New study about mindfulness apps

There I was in my car, on the way to visit a hospice patient yesterday morning, when I stumbled across a DJ on the radio talking about meditation. He was chatting up the findings of a recent study about mindfulness apps and cell phone games, declaring, in his own words, that participants in the study who meditated felt worse the more they meditated, whereas the game players felt better and more relaxed. His conclusion: playing games on your cell phone will leave you feeling relaxed and meditation is over-rated.

Um…what?

I decided to look up the study. Not only am I disappointed with the DJ’s account of the study but I am also unimpressed with the study itself, as it fails to take into account actual meditation/mindfulness practitioners. The study focuses instead on newbies to mindfulness and gives them only an app by which to learn from and practice with.

To be clear, I have nothing against cell phone games. However, I also find little benefit in playing the comparison game, as in: Digital games may beat mindfulness apps at relieving stress, new study shows, which is the name of an article I found when looking up the study.

In my view, there can be benefits to using the mindfulness apps and there can be benefits of playing cell phone games. Why they need to be compared and judged better/worse, I don’t know.

What I do know is that while I am a big proponent of teaching & using mindfulness in a secular fashion – even though for me personally it’s a spiritual path – there are ways to approach mindfulness that can be more harmful than helpful, when it comes to laypeople wielding it around with little understanding and experience. There is such a thing as over-secularizing, where mindfulness is stripped down to the fast-food approach to living. When mindfulness is used as a gimmick to reduce stress in acute situations, I’m not sure there’s a whole lot of potential for benefit.

To experience the fruits of mindfulness and/or meditation – such as ease and relaxation – it must become an active, engaged, and ongoing practice. When comparing mindfulness apps to digital games to see which has the power to relax more people after work, it makes total sense to me that the participants felt more stress relief after playing a game. People who are approaching mindfulness or meditation with a quick-fix mentality are going to be disheartened with it in short order. There’s a reason most people do not stick with meditation as a mainstay in their daily lives. It’s freakin hard. And it takes a number of things that most of us are not very interested or invested in, such as: patience, self-reflection, diligence, will-power, openness, and an ability to be with our own self, without distracting or distancing our attention from the here and now.

Most of us have no idea how to spend time with our self. We’re not comfortable in our own skin. And if we’re not comfortable in our own skin, then of course being tossed into a mindfulness app just for the sake of a study has the great potential to produce a less than ideal outcome.

Mindfulness and the practice of meditation is not a quick-fix sort of deal. It’s not even a long-term fix sort of deal. Mindfulness and meditation aren’t about fixing what’s “broken” in our lives. The daily practices of mindfulness and the practice of sitting meditation are about being with what is happening in the here and now – and once we can be with it, then we can start the work of understanding, accepting, and embracing.

Please do not make the same mistake as the morning shock jock made on our local radio station yesterday, concluding that meditation is bunk. If you’re truly interested in enfolding meditation or mindfulness into your life, it’s worth finding a sangha or a qualified teacher or, at the least, highly respected books or online resources in which to learn and get support from.

There’s nothing wrong with approaching mindfulness in a secular fashion, using it as a possible tool to reduce stress and feelings of overwhelm, just be sure you’re not looking for quick-fix solutions to long-term or ongoing challenges, as that has a high likelihood for being a recipe for disaster.

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Tolerance vs. Acceptance

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Recently on my post entitled Half Full I spoke about self-acceptance and how our local dharma teacher offered his experience of how the best way he knew to practice self-acceptance was to practice acceptance of others.  When we’re practicing one, we’re practicing the other at the same time.  Self-acceptance and acceptance of others cannot be separated – they are interrelated.

As I’ve been thinking more about this teaching some thoughts have arisen.  Tolerance is not the same thing as acceptance.  I remember when I used to consider myself an accepting person when really what I did was tolerate people on the outside and judge them on the inside.  For me this took shape in the form of irritation as well.  I was constantly irritated by others, sometimes at really slight things.  What I’m realizing now is that I had genuine acceptance at times for some folks but most of the time my acceptance hinged on whether they were acting in a way that I approved of or made sense to me.  I had acceptance for others when things were easy and I didn’t have acceptance for others when things were hard.

