calmness

A “mantra” for the out-breath: “Release, rest, reveal”

Person sitting in front of a huge waterfall

Here’s a meditation tip for you to try. It came to me when I was on retreat a couple of weeks ago. One morning, on the first meditation of the day, I found that my mind was all over the place.

I really needed to calm down my racing thoughts, but I had a hunch that the more I “tried” to do something about them, the more I was going to create more disturbance. In Buddhism we sometimes talk about this as being the task of “catching a feather on a fan,” because more effort equals more disturbance, while a gentle and sensitive effort will get the job done.

As I paid attention to the sense of my body letting go on each out-breath, I heard three words accompanying the exhalations. Breathing out, I’d hear “Release.” Breathing out, I’d hear “Rest.” Breathing out, I’d hear “Reveal.”

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Each of the words had a different effect. “Release” would direct my mind to the sense of natural relaxation that takes place every time we breathe out. Focusing like this on the physical release that takes place when we exhale helps the body to relax more deeply.

The word “rest” encouraged my mind to let go. As I breathed out, my mind settled into a natural sense of ease, non-striving, kindness, and acceptance.

As I hears the word “reveal,” I experienced a sense of openness to whatever was arising in that moment, whether in the mind or the body. There was a gentle sense of attentiveness and mindfulness — a balance of receptivity and active observation.

These three words, cycling though my mind, gave me a series of little reminders, each as long as an out-breath: let go in the body; let go in the mind; notice and accept whatever’s arising.

Very quickly, my thoughts slowed down. That process started almost the moment that I started saying these three words.

After a little while I found I didn’t need to “hear” the words as thoughts. I could let the mind be silent. My thoughts had substantially died away, and yet even without the verbal reminder, on successive out-breaths I was still relaxing, resting the mind, and allowing my experience to reveal itself to me. And whenever my thoughts started to reappear, I was free to reintroduce the thoughts once more.

Do feel free to try this, and even to adapt it to your own needs. See what doesn’t work, and what does. Meditation is “open source,” and you can adapt it in the light of your own experience.

These are the three things the out-breath teaches us: Releasing all that’s unhelpful. Resting in calmness. Revealing the rich simplicity of our experience.

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Mindfulness: how to find inner peace in the chaos of a city

wildmind meditation newsRupert Hawksley, The Telegraph: Mindfulness is all the rage right now, but what, if you don’t mind, does mindfulness actually mean?

The subtitle to a new book on the subject, How to find calm and contentment in the chaos of the city, gives us a hefty clue. Calm and contentment? Sounds good. So what better place to meet the author, Tessa Watt, than central London at rush hour, a time and location that is guaranteed to be chaotic?

My plan to rigorously test Watt’s methods in this hostile environment backfires, however. By the time she whisks me off Oxford Street, away from the …

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Five minutes a day to conquer the fear of public speaking

wildmind meditation newsCarmine Gallo, Forbes: A French monk said to be “The world’s happiest man” because of his abnormal capacity for joy once told me that he doesn’t get stage fright because he has eradicated “mental toxins.” Matthieu Ricard is also a strong advocate and teacher of meditation as a powerful tool to calm the mind. Ricard believes that we underestimate the transformative power of our mind. The world’s happiest man doesn’t get stage fright because he has learned to calm the voices in his head. How does he do it? Could meditation play a key role? If it works for Ricard, it might benefit …

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Access Concentration: Day 21 of Wildmind’s 100 Day Meditation Challenge

100 day meditation challenge 021You know when you’re counting your breaths in the Mindfulness of Breathing, and you manage to keep the numbers going continually and follow the sensations of the breathing, but you also have a continuous stream of thoughts going on? You probably get very annoyed by this. But you shouldn’t.

The continuity of awareness that accompanies the counting is valuable, and it’s part of what we call “access concentration,” which is where you’re on the verge of a “flow state” in meditation where everything becomes much easier and distractions fade away. So this “multitasking” stage (noticing the breathing, counting, thinking) is actually a helpful thing. We just need to take it a step further.

What you’re lacking in that access concentration state, and what you need to bring about, is just a bit more calmness. I’d suggest trying to pay attention to the breathing more fully. Notice what it is that you’re actually paying attention to when you’re “noticing the breathing.” And then notice what sensations connected with the breathing you’re not paying attention to. Start adding them in, to the point where it’s becoming a slight “stretch” to notice so much, but not where you feel actually stressed. That “stretch” will bring your mind to a point of quietness. So you’ll have the continuity you’ve already established, and you’ll have calmness to go along with it.

I just want to say one more thing, which is although I’ve mentioned the potential for “states” arising, we just need to stay with our moment-to-moment experience and engage and work with it, and not grasp after the arising of any kind of state in meditation. Grasping after happiness in meditation is the best way to make sure that you achieve unhappiness.

