Category: Mindfulness

Mental Habits, Nutriment and Happiness

Mental Habits, Nutriment and Happiness

The Pattern that leads to Depression 

As I see more and more patients, especially the elderly, and especially during this Covid-19 pandemic, I see a pattern.   

This is the pattern – our mental states, whether happy or otherwise, is very dependent on our mental habits that we have cultivated and strengthened over time.  

This is especially so in the elderly because as we grow older, our mental states tend to be dependent on our dominant mental habits. As we start to lose control over some of our physical functions, we seem to also gradually lose control over our ability to direct our mind. Thus, our mental habits become the dominant determinant of our mental states. 

This loss of control over our life is a source of fear for us, and especially so for the elderly. This fear, coupled with the dominant mental habits, become the trigger for anxiety and depression. 

Thus, if we have the mental habit of wanting to control people, circumstances or outcomes, we become fearful in old age as we gradually lose control. If we have the mental habits of focusing on the negative, we become more worrisome over time, and again, this leads to more anxiety and depression. 

Training the Mind 

Another pattern that I notice is this – it becomes increasingly difficult to train the mind as we grow older. This is understandable as we become more and more set in our mental habits, in our ways.  

Therefore, the wise advice of the ancient sages – that the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, and the second-best time to do so is now. The best time to cultivate and train our mind is 20 years ago, but if we have not started, now is the second-best time to do so. 

What kind of mental habits should we cultivate, and how do we do that? 

Well, one of the best mental habits that we can cultivate, that will continue to be beneficial for us now and into the future, is the habit of focusing on the positive. Learn to see the positive in any situation. In fact, if you can see the positive in even the most negative situation, then you have won a prize hard to gain even though you may have lost something else. Therefore, train your mind to see the positive in any situation. 

One effective way of seeing the positive in any situation is to learn gratitude. Gratitude trains our mind to see the good in everything. Open your eyes in the morning and you can be grateful for being alive. Walk into the bathroom and you can be grateful that you are still mobile and strong. Eat your breakfast and be grateful that you have food on the table. Walk outside your house or go to work, and be grateful of the freedom that you still have. Return home at night and be grateful that you have lived another day. There is just so many things you can train your mind to be grateful for.  

Secondly, unlearn the habit of wanting to control people, situations or outcomes. Learn to accept things as they come to you. Be OK with whatever comes along. Just make the best of the situation. Look for your best possible response to the situation that is beneficial to both you and those involved. Let go of your fear or feeling of discomfort at not being able to control the outcome. If the fear or unpleasant feeling persists, be OK with that too. Just learn to watch your fear or discomfort non-judgmentally, and see that they will dissipate with time. They will go away when you don’t feed them with your judgment. On the other hand, if you do feed them with your attention and judgment, they grow stronger and more persistent. This is the wisdom of non-judgmental awareness, and the insight or realization that you will gain. This is also the concept of nutriment is action.  

Too Old to Train the Mind? Try Chanting 

It is often said that “you can’t train an old dog new tricks”. Although not an absolute rule, this observation is generally accurate. It is difficult to train your mind when you are old because you already have a strong set of mental habits. So, start training your mind when you are young. Start now. 

For those who find it difficult to train your mind now, you can try chanting. Chanting, done regularly and diligently, is also a form of mind training. When you chant, you are focusing your mind on something positive or neutral, and therefore not focusing on the negative. The longer you can chant, the better the benefits. So, learn chanting.  

Another method is to keep your mind busy with some kind of work or activity, such as gardening, exercise, walking in the park, playing mahjong with friends. If you have a hobby, then focus on the hobby. Spend more time at your hobby. Any kind of activities that can take your mind away from thinking negatively is a good activity for this purpose. 

Be of Service to Others 

Finally, look for and join societies or clubs that give meaningful services to others. Become a volunteer. Do some charity work. Be of service to others. 

Using Mindfulness for Personal Transformation

Using Mindfulness for Personal Transformation

What is mindfulness?  

