Your Inner Coach

The Inner Critical Coach

When asked what gets in the way of consistently performing at their best, most people can easily identify obstacles such as time, energy, scheduling conflicts, and distractions. These can indeed be areas that need focus but what I’ve found in my coaching practice is that most of our real obstacles are internal. Another way to say this is, our greatest obstacle to peak performance is often our selves.

These internal obstacles are experienced as negative thoughts and stories in our mind accompanied by tension in our body.  These thoughts can take on a personality and an inner voice that seems to have but one job, to sabotage you from doing whatever you set out to do. This inner voice would like to talk you out of your big vision by convincing you that your plans are unworkable and your aspirations are unattainable. Listening to and believing this voice leads to ambivalence, low self-esteem, catastrophizing, shame, anxiety, worry, exhaustion and ultimately failure. Often they are the internalized voices of influential people and caregivers from our past, and when they treat us badly there may be good reason to consider finding ways of letting them go.

In the mPEAK program we refer to these thought patterns as the “Inner Critical Coach”. The Inner Critical Coach looks for perfection everywhere. It loves to compare and hold unachievable high standards. It strives to attain, and will drive you to success at all cost-including health, happiness and sanity. You know you’re listening to the voice of the Inner Critical Coach when you start feeling like you SHOULD be better than you are. You SHOULD be “there” by now. And SHOULD be like someone else who clearly has it more together than you. There is an overall sense of not measuring up and just not being good enough. When the Inner Critical Coach is in charge, you may end up making long lists of things to do and staying up late, feeling pushed to do more and more but never feeling quite satisfied.

Everyone has these voices to varying degrees. For some, it only comes out when under the extreme pressures of deadlines or competition and for others; it’s a pattern that regularly dominates their thinking. Perhaps you already know a little bit about your own Inner Critical Coach? Just think of an area of your performance that you feel like needs to be changed. Then imagine how you talk to yourself when you don’t perform the way you’d expected in that area. Chances are, the things your Inner Critic says would be grounds for a breakup or a fistfight if someone else said them to you! “Yep, you blew it again. That was bound to happen.” “Its your fault, if you would have worked harder you wouldn’t have let the team down.” “You’re never going to get it right”.

It’s easy to start thinking of your Inner Critical Coach as the enemy but let’s explore it a bit more before making that judgment. According to The Founders of Voice Dialoguing Therapy, Hal & Sidra Stone, its intentions aren’t all bad.  Your Inner Critic is actually trying to protect you from others’ disapproval, hurt or abandonment. The philosophy of the Inner Critic is “better me than them”—in other words, it is better for your own inner critic to whip you into conformity before you have to experience the hurt of someone else criticizing you. It has a remarkable underlying anxiety about life and what other people think, because again, its job is to protect you from others’ judgments. Can you see how this might be true for your Inner Critical Coach?

Mindfulness of the Inner Critical Coach

One evening an old Cherokee Indian told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, ‘My son, the battle is between two ‘wolves’ inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.’ The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: ‘Which wolf wins? ’The old Cherokee simply replied, ‘The one you feed.’  

The first step to managing your Inner Critical Coach is to start consciously noticing and identifying it from the other thoughts you have. Once identified as “not you” it helps to slap a label on it.  Some participants of the mPEAK course stick with the standard title, “Inner Critical Coach” and others give it a more personalized title- maybe even named after a pushy past boss or grouchy childhood soccer coach! The act of noticing and labeling brings the thought from unconscious to conscious or from subjective experience to something that’s now objective and manageable. The clearer we can be in observing these thoughts, the easier it becomes to manage them.

After labeling, it’s important to realize that your thoughts don’t have to control you and that you have a choice about how to work with these critical thoughts. Perhaps you dispute the thought by finding evidence against it- a time where you did succeed and you were indeed good enough. Or maybe you get curious, “what am I protecting myself from?” Or, “What’s the silver lining in this?” Sometimes just by seeing The Inner Critical Coach for what it is allows us to simply let the whole thing go and move on. We can even potentially thank the Inner Critical Coach for how hard it has worked up until now to try and keep us safe or protect us from harm in some way.

Meet Your Compassionate Inner Coach

But even as resilient as you may be, we’ve all had occasions where the challenges we’re up against just don’t seem to respond to our usual strategies for moving forward. Maybe you dropped the game-winning pass, lost a key client, sustained an injury, got fired or gained twenty pounds. Try as you might, the emotions that come with failure such as inadequacy and unworthiness can seem to stick like pine tar. Even though you’re aware that your Inner Critical Coach has taken over the ship, you may still feel helpless to turn things around.

During these inevitable difficulties we have participants in the mPEAK course experiment with turning towards another aspect of themselves, their Compassionate Inner Coach. This is the inner voice that is kind and understanding toward oneself in instances of pain and failure. Your Compassionate Inner Coach has your back and wants whatever is best for you. It wants nothing more than for you to be happy, perform at your best and be free from stress.  

