Cultivating kindfulness

Cultivating Kindfulness

As you might have guessed, the word kindfulness is a hybrid of kindness and mindfulness. On its own, mindfulness is simply present-moment nonjudgmental awareness, often practiced in meditation. The dictionary says kindness represents the quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate. Brought into meditation, these qualities can enhance what might otherwise seem dry or even self-centered. An act of kindness involves connectedness—with oneself as well as others. There’s a lot of research that confirms the benefits of kindness and mindfulness to our overall health and well-being.

MindfulnessMindfulness needs kindness to help befriend the fragmented parts of ourselves—especially the parts we don’t like, parts that may feel limited, separate, or unworthy. The practice of mindfulness brings you into a state of awareness of the need for kindness. Mindfulness can intervene when you are about to react with fear or anger. It provides a pause or an opportunity to become grounded and gain a different perspective. Like the partners of yin and yang or shakti and shiva that play and dance together, cultivating kindfulness can transform meditation into a moment to moment everyday lived experience.

Suppose you are about to encounter someone whose actions in the past have enraged you. Pause and mindfully step back to observe and assess your feelings—with kindness. The result may enable you to act with compassion rather than wrath.

Mindfulness helps you become aware of stress in your life that may show up in your body—as tightness in your stomach or shoulders, headache, a racing heart. These are all messages that something is out of balance. Kindness offers comfort; it may help you find ways to reduce or eliminate stress and the damage it does.

 

Kindness’s side effects

David R. Hamilton, PhD, is the author of numerous self-help books including The Five Side Effects of Kindness,” which has this “caution” on its cover: “This Book Will Make You Feel Better, Be Happier & Live Longer.” He writes that a “side effect occurs alongside what’s intended. When we intend to be kind, we may not expect anything else to happen, but many things do happen.” These are the side effects of kindness that he discovered. It 1) increases happiness, 2) is good for the heart, 3) slows aging, 4) improves relationships, and 5) is contagious.

Hamilton says that humans have two ages: chronological (years since birth) and biological (apparent age of our body). Only about 20–30 percent of our longevity is determined by genetics. Science has shown that by regularly performing acts of kindness, we can slow processes of aging such as muscle degeneration, reduced vagal tone, weakened immune system, and inflammation.

It’s well known that mindfulness can relieve stress, anxiety, and depression. It can also lower blood pressure, reduce pain, and improve sleep. Performing acts of kindness—as well as being the recipient of such acts—has similar benefits. But in addition—like most pharmaceutical antidepressants—kindness stimulates the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter and one of the feel-good hormones that calm you down and make you happy. Your brain’s pleasure and reward centers light up when you are being kind to another person—and when someone is being kind to you.

Another feel-good hormone, also called the love hormone, that is activated by kindness is oxytocin. Oxytocin helps lower blood pressure and improve overall heart health; it can also increase our self-esteem and optimism. We are wired to help one another as part of our human survival. The uplifting feelings we get from being kind are often referred to as the “helper’s high.”

 

Practicing kindfulness

practicing kindfulnessI am likely to offer help (or kindness) to someone who has a clear need when I know that I have the capacity to fill the need. I use mindfulness to go inside myself and quietly, nonjudgmentally reflect on my inclination to help. If positive feelings arise (which can happen instantly or after a considerable amount of time), I know I am doing the right thing. And when I don’t find clarity or positive feelings, I can back off from trying to fill a need and simply be kind. You can never go wrong with kindness.

Some acts of kindness might be viewed as selfish or as having ulterior motives that help the giver more than the receiver. But who’s to say who benefits most? Inspired by my gardener mother, I honed my own gardening skills by kindly offering to cultivate gardens for friends who couldn’t do it themselves. I get “high” fulfilling my passion, while they get a lovely garden. Mindfulness also plays a part in my gardening; tenderly nurturing the growth of flowers and beautifying a small part of Mother Earth are a meditative experience for me.

 

Seeds of kindfulness

I love the idea that kindness is contagious. Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert comic strip, said, “Remember there’s no such thing as a small act of kindness. Every act creates a ripple with no logical end.” Sometimes a seed sprouts far away from where it fell carried by the wind or a bird. This reminds me of a popular saying in environmental circles: a butterfly flapping its wings can impact the weather halfway across the world.

Paramahansa Yogananda said: said: “Kindness is the light that dissolves all walls between souls, families, and nations.” What if we practiced kindfulness not just with people we perceive are in need, but also with people who are unkind? It might soften a sharp edge of their unkindness. Realizing that everyone experiences life challenges, we can reframe our perceptions of unkindness. In 2008, researchers started bringing Tibetan Buddhist monks to MIT to see how the discipline of meditation had changed their brains. When one monk was asked how he handles things that happen in his day, he said he re-narrates each circumstance. To the question “What if someone cuts you off in traffic?” he responded that he would imagine that in the backseat of the offender’s car there was a woman delivering a baby.

