A Mindful Approach to Procrastination

Written December 10, 2014 by Holly Rogers

About the Author

Holly-RogersHolly has been a staff psychiatrist at Duke University’s student counseling center since 1996, and she is a Clinical Associate in the Department of Psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center. Her professional interests include the treatment of mood and anxiety disorders in the context of young adult development. She has a special interest in using mindfulness and meditation to facilitate health and personal growth in young adults. She is the co-developer of Koru Mindfulness and a co-founder of the Center for Koru Mindfulness.

Image by Lynn Friedman from Flickr. Creative Commons Copyrigh

On college campuses across the country, ‘tis theseason…to procrastinate. Mindfulness offers a strategy to get moving.

It’s that time of year again, final’s week at many of the colleges around the country; the time when a semester’s worth of procrastination finally kicks you in the butt. For the lucky student, awareness that she has reached the bitter end will catapult her into efficient activity that allows her to complete all the necessary tasks on time. The less lucky student may find himself trapped in a paralysis of panic, weighed down by anxious dread as he sees clearly the train coming down the tracks towards him.

Of course, not everyone procrastinates, but in my experience it is pretty common. Procrastination is just one of the many ways we learn to avoid discomfort.

We get very practiced at avoiding discomfort. Our smart phones are an ever-present distraction, saving us from even a minute of boredom or restlessness. It seems practical, avoiding discomfort; what could possibly be the problem with avoiding discomfort? The savvy reader already knows the answer: not all discomfort can be avoided. Life, in case you hadn’t noticed, is not just a non-stop series of delightful events.

Somewhere along the way, we humans got the idea that if we got everything organized just right we would be able to avoid all discomfort. If we can make the work easier, the homes more comfortable, the food more tasty, the sex more available, the internet even faster, then we won’t ever have to experience unpleasantness.

Most of us have gotten pretty good at constructing a life that minimizes our contact with things we don’t like. Unfortunately, that leaves us unpracticed at managing the disappointments and losses that life will inevitably serve up. If we aren’t practiced at managing disappointments, then we easily get overwhelmed when troubles arise. We don’t have a strategy for dealing with the discomfort; even more problematic, we don’t trust that we can cope with whatever challenge comes our way.

One advantage of learning mindfulness meditation is that it helps build your capacity for tolerating unpleasantness without getting overwhelmed. If you are always avoiding discomfort, your capacity for holding difficult feelings shrinks very small, down to the size of an espresso cup, or a shot glass. When you have only a very small cup to hold tough feelings, your cup is easily flooded, and you quickly become overwhelmed. If you can increase the capacity of your cup to hold difficult feelings, say up to the size of a Starbucks’ Trenta, then you can handle a greater degree of discomfort without your cup flooding over. It stays more manageable. Meditation helps you increase the size of your cup.

For me personally, this has been one of the most tangible benefits of my meditation practice. Over time I have developed the ability to sit quietly, still-ly, and watch the way difficult feelings come and then go again. I’ve learned that if I just breathe and watch, everything moves on. I’ve seen over and over and over again that my thoughts can grab onto a situation that has produced an unpleasant feeling, and review it endlessly, forcing the unpleasant feeling to last indefinitely. Or, I can just let it go. Watch my breath. See what’s next. Maybe the feeling comes back. Or not.

I’ve been meditating long enough that I’ve developed a small amount of skill at doing this. I can do it now even when I’m not meditating, like when I’m in a rush and the light turns red. Or when I’m just about finished writing an article, and the computer crashes. I’m not even close to perfect at this trick of course, but it comes easier these days. Perfection was never the goal, anyway.

What does all this have to do with procrastination? Typically, underlying procrastination are some negative thoughts. I don’t want to do this stupid paper. I’ll never get it done. I don’t know where to start. I’m a horrible writer. This is a waste of time. What if I fail? These thoughts breed anxious dread and are of no practical use when completing a task. Rather than just tolerating these unpleasant feelings and carrying on, we try to avoid them by avoiding our work.

So how might mindfulness help with this? If you can bring some mindfulness to these moments, you might become aware of the thoughts coming up, notice the accompanying anxious dread and also notice the feeling of your feet on the floor, your fingers on your computer, your breath going in and out. The thoughts about your potential failure and your feeling of dread need have no more significance than the feel of your body in the chair. They are just thoughts passing through. You don’t have to make the negative thoughts and doubts go away, just leave them alone. Tolerate the discomfort without fretting about it. It’s OK to have those thoughts. And you also don’t need to be controlled by them or wait until your mood changes to get started. Just turn your attention to the work at hand and begin.

With practice, you can learn to notice your distracting doubts without getting caught in them or taking them too seriously. You can feel the discomfort they cause without having to react to them. You move on. The work gets done. It’s no big deal.

Koru-Logo1-300x182Register for the upcoming Koru Mindfulness Teacher Certification Training presented through the UCSD Center for Mindfulness (UCSD CFM) Professional Training Institute, August 2-6, 2015, held at EarthRise Retreat Center, Petaluma, CA.

This workshop/retreat is the first phase of the Koru Mindfulness three-phase teacher certification program. Participants in the workshop must be accepted into the Koru Mindfulness teacher certification program. A complete description of the Koru Mindfulness certification program and an application can be found here.

 

 

 

 

Can We “Be Enough” and Still Mindfully Pursue Our Goals? Part 2

By Pete Kirchmer

About The Author

ccf9e-headshot2Pete Kirchmer is  the Assistant Director for the UCSD Center For Mindfulness mPEAK (Mindful, Performance Enhancement, Awareness & Knowledge) Program. Pete specializes in coaching his clients in applying the practice of mindfulness to making healthy lifestyle changes as well as improving performance in life, work and sport. For more information about Pete Kirchmer please visit his Mindfulness Based Health Coaching website.

There are risks of becoming attached and consumed by our goals. In Part 1 of this blog, we considered how striving for results and clinging to outcomes can lead to stress and anxiety, diminishing well-being and eroding performance over time. However, goals don’t need to be eliminated because of this, just approached more mindfully. I’ve found that while it may not be helpful to set a specific and measurable goal to achieve mindfulness, it can be very helpful to bring more mindfulness to achieving goals in life, work and sport. In this blog we’ll explore a few of the ways to practice working with goals that can both enhance performance and lead to greater fulfillment.

The biggest distinction of Mindfulness Based Goal Setting (MBGS for those who needed one more acronym) is to hold your goals lightly. Treating a goal as an intention or a commitment rather than a rigid destination helps to decrease attachment and clinging to an expected outcome.

The Goal is an Anchor

Participants of the mPEAK program and others who know the basic instructions for Awareness of Breath Meditation will be quite familiar with the intention and commitment to following the breath as a single point of focus. We set out attending carefully to the sensations of each in-breath and out-breath… until we don’t. When we get distracted by thoughts, feelings, sounds or sensations, the instruction is to simply notice the wandering mind and return to the breath with kindness. This is the same way to practice with our goals! We set an intention or commitment to finishing a project, going to the gym, eating less gluten or being nicer to our spouse. When we inevitably lose motivation, get distracted or begin a pattern of self-sabotage, the instructions are to simply notice and gently but firmly come back to the goal.

The word “aspiration” is related to the Latin word spiritus, breath, and comes from the french aspirare meaning ‘to breathe out.’ When we relate to goals as aspirations, they can be used like the breath as a focus for practice, developing greater concentration and anchoring us to the present moment. I often tell my clients, it’s not the one who clings tightest to the goal who succeeds, it’s the one who continually comes back to the goal over and over.

I’ve been practicing this way with my own aspiration while writing this blog. For instance I’ve been aware of a desire to stop writing and fix a snack about every twenty minutes or so. I’ve noticed that the sound of an incoming email pulls my attention away and creates a sense of imagined importance and urgency. I can also hear the thoughts of my own inner critic judging my writing, “This blog is long and boring and nobody will probably read it”. But with mindfulness, I can simply notice the thoughts and impulses and make a choice to either indulge the distraction, or continue writing toward my goal.

