Happiness is very different from survival. The human machine - our bodies and minds - evolved to increase the chances of our survival and the continuation of our genes and our species.
The mechanisms that helped us to survive don't promote happiness. In fact many mechanisms that helped us survive do just the opposite - they make us unhappy. They also promote illness and a loop of perpetual stress. Here are some examples:
Negativity Bias - this is the tendency to see or seek out possible dangers in any given situation. The mind evolved this capability in order to protect us from danger - real or imagined. Better to imagine a danger that isn't there than to miss a danger that is. By being ever vigilant to danger, we prevent ourselves from being eaten by bears. We also increase our own tendency to see the negative side of our client's request for changes and that new corporate policy.
Fight or Flight Hormones - These are hormones that are put into the body when you are under stress. They help you handle short term bursts of danger, but they cause long term break down of the body's systems. They were designed to be introduced when very significant immediate stressors were placed on an individual to power survival, they did not evolve to meet the demands of day-to-day stress of the modern work place where fighting or fleeing is not terribly useful.
Chaotic Heart and Breathing Rhythms - this was also part of the fight or flight response and it evolved to AVOID the use of higher brain functions in times of immediate physical danger. When heart and breathing become chaotic they suppress higher brain function, this is why we may feel like our brain is not helping us out when we are 'on the spot' or 'on stage'. This is because the stress is causing erratic heart and breathing rhythms which impair our higher brain function.
The good news is that we understand all of these things now. We know that it is happening and we can do something about it.
The trouble is there isn't a traditional class you can take or procedure to address these things. They're emotional and physical and you must practice self-awareness in order to be aware that they are happening to you and do something about it.
The last two points come from Coherence by Dr. Alan Watkins, which I am currently reading. It is an excellent book and I recommend picking up a copy if you are interested in the human condition, physiology, business leadership, and the overlap of all those things.
When I sit down to meditate or do some type of mindfulness exercise I often find that once my mind is not occupied with some other task, it begins to race.
It's as though, once I stop occupying it with the million other things required in a day (driving, watching the kids, writing blog posts, managing a team, writing emails, meeting with clients, etc), the first thing it wants to do is tear into all those topics and unfinished to-do list items at light speed.
The end result is that I can feel less calm at the end than when I began. Yes, it is helpful in practicing recovery and improving awareness. And I understand that these are important skills and I am happy to practice them, understanding that this is not failure.
However, I'd like to be able to settle in more quickly and bring such mind racing a little bit more to heel. Or just get better at noticing and recovering faster. Which I think is an OK thing to want to do. Here is an example from the Muse app of what I am talking about:
In the beginning at the blue arrow, I actually start out fairly calm. Think, "I'm sitting down to focus - I'm relaxed and happy I'm making time to do this in my day because it's important." This is a nice feeling.
But fairly quickly, between the blue and red arrows, and during all of the session after the red arrow, my mind begins to race and I have a hard time feeling calm or staying calm for any length of time. You can see this in the upward trend of the line between the blue and red arrows. Also in the fact that the line does not trend down anywhere, but stays at the higher level through the duration of the exercise.
I'm currently using three techniques in order to manage this:
Noting - by taking note of this tendency and also using basic 10-count breathing (in the Headspace-style) I simply try to remember that within each breath and between each breath I am staying focused on my breathing. Also, for one reason or another I have much more of a tendency to stay focused on the 1-2 and 9-10 breaths, and therefore I make special note on the 3-4, 5-6, and 7-8 breaths to stay focused on breathing, while allowing my bookend breaths (1-2, 9-10) to flow more naturally and without note. This means that even if the exercise doesn't particularly call for it, I need to try to incorporate the 10-count element.
An Inner Appeal - Another technique (this one a more recent development) is that when I notice I seem to have a 'mind-racing' challenge on a particular day, I make an internal appeal. Something along the lines of, "Dear Brain, It's important to integrate the whole body and make room for emotions and other types of awareness. I'm really focused on breath in order to make space for this in my life so that I can be healthier. Can you please help me out with this by also focusing on the breath?"
