Detox your Mind: Indulge in a mindful cleanse

“Yikes,” I thought during a recent run, “my mind is a bit toxic!” Typically, running is a mindful and peaceful experience for me — my attention effortlessly focused on just running. It’s meditation in motion. 

But not so during this run. My efforts to practice mindful running and present moment awareness had little affect on my mind that was very busy serving a full course meal of concerns seasoned with resentment. 

We’ve all been there. Some days we are at peace. Some moments we easily focus on what’s right in front of us. Then we have days when we are distracted by our thoughts and feelings. And at other times, our mind is serving up a plate of toxic treats that we just can’t seem to resist. 

As I continued my run, annoyed that my mind was running toxic, an image emerged in my mind’s eye. It looked like a target; let’s call it the Target of Awareness. As I explored this image, I realized that the outside grey ring represented negative thoughts and feelings, the inner green ring — neutral thoughts and feelings, and the bullseye — positive thoughts and feelings. 

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As I continued my run this image followed. So I began to experiment with it. I began to bring nonjudgmental awareness to the ongoing stream of negative thoughts and feelings. Aware of the bullseye at the center, I redirected my attention from the outer ring of negativity to the middle ring of neutrality. And whenever my attention drifted back to my concerns, I redirected my focus to the ring of neutrality. And once my attention rested for a longer period of time there, I redirected attention to the bullseye of positivity.

In mindfulness meditation, a common practice is to focus attention on sensation of breath. When the mind wanders, attention is redirected back to the breath as often as is needed. Awareness is an important element of practice, in this case realization of when the mind has wondered away from the breath. 

The mindful cleanse practice I’m describing is similar in a sense. Attention is anchored at the center of the target on positivity (of thoughts and feelings). When your attention wanders from the center towards the outer ring of negativity, redirect it back towards the center — again and again, without effort and without judgement. 

This mental detox practice is strengthened by increasing our awareness of the mind-body connection with the Triangle of Awareness:

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Physical sensations of any experience (pleasant or unpleasant) can be separated from the thoughts and emotions about the experience. The triangle of awareness is about learning to separate and distinguish what is being felt in the body from what is being thought in the mind, and to separate and distinguish thoughts from emotions (feelings and moods). With practice, you will learn to experience the three components of the triangle as distinct. 

Combining the Target of Awareness with the Triangle of Awareness gives us a powerful working model. In any moment, any of the three elements of the Triangle of Awareness can take center stage and pull you away from the center of positivity or towards it.  

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For example, discomfort or pain in the body can pull you off center towards negative thoughts and/or feelings. Thoughts themselves can pull us off center when they are anxious or negative. Negative emotions can also pull us away from our positive center.

On the other hand, pleasant sensations in the body can pull us towards the center of positivity. Pleasant thoughts and/or pleasant emotions will also draw us towards our center. 

 

 

The Mindful Cleanse Practice

 Here’s an approach that you can use to indulge in a mindful cleanse:

  1. The first step is awareness. Notice if your mind is running a bit toxic and could benefit from a mindful cleanse.
  2. Use the Triangle of Awareness to notice which of the three elements (thoughts, emotions, sensations) are taking “center stage” and pulling you off center. 
  3. Use the Target of Awareness to explore the quality of your thoughts and feelings, noticing if they are negative, neutral, or positive.
  4. Use the combined model to notice the interplay between the Triangle of Awareness and the Target of Awareness

The benefits of increasing mental and emotional awareness are considerable. Cultivating the ability to notice the interplay of thoughts, emotions, and sensations, supercharged with awareness of the continuum of mental/emotional negativity, neutrality and positivity, will empower you to observe your mind without judgement.

The Joy of Not Thinking: Installing your off switch

Sometimes we enjoy the company of our own thoughts. Pleasant thoughts, constructive thoughts, thoughts that support our taking action — this genre of thinking is helpful. Yet at other times, our thoughts can be troublesome — negative, intrusive, obsessive, ruminative … we’ve all been there. It’s the nature of mind to think yet sometimes it would be nice to be in charge and have it back off in response to: “enough already!” 

