Tag Archives: attention

Meditation Monday #27: Ocean Blues

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”

– Shunryu Suzuki, from Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

Have you ever noticed that your mood can be changed by being around water?  Bodies of water, including oceans, can be part of moodtraining.

I have had occasion to experience many different waters over the years…from the frigid fjords of Norway to the tropical surf of Costa Rica.  This weekend, as I make my annual trek to Ocean Isle Beach, NC, to vacation with family, I am mindfully aware of how sensitive mood can be to the ocean in particular.

While it is easy to reminisce about fond memories of childhood trips to the beach (which is fun in its own right, and often a mood lifter!), it can be a little more challenging to see & experience the ocean for what it is, rather than what I think it is, or what I associate it with from years past.  Those are just stories, enjoyable as they are.  The actual experience of being by the ocean, in the moment, moment by moment, being present with “how it is right now” is different.  It is a form of mindfulness practice, to let go of a story and directly experience the way things are, on a sensory level.

Sitting out on the beach, we can lose track of time, absorbed in the momentary joy, content, and awe of simply gazing out at the ocean blues.  As we look with discernment, or Beginner’s Mind, we can see that the ocean has many different blues.  The water actually isn’t all the same color.  There are variations.  From lighter, more turquoise color closer to the shore, to deeper, blue-green hues further out.  The ocean blues also change with the sunlight.  In direct light, the blue colors can shimmer, and as clouds pass by overhead, the same colors can appear duller or matte.  And similarly with the blues of the sky.  Some areas are fainter, intermixed with white, and other areas are deeper, more brilliant blue, perhaps more eye-catching.

These kinds of observations & realizations parallel mindfulness practice itself, which involves different layers and depths.

This summer, try being mindful of your ocean blues if you are at the beach, and notice if there is a shift in your level of awareness, your mood, even your sense of connection with something larger.

There is simple pleasure to be found in opening up the senses and taking in the ocean with a Beginner’s Mind.  As a meditative practice, focusing on the senses helps us get beyond our relatively narrow sense of Self in order to access a new way of seeing, and perhaps a new way of being.  Even if it’s only for a moment or two at a time, the latest research on mindfulness suggests that mindful states can support mindful traits, which in turn, can lift mood and boost enjoyment in life!

Meditation Monday #26: Waves of Change

This week waves of change are approaching, as my wife prepares to take a new job in a different city.  After living together for 15 years, it will definitely be a major adjustment.

It is a life transition with mixed emotions.  Excitement for the new and long-awaited opportunity.  Happiness and joy for the new career step.  Apprehension about living apart.  And uncertainty about the year ahead, and my professional future thereafter.

Meditation practice has always taught me that change is ever-present.  Meditating on the breath, it doesn’t take long to notice that each in-breath smoothly transitions to an out-breath, without even having to try.  Meditating on sounds, I can hear the sound of the breath and the sound of my heart beat within me, and then other sounds outside the body — the sound of a fan whirring in the room next door, the hum of the building, the sound of a summer thunderstorm passing by overhead.  Meditating on thoughts, I can observe waves of planning, wondering, and even worrying about how things will work out after my wife moves to begin her new job.  The common thread that weaves all of my experiences and observations together, though, as I sit here is that I know change is happening within me & around me, every moment.  Sitting to meditate and observe change, without interfering with it, can help the change process seem more manageable.

Years ago I read the book “What You Can Change, and What You Can’t”, by Martin Seligman.  I have since learned that, for me, meditation practice can seem like doing nothing, but somehow that is a very nice antidote to the pressure of having to do something.  Especially when the something isn’t quite clear.

