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…

Winning the Battle for Your Mind – part 2

Sometimes it is simpler to begin communicating a concept by what it is not in order to get to what it is. Mindfulness is one of those concepts.
Mindfulness is a tremendously evocative word, often associated with mystical experiences, ascetic and monastic lifestyles, intense discipline, ritual and seclusion. While all these may be true to some extent, it is not at the exclusion of a great number of other things. Above all however, none of those are relevant to you, because mindfulness is accessible to anyone in any circumstance, right now.

So what is mindfulness NOT?

Mindfulness is not a religion.
Mindfulness is not the same as meditation.
Mindfulness is not related to time.
Mindfulness does not require you to be removed from your surroundings, whatever they are.
Mindfulness is not something that requires you to be in solitude and isolation.
Mindfulness does not require you to stop doing anything, to be passive, to sit in quiet introspective contemplation.
Mindfulness does not require you to renounce your life, or you lifestyle, or your career, or your family, or your hobbies.
Mindfulness does not require you to renounce your belongings, wealth or titles.
Mindfulness is not an activity, its not something you “do”.

So what IS mindfulness then?

Pause.

I mean right now, pause. Let your eyes rest on this sentence for a moment. Stop all other activities, read each word, allow its meaning to really engage you. Be aware of how your body feels as you read. What emotions does it stimulate? Do you like or dislike it?. Pause briefly, just long enough for that idea to fully engage. Feel that engagement. That is all. That is enough. That is mindfulness. It is simply doing what it is you are doing right now, with your full attention. Take this post for example. You could be reading this over breakfast, while trying to type an e-mail, while getting the kids ready for school, while reviewing your schedule for the day. Or you could commit yourself to the few minutes required to reading it mindfully.

Every moment of our day is filled with opportunities to be mindful.

When we listen to our kids share their experiences of their day, are we listening to them and hearing the emotions, the messages? Or are we preoccupied with the sms that just arrived on our phone? Or the fact that they have not put their school-bag in the right place?
When we eat, are we savouring the flavours of what we are eating, smelling the aromas, sensing the textures? Are we conscious of its nutritional and healing power? Or do we simply scoff it down while skimming over the facebook feed instead, almost instantaneously forgetting what it was and what it tasted like? Or perhaps, craving another mouthful to satisfy a craving?
When we work, are we mechanically moving through the actions in a state of trance with a vague awareness that soon we will have completed that task and perhaps obsessing about that next thing, or the 437 unread emails in your inbox?
When we travel, do we allow ourselves to take in the surroundings, feel the temperature, the breeze, the light or shade, the sound of the wind or perhaps the rain and how it feels on our skin, the space we are in and the places we are moving through, the passing of time as we travel? Or do we devote our energy to escalating our frustration at the speed of our journey because perhaps we may be running late for an appointment?

We are always doing something.

We can do it mindlessly, mechanically, automatically, be disengaged. Life becomes unfullfilling, and we spend our time hoping or expecting that a great experience is something that will come up sometime soon, while we miss the one we are currently in.
We can do it mindfully. That simply means we are allowing our five physical senses to participate, as well as our mind and heart – in other words, all parts of our self are active. I like to describe it as occupying your body fully, right down to your fingertips and your toes, rather than just having your sense of awarenes clustered around the most sensory diverse part of our body – our head, in particular the space between our nose, eyes and ears. Again pause for a moment and allow yourself to be aware of all physical parts that comprise you.
 Like all things, it takes practice, but it is not difficult.
If you are wondering how to practice mindfulness, in two weeks I will share simple ways you can practice anywhere and get good at this. Next week I will explain what goes on in our minds when we are mindful, and why that matters.
I will close by highlighting some of the fad and trendy things that often get wrongly associated with mindfulness. Beware of these if they are promoted as a way of becoming more mindful (They may serve other purposes, but these are not relevant in helping you become more mindful):
  • Exotic exercise regimes.
  • Herbal and homeopathic remedies, acupuncture, infusions etc.
  • Talismans, amulets, charms, crystals and accessories in general.
  • Esoteric “cleansings”, treatments, chakral tunings and similar “new-age” activities, vibration and frequency “treatments”.
  • Religious rituals and practices.
  • Psychic readings, tarot and divination.
  • One-minute meditations (this is like expecting to become super-fit by doing one push-up each day).
  • Vegetarian, paleo, or any other diet: What you eat does not make you more or less mindful. How you experience what you eat is what matters.
  • Baths, spas, special locations and places of esoteric or mystical significance.
Mindfulness is a vast subject, but its practice is so simple and its effect powerful. I believe it should be taught to kids in schools. It would change the world. And I hope that you can make it part of your life, and experience a beautiful change your world.

