Sunday, March 4, 2018

Who's Gonna Blink First?

The deepest meditation experiences I've had in 40 years have been the ones in which I managed to just concentrate on my breathing happening on its own, as if a stranger was breathing, without in any way controlling how fast I breath or how deeply.  Watching the breath without trying to control it is much harder than it sounds, at least for me.  When I'm not focusing on my breath, of course, I make no attempt to control it.  I'm not even aware of it most of the time.  But as soon as I stop all other activity and thought and just try to focus on inhaling and exhaling during meditation, I become a control freak.  "I'm breathing too fast and too shallow.  If I was really good at meditation, it would need to be slow and deep."  Suddenly my ego gets in the way and I try to breath like a Tibetan monk instead of letting my breathing happen on its own. 

I've read that the most people when meditating on their breath have trouble just letting it happen at the pace the body wants it to happen.  Why does this matter?  Because breathing, uniquely, is both voluntary and involuntary.  You can't easily will your hearbeat to quicken or to slow down.  But the breath can be fully under your control and can also happen without you paying attention to it all day and all night.  It provides a unique opportunity to step back and watch your body behaving as if you are an outside observer.  And this creates powerful benefits for relaxation, acceptance, and serenity.  Those benefits are greatly reduced, I find, if I focus on my breath but call the shots on when to inhale, how deeply to inhale, and when to let it all out.

In the last few weeks, I've had some success with a new technique to meditate on my breath with more acceptance and less control.  It's all about what happens BETWEEN inhalations and exhalations.  In those intervals, I now tell my lungs, "It's your move.  You want more air?  You're going to have to start the inhale.  Let's see who blinks first!"  I know that eventually, my involuntary breathing system is going to kick in.  And when it's done inhaling and there is another pause, I again tell myself that I'm not going to make the next move.

With this approach, I'm only having to push myself into letting go during the moments between breaths.  I find that I do have the willpower and concentration to do this.  And then the rest of the time, I'm much more likely to successfully focus on my breath as it does its own thing.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Murphy's Lawyer

If Murphy's Law needed a lawyer, someone who could make the case that if something can go wrong it will, then Murphy's lawyer would be a Six.  Of the Nine personality types in the Enneagram personality model, the Six is the most anxious.  The Six is Paul Revere shouting, "The British are coming!" while Sam Adams, a partying Seven, downs another pint of beer.

I'm a Six.  I've read about the other 8 personality types, and only the 6 fits.  And it fits me perfectly.

Fortunately, worry can be a gift.  Beatrice Chestnut in her book "The 9 Tpes of Leadership" does a great job of showing how all 9 personality types can be either be unhealthy or they can blossom into someone you absolutely want on your team.  For example, every team needs a Six.  America needed Paul Revere.  The Titanic could have used a Six on deck screaming about icebergs.

What has reading about the 6 personality taught me about myself?  I knew I had a tendency to identify problems and to try to fix them.  I knew I was cautious and prone to see pitfalls and risks.  What I didn't realize is that 6's expect everyone else to think, "Wow! I'm sure glad Ben pointed out these issues!", but this is the last thing many other personality types want to hear.  I didn't realize until I read that 6's distrust authority that I also distrust authority figures until I get to know them.  And when I read that 6's are notorius for extreme loyalty, I suddently understood why I always go overboard with volunteer roles.  I become so loyal to the organization I'm volunteering for that I don't set boundaries well.  I get overcommitted and sacrifice too much.  I've had to cut out most of my volunteer work and now I understand why.

I'm grateful to learn all this about myself, even though there are things to watch out for, because in her book Chestnut also talks about the great ways that 6's contribute to the world.  She shows how every personality type has things they need to watch out for, ways that they can get into trouble, but also shows how they can contribute in uniquely and indispensably to their families, communities, and workplaces.  The diversity of personality types is perhaps the most important diversity of all.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Enneagram: Meyers-Briggs on Steroids

Inspired by The 9 Types of Leadership, by Beatrice Chesnut

The "Enneagram" is the most comprehensive theory of personality types I know of.  I'm not a professional, but I've read a ton of psychology books over the last 40 years, and it seems deeper than Myers-Briggs and any other classification of personality types that I've ever read.  It's too bad that the "Enneagram" has such a "New Age"name and the esoteric symbol shown above.  Just because of its name and symbol, many people are likely to dismiss the Enneagram as unscientific.

