Tag Archives: meditation

Let go! (it’s all impermanent)

Shot by Adrian Alston

At the risk of my readers suspecting that I own shares of Buddha Corp. (BCOR) I’ve decided to indulge my need to write yet another post about the benefits of meditation. 

In an earlier post: Go Fetch! I only mentioned in passing that while sharpening my meditation skills at a Buddhist monastery, I also learned about impermanence.  This morning, after coming out of a Bikram yoga class, I realized that when I wrote that last week, I only knew that the concept impermanence existed.  In other words, I did not really know what impermanence is.  Today is when I experienced impermanence for the very first time.

The aha! moment hit me this morning when I went to pay for parking.  For three years I’ve been making sure that I leave my yoga class in time to get to my car within 2 hours so that I pay $1 for parking and not $7.  Today my system went wrong and I got zapped by a $7 dollar fee for going over just 2 minutes.  Those 2 minutes cost me $5 bucks.  Okay so it’s not a big deal, it’s just $2 bucks.  However, I’m ashamed of myself to say that the last time that I went over and had to pay $7, I went totally nuts.  First I felt pangs of anger in my belly, the temperature in my body rose and angry thoughts started to swirl in my head at a million miles an hour.  Admittedly a totally extreme reaction, but that’s what I experienced. 

Today though when I saw the $7 dollar charge come up on the parking meter, I acknowledged it with a gentle ‘oh’, and took out a bill from my wallet.  Calmy and feeling undisturbed by the mishap, I walked back to my car. 

Has meditation damaged my amygdala – the region responsible for emotional reactions in our brains?  Or has meditation allowed me to let go off things at the speed of light?  Because I still cry of laughter whenever I hear something funny, and I’m still in love with my husband, I know that the latter has to be true. 

Taking it a step further, I realized that if anything, meditation has turned me into a more rational human being.  (Notice the focus on human – other living beings have the capacity to feel – just think slaughter house – but their ability to reason and make decisions is still questionable)  How am I more rational? By not holding on to anger, I did not occupy my mind unnecessarily.  Instead I used it to think of my options.  I now know that if I park out on the street for 5 days in a row, by not paying a $1 each day, I’ll make up for the extra $5 bucks that I paid today.  That’s an option right there, which even gives me the opportunity to change my scenery and get more fresh air.  Maybe it’s a bit extreme to go through that process for such a triviality, but this realization is certainly worth testing on the bigger issues that life throws my way.  

What does this have to do with impermanence?  Right now, take a deep breath and hold on to it. Hold it. Hold it a few more seconds.  Keep holding it.  Okay let go!

What were you thinking while you were holding on to your breath?  I suspect that like me, all you could think of was how great it would feel to breathe out.

Then my question is, if it’s inevitable that the breath will go out, that things are impermanent, then why hold on to them in the first place? 

By holding on to things we’re only hurting ourselves and certainly not being part of the solution.  We become part of the solution by thinking through our options, not by holding on to things.

Next time that you’re holding on to something, like a big important problem, you might want to ask yourself: “Why am I taking up head space and energy holding on to this?  Instead why not use my mind in smarter ways, like thinking creatively and looking for solutions?”


Go Fetch! (lessons from inside the walls of a Buddhist monastery)

Contrary to what most would think, that the reason I went away for 3 days to meditate and observe Noble Silence* at a Buddhist monastery was to take care of my spirit, my main objective was to take care of business.  By learning from those who know best about meditation, my goal was to improve my practice and sharpen my mind.  In the process I did learn about loving kindness and the impermanence of things.  But those were only fringe benefits and pale in comparison to what I learned about how to control my mind by keeping it still.

My main hope in sharing this with you is for you to realize that, like me, you too can benefit from sitting down and doing nothing for 30 minutes a day – talk about a great return on an investment!

The reality is that as much fun as it looks like a dog is having when it’s playing fetch with its owner, something tells me that just like me, you would much rather be the one throwing the stick.  Not the one panting from chasing after it.

The question is, are your thoughts sending you to go fetch?  In other words, are you mindlessly reacting to situations around you, chasing after your anger, your worries and your doubts? Or are you in control of your mind, taking time to think and respond to the world around you? 