"How would you feel if you lost a competition and your coach said to you: “What a looser.  You’ll never amount to anything.  I’m ashamed of you!”  Inspired, confident, ready to take on the next challenge?  Of course not - and yet isn’t that exactly the type of language we use with ourselves when we fail? What could your coach say that was more productive?  “Hey, it’s okay.  Everyone fails sometime and it’s an important part of the learning curve.  But I’m here for you.  I believe in you.  What can I do to help?”  This type of kind, supportive talk is going to be a much more effective motivator.  Luckily we can start to use this approach with ourselves by learning the skill of self-compassion.”     –Kristin Neff

Compassion is not a term typically spoken in boardrooms or locker rooms and it’s relevance to performance enhancement may not be immediately obvious.  Sure we all agree it’s valuable for caregivers like nurses, mothers, aide workers and those religiously inclined to service but how might compassion help an athlete or an executive?

Though research into the physiology of self-compassion versus self-criticism is still in its early stages, Kristin Neff, the lead researcher in self-compassion hypothesizes a simple model. Harsh self-criticism activates the sympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight”) and elevates stress hormones such as cortisol in our bloodstream. When our Inner Critical Coach has a hold on us, we cannot learn from or engage with the deeper lesson or truth that may be there to serve us. Connecting with your own Self-Compassionate Inner Coach on the other hand may trigger the mammalian care-giving system, releasing hormones of affiliation and love, such as oxytocin, which is associated with feelings of connection and well-being.

Offering Self-compassion by treating yourself the way a good friend would, presents a healthy way of relating to the self that is not dependent upon performance, success or positive self-evaluations. Treating oneself with compassion involves accepting all aspects of one’s experiences, regardless of how painful or difficult they may be.

Research by Mosewich et al.  found that self-compassion was linked with lower body shame, body surveillance, fear of failure, fear of negative evaluation, objectified body self-consciousness, and social physique anxiety. Treating oneself with compassion allows for clarity of one’s limitations and recognition of unhealthy behaviors, which enables action for growth and encourages change to improve well-being (Berry, Kowalski, Ferguson, & McHugh); hence, self-compassion may be a viable resource for achieving human potential. In other studies done by Ferguson and Kowalski et al., Self-compassion was described as advantageous in difficult sport specific situations by increasing positivity, perseverance, and responsibility, as well as decreasing rumination.

Are You A Self-Compassion Skeptic?

Despite the promising research, some of the participants in mPEAK meet this particular practice with resistance and a healthy skepticism.  It’s a commonly held belief in high achievers that “if I didn’t beat myself up, I’d never get anywhere. My Inner Critical Coach is who motivates me to win!” Self-compassion can be perceived as too gentle for corporate culture or too passive for the grittiness of competitive sports. There is a fear that listening to the voice of the Inner Compassionate Coach will make them complacent, or overly tolerant of low standards. “If I’m too kind to myself, I’ll loose my edge.” “If I believe I’m good enough, I’ll never get better.”

But The Self-Compassionate Coach is hardly one to let you off the hook.  Neff explains that self-compassion is not a way of avoiding goals or becoming self-indulgent. Instead, self- compassion is a great motivator because it involves the desire to alleviate suffering, to heal, to thrive, and to be happy. A parent who cares about her child will insist on the child’s eating vegetables and doing her homework, no matter how unpleasant these experiences are for the child. Similarly, taking it easy on yourself may be appropriate in some situations, “but in times of over-indulgence and laziness, self-compassion involves toughening up and taking responsibility.”

In experiments by Juliana G. Breines and Serena Chen, it was found that self-compassion actually motivated people to improve personal weaknesses, moral transgressions, and test performance. So rather than giving up, those who are self-compassionate actually try as hard to succeed as those who are less self-compassionate, but are more likely to persist after failing or falling or losing.

Loss, failure and injury are painful enough on their own without us adding an extra layer of self-judgment and insult. If your Inner Critical Coach is holding you back from peak performance and you’re ready to make a shift toward greater Self Compassion, you may consider signing up for our upcoming mPEAK 3 Day Intensive

Mindfully Slammed

Ever since the New Year I’ve been hearing myself say with uncommon regularity, “I’m slammed”. This is odd because I don’t see myself as the slammed type. I’m a mindfulness coach and my life is supposed to be open, spacious and free! Have I turn into one of those busy people? Whenever my own personal experience starts to mirror the goals of my clients, I pay attention.  So lately I've gotten extra curious when several coaching clients wanted to talk about maximizing, organizing and prioritizing their schedules. They had too much on their plate and were feeling anxiety about fitting it all in. This might seem like a common theme for a coach to address but the truth is, it's rarely the main topic of a session. Instead we check in about health habits, meditation practice, relationships or work goals and then transition into the deeper conversation about honoring values, inner challenges and living from truth. "Time Management" seems so linear, boring, and corporate. But after recognizing the obvious relevance to both my personal life and the lives of my clients, I decided to dig in deeper.

For someone who’s mostly dismissed "Time Management" as an elementary coaching theme, I have a surprisingly elaborate system for controlling my own flow of time and events. Looking more closely at how I habitually partition life into color-coded sections has revealed some interesting patterns and beliefs that influence how I operate from day to day.

