, and mood disturbances among prisoners, by increasing their awareness of their thoughts and emotions.  This can help facilitate rehabilitation and reintegration.
  • Mindfulness training can be used to help veterans. Studies suggest it can reduce the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the aftermath of war.
  • Mindfulness can help with weight control.  Practicing “mindful eating” encourages healthier eating habits, helps people lose weight, and helps them enjoy their food more.

Practicing mindfulness isn’t at all mysterious.  It’s really about being fully present for your life.

In Part II on this topic, I’ll share some practical ideas and resources for you to start using to be fully present for all of your life.

Book Review – The Little Book of Big Change

T, by Amy Johnson, Ph.D., is subtitled:  The No-Willpower Approach to Breaking Any Habit.  I picked it up recently after it came highly recommended as an insightful combination of spirituality and neuroscience in habit change, all of which I have an enthusiastic interest in, both personally and professionally.

Here’s a partial description, courtesy of Amazon.com:

“Little changes can make a big, big difference! In The Little Book of Big Change, psychologist Amy Johnson shows you how to rewire your brain and overcome your bad habits—once and for all. No matter what your bad habit is, you have the power to change it. Drawing on a powerful combination of neuroscience and spirituality, this book will show you that you are not your habits. Rather, your habits and addictions are the result of simple brain wiring that is easily reversed. By learning to stop bad habits at the source, you will take charge of your habits and addictions for good.”

The premise of this book is that our behaviors become habits because of their repetition which, over time, form neural pathways in our brain that encourage us to keep repeating the behavior.  Since behavior originates in our thinking, the author suggests that by changing our thinking about ourselves and our habit (and not indulging in the habit), over time we can reestablish new neural circuitry, thus rewiring our brain.   As long as we continue to obey the impulse to act on our thinking, we remain stuck in the cycle of our habit.

What interested me about this book is that the author herself was able to end an eight year battle with binge eating and bulimia with this foundation, after many years of seeking help through traditional therapy and other means.

Neuroplasticity – the ability of the brain to change throughout the course of life – is a well-researched and accepted scientific finding.  Neurologically, habits are formed through repeatedly responding to an urge or desire by acting on it. Acting on an urge – whatever it may be – strengthens the wiring of the habit in the brain.  The more you act on an urge or impulse, the stronger the habit becomes.  By not acting on your thinking or impulse over a period of time, those urges and impulses will diminish and eventually go away altogether.

habit

That’s my short and sweet synopsis of the information in this book.  Here’s my personal experience.  Years ago, I was a smoker.  By the time I was in my mid-20’s, I was smoking one or two packs a day.  Mind you, I had committed to a healthy lifestyle years earlier and was a daily runner.  Cigarettes were completely incompatible with my lifestyle, and yet I continued to smoke.  I knew for years I needed to quit, but the habit – addiction – was so entrenched I didn’t feel able to stop.  I made the attempt here and there, but always fell right back into the habit.  One weekend, I attended a smoking cessation seminar with a friend.  Among other things, the seminar leader told us this:  If you have an urge to smoke and don’t act on it, the urge typically goes away in around 90 seconds.  That’s it.  If you don’t act on the addictive urge, it will pass in a matter of a minute and a half, or thereabouts.

That weekend I stopped smoking and haven’t ever smoked since.  In the early weeks and months, I cannot tell you how many times I used that one piece of information to get me through those moments when a cigarette was calling my name.  I would tell myself:  This will pass in a minute or two, that’s all you need to get through.  And it worked.  I didn’t have to do anything.  On the contrary, I just had to do nothing but let the thought -urge – pass.  By not acting on my impulse, by not strengthening that neural pathway in the brain, the impulses gradually faded away. I haven’t smoked in 30 years.

There’s obviously a bit more to the book than what I’m writing here.  That being said, it’s not a long read – it really is a “little book.”  Though the author’s experience involved her eating disorder, the principles of the book can be applied to a wide variety of unhealthy behaviors.  The author’s philosophy and approach may not be for everyone, but for anyone who has struggled with a destructive or unwanted habit pattern, this book could be life-changing.