Who is Winning the Battle for Your Mind?

Mindfulness.

Like many others before it, it has become the new buzzword in success circles.
It’s use has progressively surged in the last 5 years, so much in fact that in the last six years it’s Google interest rating has constantly risen from 40 (out of 100) to 92!.
In 2013 it exploded onto the mass media with posts and articles in all major news channels, and celebrities and CEO’s all loudly proclaiming their newly dicovered joy of mindfulness.

Given that the practice of mindfulness has been around for thousands of years (yes that’s not a mistake!), why is it suddenly becoming fashionable? And why should you care?

The first question is answered by two fairly recent changes in our global culture.

One, that more than ever we are seduced into mindlessness, which that is increasingly wreaking havoc with our lives. People are are hurting as a result, and are beginning to notice.
And two, that we have had a greater exposure to this concept through the very same channels that have fostered that mindlessness.
I am talking about our obsession with being “connected” via the web and social media, and our capacity to access information at a whim. We are inadvertently shifting our focus away from what is actually happening around us, while preoccupying ourselves with highly edited and pre-selected information that in reality is of no consequence to our life. We are more disconnected than ever before, and our experience of life is becoming drastically empoverished as a result.

And now, why should You care?

This will take more time to answer, and over the next three weeks I will address each of the following topics in detail, each building on the one before. These are:
  • What mindfulness IS, and what it IS NOT: how to spot a fake.
  • What actually happens in the mindful brain – and why it matters more than you think!
  • How to win the battle for mindfulness: simple practices that will make your every day more awesome.
My goal with these is not to transform you into a remote cave-dwelling enlightend nun or monk in perpetual meditation, but to help you experience a refreshed and deeply satisfying engagement in your life that you have most likely not felt for a long time, or in most cases never before.
Enjoy, and please share if you found this valuable. I look forward to some great conversations in four weeks…
Have a wonderful day.

8 Lessons I Learned from Clearing Bamboo.

Some time ago one of my neighbours called me over to show me a retaining wall that was beginning to be pushed over by a lush and tall bamboo cluster on our side of it. The numerous slender poles that were closest to the wall were swaying in the breeze and when they made contact with the wall, their collective push had been enough to bein dislodging a few blocks at the top. I had to get onto this, quickly.

Of course the poles that were closest to the wall were also the least accessible, behind a beautiful lush and dense band of lots more poles that I had no intention to remove.

I eventually got it done, and in reflecting upon it these 8 ideas came together. I hope they can be useful to you too, you may wish to read them again when you are feeling daunted by your next big endeavour.

1. I could only remove one pole at a time.

Focus on one action, the one simple step you can do immediately, the one you must do in order to progress in your endeavor. Don’t waste your energy figuring out how to do a bigger more impressive thing, just do the simple one that you can. Nothing advances until that humble action has been taken, and you have cleared the way to the next one.

2. I got scratches – lots of them!

Any worthwhile endeavor will lave marks on you, there will be painful experiences, but like scratches, those will heal before the fruits of your labour ripen.

3. I had to work in really uncomfortable spaces.

Sometimes I had to squeeze in between poles and the wall, and twist in ways I never thought were physically possible, and then keep cutting! You will need to get out of your comfort zone, and twist yourself into awkward and unnatural shapes in order to reach what you need to reach. Working there will test your determination, your arms may feel to short, you may not be able to get a good grip on the saw, and each movement will seem like a huge effort with minimal progress. But keep going, and you will inevitably eventually cut through it.

4. I had to be persistent and patient.

At times I took a break to contemplate tthe work done, and wondered what I had actually done – I could not not see much progress! Whatever it is you are doing, it takes work and time. If you are not doing, you are not progressing. (Of course planning is doing in many cases, but it only pays off when it is followed by action!). Whether you are in an uncomfortable spot or not, there are always moments when thing that you need to achieve seems to take far more effort than seems reasonable. These are the times when you need to remind yourself why you are doing this!

5. Small poles that were awkward and difficult stood in the way of the ones I needed to get to.

You will have to get stuff out of the way that prevents you from getting to the meaningful things. It is often those secondary obstacles that make tasks seem difficult, because they may not appear important, or are not directly tied to our end result. We are easily put off by those things because often clearing those is harder and takes more effort than the main task that we want to get done.

6. Cutting through the knots was much easier.

Take the time to find out what can give you an advantage. Knowing this often the difference between keeping going or giving up. The bigger the task ahead, the more time you can afford to invest in exploration and discovery, in finding your advantage.