Let me explain. My life is managed by iCal. Paid client sessions and MBSR classes are green, non-paid business building (emails, program development, networking) are purple, home projects (chores and errands) are in orange, personal practice (meditation, exercise, reading, journaling) is blue and of course, fun is red. Having life organized in this way offers a snap shot of how my life is balancing during any given week. Seeing all of these color coded blocks lined up helps me to make it to appointments on time, start and finish projects when I say I will and avoid being swept away by work or distraction. It also ensures there is dedicated time for my personal meditation and fitness commitments that can otherwise lose priority.

While practicing mindfulness around my work schedule, I've noticed that if there are not enough green blocks (paid hours) I experience a gripping sensation in my stomach, accompanied by an irrational feeling of lack. With a sense of urgency and even desperation, I’ll react by cutting out red (fun) until things pick up or I’ll start painting my schedule with purple (business building), planting seeds in all directions for miles. On good days through, I remember that my practice is to pause, feeling into the sense of lack and fear that I’m not living up to my potential. I recognize the underlying tendency to measure my professional value and personal worth by how many clients or classes are on the roster. Just being with this truth leads to the knowing that no matter what I do, business naturally ebbs and flows. From this place, I have the freedom to make appropriate adjustments by intentionally engaging in selected business building opportunities or simply enjoying the downtime before the next inevitable rain.

But I don't always remember to do this, so the seeds I plant eventually grow leaving me with the experience of busyness at the opposite end of the spectrum. When I see an abundance of work on the iCal, there is an initial excitement as the intensity of the pace can be pleasantly engaging. There is also a feeling of being validated and important. This self-importance comes along with an adrenaline/ dopamine rush that has a slightly addictive property; “Look how much I’ve accomplished!”, “I’m a good coach!”, “I make a difference and people like me!”.  But this buzz of being needed and productive can quickly shift to overwhelm if I don't continue to watch it. Looking to prolong this high, I’ll say “yes!” to almost every project, course, meeting and new client; taking on more and more until I’m completely spent and burned out.

When I've noticed that I'm feeling a bit "off" during the week, it almost always corresponds to a lower amount of blue (personal practice) during the week. If there’s too much red (fun) I can slip into feeling irresponsible or over indulgent and if there’s not enough red, boredom or cynicism arise. If there are not enough orange blocks on my schedule (home projects and chores), I feel guilty because my wife is taking the burden but if there’s too much orange, I fantasize about downsizing to a park bench or monastery. It’s such a delicate balance!

But even more interesting than the color-coded content of my week is how I find myself relating to the empty, white spaces between the events. It’s these wide margins that hold the real juice.

If a given day is completely blocked up with a rainbow of events, my mind says, "There's no time to breath, I need more space!" This thought is accompanied by a feeling of restriction, exhaustion and resentment for “all I have to do"... as if someone else made my schedule and is reviewing my time card! This is when I start getting protective of my “free time” and almost subconsciously assign dollar amounts to those precious, blank spaces on the calendar as if they were empty lots of coastal real estate. Nothing is safe as I suspiciously re-evaluate my various commitments and obligations to make sure they’re “really worth it”.

I imagine myself just standing there in the middle of my home, looking around with no purpose or direction- just a looming feeling that there is something I’m supposed to be doing, if I could just figure out what.

When the pendulum swings yet again toward too much "free time" I start to feel lost and empty. I can look ahead days or even weeks in advance and notice a desire to fill up the blank, white space. I start to box it in, schedule it, quantify it; again all with a noticeable urgency to prove that I contribute and my life has value. As I look deeper I wonder if I’m trying to distract myself or avoid something. Or maybe I don’t trust myself with idle time?  What would really happen if I didn't plan to maximize my schedule by doing something in every moment? Would it all just fall apart?" The fear for me and my clients is that it would. I imagine myself just standing there in the middle of my home, looking around with no purpose or direction- just a looming feeling that there is something I’m supposed to be doing, if I could just figure out what. Being “crazy busy” is obviously much preferred to just being plane ol’ crazy! Fortunately I recognize that this is only a fear, and the only thing that is really crazy is all the unnecessary activity, busyness and worry it causes.

So what if instead I showed up fully to the fullness and to the blank spaces in my life with openness and curiosity? What if I trusted the wisdom of the moment to inform me of the most appropriate action, or non-action?"  What if I brought mindfulness to the empty canvas and the finger painting of my schedule?

If you’re also curious to know what this might be like, the first practice is to start noticing every time you hear yourself say, “I’m slammed”.  This should be an immediate signal to check in with yourself.  As soon as we recognize that we're caught up in the schedule drama with either too much, or not enough time, our practice is to remember to pause, take a breath, feel into the body and trust whatever comes next. It’s in this pause that we can establish the sweet balance between structure and freedom, planning and spontaneity. When I'm in my flow, I do have a solid action plan and committed intentions but always with a certain degree of flexibility and non-attachment.

From this practice I recognize over and over that "Life Balance" is an illusion for most of us. It’s a fleeting experience between two dynamic extremes. By letting go of balance as an outcome, we can surrender to the ongoing process of mindfully balancing our life and schedule from moment to moment. From here we can begin to embrace both times of busyness and times of slowness, knowing that they too will pass. We can also savor the brief phases where life is actually in balance. Ultimately being mindful of how we relate to time and events on our calendar can help us respond to "schedule stress" with wisdom and strength rather than from fear.