Stay cozy this month!

What’s Your Payoff?

Happy 2017!  The new year can be an exciting time because it means a blank canvas – a chance to create our lives in a new way.  For lots of us, it also signifies the beginning of a change we wish to make, which is where the New Year’s resolution typically comes in.

Clients usually come to coaching seeking change –  they may feel stuck in their work or personal life, and aren’t sure what steps to take next.  They may have identified habits that are getting in the way of them living as fully as they would like to, or had some type of wake-up call in the form of a health scare or relationship upheaval, and realize that the time has come to face their reality.

Change is difficult, and maintaining those changes can be even trickier.  What’s the saying?  “Anyone can lose 10 pounds.  I’ve done it hundreds of times.”  Ouch.

timeforchange

What’s the deal?  If we say we want to make a change, and know that it’s good for us over the long haul, why is it so darn hard?  What about the determination and discipline we seem to have in other parts of our lives?  How can we be so successful in our work or other undertakings and struggle so miserably when it comes to changing something seemingly as simple as a habit?

Here’s some food for thought.  If the payoff you get from continuing your bad habit feels better to you, on some level, than the benefit you might get from changing, it’s going to be an uphill struggle.

Let’s say you want to stop smoking.  You know you need to; your family doctor has been on you for years, you know the risks, you want to be around for your children.  You have all the information and  every reason to stop.  And yet, every time you make the attempt, with the best of intentions and all your resolve, you end up in the same place – smoking.  Your abstinence may last a few days or a few months but sooner or later you slide back.  What kind of payoff could you possibly be getting from that?

Maybe you’ve stayed in a relationship that is no longer healthy for you, you know it’s time to move on, but you never do.  What if the doctor has told you you’re a candidate for Type II diabetes and the time to lose weight and make changes in your eating habits is now.  Your well-being, your health is at risk.  You decide to make changes starting tomorrow but before the week is out you’re slipping back into old eating patterns.

In any of these examples, the pain and discomfort of change seems to outweigh the difficulties associated with continuing the habit.

In the smoking example above, more than one factor could be at play.  Maybe you’ve relied on smoking to keep your weight under control over the years.  You’ve heard stories about significant weight gain from some who’ve stopped, and you’re not sure you want to chance that.  You may be at a point where the relationship you’re  in no longer feels right for you.  Still, the idea of having to put yourself out there in the dating world, or risk being alone, doesn’t sound all that great either.  A hoped-for job promotion may create anxiety about losing the camaraderie of your band of work colleague so you end up turning it down.

You get the idea.

Let’s face it.  When we’ve indulged in a habit for a long time – maybe even years – it’s because we have been getting some type of benefit from it.  It’s going to be hard to make a change unless we can begin to see more benefit in the new behavior, the change we are trying to make.  It’s just easier to keep doing what we’ve always done.  When we are able to begin more of a long-term view of the benefits to be gained, it’s going to be easier for us to make the effort.   We might think:  “Yes, I may end up gaining a few pounds if I stop smoking, but I’ll be healthier over the long haul, and have more energy to exercise.  I can always lose the weight and I’ll feel so much better!

There is a quote by Anais Nin that speaks to this:  “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

The next time you find yourself frustrated or struggling in some way with a habit you’re trying to change, stop and ask yourself:  What’s my payoff for staying where I am?  What am I getting out of this behavior that I am afraid to lose?  Asking that question, and listening for the answer, could be the key that unlocks the door to the beginning of real change.

Feel free to comment below with any thoughts you have – I’ll be sure to respond.

Wishing you your best year yet!

Take a Breath?

In conversation with another coach recently, the idea of taking a “think week” came up.  In years past, Bill Gates scheduled a think week twice yearly, taking uninterrupted time away from his usual schedule for idea generation, reflection and future planning.  Businesses hold periodic retreats for the same purpose, assessing where they are and course correcting where needed.

You may not be able to take an entire week, but that doesn’t mean you can’t start with a weekend or even a day.  When was the last time you blocked out space to take stock of your life, your work, what’s working, or not, and created a strategy for change? Taking time away from your normal day-to-day can give you the space needed for this kind of objective evaluation.

