simplifying as a spiritual practice

Lay your burdens down

On the path of life, most of us are hauling way too much weight.

What’s in your own backpack? If you’re like most of us, you’ve got too many items on each day’s To Do list and too much stuff in the closet. Too many entanglements with other people. And too many “shoulds,” worries, guilts, and regrets.

Remember a time when you lightened your load. Maybe a backpacking trip when every needless pound stayed home. Or after you finally left a bad relationship. Or just stopped worrying about something. Or came clean with a friend about something that had been bothering you. How did this feel? Probably pretty great.

Sure, we are no longer nomadic hunter-gatherers whose possessions could be carried in one hand. You know what you really need in this life; personally, I’m glad about good friends and a full refrigerator. But all the extra physical and mental stuff you lug around complicates your life, weighs you down, and keeps you stuck. There’s enough weightiness in life as it is without adding more.

Putting this subject in a larger framework, consider the Hindu idea that God has three primary manifestations: Creator, Preserver, and Destroyer. I can’t do justice in this brief space to this view, but the simple notion that works for me is that there is a lawful and beneficial principle in the universe that is about pruning, emptying, completing, and ending.

This positive “destroying” – very broadly defined – enables creating and preserving, like exhaling enables inhaling, or emptying a cup of something bitter enables filling it with something sweet.

Dropping loads enables lightening up.

How?

In general: Lay your burdens down. And rarely pick up new ones.

Now the details: Pick some place of storage – like a bookshelf, drawer, or corner of a closet – and clear it out of everything you no longer truly want or absolutely need. Give it away or throw it away. Notice how this feels – both anxiety and positive feelings.

Sometimes we fear we will sort of blow away in life if we don’t have a lot of stuff. Then focus on the positive feelings and open to a sense of reward in dropping things you don’t need. Keep going with other stuff you don’t want or need, both at home and at work.

Take a hard look at your obligations, responsibilities, and tasks. Maybe write down a list. Ask yourself: do I really need to do all of these things??! Open to that voice of wisdom in you that’s telling you what you can afford to drop. Open to a sense of freedom and autonomy: you get to decide what makes most sense to do, not the “shoulds” yammering away inside your head. Decide what you can give to others to do – and get them to do it. Decide what you could stop doing, whether others pick it up or not.

For a period of time (a day, a week, a year), do not take on a single new major obligation. Regard all new activities, events, and tasks as “guilty until proven innocent” – toss them in your backpack only if you are certain you truly want to or absolutely have to.

Consider your relationships. Which ones feel weighty, entangled, encumbered? Then consider what you could do about that. Could you step back? No longer engage certain topics (e.g., intractable health problems, conflicts with third parties, the past)? No longer perform certain roles (e.g., problem-solving, quasi-therapist, dating advisor)?

Take a look at your mind: what weighs it down? Guilt about long-ago misdeeds? Needless anxiety? High, perfectionistic standards? Grumbling anger? Grievances? Passivity, lethargy? Doubt? Taking yourself way too seriously? Whatever it is, for a brief period of time – half an hour, half a day – totally drop it. At the first whiff, drop it. See what that’s like: probably pretty great! Then ride that great wave of relief and lightness and continue dropping those lead weights in your mind.

Overall: if in doubt, throw it out.

Play with feeling lighter in your body. As if you are lifted up by invisible helium balloons. Lighter in your step. Your head lighter on your shoulders.

Lighter in your heart.

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“Work, Sex, Money: Real Life on the Path of Mindfulness” by Chogyam Trungpa

work sex money chogyam trungpa

As a long-standing Western Buddhist, my curiosity was piqued by this book. Work, sex and money are crucial issues to all of us, so I was interested to hear what Trungpa said.

Chogyam Trungpa was a major figure in the establishment of Buddhism in the West – particularly in North America. He was the founder of Vajradhatu and the Naropa Institute, two major achievements in themselves. But he did more than this.

Born in Tibet in 1940, and recognised as an infant as a major Kagyu tulku, he intensively trained in monasteries with Jamgon Kongtrul and other eminent teachers, later receiving full ordination. After dramatically escaping Tibet in 1959, he eventually arrived in Oxford University in 1963. Together with the spiritual movements he founded, he also wrote many Buddhist classics: Meditation in Action (1969), Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism (1973), and The Myth of Freedom (1976), among many others.