Goals as an Experiment

Another way to loosen our grip on goals is to treat them like experiments. Rather than measuring success only by the specific outcome, we can begin to look for value in the learning and development that comes around any goal. Whenever I set a goal that stretches me from my comfort zone, I can count on all my “stuff” being triggered. By bringing curiosity to my thoughts and patterns that arise during the process of working toward a goal, I deepen my understanding of what makes me perform well and what holds me back.

While working toward the goal of finishing this blog, I’ve learned that I’m more creative and enjoy writing in the mornings rather than in the evenings. Because of the introceptive awareness I’ve cultivated through practicing the Body Scan Meditation, I am keenly aware that 1 cup of coffee engages my body and mind, stimulating my fingers to type efficiently. However with a cup and a half, a subtle nervousness sets in that leads to more distractibility, typos, made up words and run on sentences. There has also been self-awareness and knowledge gained around how to prepare to write. I’ve found that a little prep work of reading other material on my topic can help me get into my flow. But without watching carefully, this preparation can take on a life of it’s own, becoming an all-consuming research project fueled by the fear of not knowing enough.

Goals as a Gateway

“The view changes as we walk along the path and we abandon the goals that, at first, we had in mind. It’s painful to let go of our original intentions but, eventually, they are in the way because we have been changed, we are no longer the person who set off. Our intentions gave us the journey and that is enough.” – John Tarrant, Zen Teacher

Another way to hold goals lightly is to trust that our goals will evolve naturally as our practice deepens. When I first began meditating, over a decade ago, I was clear that my goal for meditation was to be a Jedi- Samurai warrior. I had practiced martial arts for many years and watched enough Kung Fu movies to know that anyone who wanted to seriously kick butt had to meditate. Was this the wisest aspiration for a meditation practice? Ultimately no, but it’s the one I had and it’s what got me through the door. Since then my aspiration for meditation has gone through many incarnations with each new understanding giving rise to a new “goal”. Letting go of “kicking butt” gave rise to wanting to be more “spiritual”. Letting go of trying to be spiritual made space for acceptance of who I truly am, which set the stage for greater compassion towards the people in my life. Eventually this may even lead to the realized aspiration of compassion for all beings…but I’m still holding that one lightly.

Not only have I noticed that my goals have evolved with practice, they’ve also started dropping away. I’ve written a goal list every New Years since I was 13. Recently, as I reviewed goals from each of the last five years, I noticed a progression toward more simplicity and less ambition. This isn’t because I want my life to be less rich or have less impact, it’s because I trust myself more. Ultimately at this stage of practice, I know what’s in my heart. I know the path I’m on. I know the work that needs to be done and I trust that in most moments, I’ll make appropriate choices that align with my deepest values. Even without rigid goal setting I eat clean, give it my all at the gym, continue to grow my coaching practice and find fulfillment in my relationships. For me, that is enough.

When it comes to setting goals, the most important thing is to start where you’re at, which is typically right here. Look deeply into your own heart and ask yourself what you really, really want out of your life, your practice, your sport, your work and your relationships. Set goals that move and inspire you to stretch and grow. Work toward these goals mindfully and diligently with kindness and non- attachment, allowing them to naturally evolve… and evolve you, over time.

2015_3_DayMindful Performance Enhancement, Awareness & Knowledge
3-Day Intensive mPEAK course Program activities include: meditation; talks on the relationship between neuroscientific findings, peak performance and mindfulness; experiential exercises; group discussion; and home practices.
CE credits are available. June 26-28, 2015 The Catamaran Hotel, San Diego, CA

For our local San Diego residence you are also invited to register for the full 8-Week mPEAK program held at the UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness.

 

Can We “Be Enough” and Still Mindfully Pursue Our Goals? Part 1

By Pete Kirchmer

About The Author

ccf9e-headshot2Pete Kirchmer is  the Assistant Director for the UCSD Center For Mindfulness mPEAK (Mindful, Performance Enhancement, Awareness & Knowledge) Program. Pete specializes in coaching his clients in applying the practice of mindfulness to making healthy lifestyle changes as well as improving performance in life, work and sport. For more information about Pete Kirchmer please visit his Mindfulness Based Health Coaching website.

“You are perfect the way you are…and you could use a little improvement”

Shunryu Suzuki Roshi

This blog post began as a goal. About logo-mpeak2 weeks ago I set a goal to create a blog of 1,600 words or less by a specific date and then delegated a few chunks of my schedule for writing and editing. Now here I am in the present, looking at a list of blog topics I’d created in the past, for future consideration. Maybe because I just had a birthday or maybe because the 3-day intensive mPEAK course is about to start in June, but mindfulness and goal setting seems to be an especially relevant topic.

No GoalsNo Goals Allowed

As I begin, I’m curious how many people reading this believe I’ve gone against a fundamental of mindfulness by taking a goal setting approach to writing this blog? After all, Mindfulness is about being in the now, not in the future land where goals live, right?

If you’ve taken a mindfulness course, chances are you’ve heard the teacher say something like, “There is no goal in Mindfulness- no place to go and nothing to get.” This wisdom is commonly met by new students with the response of, “Hold on, it’s not about doing anything?” “Nope. Not improving, changing or fixing.” This can initially be a difficult lesson to grasp. In essence, Mindfulness is about recognizing that simply being present and fully accepting what’s already here, is enough.

But what about all those piles of research findings suggesting the benefits of creating specific, measurable, achievable, time dependent goals? Are they in conflict with the other piles of research findings on the benefits of mindfulness? Is the practice of already “being enough”, at odds with my goal to write a blog, or the goals of my coaching clients who want to start going to the gym, run a race, balance work and life or make more profit for their business?

“How do we successfully balance being enough in the present moment while working toward an improvement goal for the future?”

Perhaps the first obstacle to true understanding is the duality of the very questions being asked. Rather than seeing it as either/or, we might try the inquiry: How do we successfully balance being enough in the present moment while working toward an improvement goal for the future?

As I’ve worked with these inquiries over the last few years I’ve found that it’s less about the goal and more about how we hold each of our unique aspirations. There are ways of relating to goals that will increase performance while bringing more enjoyment and there are also ways of holding goals that will lead to greater stress. In this first blog, let’s explore some of the common pitfalls of goal setting so you’ll know what to watch for. There will also be a part 2 of this blog that offers insight into how to successfully bring mindfulness to goals.

Goal AttachmentGoal Attachment

One of the reasons Mindfulness Teachers warn against goal setting is that it can be very easy to get attached to the outcome of our goals. Take for example a client of mine who set a goal to lose 20 pounds at the advice of her doctor to decrease her risk of diabetes. She set out with force and ambition, walking, doing yoga, eliminating processed food and sweets during weekdays. Everything was working perfectly, until it wasn’t. The first slip up initiated a cascade of stress hormones that caused tension in the body and sabotaging thoughts, triggered by an old fear of failure. Not wanting to face her disappointment and negative body image, she was convinced that the only thing that would help her feel better about herself was more cheesecake.

“…it can be very easy to get attached to the outcome of our goals.”

When we get attached to a goal, it becomes part of our identity, which typically turns out in one of two ways. For some people like my weight loss client, one simple slip up can be elevated beyond a single failed moment, to a more global, “I am and always will be a failure as a person.” In this case, self-efficacy goes down the drain with yet another goal not achieved. For others, goal attachment leads to the opposite effect of not giving up on a goal even after it’s long ago lost value and relevance. Failure after failure doesn’t seem to loosen their white knuckled grip. Rather than just letting go, goal attachment can lead some to go down with the ship.

Striving & DrivingStriving & Driving

Many mindfulness students who come from corporate America or competitive sports are utterly baffled by the concept of “Non-Striving”. Striving is not just common in their culture; it’s a normal and expected way of being. Everyone is “striving to be their best” or “striving for progress”. Often striving does actually work to push the desired results, but is it really the best way to move forward? Just take a look at the word “Strive”. According to the Oxford dictionary it means, “to make great efforts to achieve or obtain something” or “to struggle or fight vigorously.” In fact the word strive has its origins in the word “strife”, which means “angry or bitter disagreement over fundamental issues; conflict.” The only reason this anxious, urgent and even desperate way in which people strive ends up going unnoticed, is because everyone else is working that way too.

