Our Attention Span

According to a study out of Harvard, humans tend to daydream and engage in mind wandering 47% of their waking lives (Killingsworth & Gilbert, 21010). Our ability to pay attention impacts our performance, relationships, and wellness. Increasing our level of attention and awareness widens the space between our perception of the stimulus and response. Practicing mindfulness gives us the ability to have direct access to the nature of our mind. Over time, our minds may become more settled and recover from stressful situation more quickly. We are less likely to be swept away by extreme feelings and emotions and can respond to things actively instead of re-actively. Bringing choice to our thoughts, emotions, and feelings allows us to be in control.

Mindfulness Tips in Turbulent Times

Wow! What a beginning to the new year for us as a nation.  Like you, my wife and I were glued to our TV on Wednesday, January 6, feeling incredulous, horrified, deeply sad, frustrated, and so many more emotions.  It was an exhausting and very stressful day—and the days since then continue to feel somber and heavy as we collectively hold our breaths, hoping for no more challenges to the seeming fragile state of our democracy. 

And all of this on top of a global pandemic that is hitting the US hard:  We have the highest number ever of cases and deaths as we head into the heart of winter.  While the arrival of vaccines is definitely hopeful, the rollout has been slow, disorganized, and disappointing with fewer folks receiving vaccines than originally stated.   

Our country seems to be struggling on all sides. 

In addition to our national stressors, we continue to face our own personal ones—loved ones with COVID-19, maybe we ourselves have been sick with COVID, contentious conversations with those we love who are blindly believing conspiracy theories, loss of jobs and income, overseeing the remote education of our children, inability to gather with our family and friends during holidays and other celebrations.  It’s very overwhelming. 

How can a practice of mindfulness help us through all of this stress, heartbreak, and heaviness? 

Mindfulness can give us space to process our experiences and circumstances and our resulting emotions instead of getting caught up in them. It’s ok to feel what we’re feeling—the good, bad, and ugly.  What’s not helpful is staying in a high state of heavy emotion and stress. In fact, refusing to embrace reality or stuffing our emotions is not helpful to our brains, our souls, and those we live, work, and engage with.   

So how do we process our emotions? 

  • Embrace all the feelings.  Acknowledge the weight of the moment and all the accompanying emotions.  Feel them all.  Try even identifying in what parts of your body you’re feeling these emotions. 
  • Then come back to the present moment.  It’s easy to ruminate on what is wrong and how we’re feeling about it, like a cow chewing its cud.  It’s easy to stay in the lane of “what if’s,” reliving the past.  It’s also easy to feel fearful about the future, about what could happen.  Instead, turn off the news and start focusing on your breathing: breathe in for four seconds, hold for four seconds, breathe out for four seconds, hold for four seconds.  And keep repeating, allowing the sensation of the breath to ground you into the present.  This will serve as your anchor and help you return to the present moment. 
  • Focus on gratitude.  In this moment, what are you grateful for?  Start with what you’re doing right now.  Maybe you’re washing dishes or loading the dishwasher after dinner.  Become aware of what’s around you as you start saying, maybe even out loud, what you’re grateful for—I’m grateful for this running, clean water; I’m grateful for a dishwasher that works; I’m grateful for these dishes that remind me of my grandmother; I’m thankful for my grandmother and her impact on my life; I’m thankful for my dog who is eagerly waiting for me to drop a scrap of food off a plate I’m loading into the dishwasher, etc.  Focusing on gratitude helps to pull us back in from going down a highway of emotions and being taken all over for long rides.  
  • Give yourself some loving.  These are hard times—there’s no denying that.  So after corralling your mind from going down the emotional road to nowhere, do something that is kind and healthy to yourself.  Maybe it’s playing with your dog, taking a walk with your partner, playing a game with family members, having a dance party with your favorite music, or working on an outdoor project or indoor puzzle.   

