Beginning to Listen to Discomfort

In these uncertain times we are being asked to come back home and be still.  We are seeing many different responses to stillness. Some people are spending their time engaging with the drama filling their minds with questions of “why”, catastrophizing, ruminating on all the loss, and focusing on the fear and sadness.  Others are using the time to go inward and listen to what the world needs finding ways to serve our planet and others better. Many spiritual and healing practices ask us to spend time in stillness not so that we can spend more time pondering what’s going wrong with ourselves and the world but so that we can engage with a mental space or greater power that can help us transform it.

In Psalms 37:7 we read “Be still in the presence of the LORD, and wait patiently for him to act. Don’t worry about evil people who prosper or fret about their wicked schemes.”  Here we see stillness as a means to leave behind the idea that we are served by worrying about evil and fretting about wicked schemes. We are asked to quiet all of this negative pondering and find stillness so that we can trust in God to transform us and the world.

The Quran asks us to be still and contemplate God in 3:191 saying “Who remember Allah while standing or sitting or [lying] on their sides and give thought to the creation of the heavens and the earth, [saying], “Our Lord, You did not create this aimlessly; exalted are You [above such a thing]; then protect us from the punishment of the Fire.”  Here we are asked to focus on God as the creator of the heavens and the earth and to remember that He will protect us. Spending our time focusing on the negative prohibits us from transforming through God.

In Buddhism we are taught to find stillness in meditation so that we can understand the causes of suffering and the way out of it.  We do not sit and feed thoughts of negativity, we quiet our mind, observe our thoughts and actions, gain insight and understanding of their nature, and then work towards transforming them into a state of well-being.

Neuroscience has also proven that spending time in quiet contemplation placing our attention on what we would like to manifest in the world will actually lead to those changes occuring. This is because “imagining and acting are actually lighting up the same areas of the brain.” (Doidge, 2007) When we spend time engaged in harmful thought patterns they manifest as illness in our body and negative interactions within the world.  By using quiet moments and stillness to engage with positive thought patterns we train our brain and body to interact positively with the world.

So what are we being asked to place our attention on during these contemplative practices?  In being asked to be present with God this might mean being present with the traits of God; love, peace, kindness, forgiveness, and compassion.  In being guided to focus on the way out of suffering in Buddhism we might focus on the characteristics of happiness, non-duality, non-craving, non-discrimination, and inter-connectedness.  When performing positive visualisation we are generally visualizing things that would bring about peace and well-being like healing, gratitude, and generosity. Spending time in these mind states brings them to life within and around us leading to positive transformation.

Silence and stillness are only scary if we are not aware of how to engage with them in transformative ways.  There are many ways to engage with silence in a positive manner. Contemplative or centering prayer is a great way to engage with God in silence.  Meditation and mindfulness can be done alone, with an app, or in a group. Yoga involves the body into quiet contemplation using movement to help settle the mind.  You can also engage in visualisation exercises where you focus on positive perceptions and outcomes. Once we develop healthy contemplative practices, silence and stillness become a welcome pleasure.

 

Helping the Collective Consciousness

We have all felt the collective power of a group inspired and motivated by compassion, love and understanding.  I feel this every time I participate in a healing retreat. In practice centers I am surrounded by individuals who are diligently practicing to maintain their own well-being so that they can then pass it forward to end the suffering of others.  This energy grows in the collective and strengthens the depth of one’s own practice. Thich Nhat Hanh explains the importance of collective consciousness saying that “when we come together to practice mindfulness, concentration,compassion, we generate these wholesome energies collectively, and it’s very nourishing and healing.” (nhat hanh, 2010) Coming together with people who share the same aspiration to heal our planet and one another helps us to feel supported in our practice and encourages us to continue growing the collective consciousness.

 

Humans tend to take on the beliefs, mindsets, and behaviors of those surrounding them.  If we surround ourselves with individuals who are angry, hateful and divisive then we will absorb those attitudes and begin to behave the same.  Conversely by exemplification, our social milieu can also encourage us to behave altruistically, volunteering, donating, and caring for others. (Bandura, 2001)  For this reason we must be mindful of who we are surrounding ourselves with trying to frequent social circles that encourage positive behavior and mindsets. The more effective our well-intentioned groups become the higher their aspirations, the greater their motivation, and the more resilient to adversity they become resulting in higher performance of their mission.  (Bandura, 2001) Keep feeding the positive energies!

