The Mindfulness Code: Keys for Overcoming Stress, Anxiety, Fear, and Unhappinessby Donald Altman
The price we pay for today's fast-paced, always-connected life is often stress, anxiety, and depression. While drawing on ancient wisdom, Donald Altman embraces twenty-first-century brain science to create practical, everyday strategies for experiencing a less-encumbered, less-entangled state of being. These techniques reactivate natural abilities you already
The price we pay for today's fast-paced, always-connected life is often stress, anxiety, and depression. While drawing on ancient wisdom, Donald Altman embraces twenty-first-century brain science to create practical, everyday strategies for experiencing a less-encumbered, less-entangled state of being. These techniques reactivate natural abilities you already possess.
The four keys for unlocking mindfulness are the body, the mind, the spirit, and relationships. Altman presents practices for turning each key toward contentment, confidence, and joy, including shifting our mental and emotional perceptions, inhabiting the body and its "sense-abilities", exploring spiritual connection, and tapping into the healing powers of community and relationship. Inviting and accessible to those new to mindfulness but comprehensive enough for more experienced practitioners, these powerful tools will help you transform your life from the inside out.
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The Mindfulness Code
Keys for Overcoming Stress, Anxiety, Fear, and Unhappiness
By Donald Altman
New World LibraryCopyright © 2010 Donald Altman
All rights reserved.
Accept This Moment
The trouble with ordinary reality is that a lot of it is dull, so we long ago decided to leave for somewhere better.
— CHARLES TART
Do you remember the last time that you did not want to be where you were? How often have you rejected this moment with the idea that being elsewhere was far better and more fulfilling? Maybe you did not want to sit in another tiresome meeting, so your mind wandered to your weekend plans. Maybe you were relaxing by the beach on a long-needed vacation, and you suddenly thought that the view would be better from the deck of the hotel. So, you packed up your sunscreen, towels, and sunglasses, only to decide that the deck was too noisy or cold, and so you moved yet again. Or maybe you were at a party talking with someone and wished you were somewhere else with someone else. Maybe it's happening right now as you read this sentence — I won't take it personally, because I've been there myself.
* * *
On a spring day, when the sun finally breaks through the clouds, I long to go outside for a short mindfulness walk after seeing clients all morning. I sense I need to do this because I am not feeling centered and am struggling to calm my mind and stay present. My chance comes when a client calls to cancel an afternoon appointment. It is a downhill walk and only a few blocks from my office to the tall, spindly cottonwoods that line the banks of the Willamette River. The dark blue-green water is high and running fast, scattering wisps of whitecaps from one river edge to the other. A nearby green field looks like the perfect place to walk mindfully. And so I begin.
I take a couple of deep breaths, then set the intention to take my first step. I move my right leg up and forward, but before my heel touches down, my mind is already filled up, thinking of a previous interaction with a client that morning. Again, I set another intention to take a step with my left leg. Barely has it lifted when I notice that the air is cold. This is uncomfortable, I think and add, I should have brought a light jacket.
And so it goes. For the first five minutes, my unsettled mind keeps interrupting. I set an intention for each step, trying to block my active mind. Lift the foot, move it forward, set it down, shift the weight, I instruct my body. But it's not working. Every little sound or sight grabs my senses. My head fills with conversations that have not yet occurred and of things not yet done.
At one moment, I hear a fleeting thought. So sly and fleeting is it, in fact, that there was a time I wouldn't have even caught it; I would have just mindlessly followed its command like a subject in a deep hypnotic trance. Go back to the office and meditate there, it whispers seductively. That will be better, and you'll be less distracted.
My body stops in its tracks and almost follows the command, when suddenly the words crystallize into my awareness. Motionless, I stand on the grassy field and start to laugh and laugh. Oh, so this walking meditation is not good enough, I muse inwardly. I guess I need to reject it for something better, warmer, more comfortable, and less distracting!
At that instant there is a knowing that this is the suchness of my life. Suchness is touching the truth of things — that this is it. This is all there is. This is the only moment I have, for there is no other. This suchness snaps me awake like a jolt of electricity that surges and suddenly illuminates that which, only moments before, was veiled in darkness.