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Mindful listening calms the mind

100 Day Meditation Challenge

Day 17 of Wildmind’s 100 Day Meditation Challenge

A common problem people have in a challenge like this is the “inner narrator” who keeps up a running commentary on how your meditation is going. This is particularly a problem when we’re going to be reporting on our practice to others, as we do in Wildmind’s Google+ Community (now defunct, and replaced by a new community website that’s part of Wildmind’s Meditation Initiative).

One thing that I find very effective is saying “It can wait.” This is what I’ve called “The Mantra for the 21st Century.” This statement affirms that the commentary might be useful, but also affirms that the present moment is not the appropriate time for it.

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Listening helps. It’s not possible to listen to what’s going on around you 100% and also keep up an inner monologue. So try doing “mindfulness of listening” where you’re paying attention to the 360° of space around you. See if you can get a feeling of your attention stretching in all directions at once — with just a gentle effort, like tugging a sheet from all directions at once in order to flatten out the wrinkles. The sounds around you are not distractions. They’re your object of meditation. Don’t judge them (you can’t fully listen to them and judge them anyway!), but just allow them to be.

Then you treat inner chatter as a mindfulness bell. The chatter only starts when you let this full-on 360° listening slip, so its arrival is a gentle reminder to return to mindful listening.

I find this approach to be very powerful. It can’t really fail, because it’s self-correcting. Thoughts are a reminder to come back to listening. Listening prevents thinking. So you keep oscillating between the two, with no judgement, which isn’t really a problem since the thinking isn’t a “failure” but part of your “mindfulness reminder system.”

Day 16 of Wildmind’s 100 Day Meditation Challenge

Day 18 of Wildmind’s 100 Day Meditation Challenge

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When things get too much, change the channel

Sometimes a person just can’t find any stillness anywhere. Maybe you have epilepsy or chronic pain, or are wildly worried about a child or other loved one, or have been rejected in love or had the bottom fall out financially. In other words, as a wise therapist, Betsy Sansby, put it, like there’s a nest of bees in your chest.

Sometimes the inner practices fail you – or at least aren’t matched to the pickle you’re in. You’ve let be, let go, and let in. You sat to meditate and it was like sitting on the stove. You tried to be here now and find the lessons – and wanted to whack the person who told you to do this. You still feel awful, overwhelmed, angry, afraid, inadequate, or depressed. Now what?

Sometimes it helps to change the channel, to take some kind of action. Watch TV, eat a cupcake, ask for a hug, get out of the house, something (not harmful) to shake things up, distract yourself, tune out, burn off steam, etc.

At some point you still have to engage the mind directly and do what you can with your situation. But there is certainly a place for respite or pleasure in its own right, plus these help refuel you for challenges.

Plus, changing channels has the built-in benefit of taking initiative on your own behalf. This helps counter the natural but harmful sense of helplessness that comes from tough times, and it supports the feeling that you and your needs truly matter.

How?

For starters, give yourself permission to change the channel. Sometimes people get stuck in a situation, relationship, or feeling and think it’s more noble, awake, open, mindful, accepting, or therapeutic to stay with it, even if it hurts like crazy and isn’t getting any better. Sure, let’s not err on the side of suppressing feelings or running from the first hint of discomfort. But let’s also not err on the side of running laps around a track in hell.

Then do something. It doesn’t need to be ambitious. Usually the simpler, the better.

Try physical pleasure – which helps calm down the stress machinery of your brain. Run water over your hands. Roll your head around your neck. Smell an orange. Look at a flower.

Treat your body well. Eat some protein. Take a nap. Go for a walk. Do vigorous exercise if you can. Remember your vitamins.

Broaden your perspective. Look out the window. Consider your situation from a bird’s-eye view, a more impersonal angle. Consider how someone (real or imagined) who deeply loves you would look at it. Think about it amidst seven billion other humans, or in the sweep of history. (Of course, not to diminish, dismiss, or shame your own pain.)

Entertain yourself. See a movie, listen to music, go watch a show. Look at Red Bull stunts, concert videos, amazing pong shots, or rock climbing on YouTube (alright, some of my faves) or whatever you like.

Set something in order; exercise control somewhere. When I feel depressed, I make my bed. Keep it simple: fold one pair of dish towels, separate the big forks from the little ones, straighten one shelf of books.

Connect with others (as long as you don’t feel overwhelmed by it). Call a friend. Pet your pet. Sit in a coffee shop full of strangers and enjoy the bustle.

Go somewhere that feeds your heart. Maybe sit under a tree, or by a stream, lake, or sea. Perhaps a church or temple. Or a park with children playing, a museum, or a garden.