And so it went: Acceptance of a friend who’s struggling, sure!  Acceptance of a driver who just cut me off, nope!  Acceptance of my husband who’s just washed the dishes, sure!  Acceptance of my husband who’s left all of his dirty clothes under the bed for the thousandth time, nope!  Acceptance of someone who I have loads in common with, sure!  Acceptance of someone who I have very little in common with, nope!  This type of system of separation is very common, albeit subconsciously.  Sure it’s easy to accept what we agree with but how well do we accept what we don’t agree with?

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I’ve often heard that a very good indicator of the strength of our practice can be seen through our interactions with our family.  If we consider ourselves to be generally accepting let us go and spend some time with our family and see what happens!  I don’t know about you (although I suspect most of us share this) but up until only very recently whenever I spent time with my family I became internally pretty unglued fairly quickly.  I was consumed in judgement, irritation, and stress.  Thank goodness for impermanence, eh?  Things change!  And with the intention of self-understanding and diligent practice transformation is not just a possibility, it’s inevitable.

It’s important to keep in mind that acceptance is not a destination to be reached.  If we think we’ve gotten to the point where we have any teaching down and think there’s no work left we’ve missed something along the way.  Acceptance, like life, is a practice, an ongoing, unfolding journey.

 

 

Relating to the Weather

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How we relate to the weather says a lot about how we relate to life.  And we can use our relationship to the sky as a mindfulness tool (a barometer if you will) to look more deeply into our conditioned responses in our daily lives.

The first step is to shine the light of awareness onto how we perceive the weather day in and day out.  Do we find ourselves obsessively worried about it, checking the forecast often?  Are we disappointed when anything other than sunshine happens?  When the weekend rolls around do we find ourselves saying, “Man, I really hope it doesn’t rain tomorrow, that would suck.”  Do we describe the day as dreary, awful, or some other adjective for unpleasant when it’s simply cloudy out?  How quick are we to label the day as “bad” solely based on the weather?  Do we dread any sort of physical discomfort or complain about the cold, heat, rain or snow?

This may seem trite but I would counter that indeed it is the areas that we label as un-important in life that can often bear the most fruit.  If we get bent out of shape over the weather, which is almost entirely out of our control, it stands to reason that there are other areas in which we are not grounded in our lives.  Getting bent out of shape can take many forms from anger to mild irritation to simply carrying your hope for “better” weather around with you in the back of your mind.

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If our relationship to the weather is that of it never being just right or commonly waiting for the promise of tomorrow to bring more sun, more warmth or more whatever it is we think will make us happy this provides a mirror for us to see how we relate to the present moment.  When we spend our present moment waiting for something better to happen in the next moment, whether it be in regards to the weather or not, we carry with us the stress of never being satisfied.  When we spend our lives waiting for better weather we spend our lives waiting for a day that never comes.  Learning the art of Be Here Now is the most valuable practice we can offer to ourselves, our loved ones, our community, and the world.

Being here now is not an ethereal idea or intellectual thought it is a true practice – a practice that you engage with and bring alive.  The practice doesn’t just happen on its own when the conditions are “right”, you have to actually do it.  It can be easy at first to think that Be Here Now means to deny your feelings or cover up certain parts of your experience but this is not the case.  To Be Here Now is to let go of the stories we attach to life’s unfolding that are neither skillful for our process of moving forward or provide value.  When we practice letting go of our regrets about the past and worries about the future the present moment is available to us.

We create the internal garden that we water.  When we water seeds of negativity, self-doubt, self-pity, complaining, worrying, stress, fear, anger, and so on those are surely the seeds that will grow inside of our mental, physical and emotional states of being.  When we water seeds of joy, ease, acceptance, openness, connection, adaptation, letting go, and so on those are surely the seeds that will grow.  What kind of garden do we want to nourish right here in this present moment?

Daily Practice – Day 18

2011-02-04-mountaintopDay 18 – This week has been quite full and I have often found myself with very little time in the day to simply sit and rest for a few minutes.  But I’ve been continuing to do my sitting meditation for a few minutes everyday and its been working well to do my practice before I leave the house for the day.  So, not first thing in the morning but after I’ve gotten up, dressed and ready to go I take my 10 minutes and do my sitting meditation before setting out for the day.

Today was a bit stressful time wise in getting certain things done and as I sped around town griping at drivers who were going 5-10 miles under the speed limit, as is often the case around here, I caught myself in a hurried fit many times laughing at myself.  It really is a comical scenario to be carried away by something in which I have no control over, such as other cars.  I also find it helpful in these cases to talk to myself by saying things like, “There’s nothing you can do so you might as well calm down, you’ll get there when you get there,” or, “OK, take a breath right now.”