Aside from your pride being threatened if you are in fact the one running breathlessly after your thoughts, the more important thing that is at stake here is your ability to think clearly.  When your mind is too busy going on an emotional errand, you’re not able to experience your mind’s full capacity to think.  It’s a well-known fact that your mind performs at its peak when it’s calm and clear like the surface of a pond on which you can see your own reflection.  A still mind is a clear mind.  A clear mind is a thinking mind.

The great news for you and me is that we can learn to make our mind stay still – and not go fetch – in spite of what happens around us.  The simplest way that I know how is by meditating.  By sitting down to focus on your in and out breath, you’re learning to take control over your mind by keeping it still.  The whole point is to keep coming back to your breath as it enters and leaves your nose, over and over again, as you watch your thoughts go past.  The more you do this, the easier it becomes for your mind to stay in one place.

I know that sitting down and doing nothing does not sound like much of a party.  But you tell me, what would you rather do; pant as a result of fetching after your thoughts all day long and continue to think with an impaired brain, or spend 30 minutes of your day to make your mind sharp as a diamond?

Take a deep breath (with a little smile).

*Noble Silence: silence of the body, speech and mind. Speaking is allowed only in case of an emergency or to ask staff about your practice.

The Buddhist monastery that received me with loving kindness: www.sunnataram.org


T.L.C. for Your Most Valued Organ (MVO)

What part of the body would Olympic-class sprinters have insured? Their legs.

It was while thinking of an answer to this question that it hit me that just as an athlete has a body part that is critical for top performance, the same goes for those of us in the working game.

So what is your ’MVO’ at work?

Before you get too creative, I’ll throw you a lifeline – it is your brain.

The fact is that the 3 pounds of greyish-white matter that sits inside your skull controls the functions that can determine how successful you are at work.

How you perform at work depends on several factors:

  • How well you can think on your feet and remember things;
  • How focused and clear you are;
  • How calm and rational your responses are in challenging situations; and
  • How well you’re able to:
    • prioritise activities
    • manage tasks and goals
    • learn new information and acquire new skills

Since your brain controls how well you carry out all of the above, it’s to your advantage to know what optimises these functions and what doesn’t.

But first, here’s some food for thought:

“In proportion to our body mass, our brain is three times as large as that of our nearest relatives. This huge organ is dangerous and painful to give birth to, expensive to build and, in a resting human, uses about 20 per cent of the body’s energy even though it is just 2 per cent of the body’s weight. There must be some reason for all this evolutionary expense.” Susan Blakemore

Because I suspect that most people aren’t doing as much to take care of their brain as they could, particularly at work, here are some brain-friendly tips for you to optimize your memory, your focus and your overall performance at work – and outside. 

For those of you who are wondering where all this data comes from, research spiked in the 90s when US President George Bush declared it the “decade of the brain”.  Consequently billions of dollars were invested into developing scanning technology that allowed scientists to look into the brain and get more detail than ever before about this complex organ. Simply put, brain-researchers went crazy with all the funding and produced all kinds of useful brain-related research.

For you at work, here are some of the most relevant findings:

To optimize your memory:

The main thing that you need in order to achieve good memory is to increase the brain’s production of a chemical called serotonin. In other words, mind your chemicals.

Here’s how it works. (Thanks Dr.Giuffre)

Serotonin is responsible for making you ‘feel good’.  Because of the connection between the memory centre – your hippocampus – and the emotions centre – your amygdala – when you feel good, memories tend to stick more.  So it follows, that if you want to improve your memory, it will help to increase your serotonin levels. 

Here’s how:

Tip #1: Think positive thoughts

The best food that you can give your brain is positive thoughts because a happy brain remembers more. By the same token, avoiding negative thoughts helps maintain higher serotonin levels.  For that reason, I’ve been saying affirmations on a daily basis for the past year.  I can guarantee that after a month, I started to experience results. Not only did my memory improve, I started to feel much more alert, calm and focused – the perfect combination for performing optimally at work! 

