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Minding the Questions

IMG_1373Much of skillful leadership involves asking great questions…and really wanting to know the answer. Today’s question involves a disciplined awareness and an inquisitiveness on your part:

What’s Needed Most Right Now, at a Time like This?

This is a worthwhile question; worthy of bringing your attention to- a refrain to ask yourself with curiosity from time to time throughout each day. You could choose to even make it a practice.

The response to this question may at times feel like nothing special: make the oatmeal, get gas, or bring an umbrella. But don’t let it fool you. When we become more present to the mundane, we are vastly better equipped as we respond to what’s needed most right now in the complex and fast changing situations of our professional and personal lives. Simply orienting your life fully and completely to what is required of you as a unique individual brought here to this particular moment has the possibility to bring more growth and more calm into your life than many hours of trying diligently to figure it all out.

And for that matter, one of the many benefits of choosing to still the mind and body in the first place is that it assists with consistently answering this question with insight, intelligence and ease.

What’s Needed Most Right Now, at a Time like This?dreamstime_13130519 (1)

I don’t know what “at a time like this” looks like for you right now. I don’t know what many tasks are waiting to be completed or how many people are calling your name and waiting for a response. I don’t know if you are carrying a recent loss or cares over illness (yours or another’s) and how it’s informing your workday. I don’t know if you are unadulterated in your happiness this morning as you begin this Monday. But you do. Taking into consideration what’s most important right now has much to do with the circumstances that are inextricable to this moment. So remember to bring a gentle awareness and appreciation of this as well.

And this question is not for you alone. As part of an organization, as members of a leadership team, answering this critical and fundamental question again and again with precision, as a group, creates a clarity of vision. Together, seeing what’s most important right now increases the likelihood of that alignment of sight. From that perspective, the possibilities are limitless.

EASING OUT OF COMPULSION, EASING IN TO CHOICE

brainThere are lots of ways in which we as human beings can get caught under the vast net of stress in our lives. We oftentimes find ourselves feeling trapped by difficult circumstances and the attending feelings and thoughts that arise from them. All of this can create a sense of being overwhelmed and life at times can appear unmanageable. We then struggle and we suffer. Often times the root cause no longer exists but our coping strategies themselves have become problematic.

For instance, we may initially have found some short term relief in the pleasure of eating, in particular rich comfort food laden with simple carbohydrates. These foods produce feel-good chemicals in our body and we get a quick surge. Unfortunately, and just as rapidly, we then get a marked drop in energy and mood. The same is true of addictions of all kinds, alcohol, cigarettes, too much TV, too much social media…the list is endless. And it can be an endless loop unless we step out of the ring.

Beginning and maintaining a mindfulness practice has shown to bring healthful and lasting relief to the stress in our lives that is simply part of daily living and relief from the compulsions and bad habits that are largely maladaptive coping strategies.

women meditatingIn an original research article published in Frontiers in Psychology (2015), short term meditation was shown to significantly enhance cerebral blood flow in areas of the brain critical for self-regulation. These are the areas of the brain that support us in good decision making and in overcoming unhealthy habits and addictions of all kinds.

Collaborating researchers from the University of Oregon, University of Texas/Austin and the Institute of Neuroinformatics at Dalian University in China discovered changes in the anterior cingulate cortex and insula in the brains of those who had been only meditating for 5 days (30 minutes a day). These parts of the brain have also been reported to be associated with positive mood.

The study showed neuroplasticity (changes in the brain) demonstrated with fMri imaging and consistent mood improvement reported by participants as well.

These findings provides hopeful news that regulating our emotions and responses doesn’t have to be an arduous, protracted process but it does take discipline. The benefits reported are only maintained by continued practice.

And there are many mindfulness practices you can engage in. It can be helpful to begin with guided meditations. It can be a little tricky starting out on your own and a guide gives instruction and support. You can find several of them here on this website for free. There is no sign up or commitment involved, except a commitment to yourself to show up and practice and trusting in that.