“Often striving does actually work to push the desired results, but is it really the best way to move forward?”

Take for example a client of mine who wanted to compete in a triathlon. Her friends were signing up and it had been on her bucket list for many years. After the long list of accessories were purchased, a new bike, wetsuit, swimming goggles, running shoes, and a new device for tracking miles, she was off to the races. Each morning getting up early to train, sacrificing time with her family, preparing meals and diligently planning out training days so that her time decreased and her mileage increased. All sights were set on race day. If results were what mattered, then her hard work was paying off and she could be seen as a success. But if well-being and enjoying life was any factor at all, then she was failing miserably.

When we’re striving to reach an end goal, we can begin to lose perspective and diminish the rewards of the journey. We might be making progress but at what cost? Even with high stress levels and an underlying sense that “something is wrong”, many of my clients still express fear in letting go of their striving. “If I didn’t strive to finish my projects, nothing would get done on time.” One of the biggest challenges for these people is that the stress caused by the striving its self, limits the ability of their mind to see any of the other infinite, creative ways to go about getting things done.

Great Expectations

At the heart of any unskillful goal setting is the belief that “If I reach that goal, then I’ll be happy.” Happy could just as easily be replaced with “peaceful, lovable, worthy etc.” The assumption is that things are not OK right now, but if I did x, y and z, they would be better in the future. This thinking leads some to disenchantment with life when they realize that one achievement after another doesn’t lead to the expected happiness. But others continue to chase the carrot year after year, telling themselves the same story. “I thought it was the 10 pounds that would make me happy but maybe what I really need is to save up for is a new car.” “I thought it was a new car, but it must be a new wife.” “I thought it was a new wife, but it must be more travel.” The reason things you think would make you happier don’t, is explained by the theory of “Hedonic Adaptation”. This is the tendency for people to quickly return to a stable level of happiness, or a “happiness set point”, despite major positive or negative events or life changes. For example, if someone reaches their goal of losing weight, getting a raise, moving to a bigger house or buying a new car, eventually his or her expectations and desires rise in tandem, resulting in no permanent gain in happiness. This is referred to as the Hedonic Treadmill…it’s a cycle that just keeps going and going, always striving to get to an imaginary “there”, but never arriving.

Now that we know what not to do, stay tuned for the next post which will give examples of how to relate to goals so that performance continues to improve, but without the stress of attachment.

You are invited to join and learn with Pete at our next mPEAK trainings. mPEAK is a cutting-edge training program for those seeking new levels of performance and success in their work, sport, or other challenging endeavors. mPEAK is built around the latest brain research related to peak performance, resilience, focus, and“flow”. The mPEAK program enhances mindfulness through established and empirically supported practices and exercises, tailored to fit the needs and desires of the team or individual.2015_3_Day

Mindful Performance Enhancement, Awareness & Knowledge
3-Day Intensive mPEAK course Program activities include: meditation; talks on the relationship between neuroscientific findings, peak performance and mindfulness; experiential exercises; group discussion; and home practices.
CE credts are available. June 26-28, 2015 The Catamaran Hotel, San Diego, CA

For our local San Diego residence you are also invited to register for the full 8-Week mPEAK program held at the UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness. The next program begins Tuesday evening, May 12, 2015, 6:00-8:30pm.

“Our brains are evolving to multitask,” not! The ill-usion of multitasking

By Allan Goldstein
Originally published July 2011 revised April 2015

I recently overheard a proclamation, which has become somewhat of a mantra, recited by today’s college students. A student proudly making the following declaration regarding her ability to pay attention to multiple digital screens at once said, “Our brains are evolving to multitask!” That simple yet profound statement left me wondering if this could really be true? How in one or two computerized generations of human beings could our brains evolve so dramatically? Is there such a thing as multitasking, and how is our performance affected when we are concurrently attending to computers, smart phones, iPads, and our daily chores? Recent research in neuroscience has shown that our brains are capable of forming new neural connections, known as neuroplasticity, but this student’s assertion seems to be pointing towards a rapid leap in evolution that goes well beyond that. Through my work in the field of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), I have come to believe that what we commonly refer to as multitasking does not exist and that the level of our ability to perform tasks suffers as we shift our attention from one task to another. In fact, the empirical data from studies in the field of neuroscience is proving that there is no such thing as multitasking!

The online version of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines multitasking as “the concurrent performance of several jobs by a computer” and “the performance of multiple tasks at the same time.” These two definitions divide multitasking into two distinct categories. The first definition refers to performing multiple tasks simultaneously, such as driving while talking on the phone or listening to the radio while at the same time trying to remember directions. The second definition is pointing towards moving from one task to another, such as text messaging, followed by shifting to doing homework on a computer, and shifting again to grab a hurried bite from a late ­dinner—over and over, again and again. Now consider that all of us, especially college students given their current digital, computer, screen-oriented lifestyles, are doing more and more of this all the time. If this is true, and I believe it is, we can see why it is good for our psyches to think we are evolving to do it.

So what exactly is the data derived from recent research in the field of multitasking showing? In the PBS Frontline presentation Digital_Nation, by Douglas Rushkoff and Rachel Dretzin, Dr. Clifford Nass is interviewed about his studies at Stanford University on the performance levels of extreme multitaskers: “These are kids who are doing 5, 6, or more things at once all the time.” Contrary to the fact that most multitaskers think they are extremely good at it, the results of Nass’s first-of-its-kind studies are troubling: “It turns out multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking! They get distracted constantly. Their memory is very disorganized. Recent work we’ve done suggests that they’re worse at analytic reasoning. We worry that it may be we’re creating people who may not be able to think well and clearly.”

Taking a step back from the profound statement “our brains are evolving to multitask,” let’s look at the question, Are students developing new skills and competence that facilitates multitasking? In “What Else Do College Students ‘Do’ While Studying? An Investigation of Multitasking” by Charles Calderwood, Philip L. Ackerman, and Erin Marie Conklin, findings show a correlation among college students between mutitasking and study skills: “Higher homework task motivation and self-efficacy for concentrating on homework were associated with less frequent and shorter duration multitasking behaviors, while higher negative affect was linked to greater multitasking duration during the study session”. In my experience, there is a fundamental common sense to all this. If you focus all your attention on one task at a time, it seems logical that the results would be better than if your attention is divided or distracted by other tasks. Our children may argue they are evolving to move beyond this, yet the data support what our mothers and generations before us always knew as they gave advice such as, “Finish what you are doing!”

In our culture, there is certainly a perception that people can successfully multitask and a belief that the more we do it the more efficient at it we become. After all, most of us would say we are multitasking many times during the day. So what are the motivations behind all our multitasking? In her blog article “Beyond Simple Multi-Tasking: Continuous Partial Attention,” Linda Stone makes a distinction between simple multitasking and what cognitive scientists refer to as “complex multitasking” to explain her theory of Continuous Partial Attention (CPA). In simple multitasking, each task is given the same priority. One task may even be routine, like stirring pasta while talking to our spouse. Stone claims the driving force in simple multitasking is to be more productive. In complex multitasking, the motivation is not to miss anything by maintaining a field of CPA. As Stone explains, “In the case of continuous partial attention, we’re motivated by a desire not to miss anything. We’re engaged in two activities that both demand cognition.” One of these cognitive tasks may also seem more important than another, requiring our brains to be focused on it while remaining alert to the several other less important cognitive tasks requiring our attention. Stone continues, “When we do this, we may have the feeling that our brains process multiple activities in parallel. Researchers say that while we can rapidly shift between activities, our brains process serially.”

