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Chill of fall

Seasons change. This is part of riding on the third rock from the sun, and the degree of change depends on your specific locale on the rock.

I grew up in New England, but I lived in central Florida for a year. The seasons down south are very different than northern seasons. Much less cold, much more heat, more sun, more humidity. I missed northeast seasonality while I lived in the southeast. Change in weather is accompanied with a shift in feelings for me, physical but also emotional. I am writing this in early September, and the morning temps are in the 40s in Connecticut. The contrast to last week’s heat and humidity is quite drastic. I can feel my mind and body shifting to thoughts and feelings of fall. I’m becoming a little different on the inside because I feel the new inputs from the outside.

We are products of our environment. If you use your bedroom for sleep, then you will more than likely sleep when you get into bed. But if you use your bed for surfing the web before you go to sleep, your brain will be anticipating stimulation through dopamine hits of social media browsing, shopping, and memes. It’s no surprise that you can’t fall asleep if your bed is associated with high mental activity. The setting of your bed directs your behavior and thoughts.

Autumn is the time of year where I feel a strengthened bond to the earth. The air is getting drier and cooler. The fall cues are triggering warm feelings. I love to be outside at this time of year. Hiking in the woods and enjoying the foliage is enriching. The feeling is like a warming of the soul, a final appreciation of the year before we go into the cold season. The environment is the trigger for a different set of thoughts and feelings in me. I know the future months have cold weather in store, so I like to try to enjoy the last days of the year that are on the warmer side.

Like it or not, the immmediate surroundings in which we exist have a huge impact on our thoughts and emotions. We enjoy going back to a special place to feel the same feeling that we had when we went there originally. That’s why we like to return. We want to recapture the original feeling.

If you are in a hostile work environment, your thoughts and feelings will tend to match the level of hostility. Yes, you can set an example for your coworkers in that situation, and come in smiling and chipper, but without active vigilance throughout the day, your mood will start to match the surrounding moods.

What should you do if the environment is not helping with your mood, and you can’t get out of the environment? Reset your triggers. Guard your thoughts. The stimulus of being in that place needs to be directed to a different response. This can be trained but it takes time and effort. Some would suggest that you move to a new location or avoid the environment altogether. This is sometimes feasible, but often not. And the trigger/response loop that is in your brain may not be as location-dependent as you might think. You will take that learned response with you to the next location. The triggers might still exist in the location in other forms. Without decoupling the trigger from the response, moving could be a huge waste of time.

Mindfulness can help you to recognize your triggers and responses. It can help you to observe your thoughts and feelings more objectively, instead of losing control. It can save you from moving to a new place to try and escape your own brain. It can save you from yourself.

The benefits of having a routine

“The Miracle Morning” by Hal Elrod describes a system he uses to “jump start” the day. The basic premise is to begin every morning with a specific routine. The activities will set the tone for your morning, which sets you up for a successful day, and if repeated with consistency, a great life.

I do my own version of the Miracle Morning. I’ve modified it to fit my needs, but I still follow the basics of the protocol. Hal calls them the S.A.V.E.R.S. (silence, affirmations, visualizations, exercise, reading, scribing/writing).

The Daily Stoic book is part of my daily routine

The tasks are done to form the foundation of your day. The goal is to do the SAVERS first thing after getting out of bed, and within an hour. The tasks will tend the gardens of your mind, body, and soul so that you have the energy and clarity to maximize your day. Even if the workday goes off the rails, my morning routine gives me a sense of accomplishment. For me, it’s like “making the bed” of my mind.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, we are all dealing with an alternate version of daily life. Some call it “the new norm.” The morning routine has helped to keep me grounded in these uncertain times. Having a set rituals could be helpful for you, especially if you feel doubt and uncertainty in your life.

If I don’t do my routine, I have an uneasy feeling during the day. This reinforces the importance of making sure it gets done. I haven’t missed a daily SAVERS in some shape or form in years.

The mental benefit of having a set of sequential actions each morning is freeing. The first dozen decisions of the day are already made for you. The routine connects your brain to comfort and ease. Starting the day with less stress is good!

My personal routine

My morning routine has evolved over time. Currently it is the SAVERS plus some additional activities I added.

I drink 3 cups of ice water first thing. I also enjoy my coffee during the SAVERS.

Bulletproof Coffee

For me, “Silence” is vipassna meditation for 10 to 20 minutes.

The Affirmations are a list of phrases I borrowed from Hal’s recommendations. I recite them aloud.

Visualizations happen right after meditation. I picture what my perfect day is like in 7 years, from the moment of waking to going to bed, in as much detail as possible.

Exercise is currently a scheduled workout on my bike. I don’t do a shorter workout as indicated in the book, and I consider my session separate from the SAVERS, but I do a workout everyday. It can be as simple as push-ups and squats if I’m not able to ride my bike.

