Digital Meditation: Insight Timer

I have a new digital addiction in my life.  Not since I discovered Spotify has an app been so exciting!  And it is sad, I know, that the thing that is most motivating me to meditate at the moment is not my sense of well-being, calm or joy, but my attachment to my 30 day streak on Insight Timer.

Singing Bowl, Sound Massage, Relaxation

Insight Timer is very clever little app.  It has a perfectly designed timer, with the option to set the length of time you want to mediate, put in interval bells, have some background sound (birdsong, deep oms or silence) and record your work.  It has thousands of guided meditations too, neatly organised into categories (secular mindfulness, Buddhist, Christian, Islamic psychology, yogic).  You can also search by the time you have available, or by the teacher you are interested in (and there are some very respected names – Jack Kornfield, Tara Brach, Thich Naht Han).

But the two things that really make Insight Timer so compelling are the social media and the statistics.  This is what keeps me coming back to the app day after day, which is both a good thing (I am meditating much more consistently) and a not-so-good thing (my sense of attachment is a bit contrary to the purpose of mindfulness practice).

When you log onto Insight Timer, the first thing you see is a map of the world with all the people meditating right now marked on it.  When you stop to think about it, that is beautiful – hundreds or thousands of people all meditating together in cyberspace.  You can send individual messages to people to say “thank-you for meditating with me” or make friends with people.  It replicates the sense of community that you might get from going to a class.  Obviously this couldn’t replace the deep connection you might find with people attending a real class or retreat, but it is motivational.

There are lots of discussion groups, all with different focuses.  People share their problems (some meditation related, others more general) and others generously share their tips, advice and reflections.  My favourite group is Beginner’s Mind, where you can ask questions about your practice. There is a lot of collective wisdom being shared and learning taking place and again, this is inspiring.

Of course, people can “like” your comments, and so there is the spiritual pitfall of judging yourself by how many people like your comments and how many friends you have. There are a certainly people on Insight Timer who seem to be gathering hundreds of friends for no particular purpose other than to bolster their ego.  My rule is only to be friends with people who I have actually exchanged some comments with, and I don’t have many friends at all, but that is fine.

Then there is the stats page. Insight Timer keeps a log of how much time you spend mediating each day (and you can add your own entries for time spent on yoga, chanting or other spiritual activities).  It awards you stars when you reach key milestones (ten consecutive days, for example). Clearly, there is a contradiction in here; on the one hand we are meditating to loosen the bonds of attachment to material rewards and superficial pleasures, and on the other hand, we are creating an attachment to that little dopamine hit that we get when the computer gives us a star.  You can switch this feature off when you are too spiritually advanced to need it any more; those mediators who are naked of stars inspire more respect that those who show off ten brightly coloured prizes.

I am not overly concerned about stars, but I must admit to really loving the stats.  I look at how many hours of meditation I have done and it feels like an achievement. In some subtle way, it has helped me to value my meditation time more. It has turned off that annoying, nagging, internal voice that said I was wasting my time just sitting (I’m obviously in the foothills of enlightenment at the moment).  Hopefully there will come a time when I don’t care about the stats any more, but right at the moment, it is getting me to sit for longer than I ever have done before.

But the most amazing thing about Insight Timer?  It is absolutely free!  I don’t know who created it or looks after it, but it is clearly a labour of love, and I thank them.

 

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What is Anxiety Telling Me?

You know you are spending too much time researching decision making theory, when you cannot decide if the anxiety you are experiencing is the result of catastrophising, experiencing status quo bias,  the wise voice of your intuition speaking up, fear of regret or an unrealistic expectation of being able to control everything.

Psychology, Mind, Thoughts, Thought, Fear, Head, Ideas

Type one thinking (the intuitive, emotional way that we make many decisions) gets a mixed press.  The limbic system (sometimes referred to as the mammalian brain) is responsible for a lot of our quick, automatic decisions.  It is responsible for all our auto-pilot actions, and also our sense of “gut feeling” or intuition. It gets us through the day by making all sorts of decisions from what to wear, how to get to work and how to do our routine tasks.