Stone’s theory of CPA is supported in the article “Cognitive Control in Media Multitaskers” by Eyal Ophir, Clifford Nass, and Anthony D. Wagner. The abstract of their study states the following surprising findings: “that heavy media multitaskers performed worse on a test of task-switching ability, likely due to reduced ability to filter out interference from the irrelevant task set.” It is important to note Stone’s CPA is not multitasking; rather she is referring to the kind of attention we hold while we are complex multitasking. Maintaining our attention in this state of hyper-vigilance keeps our fight or flight response activated. According to Stone, some people will feel alive, on top of things, and connected. She concedes this can serve us well at times. However, Stone claims the shadow side of being on continuous, continuous partial attention (CCPA) is a constant activation of the fight or flight response. The complex multitasker is in a continuous state of overstimulation with a perpetual feeling of lack of fulfillment that can lead to stress-related diseases. This holds true with my own experiences hearing about and seeing the conditions that create stress in the lives of participants in MBSR programs.

Indeed, neuroscientists are discovering that different parts of the brain are switching on and off, resulting in the serial processing that Stone references. This switching happens so fast that it appears we are performing multiple tasks simultaneously. We can conclude that, contrary to the first definition of multitasking, “the concurrent performance of several jobs by a computer” (Merriam-Webster ), that our brains do not process tasks concurrently. Regarding the second definition of multitasking, “the performance of multiple tasks at the same time” (Merriam-Webster ), we see we are not really performing tasks at the same time, but instead switching back and forth between them with some of us in an unfulfilled state of continuous partial attention.

In an interview for The Atlantic titled “Corporations’ Newest Productivity Hack: Meditation,” Joe Pinsker quotes David Gelles, the author of Mindful Work: “Multitasking is a myth. I think we rarely, if ever, can actually do two things at the same time. I think what we’re doing is very rapid task-switching, which leads to inherent inefficiencies.” Many naysayers may try to claim this is simply a semantic argument, and to some degree, I would agree. Words are divisive by nature and often fall short in truly representing what they are meant to describe. Perhaps it is time to throw out the word “multitasking,” as the definitions no longer fit, and invent words that better represent our current scientific understanding of the way our brains function. How about “serialtasking” or “taskswitching”?

If we identify that our lives have sped up to a point that may be causing us physical harm and if we have a desire to do something about it, there are several antidotes to our cultural addiction of the illusion of multitasking. This will require a change that most people may be resistant to make. In the article “Mastering Multitasking,” Urs Gasser and John Palfrey suggest, “We have to embrace and master it, while providing limits from time to time to create contemplative space for young people.”  We can focus more on individual tasks by bringing a strong mindful awareness to our actions while performing them. By taking breaks and time outs, we can shift our attention back to our senses. In one sense, I’m hopeful as I see a cultural shift, perhaps as a backlash to all the stimulation, to embrace mindfulness. Alternatively letting go of even one aspect of multitasking, like text messaging, can be painful for some people, let alone shutting down and going offline.

The empirical evidence supports the hypothesis that there is no such thing as multitasking. Multitasking is a misnomer. The word points to something that at best can be looked at as individual tasks being performed through a very rapid switching back and forth in the way our brains function or through performing tasks with continuous partial attention. Research, particularly in the field of neuroscience, is compiling data that show multitasking can negatively affect performance and lead to increased levels of stress. We are all part of one big current cultural experiment where we are the scientists, the laboratory, and the results, and it is not a trivial matter. The quality of our lives and our health may depend on our ability to truly understand and wisely manage the effects of our perceptions, beliefs, and actions surrounding our illusion of multitasking.

Works Cited

Calderwood, Charles, Philip L. Ackerman, and Erin Marie Conklin. “What Else Do College Students ‘Do’ While Studying? An Investigation of Multitasking” Computers and Education 75 (2014): 19-29. psycINFO. Web. 17 March 2015.

Dretzin, Rachel and Douglas Rushkoff. “Digital Nation: Life on the Virtual Frontier.” PBS. Frontline, 15 Feb. 2010. Web. 14 Apr. 2011.

Gasser, Urs and John Palfre. “Mastering Multitasking.” Educational Leadership 66.6 (2009): 14-19. Education Full Text. Web. 17 March 2015.

“Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary.” Merriam-Webster. Encyclopedia Britannica, Apr. 2011. Web. 13 Apr. 2011.

Ophir, Eyal, Clifford Nass, and Anthony D. Wagner. “Cognitive Control in Media Multitaskers.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (2009). Web. 15 Apr. 2011.

Pinsker, Joe. “Corporations’ Newest Productivity Hack: Meditation,” theatlantic.com. 10 March 2015. Web. 17 March 2015.

Stone, Linda. “Beyond Simple Multi-Tasking: Continuous Partial Attention.” Lindastone.net. N.p., Nov. 2009. Web. . 17 March 2015.

About The Author

Allan GoldsteinAllan Goldstein is the Managing Director of the UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness. Allan’s growth within the field of Mindfulness-Based Interventions has led him to teach extensively to groups and individuals in various health care, university, military, business, and community settings. Allan has had a passion for learning and teaching Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Programs since participating in his first program in 1993. He currently provides mentorship for current and future teachers through the MBSR Qualification and Certification program of the UC San Diego Mindfulness-Based Professional training Institute and  mbsrmentorship.com.

 

Mindful Leadership: Is There a Place for Love at Work?

By Christy Cassisa, Esq.
Director of WorkLife Integration
UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness

christycassisa

Christy Cassisa is a former attorney, who is the Director of WorkLife Integration for the UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness. As she notes, “With all of the excitement surrounding mindfulness in the business community, we are thrilled to offer our WorkLife Integration Programs and our new Mindful Leadership course in partnership with UC San Diego Rady School of Management, Center for Executive Development. Now you can bring the Center’s expertise to your office with a program or workshop tailored for your business or group.” If you have an interest in learning more, contact Christy via the Center for Mindfulness at cfmworklife.ucsd.edu. 

Is There a Place for Love at Work?

Even at work, caring and compassionate relationships matter. Especially at work, it turns out. According to the American Time Use Survey, we spend an average 8.7 hours of every day at work (averaged over all 7 days each week), more than any other single time-use component. This means that if we’re miserable at work, it makes a huge impact on the overall quality of our lives. Although we typically think to look to our non-work relationships for love and support, recent research has shown that feeling this same sense of connection in the workplace can make a big impact. Employees who feel cared for benefit, in terms of satisfaction and wellbeing, employers benefit by having more effective and engaged employees, and a recent study shows that the “customers” they serve do too.

Companionate love refers to a type of emotional culture found in the workplace, as described by Wharton management professor, Sigal Barsade, and George Mason University assistant professor of management, Olivia O’Neill in their study, What’s Love Got to Do with It, published in the May 2014 issue of Administrative Science Quarterly. A workplace that shows a culture of companionate love is one in which employees care for one another and relationships are based on warmth, affection and connection.

The study was conducted on a large non-profit long-term healthcare facility and hospital and it measured levels of tenderness, compassion, affection and caring of the employees towards each other, but not necessarily towards their clients. The researchers wondered if employees who treat each other with caring, compassion, tenderness and affection benefit, would those benefits also carry over to residents and their families? Indeed they were.

They found that employees who worked in the units that showed higher levels of companionate love had lower levels of absenteeism and employee burnout. The researchers also discovered that a culture of companionate love among employees led to higher levels of employee engagement with their work via greater teamwork and employee satisfaction. And the patients also derived benefits from these happier employees. In measures of patient quality of life, based on 11 factors commonly used to assess long-term care facilities, including improved patient mood, quality of life, fewer trips to the ER, comfort, dignity and spiritual fulfillment, there was a positive correlation across the board between a culture of companionate love and patient quality of life.

As a former attorney, I’ve considered this study in the context of the profession of law and wrote a recent 2-part piece for AttorneyatWork.com (here and here). Interestingly, after I had submitted my article, and just a few days before my post was published online, Fast Company also ran an article on the benefits of love at work, citing another researcher, Barbara Frederickson, a well-known positive psychologist. Her opinion is also that that love drives employee engagement. “Because those feelings drive commitment and loyalty just like it would in any relationship.”

The Fast Company article offers several things that drive worker engagement, that serve as “emotional currency”. Among other things, they include having a strong bond with our supervisor, and feeling that we are appreciated and cared about as individual human beings, not just as cogs in the corporate wheel. As with so many other components of corporate culture, leadership really matters. It sets the tone and communicates the attitudes expected of all management relationships below, either fostering these types of relationships or squashing them.

