What’s your bigger picture?

Did you ever have one of those moments when you suddenly become aware of your life, and can’t work out how you got here?

I had one today. I went to my grade 6 daughter’s school assembly this morning, to watch her receive her badge as the inaugural Sustainability Captain for her school. My tall, long haired, brilliant, gorgeous 10 year old, proudly wearing her badge and resolving to be the greatest Sustainability Captain she could possibly be. Her amazing 7 year old sister spoke up confidently in the same assembly.

My daughters.

Then I went to visit some friends I used to work with, proudly showed them the work of some of my students, and raved about how much I love my job. I picked up some historic computing artifacts with which to amaze my students, and grinned as I pictured their reactions.

My students. My job.

I’ve been letting the meditation slip lately, and today I forced myself to start again. I did a lot of meditation over the holidays, and like most things practice helps a lot, so I picked it up again relatively easily today, even in the face of distractions. One of the interesting side effects of mindfulness is that it seems to allow me to step outside my life for a moment and observe it from a distance.

What I saw took my breath away. Day to day I get easily caught up in the little dramas – the kids squabbling, the weather being toooooooooo hot (if you don’t live in Melbourne, please forgive the extra “o”s, and take my word for it that they have been more than justified of late), me being too tired, work being too busy, all the things I wasn’t perfect at, and all the things I can’t do, all the stress I can’t avoid. Meditation allows me to step away from all of those little demons jumping up and down and demanding my attention, and lets me see the bigger picture. It turns out that, regardless of the dramas of the day, I’m in a pretty amazing place right now.

One of my friends recently told me that in dealing with people with dementia, one of the most important lessons to learn is that everything is a phase. Phases shift, and change, and end. Whatever drama you are in the middle of, it’s temporary. That’s hard to see when you are lost and fighting in the trenches. Sometimes the best thing I can do for myself is see the bigger picture, and remember that tomorrow is another day. We can plan, and scheme, and twist ourselves inside out trying to prepare for a future that is entirely unpredictable, or we can be in the moment, enjoying today and letting tomorrow take care of itself.

Can you see your bigger picture? What do you do to get yourself past the day’s tensions and dramas, and see your life as it is truly unfolding?

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Minding your own business

Most of us live in a kind of temporal blur. We spend so much time regretting the past and fretting about the future that we completely miss the present. We have wandering minds. Sometimes I think that I am so busy being mentally else-when that I don’t even see my own children clearly.

Wandering minds tend to stray to whatever is bothering us at the moment, and to the many things that have bothered us in the past. Research shows that this habit of brooding on the negative is a kind of chronic stress that creates minds that are physiologically prone to exaggerate and overreact to problems.

Chronic stress actually causes the centre of emotional overreaction, the amygdala, to grow measurably larger. The amygdala is the “flying off the handle” centre of the brain, so a larger amygdala leaves us with a tendency to fight (or fly) before our conscious brains have even registered that there is a problem.  Having it grow large and over-reactive is clearly not going to end well for us.

“A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.” [*]

Mindfulness, in contrast, causes the amygdala to shrink, and makes the conscious mind quicker and more agile – more able to step in before we overreact. Mindfulness is nothing more than focusing on the present moment, on what you are feeling and experiencing right now. It can be as simple as listening to the birds chirping in the nearby trees, or as difficult as meditation.

Last week I was lucky enough to be present for a talk from an eminent mindfulness researcher, Dr Craig Hassed, that comprehensively blew my mind. Dr Hassed presented us with a summary of the current state of mindfulness research. Many of us probably think of crystals and hippies when we think of mindfulness. It seems like the latest spiritual craze, and not terribly relevant to our every day lives.

Except that mindfulness is scientifically proven in a whole lot of stunning ways. It boosts our immune system, reduces our stress, and causes measurable physiological changes in our brains. It also slows the shortening of our telomeres (a biological measure of ageing). In short, mindfulness meditation is better for you than antibiotics when you are sick, or any selection of vitamins you can name. Mindfulness also leads to better empathy, improved problem solving, and enhanced emotional control. It is an anti-stress, anti-ageing wonder drug – except it’s not a drug.

Chronic stress is physically and psychologically brutal. Sometimes you can’t reduce the stress in your life, but you can change your response to it, by simply bringing your mind back to what’s in front of you, instead of endlessly chewing over stress from the past or the future.

Sometimes I’m tired, sometimes I’m shot
Sometimes I don’t know how much more I’ve got
Maybe I’m headed over the hill
Maybe I’ve set myself up for the kill
Tell me how much do you think you can take
Until the heart in you is starting to break?
Sometimes it feels like it will

I go to Extremes – Billy Joel

Craig Hassed put it beautifully – you can sit in a chair and meditate, but it’s what you do when you get out of the chair that matters. It’s relatively easy to meditate for a short time. It’s much harder to be mindful throughout your day, every day.

