Breathlessly going Forward

Although I have put in the required hours, my learning project is not complete. I have learned a lot, but I am not done. I have learned:

  • Meditation may have medical benefits for people who make it a regular practice, including rewiring the brain, better resilience for stress, immune support, emotional wellness, and improvements in sleep
  • It’s not easy. Meditation is work. Every time. Making time to practice it daily was difficult, and the little voice in your head gets louder if you have a large “to do” list

  • The focus is important – whether it is visualization or focusing on breathing, giving your attention a clear task is the route to training your mind.
  • There are many types of meditation to try. Some are based in theological rituals, others are based on physical practices, and others are based on mindfulness
  • I did not have success with my original goal: improved sleep. However, I noticed that I had less headaches, I was better at self-calming, and I began to personalize less of my challenges
  • For my best learning, I need a blend of online, self-selected content, books to read, and human contact to check in and seek answers to questions
  • Reflecting openly about my new interest has increased my connections and PLN – reflecting regularly has increased my support network and also kept me engaged in my learning
  • Journaling helped me to process my personal learning experiences and growing knowledge base to transition into my more public thinking out loud blog

    Meditating at my local little beach.

    Meditating at my local little beach.

  • A meditation “space” was less important than I thought. I tried meditating in my bedroom, my front porch, in the woods overlooking the beach, as a passenger in the car, while cooking, and even at work
  • I like my new mindfulness! This part is simpler than I thought. I connect with my senses to ground myself in the present. I smell Spring in the air while walking the dogs, I hear my dogs lolloping around me, and I see the diffusion of light as I move through my day
  • There was one component of my chosen app Headspace that I did not have a chance to fully utilize and I believe that it would have added even more of a dynamic experience, based on my time as part of our #tiefit group: the ability to connect with other Headspace buddies. You can encourage each other and cheer one another towards daily practice. I never did find another Headspace partner. That is ok, as it took me 7 months to accept my first FitBit buddy. So, in terms of connecting with other Headspace users, it may still happen over time.
  • The way that the app is gamified (it tracks your “streaks”,
    My run streak from earlier this term.

    My run streak from earlier this term.

    there are incentives for reaching certain milestones, and your progress is represented in multiple ways) encourages you to compete against yourself and ensures that you keep returning.

  • It is actually less about doing a little “something for yourself”, and more about considering the people who will benefit from your ongoing practice of meditation. Focusing more on the benefits that your work will provide to others will make the practice easier, your mind softer and more malleable to the process. Meditation should be done as an act of service, not solely as a treat for yourself. However, your increased calm and self-understanding may lead you to be less critical of yourself and others.

  • Some days are better than others. At first that was difficult and when I re-read my journal I can see how critical I was of my efforts. Now, I realize that it is about the practice. Learning a sport is similar: you attend practices and some days are better than others, but ATTENDING the practice still counts.
  • I have begun to practice some of the strategies and reminders as a new part of my daily ritual. Headspace teaches you to “flash” some of the teachings as often as 5 times a day to ground you in the moment. I have taken some of the lessons to help me ease into sleep on restless nights, or visualize my busy thought traffic as a road that I step further and further away from. I am in the process of owning this new learning!

So, my journey continues. I have paid for a year’s use of this app, I am enjoying the practice, and I feel like I am getting something out of it. I am learning the skills to be more in the moment and to be present in whatever task I am attempting to do. It is actually feeding my sense of gratitude and joy. The guided meditations are working for me, but I hope to try a few more guided mindfulness activities on the move.

Thank you Alec Couros for giving me the opportunity to learn something new and to explore new ways to bring balance into my life. And thank you to my expanded PLN for supporting me along the way with resources, ideas and encouragement.

My mental "clutter" that I sketched out earlier this term as I began this journey.

My mental “clutter” that I sketched out earlier this term as I began this journey.

 

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Breathing and Stress

I completed my foundation course in Meditation through the Headspace app. It was a series of 30 sessions that gradually increased in duration over time. The funny thing was that although I paid for a year-long subscription to the app, it does not unlock anything. You must still progress through all 30 sessions in sequence before you can unlock any other options for meditation.

Is it weird that I wanted a little more fanfare when I completed my first 30 days?