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There are times when a mental off switch would be helpful. In the yoga tradition, there are specific meditation techniques that develop a mind that is concentrated. The technique to skillfully develop a concentrated mind employs the simultaneous focusing of attention on multiple elements: 1) breath, 2) mantra, and 3) fixation. More on this later. 

The yogic approach to meditation differs from mindfulness. In the mindfulness tradition, awareness of breath is a core practice. Attention is turned toward sensation of breath and when the mind wanders, attention is redirected back to the breath … again and again. This technique increases awareness of the present moment and is instrumental in reducing anxiety and increasing quality of life. About 75% of my personal meditations are in the mindfulness tradition. And there are times when I turn toward the yoga tradition and benefit from thinking less, building the skill of deliberately quieting my mind — installing the off switch

You may have heard of TM, or Transcendental Meditation. This practice is rooted in the yoga tradition. Transcendental meditative states refer to creating and sustaining a state of consciousness that transcends ordinary mental states that are on autopilot, e.g. a mind that’s lost in its own thinking. This extraordinary mental state is obtained by developing a concentrated mind - a mind that transcends ordinary states of consciousness, a mind that is skillfully free of thoughts.

So how do you install your off switch? First, it’s helpful to notice throughout your day when you have moments of mental ease, moments of less thinking. Furthermore, notice how your mind begins to disengage as you fall asleep. This doesn’t always happen easily but notice when it does. Cultivate awareness of how your mind already knows how to turn itself off. 

Installing your off switch:

  1. Bring attention to your breath. Experiment paying attention to the sound of your breath (yoga tradition) or sensation of breath (mindfulness tradition), or a bit of both. 
  2. It’s relatively easy to keep attention on your breath, especially if you constrict the back of the throat a bit so your inhales and exhales are more audible. It’s a bit like fogging a mirror — try it first with mouth open, then with mouth closed. 
  3. Begin to add additional elements to help your mind focus with relative ease. So-hum, a simple mantra that sounds a bit like the breath is helpful. Imagine you hear “so” on each inhale and “hum” on each exhale. Feel free to substitute an English word of your choosing, e.g. peace, love, calm, etc. 
  4. After settling into the sound of the breath and your mantra, give the mind an additional element of focus rather than on its own thoughts. Fixate your visual attention on a point between the eyebrows (the third eye in yoga), as if you are gazing inside your head. Your eyes may lift and converge a bit. 
  5. Bring curiosity to the space that emerges between your thoughts. The space my be brief. Just notice the moments of when your off switch is active. 
  6. Begin to pay more attention to the space between thoughts and less attention to the thoughts themselves. Just let thoughts come and go like clouds in the sky. 
  7. You may find it helpful to make this a playful game. No effort required. No right or wrong. Just have fun finding the space between thoughts and bringing more awareness to the space. Suspend concern of how brief the space may be. 

Installing your off switch takes time and patience. It’s fascinating what we can train the mind to do. You can build the skill of noticing the space between your thoughts, anchoring attention on that space, and sustaining that space for longer periods of time. Three elements of concentration will support your install: 1) sound of breath, 2) mantra, and 3) third eye. 

I have been benefiting from this approach to meditation for over 30 years. As with any skill, when my practice is erratic, I’m no longer on top of my game — my mind delivers  many more intrusive thoughts. 

Have fun with your install. Enjoy the many benefits of having an off switch!

a·ware·ness·ing

əˈwernəsiNG

verb

  1. the deliberate action of creating and sustaining a state of awareness.
  2. a proactive relationship with awareness that supports an extraordinary sense of presence. 

Before we get into the validity of awarenessing as a word, let’s take a look at the relationship of mindfulness and awareness. I like Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition: 

Mindfulness is the awareness that arises through paying attention
on purpose in the present moment — non-judgmentally. 

Admittedly, awarenessing is not a word you will find in an ordinary dictionary. Let’s be proactive and add it to the extraordinary dictionary of mindfulness. Why? Because awareness as a noun limits its meaning and power in the context of applied mindfulness practices. 

