mindfulness tools

Sampajañña: unraveling lifelong habits with mindfulness

It’s discouraging, isn’t it, to watch ourselves fall repeatedly into our same old habitual traps. We try to practice mindfulness, but it can be frustrating. Do you ever have days where you’re so caught up that you realize only at night, despite your best intentions, that you weren’t mindful for even one moment?

And it’s especially hard when we’re face to face with lifelong tendencies that resist change in a big way.

But don’t lose heart. It doesn’t mean you’re no good at this. After all, you NOTICED that you weren’t being mindful. That noticing is a positive event. Even though it happened after the fact, you observed something you probably weren’t aware of before. This is a good thing! This is progress. And it’s this emerging awareness that’s going to pull you through.

There’s an aspect of mindfulness from the traditional scriptures that applies here. It’s sampajañña, which is Pali for something like mindfulness of purpose. Sampajañña means always keeping our sights on where we want to go, our intentions. It introduces the dimension of time to mindfulness.

Mindfulness isn’t only about seeing what’s happening now. It’s also about seeing cause and effect. Like seeing how something we did in the past created the situation we’re in now. We see the results of our mistakes, and make a resolve to start doing things differently. We also see our successes, and think of how we might build on them. It’s about seeing in a clear-headed way the results of our choices. And also seeing that we HAVE choices, and starting to take responsibility for ourselves.

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We look at these things not as a way to beat ourselves up, but to keep our sights on where we want to go. We all have some image of how we’d like to be – whether it’s more confident, peaceful, kind, whatever. Maybe today, right now, we didn’t do things the way we would have liked. When we see how we don’t measure up, applying sampajañña means not giving up on ourselves. We may have fallen short today, but we still have our intentions. We still keep our eyes on the prize. We keep moving ahead.

And what if we feel stuck and clueless about what to do? For starters, we could stop taking our self-doubting thoughts so seriously. They are just thoughts, after all. They’re not doing anything to help us move forward, are they?

We could also try doing SOMETHING, and see what happens — as an experiment. It’s more fodder for cause-and-effect learning. Sometimes when we’re lost, it helps just to walk around the bend to get a different view – maybe it leads to a clearing that helps us to see further ahead.

Or we might simply stay still for while, not thrash about so much – mentally, emotionally, or actively. It’s analogous to when you’re in water over your head. Thrashing about can make you sink, but if you lie still you’ll float easily on the surface. It’s a similar idea here. Sometimes it’s our own overreacting that creates problems for ourselves. Can we let go of our anxiety and fears, and just be? And allow some clarity to settle in on its own?

So mindfulness isn’t something to achieve. It’s not about “getting it right” and reaching for some ideal state of mental clarity. I think for most of us, that’s a near impossible standard. I think mindfulness, especially in the context of sampajañña, simply means being there for ourselves over the long haul, and never giving up on ourselves. It’s an attitude or an approach to life, not an endpoint.

What ultimately help us unravel our lifelong habits is doing the best we can, wherever we are now. And accepting that the pace of change is often beyond our control. The time and circumstances might not be ripe yet. But we can trust that everything we’re doing now is laying the groundwork for the future. We can still be an active participant in our lives. We can still show up for ourselves. And isn’t that really what’s going to get us through?

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STOP and be mindful

People often come to my meditation courses because they want to learn how to slow down their crazy busy lives.

So you start sitting for 10, 20, or maybe even 30 minutes a day. But after some weeks of this, you still feel like things are crazy busy and all over the place. So your meditation isn’t working, you say to me.

Here’s my first thought. I’m wondering if you’re thinking of meditation as something you can drop into your life for say, 30 minutes a day, and have it counterbalance the other 15 or so hours that your mind is on full tilt. (I’m assuming you spend 8 or so hours sleeping or resting). Certainly, meditating 30 minutes a day is better than not doing it at all. But looking at it from a common sense perspective, is it reasonable to expect a 30 minute sit to cancel out the effect of 15 hours of frenetic activity?

Hmmmm…. so how do we slow down? Obviously we can’t quit and go live in monasteries.

I think a shift of perspective is in order here. There’s a much bigger context that we need to take into account.

Meditation isn’t like an anti-anxiety pill that will slow things down just by dropping it in. It’s really more a way to begin training ourselves to BE a different way. The point isn’t just to relax and recharge – and then go right back to what we were doing before. We practice BEING more calm and measured in the laboratory environment of a sitting practice so we can learn to BE that same way in the rest our lives when we’re NOT meditating. Even in the midst of a frenetic day. We’re training ourselves to stop feeding that busy energy into our body and mind, so that over time, a measured steadiness flows out of us naturally. All the time. Not just when we’re on the cushion.

And it’s not the 30 minutes of sitting alone that does the trick. It’s the thread of mindfulness that we carry throughout our day that brings the sanity back into our lives.

But that’s HARD, you say. Yes, it is. But it’s doable.

Here’s one tool to help you get started. This simple acronym — STOP — reminds us to be mindful during the day. It stands for

  • Stop: Mentally step back from whatever you’re doing, even for a second or two.
  • Take a breath: Literally, bring your attention back to your breath.
  • Observe: Take stock of what’s happening right now, especially in your body and mind.
  • Proceed: Resume ONLY after you’ve really paused to assess where you are.

This doesn’t take any extra time out of your day. It’s not something additional you have to do. It’s a simple but powerful way to insert a sliver of mindfulness in your day. It’s also a way of taking what you’re practicing on your cushion out into your life.

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We need both a formal sitting practice AND an informal mindfulness practice. The analogy is like learning to play an instrument. The formal practice helps us to gain our “chops” in a quiet, comfortable place at home. But then we also need to practice how to perform on stage, in riskier situations and with other people in the mix. To be a true musician, and a true mindfulness practitioner, both are absolutely essential.

At first, you might feel lucky to remember to STOP only once a day, and maybe only just before you go to bed. That’s OK. That’s a good start. Do it whenever you remember. Over time, it’ll come more often and more easily. Give it time.

Yes, it’s a slow process to train ourselves this way. It’s not a quick fix. But it’s a way to create change at the core of our being. And isn’t that really what we’re after?

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Can you do nothing for two minutes? Come on, give it a try!

do nothing for two minutes

On Facebook the other day I came across a link to an excellent—and very simple—online mindfulness tool.

It’s called “Do nothing for 2 minutes,” and it’s an invitation to sit in front of an ocean landscape, with the gentle sound of waves, and to (well, you guessed it) do nothing.

What makes this interesting is that there’s a timer on the screen that counts down the two minutes second by second, and the timer resets any time you touch the mouse, trackpad, or keyboard. This discourages multitasking and encourages you to, well, Do Nothing for Two Minutes.

It’s a lovely idea.

One person who wrote to me about this tool said “It has done wonders to punctuate the information overload that I tend to get during a day of work and stress.”

I can well believe it.

Click here to do nothing for two minutes.

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