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Add A Dash Of Stillness To Your Day

February 12, 2015

Do you have a life that is filled with doing, getting things done, and taking care of business? And maybe even with a big dose of procrastination which involves spinning your wheels with web surfing, email, or other related filler? I know how this goes!

Our computers, cell phones, and iPads mean that we can be occupied every moment of the day with communicating, reading, and working. When we aren’t on our devices we are taking care of our families and friends, rushing here and there, or exercising. And finally, when we want to relax, we are watching television or reading a book. Our minds are similarly busy. Thinking, planning, putting ourselves down, judging, worrying, planning, worrying some more! Our minds are a reflection of our busy lives and vice-a-versa.

The starting point for reducing stress is to inject your day with just a bit of stillness. Physical stillness and mental stillness. It is also the starting point for turning down the volume on your inner critic, judging people less, being more productive, and doing your best thinking. I have known this for a long time, and you probably have too, but it wasn’t until last year that I really started to do something about it. In the spring I started adding some stillness to my days. Trust me, this was nothing dramatic! It was five minutes here, and fifteen minutes there. Sometimes I manage to even get twenty minutes in, which for me is pretty amazing.

I like to use the term “wordlessness” for this, which was coined by my coaching mentor Martha Beck, rather than meditation, as meditation has always seemed like something hard that I never managed to succeed with! The expression wordlessness for me simply means taking a moment to turn down my activity and the volume of my thoughts.

Having learned how to quieten my thoughts and sit still I find there are opportunities all around me for taking these short pauses in the action. Waiting in line at the bank or taking public transit, each day presents many small pauses that I can use for stillness. To the outside world I am just another person riding the bus. Inside, I am allowing my thoughts to quieten.

Here are two approaches to playing with wordlessness that I found really helpful when I started trying it out this year. Both are from Martha Beck’s book “Finding Your Way in a Wild New World.

The first approach is called “How Do You Know You Have A Hand?” This one is a quick way of getting a moment of quiet in your mind, even if like me you are thinking all the time. Beck credits Eckhart Tolle, author of the Power of Now, with this way into wordlessness.

  • Close your eyes and hold up one of your hands in the air so that it is not touching anything.
  • Ask yourself: “Without opening my eyes, how can I know my hand exists?”
  • Experience your attention going inside the body to answer the question, activating a non verbal part of the mind.
  • Now hold up both hands (with eyes still closed) and feel the inside of both at the same time. Your awareness will slide out of left-hemisphere verbal thinking into both hemispheres – wordlessness. You won’t articulate this until it’s over, and that’s okay. The point is to feel it. (Finding, p.10)

Every time I try this I get a pleasant mental shift towards quiet.

The second approach is called the “Path of Beauty and Comfort.” I use this second approach of Martha’s or a modified version more often the technique above because it works well in a public setting.

  • Right now, find something in your environment that is visually beautiful. Put your full attention on it.
  • Without moving your eyes, now also listen to the sounds all around you, and then listen deeper, for the silence in which the sounds are taking place.
  • Find a spot on your body that feels comfortable. It may be just one toe. While still watching beauty and listening to silence, fully feel that comfort in your toe.
  • Breathe in slowly, feeling the sensation of your lungs filling with air. If you can smell anything fragrant or otherwise pleasant focus on the scent.
  •  Practice focusing on all these pleasurable things at once. Feel the calm that arises as this process drops you out of language. (Finding, p.17)

I have found this is a very effective way of getting to the stillness. In the summer I practiced it on my deck, at a cafe, sitting in my back yard, and last week on the sky train. I now don’t worry about finding something beautiful to focus on. Instead, I put my eyes into soft focus by activating my peripheral vision to the left and right. Then I turn my senses to a comfortable place on my body, listen to the sounds around me and the silence behind the sounds. When my thoughts start to get noisy and busy again I just soften my gaze again, sink back into the comfortable spot on my body, activate my listening and return to quiet.

It is okay when your thoughts intrude. Just notice your thoughts and then let them go. It can also help to add a word or phrase to run through your mind. I have used “stillness” and “peaceful mind” and just plain old “shushhhh” to help quieten my thoughts. Since starting playing with these approaches to wordlessness I have found I am now able to quieten my mind in a way that I never could before. It’s like I was living with a blaring television in my life and I finally learned how to turn down the volume. Even waiting in line is no longer an irritation, but a chance to grab a couple of moments of peace! I recently had a project stalled for over a week because I didn’t know how to tackle it. I sat outside for twenty minutes practicing wordlessness, then stood up and had my answer. The conscious mind is described by neuroscientists as a wind-up toy compared to the power of the unconscious mind. My hunch is that by deliberately quietening my left-brained thinking I provided space for the more powerful part of my brain to deliberate and the result was a solution that I was looking for.