According to Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness is paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, non-reactively, to the unfolding of our experience moment to moment. Mindfulness is done purposefully, with a conscious decision, to be aware of our present experience. It is also done non-judgmentally, non-reactively. This means we merely watch the unfolding of our experience. We do not add on to the unfolding experience with our habits of dramatization, exaggeration and fantasy.  

Dr. Gordon Coates in New Zealand has a simpler definition for mindfulness. To him, mindfulness is the constant, non-judgmental awareness of our body, feelings and thoughts. 

Two Layers of Reality

Mindfulness practice helps us to unclutter our mind. To be more specific, mindfulness helps us to unclutter the content of our mind.  

It helps us to see that there is a layer of reality that we are experiencing, and then, there is another layer of reality that we have added to the first layer. This second layer is the result of our mental habits, our conditioned mind. Our everyday mind has the habit of adding to the first layer of real experience through dramatizing and exaggeration – habits that come from our conditioned mind.  

The problem is that we get lost in the drama of our own creation without even being aware of our own role in creating it. With practice, as our mind watch purposefully and mindfully, we begin to see these two layers of reality. We begin to understand our own role in creating and maintaining these fantasies in our life. Our joy and our pain are all our own creation. 

What mindfulness is not

Mindfulness practice is not about the thoughts. It is not really about the content of your thinking. It is more useful to understand your own thinking process – how your thoughts come about, and more importantly, how you react to those thoughts. With enough practice, you will soon realize that you do not have to believe in those thoughts. And once you stop believing in them, they no longer hold any power over you.  

Mindfulness is also not about not thinking. We are not asking you to stop thinking. It is not necessary to do that. All you need to do is to train yourself to become more aware of your thoughts and your reactions towards them. Understanding and insights will come gradually.  

Mindfulness practice is not a mean to escape from reality. In fact, when done properly, you actually train yourself to see things as they really are – free from your own drama.  

Mindfulness is about attention and focus, but it is not just about attention. It is also about awareness.  

Mindfulness is not about getting rid of unpleasant thoughts and emotions. It is more about understanding your unpleasant thoughts and emotions, how they arise, and how you react to them. 

 Lastly, mindfulness is not Buddhism. It is not religious. It is a mental practice, a mental skill, that anyone can acquire, learn and master.  

Looking inward for personal change

So, with mindfulness practice, you learn to look inward to your own body, feelings and thoughts. You learn to be more aware of them in a way that is non-judging. You train yourself to merely watch them as they unfold in your experience. In this way, you are able to now differentiate facts from fictions that you have created. You learn to see things as they really are, and this leads to insights and self-understanding. 

As you learn to become more mindful, there will be some useful insights rising in your experience. You will realize that your mind can only focus on one thing at a time. This is an important insight. It means that if you can train yourself to focus only on the positive, you can free your mind, and therefore yourself, from the sufferings and pain that follow negative thoughts.  

You will also learn that whenever your mind wanders to the future or to the past, you can always bring it back to the present moment by focusing on your body, or body sensation. Why? Because your body is always in the present. It does not exist in the past or in the future. So, this is a neat trick to easily bring your mind back to the present moment.  

You will also observe that there are actually two types of feelings or sensation – one arising from the body, and another arising from our thoughts. Unpleasant, and even painful sensation from our body may be inevitable. However, mental suffering from our thoughts is optional, meaning that we do not really have to create that mental pain once we can master our thoughts. When we are unaware of this fact, we often have no choice but to suffer both physical as well as mental pain. Once we know this, however, we do have a choice. We can learn to endure or tolerate physical pain without dramatizing or exaggerating the pain with our thoughts – a habit we often inflict on ourselves without realizing.  

Common Mental Habits

The more we learn mindfulness, the more we begin to understand ourselves and our mental habits.  

For example, we realize that we pay too much attention to what is happening outside of us, and not paying enough attention to what is happening inside of us. And we learn that paying attention to what is happening inside of us offers us more insight and self-understanding.  

We also notice how we often personalize experiences, meaning we misinterpret experience to be about us even when they are not necessarily so.  

We also make a lot of assumptions and jump to conclusions without verifying the facts. We are often not able to differentiate facts from fictions we have created ourselves. Our mind also has the tendency to focus on the negative, rather than the positive, and is often judging, criticizing, belittling and blaming – ourselves and others.  

