Minding My Focus

Photo: Seville, Spain
Photo: Seville, Spain

This year’s grind has begun.

For the first time since college, my days are filled to the brim with stuff I want to accomplish. Among my many to-dos’s are English lessons to prepare, videos to film and edit, blog posts to write, and plenty of books to read. In addition to all of that, I decided to join a gym here in Seville, adding three workouts and tracking my diet to my weekly schedule. Oh, and I want to maintain an active social life as well.

I can already hear that little voice in my head saying, “you’re biting off way more than you can chew.” That voice may have a point. But I figure it’s better to aim too high than too low. Whether I manage it all or end up burning out before the year is up, I’ll be happy knowing I pushed myself harder than any year prior.

The Problem

As I hustle to get things done, I’ve started to notice a habit that really inhibits my productivity: I’m always focusing on too many things at once.

It’s not so much that I physically do multiple things at the same time; I long ago accepted that multitasking is not something I excel at. The real problem is my mind. Whenever I’m working on a specific task, my mind is constantly fixated on the future. It’s planning out the day and then re-planning it based on imaginary scenarios. It’s worrying about the result of my current actions and all the things I’ll need to work on when I finish.

I end up focusing on everything except what I’m working on at that moment.

But here’s the worst part:  the constant worrying and mental back-and-forth causes my stress levels to skyrocket. Even when my to-do list is manageable, my neck and shoulders end up tighter than vice grips, and I barely make it half-way through the day before feeling worn out.

If the sustainability of this year’s workload is a concern for me then something needs to change.

The Solution: Mindfulness

Though my interest in things like mindfulness and meditation continues to grow, I still sometimes question their practical value when it comes to achieving material success. Sure, it’s nice to have inner peace and live in the present moment, but getting shit done just seems more valuable a lot of the time.

However, I think my current struggle with focus is a testament to the value of mindfulness and meditation when it comes to achievement. Getting absorbed by thoughts and anxieties while working is just another form of unconsciousness. Instead of using my mind to enhance my life, I’m getting lost in it.

Fittingly enough, mindfulness is what brought me to this realization in the first place.

My struggle with focus isn’t some new development in my life. I’ve always had a problem in this area, but it was only through practicing mindfulness that I became aware of it. Now I want to use mindfulness and meditation to not only be aware of the problem but actually fix it.

Moving forward, I want to cultivate a laser-like focus when it comes to work. This means fully engaging with every task I work on, no matter how small.

I think my focus on abdominal breathing this month is a great way to start doing this. Whenever I notice my mind jumping towards past and future while working, I want to bring my attention back to my breath. From there I can refocus on the task at hand.

To end this post here’s a quote by Eckhart Tolle that really captures the mindset I’m trying to develop.

“Your outer journey may contain a million steps; you inner journey only has one: the step you are taking right now.

– Eckhart Tolle

 

 

 

Quote of the Week #30

Photo: San Sebastian, Spain
Photo: San Sebastian, Spain

“Satisfaction lies in the effort, not in the attainment. Full effort is full victory.”

– Mahatma Gandhi 

I recently wrote about “The Four Agreements” by Don Miguel Ruiz. “Always do your best” is probably my favorite agreement, and I think this quote from Gandhi carries the same message.

Our full effort is all that we can ask of ourselves at any moment. Sometimes that effort will produce amazing results. Other times it will leave us massively short of our goals. The fact of the matter is that results will always vary.

All we can control is the consistency of our effort.

 

 

 

 

 

Lessons Learned – “The Four Agreements” by Don Miguel Ruiz

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I was pretty skeptical of this book at first. One cause of my skepticism was the section I found it in at the book store: New Age and Spirituality. While I had discovered a few gems in that section before (“The Power of Now” being my favorite), most of the books left a lot to be desired in terms of credibility.

Then there was the book itself. Its subtitle read, “A Toltec Wisdom Book.” What the hell was Toltec Wisdom and how could it apply to my very non-Toltec life? Still, I heard a lot of great things about the book online, so I decided to give it shot. Losing ten dollars was the worst that could happen.

