Wednesday, July 22, 2015

A simple meditation for sleep

I know people have various troubles with going to sleep. I've rarely had problems, thanks in part to learning to sleep standing up in boot camp! But sometimes busy-ness or stress does lead to some problems with laying down and going to sleep.

I mentioned that the breath counting meditation isn't ideal for sleeping, since you want to maintain a big focus on the counting.

I'll toss you a simple example of a good going to sleep exercise. Remember that the thing to do with distracting thoughts is just acknowledge that they passed through and let them go.

Posture isn't really important for this one. There's possible variations, but just lay down however you usually fall asleep.

Close your eyes and build a picture in your head of your body as a city full of lights. Skyscrapers and houses and whatever. every light on. This gets easier, as most things do, with practice.

Once you have the image, begin by focusing on one foot and start turning off the lights and putting that part of the body to bed. As you turn off the lights, think of that part of the body being relaxed and heavy. You can switch to the other foot or move up one leg, whatever works. If you can just run with this, anything works. If you want more guidance on how to travel up the body:

 I generally keep things balanced, so I'll switch from my left foot to my right foot, then move up to left ankle, right ankle, and so on, moving up the shins, calves, knees, inner and outer thighs, to the hips. Once you hit the core of the body it's time to expand a bit and turn off larger sections as you can, travelling up the chest. At the shoulders switch to the fingers, palms, wrists, and so on. Once you work your way back to the shoulders, move inwards to the neck and start turning off the lights in the muscles around your neck, jaw, and head. Next is the brain, you can work this with whatever internal vision you have of portions of the brain, and just turn them off.

It's pretty common to start spacing out during this and just fall asleep. That's the goal! There's no need to feel any sort of desire or accomplishment in getting through the whole body.With a bit of practice, you might not ever make it past your knees!

If, somehow, you've made it through the whole body like this, work it again, with a bit more focus on the feeling of heaviness and sleep as you move up.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Thoughts on the 2 Minute Retreat Meditation

I've talked a bit about meditation, here and in the first book.

One of the quickest and simplest ways to meditate is to sit comfortably (you can do this standing), close your eyes, and count 20 long slow breaths.

There’s really no “wrong” way to do this. If you can maintain enough focus to breathe slowly for 20 breaths, you are doing fine.


Finding time for this and remembering to do it can be difficult, so here's a few tricks:

Right after a shower, before you get out of the shower, stand and do this. For some people, getting out of the shower is a very rushed part of the day, with a feeling of time stress. Since this meditation generally is a bit under 2 minutes (100 seconds if you breathe at 5 seconds per breath, for example), it's not going to eat your day and can help with the rushed feelings.

If your local weather is such, summer or winter, that worming up or cooling down your car is important, this is another good time to practice.


This is not the ideal meditation exercise for trying to fall asleep. I will get into going to sleep meditations in other blogs posts and the next book (as I write this I'm working on a meditation exercise dedicated mini manual)


There are times when you are going to have a huge flood of thoughts coming in while doing this exercise. Let the thoughts go and don't worry about it. While the goal is to have fewer or less distraction from thoughts, realize that just the initial bit of relaxation and mental quietness can allow a logjam of other thoughts to dissolve and run free. As you quiet your automatic self talk, thoughts that you push back or that you are usually distracted from have a chance to be heard. And they "want" to be heard.

So relax and let it flow, maintaining the focus on the breath counts. There's nothing wrong with you!


How to breathe. There's really no need to focus on how you breathe during this exercise. If you want to use a specific exercise, something called Ham Sa breathing is my favorite suggestion.

There are variations on this, and whole mantras and translations. Basically, ham (hawm) is the sound of breathing in, and sa (saaahhhhhh) is the sound of breathing out. The point isn't the sound, though, it's the pushing and allowing. Or, allowing (the inward breath) and pushing (the exhalation). A lot of breathing disorders, including asthma, are due in part to a difficulty in exhalation. With that difficulty there's a lower level of exhalation, which essentially leaves stale air in the lungs.