We make a lot of generalization that may not be true. Our mind has the tendency to proliferate, fantasize, dramatize and exaggerate things. It also has the habit of looking into the past or the future, rather than staying with the present moment.  

Mindfulness is a potent tool for personal transformation

So, we can see here that mindfulness is a potent tool for self-understanding. With mindfulness, we become more aware of our own mental habits and beliefs, many of which are no longer serving our present needs. This awareness allows us to change ourselves, our mental habits and our beliefs.  

We can also use our emotions as windows into our own inner processes. However, be aware that looking inward is a journey for the brave. It requires us to adopt the policy of being honest with ourselves. We must learn to accept 100% responsibility for our own life. Although this journey of personal transformation may be full of challenges and difficulties, it is still a journey worth taking as we are likely to come out stronger and better in the end.  

As Sun Tze used to say – Know thyself. Know thy enemies. In a thousand battles, win a thousand victories. In this case, the enemies that we need to confront is not outside of us. Rather, they are our own inner limiting beliefs and mental habits that are no longer serving us well.  

Mindfulness is therefore an essential tool for personal transformation. 

Managing Thoughts

Managing Thoughts

Introduction 

Thoughts are not real. However, believing in our thoughts makes them real to us. Realising this truth can free us from a lot of sufferings. After all, since thoughts are not real, we do not need to allow them to bother us. 

Unfortunately, it is not that simple. Unless we can see and know for ourselves that thoughts are not real, it is hard for us to simply believe this fact.  

Thus, thoughts continue to bother us. 

Types of Thoughts 

Thoughts can be grouped into these three categories: 

  1. Positive thoughts 
  1. Negative thoughts 
  1. Neutral thoughts 

Positive thoughts make us feel good. Negative thoughts make us feel bad. Neutral thoughts do not seem to bother us either way. 

Our thoughts are what make us happy or sad. If we want to be free from sadness, then we must learn to manage our negative thoughts. 

Causes of Negative Thoughts 

What causes negative thoughts to arise? Briefly, association with past experiences – with memories imprinted in our mind.  

Inputs from the external world of the five physical senses and our own internal mental world lead to association with past imprints in our mind as we try to make sense of the world.  

Our own conditioned mind or mental habits determine how this association is managed. It is what our mind inclines to do. 

Effects of Negative Thoughts 

Negative thoughts make us worry. They make us fearful. Then, we react accordingly. 

We worry only because we want things to be other than “what is”. We worry because our expectations are not met, or are threatened. We worry because we cannot see things as they really are, or if we do see things as they really are, we have not accepted them.  We have not surrender to reality. 

What is threatened is not just our expectations. To be more accurate, it is our Self that is threatened. The ego is threatened. The ego’s safety or significance is threatened. 

Managing Negative Thoughts 

  1. Know that thoughts are not real 

The best way to manage negative thoughts, and all kinds of thoughts, is to know that thoughts are not real. It is our own belief in our thoughts that make them real to us. 

Through believing in our thoughts, we give thoughts the power to create both happiness and suffering for us. Without such a belief, thoughts have no power over us. This shows the amazing power of belief. 

This is healing at the level of wisdom (knowing and seeing). 

If we cannot see this truth for ourselves, then we must manage our negative thoughts in other ways. 

  1. Acceptance of what is 

The next method is to learn to accept things as they are, without expectations or wish for things to be other that what is. This is a form of surrendering to the universe, and to universal wisdom.  

This requires a belief that the universe will serve you what is best for your growth. 

This is healing at the level of faith. 

  1. Right View for Right Thoughts 

If you have a right world view or skillful/wholesome way of looking at life, then you will have the right perspective to lead a happy life. A wholesome perspective leads to wholesome perception, which leads to wholesome experience.  

In short, right view leads to right attitude and right thoughts. 

Another way of looking at this is that we tell ourselves the right story or narrative. Just as the way we view the world can influence how we experience life, in the same way, how we tell ourselves the narrative we believe in will influence how we experience life. 

