Sustaining the Practice of Mindfulness

In previous posts I have suggested that to sustain the practice of mindfulness you need to start small. Starting small can even involve as little as one mindful breath at a time. Chade-Meng Tan recommends that you start with less than you imagine is possible – so that you experience a sense of success early. I have also discussed the defences that we employ when trying to sustain self-compassion meditation.

Strategies for sustaining mindfulness practice

Meditation teacher Tara Brach offers additional strategies for maintaining your practice of mindfulness:

  • Practice daily – however short the time you have available. This establishes a momentum and develops a habit.
  • Find somewhere conducive to meditation or other mindfulness practice. Noise and activity in the background can be very distracting and makes silence and focus very difficult. Make it easier for yourself by finding a quiet place and time for your practice.
  • Be conscious of your posture – ensure you begin in a relaxed position that you can revisit daily. This enables your mind to capture the positive bodily sensations associated with your practice.
  • Avoid self-judgment – do not criticise yourself if your mind wanders or if you are unable to sustain lengthy mindfulness practice. The process of bringing your attention back to your focus following a distraction actually builds your “awareness muscle“.
  • Engage your body – bringing your attention to your body and the tensions within can help to ground you and clear away your thoughts. If bodily tension is regularly impacting your ability to sustain your practice, a full body scan can be helpful.
  • Use an anchor to enable you to drop into the present moment easily. The anchor can be anything that enables you to capture the positive sensation of your mindfulness practice. I use the process of joining my fingertips from one hand to those on my other hand. This tends to generate energy and a tingling feeling in my hands. It is something I can access anywhere at any time during the day – whether sitting at my desk, standing, travelling in the train or attending a meeting. Tara offers a list of useful anchors that you can explore for your own use.
  • Persistence is critical – do not give up because the positive gains are often just around the corner. Practice becomes easier over time if you persist and the gains grow exponentially.
  • Deepen your ability to be present in the moment. Tara suggests that a key question to ask is, “What is happening inside me now – can I treat this with acceptance?”. As a general principle, supplementing your standard, daily mindfulness practice with other forms of mindfulness throughout the day can add to the benefits you experience and serve to reinforce your daily practice. For example, in an earlier post I discussed some ways to be more mindful at work. Practice at home, supplemented by mindful practices at work, can be mutually reinforcing.
  • Employ the power of positive emotions – you can practice loving-kindness meditation or gratitude meditation to help you deal with difficult emotions experienced during your practice of mindfulness.

As we grow in mindfulness through sustained, daily practice we can enhance our inner awareness and increase the benefits that accrue from being in the present moment in a positive, constructive and peaceful way.

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Image by Binja69 from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Overcoming Hasty Judgments

Daniel Kahneman highlighted the tendency to develop hasty judgements in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Daniel, Nobel prize winner in economics, explains that most often we make hasty, automatic and intuitive judgments that are helpful in crisis times but can rupture relationships. He describes this “fast thinking” as System 1 thinking. In contrast, “slow thinking” (System 2 thinking) is more considered, reflective, deliberative and analytical. Fast thinking is resource efficient for the brain, taking less time and brain power. However, as neuroscientist Gina Rippon points out, these “pervasive shortcuts” are riddled with stereotypical thinking, half-truths, myths and untruths.

Overcoming hasty judgments

Mindfulness coach, Brian Shiers, highlights the fact that one of the problems with System 1 thinking is that we tend to have blind faith in our perception, however ill-informed or inadequate it is. We do not subject it to scrutiny or challenge because such activity would be time consuming in our time-poor world. The increasing pace of life and our heightened reactivity make it more likely that we will resort to the time efficient System 1 thinking. We end up seeing the world and individuals through the veil of our biases and prejudices.

Brian Shiers suggests that we can overcome this tendency to make hasty judgments, by developing “meta-attention” – an outcome of mindfulness which heightens the depth and “granularity” of our inner awareness. He suggests that to truly understand other people we first need to get in touch with our System 1 thinking which hastily boxes them into one of more of our easy-to-use stereotypes. He offers a meditation to look inside our self to observe our thinking and how it shapes our judgments about individuals.

Developing “meta attention”

In a MARC guided meditation podcast, Brian leads us in a meditation designed to increase our attention and power of concentration. The meditation is grounded in our body through a focus on the breath. He suggests that it is important during this meditation to avoid a tendency to perfectionism and to ensure that we engage in observation of our “thought stream”, rather than analysis.

The guided meditation involves extended focus on our breathing, without trying to control our breath. As thoughts about another person appear during the meditation, we notice them and observe what they are saying about the individual – staying in observation mode, not reverting to analysis. As we capture these thoughts, we return to the focus on the breath.

