Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Remember to Focus on the Here-and-now, Enjoy Living in the Moment

It is the height of summer, running-through-the-sprinkler-weather, 10 p.m. sunsets, the time of year we yearn for at other times of the year when temperatures dip below zero and the sun disappears for weeks, leaving us wondering if we'll ever see it again. It is July — let's not miss it.

It is important, sometimes, to remember to focus on the here-and-now of our everyday lives. Otherwise, we are liable to get so caught up in our regular routines that we forget to appreciate the very moments we've been longing for. Unfortunately missing the moment is not uncommon, and that's a great loss.

Time flies because in our minds, without even knowing it, we are usually either ruminating about past events, or worrying about the future. Very rarely are we actually connected to this very moment. Time is frittered away in a wandering mindlessness, constantly missing the here-and-now. To make it a long summer, making each Michigan moment last, we need to learn how to stay in the present more of the time.

The way to accomplish this admittedly daunting task is to slow down our minds, which slows down our heart rate, and, in turn, stimulates the body's parasympathetic nervous system responsible for helping us calm down. This mental and physical teamwork, or mind/body connection, promotes better health, wellness and vitality.

We have to start the process of slowing down by somehow extracting ourselves from the perpetual cycle of doing, doing, doing in our daily lives and instead spend more time simply just "being." This could involve nothing more than taking a moment to notice the blue, cloudless sky when walking from the car to your office, or feeling the warm midday breeze on your face. Or letting your eyes linger for a while on the vivid display of flowers all around, some of it shockingly bright and piercing when you take the time to truly see. There are the deeply drenched pink geraniums, purple petunias, long and draping; red roses; white balls of hydrangea. "Being" involves using all of our five senses: sight, smell, touch, taste, and sound to consciously (rather than unconsciously) take in the world around us. This "paying attention on purpose," makes time seem to slow down and last longer, and life feels more fully lived.

It is important to take note of the simple things: the delicious aroma of dinner cooking on the barbecue, the soft feel of a favorite sweater warding off a chilly night, the first lick of a soft ice cream cone (chocolate-dipped), standing along Woodward Avenue with stars shining like diamonds against the black sky, knowing that at least at this very moment, all is right with the world. No matter the economy, the world can always be enriched for no cost by being in the moment.

With greater moment-by-moment awareness, and remembering to experience life through all of our senses as often as we can, we create the opportunity to discover the richness of what all Michiganders know as the magic of Michigan summer. Otherwise, it could pass by before we know it.

In a mindful way, take the time this summer, as the state's ad campaign says, to be in the moment of "pure Michigan." The salt trucks are right around the corner.

Originally published in the Royal Oak Tribune, July 25, 2010

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Happiness Comes from Mindfulness

Most of us spend countless years of our lives in the pursuit of happiness. We work long hours, lose sleep, compromise our health, and rush through what should be luxuriated-in moments of life and love and family, in the name of happiness, and often feel at a loss to actually find any at all. The truth is, of course, that happiness is not somewhere we need to get to; it is right in front of us all the time. But, how do we find it? How can we see and experience and access this state of blissful potential?

The answer is simple and found in the singular act of being quiet. By sitting in silence for short periods of time, and focusing naturally on our breathing, new awarenesses of happiness become possible and increasingly more accessible. In our hyper, Internet-speediness, taking some time to be still is an important counter-balance to our otherwise runaway lives.

In the same way that a glass of water mixed with sand becomes cloudy when shaken, the human mind experiences similar confusion when it is impacted by the cacophony of the everyday world, with all the decisions we are called upon to make in our lives. Yet, when the glass of sandy water has time to settle, when it is left alone, the water eventually regains its natural clarity. This is also true of the mind; when given time and space to settle, intelligence and intuition will prevail over rumination, worry, and emotional upheaval.

It turns out that mindful attention to the breath, and subsequently to the present moment, is good training for enlightenment. The Buddha discovered the truth of finding peace through stillness 2500 years ago when, through his meditation practice, he saw that one’s attitude toward the things of life is more important to achieving a state of happiness, than the actual events of life, themselves. This realization was key.

Cultivating a mindful presence, that is, being fully aware of whatever is going on in the present moment, with acceptance, is the actual route to happiness, to contentment, and to living a fulfilling life. Acceptance, rather than resistance, is the secret handshake of those who’ve developed the capacity to experience joy, no matter what. Present moment attention is the password for those who radiate bliss, even within the storms that gather on the shores of our lives. Feeling all the facets of our life give it the depth and profundity that elude us in times of existential malaise.

