Category Archives: Mindfulness

The Breath

The rule of threes for survival:

  • You can survive three minutes without breathable air.
  • You can survive three hours in extreme heat or cold.
  • You can survive three days without drinkable water.
  • You can survive three weeks without food.

Each one presumes that the preceding requirement has been met. Ample food and water make no difference if the individual has no air to breathe or has been plunged into the icy depths of artic waters. Higher temperatures increase the speed at which dehydration occurs. And individuals might train themselves to extend their capacity for survival. Magician David Blaine famously held his breath for 17 minutes, setting the world record for such a feat. Nonetheless, ordinary folks need be mindful of these “rules” should they wish to keep living.

I raise this issue simply to note the primacy of air. The breath. It’s the singular sign of life when we exit our mother’s womb to become part of this world. And the absence of breath is a clear marker of the end of life. I know. I was at my father’s side when he took his last breath.

meditationWe use the breath as an “anchor” for meditation practice. Breathing in, and breathing out. Breathing in, and breathing out. In writing about mindfulness of the body, I noted that I use mindfulness of the breath to steady my mind and sustain focus – noticing the length of each breath, attaching a word to an inhale and another to an exhale, and counting the breaths. It gives me an object of attention to quell my tendency toward distraction. But the breath is more than simply a place to “tag up” when the wandering mind takes flight.

The breath provides the means to be present to direct experience, the essence of mindfulness practice. It opens us up to noticing bodily sensations:

  • Cool air passing through the nostril and exiting with a degree of warmth
  • A tingling sensation at the back of the throat at air passes into the lungs
  • The rise and fall of chest, perhaps with a hint of expansion of the rib cage
  • The movement of the belly as if it is an expandable bellows that stokes the fire of life

Those of us who play wind instruments or train as singers have become quite familiar with the latter. Breath control makes all the difference in producing a quality sound and sustaining musical phrases. We must be conscious of it to ply our trades. Mindfulness practice helps… though I’ve often quipped that my next instrumental skill will not require breath control!

So, the next time you find a quiet moment to meditate, be curious and attentive to the breath – to the various sensations it evokes while providing life-sustaining energy for the body. It’s a simple yet powerful means of experiencing mindfulness.

Is Mindfulness Always a Good Thing?

I believe in mindfulness and count myself among its practitioners. Through the twin aspects of awareness and kindness, it helps me relate to and cope with what’s happening in my inner and outer worlds with greater freedom and ease. I feel more connected to my body and listen more attentively to the signals it provides. I’m less likely to get stuck on repetitive thoughts or vexing emotional states. I’m gentler on myself and others. And the research would suggest that I’m realizing improved health with reduced stress, lower blood pressure, less inflammation with the attendant calming of immune response, and so on.

It all sounds so great. Yet, are there times when mindfulness isn’t such a grand practice? Well… yes.

emotional traumaIt turns out that mindfulness may be contraindicated when undergoing emotional trauma. When I speak of emotional trauma, I’m talking about a threatening, overwhelming experience that robs us of our sense of security and safety. It takes away our capacity for being the “observing self” that can explore such sensations with openness and curiosity. And in lieu of placing these emotions amidst a vast ocean of experience, we may feel caught up in a patch of seaweed, unable to extricate ourselves and breathe. In short, asking ourselves to connect mindfully with trauma may escalate anxiety and suffering rather than quell it.

The vast majority of us experience trauma at some point in our lives. Ideally, we find our way through it without undue harm or risk of triggering it in response to future stimuli. We may need to avail ourselves of professional help, or the love and support of trusted associates. We may heal with the passage of time.

We don’t have to forego meditation or mindfulness entirely when processing trauma. In reading David A. Treleaven’s book Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness, I came across several strategies that can help us remain in practice while exercising appropriate self-care.

FIRST: Stay within the window of tolerance, avoiding the extremes of agitation (aroused, hypervigilant) and numbness (foggy, listless). Be aware of bodily sensations, feelings, and thoughts during practice and apply the brakes, as needed, to stay within the window. Return to the breath, perhaps taking deep breaths to calm an agitated state (hyperarousal), or trying short, intense breaths to counteract listlessness (hypo arousal). Consider use of a soothing touch (e.g., hand to the heart) while breathing. And, of course, it’s always an option to open your eyes and be OK with a shortened practice.

