Posts Tagged ‘mindfulness’

Mindfulness In Travel

Taking time out of everyday life to meditate and mindfully reflect gives the opportunity to be conscious of what makes our present experience so meaningful.

When the opportunity to travel is either planned or presents itself, the traveler is expected to want to make the absolute most of the trip. Time is spent talking to others for recommendations on and researching the best natural sights to see, historic places to visit, hotels to book, and restaurants at which to eat. When the traveler arrives at the destination, he or she is ready to see and do as much as the twenty four hour day will allow. Whether visiting somewhere new either across the state or across the world, it is expected that one would want to extract as many experiences possible from the trip.

Yet, is creating a packed agenda the best way to value time away from home?

Rushing around a foreign place is surely exhilarating, but it is easy to get caught up in sticking to a plan. Sometimes, it is important to explore freely to get the best sense of how the culture functions and how the locals live; letting spontaneity lead the way can open doors to unlikely adventures, maybe along the lines of discovering a local surf shop in Cape Town, a quaint café in Paris, or an art installment on public display in Boston. In the words of avid traveler Wendy Worrall Redal, “Rather than try to fit in every sight, explore fewer things in greater depth.”

This idea of doing less may seem unproductive, however doing less on a trip actually leaves more time to be mindful of the activities in which the traveler takes part. Immersing one’s self in the paintings hung in Madrid’s Museo Nacional del Prado or savoring a meal in the in middle of Dubai’s desert with full attention allows one to be mindful of every aspect that makes the new experience unique. Additionally, making free time allows the opportunity to reflect on the trip. Whether things went off without a hitch, or construction delayed transportation time, record feelings that arose in the memorable moments, and recognize how that affected the overall excursion. It is not important to record everything, whether that be through writing words in a journal or posting edited pictures on Facebook, but simply what is most important to the traveler.

Travel writer Pico Iyer advocates for such quiet time in his TED Talk “The Art of Stillness.” He speaks about how traveling experiences can be perceived in any way possible, but it is up to the traveler to use his or her mindset to realize the best in them, which comes by way of taking time to sit still. Getting in the habit of being still and recognizing mindfulness is a great way to remove one’s self from the busyness a trip will induce, and realize the wonderful opportunity it is to be visiting a new, sometimes unfamiliar place.

For help getting started on such a mindful mission while traveling, a service called Slow Travel is available. Slow Travel advocates for travelers to almost emulate the life of a local in destinations across North America, Europe, Australia, and the Caribbean. The service finds travelers vacation rentals, and encourages the exploration of the surrounding area in-depth: Buy groceries at the local market, check out what the streets have to offer that day, and interact with full-time residents. Pretend you live there. Slow Travel also asks its travelers to share their unique stories, favorite memories, and original pictures on their website. The hope is to inspire others to live like a local while traveling and share knowledge on where to go and what to do to fully enjoy the trip.

Another service, Slow Food, is in support of being mindful of experiencing new foods in travel. A non-profit organization, Slow Food encourages practicing local food traditions with the best and most natural ingredients. It recognizes diverse and delicious foods around the globe, thus, taking the time to mindfully eat meals made from of the land would promote the Slow Food mission.

Thinking of what the world has to offer, I’m tempted right now to book a trip anywhere to mindfully take the time to slowly immerse myself in a different culture through sights, local life, and food. Applying everyday mindfulness – taking time to meditate and consciously recognizing the positives in my surroundings – while traveling emphasizes the benefits of a constant mindful lifestyle. Hopefully the next trip I take, whether it be a short weekend in a nearby city or a long cruise to the Virgin Islands, I look forward to continually practicing mindfulness to get the most out of the present experience.

Happy meditating!

 

Mindfully Combating Those SAD “Winter Blues”: Seasonal Affective Disorder

Tomorrow’s predicted temperature is 44°F. Personally, I find that temperature to be less than ideal. I will handle it though, because on Thursday the temperature is expected to bounce back into the 60s, which I find much more desirable.