7. I had to figure out the best tool.

What you think you need to accomplish your goal may not be the best tool. Don’t be afraid to change tactics if the one you are using is not working. Try out a few things quickly early on and then stick with the ones that work best.

8. Ants and insects were crawling over me.

This this did not particularly concern me, but the point still applies. You will get emotionally bitten by others, you will be constantly surrounded by objectors and discouragers. They will crawl around you and interfere with your work. Don’t ever let them get the better of you!

 

Not ready, set… Go!

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” – Chinese proverb.

I am sure that I am not the only person who frequently hears the umpteen variants of “Now is not a good time for me to take this on”, and I am certain that you too could write a list of 100 instances where you have heard – or uttered it yourself just in these first five months of 2014.

We are rarely ready.

At least not when it comes to mastery of a skill, a subject, the delivery of a product or service, or any kind of commitment that requires – we think – serious and considered evaluation.

But ultimately that is irrelevant!

I must confess, I have a tendency to labour something towards some futile level of perfection. However in many aspects of my life this obsession with perfecting ideas (and never launching them!) has cost me dearly. Sure, there are times – in particular with artistic creations – where refinement and being meticulous is important. But for most things that we undertake in life that we have a desire or a passion for we are already ahead of the pack in so many ways, it makes little or no difference. Being out there doing it is the only thing that matters.

I have learned that I will do OK, and you will probably do OK too.

What really stops us are never our technical or circumstantial hurdles.
It is our ATTITUDE.

When we commit to doing something that is uncomfortable, unfamiliar, daunting or downright scary, what is really going on is that we are willing to learn, to grow, to refine ourselves. We are raising OUR bar.

This willingness to learn is not time-locked, nor dependent on your current financial circumstances, how much time you have, how much disruption will result from it. That willingness to learn is the timeless key to the door of opportunity, and this key opens the door at any moment that you are prepared to receive the lesson.

You can wait until you have done all those things that you felt you needed to have sorted before commencing that next project. I guarantee that when that is done, you still won’t commit. Or you can launch into it, with its peculiarities, blunders and last minute-panic-patches, and be open to learn and course correct as you move forward. You can do it alone, or even better, do it with help (it will hurt a lot less that way!).

If you are willing to grow, then you are as ready now as you will ever be. If you are not open to learning, it does not matter how far you postpone it, you will never be ready enough to start.

Go write out the three most awesome things that you set out to do at the start of this year (and haven’t started yet), and put them into your calendar, starting now. Book yourself in to start. (remember you have already taken 5 months getting ready!).

Not ready? Set….. GO anyway!

Full Steam Ahead: Why You Have Everything You Need.

The new project. Today’s to-do list. Launching a new business. Finding a soul-mate. Changing careers. Whatever it is you wish to start, accomplish, create, finish or do, you have all you need. Right now. There is absolutely nothing in the way for you be in motion, wether this is to get started, to advance it, to finish it, to ship it.

I must admit, this was a hard lesson for me to grasp.

We must never confuse aspiration with necessity.

Yet we do.

Aspiration tells us where we want to go. Evidently we are not there, so in order to get there, we must first begin the journey. And any journey begins at the point where the decision to undertake it is made.

Necessity is the absolute minimum that we need to commence that journey. If you are reading this, there are very few things for which you do not have that absolute minimum, and everything else is within reach.

Provided that you do one important thing: take one next step.

Invest even just one minute writing down a list of things that you need to do in order to proceed with your project. Inevitably there will be things on that list that are not immediately possible or viable. And then there are other things that are absolutely doable, sometimes right at that very moment. That is your next step. Take it. It is not more complicated than that.

We complicate it by overlaying the aspirational circumstances over the present moment, and label it necessity.

                       And then……. we are stuck!

Throughout life we accumulate a magnificent toolkit of expertise, experience, wisdom and skills. Yet we rarely look into that toolkit. In fact I bet you are not even sure what tools are in yours, and you may not even be sure as to what some of those mysterious items can do. But in that toolkit is something that makes the next step possible.

Write that little list. Discover what is in your toolkit. Use it. In it is everything you need to take the next step. And with every new step you take, new things will appear in your toolkit.

You will need them……..

Later.

                        The ones you need now you already have.

The hardest thing that most never have the courage to do.

Justice.

It seems that this is one of the pivots of civilisation.

The scales that balance everything, impartially.

It moderates activites, it ensures appropriate behaviour, it provides a framework where righteousness bestows impunity, and wrongdoing elicits punishment. It is  the foundation of what we generally consider to be fair.