As American philosopher Eric Hoffer wrote: “Kindness can become its own motive. We are made kind by being kind.”

do it differently like this impala

Do It Differently

We humans are creatures of habit—and for good reason. Habits help us live efficiently and do important things each day, like brushing our teeth. Our habits are formed by trial and error. As babies we learn to push ourselves up, roll over, and eventually pull ourselves up to stand. And we receive loads of accolades when we do. Our curiosity spurs us to constantly explore new things—until we fall or are told “No!” which can be confusing and make us feel bad. As we grow, the conditions of our lives begin to shape our thoughts, feelings, and actions that can ultimately shape our destiny. We can remain creatures of habit or we can do it differently, try something new, move out of our comfort zone. When we do, brain science tells us we will be enriched.

Safety versus changeability

Distress and anxietyAs our bodies grow, our brains also grow. Our brains are trained to favor familiarity and, from an evolutionary perspective, keep us safe from predators. Safety and comfort take on a whole new meaning with the seemingly predatorial pressures of contemporary living. Our distress and anxieties are often rooted in a fear of failing. Playing it safe and doing what we have always done seem to be easiest course—until a major change disrupts things. Then resistance and resentment may surface and we ask: Why did this happen? Why did they have to change things? Why can’t it be like it was? Why do I have to do it differently?

Neuroscientists tell us our brains have plasticity—i.e., they can adapt to newness no matter our age. Our thoughts, feelings, and actions light up brain circuits, or neural pathways, and establish new connections. These pathways are reinforced the more they are lit up, becoming deeper and stronger. Because of the brain’s plasticity, we can start a new path, make new connections, and develop a new habit by intentionally and consistently trying a new way.

Researchers have shown that it takes three weeks to create a new habit. If we are starting a diet or have the desire to change a self-limiting thought or belief about ourselves, we need to give it a fair chance so the new pathway can establish itself. It’s important not to resist, but trying to drop old patterns of thinking should be avoided as well, as it may strengthen the old way. The brain reinforces whatever we focus on—positive or negative. Research has shown that simply thinking and imagining a new way of being helps build new neural pathways.

Defying age

defy physical and cognitive ageAs our bodies age, we can accept, and therefore reinforce, the notion that physical and mental decline is inevitable. Or, our brains and our bodies can defy physical and cognitive decline by recapturing the spirit of curiosity of our early years, by letting go of habitual living.

We can defy physical and cognitive age by doing things or wearing things or connecting with things from the past that make us feel younger. In 1979 Ellen Langer, a Harvard psychologist and author of Mindfulness, carried out an intriguing experiment known as the Counterclockwise Study. She selected a group of men in their late 70s and, for a week, put them in a 1959 living situation. All accoutrements of their environment—furniture, décor, news, sports, music, TV, movies—were from the earlier time. They were instructed to behave as if it were actually 1959, like discussing historical events as if they were current. The results: the men’s physical strength, manual dexterity, gait, posture, perception, memory, cognition, taste sensitivity, hearing, and vision significantly improved—by a minimum of seven years.

Nearly thirty years later, in 2010, Langer collaborated with the BBC to recreate her experiment with six former British celebrities in their 80s. They were transported back 35 years—to 1975—by similar means, and they too emerged after a week notably rejuvenated—in some cases up to 20 years younger than their biological age.

Boosting the brain

In recent years a new field has emerged called neurobics. You may have seen advertisements for mental exercise programs to enhance memory and focus and even change negative self-talk. These programs claim that practicing neurobics regularly can keep your brain fit. Neurobics works to keep brain pathways active and actually create brain food molecules linked to memory called neurotrophins.

Research by Moses Chao, a psychiatrist at NYU Medical School, found that using nondominant hand activity like brushing your teeth with your “other” hand produces neurotrophins that boost memory. Chao also discovered the same enhancement of memory with physical movement and exercise. He refers to this as “Miracle-Gro” of the brain nerve cells. He says we should keep moving and be like children, always in motion.

Neurobics as mindfulness

giving your full attentionThere are three main components of the neurobics system. One is expanding the use of all our senses: vision, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. Sensory data generally pass through the thalamus en route to dedicated areas of the cortex designed to process them. Most of us use vision and hearing regularly but the other senses less so. We can use our senses in novel ways, such as closing our eyes while showering or eating or watching TV without the sound.

A second component of neurobics is giving your full attention to something, like trying an activity that is completely new to you, perhaps bird watching or learning a new language. And finally, a third component, is to break from your normal daily routines. Take a new route to work or to the supermarket. Shop at a new store. Rearrange your desk, workspace, or furnishings. Move art work in your home to different locations. Buy a new outfit that is not be your usual “style.” Let your imagination soar!