A key element to a think week, weekend or day is preparation, and the end or beginning of the year is a great time to do it.  Plan in advance for an undisturbed period – let family and friends know in advance you will not be available during this time – and limit any other input not relevant to the task at hand (texts, email, etc.)  You’ll want to lay the groundwork for making the most of this time by thinking in advance of what you want to cover.    As a framework, you might consider:

  • Your Successes.  What did you accomplish this year, personally or professionally, that you feel good about?   What has worked well for you?  Did you reach an important milestone or goal?  Have you increased your knowledge base or learned a valuable new skill? Starting out with what went well is a good place to begin, because you can build on it.  What has been working well that you want to keep going?
  • Your Challenges.  What didn’t work out as planned.  What was difficult?  What happened?  What might you need to do differently in the future?  Are there any important lessons that were learned and how can you use these to improve?
  • Your Commitments.   Most of us have obligations that we have taken on over time – in our communities, church, business organizations and the like.  This is a good time to think about whether you want to continue in these roles or step aside.   If some responsibilities have become cumbersome or are no longer in line with your priorities, it may be time for a change.
  • Your Environment.  Where you live and work can either support you or drain your energy.  A cluttered workspace or office, mail piled up on a kitchen counter or table, clothes or other belongings strewn about – all of these take up mental space that, whether we realize it or not, impact how we feel and function.  Take a look around you.  If there are things you no longer use or need, donate or give them away.  Sometimes simply getting rid of stuff can lead us to more order.  Being more orderly will free you up to concentrate on your most important tasks, and creates space for creativity and new ideas.
  • Your Future.  Now that you have a clear idea of where you are (and I urge you to do this in writing) it’s time to take a look at the year to come, and what your objectives are.  What do you hope to experience in the year to come – both professionally and personally?  What do you want to prioritize What is your vision?  Write it all down and be as specific as possible.  Research shows that writing down goals makes the achievement of those goals much more likely.
giftoftime

The gift of time to think.

Setting aside time for this kind of effort will pay off.  Peter Drucker once said, “Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection will come even more effective action.”  That’s what we’re talking about here.

I once had a teacher who used to say, “The outer is always a reflection of the inner.”   If it’s true that we are the authors of our lives, and I believe it is, make sure the story you are writing is the one you want to live.

I would love to hear any additional thoughts, so feel free to leave a comment below – I’ll be sure to respond.

Wishing you many good things for the coming year!

Let It Go

It’s the holidays and, for most of us, that means invitations to get together with family, friends,  coworkers and others in our communities.  We may be hosting a gathering ourselves, or having family and friends coming to spend a few days.  Add holiday decorating, shopping, gift-wrapping, and card sending to the list and, along with work and daily life – you have the makings of a holiday season meltdown.

I’ve had one or two of those over the years, but I haven’t in quite a while and today I wanted to share why.  I’m going to invite you to do one simple thing for yourself this holiday season – take one thing off of your plate every week for the rest of December.

That’s it – simple.  Take a look at your calendar for the remainder of December and do just that one thing – decide on just one thing you can let go of, and take it off the schedule.  Why am I suggesting this?

Especially during the holidays, we often feel that we have to say “yes” – yes to invitations, and other requests for our time and energy.  If a request to help with the annual Holiday Brunch is something you really want to accept, great, go for it.  But if it’s something that you feel obligated to do because, well, you’ve always done it, I invite you to reconsider.

Here are a couple questions to ask yourself when deciding what to let go of:

  • What are my most important values and priorities this holiday season?  
  • Will this invite or activity align with those values and priorities?

The reason those two questions are important is because they ask you to become aware.  We often get caught up in the holiday rush and forget to pause and consider what we want to do, what is meaningful to us.  My most important priority during the holidays is spending time with family and friends. It’s also important to me to contribute in some way to others who may not be in a position to enjoy the season fully.  Keeping those two things in mind makes it pretty simple for me to decide what I want to participate in.

