This is the Now

“If you are depressed you are living in the past.  If you are anxious you are living in the future.  If you are at peace you are living in the present.”  ― Lao Tzu

We spend so much of our lives living inside our own heads, it’s a wonder we ever have the time to see what is going around us. We have a constant narrative of thought going on. It is like the background noise of a radio or TV; often not noticed, but always there.

Do you realise that we humans, it seems, have anywhere from 50,000 to 70,000 thoughts per day. But according to some research, as many as 98 percent of them are exactly the same as we had the day before. Talk about creatures of habit! Even more significantly, over 80 percent of our thoughts are negative. That means that every day we are self-criticizing ourselves with over 56,000 thoughts. With that level of negative bias, it’s no wonder so many people suffer from anxiety and even depression.

Why is so much of our self-talk, negative?

If you think back to our pre-history as hunter-gatherers, we spent most of our time hunting or being hunted. Our flight or fight responses were tuned into everything going on around us.

“Is that a tiger I see before me, or just a leafy shadow in the bushes ahead?”

The default thought patterns were centred on how to keep us alive. In effect, making us be cautious about every situation we came across. We used our memories to record and reflect on previous encounters and to use those to help us keep out of danger.

“Yes, it is a tiger and I believe it was a tiger I saw yesterday. Therefore, keep out of the way”

This would be the instinctive reaction, eve if 9 times out of 10, it was just a shadow and not a tiger.

Leap forward and that base level instinct and mode of thought has not changed one jot. However, it is not the tiger in the shadows that makes us worry; rather it is life going on around us.

What appears to happen, is that we have continued to develop a narrative mode of thought. This is where we think about the future, based on circumstances; events; and key obstacles of the past. We constantly think about what may happen in the future, often thinking about future obstacles and how to overcome them based on prior experiences. This is not necessarily negative. In fact, it can be very helpful as we navigate this complex world around us. However, when we do overcome them, or go around them, or avoid them, we still have other obstacles that pop up. It is akin to a life long hurdle race.  

If we are in a negative mode of thought, we think about how difficult those obstacles are and how impossible it is to overcome them. We go round and round, and as mentioned at the start, we churn over our thoughts; day by day; returning to previous negative thoughts. By doing this, we artificially amplify them; making them bigger and more impossible to solve.

So how do you stop the negative thought spiral?

Stop. Just stop. Stop and pay attention to the now. Now, I know you are going to say, how on earth do you do that?

A simple exercise you can try is as – just for a moment, listen to your breath. Or notice what you are looking at. Or the smells in the air.

For example; If you have a shower; when you are standing under the water, close your eyes and feel the water on your skin. Open your eyes and when you open the bottle of shower wash, smell the aroma and scent. Mine is eucalyptus and grapefruit of all things. If you are cleaning your teeth, concentrate on the brushing motion against your teeth and gums.

And when those negative thoughts start to come around again as they will; the first step is to recognise the thoughts as negative. The second is to acknowledge that, like all thoughts, these will come and go. Moment by moment.

I was sitting on the bed this morning and a whole suite of negative thoughts starting going around in my head. It made me feel uncomfortable. I could feel my heart rate begin to increase. However, what made the difference was I realised that these were negative thoughts. Just thoughts. They did not reflect the reality of the moment, sitting on the bed. Thoughts of the past, that you can not change. Thoughts of the future, yet to come.

In effect, I was present in the now.

The TEDx youTube video that inspired this blog post, by Daron Larson, can be found here. It is well worth the 12 minutes to watch.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ze6t34_p-84
I leave you with the following quote.

“We all make mistakes, have struggles, and even regret things in our past. But you are not your mistakes, you are not your struggles, and you are here NOW with the power to shape your day and your future.” –  Steve Maraboli, Unapologetically You: Reflections on Life and the Human Experience

The essence of the Breath

“Listen–are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?” Mary Oliver

 
The core of Mindfulness meditation practice is the use of the breath, as one of the tools to bring yourself into the present moment. After all, we carry it with ourselves throughout our lives. It is always there and we, too often, forget all about it. Unless you get a terrible cold. Then you notice it. Generally when you are wheezing.