This fall has blessed the Philadelphia area with what seems to be warmer than average temperatures. I have not hesitated to take advantage of it by walking to my destinations whenever possible and taking part in outdoor activities. I’m doing my best to be mindful of the warm weather now because, as my mother always says, I’d rather be warm than cold, but also because I am secretly dreading the annual case of the Winter Blues. It comes when the weather stays consistent at freezing temperatures and makes mindfulness a bit more difficult, as I am forced to wear a puffy winter coat and suffocating scarf while people in other parts of the world get to wear shorts and lay on the beach if they so please.

The Winter Blues is a commonly used expression for feeling down when the weather becomes cold enough to keep people feeling cooped up in their homes and distracted from mindfulness. It is also used casually as an alternate term for Subsyndromal Seasonal Affective Disorder, a milder form of Seasonal Affective Disorder (otherwise known as SAD). Symptoms include prolonged feelings of lethargy; intense fatigue; negative thoughts such as guilt; abnormal sleeping patterns; a craving and indulge in carbohydrates and sweets; and difficulty concentrating, remembering, and socializing. SAD affects a few million of American adults, and happens to be more susceptible in northern regions, particularly in women ages 18-30.

Subsyndromal SAD is a result of a chemical imbalance caused by lack of sunlight. Sunlight is difficult to catch between December and March. In the Northeast region of the United States, there are less than four hours of sunlight available those months outside of the typical nine to five workday – that is 1/6 of the day, which is not a long time.

There are natural treatments for people with Subsyndromal SAD. For those with the opportunity to spend a part of that 1/6 of the day outdoors, walking for about 30 minutes in sunlight is a great way to boost one’s mood, and get vitamin D. If walking is not possible, sitting near a window where sun shines through can also do just fine. Additionally, eating a balanced diet can contribute to an improved mood. While carbs and sweets can serve as comfort food, it is best not to binge on either of the two. Instead, be mindful of what is being put into your body, and try reaching for fruits, vegetables, or protein first. (Tips on combining mindful practices with both walking and eating can be found earlier in my blog!)

Another natural treatment with additional benefits is socialization. Socialization gives one the chance to create a sense of belonging in the world; by establishing connections with others that are satisfactory to you, the individual involved, a comforting feeling of belonging and purpose is developed. During the cold winter months, getting bundled up to trek in the cold can be an unpleasant hassle. However, it is important to make the effort with the goal of achieving happiness in oneself. Make simple plans with friends or family to go shopping, see a movie, get coffee, or wander around a museum – something that gets you into a different environment with a person you care about to spend a couple of mindful hours together. A great way to socialize with familiar faces and strangers is to volunteer through community service. With the holiday season quickly approaching, there is an abundance of opportunity to do good for others and oneself at the same time!

If natural treatments are not enough to combat the effects of SAD, that is okay! Another popular treatment for SAD is lamp or light box therapy. Bright light boxes or lamps can be purchased without a prescription for less than 50 dollars. Studies have shown that spending about 30 minutes under a box/lamp over the course of eight weeks bettered the moods of those diagnosed with SAD. Psychology Today contributor Christopher Bergland takes using a light lamp to the next level by using his time under it to practice mindful meditation (a basic breathing meditation can be found earlier in my blog, too.)

The above treatment suggestions have been proven to lessen the effects of SAD, but are by no means substitutes for true medical assistance. SAD can sometimes be a facet of a more serious depression or bipolar disorder. If SAD symptoms persist despite these natural treatments and throughout the year, contact your doctor for professional medical assistance.

Although winter has its beautiful moments – think snow days and the holiday season – it also has its debilitating cold that can potentially strip us of our mindfulness. The temperature will inevitably drop in the coming weeks, but that does not mean our mindfulness has to go with it. Remember to take care of yourself physically with exercise and balanced eating, and mentally with various mindful meditation practices. Both will lighten your mood and remind you to be mindful of the present moment as well as help to see the positive side of winter (because somewhere in the cold, it’s there).

“Wherever You Are…”

Dr. Richard Alpert, otherwise known as Ram Dass, offers a positive reminder to be mindful of current surroundings and situations.

Excited to be home with the family for Thanksgiving? Can’t wait for Friday to roll around again? Wish it was summer on the beach once again? None of that matters right now. There is no need to live in anticipation for the future, yearn for an experience built upon imaginary expectations, or long for the past.