In other words, how we choose to view the world matters. What we choose to believe in also matters. This is what is meant by “believe it and you will see it”. 

We tend to think that we believe something only when we have seen it. That is why there is a saying, “I’ll believe it when I see it”.  

But the paradox of life is such that what really happens is we first believe in something (our views or our story), then we see it or experience it as a validation of our beliefs. Here is another example of the power of belief. 

Realising this truth is important because it means that we can change how we experience life by changing our beliefs, world views and/or stories. 

  1. Stopping negative thoughts from arising 

This requires intense mindfulness and energy. The practice of meditation (bhavana) comes in useful here to strengthen the mental muscles necessary for this kind of job. 

A strong mind can stop negative thoughts from arising, or if they have already arisen, to stop them in their tracks before they can cause more damage to our well-being. 

  1. Replacing arisen negative thoughts 

This is a common method advised by psychiatrists and psychologists to manage negative thoughts. Whenever a negative thought arises, replace that negative thought with an opposite and positive thought.  

For example, if a negative thought about stealing arises, then as soon as you are aware of it, replace the thought with a positive and opposite one, such as a thought of giving or charity. 

  1. Distraction method 

If it is difficult even to replace a negative thought with a positive one, then simply try to distract yourself from the negative thought by focusing on something else that may be totally unrelated to what you are thinking about.  

For example, if you are thinking of something lustful, you can distract yourself from the thought by deciding to go for a run or jog. Finding something useful to do is a good and effective method of distracting or re-directing your thoughts. 

5 Tips for Your Daily Mindfulness Practice

5 Tips for Your Daily Mindfulness Practice

Mindfulness requires constant practice. The more you do it, the better you are at being mindful. However, it is almost impossible to be mindful from the moment you wake up in the morning to the time you fall asleep at night. So, instead of trying to be mindful 24/7, it is easier to focus on small chunks.

Here are some tips for your daily mindfulness practice.

1. Set your mind positively from the start

When you wake up in the morning, the first thing you need to remind yourself is that you can set your mental state for the rest of the day. This is especially important if you have the habit of waking up grumpy, not looking forward to the day or with the mentality of having to fight through another day.

Your early morning mental state sets the tone for the entire day. Contrary to your limiting belief, this mind state is within your power to set. You do have a choice, provided that you are conscious about it and not merely functioning on autopilot as soon as you wake up.

To set your mental state, pause for a moment when you wake up in the morning instead of jumping out of bed and running around to rush to work or to whatever you do in the morning. Take a moment to be with the calmness of your mind in the early morning state. Feel the quietness, the peace.

If you are habitually negative in thoughts, focus on three things that you are grateful for. Allow that positive mental state or gratitude to stay for a while. Enjoy this state. Soak it all in. This will help set the tone for your day.

2. Cultivate a habit of introspection

Ordinarily, we put our attention more on external events and experiences than inwardly in our mental landscape. It is important to put aside some time for looking inward as great insights and self understanding can come from this. To cultivate this habit of introspection, slot into your daily schedule some space to simply be with yourself, alone. Even a 5 minutes space will suffice.

Use this space to pause from your hectic daily schedule, to slow down, to find momentary relief, to rest. Center yourself in the present moment by bringing your attention to your breathing. When your mind is centered in the now, it is at rest, not worrying or feeling anxious about the future.

3. Put a space between the experience and the experiencer

This is a practice in being non-judgmental or non-reactive to experiences. Notice how easy it is for you to get caught up in the drama when you personalize or get caught up or suck into all your experiences. Instead, learn to simply watch the events and experiences unfold as if you are a non-partisan scientist curious about how things work. This opens up your mind to more possibilities. There is more than one way to interpret the events or experiences. There is an alternative perspective.

4. Listen attentively

This and the next tip are essential for good communication and relationships. Learn to listen attentively, without your mind wandering away to your own personal things when someone is talking to you. You have to actively remind yourself to focus on the person’s speech and not allow your mind to stray, as is so often the habit.

To be able to listen actively and attentively like this is good training for your mind to be in the present moment. More importantly, it shows respect and care for the person communicating with you. People can sense that you are genuinely there for them, that they are important to you.