 

Broadening our social milieus and increasing contact with difference is also important for our personal and collective growth. We are more likely to be open to learning new ideas and practices from brief contact with acquaintances than from intensive contact in the same circle of close contacts. (Granovetter, 1983) Being in touch with a wide range of social milieus increases our understanding and acceptance of others and increases our own access to helpful ideas and practices.  We know that people who have many social ties are more likely to adopt innovations than those who have limited ties to others. (Rogers & Kincaid, 1981) By reaching out to new social groups and expanding our social network we are opening ourselves to new resources and perspectives that can help us to have a deeper understanding of our own at the same time as adopting what’s useful from others. As we reach out and connect with new social groups, we must be discerning of which ones align with our true intentions.  Stay mindful of how the ideas and practices of those you are connecting with are changing who you are.

 

The following suggestions can help you to stay mindful of your collective consciousness.

  1. Choose social groups wisely.  Be observant of the motivation and intention of the group.  If they don’t align with your true intentions then consider a different group.
  2. As you prepare for social interaction set intentions for how you would like to show up for others.  What do you want to offer the group?
  3. When you are interacting in a group take a moment to become the observer.  Notice the mood and intentions of each person. Notice the reactions created in others by their words and actions. Notice the mindset being encouraged in you.
  4. Observe how you are showing up in the group.  Are you able to stay true to your intentions? Are you sharing ideas and practices that encourage understanding, growth, and peace?
  5. If you are unable to receive or give in a way that feels true to you then you may want to consider finding alternate social connections.

Resources

Bandura, A. (2001) Social Cognitive Theory of Mass Communication, Media Psychology, Department of Psychology Standfor University, 3, 265–299.

Granovetter, M. (1983). The strength of weak ties—A network theory revisited. In R. Collins (Ed.), Sociological theory 1983 (pp. 201–233). San Francisco:Jossey-Bass.

Rogers, E. M., & Kincaid, D. L. (1981). Communication networks: Toward a new paradigm for research. New York: Free Press.

Thich Nhat Hanh (2010). Reconciliation: Healing the Inner Child. Berkley CA, Parallax Press.

 

Mindful of the Media

Being mindful of what we are consuming from the media is becoming more and more important in a world that spends up to seven hours a day in front of a screen. (Pew Research)  Studies have shown that a vast amount of human values, styles of thinking, and behavior patterns are gained from extensive modeling in the symbolic environment of mass media. (Bandura, 2001)  This in turn means that the more people’s images of reality depend on media’s symbolic environment, the greater its social impact. (S. Ball-Rokeach &DeFleur, 1976)  Essentially, what we are seeing in the media is becoming who we are.  This is why it is so important for us to decide what it is we want to consume in the media in turn deciding what our perspective of reality is and choosing who we want to be within that reality.

 

As I scroll through media messages, I notice what they are doing to my mind and body.  If they are producing feelings and sensations that take me further away from who I want to be, then I distance myself and find a way to approach the information in a healthier more productive way.  Messages that invoke fear, despair, division, jealousy, self-judgement and hatred are not serving you. In a study conducted on 153 university students ninety percent said that they had a fright reaction to mass media leaving more than half of the sample with subsequent disturbances in sleeping or eating patterns, and a substantial proportion reported avoiding or dreading the situation depicted in the program or movie and mental preoccupation with the stimulus. (Cantor, 1999)  What you are absorbing from the media is changing who you are being in the world, so choose what you absorb with discernment. The fear invoked from media messages can infiltrate into your daily life making you react in ways that create more damage than the actual threat being portrayed.  You can inform yourself of what’s going on in the world while choosing to engage with messages that encourage peace, love, acceptance, and unity. Hold your own space of peace amongst the chaos so that we can continue to cultivate the good even when surrounded by disturbing messages.