Interestingly, it takes tremendous courage to just sit still with ourselves, as we learn first to observe and then to ride the tide of our own breath. Strangely, we find comfort in the noise of pop culture and lose ourselves easily in conspicuous consumption. But true happiness does not come from the acquisition of things and the constant churning of activity. Instead, lasting happiness comes from connecting with the preciousness of our own breath, and then relating to others through a sense of shared humanity.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Above All, Be True To Yourself

Junior high school isn't the only time that we waste precious years trying to fit in, and end up faking our way through life rather than authentically living it. Most of us suffer from this condition well into adulthood: a loss of and subsequent search for self that can end up lasting a lifetime. But what does it even mean to live an "authentic life," and how does trying to be someone you're not backfire in the end and leave you feeling empty and alone?

In the first few years of life, we are open to experience as it unfolds before us. We are in the flow of life, learning and growing and becoming more aware. Then, once we become socialized, as early as nursery or preschool, and get bullied or ostracized or criticized by one of our young friends, the seeds of shame are planted and we start to doubt ourselves. We start to wonder, am I OK? Am I acceptable to my peers? Will I be admired by others, or shunned? These are the questions that plague us to some degree or other through grade school and beyond.

Rather than trying to fit into the mosaic of the world around us, however, perhaps it would be better to explore the qualities and characteristics of who we inherently are, instead. Everyone has a gift. Everyone is good at something. If our energies are focused on keeping up with the Joneses, or feeling that we need to assume roles that are not in harmony with our true nature, we will be steered off course, and may never discover those gifts that are ours alone to give.

We can put on the trendiest clothes from the best store, with hair looking just right, we can walk among our fellow men/women and engender envy, all while a voice inside our head continually tells us the truth: We are living a lie. It usually takes a crisis of confidence to bring us face-to-face with the paradox: true self vs. false self, vying for power. Suddenly, the hypocrisy is so clear we can no longer deny it. This is the point when many people see the choice for what might be the first time: to either live a life of authenticity and genuineness, or pay the price that comes with living an inauthentic life. Buried in this moment is the chance to break free.

A certain attitude is necessary to live authentically. First, there must be an air of playfulness, not taking it all too seriously. An easy touch and a sense of humor lightens the load. Courage is the next quality needed to stand up to the naysayers who freely offer unsolicited and unwanted opinions. Focused attention on your own heart will aid in searching for the essence of your being, and facilitate exploration of the things that make you happy, quite naturally. Feelings of joyful engagement are a great clue that you are being drawn in the right direction, as true passions are revealed.

How can you be sure you're making authentic decisions along the way? How will you know what to do and which paths to take? By asking, "What will I want to have done with my life? How do I want to be remembered?" It is helpful to look at things that way. Death is morbid and no one wants to think about it. Western society shuns any conversation of impermanence, which has the unintended effect of making a full embrace of life almost impossible. On the other hand, if you realize that life is a limited engagement and not a dress rehearsal, it helps hyper-focus attention on what is important which inspires authenticity.

Running after popularity or needing to own the latest consumerist must-have is no way to live. When you realize you are living more for the outside than from the inside, it is time to take a break and look for the way back to your authentic self.

Originally published in the Royal Oak Tribune, February 7, 2010

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Negative Self Talk is Dangerous, Unhealthy

Have you ever taken the time to listen to the tone of voice with which you speak to yourself? The voice inside your head: is it kind or is it critical? Does it reflect self-love, or self-hatred? Do you call yourself names, like stupid, dumb or lazy?

This kind of negative self-talk is dangerous and unhealthy. The truth is that we cannot be any nicer to other people than we are to ourselves. And one way that we can discern whether or not we are good to ourselves, is to pay attention to the inner dialogue that is always ongoing, and provides an intimate view of our intra-personal relationship—the one we have with ourselves.

In his book, “Taming Your Gremlin,” Richard Carson says it is important to start to “simply notice” and become aware of these habits of mind. Carson calls the inner critic, our gremlin. “He is with you when you wake up in the morning and when you go to sleep at night,” Carson says. “He tells you who and how you are, and he defines and interprets your every experience. He wants you to accept his interpretations as reality, and his goal, from moment to moment, day to day, is to squelch the natural, vibrant you within.”