Every life is hard sometimes, and some lives are terribly hard all of the time. Do what you need to do. It’s OK to change the channel.

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Give your head a rest from thinking

Head of reclining BUddha

“Rest your weary head.” The traditional saying that’s this week’s practice has been sinking in for me lately. Thoughts have been swirling around like a sandstorm about work, things I’ve been reading, household tasks, finances, concerns about people, a yard that needs mowing, loose ends, projects, etc. etc. The other day I told my wife: “I’m thinking about too many things.” Know the feeling?

By “head” I mean the cognitive aspects of experience such as planning, analyzing, obsessing, considering, worrying, making little speeches inside, going back over situations or conversations, and trying to figure things out. “Weary” means being fatigued due to continued exertion or endurance, sometimes also with a sense of being dismayed, even depressed; its roots as a word have to do with the effects of a long journey. Basically, your tank is running low.

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When your thought processes are tired, it doesn’t feel good. You’re not relaxed, and probably stressed, which will gradually wear down your body and mood. You’re more likely to make a mistake or a bad decision: studies show that experts have less brain activity than novices when performing tasks; their thoughts are not darting about in unproductive directions. When the mind is ruminating away like the proverbial hamster on a treadmill, the emotional content is usually negative – hassles, threats, issues, problems, and conflicts – and that’s not good for you. Nor is it good for others for you to be preoccupied, tense, or simply fried.

On the other hand, when you rest that busy mind, you stop wearing it out plus you start refueling and repairing it. The roots of the word “rest” come from places to take a break on a journey; it’s natural and necessary to rest when you’re weary.

How?

Routinely check in with yourself and ask: What am I thinking about? Is this productive? Do I want to keep thinking about this?

Give your mind little breaks. Look up into the corner of the room. Exhale; this engages the calming and restorative parasympathetic wing of the nervous system to slow your heartrate; the longer the exhalation, the more parasympathetic activation. Bring awareness into the body, whether it’s sensing the breath or paying attention to the movements of walking or reaching for a cup. Set aside a dozen seconds to follow a few breaths. Pull out of thought and, as Jon Kabat-Zinn writes, come to your senses.

Step back and take a bird’s-eye view of wherever you are, as if you were looking down on it from a few hundred feet above. Try to see yourself in a more impersonal way, as a part of a larger stream of circumstances and events. This will tend to activate circuits on the sides of your brain that are associated with spacious mindful awareness, coming into the present, letting go of inner speech, and less burdensome sense of me-myself-and-I.

Above all, recognize that, if you’re like me and I think most people, so much of what we twirl around with in the mind is, frankly, a waste of time. It doesn’t solve a problem, prevent a bad thing from happening, or bring us to peace with others. And it’s deeply unnatural. As we evolved, our ancestors probably experienced more physical but less mental fatigue than most people today in the developed nations. Consequently, our bodies are adapted to weariness – but our minds are not. For a brief time – finals week, an intense month at work, a demanding year with a new baby – OK, sometimes we just have to crank the mind up into overdrive and tough it out. But as a way of life, it’s nuts.

We have to take a stand against the crazy mental busyness that has become the new normal. We’re bombarded with things to think about all day long, flooded with words and images to process, and forced to juggle unprecedented complexities. Our minds are being hauled along behind a culture without a speed limit – but the human body and brain does have a limit, a natural carrying capacity, and when we exceed it there’s always a price. It’s like being trapped in rush hour your whole life. Each time you know this, each time you pull out of the mental traffic, it’s an act of freedom and kindness and wisdom.

And then when you reenter the stream of thought, you’ll be a lot a clearer, happier, and more effective.

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Calgary writer explores ‘flash mob’ meditation to draw people to practice

wildmind meditation news

Mario Toneguzzi, Calgary Herald: Writer Megan Bishop-Scott has had this one idea percolating in her mind for some time now.

What she calls a “flash mob meditation” in Calgary where people get together for the spiritual practice.

The challenge, she says, is helping people understand what meditation is all about.

One of her main contracts is writing life histories for foster children.

“Because of that, I’ve actually been asked to go to group homes where some of these really hard foster kids are,” she says. “I’ve taught them how to meditate. And they get it in a second. Basically what I explain to them is that life is like a video game and your body is the controller. But if you’re not meditating, the controller is not plugged into the game. They just get it.”

She’s also been in discussions with the Calgary Drop-In Centre to offer meditation to its clients.

Meditation “balances people. It just helps them de-stress and get rid of the anxiety and stop that panic mode that seems to run everybody,” she says.

Bishop-Scott says she wants to do a mass meditation so it can expose the average person to a technique – to help give them a tool to calm themselves and be more aware.

