Monday, March 8, 2010

The Never-ending Story

We all enjoy getting lost in the narrative of a good book or in a well-told story on the movie screen.  It can warm our heart, get our adrenaline pumping, teach us, or just make us laugh.  It's when we get lost in our own stories that we have trouble.

We've all got them.  They start innocently enough, with a thought or a feeling, something someone says to us, a disappointment, a conflict, a praise, criticism, embarrassment, guilt, anxiety, etc.  But then an interesting thing happens.  The mind starts telling a story about it and we get caught in it.  We literally lose our minds to it. There are all kinds of stories and most of us spend most of our waking lives lost in them.

I've had a really tough time the past few weeks.  I did some intense healing work and while it may be that I'm on a trend toward wellness, for now I actually feel worse.  My body and mind have become a volcano in its eruptive phase; blasts of steam and ash, collapse, the venting of molten tears (thanks to menopause, I even have extreme "thermal events" on a regular basis!)  I am so grateful for my mindfulness practice.

This time has been an enormous challenge.  When I can just allow these experiences to come and go, when I can hold them with awareness and compassion, I'm okay.  But I keep getting caught, over and over.  The particular story I've been playing recently has to do with discouragement and loss.  "This is so hard.  I don't know if I can do this.  It's never going to change.  I just want it to stop. Why do I have to go through this?  It isn't fair."  These are the thoughts that pass through my mind.  When one of these thoughts comes up, I notice there is a little contraction, and then I either remain aware and it passes, or I get caught and then there is another thought and more contraction and another thought...pretty soon there is a complete story in which I am the victim of gross universal injustice and I never have a life and all my friends desert me and my husband can't take it anymore and I end up miserable and alone.  At that point my brain is locked into a negative and harmful pattern that keeps feeding itself.

These negative thoughts and the stories that come out of them are associated with patterns of neurons that fire together in our brain.  It starts when we're kids with all our various experiences, some of which are painful.  As we grow up, repetitions of similar experiences cause the same neurons to fire together and over time "wire together" into reactions that are like an automatic pilot.  The thing is, we don't just grow out of it unless we take active steps to do so.

One of the ways we can interrupt our automatic pilot is to practice mindfulness, specifically to focus our awareness on our own thoughts and feelings.  For me, the story about being abandoned and left to suffer alone is a very old one and goes deep, so it still catches me and when things are really tough, I still can get lost in it.  So I have to keep coming back over and over again, time after time, holding my feelings and thoughts softly, bringing my awareness back to what is happening just now, dropping the story. Over time, the story loses its hold, but until then, I'll just keep coming back and dropping it.  Again. And again. And again.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Wheel of Awareness

I've been reading Dr. Daniel Siegel's new book, Mindsight (which I highly recommend). So, I'm going to be writing a few posts introducing ideas from this book, because it offers so much that can help us understand how mindfulness changes the very structure of our brain in positive ways that also can improve and transform our life.

To talk about how we can direct the attention of our mind, Dr. Siegel uses the image of a bicycle wheel. This wheel is made up of a rim, a hub, and spokes that connect the two. Imagine the rim as a series of points, each point representing an experience that we perceive through our senses. These include:

  • Perceptions of our inner body sensations, including the breath, muscles, and internal organs;
  • Perceptions of the world around us coming through the five senses of sight, touch, taste, smell, hearing;
  • Perceptions of the activity of our own mind - our thoughts, emotions, memories.
Okay, so the next part of the wheel is the hub, and the hub is simply our mindful awareness, which has the characteristics of openness, safety, curiosity, and calm. Notice that our awareness and our perceptions of experience are separated by a space in between.

What makes the connection between is the deliberate movement of our attention. Each moment of awareness that is directed at a particular experience - a sound, a feeling, a thought, a body sensation - forms a spoke on the wheel, a connection between mind and experience. What is critical here is that through mindful awareness, we can choose what we pay attention to. We can move along different points, shifting our awareness consciously among all the various experiences which are available in any given moment.

Now for most of us, this model of the mind and awareness is pretty radical, I mean most of the time we aren't aware of there being a space between our mind and what we see, hear, feel, or think. But there is, and the practice of mindful awareness allows us to experience that space and realize that we really do have choices about what we pay attention to. Both what we pay attention to and how we pay attention can dramatically affect the quality of our life.

So, we practice mindful awareness in which we learn to focus our attention consciously, starting with our breathing and body sensations, then expanding as our skill increases to sounds, sights, smells, taste, and finally to our emotions and thoughts.

