Things I wish I’d understood when I started meditating

1. Trying harder doesn’t help – I brought a lot of “Type A” energy to my mindfulness meditation practice at first. I see now it was driven by a desire for quick results. The irony is that “hard work” during meditation is actually counterproductive. Striving to “do it right” will only reinforce the idea that there is something wrong with the present moment that needs fixing. A key element of mindfulness practice is letting go, letting be, not trying to be anywhere other than where we are in the present moment. This is where the transformational aspects of the practice go to work.

2. Friendliness and gentleness are essential. Building on the first point, as Pema Chodron says, one key part of mindfulness meditation practice is the cultivation of a friendly, gentle mind. It is when we are able to sit with difficult thoughts, feelings, emotions, situations, etc. with a friendly, gentle, non-judgmental mind, that the real benefits of the practice begin to reveal themselves.

3. Loving-kindness, or Metta, meditation, is of tremendous value. I started practicing mindfulness meditation to work with anxiety. What I discovered is that my mindfulness practice, while very beneficial in many respects, did little to actually help me handle anxiety. It was when I started incorporating loving-kindness meditation that my anxiety really started becoming workable. The traditional Buddhist teaching is that both loving-kindness and mindfulness practices are essential and the two reinforce each other. As mindfulness has become popularized in our culture, many people are exclusively practicing this form of meditation, and few of us are familiar with the “heart practice” of loving-kindness. I currently practice an even mix of both styles of meditation, and have found this to be most helpful for me in maximizing the benefits of mindfulness.

4. There is no substitute for practice. If you are like me, you may obsess over the conceptual aspects of meditation. We may read lots of books, listen to lots of podcasts, seek for a fuller understanding of what’s happening in the meditation practice, or how to make the practice go better. But, like everything else in life, there is no substitute for practical experience. We can read all the books we want about shooting a jump shot in basketball, and never improve much in our actual shooting technique; in the same way, reading about meditation is no substitute for practice. I have found that many of my conceptual questions have answered themselves as I continue to practice. Basically, what’s needed here is trust. Trust that the wisdom you need is already inside you. Teachers and writers can help guide us on the path, but ultimately the responsibility lies with each of us to find our own answers.

5. Just like going to the gym, results don’t happen overnight. Practice a bit, every day, and over time insight will ripen. 10 minutes a day is a great way to start.

6. There is no one correct technique, teacher, school, approach. There are many good choices. In my experience, its best to explore various methods of meditation, various schools, teachers, etc. Whichever ones resonate the most are the ones that are right for us.

7. Mindfulness alone is not enough. This was a big one for me. I spent a period of time thinking that if I could just be present and mindful enough, all my problems would fix themselves. Unfortunately this is 100% not the case. I still need to take care of my body, eat nutritious food, keep a schedule, spend time with friends and family, get out in the woods, find fulfilling and meaningful work, give back to others, face up to my fears, take care of the car when it breaks down, pay taxes, etc… The basic challenges of life don’t go away when we start meditating. Meditation, however, trains us to have some very useful tools for working with challenges.  

Mindfulness of Your Body’s Wisdom

Cultivate body mindfulness as a core element to working with fitness and weight loss. Mindfulness of the body, in my experience, helps me to have a sense of what I’m truly feeling in the present moment. This includes a sense of how foods make me feel and how exercise makes me feel. How tired I am vs how energized and ready for a good workout. What kind of exercises I want most for my body in the present moment.

What I find, and I expect you will find too if you start this practice, is that naturally as I notice how certain things make me feel, with a curious, kind and nonjudgmental awareness, I begin to move towards those things which make me feel good. In fact this is just common sense. As I discussed in my last post, this is the idea of trusting our natural sense of what is good for us, trusting our innate body wisdom to guide our choices. Get out of your own way.

The good news is that this makes the process of health and fitness quite a bit more organic, easy and pleasant. The “bad” news is that this is not a quick fix. This is the opposite of a quick fix. If you want to drop 20 pounds in two months, this is not the approach for you. Mindfulness is a slow training, but the rewards are great. They run far deeper than mere weight loss, in fact (to paraphrase) the Buddha himself said that mindfulness of body is at the core of spiritual growth.