One note:  Because these are hard times, many of us have had difficult conversations with people we love about the past four years, the November presidential election outcome, and the attack on our Capital.  In order to be in a peaceful and safe place, we first have to always take care of our inner selves as outlined above.  But sometimes, we also need to take care of our outer selves and the joint spaces we reside in with others.  A few suggestions: 

  • No healthy outcomes result from having debates, so avoid entering into these (or being pulled into them). 
  • We may need to set boundaries when it comes to having hard conversations.  For example, one boundary you may want to set in this moment is to stay away from conversations that may trigger you or those you’re conversing with.  If having calm conversations is not possible right now, give you and your loved one or friend some grace-filled space. 
  • Set an intention to strengthen relationships in big or small ways.  We can love people with different perspectives.  It helps to have some perspective ourselves.  For example, when we zoom out for distance and look at the universe, we’re more alike than different: We’re all human with a desire to love and be loved.  So let’s think through and focus on the ways we’re alike.  Do we both like chocolate?  Kayaking? Dogs?  Books? Music? 

There’s no denying that these are difficult, stress-filled days for everyone.  A consistent practice of mindfulness can help us round up ruminating and fearful thoughts and help us stay in the present moment of focusing on our breathing, what’s around us, and on gratitude.  

Let’s encourage each other to mindfully live in the present moment! 

A Focused Arrow

Baby Arrow at 6 weeks

My wife and I recently added to our family—we got a new puppy!  Arrow is a miniature Australian Labradoodle, and she is sister to our other dog, an American Fox Hound named Bo. 

She’s only eight weeks old, so that means we have been spending a lot of time making sure Arrow grows accustomed to using the bathroom outside and helping Bo adjust to his new sister.  It’s been wonderful to see how Bo patiently accepts her and puts up with her playful nipping and curiosity. 

Arrow has been such a gift!  She’s cute, just like a little stuffed animal, and everyone loves her. Often, after she roughhouses with Bo, she runs over to me, and I pick her up and hold her on my lap as I work while she falls asleep, tuckered out by all of her playing and exploring.  

In the middle of all this chaos we’re experiencing—a pandemic that seems to be getting worse in the US, continued racial injustice and unrest, and an uncertain election season with lots of division—Arrow has brought me so much pleasure as I watch her interact and play with Bo and grow accustomed to her new home.

Arrow has also been a teacher—especially about how to stay grounded in the present moment.  She’s entirely into the moment she’s currently living in.  Recently, I took Bo and Arrow outside to play, and as they bounded around the yard together, friskily snapping at each other’s heels, Arrow suddenly scooted to a stop, a large yellow leaf catching her eye.  She looked at it, sniffed at it, and then picked it up with her teeth, carrying it around the yard with wonder and inquisitiveness.  I’ve observed over and over again, she’s “all in” with whatever has her attention.

Granted, dogs are not wired like humans.  Their brains are different from ours—they process events, circumstances, and emotions as a dog.  Nevertheless, there is still a lot we can learn from animals, including from my puppy Arrow.  Here are a few of the lessons she’s been teaching me:  

  • Don’t dwell on the past. She’s not fixated on her past, about the pain and sadness of leaving her mom and biological brothers and sisters and the only home she knew.
  • Don’t obsess about events that may never happen. She’s not thinking about her future, her stomach all knotted up about what could happen next, where her next meal will come from, etc.
  • Enjoy each moment. She fully delights in whatever has captured her focus—she’s into whatever her attention is on at that moment. As I write this, she’s chewing a ball.  Of course, there are a hundred other things she could be chewing on, but she is so into this ball with undivided focus and really enjoying it.
  • Bring awareness to emotions, but don’t identify with them. Arrow doesn’t stay stuck in her feelings.  For example, she really misses me when I leave the room.  And it’s totally ok and healthy for her to miss me in the moment because she feels what has her attention—maybe the emotion of loneliness.  But she doesn’t stay sad for long periods of time.
  • Let each moment be what it is, then keep going. When I have to correct or train her for a healthier, safer experience in her new home environment, she doesn’t hold a grudge against me.  She doesn’t wallow in anger and allow it to influence the rest of her day or change her opinion about me. She immediately wags her tail as soon as I show her love and cuddle her. Her little tail happily wiggles back and forth when she looks at me, my wife, and her new brother. She has so much to wag about. 

