Your Daily List of What To Be or Not To Be: Mindful To-Do Lists

Emotional Management

We know all about to-do lists. We know all about “getting things done.” Sometimes these time and task management systems are part of the solution. Sometimes they are part of the problem.

Recently a few wise minds have suggested that productivity and ultimate happiness might not be created by ever-increasing, and ever more sophisticated to-do lists. They rather cleverly have suggested daily lists “not-to-do”. That’s sensible advice. Why not try such a list? It probably will help; it almost certainly won’t hurt.

And here’s another potentially fruitful experiment. Start your day — immediately after a few short minutes of Mindfulness practice — write a “To Be” list. And in a Shakespearian mode, a “Not-To-Be” list. Stick with your aims just for the day ahead of you. What kind of person do you want to be today? Here are some suggestions:
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Ralph Waldo Emerson on the Power of Continuous Steps

ralph_waldo_emersonIt’s already February. How is progress going on those New Year’s Resolutons ?

Maybe it’s worth reviewing and replanning. Many people get stuck because they’ve only properly thought through the first step in their improvement process.

All great masters are chiefly distinguished by the power of adding a second, a third, and perhaps a fourth step in a continuous line. Many a man had taken the first step. With every additional step you enhance immensely the value of your first. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Most of us are filled with good ideas and good intentions, but many successfully creative people find that discipline and persistence are at least as important.


Continuous Compassionate Criticism: At the Heart of Coaching

When you make a mistake in typing or in spelling, it’s good that an icon doesn’t flash all over your screen with a green monster sticking its tongue out and screaming at you that you’re a total idiot. Those kinds of frequent attacks on your self-esteem are unlikely to motivate you to produce more and increase the quality of your work. It’s an overwhelming, debilitating form of feedback.


However the opposite of this is also a problem. Most people can merrily type away while their word processing program automatically fixes mistakes that the person never realises he made. This is not blissful ignorance. This is the kind of cluelessness that leads to arrogance and complacency.

To stay on top of our game, and especially to get better at what we want to be excellent at – we need continuous compassionate criticism. It’s hard to find sources for that, but absolutely essential.

A key reason great athletes become great, stay great and get even better is that they have an insatiable appetite for improvement. They are highly receptive to feedback and being challenged. They believe in themselves and their pervasive superiority over their competitors but they are almost always open to improving and recognising what they are doing now might not be optimal.

This is less true in the case of top-level executives. Most I have worked with and know about are hyper-sensitive about criticism. They are thin-skinned and they avoid it. That may be an important reason that the average time at the top for a chief executive in most developed countries is about 3.5 years. Eventually all those blind spots and delusions of superiority (and even infallibility) catch up with these arrogant executives and they are deposed.

The art of the coach is to deliver this continuous compassionate criticism in a highly individualised way; tailoring the feedback and leavening it with humor and warmth so that the athlete – and ideally the top business leader – can receive it willingly, hear it fully, internalise it completely and put the improvement into action consistently.

Topics: The art of coaching, resilience, focus, discipline, compassionate criticism


The Point of Life Isn’t To Go On a Tour of Gas Stations

Woman Pumping Gas --- Image by © Royalty-Free/CorbisHow much money do you need to be happy? Ben Casnocha has pondered perennial existential problem:

“…Just 100 years ago, the ultra wealthy enjoyed privileges average folk could never access: fresh food, medicine, safe childbirth, etc. Today, there are relatively small differences between the rich and the middle class in terms of quality of life. Today, no Americans will die in childbirth. Virtually all can buy good food, can fly anywhere in the world, access all the world’s knowledge and culture with a click of the mouse, and so on.

What “average” people in America share with the super rich like Bill Gates is far more significant than what we don’t share with him. Gates has a bigger house than you or me, but for what really matters, we’re quite similar.

It can be pleasant to be super rich, Ben admits. You fly in private jets or at least first class every time. You’re able to eat expensive food whenever you want, you have aides and servants who will save you time. The problem is, we quickly factor in these material comforts – what psychologists call the “hedonic adaptation.” The private jet doesn’t feel so special the 10th time you’re on it. Rather than marveling at the fact you’re on your own plane, you’re more likely to compare it (oftentimes unfavorably) to other private jets you’ve seen.
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New Year’s Resolutions and the Aggregation of Marginal Gains

resolution-british-cyclingIsn’t it time to get real about New Year’s Resolutions?