Now, here's the cool brain part: as we train our minds through repetition of mindful awareness activities, we actually are stimulating the growth of synaptic connections and neurons themselves, as well as creating new neural firing patterns. And these neural changes, which are focused in the middle prefrontal region of the brain, translate into increased brain integration and improvement in a whole myriad of brain functions (more on this in a later post). Mindfulness. Does. That.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Basics III: The Breath and Beyond

Whenever we hear beginning meditation instructions, there is always this talk about following the breath. We place our awareness on the breath, the physical sensation in the belly or the nose, we observe it. We are asked to approach it with interest, curiosity, "What is this breath like?" Notice the beginning of the in-breath, the middle, the end, the space between the in and out-breath, the begin of the out-breath, the middle, the end, and start over. It goes like this, over and over. The mind wanders off, we bring it back, again and again.

So what is this about? Sometimes we ask our self, "What am I doing here? I'd rather be doing something fun. This is hard. This is boring. When do we get to the interesting part?" Sometimes people say, "Okay, I can watch my breath, what's next?" or, "When do we start doing real meditation?"

Sure, there are other instructions besides following the breath, but there really isn't anything more advanced, more profound than awareness of the breath. This is it. Because if we can really pay full and complete attention to the breath, without trying to change it, with a relaxed and open mind, without judgment or commentary, then this is really the practice. This is training the mind, developing the skills of mindfulness, kindness, attention. We train with the breath and other body sensations because it is easier than starting with, say, anger or chronic pain or anxiety. We need to develop our skills with the breath so we can apply them to every experience in our life.

Working with the breath, we learn how to meet every experience this same way, with openness, curiosity, kindness. We learn to touch everything in our life in a deep and immediate way. The breath is our home base, where we start and where we return when everything else is too hard, too crazy, too much. No matter where we are, what the situation is, the breath is here, now.

So, if we get bored and want something more interesting to happen, we notice that and return to the breath. If we notice the thought, "I can't do this," notice that and return to the breath. When other thoughts, stories, planning, memories, judgments pull us away, we notice them and return to the breath. Every return, if done gently, without judgment, is a mindful moment and strengthens the capacity to be more alive, aware, conscious in all situations. Welcome each return. Appreciate the freshness, the aliveness of each moment spent in awareness. Let the breath be, just as it is without trying to change it. Get to know it, really know it, without mental commentary. Relax into this moment, this breath with your whole being.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Holding On

Seven years since the chronic fatigue started, and I'm tired of being sick.

It's better than it used to be, but still, I'm tired of it. At least now I can hold a normal conversation almost all of the time and I can think clearly most of the time, but still, I'm tired of it. I still can't do the many of the things I love most, except on my best days, and I'm tired of it. A couple of years ago, it felt like I was headed towards feeling 'normal,' but then it got worse again - a lot worse. And I'm tired of it. I'm tired of not being the person my husband married. I'm tired of not being able to live the life I want. And maybe, just maybe, I'm getting to the place where I'm tired of being tired of it.

Now, my body really does feel tired, there's not much energy, and it aches. My brain still feels pretty foggy some of the time. These are observations, the way it is.

But let's look at the thought, "I'm tired of it." I've been saying that to myself on a regular basis for about a year and a half, since I got worse after feeling better. "I'm tired of it" says I am tired of feeling tired. It's a thought and a feeling about a situation, an evaluation about the way it is in my life. It's a thought I decided to buy into and to feel justified in holding onto. My bad. Because now, I don't just have this situation, this body that doesn't feel very good a lot of the time, but now I've multiplied the difficulty and the misery from it by many times. I've let myself become caught by that thought and I've bought into it as my reality. And the place where that thought is true is deep and dark, and just no fun at all. It's hell; self-created suffering at its finest. And now, I'm getting tired of that. My good.

Because the truth of the matter is that I don't have to be caught, I don't have to buy into it, and I don't have to have "I'm tired of it" as my reality. Oh, there will probably always be times when I have that thought, times when I sink back into that particular hell, for as long as this situation, this illness lasts. But it doesn't have to hold me, define me, perpetuate itself.

What I'm most embarrassed about here is that I've known this the whole time, for a year and a half. I've known that I am creating my own suffering and I've still kept at it. Now, that sounds really dumb, doesn't it? As human beings, we unconsciously experience this kind of thing all the time. One of the benefits of practicing mindfulness is that we start to see our habitual thoughts, reactions, feelings that create our own suffering, and that is a wonderful thing, because then that kind of suffering isn't inevitable anymore. If we are aware of it, we can choose to drop it and feel better, or to continue to hold onto it and keep feeling miserable. Now, it's a choice. Anybody can see it's a no-brainer.

Let's not forget that I've also been judging myself for being stuck - after all, I've been doing this mindfulness thing for a long time now, I should know better! Predictably, I have been somewhat less aware of this than the fact of being stuck. Also predictably, this magnifies the suffering and results in being even more stuck.

