7 Steps to Observing Your Mind

We are taught from a very young age that regular exercise and nutrient-dense foods are the recipe for a long and healthy life. What we are often not taught is how our overall health, well-being, and behaviors are deeply impacted by our ability to observe our mind and our thoughts. In this entry, I will share information with you about the power of your thoughts and some simple steps for you to begin observing your mind.

As a highly sensitive person, I am not someone that reads the news with any regularity. When I do, the outcome is normally deep lingering thoughts and emotions that have a tendency to impact me for a long period of time. I don’t love the fact that I can sometimes feel “out of the loop” or not “up to date” on current affairs, but I have found that not following the news keeps me feeling more grounded and aware of my current reality. However, every once in awhile there is a monumental worldwide event that feels impossible to ignore and important to explore.

Reading about the massacre in Orlando left me jaw-dropped and bleary-eyed, each tear expressing a wide myriad of emotion. As I dove off the deep end into the articles, images, and social media opinions of the horrific attack, I noticed the immensity of overwhelming thoughts both enter and exit my mind. Closing my eyes, I began to observe the frantic, intense nature of these thoughts and how they began impacting my feelings and physical body. My chest felt tight and hot, my heart felt closed, and my head started to pound.

Mindfulness is defined as moment-to-moment awareness, without judgment. The first of three Mindful pillar, presence, is the practice of being in the now, becoming aware of our thoughts and creating space between these thoughts and our reaction(s) to them. These practices are well researched and scientific studies have proven over and over again that practicing mindful awareness, or simply observing our minds, has a powerful impact on our overall health.

One of the earliest studies on mindfulness and how it affects the brain and the immune system was led by Richard Davidson, Ph.D., in 2003 at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. The study looked at how an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction course led by Jon Kabat-Zinn altered the brain and immune cells of the participants.

The participants of both the experiment group and control group were asked to assess how they felt throughout the course of study in addition to having the electrical activity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain (an area specialized for certain kinds of emotion) measured. What the researchers uncovered was twofold:

  • The experiment group showed increased activation in the prefrontal cortex (therefore reducing anxiety and increasing positive emotional states), whereas the control group did not.
  • Immediately after the eight weeks, both the experiment and control group were administered flu vaccinations. Four weeks later, researchers tested for flu antibodies in both groups and found that the individuals implementing a meditation practice after the course had far more antibodies than the participants of the control group.  

Want to really drop your jaw? Check out the remarkable study conducted at UCLA that vividly demonstrates how a similar eight-week course helped to slow the progression of HIV for people with the disease.

Reading through these experiments I can’t help but think of the following quote by Leon Brown:

“It all begins and ends in the mind. What you give power to has power over you.”

When we begin the process of observing our minds and separating ourselves from our thoughts and feelings (more on this topic next week), we are able to clearly see that we are not our thoughts or our feelings. Rather, our experience becomes whatever we become attached to: the endless chatter and dramatic saga that we’ve made up in our minds or the reality of the present moment.

Here are my seven simple steps to observing your mind:

  1. Close Your Eyes: It’s important to remove external distractions so you can truly become aware of what is happening inside.  
  2. Take Five Deep Breaths: Breathing allows you to become grounded and gain clarity.
  3. Notice Your Thoughts: What thoughts come in and what thoughts go out?
  4. Observe Your Brain Chatter: Notice the frequency, rhythm, and pattern of your thoughts.
  5. Let Go of Self-Identification: Thoughts come and thoughts go. Imagine that your thoughts are like leaves falling onto a moving river. How are you identifying with your thoughts and allowing them to impact your sense of self and well-being?
  6. Take Five More Deep Breaths: Trust me, it won’t hurt.
  7. Notice That You Are Still Not Your Thoughts!

When I walk myself through these steps, the enormity of such tragic news doesn’t disappear, but my desire to be reactive in my approach to handling the information softens. This softness that comes from observing the mind allows for opportunities individually and universally to change, connect, grow, and heal. This softness has the ability transform hate, prejudice, racism, fear, sexism, stress, and anxiety into love.

And the world certainly needs all the love it can get.

Message from the Editor:

If you are looking for more opportunity to explore the topics mentioned in this article, come to our free and open-to-all Mindfulness Community event June 23rd here in San Francisco. Check out our Facebook event page here.

Unlocking Our Highest Truth through Presence, Acceptance, and Compassion

Last night I had dinner with a close friend whose fiance is currently undergoing radiation and chemotherapy. In the past three months, the normalcy of their daily lives has transformed into an alternate reality. A reality where multiple medications must be taken at specific times, appointments with doctors must be kept, and a myriad of alternative healing treatments must be explored.

Sitting with this woman over the course of the evening, I listened intently and sensitively as she talked about her current experience. With an abundance of poise and grace, she shared from a deeply centered, grounded, and vulnerable place. Although the reality of the situation is profoundly overwhelming, my friend was able to connect to the universal understandings of life’s unknowns and how important it is to approach them with curiosity and moment-to-moment awareness.