So how can leaders learn to offer “love” at work, especially if it doesn’t come naturally? A great place to start is by practicing mindfulness.

Among other things, mindfulness practice helps the individual cultivate self-awareness, emotional regulation, and compassion, and a good leader possesses all three of these qualities. Awareness of your own triggers and habits can allow you to be fully present with what is actually happening, rather than reacting to assumptions on autopilot. Emotion regulation allows you to maintain calm and composed, even in the face of conflict or challenge. And compassion allows you to really connect with other people and care for them, without necessarily being sucked into their emotional storms. As theologian Albert Schweitzer says, “Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing.”

Truly excellent leadership is an internal job, and this internal work can provide the foundation for a culture of companionate love in any organization. We’ve seen over and over again how mindfulness practice can improve the individual’s physical and mental wellbeing, both of which also impact the leader’s ability to be effective. A leader has a more difficult time inspiring the troops when she herself is feeling burned out and exhausted. A healthy, connected and engaged leader can make a huge difference for both the organization and the individual employees’ wellbeing and performance.

Join our next day-long Mindful Leadership workshop, May 28,, 2015, 8:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m, offered through the UCSD Rady School of Management’s Center for Executive Education to begin to learn the practice of mindfulness.

BBS CEUs Available: Course meets the qualifications for 7.5 hours of continuing education credit for MFTs, LPCCs, LEPs, and/or LCSWs as required by the California Board of Behavioral Sciences. (UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness Provider Number PCE5606)

 

The Soul of Mindfulness

Written February 19, 2015 by Pete Kirchmer.

Pete Kirchmer CPCC

Pete Kirchmer is  the Assistant Director for the UCSD Center For Mindfulness mPEAK (Mindful, Performance Enhancement, Awareness & Knowledge) Program. Pete specializes in coaching his clients in applying the practice of mindfulness to making healthy lifestyle changes as well as improving performance in life, work and sport. For more information about Pete Kirchmer please visit his Mindfulness Based Health Coaching website.

The Meditative Experience

I can still recall one of my first experiences at a meditation course. The instructor sat nobly on stage dressed in flowing white clothing that I imagined he’d bought near the Ganges during pilgrimage in India. He recounted vivid experiences he’d had while in deep meditation, dancing with Krishna on the tongue of the Buddha. Energy flowing and vibrating down his spine. Chakra’s whirling and glowing; he was one with the Divine Mother, in a state of pure bliss. I recall being inspired and even a bit jealous at this man’s deep inner journey. A fire had been lit inside me and I knew that it was my turn to visit these magical, meditative realms. Sitting upright with dignity on my meditation cushion, I was fully committed to repeating my special mantra, over and over again, confident in it’s powers to elevate my soul.  But after twenty minutes of diligence, there were no dancing deities, vibrating energy or elevated soul. My back hurt, my knees ached and the only state of consciousness I managed to reach was one of agitation and exhaustion.

After nearly a decade of meditation practice, I’m comfortable admitting that I’ve still never danced on the tongue of the Buddha, nor do I imagine I ever will. My back and knees still sometimes hurt but I’m no longer all that agitated by it. I’m actually agitated by far less these days, which is one of the many benefits of mindfulness meditation.

There are many traditions and styles of meditation, each with their own practices, intentions and aspirations. There are forms that use Mantras, Mudras, Yantras, and Mandhalas. You can meditate with gongs and crystal bowls, chanting, singing and in silence. Some forms of meditation are to express devotion or prayer, others are seeking transcendence and expansion. All are beautiful and all are beneficial. From the buffet of traditions now available to us in the west, mindfulness meditation is the practice that has called to me. It’s simple yet deep and seeks nothing but a clear experience of what’s already happening in the present moment. It’s nothing special and at the same time, infinitely magical.

Evidence Based Practice

Part of the reasons mindfulness has so successfully integrated into medicine, academics, corporations and government is because it’s incredibly inclusive, accessible and easily integrated into everyday life.  Although Mindfulness practice has its roots in Buddhism, the modern day Mindfulness Based Interventions (MBI’s) have intentionally dropped the cultural and historical baggage of religious mythology and tradition. Some say it’s “Buddhism without the Buddha”. Mindfulness is now often described as an integration of Eastern Philosophy and Western Psychology, supported by Neuroscience (referred to as, “Neuro Dharma”). Given the absence of any language or teaching that would offend or exclude anyone’s beliefs, it’s becoming an appealing practice for people of all religions and atheists alike.  There have now been thousands of research articles published on the various benefits of mindfulness from improving health & wellbeing, decreasing pain, depression and anxiety, improving attention and memory, decreasing stress and burnout, enhancing relationships, and improved performance in life, work and sport.

Has Modern Mindfulness Sold it’s Soul?

“As the history of Buddhism shows, it is a process of continual reformation in accordance with the present needs of those in front of us.”

-Edel Maex, Zen Psychiatrist

Like an Indie Rock band that’s gone mainstream, many question and even criticize the “Mindfulness Revolution” for it’s new trendiness and quickly increasing popularity. The concern is that without the context of Buddhism, modern mindfulness will lose it’s ethical framework and it’s true ability to heal and liberate. Traditionally the intention for practicing mindfulness was to end suffering and awaken to the true nature of reality. There are precepts around not harming or stealing and there is a path laid out for right living. Some fear that excluding these domains of practice will reduce mindfulness to a technique that could be used for say, training Military marksmen to focus on their targets. Or for pacifying the corporate masses so they continue to be overworked with less absenteeism or the health insurance burdens of chronic stress.

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Although Buddhism doesn’t directly teach the existence of an eternal soul the way other religions might, it’s far from “soul-less”. It’s true that on occasion modern forms of mindfulness have strayed from the path, becoming myopic, watered down and over hyped, leading to the new and catch label, “McMindfulness”.  But from my perspective, much of modern mindfulness has actually successfully maintained the richness of the tradition while being “re-contextualized” from it’s Buddhist origin to better meet the needs of our culture. While on retreat at Mt. Madonna Center I had the opportunity to have lunch with Jon Kabat-Zinn, the father of modern mindfulness. Cramming as many questions as possible into our short time together, I hastily made a comment about his course, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) as being “Secular Mindfulness”.  He quickly corrected me by making the distinction, “MBSR is not secular, it’s non-dual.” I then understood that the MBSR approach to mindfulness is not overtly “spiritual”, but it’s also not, “non-spiritual.”

Later in the retreat, Jon Kabat-Zinn warned all of us Mindfulness Teachers in training against a limited view of mindfulness. “Mindfulness is not a technique”, he said with firmness, “Mindfulness is a way of being”. It is in this particular “way of being” that we find the soul of mindfulness. As Kabat-Zinn explains, the Asian word for mind and the word for heart are the same. “Hearing Mindfulness without the Heartfulness is a misunderstanding and will lead us to mistaking it for a purely cognitive exercise.” Ethics, although not directly taught, are imbedded into and cannot be separated from a true understanding of mindfulness.

The Soul of Mindfulness

Students of mindfulness meditation are taught to rest in a non-conceptual knowing that comes before thinking, which we may refer to as “awareness”. This awareness is not purely objective but rather has the inherent quality of loving-kindness. Sounds, sensations, sights, and smells as well as mental objects such as thoughts, feelings and sensations all arise and are held gently in this “kind awareness”. This awareness is open and spacious, accepting and inviting. It is our innate goodness; it’s infinite and boundless, indefinable and knowable only through direct experience. Trying to use thought to understand awareness is said to be like trying to use a flashlight to find the source of the flashlights light. As you wave the light around the dark room it could only fall on objects but never illuminate the source.

Although profound and maybe even abstract sounding for those who’ve never practiced, this “kind awareness” that is the heart of mindfulness is actually quite utilitarian in it’s application to everyday life. It’s not reserved for advanced mediators with completely silent minds or limited to formal periods of meditation, in the morning on your special cushion. You can directly experience this “heartfulness” the next time you face something challenging in your life- however big or small.