Neurobics has much in common with mindfulness practices like eating in silence and savoring the tastes and smells. One mindfulness neuroscientist recommends the practice of self-nurturing touch. Spend a few minutes periodically during your day gently stroking your hands, arms, and face in the most pleasurable way possible.

Langer defines mindfulness as simply “actively noticing new things,” which she says energizes and engages us and opens us up to new possibilities. We then become more aware of our environment and more sensitive, understanding, even compassionate. Langer recommends that we notice five new things about a partner, friend, or colleague. Noticing is also listening objectively to others’ viewpoints and being curious about how they came to their opinion.

Embracing change

Embracing changeBeware that the brain is always on guard to potential threats and therefore is resistant to change based on the perceived fear of failure. This fear is really our imagination, a fantasy run amok, according to neuroscientist Andrew Newberg. The more we reinforce the fear “Maybe I’ll fail,” the more likely it will become “I’m going to fail.” Newberg, who is the director of research at the Marcus Institute of Integrative Health at Thomas Jefferson University, recommends practicing affirmations and loving-kindness meditation to reach a state of relaxed awareness where you can observe the fantasy for what it really is. You can then change the failure fantasy to “I might fail and I might succeed.” Ask yourself what it would feel like to succeed. Focus on that feeling and proceed with actions.

As I reflect on my life, there has always been a part of me that relished change and new experiences. My early years of solo foreign travel expanded my appreciation of people living in different cultures. Yoga, belly dancing, and Argentine tango have each created deep body awareness. My work as a recruiter, then as a coach and a facilitator of iRest Yoga Nidra Meditation has reinforced my compassion for people and their circumstances. My newest venture has been completing a Clinical Somatic Education certification training and empowering teaching and teaching people simple movements to relieve their own chronic pain. I’ve found that doing things differently than I had previously has greatly enhanced my confidence and courage.

Are you ready to approach your life differently? Try something completely new. Change a deeply rooted habit. Learn about and challenge your memory with neurobics. Then relish what you’ve done for yourself.

 

Joy and sorrow

What’s Your Natural Disposition?

“Good morning, Eeyore,” said Pooh.
“Good morning, Pooh Bear,” said Eeyore gloomily. “If it is a good morning, which I doubt.” —A.A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh

PoohAs you start a new week, or even a New Year, do you see your life circumstances optimistically or pessimistically? What is your natural disposition? Continue reading

Loving kindness

Taking Pause

“It’s not so much knowing when to speak, but when to pause.”—Jack Benny, American comedian who died in 1974

What is a pause? Generally, it’s an interlude or gap between two things. Some pauses are long and others brief. Some may seem pregnant with meaning, especially when someone pauses while speaking. If you’re taking a class or attending a speech or presentation Continue reading

connection in nature

Being Aware: Live Joyously, Drunkenly, Divinely

“The aim of life is to live, and to live means to be aware, joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware.” —Henry Miller

Are you aware of all the thoughts in your mind at this moment? One research study revealed that humans experience as many as 60,000 thoughts each day, one for every second of waking life. Thoughts are like corn kernels popping in our consciousness one after the other. Most of our thoughts are transient and many are recurring. But thoughts are only one thing that occupies our attention. Feelings, sensations, memories, and perceptions all intermingle with our thoughts. Behind all of this activity in the mind is an infinite stillness. Being aware of this stillness can have a profound effect on our lives.

Out to lunch

worm on leafEach part of nature knows what its job is, usually performs it to perfection, and amazingly, knows to do it. Take, for example, a worm patiently edging and nosing and fitting a fallen leaf into its hole for a later meal. It’s totally present to its experience and doesn’t dillydally. The worm ultimately may become lunch for a robin, or be consumed by lesser creatures after it dies naturally. Either way, it’s lived in simple awareness and purposely fulfilled itself. Worms, robins, and the rest of the animal kingdom live purposeful lives, are never absent-minded or “out to lunch.”

We humans are an exception to most of nature. We are born as fully present, curious creatures wholly absorbed in each moment. As we grow and adapt to our world, we learn to create boundaries and determine where to direct our attention while the outside world bombards us with way more than we can possibly focus on. At the same time, a continuous flow of thoughts, feelings, and perceptions floods our minds, keeping us separate from our present circumstances.

robin with wormWhile working on writing this article, I watched YouTube videos of a worm going about its business and then a robin snatching it up, and my imagination took flight. I wondered what it might feel like to be the bird and the worm in these circumstances. I was repulsed by the worm’s demise but immediately felt a pang of hunger and wondered what I would have for lunch, and then I thought about what I needed to prepare for a picnic/concert I was going to that evening. Then the phone rang. Confronted with something of more urgency, my writing project got pushed aside. At that point I realized that I’d been unfocused and “out to lunch” for a good part of the afternoon.

