"You are the awareness of your thoughts. You are not your thoughts. You can let your thoughts happen. Just know that the real you is the awareness."
I've shared strategies for using movies to strengthen attention. Just as in ordinary life, what makes tending to the sensory components of a film so challenging is the pull of the narrative. But what would it be like to focus on the changing sights and sounds without having to resist the gravitational pull of story elements?
Starting today, you can find out.
Doris Payne lived large. She traveled abroad. She stayed in luxury hotels. She hung out with interesting characters. But she funded all her adventures by fencing the diamonds she lifted from high-end jewelers around the world. She was a remarkably successful thief with an impressive criminal career that spanned decades. But time, age, and technology finally caught up with her in recent years.
The ultimate full moon shot. Dean Potter walks a highline at Cathedral Peak as the sun sets and the moon rises. Shot from over 1 mile away with a Canon 800mm and 2X by Michael Schaefer.
This shot was part of a bigger project for National Geographic called The Man Who Can Fly.
Music track is from Will Bolton.
Meditation and mindfulness: the words conjure images of yoga retreats and Buddhist monks. But perhaps they should evoke a very different picture: a man in a deerstalker, puffing away at a curved pipe, Mr. Sherlock Holmes himself. The world’s greatest fictional detective is someone who knows the value of concentration, of “throwing his brain out of action,” as Dr. Watson puts it. He is the quintessential unitasker in a multitasking world.
"Part of the process we used is called stretch and stipple. You actually need four hands, not two, because you want to hold the skin, paint it, and then use a blow dryer -- on cool so you don't bake him -- to speed up the process. But you actually need four hands. But also you make it efficient and speedy, but we had to learn how to do it together so that there wasn't a feeling of two hands on the face moving separately from each other rather than in conjunction.
If you think of the difference between a massage and two people having a go separately, how that would feel. That's really distracting. So we actually practiced. It's rather like some strange, hip-hop handshake is the only way I can describe it. Doing a make-up simultaneously.
And of course we were in silence, so we mouthed to each other -- eyes, mouth -- you know, just mouthing it...To be perfectly honest, I actually quite like making up people in silence, if I'm really truthful. And fortunately, with Daniel, that is what he liked. So we dovetailed. I don't want to sound pretentious, but the only way I can describe it, is when your hands are working on a face, after a period of time, it's as if the intention of what you're doing has left you -- and the thought process -- and the hands [are] doing it by themselves. So you lose yourself in it. So someone asks you a question, you're sort of broken from it. And it's really hard then to find where you were and begin again. "
Excerpt from "Meditation Creates a Little Breathing Space for San Francisco Students," by Richard Schiffman, Huffington Post, October 19, 2012:
There are two jobs that have become a lot more difficult in recent years. One is being a teacher, which was never easy at the best of times. But in an age of virtually unlimited opportunities for distraction and rapidly shrinking attention spans getting kids to focus on their schoolwork can be (with apologies to dentists) like pulling teeth.
I know: As a former school aide working with young children, it was often all that I could manage just to break up fights and keep the decibel level below that at an international airport. Any "education" that actually took place in such an environment was a small miracle.
The other job that has become a whole lot harder, of course, is being a student. Believe me, I sympathize with their plight too! Today's kids are weaned on electronic devices where they move between one website, text-message, or video game and the next at lightning speed. Where does a child learn how to direct their attention to just one math problem or reading assignment when there are so many distractions a click away?
Yet recently I watched a deeply moving and inspiring film that gave me hope. Room to Breath, by director Russell Long was filmed in a public school in San Francisco. The Marina Middle School with 900 students is one of the largest in the Bay Area, and it has the dubious distinction of having the highest suspension rate in the city.
Humans have a language instinct
But not necessarily a writing instinct.
The difference between talking and writing
Is the difference between breathing and singing well.
"Having several tabs open at once on your computer may make you feel like you're getting more done, but multi-tasking can actually hinder more than it helps."
