10 Ways to Win Back Your Mind.

This is the conclusion to this 4-part series on mindfulness. If you have missed any of the preceding posts, you can read them by clicking on the links at the end of this post.

So, now that you know that mindfulness is a powerfully good thing to practice, let’s get to it.

I have compiled a list of ten simple things that you can do starting at this very moment to begin developing a habit of mindfulness. Pick just one or two and DO IT at least once every day!

Like most things, these are simple enough, but few people will actually do them consistently.

I challenge you to be one of those few, and perhaps to share with me in a month or to me in a month or two if you have experienced any significant improvements in your life.

Before we dive right into mindfulness, I’d like to talk briefly about distractions. Many productivity gurus talk about removing distractions. Sure, it is helpful, but life is full of distractions that are outside of our control, so the only thing we can do about those is to learn to deliberately filter them out. If you can only focus when you are in a perfectly ordered and controlled environment, you have not mastered mindfulness, you have simply created a situation where distractions no longer exist, an environment in which mindlessness becomes difficult. But unfortunately the world in which we live is no such place. So we need to learn to master distractions, not avoid them. The first four items are all about mastering distractions and help you own your space. The rest actively engage a state of mindfulness.

1. Set task timers.

That sounds more like a productivity hack, but what I mean by that is that you set a three, five, or maximum fifteen minute timer in order to do an activity, and during that time your goal is to not allow any other activity to interfere. You are just doing that one thing, nothing else. For a brief period of time (keep it short – match it to the task if possible) give yourself permission to ignore everything else – the phone, email, anything that is not part of your immediate activity. Don’t make it an hour long, just enough to do a meaningful chunk of what needs to be done. If you finish sooner, great. If you go over time, so what, go until you reach the natural stop. The key here is brevity, and trying throughout that time to maintain deliberate awareness about what you are doing, and stop yourself from drifting into autopilot (aka mindlessness!)

2. Turn off all social meadia, TV and news.

Harsh? These rarely contribute something useful to our lives, and they are the ultimate weapon of mindlessness. Set times of the day that are specifically devoted to attending to those if you can’t live without them. Think about this: advertising works. Advertisers know exactly why it works: the moment that the subject matter of your thoughts is determined by someone else, you have “lost” your mind – quite literally –  they own your decision-making process because your story-telling part of the brain has been handed a script. Perhaps somewhat Orwellian, but a fact worth trillions of dollars in sales. Claim some ownership back, give yourself a little space to have your own real experience.

3. Do ONE thing at a time until done.

Nothing fosters mindlessness more than multi-tasking. If you need to interrupt, then break one activity to do another and then come back to it. Science has consistently demonstrated that doing two or more things at once is inefficient and increases the rate of errors exponentially. Finish the coffee or the sandwich, taste it, experience it. Then you can return to checking your email. whatever it is, see, feel, touch, smell, taste, engage, allow yourself to be involved.

4. Turn off your phone when attending meetings.

The fact that our phones have become our forever-ready personal assistant does no mean that we need to have them participate in every one of your human interactions. Besides being a gesture of disrespect by showing that we downgrading the importance of the person or group we are engaging with, it is also very hard to stay attentive when your phone blinks, twinkles, buzzes and fuzzes or suddenly starts singing “I was made for lovin’ you baby…” in the middle of a conversation. Give the people you are with your full undivided attention. Let your heart, your ears and your eyes be absorbed by nothing else than them and their story. Try to feel what they feel. Mindfulness causes your brain to become more empathic. Use this to your advantage, you will become more respected for it.

5. Focus on the food when eating.

We have forgotten to eat properly. This is one of those fundamental biological things that keep us alive, yet we treat it as a mechanical and indulgent anchor for other activities. When you eat, smell the aromas, feel the textures on your tongue, look at the colours on your plate, think about the ingredients, how they nourish. We forget that food is our number one medicine. Chose your foods wisely, and enjoy them, regardless of how humble and simple they are. No two foods taste and smell the same. No two foods nourish us in the same way. And besides water, virtually every mouthful that you eat whether plant or animal comes from something that was once alive. Be grateful, recognise its sacredness, and eat it with the respect it deserves.