Ultimately, in the moments that I beared witnessed, this woman was her highest and most mindful self amidst the most challenging of circumstances.

The practice of Mindful Living embodies three pillars: Presence, Acceptance, and Compassion.

Presence is a practice of grounding in the Now, developed from a heightened awareness and observation of one’s mind and one’s self. When we are in a state of presence, we are in the moment; not over-identifying with our thoughts and ouIMG_14491-700x525r feelings (which are often simply our attachments to the past or our fears about the future).

The practice of acceptance is created only after we have cultivated the foundation of presence. By being fully in the moment, we become capable of truly seeing things as they are. It is in this state of seeking and acknowledging the highest truth, that we begin to challenge our personal perceptions, lenses, and filters. In order to truly cultivate acceptance, we must be willing to unravel the innumerable coping mechanisms and ways of being in the world that do not serve us. In doing so, we are able to embrace all of the suffering and uncertainty of life with an open heart and a profoundly steady sense of self.

Compassion is empathy in action towards ourselves, towards others, and towards the universe at large. It is a skill drawn from a heightened sense of self-knowing in order to be deployed with ultimate authenticity. When we are able to deeply understand and appreciate all of who we are, compassion becomes an effortless expression of our own unique fullness.

As I listened to my friend share, feel, and express herself, I couldn’t help but notice: 1) how present she was to the situation, 2) how accepting and real she was about of all of the unknowns and potential outcomes, 3) and how compassionate she was in her approach towards fighting cancer and being a caregiver while staying true to her needs on this journey.

—————-

Illness is only one example of the many ways that life throws us unexpected challenges. Our relationships, work, financial stability, self-care, self-expression, and sense of purpose and meaning in our lives often stretch and overwhelm us. As we are encouraged to operate from neverending places of ‘doing’, our ability to connect with our highest self in order to simply ‘be’ can feel out of reach.

Over the course of the next five weeks, we will be gathering together as a community to ask questions, support one another in curiosities, and embark on the practice of Mindful Living. Together we will learn the tools and skills needed to better understand ourselves and others with presence, acceptance, and compassion.

In turn, we will begin to lead happier, healthier, and more purposeful lives.

I can’t wait to share this journey with you. Learn more and join me today.

Allie

 

My Own Suffering

Recently, I have found suffering at the core of my consciousness. Coming up again and again…regarding husband & wife, regarding big company insider politicking, correctness of parenting, unpleasant exchanges of a lawsuit, and then, of course, my own.

And there is one theme that keeps arising amidst the diverse set of circumstance and souls involved in such: Ownership.

Beginning with my own suffering, I find many moments where blame becomes my primary focus. Where the small “I” tries desperately to find temporary relief in projecting my challenge(s) toward another object or person. Coming from that place that is hurt and wants to do anything it can to alleviate the pain. A place that finds itself impossibly far from deeper self-inquiry around such suffering. Yet a truthfully, place near than near, if I can just adjust my understanding ever so slightly.

We all know this place well.

It’s the place where, we say to a friend: “If she would only just ….” Followed by a claim of somehow that other person’s perception, action or inaction will solve our problem.

Ever so misguiding. Especially when our, so-called, friend or family member, blindly agrees without question. Thus, validating your little “I” needs of relief and many times because that person too has same feelings about their situation. And so it festers.

Or how about “ I can’t understand why you just can’t….” when we talk more directly to the person (usually a loved one) casting blame, guilt or hurtfulness in their direction in our feeble attempt to take it off our shoulders. Thus perpetuating the misguided feeling that, again, they are the cause of our suffering. And yet that same person, usually is saying nearly the same words about (or to) you… Who is right? … yep, no one.

And then the internal non-stop repeating play loop of “why did this happen to me” , “what did I do to deserve.. “; “I’ve been so kind, but… “; “If they would just understand my …:; “can’t he/she just be more ___ , then all will be so much better..” Or my own past favorite line to self:

“Why do I always have to do everything… “

I’ll tell you why, because you do (Aaron says to self). Do it. Without is grievance toward the other for not doing it.

Do it. because it’s of no consequence whatsoever.

Do it because you’ll find great joy in it if you stay fully present.

Do it because having the other “do it” won’t make you an ounce happier, and most times less, because the guilt, shame and unanswered deeper calling needed for the real answer of “Why am I unhappy” will deepen your cycle of suffering. For All.

And that is always an inside job. With an inside answer. Once that is answered, one may have the clarity to understand what external factors the true self would like to see changed. But only after that place of inner-peace and groundedness. NOT amidst the storm of emotion, blame and self-doubt. There is nothing to “do” then but hold the ships wheel and stay present to the storm within, find your compass and stay the course on your internal journey… and when the storm passes.. then it maybe time to change sails. Change sails amidst the storm and find yourself overboard drowning in your unanswered self.

And on it goes. The little story “I” tells itself and we get caught in an endless loop of self-defeating thought, that never get’s better and much worse… it wears us down. Makes us harden to life… and those in it. It drives us to a place where our compassion disappears and we tighten, and tighten and tighten that knot of our self-created suffering.

And yet, we also know the truth.

