Self-Awareness 101 — You are not your thoughts

“I think, therefore I am!” Descartes’ quote was great in its time, but I think it overshadows a larger reality. Most of us spend our time fully in our brains. We remind ourselves of what we need to do, the on-going “To Do” lists. We rehash conversations, worry about our futures, count calories, rewrite the past and generally spend most of our days paying attention to the blah, blah, blah going on in our minds.

This overriding tendency is getting much, much worse with the advent of cell phones and the ubiquitous nature of technology. The word generating part of our brains can now also post to social media, send tweets, text, write emails and the list goes on and on and is likely getting longer as you read this.

Truth is, there is a part of our brains that does nothing all day except generate words. It is its entire function. If you are reading this or writing, or having a conversation, that is a good thing. We need it. We have learned to navigate our world by interacting and speaking to one another. Problem is, when we aren’t having a conversation in the real world, we are still paying attention to this voice.

To illustrate this point, I want to ask if you have ever driven home from work,  or to a place you go frequently and when you arrived you have no recollection of the drive? If you have never experienced this, let me just say, it has been used as a defence in court and it was so familiar to those overseeing the case, that it was accepted as a likely thing to have occurred.

So where were you at the time? Likely, completely engaged with the word generating part of your brain. You were lost in your thoughts about whatever the word generating part of your brain likes to focus on. See list above for some examples.

Exercise 1

Try something with me. READ THIS PART TO YOURSELF AND PAY ATTENTION TO HOW YOU EXPERIENCE READING.

That sounds abstract, so let me try to explain what I mean. Think of the bolded part above. Reread it if necessary. What actually happens in your brain when you read? For many, but certainly not all, they hear the words in their mind. Read it again and see if that is true for you.

So, if you “hear” the words, who is listening? This is important. You, the real you, is the one listening to the words. The words themselves were just what you were reading on the page. In this example, it is clear that the words are what were written on the page and “you” are the one listening.

Let’s take it one step further. If you are not reading and you are listening to your “To Do” list, for example, you are still the one listening. In other words, the word generating part of your mind is not who you are. Since its entire job is to keep babbling on all day, many of us confuse it for who we are. When it starts to tell us things, we believe we are hearing our own voice. We may be hearing something a fourth-grade teacher told us years ago. You see, it is easier for the word generating part of our mind to keep repeating itself than it is for it to come up with new material.

Exercise 2

There is another way to illustrate this. It has become quite common in cartoons and movies to see someone trying to make a decision. In the movie, a “good angel” will be standing on one shoulder talking into one ear of the character. A “bad devil” will be standing on the other shoulder giving the opposite advice.

You can try this yourself. Hold your hands out in front of you, palms up. Picture yourself in natural, flowing carefree clothing standing on one hand. Now, picture yourself in a tight, very formal, army uniform standing on the other hand.

Take the time to see these two aspects of yourself. Now think of an on-going argument you have with yourself. Let’s see, maybe you are trying to cut out carbs, but love muffins. Or perhaps, you have promised yourself daily exercise but it is cold and wet outside. You know your own struggles, pick something that you can relate to. Visualize these two aspects of yourself arguing their points of view.

Carbs make you fat! I like muffins. You must exercise! I’d rather be warm and comfortable. … You get the idea. Take a moment to do this bit right now. I’ll wait.

I’m sure none of this is new to you, except perhaps picturing yourself standing on your hands. What I want to illustrate is that you are neither of the people standing on your hands. You are the one observing the argument. You are the one listening to the debate. The debate is being created by the word generating part of your brain. You are the one observing.

Why is this important?

This is an introductory blog, so I’ll just focus on the Top Three highlights. Let’s just say, this is really, really important.

1. If you think the words in your mind are you, you may not question what they are saying.

This is a real problem if they are mean, destructive or undermine your self-confidence. Once you realize the words aren’t you, you can question what you say to yourself, or better yet, change what you say.

2. Being lost in your mind means you are not paying attention to your life.

If you “forget” the drive in, you also didn’t notice the cute dog that was playing ball; the beautiful trees beside the road; the sky, clouds, sunshine and you didn’t notice anything going on outside of your mind. This becomes important because you miss opportunities. You might not notice something that may have brought you joy.

