Tag Archives: mindfulness

Tiny Cass and Lisa Cover

Travel can open the mind, and shrink the ego

I’m back at my desk, at home in Rotorua, and loving getting my brain going again. It’s been wonderful, and challenging at times, to have seven weeks in Europe, much of the time alone with my girl.

The biggest challenges were days when my daughter recognised her introverted needs and demanded a day inside, away from all those people speaking another language. Got to respect a girl who knows what she needs! Even if spending a whole day inside role-playing with Playmobile figures was some kind of hell for me, most days I was all she had as a playmate, friend, mother and teacher.

Its been good for me to try and find joy in the things I usually think of as trials – to get to work re-writing some of my own stories. Anything is possible if we let go of expectations and choose to take delight in what is.

The story that I  found most challenging to let go of was that I need time alone to restore my energy and manage my well-being. While I certainly took off for walks on my own when I could, this wasn’t possible most days when my husband was working, However, I found I could work on finding a sense of calm while in the presence of others.

My natural state is to be highly aware of people around me, and this state of vigilance can become draining, hence my desire for restorative alone time. Developing an off-switch for this vigilance is a challenge, but I’m working on it. It’s kind of like practicing meditation. The big shift is changing my story so the door opens to the possibility of things being different.

So my reality right now is time to work alone or with clients while my daughter is at school. But I know that as I keep working on developing my vigilance off-switch, I can be less dependent on that restorative alone time, and be ready to take on new challenges.

Oh, in case you’re wondering about the pictures, Cass and I had fun exploring this magical playground in Freiburg, Germany. Thankfully the shrinking effect was not permanent. (Photo credits: Cassidy Berndt and Lisa Berndt).

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Focus on what’s important: train your mind – like a puppy!

Is your mind anything like mine?

It feels like a constant battle to focus on what’s important, not get distracted by what’s interesting, and filter out the noise.

How do you hold on to that precious mental focus to create more space in your day for what is important? Your email and news feed will always be crammed with interesting things. Your phone will always be begging for your attention. But, you always have the choice of where to put that attention. Practice exercising that choice, and it will get easier to focus.

Its not easy, I know! Here are a few suggestions to get you started:

  1. Set your priorities, and keep them front of mind. Make a small space in your day to decide where you want to focus. I like to set my goals for the day, jot down targets to achieve, and then fill in a daily schedule. I then check back in with that through the day to keep myself on track. The biggest benefit I get from this is reducing decision fatigue. Decide once, then just get on with it.
  2. Catch that wandering mind. As you work through your tasks, notice when your mind drifts off to play with something new and shiny. To stop this throwing you off task, instill a little discipline. Our minds are not great at focus. Imagine your mind is like a puppy wanting to play; gently but firmly return it to the task at hand, and eventually it will learn. Still distracted? Check in with how productive you are being. Do you need a short break, a brain-boosting snack, or a drink of water? Or maybe you’ve been focusing too long and need to switch tasks? Learn what your daily rhythms of focus and distraction are and work to those.
  3. Learn to say no, with grace. And I don’t just mean when someone interrupts us with a new demand (although this is important too). We are constantly making micro-decisions as we navigate our day. How good are you at owning your priorities and saying no to distractions when its appropriate? Often we are swayed off task by feelings and sensations such as boredom, fear of missing out, the excitement of novelty. If we are strong in our purpose, and clear about what it takes to achieve it, it is easier to turn down distractions and keep that puppy focused. If a fear of inconveniencing others leads you to undervalue your own priorities and be easily pulled off task, then check in with your sense of self worth. Do you truly value yourself enough to feel you are worthy of putting your needs equal with others?

Best of luck out there as you train your attention, reduce stress and create more space in your day for the important things. As you practice this skill you might notice how much time and energy you expend dealing with the frustration caused by distractions. Time and energy much better spent on your priorities!

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Be the observer

Coaching can be a profound experience for many people, as they are given the tools and support to really look themselves in the eye, own up to their strengths and weaknesses and make changes in their life from the inside out. How else can you overcome challenges and really fulfill your own potential?

Just think what you could achieve in life if your self-imposed limits didn’t hold you back from even trying?

I believe we all have the strength inside to achieve this kind of change, but so often we take on board the criticisms and judgements that make us feel we can’t, that we’re not good enough, that we lack some necessary quality. The key to letting go of our limits is to understand that we can separate ourselves from our behaviour and emotions, step back for a bigger view, and choose to do things differently. It’s not easy. It takes courage. But it is possible, and coaching can help.

By becoming the observer of our own behaviour it’s easier to be compassionate with ourselves when we say something stupid, or make a mistake. Mentally step back, notice what just happened, congratulate yourself for being brave enough to get out there and fail, forgive the failure, and try again. Or throw your hands in the air and shout ‘How Fascinating!’, like Ben Zander in my favourite book, The Art of Possibility (Rozamund and Benjamin Zander, Penguin Books, 2000).

Compassion and forgiveness undermine the self-judgement that keeps us small. They give us the courage to own up to our normal, human failings, and see ourselves as worthy and able. Self-judgement is a poisonous contributor to worry and anxiety. Along with rumination (the habit of over-analysing past events and future scenarios), self-judgement turns pressure into stress. Pressure is not the cause of stress, but the way we respond to pressure in our minds triggers emotions and physiological responses that are the symptoms of stress. How do we stop feeling stressed? We change the way we respond to pressure. How? By not getting caught up in rumination, and by practicing self-compassion.

If you’re anything like I used to be, you’ll be thinking: ‘Yeah, right. My mind has a life of its own. It just chatters away and there’s nothing I can do about it, especially when I’m under so much pressure.’

I get it. Luckily there is a massive historical body of knowledge and an increasingly popular modern movement teaching us how to change these mental habits, manage stress and improve how our mind works. It’s called mindfulness, and it can be approached from the lessons of ancient spiritual traditions (such as Buddhism, where the concepts originated over 2000 years ago), or from a secular and scientific perspective with tools such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and the findings of neurobiology. There are even apps to help get you there, such as Headspace.

If you find it tough to get your head around this, how about an analogy:

Your mind is a computer, evolved to run programs that maximise your chance of survival and reproduction. Your nervous system and hormonal systems are extensions of this computer that translate stimulus into action in your body.

To be honest, your operating system is a bit out of date – it was designed before the invention of agriculture. Some of the programs you’re running are not necessarily state-of-the-art either. There’s this one triggered by fear called Fight-or-Flight, which worked really well when you had to run away from sabre-toothed tigers, but is not so great when fear comes from ‘constructive’ criticism, imminent deadlines, or too many emails.

To patch up this error, your highly adaptable mind uses its most powerful program, Critical Analysis, to talk yourself down from the fear response (‘what did I do wrong?’, I shouldn’t respond like that’, ‘it’s not worth getting stressed about it’, and so on). This Self-Talk subroutine can easily get stuck in a loop called Rumination (apologies to any computer programmers out there for abusing the terminology – it’s ok, it’s just an analogy!).

Our minds also have this special feature called Virtual Reality, which is pretty awesome when properly managed. But, as we use Critical Analysis and Rumination on an event, we imagine it happening in full-on technicolour Virtual Reality. Our bodies respond as if it were happening now, triggering the fear response. Staying in this fear zone causes chronic stress, and can lead to burnout.

Mindfulness is an update to the Critical Analysis program that breaks this cycle. Hey, if Google has already upgraded, then it must work, right!

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