Of course it has some limitations and weaknesses that are most evident around big-picture economic and political matters, where conflicts of interests propagate into all sorts of absurd and outright inhumane propositions that are nevertheless are still strictly compliant. But in general terms we accept this principle as a given, and in most stable countries we are able to enjoy its benefits. It becomes an embedded part of our culture and our behavior and we apply it broadly and liberally to our lives. We like to be fair. We like others to be fair to us.

It is a profound expectation. And just as we expect fairness, we also expect that unfairness in whatever from should bring with it consequences. It is the foundation for all things from the business of remuneration for our knowledge, work or wares, all the way to religion. 

It makes life, and human transactions easy. Clear-cut. Even. Fair.

I am good to you, I expect you to be good to me, and as long as we all abide by this I can continue being good to you (and everybody will – or at least should be happy). We beat our chests with pride when we uphold this idea.

Natural law however does not work on fairness. Things are not even. We are not all equally happy.

We defend a small idea on the basis of righteousness against an unfair or unjust opponent, even as we laying waste to all that surrounds us, and yet we feel courageous because we have remained just and fair, stood the proverbial higher ground.

But there is something that takes a far greater courage, and it pays in ways that fairness can never pay. It creates wealth and happiness, it creates sanctuary, it revives, it renews, it is above the higher ground, – and oddly enough, it costs nothing!.

Compassion.

You may sigh tediously as you read this heavy word. But the simple fact is, you are probably not brave enough to truly practice it.
You see, in order to give it, you need to repeal all ideas of fairness. You have to reject justice. You have to forfeit your advantage. You have to silence all judgement. You have to smash the scales. You have to become partial. Partial to the “other”, the recipient of your compassion. You have to listen instead of speaking.

And compassion creates things that fairness can not.

It creates real trust.
      With trust comes sanctuary.
           With sanctuary comes healing.
                 With health comes inspiration.
                      With inspiration all things become possible.

Just pause for a moment an imagine what richness is possible when people are good to one another for no other reason than the belief that it is the right thing to do. I hope that with that thought you will find the courage to be compassionate where you could have been just, or fair, or right.

Our world is broken. Broken by too much fairness and justice. It can only be repaired with compassion.

Someone you meet today will need your compassion above all else, and will be grateful to you for it in ways that you can not imagine. Give it.

Shhhhhhh…..! No NEWS please.

Since becoming a parent I have noticed that I am more aware of the information that surrounds our space, particularly at home. We hear not just for ourselves, but also on behalf of our children, filtering and observing what meanings and interpretations are attributed to that information, or what effect it may have on their essentially fairly “new” brains.

We enjoy having mostly classical music on, but when the news comes on, I now temporarily mute the radio. This may appear extreme, so here is why we do it.

The first reason is that almost any news source provides a very warped experience of reality. The percentage of the population that actually experiences extreme events such as murder, accidental tragedies etc is a very small share of the population. The great majority of people aspire to live a normal and enjoyable life, be kind and compassionate to others and are mainly concerned about taking care of themselves and those close to them. Being offered a totality of news that is based almost exclusively around tragic events implies that nothing positive is occurring. In reality a lot more positive things are occurring every day than negative ones, we rarely hear about them.

The second reason is a phenomenon called “Normalisation”. It is a process that most often applied to deliberately “toughen up” people, in order to desensitize them to certain stimuli. When applied deliberately it can help prepare you for a specific situation. However through social media channels and news we are also exposed to “normalisation” unintentionally. This is a whole big subject on its own and merits exploring in separate post.

My main reason however is that news create mental noise.

Lots of it. In fact it creates the most noxious kind of noise.

Engaging noise.
Seductive noise.
Fearful noise.

A relentless noise that takes something very powerful away.

It takes away silence and fires up our inner conversation. It gives that voice a subject matter, mostly irrelevant to our own life (as most “news” is) and allows it to shout it over the top of our own intentions.

It takes away your presence of mind, and completely prevents you from being in a state of mindfulness.

It takes away your focus with futile preoccupation, and will forcibly wedge itself like a roadblock in between you and your goals, without fail.  

It takes away clarity, and muddles it with questions and foreign opinions.

It takes away creativity, by filling your blank page with assumptions and conclusions

I challenge to turn off the news. Radio, TV, www…. Allow yourself to be ignorant of the so called important events for a while (of course you can source your information elsewhere – from a deliberate and reliable source, and stick to what is actually relevant for you).

I can promise you that your days will become more productive, more purposeful, more accomplished, more fulfilling, and you will be aware of a lot more good around you. In fact you may be more inclined to cause some good around you too!.