So how do you begin to develop mindfulness of body. The obvious answer is to begin a meditation practice and stick with it. Even just 10 minutes a day of mindfulness meditation will make a huge difference.

In a more general sense, make a conscious choice to pay more attention to your body from the inside. Notice what you’re feeling. Notice emotions. Notice tensions. Notice sensations. Don’t judge, don’t try t achieve any special state, just notice with kind, gentle, curiosity. Trust that this awareness, by itself, will grow and begin to bring you more fully in touch with your body.

I find a simple body scan meditation is helpful. This takes me around 10 minutes to practice and can be done any time of day, anywhere. I start by relaxing as best I can, then I bring my attention to my feet and gently feel the sensations of my feet. I pay special attention to the feeling of my feet from within and often notice a kind of gentle buzzing, tingling energy. After I have a clear sense of my feet, I move up into my lower legs, then my upper legs, then my root, then core, then chest and heart, then arms and hands, then shoulders, neck and head. By the end I have a sense of my entire body as a unitary sense. I also find it helpful to finish with a sense of my surroundings, so that there is a feeling of body my body, and also my connection to the space around me.

I’ve found that while doing this practice I often notice numb or tight areas in my body. When I notice these, I just gently rest my attention on the space and allow it to be. Gently, over time, these spaces I find begin to open and soften. And usually there is some emotion trapped underneath.

I can go on about this in greater detail, but this isn’t a post about meditation work, except in so far as helping you start a basic body mindfulness practice. There are many ways to get more mindful of the body including yoga, martial arts, various other meditation practices, etc. Find something that works for you, something that you’ll stick with.

You are the expert on your own health!

Weight loss isn’t about changing ourselves. We often approach weight loss from an aggressive mindset. We think that we are flawed and that’s the reason that we’re overweight. If we can just fix the part of ourselves that’s keeping us fat, then we’ll get fit. We have to uproot our lazy, undisciplined, unhealthy, McDonald’s-loving parts and kick our butts into shape!

Rather than changing ourselves, I believe a healthier mindset is to uncover the wisdom we already have. We are already whole. We already want to be fit and healthy. All we have to do is tap into this natural, wholesome desire for health, and nurture it. Certainly, being self-aggressive does nothing except distance ourselves from our own health and wisdom.

So for healthy weight loss, we are not out to change ourselves. We are, rather out to become more fully ourselves. Being overweight is a wonderful opportunity for growth, if we can stop beating ourselves up for a moment and just compassionately accept ourselves where we are right now.

Trust no diet plan or fitness plan unless it feels right to you!

Place no expert’s opinion above the wisdom of your own body!

You are the expert on your own health. You know when a workout feels good and when it becomes a grueling burden. You know what kind of foods make you feel most healthy and alive. Trust yourself.

-Bill

Eat Less and Love Your Food: Mindful Eating Made Easy

Source: eatingwell.com via Amma on Pinterest

 

Mindful eating is the practice of slowing down and paying full attention to the food we’re eating, and how we feel while eating it. One bit at a time, chewing slowly and savoring each flavor. And only eating as much as we want, stopping when we feel comfortably full. The research is strong that regularly practicing mindful eating has a host of health benefits including: lower calorie intake, better digestion, relaxation, etc. And I have a feeling that, if you’ve tried to practice mindful eating you’ve also discovered that it can be quite challenging. I know I have.

I can say from personal experience, that, despite the challenges, this is well worth the effort to develop. I’ve been working with mindful eating for a few months now and I’m (slowly) starting to see the benefits. I eat more slowly now, chewing more thoroughly and enjoying flavors more. I also find myself leaving food on my plate more often as I check in with my body and stop eating when I feel full. And most importantly, meal times are starting to become moments of peace and refuge from a busy day.
Here are the main challenges I find I face when working with mindful eating:

Trying too hard
Making it a chore
Being harsh
Being mechanical with it
Doing it to get some kind of outcome – losing weight, better digestion, etc

Mindful eating practice poses the same challenge as any mindfulness practice – its about non-doing. For a lot of us this takes quite a bit of practice since our minds are so used to being in constant doing mode. If you try to make mindful eating a task to accomplish, you’ll be missing the point and the real benefits.