The Soul of Mindfulness

The Meditative Experience

I can still recall one of my first experiences at a meditation course. The instructor sat nobly on stage dressed in flowing white clothing that I imagined he’d bought near the Ganges during pilgrimage in India. He recounted vivid experiences he’d had while in deep meditation, dancing with Krishna on the tongue of the Buddha. Energy flowing and vibrating down his spine. Chakra’s whirling and glowing; he was one with the Divine Mother, in a state of pure bliss. I recall being inspired and even a bit jealous at this man’s deep inner journey. A fire had been lit inside me and I knew that it was my turn to visit these magical, meditative realms. Sitting upright with dignity on my meditation cushion, I was fully committed to repeating my special mantra, over and over again, confident in it’s powers to elevate my soul.  But after twenty minutes of diligence, there were no dancing deities, vibrating energy or elevated soul. My back hurt, my knees ached and the only state of consciousness I managed to reach was one of agitation and exhaustion.

After nearly a decade of meditation practice, I’m comfortable admitting that I’ve still never danced on the tongue of the Buddha, nor do I imagine I ever will. My back and knees still sometimes hurt but I’m no longer all that agitated by it. I’m actually agitated by far less these days, which is one of the many benefits of mindfulness meditation.

There are many traditions and styles of meditation, each with their own practices, intentions and aspirations. There are forms that use Mantras, Mudras, Yantras, and Mandhalas. You can meditate with gongs and crystal bowls, chanting, singing and in silence. Some forms of meditation are to express devotion or prayer, others are seeking transcendence and expansion. All are beautiful and all are beneficial. From the buffet of traditions now available to us in the west, mindfulness meditation is the practice that has called to me. It’s simple yet deep and seeks nothing but a clear experience of what’s already happening in the present moment. It’s nothing special and at the same time, infinitely magical.

Evidence Based Practice

Part of the reasons mindfulness has so successfully integrated into medicine, academics, corporations and government is because it’s incredibly inclusive, accessible and easily integrated into everyday life.  Although Mindfulness practice has its roots in Buddhism, the modern day Mindfulness Based Interventions (MBI’s) have intentionally dropped the cultural and historical baggage of religious mythology and tradition. Some say it’s “Buddhism without the Buddha”. Mindfulness is now often described as an integration of Eastern Philosophy and Western Psychology, supported by Neuroscience (referred to as, “Neuro Dharma”). Given the absence of any language or teaching that would offend or exclude anyone’s beliefs, it’s becoming an appealing practice for people of all religions and atheists alike.  There have now been thousands of research articles published on the various benefits of mindfulness from improving health & wellbeing, decreasing pain, depression and anxiety, improving attention and memory, decreasing stress and burnout, enhancing relationships, and improved performance in life, work and sport.

Has Modern Mindfulness Sold it’s Soul?

As the history of Buddhism shows, it is a process of continual reformation in accordance with the present needs of those in front of us.
— Edel Maex, Zen Psychiatrist

Like an Indie Rock band that’s gone mainstream, many question and even criticize the “Mindfulness Revolution” for it’s new trendiness and quickly increasing popularity. The concern is that without the context of Buddhism, modern mindfulness will lose it’s ethical framework and it’s true ability to heal and liberate. Traditionally the intention for practicing mindfulness was to end suffering and awaken to the true nature of reality. There are precepts around not harming or stealing and there is a path laid out for right living. Some fear that excluding these domains of practice will reduce mindfulness to a technique that could be used for say, training Military marksmen to focus on their targets. Or for pacifying the corporate masses so they continue to be overworked with less absenteeism or the health insurance burdens of chronic stress.

Although Buddhism doesn’t directly teach the existence of an eternal soul the way other religions might, it’s far from “soul-less”. It’s true that on occasion modern forms of mindfulness have strayed from the path, becoming myopic, watered down and over hyped, leading to the new and catch label, “McMindfulness”.  But from my perspective, much of modern mindfulness has actually successfully maintained the richness of the tradition while being “re-contextualized” from it’s Buddhist origin to better meet the needs of our culture. While on retreat at Mt. Madonna Center I had the opportunity to have lunch with Jon Kabat-Zinn, the father of modern mindfulness. Cramming as many questions as possible into our short time together, I hastily made a comment about his course, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) as being “Secular Mindfulness”.  He quickly corrected me by making the distinction, “MBSR is not secular, it’s non-dual.” I then understood that the MBSR approach to mindfulness is not overtly “spiritual”, but it’s also not, “non-spiritual.”

Later in the retreat, Jon Kabat-Zinn warned all of us Mindfulness Teachers in training against a limited view of mindfulness. “Mindfulness is not a technique”, he said with firmness, “Mindfulness is a way of being”. It is in this particular “way of being” that we find the soul of mindfulness. As Kabat-Zinn explains, the Asian word for mind and the word for heart are the same. “Hearing Mindfulness without the Heartfulness is a misunderstanding and will lead us to mistaking it for a purely cognitive exercise.” Ethics, although not directly taught, are imbedded into and cannot be separated from a true understanding of mindfulness.