Before we continue, we need to pause and examine the Triangle of Awareness. This approach helps to understand the mind-body connection:

Traingle of Awarness.001.jpeg
 

Physical sensations of any experience (pleasant or unpleasant) can be separated from the thoughts and emotions about the experience. The triangle of awareness is about learning to separate and distinguish what is being felt in the body from what is being thought in the mind, and to separate and distinguish thoughts from emotions (feelings and moods). With practice, you will learn to experience the three components of the triangle as distinct. 

I ask my mindfulness students to use the Triangle of Awareness to consider thoughts, emotions, and sensations when they are: 1) unaware, 2) semi-aware, 3) aware, and 4) extremely aware. Before you continue reading, take a moment to jot down your responses. 

I recorded my thoughts as my students were completing their assignment:

Unaware

I’m on automatic pilot. My habitual mind is running the show and I’m caught up in it. There is a felt sense — physically and emotionally, of unawareness. 

Semi-Aware

I’m distracted. I’m intermittently aware that I’m not consistently present. There is a felt sense — physically and emotionally, of semi-awareness. 

Aware 

I’m present with what’s happening right now. My thoughts are present-moment oriented. There is a felt sense — physically and emotionally, of awareness. 

Extremely Aware

I’m experiencing an extraordinary sense of presence — timelessness. My awareness is astounding and active — I am awarenessing. There is a felt sense — physically and emotionally, of phenomenal awareness.

I’m defining awarenessing as the deliberate action of creating and sustaining a state of awareness. Rather than being a quality of consciousness that finds us on occasion, it is a deliberate action that creates, recreates, and sustains an aware state of being. 

So how is awarenessing practiced? You can use the acronym NOW to support active engagement in the awarenessing process:

N    Notice where your attention is.
O    Open to the present moment with increased awareness. 
W    Watch with active awareness; observe yourself awarenessing. 

The next time you notice that you are unaware or semi-aware, try the active form of awareness — awarenessing. Redirect your attention into the present moment with NOW. Be proactive with the awareness that arises as you turn towards the present moment. Practice awarenessing.

 

 

It’s Raining, it’s Pouring, Mindfully Exploring

Using the RAIN technique to cut through confusion and stress

Within seconds of entering Springfield Hospital, a severe rain and wind storm suddenly took control of all things outside. “Wow,” I thought, “I was really fortunate this time. Usually rain is attracted to me like a magnet.” I mentioned my near miss to a colleague who replied: “You dodged a bullet!”

I arrived at the hospital to teach a mindfulness-based stress reduction class. As I watched Mother Nature toss around her rain with fury, I was reminded of a technique called RAIN. This mindfulness technique builds present moment awareness, cultivates self-compassion, and supports the transformation of habitual mental reactivity. RAIN de-conditions the habitual ways in which we tend to resist present moment experience.

Before we explore RAIN, let’s look at the Triangle of Awareness. This approach helps to understand the mind-body connection:

Traingle of Awarness.001.jpeg

Physical sensations of any experience (pleasant or unpleasant) can be separated from the thoughts and emotions about the experience. The triangle of awareness is about learning to separate and distinguish what is being felt in the body from what is being thought in the mind, and to separate and distinguish thoughts from emotions (feelings and moods). With practice, you will learn to experience the three components of the triangle as distinct. 

RAIN is an acronym. Let’s explore RAIN’s meaning and application:
      (adapted from Tara Brach, True Refuge: Finding Peace & Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart)
R    Recognize what is happening
A    Allow life to be just as it is
I     Investigate inner experience with kindness
N    Non-Identification

Recognize what is happening
Recognition is about turning towards your present moment experience. It’s about developing your capacity to utilize the Triangle of Awareness. In any given moment, notice, without judgment, what you are experiencing mentally (thoughts and emotions) and physically (sensations). 