As I watch her fully living life, I’m almost wistful—that’s how I want to live life too!  And I can.  Here’s how:

  • Set intentions to purposefully be mindful.  Throughout the day, I focus intentionally on sensations such as breathing and allow the movement of my body to ground me in the moment, instead of dwelling about the past or obsessing about the future that may not happen.
  • It is ok for me to experience disappointment or frustration.  I simply notice my feelings, and with acceptance, allow myself a moment to just be with what is. It’s ok to feel whatever I am feeling.
  • Increase my “tail wagging” by focusing on my blessings. I take moments to give thanks for the “little” gifts like petting my dogs and watching the squirrels, for the gifts of sight, taste, and touch.  I want to focus on things I take for granted.

The next couple of days or weeks may be interesting, maybe even challenging.  We may continue to experience some uncertainty, sadness, and discouragement in our nation (and perhaps in our personal lives, as well), but may we embrace some of these important lessons that the newest teacher in my life offers us. 

Let’s all take a deep breath and live like Arrow, who’s focused on this moment.

Breathing in a Time of Inequality and COVID

“I can’t breathe . . .”

Sadly, these were the dying words of George Floyd in May as he lay pinned under a police officer’s knee.  And unfortunately, these haven’t just been Floyd’s last words; they have also been uttered by others like Eric Garner, Byron Williams, and Elijah McClain.

These infamous three words have also been spoken by COVID victims as they gasp for air, struggling to get enough oxygen into their lungs.  Some have recovered (though many are paying a physical and mental toll for the lack of oxygen to their bodies); others, tragically, have not.

If there has ever been a time when the world has been more focused on breathing, it is now. Certainly, 2020 has been the “year of the breath.”  But often, we are focused on the inequality, lack of accountability, selfishness, and irresponsibility around breathing in this unique time of chaos, divisiveness, frustration, and hopelessness

Yes, the scarcity of breath has led to unnecessary pain and death.

But it’s also through the breath that we can mindfully and intentionally create space . . .

To pause . . .

To evaluate our thoughts and feelings . . . welcoming and observing . . .

To focus on our breath . . . breathing in for four, holding for four, breathing out for four, holding for four.

And repeating . . . as many times as we need to . . .

Breathing brings stability.

Breathing brings peace.

Breathing brings hope.

Breathing brings healthy change.

Instead of reacting out of emotional volatility and bitter anger and stifling fear, we can respond by breathing, which transforms us and, in turn, transforms our communities:

-by making sure our voice is heard so that no one struggles for breath because of the color of their skin or their nationality or ethnicity or their gender or their sexuality or their beliefs or their disability.

-by bearing responsibility, care, and compassion for the health and safety of everyone around us as we wear masks for each other, socially distance, and stay home as much as we can.

As our nation and world focus on the scarcity of breath during this unique time in global history, may we not take our breath for granted and instead utilize the gift of breath to center ourselves and our planet.

Just. One. Breath.

Mindfulness in the Midst of COVID-19

Since the beginning of our new year, information on the coronavirus has continued to grow in the news as it has spread all over the world. In fact, in this past week of unprecedented changes, it has become the headline story, and subsequently, every American’s life (and the lives of other residents in our country) has been touched with unparalleled cancellations on every front including major conferences, sporting events, and political rallies. The travel industry and our stock market have also taken a huge hit. It seems like this huge machine of our country is slowing down.

Earlier this week, I returned to Toledo, Ohio from Tampa, FL after attending a conference for undergraduate students and their faculty advisors. Several days afterwards, my university canceled face-to-face classes for remote learning through the end of the semester. I am reassured to know that my institution (and my state) is taking intentional and proactive action to reduce the spread of this disease. Most other universities in the country have made the same decision. Of course, this means a lot of work for staff and faculty, as well as the need to immediately address logistical issues that have arisen as a result. It can be very overwhelming! As a leader, I am intentional about supporting my own well-being and that of my students and staff.