How much time is wasted in a day by living in a moment that isn’t happening?

Ahhh, A Deep Breath

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It is easy to intellectualize the need to breathe.  Let us take a deep breath right now.  Good :)  Now, let’s take another deep breath and this time pay attention to where it’s coming from.  What part of our body moved the most as we inhaled and exhaled?

Most, if not all, of the time we spend breathing comes primarily from our chests.  When we take a large inhalation we can see and feel our chests rise as our lungs expand.  This, however, is not the deepest breath we can take.  When we practice to bring our breathing down even further into our stomachs we cultivate a more cleansing, grounding and fuller breath that can better nurture our connection to ourselves and the present moment.

To practice deep belly breathing let us find a stable posture to rest comfortably in.  It can be helpful to place a hand gently on our abdomen so that our minds have a physical prompt to help focus our attention downwards.  As we breathe in through our nose let us allow our stomachs to rise slowly.  As we breathe out let us practice to keep our attention on our stomach and the sensation of exhaling.  It can also be helpful to create a simple phrase to say so that our minds can stay present on our breathing.

Breathing in I feel my stomach rise high to the sky

Breathing out I feel my stomach sink down to the ground

Simply saying: rising, rising, falling, falling can be a lovely practice as well.

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(The following is from: http://www.onepowerfulword.com/2010/10/18-benefits-of-deep-breathing-and-how.html)

18 Benefits of Deep (Belly) Breathing

1. Breathing Detoxifies and Releases Toxins
Your body is designed to release 70% of its toxins through breathing. If you are not breathing effectively, you are not properly ridding your body of its toxins i.e. other systems in your body must work overtime which could eventually lead to illness. When you exhale air from your body you release carbon dioxide that has been passed through from your bloodstream into your lungs. Carbon dioxide is a natural waste of your body’s metabolism.

2. Breathing Releases Tension
Think how your body feels when you are tense, angry, scared or stressed. It constricts. Your muscles get tight and your breathing becomes shallow. When your breathing is shallow you are not getting the amount of oxygen that your body needs.

3. Breathing Relaxes the Mind/Body and Brings Clarity
Oxygenation of the brain reducing excessive anxiety levels. Paying attention to your breathing. Breathe slowly, deeply and purposefully into your body. Notice any places that are tight and breathe into them. As you relax your body, you may find that the breathing brings clarity and insights to you as well.

4. Breathing Relieves Emotional Problems
Breathing will help clear uneasy feelings out of your body.

5. Breathing Relieves Pain
You may not realize its connection to how you think, feel and experience life. For example, what happens to your breathing when you anticipate pain? You probably hold your breath. Yet studies show that breathing into your pain helps to ease it.

6. Breathing Massages Your Organs
The movements of the diaphragm during the deep breathing exercise massages the stomach, small intestine, liver and pancreas. The upper movement of the diaphragm also massages the heart. When you inhale air your diaphragm descends and your abdomen will expand. By this action you massage vital organs and improves circulation in them. Controlled breathing also strengthens and tones your abdominal muscles.

7. Breathing Increases Muscle
Breathing is the oxygenation process to all of the cells in your body. With the supply of oxygen to the brain this increases the muscles in your body.

8. Breathing Strengthens the Immune System
Oxygen travels through your bloodstream by attaching to haemoglobin in your red blood cells. This in turn then enriches your body to metabolise nutrients and vitamins.

9. Breathing Improves Posture
Good breathing techniques over a sustained period of time will encourage good posture. Bad body posture will result of incorrect breathing so this is such an important process by getting your posture right from early on you will see great benefits.

10. Breathing Improves Quality of the Blood 
Deep breathing removes all the carbon-dioxide and increases oxygen in the blood and thus increases blood quality.

11. Breathing Increases Digestion and Assimilation of Food
The digestive organs such as the stomach receive more oxygen, and hence operates more efficiently. The digestion is further enhanced by the fact that the food is oxygenated more.

12. Breathing Improves the Nervous System
The brain, spinal cord and nerves receive increased oxygenation and are more nourished. This improves the health of the whole body, since the nervous system communicates to all parts of the body.

13. Breathing Strengthen the Lungs
As you breathe deeply the lung become healthy and powerful, a good insurance against respiratory problems.