Research shows that around 80% of us fail to stick with our goals beyond the 31st of January.

In the media, we only hear about the mega success stories, the ones with the spectacular before and after photos. But many of the most powerful, sustainable achievements – in the sports world as well as the personal world – happen in incremental, subtle ways built up over several years, and sometimes decades.
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Are You Suffering From “Hangxiety”?

woman-headache-hangxietyAre you suffering from “hangxiety”? Top tips for overcoming the post-party blues this holiday season.

The morning after can often bring on anxiety for some – here are five stress busters for beating the blues.


Everyday Gratitude Versus a Once Yearly Festival of Thanksgiving

gratitude_faceMindfulness & Gratitude

It’s possible to convert every day into an occasion for giving thanks. Try it before every dinner, say it out loud, even if you’re alone. It’s more powerful that way. And this isn’t to make you into a more saintly person or somehow benevolently convert the world into a better place.  It’s simply to make you happier.

Research study after research study has demonstrated that people who explicitly express gratitude on a regular basis are significantly more content with their lives than people who don’t.

A quick look at the psycho-social context of early Thanksgivings. Life was quite a bit more precarious in New England in the late 1600s than now. About 40% of children didn’t reach adulthood and even then, average life expectancy was 25 years. Wireless broadband internet coverage was patchy throughout most of the original 13 Colonies 😉

Even if times are toughs for you, what might you be thankful for on a typical November evening at dinnertime?
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Human Warmth in the Workplace: The Secret Sauce of Success

happy_office_workersHighlights from an excellent article about human relationships and existential meaning at work in The Guardian newspaper of Britain:

Bank of America found that giving call-center employees breaks together, instead of forcing them to take breaks alone resulted in a more cohesive staff. With this simple change, the company dropped its turnover rate from 40% to 12%.

Within the positive organizational universe, the experts tend to divide into two camps: Those who feel that employee happiness hinges largely on a sense of purpose, and those who feel that relationships are the secret sauce.

“Having positive relationships at work is seen as a major predictor of employee engagement, and that’s a major driver of customer engagement.” – Jane Dutton, professor of business administration & psychology at the University of Michigan.

“Evidence on the almost instantaneous effect of positive human connections on people’s bodies convinces me that if I had to choose whether my workplace had purpose or positive connections, I’d bet on connections.” – Jane Dutton

“If you have positive connections between employees, that means it’s also probably easier to cultivate meaning in the work they’re doing. And similarly if your employees feel they have a purpose, it’s easier for them to cultivate positive connections with each other.” – Jane Dutton
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Simple Truths in Saccharine Sweet Syntax

days-of-of-livesSometimes truth is to be found hidden in jagged rocks of 19th century philosophy, encrusted in gigantic Germanic sentences, obscured by words we’ve never fully understood the meaning of. But just as often, I find, there is wise counsel in everyday language, no more sophisticated than a Hallmark card.

“A happy life is just a string of happy moments. But most people don’t allow the happy moment, because they’re so busy trying to get a happy life.” – Abraham Hicks

At once profound and banal – there is also the introductory voice-over of a soap opera that has been running since 1965, almost exactly as long as I’ve been alive. “Like sands through the hourglass, so are the Days of Our Lives.”

And from around the same era, a song reverberating in my subconscious mind since singing it for my middle school graduation ceremony:

If the hands of time were hands that I could hold,
I’d keep them warm and in my hands,
They’d not turn cold!

Hand in hand we’d choose the moments that should last,
The lovely moments that should have no future and no past!
The summer from the top of a swing,
The comfort and the sound of a lullaby,
The innocence of leaves in the spring,

…All the happy days would never learn to fly,
Until the hands of time would choose to wave good-bye!