6. Break your routine.

This is a both easy and fun way of creating a mindfulness-inducing situation. Take the opportunity to experience the difference with all your senses. Here are some ideas: take a different route to work, or perhaps public transport. Try something adventurous in your lunch-box. Buy at a different store. Set your alarm clock for a different time and get up earlier. Try a different breakfast. Dare to have a cold shower. Go for a walk in the rain. Since you have turned off  off facebook and TV, you will suddenly find time to read a book. Or chat with your family. Take your dog for a walk, and walk in the opposite direction.

7. Journal – and write by hand!.

Handwriting is a mindful activity in its own right – and one that engages our brain far more intensely than typing the same words on a keyboard – so when it comes to mindfulness, typing it does not qualify. Besides the act of writing by hand, reflecting on your day’s experiences is intensely satisfying. Once you begin, it is likely that a page or more will flow effortlessly. Other days just readying past days’ entires can be equally fulfilling. I am very passionate about my papers, pencils and fountain pen inks, but whatever you choose to use, let it be personal and special, and give yourself time and a space to make this special. Just doing this regularly will gradually raise your awareness and presence in all your life experiences.

8. Make TEA, and drink it.

Japanese have refined the act of preparing and sharing tea into one of the most iconic acts of mindfulness in its tea ceremonies. But all rituals aside, there is a simple chemical reason for this: Tea (the kind derived from the Camellia Sinensis, not herbal teas and infusions like rosehip, camomile and rooibos) contains a powerful combination of caffeine, flavonoids and antioxidants. Think this: the best medicinal properties of coffee, chocolate and red wine in that cup. Clear alertness, calm contentedness and healthy antioxidants all at once!. But rather than just jingling a bag in a cup of hot water and then tossing it in the bin, then letting your cuppa slowly go cold while you are back at your desk, take the time out to brew it, pause all things and drink it with all your senses as you would invest your senses into a glass of Penfolds Grange or your favourite single malt.

9. Listen to music  – while doing nothing else.

Really listen, not just have muzak/radio/spotify playing in the background. You don’t have to be a music expert, simply listen, observe how it makes you feel. I recommend instrumental, classical or good meditation music, mainly because music with lyrics can be a distraction. Not only does the act of listening help in clearing the mind of distracting thoughts, listening to music also wires up new connections between your left and right brain. You get smarter while relaxing!

10. Meditate.

This merits a post in its own right. But here is the really simple version: sit quietly, get comfortable. Observe your breath – don’t force it, simply observe. Feel the air entering your lungs, then pausing, then the exhaling. By the time you do this for a few breaths you will have an avalanche of thoughts tumbling through your head. That is normal. The work is in not engaging those thoughts, but keeping your attention on your breathing. As soon as your mind begins to wander, pay attention to your breath again. Do this for five to ten minutes, preferably every day, and ideally not when you are tired or about to go to bed. Meditation should not send you to sleep, it invigorates the mind. In the beginning this will be hard, don’t be discouraged by the seeming difficulty of ignoring your inner voice, but with a little practice and after two or three weeks you will begin to maintain your attention on your breath for longer, and will also be able to re-focus a lot quicker as soon as the distracting thoughts make themselves known.
If you have made it to number 10, congratulations, you may even have experienced mindfulness while reading!

If you wish to know more or have a question about mindfulness practice and meditation please post it in the comments sections and I will do my best to help out.

I hope you have enjoyed reading these posts. Here are the links to the first three parts in case you missed them. Share them, and all the best as you go about reclaiming your mind!

The awesome things that mindfulness does to your brain!

“You can’t run that fast.

He/She is not going to be interested in you.

You look frumpy.

People are not going to like your haircut.

Your voice sounds funny.

OMG is that a wrinkle???

They will never accept those terms.

Blah blah blah.”

 

“Oh, hello, this is your inner voice speaking.

I am going to make sure you second guess yourself.

I will remind you of the impending dangers, and cause you anxiety about an upcoming event or meeting.

I am your personal reminder to worry, stress. assume.

I am here to tell you a story, to pre-emptively inform you of your story.”

Mindfulness.

Your inner voice is silent. Or at least out of hearing range. There is no pre-written plot here. You chose.
Ok, so what was that all about?
Last week I promised to reveal what happens in your brain when you are “mindful”. What you have just read is an example of what actually happens. Many studies have been done to find out what goes on in your brain during and after meditation. Although meditation is not the same as mindfulness, it is one of the most common – and easiest – ways to practice mindfulness, and develop it. From that practice we can then apply it anytime, anywhere. Next week I will go into more detail about how you can easily begin to develop mindfulness as a habit, but for now, lets get back to the brain.