3. If you believe you are the words in your mind, you are not honouring your true self.

Emotions get pushed out of the way, body sensations are completely ignored and your experience of the world becomes very limited.

Take some time today and focus your attention on the world around you. There is no need to narrate what you are seeing or to make a judgement about the quality of it or whether it is good or bad. Just observe it. Expand your awareness to the temperature, smells, sounds and sensations of your body. Isn’t that a nice break from the chatter? Your thoughts are not who you are. You are way more than that.

Moments

Our life is composed of moments. We like to dream about wonderful things like unfathomable riches, or a great vacation, getting that ring or promotion, but the truth is, we are living right now.

So, how do you feel right now? It is not too much of a leap to guess that you are warm, fed, clothed and have access to the internet. You are reading this, so you must be! But do you feel like you are OK? Are you savouring it?

Not too long ago I was faced with a relatively minor decision. I could pay $40.00 to take a “short cut” on the drive home, or I could drive over an hour through rush hour traffic, likely bumper to bumper.

Being fully conscious of my values and priorities, I decided to put some good music on, put the roof of my car down and just go through the traffic.

I could’ve stressed about the congestion, damming all of the people around me, wishing those in charge had made better planning decisions and been angry the entire way home. Or, I could recognize those around me were stressed, give them a little compassion and listen to some good music. It takes such little effort to drive that slow!

It may seem like a small thing, and it was, but our entire life is like that. A long time ago, I decided I didn’t want to look back on my life and see only stress and turmoil. For that drive, I was content. I knew it would take over an hour. An hour of my life I wanted to enjoy, not stress over.

Choosing to be happy now, even in gridlock, means that increasingly my life becomes filled with moments of contentment and joy. Isn’t that what we all want? Why not choose to be happy now? 

Are Your Thoughts Making You Sick?

photoThe placebo effect has long been recognized as a real phenomenon. When people believe that they are receiving something that is going to help them, it often helps them, even if what they receive is a sugar pill. This complicates drug trials because in order to show that a new drug is beneficial, drug companies have to be able to prove not only that the test subjects did better, they need to prove that the test subjects did better than people receiving sugar pills.

This effect goes way beyond sugar pills in scientific studies. Mondloch (2001) examined several studies about the placebo effect and found that under very different situations, positive expectations regarding medical procedures were associated with better health outcomes.

It turns out that the opposite is true as well. The “nocebo” or negative placebo effect was identified as early as 1961. If you think that medication will do you harm you are more likely to experience negative symptoms, even if it is a sugar pill (Barksky, 2002). If you believe that your treatment won’t work, you may be hindering the results.

In addition to this, Messina, et al, (2010) were able to show that skeptical people and those that harboured a generalized dislike, distrust, or hatred of other people did not do as well during cancer treatment. This effect was more pronounced than changing the types of medications that the individuals were given to treat the cancer.

So, if what we believe, our attitude and how we treat other people can have a positive or negative impact on our health, isn’t it time to pay attention to what we are telling ourselves about our lives?

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This book follows “North Star” by Martha Beck. It goes deeper and further examines our connection with ourselves.

 

Post Narcissism — Searching for Normal

IMG_2077One of the questions that I often get on my blog is, “How do you fully recover from a narcissist?” As I am currently in the process, I’ll let you know what I have tried and what has brought relief, but I am not claiming that I am all of the way out of the darkness.

What I can say is that there is more joy now in my life than there ever was while I was living with a narcissist. The act of removing myself from the environment and then separating myself as completely as possible from the drama made room for all kinds of joy and satisfaction to flood in. On an average day I am content, happy and I feel like the world is full of opportunity and promise. That is a good thing.

I have been helped along the way by meditating and journaling. I hesitate to write that because that is where most people stop as though doing those two things results in immediate healing of all symptoms and a reversion to the innocence you once had. This was not my experience.

What these two practices did, in summary, was made me aware of my thoughts and feelings. As these two elements surface, it gave me an opportunity to look at them, see if they were serving me and decide whether or not I wanted to hold onto them. A few examples will help illustrate what I am trying to say.