A Spooky Halloween Meditation: Mindfulness for the Dead and the Living

halloween-om-mindfulness-and-halloween-pumpkinHalloween wraps fear in innocence, as though it were a slightly sour sweet. Let terror, then, be turned into a treat. — Nicholas Gordon

Breathing in: The wind is blowing
Breathing out: The leaves are falling

Breathing in: All is changing
Breathing out: All is shifting

Breathing in: The leaves wind is blowing

Breathing out: The leaves are falling

Breathing in: All is dying
Breathing out: All is growing

Breathing in: The days are shorter
Breathing out: The nights are longer

Breathing in: The season’s changing
Breathing out: The world’s still turning
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Carol Dweck on Coaching: Praise, Criticism & Shifting Mindsets

Growth Mindset, coaching expectations & outcomes
carol_dweck1 Carol Dweck is one of the world’s most influential social psychologists. Her research is of vast importance to coaches and how they praise and criticize their athletes.

Carol is the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University and an expert on how a person’s thought patterns and belief – or mindset – affect their ability to learn and perform. This interview was recorded and first released in July 2013.

She is the author of numerous papers and books, and those most relevant to coaching include the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. She also has a great website:

Carol’s interview can be found at our sister site:
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USA Olympic Team’s Mindfulness in Sports Expert Peter Haberl

peter_haberl1This week we’re joined for a podcast interview by Peter Haberl, a senior sports psychologist for the United States Olympic Committee. Peter has worked with some of the most successful teams in recent history including medal winning squads in water polo and volleyball.

Based at the USOC headquarters in Colorado Springs, Peter has a particular interest in mindfulness based interventions and cognitive behavioral treatments. Peter grew up in Austria, played professional hockey in Europe for 10 years and represented his country in two world championships.

The interview originated at our sister site:


Mindfulness at Work Is About Not Interrupting Yourself

stop_interruptingHow many times a day does someone rush in and force you to stop what you’re doing and shift your activities elsewhere?

The least fortunate among us have it happen several times a day. And yet we all know the key to contentment and satisfaction at work is to be able to focus on what we need to achieve and to work steadily toward completion. Most of our colleagues and loved ones respect that. It’s the reason that fewer and fewer spontaneous telephone calls are taking place. Many of us schedule when we are available to spend even as little as 10 minutes on the phone. There is a strong human need to be in control of how we spend our time – it’s called autonomy, agency or self efficacy. Psychologist have understood for decades that it’s a major component of happiness.

But when it comes to interruptions, how many of us are actually our own worst enemies? I know that on a bad day I can flit around incessantly. For example, I might stop in the middle of writing an e-mail to check a text message, which leads me to look at Twitter and the next thing I know I’m reading a fascinating full-length feature article in something like The New Yorker Magazine. Interesting, often delightful but totally off topic. That’s because the matter at hand was the e-mail message I started writing 15 minutes earlier.

Getting in Flow with Mindful Working

Is there a simple solution? Yes, of course. But while it’s a simple solution, it’s not an easy solution. Practice full focus. Sit and simply stay in the present moment with your breathing. Recognize when your thoughts interrupt your focus on your own breathing. Accept the interruption, but turn it away. Go back to your focused breathing. Again and again. The flow state at work is what we’re aiming for, and there is nothing so fluid as a calm breathing patterms, rolling like ocean waves.

Topics: Interrupting yourself, mindfulness at work; workplace meditation


Why Choose Between Two Things You Love When You Can Do Both at the Same Time?

gaming_multitaskingThank you Xbox for defining the exact opposite of Mindfulness.

The video gaming, multi-media folks have an advertising campaign that will delight those who celebrate the attention deficit, hyperactive disordered tendencies of our society:

“With the best games, TV, movies, music and sports all in one place, you don’t have to compromise. Switch instantly from one to another, or enjoy an app and a game side-by-side so you never miss a moment. And, talk with family and friends on Skype while watching TV. It’s all the entertainment you love. All in one place.”

Hmm… What’s love got to do with it?

If you find yourself in a delightful restaurant eating amazing food in the company of your one-true-love, why not immerse yourself fully in the moment? Maybe even turn off your cellphone and keep it out of sight. In the year 2016, that a radical act of human connection.

Or you might be sitting on the couch with said one-true-love watching a film that took several years to make, cost millions of dollars to produce and features several of the finest actors of all time. Why not – just saying – give that your full and undivided attention for 120 minutes or so? Just like our grandparents and great grandparents did in the olden days.


Building Your Character: The Ultimate Success Tool

“Character, what you are, is ultimately more important than competence, what you can do. Primary greatness is, at is base, a matter of character… It is foundational. All else builds on this cornerstone. Even the very best structure, system, style, and skills can’t compensate completely for deficiencies in character.” – Stephen R. Covey, Primary Greatness

There are 12 areas we can focus on to build our character and unleash primary greatness.