Mindful eating is a chance to unplug, to stop doing, to stop achieving, to accept our present experience just as it is. This doesn’t come easy.

I suggest starting small – pick one meal a day to practice and even just couple minutes if you find staying mindful for a whole meal challenging. Be patient and friendly with yourself. I can’t emphasize this enough. For most of us eating is a deeply unconscious and habitual thing. Remember that you’ve most likely been practicing mindless eating for years.

Its going to take time to rewire your brain with a new approach to eating. Think of developing your mindful muscle just like going to the gym. If you’re not used to paying attention to your present experience in a calm, non-striving way then you’re going to need practice. And its well worth the practice.

Ultimately, for me, mindful eating is about one thing more than any other: food is wonderful and meant to be enjoyed!  Can you think of a better reason to give this a try?

There are lots of great resources online for mindful eating practices.  Here’s one I recommend from Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits.

 

 

 

 

Commit to Change: 20 Minutes a Day

I’ve been struggling lately with getting back into shape.  One of the biggest challenges for me is the sense that I know how to do this, I’ve done it successfully in the past, so I should just be able to flip the switch and get going.  I think a lot of us have similar mindsets about getting fit.  We know how to do it, and we should be able to just make the changes.  And if you’re reading this blog, I don’t have to tell you that knowing how to get in shape is a long way from actually making the change.

I was inspired by a recent training seminar I attended.  The instructor told us often that the cause of procrastination is that we see a project as difficult and huge.  And the solution to procrastination in these cases is to commit to tackling bite sized chunks to build momentum.

I immediately realized that what this instructor told us applies to my approach to working out.  When I was in my best shape, I was working out nearly every day, often for over an hour, with serious weight lifting, stretching, core, running, etc.  And so now when I think about going to the gym, this is the kind of project I have in mind; the project seems huge and daunting.

So I’ve committed to the bite-sized approach.  I just tell myself “ OK, I’ll just go work out for 20 min.  If I want to stop after that, fine.  If I want to keep going, that’s great too.”  I’ve only been experimenting with this approach for a week now, but I’m getting positive results.  So far I’ve worked out several times, and each time I’ve been willing to go longer than 20 min once I was into it (usually I’ll go for more than 40 min).  More importantly, the idea of going to the gym for 20 min seems easy to me, so I feel very little resistance when I schedule it into my day. The goal here is to build up the habit of going to the gym, so that working out seems easy and effortless in my mind.  Once I’ve built up the habit, I can start adding in more time, more weights, etc.  (In fact, this is exactly the approach I used when I lost my weight the first time.  Time for me to take my own medicine!)

If you find yourself stuck and struggling to get in the workouts you think you “should” do, see if you’ve made working out a big, challenging project in your mind.  If you think about going to the gym or going running, or even just doing some push-ups at home, and the project feels overwhelming, try this out. Figure out what feels like a manageable chunk to you.  Hey, if you’re really struggling with this, just commit to putting on your workout clothes and stepping outside.  At that point, see if you want to work out.  If you do, great, if not, then at least you built some positive momentum.  Repeat the same tomorrow.  And my guess is just getting up, getting dressed, and getting outside will be positive momentum towards your goals.

Don’t worry about getting quick results.  As I’ve written before, quick results are an illusion anyway.  In my experience, and based on the majority of current weight loss research, it’s much more important to build long term habits.  Trust yourself that as you build momentum, you can always add in more exercise later.  Trust yourself that as you strengthen your fitness routine, that you will naturally gravitate towards health, towards challenging yourself, and towards reaching your fitness goals.

 

Experimenting with Super-Slow Change

“Patience is bitter, but it’s fruit is sweet.” -Rousseau

An approach to change that I’m experimenting with is radically small slow changes, reinforced repeatedly.  To illustrate: I’m a bit out of shape and so my goal is to get back down to my ideal weight (190 pounds).  I’m about 210 now so I’ve got some work to do.  One of the challenges that keeps getting in my way is I know a LOT about getting in shape and so I want to do it all at once.  In other words I’m breaking my own rules about changing too much too quickly.