Allow life to be just as it is
An important attitude of mindfulness is letting go. Allowing means letting go of resistance and judgment of the thoughts, emotions, or sensations you discover as you explore the R of RAIN. It’s common to “duck” when unpleasant situations and feelings are thrown at us. With practice, you can learn to turn towards each moment just as it is - pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant. 

Investigate inner experience with kindness
With investigation, you can bring compassionate curiosity to your present moment experience. The R of RAIN invites you to recognize your experience as you turn your attention towards it. The I of RAIN takes your inquiry to the next level. As you investigate your inner experience with kindness, you might ask yourself: “Is this experience familiar?” “What beliefs are at play?” “What are my thoughts, feelings, or sensations telling me?”

Non-identification
The R, A and I of RAIN lead to N, the freedom of non-identification and the cultivation of awareness. Non-identification invokes your natural ability to witness your thoughts, emotions, and sensations. By doing so, you free yourself from the illusion that you are defined by any limited set of thoughts, emotions, or stories. 

How I use RAIN
I find RAIN helpful for exploring, and then transforming, mental and emotional tendencies. Here’s and example of how I used it recently: I’ve been preparing for the Broad Street Run, a 10 mile race that I enjoy running with my daughter Laura. In an attempt to increase my endurance and speed that has lagged from a stormy winter, I have overdone it and have had to miss a couple training runs to allow my legs to heal. This has kicked up some stuff!

So here I go with RAIN:
R   Recognize what is happening
I pushed myself to hard with training and have to recover from injury. I ignored signs that my leg muscles were strained. I feel annoyed and frustrated. My legs hurt from the knees down. I’ve been here before. 

A   Allow life to be just as it is
As I turn toward what is, acceptance begins to settle in. My annoyance and frustration softens. 

I   Investigate inner experience with kindness
I notice the juxtaposition of training mindfully vs. training to improve speed at all costs. I become aware of how I tend to push myself to the point of injury. And this tendency has ramifications mentally, emotionally and physically. This is a pattern I have repeated in preparation for races and backpacking. I realize that this is not the only genre in which I tend to push myself to hard. 

N   Non-Identification
I begin to witness the difficulty I have created for myself. My attachment to the future unfolding in a specific way, i.e. achieving a PR (personal record) softens. I begin to reconnect with the joy of running this race with my daughter. 

RAIN on yourself
The next time life seems a bit stormy, RAIN on yourself! With practice, RAIN can be an ally that supports you through life’s challenges. Begin with the R and A of RAIN, and then add on I and N as you get more familiar with the practice.

Get your Zen on! The joy of mindful walking and running

As I’m gearing up for a run, I’m pondering the topic for this mindfulness blog. After selecting just the right gear so I’m neither too hot nor too cold for an eight mile run, I finally get myself outside. After a couple miles my mind wanders, reminding me that I need a blog topic. I let the thought go and return my attention to my running.

Then the lightbulb goes off. What I’m doing right now - mindful running, is the blog! 

Let’s slow the pace a bit and explore mindful walking. In the Zen tradition, mindful walking is referred to as kinhin, which means paying attention. Like many mindfulness practices, mindful walking is a way to increase awareness by paying attention to the present moment. 

Kinhin can be done almost anywhere, indoors or out. Whether walking on a sidewalk, in the woods, or up and down stairs, mindful walking is an opportunity to guide yourself out of a chronically distracted mind.

When you walk, run, swim, or engage in physical activity, it’s all too easy to mentally check out. Kinhin will help you to gather your attention and increase your awareness of the present moment, focusing more attention on what’s happening right now.

Mindful walking is a simple practice. These techniques also apply to mindful running:

  1. As you begin, walk at a natural pace.
  2. Bring attention to the sensations of walking. Feel your whole body walking, the movement of your legs, the lifting and placement of each foot.
  3. When you notice that your mind has wandered away from walking, bring your attention back. Re-anchor attention in the process and sensations of walking whenever you notice your mind has wondered.
  4. Do your best to practice without effort and without judgment. It’s the nature of the mind to wander. Your job is simply to notice when your mind has wandered and return your attention to walking … again and again … as often as is needed.  
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Let’s return to my mindful run. It all began three years ago when I ran the Broad Street Run with my daughter Laura. As I trained for this 10 mile race in Philadelphia, I began to apply mindfulness to my running. 