We are conditioned to react to stressful events by automatically fighting or fleeing. Blaming, criticizing, “shoulding”, or numbing out, denying and repressing are some of our most common reactions. In these moments you can wake up to feeling the grip and contraction of stress in your body. Rather than going into your reflexive habit, you can pause, take a few breaths and allow whatever is happening to happen, without judging it. You can choose to stay with your fears rather than abandoning yourself, noticing how the thoughts come and go and how the body eventually begins to soften. Allowing life to unfold the way it is rather than resisting it, is actually a radical act of mindful self-compassion. Holding our small, conditioned selves in the light of this infinite, kind awareness is the catalyst for healing and transformation.

Although we may or may not find ourselves during mindfulness meditation, dancing with Shiva and radiating pure white light, we may eventually come to see that the whole of our lives is made up of an ever-changing present moment experience of our senses and self concepts, all arising in this vast, spacious, kind awareness. And if this realization allows us to become more grateful for this precious life, more gentle with ourselves and more compassionate to others, what could possibly be more soul-full than that?

logo-mpeakYou are invited to join and learn with Pete at our next mPEAK trainings. mPEAK is a cutting-edge training program for those seeking new levels of performance and success in their work, sport, or other challenging endeavors. mPEAK is built around the latest brain research related to peak performance, resilience, focus, and“flow”. The mPEAK program enhances mindfulness through established and empirically supported practices and exercises, tailored to fit the needs and desires of the team or individual.

Mindful Performance Enhancement, Awareness & Knowledge
3-Day Intensive mPEAK course Program activities include: meditation; talks on the relationship between neuroscientific findings, peak performance and mindfulness; experiential exercises; group discussion; and home practices.
CE credts are available. June 26-28, 2015 The Catamaran Hotel, San Diego, CA

For our local San Diego residence you are also invited to register for the full 8-Week mPEAK program held at the UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness.

 

Discover Koru Mindfulness: Mindfulness Sparking Joy, Mindfully

Weeks ago I read an article by Penelope Green about a woman named Marie Kondo who gives advice on de-cluttering our lives. I was quite taken by her advice, and I have continued to ponder her suggestion that if we pay attention when sorting through our stuff, we will see that some of our possessions “spark joy” while others don’t. According to Green, Kondo says we should keep only those items that spark joy. I decided to turn the search for sparks of joy into a daily mindfulness activity; to my delight, I found joy sparking in all sorts of unexpected places.Sparks of Joy MindfullyThe first thing that is remarkable about this is the fact that I remembered anything for several weeks. The half-life of my memory seems to be about 24 hours, so I’m usually completely blank about anything that occurred more than five days ago. That just tells you how compelling Kondo’s idea is.The second thing that is remarkable, is that I read this article the day after I had completed a clean out of my closet, doing the semi-annual migration of seasonal clothes between the storage boxes under the bed and the closet. During the migration, I tossed out or kept items based on some idea of what I “should” keep. If something was expensive, then I “should” keep it, even if I was not fond of it. If something was old and showing a bit of wear, I “should” toss it, even if I loved it.The sorting was mostly a cognitive exercise, without much attention paid to feelings. After all, what feelings does one expect to have for a tattered hat or an old pair of socks?

Then I read about Kondo’s advice to pay careful attention to our emotional responses to our possessions when we are clearing out our clutter. Items that “spark joy” should be kept. Items that do not “spark joy” should be honored and thanked for their service, and then tossed.

“Often, it’s the unnoticed moments that are the islands of comfort and calm in our day.”

I must admit it had never occurred to me to systematically assess my possessions for their ability to spark joy. I tend to think of friends and family, occasions and events, sparking joy, but not possessions so much. It seemed like a great mindfulness exercise though, so I returned to my closet and my cast offs to apply the joy-sparking test.

I was surprised to find that many of my possessions did spark joy, and it wasn’t always the ones I expected. The disparity was enough to require a re-sort of the keepers and the cast offs. For example, the pale pink sweater that is incredibly soft had been placed in the cast off pile because really, I’ve just been wearing it too long. It looks tattered. When I picked it up, though, I felt definite sparks of joy, identifying the tired sweater as a keeper. But the expensive tweed jacket that had survived the cut the day before? It was a joy kill, so into the cast-off pile it went.

Other surprises. The socks that I’d kept when helping my sister clean out our mother’s belongings after her death three years ago sparked smiles and warm memories. Strangely, her sweater just made me feel sad. So I kept the socks and gave the sweater an honored farewell. Sadness is a useful emotion, but it didn’t feel like a prompt for saving old things.

I was so delighted by this new mindfulness game, that I carried on into the kitchen. Sorting through drawers, eliminating those things that did not spark joy and noting with delight how many items surprisingly created sparks. The bright yellow lemon squeezer and the tattered old wooden spoon were definite keepers.

In our Koru Mindfulness classes, we ask our students to choose an activity that they do daily and do it will full attention and mindfulness. We call this our “mindful daily activity”. The idea is to bring the practice of mindfulness more fully into our lives by paying closer attention to moments that typically go unnoticed.

Often, it’s the unnoticed moments that are the islands of comfort and calm in our day; it is helpful to take notice of them. For several weeks now my mindful daily activity has been to apply the joy-sparking test wherever I go. All manner of things are joy-sparkers: evening light, brisk wind, distant laughter, salty chips, soft mittens, warm water, and on and on.

I have been delighted to find this to be a useful and transformative exercise. It has helped me see that I am surrounded by little puddles of joy that I usually fail to recognize. Yes, I have problems. Yes, life is busy and things don’t always go as I would wish. But if I pay attention, there are little sparks of joy all around me. I just have to remember to notice.

Koru-Logo1-300x182Register for the upcoming Koru Mindfulness Teacher Certification Training presented through the UCSD Center for Mindfulness (UCSD CFM) Professional Training Institute, August 2-6, 2015, held at EarthRise Retreat Center, Petaluma, CA.

This workshop/retreat is the first phase of the Koru Mindfulness three-phase teacher certification program. Participants in the workshop must be accepted into the Koru Mindfulness teacher certification program. A complete description of the Koru Mindfulness certification program and an application can be found here.

Are you OK with a 2-and-a-half-year-old child undergoing bariatric surgery?

by Char Wilkins and Jan Chozen Bays

mindful-eating-360x200A two-and-a-half-year-old boy weighed 79 pounds, three times normal weight for his age, and he suffered from sleep apnea. After his parents’ two attempts to control the boy’s weight through dieting failed, surgery was approved.1 A laparoscopic sleeve gastrectomy was performed on the boy which involved removing the outer margin of the stomach to restrict food intake, leaving a sleeve of stomach, roughly the size and shape of a banana. Unlike a lap band, the surgery is not reversible.

You might take a breath right now and become mindful of your thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations. Anger? Fear? Denial? Sadness? Any judgments?

Welcome to the world of excess that affects all of us . . . at any age.

Over a period of 14 years (199-2012), the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey collected information about the prevalence of obesity and severe obesity in the US, examining differences in the trends by age, race/ethnicity, and sex. During that time, 17.3% of children in the United States aged 2 to 19 years were found to be obese. Additionally, 5.9% of children met criteria for class 2 obesity and 2.1% met criteria for class 3 obesity. Although these rates were not significantly different from 2009 to 2010, all classes of obesity have increased over the last 14 years.3

We in this mindfulness community need to not only contemplate our responsibility to the obesity crisis which is fed by greed in its many forms, but we need to act, not react.

Dr. Rohit Kohli, MBBS Associate Professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, while acknowledging bariatric surgery can be a life-saving procedure, said:

There are case reports now in the literature and in the public domain in which 4- or 5-year-old children have undergone bariatric procedures. We should definitely think about this, as a community, with open eyes. There are consequences for bone development and metabolic concerns such as mineral and vitamin B12 deficiency or beriberi developing in these children. When we put all of this together as a consequence of a bariatric procedure and weigh it against the benefits that we have just outlined, it is a fine line that we need to walk.

As a pediatrician, first and foremost, I have learned to say, “Do no harm.” We need to take a step back, acknowledge that these procedures work, but in the same breath try to understand the consequences, both moral and physiological.2

But we who practice and teach mindfulness can do more than “do no harm.”