Title: Work, Sex, Money: Real Life on the Path of Mindfulness
Author: Chogyam Trungpa
Publisher: Shambhala
ISBN: 978-1-59030-596-6
Available from: Shambhala, Amazon.co.uk, UK Kindle Store, US Kindle Store, and Amazon.com.

In addition to his Dharma teaching, he was a poet, artist and playwright. He was also experimental and controversial. He was outspoken at a time of cultural change in the West, and was widely criticised for his seeming alcoholism and promiscuity. He died in 1987.

This volume is published by Shambala and edited by two disciples, Carolyn Gimien and Sherab Chodzin Kohn, and brought out in 2011 by Diana J. Mukpo, Trungpa’s widow.

The book is a compilation of seminars and talks on work, sex and money given in the early 1970s, but with some additional material from as late as 1981. His audience ranged from hippies though to businesspeople.

Trungpa’s book is divided into seventeen chapters. There are seven chapters addressing work, four dealing with sex, and the remaining six chapters devoted to money.

I found this a ‘curate’s egg’ compilation – good in parts. Some of the chapters are rather hard going, while others seemed insightful and rich. With the hard-going parts, I longed for more examples of his Dharma points, and cultural context. This is not a beginner’s book. But the lectures on work make useful reading, even forty years on.

In the seven chapters on work, Trungpa covers many themes, such as the sacredness of society, and our need as practitioners to be open to it – a radical idea at the time. The first three chapters don’t really address work per se, but really give a critique of modern society, and how self-centred and ego-based its individuals are. This is ground that is covered more fully in Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. Real spirituality, he asserts, is an acceptance of the world as already spiritual. He emphasises the centrality of meditation practice for Buddhists in modern life, if we are to grow. Buddhists get it wrong in two ways, he says: Firstly, leading packed lives where we have no space for creativity, and secondly, being too afraid of the creative process, so that we don’t try.

Trungpa unpacks these two flawed approaches in Chapter Four, explaining that they are both manifestations of the ego and of materialism. He warns against materialism, pointing to the underlying psychological materialism that underpins them. Heaviness, fascination, meanness and possessiveness are hallmarks of this kind of mind, he observes. He outlines ways forward, such as guarding against laziness, ‘earthing’ yourself at work, simplifying your life, and being in the present moment. Our primary tool for working with the materialistic mindset is Meditation in Action.

In the chapters on work, Trungpa stands back and observes the modern world from the eyes of a traditionally trained tulku, yet he himself knows the modern world intimately. It is a broad Dharmic overview he’s giving us, applied to our working lives, and some of it isn’t nice at all. Writing this review in 2012 – the Digital Age, it seems that Trungpa’s outlook is as relevant as ever.

Yet Trungpa sees this materialistic world as fruitful for Dharma practice, particularly through the developments of areas like discipline, work relationships, ethical practice, awareness and creativity. In Chapter Five, ‘Overcoming Obstacles to Work’, he explores ways of working with frivolity, daydreaming and interpersonal conflicts. Despite his good perspectives, there are no worked-out practices here, After all, this is the 1970s, and Buddhism is still new in the West.

The chapters covering sex, I found the least interesting, and at times, hard to stay with. After overviewing sex from a traditional Buddhist take on the dhyanas (blissful meditative states), Trungpa asserts that our Western approach to sex is too frivolous and guilt-ridden. We fail to see that sex is really about a deeper, sacred communication between people, which is imbued with respect. It should be more like an offering than an act. Our approach imprisons us, he claims.

Love, he sees as ego-based, delusional and even animalistic. He peppers the chapter with stories, which I found were of mixed value. He goes on to explore sexuality from the viewpoint of the traditional monastic practice of celibacy, as a way to skilfully deal with desire — examining the source of our desire in the mind, rather than suppressing it.

These explorations are interesting, but I think don’t offer much concrete guidance for disciples. There is no teaching of sexual ethics, or of skilful ways forward. He seems to be suggesting that we acknowledge our primal desires, and then transform it into vajra passion, an ego-less bliss of the transcendental. But it isn’t clear how we might do this, should we want to.

Trungpa also explores family relationships and karma. Amongst what can appear as gross generalisations regarding family life, there are a few little pearls of wisdom, e.g. the need for parents to not see their children as property – an extension of their egos.