Excerpt from "Why Daydreaming Isn’t a Waste of Time," by Annie Murphy Paul, KQED Mind/Shift, June 1, 2012:
The ability to become absorbed in our own thoughts is linked to our ability to focus intently on the world outside, research indicates. In one recent neuro-imaging study, for example, participants alternated periods of mental rest with periods of looking at images and listening to sounds.
The more effectively the neural regions associated with “looking in” were activated during rest and deactivated while attending to the visual and auditory stimuli, the more engaged were the brain’s sensory cortices in response to sights and sounds. Focus and concentration are essential, of course. But so are introspection and reflection.
"What I find most rewarding is how well Search Inside Yourself has worked for ordinary folks in a corporate setting right here in a modern society. If Search Inside Yourself had worked this well for people from traditionally meditative cultures doing intensive retreats in zendos or something, nobody would be too surprised. But these are ordinary Americans working in a high-stress environment with real lives and families and everything, and still, they can change their lives in just twenty hours of classroom time spread over seven weeks."
~ Chade-Meng Tan
Excerpt from "Meditation Fit for a Marine," by Vanessa Gregory, Men's Journal, Nov. 11, 2010:
[A 2008 research study, partly funded by the Department of Defense, tested a group of] Marines for something called “working memory capacity,” a term that brain scientists use to define a cognitive resource that is much more than simple recall. Working memory capacity powers complex thoughts. It’s what we call upon to figure out restaurant tips, break down spreadsheets, or even settle ethical dilemmas like whether or not to pull a trigger. The level of this resource can be depleted throughout the day. A morning disagreement with a co-worker — or a roadside bomb for that matter — can make it harder to solve a problem that requires math skills a few hours later in the day. In the battlefield low levels of working memory capacity might mean the difference between life and death.
The results of the Marines’ experiences, published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Emotion, showed that the men who embraced meditation walked out of pre-deployment training with minds that were more agile than those who didn’t. They also reported improved athletic performance, relief from anxiety, better sleep, and stronger memory. “I wasn’t scatterbrained anymore,” says Major Jeff Davis, a 39-year-old infantry officer. “I had no problem concentrating when I was upset.”
Meditation, of course, has made headlines for years for a range of health benefits, from reducing symptoms of depression to lowering blood pressure and speeding healing. One UCLA study found that meditation slows the progression of HIV by reducing stress that hurts immune function. But many of those studies involved experienced practitioners; some of these Marines had never meditated before but still made mental strides, suggesting the practice is more accessible to first-timers and faster-acting than commonly thought.
The Marines engaged in a form of secular meditation called mindfulness, which is characterized by paying attention to the present. A beginner exercise, for example, involved concentrating on an area of contact between the body and whatever it’s touching, like a chair, for about five minutes. Whenever their minds wandered, the Marines were instructed to refocus. “It doesn’t take you to some transcendental state,” Davis says. “It’s not as foofy as that.” Some of the men, accustomed to excelling at everything they did, were surprised at how much focus they had to muster. As the weeks passed, Elizabeth Stanley introduced more complicated exercises. The Marines practiced “shuttling” their attention between contact points and sounds like wind or the hum of electricity. That may seem remedial, but consciously switching between focal points exacerbates the mind’s natural tendency to wander, and focus can easily drift to a dozen thoughts instead of two.
Near the end of training, the Marines attended a mindfulness retreat at the mansion of John Kluge, a former television mogul whose foundation also partially funded the study. The men spent an entire day in silence, trying to be mindful about every move they made. But some men, like Hermes Oliva, a Navy medic assigned to the unit, still weren’t buying it. “We’re barefoot on this guy’s lawn doing yoga, and we’re supposed to be silent,” he says. “We’re like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ ”
However, once Oliva was stationed in Iraq’s Anbar province as the sole medic for 60 Marines and 200 Iraqi soldiers, he “did a 180.” He remembered Stanley’s lectures about how mindfulness could cultivate an ability to more easily endure racing thoughts and the body’s primal fight-or-flight responses — those physical manifestations of stress that include shaking and a knotted stomach. “In my tent at night all by myself, I started doing those exercises,” he says. “It would help me recognize the symptoms in my body before they got out of control.”
