Tag Archives: meditation

Who are you?

Last week Lillian Brummet for interviewed me for her Conscious Discussions radio show.  The topic of our conversation was Overcoming Conflict and Challenges, and I thus got the opportunity to talk about all my books including Thriving Through Tough Times: Eight Cross-Cultural Strategies to Navigate Life’s Ordeals.

Lillian was a knowledgeable interviewer and has a trick of calling for more authenticity from her guests; she began with a seemingly simple question, “Deidre, who are you?”

Paraphrasing Lillian, she asked, “When you meet the eyes of that lady in the mirror – who is “Deidre” really? Share information about who you are as a person – outside of what you do or the job or the training you have …”

Hungry birdChallenging questions send my brain searching for analogies. With this query I landed on one found in the Hindu Upanishads. Each person can be compared to two golden birds sitting on a single branch. One bird eats the fruits from the tree or engages in life. The other, what some would call the Self, just watches.

So who is Deidre? Which bird?

I could tell Lillian pretty easily about the hungry bird and shared some of “my” preferences, personality quirks and passions. The hungry bird gets bouncy around new ideas, loves to ski, speak Spanish and backpack and also has a habit of saying “yes” a bit too often.

But what of the other bird?  I was flummoxed on how to introduce her. I can forget the watching bird exists, but she is as critical as the Deidre that shows up in the world.

From a leadership perspective, our watching birds provide us the wider view.  They are the ones who notice that “we” are angry, depressed, or making a mistake. Leadership guru Ronald Heifetz describes the watching birds as the critical ability to get on the balcony and observe while our hungry birds are dancing around the floor.

Spiritual traditions have long advised that we connect often to our watching birds. Both the ancient traditions and modern leadership theory suggest that we should cultivate this relationship daily. If we can stop to clear away thoughts and just watch quietly, we can foster a better understanding of this witness self.  I don’t think I can explain who she is; sorry Lillian! However, sitting quietly reminds me to listen to my watching bird’s observations and strengthens my ability to step back from stressful situations, notice what is occurring and pause before I respond.

And, so I pose to you Lillian’s simple question, “Who are you?”

Practice makes perfect

What is most essential to Buddhism is based on clarifying the mind. If you want your mind to be clear, it is important to put opinions to rest. If opinions are not stopped, then wrong and right are confused; if the mind is not clear, reality and illusion are mixed up. – Hsueh-yen

“Pay attention.” “Be mindful.” “Stay present.” This is standard advice in ancient sacred texts and now in self-help literature. If it is so ubiquitous and so necessary, why is it also so darn hard to do? I want to stay in the moment, really I do, but off I go again.

To answer why I can’t behave, I like to first check latest brain research. As you have read in past posts, our natural brain reactions are what make it difficult to: be calm when another is yelling, listen when we are terrified or stick around when there is conflict. Our brains often take our best laid plans (stay calm, listen, stick around) and send them packing!

It also turns out that it is our brain’s natural story making propensity that keeps us from enjoying the moment. University of Toronto neuroscience researcher Norman Farb in 2007 mindfulness study described our default mental state, which he calls a “network,” as one that loves create narratives. In a Psychology Today article, author Doug Rock explains Farb’s definition as:

“This network is called default because it becomes active when not much else is happening, and you think about yourself. If you are sitting on the edge of a jetty in summer, a nice breeze blowing in your hair and a cold beer in your hand, instead of taking in the beautiful day you might find yourself thinking about what to cook for dinner tonight, and whether you will make a mess of the meal to the amusement of your partner. This is your default network in action. It’s the network involved in planning, daydreaming and ruminating… When you experience the world using this narrative network, you take in information from the outside world, process it through a filter of what everything means, and add your interpretations. Sitting on the dock with your narrative circuit active, a cool breeze isn’t a cool breeze, it’s a sign than summer will be over soon, which starts you thinking about where to go skiing, and whether your ski suit needs a dry clean.”

Sound familiar? That’s how my brain works. Wouldn’t be a problem, but I often feel like I miss my life when the narrative mind kicks in. Gorgeous sunset? Oh yeah, missed that because I was thinking about an upcoming presentation. A wry smile delivered by a friend? Shoot, didn’t fully appreciate that either…and the list continues. Life’s beauty passes me by while I am making “to do” lists.

In my last post, I wrote about when I go “mother bear” how it helps to notice what story I am telling myself. After posting, a friend poked me with the comment, “Do you really want to abandon the narrative?” “Abandon?” Well, he probably should have asked, “Could you really give up your stories?” I’ve got great story creation capability. Pick the circumstances and my mind runs worst-case scenarios, develops possible next steps and wonders what I should eat for lunch.

My Buddhist buddies recommend “practicing mindfulness” to quiet the mind. After the “lose the narrative” question and reading the above referenced article by Doug Rock this week, I decided to study on what is mindfulness and what “practicing it” means.

Mindfulness from a Buddhist perspective is basically the idea of paying attention to everything without making up a story. Instead of interpreting what you see, just notice what you can about the present moment. Notice — your breath, what our hands are doing, stomach is saying, your words and how we are feeling. We are also advised to track what thoughts are appearing and regard these as simply, “thinking.”

So, try to pay attention without creating any stories or interpretations for five minutes.

If you are anything like me, you’ll notice how it is ridiculously difficult! While sitting at a stoplight today I attempted a bold act of mindfulness. Looking down the road I noticed a set of thirty new recently installed streetlights. I started by saying, “Just noticing the new streetlights…” Instantly, my mind wanted to add that there were too many lights; how this would add to light pollution and how do they decide the spacing between each anyway? Amazing, given I was trying to be mindful! How knows where I’d have gone if I wasn’t attempting to stay present.

Practicing mindfulness

Practicing mindfulness

Yet, according to Dr. Farb’s study, we can practice becoming more present and that this practice pays off. Daily meditation practice allows us to engage an experiential focus and pay attention. In this mind state we drop the narrative and enjoy what is in front of us without filters. Sitting quietly, back straight and focusing on your breath, your entire job is to stay present. Since there are less stimuli than at the stoplight, you are more able to pull off the experiential focus. Noticing everything in the silence of meditating is like hitting against the backboard to get ready to eventually play a tennis match. Meditation allows us to notice, for how many breaths can we pay attention? With the baby steps of meditation, our brain becomes trained to more easily shift from narrative to experiential.

Nothing new here, but it helps to understand why it is a struggle to stay present and that practice can make perfect…sense.