He also touches on marriage, but says nothing especially original or instructive for the modern practitioner.

Trungpa makes more useful points around the subject of money. The six chapters cover many themes; e.g. money karma, business ethics, and panoramic awareness. Despite some unproductive sidetracks he is stimulating, and gives his observations and experience of the subject. For instance, he explores the relationship between spiritual institutions and money and how this so easily leads to power games. Trungpa isn’t approving or disapproving of money in itself, he simply says that if you have some, then it is nice to spend it on something creative.

He also looks at business ethics and warns against secrecy, double-dealing and poor integrity. Buddhist businesspeople need to be exemplars of business ethics. Moneymaking can lead to good or bad karma. The choice is ours.

Trungpa’s final lectures cover karma and what he terms ‘panoramic awareness’. Work, sex and money all create karma, and we should see that. Awareness is his central point, and that if we want to be happy, then there are no short cuts; we need to act skilfully. Finally, he asks who the ‘I’ is that wants to be happy? He then explores shunyata and non-duality, and concludes by emphasising that by working creatively with work, sex and money we can realise it.

Throughout this all, he constantly strives to raise our awareness and give us a deeper perspective on our financial outlooks. Personally, I wanted more practical emphasis on simplicity, and how to make your money-earning a useful means to spiritual development. I would also have liked an exploration of dana, or giving.

But then, perhaps, that’s not the point of this book. Trungpa taught in depth on these subjects in other contexts. This book, as you would expect from the title, is an exploration of work, money, and sex, and although the quality of that exploration is variable and sometimes incomplete, Trungpa is insightful and stimulating at times. Despite the book’s shortcomings, Western practitioners will find food for thought here.

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10 ways to live a better life

When we think of changing our lives for the better, we may think of a new job, a new home, a new relationship, or material wealth – more “things” that we think will improve our lives.

Recently I saw a bumper sticker that read “the best things in life are not things” – it made me smile and I started thinking about ways to live a better life without looking for or wanting more stuff.

Here is my list:

1. Simplify – rather than desiring more, find ways to live with less. Bring clothing to Good Will or a charity. Clear away clutter from countertops and tables. If you have not used something or worn something for a year – give it away.

2. Enjoy nature – nature soothes the psyche and lessens stress. If you are fortunate enough to live near nature, do not take it for granted. Rather than rushing to work in the morning, take a moment or two to enjoy the trees, ponds, streams, rivers and the sky. If you do not live near natural beauty, take a drive to a nearby lake or take a walk in the woods.

3. Enjoy the arts – whether you enjoy visual art, performance art or historical art – make it part of your life. Take time to visit museums, see a play, or go to a local gallery.

4. Cook at home – it can become a habit to eat fast food in transit to work or school and at restaurants for business lunches and dinners. Cooking at home is less expensive and often more healthy than food from restaurants.

5. Cook for friends – invite friends and family members to your home and prepare a meal together – it is such a lovely way to spend time with people you care for.

6. Bring mindfulness to work – in this culture of multi-tasking, we rush through our work without really enjoying what we do. Being mindful at work helps us to concentrate on one task at a time, and enjoy the sheer pleasure of being present to what we are doing.

7. Spend time with children. I was washing dishes with a four year old recently. It was fun to watch her enjoy running her hand under the water from the faucet and delighting in the bubbles from the dish washing liquid. Her laugh made me laugh, and we both had fun.

8. Focus on others rather than yourself. It is so easy to get caught up in our own needs. Find ways to help others – shovel snow from an elderly person’s walkway, bring a meal to a neighbor who is not feeling well or volunteer at the local SPCA.

9. Spend time with friends – make a conscious effort to remember this. Write notes in your calendar to call a friend and make time to do something together. Friendship is such a precious thing, so we should not take it for granted.

10. Do something creative – whether it is writing a poem or a short story, painting a picture or a room in your house, or taking a photograph.  Doing something creative is energizing and makes life better.

So there you have it, ten ways to live a better life – non of which are expensive – but which will make you happier and your life better.

 

 

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Is there a link between gratitude and happiness?