We can help people learn to eat mindfully. We can help them understand how conditioned patterns around eating can impact the way they eat for their entire life. We can help people make connections between thoughts and emotions and disordered eating. We can help them rediscover how to listen to the body so as to know what hunger, fullness and satiety are. We can help people of all ages slow down and re-discover the pleasure of eating through engaging their senses.

And we can help them find alternatives to work with a truth they already suspect: You can never fill the hole in your heart by filling up the stomach.

Our kids are eating their anger, sadness, disappointment and fears.

We tend to point fingers and talk about the issues that swarm around food, eating and body image: the media, fast food chains, genetically engineered food and stressed life styles. Most of us feel pretty helpless in the face of corporate and global forces that shape our lives. We have to acknowledge that we cannot change all these external factors. However we can change our relationship to our bodies and our food. We can choose to focus our time, energy and love on helping one person, one child.

Bridging BadgeJan Chozen Bays and I (Char Wilkins) have been teaching people for many years, individually or in small groups, how to rediscover a kinder and more joyful relationship with themselves, food and eating. A few years ago we formed a teaching partnership in order to spread the benefits of mindful eating by training other professionals in these skills. In our full-day workshop at the Bridging the Hearts and Minds of Youth Conference in February, we’ll be exploring fun ways to help children use their innate wisdom to eat for nourishment and enjoy the process.

  • What do you think about mindful eating for kids?
  • How do you feel about bariatric surgery for children? Laparoscopic adjustable gastric band, the Roux-en-Y gastric bypass, sleeve gastrectomy, or a nitrogen inflated balloon placed in the antrum of the stomach?
  • Do you have experience with mindful eating?

Linking Mindfulness and Peak Performance

by Pete Kirchmer

mPEAK Flow

“Performance Enhancement” is a popular goal in my line of work that is typically associated with the supplement industry or return on investment (ROI) business strategies. Images are conjured up of competitive athletes in bright lycra crossing finish lines, a lone climber sumiting a mountain with ice picks or people in suits shaking hands on big business deals. This is in stark contrast to images that come to mind when thinking about “mindfulness”. This ancient wisdom tradition inspires peaceful images of stacked stones, Zen gardens and people sitting with serene posture on beaches at sunset. So how exactly does Mindfulness fit with Performance Enhancement? Although seemingly opposites, research with the US Olympic BMX Cycling Team suggests that mindfulness practice actually has a lot to contribute to those aspiring to enhance their performance; and it’s not all beaches and sunsets.

logo-mpeakCorporate leaders, extreme sports enthusiasts and everyday people who are looking for a competitive edge have been flocking to mindfulness training programs such as mPEAK, to help them cultivate presence, resilience and emotional regulation for greater success in work, sport and life. As a Mindfulness Based Health Coach I’ve been exploring this link between mindfulness and performance with my clients for the last decade. The path to improving performance is not always a straight one but there are several consistent themes that have emerged in my work.

Presence & Flow

When all of life’s circumstances align and conditions are just right; meaning you’re engaged in an inspiring and novel activity, you’re being challenged but feel competent and there is a degree of risk involved, you’re granted access to a deep state of presence called “flow”. According to positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, flow, also known as “The Zone”, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does. But how often does life offer us this perfect set of circumstances? When was the last time you found yourself in a state of flow? Occasionally you might find yourself naturally engaged in conversation, attentive to a project, deeply immersed in a book, hobby or sport. But what I’ve found in my practice is that people more often default into a state of distraction; they’re lost in thought, zoned out, ruminating, and mindless. In this state, peak performance and enjoyment are unavailable.

Luckily, it’s not necessary to passively wait for the perfect storm of conditions before you find yourself in flow. The specific mindfulness practices I teach my clients offers access to the present moment no matter what the external circumstances. With a blend of focused concentration, physical embodiment and a sense of allowing things to be as they are, mindfulness is a necessary and powerful precursor to experiencing flow. My clients and the participants of the mPEAK program are challenged to bring a sense of curiosity and a “beginners mind” to every moment, expanding the possibilities of experiencing flow in the high performance activities they’re involved in as well as in every day situations.

Emotional Regulation & Resilience

mPEAK Tour BikersMost of the people who seek my coaching are already pretty good at what they do and have had their fair share of successes. Their strengths and skills have gotten them far, but still they have a sense that something is holding them back from performing at their peak potential. Does this sound like you? There are times when it’s all coming together; you’re making consistent progress and seeing gains but then all of a sudden…SMACK! Life happens, right? You fumble the ball, pull a hamstring, miss a deadline, blow a deal, or worse. To add insult to injury, perhaps your temper flares and you say the wrong thing to the wrong person. Or maybe your pattern is to shut down and spiral into self-defeating thoughts. If so, you’re hardly alone; this happens to everyone at some point whether you’re a pro athlete or even a mindfulness professional! The reason we react to challenges this way is that our brain interprets these setbacks as a threat to our survival, which triggers the sympathetic nervous system’s fight/ flight reaction. With adrenaline and cortisol running through the veins; anger, blame, self-criticism and escapism are automatic, habitual reactions. These unconscious stress-driven reactions make the initial problem exponentially worse and lead to lower self confidence and higher stress levels.

What I’ve found is that life, work and sport will all offer consistent challenges but what separates the high performers from the rest, is how we respond to these challenges. For instance the best thing that ever happened for my sport and life was to rupture a disc in my lower back. You see, before facing the possibility of never running again, I took this body for granted. It wasn’t until I was faced with the pain of losing my identity as an athlete that I really began to understand what a gift it is to freely move and lift and play. Rather than let it stop me, this challenge eventually inspired me to levels of performance that far exceeded my original state. I’ve had clients with similar experiences of transformation after big events such as facing the loss of a business or a marriage. With a perspective based in mindfulness and self-compassion, these challenges can serve as the bell to finally awaken to our lives and our purpose.

In my practice, I’ve seen time and time again how mindfulness practice can lead to greater awareness of potential obstacles as well as more skillful decision-making; so the frequency of life smacking you down becomes less. And when life does inevitably deal you a rough hand, these practices can help you respond more skillfully, get up faster, turn challenges into practice opportunities and ultimately do less harm to yourself and others.

As the lead trainer of the upcoming 3-Day mPEAK Intensive this March, I’ll be teaching high performers from around the country how to pause and maintain a centered, balanced perspective and find resilience even in the face of challenges. With these new capacities for resilience and access to flow states, participants can begin to perform more consistently at their peak potential.

If you’re ready to sign up for the 3-Day mPEAK Intensive this March please click here. If you have any questions regarding the mPEAK program, please contact me at mpeak@ucsd.edu.

Perhaps someday in the future, when we think of mindfulness we’ll imagine athletes in uniform sitting with serene posture on playing fields and people in suits pausing silently before meetings. The more research that emerges, the more obvious it becomes that Mindfulness and Performance are truly on the same team.

peter_kirchmerPete Kirchmer is a lead trainer in the the mPEAK program designed and developed at the UCSD Center for Mindfulness. He is founder of Mindfulness Based Health and specializes in coaching his clients in applying the practice of mindfulness to making healthy lifestyle changes as well as improving performance in life, work and sport. Pete has completed training as a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Teacher through the UMass Oasis Inst., holds a BS in Exercise Physiology, and is a Certified Professional Life Coach through the Coaches Training institute, Center for Applied Positive Psychology and Wellcoaches. Currently Pete has a private coaching practice with clients around the country.  He is a regular presenter at Rancho La Puerta, a world-class wellness resort in Tecate, Mexico, is an active member of the Harvard Institute for Coaching and is on the Board of Directors for the Encinitas Mindfulness Community. For more information about Pete Kirchmer please visit his Mindfulness Based Health Coaching website.