All that is important is being mindfully immersed in the great things the present moment has to offer. Be aware of and appreciate all things that contribute to make up the here and now.

 

Exercise And Mindfulness (Plus A Walking Meditation)

Physical exercise is vital for the body and the mind.

Working out is a method of exercising the body into a healthy physical shape, and can also exercise the mind into a healthy mental shape. When jogging around the track, counting reps, or stretching to loosen up the muscles, being mindful of the body’s movement is necessary for successfully completing these regimens. The goal of these workouts may primarily be to strengthen and tone muscles, and it is, too, possible to make strengthening mindfulness part of that goal.

Mindfulness and physical exercise may initially elicit the practice of yoga. The concept of quiet, conscious breathing is only a step to follow to yield physical results like alleviating lower back pain, aiding a detoxifying cleanse, or curing a hangover. Although yoga has been proven as an exercise that improves mental health and mindfulness, any other everyday workout can benefit in improved mindfulness, too.

Physical workouts of any kind are known to release the body’s chemical endorphins. When the physical body is put under stress and experiencing pain, endorphins act to relieve the mental pain that comes with those effects. This release happens during a workout when a second wind is achieved, or when a workout is complete and the body is no longer pushing itself.  If you’re anything like this writer, you heavily depend on endorphin releases during workouts because exercising is a challenge and, at times, unenjoyable. When she realizes she is able to push her body further during a run, she (gratefully) acknowledges her rejuvenated mental focus on completing the workout. When she feels happy that she (finally) finishes a workout, she acknowledges the mental pride in the achievement (because running is really difficult and actually doing it is truly a grand success. But I digress…).

Another release the body stimulates through exercise is the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, which betters a person’s mood. A Harvard study on aerobic exercise and depression found that along with improved self-esteem, regular exercise contributes, albeit a small amount, to lessening symptoms of depression. The study found that exercise also staves off symptoms of depression longer than antidepressant drugs following its treatment, making for a natural mental health remedy.

The Harvard study references walking as a partial cure for depression symptoms. Though certainly not as intense as CrossFit or Pilates at an expert level, walking is still a beneficial form of exercise; it can reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure. Walking, which demands less stress on the body than an exercise like running, is a great chance to practice active meditation, which combines some type of movement and mindful meditation. Whether walking with or without a purpose, walking meditation can be practiced in a couple easy steps (no pun intended) to achieve a state of mindfulness:

  • As you begin walking, focus on your breathing. Keep a count as you inhale in exhale to become conscious of the present moment. If a thought arises in the mind, simply acknowledge it, then return attention to the breath
  • Notice the parts of the body move as you walk at a comfortable pace. Feel the bottoms of your feet as they firmly touch and lift off of the ground. Recognize the movement of your legs. Be aware of how your hips move, your arms swing, and your posture. Pay close attention to how your balance is maintained.

These steps lead to mindfulness of the body and mind. Additionally, such active meditation provides the opportunity to become aware of and appreciative of natural surroundings if practiced outdoors.

The ability to reach a state of mindfulness while on the move supports the idea of constantly living a mindful lifestyle. If a habit of at least walking 60 minutes over the span of a week has not been established, it is never too late to make it one! Exercise, including walking, on an intense or moderate level, provides physical and mental mindfulness benefits that prevail long-term.

The beautiful fall days are still on our side weather wise; enjoy the outdoors, if possible, make time for a workout sometime during your day, and be mindful of the body’s physical movement.

Happy meditating!

Basic Breathing Meditation for Beginners

Pick a space with little distraction. Sit comfortably: back straight and gazed fixed. Breathe.

Starting a breathing meditation is as simple as these three steps similar to this beginner’s guide for meditation. Sometimes, the act of beginning a project is the hardest part, and meditation is no exception. However, the following tips to make meditation a habit and achieve its benefits are helpful for an easy transition into a mindful practice.