The hamsa breath, with a focus on allowing inhalation through the nose (if possible, not a big deal if you are stuffed up) and pushing the exhalation out through a half-open mouth, helps to expel stale air and more completely use your lungs.

Generally you want to use your diaphragm and abdominals for the breathing, but you either know about this or don't need to worry about it at first. I'll cover it later, first thing is to get the habit of doing the meditation exercises.

And that's what you need to know. The sounds aren't super important, but they help to remind you to do the breathing (inside or outside of a meditation exercise). There are suggestions for postures of sitting, keeping your tongue on the roof of your mouth, switching nostrils... none of that is really important here, your body will actually figure out the most effective and comfortable way to do it.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Environmental stimulators

Many incorrect actions, bad responses to situations, and failures to maintain resolved improvements in your life (feeling or acting better) have a factor in common. This factor is environmental stimulators.

An environmental stimulator is a scene, a situation, even just a room or a photograph, that stimulates a response from you that is inappropriate to your goals.

Your computer, or phone, when you check it every morning instead of doing your 2 minute meditation? That object and its immediate presence is an environmental stimulator. It’s also a habit, but in this case reactivating habit instead of doing your meditation is stimulated by that piece of your environment. Do you find yourself adopting a certain mindset or feeling dread when entering the office? Or, due to negative past experiences, when entering any private office not your own? Or, as with many of us, a dental office?

Do you have things in your house that distract you by reminding you of failed dreams and goals- things you wanted to do or think you could have done differently, or don’t have time to finish?

These, and other things, are all environmental stimulators. Some can be positive. I can walk into a dojo and all my outside worries and cares disappear instantly. I've trained myself over time that the dojo is the dojo. If you find a good meditative space, it can become an environmental cue to improve meditation.

Manage your environment. You cannot fix your home life with your partner simply by moving a photo and some chairs around. But you can use some more involved changes to the environment to not push old buttons. And make agreements that no fighting or negative talk happens in a given space. YOu can change environmental factors in your workspace to some extent. You can remove habitual action stimulators for periods of time. An example of this would be not placing your phone by your bedside, or even your kitchen, in the morning. Remove the object that leads to a habitual reaction, and it is easier to manage the habit.

More is available in Volume Three: Simplicity at Amazon.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Clutter and Simplification

I'm releasing the third mini manual in the Coffee Shop Personal Development series.

This is the Simplification book.

Simplification was actually pretty tough for me to write about. It's easier for me to take the general "feel better and forgive yourself" non specific stuff and provide set exercises and actions you can use to do it than it is for me to give really clear examples for simplifying and cleaning up your life.

Here's the short chapter 3 (the long part is repeating the exercise)

I mentioned that checking email 30 times a day was a form of clutter. A distraction that prevents your attention and focus. Scrolling through the open tabs in your browser is similar. And social media inputs, messaging, and phone calls.

These are distractions and clutter, but they are also life structures. As are errands, background distractors like having CNN or PBS radio in the background.

Checking email may be a habit of distraction, but there’s a structure to having that always available. There’s a structure to having notification for incoming messages on. It seems like social media is designed so that you almost have to structure your life around multiple daily, even multiple hourly, distractions to keep up.

Interruptions- from family, friends, or coworkers are probably a life structure. Spending time is with others is a positive life structure, but allowing interruptions that aren’t necessary is a life structure that sucks your time.

So here we will start with the first exercise. Find a life structure that sucks your time and attention, and change it. Start with something simple, like turning off your phone ringer AND vibrate when doing a task. Or eliminating email notifications. If you work at home and have kids (I do, so I know this one well), define times where you aren’t available for interruptions.

As with most of my exercises, I’m looking for simple and effective. Pick one to start with. Write it down in the notebook. You can, if you want, note how many times you do check social media each day first, and then set it so there’s no notifications and you check twice a day. You can record the differences that way. But trust that the differences will be pretty extreme as you take the idea of restructuring forward.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Thoughts on clutter

In the novel Dune, there's a Litany, a sort of mantra, a mind exercise about fear:

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

Clutter has the ability to obliterate you, as well. Here's my version for clutter.