Daniel Kahneman, in his excellent book, “Thinking Fast and Slow” describes the limbic system as a bit lazy and prone to bias.  It will tend to prefer the familiar option or the status quo, which probably protected us from danger in days gone by, but may keep us stuck rather than moving us forward.  My anxiety could simply be my natural preference for things to stay the same making itself felt.

Apparently, we tend to have a magnified fear of regret, which is why we prefer a passive, non-decision over an active choice to do something different.  When we find it hard to decide, we tend to stick with the path we are on rather than risk regretting our decision later.  When I find myself hoping that the decision will be taken out of my hands, that is probably because I have a fear of making the wrong decision and then regretting it (for ever, of course).

On the other hand, many people credit intuition with providing deeper insights that our logical, rational brain cannot access.  Type one thinking occurs as a result of the brain quickly and subconsciously analysing all the similar situations we have been in, all the information we have right now and how important different aspects of the situation are to us.  It then sends us a message in the form of an urge to take action or an emotional response.  It can sift through far more information than our type two, logical thought process could ever hope to.  The more relevant experience we have to draw on, the wiser this intuitive response is likely to be.

Dina Glouberman has written extensively about the power of images and imagination to guide us wisely, since they can operate without being filtered through the prism of language and logic.  I think she might say that this anxiety is coming from a part of my brain that knows me better than my logical, analysing neocortex, and I should listen to it.  I need to explore what images come to mind as I feel this anxiety and what is lurking in my sub-conscious.

Indeed, scientists have fount that there is one specific part of our brains that carries on subconsciously analysing a problem while our conscious brain is working on something else, and finally gives us the answer when we are not expecting it.  This is why we sometimes get that “aha” moment while in shower or walking outside.

Aaron Beck, in developing Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, described a series of “thinking traps” that people with anxious or overly pessimistic thought patterns tend to fall into.  One common one is “catastrophising” or imagining that the worst will happen and we won’t be able to cope with it.  I can quite easily catastrophise about all the options open to me and imagine them all ending in disaster, so that is probably not doing my anxiety levels any good!  How likely are these disasters really?  Well, they could happen, but I am probably more able to cope than I give myself credit for, and I am definitely spending more time focusing on potential disaster than potential joy.  This is type two (logical) thinking going into overdrive and not really making any progress at all.  There are just too many unknowns for type two to cope with.

And of course, the gurus of mindfulness (Thich Naht Han, Tara Brach, Jack Kornfield, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Danny Penman) would all say – just sit with it.  Notice the anxiety, notice the sensations in your body and just allow them to be.  Stop trying to solve it all!  If you sit quietly, and focus on the present moment, instead of letting your mind run wild with all the things that could happen, things will sort themselves out and the right path will become apparent in it’s own time.

Perhaps I am over-analysing things!  I have always liked a good theory, but I am not sure that they are really helping at the moment.  Maybe I just need a holiday…

To count or not to count…

Counting my breaths is a habit that has become ingrained by years of Ashtanga yoga.  Five breaths in this asana, twenty breaths in that asana, oh and a hundred breaths in Tolasana (that was always a challenge); I counted my practice away until it was over.

Plank, Fitness, Muscular, Exercising

And now my yoga has slowed down, but I still count the breaths – ten breaths, twenty breaths, thirty breaths.  I’m still counting!

There are definitely some benefits to counting.  It’s a good way to measure the time in an asana and regulate the practice.  It helps me to ensure I challenge myself sufficiently, without letting myself off the hook as soon as I start to feel any discomfort or impatience.  It helps me practice evenly in the poses I like and the poses I don’t. It does help to focus the mind. Focusing on a count is obviously better than focusing on tonight’s supper or the things I must not forget to do tomorrow!

And yet, the more I practice and count, the more I feel that counting is actually distracting me from being really aware of what is happening in my body.  I am focused on the counting in my head, instead of being fully present to the sensations of my legs, back, arms or even breath. I am slightly disassociated from my body when I count. I am focused on the end goal, rather than the moment, and sometimes my breath speeds up if I am particularly eager to reach that goal.