To practice mindful breathing, you don’t have to sit cross-legged or do anything special. Simply stop what you’re doing and turn your awareness to your breath. Don’t attempt to control your breath,simply observe it.As your breath happens. Moment by moment.

In and out. In and out. Constant, always there, but always changing.

You might be surprised to see how short and inconsistent your breath is. This is normal. We often breathe this way and don’t even notice it. We have developed a habit of breathing at the top of our lungs in a short, compacted manner. Unless you are a singer, or actor, very few people actually use the whole of the breath cycle, breathing right down into the lungs.

The way we breath greatly affects how we feel and act. Mindful breathing can completely transform how we feel on a day-to-day, moment-to-moment basis. Remember, we are trying to extend and deepen being present and the breath is something that can help greatly in this.

So, how about trying the following…..

  • Count each in breath and out breath as an individual number.
  • So breathe in – one, breathe out – two, breathe in – three, etc. Do this until you get to 10 or until you become distracted by a thought, feeling, or sensation.
  • I can tell you now, that unless you have been practicing Mindfulness, you won’t get to 10. Let alone 100.
  • When you do get a thought, feeling, or sensation, and we all do, don’t worry about it. Don’t feel you have to criticise yourself.
  • Don’t punish yourself. Say you are a failure. You are not.
  • Just start all over again. In a relaxed manner. Focusing on the breath. As it comes and goes.

Even Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the modern Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction movement and who has practiced Mindfulness based meditation for over 40 years, still says it happens to him. That his mind wanders. 

  • In the beginning, it will be very difficult to count to 10 like this without becoming interrupted or distracted by thoughts or feelings.
  • These interruptions aren’t a bad thing, so make sure not to label them as such.
  • When you notice a distraction arise, be it a thought, feeling, or sensation- and they will be plentiful- simply acknowledge it without thinking anything about it (accept it openly as you would a loved one coming into your arms) and then gently direct you awareness back to your breath.

Even if you can practice this for 5 minutes in the morning and for 5 minutes in the afternoon, over a four to six week period, you will notice a difference. Not least of which, the time before the interruption occurs will get longer.

I tried it today, just to see how long I could “last”. I got to 100. Not bad. But then the thoughts came again, And I had to start all over again. Somewhat like the breath itself.

I leave you with the following quote…….

“Can words describe the fragrance of the very breath of spring?” Neltje Blanchan

 

One of life’s pleasures is on the decline, Reading

 

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, said Jojen. The man who never reads lives only one.”

George R.R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons

One of my life’s pleasures, perhaps an addiction, has been reading. I can remember reading from a very early age. In fact, I used to use  a torch and read under the covers long after the lights were out and I was supposed to be asleep. I am sure my parents knew I was a “secret  bed reader”. I was forever running out of torch batteries.

Whilst at secondary school, I managed to work in the school library, helping to manage the school library. Yes, the school had a proper library, stuffed full of fiction and nonfiction books. Hundreds of them. Every term, the heads of departments would put together an order for books, send it off and they would duly come in. My “job” was to catalog them. Cover the jackets with the clear plastic, similar to the stuff parents still use today for their children’s text books. Then place the books on the shelves, ready to be borrowed. I had the pick of them and devoured books by the dozen. I would take home two or three at a time. Read them and return them.

When I left school, my passion continued. I would buy books as often as I could afford them. Sometimes new and sometimes second hand. Science Fiction. Horror. Thrillers. Crime. Whatever took my fancy.

Whilst at university, I would read in their library, mostly New Scientist magazine and books on technology. As you can imagine, I was a “book worm”. Completely consumed by them. In fact, I still am.

Perhaps that is why my imagination has always as vivid and clear as it is. Active would be an understatement. I can see images in three dimensions. In colour. In full motion. I can imagine being part of  conversations and dialogue. I can be associated and be part of the story. Or I can observe the story from afar. My mind has always been filled with movies. 