As our national and world situation continues to change, my concern continues to increase. This is especially true after I watch the news. I notice my thoughts more often tend to be those of worry, and I often ruminate on the worst case scenario. I can easily get carried away by my thoughts and begin to worry about a virus I cannot control (or quite possibly may never catch). Research shows that the more we think on anything—positive or negative—the stronger that thought becomes.

So what can I do? I can practice good hygiene, eat healthy, take my vitamins, get adequate sleep and exercise, practice social distancing, stop shaking people’s hands, and of course, practice mindfulness even more.

It’s always great to be mindful of our thoughts, but especially, during times like these, I really want to be more vigilantly aware of my thoughts. My mind often wanders, and currently, it seems to constantly stew on “what if’s”—what if I catch the virus or my family gets it? What if the economy crashes? What if I lose my job?  Once I notice I am engaging with those thoughts, I try to immediately remember that I am not my thoughts; instead, I am the creator of them.

According to research, practicing mindfulness, such as loving kindness exercises, has a positive impact on the ways our genes express themselves, and it even increases our mood over time. Loving kindness meditation is a practice that strengthens our feelings of goodwill for ourselves and others.  

Let’s try a short practice now.

Simply bring all of your attention to how you are feeling emotionally right now. Don’t try to change your feelings but simply notice them, and with acceptance, allow yourself a moment to just be with what is. It is ok to feel whatever you are feeling.

Now, as you take your next inhalation, say “May I be healthy; may I be loved; may I be happy,” and focus on this present moment. As you exhale, repeat the phrase.

Complete the steps two more times, and then continue reading.

In these last couple of days, here is what I’ve been doing. I take a deep breath—careful not to judge myself for having any type of thought—and then I bring my focus back to the present moment. This is what I know is true in this moment: I do not have COVID-19. I am doing everything I am aware of to protect myself and my family members. I have much to be grateful for.

That’s why during this upcoming month, I intentionally will be putting additional mindfulness exercises into my routine as a way to boost my immune system even more and to exit out of the ruminating thought cycle I often find myself in. As we go through this pandemic together and look for more ways to boost our immune systems, let’s add a little more mindfulness into our daily routines. For example, add the loving kindness exercise we just did into your hand washing routine by saying, “May I be healthy; may I be loved; may I be happy” as you lather up with soap. Each time you notice that you are getting carried away by an anxious thought about the coronavirus pandemic, notice that you have drifted off, and without judging yourself, simply try saying, “May I be healthy; may I be loved; may I be happy in THIS moment.” I have to practice self-care and stay well so that I can best serve my students and staff.

We will get through this . . . together.

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year 2020

It’s almost 2020!

Welcome to a new year AND a new decade!

I don’t know about you, but sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in the freshness of something new and, as a result, vow to live differently, drink differently, spend differently, engage with my partner, colleagues, and friends differently, parent differently, even drive differently.

And there’s nothing wrong with desiring to live differently and setting achievable goals.

But can I suggest another goal that is foundational to overall happiness and peace?   How about resolving to LIVE in the moment, to BE in the moment, to EMBRACE the moment?

According to a study out of Harvard University, human beings tend to daydream about the future or ruminate about the past 46.9% of the time (Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010). This study also explored the connection between attention and happiness. It found that people reported higher levels of happiness when they paid attention to their present-moment activity.

Since research suggests that being in the moment can make humans happier, maybe the next question you’re asking yourself is—how do I do this?  How do I be in the present moment?

The way I do this is to connect with my breath throughout the day.  I do this often.

Using my breath as the anchor seems to quickly bring my attention to the present moment.  I focus on the air moving in and out of my body; I don’t even think about if I will be able to take the next breath—I just breathe in and breathe out.  I can do this anywhere, anytime, and in any position. As soon as I notice my thoughts have drifted away from the present, I simply observe the activity of my mind and gently and kindly bring my attention back to my breath. Over the years, this simple and ongoing noticing act has allowed me to increase my ability to pay attention and live in the moment. I am present more often now while cooking, driving, showering, listening, etc.

