Developing Habits through Mindfulness

In his presentation for the Mindfulness & Meditation Summit, Leo Babauta discussed the topic, Mindfulness: The Key to Habit Change.  He is the author of the e-book, The Habit Guidebook: My Most Effective Habit Methods & Solutions and the creator of the Zen Habits blog.

Leo spoke about how to develop habits through mindfulness and ways to deal with the obstacles that you will invariably encounter.  He had to overcome multiple bad habits – addiction to smoking, eating unhealthy foods and leading a sedentary life.  The costs for him were not only bad health but also lack of time for his wife and children and serious debt – all affecting his quality of life.

However, Leo overcame all these bad habits through mindfulness and now has a blog about developing habits, which he updates regularly for his two million readers.  Suffice it to say, he no longer has a debt problem, is healthy, has lost a lot of weight and has been able to run a marathon and spend quality time with his family.

Developing a single habit

When we are confronted with a whole host of things that we need to change in our lives, as Leo was, we tend to think that one small change is insufficient to make a difference.  However, Leo’s advice echoes that of Seth Godin and others who have achieved great things in their lives – start small, start now, be consistent and be accountable to yourself and others.

When we first start on a new habit, we are enthusiastic about the possibilities for how it could turn our life around. It is important not to get carried away by this early enthusiasm and try to do too much too soon.  Otherwise, you will not be able to sustain the effort with the result that the habit will not last and you will not experience the desired benefits.

Again, the advice is to start small, but with one habit.  Leo argues that focusing on a single habit that will potentially lead to your end goal, e.g. giving up smoking, is more sustainable than focusing on a goal that is too far into the future and more uncertain of attainment – which can result in deferral of happiness until the end goal is achieved.  When you focus on a small, achievable habit, you can experience happiness each time with the achievement of that one small step.  This, in turn, provides positive reinforcement for the new habit.

He suggests linking the new habit to something you already do daily, e.g. making a cup of tea/coffee.  This then becomes a trigger or reminder to undertake the new habit.  You can also strengthen your resolve through building in accountability – telling someone else what you intend to do, having an accountability buddy or someone who undertakes the habit/practice with you , e.g. a running partner.

Developing a habit through mindfulness

Leo suggests supporting this one, new habit with mindfulness practice.  The new habit may be to start walking, running or writing or doing yoga.    The mindfulness practice can itself be small, e.g. a short mindful breathing meditation.  The meditation, itself, may be the initial habit you are trying to develop, or it can be used to support the development of another habit.

Leo’s own experience demonstrates the power of mindfulness to overcome obstacles to forming a new habit.  You can stop yourself, tune into your breath and observe what is happening for you.  You can deal with obstacles as they arise.

For example, if you tend to put things off, rationalise why you are re-engaging in the bad habit or expressing negative thoughts about your ability to perform, then these thoughts can be observed through your mindful breathing practice.  You can see these things happening while meditating and treat them as obstacles that are trying to get in the road of your achieving your goal.  You can stand back from them and reduce their power by treating them as passing thoughts.  You can then resume your practice of your new habit.

If you feel the pull of an urge – to sleep in, to smoke or to eat unhealthy food – you can work with that urge through mindful breathing.  You can observe the urge, its strengthening power, it’s rationalisation – and gradually reduce the pull of this urge by viewing it while meditating.  As you breathe mindfully, focus on the urge until it subsides.

Mindfulness not only helps you overcome obstacles to forming a new habit, it increases your self-awareness and builds your capacity for self-management.

As we grow in mindfulness, through meditation practice, we can progressively develop new positive habits and regain control over our lives.  The secret is to start small with one habit, be consistent in practising the habit and support the development of the habit with mindfulness that can address the obstacles as they arise – and they do arise for everyone.

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

Image source: courtesy of geralt on Pixabay

Levels of Meditation

Noah Levine, discussed different levels of meditation during his presentation for the Mindfulness & Meditation Summit.  His topic was, Breaking the Addiction to Our Minds.

Noah identified three levels of meditation – (1) foundational – focus on breathing and grounding in the body, (2) second level – awareness of pain/suffering/attachment, (3) third level – overcoming the addiction to our minds.

He led listeners through a 10-minute meditation practice that was focused on the foundational level – mindful breathing.   This was an excellent meditation with skilful guidance.

Noah made the point that while there is no ideal amount of time for a meditation practice, starting somewhere in terms of time allocation is really important. He suggested that twenty minutes could be a starting point to realise some of the reinforcing benefits of meditation.  However, his strong recommendation is to aim for 45 minutes as a goal to attain because, in his experience, significant shifts/movements can occur in the last 10 minutes of this extended meditation period.

He cautions against expecting quick results and major shifts in the early stages:

Mindfulness is a gradual, systematic training that through our own efforts lead to these insights [about the impermanence of everything] and transformative wisdom [that recognises our addiction to our minds].

