When you’re focused on any activity, whether it’s your email, listening to a friend or sitting in a formal meditation practice, your mind is bound to wander. In The Now Effect I introduce the phrase “See, Touch, Go” as a way to remember how to work with the wandering mind. When it wanders we “See” that it wandered, then we “Touch” or spend a moment with the thought, and “Gently Go” back to the initial intention. Recently a friend opened my eyes to how this phrase can be adapted to be a simple and practical way to strengthen a more compassionate brain.
I can’t wait to share it with you.
Recent I had an eye opening dream while I was asleep.
I was in a war torn region and superheroes existed (Keep in mind I have a couple younger kids).
I was injured somehow, but some of these superheroes were telling me I could fly.
As I tried to fly, I felt a little lift but kept falling.
A few people who were the enemy were chasing me and I was afraid. I ran and tried to fly, but couldn’t get that far (At this point you are welcome to psychoanalyze me).
The superheroes told me:
“You have to believe, believe you can fly and you can do it.”
At that point I decided to risk it, I leaned it a bit further and took a leap (literally and figuratively), believing that if I did this I would fly.
Lo’ and behold I was up in the air flying around. I couldn’t believe it.
As the dream continued I was able to help some people, but I would lose my belief from time to time and had trouble getting up in the air.
I remembered the words, “You have to believe, believe you can fly and you can do it.” I risked again, took the leap…
British author Aldous Huxley, most famous for his book Brave New World, spent his life digging into the world’s problems and through that experience inevitably became quite a spiritual man. I guess it rings of Rumi’s quote, “Don’t turn your gaze. Look toward the bandaged place, that’s where the light enters. Late in his life at one of his final public speeches he said something illuminating, “It’s a little embarrassing that after 45 years of research & study, the best advice I can give people is to be a little kinder to each other.”
What would life be like if we each practiced being 10% kinder each day?
10% kinder to ourselves.
10% kinder to one another.
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?
I began the Mindfulness and Psychotherapy blog on Psychcentral.com over 5 years ago now. Since then I’ve written hundreds of posts on the intersection of mindfulness and psychotherapy. Recently a new book has been published called Sitting Together: Essential Skills for Mindfulness-Based Psychotherapy. While this is a wonderful and practical guide for therapists, someone who is not a therapist would also benefit from the guidance and exercises. Today I have the benefit of interviewing the authors of Sitting Together; Susan Pollak, MTS, Ed.D., clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School and president of the Institute of Meditation and Psychotherapy, Thomas Pedulla, LICSW, faculty at the Institute of Meditation and Psychotherapy and Ronald Siegel, Psy.D., author of The Mindfulness Solution and also faculty at the Institute of Meditation and Psychotherapy.
Today Susan, Ron and Tom talk to us about introductory practices we can use when feeling overwhelmed, when Lovingkindness is best practiced, the critical importance of equanimity and when not to use mindfulness.
Elisha: What do you find to be the most effective introductory practice(s) for a client who is feeling overwhelmed with the stresses of life?
In our culture the notion of surrendering has a negative connotation to it. It means you’ve been defeated and that you’re powerless. But if you look to the world’s wisdom traditions you’ll find that the idea of surrendering is a courageous act that creates more insight and freedom from the unnecessary mental struggles of life.
The 13th century Sufi poet Rumi uses a wonderful metaphor to bring this to life:
Very little grows on jagged rock.
Be ground. Be crumbled,
so wildflowers will come up
where you are.
You’ve been stony for too many years.
Try something different.
Many of us harden into patterns of life that keep the struggle going. We can’t seem to let go of the self-judgment because our brain believes it’s there to keep us in line. We numb out to the world through eating, drinking, over-use of social media, among so many other ways.
Question: Why is our brain so afraid of surrendering our unhealthy patterns of thinking and behaving?
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
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?
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?