I'm using the coherence techniques from Dr. Alan Watkins' book Coherence. The goal of this is to get into a coherent biofeedback loop where you control your stress level by directly managing your breath in a fairly specific way. I'm not going to describe it exactly - you can buy the book or use their app: link to website that can get you to either iOS or Android. The app costs money ($7) and requires an external heart rate monitor, so it isn't exactly a cheap thing to use. You don't need the app, you can read the book and follow the instructions in the app - no app or heart rate monitor required.
When I actually write down number 2 like that it is a bit strange and implies some boundaries and distinctions between mind and self that I'm not sure I agree with or endorse. Nonetheless, it helps so I do it.
Number 3 has started to yield longer term results - i.e. I feel calmer from doing it. However, it hasn't helped much directly on the problem of racing thoughts that seem to happen during a session. But I've only been doing it for a few weeks and it is a skill that takes some getting used to. Also, I'm not sure that it is fair to judge the technique against something that it was never specifically prescribed to do. It just seems like it should work as the racing thoughts definitely cause the opposite - a negative loop where the racing thoughts causes stress that leads to more racing thoughts which leads to more stress.
I have no idea if any of these techniques are tried or supported by anyone besides me. I know of the idea of noting from reading something about it on the internet. Here is a link to article about it, though it is not the original one that I read: Noting. I included a link to Dr. Watkins' book above. If you are interested in mindfulness, mind-body connections, mindfulness and leadership, or stress management you should read that book.
What a treat and a revelation to find this book: Coherence by Dr. Alan Watkins. Dr. Watkins (a cardiologist) has thought a lot about the connection between body and mind. He takes a deep look at how to improve your business results and energy management.
I don't know if Dr. Watkins himself would consider his book to be about mindfulness, necessarily. However the techniques recommneded in the first section are similar to mindful breathing techniques.
For the veteran of meditation, what will be interesting here is a focus on the physiological and some of Dr. Watkins' reasons 'why' it is importnat to engage in these practices. He is interested in your happiness, but the physiological mechanisms at play are something wholly different than you may have encountered.
I am only about 100 pages into it, but I am really enjoying it. More when I finish the book.
Here are my 3 favorite internet of things devices from 2017:
Amazon IoT Button: I got a couple of these in the summer and used one for a family communication project and one for a client presentation, both were very successful. An awesome tool to build quick, button-based interactions to do almost anything.
Smith LowDown Focus: These are sunglasses that use EEG sensors to track your brainwaves. They allow you to understand how your brain is functioning, improve focus, and enhance your mindfulness or focused-attention program. It's like a fitbit for your brain.
FitBit:There are a lot of activity trackers out there, but I still love my FitBit. It does just the right amount of things, and theapp is great and helpful. It's helped me lose weight, keep it off, and stick to a regular exercise regimen. That's what an atctivity tracker is for, right?
I know what I said about needing an EEG to know if I was distracted. I said that I used the 'staring out the window test' i.e. if I find myself staring out a window for 45 minutes I'm probably distracted.
Why? Well because they are a gadget, which is fun. AND they are a gadget that combines mindfulness and IoT, so how could I resist?
These sunglasses use EEG sensors (provided by Muse)to understand how your brain is behaving and provide you feedback on how focused you are during training and mindfulness sessions.
I am about a week into using them and here's what I've learned so far:
It takes me longer than I like to admit to get into a place where I am really centered and focused. It takes about 20 minutes. Anything less than that and my mind has not settled down.
I eventually do settle into a relaxed place and able to stay calm and avoid chasing thoughts. I know instictively when this happens, but having the biofeedback is nice because it really reinforces when this is happening and when it isn't.
I think that in reality I fail the window staring test during 90% of my life.
I don't think that 3 has always been true.
How do I know they work? Well, I ran some tests, by which I mean that I intentionally tried to not focus, stress myself out, and flex muscles and those readings showed up as way 'off the charts' in the 'unfocused' zone. So that tends to support the idea that it is reading the right things.
When you really get into a focused place you can feel it.
Another thing that made sense is that I went for many sessions without getting any birds. Birds are a fun little badge you get when you have relativley long period (a few seconds) of good focus. I was about ready to give birds the bird.