There is at least some research supporting the idea that the Enneagram is a valid personality theory.  If interested in seeing this research, go to this link:  Enneagram research.

The way I "know" that the Enneagram is real, at least for me, is that as I've learned the 9 "personality types", I've come to find proof of the types in people who I know.  Most important, I've learned that I am a "6"-- the "Loyalist".  And I've found that, once I learned that this is the style that fits me best, the things that I've read about the "6" have taught me things about myself that I didn't know and that have been very helpful in relating to other personality types.  I've found that my wife, Chris, is a "1" -- the "Perfectionist".  And when I read something specific about "1's", I asked her, "Is this truly something that goes on in your head much of the time?'  She replied, "24/7".

I think the best way to learn the Enneagram and to get the most out of it is from a combination of reading, discussion, and experience.  You can't just read about the 9 types and believe that virtually everyone fits into one of these 9 types.  You have to read it and then experience it in other people.  Figure out which type fits you best and then ask yourself with an open mind whether the description of the type, both the type's strengths and the type's weaknesses, fits you.  Because the Enneagram also describes unconscious patterns of motivation, emotion, and behavior in each type, does what you read about your type tell you some things about yourself that you weren't aware of?  Finally, because a good Enneagram book such as the one by Beatrice Chesnut I referred to at the start of this post, will also tell you how other types might misunderstand your best intentions and motivations and how you might upset them with things that feel totally natural to you, does what you read help explain some of the conflicts you've had at work and in your personal life?

After you've done this, you can go on to try to identify the types of those closest to you.  Eventually, I hope to identify people from all 9 types as a way to make what I read about those types come alive.  Some people in any type will be chronically "unhealthy", demonstrating the worst motivations, thoughts, emotions, and actions of that type.  Others are very "healthy" and recognizing this can teach you that any type can enhance any group, team, family, friendship, or business that they are a part of. I'm not done yet with the journey of finding people I know well in all 9 types, but I think it will be key to find at least one very "healthy" person in each type so that I recognize that all the types are equally valuable.

Monday, November 27, 2017

It's at the Tip of My Nose

What is the secret to meditating on my breath when I'm feeling distracted?  It's at the tip of my nose.

Sometimes when I try to meditate on my breathing, my attention jumps between how breathing causes movement in my belly, movement in my chest, and other movements and sensations.  I can't seem to settle my focus anywhere.  And then I can't help but try to control my breath.  I know that, ideally, I just let the breath happen naturally while I observe it.  But I can't help trying to control it.  In particular, I can't help trying to breathe more slowly and deeply because this seems more "spiritual".  All this control and wandering attention prevents me from getting into a rewarding, deep concentration on my breath.

What can I do at a time like this?  I often find that it helps to focus on the breath coming in and out of my nose.  Make that the primary focus of my breathing meditation.  If my attention shifts to chest or belly, gently return to the nose.  I find that this makes me less judgmental about HOW I'm breathing.  If I just feel the air enter and leave the tip of my nose, I'm not overlerly concerned with whether I'm "doing it right".  I'm more inclined to breathe naturally.  I'll still feel the breath in my lungs and diaphragm but I let the feelings in my nose take center stage.  I find this so much easier that I can do it not only during focused meditation but also when doing other things like driving to work or walking the dogs.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Best Wishes for All

My favorite meditation of late is to wish for myself and others, "May you be healthy, be happy, and may you manifest your goals."

I start with myself because if you don't love yourself, then you don't love anyone.  Put on your own mask before helping others.

Then I think of family, close friends, and my dogs.  May my dogs manifest their dreams.  Dreams of going for a walk, sniffing everything other dogs have marked, dreams of playing, treats, and of human companionship.

Then I think of people at work that I expect to interact with on this day.  May they be healthy and happy.  May their deepest wishes for their family and their future come true.  Lastly, I think of people who have upset me because this promotes forgiveness which is good for me.

That ends the morning meditation, but I've developed a habit of continuing these thoughts in almost every interaction I have throughout the day.  In meetings.  In social events.  Or just walking around the office, seeing people in their cubicles, and silently wishing them well.

People can tell.  They don't hear my thoughts, but they seem to feel them.  My meetings go more smoothly than before I developed this habit.  I'm less intimidated when asking higher ups for approval or when stating an unpopular opinion.  I have had a tendency to be skeptical of authority figures I don't know well.  I'm sure they can sense that skepticism and it hasn't helped me gain their support.  But when I silently wish them and their families and friends all the best they could hope for, I find myself trusting their judgment more, giving them the benefit of the doubt, and I sense that they, too, grow in their trust of me, my ideas, and my intentions.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

No strain, no gain

If I do something over and over again for many years, will I get better at it?  Or will I plateau?