Being occupied

occupied with TextingWhen I was growing up we didn’t have many activities to engage in outside of school, though we had lots of free time to play with friends, be creative, and explore. By contrast, the lives of today’s children are often highly structured with many activities. For most kids, school is demanding and parents and society push them to achieve. Beyond school, they may play sports and take music and dance lessons, where the performance pressure can also be intense. In what little spare time they have, a large majority of youngsters are engrossed in social media, playing video games, texting, shopping online, or surfing on the web—oblivious to the presence of family and friends. Spending time just being, playing for enjoyment, or just thinking is virtually unheard of among youth today.

Of course, adults are not immune to this busyness obsession. We are conditioned to be constantly doing. Even practicing yoga can become just another form of doing rather than being a way to experience inner peace and awareness. The idea that our happiness and fulfillment are only achieved through engagement with the outside world has become the norm. We don’t know how to tap in to an internal sense of being, much less be aware. And why should we?

Realm of awareness

The truth is that true peace, happiness, and love can only be found internally. Searching outside always falls short and never offers long-lasting joy. Recall any situation that brought you happiness or exhilaration—a roller-coaster ride, first kiss, landing the ideal job. The feeling—real as it was at the time—eventually faded.

Take a moment to ask yourself, “Am I aware?” You may be mildly aware of your body, the flow of your thoughts, feelings, and perceptions, and the sights and sounds around you. But what is the source of that awareness? Free yourself to be an observer.

Being aware, said philosopher and writer D.L. Harding, is “living from one’s space instead of from one’s face.” Living from one’s space means bringing attention and presence to everything we experience in life. The result is that we do a better job with whatever we engage in, and with more ease and joy. Fear, pain, and life challenges lose their intensity. We experience more peace and serenity and heighten our capacity to meet whatever life presents responsibly.

Becoming divinely aware

Let’s face it, it’s practically impossible for us humans to eliminate our thoughts, memories, and perceptions, which cloud our true awareness. In fact, we don’t need to get rid of anything. Instead, we can welcome whatever shows up in our awareness. At the same time, we can learn to move our attention beneath the veiled surface of the mind and body to a place where we find stillness that is changeless.

sensory-gardenThere are many ways to get to that stillness. Formal mindfulness practices such as yoga and meditation help us align with this deepest core of our being. We can also practice by simply listening with all our senses. This can be done while walking or practicing pranayama (breathing techniques). Slipping into a warm bath helps to access awareness. I find that the Chicago Botanic Gardens is a good place to practice cultivating stillness and awareness, especially in the wonderful Sensory Garden. There you experience being fully aware while seeing, touching, and smelling everything you encounter—plants like soft furry lamb’s ear and fragrances of curry and dark-maroon chocolate cosmos! You experience how deeply rooted nature is in stillness.

Try this exercise: Look at an object in front of you. See it in its entirety—shape, color, texture, etc. Then soften your gaze and take in the whole landscape before you without paying attention to any one thing. Try this with your eyes closed, concentrating on hearing just one sound, and then allow the whole spectrum of sounds to permeate your awareness. When thoughts and feelings arise, set them free. As a witness, experience all that is present, and then allow deep stillness and peace to encompass you. See your core of awareness shining out as your true Self–God’s infinite being.

Broaden and deepen your awareness in all you do—work, play, experiencing solitude. Rupert Spira, spiritual teacher, author, and potter, has written, “When doing slows down, the thinking that is at its origin is exposed; when thinking dissolves, the feeling that is behind it is uncovered; when feeling subsides, the Being that is at its heart is revealed.”

Being aware is like inhabiting a home built for living and loving, which has no room for hurts, fears, or regrets. Inhabit this home and let yourself become joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware!

I invite you to attend my free iRest meditations on Sunday morning or Thursday afternoon.

Relieve stress

Relieve Stress: Three Simple Ways

Relieve Stress, Build Resilience, Find Inner Peace

Do you have trouble sleeping, suffer aches and pains, overindulge in food or alcohol? These are just some of the common symptoms of stress, the number 1 health risk in the U.S. What is the cause of your stress? Is it the news, deadlines or financial issues, challenging relationships? It may surprise you that none of these create your stress. The real cause is how you respond to them.Continue reading

Carefree Mindlessness vs Mindfulness

Are You Dancing with Mindlessness or Mindfulness?

Mind like popping cornWhat were you thinking about before you started reading this? Do you ever notice an obsessive chattering inside your head when you’re not totally engrossed in something? Your mind is like popping corn, jumping from one thought to another. Mindlessness is pervasive in our culture. At times, most of us have functioned on autopilot, as though we were sleepwalking, not paying much attention to anything but the endless dialogue in our heads. Continue reading