The Soul of Mindfulness

Students of mindfulness meditation are taught to rest in a non-conceptual knowing that comes before thinking, which we may refer to as “awareness”. This awareness is not purely objective but rather has the inherent quality of loving-kindness. Sounds, sensations, sights, and smells as well as mental objects such as thoughts, feelings and sensations all arise and are held gently in this “kind awareness”. This awareness is open and spacious, accepting and inviting. It is our innate goodness; it’s infinite and boundless, indefinable and knowable only through direct experience. Trying to use thought to understand awareness is said to be like trying to use a flashlight to find the source of the flashlights light. As you wave the light around the dark room it could only fall on objects but never illuminate the source.

Although profound and maybe even abstract sounding for those who’ve never practiced, this “kind awareness” that is the heart of mindfulness is actually quite utilitarian in it’s application to everyday life. It’s not reserved for advanced mediators with completely silent minds or limited to formal periods of meditation, in the morning on your special cushion. You can directly experience this “heartfulness” the next time you face something challenging in your life- however big or small. 

We are conditioned to react to stressful events by automatically fighting or fleeing. Blaming, criticizing, “shoulding”, or numbing out, denying and repressing are some of our most common reactions. In these moments you can wake up to feeling the grip and contraction of stress in your body. Rather than going into your reflexive habit, you can pause, take a few breaths and allow whatever is happening to happen, without judging it. You can choose to stay with your fears rather than abandoning yourself, noticing how the thoughts come and go and how the body eventually begins to soften. Allowing life to unfold the way it is rather than resisting it, is actually a radical act of mindful self-compassion. Holding our small, conditioned selves in the light of this infinite, kind awareness is the catalyst for healing and transformation.

Although we may or may not find ourselves during mindfulness meditation, dancing with Shiva and radiating pure white light, we may eventually come to see that the whole of our lives is made up of an ever-changing present moment experience of our senses and self concepts, all arising in this vast, spacious, kind awareness. And if this realization allows us to become more grateful for this precious life, more gentle with ourselves and more compassionate to others, what could possibly be more soul-full than that?

Please join me at the Soul of Yoga for an 8 week emersion into mindfulness meditation with the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course.

Register Here

The Device Diet

Five years ago I’d never had a client request coaching around social media compulsion and “device addiction”. This is a phenomenon that has been around for awhile but is more recently emerging as a relevant topic for all of my clients, despite demographic or the primary coaching goal they came with. It seems we are all united by this common distraction and our desire to gain control over it.

It’s convenient to point the blame at technology the way we’d like to make fast food companies responsible for undesired weight gain, but this just side steps the issue. From my perspective the fact that we have such easy access to food without stepping out of our car is amazing. Even though I’ve chosen not to eat fast food for the last 25 years, it’s existence is still an impressive sign of advancement from our hunter gatherer ancestors. I’m not much of a device guy either but I love that I can bust out my phone during a conversation and bring Google’s opinion into the mix. Im in awe of the ability to instantly share pictures and videos with every person I’ve ever known, Face Time with clients across the country, access the amount of music in an entire Tower Records Store and have infinite information at my fingertips. All this was Sci-Fi fantasy while I was growing up so I definitely understand the compulsion toward our devices.

But just because we can, doesn’t always mean we should. And yet, we do. All that alluring power and connection in our pocket is being abused and more and more people are feeling the impact. So what is the solution to device addiction?  Gambling, drugs and alcohol are addictions we can abstain from with the right guidance and support structure. But for most, completely eliminating their device would be like eliminating food to solve a sugar addiction. Our devices have already become a fully integrated part of business, family and culture. For many, going on a full on “device fast” could mean missing appointments, blowing deals and alienating themselves from friends.  But what about a “device diet”?

The path to creating a healthy, intentional relationship with your device is no different than the path to weight loss, performance enhancement or any other lifestyle change. The first step is beginning to recognize that there is a personal cost to being hyper-connected. We can begin to wake up, as one client recounts, in the middle of a device induced coma to realize that one of four friends who were dinning together at a fancy restaurant had been sitting alone at the table for ten minutes because his phone had died. The others un-phased by this odd social occurrence continued ignoring him for their virtual relationships while the Server patiently waited to take their order. Other clients have recounted less rude but equally bizarre behaviors such as secretly texting for extended periods in public restrooms, stopping in the middle of a circuit-training workout to check Facebook or holding up traffic at a green light while texting. Sadly, some of life’s most precious moments are lost in the attempt to capture them for others. After being overly concerned with getting a good selfie to show everyone the steep mountain she’d hiked, one client questioned whether she’d really ever fully been there herself.

Mindfulness of Using Devices

From a mindfulness perspective, any moments we become present to the absurdity of our behavior is actually something to be celebrated. When viewed with non-judgment, each of these moments becomes an opportunity to observe what’s not working in our life. It’s the accumulation of these mini mindful moments that fuels the motivation for change.  With this new self-awareness we can begin to regain control, choosing when it’s appropriate and how much attention to invest in our devices.

