How to Meditate Anywhere

IMG_1879When most people think of meditation, they imagine sitting crosslegged with their eyes closed for long periods of time. However, research shows that other types of meditation can also be effective, maybe even just as effective.

Sitting quietly for 20 or more minutes is often labeled “formal meditation”.

“Informal meditation”, however, can be practiced almost anywhere and anytime. During informal meditation, you just spend a few minutes bringing your focus to some aspect of your physical experience and away from your thoughts.

Some examples:

  • Sitting at your desk or in your car, become aware of your breath moving in and out rhythmically.
  • While walking, notice the soles of your feet, how they feel, the force of gravity, or other aspects of moving through space.
  • When eating, slowly savor a single bite of food, bringing your attention to all aspects of the experience, including taste, texture, temperature, salivation, etc.
  • While folding laundry or other repetitive task, focus on your breathing and the rhythm of the task.

When your mind wanders and a thought intrudes, gently bring your attention back to the physical experience.

The key to effectiveness is:

  • your intention to choose this mindful activity
  • refocusing of your attention when your attention wanders

These intentional choices train your brain to be aware of your experience in the present moment, also known as mindfulness. When practiced regularly, mindfulness can help you remain emotionally aware and present even during stressful experiences. It allows you to retain cognitive control of your emotions during distressing or frightening situations, which reduces stress hormones and neurochemicals in your body.

You can see how easy it is to integrate informal meditation or mindfulness into your daily life. Even a few minutes a day can help improve your emotional, physical and mental health.

Are Gadgets Killing Self-Awareness?

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I heard a snippet of an interview on NPR tonight with a man who believes that the extensive use of gadgets is leading to a lack of creativity. He thinks that creativity requires quiet time to think and that the constant distraction by electronic media may lead to fewer moments of inspiration.

Of course, many commentators have noted that kids growing up today, with their faces interacting with screens and not with other people, will likely lack interpersonal skills and fail to develop essential emotional connections with others. It is shocking to me to watch a line full of people at a coffee shop who cannot spend 60 seconds waiting for their latte without letting go of their phone. God forbid they actually make small talk with the person in front of them.

image0093968Studies have shown that just having a short conversation with others can help a person feel connected and can improve mood. Even prosaic comments about the weather or the long line can make us feel we are part of a shared experience, and can affirm our sense of belonging, even if it is just to the tribe that waits in long lines at coffee shops on snowy days. We are not so different, you and me.

But if we never share vents about the snow storm or pleasantries about the excellent espresso, how do we remind ourselves that we are similar? How do we feel attached and experience the universality of experience that is human existence? Without reminders of our human alikeness, we may start to believe we are different. And different equals alone. And alone can equal depressed or anxious or insecure based on thoughts of self-judgment and shame.

But the big problem that I would like to address with this over-focus on cell phones is that it may lead to a lack of self-awareness or mindfulness.

Being able to observe and gain control over thoughts and feelings is mindfulness. In mindfulness, we learn that just because we feel an emotion or have a thought does not mean we have to react to it or believe it.

However, it seems that repeatedly and automatically reaching for a gadget in response to a ping will teach us the opposite: I am a automaton to this device and to my emotionally needy search for social affirmation through it.

As with creativity, self-awareness needs stillness. To be mindful, we cannot have a mind full of distraction. Inner peace is not learned by being constantly distracted and pulled out of our centeredness and into our gadgets, especially if those gadgets bring messages of social drama, social rejection, and social shaming. If every 30 seconds an email pings up or a social media “like” pops up with its red number, when are we going to have time to just “be?” To merely be quiet in mind, perhaps also in body. To allow our thoughts to settle, our fears to recede, and our inherent peaceful calm to surface.

Seated, silent meditation can be a wonderful tool to gain mindfulness and stillness. But I am a big fan of integrating mindfulness and self-awareness into micro-moments during one’s day.

If after you meditate the remaining 23 hours plus of your day is spent in impulsive, thought-less reactivity to a machine, that seems as if it may undo what value the seated meditation brought to you. Contemplatives know that ideally we bring self-awareness and calm to our entire lives.

One of the tests of emotional maturity and emotional intelligence is the ability to be alone. Alone with our selves and our thoughts. That means alone without the interference of a gadget to distract us from that aloneness.

Put down the device. Connect with others, connect with your creativity, connect with yourself, connect with your self.

“Be In the Moment”: What Does It Really Mean?

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IMG_1879Meditation has become extremely popular and with good reason: The benefits for body, mind and spirit are well researched and well documented. Although I have practiced meditation since 1977, I recognize that phrases used in teaching meditation, such as “be in the moment,” can be difficult to understand.

Being in the moment is described as being fully mindful of our experiences as they happen, not focusing on the past or future with our thoughts.

I became much more skilled at living in the moment when I consciously made major changes to my personality and behaviors that I write about in my book “Pack Leader Psychology.”

While meditation can be helpful in developing this skill, I believe it is also important to thoughtfully choose to become aware of and eliminate certain habitual thoughts. Specifically, when I was struggling to improve my self-worth, I learned to become less judgmental of myself and others. I told myself consciously that these self-critical thoughts were not emotionally healthy and I chose to stop thinking them. This now allows me to truly engage in what I’m doing or who I’m with without an inner commentary that distracts me from that experience.

Most mindfulness practices, such as Buddhism, involve lessons on compassion for self and others. This is key to living in the moment.

As a psychotherapist I work with people who lack self-compassion. People with low self-worth often experience a constant stream of critical internal messages about themselves. It’s hard to live in the moment with those messages wafting through one’s brain.

People who are not self-compassionate also tend to look externally for approval, making them  fearful of judgment by others. This means they do not live in their own experience, but are overly worried about the other person’s experience. I recall spending a ton of emotional energy worrying about things like: “Do they like me? What does he want me to say? Am I wearing the right outfit? She is touching her hair a lot — maybe she’s telling me my hair is out of place.”

Clearly, I wasn’t really in the moment, experiencing the full person authentically. I wasn’t just being myself, but was more concerned about the other person’s opinion of me. This meant I was not emotionally or physically attuned to other person. Research shows that people can unconsciously sense this lack of attunement. Parts of our brains are used to sense the emotions of others. This helps us get along socially in a group and allows us to sense fear in others so we can react quickly to a physical threat.

I believe that when I was so distracted during a conversation it sent two signals to the other person. The first is a signal of fear. This made the other person anxious, which isn’t exactly a relationship builder. I also unintentionally sent a signal that I did not really like the other person. Because if I was fearful, could it be that I was fearful of her? She didn’t know the cause of my fear, she only sensed the emotion, so this would make her also tense up, even if she did not consciously understand the cause of her reaction.

The irony is that as a “Submissive” or pleaser type of person, I was trying desperately to get this person to like me. But, in reality, the exact opposite occurred. My not being in the moment probably felt cold, distant, fearful and inauthentic because I wasn’t fully present emotionally.

We all have a natural need to belong. But when our lack of self-acceptance and low self-worth lead us to be overly eager for approval, we may be triggered into a fear state and go overboard to seek acceptance. We may spend too much cognitive and emotional energy thinking of what the other person wants us to be, rather that just living in the moment and being authentic.

I now have much less concern for what others think of me and I am much less judgmental of myself or others. I have turned off those messages in my brain that worry about whether I am wearing the right outfit or saying the right thing. And the interesting thing is that by being authentic and in the moment I often relax, fearless, and say and do exactly the right thing at the right time.