And yet, when I don’t count, it is a real challenge to judge how long to stay; staying long enough for the asana to be challenging, yet not so long that I lose my sense of ease and balance.  It’s a new skill to notice the beginnings of discomfort, acknowledge them and then decide to continue a little longer before choosing the right moment to complete the asana.

I often get into an internal narrative about how long I have been there, and whether it is long enough, and of course that is even more distracting than counting.  Some days I am impatient and can’t wait to move on, while other days I get so comfy in a pose I could stay there all day, so my practice is less even.  I don’t know whether that matters or not. Maybe I just need to acknowledge that every day is different.

Of course, there is always the kitchen timer option!  A timer can be useful for longer, restorative holds, as it does get rid of that internal narrative about how long I have been there.  With a timer, it is easier to let go of impatience and allow whatever is there to be.  But it also removes the challenge of listening to my body and making the right judgement.

And like so many things in yoga, there is a metaphor for life here too.  How many times do I set myself a target of work to do, and complete it no matter what (even when I am tired, thirsty or need the loo); I ignore the inconvenient messages from my body.  Whether it is completing my blog post before I go bed, tidying one room of the house every day, sorting out my email box before I go home or analysing that spreadsheet before I move onto another task, I set myself goals and focus on completing them, rather than truly listening to my mind and body, and using that to judge how much to do.  I would probably be healthier and more productive if I took that break when my body is sending me thirsty/tired signals, rather than soldiering on to reach the target I have set myself.

So, later today I need to tidy and sort out my younger son’s bedroom (with his help, I hasten to add).  Should I:

  • A) Work for half an hour and then stop, no matter where I have got to
  • B) Do half a bedroom and then stop, no matter how long it takes
  • C) Stop when the time feels right – when I have made some decent progress, but before I feel tired and irritable (even if that is not very long at all!)

Answers on a postcard please….

 

 

Present Moment Wonderful Moment

“Breathing in, I calm my body.

Breathing out I smile.

Dwelling in this present moment,

I know this is a wonderful moment.”

This is a really simple but brilliant mindfulness exercise given by Thich Naht Hanh in his book Peace Is Every Step.

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Whenever you feel regretful or sad about things in the past, and mistakes made, or when you find yourself worrying about things that haven’t happened yet, you can use this exercise to let go of your anxiety and rumination and ground yourself in the present moment. You can repeat the exercise a few times, connecting each line with your breath, in and out.

You can do this at your desk, sitting in a traffic jam, in a meeting or standing in a queue. It’s a great way to connect to your breath at any time of day.

Of course, you might be wondering what is so wonderful about the present moment! Good question! It’s worth taking a minute to think about it. What can we say?

Well, for starters, you are alive, and that already makes this present moment better than most of the present moments there have ever been. Sometimes, that is enough.

Chances are, unless you are in a war zone or trying to cross a busy road, you are physically safe and that is a bonus. You are may even be experiencing comfort, a lack of pain, lack of hunger and thirst if you are lucky.

Most of the time, if you look about, there is something you can take pleasure in – a pretty flower, a handsome tree, a friendly work colleague, your home comforts, children playing or people helping each other.

But best of all, in this present moment, none of the mistakes and losses of the past are real any more. None of the possible things that could go wrong in the future are real. The only thing that is real is what you can see, hear and feel right now, and most of the time, what you have right now in the present moment is pretty good.

 

Fourteen Books That Might Change Your Life

image.jpegLike Hermione Granger, if in doubt I go to the library. Many times in my life, I have been full of doubt or negativity, and the right book has come along at the right time to help me turn things around.

So, these are the books which have changed my life at different times.  I’m not saying they are the best spiritual guides out there, just that they are the books that came and spoke to me at the right time in my life.  Maybe it is a right time in your life for one of these books!

Benjamin Hoff – The Tao of Pooh

I was given this book as a teenager, by my Mum, and it was my first introduction to Eastern philosophy.  It’s a simple book, but was very comforting at the time. It makes Taoism very accessible.