14. Proper Breathing makes the Heart Stronger
Breathing exercises reduce the workload on the heart in two ways. Firstly, deep breathing leads to more efficient lungs, which means more oxygen, is brought into contact with blood sent to the lungs by the heart. So, the heart doesn’t have to work as hard to deliver oxygen to the tissues. Secondly, deep breathing leads to a greater pressure differential in the lungs, which leads to an increase in the circulation, thus resting the heart a little.

15. Proper Breathing assists in Weight Control

If you are overweight, the extra oxygen burns up the excess fat more efficiently. If you are underweight, the extra oxygen feeds the starving tissues and glands.

16. Breathing Boosts Energy levels and Improves Stamina

17. Breathing Improves Cellular Regeneration

18. Breathing Elevates Moods
Breathing increase pleasure-inducing neurochemicals in the brain to elevate moods and combat physical pain

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Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh) teaches that our breath is our anchor.  With our breath we bridge the mind and body together.  So often our minds and bodies operate separately.  When we’re driving our car our minds may be thinking about what to make for dinner or stuck on something someone said that annoyed us.  This is very common.  How often are we present with what we’re doing while we’re doing it?  Maybe never?  With deep, mindful breathing our minds and bodies have the wonderful opportunity to reconnect with one another, to become friends, and to be in relationship with the present moment.

What I most love and appreciate about deep breathing is that it’s a practice that we can infuse into any part of our day.  Whether we’re sitting at our desk, on the computer, standing in line in the store, making dinner, or taking a shower we can come back to our breathing in and breathing out and shine the light of mindfulness onto everything we encounter and experience.  Deep breathing is not dependent on anything other than what we’re doing right now.

As Is

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I have been traversing deeper into a great teaching lately which I’ll call: As Is.  This teachings is about practicing to be with the moment just as it is.  When we are able to do so we not only cultivate mindfulness in the process but what I am coming to learn is that we also save precious energy, create stamina and are better able to cope with stress .  Not needing the present moment to be anything other than what it is, even if it’s not what we expected or wanted, is a profound practice and is even beneficial for our time usage, health and well being.

It is easy to understand that our physical bodies need rest to function properly.  But it is perhaps not so easy to understand that the mind also needs rest to perform optimally.  When I am constantly internally judging, blaming, worrying, stressing, regretting, complaining, and cursing at people, places, things and myself my mind is not at all restful.  I see clearly that the root of all of these agitated mental states lies in wanting the moment to be other than what it is.  To be with the moment just as it is means to lay down our worry and strife and if we are able to do that our situation changes right away.  We can liken it to carrying a heavy stone.  After carrying a large stone for some ways when we put it down our body is so grateful for the relief of weight and it is the same for our minds.  Things like judgements, worry, stress, and negativity are heavy burdens to carry around.  It is impossible for our minds to rest if we are continually bound up in these mental processes.

When I am able to meet the present moment on its own terms I am also practicing letting go, embracing impermanence, going with the flow and joy.  And as I’m now finding out I am also practicing to alleviate stress and anxiety and conserve energy.  An incredible amount of energy is expended when I am caught in wanting the present moment to be different.  I am only just starting to really understand this and it is proving very refreshing and freeing!

The teaching of As Is applies to every aspect of our daily lives, not just the easy, comfortable, good stuff.  This practice goes to the heart of everything that happens, has happened and will ever happen.  We have a choice when it comes to how we engage with ourselves, our surroundings, and the events that unfold.  It is easy oftentimes to think that life just happens to us and we bob around like a cork on the waves of the ocean unable to affect our situation.  And while we don’t have much sway over what the turbulent tides may bring our way we do have a choice as to what vessel we weather the storm in.

The mind and body are connected.  When we take good care of the mind we also take good care of the body and when we take good care for the body we also take good care of the mind.  When I am caught in mental tension my body also becomes strained and tense, my breathing becomes shallow, and physical pains arise and heighten.  When I am caught in turmoil it means that I am fighting against the flow of the moment.  When I practice to embrace the present moment I practice to embrace life.  The difference between embracing life and fighting against it is the difference between a life met with a scowl and one met with a smile.

I think that while the statement I’m about to say is generally understood on an intellectual level I don’t think we as a collective understand it on a heart level: Life consists of unpleasantness.  Most of us would benefit from  broadening our perspectives.  It is easy to get caught in thinking that our troubles are unique and we have it worse than anyone – that our lives suck and what happens to us isn’t “supposed” to happen.  The western mindset is very self-centered.  Let us practice to get out of our own way and lay down our unskillful habitual tendencies to be a victim of what is in actuality the lifestyle we’ve created for ourselves.  When unpleasant occurrences roll in with the tides of life the teaching of As Is shows us that we have a choice as to whether we get caught in the storm or dress for the weather.