If we buy into this charade of self-loathing, we can totally lose sight of our unique and loveable natures. The gremlin keeps us obsessing over past choices, and projecting fear over future ones. So rather than seeing the opportunities around us, we remain stuck in ruminative thinking, and feel miserable through either heightened anxiety or a viscous loop of depression. No wonder life feels like such a struggle when negative thought patterns keep us imprisoned in a recurring daydream of unsatisfactory experiences and unrealized dreams.

In order to find our true calling, we must learn to confront the “gremlin” and quiet the inner critic whose sole purpose is to keep us feeling “less than” and unworthy. The ideal situation is to observe the gremlin, hear the narrative of self-criticism, and disbelieve the monologue written by such an insecure self. By simply noticing this process, reality becomes more apparent, the sound of self-respect become louder, and the drone of self-attack recedes more and more into the background. Unlearning the bad habit of negative self-talk is attainable, because the erroneous assumptions underlying the critical voice are similarly learned. Taming the gremlin gives us greater control over states of anxiety as well as tendencies toward depression.

Everyone has the right to be happy. But inner contentment and joy are impossible to achieved when drowned out by the harsh and constant chatter of the gremlin. By focusing instead on loving feelings for our self, the gremlin is eventually silenced. By appreciating life and expressing gratitude for those around us, we cultivate and nourish happy feelings: pessimism turns into optimism; shame becomes confidence; and, hopelessness is transformed into awareness and accomplishment. Once the inner critic is quieted, we are free to hear the voice of intuitive wisdom, and discover the “natural, vibrant you within.”

Originally published in the Royal Oak Tribune, May 31, 2009

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Living Mindfully, Living Happily through Mindfulness Meditation

Meditation is not limited to the practice of monks sitting silently in Tibetan caves. Unrelated to religion or culture, meditation is an everyday kind of consciousness that all human beings, from time to time experience quite naturally. By tapping into this natural ability, meditation helps the mind stay focused on the realities of the present moment. Attention to one’s own mind in meditation practice, if undertaken on a regular basis, can heighten mental clarity, hone intelligence, and promote emotional stability. However, only a small percentage of the population practices meditation or knows much about it.

It is ironic that people dash through life trying to figure things out, furrowing their brows in deep concentration and boring their minds like laser beams into making decisions without ever wondering what “mind” is in the first place. Western societies have bypassed what Eastern cultures have taken for granted for thousands of years: an examined mind provides rich lessons and valuable personal insights. Why aren’t we more curious about these minds of ours, which are solely responsible for every single decision we make?

Dictionary.com defines “mind” as: “the element, part, substance, or process that reasons, thinks, feels, wills, perceives, judges, etc.” While it has been scientifically determined that such cognitive processes occur in the brain, the exact location of “mind” has not been found. Rather, mind can be looked at as the mediator between incoming stimuli, and the choices big and small that we make as a result. By setting aside a period of time each day to meditate, as little as 5 minutes in the morning and 5 minutes at night—a mere fraction of the time taken for a typical exercise session, we could change our lives for the better. Over time, as the mind slows down, choices become more clear, and wisdom grows.

Practicing mindful meditation is a shortcut to realizing happiness, too, because all of a sudden we have a keener understanding of how the mind actually works. Meditation, like watching the rhythm of ocean waves, is nothing more than focusing attention on the natural flow of the mind itself, allowing a person to develop an intimate relationship with his or her own reasoning, thinking, feeling, willing, perceiving, judging, etc. Through this closer relationship—fostered by learning to mindfully attend to life rather than emotionally react to it—a person can eventually replace chaotic states of confusion and conflict with mindful consideration and measured response.

Life is changing so rapidly; it is all we can do to keep up. Yet, in what might be a counterintuitive approach, slowing down the mind through meditation and learning how to focus more efficaciously on the task at hand, whatever it might be, could prove to be a critical tool in today’s competitive marketplace. What stands out more in an employee than clarity of mind and self-awareness? Competition for the limited number of job opportunities, and the daily pressure of unending to-do lists, can lead to dangerously high levels of stress. Through the production of the hormone, cortisol, chronic stress can lead to an array of health problems from heart disease, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, chronic pain, and some cancers, to depression and anxiety. Clinical studies show, however, that a regular meditation practice can decrease such health concerns by reducing cortisol, and increasing the body’s ability to produce hormones like endorphins, melatonin, and DHEA, associated with improved immune response and feelings of pleasure.

Learning how to meditate is a smart choice. By adding the practice to a healthy lifestyle, meditation has the potential to become an important tool, contributing to clear thinking, emotional balance, and a positive state of mind. 
Originally published in the Farmington Observer, April 2009