One thought I had was, “I should’ve acted differently.” (substitute in anything here: faster, more forcefully, more honestly, more decisively, more intuitively, more in defense of myself). Really? This thought does not hold up to examination for two reasons. First, I was doing my best with the information that I had at the time. Second, thoughts like this keep you caught in a pattern of wishing things were different. The past will never be different. Find a way to accept that you acted the way you did and just embrace it. Forgive yourself if you need to. The point is, when you are stuck thinking that things should have been different, you are stuck. Try: “It happened. I am no longer there.”

This sounds like word games, but it stops the inevitable next thoughts that begin to rewrite how things should be now if you had acted differently then. “I wasted so much time.” “If I had acted differently they would have loved me back.” “I should’ve seen my situation earlier and more clearly” blah, blah, blah…. you didn’t. I didn’t. Lets move on.

Another thing I became aware of was all of the emotions that I was still harboring: resentment, hate, love, anger, jealousy, regret, and so on, and so on. These emotions need to be honoured, not analyzed. You feel whatever you feel. Regardless of how bad these things are, they are only emotions. Let yourself experience them as much as you can and they lose their power over you. Allowing myself to feel all of the emotions that surface has allowed me to release decades of old pain. I have remembered how scared I was as a five year old getting my tonsils out in the hospital; how devastated I was when my dog died when I was a teenager and other equally traumatic things that occurred.

The process goes like this. You are present in the moment and you notice the slightest flicker of an emotion. Focus all of your attention on that flicker. If you are like me, you have learned to immediately push these slight emotional whispers aside and pretend they are not there. Try to break this habit. Notice the flicker. Sit with the thought that brought it on for a moment and let the emotion expand. When you fully experience the connection to the memory that holds the pain, you are likely to have an emotional response: laughter, tears, rage… Once you have allowed the emotion to be expressed it is no longer as painful.

I can now remember the anguish of my dog dying without the extremely painful hurt it caused. I had been holding down this pain for over thirty years. Think of how much energy and focus that took!

If you are like me, you may be harboring emotions that should have been expressed a long time ago and not all of them are related to the narcissist that you had in your life. Releasing these feelings is like opening a gateway that lets emotions flow out and creativity, joy and connection flow into your world.

This is an ongoing exercise that is allowing me to go deeper and deeper into who I am at my core. The true me. The complete me. Which brings me to another truth. In order to survive where I was living, I learned to hide parts of myself. The parts that were taunted, belittled, ridiculed or unwelcome. This is a survival technique that anyone that has lived with a narcissist learns. The first time you put your heart and soul into choosing and arranging fresh flowers in a vase and you are told that they are in the way, a waste of money and a waste of time, is the last time you allow yourself to indulge. Pick your own example. I know there is one.

I have been paying attention to things that I enjoy. Little things like small flowers, good music, colour, art and writing. These are things that I have always enjoyed, but the toxic atmosphere of living with a narcissist blocks your connection to these things. I became so focused on just making it through my days, behaving in ways that wouldn’t rock the boat or provide fodder for an attack and trying to figure out what was going on, I lost all connection to myself and my desires. I lost a sense of who I was.

I have been gradually reclaiming these things but it takes paying attention to today. If your mind is preoccupied with regret, unexpressed emotions, thought patterns that keep you trapped in a past that was confusing and painful, you will not get to the present. It is only in the present that you start to enjoy yourself, to notice the joy in your life and reconnect with the parts of yourself that got shoved aside when you were in survival mode.

The Narcissist Survival Guide is now available

A Good Reason to Make Meditation a Part of Your Life

IMG_5178Especially in North America, we are all about the logical, scientific mind. We are quite confident that if you can measure it, test it and quantify it, “It” is real and worth our attention. We are driven by accomplishments and the accumulation of stuff and it feels like we are all in a great race to be the biggest, best, richest or most powerful.

These “goals” are often future illusions that are created in our minds and accepted as a real reality of who we are and what we want. But, stay with me here, what if we were wrong? Maybe not completely wrong, but at the very least misguided. What if the ultimate purpose of our lives was to enjoy ourselves, to live in harmony and to be compassionate towards one another? Would that be such a bad world to live in?

In every moment we have the choice to be driven and focusing on the material world or we can be peaceful and recognize that there is always a connection with everyone and everything else. We are not alone and we do not need to be struggling all of the time. This may seem like a foreign concept to some, but it is something that can be achieved. It can be experienced by simply making room in your day to stop thinking. Stop the mind chatter and allow yourself to just experience being. In spiritual circles this is referred to as meditation. In scientific circles this is referred to as mindfulness and in religious circles it is referred to as prayer. Call it whatever you want. It is the opportunity to stop the daily race into the next moment and hang out in this moment for a while.