1. Integrity. Our first lever of primary greatness: To actually BE that which we aspire to be rather than merely
appear to be. This is the foundation of success.

2. Contribution. This is all about your legacy. How will you make a positive difference?

3. Priority. That which matters most must never be at the mercy of that which matters least. We must, as Covey taught in
7 Habits put “first things first.”
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How Mindfulness Is Changing Business from the Inside Out

mindful-work-david-gelles-mindfulness-at-work“Even Goldman Sachs is doing it…”

Highlights from Mindful Work: How Meditation Is Changing Business From The Inside Out, by David Gelles.

A refreshingly simple definition of Mindfulness: “The ability to see what is going on in our heads, without getting carried away with it.”

…Mindfulness can sound deceptively easy. Practitioners sit in a comfortable position, close their eyes and simply notice the physical sensations in their body and the swirling thoughts in their brain. Using moment-to-moment, non-judgmental awareness, the aim is to observe these sensations without reacting to them. By doing so, meditators gradually recognize the fleeting nature of sensations, including pain, anger and frustration. In time, this allows practitioners to quiet the mind. If it all works as intended, this results in individuals who are less agitated, more focused and easier to work with.. . .
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An Easy 12-Step Program to Keep Leaders Healthy

executive-health-work-life-balance-wellbeingCall me hopelessly naïve, but I think it’s possible to run a major corporation and still work less than 15 hours a day.
There is no leadership message more destabilizing than hearing that a chief executive is unexpectedly taking time off because of “fatigue”. Taking a sudden unplanned break is bound to raise doubts about a leader’s ability to manage his or her “work/life balance.”

That phrase “work/life balance” has always annoyed me because it suggests that work and life should be and can be kept separate. They absolutely cannot be isolated from each other for many people, especially most highly successful people.

A better term might be “work/health balance”. This helps leaders focus on the fact that too much time and energy spent on work can be detrimental to one’s health, something almost everyone understands already. If you are a CEO the precarious state of your health, of course, pose a great risk to the whole organization.

Imagine you’re the chief executive on a multi-million dollar compensation package. How might you arrange things to keep yourself healthy while still working 12 or 13 hours a day? Here’s a checklist:

Step One: Ask your personal administrator to find a top-notch nutritionist who specializes in working with senior executives

Step Two: Have two one-hour appointments (in total) with said nutritionist (they’ll of course visit you in your office if you pay them enough)

Step Three: Have said nutritionist design a daily and weekly meal plan and, in cooperation with a local high-quality restaurant or caterer, arrange for them to deliver two to three ultra-healthy and highly palatable meals (it *is* possible!)
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Seven Steps To Becoming More Productive

efficiency and effectivenessEfficiency & effectiveness

Be honest. You’re distracted, right? In fact, that’s probably why you are reading this blog post instead of working on that project you should have finished already, Michael Hyatt writes.

Here are seven steps to getting unstuck. They are not that revolutionary on their own, but practiced together, they are like a defibrillator for your productivity:

1. Create a to-do list for today.
Many people keep lists, especially those who have been inspired by David Allen’s GTD method. They have scores—perhaps hundreds—of tasks, neatly divided by projects, contexts, or areas of focus. But they don’t know what they need to get done today. I recommend creating a simple list for today with just three critical actions on it.

2. Turn on some inspiring music.
You need music that is not distracting. For me that means instrumental-only selections. I listen to music whenever I want to get out of the world and into my work.
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Evolution Doesn’t Want You To Be Happy All The Time

One of the more puzzling quirks of human psychology has a name: hedonic adaptation, Melissa Dahl writes. It’s a term psychologists use to describe the way you get used to the things that once made you happy.

Getting a long-sought-after promotion, for example, initially makes you makes you feel more satisfied with your life — but after a year or so, the feeling fades. You’re about as happy as you were before you got the new job.

This phenomenon is well-studied, and a classic of the genre is one particular study published in 1978, which found that, after some time had passed, lottery winners were not that much happier than they were before they’d won. Even more telling, they were not that much happier than another group included in that study: people who had recently suffered some terrible accident, and as a result had become paraplegic or quadriplegic.