 

The unmindful consumption of media can leave us susceptible to propaganda and fear inducing control tactics that create division and the dehumanization of other.  Media can alter our own moral sanctions by portraying more acceptable or rewarding outcomes for previously assumed unacceptable behavior. Fear is often used to justify otherwise considered inappropriate or immoral behavior.  When the media presents justifications of immoral behavior with evidence of threats and suggested solutions, we are more likely to act against our moral code. It has been found that people will behave in ways they normally repudiate if a legitimate authority sanctions their conduct and accepts responsibility for its consequences. (Milgram, 1974)  When we are fed stories of the threats others pose to us we begin to see those people as the inhuman other. We are then offered solutions that may include aggressive behavior on how to mitigate the threat posed by this other justifying immoral behavior as a means to protect ourselves. We then are told that the authority sanctions this behavior meaning that when we partake in immoral acts we don’t have to claim the responsibility.  This chain of events is what leads an entire nation into condoning hate, division, greed, and destruction under the pretense that it will protect our own.

 

Because media is not censored this propoganda can be started by anyone. A Pew Research Center study conducted just after the 2016 election found 64% of adults believe fake news stories cause a great deal of confusion and 23% said they had shared fabricated political stories themselves – sometimes by mistake and sometimes intentionally.  This means that we have to be more mindful than ever about what information we are consuming on the internet. We try to recognize the motivating factors behind every message and decide whether or not that message is encouraging behavior aligned with our moral values.  This does not mean that we only read things that fit into our current belief system but that we watch the reactions the message creates within us and decide whether or not it is helping us stay in a place of peace, acceptance, love, and understanding.

 

Because we now have ways to share direct information that is delivered independent of time and space and free of the controls of institutional and monetary gatekeepers we are less dependent on a mediated filter-down system of persuasion and enlightenment. (Bandura, 2001)  Social media platforms provide outlets for anyone to share their beliefs and stories allowing us to hear different perspectives and viewpoints. But in order to take advantage of this remarkable gift we have to mindfully reach out to communities of different backgrounds and beliefs striving for understanding.  In a study done in 2016 it was found that out of 376 million Facebook users having interactions with over 900 news outlets the majority of people tend to seek information that aligns with their own views. (Schmidt, A.L., Zollo, F., et. al., 2017)  It takes effort to engage with difference, but the better we understand the other, the better we understand ourselves leading to more peace and unity in the world.

Five suggestions on how to stay mindful of media consumption

  1. Before you read, watch or listen to a message from the media pause and observe your motivation for consuming it.
  2. As you are receiving the content notice what the intention behind the content is.  If the intention is not aligned with maintaining well-being and peace then be discerning about what to absorb.
  3. After you receive the content notice what reactions manifest in your body and mind.  Recognize that these reactions will stay with you long after contact with the message.  Be aware of how they will affect your interactions with the world.
  4. If you notice that what you have absorbed from the content is producing negative effects in your body and mind then work on reframing what you received or finding sources that help you relate to the information in a healthier manner.
  5. Investigate what other sources are saying about the same content.  Notice the difference in approach and delivery. As you come in contact with more sources discern which ones help you to receive the information while maintaining a balanced state of well-being.

The Mindful Consumer

Being mindful of our consumption means paying attention to what we are buying and what we are throwing away.  We purchase in a way that limits waste and promotes healthy sustainable living. A recent National Geographic article on reducing trash around the world reported that of all the raw materials we take from the earth about two-thirds become waste or the equivalent of 67 billion tons.  As we begin to notice our planet suffering the consequences of over consumption, we begin to explore ways to reduce our environmental impact.

Currently we are only capturing nine percent of waste in recycling.  Plastics are becoming more and more complicated to re-purpose. Although some companies are investigating ways to use recycled plastic to build sustainable roads, buildings, and indoor grow houses, most plastics still end up in landfills or in our oceans.  Colorado has passed a house bill to ban stores from using certain single use plastics and polyester or styrofoam. Gavin McIntyre has created a replacement for styrofoam using mycelium (tiny white roots). Individually we can do our part by bringing our own bags to the supermarket and reducing the amount of items we purchase packaged in plastic.