Reading is for 5 to 10 minutes on the Kindle app, usually a book about self-improvement.

Scribing/Writing is done through The Daily Stoic Journal, as well as through a manifestation journal.

I usually get through the SAVERS within an hour, excluding my bike workout. The training program that I’m currently doing is too long to fit into the SAVERS’ hour.

If I happen to be time strapped or travelling, I’ll condense the routine to fit it in to the time I have. It’s not ideal but it still gives me a sense of certainty.

This is the sequence that kicks off my day, every day. It makes for certainty and comfort. I encourage you to develop your own routine to fit your needs. It can be simpler or more complex. But do it every single day and you’ll feel the difference.

Mindfulness during COVID-19

We are living in unprecedented times. But are they really all that rare? There are many factors that make the coronavirus situation unique, but is this something that is majorly outlandish or contrary to reason?

The reality is this scenario is all too familiar. We have a novel virus infecting people whose immune systems are mostly naive to it. The scale might be the largest the world has ever seen because we have more people and more mobility than ever before, but this isn’t a surprise. The story has happened before. There is a different cast of characters. The technology available to track and monitor is more advanced. The demographics are unique to the moment. But human nature is the same no matter how many millenia pass. Like the most basic living beings, we seek pleasure and avoid pain. We crave security and avoid peril. And we panic when our baseline level of security is disrupted.

Unexpected situations can throw us off our game, but we’re still dealing with human emotion and behavior. Mindfulness can help keep you grounded in this moment in time. It can provide a foundation with which to stabilize your thoughts and feelings. It can help to quell the storm within so that you may better deal with the storm outside of you and within others. You’ll come out on the other side of this one way or another, my friends. You might as well be mindful during the process.

Advice

Advice can be found everywhere these days. I am a member of a few veterinary groups in Facebook where opinions are procured from the “hivemind.” I think it’s good to comment on things when I have direct experience that relates to the question. I like to think my comments hold some weight because I have been practicing veterinary medicine for nearly 20 years. I have seen certain patterns in business over and over, so my confirmation bias is getting stronger as the years pass.

The thing about advice is that it is typically given in the context of “this worked for me.” But by nature of the phrase, what works for someone at any given moment in time, with their specific skill set, with their specific lifetime of experience, is pretty unique. We all have individualized connections to the decisions we make. The permutations of thought processes that result in a choice are infinite. The seeker of advice is typically looking for guidance in an area where she lacks experience. The giver of advice is relating the story of her personal experience with the subject, whether directly or indirectly obtained. Depending upon the nature of the advice, it is probably loaded with confirmation bias. We tend to seek out pieces of information that confirm our belief, and push away evidence to the contrary. So the weight of an individual’s advice may not have the weight of absolute truth, depending on the level of bias. Ultimately the seeker wants to increase certainty before jumping into the unknown. Our ancestors who survived to live another day didn’t want to walk into a cave without knowing something about it ahead of time. Seeking the advice of others that have some info about caves is great, but where will that lead them in the moment of decision when a new cave is found? What rules apply to this particular cave?

So advice is a great thing, but it is, by nature, an individual’s experience in his or her own life. Truth and advice are independent of one another, and should be treated as such. You may just find the contrary to a particular piece of advice advice is what you really need in your unique moment in time.

Oreo cookies

There is a 2013 Connecticut College study that showed Oreos are more addictive than morphine and cocaine in lab rats. The study states when the researchers “used immunohistochemistry to measure the expression of a protein called c-Fos, a marker of neuronal activation, in the nucleus accumbens, or the brain’s ‘pleasure center’…the Oreos activated significantly more neurons than cocaine or morphine.” Whether you agree with the study or not, you have to admit the power of this cookie is intense. This got me thinking: what if we could use an Oreo as a tool in our mindfulness practice?

A fun activity to try, especially if you don’t eat Oreos very often, is to slowly and mindfully eat one. Feel the texture in your fingers. Look at the pattern of the cookie’s design. If you’re so inclined, deconstruct the cookie and study the cream filling closely. Notice the contrast of the dark hardness with the light soft cream. Take a bite. Focus on the mouth feel. Hear the crunch of the crisp cookie. Experience the taste of the sweetness on your tastebuds. You can feel the pleasure centers lighting up in your brain from the activation of multiple senses. Finish the cookie and give yourself a moment to take in the entire experience, from that first bite, to the feeling it leaves in your mouth after it has been swallowed. It’s not just eating a cookie. It’s a happening, an unusual event, and it’s amazing.

Then eat a second one in the same slow, mindful way. For me, the experience is similar, but not the same. All the magical moments are less intense. However, it’s also pretty hard to not go back for a third one, so get the rest of them out of sight before you start eating them mindlessly!