A few years ago, we moved house and the new place does not have as much space for my books as the old house did. I took the decision, that after all those years, to pass on some of my book collection. After many trips to the local Oxfam book shop, I handed over to them in excess of 500, yes, 500 books. And I still have three bookshelves full. I still read nearly every day. And at weekends, I will sit and read for a few hours.

I have just finished reading a fascinating book, called The Wisdom of Psychopaths, by Doctor Kevin Dutton. A section of the book grabbed my attention and prompted this post. In the book, he shared some research carried out by Jeffrey Zacks, Professor of Psychology & Professor of Radiology and his team at the Dynamic Cognition Laboratory, Washington University, in St Louis, USA.

With the aid of fMRI scanners, the team peered deep inside the brains of a group of volunteers as they read stories. What they found was an intriguing insight into the way our brains construct our sense of “self”. Changes in the stories characters locations [e.g. ‘they went into the house from the street, or got into a car and drove away’] activated areas of the brain associated with spatial location. Changes in the stories characters and how they interacted with objects [e.g. they picked up a pen] produced similar responses in the region of the brain associated with grasping. Finally, and most important of all, changes in a character’s goals elicited increased activation in the prefrontal cortex which helps control personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behavior. Our imagination, really affects our brain.

The conclusion is as follows: When we read a story, our level of engagement with it is such that we “mentally simulate each new situation encountered in the narrative” and literally change the neural pathways in our brain. Reading changes how we think and react to situations. TV does not do this. Nor does reading on the internet. It is the in-depth reading of a book – whether physically or via an electronic device, that is the key. The research also points to the fact that for some people, certain books or stories will have a more profound impact on their lives. If you read, what is your favorite author? Your favorite book? The one that has the most impact on you? For me it was George Orwell’s 1984. It is my absolute favorite.

So that is the good news. The bad news is that as a culture, reading is on the decline. Potentially terminal decline.

The number of children who say they love reading books for fun has dropped almost 10% in the last four years, according to a US study, with children citing the pressure of schoolwork and other distractions. In fact reading amongst young children and teenagers has dropped every year since 2005 when surveys were started to measure the levels of reading in young people.

Only four in 10 children said they read daily in their own time when the first survey was carried out in 2005. That figure is now around three in ten or even less. The research found that young people were shunning books in favour of TV – 54% of those questioned said they preferred watching TV to reading.

I will leave you with this final thought.

The research has pointed out the people who read stories, become more attuned to those around them in daily life. They exhibit higher levels of empathy and connectedness to other people. Whereas for those that don’t read, they are more “me, me, me” fixated. More selfish and less likely to help others.

If you believe that the world is becoming more selfish, perhaps we should encourage people, especially the young to read more.

 

I leave you with the following quote and since it is a Friday, a funny one:

 

“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”

Groucho Marx, The Essential Groucho: Writings For By And About Groucho Marx

What on earth is Neuroplasticity?

“Life is half delicious yogurt, half crap, and your job is to keep the plastic spoon in the yogurt.”

Scott Adams

 

Something I have come to realize through my own practice and reading on Mindfulness is that our brains are not fixed and unchanging. Society has taught us that by the time you get to be an adult your brain’s structure; even the way we think; is fixed and unchanging for all of our lives.

In fact, it is not the case at all.

Our brain; like the rest of our bodies; can be consciously changed by our actions. Think for a moment, have you taken up a new sport or hobby as an adult? All of us have done so at some point. Whether it is cycling, running, swimming, golf, tennis, etc. Or perhaps, a new interest, such as learning a new language; learning to cook exotic meals, etc. Or even, if we have stopped something. For instance, smoking, drinking or eating meat. Throughout all of our lives, we are constantly changing habits and our bodies adapt.

So do in fact do our brains. Even our identities are not fixed, they change over time. Falling in love. Having children. Changing jobs.Moving to a new city or country. Everything has an impact both on our bodies, as well as our brains. Our memories. Our perceptions of the world around us.