 

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Stress

Life involves stress.  To think otherwise is like pretending that the earth is flat, it just isn’t so.  To understand that life involves suffering is the first of the four nobel truths.  Simply to know that there is suffering, for example: stress, is not enough.  We must understand what it means.  Knowing that suffering exists involves the intellect while understanding involves our heart, our whole being.  It is easy to say, “Yeah, yeah, stress exists, ” when we aren’t in the midst of it.  But then as soon as stress enters our life we think, “Ahhhh, life isn’t supposed to be like this!”

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When we cultivate understanding that suffering really is a part of life and not something that is separate or wrong we begin to step fully into the here and now and embrace our true human nature.  We may not realize it but most of us spend a majority of our time wishing our present moment was different.  We’d rather be doing something else, be somewhere else, be with someone else, and most of all be someone else other than who we are.  We waste a lot of time and energy swimming against the current of life’s natural flow.  To go with the flow does not mean to be unaffected by or apathetic to life’s unfolding, it means that we can practice not to get caught by it.

What does it mean to be caught by our suffering?  I’ll use a personal story to help illustrate.  When I first started practicing meditation and sitting with a sangha (spiritual community) my husband Mike and I were living in our old Ford van and working on the east coast.  Once a week we would sit with a sangha and practice sitting and walking meditation, coming back to our breathing and slowing down.  We were both very new to the practice of mindfulness and meditation.  We really enjoyed the group and looked forward to attending each week.

One day after work I walked to the public library just down the road, where it was common for me to wait for Mike to get off work and pick me up.  It was a sangha night and I had been craving the group all week long.  As it was getting close to the time when Mike would arrive to pick me up I stopped my browsing and reading inside of the library and went to wait on a bench outside.  As a side note, I’m one of those people whose idea of arriving on time means getting there 10 minutes early.  After about 15 minutes of waiting outside I went to check the time in the library.  It was then that I began to get a little irritated that he hadn’t shown up yet.  Back outside I went to watch the road for him.  A few more minutes drifted by and I went to check the time again.  Frustration set in.  We were going to be late to sangha if he didn’t show up soon!  When I went back outside I started pacing on the sidewalk around the parking lot.  With every passing car that wasn’t my husband I grew more and more anxious.  I started muttering to myself in low tones though clenched teeth, “I can’t BELIEVE he’s late!  This is fuckin’ ridiculous!  Where the hell is he?”  My whole body was locked in a ball of tightness, my forehead was scrunched and my breath came and went in shallow spurts.  I was all sorts of angry!

Once again I made the jaunt, now with terse, hurried steps, to check the time.  After making the unchanging assessment that yes he was still late I went back outside and plopped down on a wooden bench in desperation.  In woe and exhaustion I wearily slumped back on the bench with a soft thunk and my face tilted upwards.  Just then, as if it were written in the sky, the words, “Just enjoy me,” came to the forefront of my mind.  Just enjoy me!  I took it as a message from the present moment as though it were calling to me through the heavy weight of stress and anger.

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With those words I gently smiled and became aware that it was a beautiful spring day.  I noticed the sunshine, the blue sky, the birds and the trees.  Until then I hadn’t been aware of any of it.  I started doing some slow walking meditation in the grass and came back to my breathing in and breathing out.  I stopped waiting and started enjoying.  I became aware of the fact that all of my huffing and puffing and cursing under my breath did absolutely nothing to get my husband to show up any quicker.  And while it may not seem like a big revelation at the time, in the heat of my anger, it was a bright light shining in the dark.

When Mike finally did show up, much too late for us to even attempt to make it to sangha, I opened the van door, smiled and said, “Thank you for being late.”  And I meant it.  In that moment it was clear to me that had I remained caught by my anger my first words to him would’ve been very very different.

It was my first real life encounter with the practice of mindfulness.  And it opened my eyes to the power of cultivating my relationship to the present moment.  I saw how my meditation practice that I was generating on the cushion at sangha translated into mindfulness in my daily life off the cushion.  I didn’t need to go to sangha to practice.  I could practice wherever I was, in any moment.

When I was at the library I received a glimpse into the teaching of how when we are able to fully embrace the here and now we can learn to let go of the need for the present moment to be anything other than what it is.