So if this is truly a central part of human nature, wouldn’t it make sense to stop fighting it? After all, you get used to things because you are supposed to get used to things. It’s for your own good.

“These delusions about the past and the future could be an adaptive part of the human psyche, with innocent self-deceptions actually enabling us to keep striving,” psychologist Frank T McAndrew says. “If our past is great and our future can be even better, then we can work our way out of the unpleasant — or at least, mundane — present.”

It’s a feature, not a bug, as they say. Happiness isn’t meant to last, a statement that sounds incredibly sad, but doesn’t have to be. As McAndrew phrases it, “Recognizing that happiness exists — and that it’s a delightful visitor that never overstays its welcome — may help us appreciate it more when it arrives.”
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How To Handle It When Others Succeed

Success envy
Navigating the delicate art of comparison and unhealthy competition does not come naturally many people, Lysa TerKeurst notes.

If we look at our dreams, desires, and hopes for the future as coming from a place of limited supply, it will constantly feed the notion that someone else’s success is a threat to ours.

So what do we do? Answer: The very opposite of what feeds unhealthy comparison and competition. We should spending energy wishing that others will be blessed. We should look for ways to help others succeed. We come alongside our fellow dream chasers and assure them this world needs more of what they uniquely have to offer.

This isn’t always an easy message to live when our friends, coworkers, and even competitors are seeing the success we dream about. But there is an abundant need in this world for your thoughts, words, ideas, and creativity. Trust the universe and yourself – their success is no threat to yours.
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Three Foolproof Ways to Get Relaxation Into Your Busy Schedule

business_woman_relaxingTaking time to relax helps you be at your best for business, Marisa Sanfilippo explains.

Some 55% of American workers left vacation days unused last year. It’s time to build up performance planning for long-term productivity.

Relaxing helps heal. A relaxed mind is able to help the body heal better. When our bodies are under a lot of pressure, our immune system gets beat up. High stress can make us sick. Chronic stress lasting a month or more affects the risk of catching a cold.

Relaxing makes us be more productive. Spending more hours at work often leads to less time for sleep and insufficient sleep takes a substantial toll on performance.

Relaxing helps us make better decisions. Stress can affect our ability to think clearly, changing how we weigh risk and reward. Competence in judgment is always comprised under stress. It induces a tendency to offer solutions before all decision alternatives had been considered and to scan such alternatives in a non-systematic fashion.

1. Take mini breaks throughout the day.
I set three reminders on my phone every day to practice their one-minute meditation.
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Is the Internet Making Us Stupid?

internet_making_us_stupid_googleSome ammunition from Benjamin Storm for those claiming that the internet is making us stupid.

Using the internet to look up facts makes us more reliant on it in the future, Benjamin’s latest research finds. The more times people look up facts online, the less they prefer to rely on their own memories for even the simplest questions.

“As more information becomes available via smartphones and other devices, we become progressively more reliant on it in our daily lives.”

In an experiment, 30% of people who used Goggle to answer a difficult question later used Google again to answer a simple question they could have used their own memory to answer.
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Empathic Charisma as a Mindful Leadership Skill

Charismatic leadership Christine LagardeSome though-provoking ideas in an article by Matthew Hutson.

In tough times, people want more in a leader than intelligence, integrity, or the ability to build really tall walls. They want someone who can make a compelling pitch and inspire a sense of urgency — someone with charisma. For decades, scholars have struggled to define this X factor, but they are developing a better idea of how it works.

Charisma is the ability to convince followers that you can get other members of a wider group to cooperate.

To lead, you must rest; fatigue saps charisma. Researchers asked students to give a speech after waking half of them hourly overnight. Viewers gave sleep-deprived speakers lower marks on charisma. They also rated speakers as less charismatic after their own sleep-deprived night.
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Mindful Dishwashing Reduces Anxiety By 27%, A Study Shows

Mindful dishwashing can decrease stress and calm the mind, new research shows.


How Do You Know If You’re Succeeding or Failing At Mindfulness Practice?


Meditation as a “mental fast”

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” – Samuel Beckett

In some ways those are encouraging words. But on second thought, when it comes to finding motivation to persist at a meditation practice, maybe not so much.