So I’m forcing myself to slow way down and break down all the habits I need to add to get healthy.  I need to drink more water, I need to work out more, I need to lift weights, I need to improve my diet with more raw fruits and veggies and cut out animal products, I need to visualize myself succeeding, etc. Each of these steps is a habit I need to install in my brain so its running on autopilot.

So my radically slow approach is to just focus on water and chewing right now.  Every day I focus on drinking at least 10 glasses of water and chewing my food much more slowly than I usually do.  I find that just doing these changes takes a lot of conscious effort and a lot of reinforcement.  The water is coming along well but the chewing takes a ton of reminding.  Every day I drink at least 10 glasses of water, I make a note on my little note pad and I give myself some mental pats on the back.  Same for every time I chew a meal thoroughly.  And I don’t really pay attention to anything else right now.  I don’t mean that I just let myself go and pig out or never work out or anything, just that I work out when I feel like it, I eat healthy when I feel like it, and I focus my mental energy on installing the water and chewing habits.  My plan is to keep this up for 30 days, and once I drink water and chew completely without thinking about it, I’ll start on the next behaviors like lifting weights 3 days a week.

This approach isn’t going to get me to my ideal weight any time soon. I expect it will probably be 6 months before I’m back in good shape.  But the great news is that its a very easy approach that has a lot of positive momentum built into it.  Every day I have lots of small successes to celebrate and I’m finding this generates a lot of momentum, a lot of belief that I will ultimately reach my goal.  Even better as far as I’m concerned is that this will ultimately result in my having ingrained a number of very healthy habits that will run totally on autopilot in my life.  I’ll have a fit, healthy body, and the habits to maintain it, and I won’t have to think about it much because I’ll have so thoroughly ingrained all the behaviors in my mind.

Like I said, this is something of an experiment.  I base this approach on the way I lost 90 pounds in the first place, but this approach is even more radical in its slowness.  Even though I was successful before and managed to keep most of the weight off for over 13 years now, still the need to watch my eating and exercise was always in the back of my mind, tying up mental resources.  I’d much rather have the habits ingrained so deeply that I never have to think about them anymore or maybe just the occasional tune-up.

So I’ll keep the regular updates coming but I’m already 3 weeks in and seeing some very positive results, just from this process.  In fact I’m finding that all the positive momentum I’m generating celebrating all my small victories is leading me to make healthier changes effortlessly, like exercising more and being more motivated to eat healthy.  I’ll call those fringe benefits for now.  We’ll see how this all plays out…

Lasting Change starts with Self Compassion

Quick fix is the enemy of real change.  Real lasting change results naturally from cultivating long-term habits.  I’ve written about this already so there’s no need to repeat myself here.  Accepting that quick fix doesn’t work (and the overwhelming scientific consensus backs this up!) we then have to ask: why are so many of us obsessed with quick fixes?  We want cleanses and fad diets that promise to drop 20 pounds in 20 days!  The answer is that our desire for quick fix is rooted in self-aggression.

WHY do you want to lose 20 pounds in 20 days? Fundamentally its because you don’t like how you are now, and you want to feel better immediately.  I look at my fat belly and I feel bad and I think to myself ” I don’t like being fat. I wish this would go away right now!  I wish I was thin and fit!”  Most of us think like this so often we don’t even notice how destructive such a mindset is.  When we think about ourselves like this, the underlying message we are imprinting in our subconscious “I’m not ok”. This is self-aggression.  And it’s toxic.  The more we imprint this kind of negativity in our minds, the more we will find ways subconsciously to sabotage our own efforts. Furthermore, we will come to link feeling bad about ourselves with the desire to change!  No truly positive change can arise from such a mind state.

I propose an alternative approach.  Begin from a place of self-compassion.  If I am out of shape and I want to lose some weight, great!  I can then consciously think to myself, “OK, I’m not happy with my fitness level.  I want to get healthy.  I forgive myself for being out of shape and I honor the part of myself that wants to get better.  I also honor the part of myself that loves food because that part wants me to be happy too!”  Basically the message I want to imprint in my mind is “I’m OK!”  With this mindset, the PROCESS of getting healthy becomes good for its own sake, not just an obstacle standing between how I am and how I want to be.