SECOND: Direct your mind and energy to neutral stimuli versus sustained focus on the trauma. Where possible, use stable anchors of attention when meditating (breath, sound, bodily sensations). Open your eyes and focus on the objects around you to ground yourself in the present. Try focusing attention on what makes you feel safe, loved, resilient, strong, energized. If you connect a place, activity, memory, or person to a state of well-being, lean into it. Consider taking a walk or sitting with a friend. Note that these activities are not intended to bypass or put a band aid on the trauma; they simply provide resources to get back to the window of tolerance.

THIRD: Stay with the body even though it might be tempting to dissociate from it. Trauma can make us uneasy with bodily sensations. We lose sight of what’s safe versus threatening and may tend toward shutting down. A waking meditation may prove useful as movement makes it easier to reconnect with sensation. It also provides a neutral focus of attention.

FOURTH: Cultivate trusted relationship. Trauma proves challenging when processed in solitude. It’s difficult to get unhooked from it when facing it alone. Other people can be a wellspring of support, both trained professionals and level-headed, compassionate laypersons with whom you feel seen, heard, and safe. I feel immeasurably blessed to have several people in my orbit who have lovingly provided just the right support when I’ve needed it.

FIFTH: Learn the flashback halting protocol: “Right now I am feeling __________ and am sensing in my body __________ because I am remembering __________. At the same time, I am looking around where I am now in [month or year] and can see __________ and so I know __________ is not happening now/anymore.”

More on Mindfulness of the Body

awake here and nowIn an earlier post, I talked about how mindfulness practice directs us to connect with the body and bodily sensations, NOT transcending it. When we are awake in the body, we live life in the here and now – not reflecting on the in the past, not anticipating the future, and not lost in thought or imagination. The body confers several other benefits as well.

The body can help steady the mind. My go-to resource is mindfulness of the breath using the body’s natural rhythm. Admittedly, it can be easy to get distracted after two or three breaths. I take advantage of several practices to sustain focus:

  • Naming the length of the breath – e.g., “breathing in short, breathing out short, or breathing in long, breathing out long. Not forcing the breath to be short or long, but simply being an attentive observer.
  • Adding words to inhalations and exhalations – e.g., thinking PEACE while breathing in and EASE while breathing out.
  • Simply counting the breaths.

Sound can serve as an alternate anchor – noticing what’s in the foreground, what’s in the background, perhaps giving names to them. Noticing what arises and fades away. In all cases simply observing and not getting caught in thoughts of what might be causing the sounds, or what they mean.

The sense of touch can also serve as an anchor – the touch points with the floor, chair, body parts against each other – and naming the sensations (warmth, coolness, hard, soft, lightness, heaviness, moisture, dryness). I regularly sense the touch points in the car seat and my hands on the wheel when I find myself distracted while driving. It’s a quick way to drop out of being lost in thought and focus on what I’m doing.

The body can be a place of refuge. When caught in a rising tide of worry, a flood of frustration or irritation, or hailstorm of anger, connecting to the body can have a profoundly calming effect. To break out of spinning in my head, I stop and notice the touch points of the body with my surroundings and then glance around the room and whisper the name of things around the space I’m in. It’s grounding and gives me a chance to experience the ever-powerful PAUSE.

The body can be a kind of barometer. When sensitive to the body, it provides a wealth of information. Standing at a fork in the road: Do I take (or keep) this job? Should I tackle this project? Should I invest in this relationship? The body provides a more truthful response than the mind as it’s not weighed down by shoulds, peer pressure, guilt, etc. Also, checking in with the body and asking: Does this possibility make me feel relaxed, open, interested? Or is my heart in my throat, my stomach churning, my temperature rising?

The body can be a teacher. It provides an ongoing lesson in impermanence. Those of us with a few years under our belts know that bodies do not stay the same. But when we pay attention in the moment, we even notice that sensations in the body change. Itching comes and goes. Cravings rise and fall. Pain changes in nature if we are patient enough to sit with it and observe it.

Physical sensations also provide an object lesson in making the distinction between direct experience and the add-ons we bring to it. For example, we may feel tension in our backs and think to ourselves, “I’m always stressed out. I’ll never relax. I’m too uptight!” In reality, we are just feeling tension in our backs. We don’t need to pile on absolutes or character assessments.

Beyond focusing on the breath, sounds, or touch points, what are ways that we can experience mindfulness of the body?

We can be attentive to our posture, finding positions that give us comfort, ease, and stability. Our postures can be lying down, sitting, standing, walking, running. And we can be mindful of transitions from one posture to another.