Why would we want to do this? I don’t think anyone can explain it better than Jill Bolte Taylor; so I’ll let you watch her video and I’ll meet you back here in a few moments.

http://www.ted.com/talks/jill_bolte_taylor_s_powerful_stroke_of_insight.html

How was that? Did that give you any incentive to learn how to connect with your right brain? Well, if it did, let me give you some tips. First, this must become a daily practice. I know that we are all told that we should do many things everyday and they feel like just another chore, another check box to mark off, but this one will actually create more space in your life. Taking time to do nothing has the ability to actually make you more productive, improve your health, your attitude and your sleep, so in the long run it does not take up time, it actually frees up time.

There are many different ways to get in touch with your right hemisphere. The “classic” example is to sit quietly and to clear your mind. This is almost impossible for most people. Our left brains are so dominant, that we need to actively learn how to not pay attention to the word generating part so that we can experience the other side of our brains. It is sufficient to let your mind talk and talk while you are sitting but to just observe what it is saying. Sit outside of the thought, as it were. Notice the thoughts that are occurring but do not get engaged in what the thoughts are saying. This requires you to activate the right side of your brain, which would be doing the “observing” of the other side of the brain, and how it goes on and on.

It is not necessary to sit. You can do any activity that is methodical and does not require you to think too much. This could be walking, swimming or any other simple movement. You could do yoga poses or lie on the floor. Lying on the floor can be effective because it is probably, not necessarily, something that you don’t often do. It is also difficult to get up, unlike sitting, making being still easier. Any activity that does not require much thought will work. Even doing housework can be made into a meditative activity as long as the focus is on the activity, not the words that are going through your mind.

Julia Cameron, author of “The Artist’s Way” recommends writing morning pages. She says that you should write three pages daily. The pages are not thought out structured sentences. The writing is stream of consciousness writing. No one is ever going to read these pages.

Hopefully, you have seen why connecting with your right brain is something that is worthwhile. Give different types of meditation a chance and see what works for you. Do it daily for a while and watch how the quality of your life improves. Good Luck!

Aren’t they irritating?

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If you ever notice yourself in a situation where you find someone’s behaviour irritating, stop and write it down. We all know the feeling of being rubbed the wrong way. The person acts in a way that gets under our skin and we dislike them because of it. If you experience this you’ve struck gold.

There are, for purposes of this discussion, two parts to the way you experience the world. One is through sensations in your body and the other is through how we explain our world to ourselves using words. The sensations part does not have direct access to the word generating part of our brain and must communicate through body signals. It is more difficult to hear and understand messages that are communicated this way, but that is where the irritation comes in. You experience the other person as irritating because you are trying to tell yourself something that you have noticed about them.

Sometimes a person can be irritating because they allow themselves to do things that you don’t allow yourself to do. They aren’t following the rules, as you understand them. It may be that you are trying to tell yourself that you are too strict about the rules, not allowing spontaneity and joy to enter your own life. The body  is trying to tell you this  and the emotion of irritation is how it is delivering the message.

Another friend found people that were preoccupied with how busy they were irritating. Then she discovered that she had entered a part of her life that was causing her to be too busy. The message may be subtle and easy to shrug off like any unpleasant encounter, but it is worth listening to.

Take a moment when you have a chance to reflect, and read what you have written. Try to write down, as well as you can, what irritated you about this person. Why was that irritating? Why do you feel it is unacceptable? How do these judgements relate to your own decisions? This irritating person may be just what you need to understand yourself a little better.

Don’t forget to call home….

IMG_2550Remember to take it. I shouldn’t have said that. I wonder what it will be like next year. And on and on it goes. There is a part of your brain that does nothing all day except generate words. This is similar to your digestive tract that spends its entire day processing food. You don’t need to be paying attention to your brain or your stomach for them to continue doing what they do. The word generating part of your brain is quite useful when you are speaking to someone, but if you have no one to speak to, you speak to yourself. This might take the form of reminding yourself about what you have to do, planning your day, counting calories, worrying about the future, rethinking the past, or other stories that you tell yourself about how things should or shouldn’t be.