One that is not so deep or far off. One right there. The truth being it is “I” who create my own suffering. Nothing (or no one) more.

To dwell on this… maybe meditate is critical to ending your suffering. To face you’re suffering straight on. Look at it, feel it, let it imbibe your entire being. To know, its not them the circumstance that causes these roller coaster of emotions and self-doubt. To be Ok with it. Ok with the all-consuming anger, the frustration and the sadness that ensues. Own it. it is yours and yours alone. This suffering. And more than anything, it is OK. We all suffer. You, and your suffering, (as the Zen Monks says) “are nothing special”.

Remember, it is our fear that has taken hold of us. In many cases, that fear causes aversion. So we try to simply block it out. Or worse, as I have attempted many times, “Rise above it”. Telling ourselves we are better than that.

NO YOU ARE NOT. You are that suffering. Just like the rest of us. Own it. Face it. Deal with it. Find your peace with it.

The alternative is far worse.

Worse in it destroys your day-to-day ease and joy with life.

Worse at is suffocates your relationship(s) both directly and all around you.

Worse because your conscious carries this burden that blocks so much of the wonderful karmic moments of life waiting for you to open the door.

Worse because your stress, your worry, your anxiety and entire being becomes as smaller than an ant. You start to feel nearly crushed by the inability to “handle it”. The beautiful wonderful self… the one that you truly are, is but glimpse of a glimpse of itself.

With an emptiness, incompleteness, a loneliness, even with a gaggle of friends/family that verbally enable your feelings of “unfair burden”.

You are the cause of your own suffering. Own it. Rely on no one else to solve it. Hit “Stop” on that replay loop before it’s too late. Yes, you are right, it’s never to late. But, please end your suffering so we all can enjoy the real and wonderful you.

Be free once again.

The Big Trickster… Our Mind

TonyStarkIn the tired evening hours of some longer flights home, I have found myself indulging in TV, specifically House of Cards. The episode I just finished had the famous scene where Claire dramatically exclaims “We’ve been lying Francis… No, lying to ourselves,” for 25 years. It was a good reminder of the deep life lesson of the crazy stories we tell ourselves and so often keeps creeping into my own life.

There is constant game being played in our lives. It’s the game of thought. For me, it’s my desire to change or control my thoughts. And many times the story I tell myself.

Between recent conversations interludes with friends, it’s a strong reminder of just how deep and far our minds go to trick us into spurts of self-confidence and glimmers of joy, engaging in the never-ending roller coaster of the mind’s identification with our feelings and ever so protective self-defense of the “I”.

It’s the false belief that I know how to turn negative thoughts into positive ones. How to feel good about myself and go forth in the world with the needed confidence to achieve. How to manifest through the power of positive thinking and so on. A recent conversation reminded me of just how much I still find myself playing this game, and how much work there is left to create the enduring space between mind and feelings. And how the Trickster mind manipulates this discourse every single day.

As we say in the mindfulness space, it’s about going beyond or without thought that deepens us, not just trying to change or “trick” our thoughts that is the long-term sustainable game found through meditation and mindful living.

It’s a long road to Being the observer of self.

As is taught in many of the mindful traditions, our thoughts (and feelings) are just simple things that come and go… like the weather or cloud in the sky. This is not to be confused with who we are, the greater I that is the observer of these thoughts. The one asking, curiously, what are they, these thoughts? Why do I have this feeling now? Where do they come from? And not getting completely absorbed by the identity of those thoughts and feelings since that leads to the closed mind cycle of thinking, when it becomes nearly impossible to see beyond these simple thoughts.

In essence, I find myself so many times, working hard to trick my own mind.

Beyond Thought
I try to change the weather of my thoughts by reading powerful inspiring books. I try to coerce my brain to that power of positive thinking. To create more abundance in my life (I’ve read the Law of Attraction, sequel to The Secret, countless times). And yet, I find myself like a yo-yo… up and down… and frustrated on why I can’t find a constant state of positive thinking. When life is going well, and it’s all going your way… it’s easy to stay on the top end of that yo-yo string. And when it goes awry, as life always does, it becomes even easier to drop to the bottom, sometimes in a single moment or interaction. The reason? Because I am buying into this mind game and trying to play it, versus simply trying to go beyond thought and just observing it. Observe the thoughts. Observe the mind.

Observe the mind itself acting as the ultimate trickster.

So what is it that we, I, our mind need to do to get out of this endless cycle? That is the everyday work, the meditation, the mindful principles, the deeper look into the heart, the soul, and getting beyond the limiting power of just our thinking mind.

Even us smart leaders and entrepreneurs , as we talk about in the Mindful Entrepreneur Workshop Friday, trick our thinking into jusfty the actions, unbearable hours and “stay the course” at all cost mentality.

And yes, this is not easy work. Simple to understand, but not easy. It’s hard to separate one’s mind from the thoughts and feelings. To do the work to cultivate the presence to find that space between thoughts and self. The work of acceptance and letting go of the thoughts, the past, the filters we created for life to see these self-evident truths. And the compassion with yourself to be OK, knowing how far we have left to be truly content, at peace and clear without judgment on ourselves for being in such a state of mindless thought manipulation. Equally, to deeply empathize with the plight of our fellow humans, who also suffer with such deep-seated challenges. This is one of the greatest teachers – observing how we judge others.

