Not To Be Trusted With Knives

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Mindfulness and the Gym

Dumbells at Strong Side Conditioning

So remember like eleventy billion years ago when I did that mindfulness course? I haven’t really done any mindfulness practice since then, but it’s always been in the back of my mind that I probably should1.

Well, it sort of hit me one day when I was at the gym that doing strength training is a mindful practice. Being mindful is all about being present in the moment and being aware of your sensations, thoughts, and emotions. When you are doing strength training – if you are doing it right, that is – you are paying very careful attention to your body in the moment. You are setting your stance just so – maybe it’s shoulders packed down, abs and gluts engaged, knees slightly bent, and then you are doing a very deliberate action – lifting in a certain way, focusing on feeling it in a particular muscle(s), focusing on breathing out as you do a particular movement. Sometimes as you go through your sets, you start to get a little lazy with your form – in my case, it’s often that my shoulders start to creep up and/or that I forget to breath. But then you’ll notice that you’ve slipped away and bring yourself back into the right form (or start breathing again!) and it’s much like when you are doing a meditation and notice your mind start to wander, so you come back to your focus on the present.

Dumbells at Strong Side ConditioningI’d been going to the gym for a few months when I realized how mindful this practice was. My focus was very squarely in the present moment – very aware of my body and not really thinking of anything else. I wasn’t worried about the future or dwelling on this past. I was just there, just being, just breathing, just lifting. And I wasn’t even trying to be mindful – it just happened. I remembered the times that I’ve done meditation and how extremely difficult it is some days to quite the mind and just pay attention. I still think it would be useful for me to do some other forms of meditation as well, as there is benefit to the act of being still and observing your thoughts as they arrive, but I think that becoming aware of the mindful nature of my strength training has not only been beneficial in and of itself, but also because it’s reminded me about being mindful. It’s made me more mindful of mindfulness.

There is a link between physical activity and mental health. Mindfulness practice has also been shown to be beneficial to mental health. While there are likely many mechanisms for how physical activity improves mental health, I wonder if any of the benefits of physical activity on mental health are linked to it being an easy way to become more mindful?

  1. Which is quite possibly the least mindful thing a person has ever said! It’s in the back of my mind that I should do that at some point in the future! []

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I went for a float and it wasn’t of the root beer variety

I-sopod Flotation Tank.jpg

This isn’t the tank that I floated in, but I forgot to take a photo of it when I was there, so I got this picture from Wikipedia to give you the general idea.

My friend Alicia took me for a float for my birthday. For the uninitiated, a float (a.k.a., floatation therapy or sensory deprivation tank) is where you get into a big tank with water that has about 1000 lbs of Epsom salt in it so that you can lie in and, as the name suggests, float. You wear earplugs and you close the lid of the tank so that it’s pitch black. The water and the air are skin temperature, so the idea is that you don’t feel anything. And you just float there – ideally clearing your mind of any thoughts – for 90 minutes. It’s supposed to help you relax and is supposed to be good for stress relief, reducing muscle tension, and all sorts of other things1.

My experience

When we got to the float place, they had me watch a little video on what you need to do. You have to take a shower to make sure you won’t get anything icky in the tank (like hair gel or makeup), then you put in the earplugs, and make sure your face is completely dry. You have to be careful not to get any of the tank water in your eyes because there’s 1000 lbs of Epsom salt in there and omg, that would sting like hell. Then you get in the tank, close the lid, and float! They suggested that you could try different postures – like arms down at your sides, arms up above your head – and that while you didn’t have to worry about your head sinking because of all that Epsom salt in the water, there was a pool noodle that you could put under your neck if it made you feel more comfortable.

When I first stepped in the tank, and before I closed the lid, the thought that sprung into my mind was “This would be a perfect setting for a death in the next Final Destination movie!” But then I thought that visions of the tank rapidly filling up while I panickedly scratched at the door which would inexplicably not open – all with my eyes stinging like a mofo – wouldn’t really lend itself to relaxation, so I dropped the thought.

The actual floating experience was quite interesting. It felt like I was floating in zero gravity (or what I imagine that would feel like, since I’ve never actually floated in zero gravity) and at one point when I tried putting my hands under my head, it actually felt like I was tumbling head over heels2!