Brain’s guided meditation builds inner awareness – helping us to get to know our self better and understand what thoughts are passing through our mind in relation to another person. At the mid-point, he suggests that we get in touch, too, with what is happening in our body – noticing any points of tension such as tightness in our fingers, arms, shoulders or legs.

As we increase our awareness of our thought processes, we begin to notice the accompanying feelings which Brian suggests we treat with “acceptance, curiosity and friendliness”. As the meditation comes to an end, we are invited to take some deep breaths and, on exhaling, let the thoughts and feelings pass through us into the open.

In one sense, this guided meditation is another form of building our “awareness muscle” but the approach here is to focus purely on being-with-our-breathing, not controlling it – unlike the fifty conscious breaths described in my previous post as a way to use the “Awareness-Focus Loop” to overcome procrastination.

As we grow in mindfulness by engaging in meditations designed to develop meta-attention, we can become more conscious of our thought stream and the automatic thoughts that shape our hasty judgments about people. Through this process, we can gain better control over our thoughts about others and adopt a more considered, understanding position while maintaining self-compassion.

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Overcoming Procrastination by Building the Awareness Muscle

We can handle procrastination by adopting the direct approach of focusing on a task that we are putting off and exploring through meditation what is the self-story behind the procrastination. This involves bringing the story “above the line” – bringing the messages we are telling our self to the level of conscious awareness. However, procrastination may be a habit related to a range of activities and the habit will often be accompanied by inertia – a lack of energy to move forward. In this case, it could be useful to attack the problem of procrastination indirectly by building what I call, your “awareness muscle”.

Building your awareness muscle

Tony Stubblebine offers a meditation exercise that can progressively develop your awareness muscle (or what he describes as your “mental muscle”). His exercise is a variation on mindful breathing that takes distractions or mental diversions as a source of awareness strengthening. His argument is that every time that your focus wanders represents an opportunity to increase your awareness of what is going on for you and hence building your awareness muscle – both the mental element and the energetic element in terms of readiness/energy to deal with the feelings/emotions behind the wandering.

Tony sees the exercise involving restoring your focus to your breath, after naming your source of distraction, as a form of “reps” like you would undertake in a gym or a series of exercises with a personal trainer. The “reps” serve to build the capability to undertake a given activity when the demand arises e.g. running a race, lifting heavy weights, undertaking housework, handling a stressful job (or in our case here, dealing with a specific procrastination). The repeated action of bringing your attention back to your focus, after raising your awareness, is embedding a “focus-awareness-focus” mental cycle that can be applied anywhere to any activity. Tony describes this cycle as the “Awareness-Focus Loop”.

Utilising the “Awareness-Focus Loop”

Tony describes an “I Am Aware” meditation that can take five to ten minutes of your time. The basic four-step approach is as follows:

  1. make yourself comfortable and close your eyes
  2. Focus on your breathing by counting 1 to 50 (or more if you want to extend the meditation for mental endurance training)
  3. Whenever your mind wanders away from the focus on your breath, pay attention to what is happening and frame it as a “I am aware that…” statement. This needs to be a complete sentence to elevate the unconscious source of wandering to the conscious level e.g. “I am aware that I am thinking of a major meeting coming up later today”; “I am aware that I am getting anxious about what I forgot to do this morning”; or “I am aware that I am wondering whether I got the job I applied for a week ago”.
  4. When you have noticed and named your distraction, you resume your focus on counting your breaths from where you left off counting. I found that I lost track of where I was up to in my counting once a distraction set in. If this happens, you can restart your counting somewhere, without cheating to get to the end in a hurry.

Using your awareness muscle to deal with a specific procrastination

Having developed your awareness muscle, you can now apply this mental capacity, and associated energetic impetus, to dealing with a procrastination over a specific task. Once you notice yourself procrastinating you can use your highly developed awareness muscle to become aware of the anxiety underlying the procrastination, name the anxiety and related feelings (e.g. fear) and deal with the anxiety without seeking a diversion or some form of flight.

The mindfulness exercise serves as a form of mental training that can develop the self-regulation necessary to overcome your natural tendency to avoid what is perceived as painful or personally challenging. The awareness muscle has stored the history of your personal distraction tendencies and these can be more readily noticed and dealt with.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation exercises designed to build our awareness muscle, we can develop the consciousness, willingness and strength to deal with procrastination as it occurs in our daily lives. The “I am aware that…” meditation is designed for this specific purpose.

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Image by A. Debus from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.