So why would I, why would anyone choose to hold onto a thought, feeling, or belief that they know is harmful? Since I'm a therapist, I can come up with all kinds of ideas about that related to psychology, childhood experience, etc. It happens all the time; how many times have I watched clients make this choice while I looked on, mystified and sad? Consciously choosing to hold onto something that causes us to suffer means that letting go of it would require giving up something more dear to us than feeling better: usually it's some part of our identity, some deeply held belief about who we are; something we are completely unaware of but cling to desperately.

Mindful practice gets us here, but fortunately, it is also the way through. If we keep at it, work to remain open, keep coming back, over and over, to what is present, this thought, this feeling, still stuck, over and over, then eventually it gets old, we get tired of holding on. Like an old record with a scratch that causes it to repeat the same segment of the same song over and over, we eventually get sick of it. And then we hit this point, the place where we just can't stand to hold onto it anymore, but we can't let go either. It's a tough place, and the fear comes up and confusion and lots of thoughts and feelings. It can be really uncomfortable. But it's a wonderful place too, because of the possibility in it. It's where we have to hold these two impossibilities at the same time, and the only way out of it involves taking a leap into the unknown.

So, this is where I am now. I recognize this process because I've been here before, many times, and seen many others here too. I'm practicing being aware of this, the sensations, feelings, thoughts, the process. Leaning into it, holding it all, with kindness, and now, without judgment. It's hard sometimes, really hard. I don't know what's next. I don't know how long I'll be in this place. I just don't know anything. But I'm here, and for just this moment, it's really okay.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010


I really like the term "monkeymind," but I don't like the experience of it much.

We get the practice of mindfulness meditation from certain Buddhist traditions which originated in subtropical Asia. As anyone who has ever been to that part of the world knows, there are monkeys everywhere. Monkeys on the streets, in the trees, on the rooftops. They are often loud, mischievous, playful, obnoxious, and are in constant motion. Even when they sit still, their eyes are looking here, over there, up, down, always scanning. They can be aggressive at going after something that takes their fancy (keep a tight hold on your shopping bags), and high-tail it the moment there is a threat. So it makes perfect sense that meditators would apply the term 'monkeymind' to those same characteristics of the mind.

I've been sitting with monkeymind a lot lately. Thoughts that breed like rabbits, chasing mindful awareness off at every opportunity. Back to the breath, the anchor in the storm. And then off again, back again, off again. It goes like that. There's no experience of calm repose in this, no blissful sensation of unity or peace. Just one storm after another of thoughts and feelings about those thoughts.

It doesn't matter how long you've been meditating, whether you're a beginner or been doing it for a lifetime, there are going to be times like this. Right now for me, it has to do with spending more of my energy on external things, especially engagement with other people and this thing called social networking, which is new to me. I suspect menopause isn't helping, either. Whatever the reason, I sit on the cushion, and here is monkeymind.

I have to keep reminding myself that it is just the mind doing what it does. Monkeys do what monkeys do, and the mind does what it does. I keep remembering that the important thing is awareness. I am the one being aware of monkeymind. The time I spend meditating is the time I spend being aware of the storm of thoughts passing through my mind. Monkeymind feels uncomfortable for me, so I also practice compassion for myself, who is having this experience.

Many times, we get discouraged when we try to meditate and we experience monkeymind. We think we aren't doing it right, or that we just can't meditate. But all that is really happening is we are making up a story about what monkeymind means, making judgments about it and about ourselves. That's what the mind does too, so the practice is to be aware of that. That's why we are asked to keep returning our attention to the breath when we find the mind is off and running somewhere besides right here, right now. Coming back to the breath allows us the space to recognize that the mind was off doing its thing, to bring our awareness to whatever is happening. Bringing an attitude of acceptance, curiosity, and openness to our practice helps minimize judgments, but if we find ourselves making judgments, then we practice being aware of that.

Bringing awareness of whatever is happening, even if we don't like it much, bringing kindness to our awareness. This is it.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Basics II: Getting Started

Mindfulness is a skill which is cultivated through practice. Our unhelpful patterns of thinking and reacting have been formed over years of repetition in an effort to cope with stress and the difficulties of living. Fortunately, the human brain is capable of making remarkable changes throughout life, something research has shown only relatively recently. Practicing mindfulness breaks the old habitual patterns and creates the possibility of new and creative approaches to our problems, our life.