Releasing that Judging Self
There are situations and people in my life that trigger a response that quickly become judgmental. And it’s frustrating for me… but I know it’s OK to have these responses. It’s important to recognize, observe and then reflect on these moments as this is what will deepen the process of going beyond our judging thoughts.

Then we turn to our outward judging self, and see how we lay our own life drama and fixed thoughts on to them. Just this week, I have taken note of just how easy it is to be the Judge and the Jury toward others.

Much of this judgment comes as we find new paths in our life, ones we feel are right, or correct or reinforced through praise from others or society. We take these newfound passions or stories about self and then through that lens we judge others. It’s so easy to do.

Everyday Life
The examples, when you’re tuned in to observe, are endless. Recently I’ve seen this occur when our eating and fitness habits get reinvigorated into a commitment of healthy living. And then, through that lens we judge when see someone not eating or acting healthy according to our new ideals. It happens when we create or re-inforce a set of values or beliefs and see others not acting in a way aligned with “our values.” And so we judge and judge.

It happens because it helps us feed this newly found place that we have “tricked” ourselves into believing is right and correct. A place where we feel strong about our stage in life, living and talking with conviction around this temporary state of thought. And this happens a lot for folks, like me, who are trying hard to correct past suffering in life, and feel we are on a road to a greater, deeper, better way of being.

We also see it when we have great success and find the reinforcement of the many things we’ve done well in life. And it only serves one purpose, to protect that fragile game of mind manipulation that gets us thinking and feeling good about the self, the ego if you will. This leaves us missing the greater whole of this wonderful interconnected universe we live in.    To be a great leader means learning what it is to “BE” truly a great person. 

I’ve seen it in numerous conversations with friends of independent means:

Ego Puffery
A passive scoff “at all those 9-5ers” living like ants in their boxed up worlds.

Self-Righteous Elevation
A passing judgment on all those in corporate jobs or entrepreneurs “trying to conquer the world” as shallow and unworthy.

Projecting Intent
So many times we see our intentions or actions projected on another. We feel negative about a situation or even our own actions, and we assume others around us come from the same place, the same intent. I hear folks say “We need to really get better at _____” or “ You really just want _______” and it’s their own wants and feelings of self judgement that are being projected on the other person. So we must tread especially mindfully here.

Story Identification
For many here in the Bay Area, the trickster of minds is taking great pride in the story of “how they got there” and looking at others’ situations to say, if only they could be more like me they’d be better off. And as with so many times in the examples above, we have no idea we are even doing it.

We have been tricked, one more time, by that ultimate trickster… the thinking mind.

Let us move beyond our judging. Beyond the self identification of thoughts and feelings. Get off this emotional roller coaster for good.

Hope to see you again on the journey here online or next set of workshops

Sidenote: as most who know me, know… I feel strongly that this TV watching is a mistake. It lets our minds wander passively into the reptilian (non-thinking) brain; this has been scientifically proven. This leads us to a space below thought, into areas that are usually very negative, violent or even harmful. And yet, I too fall off the wagon like everyone else.

Importance of Intent

It has been said that your actions are not what matters, but the intention behind the actions is where the real value lies. And in our training of non-judgment, this is probably the most important place to apply the saying.

Intent is the meaning behind what you do. If a man takes a sharp knife and cuts someone, it’s not the act that is good or bad – it’s the intent. The good intent is the doctor using this sharp knife to save a life; the bad intent is the attacker wishing to inflict bodily harm.

What is Your Intent?

It’s important to take a deep look at your own intentions. A very powerful exercise is to ask yourself, “What is my intent here?” For example, when you walk into a room at a social event, “What is my intent?” Am I here to enjoy myself and just let the night flow? Is my intent to find someone specifically to forward my agenda? Am I unsure of my intent and slightly confused what to do next? Is my intent to be seen and allow the world to know I am here? And so on. Most intentions break down to 3 areas:

  1. Intention of Desire
  2. Intent of Aversion
  3. Intent of Confusion

Desire is seeking something you don’t have: a person (soul mate), a goal (business success), or etc. In western society we have many of these intentions – unhealthily so.

Aversion is where we look to put space between ourselves and the other, mostly manifesting in our judgment where we say to ourselves (or even out loud), “Oh gosh, just look at that person… what a _____(fill in blank).” And we already know how poor a perception that creates. Especially in times of conflict, we tend to go here as it gives us greater standing in our small ego mind that “we are right” or feel better than the other with an opposing opinion or way of being.

Confusion is just as it sounds. It’s a lack of real, thoughtful intention and tends to set us back to unconscious autopilot, where we start to do what everyone else is doing. Or wander a bit aimlessly. Or just react to whatever comes our way, whether a person at a social event, or a feeling/emotion that arises.