Thank You text on green blackboard with copy spaceResearch suggests that people who feel gratitude benefit in the following ways:

1. happier
2. less depressed
3. less stressed
4. more satisfied with their lives and social relationships
5. aware of their purpose in life
6. self confident
7. positive
8. able to cope with the difficulties in positive ways
9. more likely to seek support from other people, and
10. able to learn and grow from their experiences.

It has been said that gratitude is strongly linked with mental health. Several times in my life I have kept a gratitude journal, in which I have written about five things I was grateful for each day. I kept this journal on my computer in the form of writing an email to a friend each evening with my list of things I was grateful for. Many times I felt grateful for more than five things.

It is so easy to focus on circumstances or people whom we are disappointed in. Continually thinking about negative people and situations results in feeling depressed, angry, annoyed, irritable, and generally cranky. We talk to our friends looking for justification for feeling this negativity which just makes us feel worse.

The habit of writing in a gratitude journal each evening is a way of focusing our attention on what is positive in our lives. It also helps us to look for things to be grateful for during the day. Gratitude enters our consciousness and directs our minds towards positivity.

Some of the items in my gratitude journal are: healthy children, dear friends, a sweet cottage to live in, the pond by my cottage, freedom to explore creativity, work that I have enjoyed or not enjoyed but learned from, finding spiritual practice that inspires me, appreciation for beauty in nature and in people, a sense of aesthetics, enjoying simple pleasures, simplifying my life, taking time to really listen to people, cooking for myself and my friends, good movies, good popcorn to munch while I watch the good movies, instances which have been very difficult that have taught me about myself, kayaking, dancing, sunsets, small acts of kindness, strolling through museums, looking at a photograph of the Dalai Lama, availability of books, the ocean, pristine snow covered woods, giving and receiving gifts and especially gifts from the heart, observed acts of generosity and kindness.

Remembering all these things lifts my heart. It is easy to understand how gratitude is responsible for the positive and healthy characteristics of people who feel it. We spend so much time looking for things to make ourselves happy – and all we really have to do is appreciate what is all around us each and every day.

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Publilius Syrus, “To do two things at once is to do neither”

Publilius Syrus, author of To do two things at once is to do neither

The other day I read about a family of six who were wiped out when a truck-driver plowed into their vehicle. He’d allegedly been driving and attempting to look at a laptop screen at the same time.

Not all multitasking is that catastrophic, but nevertheless attempting to juggle too many things in a short space of time is causing us stress, reducing our productivity, and making it harder to maintain focus when we need to.

What happens in the long term to an economy built on the labor of information workers when those workers are too distracted to think? Well, perhaps that might be considerably more of a catastrophe than a single family being killed — no matter how tragic an event that was.

To do two things at once is to do neither (Publilius Syrus, an Iraqi enslaved by the Romans. Flourished first century BCE.)

Multitasking is actually a misnomer. Your brain hasn’t evolved to deal with consciously processing multiple streams of data, such as listening to someone talk on the phone while you check your email and try also to keep one ear open for tidbits of an interesting conversation nearby. Modern computers may have been designed to do this, but our brains evolved to live in a simpler world. So we can’t genuinely multitask. What we call multitasking is actually a process of switching attention rapidly among a number of different activities.

The problem with multitasking is that although it may give the illusion of efficiency, it’s actually a very bad way to use the brain’s resources. It takes time, when switching from one task to another, to let go of one task, move your attention to the new one, and to resume your train of thought once again.

Imagine you’re doing some painting at the top of a stepladder and the phone keeps ringing (one of those old-fashioned phones with a wire, not the cordless variety). Every time the phone rings you put down your paintbrush, descend the ladder, answer the phone, write down a message or have a conversation, go up the ladder again, pick up your brush, and then resume your task. And this happens every three minutes. How much painting would you get done?

Every three minutes is, by some accounts, how often the average office worker gets interrupted.

Every three minutes is, by some accounts, how often the average office worker gets interrupted, by a phone call, an incoming email, a passing colleague, or some other task that pops into the mind. And that process of stopping one task, moving to another, and switching back all takes time and energy in the brain.

This is why, when subjects are asked to perform two different tasks at the same time, the amount of brain activity goes down rather than up. The level of brain activity actually decreases to two thirds of what takes place when subjects perform one task at a time.