The skill of mindfulness is cultivated through the concentrated and repeated practice of mindfulness, which is called mindfulness meditation. There are other types of practices which support the development of mindfulness, such as yoga, qi gong, centered prayer, and other types of meditation such as use of mantras. These are wonderful and beneficial practices that I recommend to anyone who feels drawn to them. However, my personal opinion is that these are most beneficial as complements to mindfulness meditation, rather than substitutes for it. All of these practices develop the skill of being aware in the present moment, but only mindfulness meditation also cultivates the ability to observe all the aspects of our own experience.

To get started, eliminate any distractions in the room and create a quiet space. Arrange not to be interrupted. Now find a comfortable sitting position, in a chair or on a cushion on the floor. What's important about our position is that it is not rigid, allows the spine to be straight, and the head to rest on top of the spine. If you're in a chair, it is best not to lean back, and to have both feet flat on the floor. Sitting 'just so' may seem silly, but the proper position makes meditation much easier and promotes an alert state of mind and the concentration needed to focus our attention.

Next, relax the muscles of your face and body, without slouching. See if you can generate the qualities of curiosity, openness, willingness, and alertness in your mind. Bring these qualities to bear on whatever is present during your meditation.

Diane Winston, at UCLA's Mindfulness Awareness Research Center, has a set of wonderful guided meditations on their web site, which can be played directly or downloaded onto your computer. Since I can't improve on these (and can't figure out how to save audio files to a blog), I'll give you the link to the page: I strongly recommend starting with the "5 minute breathing meditation." Practice this until you can do it on your own (without listening) for 10-15 minutes a day. Meditation on the breath is the foundation of mindfulness meditation, so it is important to be really familiar with these instructions. After you've done this for a couple of weeks, try moving on to the "19 minute complete meditation instructions." This meditation is what I recommend learning and staying with.

Other things to keep in mind as you get started:

1) The first thing you will probably find is that your mind will wander. This is normal. Wandering is what the mind is used to doing. The important thing is to keep bringing the attention back, over and over again. Just notice what the mind does, and keep coming back to the breath. If you practice long enough, it will probably wander less (but not always).

2) Be kind, to yourself, your mind, and your body. Don't judge anything that happens as you meditate. This is your time to be with yourself.

3) You may be tempted to "use" the meditation time to ponder a problem or do some planning. If you find yourself doing this, say to yourself, "not now" and come back to the breath. During this time, there is nothing else you have to do, nothing more important than just being here, with all your attention.

4) Be curious. Be open. What is this like, to just be present with this experience, in this moment?

If you have a question, click on the "comments" link at the bottom of this post and leave it there.

Note: I will discuss more of the meditations on the UCLA marc site in later posts.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Basics I: What is Mindfulness?

Fundamentally, mindfulness is conscious awareness of what is happening in the present moment. It is experiential awareness: what is the sensation, sight, sound, taste, smell, or mental formation (thought, emotion) that is happening right now? This is the bare observation aspect of mindfulness; simply placing our complete attention on what is happening in the present, without comment or evaluation.

In addition, there is a certain quality of attention that we use to practice mindfulness. When focusing attention on our experience, we try to do so with a sense of openness and acceptance. We observe what is happening without making any judgements about it (good, bad, right, wrong, should, shouldn't) and without either grabbing on to it (trying to get more) or pushing it away (avoiding, escaping). Whatever is going on in this moment, just is.

This sounds pretty simple, and really, it is. But it is not always easy (okay, it's just plain difficult, especially when we are just starting, or when extreme difficulties arise). The reasons it is difficult also point to why it is so beneficial and to its potential for promoting well-being.

Mindfulness is hard because it is not what we are used to doing. Most of us spend nearly all our waking moments engaged in some kind of thinking about this or that, commenting, judging, ruminating about the past, worrying about or anticipating the future. We spend a great deal of time telling ourselves stories of one kind or another about what this person said or what our friend/ boss/ wife/ boyfriend/ mother/etc. thinks about how we look, our job, what kind of car we drive, the comment we made last week. We speculate about our kids, our future, money, relationships. Accompanying these stories and thoughts are our feelings about them: anger, desire, jealousy, rejection, anxiety, worry, hope, guilt, resentment, etc. These thoughts, stories, and feelings aren't just random, but are based on habitual patterns formed in response to our life experiences, especially the painful ones. As a result, we tend to react to life situations out of our habitual patterns instead of acting in a conscious way with full freedom of choice. This is a profound source of suffering.

Mindfulness is about waking up from the unhelpful ways we think and feel about ourselves and others to what is actually happening. It's about listening deeply to ourselves in an open, caring, non-judgmental way that engenders understanding and compassion. Mindfulness lets us see how we undermine our own peace and happiness, and provides us the means to reclaim it. It gives us a window into the richness that exists in our lives, the richness we've been missing.

Next - The Basics II: Getting Started