This self-compassionate approach is also essential as we track our progress.  Each time we succeed in a weight loss goal, we want to take time and feel good about it. Think kind thoughts to yourself like “good job! you made it to the gym today!” and then FEEL the positive emotions in your body.  Not only will this keep you motivated, it will also link positive feelings with the behavior you’re working on.  Similarly, when you fall off the wagon, for example not exercising for a week, instead of getting hard on yourself, forgive yourself.  Think “OK, I fell off the wagon this week!  That’s ok, I’m human.  I’ll just get back at it today!”  Then renew your commitment.  What most of us do is start thinking self-aggressive thoughts and so feel bad about ourselves for failing.  This spirals out of control to the point that we feel hopeless about losing weight entirely.

This approach runs counter to the way we typically think in our culture.  Most of us have been raised to be hard on ourselves.  We believe that self-aggression is necessary to stay motivated.  Many people I talk to about weight loss don’t want to hear they should start by being nice to themselves because they’re afraid that this will result in “letting themselves go”.  They’re afraid that letting go of self-aggression will result in losing motivation for change. In fact the new research suggests exactly the opposite: a self compassionate approach actually enhances behavior change. One recent study, for example, found that dieters who were instructed to be self-compassionate ate less junk food than those who were given no extra instruction.

You may still be skeptical. I certainly was, being a confirmed self-aggressor for years.  I suggest trying it for yourelf.  Start being nice to yourself and celebrating your small wins as much as noticing setbacks in your behavior changes.  Watch your motivation levels and see if what I suggest is true for you.  One important note: be be patient with this.  Most likely you have ingrained self-aggression for years and it will take time and conscious mental effort to cultivate self-compassion.

For tips on how to generate self-compassion, I highly recommend Dr. Kristin Neff’s excellent site Self-Compassion.org.

As always if you have a different opinion or want to share anything, I’d love to hear from you!

Each Day is New!

There is no one single magic solution to healthy weight loss. There is no magic pill, no magic diet, no perfect workout plan. Each day I find that I have different needs and different challenges. Some mornings I wake up and have incredible energy! I can’t wait to hit the gym and work myself into exhaustion. Some days I have low energy, I’m tired and depressed and the last thing I want to do is eat salad and lift weights. Each day my mind is in a different place and my mind is the root of personal change. So I have to always remind myself to be flexible, to be supple. Yesterday’s solutions don’t necessarily work today.

I find it helpful to remember the Buddhist notion of the illusory nature of self. Here in the West, we seem fascinated by the idea of personality. We have personality tests and typologies and we love to talk about our particular personal quirks. We are in love with the idea of a solid self. But ancient Buddhist teachings and modern neuroscience seem to more and more agree that the very notion of a stable self is an illusion. We change constantly. The more I can let go of my story, the more I can be present in the moment with whatever I need right now, the more I am able to remain on track with my goals.

See, its easy to get discouraged when I think I’ve found the magic formula and it works for a week, or a month, and then suddenly my state of mind changes and I need a fresh approach. I think, “what’s wrong with me?” “why can’t I stick with anything?” I was doing so well last week, eating healthy and working out, and here I am with my face in a carton of Ben and Jerry’s! These moments are critical because I have two choices- I can despair and resign myself to failing, or I can realize that I am a different person than I was even yesterday, and I may need a new approach today. Maybe today I need more compassion and patience. Maybe today its ok if I eat a little junk food and don’t work out. I can forgive myself this temporary lapse, and reframe it as an opportunity to get back on the horse.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have an overall fitness plan, just that excessive self-discipline is actually a weakness. Overly-rigid thinking limits us and makes it too easy to say “well I blew my health kick so I guess I’ll just give up! maybe next week…” sound familiar? A more useful way to think might be “well today I
didn’t get all my goals and I forgive myself. I’m going to work with where I am now, and refocus on my goals.” Then reflect on all the positive steps you’ve taken recently towards your fitness goal and use the positive energy that arises to get back on track in small, manageable steps. Self-compassion creates space for new solutions to arise. The more you can practice this kind of approach, the more you’ll be able to remain balanced in the face of the inevitable sea-changes that arise in the mind.