Fast fashion has made clothing a disposable item resulting in the production of clothing to increase by one fifth between 2000 and 2015. The world threw away over $450 billion worth of the clothes made.  There are companies beginning to make use of recycled clothing. A Dutch company Boer Group collects and reuses up to 460 tons of recycled clothing per day. Companies in Parto Italy reweave wool fibers into new garments.  You too can do your part by consigning old clothes and buying used clothes. When purchasing new clothes, buy high quality ones that you keep for much longer repairing them when possible.

An over-abundance of food has created a wasteful mentality.  One trillion dollars worth of food is wasted every year or the equivalent of one in every three grocery bags.  Some restaurants are installing smart trash cans to monitor and manage the amount of food waste they are producing while some use otherwise unwanted food to make alternative menus at a low cost.  Aeorofarms in Newark has created vertical farms that produce the same amount of food using ninety-five percent less resources than outdoor farms. You can do your part by buying only what you need.  Shop more often but buy less so that you can use all of the food before it goes bad. Make grocery lists with only the ingredients you will use for the weekly menu so that you aren’t buying unnecessary items. Cook wilted vegetables into a stew instead of throwing them away.

This is only the tip of the iceberg of the amount of products being wasted and of what people are doing to solve the problem.  Each one of us can participate in the movement by becoming mindful of what and how we are consuming. The following are five ways to increase your mindful awareness around consumption.

 

  1. Before purchasing an item pause, breathe, and assess why you are purchasing it.  Do you really need it? How long will you keep it? What purpose will it serve in your life?
  2. Before you purchase an item take the time to recognize how much energy went into producing it.  Notice what materials were used, who made it, how far it had to travel, and what it’s packaged in.  Consider if the energy and resources put into it are really worth consuming.
  3. Before you purchase an item notice how you are feeling. Are you purchasing this because you really need it or because buying it is meeting another need in you?  Can you nurture that need another way?
  4. Observe the belongings that you have already. Do they all serve a purpose?  Do you use them frequently? Do you have several that serve the same purpose?  If you have more than is necessary consider clearing the clutter by donating some of your belongings to those in need.
  5. Before you throw something out, become aware of where that item will end up and how long it will be there.  Is there another way to dispose of it that is more ecological? Can you recycle, re-purpose, or donate?

 

The waste facts in this article were found in National Geographic, “The End of Trash”, published March, 2020.

The Mindful Environment

Being mindful of what we are consuming means becoming aware of the environment we are in. What we are absorbing from the environment affects our mental and physical health. There are many ways that our surroundings are absorbed into our bodies.  Our nose has a direct pathway to the brain triggering memories, responses and even altering brain matter. It has been found that diesel and black carbon breathed through the nose create lesions in the brain increasing risk of autism, stroke, and cognitive decline.  It has also been found that the scents of the forest also called phytoncides lower blood pressure, act as an anti-viral, and increases T cells in women with breast cancer. (Williams, 2017)

 

What we see is processed by the eyes and sent in messages to the thalamus and then the primary visual cortex in the back of the brain where it is spread into three different processing systems.  The more complex and busy our surroundings the more work our brain has to do to process the information. Individuals living in cities with high light pollution feel more stressed and have higher anxiety. (Beutel, 2016)  Whereas when we are out in nature landscapes that entice our attention but don’t demand it allow the brain to recover from cognitive performance and executive attention making us calmer and more creative. (Williams, 2017)

 

Our ears receive information from the cochlea and send signals through the auditory nerve to the auditory center of the brain in the temporal lobe.  The auditory brain processes these signals in three main areas. The auditory cortex may at first cause a reflex in the form of a jump or a turn of the head.  It will then process it into a sound that can be consciously perceived and relate it to sounds heard in the past leading to the appropriate response. The more consistent and noisy our surroundings, the more work our brain is constantly doing to process and respond.  Individuals exposed to long term environmental noise have a twofold higher prevalence of depression and anxiety. (Beutel, 2016) In quiet environments our mind can relax from the consistent cycle of reacting, processing, and responding. What we see, hear, and smell is altering the state of our brain.  By changing our environment, we can change our internal state.