Setting

Whether you prefer the great outdoors or your cozy indoor living space, where you meditate is up to you. Three elements to keep in mind when choosing a setting include lighting, cleanliness, and quiet. Depending on whether you thrive in natural sunlight or prefer a dim, candle-lit room, pick somewhere that will provide a calming atmosphere. Additionally, since the goal is to clear your mind, it only makes sense to do so in a space that is also clear of unnecessary clutter. Finally, it is best to choose a setting that will shut out as much noisy distraction as possible. Notice that “as much” is not “all.” It is quite unlikely that one can find a space that will be perfectly silent for the desired time to meditate. If any potentially distracting sounds arise during the meditation, be aware that the sounds are present, then let them be. It is best to experience our surroundings as they are and accept the present state without attaching meaning to whatever goes on around us.

Sitting and posture

The position of your body is crucial to creating a comfortable meditation experience. Typically, meditation is done sitting on the floor or in a chair. You can stretch your legs out, sit cross-legged, or even kneel – whatever will make you feel most comfortable is best. Feel free to use extra cushions, pillows, or blankets, too.

Whichever way you sit, mindful.org recommends sitting stable and erect: ‘straighten–but don’t stiffen–your upper body to the spine’s natural curvature. Your head and shoulders can comfortably rest on top of your vertebrae.’ Keep your upper arms at your sides and let your hands rest in front of you. Then, lower your chin and fix your gaze on a fixed point just below your direct line of vision. From here, you may choose to keep your eyes closed for the meditation if you wish, though it is not necessary.

Breathing

Breathing is the most important part of the mindful meditation practice, as it “trains your brain to stop jumping around and stay focused in the present.”  Focusing on the in-an-out pattern of the breathe brings our attention to the current moment. Beginning a meditation practice, it is likely that your mind will occasionally wander to thoughts surfacing in your head or create scenarios to pair with sounds. This drifting is completely fine and even expected. The important thing is to acknowledge it, then return to the breathe as an anchor of awareness, or a ‘mental focal point to keep your attention on the physical sensation that accompanies each inhale and exhale.’

Keep breaths long and slow. I find it helpful to count each breath to begin my focus. After some cycles of counting to seven for each inhale and seven for each exhale, my focus becomes steadily fixed on the present, and I begin to enter a comfortable state of mindfulness.

One last tip to consider for beginning this breathing meditation is to fix a short time for the practice. It has been proven that ‘meditating for short times can still catalyze beneficial changes in the brain.’  To start, meditate between two and ten minutes. It is best to set a timer or an alarm so your mind isn’t burdened with an extra distraction, or you don’t get so lost in the meditation that you pass more time than you anticipated! Then, make this short period of meditation a daily activity for a few days. According to Psychology Today, ‘beginner meditators who practiced for 11 days were over 90% likely to continue meditation.’ As you feel more comfortable meditating, gradually lengthen the time of the practice, working your way up to as much time as you can make for mindful meditation during your day.

Choosing a clean, quite setting, sitting comfortably and erect, and focusing on a slow pattern of breath are the basics to beginning a successful breathing meditation. For a short time of your day, over the course of a few days, it is likely you will experience the benefits meditation has to offer. More importantly, you will develop a strong sense of mindfulness and awareness of your present surroundings.

Best of luck beginning the breathing meditation, and look forward to the mindfulness that comes with it!

 

Happiness Comes From Within

Recently the Dalai Lama and author Elisha Goldstein, PhD. shared some wisdom through their respective Twitter accounts.

 

Both figures provide a nice reminder that we are the only ones capable of achieving our own happiness. 

The Dalai Lama points out that there is not a thing — money, designer clothes, five star dinners — that can bring a person true happiness. Goldstein mentions that there is a power inside of us that is more powerful than anything the world can provide to us.

What are things, experiences, other people, and places without our interpretation of them? Nothing. It is ourselves who assign meaning to the things of the world, and sometimes we foolishly convince ourselves that these things are what make us happier and overall better people.

What makes us happier and better people is our own ability to be happy in the present. Being mindful of our current situation and finding the good in it is enough to make us as happy as we can possibly be.

That is not to say it is wrong to indulge in the things of the world. Instead, realize that the things of the world are what create our surroundings, and it is our choice to appreciate how they contribute to the good around us.

Let the Dalai Lama’s and Goldstein’s reminder instill in us the confidence that we are our own sources of happiness. Through our mindfulness, we can realize the good and the happiness that is always found somewhere in our surroundings.

 

Everyday Single-Tasking

Here is a simple task you can complete in about 30 seconds.