Here are three steps to practice meditating on waves of change, whenever they roll your way:

  1. You can begin by closing your eyes and taking a couple of nice relaxing sighs.  Breathe in deep enough to feel your chest and belly expand, and then breathe out slowly, letting the breath go completely. Repeat.
  2. With your eyes still closed (or open if you prefer), begin to sense the waves of change happening within you and around you.  First, noticing how each in-breath transitions to an out-breath.  Following that changing sensation for a few moments.  Then, noticing how your heart rhythmically alternates between beating and resting.  Getting a sense for what that oscillation and circulation feels like in the body.  Then, expanding your awareness to notice sounds coming and going in the room.  Outside your room.  Or even outdoors.  Noticing the fluctuation between hearing sounds that are nearby, and those that are farther away. Staying with sounds for a while as they change, without having to interfere with them.  Just letting sounds come to you, like you are a receiver.  Then, noticing whatever it is you are thinking right now.  Without having to change what you are thinking — without even judging it — just noticing whatever it is you are thinking.  And letting those thoughts be for now.  Seeing where a thought goes as you observe it, again without interfering, without feeding into it, and without pushing the thought away.  If anything, welcoming the thought  right now.  After all, it’s already here!  Observing whether that thought continues, shifts to some other topic, or changes in any way.  Thoughts in the mind are often like pulses or rhythms in the body, or fluctuating sounds, they are ever-changing, yet we don’t have to change them.  Core skills of meditation are attending, non-striving, and not reacting — qualities we can cultivate during open monitoring meditation.  Noticing.  Observing.  Seeing.  Hearing.  Feeling.  And letting be, in the moment.  See if you can practice meditating on the waves of change in body sensations, sounds, and thoughts for another minute or two.
  3. Then, when you are ready, taking a couple of those nice relaxing sighs again.  Opening your eyes if they were closed.  And appreciating whatever you noticed about the waves of change you just experienced.

Is there any insight or understanding about change that could apply beyond this moment?  In a way, moodtraining is all about change!

Meditation Monday #25: MRI Meditation

Observation is the first step of the scientific method.  This past Wednesday, I had the opportunity to be both the subject of study, as well as the experimenter, when I found myself deep within the inner confines of an MRI machine.

It wasn’t the first MRI I’ve had, however, coming face to face with bright lights inside the tube, and having to listen to disorienting sequences of loud, harsh, mechanical sounds while laying completely still was a formidable mental and physical challenge.

Fortunately, mindfulness is equal-opportunity awareness.  Therefore, being mindful is possible even in stressful and disorientating situations.  As I lay inside the MRI machine, I knew some of the core principles of mindfulness — including equanimity, non-reactivity, focusing on my present-moment experience, and noting and letting go of stories about past MRI experiences of future implications of this scan — could help me turn a potentially distressing experience into a tolerable, and even an interesting, one.

Could being in an MRI machine for nearly an hour really be part of my meditation practice that day?  Of course!

In the spirit of helping the approximately 10 MILLION people every year who undergo MRI exams, I offer the following steps for MRI meditation.  These steps represent the steps involved in the scientific method, which are quite consistent with the steps of mindfulness meditation practice.  Feel free to use the steps yourself next time you undergo a medical procedure or diagnostic exam, or share with a friend, family member, or colleague who might benefit, as well!

  1. Make an observation.  What do you see?  Is there light?  What color is it?  How bright is it?  Is it constant or steady, or does is brighten and dim, or flicker or change?  Just notice and observe whatever you can about light in the scanner.  And, as best you can, let it be.  What do you hear?  Can you allow sounds to just be sounds?  Letting whatever judgments that may arise about sounds come & go, just like the sequences of sounds themselves?  Can you experience sounds as just pulsing?  Just rhythm?  Just a pattern?  Can you notice any emotional reactions to sounds — perhaps wishing the harsh sounds were over, or wondering why they need to be so loud and so long anyway?  Letting your emotional experience be, without having to escape or suppress it.  You can simply observe.  Moment by moment.  Looking, listening, breathing, being.  Meditating on all that you observe, as each object of attention enters your (mindful) awareness.
  2. Ask a question.  Even as your mind and body are undergoing the somewhat strange experience of being scanned, you might ask, “Is my awareness itself distressed, or confined?”  Maybe not.  And the realization that at least one part of you is able to observe the whole experience in a detached, but fully present, sort of way can be relieving and reassuring.
  3. Form a hypothesis. Your hypothesis might be something like, “I can’t stand this harsh noise any longer.”  Or, “I don’t know if I can take feeling confined like this for another minute!”  Or even, “I need to get out of here!  I better squeeze the alarm button so they can stop the scan.”  Alternatively, your hypothesis might be something like, “I can pay attention to my breath for this 3-minute sequence.”  Or, “If I focus on being mindful, non-judgmental, and compassionate toward my inner experience and my surroundings during the MRI scan, I can get through it just fine.”
  4. Conduct an experiment.  Test your hypothesis first by challenging the initial thought.  From the perspective of mindfulness and meditation, thoughts are not facts!  What you think may happen may not.  Plenty of thoughts, worries, and stressful preoccupations never materialize, so why believe them so easily without testing them out?  Once you notice a thought that qualifies as a hypothesis — an expectation about what might happen — see if you can actually meditate on your present-moment experience, using all of your senses, letting stories or automatic judgments about your experience go, as best you can.  If you need something to focus on, you can try counting your breaths in cycles of 10, which is an effective way to concentrate and calm yourself at the same time.
  5. Accept or reject your hypothesis.  Meditation practice is often said to be simple, but not easy! With moodtraining, we get good at what we practice, and we see emotions as information.  With a little bit of mindfulness practice, MRIs and other medical tests and procedures don’t have to be so stressful, anxiety-producing, or distressing after all!

Meditation Monday #24: The Magic Hour

I’ve learned to think about dusk in a new way.  It’s called the “Magic Hour” — the hour right before the sun sets, when daylight turns to twilight.

My wife learned about the Magic Hour during The Creative Joy retreat, held last week in Garrison, NY.  According to retreat co-leader Tracey Clark, “Learning to see the beauty around us is the first step in finding our joy.  By observing the world—color, space, shadow and light—we are able to create and carry a perspective that is rooted in appreciation and gratitude.”

The picture above from my hotel in Nags Heads, NC reflects the qualities of color, space, shadow and light that I observed when using the perspective of the Magic Hour.  I will say that it was definitely a joyful experience to look at the world through a new perspective — one that is consistent with both my mindfulness practice, and the core principles of moodtraining.

Even after a prolonged day at the office on Friday, which cut into my eagerly anticipated long-weekend on the Outer Banks, I felt an appreciable uplift in my mood not only by being at the beach, but by deliberately learning to look at ordinary things in a new way.  For me, this was a real-life example of how we can optimize our mood, anytime and anywhere.

From a scientific perspective, positive emotions like happiness, satisfaction with life, appreciation, and gratitude, not only feel good emotionally, they can also protect cardiovascular health according to new research at Harvard.  Some of the physical health benefits of positive emotions appear to be partly explained by a number of important biological markers, including lower blood pressure, better lipid (blood fat) profiles, and normal body weight, as well as adequate sleep.

If you be will taking any vacation this summer — or even if you plan to stay home — be on the lookout for the Magic Hour!  You may be surprised to find how easy it is to boost your mood simply by looking at the same things in a different way — a way of conscious attention, keen observation, creativity, and joy.  What will YOU notice that brightens your day, and your mood?

From a meditation perspective, call it part of your daily mindfulness practice!  Being in the moment always counts, wherever you are.

Meditation Monday #22: We Are What We Think

Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.”

– Buddha

I just returned from a week of enlightenment in upstate New York, literally and figuratively! In the literal sense, the Mind & Life Summer Research Institute featured a week of presentations illuminating the ways in which contemplative practices like meditation, yoga, and tai chi can influence brain structure, function, connections, and signals between nerve cells.According to the theory of neurophenomenology, we are what we think.During our training this past week, both the scientific discussions and the periods of guided meditation practice focused on the theme of embodiment.

 Embodiment is first-hand, direct, sensory experience of the body in the present moment, without thinking about it.  Other times, we were explicitly encouraged to be aware of our thinking during meditation, yoga, and tai chi, and to choose thoughts that reinforced our intentions and motivations for being there in the first place.  For example: to help reduce suffering in the world; to increase happiness, well-being, and flourishing for everyone we serve; to operate from a perspective of interconnectedness, rather than separation.  And finally, to have faith in ourselves, and not try too hard in the process.

This week’s guided meditation practice provides an opportunity to sense embodiment, while also letting go of mental proliferation by not striving to make things different than they already are.  As you do this week’s practice, I also encourage you to be aware of your intention behind the practice.  What good may come of practicing a few minutes of meditation today, right now?  Can you sense that you are not only practicing for yourself, but for others, too?  Enjoy…

 

Meditation Monday #22: We Are What We Think by moodtraining.com

Meditation Monday #20: Flourish & Thrive

What’s RIGHT with you?

This week we will meditate on the positive in life.  In the past decade or so, positive psychology has emerged to help people optimize their mood & enhance their well-being.

In contrast to conventional clinical psychology and psychiatry, which primarily focus on fixing what’s WRONG (i.e., treating mental disorders), positive psychology aims to identify people’s “signature strengths” and virtues, and leverage them toward flourishing and thriving.

Of course, both approaches to mental health can have tremendous value, and they are not mutually exclusive.  If surviving is not thriving, then perhaps optimal mental health might come from integrating these perspectives?

In a lecture based on his new book Flourish (Free Press, 2011), one of the founding fathers of positive psychology, Dr. Martin Seligman, describes the five elements of well-being (PERMA) that help people flourish and thrive:

Positive emotion (including happiness and life satisfaction)

Engagement (being fully absorbed in an activity)

Relationships (that are mutually supportive, caring, fun, and loving)

Meaning (purpose in life, connection with something larger than oneself)

Achievement (sense of accomplishment)

Today, try this guided meditation practice on PERMA, and see how you’re able to flourish and thrive this week, and beyond!

Meditation Monday #20: Flourish & Thrive by moodtraining.com

 

 

Meditation Monday #19: Room with a View

During a recent trip to the Oregon Coast with my family, we had a room with a view, much like this.

The feeling of walking down to Haystack Rock from the weathered beach access path inspired awe and a sense of transcendence, reminiscent of Henry David Thoreau in Walden.  It was a meditative experience, supported by mindful, moment-to-moment attention to the sights, sounds, smells, and movement of nature.

Mindfulness meditation practice has been described as “coming to our senses”, both literally and figuratively.  With mindfulness practice, we literally pay attention to each of our senses, as layers of present-moment awareness begin to open, one after another, allowing us to be fully where we are.  Mindfully seeing shapes and forms.  In the picture above, weathered wood, leading down to the beach.  Green sea grasses along the way.  Further out, light brown sand that darkens as it absorbs the receding surf.  A spectrum of blues and grays in the sky, framing a massive, sunlit rock at the Pacific water’s edge.  Out by the rock itself, mindfully aware of the sounds of seagulls and puffins calling, vigilant to the possibility of a bald eagle stealthily soaring in.  Me standing.  Looking.  Listening.  Also cognizant of the moist, salty sea air with each in-breath, each step.  Mindful of my own movement, and the movement of the wind and other living things.

By literally coming to our senses, experiencing a mindful state engenders a mindful trait.  A trait associated with awareness that is much broader than Self.  A trait that supports optimal mood & emotional balance.  A trait that enriches everyday life experience, one moment at a time, as you pay attention.

Modern neuroscience continues to verify that brain systems involved in paying attention, sensory awareness, emotional processing, and sense of Self are all implicated in the link between mindfulness, meditation, and mental health.

This summer, you can draw on your own natural ability to be mindful, and experience what it’s like to have a room with a view!

Meditation Monday #17: Pet Sitting

It’s amazing how the simple act of sitting with another being — sharing a moment of quiet & calm — can instantaneously shift our mood.