I recently read Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool.  Anders is THE expert on experts.  He's the guy whose research everyone else quotes in their bestsellers about what makes people truly gifted.  Malcolm Gladwell's bestseller "Outliers", with its rule of thumb about needing 10,000 hours of practice before you can become an expert?  He was talking about Ander's research.

But Gladwell had it wrong, according to Anders.  More important than an exact number of hours of practice, whether it it 5,000 or 50,000 is the quality of those hours.  If you are a rock band and you just "jam", you won't become the Beatles even after 500,000 hours.  You will plateau.

Practice makes perfect, but only if it is the right kind of practice.  No strain, no gain.  Anders studied historical masters such as Mozart and contemporary masters in sports, chess, art and other fields.  He found that practice only makes perfect if it has these qualities:

  • During practice, you should be working on extremely specific goals.  You are working on snapping your wrist as you flip the basketball towards the hoop.  As you practice meditation, you are focused on the feeling of the air entering and leaving your nostrils.  As you practice listening to music, you are focused on noticing the chord progressions or staying with the melody.  As you practice getting through your emails faster at work, you focus on reaching decisions more quickly about whether to archive, delete, respond, or plan to respond later.  Practice that is more general--I'll just play some tennis or listen to some jazz--isn't going to lead to better performance.
  • Ideally, you will get timely feedback on your performance.
  • You must also push yourself beyond your comfort zone.  No strain, no gain.
I don't want to try to be an expert on everything.  I don't want to push myself beyond my comfort zone in cooking, bicycling, reading, gardening, singing, or many other activities.  Anders is clear that the kind of "deliberate practice" that yields the most improvement isn't fun.  If it's fun, it isn't the optimum practice.  Why would I want to do this painful practice for every kind of activity that I do?  However, I think it's a good idea to do "deliberate practice" in many activities both at work and at home.

At work, I wish I could get through my emails faster.  I waste SO much time getting through my emails.  Could this be a skill that I master?  Are there "drills" I need to go through?  Specific things I could focus on at different times?  How fast can I archive or delete?  Are there measures I can track for feedback such as number of emails left in my inbox after I responded to today's emails?

One thing I've been changing is my approach to meditation.  In the past, I've often taken the easy way out.  I would "count" it as meditation if I just laid back in a "zero-gravity" chair and listened to some music.  Now I'm pushing for the much harder, but probably more rewarding, practice of sitting cross-legged, fighting to keep my aching back straight, and trying to stay focused on my breath even as my mind wants to dwell on an itch on my knee or my plans for tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Day that I Need

I need a day in which I remember to relax.  And meditate.  Exercise.  Eat and drink mindfully.

I need a day in which I'm motivated (I know what I want and I go after it) but flexible (I'm unfazed when someone suggests a different approach and their idea prevails over mine).

I need a day when I remember to save some time for fun.

I need a day when I calmly address things that are wrong (clear as day; black and white) or might be wrong (this should be looked at but I might not be privy to all the facts or I might be blind to another way of looking at the facts).

I need a day when I listen to understand versus rushing to conclusions.

These are currently the thoughts that fit my needs the most, thoughts that I review every morning.  I check, "How did I do against these commitments yesterday?  Did I eat or drink too much?  Did I fail to listen during that meeting last night?  Did I fight too hard to get my way when we debated on what to do next?  Did I fail or succeed in challenging things that were or seemed wrong?  For the day to come, how will I get my exercise in?  My meditation?  What will I do for fun?  Are there things I will need to fight for?"

This is a very personal, individual list.  These are things I need to reinforce, things that loved ones have asked me to work on, things that I recognize are not yet habits but that should be habits.  I add or remove a bullet point off the list every few months because I never know what is going to matter most at any given time.

This isn't a matter of simple positive thinking.  I'm not claiming that I have mastered something that I haven't yet mastered.  I'm just holding myself accountable to how well I met these goals yesterday and picturing how I might meet them today.  And, as I would expect from the research I've read, this does work pretty well.  When I set my intentions at the start of the day, visualize specific actions that could make the outcome happen, and review what I did and didn't do well the previous day, I find it does steer me to shift in the direction that I'd like to move.