Tag Archives: random thoughts

How I Achieved Mindfulness (Without Meditation)

(The image at left, created by artist Alice Popkorn, is licensed under Creative Commons.)

Thanks to a tweet from Valdis Krebs (@valdiskrebs) yesterday, I was directed to an article entitled “Mindfulness Meditation Training Changes Brain Structure in Eight Weeks.” The bottom line is that people who participated in a mindfulness program – where they meditated and did other “mindfulness exercises” for at least 27 minutes a day in an effort to reduce stress – overwhelmingly achieved that goal. At the end of eight weeks, using MRIs, the researchers observed:

increased grey-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection. Participant-reported reductions in stress also were correlated with decreased grey-matter density in the amygdala, which is known to play an important role in anxiety and stress.

Wow! So that means all I have to do is learn how to meditate, practice it daily, and all of a sudden not only will my anxiety and stress fade away, but I’ll be smarter, more self-aware, and more compassionate.

There’s only one problem here. I really suck at meditation. I’m easily distracted, and furthermore, I’m a “quality expert” which means I can’t NOT try to be more efficient, effective, productive, etc – avoiding waste is my nature!! Even if I had the skills to do it properly, meditation has always felt, to me, like wasting time. (Darn it.) I even spent weeks and weeks last summer trying to become more mindful. Didn’t work. I finally stopped beating myself up for not focusing hard enough on being mindful and letting it slip away.

I’m sure there are a lot of people like me. You’d like to become more mindful, more self-aware, more able-to-enjoy-the-moment… but it’s hard to do. And meditation is just not helping. And so you keep anxiously moving from moment to moment, trying to be here now, but there’s way too much to think about and get done and it’s never going to end.

One day this past December, I was driving on the interstate in the middle of the afternoon. The road was laying itself out in front of me, the trees were swaying in the light wind and the low solar angle, and I was checking out the dents in the Nissan driving in front of me. And then it dawned on me… Wow, I am TOTALLY here in this moment RIGHT NOW! This must be what mindfulness is all about! I was experiencing all of the tiny details of the moment, perfectly content where I was in my seat, and where I was along the path from there-to-home, and it really didn’t matter what I was doing or not doing. Or what I had or didn’t have. Or what would happen tomorrow or not. Or what would happen an hour from now… or not. Or who thought what thoughts of me… or not.

It just didn’t matter… none of it. I was just pleasantly entangled in the moment, and totally content. (And this is not like me… I knew something had changed.)

I spent the next few days wondering how in the world this instant mindfulness happened. All of a sudden, it was all over the place. I remember mindfully eating chicken wings. Mindfully cutting my nails. Mindfully packing my bookbag to go to work. It was all around me, and there’s nothing I did to make it happen, or so I thought.

A few weeks later I figured it all out. Mindfulness is not something you can GO GET, it’s something that comes to you. All of the focused meditation and breathing I could have done would not have made me more mindful, at least not beyond the ephemeral moments of its immediate impact. And it comes to you when you consciously choose to do things that make you happy.

I had made a decision a few weeks prior to do something that would make me happy at least once a day, and to stop doing things that did not make me happy. If I really had to do something I didn’t like, I consciously found a way to do something happy as a component of doing the thing I wasn’t interested in. If I just didn’t have the energy to do something happy, I’d go take a nap (assuming that my attitude was a result of being tired – and usually, it was). I stopped trying to force the outcomes on my to-do list and get things done, and decided that I would attack only those items that I could really be happy about doing. Furthermore, I decided that I was going to stop lying to myself and others. If I wasn’t enjoying an activity, I would find a way to stop doing it – and if I was enjoying something, I would find a way to do more of it.

This is all a work in progress. But I can say that after a few weeks of my “focus on doing stuff to make me happy” exercise, I got mindfulness for free, and so far, it’s staying with me. No meditation. No breathing, other than what I had to do to stay alive. No past, no future. No worries.

No Settling

I saw these sentences posted on the web while I was aimlessly surfing the other day. I’ve been repeating them over and over ever since; turns out I have completely missed one of the most important aspects of authenticity as a dimension of quality in my thinking over the past several months.

The key to your success is authenticity. No mask, no pretense, no settling. Know what you want, and articulate those desires directly and clearly.

No mask is a directive I’m pretty good at. I don’t try to be or act anything other than who I am (unless I’m in a bad mood; then, I’m definitely the bad mood someone-else-of-me, which in itself is still pretty authentic). No pretense is also one I think I’ve got well in hand. Pretense means you feign certain behaviors or scenarios (e.g. “sorry, I’ve got a meeting now, must run” – when in fact you have no meeting at all). I only employ false pretenses in situations where behaving authentically would be genuinely inappropriate (e.g. “you know, I’m really bored by what you have to say, and there’s no value for me to sit here listening to you – must run”). I think pretenses are always false. (You could feign truth, but I only see that being useful if, for example, a person has self-esteem issues that they’re trying to overcome. Not sure.)

No settling is the directive that inspired me. If you plan to be authentic, don’t settle for anything less than what you believe, and deserve, and can offer. Behaving authentically in relationships means standing up for equitable, kind treatment, and not allowing yourself to be tossed around by the emotional whims of others. (Not settling here also implies that if you can’t have an authentic relationship with someone else, consider not having one at all!) Behaving authentically in business thus requires not settling for any less than your own personal best, creating a climate that will bring out the best in others, and not tolerating anything less than the steady pursuit of excellence.

No settling!

Detoxing from Facebook

Eric Frazier of the Charlotte Observer told the story of Alyssa Rushing this week – a 20 year old student at the University of South Carolina whose mother has offered her $300 to “detox from Facebook” for a month. Alyssa’s mother, Melynda, wanted her daughter to focus on studying instead of social media – and viewed the challenge as a way to help Alyssa recoup the time she was wasting online:

Her mom, with just 40 Facebook friends, said she got on the network solely because she wanted to keep up with her children on it. Her idea for the $300 challenge came from her own past. As a busy mom trying to raise children, she once swore off TV and gained extra time to get things done.

She’s sure the same will be true for her daughter, especially given how distracting Facebook can be.

Next Tuesday, we’ll know if Alyssa was able to meet the challenge, because her month will be up. The question that I’m most interested in, though, is whether the one month pay-for-performance will lead to any long-term shifts in behavior. For a change to be permanent, the motivation must come from within. Although external motivators (like $300) might provide the impetus to get off Facebook now, what happens when the cash is no longer flowing? In 2009, the Wall Street Journal reported a higher success rate among smokers who were paid to quit, versus those who were not. However, there are no long-term indicators available. And besides, research shows that carrots and sticks don’t always work, anyway.

When I did my 42-day social media detox in the summer of 2010, all I was looking for was relief from the incessant online chatter – the anxiety and exhaustion that came from being frenetically, perpetually, and continuously distracted by status updates. As I peeled back the layers covering my anxiety, I realized there was a whole Pandora’s box of twisted emotions and my online habits were actually distracting me from dealing with the real issues all around me.

I check Facebook and other social media much less now – but my motivation is purely intrinsic: if I don’t keep a healthy distance, the anxiety will start to enshroud me again, and who knows where I’ll end up then. For me, it’s a matter of preserving mental and emotional happiness.

It’s kind of like dealing with an eating disorder. You can’t exactly swear off food since you need to eat to live – you just need to set very good boundaries detailing how you interact with food, and avoid putting yourself in situations that will threaten your health and well-being.

The game is all about devising effective structures to help you deal with your obsessions. And I think this is a huge issue for ensuring your own quality of life – at least in the very personal world inside your head.