Anne Dickenson – Assertiveness

I found this book as a teenager, just as I was getting into feminism and political activism.  I was a very unassertive teenager, and this book helped me claim my right to express my point of view.

Carl Rogers – Client Centred Therapy

His concept of unconditional positive regard is a beautiful one, and learning to extend acceptance and warmth to others, we inevitably learn to extend it to ourselves as well. This book changed my relationship with m,y clients, but also with myself.

Thich Nhat Hanh – Peace Is Every Step

This is a beautiful and easy introduction to mindfulness and meditation from a Vietnamese monk.  He is super practical and gives mindfulness activities that you can do while washing up, in a traffic jam or answering the phone. This book helped me appreciate the beauty in the present moment long before I did any kind of meditation course.  I have to thank my step-father for this gift.

Martin Seligman – Learned Optimism

I read this whilst the organisation I work for was going through a major restructure and redundancy exercise. This book helped me to recognise some pessimistic thought patterns that were making me feel mildly depressed, and I was able to re-write my internal script with the help of this book, and feel a lot more optimistic. Seligman is a leading expert on cognitive behavioural therapy and positive psychology, and this book is very practical.

Patanjali – Yoga Sutras

I first read the Sutras when I was doing a Yoga Mind course with my yoga teacher, Ade Belcham.  This book and the discussions we had transformed my whole understanding of yoga and changed they way I think about my practice quite profoundly.  It’s often said that the Sutras are like an onion and you need to peel away the layers with each read, and I think that is true. Definitely one to re-read.

Martha Beck – Finding Your Own North Star

This is a career development book that both annoyed and challenged me. Beck’s book is a guide to finding your true calling or dream job, and I often find these sorts of career books slightly annoying, for reasons I will explain in a future post. But this book did really challenge me to identify what I really wanted to achieve with my working life. It’s career planning with a spiritual heart, and that is much needed in the modern world.

Donna Farhi – Bringing Yoga to Life

This is a wise guide to taking the lessons of yoga off your mat and into real life. A lot of what she says about yoga at different stages of life really resonated with me and inspired me to deepen my practice.

Tara Brach – Radical Acceptance

This book takes mindfulness and meditation a bit further, and talks a lot about acceptance (as the title implies) – of difficult emotions, limitations, loss – and gives brilliant guidance on how to sit with those difficulties and just let them be.

Carol Dwek -Mindset

Dwell has researched the difference between the fixed and growth mindset and through many experiments, has shown the power of the growth mindset. This book made me very conscious of the language I use, with myself, my kids and at work. It gave me confidence that it is ok to make mistakes and more important to focus on learning and getting out of my comfort zone.

Sheryl Sandberg – Lean In

Sandberg’s book was quite controversial when it was published, but it gave me  the professional kick up the backside I needed, at a time of self-doubt.  It’s a call to professional women to stretch themselves at work rather than hideout in the shadows.

Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Seagal and Jon Kabat-Zinn – The Mindful Way Through Depression

This was my introduction to structured mindfulness and I first did the eight week mindfulness programme from this book.  There is a great CD of guided meditations that comes with it, which I still go back to if I need some focus. Karat-Zinn has a lovely voice that instantly makes me feel peaceful. It’s also a very clear explanation of the theory of mindfulness, and you definitely don’t need to be depressed to read it.

The Charisma Myth – Olivia Fox Cabane

This sounds like it is going to be an awful book for people who want to make it in sales or as the next CEO, but it is actually a rather lovely book that is very rooted in mindfulness and body awareness.   She talks a lot about the power of “presence” and developing real listening skills, about developing more positive mental dialogue and being more aware of body language and how that both influences your own mental state and how others respond to you.  It’s more a book about how to be your best authentic self than how to perform for others. Great if you are training, chairing meetings, networking, or influencing people.

Eastern Body Western Mind – Anodea Judith

This is my current read. It’s a fascinating guide to the chakras, explaining them using concepts from Western psychology. The chakras are linked to life stages and developmental tasks as well as energy flows, and this book explains how childhood experiences can impact on the energy balance we experience as adults, and the behaviour and thought patterns we enact.