Something to keep in mind about choosing to live this way is that sometimes living in the present moment is amazing, freeing, relaxing, even healing.  And sometimes, it’s just not.  Sometimes, it’s a challenge to let go of expectations of yourself and others.  Sometimes, it’s a challenge to release judgments of what living in the moment is supposed to be like.  Sometimes, it’s difficult to let go of your thoughts that bombard you in the present moment.  But this is where it’s important to simply come back to your breath with kindness.

In fact, practicing mindfulness involves constant returning to attention. Think of playing fetch with your dog. It’s a game: throw the ball, and your dog runs happily and gets the ball and returns it. Your dog doesn’t make a judgment of bad or good, wrong or right but happily runs and gets the ball and brings it back to you. The more you play fetch with your dog, the better your dog gets and develops a routine. This is the same with us and following our breath.  The more we do it without judgment, the more it becomes a natural routine.

At the start of a new year (and decade), it can be tempting to live in the past about what was or should have been. Or it can be tempting to live in the future about what could be—or to live in both the past AND the future.  The problem with this is that we lose out on the contentment and rest of the present moment and thus don’t experience happiness.

Of course, we can’t ignore our pasts.  Nor should we avoid making goals and plans for the future or anticipating possible challenges and detours.  But that sweet spot of embracing the past and the future lies in the present moment of contented and unattached being.  And we can get easily get there by paying attention to our breath.

So as we approach a new year and decade, may we breathe in and breathe out the happiness and peace of being in the present moment.

HAPPY 2020!

Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilbert, D. T. (2010). A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science330(6006), 932-932.

The Benefits of Celebrating Thanksgiving Everyday

Thanksgiving is just a memory now, and while I enjoyed the juicy turkey complete with stuffing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and gravy, and pumpkin pie, what I loved the most about this special holiday is the time my family, friends, and I pause around our table to articulate what we are thankful for. 

Recently, I started a new job as the director of a program at a new university, and I love it! There’s a lot to learn, connections to make, programs and outreaches to implement, and students to reach.  It’s exciting—and challenging.  As I walk into my new office every morning, I pause on purpose and express gratitude for this job, my colleagues, my students, and this university.  It’s become my daily practice before I flip on the lights. 

Did you know that taking an intentional pause to express gratitude does something to our brains? That’s right—it rewires the brain.  Science has shown us that what we think about—whether it’s positive or negative—creates a deep pathway in our brains (Davidson & Kabat-Zinn, 2004). 

So why not focus on gratitude every day, instead of on the last Thursday in November?  Regardless of our circumstances, our feelings, or perhaps the difficult people in our present lives, articulating our gratitude is a discipline that helps us live in the moment and results in an adjustment to our attitudes.  It also helps us become less judgmental; instead, we accept everything and everyone—positive and/or negative—as they are.  And all of this benefits our brains:  New pathways are formed, and these pathways result in new habits.

This is why I love Thanksgiving—not just the holiday, but more importantly, the practice.  The more we do it, the more it becomes a permanent part of who we are.

Happy (daily) Thanksgiving!

Davidson, R. J., & Kabat-Zinn, J. (2004). Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation: Three caveats: Response. Psychosomatic Medicine, 66(1), 149-152.

Mindfulness in Paris

October 22, 2019

Paris is beautiful, busy, and loud, full of working residents, families, and university students along with wandering and curious tourists, who are eating croissants, drinking wine, seeing the sites, and snapping lots of pics.  I know this because recently, I was one of those wandering, eating, and drinking tourists.  It’s a city full of life!

Just like Paris, life can be busy and loud, full of people wandering around who are curious, working, studying, and simply living.

In the middle of the loudness, is it possible to settle into the moment and experience stillness and peace?  Yes! 

Busyness and noise are a part of life, and so is quiet, attention, and space for contemplation.   One does not mutually exclude the other.

Whether you’re standing in line at a coffee shop, sitting at your desk, walking to your next class, running on the treadmill, or driving to work, you can take a moment to live in the moment.  To do so, deeply breathe in from your diaphragm to your chest, hold for several seconds, exhale through your mouth, hold for several seconds, then take another deep breath in.  Repeat these steps, and let your mind come to stillness.  When a thought enters your mind or you notice something around you, welcome it, and return to your breath.  Do this for as long as you wish.