I am still meditating daily, and enjoying it. My sleeping has not yet improved (not at all) but I have noticed that my heart races less and I feel less anxious overall. (Unless I think about my Masters assignments. Then, I crumble)

About 5 days before completing the foundation pack, you are invited to pre-select your next pack for meditation and load it into the queue. There were 3 big themes to choose from: Health, Relationships, and Performance. I was drawn to Health immediately because of my goals for this year. I had difficulty deciding between Stress and Sleep as my next series. I decided on Stress because I think that it is the underlying cause of my poor sleep. After you select your pack, you must decide between 10, 15, or 20 minute sessions. Reflecting on my foundation series, 20 minutes worked well for me. It was a challenge, but it also gave me the greatest opportunity for practice.

I did some pre-reading on stress through the Headspace app. There is also a Soundcloud post from Andy about stress.

Photo Credit: Celestine Chua via Compfight cc

One thing that I learned through my journey in the foundation pack was that not being fully present is a learned habit. We get caught up in multi-tasking, juggling lots of thoughts and ideas that we forget to be fully immersed in the moment. We were presented with a challenge as a mindfulness activity, and I suggest you try it. Try to be fully mindful every time you move to stand up or sit down for a full day. It is one of the tasks that we offload onto our autopilot, we don’t have to cognitively engage in standing or sitting. So, the challenge is to actually BE present when you stand or sit – don’t change how you are doing it, or slow it down, just be aware that you are in the process of standing – why, where are you going; or sitting – why, where? Andy Puddicombe says that being fully aware 5 times during the course of a day of standing or sitting is outstanding! I dismissed this and decided that my goal would be to be aware of standing or sitting 12 times that day. I managed to be fully present 5 times of standing/sitting. Please try it, and let me know how you did.

Barely Breathing … and Sleeping

I have had difficulty drafting this weekly update on my Learning Project: mindfulness and meditation. It feels like I have had more failures than successes.

Fails:

  • I’ve become WAY more restless lately – I fidget, I scratch my head, then my shoulder, then my other shoulder, my chin. Then I scratch my knee.
  • I’ve become a meditation multi-tasker. I juggle the tasks of counting my breaths and thinking about a multitude of thoughts and problem-solving. I don’t even lose track of my count as I process all of my thoughts.
  • My only concrete measurement has plummeted: My weekly sleep average dropped by almost an hour! February 1 – 7 sleep average: 5 hours 3 minutes.
  • I am not focusing. My mind is restless, I think about everything and I have trouble connecting to the things that were working: counting my breaths, attending to physical sensations, visualization, listening to the directions.
  • My neck and shoulders seem even tighter.

Wins:

  • I have managed to meditate every single day.
  • I had another very productive day after meditating in the morning.
  • I re-read my meditation journal to reconnect with some of my previous learning – and re-learned something I had forgotten.

The visualization that continues to work best for me is the idea of my thoughts as cars, and my desire to chase them down and control them. I blogged about it previously here.

(Embarrassing Personal Narrative commences) The mind works in mysterious ways because Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars” became my anthem when I found myself reflecting on my meditation fails as I restlessly wrangled all of my “thought cars”. The lyrics could easily be bent to describe my challenges with meditation: Let’s waste time… Chasing Cars… Around our heads”. I found myself trying to “do it all… Everything” on my own. Doing too much, taking too much on – it keeps my mind churning for hours. I longed to just “lay here … And just forget the world” or at least the distracting thoughts so that I could shut off my mind and get some sleep. Even the lyric “I need your grace To remind me To find my own” is a reminder about how difficult this is to do on your own. All of my teachers seem so distant – people ‘once removed’ as voices through an app, or lessons from one person through another. I would like a meditation buddy. A beginner. Even in a personal learning journey it helps to have someone to commiserate with, someone who understands when times get tough, and to help you push through.

*author’s note: It’s hard to post failures in learning. And sometimes the connections you make while learning can be a little embarrassing, especially when your brain begins to DJ your life experiences as you write in a meditation journal!

Committing to Breathing

I made the purchase. The Headspace app is my favourite resource, and teaches me in the manner in which I prefer to learn. So, $100 later, I am committed. I wavered over the purchase for DAYS – I don’t spend money easily. But, after sampling through the resources listed on my previous blog posts, I realized that I am seeking a developmental program. I have a destination in mind: a calmer mind, increased presence, ability to adapt to stress as it comes, and more sleep. Sampling from all of the free guided meditation resources actually increased my sense of feeling disjointed, scattered and frustration with the lack of progress. I wanted a sequence, and I wanted one that held meaning and engagement for ME. The guided meditations from Headspace seem to grow over time. You are required to apply skills from previous sessions. It feels like I learn something about myself and how my mind works. I feel like I am unlocking something, and moving towards my goal. Headspace feels like a course of study, and that ideas and information will be revealed to me in a timely fashion, as I gain new skills and readiness.