The important thing that we need to recognize here is that the constant jabber is not who we are. We often mistake the word generating part of our brains as the one running the show. If we are kind to ourselves this can be a good thing. But if we are self critical, demeaning or depressed, the things that we tell ourselves can not only ruin our day, but they can be bad for our health. (Are your thoughts making you sick?)

If a thought is causing you pain (and I mean all negative emotions here as well as physical symptoms) there is little doubt that it is not true. We all face tragedy in our lives. Experiencing it, mourning it and letting it be, is the best that we can hope for. Pain and loss are unavoidable parts of being human. However, our past is just that, behind us, and reliving it wastes right now. The same could be said about worrying about the future. We have no way of knowing what will happen tomorrow. Why spend time thinking about things that make you unhappy when you could be paying attention to the world that actually exists in this moment?

As recently as the mid-80’s researchers have been able to measure how neurons fire in groups or neuronal assemblies. Gerstein (1989) has shown that neurons fire in groups and preferentially in patterns. So, you have this part of your brain that has nothing to do but generate words all day and words that you have thought before, phrases that you are familiar with, are the easiest words to generate. This same group of neurons gets in the habit of firing together all of the time, repeatedly thinking the same thing over and over again. Thought ruts form. It is easier for the word generating part of your brain to refire in this familiar pattern saying the same series of words than it is to think a unique thought. It then becomes difficult to believe that these words are not true simply because you’ve heard them so often.

Once you recognize that you can pay attention to what you are saying to yourself, you can examine the truth of it. Acceptance and Commitment therapy, affectionately called ACT, is a way of examining how language creates pain. It uses techniques to get past the literal content of what we tell ourselves so that we can be present in the moment (Hayes, 2005). By accessing our thoughts and bringing them into our awareness the thoughts can be examined rather than just taken as the truth.

The same thing has been discovered through spiritual channels. Byron Katie, a spiritual healer, discovered this on her own after a bout of serious depression and now teaches it. She uses the phrase, “Is that true?” to help people examine their thoughts. And the work begins. By asking yourself whether or not a thought is true and then examining when it possibly might not be true, you help rewire the cluster of neurons that have fired in a similar way for a long time. This helps to develop alternate pathways for thoughts to take and you can literally free yourself from the pain that the painful thoughts have been causing you.

So what do you say to yourself all day? Is any of it true? Is it always true? Can you think of an example where it might not be true?

 

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This is the essential book for learning how to examine your thoughts.

 

How to Clean Up Your Whole Life MP3

A TELECOURSE LED BY MARTHA BECK

How to Clean Up Your Whole Life MP3

The pile of papers in your office, the long-unworn clothes clogging your closet, the tiny frozen quiches that have been in your freezer since the Carter administration…they’re all cluttering your outer life, but they’re also hogging a portion of your inner life.

What are you Afraid of?

IMG_3330It is no surprise to anyone that we live in a culture of fear. For the first time we actually have most of our needs met. Good housing, excessive amounts of food and few predators. However, having a low level of fear has been selected for in our evolution. Our brains were designed that way to keep us safe.

There is a part of our brain called the amygdala that is ancient. When I say ancient I’m not referring to your age. I am referring to the fact that it developed a really long time ago from an evolutionary perspective. This fear was instrumental in keeping us safe when we were running away from predators. The amygdala, affectionately called the lizard brain by Martha Beck, has nothing to do all day but send out fear signals. These are experienced as a low level awareness to be careful, that something might go wrong, that we need to be watching out.

Funny thing is that we no longer have imminent danger most of the time. We are sensing this fear and we don’t know why. So, a more modern part of our brain, the centre of our thoughts, tells us stories about what we should be worried about. Brain researchers have done experiments on people that have the left and right sides of their brains separated, an operation that is sometimes performed to stop extreme seizures. If they put a barrier between the eyes and show the person something to only one eye, that side of the brain will see it and the other side will come up with an explanation for it. The explanation often has nothing to do with what the eye on the other side of the brain is seeing.