It ended up being ten dollars well spent.

The Basics

If I had to describe this book in one word, I would choose simple. The Four Agreements are:

  1. Be impeccable with your word
  2. Don’t take anything personally
  3. Don’t make assumptions
  4. Always do your best

They really are as basic as that. Looking past some of the more esoteric spiritual parts, this might be the most straightforward self-improvement book I’ve ever read. I suppose that’s what has made it so popular.

To be honest, this is a difficult book to write about in detail because the lessons are pretty much stated in the agreements themselves. So what I’m going to do is talk about the two agreements that have helped me the most.

Don’t Take Anything Personally

 Nothing other people do is because of you. It is because of themselves. All people live in their own dream, in their own mind; they are in a completely different world from the one we live in. When we take something personally, we make the assumption that they know what is in our world, and we try to impose our world on their world.”

Thinking back on pretty much all of my problems when dealing with other people, the main cause of my unhappiness was taking things personally. This agreement is a counterbalance to that destructive habit.

When I first read this book I was working at a women’s clothing store. Anyone who has ever worked in customer service knows just how rude customers can be. Patience is something I’ve never had much of, and it took every ounce of self-control for me not to snap back at every rude or dismissive customer I encountered. But even when I didn’t react externally, my days would consistently be ruined by the continuous onslaught of negativity.

Reading this simple agreement made a huge difference in how I felt about rude customers and my personal relationships in general. Instead of treating every bit of attitude as a personal attack, I continuously reminded myself that the rudeness was a reflection of the customer’s own internal state.

Negative people are negative because they’re unhappy.

Heck, I see it all the time in myself. When I’m in a shitty mood, being polite to others isn’t my highest priority. I might snap at friends or forget to say thank you to a barista. But when I’m in a great mood I wouldn’t dream of being rude to anyone.

I’m not saying that a bad mood justifies being rude to others, just that rudeness is almost always a result of some kind of internal turmoil.

Always Do Your Best

Under any circumstance, always do your best, no more and no less. But keep in mind that your best is never going to be the same from one moment to the next. Everything is alive and changing all the time, so your best will sometimes be high quality, and other times it will not be as good.”

This is the agreement I come back to the most. It’s so cliché, yet so true.

Maybe it’s just the way Ruiz describes it, but his words made me realize that I usually aim for perfection instead doing my best in each moment. But the crazy thing about perfection is that, well, it’s impossible to reach. So chasing it only ever leaves me feeling discouraged, sometimes before I even start taking action.

Reminding myself that all I can do in each moment is my best – whatever that may be – helped get rid of a lot of stress and anxiety in my life. There are ups. There are downs. There are days when I feel like I could conquer the world, and others when I feel like I can barely get out of bed. But by asking myself what my “best” is in each moment, and then DOING that, progress seems to happen naturally.

~

I hope these lessons can be as valuable to you as they’ve been to me. I definitely recommend picking up a copy of this book. It may be elementary compared to other self-help books, but I’ve found it to be a great reminder to just relax and enjoy the journey that is life.

 

 

 

 

January’s Mindfulness Method – Abdominal Breathing

Photo: Amorebieta, Spain (Basque Country)
Photo: Amorebieta, Spain (Basque Country)

“Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts. Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to take hold of your mind again.”

– Thich Nhat Hanh

Since discovering mindfulness back in 2013, I’ve experienced many of the benefits it has to offer. These include more peace of mind, increased self-awareness, and a greater ability to connect with others.

Despite these benefits, however, consistently practicing mindfulness remains a challenge for me. Even when meditation is a daily habit, I have a hard time remembering to stay mindful throughout the day.

In order to make practicing mindfulness as simple as possible this year, I’m going to focus on one specific “mindfulness method” each month. These methods will simply be different ways of bringing my attention to the present moment.

My method for January is abdominal breathing.

What is Abdominal Breathing?