One of the first animations was about visualizing your thoughts as cars and our need to chase and control them. I can use that! Right now! I can use it as I move through my day. When the stress of impending deadlines overwhelms me and I have been dwelling on that stress for hours at a time, and my shoulders have crept up around my ears with the tension…. I can pause and realize that I have chased that “time pressure” car down the highway and I am now being dragged along the street as I grip the bumper. This visualization helps me to break that cycle and have a laugh. Since these are early days in my mindfulness lessons, I am not given tools to tackle or control my relationship with my thoughts, only a suggestion that it is really all about that relationship and perspective.

Something that I love about these guided meditation sessions is that they start and end in the same way (so far). You start with absolute focus on your space. You identify the sounds and the physical sensation of your body in the position it is in. By starting with an inventory of sound and feeling, you are required to engage and acknowledge your present state. By ending the meditation with the same awareness, you are returned from your “mind work” to your physical space. This serves to help me be more present – to get “out of my head”. I found myself using these strategies to move myself out of a long, busy-brained, sleepless session the other night. I began by actively listening to my space: a clock ticking, my husband’s relaxed breathing, waves roaring on the beach, and the rain on the roof. Then, I inventoried my body – places where it was in contact with a surface, places of tension, pressure points. My fists were clenched, so I unclenched them and re-visited my body scan. The last step is to focus on your breathing. That was the last thing I remember. I was asleep.

Barely Breathing – Getting Started

I am one week into my Zen project. I am hoping to learn how to use meditation and mindfulness to decrease my stress, learn self-regulatory strategies and become more present in all elements of my life. My ultimate goal is to calm my busy mind with the hope of increased hours of sleep.

So far, I have done a lot of reading and online research. I listed the resources I have located in my previous blog post. I have been only using two of the resources so far: Headspace and Stop, Breathe and Think. I definitely prefer the Headspace app. I am dreading finishing the free 10 sessions as I am fairly certain that I will end up paying for a subscription to this service, as I am enjoying and learning a great deal from it. I am learning more about myself and what I need as I learn about meditation as I explore the tools that I have found.

My needs:

  • A soothing voice
  • Clear instructions, with specific things to focus on
  • Sequential lessons, building slowly in complexity
  • A focus on self
  • Metaphors that I can understand and that work for my busy brain
  • Simple steps
  • Guided meditation – I am nowhere near ready for independent practice yet – I still need direct instruction!!!

A key difference between Headspace and Stop, Breathe and Think is where you are asked to focus your attention. Headspace encourages me to consider my breathing and the thoughts that wander into my focus as I learn to meditate. Headspace has been very gentle in its guidance, so far. The voice is incredibly soothing, and even after long pauses, it does not intrude. There are simple explanations and metaphors for how we think and how we attempt to wrangle our thinking. I can see my thoughts as “traffic” – a busy street with all of my thoughts rushing by. I can see myself attempting to direct that traffic, control it, and I can even see myself running (screaming) after a wayward thought-car. Having that picture in my mind makes it easier to step back and imagine myself sitting at the side of the road, observing the traffic of thoughts, but staying less involved. Headspace encourages me to be gentle with myself, and it even gives me time during a meditation to allow my brain to wallow in the crazy if it wants to. Stop, Breathe and Think has not been enjoyable. In fact, I stopped my last session with 3 minutes still on the clock because I had become irritated. I find the voice to be a bit more intrusive, and the pace is ridiculous! The meditations flit from one thing to another, and I can’t keep up. The ideas are HUGE, and I cannot relate. In the space of a less than a minute, I am asked to imagine myself filling with peace, then I need to fill the room with peace, and then I need to see that peace spreading over the world. What??! I found myself feeling panicky at the end of these meditations, like I had not yet done my job. One feature I did like from this app is that it encourages you to perform a check-in for mind, body and emotions before it offered customized meditation options for you. I may look at this app again when I have more experience, but for right now I need to walk away.

Going forward, I need some measurable details. Since my ultimate goal is increasing my hours of sleep, I will be looking at my weekly averages.

Baseline average: 5 hours 22 minutes of sleep

First week (January 18 – 24): 5 hours 54 minute of sleep

 

A one-day snapshot of sleep efficiency as captured by Fitbit Force. Is it nap-time yet?

A one-day snapshot of sleep efficiency as captured by Fitbit Force. Is it nap-time yet?