Wherever you are on your journey, may you have compassion for yourself. May you healthy and happy.   IMG_0050

10 Simple Ways to Invite Mindfulness into the Present Moment

Mindfulness is not reserved for only those times when you are “formally practicing.” While taking the time to close your eyes and follow your breath, or taking a mindful walk can be enormously helpful,  we can build our awareness by bringing our full attention to our everyday daily activities. These are the tasks that have been so ingrained by repetition , so habitual that they are often times performed on autopilot. It can almost be like we are sleepwalking.  We sometimes don’t even remember doing them!apples_edit

Yet even the most mundane of these provides an opportunity to notice something new or bring some calm and clarity right into the here and now.  We can choose to bring a fresh mind and an open curiosity to these moments.

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Begin by simply observing the sensations occurring within the body and the mind, and being attune to the sights and sounds around you as you :
1. First wake up and get out of bed in the morning
2. Brush our teeth
3. Have a cup of coffee or tea
4. Eat a meal or a single piece of fruit
5. Wash the dishes
6. Fold Laundry
7. Take your first step outdoors
8. Exercise
9. Sit at a red light
10. Stand in Line (anyplace you have to wait)

You may want to start with focusing on one of these activities. Returning your attention again and again (the mind will most likely wander) to what you are seeing, smelling, touching, tasting…and to any feelings that may be arising within your body. What are you thinking while you are doing this activity? Not judging the thinking or the feelings, just noticing, as if you were simply a kind, impartial observer to the whole of the experience. You can name the thoughts (remembering, planning, worrying, etc.) and feelings (joy, sadness, excitement) without getting too attached to any of it.  See what happens.

Experiment. You may expand your awareness to encompass them all.

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THE COMMUNITY OF CONTEMPLATION

IMG_1248Last November, I attended the International Symposium for Contemplative Studies in Boston. There were lots of luminaries in the fields of neuroscience, psychology, education, philosophy, and the humanities. Counted among these were the Dalai Llama, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Daniel Goleman, Arianna Huffington, and so many more who are well-known to those in the field, reflecting the explosion really of mindfulness into all aspects of our modern society.

Some presenters shared results of mindfulness programs they have implemented in particular clinical settings or in business. Several neuroscientists provided the latest in their research on what is happening in the brain during contemplative practices and where in the brain it is happening. The goal of all this being the very mission of the conference: to “advance our understanding of the human mind, reduce human suffering, and enhance our well-being.”

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A NEW YEAR: WAIT A MINUTE

photo_3664_20090119Have you got started on your New Year’s resolutions yet?

You know the list is usually the same every year for most folks.  To the gym, diet, no gossiping, budget better.

For me, it’s less sugar and alcohol.  It’s been 5 days already and I’m feeling great!  (I was being facetious right there!)

But have you noticed that we often start off these self improvement projects with great enthusiasm and that enthusiasm dwindles as daily life takes over and so do our habitual reactions to stress, coupled with the real hard work of substantive change sets in?

Maybe it’s because we set ourselves up to fail by announcing these sweeping changes without getting ourselves ready, really ready, in this very moment.

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YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE?

“You only live once? False.  You live everyday.  You only die once.”  footprints

The first time I read this quote, I found it rather jarring. I guess it’s often the case that the truths we would rather not think about are that way. Yet often In order to wake up, it is only the words that slap like a splash of bracing cold water first thing in the morning that can bring us sharply to our senses. Doses of reality are commonly experienced as unpleasant.  Yet, they are helpful means to rearrange our perspective right here and now.

We do live everyday.  Mostly, we just do everyday. We do this and we do that. From one activity to the next text, we are getting things done.  And some of this is good!  It feels good to accomplish things each day, on a grand or humble scale. And it is easy to lose our balance and what we know to be true for our self if we don’t practice mindfulness along the way. We lose sight of our intentions behind the actions and our greater purposes can get pushed aside for yet another day.

cairn over rocksStopping daily, on purpose, to be present to what’s happening here in and around this body of ours is an antidote for this.  What are the sensations and thoughts happening right now? Can you invite awareness into this moment, no matter what is happening? This discipline flowers into a subtle but profound shift in how we are in the world.  If we keep at it and practice, practice, practice.

We will no longer need a two by four or thirty geese overhead or a full moon so big and iridescent it practically bowls us over to be arrested by the wonders available to us if we have the presence to be with them.