We can be mindful in our daily activities. Showering. Dressing. Fixing a meal. Eating. Washing dishes. Doing chores. We can ask: Am I putting any unnecessary tension into this activity? Am I rushing to get through it, as if to say: “This moment doesn’t matter; let me get it out of the way so I can get to my real life!” Or, can I welcome every activity as part of the here and now?

We can experience the body as being part of nature, sharing in the ancient elements of earth, water, fire, and air. Tissues, bones, teeth. Blood, saliva. Temperature. Breath. As we read in Ecclesiastes 3:19-20:

“For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return.”

We are all connected. A part of the great circle of life.

Mindfulness of Thought

I attended my first meditation class in the early 1990s. At the time, I had a high-stakes, high stress job that had me fully absorbed by day and haunted me by night. I kept thinking about work after hours and had a hard time shutting down my brain at bedtime. A friend suggested that I try a meditation class. From what little I knew, I assumed that it would help me clear my mind and get much-needed rest. So, even though it was a hassle to get to the center and one more thing on my busy schedule, I figured it would be worth it.

Walking into the center, I was encouraged by how peaceful it seemed, reinforcing my expectations for a mind-clearing class. I had on my corporate clothes and noticed that pretty much everyone else was dressed casually which planted a seed of: “You’re different. I don’t think you belong here.” It bothered me. I sat in the back and listened attentively to the dharma talk. I liked it. It was interesting.

meditationAs we began the meditation, my mind started darting around all over the place. I could hardly get through a single breath without my attention being drawn away to a random thought. With the teacher’s encouragement, I kept returning to the breath, but I could not hold it there. Far from clearing my mind, it felt as though it was getting busier. At the end of 20 minutes, the hoped-for blank slate looked like a Jackson Pollack painting.

I was confused and mad at myself. How could I be so laser-focused at work in a chaotic environment and yet unable to sustain attention on the simple act of breathing in a calm one? It didn’t help when the feedback period was populated by those who had thoughtful commentary about the dharma talk and a Buddha-like experience of their meditation. I gave myself a failing grade and left discouraged.

I stayed with the for several more weeks but continued to have frustrating experiences with meditation. In the end, I decided that I was bad at meditation and would never get better at it. It was something that other people mastered, not people like me. It took me 20 years before I gave it another go.

I now know that many people share my inaugural meditation experiences, and that there are sound physiological reasons why. When our minds are not occupied with something specific, they tend to engage in introspective activities such as contemplating the past or future, running simulations of prospective activities, and daydreaming. This activity is mediated by a system of connected brain areas known as the Default Mode Network (DMN). It does not go silent when we go silent; it starts thinking!

Experienced meditators have quieter DMNs than inexperienced ones, but they still regularly experience these spontaneously generated introspective thoughts. That being said, even new meditators – with a modicum of training and a real-time bio feedback – can decrease their DMN activity so long as they just let their thoughts be rather than try too hard to shut them up.

With that in mind, I try to be an observer of my thoughts rather than identify myself as the thinker of them during meditation. I treat my thoughts like the ticker tape of the New York Stock Exchange. I watch them stream pass as though I’m just curious and interested, not an engaged investor with money on the line. From that vantage point, here are a few things that I’ve noticed:

  • Sometimes, it’s an active trading day and lots of stuff breezes by. Other days, it’s slow. Either way, I just allow it to be what it is.
  • I don’t feel a sense of ownership over everything in that stream of consciousness. Sometimes I find myself thinking: “Hmmm. I wonder where that thought came from!”
  • Whatever shows up on the ticker tape doesn’t last long when I hold the entire stream lightly. Thoughts only seem to stick when I let them. Otherwise, they just pass by.

Whether engaged in formal or informal mindfulness practice, I remind myself that my thoughts may not be true. A thought is just a thought. It often helps when I add the prefix “I’m having the thought that…” I notice it without getting attached to it or needing to react to it.

We each think thousands of thoughts per day, a high percentage of which are the same thoughts we had the prior day. I bring an interested and compassionate attention to the Top 10 Hits on my internal radio network. It gives me a road map as to where I might make changes in my life to relieve anxiety or simply tune the dial elsewhere. The great thing about the brain – we can quite literally change our minds!