It’s when these emotions/feelings arise in difficult times that we must get very clear with our intentions. It becomes very easy in modern-day society to fuel reactive aversion intentions and begin to go deep down the rabbit hole of protecting that line of fixed judgment thinking.

When we start to examine our intentions it can be quite an eye opener. For example, you might ask, “What is my intention in responding to this email I don’t like very much?” You might then see that your intention is to defend yourself, or put so and so in their place or to shut them down. Not where we want to be, right?

Many times it gets even more frightening, as our intentions that stem from anger, resentment or deep frustration are actually born from harm. “I’ll make sure he never does that again” or “We’ll see how she feels after I…” We may not say it too loud in our conscious mind, but subconsciously or subtly behind the actions are very harmful intentions. Here we must really examine and go deeper into why we feel so harmed. Even a second opinion from a trusted friend or therapist may be needed. So if your intention in that moment is harmful, it’s important to pause and give it time to pass until you can come from a more openhearted place.

We’ll want to dig deeper whenever we fall outside of one of the most important tenants of mindfulness, non-harming actions.

Intention Judgment

So many times in life we impugn another’s intent. Usually from a place of lacking much, if any, first hand knowledge of intent. Therefore we create a story that fits what seem to be logical conclusions, at least in our mind, but in more cases than not, they’re totally incorrect. This is the beginning of a problem.

We must act with care. With the intention of judging begins a deep and hurtful process that becomes more tightly wound as we view that person or event through this initial “intention assumption” lens. So many of life’s arguments, fights, and wars amongst societies lie in this miscommunication and assumption of intent. We must seek the answer, not our interpretation.

Both our own intentions and our judgment of others’ intentions need to be examined, if only for a few short seconds.

Karma of Intent

Lastly, I’ll note that if your intentions are good then your Karma will be too. This one thing we cannot escape. The ever-powerful energy of the universe. So when you put out good intentions, even if the action is received poorly by the world, you can sleep well knowing the bigger cycle of life will come full circle.

Be pure about your intentions and find the peace of mind that gives a great space for allowing and accepting all the great unforeseen fortunes that life has to offer. In nearly every transition from one moment/situation in life to another, you can examine your intentions. It’s a beautiful way to slow down a bit. To observe yourself, your wild and chaotic mind and be more deliberate about your actions. To stop before you walk into that next meeting and say, “OK, so what are my intentions with this meeting?” or pause before making a phone call and ask, ‘What do I really intend here?” This is why text, email and instant messaging are so dangerous to our human connection. We type and reply so fast to the stimulus of the preceding message, we don’t even stop to think. And many times that causes unnecessary pain and suffering for others.

In the mindfulness world, we would begin to seek intentions of kindness, of compassion and of understanding (or wanting to understand). As the old fable goes, the prince asked his head lieutenant to find a person of pure good in the kingdom. Weeks later the lieutenant explains that he cannot find such a person. Many have good intentions, and have done wonderful things, but none are pure. And so the prince asks another lieutenant to find a person of pure evil. Many weeks later the lieutenant returns empty-handed, saying that he cannot find such a person in all the land. There are many that have done evil deeds but most are done out of confusion, past hurt or misguided intentions, none from pure evil.

The point is, we all have different backgrounds, pasts and challenges, and our actions stem from so much of our history that when left unexamined, they can both be good and evil but never pure. So we leave our judgment at the door and offer a hand of compassion to forgive all, “for we know not what we do” in many cases, as our intentions have not been properly examined before the action.

Find Your Intention

So in your challenging, big moments of truth and your small day-to-day moments of life, we need to take short moment of awareness. A moment to be honest, look deep and make sure it is real. Then a moment to ask: “What are my intentions?”

You may be surprised by the answer.

The Resolution of Non-Achievement

Resolve to Achieve Nothing. Be Everything.

Many times in my life, I have found just how shallow my achievements are. From the days when I would receive a near-constant stream of accolades for being the top performer on my team to the multimillion-dollar sale of the company I built, none fulfilled me.

I was asked so many times, “Aaron, why aren’t you enjoying the moment… having fun and reveling in your achievement?” Often this was at a party or moment in time when others were celebrating my success. For me, I didn’t have a great answer. And the truth was, I was already halfway down the path to the next thing I wanted to achieve. And so the past success wasn’t all that interesting. I was already building the next company or focused/stressed about hitting the next milestone of “greatness.”

Hollow, empty and nothing special were the feelings that arose as I spent the time to dig deeper into my “self,” and inquire, “what the hell is going on here?!”

The concept of “non-achievement” is near heresy in the modern day world. Especially for all us high achievers. The leaders, the top performers, the entrepreneurs building great businesses, we must set goals – and lofty ones at that. Even those of us on a quest for self-improvement come to a place where we seek to achieve a better self. But as life wears on, we find ourselves asking “what is it we are trying to achieve?’ or better yet, “why?”