The benefit of having mindful presence in the middle of a busy life is that it frees you to live in the present moment, embracing the fullness of life, staying curious about it, breathing in what you need or desire and breathing out what isn’t helpful.

Practicing mindfulness isn’t about finding a special place to be quiet—though there’s nothing wrong with that.  Rather, it’s about being fully alive right where you are—whether it’s on your commute, at your job, in the carpool line, or even in Paris.  Live in and embrace the present moment!

Today’s Buzzwords: Resiliency, Grit, and Perseverance

I frequently hear these words in meetings, in the news, podcasts, in TED talks, and tossed around in many conversations. Strengthening these three characteristics is a great cocktail to boost your happiness … every hour can be happy hour with this cocktail. Books on the subjects are flying off the shelves as many people look for ways to strengthen their level of resiliency, grit, and perseverance. Resiliency is the ability to recover after difficult situations. Having grit means you have courage and strength, while perseverance requires not giving up. Maybe one reason why these words are so popular is because as a society we see our friends and family suffering and we are looking for ways to relieve their pain. Or maybe it is because we too our hurting and want to find respite and comfort. This process can be thought of as compassion. By intentionally practicing mindfulness exercises, I have experienced an increase in my own feelings of compassion for those around me and in the world who are hurting. But how do we strengthen resiliency, grit, and perseverance?

            For me, it started with looking in the mirror and having compassion for myself. I became mindful of my own thoughts and the way I viewed myself. I was taught to treat others as I would treat myself. However, I treated myself like harsh for many years. The voice inside my head would beat me up and tell me I was not good enough, smart enough, pretty enough, etc. I let those thoughts continue, and over time, they became stronger until I believed those thoughts to be true. My thoughts fed into my feelings, emotions, beliefs, and then eventually my behavior. I was not living a life filled with joy and happiness. I allowed my own negative thoughts to dictate my actions.

Why was I viewing myself so negatively and not being compassionate towards myself? I do not treat others that way. In fact, I think the best of others, I value them and their ideas, and I appreciate the differences in the human body and find beauty in all creation. I began treating myself as I treated others.

Several years ago, I began practicing mindfulness, and I also began offering compassion to myself. The process required that I accepted my imperfections as opportunities for growth. I rewired my brain and replaced the voice in my head that told me I was not smart enough with mantras that boldly proclaimed I am unstoppable, hardworking, creative, beautiful, empathetic, compassionate, good enough, and loved.

Each morning, I start my day off by writing these type of positive attributes on my bathroom mirror with a dry erase marker. I smile at myself and actually take time to appreciate the amazing human being that I am. My night ends by journaling or meditating on what I learned from various situations I encountered during day. I am actually thankful for situations that are uncomfortable and challenging as I know these are crucial for my continued growth and development. Instead of viewing myself as the victim (as I used to do), I intentionally ask myself what I can learn from the challenges and how they can make me stronger. Practicing mindfulness, positive mantras, gratitude, self-compassion, and loving myself have been crucial for my joy and happiness as well as my level of resiliency, grit, and perseverance. Take time today to love yourself and treat yourself like you treat others. Think the best of yourself, appreciate your gifts, see your imperfections and your unique fingerprint the universe has placed upon you. Remember your accomplishments and focus on the goodness of you. We only have this moment…love yourself. YOU ARE AMAZING!

Minding the Mind

According to a study out of Harvard, humans tend to daydream and engage in mind wandering 47% of their waking lives (Killingsworth & Gilbert, 21010). Our ability to pay attention impacts our performance, relationships, and wellness. Increasing our level of attention and awareness widens the space between our perception of the stimulus and response. Practicing mindfulness gives us the ability to have direct access to the nature of our mind. Over time, our minds may become more settled and recover from stressful situation more quickly. We are less likely to be swept away by extreme feelings and emotions and can respond to things actively instead of re-actively. Bringing choice to our thoughts, emotions, and feelings allows us to be in control.