The questions you ask yourself matter!

I find myself habitually asking “why?” obsessively. “Why can’t I lose weight?” “Why is so and so mean to me?” “Why is my apartment always a mess?” etc ad nauseum. I don’t think I’m alone in this problem. I think a lot of us are why-freaks. In fact people I have coached nearly always have detailed explanations of their situation that imply a thorough self-analysis with lots of “why?” No therapist needed.

The problem with always asking “why?” is that our brain will always find a way to answer the question – regardless if the answer it generates is true or not. And true or not, the more we think something the more we come to believe it and to easily access that answer in the future. In other words, asking “why?” of ourselves habitually will often lead to a solidified series of answers – I can’t lose weight because XYZ happened when I was a kid, or I don’t have enough willpower, or its not the right time in my life, etc. These answers may or may not be absolutely true, but the more we think about them the more they become true for US!

I find a much more useful question is “What?” “What will motivate me to work out more?” “What will make me happy today?” “What is one thing I can do to be healthier in my life?” etc. The beauty of asking “what?” is it allows for new ideas to come into our minds. New solutions to existing problems. “Why?” only analyzes existing problems and solidifies them in our minds. “What?” helps us to see ways out.

I’m not saying you should never ask “why?”, only that “why?” is really only useful as a problem identifier. Once a problem has been noticed, focus attention on generating new ideas and solutions by asking “what?” questions. And then be sure to put some of those solutions into action! This isn’t The Secret, and you still have to do the hard work. The good news is that the more you act on your new ideas, the more powerful they become in your mind.

“What” are you going to do with this idea today?

Why just “Thinking Positive!” is holding you back

We’re told over and over again to just “think positive!” We’re told to visualize positive outcomes, to use affirmations, to reframe failures as successes. This advice is well-meaning, and there is some truth to it, but if you just “think positive!” all the time you’re setting yourself up for massive failure.

Lets consider what’s implied by the advice to think positive. You’re thoughts (at least in part) shape your experience of the world. If you think “negative” thoughts that’s what you experience. The same for positive thoughts. So the thing to do is block or remove negative thoughts and choose positive ones instead. This makes complete logical sense and its TOTAL B.S.

Our minds just dont work like this. By blocking or resisting thoughts, we actually create MORE negative thoughts. Because what’s the thought implied by resisting a thought? Why “No” of course! We are saying “NO” to whatever negative thought we just had. “I shouldn’t think that thought, I need to think a positive thought instead.”  No itself is a negative thought. You can easily see why resisting your thoughts will quickly lead to a downward spiral of mental negativity. The more you resist, the more negative your mind becomes. This can further result in stress, anxiety, physical symptoms, obsessive thoughts, etc.

The same problem results from “just thinking positive!” By constantly thinking positive thoughts, you are in effect controlling your thoughts. Which means that when any thought arises that isn’t “positive” you will have to resist it and we’re back to the spiral problem I described above.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t any benefit to positive thinking, just that’s its a much more subtle and complex process than most self-help literature in our culture would lead you to believe. To make good use of positive thinking, first you need to practice compassion towards your present mental state. As we’ve seen, any kind of resistance to your mental state just creates more negativity. So be compassionate towards whatever you’re thinking right now. Don’t argue with your thoughts, don’t try to change them, just let them be. And gradually your mind will relax. This process will typically take at least 10 minutes, although with practice it will come easier.

Think of it as clearing a space in your mind to plant a positive thought. You can’t plant anything in a garden full of weeds (negative thoughts), but unlike gardening we can’t just attack the weeds to create space. The only way to create space for positive thinking is to first generate a positive state of mind. And this can only come about when you stop resisting your current mental state.

So think your positive thought, put positive, sincere emotion behind it, and then let it go! And make compassionate space for whatever arises, positive or negative, in your mind. Greet each thought with kindness. This is the hard way, the long way, the painful way, to positive change. And its also the only way that actually works.