Mindfulness of Emotion

I’ve been thinking lately about how the culture in which I live relates to emotions. A brief look at common idioms tells the tale:

  • Beside oneself (i.e., overcome by emotion)
  • Blowing hot and cold (i.e., vacillating between extremes of emotion)
  • Chewing the scenery (i.e., displaying excessive emotion when performing)
  • Cold fish (i.e., an unemotional or heartless person)
  • In the heat of the moment (i.e., proceeding rashly without due thought)
  • Laying it on thick (i.e., exaggerating emotion)
  • Make a scene (i.e., garners unnecessary attention due to an emotional outburst)
  • Touchy-feely (i.e., driven by emotion or sensitivity)

They don’t cast emotion in a favorable light. Moreover, in my experience of the working world, “being emotional” is not a good thing. The preferred persona shows up as cool-headed, logical, highly skilled, prepared, confident, bullet-proof. It’s a calling to live within the seemingly controlled realm of the head and to distance oneself from messy emotions. But here’s the rub:

  • According to Dr. Bab Shiv, emotions drive choice. Human beings make snap decisions and then process all subsequent data through filters that support these subconsciously rendered assessments. (This mechanism holds true for men and women!)
  • Our moods effect how we experience the world and move within it. A positive (happy) or neutral mood primes us for action; a negative mood primes us for inaction.
  • In Atlas of the Heart, New York Times best-selling author, and highly viewed TED Talker Dr. Brené Brown notes: “If I don’t know and understand who I am and what I need, want, and believe, I can’t share myself with you. I need to be connected to myself, in my own body, and learning what makes me work.”

When Dr. Brown asked 7,500 people to identify the emotions that they could recognize and name as they experienced them, the average person only came up with three – mad, sad, and glad. Rather thin emotional literacy! But why do these three resonate?

Think about a time when you got angry. What did it feel like in your body? Perhaps a tightness in the chest and shoulders? A roiling belly? Did you feel like an Instant Pot that had built up pressure such that if anyone pressed down on the pop-up red button, you’d blow out a lot of steam? What does it feel like in the body to hold all that steam in? To try desperately not to give into anger (or even admit that you’re feeling it)?

Now think about a time when you were sad. How did that feeling show up in the body? An aching in the heart? Perhaps the body drooping forward with the head hanging low, closing in on itself, protecting the sensitive heart? A weariness? Tears forming and awaiting release?

Finally, bring to mind a joyful occasion. I’m remembering a spur of the moment break from studies, going to a comedy club with friends, and finding out that the headliner would be Robin Williams. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much! What was happening in my body? Openness. Big smile on my face. Lightness of being. Deep, deep release of built-up tension. Embraced by the warmth of community.

The common denominator: Emotions make their presence known in the body. So, how do we build awareness of our emotions and find healthy ways to make room for all of them?

My go-to practice – in fact my favorite practice – goes by the acronym R.A.I.N. for Recognize, Allow, Investigate, and Nurture. It presents an invitation to pause, connect to what’s happening in the moment, and take a compassionate interest in the interior landscape.

The R of R.A.I.N. invites me to recognize and name the primary emotion that I’m feeling.

The A of R.A.I.N. asks me to let that emotion just be. Not label it right or wrong, good or bad, appropriate or inappropriate. Not judging myself for feeling it or stuffing it in a box and putting it on a shelf. Just saying “YES” to it. This, too, is part of the human experience. And this is what I’m feeling in this moment. The A of R.A.I.N. doesn’t give me license to act unskillfully but simply acknowledge what’s there.

The I of R.A.I.N. invites me to bring an interested and kind attention to the experience. What sensations does it evoke in the body, and where are they located? Are other emotions along for the ride? What stories am I telling myself in this moment?

The N of R.A.I.N. calls for a nurturing response from the wisest and most compassionate part of my being in answer to the question: What is it that I need right now?

While it’s ideal to practice R.A.I.N. in the moment, it works just fine after the fact. After the R.A.I.N., I like to reflect on takeaways from the practice. What new insights about the situation under investigation showed up? What have I learned about myself and the practice?

Although the nurturing aspect of R.A.I.N. suggests its use for challenging emotions, it’s a wonderful practice for examining pleasant sensations – to get a visceral sense of was it feels like to be open and uplifted.

Mindfulness of the Body

The Buddha said: “There is one thing that, when cultivated and regularly practiced, leads to deep spiritual intention, to peace, to mindfulness, and clear comprehension to vision and knowledge, to a happy life here and now, and to the culmination of wisdom and suffering. And what is that one thing? Mindfulness centered on the body.”