I start to walk again, this time with full presence and total acceptance of what is here before me: each unique blade of grass, the cool breeze brushing gently against my cheeks, the burst of laughter from children at a nearby park rising and falling on my ears like a musical jingle. I notice how each step I take on the uneven ground pulls me in a different direction. I am touched by the truth of how each of us walks our own uneven path. The inner recognition that I am walking my authentic path — regardless of its pain and struggle — somehow comforts me and lets me come to rest with the uncertainty of this journey. There is a sense that my path is enough. It doesn't need to be more or less. It doesn't need to be anywhere else.
For the next twenty minutes of mindful walking, time and space melt away. It is just me, the grass, the wind, the cottonwoods, and the river. It is peace. When I return to my office, I am ready to listen. I am ready to accept being here and nowhere else. This acceptance, however, is not resignation. Acceptance in this context does not mean giving up or resigning to a sadness, a depression, an addiction, a dead-end job, or whatever the present-moment condition may be. Rather, it is a liberating acceptance, which allows you to witness the truth and beauty of this moment — whatever label (good, bad, pleasant, unpleasant) one puts on it. So, the next time you reject the moment, consider what it is you are running from and why you are running. Perhaps it is not that reality is deadening, uninviting, stupid, unfair, or dull, but that the mind needs sharpening. An open awareness of the moment is the razor's edge you possess and can begin to use right now. This awareness takes time to cultivate, so don't give up. You can begin with the following easy practice.
* * *
The next time you feel impatient or ill at ease, pause right where you are and don't be so quick to run off to something else. Instead, simply notice whatever feelings (perhaps frustration, impatience, boredom) or thoughts precede your rejection or denial of a situation. You might ask yourself, "What is this that I'm experiencing?" See if you can accept each moment for what it is. This means not that you have to avoid judging, which is almost impossible, but that you notice your judging. To do this, even for a moment, is to sharpen your awareness and nurture a willingness to accept what is present in your life. How wondrous!CHAPTER 2
Wake Up from Dreams of Fantasy
Delusions are inexhaustible: I vow to transcend them.
— BODHISATTVA VOW
MCDONALD'S WILL NEVER SERVE as many burgers each day as there are fantasies being served on a planet with more than 6 billion people. The object of any single fantasy typically stirs up feelings, cravings, desires, and delusions that push and pull at us. Fantasies essentially distract us and steal away precious time that could be spent in the actual here and now. To believe that grasping for a fantasy will help you escape pain is yet another fantasy.
The Sanskrit word bodhisattva can be translated as "awakening being"; it refers to one who fearlessly vows to seek enlightenment to reduce suffering in the world. You don't need to be a bodhisattva to want to awaken from the many causes of suffering, such as delusion, ignorance, fantasy, selfishness, greed, envy, jealousy, and hatred. However, waking up is difficult when there are so many fantasies to which we can easily retreat. Escapism takes many forms, and fantasy can be a dangerous, even life-threatening, form of denial. Just knowing this is a good place to start.
* * *
Today I am facilitating a group of nine patients with eating disorders at a clinic of Providence St. Vincent Hospital in Portland, Oregon. They are adolescent girls and young women diagnosed with anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, conditions so dangerous that the National Institute of Mental Health reports anorexics have a mortality rate "12 times higher than the annual death rate due to all causes of death among females ages 15–24 in the general population." After only a few minutes, it is clear my group is distracted and struggling. When I ask what's going on, they report feeling miserable because they are "stuck in eating-disorder thoughts." So I suggest that we do something different: have an entirely new experience of the room we are in. Many protest that they already know the room inside out (or at least, they think they do). After a short discussion, they finally agree to give this a chance and to approach the experience with an open and curious mind. What they don't know is that they are about to try a mindfulness exercise that's designed to anchor them in the present moment.
We start by taking a few calm breaths together. Then, for the next fifteen minutes, I guide them around the room. My instructions include having them pay extremely close attention to every little detail — such as the hairline cracks on the floor, the shapes of chair and table legs, and little variations of color on walls, doors, and notebooks. I ask them to notice each movement of their feet and arms as they walk. They listen to the moment-by-moment sounds occurring inside and outside the room, as well as the sounds of their own breathing, movements, and footsteps. At one point, I have them shut their eyes as they hand a familiar object (such as a key, a pen, a notebook, or a purse) to another person, who will sense its weight, its coolness or warmth, and its hardness or softness. The room is steeped in quiet as they move about in this deliberately stealthy and purposeful manner.