It doesn’t take a situation as intense as Iraq to trap people in unhealthy stress cycles. Everyday life has the potential to weaken the immune system and diminish psychological resilience, especially in the age of e-mail, text messaging, and nonstop multitasking. Davis, who remains on active duty in Quantico, continues to meditate every day. “I can’t think of any aspect of my life that this hasn’t helped me in — academically, as a dad,” he says. He compared mindfulness to a physical workout like running: At first it seems impossible to fit in your schedule, but after a while it becomes normal. What’s the minimum to get results? Scientists aren’t certain, but none of the Marines in the Emotion study actually stuck to the full 30-minutes-daily regimen — the high-practice group saw benefits with an average meditation time of just 15 minutes a day. What’s important, notes Stanley, is to be consistent on a day-to-day basis.
How You Can Benefit From Marine-Style Mindfulness
Meditation improves concentration, zaps stress, increases memory, and promotes restful sleep. Here are a few exercises to get you started.
Boost concentration (5 minutes)
While sitting, use your hands to find tension in your brow, jaw, neck, and shoulders. Spend half a minute or so trying to release it by rubbing the tension with your hands and relaxing the tightness with your mind. Then focus on the contact points between your body and the chair. Focus on the point where the pressure is greatest. Whenever your attention wanders, refocus it on that contact point, thinking about nothing else.
Relieve stress (10 minutes)
Again, start by focusing on a contact point between your body and the chair. Then switch your attention to a single sound. It could be the traffic outside or even something quiet like the hum of a computer. Alternate between the contact point and sound at a slow, steady pace. This will free your mind from stress. End the exercise by returning to the contact point, and then slowly widen your focus outward to the rest of your body.
Induce sleep (15 minutes)
This exercise should be done right before bedtime, either in a chair or lying down. Wiggle and flex your toes. Focus on the sensations in your feet. Pause and continue to observe any feeling in your feet. Continue this pattern of flexing and resting sequentially throughout your body: ankles, knees, hips, fingers, wrists, elbows, shoulders, neck, jaw, and eye sockets. Soldiers found this exercise to greatly improve sleep.
According to Sian Beilock, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, “when students are anxious about how they’ll do on an exam, their worries use up some of their working memory capacity, leaving less of this cognitive horsepower to apply to the task at hand.”
Based on his research (Ramirez & Beilock, 2011), Beilock suggests this strategy: "For ten minutes, write about your feelings regarding the exam to clear your mind of test-related concerns, freeing working memory that can be applied to the exam" (Murphy Hall, 2012).
Murphy Hall, A. (2012, April 13). How to be a better test-taker. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://nyti.ms/HLxR92
Ramirez, G., & Beilock, S. L. (January 14, 2011). Writing about testing worries boosts exam performance in the classroom. Science, 331, 6014, 211-213. Retrieved from http://goo.gl/e8Wp5
People who are working on fulfilling some image they have of a "nice person" are usually a pain in the ass. Their efforts to be like the "nice person" they've invented in their heads almost always get in the way of actually doing what needs to be done. Most of the time I'd rather be around someone who is honestly selfish than someone who is forever trying to be selfless. The kind of forced helpfulness such people engage in is almost never helpful at all. It's annoying. Sometimes it's even harmful.
But those of us who realize that we actually aren't as good as we could be have a real dilemma. What do you do when you recognize that you really are greedy, envious, jealous, angry, pessimistic and so on and on and on?
To me, it seems like the recognition of such things is itself good enough. It's not necessary to envision a better you and try to remake yourself in that image. Just notice yourself being greedy and very simply stop being greedy. Not for all time in all cases. Just in whatever instance you discover yourself being greedy. If you're greedy on Tuesday for more ice cream, don't envision a better you somewhere down the line who is never greedy for more ice cream. Just forgo that last scoop of ice cream right now. See how much better you feel. This kind of action, when repeated enough, becomes a new habit. Problem solved.