When I first heard that reflection, I considered it an odd thing for one of the world’s great spiritual leaders to say. I had always thought becoming more enlightened meant transcending the body and all its messy aches and pains and cravings and limitations. Also, as a devotee of the original Star Trek series, I have it on high authority that the most intelligent alien species have big brains and waif-like bodies if not just brains or pure consciousness itself. [Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.] But it turns out that’s not the case!

mindfulness of the bodyMindfulness is about connecting with the body and bodily sensations, NOT transcending the body. Why? Because we are embodied creatures, and everything that arises is experienced in the body:

  • We engage the world through our five senses.
  • Our emotional states find expression in the body.
  • There’s compelling research – if not our own lived experience – to suggest a strong mind-body connection.
  • And when we are awake in the body, we live life in the here and now – not reflecting on the in the past, not anticipating the future, and not lost in thought or imagination.

For most people, even with an intention to be in the body, the exit door is always open, if not beckoning us to cross over. And there are a lot of good reasons why that happens.

From an evolutionary perspective, we rose to the top of the food chain NOT because we were the biggest and baddest in the jungle but because we developed big brains. We place our trust in its ability to negotiate the environment and help us survive. It provides a sense of control, a feeling we generally do not hold with our bodies. It’s a place of refuge.

We’re attracted to things we find pleasant and averse to things we find painful or unpleasant. So, we’re perfectly fine to inhabit our bodies to enjoy awesome views, delicious food, great sex, and the roar of an appreciative crowd. We’re likely to exit our bodies and the present moment when we feel stressed out, uncomfortable, upset, sad, annoyed. We even exit when the body is in pain – something that you’d think would draw us to the present moment – because we get caught up thinking about the pain and developing narratives about it rather than experiencing it. That rumination causes suffering.

Our culture places a great deal of emphasis on how our bodies look. The US fashion industry is worth hundreds of billions of dollars and provides exemplars of how the most attractive among us should look. Roughly 1.5 million cosmetic surgical procedures are performed annually. The diet and weight loss industry tops $70 billion. If thinking about the body brings up harsh criticism and dissatisfaction, it’s not likely that it will be a comfortable place to inhabit.

And though I marvel at what modern medicine can do – I really do – I think it encourages a view of the body as a machine to be manipulated, controlled, and fixed if broken. It becomes a thing and not a source of being.

The practice of mindfulness of the body entails learning how to increase the range of sensations to which we are able to direct attention and cultivating the ability to name and tap into those sensations at will.

In everyday, mindfulness of the body can be nothing more than a quick check-in. Right now, I notice tension in my back and shoulders. I can take a couple of deep breaths while dropping my shoulders and pausing to relax. In a few minutes, I’ll head to the kitchen for a meal. Rather than mindlessly shoving food in my mouth on the run, I can pay attention to the sights, smells, and taste of what I’m eating and savor the experience.

So, the question becomes – how do we learn to reconnect with our bodies in a way that is helpful and supportive? And how do we do so in a way that is gentle and with interest?

One of my favorite meditations is a mindful body scan. It normally begins by lying down in a comfortable position on the back with arms extended outward at a 45° angle and the legs splayed, using a pillow for support as needed. After spending a few moments connecting to the breath, the practitioner starts at the bottom and works up (or the top of head and working down) and focuses on one body part at a time to notice sensations (or an absence of sensation). Questions to explore in the process include:

  • What’s happening within me?
  • What’s is like right now?
  • Can I let it be?
  • And, can I be with it?

Beyond engendering familiarity with the body, it can be useful as a relaxation technique to relieve stress and anxiety or to prepare the mind and body for sleep. When I have trouble coming into presence during a routine sitting meditation, I often use a body scan to give myself a way to focus my attention. Whether I connect with sensations or not, it generally confers some benefit.

What is Mindfulness?

It occurs to me that I have written a few posts about mindfulness without ever defining what is it. Let me remedy that oversight!

I like using Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition. He’s the founder of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and the progenitor of the highly acclaimed Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program. He says:

“Mindfulness is the awareness that arises from paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” On purpose, present, and non-judgmentally.

I’ll unpack those three things.

ON PURPOSE: At any given moment, our brains sift through an ocean of input:

  • objects of awarenessFrom the five senses (sight, sound, taste, smell, touch)
  • From interior signals (breath, heartbeat, digestion, body temperature, etc.)
  • From feeling states (happy, sad, angry, calm, anxious, excited, etc.)
  • And from mental activities (planning, analyzing, remembering, imagining, ruminating, etc.)

We can’t possibly bring conscious awareness to all of that input, all of the time. So, our amazing brains use a lifetime of experience to process and interpret that raw data. (Where am I? What’s happening? Who am I with? Is there danger or opportunity? And so on…) They decide what will be brought into consciousness awareness, what they’ll store, and what they’ll discard. At root, it’s all about keeping us alive and safe.