When I finally ask them to return to their seats, the first thing that surprises them is how much time has passed. After we've settled in, I ask them a deceptively simple question, Where were your eating-disorder thoughts during the past fifteen minutes? Silence and an expression of shock and amazement on many of the girls' faces answer me. Not one person fiddles with a notebook or doodles on a piece of paper — a common occurrence. Their sense of awareness and presence is so strong that it seems to me as if the entire group has awakened from a trance.
After a few moments, one young girl raises her hand with an epiphany of sorts. "For the first time, I feel like my eating-disorder thoughts are a dream world or a fantasy. I feel like for a while I left that world for the real one," she says. Another girl raises her hand and comments, "I suddenly realize that I've been living in the dream world of my eating disorder and that I don't like when it gets interrupted." Others echo a similar story of irritation and unease when the fantasy is interrupted. For a brief moment, this represents a victory for these girls — many of whom live in a world where distorted thoughts and emotions regarding their body image and rigid beliefs about food and eating steal away the precious hours and days of their lives. Anorexic and bulimic fantasies are difficult to pierce, but today's group exercise brings the hope that anyone can break free of debilitating automatic behaviors, thoughts, and addictions, if only for a few moments. Today, these girls have directly experienced that possibility.
Although it is true that fantasy can sometimes serve a creative and helpful purpose, fantasy can also be an escape that blocks us from being present and living fully. What daily or weekly fantasies inhabit your mental space? How do you respond when your fantasies are interrupted? Trying to catch your mind in fantasy mode might make you angry or upset. Maybe the sheer number and type of delusions that your mind is capable of creating fascinates you. Awakening to our fantasies takes time, so be patient with the following mindfulness strategy for piercing the bubble of fantasy and participating in the present moment.
* * *
Take one day to track your fantasies by counting them and noting their content. When you notice a fantasy, you can return to the present moment by turning your mind's attention toward your surroundings, its colors, shapes, sounds, smells, and sensations. If driving, for example, you can feel your hands on the steering wheel, notice the weather, and listen to the sound of the tires on the pavement. If you find that you get upset, judgmental, or self-blaming because of your fantasies, remind yourself that a fantasy, or any thought, is not necessarily a fact. (Just because you think you're a pink elephant doesn't make it true — at least let's hope not!)By paying attention in this way, you will learn more about your mind and yourself, as well as gently remind yourself to be more present.CHAPTER 3
Create Space from Your Ego-Dominated Self
Oh, I don't inhale.
— WILLIAM STAFFORD,
when asked how he dealt with adulation and celebrity
Why do human beings suffer and cause suffering in ways that other forms of life don't seem to? At times, it appears we are destined to be the most dramatic soap opera in the universe. If there were an interstellar television series called Earth: The Reality Show, it would likely command huge ratings throughout the Milky Way and beyond. But perhaps this need not be our destiny.
* * *
Whether you call it the ego (as Freud did), the pain body (as Eckhart Tolle does), or the self (as Buddhists continue to), there is a part of human awareness whose job it is to create a sense of self that is distinct and separate from others. The human brain, after all, is designed to construct an identity. Various areas of the brain are implicated in this capacity to create a solid self. The brain's left hemisphere is especially good at this, making mental road maps and cobbling together stories about our lives. It does the heavy lifting in supporting the concept of self, or I, with which we strongly identify. Harvard-trained neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor describes the direct experience of losing this individuated self because of a hemorrhage in her brain's left hemisphere in her book My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey. The experience helped her understand what happens when the left brain's divisive, me-first sense of I stops totally dominating one's reality. According to Taylor, left-brain dominance produces "extremely rigid thinking patterns that are analytically critical (extreme left brain). Creating a healthy balance between our two characters enables us the ability to remain cognitively flexible enough to welcome change (right hemisphere), and yet remain concrete enough to stay a path (left hemisphere)."
I'm not saying we don't need a separate ego-self to get our needs met and exist in the world. In the interest of full disclosure, I admit that my mother still tells me I am special, and I do appreciate her sentiment. Indeed, from a mother's point of view, she most certainly gives birth to a special self, and she gives a name to that self, who has an "I-dentity" with a capital I. Nonetheless, we can balance our I-centric awareness with a more expansive and mindful awareness, which holds the promise for greater contentment, happiness, and enthusiastic living. These different forms of awareness do not need to be exclusive of one another; they can be integrated to offer us both greater inner peace and a healthier sense of our place in the world. (See chapter 10, "Open to Your True Nature," to explore using a decentralized narrative that does not attach to the I-me-my-mine perspective.)
