Lately, I’ve been writing a lot about how I spend my time. I have developed a keen sense of urgency to experience every moment as fully as possible without trying to hold on to it too tightly. This has meant changing many of my habits and pastimes. Practicing mindfulness as a form of meditation has made all the difference as the landscape of my new world view expands before me.
Among the many benefits I experience, meditation helps to relax my mind and improve focus. With my mind calm, there is a clarity with which I can think and respond to whatever may be going on in my life at the moment; I feel less encumbered with mental distractions and physical stress. I am able to see the world from a different perspective.
Sitting silent, using breathing exercises and closing the eyes may help some people improve their focus, but it just puts me to sleep. I can’t sit cross-legged without getting a cramp, either. I have learned that you don’t have to do any of that to enjoy the benefits of meditation.
I have a lot of energy. I have been diagnosed with what modern medicine refers to as ADHD (although I think the concept of ADHD is bullshit and I have written on it here). It’s hard for me to sit motionless for any extended period of time. Because of this, meditation practices like TM (Transcendental Meditation) have never held any appeal for me. I understand there are tremendous benefits to those who regularly practice traditional methods, but I was never able to make this work for me.
Because I was not going to be able to use the traditional methods to start, I decided to create my own routines to get some of these same benefits. What I have learned along the way is that different methods work in different ways at different times for me.
I developed my own techniques to arrive at a state of calm and focus. Some of these methods have been a part of my daily routines my whole life, some I have only recently adopted. Over the last few years I have begun organizing these techniques into a daily regimen. The more I follow this regimen, the deeper I am able to dive into concentration.
Recently, I have been able to incorporate some of the more traditional methods into my routine. I thought of it this way: Broccoli is good for you. It’s also unpalatable if you eat it raw for your first time. But after eating cooked broccoli that is seasoned and plated with other delicious foods, you can begin to appreciate its unique attributes. Over time, I began to appreciate the texture and flavor without having to overcook it or drown it in spices and cheese. [As an aside, this metaphor holds special significance if you read my history with food]
To me, Mindfulness is simply giving your best effort to focus your attention and/or intention on one particular thing. This could be a physical activity or a mental exercise. The practice of mindfulness is not dependent on strict rules or rigid guidelines; it can be whatever activity, routine, meditation or training you find most conducive to eliminating distractions.
Writing this article, for example, is an exercise in Mindfulness. Organizing my thoughts and laying them out on paper requires that I filter out the stimuli from the world around me. Over the years, I have developed mindfulness techniques to elude the onslaught of distractions that arrive as soon as I get ready to write.
Before the flood of ideas can flow onto the page, my thoughts have to get out of the way. When I am distracted, the words trickle out in drips and they are clouded and muddy. All of the sensory information coming in from my eyes, ears, nose and skin block the flow of ideas from getting from my mind to the page.
I have to escape what I see in the periphery; the smell of food or perfume, the sound of people talking or that itch on my leg that won’t go away. For me, headphones that go over my ears have a way of isolating me from all of the distractions of the world around me.
I put on my headphones and turn on the same song I always listen to when it is time to write (Funny side note, I started wearing the headphones because Birdy hates [and I mean HATES!] this music).
There are no words…it is more like random sounds. In this way, my routine reliably produces a conditioned response that allows my mind to focus on writing and effortlessly ignores all other stimuli. The more I do this, the faster I am able to dive deep into whatever I may be writing.
Similarly, I do this at the gym. Prior to arriving, I put on angry teenager music on the car stereo and drink a protein shake when I am 10 minutes away. Walking into the gym, the headphones go on and it’s time to hit the elliptical. I start with a nice and easy 1 minute warm up and then go full sprint for a minute. Back to nice and easy for a minute and then sprinting again for a minute. After 10 minutes of this, my mind is focused on my breathing and my muscles. (Lately I have adopted some of the practices encouraged by Wim Hoff that incorporates holding your breath under full exertion. If you’ve never heard of him, you should check out his site.)