Imagine that you are out for a walk in the woods, fully absorbed by an audiobook. If nothing of particular import is happening, you won’t notice all of the perceptual work that your brain is doing. But if there’s danger afoot – say the sound of a rattle – then that sound and the attendant fight-flight-freeze stress response will present a call to action.

Conscious awareness functions like a spotlight that focuses on specific stimuli or state of being. Again, it can be sensory data, an interior signal, a feeling, a thought, an intuition. And it can jump around from one to another, sometimes quite rapidly. Mindfulness teaches us to pay attention to what garners the spotlight – in other words, to notice what we’re noticing – to help make choices about where and how to focus attention, and to give us the freedom to interpret that input with interest, curiosity, and compassion.

IN THE PRESENT MOMENT: Human beings spend quite a bit of time with our brains disconnected from what’s happening in the moment. We think about things that transpired in the past or might happen in the future. We image circumstances and run simulations for events that may never come to pass. And we escape into our imaginations.

Harvard psychologists Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert measured this phenomenon using a special “track your happiness” iPhone app. They gathered data from 2,250 subject of varying ages on their thoughts, feelings, actions, and happiness as they went about their daily business. On average, mind-wandering consumed 46.7% of their time, and the more their minds wandered, the less happy they were. Further analysis revealed that the subjects’ mind-wandering was generally the cause, not the consequence, of their unhappiness.[1]

If, like me, you are interested in being more content, mindfulness can help us notice when our minds go adrift and invite us to come home to the present moment.

NONJUDGMENTALLY: As noted before, our brains process lots of data, rendering assessments about what is crucial vs. trivial, good vs. bad, friendly vs, hostile, healthy vs. unhealthy, and so on. Of necessity, they are rather judgy. And that characteristic carries over into conscious awareness.

Mindfulness encourages us to notice our judgments while remaining curious, open, and accepting – not to put us in harm’s way, but to provide the means to think, speak, and act wisely.

Mindfulness can be practiced informally as we go about our day-to-day activities or formally through meditation. The latter develops our “noticing,” “now,” and “nonjudgmental” muscles. We learn to pay attention to what arises and put out the welcome mat for the experience. And we train ourselves to bring into consciousness a whole gaggle of thoughts, feelings, and sensations that might otherwise habitually fall beneath our radar.

[1] Steve Bradt, Wandering Mind Not a Happy Mind, The Harvard Gazette, November 11, 2010 (See

Finding Joy

“In their quest for happiness, people mistake excitement of the mind for real happiness.” – Sayadaw U Pandita, Myanmar Buddhist monk

My last post examined Dr. Judson Brewer’s work on addiction as discussed in The Craving Mind. It focused on our need for distraction in the face of unpleasant feelings and how that inculcates unhealthy behavior patterns. There’s another aspect of craving that bears a moment or two of reflection – i.e., the thirst for continuous gratification.

Like it or not, we are pleasure seeking beings. We crave people, things, feelings, and experiences that feel good and avoid ones that don’t. Moreover, when we sense a lull in action or feel disengaged with what we’re doing, it’s easy to look for some form of excitement to get our juices flowing again.

Daydreaming can stoke our fires. We imagine a life filled with our heart’s desires and, perhaps, contemplate a journey that might get us there. We may run simulations in our brain to assess the likelihood that we could make it happen. Or, we may simply abandon all sense of reality and create a fantasy world into which we escape.

Shopping can be an allure for others. Companies spend billions of dollars in advertising to convince prospective consumers that the key to happiness lies in purchasing their products. We feel the rush of excitement when the coveted item becomes ours. Unfortunately, the feeling doesn’t last long, and we set ourselves up to buy the next new toy. (When we downsized last summer, I was struck by how much stuff we’d purchased over the years and rarely used. Such waste!)

Adrenaline junkies seek intense and thrilling activities that deliver a physiological rush – e.g., sky diving, extreme sports, dangerous lines of work. These activities cause the body to produce adrenaline which increases heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing. It sharpens the senses and boosts energy in response to a perceived danger. But again, the feeling doesn’t last, and its pursuit can be costly physically, emotionally, and financially.

On a much smaller scale, click bait can give us a tiny hit of dopamine to break us out of the doldrums. The thrill of anticipation piques our interest; clever marketers use evidence-based methods to capture our attention once we get there.