Each time we catch ourselves in the midst of being pulled out of the present moment into a cyber trance, we’ve arrived at a crossroads. There is the choice to indulge the impulse or the choice to do something different. Practicing mindfulness, we can begin to notice the first subtle sense of craving to check messages or surf the Internet. The alerting sound of an incoming message can trigger a sense of urgency and importance. We may feel the anxiety of missing an email, the desire for attention, or the need to escape the present moment into the safety and entertaining fantasy of our sleek little screen worlds. At these crossroads moments the practice is to pause and take three breaths while feeling the inflating and deflating of the ribs and abdomen.  Then lean into the experience rather than trying to make it go away. Feel whatever you're feeling, noticing energy in the body, thoughts and emotions. My clients have found that bringing curiosity to these moments can offer insight into what’s driving the impulse so we can directly address their deeper inner needs. Ultimately this practice creates the pause necessary to make a wise choice rather than habitually pulling out the phone at every dull second. If you’ve got nothing better to do, maybe you choose to check some emails. If you’re in the middle of a meeting, maybe you don’t. The power is in the choosing.

Your Diet Program

Mindfulness is a capacity that is cultivated over time so if you’re new to mindfulness or in quick need of results, it may also help to create boundaries around the usage of your device.  Anyone who’s attempted to make a dietary change is quite familiar with the process of setting rules and guidelines for their behaviors. Similar to a food diet, a more personalized plan will always work better than a cookie cutter approach. So although I have some ideas of where to start, I invite you to tailor your device diet to your own needs and lifestyle.

  1. Build some momentum. Begin with the lowest hanging fruit by committing to not text while driving. Although everyone on the planet is fully aware that it’s illegal and dangerous, I’m shocked at how often I can personally justify doing it. Notice the boredom of a red light and simply let it be.
  2. Take a break. Consider not getting on your device at certain times of the day, or during specific activities. Perhaps make mealtime a device free zone or try unplugging an hour before bed for a week.
  3. Feed your mind healthy information, not junk. Ask yourself the question, is what I’m doing right now enriching my life or killing brain cells? There is a thick line between wishing a friend happy birthday on facebook and scrolling YouTube for Twirking videos.
  4. Enjoy life the old school way. Abandon your device if you’re in nature or with friends. A hundred virtual “likes” doesn’t equate to even one real one.
  5. Keep it to yourself. Try taking a mental picture in silence. Then smirk because you have your own little secret.
  6. If it doesn't feel good, don't do it. Pay attention to your emotional state when online. Are you feeling grateful, happy and connected or dull, jealous, upset and judgmental? Track your emotions for awhile bringing curiosity to why you might be feeling that way.
  7. Play a little hard to get. Train your friends that you’re not always available. My friends know that if they really want my attention they need to include in the message, “this is time sensitive”, “please respond ASAP” or “urgent”, otherwise I will get back to them eventually, but probably not now.
  8. Practice saying to yourself, “I’m not missing out”. A lot of the anxiety around the need for chronic connection comes from the idea that you’re going to miss something. There will always be more and it’s only speeding up so let go of trying to be at every party at once.
  9. Practice mindfulness of the “ding”. Every time you get a notification bell, let it be a reminder to pause, take a breath, feel your body and then choose how to respond.
  10. Use your device to tune in rather than to tune out. There are many apps that will teach you to meditate or remind you to be present at random intervals throughout the day. 
  11. Outsource your self-control. Use a device blocking software to limit your screen time.

Remember that rewiring the brain to make lifestyle change takes time, patience and commitment. If all you do for a week is become more aware of how distracted you are, that’s a great start. Eventually that sustained awareness will translate into action. Another approach is rather than trying to limit usage, simply set the intention to be fully present to using your device.  Every time you turn it on, practice bringing gratitude to the fact that you have access to this magnificent technology. Imagine it sending a signal all the way to space just so you can have the pleasure of seeing an image of a cat hugging a squirrel in Taiwan.  Check and respond to messages with full mindfulness, appreciating that you didn’t have to get a stamp or walk to the mailbox. Allow yourself to be fully entertained on YouTube and play your video games with the enthusiasm of a child. As with food diets, if you’re going to eat cake anyways, you might as well enjoy it!


Mindful Goals: Being Enough & Wanting More

You are perfect the way you are...and you could use a little improvement
— Shunryu Suzuki Roshi

This blog began as a goal. About 2 weeks ago I set a goal to create a blog of 1,600 words or less by January 10th and then delegated a few chunks of my schedule for writing and editing. Now here I am in the present, looking at a list of blog topics I’d created in the past, for future consideration. Maybe because it’s the New Year or maybe because the 8 week mPEAK course just started, but mindfulness and goal setting seems to be an especially relevant topic.

No Goals Allowed?

As I begin, I’m curious how many people reading this believe I’ve gone against a fundamental of mindfulness by taking a goal setting approach to writing this blog?  After all, Mindfulness is about being in the now, not in the future land where goals live, right?

If you’ve taken a mindfulness course, chances are you’ve heard the teacher say something like, “There is no goal in Mindfulness- no place to go and nothing to get.”  This wisdom is commonly met by new students with the response of, “Hold on, it’s not about doing anything?” “Nope. Not improving, changing or fixing.” This can initially be a difficult lesson to grasp. In essence, Mindfulness is about recognizing that simply being present and fully accepting what’s already here, is enough.