The term, for the ability to flex and change the structure of the brain, is called Neuroplasticity.

Neuroplastic change can occur at small scales, such as physical changes to individual neurons, or at whole-brain scales, such as remapping in response to an injury. Behaviour, environmental stimuli, thought, and emotions may also cause neuroplastic change, which has significant implications for healthy development, learning, memory, and recovery from brain damage.

Scientific research has shown that the very structure of the brain can be changed in even a relatively short period of time.  

A number of studies have linked meditation practice to differences in density of the  gray matter that makes up certain parts of the brain. One of the most well-known studies to demonstrate this was led by Sara Lazar, from Harvard University, in 2000.

Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, has led experiments, working with a number of Buddhist monks, including Matthieu Ricard, on effects of meditation on the brain. In fact, Matthieu has been called the Happiest Man alive. His results suggest that even short-term practice of meditation results in different levels of activity in brain regions associated with improvements such as: improved attention; reduced anxiety levels; a reduction in levels of depression; feeling less fearful; significant reductions in anger, and even the ability of the body to heal itself. Some of these results can be seen in as little as seven weeks.

I have always been fascinated at how the brain works, and what we, as humans, are capable of. I watched a great programme from the BBC, that I would recommend it to you. if you get a chance, check out:

The Brain with David Eagleman 

David explores how the brain conjures up the world we take for granted. This episode shows how the brain gives rise to thought, emotions, memories and personality. We Do not “see” the world around us, rather we reconstruct it moment by moment, based on our sensory perception, our brains ability to chunk together information, and even the ability to delete and distort reality.

 

I leave you with the following quote……. which made me laugh at the modern world we have.

“She got her looks from her father. He’s a plastic surgeon.”

Groucho Marx

 

We can change our negative wiring!

 

Oddball: “Why don’t you knock it off with them negative waves Moriarty? Why don’t you dig how beautiful it is out here? Why don’t you say something righteous and hopeful for a change?”

From the Film “Kelly’s Heros”

 

So what are we going to do about being hard wired with a negative bias? Accept it and just live with it? Or try to do something about it?  

Being surrounded by so much negativity and being hard wired towards it; it’s a wonder we are all not complete manic depressives. But somehow, most of us, seem to lead reasonably balanced lives. So it is not all doom and gloom. We instinctively try to balance both the negative and the positive.

One of the ways we strive to hold the positive is we surround ourselves with mementos of pleasant events. We may have photos of family members and loved ones in our houses. We listen to music which triggers memories of past discos and situations where we first heard the tune; a gig or a concert; or when the music was playing and we met a person we fell in love with. We may keep possessions from our past, from our family, that when we see them and touch them, trigger pleasant memories.

One of my mementos, is my grandmother’s watch. Why is it so special?

She was blind and almost deaf for most of her life. Was she down hearted? No, not at all. Most of the time, she was happy and chatty. One of her constants was the Royal National Institute of the Blind designed watch that she would wind and listen to the tick tock. It is like a old fashioned pocket watch, but the top case, when it is pushed up reveals a watch face with no glass. Instead, the dial hands are chunky and there are raised pips next to the numbers on the watch. She would run her fingers over the face of the watch and be able to tell the time. Even as I type this, the positive memories come flooding back. 

Another trick you can use is to record, remember and reflect on the positive experiences you have every day. Big or small it does not matter. As part of the MBSR – Mindfulness Stress Reduction Program; one of the activities you are asked to complete is to capture positive things and situations you are placed in every day. You write them down in a mini diary during the day. For instance: You say “good morning” to someone and they smile back at you; You hold the door open for someone and they say “thankyou”; You let someone in at a traffic queue and they flash their indicators. Anything and everything.

Then at the end of the day, read through the list and reflect on the day’s activities and how those positive moments made you feel.