It won’t take much effort, and anyone reading this can participate.

Answer these questions: 1) How many browser tabs do you currently have open? 2) How many of those are you focused on right now?

Currently, I have three open. I am only focused on one. This tab is the one in which I am writing this very blog post. I do not currently need the tab displaying the New York Times article I started to read but never finished. I do not currently need my Twitter feed. Knowing these other tabs are present for me to get distracted by, I am failing to be mindful while writing this post.

Being mindful of the number of browser tabs you have open is number one on Leo Babauta’s tips for single-tasking. His list focuses on single-tasking in front of your screen, whether it be a smart phone, tablet, or computer. The following five tips are suggested to enhance mindfulness in a daily activity in which all people participate.

  • Know why the tab is open: When you enter a website, think about why you are there, and what task you are there to accomplish. Whether messaging a “how are you” to a friend over Facebook or sending some emails, be conscious of the reason you pulled up a website in the first place.
  • Read the whole thing: If I followed Babauta’s tips, that New York Times browser would have been long closed. When you decide to start something, finish it. Do not let distract win in the middle of a reading on the decline of soda sales in the past two decades.
  • One app at a time: The same idea for browser tabs applies to apps. Stay focused on completing the task in one app before moving to another task in a different app.
  • Be mindful of interruptions and switching: Getting distracted online these days is inevitable, if not expected. Whether you are distracted by a notification on a different tab or a person standing next to you, be aware of the situation. Before you divert your attention away from the app or browser you are currently focused on, realize why you are turning away from it. Then, return your focus to get the original task done.
  • Mindfully put away the device: When you are not staring at a screen in front of you, be mindful of that. Recognize the amount of time you will have away from a device, and immerse yourself in the non-technological activity, whatever it may be.

Babauta makes an important statement about the tips at the end of his post: “I will fail at them often.” Babauta is aware that he is not always perfectly mindful. He knows he will let distraction get the best of him, and he knows he will fall into the habit of mulit-tasking. What is important, though, is his effort to be mindful. An important key to reaching mindfulness is practice. Not every practice attempt will be flawless, even in a small, everyday effort such as this, which is why it is crucial to frequently try to achieve mindfulness. As the saying goes, practice makes perfect.

Happy meditating!

Benefits for the Brain

After you meditate, your state of mindfulness will result in a feeling of calm and relaxation of thoughts.

Why?

According to neuroscience Richie Davidson, the brain is always capable of changing throughout its lifetime. In scientific studies such as this one, it has been proven that mindful meditation “is associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.” In other words, mindful meditation affects the parts of our brains that translate to wellness.

Jennifer Wolkin, Ph D., for mindful.org explains a few examples of where the brain changes after mindful meditation and those parts’ responsibilities related to wellness.

Below, I further break down the certain parts of the brain affected based on Wolkin’s article:

  • Anterior Cingulate Cortex: Self-regulatory process. Deals with handling conflicts
  • Prefrontal Cortex: Executive functioning. Decisions in planning, problem solving, and emotion regulation
  • Hippocampus: Part of limbic system involved in learning and memory. Susceptible to stress related disorders like depression
  • Amygdala: Base of anxiousness and fear
  • Connections between Amygdala and pre-frontal cortex: Can potentially strengthen awareness
  • Default Mode Network (DMN): The wandering of thoughts in our minds

Mindful meditation can improve the functionings of these parts of the brain. Entering a state of mindfulness can calm our emotions in stressful times to make rational decisions, calm anxious feelings, and ease wild thoughts. More importantly, with the brain’s constant ability to change, it is possible to make habits of mindfulness. Mindful habits can result in a more stable state of each mentioned part of the brain.

Some affects will be felt immediately after entering a state of mindfulness, and with frequent practice, may be present often. Science has proven the positive affects of mindfulness on the brain; why not give mindful meditation a shot?

Mindfully Making the Best of an Uncontrollable Situation

This morning, my astronomy professor sent my class an email informing us about the lunar eclipse estimated to occur after the sun was to set.

He made sure to mention that an event like this is not going to happen again until January 2018. I thought such an uncommon opportunity would be cool to check out, plus, I would be able to put real-life application into action.