As we start to peel back the layers of what it is we really want, it becomes easy to see the superficiality or societal created desires for what they really are. And easier to see their reasons for “why”: The accolade of recognition, or the self-congratulations of “I did it.” Or for some, the self-convincing of “finding our life’s work.” All of these I have learned to caution greatly, as these things are only elusive temporary goals, like moving to a new city or changing jobs to create a “fresh start.” All are void of answers to what is it that matters most, only an external element of life. Not the answers to it.

So what is it that matters most? As we dig, the answer most commonly heard is “I want to be happy.” And to that, there can be no debate. But what is happiness?

Is it that momentary feeling of going on an amazing vacation? Is it that feeling of having achieved more than 99% of the world? Is it that you’ve made it in this world? Or more specifically, as we set our goals for the year ahead, is it “that feeling of accomplishment” when you achieve what you set out to do?

No, it’s not. And we already knew that.

Then what? What is it?

Being first. Then happy. “Being happy” would be akin to that inner contented feeling… that warmth of joy. Being in the flow, as some would say, and feeling the amazing power of energy when in the alignment of that flow through the greater river of life.

Not the “I” that screams from the mountain tops (or posts on Facebook), “look at me, I did something special or my life is amazing,” or “I am so grateful for this.” Rather the gratefulness is expressed in “Grace” itself, and an inner place of self-content. So we come back to the grace of just getting to “Be.”

As we search for “Being” or inner-true self, we tend to fall back into old habits of achievement. I am meditating every day (cue triumphant music in the background)! I am becoming a better person. I am improving myself. I am changing.

Yet, paradoxically, this striving itself is a bit of a no-no. Additionally, the goal to change, is not quite right. In our self-help society, we are made to believe that change, incrementally creeping up a certain ladder of betterment, is the way. Like self-improvement exercises of vision boarding, actualization or power of positive thinking, even these powerful manifestations are only temporary respites of achievement. They do not last. Nor are they really “being.”

To Be is to find stillness. To be grounded. To dig for self where all answers dwell. And to do so, we must dig in this stillness of non-achievement with no objective other than just being.

To dig deep, we must dig in one spot. Any spot, but one spot with concentration, repetition and awareness. We mustn’t move from here to there. Get from one phase of mindfulness to the next. Simply dig. Mundanely. Assuredly. Without desire. Without expectation of greatness, knowing that all we seek we already have.

All that we want to “be” is already there. We just need to find it and come back to it. Bring it to the surface, from under all the layers we have added during our lifetimes.

The endless joy and happiness we all seek are in one place only, deep below the surface. And found only with the shovel of no-effort, no achievement. Or as many in the Zen tradition would say, “nothing special” is the only tool that allows for reaching that destination. Letting go of any preconceived notion, hope or expectation. Just simply letting go and sitting. Our sitting, being the dig.

Simple everyday digging is needed to tap into self and the full energy that allows us to be. When we accept that there is nothing to achieve we actually have found a place that lets the “ego-I” melt away and allows the true self to reveal itself – the one that knows the path to happiness.

“This is the path of the one. Where the path of the one must end and return to the source,” said the Oracle (Matrix).

So as you set out on your quest to achieve, or create a resolution, remember the final answer to the big question is one that has no beginning or end. And most certainly is not “achievable.”

Q&A with Wellness Expert Allie Stark: How Mindfulness Can Reduce Stress, Anxiety and Depression

Q. Many of us work at computers and more or less live in our heads. What is a simple way to be more aware of our bodies?

A. There are lots of different ways I could answer this question, but I immediately go toward paying attention to the breath. If there’s a heightened amount of stress, if there’s anxiety and if there’s overwhelm, you have to close your eyes. Just close your eyes and take five deep breaths. The power that has in connecting the mind to the body is really amazing, and it takes a minimal amount of effort. Set an alarm on the phone as a reminder to close your eyes and breathe. The other thing sounds simple, but it can be a little bit more complicated: just pay attention. Our bodies are amazing tools for focus and awareness. You can walk into a room and feel that something is out of alignment when you have awareness.

Q. Workplaces stress and anxiety are so rampant it seems almost normal these days. What do you think the new normal should be?

A. Normal can be workplaces full of people who are in alignment with their own intentions. In that space, they are able to make choices for themselves that allow them to be in balance. I think a lot of the feelings of overwhelm and high stress occur when people don’t feel like they have the choice to choose what is right for them. It’s not about being stress free — it’s about choosing to be in your own energy. When you do that, not only are you anchored and operating in your genuine and authentic space, but also your feelings of overwhelm, stress, anxiety and depression are not as rampant. When you’re using your gut and you’re finding what’s right for you, those things dissolve without you having to do that much work on them.

Q. You mentioned depression. How can mindfulness help people who are living with chronic depression?

A. I work with a lot of people who are currently experiencing chronic depression or who have in the past. It runs in my family and in different times in my life I have dealt with it, so I have a lot of sensitivity and compassion for people suffering with depression in this country and around the world. What mindfulness practices do — and not just meditation because meditation is just one form of mindfulness practice — is reprogram your brain. It’s called neuroplasticity, and it changes the neural pathways in your brain. For example, you may have negative self-talk and when you turn that into genuine, positive self-affirmations, it will change the course of depression. It may not completely eliminate it, but it’s going to change the way you think about yourself, which is going to change the course of the illness.