Breathing deeply into the abdominals, or lower stomach area.

Why Abdominal Breathing?

Concentrating on the breath is a core component in most mindfulness and meditation practices. I first discovered the presence-bringing power of observing my breath after reading “The Power of Now.” Since then, it has been the mindfulness method that I come back to the most.

However, there is a difference between abdominal breathing and just paying attention to your breath; abdominal breathing is more intentional. It’s not just observing, but consciously directing the breath. I chose this more intentional method because of the benefits it offers outside of mindfulness.

I actually stumbled upon it a couple of months ago while searching for ways to reduce stress and anxiety.  A few sources recommended abdominal breathing because of it’s calming effect on the mind and body. I tested it out for a couple of days and was quickly sold on it. It wasn’t a cure-all, but I did notice a greater sense of calm after breathing deeply into my abdomen for even a few seconds.

My Progress So Far…

As of writing this, I’ve been trying to consistently use this method for four days. So far it has still been a struggle to remain mindful, but that might be because my holiday travels have left me feeling a little more frazzled than usual. However, it has been nice having a single focus to come back to when I find myself getting caught up in my thoughts.

I’ll probably post an update in a week or two. It could be interesting to see what my practice looks like once I’m in a more consistent routine.

 

One Focus, Seven Goals

Photo: San Sebastian, Spain

Happy New Year everyone!

I’m writing this on January 1st  which means it’s time for an obligatory New Year’s resolution post.

I don’t have a great history with New Year’s resolutions. It’s well known that the majority of people don’t stick to the resolutions they make, and I’ve been a part of that majority pretty much every year that I’ve made one.

That’s why I decided a few weeks ago that, instead of making a typical New Year’s resolution, I would pick a “focus” instead; something I can practice throughout the year without the pressure of having to accomplish anything. That focus will be mindfulness.

Still, the progress I made in 2016 left me with a drive to really push myself this year. So while mindfulness will be my top priority, there are still some concrete things I’m going to try to accomplish as well. Here are the most important ones for me:

  1. Learn HTML and design my own website
  2. Put out multiple blog posts and vlogs each week
  3. Travel to at least 5 new countries
  4. Save up to buy a new camera and video editing software
  5. Read 50 books
  6. Make meditation a consistent habit
  7. Improve my Spanish

I already know that accomplishing these will be quite the challenge. Consistency is something I’ve always struggled with, and most of them will require a lot of discipline and consistent effort. Yet, for what might be the first time in my life, I’m filled with more excitement than dread at the thought of pursuing these goals. I know that just working towards them will create a lot of positive change in my life.

Maybe it’s the momentum from this past year talking, but I truly believe I’m going to crush it in 2017.

 

 

 

 

2017: The Year of NOW

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As we near the end of 2016, I can look back on the past 12 months with a smile. I made more progress in my personal development this year than in any year prior.

One of my main focuses throughout the year was changing the way I think. I used strategies such as repeating thought loops, positively reframing my negative thoughts, and cultivating gratitude and self-love. These efforts weren’t without reward; maintaining a positive mindset throughout the day has become much easier.

New Year, New Strategy

If I’m being truly honest with myself I have to admit that focusing on my thinking will only get me so far on my journey. No matter how many of these thought-strategies I use, trying to change my thoughts only offers me temporary relief from negativity. I may be better at editing my thoughts as they come up, but my default thoughts are still mostly negative. Plus the constant effort to think positive thoughts can be exhausting at times, and when my negative thoughts can’t be reframed or overcome by positivity, I often end up even more frustrated than before.

This doesn’t mean that becoming a significantly happier person is a pipe dream for me though. I just need to change my strategy. Fortunately, I’ve known the correct strategy for quite some time now: being present to the moment.

My most life-changing moment was reading “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle back in 2013. Before reading it, I had always completely identified with each and every negative thought I had. So Tolle’s assertion that “you are not your thoughts” was revolutionary for me. By following his advice to observe my thoughts and place my attention on the present moment, I was able to experience a sense of peace that was completely foreign to me at the time.