Two important things happen in your brain during and after meditation or mindfulness practice:

First, the inner voice is muted.

Your inner voice, or story-teller uses the information it receives from your reticular activating system (see my post on this here) to develop stories that are strictly speaking fantasy. These stories are generated by our language centre based on past experiences, assumptions, live information that comes in through our senses, and “stuff” that is floating around in our subconscious.
Mindfulness separates and severs this link.
At first that may sound like a bad thing, but it is not. This severing allows the more evolved parts of our mind to engage with the information that comes in through our senses, and effectively bypasses our more primitive flight-or-fight type brain functions and stop the behavior triggers. So what that really means is that instead of second guessing, doubting or deluding ourselves by way of this creative story-telling , our awareness is actually processing the information that comes in “clean”, in other words, without emotional bias, not altered by our past experiences. It does not mean we don’t “feel” emotion, it simply means the made-up story does not undermine our perception with assumptions. Our inner voice is powerful, and our ability to silence it and bypass it means we will worry less, stress less, abstain from passing judgment preemptively, draw foregone conclusions and so on. It means that we are able to work with untampered information and as a result we will make better decisions. Its that simple, and it has a very direct effect on our body and our health.

The second thing that happens is we become more empathic.

This is not some warm-and-fuzzy theoretical thing, the areas of our brain responsible for empathy and compassion are stimulated and become more active. We are able to connect with our surroundings better (not just people) and it increases our awareness as a part of a greater whole. The benefit of this needs no explanation. Because of this, meditation is being used as a highly effective way of helping people recover from depression – meditation instead of medication!
Although significant and lasting physiological changes to the brain take some time to reach, (the first real changes begin to occur after about two months of regular daily meditation), you can quite literally change the experience of your day on the spot by either meditation or mindfulness exercises. And that does not require preparation.

So in summary, your brain will reconfigure itself to reduce stress and increase health, and you will become a nicer, kinder more authentic person.

I deliberately left the heavy science stuff out, but I will post links next week to some relevant scientific publications and media if you wish to immerse yourself the clinical and detailed explanation (no pseudoscience!). Next week I will show you simple ways to tap into this wonderful state of being, and give you a starting point towards a healthier, happier, mindful life.
Enjoy, share, comment…

How to catch the monster that stops you!

I had a conversation with a young man at the pool this morning. He was seeking some advice on how to swim longer distances, and shared that the best he has ever done 500 metres, but that he was not sure he could do it again.

That fear stops us from achieving what we are truly capable of is well documented. Less often however do we talk about the signs, the behaviours, the evidence that it is in fact such fear that is getting in the way. That is because fear is most frequently disguised as a harmless and often quite logical reason.

  • I am not cut out for this.
  • I don’t have the bone structure to run like that.
  • Every time I try it goes wrong.

Beneath phrases like these are apprehensions far scarier than the most ghoulish Halloween disguise. And beneath that disguise is a simple monster, one that is common to most people: OUR fear of other people’s opinion.

It comes wrapped in more complex fears, like public speaking, or fear of failure. But ultimately it comes down how we want to be seen, and since all of us live with some inconsistencies and slip-ups of integrity, we are very weary of anything that will give away our weakness.

Most of us believe that it takes courage to be exposed for who we truly are. The reality is actually the opposite: most of our closer friends have a pretty good idea of who we truly are, and they also know the lengths we go to in order to hide some of our perceived weaknesses.

What takes courage is not exposing your true self to others, but to expose it to yourself. 

You have things that somewhere deep inside you wish you could do, but it sits wrapped up in the conviction that it is not possible for you.

Here are three reasons why it is virtually certainly possible for you, three thoughts that you can summon to expose, catch or chase away the monster that stops you:

  • Its been done successfully before  – by people who you think less of!
  • It will not kill you, infect you or cause you to break out in an incurable rash.
  • You live in a world of great fortune and privileges (because you can read this!), and therefore you have not reached your risk limits yet. In fact you are nowhere near them.

You and I know these are absolutely true for you. So go ahead and do the thing that scares you the most first. You now its is safe to do so.