Q. For those new to the idea of mindfulness, can you offer one tip that has helped you or your clients to be more present?

A. It has been scientifically researched and proven that we can’t multitask. When we stop doing multiple things at the same time, we can be incredibly present with where we are, who we are with and what we are doing. For example, if you’re used to driving your car from your house to work and talking on the phone, listening to the radio and doing all these distracting things, try to get quiet in the car on the drive to work in the morning. What that does is allow yourself to be incredibly present to all your senses. To return to the topic of depression, to me the root of depression is not having the capacity to allow your emotions to come up. When you allow yourself to become present with whatever activity or interaction you’re having, it actually gives you the space to feel. You can become aware of your feelings and then you can shift those feelings through very simple mindfulness practices.

Q. Why is silence important?

A. I went on a silent retreat and it was one of the loudest experiences that I have ever had in my life because the mind and the chatter were so intense. Silence is about facing yourself and asking, ‘OK what’s coming up right now?’ If that chatter is coming from thoughts and unprocessed emotions, allow yourself to become present to it. To bring Buddhist philosophy into the equation, it’s our thoughts that create the suffering, sadness, anxiety and depression. We don’t want to feel those emotions, so we go numb, but we need to give ourselves the space to feel. And that can have a radical impact on our health and well being.

Allie Stark, MA, RYT, is a Health and Nutrition Coach and Wellness Consultant with more than a decade of experience in the field.
www.alliestarkwellness.com

What Exactly is Mindfulness Anyway?

What is Mindfulness?

The single most common question I hear everyday.   What is Mindfulness?

What may seem obvious to some is quite a mystery to others. And with so many different perspectives, books and articles on the seemingly amorphous topic, I think it’s a very good question.

“Moment to moment awareness without judgment” is the simplest definition I’ve seen.

“Moment to moment”.
This is one of the biggest secrets to the mindfulness movement.   For many, this may be more familiar when we talk about “being in the moment” a concept Ekart Tolle made famous in his book the, Power of Now.   As with all precepts of Mindfulness, it’s a simple concept to grasp.   Just be in this moment, enjoying the moment as it is.   Easy right? I’m in the moment right now… right?

For most, not so easy.  Over 49% of our waking lives* is spent thinking about something other than what we are doing at the given moment. Ruminating about a past event (ex: “I can’t believe she said that about me”) or anxiety over future event (ex: “geez, I really need to start that project or else…”) and on, and on our wandering minds go.

“I wandering mind is an unhappy mind”, MA Killingsworth one wrote.

And I think that is the key here.   Our first simple task is to bring our attention to the moment we are in. And as you’ll soon find out, it’s not as easy (albeit simple) as it sounds.     Will come back to this in a moment.

Awareness. The next word in the definition is awareness and the ignition to the powerful engine of mindfulness. The Webster definition “ is the ability to perceive, to feel, or to be conscious of events, objects, thoughts, emotions, or sensory patterns” and so if we extrapolate to mindfulness, it means to be aware of your thinking, feeling, and emotions. In the mindfulness world, this is known as Being the Observer.

Observe your thoughts versus being one with those thoughts. In short, you are not your thoughts. They are just items that come across the mind … separate objects if you will.    For example, you may be thinking, “hmm, this blog post isn’t as pithy as Aaron’s past writings, I think I should go check Facebook.” So instead of instantly going to check Facebook or just starting to feel bored.   You’d observe that thought as if you are a third party and say, “interesting, that 1 minute into reading this, and I’m already anxious or bored. I wonder why. Is it my attention span? Is the topic… hmmm….”? And then at least you are observing the thought and aware you are having this actual thought.

Feelings and emotions are even more critical. When you feel something, it’s actually important to recognize that as a sensation versus identifying it as whom you are. For example, you may find that it’s easy for you to get frustrated or angry when waiting. Waiting in traffic, waiting in line at the airport, waiting for someone who’s late.   And you say to yourself and others “ I’m just an impatient person that has a bit of an angry streak”. And nothing could be further from the truth. The mindful observer approach would sound more like “ hmm, my mind tends to easily get’s frustrated and worked up when I wait… something I need to look at deeper. Why so much anxiety and anger in my mind?”

See the difference?

And with that simple act of observance, you give yourself some space between stimulus of life and your reaction. And that, my mindful friends, will make all the difference.

Without Judgment.  The toughest of them all. Thou shall not judge is a phrase all great holy men have professed.   And we know it innately.   Our passing judgment on someone or an event creates a lens we see that event/person through and disables our ability to truly see the world as it is.   Life just becomes a tainted perception. One after the next.

Now, as animals we must use our skills of discernment to decide on what actions to take. Whether it be deciding not to walk through a dark alley late at night or to take a new business opportunity, we must decide if friend or foe. Fight or flight and so on. So, let’s not let this get in the way of the judgment element.