5. Speak impeccably

To speak impeccably is to speak truthfully, choosing only things that are beneficial and appropriate to talk about. This is called the triple filter test.

First, is it true? Speak only the truth. If it is not true, why say it?

Then, is it beneficial to the listener? If it is not going to benefit the listener, why say it? What is your motivation? Is it more for your personal agenda, or pride or ego?

Lastly, even if you are going to say something true and beneficial, is this the proper time and place to say it? Is it appropriate now, or should it be said at another time or another place, in private rather than in public?

Living Skills: Mindfulness and Letting Go

Living Skills: Mindfulness and Letting Go

Living skills are skills that help you to live your life better. Unfortunately, living skills are often not taught or emphasized in schools. Thus, most people acquire living skills from the “school of hard knocks” – through experiences in life.

There are many living skills. Two of the most important and useful skills are mindfulness and letting go.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is effective in noting the arising of our thoughts and in recognising the contents of our thoughts and beliefs. It is particularly useful in changing the self limiting beliefs we have that is preventing us from unlimited possibilities. Since changing these unconscious self limiting beliefs requires that we first identify them, mindfulness plays a crucial role in this identification process.

When we are mindful of the thoughts and beliefs in our mind, we can then work on replacing limiting beliefs with wholesome and life-enhancing ones.

How can we increase our mindfulness? We can do that through meditation.

Meditation, when done on a regular basis, increases our mindfulness and allow us to gradually peel away layers upon layers of negative mental and emotional imprints, and creating rooms for new positive and life-enhancing beliefs and imprints. This process is often compared to peeling the layers of an onion. Some compared it to tending a garden.

Another way for us to identify our self limiting beliefs is through the Option Method, which was created and introduced in New York City around 1970 by Bruce DiMarsico.

Bruce had studied psychology and philosophy. Years later, while working as a psychotherapist and human relations consultant, he developed the Option Method as a self-help tool for people to become happier in their everyday lives. Option Method uses a series of questions to help you identify and clarify what exactly is bothering you. The questions that follow then expose the belief behind your emotion or bad feeling. As the questions open the door to your heart, your true feelings will become evident.

Letting Go

The ability to let go complements mindfulness. Mindfulness allows us to be aware of our negative thoughts, beliefs and feelings. With the awareness and insights we can then let go of them.

Since we spend almost every waking hours seeking, acquiring, grasping and clinging on to things, we have the tendency to resist letting go. In fact, most people find it extremely difficult to let go of anything and particularly of feelings and beliefs. This is because we have learned to identify our feelings and beliefs as ourselves. We think we are our feelings and beliefs. Thus we fight and struggle to keep these feelings and beliefs in an effort to preserve our SELF, regardless of whether they are useful or harmful to us.

One method of letting go is through mindfulness itself. When we are aware of our negative thoughts and feelings, which often hide in our subconscious mind, we can then decide to let them go. So mindfulness and letting go come hand-in-hand.

Another method of letting go unwanted feelings is to actually allow ourselves to feel the negative feelings, and then ask ourselves three important questions:

1. Could I let it go?
2. Would I let it go?
3. When?

The answer to the first question is always a “Yes”. We can always let go of anything, even long standing and major mental and emotional imprints.

The second question is more personal. “Would I let it go?” is intended to give yourself the permission to let it go. For some people, it may take a while to give a “Yes” answer to this question. It is perfectly alright. In fact, this step cannot be rushed so take your time. You need to convince yourself (and no one else) and when you are ready and willing, then say “yes” to it. In some cases, going through and completing the forgiveness process is essential to finally allow yourself to let go.

The last question, “When?” gives you a time frame. The best time is of course “NOW” but this again depends on whether you are mentally and emotionally ready to let go. It is perfectly alright to choose a time that is most appropriate for you.

This method that I have just described was created by Lester Levenson.

Mindfulness is a different state of mind

Mindfulness is a different state of mind

If you are new to the practice of mindfulness, the first thing you need to do is to be totally familiar with its definition, for hidden in plain sight in the definition is the clue to your successful practice.