I suspect there is a connection between mindfulness and what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow – that wondrous state where you are completely focused on what you are doing. Flow is a feeling that no time has passed when you have actually been absorbed in something for hours. It happens when you are engaged in something that you are good at, that you are challenged by, and that you enjoy. I feel it when I’m teaching. If you are lucky enough to have a job where you experience flow, then you will be mindful at those times. But this is “accidental mindfulness”. You are perfectly mindful, but only because you are engaged in the perfect task.

Being mindful when you are doing something mindless – something that doesn’t engage you – is much harder. For example, this morning I was putting out the washing. Not exactly a riveting occupation, so my mind began to wander. Instead of allowing it to dwell on recent traumas, I brought my mind back to focus on the breeze, and the feeling of sunshine warming my skin. I listened to the birds chirping nearby, and I noticed the flowers that have come out recently. In short, I paid attention to the moment. Rather than spending those ten minutes contemplating stress, I spent them contemplating the world around me. For ten minutes I was not focused on trauma, not reinforcing the negative pathways in my mind, and not ramping up my stress levels.

Ten minutes is easy. Doing it all day is much harder. I suspect that perfect mindfulness is not an achievable goal for a human being, but it does get easier with practice. Becoming aware of your thoughts and bringing them back to where you are is much easier than trying to force yourself not to think about stressful things. The more you stress about your stress, the more you reinforce it. If, instead, you think about the patterns of light and shade in the leaves outside your window, you can pull yourself back from stressing over the past and fearing the future, and immerse yourself in the present.

Teaching yourself to be more in the moment can literally save your life. It could obviously be the difference between life and death when you’re driving – paying attention to the road in front of you rather than the phone on your lap – but it can also add years to your life through increased health and happiness.

How mindful are you?


[*] Killingsworth MA, Gilbert DT. A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind. Science 12 November 2010: Vol. 330. no. 6006, p. 932 DOI: 10.1126/ science.1192439

Dare to be still

Last year I wrote about stillness. I have been trying very hard to conquer my stress with meditation, which requires taking the time out to be still. To find a peaceful place where my soul can unravel from the tight spiral I tend to be in by the end of each day. It’s very effective, but it does require a conscious effort to make the time, find the space, and breathe deeply. Some days life overtakes me and I just don’t manage it.

I am beginning to crave stillness more and more, but not just of a physical kind. I see stillness of all varieties as essential ingredients for grounded, connected living. The ability to be still with friends – to spend time with each other for no particular purpose, with no particular aim in mind but to be together, and be aware of each other. The ability to be still with our families – to be in the present moment, listening to each other, without one ear cocked for an sms arriving, or an email demanding attention.

We are often uncomfortable with silence. It takes a close friendship indeed to be comfortable sitting together without talking. These days life is planned, structured and organised to extremes, and a day spent doing nothing much is viewed as wasted time. Yet I think our relationships, our stress levels, our children and our lives all suffer from this perpetual motion.

Any physicist will tell you that perpetual motion is the Philosopher’s stone of Physics. It’s about as plausible as an attempt to turn lead into gold. Like a machine kept running beyond its limits, I suspect a brain that never gets downtime begins to wear out. Significant parts go ping! into the corners of the room, and pretty soon the wheels fall off altogether.

I find stillness easiest to achieve after I have written something. Whether it’s a long email to a friend, an entry for this blog, or an article for a magazine, writing is little like spring cleaning. It gets things out into the fresh air, and allows you to see patches of floor and bits of furniture that you had forgotten were buried in there. There’s a sense of achievement, afterwards. Writing helps my buzzing brain to settle, and lets me see events and feelings much more clearly.

After I have finished this post I will go out and have some pond time – sitting by our pond, listening to the local birdlife, watching the ripples on the water, and feeling my breathing slow down as the stress leaks out of my body. There is a power tool operating somewhere nearby, but it need not be a problem. I can still feel my breathing and watch the reflections on the water, and notice the patterns in the floating plants.

I have more energy, more patience, and more resilience when I build stillness into my life, but the quality of the stillness is all important. Slumped in front of my laptop clicking mindlessly on links merely makes the buzzing louder. I need to switch off my nagging devices and immerse myself in the world, rather than the world wide web. I need to reconnect with my environment, feel the air on my face, and become aware of the ground beneath my feet.

Stillness helps me work out who I really am, what’s important to me, and why I react the way I do. Stillness brings solutions, perspective, and calm.

Oddly enough playing ball with my kids also counts as stillness. Or riding bikes with them, tickling them, or pointing out passing parrots. It’s easy for my stillness to get hijacked by the todo lists screaming from every corner of my brain. Do this! Do that! Finish this! You forgot that! Those lists can be difficult to stifle, but it gets easier with practice. None of those deadlines will go away, but they will be easier to meet with my brain whole, rather than in lots of tiny pieces frantically shoved back into my skull after each crashing crisis.