If we begin working on non-judgment. We start with ourselves, where our greatest judgment happens. We accept all the mistakes we make. We are forgiving for any of the errors we had made and we continue to seek to improve.  Be careful, as it’s easy to let the negative spiral of self-judgment send us down a self-defeating path. Be gentle with thyself.

As some of my author friends would say, Let life go. Let it be.

There it is, mindfulness defined.   In our next post, I’ll start to explore the big fundamental pillars for Presence, Acceptance and Compassion.   And remember, being Mindful is not the same as having a full Mindful Practice.

The 3 Pillars of Mindful Living

Presence.  Acceptance.   Compassion.

That’s it.   Pretty easy right?   Yes, and no.

As I prepare for our Mindful Order of Being Workshop week after next I realize how the concepts are indeed easy to understand. Putting them into practice in this world today … that’s another story.   Let’s explore.

Presence is more acutely defined as “being present”. Meaning be in the very moment you are in.     If you are eating a meal, you simply eat. If you are driving to work, drive.   The alternative to being present would be eating your meal while watching your favorite reality show and checking Facebook or Instagram.   Or driving while listening into a conference call, all the while your mind is ruminating on the last email your boss sent you.

Get it?   Great!

So the question becomes, why is it so important to be present?   What’s wrong with being efficient, multi-tasker or letting our mind wander abit?

Well, as a famous philosopher once said, “A wandering mind is an unhappy one”.

The mind wandering is the root cause of anxiety and stress. The uncontrolled urge to worry about a future event that hasn’t (and most times never will) happened causes deep unrest and physiological outbreaks of acme, ulcers and even cancer. Then there’s ruminating on past events and endless negative cycles of harmful thoughts about a past incident or person.   As we dwell here, we are blocking our mind getting to it’s natural and normal state of peace. Yes, happiness and peace is our default state.

So we must work diligently to gain presence in every possible moment.     Breath & meditating are the main avenues to cultivate such in a mindful living practice.

There is one more key aspect to Presence. And that’s the outcome of being present creates great inter-personal “Presence”. In other words, when you are there in the moment with another person or group your calm “Presence” is felt in a strong and very positive way.   Some may call it confidence.   But it radiates and creates amazing dynamic with those you are interacting with at that moment.

Acceptance

“Accept what is”… a common refrain heard today. Can you accept the “Is-ness” of life. As it stands. As it is. In the shape, form and manifestation it’s been given to you?

First and foremost accepting the imperfection of this thing we call life. In the Buddhist text, it’s referred to as acceptance of suffering.   Meaning, accept that fact that you (and the world) suffers. And that accepting it is the first step toward opening the mind towards cessation of your suffering.

Accept you are not happy. Accept that work is stressing you out. Accept you are not the perfect parent, friend or colleague… just accept it.     It is what is. And it’s your minds constant battle with it that causes the duration and depth of pain. Not the actual event or person itself. So lay down your arms and just accept it.

“I’ve encountered a lot of challenges in my life. Only half we’re real” – Mark Twain

Once you accept life as it is. Then one can work towards having a calm, clear mind and allow all the moment by moment joy created from presence enter in, unfettered.

Acceptance also ties to non-judgment. Not judging yourself nor judging others. This is very hard to do. And never a perfect practice, but we must strive to see all things with as little judgment as possible. When we remove judgment and labeling of things as good or bad. Fun or boring. Cool or “D” we are creating mental constructs that are a major obstacle to acceptance. An obstacle to the ever present now, and your happiness.

As Eckart Tolle once wrote, “Let life be. Leave it Alone”. 

Compassion
A word that evokes some true contemplation.   For me, compassion struck me as a more weak, feminine word that was hard part of my own unraveling stage.   But after looking long and hard, it is the right word. And one we must embrace.. albeit not so sexy in modern day society.

Modern day society wants winners.   Wants big success.   Wants stories of the self-made man/woman and how they overcame all obstacles.   And yet, those stories are not the one’s worthy our praise.   It’s the leaders of compassion, Ghandi, MLK, Thicht Naht Hanh, Mandela that we gravitate towards in the end. They have the traits we seek most. And those traits stem from their deep compassion.

So what is compassion. First, it starts with empathy.   Empathy meaning we feel strong emotional ties to those needing our concern. We can have deep empathy for the homeless, the person who lost a loved one or just our friend having a hard time at work.   But compassion, needs more than the feeling. It is the action of empathy. So we become compassionate when we take action on our empathy and buy a meal for the homeless, spend the night with person who so needs our company, listen and give valuable time to those in need.

If wee seek to understand and empathize with our peers or adversaries and simply come from a place or clear understanding., we will remove our personal filters and judgment, thus let’s us see the world as it is.

When we have more clarity to see things as they are, we make better decisions and have a deeply more fulfilling life.

Come from the lens of compassion, and all things are possible.

In the end, combining presence with acceptance and all areas of life through a lens of compassion, you will see what joy a mindful life can bring.      Cultivating these practices through meditation, awareness and mindful living programs will make achieving such an outcome possible.

I look forward to teaching our next Introduction to Mindful Living workshop on December 2nd and diving deep into these 3 Pillars of Mindfulness.