Saturday, February 27, 2010

Sustaining a Mindfulness practice

(Reposted from Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/chademeng-tan/just-one-breath-a-day_b_479060.html )

Just One Breath a Day

As an instructor, I found it fairly easy to get people started on Mindfulness practice. I just need to show them the brain science, explain the benefits, introduce a short sitting, and viola, people get it. That's the good news.

The bad news is after the first few days, many people find it hard to sustain the practice. Many of us start the first few days with great enthusiasm, committing ourselves to 10 or 20 minutes a day of this wonderful practice, but after that initial enthusiasm, it starts to feel like a chore. You sit there bored and restless, wondering why time goes by so slowly, and then after a while, you decide you have more important and/or interesting things to do, such as "getting stuff done" or watching cats flush toilets on YouTube. And before you know it, you've lost your daily practice.

How can we sustain a Mindfulness practice?

Happily, the difficulty of sustaining a Mindfulness practice often lasts only a few months. It is like starting an exercise regime. The first few months are usually really hard, you probably have to discipline yourself into exercising regularly, but after a few months, you find your quality of life changing dramatically. You have more energy, you suffer fewer sick days, you can get more stuff done, and you look better in the mirror. You feel great about yourself. Once you reach that point, you just cannot not do it anymore. The upgrade in quality of life is just too compelling. From that point on, your exercise regime becomes self-sustaining. Yes, you probably still have to cajole yourself into the gym every now and then, but it becomes fairly easy.

It is the same with sustaining a Mindfulness practice. You probably need some discipline in the beginning, but after a few months, you notice dramatic changes in quality of life. You become happier, calmer, more emotionally resilient, more energetic, and people like you more because your positivity reflects on them. You feel great about yourself. And again, once you reach that point, it's so compelling you just cannot not practice anymore. Yes, even a seasoned mediator needs to cajole herself onto the cushion every now and then, but it becomes fairly easy and habitual.

So how do you sustain your practice up to the point it becomes so compelling it is self-sustaining? I have 3 suggestions:

1. Have a Buddy

I learned this from my dear friend and mentor, Norman Fischer, whom we jokingly call the "Zen Abbot of Google". Once again, we use the gym analogy. Going to the gym alone is hard, but if you have a "gym buddy" whom you commit to going with, you're much more likely to go regularly. Partly because you have company, and partly because this arrangement helps you encourage each other and hold each other accountable (what I jokingly call "mutual harassment").

We suggest finding a "Mindfulness buddy" and committing to a 15-minute conversation every week, covering at least these 2 topics:

a. How am I doing with my commitment to my practice?
b. What has arisen in my life that relates to my practice?

We also suggest ending the conversation with the question, "How did this conversation go?"

We instituted this in our Mindfulness-Based Emotional Intelligence program (named "Search Inside Yourself") and found it very effective.


2. Do Less Than You Can

I learned this from Mingyur Rinpoche, whose book, "The Joy of Living", I most highly recommend. The idea is to do less formal practice than you are capable of. For example, if you can sit in Mindfulness for 5 minutes before it feels like a chore, then don't sit for 5 minutes, just do 3 or 4 minutes, perhaps a few times a day. The reason is to keep the practice from becoming a burden. If Mindfulness practice feels like a chore, it's not sustainable.

My friend, Yvonne Ginsberg, likes to say, "Meditation is an indulgence". I think her insight beautifully captures the core of Rinpoche's idea. Don't sit for so long that it becomes burdensome. Sit often, for short periods, and your Mindfulness practice may soon feel like an indulgence.


3. Take One Breath a Day

I may be the laziest Mindfulness instructor in the world because I tell my students all they need to commit to is one mindful breath a day. Just one. Breathe in and breathe out mindfully, and your commitment for the day is fulfilled, everything else is a bonus.

There are two reasons why one breath is important. The first is momentum. If you commit to one breath a day, you can easily fulfill this commitment and can then preserve the momentum of your practice, and later, when you feel ready for more, you can pick it back up easily. The second reason is having the intention to meditate is itself a meditation. This practice encourages you to arise an intention to do something kind and beneficial to yourself daily, and over time, that self-directly kindness becomes a valuable mental habit. When self-directly kindness is strong, Mindfulness becomes easier.