Thinking in terms of success versus failure might not be helpful. An analogy that is often drawn is that Mindfulness exercises are like gym sessions for your brain. I suppose the fact that you need to carve out time and do something that you don’t feel naturally inclined to do and that feels strenuous, is similar to time spent lifting weights or grinding away on a cardio machine. But the laws that govern physical fitness, of gaining aerobic and muscular strength, aren’t the same as those covering the management of mental states or the growth and maintenance of neural networks.

For many, what makes the pursuit of physical fitness satisfying is the sense of linear progress. Most of the time, with consistent practice, one really is getting stronger and faster, with greater staying power. On a tough day of training, when one is tired or hasn’t eaten properly, it’s still possible to push through a tough session with a “force of will” and make it a successful one.

Some researchers postulate that the meditating brain grows in size and strength at the microscopic level – creating new connections and increasing the insulating covers of the nerve fibers (i.e., there is a progressive thickening of the myelin sheaths). That may indeed be happening. But crucially for the impatient or frustrated meditator, very often it doesn’t feel like anything is happening. It’s not just a case of two steps forward, one step back. Sometimes it feels like one step back, then another step back, then standing in place, then one step back again.

If an inability to stay fully focused on one’s breath and hold distracting thoughts completely at bay counts as “failure,” then failure – or at least, not succeeding – comes with the territory of meditation. It’s helpful to reframe the challenge in more neutral terms. A fruitful Mindfulness session is one where you repeatedly notice mental wandering, and you come back to your breath, again and again and again. Yes, it’s a Sisyphean task, but inevitably so. A lot of life is like that.

In these frustrating moments it might be helpful not to think in terms of whether the session was “successful” nor whether one is “succeeding” at a Mindfulness practice. The positive results might be very subtle or not even discernible at all from one moment to the next. But usually the benefits are lurking somewhere. For example, a friend of mine says she sees positive effects “seeping” into her life in unexpected ways over time. Being able to stay calm and courteous during a frustrating encounter with an incompetent customer service person on the telephone is one example.

It may be more helpful to see one’s practice as similar as one’s “eating practice” — one’s daily diet. This is because there are so many external factors affecting whether a session feels like progress. For instance, how calm the emotional environment is around the practitioner, the atmosphere at home, the state of the extended family, and what’s happening professionally?

Consistency with one’s meditative practice is as important as it is with one’s diet. It does little good to eat one super healthy meal and then binge on junk food for several days after that. The key is sustainable steadiness.

Perhaps even more useful than the eating analogy is a *non* eating analogy, i.e. fasting. In many cultures and religious traditions a period of abstaining from food is considered purifying and restorative. Shorter “intermittent” periods of fasting have recently been shown by research to enable people to lose weight, boost their immunity to illnesses and to increase their energy levels.

In this way, time spent *not* thinking, emoting, evaluating, criticizing, blaming, feeling like a victim etc. is like *not* eating unhealthy foods. It gives the system a rest; it provides welcome relief and enables natural processes of recuperation. But for many people, fasting isn’t fun. Sometimes it’s painful. A person in a fasted state might feel agitated or irritable. But that doesn’t mean they are failing; often it’s quite the contrary.

So maybe see a meditation session as a “mental fast.” When it doesn’t seem to have gone “well” or when we don’t seem to be making “progress,” it’s often helpful to be gentle and non-judgmental. Try saying something like: “I’ve done what I needed to do today. There’s a lot going on around me. I am caring for myself. I trust this is having a positive effect over the long-term.” Keeping score with wins and losses, successes and failures might be counter-productive.

Key terms: Mindfulness practice, meditation; what constitutes succeeding or failing, brain fitness versus physical fitness, meditation and diet analogy, mental fasting


The Modern Mind and Meditation

The Human Mind Isn’t What it Used to Becool-buddha-modern-meditation
That’s why I think it’s problematic in many cases to use the same techniques in the year 2016 that were developed to use on monks living in a monastery 2,500 years ago. And I suspect that’s why “classic” forms of meditation don’t appeal to many people who try them.

This is the difference between a modern person who sits at a desk 8-10 hours a day, and eats factory-made calories at sea level and a person who spends a lot of the time outdoors, highly physically active at 8,000 feet above sea level, eating nothing but all-natural food.

