Scientists John Gaspar and John McDonald from Simon Fraser University in British Columbia have recently discovered that we have an anti-distraction mode in our brain (See an overview here or the actual study here). This means that focusing on what matters moment-to-moment is not only about intentionally paying attention to something, like reading this blog post or listening to a friend, but also about suppressing all of the distractions in the background.
Why is this important to us and what can we do about it?
It was 6:25 am today when the bed started to shake. I heard a picture frame hit the floor outside our bedroom door. Our youngest son was in the bed with us at the time and woke up and said, “What is going on Daddy?” He didn’t seem too worried and either was I having grown up in Los Angeles where the earth’s little “shake and bake” routine happened from time to time. This was a pretty good one with a magnitude of 4.7. I went to check on my other son, he was still asleep, hadn’t even stirred. One thing it did remind me of was that from time to time, life throws us little reminders to pay attention to what matters.
This morning I was reminded that “Life is about who you love and how you love them.” I gave my son and wife a big hug.
As mindful as we can train to be, we can never control what happens to us in any given moment. Training the mind in presence is a way of preparing the mind to respond with more presence during the difficult events of life (and of course to the joyful events as well).
I’ll never forget the year my wife was pregnant with our first child and it seemed like everywhere I turned people were telling me, “Savor this time, it all goes by so fast.” It didn’t matter what race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status the person was coming from, it was a universal experience.
But this experience doesn’t belong to people who have kids; this is a universal experience across human beings that we often wake up to after some a loss or
A “bellringer” is a short activity that some teachers put on the board in the beginning of a class so students have something to do while attendance is being taken. Recently, one teacher among a quietly growing group tried something radically different to start his class –a mindfulness practice. What did he notice? Student participation is up and class disruption is down. He also noticed that the quality of their writing was far better and students wanted to continue the practice.
This is completely in line with a growing number of anecdotes talking about the power of bringing mindfulness to kids, tweens, teens and older adolescents.
The concept of choosing happiness can be an incredibly controversial topic. For anyone who has experienced distressing experiences like anxiety, depression, addiction, chronic pain, trauma or a stress-related medical illness, to say “choose happiness” can appear shaming. When conditions are genetic or biological nature, there is no choice and pain is inevitable. However, while we can never change what happens to us in any given moment, with awareness, we can choose how to respond to it.
Let’s take a closer look at what “choose happiness” can mean and how it may be the most powerful phrase we know to change lives.
The Now Effect is based on a very simple quote from a psychiatrist and holocaust survivor named Viktor Frankl. He said, “Between stimulus and response there’s a space, in that space lies our power to choose our response, in our response lies our growth and our freedom.” But for most of us that space is non-existent as the speed of the day skips right over it. From the moment we wake up, the brain already has a routine preplanned that skips over the spaces where life is unfolding. It knows that maybe after we wake up, we make breakfast, drink our coffee, read news on our phones, take a shower, get dressed and the rest of the day unfolds like this. Sadly, for many of us our lives go on like this until some crisis wakes us up. But we don’t need a crisis, right now we can train our brains to break this pattern.
Philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel said:
“Life is routine and routine is resistance to wonder.”
The most popular practice I know to take back control of our lives and step into the choices and wonders that are all around us is the STOP practice. A few years ago when A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook came out I did a YouTube video of this practice and it has almost 70,000 views. A year ago when The Now Effect came out I put a more professional video out again and it already has almost 10,000 views. The reason this is so popular is because it benefits children, adolescents, adults, parents, politicians, educators, athletes, business people, and any human being. It’s necessary for healing stress, anxiety, depression, addiction, trauma and stress-related medical conditions.
The fact is, we all need to learn how to:
Have you ever thought about what your thoughts really are?
Consider for a moment even as you’re reading this the voices and images that are naturally appearing in your mind as your brain processes this sentence.
Close your eyes for 10 seconds. Imagine you’re in a dark movie theatre and just watch these mental events forming and unforming. Some are voices questioning what you’re doing, others are telling you what you should pay attention to, or yet others are just a string of different images shifting and changing (You can also be guided through this practice).
Even after looking at them are hearing them in your mind right now, are you any closer to understanding what thoughts are?
The truth is not a single scientist can tell you for certain what a thought is, but somehow we become highly identified with them.
We say, “I am a teacher,” or “I am a good person” or “I am a failure” or “I make the best chocolate chip cookies” or “I am an addict” or “I am a depressed person” or “I am unworthy, unlovable and defective.” The stories go on and on.
From the time we are born we collect these stories to define who we are and what we can achieve in this life. When the thoughts are judgments, can we say for certainty that they’re true? The answer is almost always, no. But the thoughts lead to feelings or the reinforcement of feelings that were already there. Inevitably they feel true.
What it comes down to is we are not our thoughts, not even the ones that say we are.
How do I know this?
Well as you may know by now mindfulness has made the cover of Time Magazine. This means that mindfulness has arrived, right? When I first heard this I said to myself something I said to myself over a decade ago which was “this practice is going to reach the mainstream world, it something we sorely need right now.” But watching a short clip on MSNBC made me curious about whether it’s being conveyed in a way where people are going to truly get the benefit that the science of mindfulness promises.
Let me explain.
I always say if there’s anything we’re assured of in life besides death and taxes, it’s stress and pain. While that may seem like a doomsday statement, if you look at it again, it’s actually quite freeing. If you know stress and pain are inevitable, then you can learn how to be grateful for the good when it’s here and be graceful when the stress and pain arrives.
Here’s a short passage from Mindfulness Meditations for the Anxious Traveler: Quick Exercises to Calm Your Mind that gives voice to this.
“It is what it is, while it is. Nothing lasts forever. Difficulties will pass and so will the wonders; tune in to the preciousness of life.
Bring this awareness into the moments of your day, tuning in to what really matters.”
Life is so precious.
How can we get better and better at setting aside the trivial mind traps that keep us stuck and drag us down into states of anxiety and depression?
Believe it or not, five years ago starting a blog called Mindfulness and Psychotherapy seemed like a risky venture. At the time, some people I mentioned it to said, “Well, there are a whole lot of blogs that come and go within a year.” The integration of mindfulness, compassion and neuroscience as a therapy in our daily lives has now become key to millions of people. Through posts and interviews we’ve looked into practical applications for stress, anxiety, depression, addiction, trauma, grief, happiness, joy, self-compassion, forgiveness, relationships, business, medicine, technology, politics and so much more.
Since the inception of this blog we’ve seen the publications of A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook, The Now Effect and Mindfulness Meditations for the Anxious Traveler. It has been incredibly rewarding to share these years with you and I wanted to thank you all deeply for all your interactions, they have been a source of living wisdom for me and the other readers to benefit from.
Now, here are my Top 10 Favorite Posts from 2013:
Once in a while a moment occurs in your life that causes your jaw to drop open in awe. Recently, my wife, Stefanie Goldstein, PhD and I were at Denim N’ Dirt Ranch in Santa Clarita, California giving a workshop on mindfulness for equine-assisted psychotherapists. The premise of the workshop was to teach how mindfulness and self-compassion enhanced presence for the therapists and ultimately made them more effective at the work they did with their clients. But what happened was completely unexpected and I might even borrow a word from one of the participants, “magical.”
We were all sitting in a circle in the horse ring, here’s a picture of me talking and my impromptu horse assistant “Jazz” encouraging me.