I benefit more from running when I do it mindfully. When I redirect my wandering mind back to the process and sensations of running, I run with more ease, more efficiency, and more joy. I’m also more aware of how my body is responding to the way I’m running in each moment. As I continue to increase my mindful running skills, I have benefited from a significant decrease in strained muscles.

The benefits of mindful walking or running are available to us all. The awareness that emerges from practicing present moment mindfulness techniques like kinhin will reduce stress and increase enjoyment and appreciation of your life. Give it a try!

An evening of meditation

It’s about 9:00 pm and I’m about to meditate before going to bed. I thought I’d try something different and record my experiences while meditating. To do this, I’ll take breaks on occasion to share what’s happening.

Here we go!

It’s Sunday evening and I have found my way to my familiar cushion - a dedicated spot in my bedroom for seated meditation. I begin with several minutes of sigh breaths, enjoying a sense of letting go with each slow exhale. My mind is busy with thoughts and feelings as it reviews my weekend and anticipates a busy workday tomorrow. Resistance to practice emerges, the voice within saying: “I’m tired. It would feel so nice just to crawl into bed.” I continue to sit on my meditation cushion. I sigh even more. 

I turn my attention toward sensations of breath, inviting a sense of curiosity with each inhale and exhale. After several minutes, I anchor my attention on a specific breath sensation that stands out for me. Tonight I choose to anchor attention on the sensation of breath in my nostrils.

I begin to meditate in the mindfulness tradition, a practice that strengthens my ability to be more present and aware of the moments that join together to build my life. I anchor attention on sensation of breath at my nostrils. I keep my attention anchored for several breath cycles, noticing my body’s natural presence. The next thing I notice is that I’ve been caught in a stream of thinking about the future, my mind running movies of concern about my forthcoming busy workweek and anxiety about getting it all done. I return my attention to sensation of breath. Several breath cycles later my mind wanders again, running regret that my weekend was not quite as fun as I would have liked, a bit resentful of the time spent working on a post-graduate course. I return my attention to sensation of breath. And so it goes. As soon as I’m aware that my attention has wandered, I bring it back to the breath, as often as needed. 

It’s about 10 minutes into practice and I continue my seated meditation in the mindfulness tradition. My mind cycles easily through its typical menu of concerns. As I continue to meditate, this mental activity begins to soften. My thoughts and feelings of concern lesson in frequency and intensity. I’m aware that this does not always happen, although it’s nice when it does. I’m reminded of one of the attitudes of mindfulness - non-striving. Meditation’s only goal is for me to be myself, simply paying attention to whatever is happening.

Fifteen minutes into practice I find myself anchoring attention more on the heart center, feeling the rise and fall of my chest as I breathe. Shifting my anchor of breath sensation was spontaneous. As I return attention to my heart, again and again as my mind wanders, a felt sense of wisdom bubbles up. It’s something like this: my mind thinks it’s got my life under control and should be the center of my attention. My heart knows differently. 

I continue to meditate - it’s about 20 minutes into practice. I imagine that my breath is flowing directly in and out of my heart. I feel more at peace with each breath cycle. My mind is relaxed and relatively quiet. I’m delightfully surprised with this sense of peace.

About 40 minutes into practice my mental and emotional state has relaxed even more. I feel very present. A smile spontaneously comes to my face. I feel ready for a peaceful night’s sleep with a heart that is more open. I feel grateful for practice.

I prepare to end my mindfulness practice, aware that meditation does not always give rise to a sense of calm and peace. The gift of practice is cultivating presence with whatever arises, moment by moment.

Empowered by mindfulness: Doorways to present moment awareness

Integrating mindfulness into our lives has many benefits. When we are more aware of the present moment, we have access to a richer experience of life. 

When I find a deeper sense of presence, it can feel like I’ve opened a door. I step through into an experience of life that is more vibrant, more fulfilling. Mindfulness helps to find this doorway to presence.

Mindfulness practices are divided into two categories: formal and informal. Formal mindfulness refers to practices where we set aside quiet time to turn our attention toward the present moment, as in seated meditation (more on this next week). Informal practices are techniques used throughout the day as we are living our busy lives.

We are hard wired for the fight-flight response with our sympathetic nervous system. Fight-flight is all about survival - we need to effectively dodge saber tooth tigers (or the equivalent). The good news is that we are also hard-wired for the relaxation response. A close call on the highway may be followed automatically by a sigh. Sigh breaths stimulate the relaxation response through the parasympathetic nervous system. Indy, a Seeing Eye puppy I raised a about a year ago, loved sigh breaths. In reaction to the slightest of discipline, he would dramatically sigh several times. Not only did this help him to release stress, I think he enjoyed sending a message of disapproval to whomever was disciplining him. Let’s explore this informal mindfulness practice: 

The Sigh Breaths practice

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  • Focus by deliberately stopping everything else that you are doing.
  • Inhale through the nose; exhale through the mouth making a sigh sound.
  • The exhale can be slower than the inhale.
  • Bring your full awareness to meet each breath. Notice sensations and sounds with each inhale and exhale.
  • As you exhale with each sigh, feel a sense of letting go.
  • Invite a sense of relaxation to settle in more with each breath. 
  • Enjoy a series of seven sigh breaths or more.

Like Indy, I benefit from sigh breaths when I feel stressed. I have created the habit of sighing when I feel impatient. I also benefit from sigh breath breaks at the computer. Turning attention toward the sound and sensation of breath is also helpful, anchoring attention in the body’s natural presence. 

Enjoy a series of sigh breaths several times a day, experimenting with when and where you practice. With persistent practice, you can open a doorway into presence and a deeper connection to each moment of your life.

Mindfulness 101: What it is, how it works, and why your brain will love it!

I began my meditation practice about 30 years ago. It’s easy for me to remember when I started practicing mindfulness because it was one year before my daughter was born. When she was about three years old, she would frequently find me when I was meditating and fall asleep in my lap. This was a delightful meditation perk! 

Jon Kabat-Zinn has been a pioneer in bringing mindfulness into mainstream medicine. He developed Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), an eight week program that I have had the honor to teach to hundreds of my students. I like his definition of mindfulness:

Mindfulness is the awareness that emerges
through paying attention on purpose,
in the present moment, 
and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding
of experience moment by moment.

Is your mind full or mindful?

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It’s all too easy for our minds to be full - full of thoughts and feelings from our past and future. Meet Indy. A couple years ago, I started raising dogs for The Seeing Eye. Dogs, with their simple minds (their brains are the size of a walnut), are naturally mindful. They pay attention to the present moment - what’s right in front of them, right here and right now.

Humans, with far more sophisticated brains, have the capacity to think (and feel) about the past or future and sometimes miss out on our present moment experience. As we practice mindfulness, we increase our ability to be aware of what’s going on in any given moment.

The benefits of scientific, evidence-based mindfulness practices help to:

  • improve mood and energy.
  • increase focus and mental clarity.
  • improve communication in relationships.
  • manage difficult situations and emotions.
  • increase enjoyment and appreciation of life.

Practicing mindfulness is relatively simple and there are techniques that can be easily incorporated throughout the day. The challenge is getting ourselves to practice. The reason the practices work is because of a brain characteristic called neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity refers to how the structure of the brain changes in response to how we use the mind. Mindfulness techniques focus on present moment awareness. As we practice returning our attention to the present (again and again), we literally change the structure of the brain. Research is clear on the many benefits of mindfulness. For example, the part of the brain responsible for anxiety gets smaller and the region of brain responsible for present moment awareness gets larger! 

Here’s a simple practice to get you started. This is done in bed before you fall asleep:

  1. Get comfortable, adjusting your body so you can remain relatively still for about five minutes. 
  2. Place one hand on your heart and the other over your navel.
  3. Bring attention to your breath, focusing on the rise and fall of the belly as you inhale and exhale. 
  4. When your attention wanders (this is normal; it may wander a lot) just redirect it back to the breath … again and again. 

Give it a try for a month. Your brain will love it!

Building Community in a Mindful Village

As seen in Media News, Fall 2017

Media, Pennsylvania has declared itself a Mindful Village. This article exams what mindfulness is and how we can build a mindful community.

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness refers to a variety of techniques and practices that help us to pay attention to the present moment. As we integrate mindful practices into our lives, we benefit from increased awareness. The research-based benefits are considerable, including:

  • reduced stress.
  • improved mood and energy.
  • increased focus and mental clarity.
  • improved communication in relationships.
  • increased ability to manage difficult situations and emotions.
  • increased enjoyment and appreciation of life.

What is a mindful community? 

Creating and living in a mindful community is an opportunity for personal and communal transformation. The benefits of increased community awareness are considerable for our neighbors and our planet.

As a Mindful Village, core values will unite the Media community. Here are some values to consider: 

  • Simplicity - bringing balance to our busy and complicated lives.
  • Community - living in harmony with others.
  • Awareness - using mindful skills to cultivate continuously increasing awareness.
  • Ecological - striving to live more sustainably.
  • Educational - developing mindful skills and applying them to personal, professional, and community living. 
  • Inclusivity - embracing diversity though increased mindful awareness. 

Mindfulness Fridays in Media

Enjoy guided mindfulness practices with a supportive mindful community. Help shape the core values of our Mindful Village. Mindfulness Fridays is a monthly guided meditation practice and discussion from 6:00 - 7:30 at Enso Yoga, 319B W. State Street. For schedule and information, see www.experienceenso.com.

Mindful Backpacking

I love mountains.  I love the challenge of steep and challenging trails that take me to beautiful summits and down into the valleys below. 

Five years ago I decided to do my first solo backpacking trip on the Long Trail in Vermont.  The oldest foot path in the country, this 270 mile trail begins at the Massachusetts border and continues north through the Green Mountains to its terminus at the Canada border. 

Difficult trail requires a mindful state.  It is a matter for safety to be fully focused on the present moment ... one step at a time.  The mind wanders and I trip.  The mind wanders and I could fall.  The mind wanders at a steep and slippery descent and I could break a leg or worse.  

Rain is another mindful challenge.  The mind, yours and mine, easily evaluates and judges, and it certainly tends to do this when backpacking in bad weather.  My recent six day trip had two days of all-day rain, with torrential downpours in each afternoon that lasted 3-4 hours.  

When I was mindful, the rain was just rain and the sensations on my body were just wet.  When my thoughts and feelings drifted to judging, complaining, and fear mode, the experience would become unbearable.  My experience of the actual rain was distorted and exaggerated by thoughts and feelings of the rain of the past and the rain of the future.   

I found that I was at my best when I was thoughtless - when I was having pure experience without mental narration or evaluation.  And it was easier for me to be present when the rain was gentle and I felt comfortable and warm.  When the rain became torrential, it was more difficult for me to be mindful.  

And so it is off the trail. Regret is fueled by thoughts and feelings of the past and anxiety is a future fantasy with negativity. The mind can spin up a tornado of regret and anxiety, leaving little room for awareness of what's actually going on in the moment.  

My experience of hours of waterfall-like rain was a bit like this: I was annoyed, I am annoyed, I will be annoyed.  

I noticed an opportunity to practice present moment awareness in a very challenging situation.  I kept re-anchoring my attention on the present moment, again and again.  And I watched my resistance to doing so.  My thoughts and feelings about the rain wanted to take center stage.  

My experiences on the trail are significant learnings in mindfulness.  As the challenges of my life unfold off the trail, I have significant learning and wisdom that I can call upon.  When my thoughts and feelings create the tornado of past and future, I can settle into the same felt sense of presence that was life critical on the trail.  It's life-critical off the trail too! 

The power of presence is always there for us, we just have to turn toward it ... again and again.