I’m not talking just about the human brain. The brain and the mind are separate things. That’s why we have two different words for them; they aren’t synonyms.

The human brain – most physiologists and neurologists would tell us – has changed very little if at all in over the past 2,000 to 3,000 years since we’ve had Buddhism and other contemplative practices.

This blog is probably not a good place for going into the nuances evolutionary neurology. Certainly we don’t have access to the pure human brain – absent of human culture – in a meditative state. Perhaps if we could compare a typical 30 year-old computer programer to a 30 year-old raised exclusively by a tribe of gorillas in the African bush and having lived all his life there, we might come close to a clean experiment. But such a “human” has never been known to exist.

The blog also isn’t the place to spend too much time pondering the “nature of the mind” which philosophers and psychologists have been speculating about for several millennia as well. Here’s a simple-enough working definition of the human mind: It’s the brain plus about 100,000 years of human culture, including of course human language, art, music, geography, physics, history, mathematics, etc.

And let’s not forget the influence of religions and spiritual rituals in the surrounding “milieu” of the brain. By the time the average adult human brain turns itself to attempt a bit a of meditation, it has been continuously surrounded in a world of sounds, symbols, ideas and beliefs for 25, 35 years or many more.

Of course how a human thinks and feels is a function of all she or he has experienced and been taught to experience before. What humans have been experiencing over the past 150 years or so is nothing short of a radical transformation. If we imagine the kind of live most people were living 2,500 in the lands now known as northern India, where Buddhist meditative practice first arose and compare them to living conditions in for example Chicago, Illinois in 2016, pardon the pun, but the mind boggles.

Here a just a few of the key differences, which go some ways to explain why the modern mind needs to develop different ways of meditating than those the Buddha taught:

Life was lived primarily outdoors, surrounded constantly by fresh, clean air
Sleeping patterns coincided with 8 to 12 hours of complete darkness; including much more sleeping during winter months than now.

– Movement while was nearly constant, with even basic activities such as food gathering, washing, defecating requiring effort
– Entertainment took the form of talking face-to-face, dancing, and focused listening to story telling
– To further belabor Point 4: People had to listen carefully all day long; their sit-quietly-and-listen “muscles” were highly developed
– One’s position at rest was often lying on the hard ground or sitting in a squat
– Food was gathered and hunted extremely close to its original source and usually eaten at its freshest state
– A nearly every day part of life was walking in the woods in intimate contact with trees, leaves, grass, soil, etc.
– A constant awareness of births, deaths, sicknesses and the finitude of life

When one sat down to meditate 2,500 years ago, all that above was the starting point – in many cases a healthy body, well nourished and surrounded by a clean environment.

Here a just a few of the aggravating factors that the modern mind has to contend with:
– Pre-conceptual and intrauterine environments that may have included numerous neuro toxins / environmental contaminants
– A loud external world with constant sounds of radio and television, emergency sirens
– Access to in-depth, up-to-date information about almost everything
– Constant, highly compelling interruptions while working
– Instant supplies of entertainment, highly stimulating games, pornography etc.
– Daily work loads that are 3 to 6 hours longer than in ancestral hunter-gather societies
– Highly sweet, synthetic foods that rush energy to the brain and then create energy crashes 30 to 90 minutes later
– Low amounts of natural essential fatty acids from fresh oily fish and pasture-raised animals
– Factory-produced and plastic-packaged food lower or absent entirely of live beneficial bacteria
– A sense that with the right medical interventions death can be prevented and controlled

More on this later. But this is hopefully a start for those thinking how to reach the kind of pure states of contemplation with their modern minds. Spoiler Alert: Sitting quietly under a tree probably isn’t sufficient in and of itself to cultivate the modern meditative mind.

Topics: The modern mind, meditation, current life stresses, contemporary mindfulness, modern mindfulness, updating Buddhist practices


Going Analogue for a Summer Break: The Doable Digital Detox

a0032-000037A lot of the problem with technology is the shear volumes of it we are consuming per day.

As with many things “the dose make the poison.” For example, some people have severe problems drinking alcohol; they need to quit entirely and stay “sober.” However, others just need to cut back. Maybe they need to cut back a lot, but there’s a big difference between drinking a half-bottle of wine every single evening and having one or two glasses twice a week or so.