All the foregoing work against our being sustainably awake, aware, and embodied in the present moment. We become slaves of our wandering minds, our cravings, and the false sense that happiness is somehow “out there.” We lose sight of the path to true happiness and well-being.

There are several antidotes for our attachment to continuous gratification.

Positive psychology guru Dr. Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi found that people are happiest when they are in a state of flow. This state happens when we are fully engrossed in voluntary activities that stretch our bodies and/or minds to accomplish something worthwhile. In such activities, we act with such deep and effortless involvement that we temporarily let go of everyday worries, responsibilities, and frustrations. We’re “in the zone.” In my experience, the activities need not be Herculean. I get “in the zone” when engrossed in a good book; I’m bored and restless when watching TV.

Mindfulness helps break the allure of continuous gratification. As discussed in last week’s post, we can observe with curiosity the mind’s tendency toward craving – in this case, its thirst for excitement. If we succumb to the temptation, we can notice the feelings that arise, the length of time those heightened sensations stick around, and the place to which we return thereafter. Was it worthwhile? Were there better uses of our precious resources? If we resist the temptation, we can notice how the impulse to act increases in intensity and then attenuates, soon to be replaced by other thoughts and impulses. A craving is just a craving until we get sucked into it!

The promise of a consistent practice of mindfulness lies in the quieting of that part of the brain that activates in response to boredom, notably the medial prefrontal cortex (MPC) and posterior cingulate cortex (PCC). These regions are associated with self-referential thinking and are linked with OCD, daydreaming, rumination, and craving. They settle down when concentrating with ease on the present moment.

Until we define happiness for ourselves and see clearly the difference between excitement and joy, we’ll be ensnared by craving. Excitement brings with it restlessness and a contracted urge for more. Joy that results from curiosity activates a healthy imagination and creativity and yields peace, openness, and deep well-being.

Why We Crave

When the earliest incarnations of human beings roamed the earth, survival loomed large in every day life. Those who lived became adept at laying down patterns of behavior in response to environmental cues. Establish relationship with friends; run from enemies and predators. Move toward nutrients and away from toxins. Approach pleasant; avoid unpleasant. Memory engrams combined with dopamine hits in the brain codified these patterns into habits. Good habits kept one alive.

With our ancient brains now living in a modern world, that evolutionarily beneficial learning process now works against us. While we don’t face the same environmental threats, our brains still run the same programming:

  1. We have an experience that registers in the five senses (sight, smell, sound, taste, touch) and/or our emotions.
  2. We render an interpretation of that stimulus based on past experience.
  3. Our assessment results in a “feeling tone” – i.e., pleasant or unpleasant.
  4. We’re wired to approach (and crave) what’s pleasant and avoid (or ignore) what’s unpleasant.
  5. We take action reflexively based on this rapid and largely unconscious mental process.
  6. We lay down a memory engram that increases the likelihood that we’ll repeat the process the next time we encounter that stimulus… as well as ones that register as similar.

Feel stressed, bored, frustrated, angry? Our patterned behavior might trigger eating, drinking, smoking, doing drugs, checking social media… anything to distract ourselves from the unpleasant feeling. But here’s the rub: However pleasant these distractions may seem, we’ll only get a transitory hit of dopamine when pursuing them. Worst yet, the hit attenuates the more we chase after that activity, thereby requiring a more extended engagement for the same measure of pleasure. And when it wears off, we’re still left with whatever feeling we had when we hopped on the bad habit bandwagon.

Dr. Judson Brewer explores this terrain in The Craving Mind: From Cigarettes to Smartphones to Love. In particular, his research focuses on the neurobiology of substance and behavioral addiction and its treatment via mindfulness. It’s a really interesting read. Let me illustrate a small piece of his work through the lens of social media.

Using fMRI technology, neuroscientists have identified the nucleus accumbens as the brain region linked with addiction. It also lights up when we talk about ourselves, listen to others talk about us, or get self-relevant feedback. This wiring likely reflects the fact that our ancestors increased their chances of survival when they mattered to others. It meant that others took a vested interest in their well-being under the auspices of mutual interest.

Technology causes us to overuse this neural pathway. We post on social media to get noticed and pay close attention to who “likes” what we shared. We feel great if a lot of people give us a thumbs up – especially those who we deem special – and feel deflated if few bother to register a response. Ironically, extensive use of social media has been correlated with diminished self-worth and increased withdrawal. We get caught up in comparisons, ruminating on how others’ lives are so much more exciting than ours. We get drawn in to the on-line world rather than revel in real experience. We want to matter. But in the end, social media makes us feel worse.