Noah points out too that addiction to our minds is different from other addictions such as addiction to smoking, drugs or food.  As he explained from his own experience, many addictions can be overcome through abstinence – but this is not true of addiction to the mind and thinking.  Like breathing, thinking occurs independent of us and is an essential part of our human existence.  The problem arises when we allow our mind, our thoughts, to control our lives without the highly developed skill of discernment.

A particular insight that Noah offered is that reflection – reviewing, evaluating, planning – is not mindfulness.  For me, as an action learning practitioner and teacher, reflection is integral to my daily way of life, whether it is concerning how I play tennis, conduct a workshop or engage another person in conversation.  Reflection is still an act of (critical) thinking, which – though necessary to life and professional practice – is not mindfulness.

I think a key learning from Noah’s presentation is that we grow in mindfulness gradually as we develop our meditation practice to the point where we are able to overcome addiction to our minds and the process of thinking.

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

Being Mindful

When we first hear the idea of “being mindful”, we tend to associate the concept with thinking.  If we are asked to do something mindfully, we assume that this means tackling a task with a clear plan of how we will do it, having a contingency plan if things go wrong and being conscious of the consequences, intended or unintended, of our actions.

In contrast, “being mindful” in the context of mindfulness training involves being fully present and paying full attention to some aspect of our inner or outer landscape.

It is the opposite of being “lost in thought” – absorbed in the endless procession of ideas that pass through our mind, minute by minute.  Being mindful actually means shutting down our thoughts, being fully present and paying attention to our breathing, walking, eating, perceptions or some aspect of our body.

In somatic meditation, for example, we are focusing on our body through practices such as the whole body scan. This requires us to still our mind and focus our attention progressively on different parts of our body and release tension in our muscles as we undertake the scan.

Mindful breathing requires us to pay attention to our breathing while letting distracting thoughts pass us by. We need discipline to maintain our focus and avoid entertaining our passing thoughts.  They can be viewed as bubbles of water floating to the surface and disintegrating.

Being mindful builds our ability to focus, to be present in the moment.  As we grow in mindfulness through mindful practices, we gain the benefit of clarity and calm in situations that would normally cause us stress.  Mindfulness also contributes to our health and well-being, builds our creative capacity and enables us to experience a pervaisve sense of happiness.

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

Image source: Courtesy of johnhain on Pixabay

Mindfulness – Start Small, Start Right Now

The benefits of mindfulness seem enticing – not the least of which are improved mental health, clarity of mind and calmness.

Yet the change from the habit of busyness seems such a big step.  How do you go from filling every moment with activity – designed to keep up with a racing mind – to the ability to stop and “be in the moment”, fully present to  what is happening around you?

The first step is to change your underlying assumption that busyness will get you what you want – achievement, happiness and success.  Unless you change your underlying assumption, you will not be able to sustain a change in your habituated behaviour – you will keep returning to old habits when under stress.

The second step is to “start small, start now”. These are the words of wisdom from entrepreneur and marketing guru, Seth Godin who writes a daily blog.  Seth’s advice is:

Start small, start now.

This is better than “start big, start later”.

One advantage is that you don’t have to start perfect.

You can merely start.

While Seth is writing in the context of internet marketing, the above advice has application to many facets of life, not the least of which is how to grow in mindfulness.

In an earlier post, I suggested that to sustain mindfulness practice, you can begin with “one breath at a time” – practising mindful breathing.  To start small, is better than not to start at all.  If you begin with one simple mindful practice that breaks your current routine, you will be able to persist and progressively grow in mindfulness.  Persistence then brings its own reward – increasing benefits and reinforcement of your new habits.

The secret is to find a mindful practice, and timing for that practice, that suits you.  Everyone is different, you need to find your own starting point – your next step.

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

Image source: courtesy of geralt on Pixabay

Sustaining the Practice of Mindfulness: One Breath at a Time

You might have been inspired by a mindfulness workshop or the stories of other people who have experienced the benefits of mindfulness.

You could be convinced of these benefits by the neuroscience supporting mindfulness and just want to experience particular benefits yourself.

But all the knowledge, inspiration and desire alone will not help you to grow in mindfulness, if you don’t practice mindfulness.  You have to learn how to maintain the motivation for mindfulness practice.

Mindfulness is like any other skill area – you need to practice to master the process and make it an integral part of your life.