 

THANKFUL: Appreciating Beautiful Gifts from Children and Youth

By LeesaMaree Bleicher

LiseeMaree-Bleicher-300x168-2Visit LeesaMaree Bleicher, along with M. Mick Gardener, at the 2015 Bridging the Hearts & Minds of Youth Conference in their 90-minute breakout session called enlighten: a Trauma Informed Mindfulness Based Therapeutic approach combining Restorative Justice as an answer to youth involved in the criminal justice system. Promoting the concept of: Survivor Empowerment not Victimization of Recovery not Incarceration.

LiseeMaree BleicherAlbert Schweitzer said, “At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.”

Nowhere is this spark as bright than in the heart of a youth. Nowhere does there lay a stronger elixir to waken your purpose than in the sparkling enthusiasm of a child’s spirit. And nowhere is there a grander purpose than the need to ease the suffering of a child.

The beautiful thing about helping children is that buried beneath the armor and attitude is this snow-white innocence, this flawless foundation, this feral potential still connected to God, or source, or that which is greater than us individually. This goodness remains steadfast despite the harm adults have done.

Our mission is to guide them back to this place of bliss, if only momentarily. In the shift to recovery, not treatment, we have come to understand “recovery” as recovering that which was lost from us: innocence, joy, light, that feral potential. Discovering the road back to that place of purity and reclaiming our power is the key to freedom from suffering.

Our mission, should we choose to realize it, is to be the guides whose purpose is to steer youth back to reclaim their potential. We do this each time we teach that even in the unbearable moments in life and in the dark of a night of unimaginable pain, there shines a dim but powerful light that will one day illuminate the darkness. And within this light, there shines their power and their way out of suffering.

Ideally we strive to plant the seeds of patience, tolerance and acceptance in our youth.

We affirm: “Life is not fair 8359890249_ed085986b0_b-360x200-1and no you did nothing wrong. No it is not your fault. No you do not deserve what happened to you. No one can make it better, but one day if you just hang on — have faith — one day, I promise you will be OK. One day you will emerge from this stronger and more powerful than you can ever imagine.”

When the testimony of sharing lived experience trumps our cool “professional boundaries,” we make a true and lasting difference. Speaking from the heart and sharing our human experience plants seeds of hope, inspiration, and resilience in youth. Nowhere can we feel the way of freedom from suffering than knowing someone who has walked down a similar path of torment, come out standing steady despite someone else’s best effort to make them fall, and still has enough fierce courage left to tell their story.

Speaking candidly, most youth who like myself come to be in jail, in foster care, or other programs do so by force of their external circumstances. Many come from fragmented, broken homes where they witness and endure unspeakable acts of cruelty from the adults who should be protecting them. Rarely do youth land in these places by their own choice.

Emotional, physical, spiritual, and sexual abuse manifest in the blueprint of our souls and spirits. Such abuse might express itself as a 4th grader bullying his classmate, a youth stealing, a youth who yells obscenities at authority figures, who refuses to eat, who is promiscuous, who skips school, who takes drugs, who cuts their flesh in an effort to feel or not feel pain. It’s the days of silence before an attempted (or successful) suicide where we often mistake the symptom for the cause and fail in our attempts to “treat” them. It’s that approach which undermines the very core of their suffering. And it’s where we as adults fail them yet again.

It was in the vacant blue eyes of an 8-year-old boy named Travis who came to live in my home when I first realized how futile, how misguided, and how inhumane this system to care for children was. It is still raw, and I am not sure yet if I can fully capture how profoundly my time with him altered my heart. This experience both expanded my heart beyond what I thought was possible and then reduced it to nothing when he was gone.

One day while we were together, Travis “disconnected.” Fell silent, withdrawn. And I asked him, “What are thinking about? What makes you so sad? You can tell me anything, and I will believe you. And there’s nothing you tell me I won’t think is important.” After awhile, he came to me and said, “I’m sorry. I don’t know why sometimes I can be happy, and all of the sudden I feel sad. It comes out of nowhere.” I looked at him, cupped his tiny perfect chin in my hand, peered into his blue eyes and wrapped my arms around him. I hugged him tightly and said “I know. And it’s OK. I feel like that sometimes too. And you know what? One day you won’t feel like that all the time. One day you’ll take that sadness and turn it into happy.”

All he was unable to say was conveyed in the way he hugged me back. And in that precious moment when he mumbled “Thank you.” I thought my heart would break.

There was nothing I learned from a text book, nothing from evidence-based practice, and nothing in the foster parent orientation that prepared me for that moment. I reacted from my heart.

My only desire was to ease his suffering and instill within him the tiniest notion that no matter what he felt, it was OK and that it was only temporary.

The reality is that when we come into a child’s life to aid them, they are held in a punitive, restrictive, inflexible system. We don’t always look past that to what brought them into that system to begin with. If we increased our awareness, we would see that few children are delinquent, homeless, end up in jail, or in foster care by their own volition. They come to these places battered, bruised, and sad, having been victimized by adults.

In the months that passed with Travis, after my heart ran ahead of any reason, I watched a sad little boy turn into a bright, happy, fun-loving child who didn’t need medication or to be bounced around from foster home to foster home. What he needed was to be loved.

Now, there was nothing I could have offered Travis that ever could have replaced what his parents failed to give him. My love was a Band-Aid to soothe him until he could grow enough to care for himself. But far more miraculous than anything that I gave him was what he gave to me.

One of my tendencies was to over-explain myself; to offer excuses and/or apologies for nearly everything to everyone. One day, I was going on and on to a friend about why I didn’t do something when from the top of the stairs I heard this little voice say, “LeesaMaree, stop that. You don’t have to explain yourself. It’s OK whatever you do.” I froze at his wisdom and the fact that he cared to try to ease my suffering. Wow.

Then, I came to deeply understand the bigger context of this whole boundary thing. And I came to know that anytime we seek to engage in the helping of another being, it is not so simply a gift we give. It is not one sided.

The moment we think this, we have already failed. We as the perceived “givers” are really part of a mutually beneficial healing exchange connected to a greater energy. Once we come to understand and seek to increase our sensitivity and re-establish the heart in recovery and treatment, once we incorporate living testimony in our practice, only then will we make a true and lasting impact.

This time of year we celebrate thanks for Bridging Badgemany blessings. But as a “profession,” we overlook the rich and beautiful gifts that the children we encounter give us: the opportunity to care, to express our warmest compassion, and to ease suffering. All these things alter us. They allow us to ascend toward the deeper meaning of our shared human experience. The next time a child or a parent or someone else says thank you for the work you do, with humility and honor defer him or her and say, “No, thank you.”

Thankful

(a poem inspired the youth who have walked into my life and left imprints upon my heart)

The leaves fall…fluttering to the ground…landing like a thrush
Awaiting winter’s rush from summer’s dream
I remember summer… bright green and sparkling
and I remember you…your hand extended towards mine…offering me your heart
Giving me that moment…your time…yourself
You said, “Come this way. Here, let me show you… See the sun how it shines?”
Your smile confused the sun and stole starlight’s sparkle
“Listen. You can hear the grass tell its secrets …follow the burrowing bunny, he knows the way…see the Stellar Jay…as he chats up dawn…urging the flowers to wake up…he knows what I am talking about. His blue wings touch heaven”
I ran away from you…but never far… You were everywhere…in everyone
You tied me with a fragile cord of compassion…bound me to the fertile ground…tied me to heaven…left seeds in my hand
You allowed me to fall but not be crushed
Like the leaves, I too have been pink, russet, pumpkin and golden
It was the seeds you left… clutched tight in my hand
One day I remembered…it all came back in one fell whoosh
You cared …You took the time…You forgave me
You gave me another chance and a million more
You listened to me…You reignited the spark
Oh I am so thankful for You
Oh those seeds you left… I planted them under the moonlight…and when they blossomed…I crushed them and stuffed them in my heart
I knew what to do ’cause you said “the best way to show someone how much you appreciate them is to pass on what they gave to you.”
So…I watered the seeds with tears…transformed my fears…infused them with love
Oh I didn’t have it for myself…that care and concern
But I do for them…the ones that come behind me
So I scattered the seeds in the wind of each encounter
Oh, and I did exactly as you taught me …I gave my heart generously and… I fertilized the seeds with glitter…so that those who come behind me will sparkle brighter…than I ever did