I must not allow clutter.
Clutter is the mind-killer.
Clutter is the source of distractions that bring total obliteration.
I will eliminate my clutter.
I will permit it to leave me.
And when it has been eliminated I will turn to see its absence.
Where the clutter has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

Clutter. Clutter has effects that are exactly that severe. Negative effects on health, attention, and stress.

Clutter leads to increased allergens, molds, dust, and unwanted inhabitants (from germs to rodents). 

Clutter is associated (I'll explore this more later) with overweight.

Clutter is distracting. (clutter can be auditory and involve things like background TV or radio as well.) The lack of focus saps you ability to think, remember, and accomplish goals.

Clutter is stressful. Several studies show the results of stress hormones increasing when dealing with clutter.

Clutter can be caused by a lack of control in your life, holding on to anything you can. Which is self reinforcing as the clutter progressively removes your control and ability to have other things.

Clutter can also be time based. The difference between a car that you take for scheduled maintenance 3 or 4 times a year and a car that sucks your time with emergencies every 2 weeks? That's time clutter. It's distracting and stressful.

Removing clutter can be difficult. There is actual pain involved in admitting to mistakes in acquiring things, or in getting rid of objects one owns. The anterior cingulate cortex and insula, two brain regions involved in pain, activate when you give up things you have an attachment to.

Since clutter can be confusing and overwhelming, it can be difficult to find a place to start.  Some of the big solutions include garage sales, storage units (until you can accept being rid of objects) , the dedicated room or garage/shed for the clutter, and finding one space to declutter and expanding on it.

My next project involves clutter, elimination, and simplicity. 

Sunday, July 12, 2015

What is this self development?

I've used, interchangeably, all the terms for this: self-help, self-improvement, the more professional sounding personal development.

It’s not self-improvement in the sense that anything about you is broken. Sometimes it might seem or feel like there’s something broken, or not right. But whatever those things are, they aren’t you. They are behaviors, expressions, identities you have, habits, or unresolved problems.

The key, the real key, is that everything you want to be, or do, is inside you. Peace, happiness, challenges and successes are all here - right now- inside yourself.

All you really have to do is set yourself free.

In which case, why even read this? Right?

Because you may not remember how to set yourself free. Or you may not know how to find what's inside you. If we consider this from the point of view of an eternal soul, it may be that you just need to remember. Not learn, nor discover. Or we could be on the "spiritual development" path and the need is to learn and discover. Or something else. What you do about it looks that same in any case.

Do exercises, and keep doing them.

Some parts might seem easy, some part might seem hard. You have probably been programmed, as with so many of us, to think that difficulty equates to importance. This isn't necessarily so, but that's okay. No need to conquer that first.

But if something does seem easy and success comes quickly, you might be tempted to assign it little importance. That programming we have, that it must be hard to be worth anything, strikes again.

Don't fall for it. Celebrate the easy successes as much as the difficult ones.

I do a lot of my writing in a coffee shop. Quite a few people who get into self-help reading groups or spiritual cooperative counseling use a coffee shop. In fact, in many personal development groups, the "coffee shop meetings" are where most of the real work gets done.

The coffee shop is a pretty free and stable space. It's also fast and a bit casual. We can lose our entire life be being too formal or regimented- especially with personal development. I'd rather do something casual and imperfect (but useful) than spend another 7 years preparing for the formalized academic adventure.

And so we have the Coffee Shop series on personal development. A bit more practical, a bit faster, and a bit less formal. 

Thursday, July 9, 2015


Should is a four letter word. Even if it has six letters. “I should” and “I should have” are killers. Remove the word “should” from your vocabulary. “Should” is a big generator of guilt and regret.  The less guilt you generate, the less you have to get rid of.

Another big generator of guilt and regret is the phrase “if only.” Remove that one from your self talk as well.

Whenever you find yourself saying, or about to say (to yourself or another), “I should” or “If only”, pause and reframe that. “I can,” “I may choose to,” “I want to.” are all good reframings for should.