“And what comes from that is health, wealth. It just resolves everything in your life when you have a tool like that,” she says.

Bishop-Scott says a few years ago she went through the wringer in her personal life in California.

It was then that she discovered Vedic meditation practices.

“What hit me is that life is like a whitewater rafting trip,” says Bishop-Scott. “When you’re meditating, you’re in a raft, and when you’re not meditating, you’re in the rapids. Getting smashed around. Caught in whirlpools. When I started meditating, it was like very slowly I started recreating who I was. And I realized that the way I had been raised in Calgary wasn’t who I was.

“There were all these preconceived notions and expectations. Your parents and society. When I went to California, I basically stripped that all away and started from scratch, and that’s when I became a writer. . . . Then miracles started happening. Since I had nothing, all I could do was meditate. So every day, I’d take care of business. I was working in greenhouses. That’s how I made cash.”

She ended up being hired to write an artist’s memoirs.

“The universe starts aligning with you. It sort of knew who I was. Knew what I was aiming for, but it was like I had to move the chess pieces around the board until I could make my move,” Bishop-Scott says.

“It’s like existence knows why you were born, and when you meditate, you keep lining up with what your original intention had been, that’s when you just let everyone else tell you who you are and let your mind chatter away at you, you get off track. Some people are very good at knowing who they are.

“Most of us let our minds be like an answering machine. It just keeps replaying crap all day. . . . The meditation just stops that answering-machine portion of your mind so that you just become way more efficient, way more still.

“By being very still, then everything else just handles itself. Some of the books I liked reading when I first got going in all this were Life Was Never Meant To Be a Struggle. Don’t Worry Be Happy.

“There’s all these throwaway phrases, but you don’t know what that means until you can get your mind to shut up. That’s what meditation is doing.

“It’s just getting you back to Square 1, and then when something is in your best interest and it lands on you, it’s really clear. You’re not confused.”

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A little calmness can go a long way

I just read a news story about an 18-year-old woman whose car went out of control and hit a dump truck. The woman and her 10-month-old son were killed. On her phone was a half-finished text message.

Now, not all multitasking is as catastrophic as that. We do it all the time, don’t we?

But why do we do it? Sometimes we say it’ll make us more efficient, but if you’re trying to type a report and keep interrupting yourself to send text messages and check Facebook, you’re not exactly being very efficient. It seems to me that what’s really going on is that we’re being anxious, and trying to find a distraction from our anxiety by looking outside of ourselves.

We’re not taking an interest in ourselves, so we hope someone out there is taking an interest in us. Maybe someone’s sent a text message, or has phoned us, or has replied to an email. Maybe we can say something funny or even annoying on Facebook, and get a response. As soon as we’ve finished checking one source of stimulus, we move on to another.

So we keep cycling through all these different things — anything to take us away from the rather boring experience of just being ourselves.

And none of this actually helps with anxiety. In fact it makes it worse.

Research by psychiatrists Edward Hallowell and John Ratey of Harvard University says that all this multitasking and overstimulation can lead to what they call Pseudo-Attention Deficit Disorder, where we’re constantly seeking out new information, but when we find it were not able to concentrate on it. So we keep surfing the web, for example, looking for really interesting stuff, but when we find it our minds just can’t get engaged, and then we’re off looking for the next thing.

So what does help? We can learn to be happy with our own experience. That’s what helps.

Meditation is a way of learning to be comfortable with ourselves. Its a way of learning to really value our experience.

And one important thing about meditating is that it’s a form of “uni-tasking.” We’re more and more just doing one thing. It’s a bit like defragging your computer’s hard drive so that it runs more efficiently.

This is one reason that we feel refreshed and calm after meditation. We have calmed the mind by just focusing on one thing, and by letting go of some of the crazy pointless maddening thinking that we do.

It’s good, at least sometimes, to take that into our daily lives as well.

So here is a practice for you — one that you can take into your daily life. It’s just one example.

Next time you’re brushing your teeth, for example, just brush your teeth. Don’t check your cell phone. Don’t read something. Don’t wander around. Just brush your teeth. Pay attention to the movements in your arm. Notice the feeling of the bristles on your teeth and gums. Notice the taste of the toothpaste. Notice your breathing. Notice thoughts arising, and let go of them. Notice how you feel. Notice if you feel bored or restless, and just allow yourself to feel that way. Don’t feel you have to run away from boredom. Be patient with whatever you find. Relax. And just brush your teeth.

You can do this with many things. Not just brushing your teeth, but walking, driving, taking a shower, cleaning the house, preparing food, eating.

Paying attention to your experience in this way will bring a little calmness into your mind, and even a little calmness can go a long way. It might even save your life.

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