Giving yourself even just 1 or 2 minutes of wordlessness to start with is enough. Ultimately it is great to get 15 to 20 minutes a day when you can. I just started with snippets of wordlessness and that was enough for me to experience a positive impact.

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Get better at addition with some skillful subtraction

January 22, 2015

Happy New Year!

At the start of 2015 a lot of my conversations with clients are all about how to do more with less time. We are discussing the power of focus in all areas of life and the importance of making making choices about what goes on the plate and what needs to be off.

We all have to do lists, business plans, goals, and schedules full of commitments. We learn to be great at adding more and more to our days and proving the maxim “if you want something done, give it to a busy person.” The result is that we all feel like we don’t have enough time.

At the start of this year as you consider what you want to do and what you want to achieve, pause for a moment and reflect on this question: what do you want to let go of?

Leadership consultant and writer Margaret Wheatley once put it like this: “What do you want to walk away from in order to walk towards?” She recognised that in order to honour what is most important for us we also have to learn to let go.

William Ury puts this another way in his book The Power of a Positive No. What are the values, needs, and priorities that you wish to say yes to, and that cause you to need to say no to a particular situation or opportunity?

Everyone I know feels like they just don’t have enough time. Although we all only get 24 hours a day we pack our waking hours so full of stuff we feel stressed and anxious, and like we are always trying to catch-up.

Letting go is hard. It’s hard because our best intentions have us wanting to support others, give of our time, take responsibility for, carry-out, and follow-through. With so much going on in our lives it’s not enough to let go of the things we don’t like to do, what is also important is to let go of some of the activities we want to do but maybe just not quite as much .

I have a friend, Suzanne, who is a senior partner with a significant administrative role at her firm. After a couple of hard years she has learned that to be most effective she has to be highly strategic about what she takes on. This means paying close attention to what is requested of her, and asking herself “is this mine to do, or can it be also well handled by someone else?” This sounds easy but she has an instinctive need to help out and so when someone comes with a request her first instinct is to assist them. She has learned to stop and consider and weigh the request against all other things she has on the go.

I had a similar struggle at the end of 2013 when I considered the year ahead. I had a number of large projects starting up and a year-long training course to attend. I knew something was going to have to go. In the end I decided to let go of my role on the board of an organization I was deeply committed to. It was a difficult choice and one I have not regretted. Walking away from the board position allowed me to turn to the new projects with enhanced energy and capacity.

Effective subtraction starts with examining your priorities. What is most important to you?

Consider your commitments and priorities within these three general categories: work life, family/friends, and personal life.

Finding activities that are rewarding across two or more areas of your life is a great way to achieve more with less time. For Jason, coaching his daughter’s soccer team is a family activity, but as he also loves the sport and coaching it also fulfills an important personal need. Janet enjoys skiing and takes her clients out to the slopes twice a year in an activity that is rewarding both a personally and professionally.

Beware of your good intentions! Carefully examine the commitments that you do out of a feeling of obligation. Pay attention to what you have on your plate. Are you doing it because it feels like something you “should” do? Because this is “a good thing to give time to” even though it takes more time that you have?

Our lives are constantly changing. What is most important to us will change from year to year. Take a quick inventory of your commitments, what can come off your plate to leave you more room for what’s most important?

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Evading the – not enough time – trap

August 1, 2014

Have you ever felt like there just wasn’t enough time to get everything done?

Well this May found me in a panic about a presentation I was giving with a fellow coach for a large group of women lawyers. At the heart of my panic was the thought “there isn’t enough time to prepare” followed by a second thought “and so I am not going to be good enough”.

That thought “there’s not enough time” raises much anxiety and stress in the legal profession and is the root cause of a lot of inefficiency, procrastination and wine guzzling.

The culprit for all this stress is a little almond shaped part of the brain known as the amygdala. It is the “fight or flight” centre of the brain. It is also known as our reptile brain or my particular favorite expression used by brain researchers – the neural back alley.

As my mentor Martha Beck says, the amygdala is all about lack and attack. All your scarcity thoughts come from the amygdala.

Here’s the challenge: The amygdala isn’t your smart brain. The smart brain is the prefrontal cortex located in your forehead. When we are down the back alley we are no longer thinking straight. We are reacting rather than responding. This stress propels some people, like me into panicked action. Others freeze.

My May article for Slaw.ca is all about how to get yourself out of the “not enough time” panic or frozen state and back into productive action.  You can read it here.

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