Mindfulness, as defined by Jon Kabat Zinn, is paying attention purposefully, in the present moment, in a non-reactive way. The object of your attention or focus can be an external object, such as a flame on a candle, or an internal object. The three common internal objects are your body, emotions and thoughts.

For a beginner, it is easiest to start with the grossest object – one that is easy for you to focus on. In this respect, most beginners start their mindfulness training by learning to be fully aware of their bodily sensations, postures as well as noticing with greater details the daily experiences of the interactions between the five physical sense organs and the external objects.

For example, you can begin to become more mindful of your eating experience by remembering to be as fully aware as you can with the mechanics of chewing, tasting and swallowing each time you eat. You can also observe the movements of your limbs as you climb the stairs. Even while you are sitting and working at your computer, you can purposefully pay attention to your sitting posture, the pressure on your buttocks as well as the position of your spine and the various groups of muscles that are getting tense as a result of your posture.

The second reason why beginners should begin their mindfulness training with the body is that the body anchors you in the present moment. Unlike our mind that can be way into the future or in the past, the body is always in the present. For this same reason, learning to be aware of your breathing is important because this is a quick and simple way you can use to re-establish your attention in the here and now when your mind has wandered off.

Since paying attention to such mundane things that we have taken for granted is not something we do everyday at the conscious level, this is the first mental habit that we need to cultivate – to train our mind to focus on the objects of our conscious choice. This is by no means an easy first task as our everyday mind already has a well established habit of running all over the world with its attention, never staying with an object for any extended period of time. This everyday mind is what we called the monkey mind, for it behaves exactly like the restless monkey that jumps from one branch of a tree to another and never staying long in one place.

Next comes the next stage of learning to observe all our bodily experiences, and mental experiences, without being reactive to them. To achieve this, we need to train our mind to observe non-judgmentally so that the experience is not seen or filtered through our biased lenses. Again, this is a very different state of mind compared to our everyday mind that we are used to. Our everyday mind has the automatic tendency to prejudge things, people and events with our own likes and dislikes, which means we do not experience things as they really are. Instead, we experience them as we imagine them to be.

To be mindful, this non-judging quality is crucial as it is this quality of an open and curious mind that will give us a totally new perspective in our daily experiences. This is the beginner’s mind that is open to all possibilities. When done right, mindfulness leads to a new state or quality of mind.

It is in this state of mind that you will begin to see things as they really are, free from your own filters, biases, prejudices, assumptions, beliefs and expectations.

Like all skills, it is the constant and continuous  practice that will make you a better practitioner. Learn it now and habituate it in your life, and you will see your life transformed.

Mindfulness: A Powerful Transformation Tool

Mindfulness: A Powerful Transformation Tool

The word “mindfulness” is often used in association with meditation, and in particular with Buddhist meditation. Mindfulness in this sense is not simply awareness. It refers to a particular quality of awareness.

We already have awareness in our daily life. After all, we do not go through life in a coma. We know that we are aware of many things. For example, we are aware when we cross the road. We are aware when we eat or watch a movie or play a game. So what is the difference between this form of awareness and mindfulness?

There are two important qualities in mindfulness. The first is knowing, which is also present in our everyday awareness. However, it is the second quality of non-judging and accepting it as it is that makes mindfulness different from our everyday awareness. And this is an extremely important difference.

When our everyday awareness knows something, it immediately or habitually analyzes it, evaluating it, judging it. Then it decides whether it is something it likes or dislikes, and it reacts accordingly. What it is attracted to, it wants more of it. What it is averse to, it wants to run away from it, hide it, bury it or ignore it. So, in this sense, our everyday mind is constantly doing something or looking for something to do. This has become such a powerful habit that the everyday mind actually finds it difficult to “not-do” anything.

Mindfulness, on the other hand, is non-judging, accepting and allowing. It does not personalize the experience. When we practice this form of awareness in our daily lives, we will soon see a difference in the quality of our lives. Life becomes less of a struggle, more joyful and peaceful. Stillness of the mind actually becomes possible. Fear gradually diminishes and loses its power over us.

To quote Thich Nhat Hanh, “Fearlessness is not only possible, it is the ultimate joy”.