“To realize that you are not your thoughts is when you begin to awaken spiritually.”

– Eckhart Tolle

Despite experiencing the literal power of “now,” I continued to only return to it in my darkest moments. Being present to the moment was nice, but I wanted to actually change the quality of the thoughts I was having. In a way, avoiding the challenge of actually changing my thoughts almost seemed like taking the easy way out. So presence took a backseat to my focus on positive thinking.

Fast-forward three years and here I am, a lot happier but still struggling daily to change my thoughts. So I’m forced to ask myself….

Why am I exerting so much energy trying to change my thoughts when I could find peace through being present to the moment?

The irony of it all is that “the easy way out” is actually a huge challenge in itself. Living in the NOW may alleviate the need to change my thoughts, but it requires just as much effort and discipline.

“The beginning of freedom is the realization that you are not “the thinker.” The moment you start watching the thinker, a higher level of consciousness becomes activated. You then begin to realize that there is a vast realm of intelligence beyond thought, that thought is only a tiny aspect of that intelligence. You also realize that all the things that truly matter – beauty, love, creativity, joy, inner peace – arise from beyond the mind. You begin to awaken.”

– Eckhart Tolle

So as 2017 approaches, I feel it’s time to make a change. Instead of spending so much time trying to think more positively, I’m going to make being present to the moment my main focus.

Over the years I’ve noticed that I’m a more effective person when operating from a place of presence. I’m more creative, more charismatic, and more energetic. I can think more clearly and I’m better able to focus on whatever task I’m working on. More so than positive thinking, being present to the moment is starting to show itself as the key to my happiness and success.

I still plan on exploring new ways to improve my thoughts and emotions, and I’ll still pursue my goals. But I want presence to be the foundation from which all of my actions spring.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thriving versus Coping

thrive-quote

This year was filled with many valuable lessons, but none had a greater impact on my thinking than a concept called thriving versus coping. I actually heard about this concept a couple of years ago, but this year it seemed to be a common thread across most of the content I consumed.

There are quite a few ways I can describe thriving versus coping. It’s the difference between actively seeking out happiness and just trying to avoid pain. It’s the difference between really living and merely surviving. It’s progression versus regression. It’s living in abundance instead of scarcity.

The Cost of Coping

I think coping can be accurately summed up by the phrase, “just getting by.” And the more I consider this idea, the more obvious it is that I often live with a coping mindset. This mindset manifests in a variety of ways:

  • A scarcity mentality
  • Avoiding failure (“prevention focus”)
  • Living unconsciously
  • Letting my circumstances dictate my emotional state
  • Expecting people and situations to make me happy
  • Taking value
  • Waiting for inspiration to take action
  • Stagnation and regression

All of these behaviors/habits result in my viewing life as something to be endured, not enjoyed.

Choosing to Thrive

According to Merriam Webster’s dictionary to thrive is:

  1. To grow vigorously
  2. To gain in wealth or possessions
  3. To progress toward or realize a goal despite or because of circumstances

While all of these definitions are accurate, the one I resonate with most is “to grow vigorously.”

When I’m coping in life, growth is rarely a priority, even if I’m working towards an external goal. Instead, I’m focused on avoiding negative experiences. I would rather stay nice and comfortable than go through the inevitable pain that comes with growth. I liken it to treading water in the ocean; I may not be drowning, but I’m definitely not getting any closer to the shore.

Thriving, as I see it, is the complete opposite of coping. It means:

  • An abundance mentality
  • Pursuing success (“promotion focus”)
  • Being present to the moment
  • Taking full responsibility for my emotional state
  • Cultivating my own happiness
  • Giving value
  • Taking right action, even when it’s uncomfortable
  • Constant growth and progression

One of my key intentions for 2017 is finding ways to shift from coping to thriving. In the past couple of months, I’ve already started using this concept as a lens through which to evaluate my life. Now it’s time to make some concrete changes.