When my body is warmed up, my mind is usually pretty clear as I begin my workout. I make it a point to observe the beating of my heart and the burning in my leg muscles. As I climb off the elliptical machine, I notice the tension in my ankles and the tightness in my glut’s. Centering my mind on the sensation of my physical body, imagining the blood coursing through my veins and feeding oxygen to my cells replaces the thoughts I brought with me to the gym.
Lifting heavy weights is a fantastic way of further diminishing distractions from my mind. When I am lifting at my maximum capacity, the rest of the world tends to fades away. The demand I am placing on my body when weightlifting consumes all of my brain’s computing power in that moment.
In this limited mental capacity, I concentrate on my breathing; Breathing out when I lift the weight up and breathing in when bringing the weight down. Just as the yogi will hum “ohhhm” as they exhale, I will make a sound like “shhhhhhh” as I breathe out. I use the breath I inhale to summon strength as I am lowering the weight and shift mental focus to the squeezing of my muscles the moment I start to lift.
Between sets, I adjust my breathing to a more measured pace. Slowly taking in long, deep breaths, expanding my diaphragm before slowly releasing my breath with a faint hum.
As I progress through a workout, I begin to notice the fatigue overwhelming my muscles. The burning sensation starts to dominate my focus. Pushing ever closer to the point of exhaustion, there is hardly a thought of the office, bills, traffic, kids or anything else bouncing around in my mind.
To diversify my meditation regimen, I have also found high intensity cardio exercises to be effective (this is for all of my friends who can’t stand going to the gym). My preferred method for this is running up mountain trails. I’ve also found mountain biking provides a similar demand/reward. Besides the benefit of being in nature (which, in itself has a calming, centering effect), you must intensify your focus on the task at hand.
Running or biking up hills places a higher demand on your body. These exercises test your muscle strength as well as your endurance. More importantly, you have to maintain a sharp focus lest you veer off the trail and crash (that’s a story for another blogpost).
Beside the mental benefits, the release of chemicals in your brain after physical exertion create a sense of euphoria. My mind AND my body feel great when I am done.
As I stated before, meditation can be practiced in many and varied ways. If exercise is not your thing, you can also quiet the mind by building or fixing things. Carpentry and remodeling projects are a way of detaching my conscious mind from the incessant blathering of my thoughts. Drawing out the plan on paper, laying out the materials, cutting to size, assembling, installing and finishing the project commandeers all of my brain’s computing power.
Traffic as a metaphor for the way my mind works.
There is a limited capacity for ideas to flow. Stimuli are like vehicles on the road. The more stimuli- the greater the congestion- the slower the ideas flow.
When the freeway of my mind is congested, it is harder for new ideas to navigate their way home. Mental gridlock builds up from distractions: The radio, beeping phone notifications, thoughts of an asshole co-worker, worries about the kids, wishful thinking about this weekend’s plans, etc.
Metering the on-ramps and creating special lanes to speed traffic along reduces some of the traffic, but they don’t solve the problem. Strapped into the driver’s seat of your conscious mind, you can limit distractions, but you cannot take your hands off the wheel or your eyes off the road.
In this context, meditation is like taking the train. Pick your destination at the station and leave the driving to the conductor. Find a seat and settle in…The train knows how to get you from here to there without you having to think about it.
Engaging my body in exercises or routines that are rote gives me the ability to shift my mental processing power from consciously “doing” what I am doing in order that I may access my subconscious mind. It dawned on me that this is why some of my best ideas come to me while I am in the shower: Unburdened with having to think about what I am doing, my mind wanders through the fertile wonderland of my imagination.
Similarly, I walk out if the gym sometimes with the solution to a problem I have been struggling with for days at work. It’s as though the answer has been there all along but I had to get my mind out of the way to see it.
All Roads Lead to London
No matter the means or method, the benefits of meditation can be accessed if you seek them. For me, it was as simple as reframing the way I thought about what I was already doing in my normal life. Simple adjustments to my habits and routines produced tremendous benefits. Expanding that thinking into other areas of my life have augmented this benefit.
I am curious to learn how you meditate. What tips/tricks/hacks have you used to find peace, relieve stress or access the creative part of your mind?