At about Mindful Meditation10:40 PM, my roommate and I walked outside of our building to witness the couple-of-times-in-our-lifetime event. I was feeling excited; the anticipation of seeing something on a universal scale that I had recently learned about in class was fairly high. The two of us stood in the middle of the parking lot, our necks bent so we could take in a fuller view of the vast sky. Unfortunately, my hopes of seeing the eclipse were left unfulfilled, as the Philadelphia skies had not cleared of clouds that had been lingering for most of the day.

“I had no control over the forces of nature that decided whether or not to allow me to see the lunar eclipse.”

Initially, I was a bit disappointed — a potentially beautiful sight was right above my head and I was missing it. On all nights of the year, why does tonight have to be the cloudiest? Why do the weather conditions have to be nasty tonight instead of tomorrow night, or the night after that? If I could, I would trade a full week of clear skies in order to have a perfect night tonight!

Alas, neither I nor my roommate have special ties to Mother Nature. I was missing the lunar eclipse, and there was nothing I could do to change my situation.

I continued to gaze at the sky with a feigned hope that a blood moon would reveal itself to me. In searching for a sight I knew, deep down, I wasn’t going to see, I got a good look at what the sky above me had to offer. The clouds were full and fluffy; Their centers were a dull orange, but the color grew brighter as it reached the edges of the clouds. Behind the randomly strewn, thick chunks of clouds lay the sky, a light shade of indigo that had a noticeably purple hue. The clouds, constantly manipulated by the wind, created a dusty effect that made the sky seem, truthfully, a touch dirty. No stars were to be seen, but the city sky looked unique compared to any other time I had seen it.

Although I was not taking in the sight of a lunar eclipse, I was taking in the sight of a beautiful sky. In my time living in the city, I have noticed the particular colors and characteristics that the Philadelphia sky possesses, and I realize that no two nights ever look quite the same. Tonight was no exception, and I experienced yet another captivating variation the sky has to offer.

I had no control over the forces of nature that decided whether or not to allow me to see the lunar eclipse. I did, however, embrace the situation I was dealt with, and in a state of mindfulness, I was able to appreciate the sky that took shape before me. I forgot about the what could be or what should be, and focused instead on what purely was. As a result, I was reminded to be aware of the present beauty of nature. After taking a last good look at the sky, I walked back into my apartment for the night with another mental image of the ever-changing Philadelphia sky in my head.

Using Mindfulness to Make Memories

If you’ve been meditating with your eyes closed this whole weekend, the Pope spent this past Saturday and Sunday in Philadelphia.

I was in the area as His Holiness Pope Francis made his final drive down the normally busy City Avenue. I pulled out my iPhone in preparation to document my last look at the Pope. To my dismay, the battery had died, and I was without a camera to capture the nearing moment. A pang of disappointment rang through my chest; I had grabbed an ideal spot close to the street, and now I would never be able to share this moment in the future with friends and family who were not present.

I had no other option than to slip the glass and plastic object into my back pocket and direct my focus on what was unfolding in front of me. I readied my awareness for the black SUVs decorated with flags on their mirrors and the Pope’s Fiat wedged in the middle of the Secret Service fleet. To have this sight vividly embedded in my brain forever, I directed all of my senses toward becoming fully conscious of the sounds of engines running and people cheering excitedly, seeing black vehicles drive by at about twenty miles per hour, feeling the cool autumn breeze poke through my flannel, and feeling the anticipation of witnessing a historic event race through my bloodstream.

As voices to my left grew louder, I knew the Pope was about to pass. I spotted his right arm, covered by the sleeve of his white robe, waving out of the passenger-side window. I impulsively raised my arm, unattached to a smart phone, to return his greeting. Then, almost as quickly as he came, he was gone again, on his way to lead mass in Center City.

After seeing Pope Francis in the flesh, I was astounded. Having the opportunity to experience one of the world’s most powerful people is a memory capable of withstanding not just a technological lifetime, but a human lifetime. Becoming fully aware of the event was far from difficult, and I fell easily into a state of mindfulness. I am endlessly grateful for the chance I had to see Pope Francis — I will never forget the memory, and I am completely confident that I can use my mind just as well as any picture or video to describe my perspective of the incredible event.

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