There are some other tips you might like to try that are not related to Mindfulness or meditation in any way:

  • Be conscious of the viral effect of negative people and how they can “infect” positive people. If you can, choose not to be with them. You can not change them, but you can certainly avoid being with them if you can.
  • When positive events or interactions occur, savor the positive experience. Write it down. Record it. Photograph it. It is those positive moments that you want to remember.
  • Demonstrate and encourage others to be mindful of the “triggers” that can stimulate negativity. Reflect on whether the negative situation has been exaggerated or blown out of proportion, and how it can be changed or minimised.
  • Avoiding over-analyzing or ruminating on past negative events; rather focus on what can be done in the present in a positive manner. It is the rumination that build the negative memory sets.
  • When at work, focus on the small wins and progress on a daily basis, and take time to celebrate those, rather than waiting for the end of a project or an extended period of time before celebrating sucess.
  • Remember that it takes up to 10 positive experiences to counterbalance one negative experience. Perhaps you can see if you can record 10 positive experiences in a day. Big or small, I am sure it will be easy to capture them

 

Now you have reached the end of this article, why don’t you take a few moments to search out a treasured picture; a momento; a piece of music; or an object in your life. Look at it, hold it, listen to it and really feel it. Remember the memories it brings back. Positive ones. I hope, like my grandmothers watch and my memories of her.

Namaste.

If you liked the quote at the start, here is a collection from the film “Kelly’s Heros” where odd bal talks to Moriarty about “those negative waves”. Made me smile:

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KuStsFW4EmQ

 

I leave you with the following quote:

 

“Try giving up all the thoughts that make you feel bad, or even just some of them, and see how doing that changes your life. You don’t need negative thoughts. All they have ever given you was a false self that suffers. They are all lies.”

Gina Lake, What about Now?: Reminders for Being in the Moment

The power of 5

“The trouble is if you don’t spend your life yourself, other people spend it for you.” Peter Shaffer, Five Finger Exercise: A Play

 
I was asked recently to try to help some graduates in my organisation prepare for a training course. The course was entitled “Personal Impact” and it concerned your own personal impact in business. As the course outline stipulated:

“….designed to help the Graduates be more self-aware and therefore, help them understand how they can capitalise on their personal strengths to make an impact in the business. During the module they will learn their individual Myers Briggs personality type, understand how to adapt their style to get the best out of different situations and influence others in the business.”

The grads asked me, as their mentor, for advice as to their current personal impact and style. As I prepared to share my perceptions with them, I realised that in order for them to be able to get the most from the feedback and also from the course, that they needed a short concise list of feedback items. I wanted to make sure that the feedback was positive and insightful. Not negative, or pointed. Helpful and honest.

There is a raft of publications and articles that talk to the optimum number of items or chunks of information that you should give. From Wikipedia, you can see:

The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information” is one of the most highly cited papers in psychology.It was published in 1956 by the cognitive psychologist George A. Miller of Princeton University’s Department of Psychology in Psychological Review. It is often interpreted to argue that the number of objects an average human can hold in working memory is 7 ± 2. This is frequently referred to as Miller’s Law.

I have spent many years in business, preparing and giving presentations and talks. I have also worked  with and managed a lot of people and had to give and receive feedback. I have learnt that the optimum number of topic items to talk to in a presentation and also the optimum number of feedback items to give is 5. Yes. 5. People tend to get lost if there are more than five topics or items of feedback. I have tried to give 7 or more and you can see people getting confused. So I would challenge Miller’s Law and state that the optimum is 5.

Anyway, back to the grads. Both of them have great skills and capabilities. Both are different. For example. One item we talked about was how they verbally communicated. One is quiet and thinks before speaking. This can give the impression of being a thoughtful person, but also can mean that the conversation has moved on before they have a chance to contribute. The other chatters away, vocalising their thoughts as they go. This can give the impression that they are always contributing to the conversation, However, they can also give the impression of being a “chatterbox” and not prepared to listen.

Neither approach is wrong. As I said to them, “you have used your individual skills to great success and have achieved much in your lives so far. But, perhaps we can work on some tips to help going forward.”