 

The following are five ways to stay mindful of your environment.

 

  1. Take a quick pause and name five things you see, four things you hear, three things you feel, and two things you smell.
  2. Distance yourself from the movement and productivity around you and become an observer.  Notice the looks on people’s faces and their body language. Notice the speed at which things are moving.  Can you stay calm amongst the chaos?
  3. Take three deep breaths and check in with your body.  How is it responding to your environment?
  4. Give your senses a break with at least five minutes a day of silence in a calm and comfortable place.
  5. Get out into nature at least three times a week.  This can be a 15min walk through the park or a day in the mountains.  Soak in the sights, smells, and sounds.

Staying True to You

While on retreat I am blessed with the opportunity to be surrounded by individuals who share my values and beliefs. They have the same understanding that true happiness grows when we create the right conditions. These conditions are often not what is prioritized in mainstream society. It is much easier for me to get in touch with my truth while immersed in a community that shares my values. The difficulty lies in maintaining that truth while engaging in a society that does not.

Often we experience self doubt and worry because our personal goals and priorities do not match those of mainstream thought. Instead of listening to ourselves we allow the opinions of others to create a wedge between us and our own truth. Society has many values that water the wrong seeds in us. We are told that security comes from obtaining more; more wealth, more recognition, more possessions, more work, more success. But while searching for more we lose site of what truly brings us peace.

Currently I am struggling with the collective belief on what it looks like to be successful versus content. I can feel the pull of society’s voice telling me that I shouldn’t prioritize well-being over financial security. My self-doubt and worry rises when I start to buy into values that aren’t my own. Peace comes when I recognize the difference between my priorities and those of others. As I weed out the voices that don’t belong to me, I begin to trust my own decisions.

I encourage you to take a few moments every day to look into your own values and priorities. What is it that you would like to cultivate? Are the things you’re seeking really the things that will bring you true happiness? Which desires are bringing you peace and which ones are planting seeds of doubt and worry?

Not So Serious

Taking oneself too seriously leads to a very unhappy mind.  It is better to take a playful approach to self observation giving some leeway to our thoughts and perceptions.  They aren’t so important and they won’t last very long.  Before grasping on to one and placing it as a high priority, give it some room.  Watch it from a distance and observe how it transforms.  Most likely, it will continue on its merry way without you having to engage with it at all.

Let me give you a more solid example.  This week I kept having thoughts about how important it was for me to have people come to a mindfulness class that I was hosting.  When I would engage with the thought believing that it was valid and in need of attention, I could feel my stress rising.  I could see it start to latch onto my ego telling me stories about my self worth dropping if no one came.  It took me down a very negative rabbit hole in which I thoroughly believed that I had to have people attend my class.

I was the only one giving validity to this idea and making it important.  As soon as I released the idea and observed it with indifference, I was able to see how trivial it was.  I didn’t need to take myself or this idea so seriously.  And then every time the thought came up I chuckled a little at my own concept of self importance, “silly me this is not that big of a deal.”  Having this thought did nothing to improve my situation.  It did not attract more people to my class or make me more confident.  It simply gave me an unhappy mind.

Practice Recommendation

-Find a comfortable position and follow your breath for as long as it takes to become grounded

-Scan your body and observe how it is feeling today

-Scan your mind and identify your current mental state

-Ask yourself what idea you are prioritizing right now

-Ask yourself if you taking that thought or idea seriously is helping or harming you

-Ask yourself what validity the thought actually has

-See if you can create some space from the thought

-See how the thought transforms once you allow it room to breathe

-Observe how you feel when you don’t give that thought so much importance

-Once you come out of meditation be aware of how often that thought comes up.  See if you can observe it with a playful attitude allowing it to lose some of its power.

 

Making Peace with the Body

It is easy to stay connected with our body when it is healthy and performing in a way that pleases us. However, if our body is sick or hurting, we have a tendency to separate ourselves from our physical form. We say mean things about our body and accuse it of not living up to our standards. Our relationship with the body becomes a me against it battle; my body is fighting me.