Chade-Meng Tan, one of the creators of Google’s Search Inside Yourself course in mindfulness and emotional intelligence, likens sustaining mindfulness practice to developing the habit of going to the gym:

It is the same with sustaining a mindfulness practice.  You probably need some discipline in the beginning, but after a few months, you may notice dramatic changes in quality of life.  You become happier, calmer, more emotionally resilient, more energetic, and people like you more because your positivity emanates onto them.  You feel great about yourself.  And again, once you reach that point, it is so compelling, you just cannot not practice anymore. (Search Inside Yourself: The Secret Path to Unbreakable Concentration, Complete Relaxation, Total Self-Control, p.56)

Over the last ten years, Google has trained more than 4,500 staff and managers in mindfulness and emotional intelligence through their Search Inside Yourself course.  One thing the creators and facilitators of the course have learned is how to sustain mindfulness practice and realise its benefits.

Chade-Meng Tan shares his insights about a simple three-step process to sustain the practice of mindfulness:

  1. find a buddy to check in with on a weekly basis to share your mindfulness experience and make yourself accountable
  2. do less than you can manage so that it does not become onerous
  3. take one mindful breath a day.

Chade-Meng Tan explains the last step more fully below:

I may be the laziest mindfulness instructor in the world because I tell my students all they need to commit to is one mindful breath a day.  Just one.  Breathe in and breathe out mindfully, and your commitment for the day is fulfilled; everything else is a bonus. (Search Inside Yourself, p.58)

Practice increases our consciousness of mindfulness and its benefits.  It enables us to develop momentum that will help to sustain our commitment and motivation.

The secret is to develop a habit but start small with something that is easy to achieve.  This enables us to get over the early hurdles where practice is experienced as a chore.

If you don’t persist past the early resistance stage, you won’t experience the benefits of mindfulness.  So there is a lot of wisdom in starting with just one breath a day to grow mindfulness.

Image source: johnhain on Pixabay

Mindfulness – Control, Health and Happiness

One of the benefits of mindfulness is that it develops our sense of control. To use an analogy, we begin to realise that we are the one pushing the buttons – our buttons are not being pushed by others, events or the environment.

As we grow in mindfulness, we begin to experience control over our emotions and our responses. We are less at the mercy of our triggers, panic attacks and other sources of stress.  We develop a growing sense of control over ourselves and our environment.

Mindful breathing, for example, is just one practice that enables us to gain control – control over our breathing which is essential to life.

In her 2017 book, The Influential Mind, neuroscientist Tali Sharot argues that:

The brain has evolved to control our bodies so that our bodies can manipulate our environments…Our biology is set up so that we are driven to be causal agents; we are internally rewarded with a feeling of satisfaction when we are in control, and internally punished with anxiety when we are not. (p.102)

Tali Sharot demonstrates through research findings that we have a very high need for control.  She maintains, for example, that aerophobia – the fear of flying – is essentially about the loss of control, we are in the “hands” of the pilot and the plane.  She suggests that suicide is an extreme response to the sense of being out of control, unable to control anything in one’s internal or external environment.

Tali Sharot draws on further research to argue that “people who feel in control are happier and healthier” (p. 95).  As you practice mindfulness, you increase your sense of control over your internal and external environments and enhance your health and happiness.

The more you practice mindfulness, the more you experience the sense of being in control and realise the positive benefits of mindful practice.

 

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Mindful Practice: Lower-Belly Breathing

Lower-belly breathing or deep belly breathing is a form of somatic meditation as it entails not only mindful breathing but also awareness of bodily sensations.

It involves conscious breathing through your lower-belly, being aware of both the in-breath (through the nose) and the out-breath through the mouth.  You can place one hand on your lower-belly (below the navel) and the other on your diaphragm.

Now breathe into your lower-belly to a count of four, and exhale to a count of four, feeling the expulsion of breath through your diaphragm. You can complete a number of sets of this exercise and also combine it with holding your in-breath for a count of four and your exhalation for the same count.

This breathiing exercise can be done lying down or sitting up.  It is often recommended that you start with lying down and progress to sitting up.

In the following video, Christina Macias discusses the benefits of deep belly breathing – a foundational breathing exercise, and takes you through the basic steps involved (beginning at 6.45 minutes).

Christina Macias stresses the importance of balancing deep belly breathing with other forms of breathing, including conscious expansion of your rib cage.  Her instructional videos on her Facebook channel take you through the benefits and steps involved in each form of breathing exercise.

Lower-belly breathing is an easy way to grow mindfulness and increase your awareness – to take your awareness out of the stress-producing chatter in your head and grounding it in your body.

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Mindful Breathing – Being, not Thinking

Western society is strong on thinking and we have developed so many words to describe the act of thinking.  Here’s just a few:

  • analyze
  • summarize
  • categorize
  • synthesize
  • realize

Jon Kabat-Zinn suggests that we have become so engrossed in thinking all the time that we have lost the art of just being.  We have lost touch with the present moment with all its potential for creativity, calm and clarity. He strongly recommends developing the art of mindful breathing and offers a 3 minute meditation exercise based on conscious breathing:

One of the challenges of mindful breathing is to stop the distraction of thinking and to remain focused in a non-judgmental way – clearing our thoughts as they occur without judging ourselves for their occurrence.