So we can be sitting in our living rooms, fully fed, protected from the elements and predators (for the most part) and still be feeling fear. The media has taken advantage of this. Our newscasts are no longer providing information; they are strictly feeding us fear. On one morning news show that I used to watch regularly while I was on the treadmill, I was amazed that there was a story about a murder–everyday. The significance of this inclusion became apparent one morning when there were no fresh kills. There was not a current crisis so they dug up an old file on an unsolved, particularly gruesome, murder that had happened many years before. The producers of the show had decided that they would always fill the murder slot, even if there wasn’t one.

The same thing is happening in health circles. You must not eat this. You must eat that. These marketing tools are all predicated on our fear of being mortal. We have been sold the belief that if we just pay attention to the latest finding we will live forever. This is not true. The people that are living to be 110 now were born in 1900. They were living a long time before any of this new knowledge was out there and they seem to have survived anyway.

Within my lifetime every food or food group has been the culprit in bad health and every food has been the saviour. Remember when eggs would kill you? Now they know that they contain a compound that actually lowers cholesterol. The same can be said for bananas that were considered “just carbohydrates” and I can go on and on about this.

Our reality is that we do have a lizard brain that sends out fear signals. Our more modern brain looks around to see what we should be frightened about and can easily find something. But isn’t this exhausting? Wouldn’t it be nicer to recognize that the fear is just a cast off from our cave dwelling selves and that we don’t have to live by its whims?

Here’s how to tell the difference. You feel fear. Notice that you are feeling fear. Hear what your brain is telling you the fear is about. Ask yourself if there is anything that you can do RIGHT NOW to keep yourself safe from the threat. For instance, if you are walking across the street and you see a large SUV careening towards you at an alarming rate the answer would be yes. Right now, I can do what it takes to get out of the way of the vehicle.

On the other hand, if you are worried that you might not have enough money if you live to 115 and you are weeding your garden at the time, recognize it as lizard fear. There is nothing that can be done right now. I’m not saying that reviewing your finances might not be in order, but you cannot effectively do that while knee deep in compost in your back yard. So, see it for what it is. It is lizard fear. It is that low level fear that kept our species safe for centuries. It is not a real fear. Spending time while you are gardening thinking about everything that could possibly go wrong is a waste of time. You could be enjoying yanking out the weeds, improving the garden, enjoying yourself because you are in fact OK.

The key difference here is action. If there is nothing that you can do at this moment to address the fear, it is lizard fear. Acknowledge it. Thank it for keeping you safe. Recognize that you are OK and allow yourself to see how much good there is in your life and have a nice day……

The Most Important Moment is Now

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As science and spirituality continue to merge on many fronts, one of the more interesting discoveries is that meditation is being “discovered” as a treatment for many psychological disorders. Not only are people with serious problems benefiting from this practice, many people with everyday issues like anxiety and overeating have seen benefits. In addition to that it has been shown to slow some of the effects of aging (Epel, 2009 and Turner, 2010).

Now, stay with me here, I’m not going to tell you that you have to sit in the lotus position and say OOOvHHHMMMNnnnn for hours on end. Meditation, or as it is referred to in the scientific literature, mindfulness, can be achieved just by ignoring your brain for a while. The definition of mindfulness is generally thought to have two parts: focusing on the present moment and accepting what is without judgment (Coffey, 2010 and Bishop, 2004).

The key to all of this is that you must make this moment the most important moment. Worrying about the future, fretting about the past, planning what you need to do next, rethinking upsetting conversations, must all take a back seat. The moment of meditation needs to be the most important moment–while you are doing it. You can get back to worrying about what you are going to do if you happen to run into someone that you don’t like, or whether or not you should buy a dog or two cats–later. For now, recognize that everything is OK and that you do not have to do anything or plan anything for the next fifteen minutes. You may find that you do not want to go back to worrying when you are done.

In order to meditate you must sit, walk, run, swim, bike, lie down or ski. Well anything that you can do that allows you to disengage your mind. Walking in heavy traffic, for instance, would not be suitable because if your mind was not engaged there is a good chance that you would be pulled back into thinking about your surroundings pretty quickly and abruptly. The key is that it needs to be an activity, or no activity, that allows you to “turn off your brain”.

I am not going to tell you that you have to stop that word generating part of your brain that has nothing better to do than jabber all day about this and that and all of the things that you have to do and what happened several years ago at the beach when that large….but I digress. What you need to do is not pay attention to those thoughts. When words come into your mind (and we both know they will) simply observe them and pay no further attention.