I recognize that it’s not always easy, though.  We all want to be there for others, participate, not hurt someone’s feelings, etc., so we say yes and then end up feeling overwhelmed. Sometimes we simply struggle with saying no.   That’s why I’m recommending you take off just one thing.  If you look at what you have scheduled for any given week, I’ll bet just about anyone can find one thing they can let go of to give themselves a bit of breathing room.

letitgo

The reason I know this works is because I do it myself, not just during the holidays, but all the time.  If I look at my week and see something that’s not serving me, or something that my heart is just not into, off it goes.  Most of the time I realize it wasn’t that important for me to do, anyway.

But sometimes I have to gear up my courage and say no.  The gift in that is that I get to put my time and energy where it belongs, in what feels true to me.  The more I do this, the more my life reflects who I really am, my authentic self.  When I’m present for something or someone, I’m really present, not thinking about someplace else I could be.

Over and over, research shows that the most important factor in living a good life is relationships, connecting with others.  Don’t forget your relationship with yourself.  If you get in alignment with your most cherished values this season, I guarantee you’ll create a wonderful holiday for yourself and those you love.

I would love to hear any additional thoughts, so feel free to leave a comment below – I’ll be sure to respond.

Stay cozy and have a wonderful Holiday!

Suzanne xo

Surviving the Holidays in a Stressful year

So Thanksgiving is now behind us, and the holidays have officially begun.  For many, the last several months have felt an exceptionally stressful time, no matter what side of the political aisle you may find yourself on. With the holidays now upon us, it may be a  specially good time to take extra special care of ourselves and our loved ones, making sure this season reflects the best of our values and what we hold meaningful. With that in mind, I thought to share some ideas on how to make this season reflective of what may be most important to us, and those we care about, no matter what’s swirling in the world around us.  Whatever your political opinions, this is a time to come together, and share our lives with those we care about.

takecarethisholidayseason

Take care this holiday season…

The current mood in this country has caused many of us to take a step back and re-examine what is important to us, the values we want to live by.  I think the answer of what to do and how to give will be unique to each of us.  As time goes on, what I enjoy most about the holidays are the spirit in the air, and memories of good times with those close to me.  Let your most important values guide your actions and you can’t go wrong.  A few ideas to consider:

  • Send out cards.  Yes, good old-fashioned hand-written cards.  Add a note to let someone know how you feel about them.  Both of you will benefit.
  • Give the gift of experiences.  Research shows that experiences bring people more happiness than material possessions. Tickets to a play, a concert, or a favorite team’s game create lasting memories long after the event is over.
  • Create some new memories or traditions.  A holiday hike, ice skating on Christmas day, or a Christmas eve movie by the fire – whatever brings you together with those you love works.
  • A spa day or afternoon can be a great gift to someone special or a wonderful way to spend time together.
  • Give the gift of learning.  Gourmet  cooking, art classes, music or horseback riding lessons, yoga or dance classes – whatever you think might delight the receiver.  A subscription to an app like Headspace.com or Calm might open the door to the stress-relieving benefits of meditation.  Anything that is personalized to the one you’re giving to is always appreciated.
  • Surprise someone who’s been especially anxious with a self-care basket.  Include lotions, bath salts, essential oils, a diffuser, luxe soaps, pajamas and cozy slippers, a beautiful journal and pen to write with.  The list is endless, and you can tailor it especially to the person you’re gifting.
  • Don’t forget yourself!  It can be as simple as an afternoon or evening home to unwind in the midst of the season, but be sure to include your own self-care in the mix at this busy time of year.
  • Don’t forget those less fortunate.  Adopting a family in need, or stopping by an elderly neighbor’s with a basket of Christmas cookies can remind us of the true spirit of the holiday.  At a time when people may be feeling more apprehension, look for the good you can bring, what you can give.   The world needs it.

I hope you find something in these words that sparks you to find peace, meaning and joy this holiday season.  I would love to hear any additional thoughts, so feel free to leave a comment below– I’ll be sure to respond.

With warm wishes for the best of the season!