Isabel Allende in her book, Maya’s Notebook, describes Maya talking to her host Manuel and, in the process, identifies the difficulty of staying focused on breathing – on being, not thinking:

I found him watching the sunset from the big front window, and I asked him what he was doing.

“Breathing.”

“I’m breathing too.  That is not what I was referring to.”

“Until you interrupted me, Maya, I was breathing, nothing more.  You should see how difficult it is to breathe without thinking.”   [Maya’s Notebook, p.69]

And therein lies the challenge of mindful breathing – not only do you have to fend off distractions caused by your own thoughts, but also the interruptions unwittingly caused by others who need to share their thoughts or want you to do so.  Thinking has become our substitute mode of being – we live in our minds not in the reality of everyday life and the present moment.

Psychologists point out that this disconnection from the present has resulted in much of the mental illness that is prevalent today – we suffer depression because we are living in the past or suffer anxiety because we are living in the future. Mental health and well-being reside in mindfulness and mindful breathing that are accessible to us at any moment.

Image Source: Courtesy of Pixabay.com

 

Mindful Walking

So often we walk from place to place, lost in our thoughts, unaware of what surrounds us and the response of our own bodies.

Mindful walking is the practice of bringing our attention, in the moment, to some aspect of our walking experience – and doing so for a purpose.

This approach to developing mindfulness is designed to enhance our awareness and clear our minds of clutter, self-defeating thoughts and anxiety.

You can practise mindful walking anywhere, anytime – walking during the lunch break, taking a walk on a beach or through a rainforest, walking to the train or shops.

There are many variations you can adopt for mindful walking.  You can adopt an open awareness approach taking in the sights, sounds, taste, smells and touch that surround you.

Alternatively, you can focus on some aspect of your present experience when walking, e.g. the sensation of your feet on the ground.

The Internet provides numerous resources – text, audios and videos – on mindful walking.  Here is one approach by Simon Paul Harrison that combines mindful walking and mindful breathing:

Mindful walking is often recommended for people suffering stress, trauma or anxiety.  RMIT, for example, through their online counselling services provides a range of online resources, including an exercise sheet and audio for mindful walking, to help students deal with the stress of study and exams.

Isabel Allende, in her book, The Sum of Our Days, describes how she frequently lost herself and found contentment on a tranquil walk in a forest:

These walks are very good for me, and at the end I feel invincible and grateful for the overwhelming abundance of my life: love, family, work, health – a great contentment. (p.299)

Another approach to mindful walking is discussed and illustrated by Chuck Hall:

You can walk anywhere mindfully if you are conscious of the opportunity. You should find an approach, timing and location that suits you so that it can be a pathway to a sustained habit of mindfulness.  Once you establish the habit of mindful walking using one approach consistently, you will find that you will automatically adopt mindful walking in other situations as your consciousness of the opportunities grows.

After learning about mindful walking, I decided to use a personal approach that suited me to grow my own mindfulness.  On my morning walks around the tree-lined streets and along the river, I would tune into the sounds of the birds that surrounded me. This required turning off my thoughts, tuning out other sounds and paying attention solely to the sound of the birds.  I became more aware of birds above and below me, in front and behind and on my left and right side.

Invariably, as I walked, the sound of the birds seemed to stop at some point.  The reality was that my thoughts had come back into my head and I had tuned out from the sounds of the birds – I had lost focus.  Once I cleared my thoughts and re-focused, the sound of the birds came flooding back into my awareness again, a concert surrounding me as the birds fed off each other’s sounds.

Mindful walking induces peace, calm, clarity and contentment and helps you grow in mindfulness.

Image source: Copyright R. Passfield

Building Mindfulness through Open Awareness

Open awareness is something that you can practice anywhere.  It is basically being fully present through your senses.

From my lounge room and deck I can see Moreton Bay with Stradbroke Island in the background.  I used to wake up of a morning and note the sunrise across the bay on my way to making a cup of tea in the kitchen.  I would walk past what is an ever-changing  view.

Now I am developing the habit of standing still and taking in the view for the few minutes while the water in the jug is boiling.

In this way I can practice open awareness – listening to the sounds of birds waking, watching the changing hues as the sun comes up, observing the breeze in the trees and sensing the weather.

I find that my body immediately relaxes and I am able to quickly drop into mindful breathing as a matter of course.  So one mindfulness practice leads onto the next.

What you can do to develop open awareness is to link it to something that you do on a daily basis – a morning walk, the morning cuppa or coffee, the early morning bike ride.  If you structure open awareness into your day, you will be more likely to persist with the habit and progressively build mindfulness.  You will also find that you will more frequently stop what you are doing and become openly aware of your surroundings.

Image source:  Copyright R. Passfield