Finally after sitting and meditating for 25 minutes and starting a second session where I felt really 'in the zone' I finally got some birds. It felt right, though clearly it indicates I am not there most of the time, and what passes for relaxation and presenence for me is often only scraping the surface.
It also means that focus and really training your attention take time to achieve, but then we all knew that didn't we. A few pictures:
I've been meditating and using focused attention training techniques for all of 2017 and a little more than 1 year in total. So, I decided to reflect back on how that year has gone, what I've got out of the practice, and what I've learned so far.
I describe my journey in the steps below. I hope it will be valuable to others who might be considering meditation. While I'm focused on business leadership in particular, I hope my list will be useful to anyone in terms of what you can get out of meditation. In particular I'm talking about the question: How can meditation help you? It's a personal activity, but here, described in detail, is how it helped it me.
Why does that matter? Well it matters because I often see 'improved focus' or 'stress reduction' as benefits. So, then how - exactly how - does that work? My answers are below.
As a leader I feel it's important for me to frame this in one more way. As a leader you deal with stressful situations at work. Most of us can handle these types of situations, if you couldn't handle them you wouldn't be a leader or manager very long. But after 10 years in management in several different organizations, I was unhappy with my stress management techniques and wanted something better.
So I decided to try mindfulness and it has had a big impact on me in one year. I recommend it.
Without further ado, here are the ways in which I feel meditation has helped me this year. These go in roughly chronological order as they happened during the year:
Almost immediately I began to be able to see an emotional reaction coming and to distance myself from it, if only slightly. This was imperfect (it didn't work all the time) but it was consistent enough to be noticable, and it has improved in consistency over time.
By being aware of my reaction I began to see that I was making a situation more about me than was really necessary. Is this person upset? Well, yes, but they're really just looking for help and I know how to help them. By focusing my thinking in this way I could get even more distance and be more effective in high-stress situations by focusing clearly on the problem.
Understanding the connection to The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. This book is an important tool and framework I've used in my career long before I started to practice meditation. The foundation of the Seven Habits is to be proactive. There's a lot more on this topic in this blog post, but suffice it to say, I see meditation as a useful tool to understand your responses to events and improve your ability to be proactive (and not reactive) in response. Meditation allows you an ability to practice this awareness in an offstage way. This is an extension of 1 and 2 to some extent, but for me it is a useful extension that places my practice in a broader context. It's also a useful way in talking about this topic with colleagues.
In Andrew's class I learned about Negativity Bias - this helped me understand some of the why behind the reactions that I was having. It isn't that I'm a pessimist. My brain is built to identify negative (and potentially negative) situations. This is an evolutionary adaptation which served early man well, and kept them from being eaten by bears, but it needs to have some regulation to be useful to a modern person. It is very helpful to be aware of this fact and no when Negatiiy Bias is in play.
I began to be able to predict some of the time when I was headed into a situation that might produce an emotional response. This allowed me a little bit of forethought on how I would handle this situation and the possible stress responses I might have.
Working on Positivity Bias. By reading Hardwiring Happiness I was able to not only identify Negativity Bias but to actually work toward adding Positivity Bias. This is achieved by focusing on positive experiences and success and more fully integrating them into our conscious and subconscious minds.
The Waste of Worry. I know that people trust a worrier - someone who is obviously aware of possible future implications is often considered more trustworthy than a person who seems unaware, even if their lack of awareness makes them confident. This is useful up to a point, but also puts a wasteful burden of stress on people worrying about things more than is necessary.
As it relates to number 7, I don't have a final resolution to perfect balance. I can counteract some of the stress from it and help others to do so, but it is useful sometimes. As I work on it I hope to integrate it both for myself and help my team. I want to balance the necessary concern and planning that is crucial to individual, business, and societal success with more tools to keep that in its proper place.
After a year of meditating, I feel that mindfulness practice has helped me to manage stress better than I could without it. But stress reduction has been achieved through the advancements listed above, not on it's own as a separate outcome.
Here's hoping that 2018 will be a great year with further refinement and improvement of the abilities listed above and new discoveries as well.