Remember, one breath a day for the rest of your life. That's all I ask.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Mindfulness in 2 Minutes

(Reposted from Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/chademeng-tan/mindfulness-in-2-minutes_b_474317.html )

Most evenings, before we sleep, my young daughter and I sit in Mindfulness together for two minutes. I like to joke that two minutes is optimal for us because that is the attention span of a child and an engineer. For two minutes a day, we quietly enjoy being alive and being together. More fundamentally, for two minutes a day, we enjoy being. Just being. To "just be" is simultaneously the most ordinary and the most precious experience in life.

As usual, I let my experience with a child inform how I teach adults. This daily two-minutes experience is the basis of how I introduce the practice of Mindfulness in an introductory class for adults.

In learning and teaching Mindfulness, the good news is that Mindfulness is embarrassingly easy. It is easy because we all already know what it is like and it is something we all already experience from time to time. My friend and personal hero, Jon Kabat-Zinn, skilfully defined Mindfulness as, "Paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally". Thich Nhat Hanh, perhaps the greatest Zen Master of our time, refers to Mindfulness poetically as, "keeping one's consciousness alive to the present reality". Simply put, I think Mindfulness is the mind of "just being". All you really need to do is to pay attention moment-to-moment without judging. It's that simple.

The hard part in Mindfulness practice is deepening, strengthening and sustaining it, especially in times of difficulty. To have a quality of Mindfulness so strong that every moment in life, even in trying times, is infused with a deep calmness and a vivid presence, is very hard and takes a lot of practice. But Mindfulness per se is easy. It is easy to understand and easy to arise in oneself. That ease is what I capitalize on as an instructor.

In some of my classes, after explaining some of the theory and brain science behind Mindfulness, I offer two ways to experience a taste of Mindfulness, the "Easy Way", and the "Easier Way".

The creatively-named "Easy Way" is to simply bring gentle and consistent attention to one's breath for two minutes. That's it. Start by becoming aware that you are breathing, and then paying attention to the process of breathing. Everytime your attention wanders away, just bring it back very gently.

The "Easier Way" is, as its name may subtly suggest, even easier. All you have to do is to sit without agenda for two minutes. Life really cannot get much simpler than that. The idea here is to shift from "doing" to "being", whatever that means to you, for just two minutes. Just be.

To make it even easier, you're free to switch between the Easy Way and the Easier Way anytime during these two minutes. Anytime you feel like you want to bring awareness to breathing, just switch to Easy. And anytime you then decide you rather just sit without agenda, just switch to Easier. No questions asked.

This simple exercise is Mindfulness practice. Practiced often enough, and it deepens the inherent calmness and clarity in the mind. It opens up the possibility of fully appreciating each moment in one's life, every one of which is precious. It is for many people, including myself, a life-changing practice. Imagine, something as simple as learning to "just be", can change your life.

Best of all, it is something even a child knows how to do. Oh, and an engineer too.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Meng at Davos

No, I didn't go, but Larry Brilliant found a sign advertising my presence there.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Funny Short Thoughts

A collection of funny thoughts I've had over the past weeks, each too short to be a blog post on its own:

Back when I was doing Machine Learning, I spent a lot of my time tuning parameters. Then I suddenly realized, the "training data" was actually training me.

When I'm introducing myself to a semi-familiar audience, I like to say, "For those who don't know me, my name is Meng. For those who know me, my name is still Meng."

Whoever is paving the road to hell, please stop using good intentions. Thank you very much.

I have discovered the solution to world hunger. The solution is: food. You see, if people have food, they will no longer be hungry. I don't know why nobody has thought of it.

A rational decision is one that I can rationalize to myself.

I find it annoying to have one plaque per patent. I wish there was a single plaque to cover all my past and future patents, a plaque that says like, "Wow, you have so many patents, you must be really smart, your father must be secretly proud of you even though you grew up to be a nerd" or something.

When I grow up, I want to be just like me.

Most days when I did a lot, I accomplished very little. Maybe if I do very little, I might accomplish a lot.