Confirming this finding is an experiment where subjects were asked either to check their email and then write a report — the tasks performed sequentially — or to do both tasks at the same time. The multitaskers took one and a half times as long in total than those people who did one task and then another.

My ladder metaphor is exactly the situation many of us put ourselves in when we interrupt writing to read an incoming email, and then interrupt reading the email to read and incoming text, and then futz around on Facebook for a few minutes before returning to … “What was it I was doing again?”

But not only is multitasking bad for our efficiency, it’s been implicated in reducing our ability to apply sustained focus with our attention. Psychiatrists Edward Hallowell and John Ratey of Harvard say that multitasking can lead to “pseudo-Attention Deficit Disorder,” where we constantly seek new information but have trouble concentrating on its content. We end up restlessly seeking new stimuli, and unable to focus on it, in an information-worker’s version of the myth of the “hungry ghost.”

So what can we do to help avoid pseudo-ADD and multitasking-induced loss of productivity?

Multitaskers took one and a half times as long in total than those people who did one task and then another.

1. Switch off contact applications except for the one you’re working on.
Right at this very moment I’m writing an article on multitasking. Wouldn’t you love to know that I’m also checking my email, my Twitter updates, my IM, and stopping now and then to answer my phone and scan interesting web articles. Sorry to disappoint, but I’m not. My email and other contact programs are closed. My cell-phone is in another room. I’ll deal with any messages later.

When you’re dealing with email, deal with email. Let your voicemail pick up your phone calls. If dealing with your email requires you to look up an article or check your calendar, then by all means do so. But avoid unnecessary input.

2. Use simplifying tools
Some computer programs are hideously cluttered, with the toolbars on Microsoft programs being particularly overwhelming. And how many of those buttons do you ever use anyway? Do you even know what they do? I’ve reduced my toolbars in Word to just a few essentials, while for many common functions I simply use keyboard shortcuts, which in themselves reduce multitasking because they don’t require us to move from one kind of activity (typing) to another (selecting menus). The reduction in visual clutter helps me maintain focus.

It’s also helpful to write first and then format later. Trying to fiddle with formatting at the same time as writing is like trying to tidy the inside of your car while you’re driving it.

You can go further. For writing I use a program called “WriteRoom,” which has no menus and whose interface looks like an early 1980’s PC – simple green text on a black background (although the colors can be customized. There’s nothing there to distract me.

If you have a Mac or a large monitor, the profusion of applications on the screen can induce clutter-fatigue. You can simplify by using command+shift+H to hide all applications but those you’re working on. Or you can use “Spaces” to keep application that are open, but which you’re not currently using, out of sight and out of mind.

How many of those buttons in Word do you ever use anyway?

3. Use planning tools
Before I started using planning tools I’d often find that I’d repeatedly remember — often at completely inappropriate times, like driving or meditating — about things I had to do. Things improved a lot when I started doing “brain-dumps” to record all the tasks that had been jumbled up in my mind. You need to capture everything — not just work tasks but personal ones too.

Tools such as OmniFocus not only encourage you to keep lists of things to do, but they also help you organize them by context, so that if you find you have to nip out to the bank you can easily see which other tasks (pick up the dry-cleaning, pick up a prescription) that you can do while you’re out and about.

I have to say that using planning tools has reduced the level of distraction in my meditation practice more than any meditative technique I’ve ever learned.

4. Practice simplicity
I’m not very proficient at being tidy, although I have my good days — and on those days I feel happier and lighter. “Being tidy” is the end result of finishing one task elegantly before starting another; rather than leave a bit of paper on the desk as a reminder that some action has to be taken we add the action to our to-do list and file the paper in a “projects in progress” file. Being tidy also provides a good environment for the mind to perform without distraction.

We should be willing to be in silence.

We can also do things like take one or two deep breaths before answering the phone, so that we give ourselves time to let go of what we were just doing and get ourselves into a focused and friendly state before we speak to the person on the other end. When you’re calling a company, would you prefer the phone picked up two seconds earlier, or to be picked up by a person who is centered and friendly?

We should also be willing to be in silence. I use some of my time in the car to listen to podcasts, but I also regard it as important just to drive without other input, and so sometimes my iPod goes off. Driving in silence gives us a chance to let the mind rest without a constant barrage of input.