As far as mindfulness and concentration are concerned, it works the same way. At the moment you notice yourself drifting off, come back. You might start drifting off again a nanosecond later. But that's OK. When you notice it again, come back again. Repeat as necessary.
Excerpts from "The Fierce Imagination of Haruki Murakami," by Sam Anderson, The New York Times Magazine, October 23, 2011:
Murakami sold his jazz club in order to devote himself, full time, to writing.
“Full time,” for Murakami, means something different from what it does for most people. For 30 years now, he has lived a monkishly regimented life, each facet of which has been precisely engineered to help him produce his work. He runs or swims long distances almost every day, eats a healthful diet, goes to bed around 9 p.m. and wakes up, without an alarm, around 4 a.m. — at which point he goes straight to his desk for five to six hours of concentrated writing. (Sometimes he wakes up as early as 2.) He thinks of his office, he told me, as a place of confinement — “but voluntary confinement, happy confinement.”
“Concentration is one of the happiest things in my life,” he said. “If you cannot concentrate, you are not so happy. I’m not a fast thinker, but once I am interested in something, I am doing it for many years. I don’t get bored. I’m kind of a big kettle. It takes time to get boiled, but then I’m always hot.”
"My brother’s screaming, my mom’s cussing, and I’m meditating."
~ Sam, Atlanta elementary school student who applies his mindfulness skills to difficult situations like being stuck in traffic. From "Brain Imaging Illuminates Neuro Basis of Meditation," by Carrie Gann, ABC News, Nov. 22, 2011
Excerpts from "Why Do We Fear an Empty Mind? "by Natasha Dern, The Huffington Post, May 15, 2011:
Why is it so hard for us to tolerate emptiness in our minds? The prevalent belief that action always equals progress may be a contributing factor. We perceive emptiness as an undesired state, something to be feared. We feel uncomfortable with those moments when our minds seem devoid of any creative or productive activity. We rarely, if ever, simply sit with and allow the feeling of emptiness.
When a thought enters the mind, it is replaced by another. It is automatic. We are not aware that a thought has segued into another thought. But upon developing the muscles of concentration, we become conscious of the entry and exit process of our thoughts. The mind gradually begins to entertain fewer thoughts per minute. We become aware that there is an interval, a delay, a space between one thought and another. This space is emptiness but also a fullness. At this level of awareness, we are in the sanctum of pure awareness. There are many who are living in this state of pure awareness, and their experiences are lucid and real...
...When the ego cooperates in suspension of all sense impressions and thoughts, it enters the realm of empty, unnameable nothingness. This nothingness is the gateway into the deeper layers of consciousness. It is here where inspiration, knowledge and creativity will ultimately strike. While we are here, we do not decide what will be experienced but to allow whatever awareness it wants us to have.
When self is absent and thoughts negated, we are open to the unknown. Not only does the mind become utterly blank, but it loses the all encompassing idea of a personal ego. We are oblivious to all lower sensations and are instead awake to the rich, conscious and sublime nothingness. Since the capacity to remain in this state for more than a few minutes can impose a strain, the intellect or imagination rush in with ideas or images, thus ending the tension. With time and practice we can endure the weight of this indescribable and incomprehensible experience.
If we succeed in holding steadfastly to this nothingness in deep concentration or meditation, we realize that it is not a mere mental abstraction but something real, not a dream but the most concrete thing in our experience. The contrast between the personal and the impersonal melts away, and only the sense of Being remains -- a Being that stretches far and wide, like the silent trance of infinite space.
"Did you know that in Pali (the old-school language of Buddha's day), they don't even have a word for meditation? The closest they have is bhavana—which literally means something like 'consciousness training' and refers to the disciplined, rigorous training required to shape our minds in order to become better, more conscious/healthy/awesome human beings." ~ Brian Johnson
"Mindfulness simply means being aware — seeing clearly what is happening in our minds and in the world, from moment to moment, bringing a sense of kindness to our experience rather than getting caught in judging it."
~ Mark Williams