Expat Backup Mindfulness Journey Week 3 Meditation Breathing Space (www.expatbackup.com)Welcome! This is the third of eight posts that follow the 8-week mindfulness course outlined in Professor Mark Williams and Dr. Danny Penman’s book, “Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World,” so if you’re new to this and want to join the journey, start with the post for Week 1 here. To sign up to receive all 8 weeks of the course by email, click here.

When we start any new thing, we encounter resistance, a kind of habit gravity that makes it hard to create new patterns and embed new ways of doing things into our daily lives. The way we like to do things develops an energy and momentum that can be hard to shift, and we literally have well-grooved neural pathways in our brain around habits that take conscious effort to move out of.

As we enter Week 3, it can seem especially challenging to make the time these practices ask from us. Our minds can feel especially resistant, monkeying around and focusing on anything but mindfulness and the task at hand.

It might not seem like it, but this is a sign that our diligence is working. As we move, as gracefully as possible, through the barriers on our path, we consciously declare that mindfulness and our own well-being are important. This choice for ourselves, which we make again and again, is what starts to yield the powerful benefits of mindfulness.

Making Time for Yourself

The hardest thing about this practice for me this week was making the 30 minutes required to practice each day. I’m working on two start-ups and my ICT4D business, and my schedule has been particularly grueling. At the same time, I’ve started to notice the concrete benefits that this practice has begun to deliver.

I’m more able to see my feelings as useful guides and resist reacting when something doesn’t go my way. I choose my words and my actions more carefully, measuring whether they best suit my intention. I am more deliberate about the patterns I see in my life and more aware of how over-serious I can become and how much more I need to lighten up and play.

I’m coming at this practice from a deep need to cultivate mindfulness and experience its benefits in my life. I know that this practice is the best way to give myself the support I require at this time. Quite simply, I need this. And that’s why I’m here. It’s my choice.

I suggest waking up 15 minutes earlier to practice in the morning and doing the evening practice as soon as you get home at night. There’s another short 3-minute meditation to add in twice daily as well, and I’ve found that I can do this shorter one whenever it’s appropriate to put on headphones — sitting at my laptop, in a taxi, in line, or wherever. Doing the practices this week is going to take prioritizing and planning, so I’m saying this upfront: make time for yourself. This is important.

Stay with Us and Don’t Give Up

You might not be able to practice the full number of activities suggested every day. That’s all right. You could, I suppose, space out each week into two-week periods. I admit it’s something I’ve considered doing as well. But I trust the authors as our guides and they know what they’re doing. If they say eight weeks, then I think we can try to keep to their schedule.

At the same time, if you need to repeat a week because you haven’t been able to practice in six days out of seven, take an extra week to cement the practice. But let’s not be perfectionist about this. It’s better to keep going and continue on the journey, even if you don’t manage to complete the practice as fully as you would like.

As we continue, we lay down a foundation for mindfulness that we will keep exploring and supporting in our community. This is just the beginning.

Too Often, We Try Too Hard

My guess is, as an expat aid worker, you likely have a bit of an over-achiever streak. Those of us bold enough to think that we can impact the world usually know how to take on a challenge and get things done. But this doing is often directly at odds with being, and the practice of enjoying the moment just as it is, exactly where we are.

Studies show that when we try to push at a problem and force a solution, our mind actually shuts down to looking at the situation in new ways and loses the ability to see creative solutions. When we stay open and playful, we’re more likely to be flexible and adaptive. Alternatively, when we’re avoidance-oriented, fearful and in a stress response, our brain is literally much less likely to consider the breadth of options available to us in the present moment.

Mindfulness cultivates this difference in attitude. As Penman and Williams assert, “The spirit in which you do something is often as important as the act itself.” This means that coming at a stressful problem at work with more stress will not solve it. Rather, what is needed is a different approach. Instead of feeling trapped and forcing a solution, we relax, reorient and find a better way.

But how?

The Power of Awareness and the Alchemy of Empathy

As you might have begun to notice over the last two weeks, awakening has a powerful effect on mindfulness. Simply by becoming aware of a thought pattern or a constellation of emotions, and by holding that awareness without engaging, it seems to lose its power. This shift from doing into being mode is a foundation of the practice of mindfulness.

By practicing it over and over again in our meditations and weekly actions, we literally reroute our neural pathways from stressed-out reactivity to present and confident openness to what is seeking to emerge.

In our culture, awareness can often be accompanied by self-judgment. Maybe as we become aware that our mind has wandered for the twentieth time, we think, “I am no good at this mindfulness business, and besides, it is nonsense. I should quit.” Then, as soon as we’re aware of the self-judgment, it becomes tempting to judge the self-judgment. And so on, until infinity – unless and until we decide to stop.

At that exact moment, we have an opportunity to turn with empathy and compassion towards ourselves and redirect the energy of self-judgment to self-love. We may have a flash of admiration for the courage it takes to sit still amidst the turmoil of our environment. We might see, for a moment, how hard we are trying to “get this right.” Self-compassion takes the fuel out of our negative self-talk and allows us to create space around the practice. It also gives us permission when we see a negative pattern, instead of over-analyzing and trying to “understand” it, to gently but firmly let it go and step away.

Mindfulness Practice Week 3: Giving Yourself Breathing Space

I’m just skimming the surface of what Penman and Williams explore in “Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World,” so I highly recommend reading chapter seven in the book before you begin this week’s practice.

This week we take on three meditations. The first two are best done back-to-back and take 15 minutes total, twice a day. The second one is a 3-minute practice that is a phenomenally useful procedure for creating more breathing space throughout your day. It can be done anywhere and is best practiced when you feel tension building, but before an emergency.

Here is our list of practices for the week:

Habit-releaser: This week’s habit involves being mindful about watching television — including videos and movies on your laptop. Rather than spending hours watching for the sake of watching, choose in advance what you’d like to enjoy and be purposeful about your media consumption.

Longer meditation: The two meditations take up a total of 15 minutes, twice a day.

  • The first is “Mindful Movement,” which you can download here. For this, you will be standing and doing gentle stretches, so you’ll want to be someplace private.
  • The second is “Breath and Body,” a seated meditation that is pleasant to complete after the first one. Download it here.

Shorter meditation: This meditation is to be done whenever you feel you need it, at least twice a day. I found it to be a powerful ally in keeping things feeling manageable and my stress levels down. You can download it here.

The full list of audio meditations from “Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World” is here.

I am so glad to be on this journey with you. Please do reach out by email (elie@expatbackup.com) to let me know how you’re doing.

If you’re not yet receiving Expat Backup to your Inbox, subscribe here. And see you next week.

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