But what about all those piles of research findings suggesting the benefits of creating specific, measurable, achievable, time dependent goals? Are they in conflict with the other piles of research findings on the benefits of mindfulness?  Is the practice of already “being enough”, at odds with my goal to write a blog, or the goals of my coaching clients who want to start going to the gym, run a race, balance work and life or make more profit for their business?

Perhaps the first obstacle to true understanding is the duality of the very questions being asked. Rather than seeing it as either/or, we might try the inquiry: How do we successfully balance being enough in the present moment while working toward an improvement goal for the future? 

As I’ve worked with these inquiries over the last few years I’ve found that it’s less about the goal and more about how we hold each of our unique aspirations. There are ways of relating to goals that will increase performance while bringing more enjoyment and there are also ways of holding goals that will lead to greater stress. But first, let’s explore some of the common pitfalls of goal setting so you’ll know what to watch for. 

Goal Attachment

One of the reasons Mindfulness Teachers warn against goal setting is that it can be very easy to get attached to the outcome of our goals. Take for example a client of mine who set a goal to lose 20 pounds at the advice of her doctor to decrease her risk of diabetes.  She set out with force and ambition, walking, doing yoga, eliminating processed food and sweets during weekdays. Everything was working perfectly, until it wasn’t. The first slip up initiated a cascade of stress hormones that caused tension in the body and sabotaging thoughts, triggered by an old fear of failure. Not wanting to face her disappointment and negative body image, she was convinced that the only thing that would help her feel better about herself was more cheesecake.

When we get attached to a goal, it becomes part of our identity, which typically turns out in one of two ways. For some people like my weight loss client, one simple slip up can be elevated beyond a single failed moment, to a more global, “I am and always will be a failure as a person.” In this case, self-efficacy goes down the drain with yet another goal not achieved. For others, goal attachment leads to the opposite effect of not giving up on a goal even after it’s long ago lost value and relevance.  Failure after failure doesn’t seem to loosen their white knuckled grip. Rather than just letting go, goal attachment can lead some to go down with the ship.

Striving & Driving

Many mindfulness students who come from corporate America or competitive sports are utterly baffled by the concept of “Non-Striving”. Striving is not just common in their culture; it’s a normal and expected way of being. Everyone is “striving to be their best” or “striving for progress”. Often striving does actually work to push the desired results, but is it really the best way to move forward? Just take a look at the word “Strive”.  According to the Oxford dictionary it means, “to make great efforts to achieve or obtain something” or “to struggle or fight vigorously.” In fact the word strive has its origins in the word “strife”, which means “angry or bitter disagreement over fundamental issues; conflict.” The only reason this anxious, urgent and even desperate way in which people strive ends up going unnoticed, is because everyone else is working that way too.

Take for example a client of mine who wanted to compete in a triathlon. Her friends were signing up and it had been on her bucket list for many years. After the long list of accessories were purchased, a new bike, wetsuit, swimming goggles, running shoes, and a new device for tracking miles, she was off to the races. Each morning getting up early to train, sacrificing time with her family, preparing meals and diligently planning out training days so that her time decreased and her mileage increased. All sights were set on race day. If results were what mattered, then her hard work was paying off and she could be seen as a success. But if wellbeing and enjoying life was any factor at all, then she was failing miserably.

When we’re striving to reach an end goal, we can begin to lose perspective and diminish the rewards of the journey.  We might be making progress but at what cost? Even with high stress levels and an underlying sense that “something is wrong”, many of my clients still express fear in letting go of their striving. “If I didn’t strive to finish my projects, nothing would get done on time.” One of the biggest challenges for these people is that the stress caused by the striving its self, limits the ability of their mind to see any of the other infinite, creative ways to go about getting things done.

Great Expectations

At the heart of any unskillful goal setting is the belief that “If I reach that goal, then I’ll be happy.” Happy could just as easily be replaced with “peaceful, lovable, worthy etc.” The assumption is that things are not OK right now, but if I did x, y and z, they would be better in the future. This thinking leads some to disenchantment with life when they realize that one achievement after another doesn’t lead to the expected happiness.  But others continue to chase the carrot year after year, telling themselves the same story. “I thought it was the 10 pounds that would make me happy but maybe what I really need is to save up for a new car.” “I thought it was a new car, but it must be a new wife.” “I thought it was a new wife, but it must be more travel.” The reason things you think would make you happier don’t, is explained by the theory of “Hedonic Adaptation”. This is the tendency for people to quickly return to a stable level of happiness, or a “happiness set point”, despite major positive or negative events or life changes.  For example, if someone reaches their goal of losing weight, getting a raise, moving to a bigger house or buying a new car, eventually his or her expectations and desires rise in tandem, resulting in no permanent gain in happiness. This is referred to as the Hedonic Treadmill…it’s a cycle that just keeps going and going, always striving to get to an imaginary “there”, but never arriving. 

Mindfulness Based Goal Setting

Although there are risks of becoming attached and consumed by our goals, they don’t need to be eliminated, just approached more mindfully. I’ve found that while it may not be helpful to set a specific and measurable goal to achieve mindfulness, it can be very helpful to bring more mindfulness to achieving goals in life, work and sport. 