When were you last still?

Unhunch your shoulders

On Saturday mornings I do yoga with a truly fantastic teacher. Roman teaches Yoga Synergy, which is, I must say, quite hard work, but he is careful to reinforce the message every session that the most important thing is this: Do not force, do not strain.

Yoga, he says, should leave you feeling better. You should have more energy, walk taller, and have better posture after a class than before. This is not the typical Western approach to exercise, which tends to see it more as a competitive “no pain no gain” style activity. You push as hard as you can. If you’re not hurting, you’re not working hard enough. Push yourself further than the guy next to you. Pain is your FRIEND. Seek it out. Embrace it. Feel the burn.

I am often tempted to prove to myself that I can do more than others in the class. I want to be able to say that I can do the advanced postures. I feel good about myself if I am pushing really hard, approaching the absolute limits of what I can do.

Yet even though I feel good in class, working that way usually leaves me wrecked for the rest of the weekend. Sometimes it leaves me injured. It’s a style of approach that I first recognised years ago when I got into cycling – I’d ride out my front gate, hurtle up the nearest hill as hard as I could, and more often than not turn blue, collapse off the bike and occasionally pass out before I’d made it up the first hill. In those days a long ride was out of the question, because I would burn out in the first ten minutes.

I have to continually remind myself of Roman’s central message: Do not force. Do not strain. And just when we’re in the middle of a difficult posture, giving it all we’ve got, he’ll remind the class to “unhunch your shoulders,” and we’ll discover that we’ve contorted ourselves into positions The Grinch would be proud of, in an effort to really nail that posture. Thereby completely missing the point.

I find I also need to remind myself that Roman’s words apply equally well to everyday life. I am fundamentally bad at pacing myself. I force, strain and hunch my shoulders all day long, rushing at life like a bull at a gate, and often passing out halfway up that first hill. Yet those times when I take a deep breath, make time to meditate, and force myself to stop every now and then, are also the times when I am most effective, productive, and indeed sane.

When I remember to unhunch my shoulders, I can keep going almost indefinitely. That’s a lesson I badly need to apply to my work. I’m tired of passing out on the first hill. I am thinking of asking Roman to let me record him, so that I can make an app that pops up every so often and says “Remember: Do not force, do not strain. And unhunch your shoulders.”

Unbearable stillness of being

When I am stressed I find the constant noise and activity of my 4 and 8 year old daughters irritating in the extreme. I find myself wishing I could teach them to be still. To listen to the wind, the rain and the birds. To see the patterns of sunlight and shade, and the spectacular colours of this year’s autumn leaves.

I am a teacher in a senior secondary school, and I see my 15, 16 and 17 year old kids display the same nervous energy. Whether listening to an enthralling talk, or working hard on a tricky problem, their bodies are constantly in motion, even when their minds are thoroughly engaged. Legs jiggle, heads bob, and they are constantly asking to be allowed to use headphones while they work.

As a teenager I was much the same. I was never so happy as when I was immersed in a book. Moments between things to do, or books to read, existed only to be stuffed with anything I could find – re-reading an old book, raiding the bookshelves for something – anything! – that I hadn’t already read, or playing with the dog. Stillness, far from being something I craved, seemed like something to be avoided at all costs.

pond

Then someone taught me to meditate, and while I still find it incredibly difficult to switch off and truly let go, I have discovered the bliss that can be found in pure stillness. At first my mind roams around, ceaselessly picking at the fabric of my life, unravelling and re-ravelling all my stress and fears.

Writing is particularly good for short circuiting this phase, as I can dump all those whirling, chaotic thoughts out as words. Expelling toxic trauma from my system has always been a verbal act, for me, and writing is a powerful way of cleansing my system. Once I have vented all the hopes, fears, and traumas onto my keyboard, it is possible to set my brain free.

Given the (rare) opportunity, I sit beside our pond and watch the ripples in the water. I breathe deeply and allow myself to become aware of my inner state, instead of frenetically running away from it, which is the typical rhythm of my days. These days it is known as mindfulness, but I think of it more as self-awareness.

Tuning in to yourself is often regarded as wasted time. We fill our kids’ days with homework and extra-curricular activities, and then wonder why they lack the ability to be still. There are few gaps in our lives for unexpected visits or visitors, impromptu outings (perhaps to stomp in unexpected puddles), and breathing space of all sorts.

The technology that once promised to fill our lives with leisure time, by removing tedious chores from our lives, instead crams our existence with ceaseless demands for our attention. There is always something beeping, clanging or buzzing to notify us of an update to our world. It takes a huge effort of will to turn away from it all and give ourselves the breathing space that we don’t even realise we crave.

20 years ago my best friend regularly reminded me to breathe. I think perhaps she was prescient.