Somehow, the time in the tank felt both long and short. My mind was flipping around from thinking about one random thing to another, so I tried using my mindfulness training, which seemed like a logical thing to do on such an occasion. I found that focusing on my breathing was the most effective way to help me clear my mind of thoughts. In the end, I think I fell asleep, as I remember thinking about something and then the next thing I knew it felt like time had passed and I was hearing the music that they play to inform you that your time is up.

Overall, I enjoyed the experience. I mean, I won’t be getting a membership and going on a regular basis or anything – I think I get better meditation through running and massage is still my preferred method of working out muscle tension – but I’d probably go back for another float again.

Image Credit:

I-sopod Flotation Tank” by FloatguruOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

Footnotes:

  1. According to the Wikipedia page – the neutrality of which is disputed because it totally sounds like someone who runs a float tank shop wrote it – research has shown that it also helps improve creativity and performance in a variety of sports. []
  2. Even though I knew I wasn’t because (a) physics, and (b) my face would have gotten wet and I could feel that it wasn’t! []

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Mindfulness – My Take Home Lessons

Mind Full v. MindfulThis past Monday was the last class of my 8-week mindfulness class. So I figure now is a good time to stop and reflect on what I learned.

  • Mindfulness is “intentional, accepting and non-judgemental focus of one’s attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment, which can be trained by meditational practices.” (Wikipedia). But reading a definition of mindfulness is really hollow – in my experience, you need to actually practice mindfulness to really get what it is. Before this class, I’d read a bit about mindfulness and talked to people about mindfulness, but until this class, I hadn’t actually put any dedicated time towards doing mindfulness. And it’s really in the process of doing it that you come to understand and to get any benefits from it.
  • Speaking of which, I was *terrible* about doing my homework for this class. As I mentioned previously, I didn’t realize that there would be homework – and certainly not several hours per week for homework – and I just never managed to get dedicated blocks of time into my calendar to do a 45-minute body scan or a half hour sitting meditation or an hour of mindful yoga. I was more successful with finding brief moments in which to practice mindfulness – 5 minutes here where I would drop everything and really pay attention to playing with my cats or 10 minutes there to clear my mind of thoughts of past and future and really experience the sensations as I was out on a walk. I think this is more likely to be the way that I’m going to be able to work on mindfulness in my daily life.
  • Here’s a quote that was in our workbook that I found interesting: “We almost never directly experience what pain is because our reaction to it is so immediate that most of what we can pain is actually our experience of resistance to the phenomenon. And the resistance is usually a good deal more painful than the original sensation. In the same way, we experience our tiredness, our boredom, our fear; we experience instead our resistance to them.” (Stephen Levine, A Gradual Awakening, 1979). By anticipating and fearing pain or loneliness or boredom, we actually make it worse than it otherwise would have been!
  • Another useful tidbit: When we desire something and then we get it, we are often gratified “only in the process of moving from not-having to having […] The process of satisfying the wanting occurs not in the possession of the wanted object, but in the cessation of the painfulness of desire.” (Source: class instructor’s notes). Once we have it, we then experience the fear of losing it or of it becoming damaged. This relates to the idea of non-attachment – if we are less attached to things and understand that things are impermanent, it lessons the fear of losing that which we have and allows us to enjoy something in the moment, in and of itself. Because once we don’t have it anymore, we’ll look back and think “Why didn’t I appreciate that when I had it??”
  • While meditating, you often focus on your breathing. As my instructor put it, this is something you can do any time you notice that you are worrying about the future or brooding about the past, as a way of grounding yourself in the present because “no matter where you go, you always have your breath with you!”
  • The instructor shared this poem: Please Listen – with us.

When I ask you to listen to me
and you start giving me advice,
you have not done what I asked.

When I ask you to listen to me
and you begin to tell me why
I shouldn’t feel that way,
you are trampling on my feelings.

  • I’m sure we’ve all been on the receiving – and the giving – end of this type of behaviour. This poem was a useful reminder of the importance of really, genuinely listening to people. And then later in the poem was some good advice for helicopter parents:

When you do something for me that I can
and need to do for myself,
you contribute to my fear and
inadequacy.