I hope one of these books speaks to you as well, at a time you need it.

Which books have changed your life? You are welcome to add to this list in the comments.

Really Simple Meditation

image I talk a lot about meditation in my posts because it has transformed my life in numerous ways. I’m not particularly good at meditation – I often get bored or distracted – but that’s not the point. I do stick at it, and one thing I know for sure is that the more I meditate, the better my life gets. It’s not that bad things don’t happen, but I navigate them so much better.

When I meditate, I feel happier and find more joy in my daily activities. I walk around smiling for no particular reason. I connect better with other people and find myself starting conversations with strangers instead of being in my own world. I’m less irritable and more compassionate. And more good things happen!

Meditation can be really simple. Anyone can do it. You don’t any special equipment or a guru (although a teacher can really help). You just need a bit of quiet.

So, here is my simple guide to getting started:

1. Find somewhere quiet to sit and turn off your phone. Ask people not to disturb you. You can sit in a straight back chair or on a cushion, but be comfortable.

2. If you are in a chair sit up straight with your feet flat on the floor. If you are on a cushion, sit cross legged or kneel. Sit up nice and straight, so you feel alert rather than slouchy.

3. Start by focusing on your breath. Just notice it to begin with, and see if it is deep or shallow, fast or slow, even or irregular. Then start to lengthen your breath by counting slowly to 3,4 or 6 on the in breath and the same number on the out breath. Just keep going like this, staying focused on your breath.

4. Your mind will inevitably wonder because this is what minds do. They are very busy! When you mind does wonder, just notice what has happened, and take your focus back to the breath. Don’t criticise yourself, you are not doing anything wrong.

5. After a while you can let go of the counting and just notice your breath. Notice how it feels as it comes in and out, around your nostrils, chest, rib cage and stomach

6. Carry on for five, ten or fifteen minutes. It is helpful to set a timer, so you don’t have to keep looking at a clock. Or, if you don’t want to use a timer you could try this: the first time you a have a strong urge to stop, notice the impulse and come back to your breath, the second time you have an urge to stop, come back to the breath again, and the third time you have the urge to stop, then finish for the day.

7. Try to meditate every day to see the real benefits.

When you are are getting started, it can be really helpful to use a sound file to guide you through.  My favourites are the Danny Penman Frantic World files and they are freely available on his website.

Even better, try an eight week mindfulness course. You will need to commit to meditating every day, and you will get lots of support from the teacher and your group. It helps to keep you motivated and deal with any difficulties that arise. I did mine with Sue Weston but there are courses all over the place.

Above all, just keep practicing every day, even if it is boring and uncomfortable, and you feel too busy! It will start to make a difference.

Getting Comfortable with Discomfort

“One can choose to go back towards safety or forward towards growth. Growth must be chosen again and again, fear must be overcome again and again.” So said Abraham Maslow, and he did know a thing or two about personal growth, self-actualisation and the hierarchy of human needs.

Every day we are faced with the choice of whether to take the safe and comfortable option, the familiar path, or whether to do something new and challenging even though it makes us uncomfortable.  If we take the safe option, we know we will feel ok but it’s unlikely we will learn anything new about ourselves or the world. If we take the riskier option, we could fail, but even if we do we will be learning something new and growing our capabilities. To grow to our full potential we need to be challenged and exposed to new ideas and ways of thinking.

A good reflective activity is to think about what we have done in the last few weeks that has stretched us.  I’ve often sat down with clients and helped them map out their comfort zones, stretch zones and panic zones as a diagram.

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The comfort zone is those tasks that are easy, unchallenging and possibly relaxing. My comfort zone is the routine of dealing with my usual work tasks, working with my regular team, relaxing over a TV series with my family, curling up with a good book, catching up with my close friends, my drive to work, my regular yoga class. I enjoy most of these activities but they don’t challenge me.