Both of them recognised and knew of their own abilities. However, rather than just recognising them, I wanted to give them a couple of tips to help them. I had prepared a list for each grad and made sure that there was only 5 items on the list for each of them. Alongside each of the item, I listed the positive, as well as the challenge. And then an alternative approach. Some very quick tips, but they really appreciated the feedback. A couple of examples are listed below:

 Observation: Talks too much.

    1. Positive: You can follow their thought process
    2. Challenge: Can mean they don’t listen
    3. Suggestion: Pause for a second and write down query

 

Observation: Too quiet in meetings

    1. Positive: When they contribute, the question is well thought out and insightful
    2. Challenge: Can mean they miss out as the conversation moves on. Can be overlooked as a contributor to the meeting
    3. Suggestion: Prepare before the meeting, based on the topics, suggestions and thoughts. In effect, pre-work

 

I checked in with them after they had attended the course. Their feedback was that the feedback was extremely helpful. They completed a Myers Briggs assessment on their preferred personality type [I guessed correctly their types!]. They also did assessments of the types of engagement to expect in business. I’ll follow up in a separate article on the tools & techniques to use in this space.

I really do believe in the power of 5. Whether it is used as the formation of the content of a presentation, or used as a feedback tool.

 

A great quote to finish today, enjoy…….

“My grandmother started walking five miles a day when she was sixty. She’s ninety-seven now, and we don’t know where the heck she is.” Ellen DeGeneres

Life stress bubbles

“Life is mostly froth and bubble, Two things stand like stone. Kindness in another’s trouble, Courage in your own.”  ― Adam Lindsay Gordon

The lead up to Christmas is always a stressful time. The preparation for this single day of the year eclipses almost every other life event, even more so as it occurs every year. I don’t know what is the most stressful for you: the getting of the perfect tree; the putting up of the decorations; the presents and wrapping thereof; the buying of food; the turkey / goose / beef, plus prep’ing and cooking; the laying out of the Christmas table. Maybe, the biggest stress factor is, who is coming / going to who’s place to celebrate the day?

This year has been no exception to all the previous years in our house except; since I have been practicing Mindfulness for more than a year and also completed a number of counselling courses, I have been able to observe a number of these stressful events, rather than being caught up in them.

I noticed that everyone exists in their own “life stress bubble” as I called them, We all do it. All of the time. We exist in our own worlds. Wrapped up in the moment. By moment, stress of life. Living each moment full on. Like bubbles, each one is different, unique and separate. Often going in their own different directions. When they occasionally meet, they might stick together, separate but connected. Or they merge into a larger and different bubble. You can sometimes see people fighting to escape their bubble. Wanting to be different but not knowing how. Eventually, the bubble bursts and the stress and the reasons disappear. However, just as you think things have settled down, another stress bubble is created and off you go again.

The ability to stand outside of some of the most stressful moments of the festive season and observe meant I experienced more calm and peace. It also meant I did not get caught up in my own bubbles and stress. It also meant that I was able to be more centred and in the present moment, rather than in the stress of others. Even as I prepared the Christmas lunch for nine people of vegan, vegetarian and meat eating formats. I shared my thoughts with others and they too recognised the idea of “life stress bubbles”. The question that then followed was; “after recognising them, how do you deal with them?”.

You can deal with them on an individual basis by first recognising that they exist and we continually create them. No matter how centered you are. How often you practice Mindfulness, or any other form of reflective contemplation. How much counselling and self help you practice, you will still create them. Instead, the ability to first recognise when they occur and then step outside of them, is the key.

As for dealing with them in groups, whether that be loved one’s, family, colleagues or friends; I have some ideas and will try them out. How do you deal with your “life stress bubbles”? Talk about them? Do something physical? Listen to music? How do you deal with them in groups or individually? Do tell.

I leave you with the following quote:

“In infinite time, in infinite matter, in infinite space, is formed a bubble organism, and that bubble lasts a while and bursts, and that bubble is Me.”  ― Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina