Sunday, February 20, 2011

Focus: Sage wisdom on presence + stress

How often do you push away what's going on right now?

At times, doesn't is seem we expend an awful lot of energy flailing away in our brains rather than fully embracing, enjoying and submitting ourselves to what's happening around us?

Sometimes even in the most perfect moments or places, we can work ourselves up into a negative state so easily. We spin over something that's already happened in the past. Or we worry about tomorrow, next week or next year. We even agonize over what others are thinking!

Our incessant internal chattering can be such a stressor.

Now, a good session of mental mulling-over can and is useful (for plotting out future goals and reminiscing over good times we've had, for example). But, deep in thought, if we're not paying attention, we toss today away. We devalue our current experiences.

At the very least, we fritter away today by focusing more on the past or on a coming day that we may never be given by the fates to spend.

It's a dance that's as old as time.

Marcus Aurelius Glyptothek MunichThese days, it seems we're hearing more and more about the benefits of working to bring our attention back to the present moment. But the concept's been around through the ages.

Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius broached the subject in his thoughtful and still relevant personal meditations as they appear in "The Wisdom of Marcus Aurelius" by Alan Jacobs:

So if you will separate from your rational ruling mind the things attached to it
by sense impressions,
and what may come in time,
and what happened in the past,
you will be like the sphere of Empedocles,
"All embracing, and at joyous rest."
Then if you strive to live only what is truly thy life,
that is in the present moment,
you will be able to live the rest of your life
free from mental stress,
nobly, like an Emperor, obedient to that God within you.

Did you notice the point on mental stress?

Aurelius, as many others before and after him, believed that one way to ease daily worries and stress is to set our attention in the present. Today's neuroscience research is not only proving him right, it's also revealing additional health benefits to such practices.

But where to begin?

A book that I've come to draw so much inspiration from in my own stress management journey is The Fine Art of Relaxation, Concentration and Meditation: Ancient Skills for Modern Minds by Joel & Michelle Levey.

It's filled with a whole host of helpful suggestions to build your own mindfulness practice. The brief excerpt below from its chapter on concentration isn't necessarily the strongest of them; but, it's a good starting place for what we're exploring here.

Now, if you're not in the right frame of mind (you just want to rush through to the next thing you need to get to), this can seem pretty silly.

But, if you give each sentence your whole attention, if you read them as well as feel what the words are trying to convey, if you focus on being still and relaxed and fully present, the passage may help you awaken and open to the current of your life taking place today.

Concentration: Self-Remembering:

As you read these words, know that you are reading.

Developing our ability to be aware of what we are doing is called self-remembering. This practice enables us to fine-tune our perceptions and actions. It brings calm, clarity, and freedom to the mind, qualities that are necessary for recognizing the limiting patterns of habitual thought and actions, and for choosing more creative and effective options.

With this awareness we can guide our lives toward attaining the goals we wish to read.

Beginning, I am aware of beginning.
Reading, I am aware of reading.
Breathing in, I know I am breathing in.
Breating out, I know I am breathing out.
Listening, I know I am listening.
Touching, I know I am touching.
Lifting, I am aware of lifting.
Sitting down, I am aware of sitting down.
Thinking, I am aware of thinking.
Experiencing fear, I am aware of feeling fear.
Experiencing joy, I am aware of feeling joy.
Intending, I am aware of intending.
Finishing, I am aware of finishing.

Practice this when you:
  • Simply go for a walk.
  • Simply listen to music.
  • Simply eat a meal.
  • Simply read.
Above all, keep your mind wholeheartedly on what you are doing. And when it wanders -- as it surely will -- simply bring it back to what you are doing, and without self criticism or lecturing yourself, return to your practice of self-remembering.

Here's a tool you can use right now to get started.

While you're at you're computer, reading up on the latest news or catching up with friends via email or facebook, try setting up a 'mindfulness bell' alert to help bring you back to full awareness. These nifty meditation timers can be set to go off every 15 or 30 minutes (or whatever time frame you prefer).

Each chime is your cue to mentally step back and shift focus from doing to simply being. You might even toss in three deep breaths and a few light neck rolls before rushing back into active mode.

Finally, a boost-your-smarts video clip:

Details on the above presentation:

Google Tech Talks - February, 28 2008

Mindfulness meditation, one type of meditation technique, has been shown to enhance emotional awareness and psychological flexibility as well as induce well-being and emotional balance. Scientists have also begun to examine how meditation may influence brain functions. This talk will examine the effect of mindfulness meditation practice on the brain systems in which psychological functions such as attention, emotional reactivity, emotion regulation, and self-view are instantiated. We will also discuss how different forms of meditation practices are being studied using neuroscientific technologies and are being integrated into clinical practice to address symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress.

Speaker: Philippe Goldin is a research scientist and heads the Clinically Applied Affective Neuroscience group in the Department of Psychology at Stanford University.

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