The stretch zone is the activities which make us a little anxious, because they are challenging or unfamiliar.  My stretch zone currently includes delivering webinars, training managers on new areas of work, going to a new yoga teacher and travelling on my own.  I recently did a zip wire activity high up (with harnesses) with my kids and took my 94 year old grandmother shopping with her new buggy; the activities were challenging in quite different ways. Work activities that I haven’t done for a while often sit here (configuring the annual appraisal process, for example) as do new tasks for which I already have the skills (planning an assessment centre). Receiving critical feedback or complaints is also a stretch; it’s never entirely comfortable.  These activities made me nervous, but in the end I was really glad I had done them, and I felt more confident in my abilities as a result.

My yoga teacher has recently introduced Hanumanasana (monkey pose or the splits) to our yoga class. It is definitely not in our comfort zone but there is something exciting about it and it does create a buzz in the class.

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Every time we do these stretch activities we grow a little. We learn more about ourselves by seeing what works and what doesn’t. Sometimes we find we are capable of more than we thought. When we succeed it is a real achievement. If we get comfortable with these activities through repetition, they become part of our comfort zone and the comfort zone grows bigger.

The panic zone is the activities which are too much of a stretch and we aren’t ready for them so there is high chance of failure.  In the panic zone we can’t think straight so we may not learn so much. My panic zone includes sorting out certain technical problems with the computer, climbing without harnesses (I am a bit scared of heights), karaoke (based on a traumatic experience of auditioning for the school choir 30 years ago – I didn’t say it was rational!), picking up big spiders and dropping back into a back bend in yoga ( even with the teacher holding me, I just can’t do it).  The panic zone is generally not such a useful place for growth, and may even be downright dangerous. However, sometimes it’s possible to build up to these activities in small steps, (holding gradually bigger and bigger spiders, for example) so that what was previously in the panic zone becomes part of the stretch zone.

In yoga there is a similar concept to the stretch zone, sometimes referred to as the edge. Stretching to your full extent is definitely uncomfortable, but it shouldn’t be painful. We are always looking for this point of challenge in yoga, and then using the breath to find steadiness and ease at the edge of our current ability.  We bring mindful awareness to all the physical sensations, recognising when to keep stretching and when to back off. We also notice thoughts and feelings that arise (“when can we stop?”, “I think I’m doing quite well”, “why am I so stiff?”, “I used to be able to this better”) and learn to let them go, bringing focus back to the breath and body. The impulse might be to come out of the pose but we learn not to mindlessly follow the impulse but to notice it and then decide what to do for the best.

This can be a great bit of yoga learning to take off the mat and into real life. In our working lives and in making career changes we often need to put ourselves in the uncomfortable stretch zone area to achieve our goals. A young person might need to pluck up courage to travel on their own to an open day. A career changer might need to approach a potential employer to find out about opportunities. A competitive job interview is rarely in the comfort zone.  A new manager will be in the stretch zone as they work out how to relate to colleagues in different way. A manager might need to have a difficult conversation with a team member or introduce changes to their area of work. Organisational change always brings a level of discomfort to everyone involved.  Uncomfortable situations provoke anxiety, and our anxiety can impact on those around us if we are not aware enough to manage it.

This is where mindful awareness of reactions to stretching activities can be so helpful. When asked to do a challenging activity, one impulse might be to make an excuse for why it can’t be done. However, by noticing that impulse as it arises, we can chose whether to respond in that way, or choose another response. In approaching a difficult conversation, mindful awareness of bodily reactions and facial expressions can serve as a reminder to ground ourselves first with some deep breaths and compassionate thoughts before tackling the conversation. We can spot a self-critical inner voice that only serves to make us feel anxious about a high stakes event, and choose whether to believe it or not.

By learning to pay attention to our reactions in uncomfortable situations we can learn to feel our way through them mindfully. We can learn the difference between uncomfortable stretch and the sort of pain or panic that means we should back off. We can learn to notice our thoughts and know that they are just temporary mental events rather than reality. By being more aware of impulses, we can take control of them rather than mindlessly responding to them. Self awareness helps us to find a level of comfort in discomfort.  It is ok to be uncomfortable!