  • I’m always amazed by what kids can do and I’m equally amazed when I see parents who won’t let them do things for themselves. I’m sure some are afraid to see their kids experience anything hard (so they take over) some are control freaks who think that their way is the only “right” way (and so they take over), and I’m sure there are tonnes of other reasons that I can’t even imagine as to why people do what they do. But I remember one of the profs I worked with when I first started teaching saying “Praise the students up to where you want them to be. Even if you think it’s beyond them. They will surprise you.” And I think it is similar with kids. Listen to them, let them do things for themselves – including failing! “Failing” is a great way to learn.
  • I think the most useful thing that I learned – which I have thus saved for last – is something that our class instructor shared with us from the Zen Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh. He talks about treating our “negative” emotions gently, like you would a small puppy or a baby. Often, we don’t even notice that were are experiencing our emotions as we get more and more wound up by them. Our fear or anxiety or judgmentalness grows and grows. But if you manage to be more observant and notice that you are feeling an emotion, you can hold it gently and say to yourself ‘My little anger, what do you need from me?” I’ve tried this out and it is amazing how it diffuses the spiral of emotion and helps me to think “What is underlying this feeling? What am I angry about?” or “How, if at all, does this feeling of judgmentalness serve me?”

Image Credit: Posted by Heidi Forbes Öste on Flickr with a Creative Commons license.

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Themes for 2014: Reflection, Mindfulness, and Biking to Work

In addition to my 2014 goals, I decided to have some themes for this year. Themes are the new black.

Reflection

During the past two years while I’ve been in school (in addition to working full-time at a job that requires lots of brain work), something I’ve had precious little of has been time. I’ve worked deadline to deadline at breakneck speed and when I had a break from classes (like Christmas or this past August), the last thing I wanted to be thinking about was, well, anything. But the thing is, stopping to reflect on the stuff you learn helps you retain it. At least I think I learned that somewhere, but I didn’t stop to reflect on it, so I might be retaining it wrong. At any rate, in 2014 I want to spend more time in reflection.

Mindfulness

"Mindful meditation has been discovered to..." [@dailyshoot #ds673]My sister has recently been immersing herself in the research surrounding mindfulness, which is about being aware and attentive to the present moment, noticing your thoughts and experiences in a non-judgemental way1. Since my sister and I talk all the time, this means that *I* am becoming versed in the science of mindfulness. I’m already a proponent of mindful eating and I’d like to spend time in 2014 being more mindful in other aspects of my life2.

Riding My Bike to Work

Ever since I moved to my new office, I’ve had grand plans  to start biking to work. It’s a good biking distance from my home – 7.5 km – and my office building has a locked room in the parkade in which to lock your bike and there are showers at the office gym. I have a sweet bike that I really like. I did a test run on a weekend day back in the summer and the bike paths to get from my place to work are reasonable, though would be a bit dark in places if you went before sun up or after sundown, and it doesn’t take that much longer than when I drive or Skytrain3. So a lot of the pieces are in place, but I still haven’t quite managed to actually bike to work yet. Excuses include: I don’t have a rack and pannier to carry my stuff4, I don’t have proper rain gear, and it’s too dark in the morning when I go to work and in the evening when I go home. Well, it’s time for me to do something about the first two excuses – and the last excuse is fixing itself day by day. For Christmas, my mom gave me money for a pannier and Sarah & Dave gave me money for sports-related paraphernalia as well, so I need only get off my butt and head to the store to purchase the gear I need to make biking to work a reality! It’s still a little too dark out in the morning when I go to work, but the days are getting longer now, so I’m confident that I can get going on this one soon.

So, there you have it folks, three themes for the new year. I’ll be sure to report back on how I do with these!

Image Credits:

Footnotes:

  1. Please correct me if I’m wrong on that. []
  2. And, yes, I do realize that my first theme is about looking back and the second one is about being in the moment. And, now that I think about it, setting goals is all about looking forward. But I don’t think that’s a problem – it’s all about finding balance. []
  3. Driving/Skytraining is about 20 minutes door to door, whereas biking is about 35 mins. But if I think of it as getting 35 mins of exercise for only 15 minutes of extra time beyond my less active forms of commuting, it’s a pretty good deal. []
  4. And when I started looking at them I got overwhelmed by trying to decide what to buy (thanks, decision fatigue!) and ended up not buying anything! []