In case that you need some inspiration, Dr. Susan Jeffers (www.susanjeffers.com), author of Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, and Louise Hay (www.louisehay.com), author of You Can Heal Your Life, are my favorite sources and the Mothers of affirmations.

Tip #2: Eat well

Aside from positive thoughts, your brain needs healthy food! Eating in a balanced fashion increases serotonin levels in your body.  Eating too many sweets has a negative long term impact on memory (sorry sweet tooths abd carbo-loaders). As sugar levels peak in your brain, you initially feel good, which can help improve your memory for a short burst. But that comes at what I feel is too high a price to pay for memory. When sugar levels peak too quickly, insulin levels also spike in order to restore the balance in your body. When this happens, you feel down, deflated and lethargic. This effect is what my sister-in-law very cleverly has coined as a ‘food coma’.

The fact is that eating a well balanced diet optimises your memory.  If you put junk into your brain, you are likely to get junk out of it!

Research says that the diet that contributes to strong memory function is a balance between protein and carbohydrates and lots and lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. Take it from a vegan who lives mostly on raw foods. (More on that in a future post)

Tip #3: Manage stress  

Research has shown that prolonged exposure to stress shrinks the hippocampus – which is the memory centre. But don’t stress about this, because when you stop stressing, the hippocampus returns to its normal state.

Relax…take a deep breath.

Tip #4: Sleep

According to Dr. Kenneth Giuffre sleeping 8 hours every night has shown to improve work performance by 30% because that’s the time when serotonin gets replenished in your body.  No wonder I feel so out of it when I haven’t slept.

Maybe it’s time for you to re-think your priorities when you’re planing a night on the town on a ‘school night’ or to stay up late watching a sitcom.  Do you really think that Tiger Woods or your favourite celebrity stays up late when they need to perform at their peak the next day? ‘don’t think so..

Tip #5: Exercise

Not only do you get instant gratification from the endorphin rush (endorphins are opiate-like chemicals similar to morphine), but you also get serotonin and oxygen to flow through your system.  As the organ that requires the most blood flow and oxygen per weight exercise gets your brain ready to thrive.

Tip #6: Laugh

Scans of people’s brains while they’re laughing have shown that the amygdala – the emotions region of the brain – is activated.  When that happens, because of the relationship between the brain’s memory centre and the amygdala, memories tend to stick more.  Also, because when we laugh we feel good, we experience a spike in serotonin production, which also results in better retention.

Tip #7: Listen to music

There’s no trustworthy clinical evidence that music does anything for babies in-vitro, but baby books constantly harp on the benefits of music in fetal development  Regardless, there is no arguing that  music can make you feel good!  By now you should know that when you feel good, you can remember more.

To be focused:

You feel focused when blood is flowing to a particular brain region, in other words, when the flow of blood is contained.  Think back when you were hanging upside down from a monkey bar, with blood rushing to your brain. How focused did you feel then?

Here’s what you can do on a daily basis to contain the blood flowing through your brain – and not feel like you’re hanging upside down:

Tip #1: Mind the caffeine

Because caffeine constricts the vessels in your brain and body in general, it does in fact help direct blood flow to specific areas in your brain.  That’s why you feel focused and alert after your shot of espresso in the morning.

But be careful not to mess up your sleep cycle because if you do, that would defeat the purpose of having caffeine in the first place!

Tip #2: Meditate

This is my favourite tip, because the benefits of meditation are clear.  At the University of Pennsylvania  researchers recently showed that meditation for just 30 minutes a day for 8 weeks improves clarity and focus. 

In a later post I’ll share with you some tips about how to meditate.  For now, if you’d like to give it a shot, I suggest that you look online or check into your local community college or Buddhist temple for guidance and information. I personally follow a Zen method which I found online at www.mro.org/zmm/teachings/meditation.php  I found it easy to follow because it has pictures (as a visual learner, I love pictures).

Tip #3: Eat in moderation

According to Dr. Giuffre, our brains are most alert in a state of starvation. Of course I’m not advocating or even suggesting that you starve, because while you’d be more focused, it would come at the cost of jeopardising other bodily functions.