I left my new friend at the pool with some ideas how he could break 600 metres within a few sessions. I will find out soon if he succeeds, I do hope he does, because I know he can swim 1000. Only he knows if he has the courage to endure some fatigue.

 

Multiply your effectiveness with potency.

A few mornings ago, as I was starting my warm-up laps in the swimming pool, I felt I could have done with a few extra hours of sleep.

My arms were turning, my legs were kicking, my gaze was absently following the blue line on the pool floor. A few hundred metres into it and the thought that I had a solid three-quarters of an hour still ahead of me was well and truly deflating me. I was not “present”.

When you are submerged, you hear nothing but your own thoughts, and the repetitive muffled gurgling sounds of your body moving through the water. It is meditative in a way, and because of this I soon had dismantled my lethargic thoughts with the mental exploration of effectiveness versus potency.

The word Potency is defined as the capacity to influence, and it is most often used in heard in relation to medicine, biology and physics.

Often we are time-locked in our activities, we can not opt-out sooner, we can not avoid a particular process. When we are in this situation the only variable we can adjust is the intensity, the presence, the potency. A small increase in potency often can create a significant increase in results.

The time will pass..

You will arrive at the other end as you drift through the activity, the time will still pass.

You will arrive at the other end as you move through the activity with intention, the time will still pass.

When the time has passed, will you simply arrive, or will you arrive with a payload?. 

What is the best that you can get out of a given activity? In my case I promptly decided to “engage” with my training session, to be fully “present”. I did not do a personal best that day, but a simple almost insignificant shift in thinking, a marginal increase in effort turned an hour of uncommitted motion into a worthwhile training session.

Effectiveness means something works. Potency determines how great a result you will get from that work. When we are faced with an activity that perhaps is not avoidable, we can always increase our potency.

Either way you will pass the same point in time, but you will be heading in very different directions.

 

“Stop, Look, Listen…” – for adults.

Last week we briefly explored how our brain prioritses through the reticular activating system, the importance of repetition, affirmation and the whole “Rah-rah”.

But that is only half the story, we need to know how to re-program it on the fly so that we can get a deliberate results instead of an accidental one.

What is your obsession?

Pause for a moment and think about this. What theme dominates your thinking?

  • Are you worried about not meeting a deadline?
  • Are you revisiting a proposal because perhaps it is not enough to secure the next client?
  • Are you anxiously expecting a bad phone call because your teenager is prone to cause trouble?
  • Do you anticipate a frosty arrival at home because you have been getting home so late your partner is already asleep – two months in a row?

This is where the fine line between success and default is drawn. Your reticular activator is scanning the environment for cues that provide validation to your process.

So then, what does “favourable” programming sound like?

Here are some examples of how to shortcut the process, and re-align our obsession:

  • You decide you will make that deadline – and begin pruning priorities in order to achieve that. Get the low hanging fruit into the basket fast.
  • You stop and evaluate your proposal from the clients perspective, and word it differently. Nothing else needs to change but the focus is on their real benefit.
  • You call your teenager, or leave a kind word on their snapchat feed without asking anything in return. Show you care, and mean it.
  • Think about your partner, and focus on the gratitude for the dinner waiting on the table needing no more than 2 minutes in the microwave. Leave a thank you note for the morning. Never take others for granted.

The circumstances in these situations have not changed. But our focus has, and it makes all the difference. It is easy to see how these absurdly simple shifts in our focus will have a very significant impact on our life.

We teach our kids: Stop, look and listen. And as adults we forget to do this ourselves!

Stop where we are going, just for a moment. Motion is there to take us towards our goal. If it does not, then stop.

Look at how you are perceiving the situation. Look for possible advantages you can tap into.

Listen to the validations that you are receiving. Are they helping you achieve your goal or are they signposts on the way to a disaster?

This simple mind process is often referred to as The Law of Attraction, only that we are not actually attracting anything. It should be called the Law of Focus, because we build our context based on the things that we deem important to our cause.  The “stuff” was always there. If that focus is on avoiding falling off a cliff, we are likely to forever hover along the edge. If however we are focused on getting to the top of the mountain, then at the very least we will end up on higher ground.
 

You go where your obsessions take you, so obsess about where you want to be taken.

** If you have enjoyed reading this you may also like some of my other posts, and register to join the conversation. Someone you know will be grateful to you for sharing this with them on your favourite social network. **