The UCLA campus was deserted the day I arrived during spring break, its stillness doing little to combat the sense of dread I felt as I made my way to a large conference room. Inside were 10 people of all different ages. They were sitting quietly. I took a seat and waited for someone to speak, and when nobody did, I looked around and wondered what brought everyone here and whether I should be here instead of doing the million other things I’d rather be doing. Then I thought about those other things while scolding myself for thinking about them, because today was about the opposite of that. Today was about the present.

I was at The Mindful Awareness Research Center, founded in 2006— just a year before the present moment of which I speak—which was hosting a program called “A Day of Mindfulness” to promote mindfulness in daily life. I was the perfect candidate: I, who hummed like a Chihuahua and couldn’t stop her brain from ricocheting all over the place; I, who read while the radio was on and stopped each activity for the other every few minutes; I, who had lists of things I wanted to do and did each one of those things simultaneously.

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Airline Tests Midair Meditation to Calm Nervous Travelers

Is in-flight mindfulness the right tool to soothe the fear of flying?

image via (cc) flickr user two8five

I feel sorry for anyone stuck sitting next to me on a flight (usually my wife). I am not, in general, particularly great on airplanes. Something about the combined indignities of airport security (stand in line, take your shoes off, get a pat down, put your shoes on, stand in another line) coupled with my body’s atavistic rejection of being 30,000 feet above ground turns me into a white-knuckled wreck the moment my plane hits the slightest hint of choppy air. I know airplanes are safe. I know the anxiety is entirely in my head. But try as I might, I simply can’t relax on airplanes.

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When Mindfulness Goes Wrong

Though not everyone experiences it, there is a dark side to meditation.

Image by geralt via pixabay

By now, almost everyone is familiar with the purported benefits of meditation. What was once a fringe spiritual practice in the West has, within the space of decades, transformed into a mainstay of modern culture and wellness advice. Over the past few years, science has increasingly started to back popular claims about the effects of mindfulness and contemplation. And studies now link regular attempts to focus our minds and calm our bodies via breathing exercises, chanting, or other meditative techniques to a host of benefits—everything from decreased stress and blood pressure, to increased cognitive abilities, to fundamental shifts in the way we process the world. Last January, Time even ran a cover story on America’s meditative “Mindful Revolution.”

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The Dalai Lama's To-Do List: Meditate, Listen to the BBC, Skip Dinner

The Dalai Lama, His Holiness has a pretty idyllic to-do list for his days.

Ever wonder what a typical day for the Dalai Lama, His Holiness, looks like? Though the Tibetan spiritual leader is quite busy traveling around the world on peace missions, lecturing, and doing interviews, when at home in Dharamsala, His Holiness has a pretty idyllic to-do list. His schedule consists of eating a vegetarian meal; catching up on the news, studying Buddhist texts, and making time for prayer, exercise, and meditation. It should also be noted that the Dalai Lama is a very early riser, and goes to sleep before most of us have even had dinner (which he skips).

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How Meditation Eased My Case of Internet Brain

I think you know what I mean by “internet brain.” After spending an hour or so online—scanning your social networks, jumping from one diverting...

I think you know what I mean by “internet brain.” After spending an hour or so online—scanning your social networks, jumping from one diverting link to another, and sampling little snippets of text and imagery for as long as they hold your increasingly attenuated attention—you feel completely scattered. Any task that requires the sustained and focused application of your brain has become impossible.
The internet makes it very easy to get trapped in a pattern of desultory distraction. In fact, apps and websites are usually engineered to be optimally “engaging” (read: distracting). Some commentators have speculated that the internet exploits the information-gathering impulses we inherited from our savannah-dwelling ancestors. Regardless, the result is often lost time and low productivity.
In the past, I’ve had to be plugged into the internet for work—monitoring Twitter, checking facts on Google, and keeping up with dozens of RSS feeds. When being online is central to your job, a “digital detox” isn’t the answer. It would be impossible without going on vacation entirely. I needed to get work done despite my proximity to the internet. I needed the strength to navigate the Scilla and Charybdis of social media and my RSS reader without a productivity shipwreck.
I started meditating out of curiosity. I had read an excellent book called The Ego Tunnel, in which the hot new philosopher Thomas Metzinger (yes, there exist hot new philosophers) explained how meditation changed the neural activity in monks. I was interested, so I started meditating using email instructions from a friend. I liked it, and started going to a center in L.A. where people practiced zen meditation. Now I do Vipassana meditation on my own using a guide called Mindfulness in Plain English (which still tends to be very aphoristic). You can get it online for free.
Most schools of meditation share one basic foundational activity: You try to focus your attention on the process of breathing to the exlusion of everything else. This may sound easy, but in practice, it’s extremely difficult. You fail constantly. As soon as you begin to meditate, you’re hit with a maelstrom of thoughts and sensations, ranging from the trivial to the deeply important. You’re supposed to acknowledge these thoughts and feelings without judgment when they crop up, as they inevitably do, but then return your attention to your breath.
While meditating, I can sometimes go for several minutes without getting distracted from my breath. These are periods of profound calm. But the practice of meditation is mostly acknowledging that you have been distracted yet again, and trying to focus on your breath. And I found that this process actually built my capacity to recognize when I am being distracted and respond appropriately.
Furthermore, it wasn’t until I tried to quiet and clear my mind in this way that I became truly aware of how loud and cluttered it sometimes gets. I find that when I meditate, this cacophony often calms down. Fleeting thoughts, distractions, and impulses pass. Once the dust from all the frantic thinking has settled, I’m left not only with a renewed capacity to resist distraction, but also with a clearer sense of my priorities.
When meditating regularly, my work life is much easier. I can take a break in the middle of a larger project to look up a critical piece of information or check for an important email and then catch myself immediately if I start to get sidetracked. I found that I can work consistently and productively for longer periods of time—and this means that I have more free time as well.
Wired recently published a piece describing the new enthusiasm for meditation as a productivity booster among Silicon Valley tech professionals. I’m not surprised. As more of us work in roles that require being online and connected for the entire day, and often into the evenings as well, the costs of digital distraction, and effective ways of combating it, will become more apparent and important. In the case of the tech companies, of course, there’s a little irony in the fact that the more productive their employees are, the more quickly they’ll crank out new distracting technologies.
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