What I am saying is that if you are taking your performance at work seriously, you’ll be in better shape if you eat a light meal when you have a meeting during or after lunch, or if you simply want to feel good to be able to give your best.

Keep this in mind: a properly fed mind is a sharp one, an overfed one is a sluggish one.

Tip #4: Stay calm

When we’re calm, we’re less emotional and more rational. The fact is that the region of the brain that produces emotions, the amygdala, is one the most primeval ones.  What this means is that emotions are primitive and most often there is a more appropriate response to a situation than say, getting angry or throwing a tantrum.

Like my husband likes to stay when he feels himself getting angry at another driver on the road – “I’m too evolved to honk.”  Instead he blinks his lights or does something more appropriate.

To perform well:

Tip #1: Learn something new

With brain function you either use it or you lose it.  And by far, the best way to exercise your brain is to learn something new. Learning physically creates pathways in your brain. In the real sense, when you learn, you’re giving your brain a work-out.

Tip #2: Laugh – be here and now.  Live in the moment

Aside from boosting your memory, laughter makes you focus in the here and now.  And being present improves your performance. Pay attention to how athletes enter in ‘the zone’ when they’re going for gold.  They are no where else but on that field.  (By the way, they train themselves to do that – and so can you. Meditation is a great starting point.)

Tip #3: Keep your brain booted (so you don’t waste time rebooting it)

Your brain works much like your computer – at least when it comes to being on and off.  This means that to give your brain a break after you’ve completed a major task, you’re better off switching to a simpler task than getting up for junk food and a coffee.  By switching, you’re putting your brain on sleep mode.  But when you get up, you’re actually shutting your brain down. That’s why when you get back to other tasks, instead of feeling that you’ve taken a break, you feel that you have to wait until your brain boots back up.

No, I’m not trying to turn you into a feeling-less, desk bound robot, but am advising you to not unnecessarily interrupt your brain flow! 

So what have you done for your brain lately?  I’d love to know.

Why Meditate When There Isn’t Time to Buy Milk?

What’s all the rage? 

Finally there’s sound clinical data that proves that meditating on a daily basis has a positive effect on our performance at work.

A study that was published in 2007 by two neuroscientists doing research at the University of Pennsylvania’s Stress Management Program, proved that even small doses of daily meditation improves attention and focus.  Also, Dr. Giuseppe Pagnoni, from the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Emory University’s School of Medicine, agrees and explains that meditation trains the mind to focus by directing blood flow to select parts of the brain.  When this happens, we become better at tuning out distractions and being in the here and now. Both being essential for performing at our peak.

And all it takes is 20 to 30 minutes a day. 

If you feel that you don’t have this time to set aside everyday, I feel that you need an overhaul – so I’m going to offer you a life-line.  Get yourself a copy of the book: The 4 Hour Work Week, by Tim Ferriss (www.fourhourworkweek.com).  Trust me, it will help you change how you view productivity and time management in general. I hope that when you rethink these two aspects of your life, that you will make time for what’s important in life.  Meditating for 20 to 30 minutes each day happens to be one of those things.

What does it take to meditate?

Learning to meditate does not have to be a costly exercise.  In fact, my first exposure ever to meditation was through a tape that a friend lent me in college.

Because there are many ways to meditate, in fact the Meditation Society of America lists 108 techniques on their website (www.meditationsociety.com), you may have to try a few ways before you find the one that you connect with.  Through the years, I’ve tended to gravitate towards the Zen technique mainly because I find that it’s frills-free and very simple. Here’s where I got information: www.mro.org/zmm/teachings/meditation.php  I love the pictures on this site because it makes it easy for my visually inclined brain to follow.

While you’re learning and even for the more advanced I highly recommend attending a directed group session. Every so often I go to a group session to give my practice a boost or whenever I feel that my practice is slipping.  Aside from getting your questions answered, it’s likely that you’ll get to hear from people who have been practicing for longer than you. Buddhist temples and community colleges are both great places to access directed sessions. The most I’ve ever ‘donated’ at one of these sessions has been $10.

It has always been worth every penny!