The biggest distinction of Mindfulness Based Goal Setting (MBGS for those who needed one more acronym) is to hold your goals lightly. Treating a goal as an intention or a commitment rather than a rigid destination helps to decrease attachment and clinging to an expected outcome.

The Goal Is The Anchor

Participants of the mPEAK Program and others who know the basic instructions for Awareness of Breath Meditation will be quite familiar with the intention and commitment to following the breath as a single point of focus. We set out attending carefully to the sensations of each in-breath and out-breath… until we don’t. When we get distracted by thoughts, feelings, sounds or sensations, the instruction is to simply notice the wandering mind and return to the breath with kindness.  This is the same way to practice with our goals! We set an intention or commitment to finishing a project, going to the gym, eating less gluten or being nicer to our spouse. When we inevitably lose motivation, get distracted or begin a pattern of self-sabotage, the instructions are to simply notice and gently but firmly come back to the goal.

The word “aspiration” is related to the Latin word spiritus, breath, and comes from the French aspirare meaning ‘to breathe out.’ When we relate to goals as aspirations, they can be used like the breath as a focus for practice, developing greater concentration and anchoring us to the present moment. I often tell my clients, it’s not the one who clings tightest to the goal who succeeds, it’s the one who continually comes back to the goal over and over.

I’ve been practicing this way with my own aspiration while writing this blog. For instance I’ve been aware of a desire to stop writing and fix a snack about every twenty minutes or so. I’ve noticed that the sound of an incoming email pulls my attention away and creates a sense of imagined importance and urgency. I can also hear the thoughts of my own inner critic judging my writing, “This blog is long and boring and nobody will probably read it”. But with mindfulness, I can simply notice the thoughts and impulses and make a choice to either indulge the distraction, or continue writing toward my goal.

Goals As An Experiment

Another way to loosen our grip on goals is to treat them like experiments. Rather than measuring success only by the specific outcome, we can begin to look for value in the learning and development that comes around any goal.  Whenever I set a goal that stretches me from my comfort zone, I can count on all my “stuff” being triggered. By bringing curiosity to my thoughts and patterns that arise during the process of working toward a goal, I deepen my understanding of what makes me perform well and what holds me back. 

While working toward the goal of finishing this blog, I’ve learned that I’m more creative and enjoy writing in the mornings rather than in the evenings. Because of the introceptive awareness I’ve cultivated through practicing the Body Scan Meditation, I am keenly aware that 1 cup of coffee engages my body and mind, stimulating my fingers to type efficiently. However with a cup and a half, a subtle nervousness sets in that leads to more distractibility, typos, made up words and run on sentences. There has also been self-awareness and knowledge gained around how to prepare to write. I’ve found that a little prep work of reading other material on my topic can help me get into my flow. But without watching carefully, this preparation can take on a life of it’s own, becoming an all-consuming research project fueled by the fear of not knowing enough.

Goals As A Gateway

The view changes as we walk along the path and we abandon the goals that, at first, we had in mind. It’s painful to let go of our original intentions but, eventually they are in the way because we have changed, we are no longer the person who set off. Our intentions gave us the journey and that is enough.
— John Tarrant, Zen Teacher

Another way to hold goals lightly is to trust that our goals will evolve naturally as our practice deepens. When I first began meditating, over a decade ago, I was clear that my goal for meditation was to be a Jedi- Samurai warrior. I had practiced martial arts for many years and watched enough Kung Fu movies to know that anyone who wanted to seriously kick butt had to meditate.  Was this the wisest aspiration for a meditation practice? Ultimately no, but it’s the one I had and it’s what got me through the door. Since then my aspiration for meditation has gone through many incarnations with each new understanding giving rise to a new “goal”.  Letting go of “kicking butt” gave rise to wanting to be more “spiritual”. Letting go of the image of being spiritual made space for acceptance of who I truly am, which set the stage for greater compassion towards the people in my life. Eventually this may even lead to the realized aspiration of compassion for all beings...but I’m still holding that one lightly.

Not only have I noticed that my goals have evolved with practice, they’ve also started dropping away. I’ve written a goal list every New Years since I was 13.  Recently as I reviewed goals from each of the last five years, I noticed a progression toward more simplicity and less ambition. This isn’t because I want my life to be less rich or have less impact, it’s because I trust myself more. Ultimately at this stage of practice, I know what’s in my heart. I know the path I’m on. I know the work that needs to be done and I trust that in most moments, I’ll make appropriate choices that align with my deepest values. Even without rigid goal setting I eat clean, give it my all at the gym, continue to grow my coaching practice and find fulfillment in my relationships. For me, that is enough.

Now that I'm coming to the end of this blog, I can see that I've over shot my maximum length by more than 1000 words and took an extra week to complete it. Oh well, I wasn't attached to that goal anyways. Writing was a fun process and I learned a few things along the way.

When it comes to setting goals, the most important thing is to start where you’re at, which is typically right here. Look deeply into your own heart and ask yourself what you really, really want out of your life, your practice, your sport, your work and your relationships. Set goals that move and inspire you to stretch and grow. Work toward these goals mindfully and diligently with kindness and non- attachment, allowing them to naturally evolve… and evolve you, over time.