5. Defrag your mind
Take breaks during the workday: just two or three minutes spent relaxing the body and tuning in to the breath. Your brain needs a chance to rest, and your mind needs opportunities to “defragment” itself.

Time taken out for meditation also helps the mind to become calmer and less restless.

When you’re working on one task, resist the desire to interrupt yourself by checking your email, or Facebook, or whatever. If you’re writing and you notice those temptations arising, just notice them and let go of them. They’ll pass.

It’s not possible to escape multitasking altogether. In fact at times it’s essential. But if we avoid it where we can, and especially if we resist become addicted to it, we’ll feel happier and more integrated. And we’ll make a long-term investment by protecting one of our most valuable assets — the mind’s ability to pay sustained, focused, attention.

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Albert Einstein: “The leader is one who, out of the clutter, brings simplicity .. out of discord, harmony … and out of difficulty, opportunity”

Einstein

Let me acknowledge, 14 years after writing this article, that this quote is almost certainly not by Einstein, but is more likely to be John Archibald Wheeler’s assessment of how Einstein worked. Back in those days I hadn’t realized that many of the quotes we encounter on the web, including on quotation sites, are misattributed or fabricated. Having offered that mea culpa, here’s the original article.

Out of Clutter Find Simplicity

Work life is messy – not just the untidiness of papers stacked in an in-tray or equipment that hasn’t been put back in its place – the whole thing is incredibly messy because life itself is complex. There’s so much choice, so many decisions to make. There are so many things you could be doing, so much information you could be paying attention to, so many people who you could be networking with.

In our working lives we have to make a conscious effort to stay on track. This job is fun but neither urgent nor important. That job is a chore but it’s crucial. And this other thing isn’t even work!

And this sifting through the myriad possibilities and choosing which to engage with is – potentially – a spiritual practice. When we have a sense of who we want to become, what we want to achieve, what legacy we want to leave behind, and when we consider what we need to be doing right now to make our goals a reality, making decisions becomes much easier. This kind of mental clarity, this constant bearing in mind of our goals, is a vital aspect of spiritual practice. Mindfulness practice can give us the mental space to create order out of the clutter or our lives.

From Discord Find Harmony

More than anything else the emotional tone of our relations with others is what determines whether we are thrilled to be at work or whether we drag ourselves to the workplace each day with a sinking heart.

It takes a lot to get on with other people. It’s not easy. More than anything we have to actually want harmony, and that in itself is tough. It’s so easy to blame others when relationships go sour. So developing harmony involves first of all recognizing that we have to take responsibility for the quality of our relationships. Sure, there are at least two parties involved but you can never demand that someone else change. You’re the only person that you have control over.

It takes integrity – deciding not to engage in backbiting, deciding to refrain from exaggerating, deciding to focus on what’s most admirable in others.

It takes wisdom – learning to recognize which battles you can win and what you should let slide.

It takes empathy and compassion – realizing that the behavior we find difficult in others is their own response to suffering, their own reaching out for happiness.

Lovingkindness and compassion meditation can help us to find the empathy and generosity of spirit to create harmony in our relationships.

In the Middle of Difficulty Lies Opportunity

It’s a cliché to say that difficulties are opportunities in disguise. But one reason that sayings become clichés is simply because they’re so true that people keep repeating them. Another one reason we call saying “clichés” is that we often don’t quite want to believe them. It’s easier to roll our eyes: “Yeah, yeah, that old cliché.”

So let’s just set aside our protective cynicism for a moment. Think of the one thing that you know would make most difference in your life or work – the thing that you never quite get around to doing. Maybe it’s finding more time to reflect, maybe it’s delegating a responsibility, maybe it’s fixing your filing system and getting your desk cleared; you know it would help but you never quite get around to doing it.

Let’s avoid the avoidance game of analyzing in exhausting detail exactly why we never get around to doing this discomfort-generating task. Let’s just say that we’re going to accept that discomfort is okay – that we’re going to be prepared to learn the art of being comfortable with discomfort. Think about that task, and feel the discomfort, acknowledging that it’s there and that it’s okay for it to be there. And then start doing that task.

This is what we call mindfulness – the ability to non-judgmentally notice what’s going on in our experience: the ability to stand back from our experience so that we have freedom of choice, feeling the discomfort but not being controlled by it.

OK, it’s time for me to go clear that desk!

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