Flower power

I started buying flowers for my kitchen table as a centerpiece. I was never much of a flower guy–if that’s even a thing. I enjoy flowers but I never really got crazy about them. I’m not sure exactly how the shift occurred, but I began

to notice the flower section in my local grocery store. I have shopped at this particular grocery store for over 10 years, and the flower section barely skimmed my consciousness during my weekly shopping. The flowers are on display right at the entrance, yet I didn’t allow them any of my attention until a few months ago. Now I look forward to getting a new bunch every week or two.

The beauty that they provide in my home is fantastic. A burst of color to brighten my day, at breakfast and at dinner. The upkeep is minimal, and they smell beautiful. Mine usually last two weeks or more. The cost is typically between a mega-latte and a large pizza, so you don’t have to sacrifice much to enjoy this indulgence.

So don’t just pass by your flower shop and think of flowers only for special occasions. Your life is a special occasion. Treat yourself to flowers and see how many more mindful moments you have during your week. You might just get a new habit that enhances your home and your life.

Forced reboot

I recently came down with the flu. I don’t remember the last time I got so sick. Fever of 103, chills, delirium, the whole shebang. When all was said and done, I had lost over 4 pounds and I felt absolutely wiped out. I kept telling myself, tomorrow I’ll be ready to rock! Well it was more like ready to take a few steps and then crawl for the rest of the day. I’m finally getting back to my norm, but I’m still not 100%.

Through all this, I tried to maintain my meditation routine with at least a few mindful breaths. On the day of the 103 fever, I don’t remember if I did so, as most of that day was a blur.

I stopped drinking coffee during the illness. I haven’t started back up again. I’m going to enjoy a few more caffeine-free days before I get back on the java juice. I miss it but I’m not dying without it.

I feel like I’m seeing things a little differently. Things I hadn’t noticed before, but were always there, are popping into my consciousness. I’m starting to wonder if this is how people come back from a silent retreat. Get cut off from the world for two or three days then reconnect to it in new ways?

I hope to do a meditation retreat in the near future. I think it will be a better way to do a reboot than getting influenza.

My year with Muse

It’s been a little over a year since I started using my Muse headband to assist in my meditation practice. I use it almost daily. I had a few days where circumstances made it difficult or impossible to wear the headband while meditating. But my consistency had been very good prior to using the band, so we are comparing apples to apples. In other words, Muse didn’t make me meditate any more or less than in previous years.

My overall impression is that it is a useful tool in a meditation practice. I am sure that it is not necessary to become a “good” meditator, but it will probably help kickstart someone who has little to no experience. If you can afford it and you like gadgets, give it a shot!

Here are my pros:

  • The app is user friendly and has a nice interface.
  • The reports and graphs are useful for tracking.
  • The “gamification” of meditating (trophies, messages of congrats, how many birds, etc.) can encourage your practice.
  • The unit has performed flawlessly. I have not done any maintenance and I have dropped it a few times. It works just as well as when I received it.

The cons:

  • The app is gamified. This seems counter to the “zen” feeling that you’re aiming for. I had 228 days straight when I had a tech snafu (not realizing my phone’s bluetooth was off) and I broke my streak. It was quite upsetting to my type A personality.
  • The accuracy of the device is questionable. There are days when I use the app with the sound off so I get no aural feedback. There are times when I know my mind was unfocused and I get a lot of birds. Other days I feel very focused and birds are rare. But in general, the report post-session seems to reflect what was happening.
  • The challenge levels end at 24. I achieved that many moons ago, so I’ve topped out of the gamification. It’s a minor point because I don’t use the app for games. Now I’m using it just to track.
  • The in-app guided meditations are good but limited. I don’t always use guided meditations, but if I do, I no longer use the in-app ones. I use a different app on my iPad and I keep the Muse app muted.

If you like gadgets and data, I would recommend using the Muse headband as a way to enhance and monitor your progression in your mindfulness practice. However, it is not a substitute for actually doing the work. You still have to sit and be present, one breath at a time.

https://choosemuse.com

I’m the wanderer

A wandering mind can be a tough thing to overcome. There are some meditation sessions where I get so lost in thought, I probably focused on three breaths or less the entire time. Some might think that this is a failed meditation. I don’t see it that way. I see it as an integral part of the meditation process. My mind, in that moment, didn’t want to listen to me. I tried to tell it what to do, but it wasn’t having it. This is the essence of meditation. You are working the “muscle” that gives you more precise control of your brain. Some days you will feel weak and unable to tame the beast. Other days you will get into the zone and you will feel in total control of your focus. The most important thing is to be gentle with yourself if you can’t get focused. It’s not the end of the world. You’re not a failed meditator. You are human and what your brain wants to do is often very different from what you want to do. With practice, the inner beast will be controlled. But realize this is a process that takes time, just like a body gets sculpted in the gym over many workouts.