The art of stillness

It's a rare rainy day in Southern California and I am making soup while listening to some of the talks from the Wisdom 2.0 Conference in San Francisco.  Pico Iyer is a British novelist who explores the "art of stillness".  Stillness and space are the antidote to our society's "addiction to busy".  It is in the stillness that I experience creative thoughts and dreams. We can change our lives by making room for that still, small voice within. Here is the link to Pico Iyer's talk at Wisdom 2.0.   http://new.livestream.com/accounts/2635433/events/3845334/videos/78657125

Mindful Driving

I have always loved cars, I enjoy car design, speed and safety.  In the early 80s, I honed my driving skills in Manhattan among the cabbies, delivering manuscripts for my mother.  Several years ago my brother gave me a birthday gift of a day at the track with a professional race car driver; I was in heaven as my little car flew around the turns at high speeds.  This was a safe place to enjoy my need for speed!  As I have gotten older, I have become more safety conscious (and I want to maintain my clean driving record).  One of my pet peeves is when I see people driving and texting. I notice drivers on their cell phones weaving in and out of lanes on the freeway at night when I am returning from work.

A few weeks ago my friend Cindy mentioned a piece she heard on NPR.  The author, Matt Richtel, wrote a book entitled, “A Deadly Wandering: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention”, about a young man named Reggie Shaw who hit and killed two people in 2006 while texting and driving.  Shaw’s case was one of the first to address the dangers of distracted driving. Richtel explains the way technology can put “pressure” on the brain to respond.  He compares the ringtones of our cell phones with being tapped on the shoulder while you are driving.  It is nearly impossible for us to ignore being tapped on the shoulder and keep our attention focused on what is in front of us.  The prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain responsible for emotions, processing complex thoughts and emotions. When our phone alerts us to a text or call the prefrontal cortex hijacks (taps) the part of the brain that is focused on driving.

Shortly after listening to Richtel’s piece; a colleague of mine shared that she does not use her cell phone in the car.  Just to be clear, she does not talk on her cell phone (or text) while driving.  I told her how busy I was and that I usually return calls on my way to work (using my headset) and on my way home. My colleague asked me if I would be able to live with myself if I injured someone as a result of distracted driving; she said she pulls over if she needs to make a call.  When the universe provides me with more than one hint I try to pay attention.

Listening to Richtel’s piece on NPR helped me get honest about my own concerns about driving while talking on a cell phone, even while using ear buds.  I have never sent a text while driving as I can barely see the phone.  However, I have had several near misses when talking on the phone (hands free).  As someone who encourages my clients to practice mindfulness, can I really defend the practice of driving while my mind is elsewhere?  Am I really paying attention to the conversation as I dart in and out of traffic trying to make my way to the office?  Would I be able to drive defensively if another driver was not paying attention?

I decided to try an experiment.  I shut my phone off before getting in the car and leave it off until I arrive at my destination.  The experiment has lasted a few months now and I am enjoying the mindful ride.  After a few months, I purchased a new car with the latest handsfree/bluetooth technology.  I must admit that I have been answering the phone from time to time.  However, I have significantly cut down on the number of calls I make from the car.  To learn more about distracted driving, check out the link to the Diane Rehm show on NPR below.  I wish you a safe and mindful ride.

My Adventures in Meditation

By now you might have heard about the many benefits of practicing meditation. I don’t know about you but my mind begins to snap shut as soon as someone tells me that something is good for me (especially when it comes to lima beans).  So I won’t tell you why meditation is good for you, instead I will share some of my own experience with meditation and some tips for starting your own meditation practice.  I hope to dispel some of the myths that I had to overcome when I began practicing.

In the late 80s I was living in Boston, attending graduate school and waitressing in Kenmore square.  I was pretty anxious during that time, I had trouble sleeping and most of the time my shoulders were tense and inching closer to my ears.  A friend introduced me to George Mumford, a meditation teacher and sports therapist.  George spent 5 seasons with Phil Jackson, (legendary coach of the Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bulls) helping professional basketball players practice mindfulness on the court.

George suggested that meditation might help reduce my anxiety. When I first began meditating I really did not like it.  In fact, I hated it.  I would sit down to meditate and the thoughts in my head would get really loud.   It seemed that meditation was making things worse not better; I called George often, sometimes late at night.  I would complain that I did not have a blank mind.  Myth # 1- Nowhere is written that successful meditators have blank minds; I am not sure where this rumor started but it is just not true.  As I continued to struggle, George would say kind, practical things like “Just direct your attention to your breath”.  I would go back to my practice, determined to get it right this time.  Sometimes I found it helpful to count my breath, other times I would silently repeat “breathe in love, breathe out fear”.

Sometimes I could not sit still and I would choose to practice walking meditation.  Myth #2- Meditation must be practiced in a seated cross-legged position, even if you are a runner with tight hamstrings.  George taught me how to practice walking mindfully; paying attention to the sensations in my body, especially my feet as they touched the ground.  I practiced moving slowly with focus, (luckily there were no cell phones in those days) breathing and noticing sensations in my body as I walked.

Eventually I developed a daily 20 minute practice.  I like to practice in the morning, sometimes I practice in the middle of the day if I am running late.  If I have had a stressful day, I might practice again for a few minutes before bed. Myth 3- Meditation must be practiced in the morning and Myth 4-Meditation must be practiced for at least an hour for it to be effective.   I have experimented with longer and shorter time periods throughout the years and have found that 20 minutes feels right for me. Some people prefer a longer period of time. One of my friends who is the mother of a small child, likes to practice at night while she sits in a rocking chair near her daughter’s bed watching her fall asleep.

I would describe my practice as Insight Based meditation, focusing on the sensations in my body and thoughts in my mind.  When I find myself getting attached to any particular sensation (for example-itchy nose) I simply come back to my breath.  If I am sitting and I start thinking “What’s for dinner” I simply come back to my breath.   There is a funny meditation teacher in Venice, California who asks his thoughts to have seat on the couch and says “I’ll get to you later”.  When I worked in technology I would often think about my coworkers and how they irritated me, I would acknowledge the irritation and then direct them to have a seat on the couch. Sometimes my couch would be packed with so many people that some of them had to sit on the floor.

My meditation practice extends throughout my day into mindfulness.  The way I differentiate between the two terms is that meditation happens at a specific time that I set aside each day for practice. Mindfulness means carrying my meditation practice into my daily affairs; it is about my commitment to slowing down and being aware, trying to respond mindfully as opposed to reacting.  Each day is different.  Sometimes I meditate, start my car and ease into my day.  Other times it is clear that everyone in Los Angeles needs to take driving lessons and that I am the only person who knows how to operate a car. Those are the days I try and practice Thich Nhat Hanh’s red light meditation.  Red light meditation consists of stopping at the red traffic light and relaxing your tight grip on the wheel. The next step is to take a breath and softly smile.  It does not have to be a huge grin, just a gentle smile and a few relaxing breaths. 

Myth #5- Meditation is no fun. Meditation is an “individual adventure” (these are Bill Wilson’s words, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous).  I encourage you to make it work for you.  Some days I practice sitting meditation, other days washing dishes meditation, making soup meditation, the list goes on.   Whatever you choose to do just have fun with it, just don’t forget to breathe.  I incorporate meditation and mindfulness into my work with my clients; helping them to develop their own unique ways of being present in the world and using that presence to enhance their experience in therapy.