When you do die, which WILL eventually happen, as my father once said, “There will still be stuff in your inbox to do.”  These items will either get done by someone else or die themselves from lack of attention. Someone else will feed the dog, answer the phone, pay the bills, and so on.  Many traditions practice dying before you die meditations, which essentially encourage you to see the impermanence of all things and so to worry less and perhaps release a bit the compulsion to fit in one more thing, and live just this once.

Today, for five minutes, “die on purpose” to the big agenda, and see what’s here already, ready and waiting.

NOTICING

Have you ever noticed that a lot of the time you are just not noticing? For instance, you are driving to the grocery store or to work (both of which you have done a million times), and not remembering when you arrive how you got there.  Just traveling on auto pilot, or absorbed in a phone conversation, you have missed the ride. Perhaps you think, “I’ve done this trip so often I could do it in my sleep!” And guess what? In a very real way, you are!  Conscious but not truly awake. 090514a127_2780 (1)

Our daily tasks of necessary repetition and ritual, whether it brewing the coffee, throwing in another load of laundry, walking the dog, become so automatic that these activities become the things we do between the times we actually are doing something that we are fully engaged in and are aware of.  The unfortunate thing is, if we add up all of these moments each day, we are actually “checked out” for a solid portion of our life.

You may recall the internet sensation a few years ago, where participants were asked to watch for how many times three white shirted basketball players came onto a scene. A shocking fifty percent missed seeing a person in a gorilla suit sauntering in, pumping his chest.  Even when looking right at him!  This phenomenon, coined “inattentional blindness” has been demonstrated time and again.

In Smithsonian (Sept. 2012), psychologist Christopher Chabris and journalist Mark Strauss set up an experiment where participants were told to jog behind a man and record how many times he touched his hat. As they jogged, they ran by a staged fight where two men were savagely beating a third man.  In broad daylight, 45% missed the altercation entirely and at night, that number rose to 65%. trapeze artist

We become so focused on what we think we need to see or so confident of what we know is there that nothing has the ability to enter.

While anthropologists posit that there is indeed an upside for why we have this ability to filter attention–specifically the benefit of being able to disregard distractions while trying to focus on a task, it appears we have become too proficient.

The limitations of inattentional blindness are felt everywhere. Complicating this issue is the overloading distraction dumping at all times.  The myriad forms of instant communication continuously clamoring for our attention, leaving us breathless…and mind (less).

We feel the effects of our inattention in automobile accidents, addictions, rises in ADD/ADHD, and the rampant sense of isolation that occurs with the breakdown of intimacy and congeniality in all manners of relationships.  The lack of simple presence of attention leads to misunderstanding and disconnection, and this includes our relationships with ourselves.

But there is a way out, and it starts today, in the here and now.  The only time there is.  We can begin in this moment to begin to purposely notice.  We can purposely and voluntarily take mini breaks from our devices throughout the day.

We can pay attention to our breath and body as we enter our car on the way to the grocery store. We can take stock of our surroundings while driving.  We may discover a beautiful old home along the road that we never knew was there, all these years on this same path.  We could discover the cool breeze or warm sun on our face with our windows opened just a bit. Or we can simply marvel at how this car of ours gets us safely from one place to another .

In other words, there is nothing that is unworthy of our noticing.  All parts of our days can be enriched by our very presence.

photo_12481_20100214Gary Snyder, in his work The Practice of the Wild points powerfully to this:                                  

”All of us are apprenticed to the same teacher that the religious institutions originally worked with: reality.  Reality-insight says…master the twenty- four hours.

Do it well, without self-pity.  It is as hard to get the children herded into the car pool and down the road to the bus as it is to chant sutras in the Buddha-hall on a cold morning.

One move is not better than the other, each can be quite boring, and they both have the virtuous quality of repetition.

Repetition and ritual and their good results come in many forms.  Changing the filter, wiping noses, going to meetings, picking up around the house, washing dishes, checking the dipstick–don’t let yourself think these are distracting you from your more serious pursuits.

Such a round of chores is not a set of difficulties we hope to escape from so that we may do our “practice” which will put us on a “path”- it is our path”.