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Emotional StrengthMental Strength

Part 2: The Eye of the Hurricane

By December 11, 2020December 21st, 2020No Comments

“All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” - Blaise Pascal

One of the most destructive forces that Mother Nature has at her disposal is a hurricane.  In this tropical cyclone, wind and rain swirl, battering and leveling everything in their path. They send roofs flying, trees toppling, and leave towns leveled in their wake. The resulting damage is often catastrophic. Yet, among all of this chaos, at the very center of the hurricane, lies what scientists refer to as the eye of the storm. In the eye, stillness and quiet reign. With the world seemingly falling apart around it and debris swirling in a dangerous vortex, the center remains still and peaceful.

The still center space mentioned above not only lies at the center of hurricanes, but it also exists deep within us all.  As George Mumford, the mental mastermind of the L.A. Lakers and Chicago Bulls championship teams wrote, “The more deeply connected we are to the vastness of our own still, quiet center, the less thrown off balance we are by whatever distractions and challenges come our way. This is equanimity – a “sweet steadiness” in the face of swirling mental, emotional, and environmental debris. No matter how intense the internal storm, the calm center is always there — a place where we can simply watch and see what’s happening instead of being controlled by it. 

Mindfulness practice provides us with the tools needed to stretch, grow and access the eye of the storm more easily. This deep practice allows additional room for us to absorb and respond to stressors instead of habitually reacting to them. This is what Viktor Frankl meant when he said, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness.” Ultimately, this can lead to more happiness, less stress, and increased performance – whether that performance is on a court, executing a mission, or having a conversation with your partner.

Mindfulness and meditation are words that sometimes come with a stigma — think hippies in baggy linen clothes saying “namaste.” Yet, mindfulness is not magical or mystical. It is a flat-out performance enhancer for everyone, so let’s take some time to lay out what mindfulness means and how it works. A good definition of mindfulness is “paying attention here and now, with kindness and curiosity, so that we can choose our behavior.”  It is switching into a mental mode that is focused on whatever is happening in the present moment, not distracted by a mistake in the past, daydreaming about how a difficult conversation might go, or worrying about what the future holds.

Mindfulness is characterized by the poise that comes from seeing thoughts, emotions, and sensations as passing by while we are stable and still. When we can simply watch these things come and go rather than pushing them away, holding on to them, or overidentifying with them, we have more opportunity to take in the fullness of the present moment. Practicing this awareness and acceptance of “what is” provides freedom from the automatic reactions that often guide our actions. Again — that space between stimulus and response.

In sports, another way to think about mindfulness is “playing where your feet are” — lining up your mind and body in the present moment.  This alignment of both body and mind in the present is the prerequisite to getting into the “zone” and achieving flow. The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described flow as “being completely involved in activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” The Beastie Boys and a slightly more poetical take on this, “Let it flow, let yourself go / Slow and low, that is the tempo.” Mindfulness can be our ticket into the zone.

In the United States, it wasn’t until the 1970’s that society began to recognize the importance of exercise and physical fitness. Before then, fitness junkies would have been regarded as strange.  Likewise, mental training like mindfulness meditation can have similar health benefits – society just hasn’t caught up quite yet. Thus, it is helpful to think about mindfulness practice as strength training for the mind.

If you think about this practice as a sort of mental weight room, meditation is like going to the gym for a workout.  It is the practice in action. There are many forms of meditation, just as there are many varieties of gyms and workouts.  Mindfulness meditation is one of the most common forms of meditation in the United States.  In the mind gym analogy, we might say that mindfulness meditation is like doing pull-ups for the mind – the specific workout done at the mind gym. Finally, mindfulness is the muscle that gets stronger from training in the mindful meditation gym. It is taking the awareness, present-focus, and equanimity developed from meditating and using it in the real-world. Mindfulness is finding the sacred in the mundane.  My dad has a saying that sums up mindfulness as a mindstate to be developed and cultivated, “Mother Nature has a way of showing her beauty to you every day…if you are present to see it.”

The mind can also be compared to a car. We take our car to the mechanic for maintenance. Meditation is the mechanic of our mind. We feed our vehicles proper fuel and we fuel our bodies with healthy food and solid nutrition. If we feed our mind the food of meditation, we cultivate health and wellness. We want our vehicles running well over 100k miles, how about ourselves?

These articles will focus on mindfulness meditation, the basic instructions for which are as follows:

  1. Sit and breathe. 
  2. Focus your attention on your breathing.
  3. If you’re human (and not a robot) your mind will wander — don’t worry, this is natural. Mind-wandering is an essential part of the meditation cycle.  It’s a rep – a mental pull-up in the mind gym; it strengthens your mindfulness muscle.  
  4. Notice that the mind has wandered and be cool – no big deal.
  5. Try to relax your body and return your attention to your breath – that’s one rep!
  6. Repeat as many times as needed. 

Because of our innate perfectionism and emphasis on doing things right, many people will get down on themselves when they notice the mind wandering. It is important here to be kind to yourself – it literally happens to everyone. The science of mindfulness is easy; pay attention to the moment, notice when you aren’t in the present, return to the present.  But the true art of mindfulness is in the essence of the attitude you bring.  Open, curious, and non-judgmental.  

Last week, the practice was a one-minute meditation, five days out of seven. This week, we have a slightly longer awareness of breathing meditation. Aim to practice with this meditation six days this week.  These practices are likely to be difficult and uncomfortable for some of you. It takes courage to take this first step and to continue showing up. Know that you are not alone in this difficulty and that choosing deliberate discomfort in this way will help you be more aware of your thoughts and more in control of your responses.

Reference List

Hallowell, N. (n.d.). Note From Ned. Dr. Hallowell. https://drhallowell.com/category/note-from-ned/page/12/

Purser, R., & Loy, D. (2013). Beyond mcmindfulness. Huffington post, 1(7), 13.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2009). Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. Hachette Books.

Pema Chodron (2000). “When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times”, p.1, Shambhala Publications

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2009). Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. Hachette Books.

Williams, M., & Penman, D. (2011). Mindfulness: An eight-week plan for finding peace in a frantic world. Rodale.

Stulberg, B. (2020, February 5). The Truth About Routines. Outside. https://www.outsideonline.com/2408732/truth-about-routines

MichaelGerson