So, what’s the answer?

Dr. Brewer suggests a counterintuitive response: Lean in to the discomfort rather than attempt a bypass through addictive distraction. Activate curiosity to see how discomfort manifests in the body. Curiosity creates emotional distance from the sensation and makes it less personal. It also affords the space to “pause” before engaging in habitual responses and see what we’re actually getting out of them. Do we really feel better long term, or are we just getting some temporary relief and winding up worse off? Moreover, given time, we may notice that our impulse to act – out of craving or aversion – likely reaches a peak and then falls away. If we just stay with it, we can ride the wave until it finds its own natural conclusion.

I’ve put this advice into practice. Sweets – notably chocolate truffles and ice cream – are my go-to “remedies” for stress, boredom, and various forms of upset. Sugar alone triggers an addictive response; my use of it for palliative care makes it doubly vexing. When I give in to the craving, the sensory experience lasts but a few minutes. Then I experience a sugar rush followed by a crash and (usually) disruption of sleep. And after my brief distraction, I still have to deal with whatever triggered the habit loop in the first place… with diminished physical reserves.

Using Dr. Brewer’s advice, I stop and take notice when craving for sweets arises. I remind myself of the fleeting nature of the “happiness hit” and the long tail of the unpleasantness post-indulgence. Then I get quiet and explore what’s really going on in my body and what it might be telling me about my life. With that little bit of mindfulness, I set myself up for right action.

Use Mindfulness to Quell Anxiety

“Worrying doesn’t take away tomorrow’s troubles. It takes away today’s peace.” – Andy Armstrong, musician

My last couple of posts arose in response to Dr. Judson Brewer’s book Unwinding Anxiety. They covered Brewer’s research regarding the use of mindfulness to overcome bad habits. Before moving on to another scholar’s work, it’s worth taking a few moments to examine the titular subject of the book – anxiety.

We define anxiety as a feeling or worry, nervousness, or unease in the face of upcoming events or circumstances with uncertain outcomes. It arises because our survivalist brains want to predict the future accurately; uncertainty threatens our safety and engenders fear.

fear plus uncertainty equals anxiety

Common sources of anxiety include health, safety, job security, finances, politics, and personal relationships. The prospect of public speaking can also send most folks into a tizzy. Even happy occasions can prompt a bout of anxiety, such as impending nuptials, birth of a child, or dream vacations.

Anxiety urges action. We may attempt to satisfy the itch for certainty by seeking more information or developing contingency plans. (Warning: Fake news on the Internet spreads 6x as fast as real news and may exacerbate anxiety!) We may try to ward off undesirable outcomes by clinging to or grasping for that which feels safe. We may have a go at distracting ourselves from worry by indulging in our favorite addiction (although worry may come back with a vengeance after the distraction has run its course). We may even work ourselves up into a full-blown panic attack because that feels as though we are doing something in response to our anxiety, crazy though that might sound!

Brewer identifies anxiety (worry) as a harmful habit that often hides in other bad habits:

WORRY LOOP Trigger Behavior Result
Anxious thought
or emotion;
impending event
Worry Googling, overplanning, overeating, over imbibing, procrastinating, pacing, …

Worrying can trigger more worrying, perhaps resulting in a generalized anxiety disorder. We can even worry because we don’t know why we’re worried! Even though worrying doesn’t work, our old brain keeps doing it because action (however misguided) seems rewarding in the moment.

We need to be able to name anxiety in order to work with it and break the habit loop. Note that it may not manifest as a clear and unambiguous signal. (“Oh, no! I’m worried!”) It could show up as anger, irritability, impatience, fear, craving. The tell-tale sign might be an impulse that takes the prefrontal cortex off-line and with it rational thought, decision making, and planning.

Whenever we feel a bout of anxiety coming on, Brewer recommends that we pause and take a deep breath to stop the downward spiral. Give the prefrontal cortex the chance to come back on line. Use curiosity to take note of the bodily sensations that are taking root, the emotions that are surfacing, and the stories that might be cropping up alongside them. Curiosity helps us process the anxiety rather than distract ourselves from it. It also has the effect of quelling the sensation as curiosity serves as an appropriate action and reward for the initial trigger

Brewer reminds us that what we make of this moment creates the bead that adds to the necklace of life experiences. If we’re anxious, we create a bead of anxiety. If we are anxious a lot, we create an anxiety necklace. But we can step out of the worry loop and create a calming, compassionate, supportive string of pearls.