Similarly it’s not the same effect subsuming oneself in e-mail, texting, social media and other screen-based information 14 hours a day versus just 1 hour a day.

So this summer vacation period I suggest you try this simple experiment. Limit yourself to all non-urgent uses of your computers, phones, etc. to just one 60-minute period per day. For example from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. only. Yes, you can check the weather on the internet. What about texting? Every time you can possibly use your voice, try that instead.

You might be amazed to discover that with merely on hour a day of serious screen time, you can stay in touch at a minimal, basic level with everyone who is truly important to stay in touch with right now. You can keep projects moving forward *and* regain your sanity.

I’ve carefully chosen the 5 p.m. to 6 p..m time period because it’s late enough to not interfere with a good day out at the beach, fishing, hiking, horse riding, etc. It’s also still early enough to not interfere with dinner or with evening entertainment. At around 5pm, the blue glow of your screen doesn’t send false signals to your brain about daylight hours, thus enabling you to go to sleep faster and sleep more deeply at 10 or 11 p.m., i.e. four to five hours later.

By the way, for your 60-minutes per day, I’m not counting time spent reading one low-tech tablet, i.e. the very most basic Kindle, just in black and white, and not connected live to the Internet. We all sense the difference between using a tablet as a book or magazine substitute and using it to reconnect with the internet by stealth.


Continuous Partial Attention: One Man’s Struggle

continuous partial attention digital distractionWhat a superb article by David Roberts in Outside Magazine!

If you read only one work-related thing over your summer break, can I suggest it be this?

Here below are a few of my favorite sections of David’s detox article, but the mere extracts don’t do justice to his elegant narrative flow. Read the full article.

“…I tweeted to them around 30 times a day, I belonged to that exclusive Twitter club, not users who have been “verified” (curse their privileged names) but users who have hit the daily tweet limit, the social-media equivalent of getting cut off by the bartender. The few, the proud, the badly in need of help. I was peering at one screen or another for something like 12 hours a day.”

“…It wasn’t always this way. There was a time — it seems prehistoric now — when I started the workday by “getting caught up.” I’d go through my e-mail, check a few websites, and start on the day’s new tasks.
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Even in Deep Water, All You Can Do Is Swim

steven_wright2A brilliant example of reframing a problem into a manageable life strategy, by renowned comedian and Mindfulness Master Jerry Seinfeld.

If you’re swimming in the ocean, it doesn’t matter how deep the water is. All you can do is swim.

This was attributed by Seinfeld recently to his fellow comedian Steven Wright.

The context was a discussion about whether it’s particularly difficult to perform in front of large audiences.

We all have challenges that have varying degrees of difficulty. But if you focus on the uncontrollable factors – like how big the audience is, or how steep the hill is, or how big the line-backer in front of you is, then you lose your focus on what you yourself can influence.

As in the Zen Buddhists saying: “Before Enlightenment, chop wood carry water, after Enlightenment, chop wood carry water.”

When you’re in deep waters, keep your head, neck and spine in line and keep on swimming.

Numerous world-class coaches call this “controlling the controllables.”

Source of the Jerry Seinfeld reference:


Mostly Likely to Succeed or Most Likely to be Happy?

taylor_swiftAre there any high schools that give out the award: “Most Likely to be Happy in Life?”

The majority bestow the title “Most Likely to Succeed” and that usually goes to someone who is quite bright, but also a bit of a “go-getter,” popular with the in-crowd and perhaps with a bit of entrepreneurial flair. Or in some cases,  it’s someone demonstrating obvious acting or singing talent over and above the average for that age group. Taylor Swift is the best case in point, and Miley Cyrus before her.

But what characteristics would we be looking for in 17 year-olds to find the school’s winner of  “Most Likely to be Happy?”

Here’s a quick and somewhat slapdash list:
1-      Makes friends easily
2-      Maintains and builds relationships
3-     Helps others; volunteers
4-      Enjoys spending time outdoors
5-      Eats a healthy diet
6-      Has a religious faith and/or a spiritual practice
7-      Is academically intelligent, but not excessively
8-      Keeps fit but is not fitness or body-image obsessed

So generally a well-balanced, calm person who probably doesn’t stand out much during his or her last year of high school. Certainly not somebody Hollywood usually makes movies with or about.
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