Blog Archives

The Courage to be Vulnerable and Daring

iStock_000002128470XSmallMy intention is to live my life as fully awake as possible. Yet, the more I meditate, the more I realize how frequently I am on autopilot.  I was comforted to learn that this is a common realization among regular meditators, so I guess I am in good company. 

As a child I learned to distract myself from distressing realities, to block them out of my mind. Even though I have spent close to 35 years working on enhancing my self-awareness, I discovered that there is still a part of me that automatically falls back into my old avoidance pattern when I feel vulnerable.  It is a common human instinct to avoid unpleasantness so it is understandable that I have this tendency.  I try to notice when I start to fall back into this habit and change it as soon as I can.  However, I am also learning to respect my vulnerable feelings and accept myself when I am having difficulty overriding my urge to distract myself.

Brene Brown talks about the power of vulnerability and having the courage  to tell the story of who we are with a whole heart.  In her book, Daring Greatly, she quotes Theodore Roosevelt:

 “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly, who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds… who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly…”

It is a new year, so I have spent some time reflecting on the past year and setting my intentions for this year.

In reflecting on 2014, I thought about the courage it takes to continue to get to know myself, despite my urge to avoid thinking about it, and to take risks to reveal my vulnerabilities to others. I also dare to take risks to reach for higher and higher goals, stretching myself beyond my limiting beliefs about my capabilities. When I fall short of my goals, I try to give myself credit for daring to reach beyond my comfort zone  and try to think about it as a learning experience on the path to greater self-efficacy.  And mostly I am succeeding at looking at it that way. The most important lesson for me is that it is inevitable that I will make mistakes and that it is not necessary to hide my imperfections, because:

  1. being genuine is an important value for me
  2.  my authentic self includes all parts of me, even the imperfect parts 
  3. I want to learn to accept all parts of me, even the parts I want to change
  4. I want to fully embrace the belief that I am good enough as I am even when I fall short of my own expectations
  5. I want to let go of expectations as much as possible
  6. I have learned that the more I can accept myself as I am in the present, the more I can change what I need to change in order to keep growing and progressing towards my goals

 I see myself as a “diamond-in-the -rough” who needs to work on polishing the rough edges.  This past year my focus was on developing more discipline and improved habits.  While I am still not always consistent with my new habits, I am much more confident about my ability to keep plugging away at it until I get there.   This year I intend to work on becoming more mindful of my tendency to go into automatic pilot mode. I plan to work on  accepting and even embracing difficult situations as welcome challenges, rather than distracting myself when I feel vulnerable, so I can be more fully present  more of the time.  And I intend to work on polishing my rough edges by challenging the limiting beliefs  that interfere with my reaching my full potential.

In what ways do you take risks to “dare greatly”? What rough edges do you intend to work on polishing?  Please share your comments and reactions to this post below.

You might also enjoy Shifting Gears from Automatic Pilot to Mindful Attention and  7 Steps to Mindful Awareness.

 


7 Steps to Mindful Awareness

 Do you make regular visits to yourself?

–Rumi 

iStock_000002128470XSmallRecently, while reading the book True Refuge, by Tara Brach, PhD, I was struck by her concept of the sacred pause.  I appreciated her description of the steps involved in pausing and arriving in presence and started playing around with the concepts in my mind.  I began to conceptualize it a little differently because my original introduction to mindfulness, close to 20 years ago, was through the lens of Dialectical Behavior Therapy(DBT), which I started learning when I participated in my first week-long training with Marsha Linehan on how to teach clients mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotional regulation, and interpersonal effectiveness skills.  Beginning to integrate these two  approaches to mindfulness, as well as concepts learned from workshops and courses with Sharon Salzberg, Tara Brach, Ron Siegel and others, produced these seven steps to mindful awareness.

Step 1: Setting the intention

The first step in this process is to decide that it is important to pause and check in with yourself and then set your intention to do it. Setting aside a time and making a commitment to make it a priority helps make it more likely you will actually follow through with it. Meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg put it elegantly: “let the power of intention lead the way.”

Step 2: Pausing

Taking time out from our daily lives so we can reflect on our internal experience and get to know ourselves better starts with pausing.  I believe it is a sacred act because we are pausing in order to come home to ourselves instead of staying in “automatic pilot” mode all the time. 

One way to initiate the pause is to take three mindful breaths.  It is helpful to lengthen the out breath so that it is longer than the in breath, because this helps us to ‘step on the brakes’ by engaging the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, which slows down our breathing and heart rate and calms our bodies. 

Step 3: Arriving

Arriving involves sitting in an alert posture–attempting to find a balanced position that is upright, not slouched, yet relaxed, not stiff or tense–and then focusing attention on an anchor.  The anchor can be internal or external, depending on what keeps you in that state of balanced alertness–focused, but not too intensely, and relaxed, but not sleepy and zoned out. 

Options for internal anchors include continuing to focus on the breath or doing a body scan (see What is an interoceptive body scan meditation?). External anchors involve shifting the focus to become mindful of one or more external sights, sounds, scents or sensations (i.e. the tactile feel of anything you can touch).  An easy way to remember these external focal points is to think of the four ‘S’ senses, since all 4 words start with the letter ‘s’.

In a meditation course I took with Tara Brach through NICABM (National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine), the following was one of the ways she guided us to arrive in presence:

“Take some moments to arrive. You might just make sure your senses are awake so that as
you come into stillness, you find your posture that can support being alert and being relaxed.

As you close your eyes, take a moment to connect with what’s right here for you.
Let’s just notice if you can hear the sounds that are around you – just listen with receptivity.

Feel the life in your body. You might feel the sensations in your hands. You might loosen the belly a little and breathe in deeply. Let the out breath be gentle – feel the letting go. Once again, inhale deeply and then with a slow out breath – just let go.

Feel the breath and feel your body.”

 Step 4: Being Present

Once you have “arrived” you are in a state of alert stillness. The idea is to be fully here now.

Step 5: Noticing

The next step is to mindfully observe your present experience, including noticing what is happening in your body, both internal sensations and impulses to move a part of the body (like when you feel the urge to scratch an itch) and noticing any emotions and thoughts you are experiencing in the moment.  The following way of mindfully noticing is my adaptation of part of the Three Minute Breathing Space from the Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) curriculum that I learned during a NICABM course I am currently taking with Ron Siegel, PsyD on Mindfulness and Psychotherapy.

Now you can take the first step of becoming aware of what is going on with you right now.
Start to become conscious of what is going through your mind: what thoughts are around?
Here, as best you can, just notice thoughts as mental events, observing them without becoming attached to them.

Then note the feelings that are around at the moment. In particular, turn toward any
sense of discomfort or unpleasant feelings. So, rather than try to push them away or shut
them out, just notice them, perhaps thinking to yourself, “Ah, that’s how it is right now.”

And with sensations in the body, ask yourself, “Are there sensations of tensions, of holding,
of letting go? Are there any other sensations in the body? Are there any urges to move any
part of the body?” Become aware of them, simply noticing whatever is arising in this moment.

 Step 6: Accepting

Marsha Linehan talks about radical acceptance.  This means you are accepting even that which feels unacceptable about your present experience without judgment. However, recognizing that we are only human, we may not always be able to suspend judgment. Then it is important to radically accept our difficulty being able to accept what we are experiencing.

 Human beings are not able to achieve perfection, even though we strive for it.  Therefore, it is logical to accept our imperfect attempts at pausing and being mindfully present.  Research has demonstrated that we are distracted from our immediate goals an average of 47% of the time.  Therefore, it makes sense to accept mind wandering as inevitable.   Also, the urge to avoid unpleasantness and discomfort is a natural impulse, so we deserve acceptance and understanding when we resist facing uncomfortable realities.  So it becomes evident that this step is needed every step of the way, not just in chronological order.

Step 7: Returning

 The final step is one which is also necessary every step of the way, not just after completing the other six steps.  There are two important ways that we practice returning.  We gently  return our attention to mindful awareness of present experience when we notice that the mind has wandered, over and over again.  We also return our attention to our chosen anchor whenever we start to become too uncomfortable or overwhelmed by our present experience. Then we return to focusing on our broader experience again when we are ready.

 

What do you think of the concept of the sacred pause? How do you pause and become mindful of your internal experience? If you tried the above method, please share your experience below.

If you enjoyed this post, please share it with others. You may also enjoy reading, Seeking the Middle Way and Balancing Mindfulness of Emotions with Lovingkindness.


A 3-Step Process for Shifting Attention and Regaining Focus

iStock_000002128470XSmall

I am noticing a pattern in my efforts to develop healthy habits.  When I add a new habit to my routine, it causes a temporary setback in the habits that I already established. 

I recently started doing regular brain training exercises to enhance my memory, attention and flexibility through Lumosity. This coincided with an unanticipated change in my work schedule that caused me to have to leave 1/2 hour earlier in the morning, which  affected my meditation and exercise routine.  The first week, I played the brain training games on 6 out of 7 days but did not meditate or exercise at all.  The second week, I did brain training 4 times and also succeeded in meditating several times. Now in the third week I am continuing brain training and meditation and also getting more serious about exercising again. 

I decided to add brain training to my routine because:

  •  I have been watching people I care about struggle with memory loss as they get older and my memory has  never been great to begin with.
  • While I have greatly improved my ability to stay focused over the years, I still have difficulty shifting my focus when I am absorbed in something compelling and need to get other things done.

 After the first two weeks of brain training, I have already seen significant improvement in my working memory and selective attention and more limited improvement in flexibility through the task switching and response inhibition games.  Hopefully, doing both brain training and meditation will have a synergistic effect that helps me improve my mental flexibility since that has been the hardest skill for me to develop.

Mind wandering is an expected part of meditation.  Bringing my attention back to the focus of my meditation, whether it be my breathing, body sensations, sounds in the environment or my emotions, helps me to develop mental flexibility.   Wendy Hasenkamp and her colleagues at Emory University studied mind wandering and attention during focused concentration meditation and identified a 3-step process for resuming focus: awareness, shifting, and focusing.

  1. AWARENESS:  Becoming aware of mind wandering during meditation helps me to practice monitoring conflicts between my intentions and my actions, my goals and obstacles to achieving them. This is believed to be a function of the salience network of the brain, which helps distinguish between relevant and distracting stimuli, according to Wendy Hasenkamp and her colleagues.
  2. SHIFTING: The most challenging skill for me to apply in my daily life is to be able to shift or reorient my attention as needed.  This skill involves the executive network of the brain, which is thought to activate attentional disengagement and redirection skills for the purpose of following through on tasks deemed relevant to goal achievement.  The flexibility games in Lumosity appear to develop the same skills; the response inhibition games seem to be designed to promote attentional disengagement and the task switching games seem to be excellent practice for redirection of focus.
  3. FOCUSING: The focus phase is what I have been practicing the most, both through meditation and persistent  choosing to prioritize practicing new habits. Hasenkamp and her colleagues believe the focusing phase involves executive system working memory. This involves keeping goals in mind through repetitive selection, or active rehearsal, to achieve sustained attention.    I suspect that the development of my focusing ability is the reason why my working memory and selective attention skills in Lumosity are showing so much improvement and why I have been able to get back on track so quickly when obstacles interfere with my routine.

 Does your mind wander a lot?  Do you have difficulty with awareness, shifting, and focusing skills?  Have you tried anything that has helped you to improve these skills?  Please share your thoughts below.  


Harnessing Radical Acceptance & “I Want” Power to Enhance Self-Control

APA-BlogDayBadge-2014The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that persuades you to get up to meditate and exercise when you feel like staying in bed, helps you to resist the extra helping of dessert, and motivates you to start working on the project that you feel like putting off until tomorrow.  According to Robert Sapolsky, a neurobiologist at Stanford University,  the main purpose of the prefrontal cortex is to bias the brain towards choosing to do “the harder thing.” 

Kelly McGonigal describes the three regions of the prefrontal cortex involved in motivating us to make the harder choices as specializing in “I will” power, “I won’t” power and “I want” power. The region near the upper left side of the prefrontal cortex handles “I will” power. It helps you start and stick to boring, difficult or stressful tasks. The right side of the prefrontal cortex specializes in “I won’t” power, helping you resist urges.  The third region, in the middle of the prefrontal cortex, focuses on your desires, goals and priorities and helps you decide what you really want in life, then set the intention to pursue it.  

I am getting much better at “I won’t” power.  I am much more able to resist unhealthy food choices than I used to be and I am successfully losing weight. I have made a lot of progress with “I will” power, as demonstrated by my efforts to add daily meditation and exercise to my routine.  When I do concentration meditation focusing on lengthening the breath in the morning I am much more likely to choose to exercise that day.  I did it 5 days in a row one week and then 3 times the following week. However, it is still very easy for me to fall out of the habit. 

The good news is that I am motivating myself to get back on the horse much sooner than ever before.  Partly this is because I am not judging my lapses in discipline as failures.  I am practicing what Sharon Salzberg refers to as “stealth meditation,” incorporating mindfulness into my day, not just during formal meditation practice. One form of stealth meditation is practicing radical acceptance and self-compassion over and over again when I have setbacks in my efforts towards achieving my goals. That helps me get back on track faster.  The other thing that is helping me get back on track is that I am investing a lot of “I want” power into this endeavor.  I have made a commitment to keep working on developing healthy self-care habits and I am quite persistent when I am determined to accomplish a particular goal. 

In what ways do you use “I will” power, “I won’t” power, and “I want” power? Which of these forms of willpower are challenging for you? What do you do to try to overcome these challenges? Please share your thoughts  in the comments section below.

For information about Mental Health Blog Day and to read other contributor’s posts, follow this link:  http://ow.ly/wSKlZ 

 

If you are interested in reading more about Kelly McGonigal and “The Willpower Instinct,” you can read the following posts:

A Willpower Tug-of-War Between Different Parts of Self

Can Simple Breathing Exercises Enhance Self-Discipline?

For more information about Sharon Salzberg’s meditation strategies, you can read:

Seeking the Middle Way

Balancing Mindfulness of Emotions with Lovingkindness


A New Blog for the New Year

iStock_000002128470XSmallThe New Year is a time of reflection and rededication to striving to overcome  bad habits.  In reflecting on my own personal growth journey and the areas that continue to challenge me, I decided it was time to work on it in a more disciplined and structured way.  My old way of approaching things has helped me only so far.  Now I have decided that I need to shift the balance.  Up until now, I emphasized acceptance over change, when it came to personal habits.  I accepted my own difficulty maintaining structure and the need to keep starting over and over again.

This new blog is part of the new plan.

Setting my intentions and committing to them publicly is a way of holding myself accountable and receiving support for my efforts.  I also plan to be more systematic in my approach.  Instead of trying to change several things at once, I am learning from my experience.  What I noticed is that when I focused on being more disciplined about one thing, it became harder to be more disciplined about another thing. Recently, I was going to the gym twice a week and exercising at home other mornings.  When I tried to be more structured in my meditation practice, my exercise routine suffered.  So I intend to focus on one goal at a time and to stick with that goal until it is a more automatic part of my routine before trying to change something else.

There is some research to back up this approach.  In a review by Mark Muraven and Roy Baumeister in the 2000 edition of the Psychological Bulletin (Vol. 126, No. 2) entitled, “Self-Regulation and Depletion of Limited Resources: Does Self-Control Resemble a Muscle?”, the authors concluded that the inhibition component of executive functioning relies on a limited, consumable resource, that needs replenishment.  Resisting temptation to indulge in extra sleep or go on the computer instead of meditating in the morning, for example, would make it harder to exert self-control to follow through on exercising.

So once meditating is more of an automatic habit, then it won’t be using up my self-control reserve and I can apply it to become more consistent about exercise.  So far, I have meditated every morning for the past week.  I am off to a good start!

Now the question remains, how long do I need to work on meditation before I can move on to focus on exercise? More on that in next week’s post.

 What intentions are you setting for the new year?  What strategies are you using to try to achieve your goals?