This is an absurd but all too real thought pattern. How can we be separate from our physical form. Our body and sense impressions are a large part of why we can experience life. Even if they aren’t functioning properly, they are still our connection between self and world. To divide the body from the “I” is simply impossible. So why do we do it?

It can be easier to disconnect from a suffering body because it allows us to deny the fragility of our physical form. We may feel a sense of safety when removed from the aches and pains that the body is vulnerable to. My body hurts but I’m just fine. Too bad my body can’t keep up with me. These thoughts may help the ego to stay intact while the body is failing but they don’t help you to heal.

Healing takes place when mind and body remain connected. The body is not an inanimate object that we can use up and then throw away. It’s not a car that we can take into the shop for others to repair and eventually trade in for a newer model. Our body is a reflection of our internal state. It is the physical evidence of how we take care of our mind and spirit. If the body is failing it is a sign that we need to come home and take care of the mind.

Illness is not something to fight against. It is an opportunity to develop self compassion and love. If we start a battle against our ailing body all we are doing is tearing ourselves apart. Make peace with your body and ask it what it really needs to be happy. A happy body is a happy mind.

Believing in Neuroplasticity

Neuroplasticity is proving the importance of having a mindfulness practice.  The scientific research is bringing to life the belief of mind over matter.  We are no longer limited by an unchanging mind that carries genetic and circumstantial mental troubles forever.  As Jonah Lehrer, a neuroscientist and writer, states, “Our DNA makes us without determining us.  We can always impose our will onto our biology.”

For so long medicine has diagnosed people with mental illnesses or learning disorders that make them believe that’s who they are.  They identify with the diagnosis and turn into the person the disorder tells them they are.  This attitude prevents them from rising above their troubles.  Barbara Arrowsmith-Young was born with several learning disabilities which left her unable to understand complex concepts in language, writing and reading backwards, and spatially unaware.  Unsatisfied with the techniques that only taught her how to survive by avoiding tasks that were difficult for her, she developed exercises that forced her to delve into her deficiencies.  With years of effort, she healed herself of her learning disabilities.

We do not have to accept the labels put on us by modern medicine forever.  If you don’t like what a diagnosis has labeled you as, there are ways to rise above it.  In 1998 it was finally accepted that regrowth occurs in the neurons in the brain which proves what George Eliot wrote in his book Middle March, “The mind is not cut in marble, it’s not something solid and unalterable.  It is something living and changing.”

Mindfulness will not cure all of your ailments but it will start opening you to the possibilities of your mind.  It will help you to observe how the outside world is affecting your internal one allowing you to pick and choose what you let in or let go.  It will slowly help you to turn your brain into your best friend.

No Need to Worry

“Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength.”-Corrie ten Boom

When I read this quote in my mindfulness class at school one of my students grimaced and winced while shaking his head. I could see that he was upset so I asked him what was bothering him.

“It’s just that I don’t agree with that quote.” When I asked him why, he said that without worry he wouldn’t be motivated to accomplish most of what he needed to. He said that worry kept him moving forward. It really surprised me that someone would be so attached to their worrying that they would become offended when asked to reduce it. I asked him to reflect on what aspect of his worry was helping him versus harming him. We finally came to the conclusion that recognizing importance was helpful but that negative fortune telling and problem prediction were not. 

Motivation to take action and worry are not the same thing. Worry is the judgmental defeatist self talk that tells you everything that could go wrong and all the reasons you might fail. Motivation is recognizing why the event is important and putting into action constructive steps towards accomplishing it. Worry drains you of the energy you need to accomplish something while motivation replenishes it. 

When you have something important to accomplish remember to keep your self talk positive. Develop a realistic plan and envision good outcomes. Avoid mulling over all of the risks and obstacles. You can recognize that they are there without allowing them to take over the brain space needed to move forward. Keep the motivation and drop the worry. 

As the Dalai Lama XIV says, “If a problem is fixable, if a situation is such that you can do something about it, then there is no need to worry. If it’s not fixable, then there is no help in worrying. There is no benefit in worrying whatsoever.”