It can be helpful to visualize the words as bubbles that float to the surface and pop, or as cars speeding down a highway off into the distance, or any other visual that you may find useful. What we are trying to avoid here is paying attention to the words. So, if you suddenly remember that you haven’t fed your pet fish, recognize that it won’t matter in the next 15 minutes. You will remember again. If you start to think about how angry the clerk made you at the store, see the words individually, don’t get pulled into the story, just observe that you had a thought and let it fall away.

Screen Shot 2014-04-10 at 6.12.48 PMThe key is to just be aware of the fact that your brain is generating words and to not care about what they are saying. Right now, in this moment, it is not important. It can be helpful to focus on your breath and keep bringing your attention to your breath. If you are moving during this time you might focus on each step or each stroke. You may just pay attention to all of the sensations coming from your body and the words being generated by your mind. Just accept them and do not engage with them. Do not criticize yourself for thinking, just notice and bring your attention back to your body or your breath or your movement.

The next step is to start to notice other things. How does your body feel? What are the sounds and smells around you? Is it cold, hot, midlin? Take note of these things, but don’t get engaged. For instance if you realize it is too cold, it is not the time to get a sweater. You can wait until you are done, you won’t freeze to death in 15 minutes (not in a place that you’ve chosen to meditate in anyhow). This is a great exercise in learning to observe your thoughts in a way that allows you to see how transient they are and that they occur even when you are paying attention to something else. But, more on that at another time.

So to recap, you want to be focused on the moment and to accept it for whatever it is–even if your fish is starving to death. Meditating in this way for 15 minutes a day is all that it takes. What is there to gain from doing absolutely nothing for 15 minutes everyday?….well, a lot actually. Meditation, or mindfulness, has been shown to decrease stress, depression and illness. It has been shown to slow the aging process and it is key in helping to break bad habits such as smoking or gossiping. So, by taking the time each day to recognize that the most important moment is now you can improve your life. Now that is easier than dieting or exercising wouldn’t you say?


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The Meaning of Life?

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When Jean-Luc Picard is faced with his mediocre new life after travelling back in time to fix a “mistake” he made when he was a young man, we all understood the significance of his epiphany. It is better to live a passionate life full of experiences, mistakes and opportunities than it is to play it safe and end up in an uninspiring life of drudgery.

In this particular Star Trek episode, Q sends Jean-Luc back to address a regret. Jean-Luc decides not to battle a Nausicaan this time. This saves Jean-Luc embarrassment and gives him a new lease on life. All of this is occurring during open heart surgery to replace the artificial heart that was required because of the initial fight with the Nausicaan. What Jean-Luc discovers is that his new life, as a low level technician, does not inspire him and he decides that he would rather have a meaningful, albeit shorter, life than a safer boring one.

Even though we understand this concept, our current preoccupation with “safety” at all costs is in direct conflict with this entire notion. How many people do you know who take any risks at all?  The mantra, “Better Safe than Sorry” is unquestioned, as an almost religious belief, which begs the question, Why?

Over several centuries, we have gone from believing that everything is in the hands of a supernatural being to worshipping science as the be-all and end-all answer to every conceivable question. There is a comfort in knowing that facts can be determined, numbers can be added and used to prove points. It is defensible to state knowledge and support arguments, but is that all that there is?

We all need something to be passionate about. That is how we were designed. A quick look around will reveal that people stand up against injustices, fund raise for medical research and put their energy into things that are important to them. Problem is, without recognizing that this is our very nature, many of us take the latest snippet of news, research or gossip and become passionate about that. This causes our passions to be paper thin and as changing as the wind.

Have you noticed the current obsession with kale and avocado? If you missed the initial scientific announcement that these are the new “super foods” you must have at least noticed that you can get avocado at almost all of the fast food places now. It is a topping on burgers, an ingredient in salads and included in beverages—yes, beverages.

We have internalized this notion that doing all that we can to avoid death, or prolong life gives our lives meaning. But does it? We understood what Jean-Luc felt because a life without passion and purpose is, not only depressing, but it misses the point. Could it be possible that the purpose of our lives is to find joy and live in passion?

Jean-Luc had the opportunity to re-live that part of his life and he went back and got into the fight again. For us mere mortals that have to live linearly I guess we should just follow our passions more and do those things that bring us joy, but more on that later.