Over the past 10 years or so, I have tried to practice “pet sitting” as part of my daily meditative experience.  To me, pet sitting simply means sitting with my pets.  Nothing else.  Giving them my full attention, even for a couple of minutes when I come home from work, or before I go to bed.  Whether they are awake or sleeping isn’t so important.  What matters is the sense of being fully present with another living being.  A being I care for.  A being I love.  Deliberately paying attention, even if “nothing” is happening.

Scientific research has found that owning and holding a pet are both associated with lower blood pressure and other physiological indicators of stress.  This is possible because being with our pets influences our brain, and therefore our mood, and our physiology.

Make no mistake, when Dharma (our sable Burmese cat, pictured above) dives headlong into her bowl of breakfast nuggets, sending 100 or more tiny nuggets flying across the kitchen, being mindful and non-reactive isn’t easy.  But, that’s why it’s called meditation practice!  The more you practice “on the cushion” (in this case, with your pet!), the easier it is to apply mindful attention & awareness in other (more stressful) situations.

This week, if you have a pet (borrow one from a friend or family member if you need to!), try the meditative practice of pet sitting to reduce stress, let go of anger or frustration, let go of worries for a little while, and just relax, connect & optimize your mood.

First, if you can hold a pet in your lap, hold it mindfully, with full awareness.  Really feel the softness or coarseness of its fur or hair.  Can you feel a sensation of warmth, or perhaps coolness?  What about any sense of vibration, or movement within the body?  Notice your pet’s coloring, as if seeing this color for the first time.  Is the coloring even?  Does it change slightly, or dramatically as you look?

Next, become aware of the weight of your pet.  Is it light?  Perhaps barely noticeable?  Or maybe somewhat heavy, or very heavy?  Just noticing whatever weight is present, particularly the points of contact with you.

Then, see if you can observe your pet’s breathing.  The in-breath filling the body.  The out-breath releasing.  In, and out.  In, and out.  Observing the rhythm of the breath for a few cycles.

And, finally, noticing the sense of your own body.  For a moment, can you embody the qualities of mindful attention, awareness & receptivity?  Just sitting.  Pet sitting.  Being present together in this moment, now.  Can you feel a sense of connection, happiness & content?

Meditation Monday #16: Possibilities

We have more possibilities in each moment than we realize.”

– Thich Nhat Hanh

Stress, anxiety, and irritable moods are often tied to feeling constrained or limited in some way, as if our options are limited.

Through meditation, we can quickly realize, however, that there are more possibilities in this moment than we realize.

Try this brief (5-min.) guided meditation to expand your sense of possibilities for optimizing your mood, your performance, and your sense of presence & control…right here, right now!

Meditation Monday #16: Possibilities by moodtraining.com

 

image: [Dave Dunford]

Meditation Monday #15 – Compassion and Attention Meditation

Two  key processes trained by meditation are those of compassion and attention.

These are often trained individually, but darn the rules, we here like to mix it up a little and therefore suggest the following meditation.

Here’s what you’ll do:

Upon breathing in, focus on the sensation of the breath filling your lower belly.

Pause briefly, then slowly exhale.

As you exhale, imagine yourself spreading compassion outwards to everything and everyone.

So as you breathe in, focus your attention again on your own body, filling up your inner resevoir. Then pause and spread compassion outwards upon the out breath. Notice your ability to generate compassion grow with each cycle, and then again allow your mind to return to yourself and filling your reserves as you breathe in.

This mixture of self- and other-focused awareness allows us to not only take care of ourselves, but also those around us. In time we can build our compassion muscles. Remember,  you are what you repeatedly do!

Ready?

Take just 5 minutes for yourself. How about right now?
Listen, there are 288 of these chunks during a day, you can spare one for some moodtraining!

 Start by breathing in.5 breaths is about a minute. 5×5 = 5 minutes.

 Go.   : )
image: [jamiesrabbits]