Now that scientists can peer into the brain with sophisticated brain-imaging devices such as a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine (fMRI), there is new information on how mindful awareness affects the brain. Even some of the Dalai Lama's monks have been rolled into giant, donut-shaped fMRIs. According to Dr. Richard Davidson, director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin, where such brain and mindfulness studies are conducted, these monks may be the most peaceful and happy persons in the entire world. They weren't born this way, though. Through their systematic practice of meditating on compassion, they have mastered a means of creating space from their reactive, ego-dominated selves. "Anyone who says meditation is relaxation doesn't know what they're talking about. It's like trying to change the course of a river," says Davidson, who himself underwent intensive meditation practice in India.
Davidson's work has helped to identify the brain circuits that stimulate feelings of happiness, contentment, and well-being. He has also shown that happiness can be learned. Research indicates that the left prefrontal cortex — the area of the brain located behind the left forehead — is highly active when one experiences positive feelings such as peacefulness, calmness, optimism, and happiness. This is not, however, the kind of self-centered hedonic happiness that brings only temporary relief from life's woes and worries. What is produced is a more enduring sense of well-being that goes beyond a short-lived positive feeling. Those who train their brains to produce positive emotions also naturally act in kind and compassionate ways. "They are poised to jump into action and do whatever they can to help relieve suffering," observes Davidson. In other words, happiness and compassion are acquired skills that stimulate compassionate behavior. Davidson's work and that of other neuroscientists is substantiating what mystics and poets have taught all along about our untapped human potential.
Excerpted from The Mindfulness Code by Donald Altman. Copyright © 2010 Donald Altman. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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Meet the Author
Donald Altman is a psychotherapist, former Buddhist monk, and adjunct professor at Lewis and Clark College Graduate School and Portland State University. He conducts mindful living and mindful eating workshops nationally. A member of the Burma Buddhist Monastery Association, he lives in Portland, Oregon.
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"The Mindfulness Code, Keys for Overcoming Stress, Anxiety, Fear and Unhappiness," by Donald Altman, 2010 New World Library, 258 pages. ISBN 978-1-57731-893-4 According to me, "This might as well be called the cure for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)." WebMD.com defines PTSD as "Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an intense emotional and psychological response to an event, either recent or in the past, that was very disturbing or stressful (traumatic). It can develop after a person has experienced or witnessed a traumatic event, such as rape, a natural disaster, or war. While not all sufferers of PTSD are active duty or veterans, this topic has been in the news recently because of the increasing prevalence of the disorder in society at large. CBS News reports today that studies estimate that up to 30 percent of the men and women who return from war struggle with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. While PTSD relief may be one application for Altman's writing, anyone suffering from stress, anxiety, fear and unhappiness will benefit from this book. The format is traditional, i.e., full of real-life examples where the names have been changed to protect patient's privacy, and complete with self-help exercises at the end of each chapter. The exercises are really the best I've seen in a while. There are four keys - mind, body, spirit and relationship. A reader/ self-help practitioner could tackle these sections in any order if they desired. However, the book is written in a format that builds strength upon strength, practice upon practice. Chapters are short, most exercises are quick, all are thought-provoking, inspirational and follow a simple pattern. This is a book that I highly recommend to anyone suffering from PTSD. While I'm not a doctor or even a licensed social worker, I do live with someone who suffers greatly from PTSD and, it's my personal opinion, that by following this book, a person could enhance their life and receive long-term benefits. You may not know but any drugs that are prescribed to PTSD patients only address the symptoms of stress, depression, anxiety, etc. and do not address the PTSD itself. There is limited pharmaceutical help and we are a society that relies on drugs to make our issues go away. PTSD is one example of an illness where sufferers are left to fend for themselves while pursuing psycho-therapy. And, let's look at reality. With more and more troops returning home from war, and with PTSD diagnosis rising, our military and veterans services are straining to keep pace with demand. The Pentagon is offering troops yoga nidra in an effort to mentally strengthen troops psyques before deployment. Upon returning home, and finding that the trauma symptoms don't disappear when the threats of war are gone, a soldier struggles to find balance and restore normalcy. Some who return are finding solace in yoga which goes to show the benefits of raising one's consciousness. This book works along those same lines and empowers anyone and everyone, from the most stable of personalities to those experiencing upheaval and chaos in life, to find equilibrium and a sense of normalcy. For other sources of stress and mental anguish, maybe all your problems won't disappear - they may still repossess your house and that divorce might really finalize - but there is an emotional balan