Mind Refuge

Why do I have you in my hand?

A guide to mindful smartphone use

  1. Become aware of the many moments you turn to your phone throughout the day. Too often, we pick up our devices simply out of habit. We don’t actually need to check our email, or make a phone call, but we reach for our phone unconsciously. As a first step, set the intention to notice each time you pick up your phone, simply know that you’re taking it.
  2. Ask why am I picking you up? If we don’t actually need to check our email, or make a phone call or look something up in particular, why do we turn to our phones so often? Could it be that we are bored, stressed, scared, lonely, restless or overwhelmed? As you bring awareness to the act of picking up your phone, ask yourself “Why am I picking up my phone? What am I looking for? What do I need?”This way, your phone becomes your mindfulness bell, reminding you to check in with yourself and your needs in the moment you intend to turn to the device. There are two situations that are helpful to get clear on:
  1. Minimalize and silence. To reduce the temptation of getting lost in virtual reality, you might want to consider decluttering your mobile screen:
  1. Don’t multitask. This one is easy and should be natural but how often do we reach for our phones to “quickly” check something or answerto someone while driving, walking, eating, being in a conversation etc.?Consequences may range from missing a moment of your life to loosing it and endangering others. If you decide you need to communicate or get information, stop whatever it is you’re doing and consciously and intentionally enter the space of virtual reality. Make the old proverb – that has deep meaning for modern times – your mantra: ‘When I walk, I walk, when I sleep, I sleep, when I eat, I eat.’
  2. Check your posture when using your phone. Is your neck straining? Are your shoulders tense or hunched over? It’s probably not a surprise that our posture while we use our devices can cause physical pain. But did you know your hunchback can also impact your state of mind? Amy Cuddy’s research indicates that the hunched-over, head-down postures we adopt when we use our phones make us feel small and powerless. By regularly checking your device-use pose, you may change it for a more upright and expansive posture, your body and mind will feel accordingly. 
  3. Check in with how you feel after using your phone. We often don’t realize the impact our device use has on us. When you put your phone down, take a deep breath and see what is present (thoughts, feelings, body sensations)? Without any judgment, simply notice how using your phone made you feel. You might find that 10 minutes of watching cat videos relaxes you. Or you might discover that 10 minutes on social media makes you restless. Through consciously registering how you feel, over time, this insight will help you to make more skillful choices about your tech use.


Creating a mindfulness habit

Have you ever experienced wanting to create positive changes in your life (move more, meditate, eat healthier etc.) and two weeks down the road, your good solutions went out the window?

You are in best company. Many participants of the 8-week MBSR course struggle when having to integrate 45min of mindfulness practice into their daily schedule. After reading this article, based on Charles Duhigg’s book ‘The power of habit’, you will understand why your attempts didn’t persist and what you need to do in order to establish a new habit that lasts. 

In a nutshell, creating a sustainable habit change means making positive use of the so-called autopilot. As our minds learn how to react to recurring external and internal events, habits and patterns establish. The coordination of an action is thereby moved out of the conscious awareness to become a seemingly effortless, automatic and unconscious reaction.  Without the minds ability to learn from repetition, we would still need to figure out how to tie our shoelaces or ride a bicycle each morning. Although, this ability comes at a cost, namely being absorbed by your thoughts while unconsciously pacing through your day which is exactly the pattern, we want to break through mindfulness training. Paradoxically we can use this autopilot function of the brain to create new mindfulness habits that in return help us to be fully alive and present and to not miss important moments of our life (while being on autopilot). 

To start, know that every automatized habit consists of three elements:

  1. A cue, a trigger that tells your brain which habit to use and puts it into automatic mode.
  2. A routine, which acts out the habit. This can be physical, mental, or emotional.
  3. A reward, which is the result of the routine and reinforces the habit.

The final essential component of a habit is craving. A craving is the anticipation of the reward when you get the cue, even before you actually get the reward. This craving pushes you through the routine so that you get the reward at the end of the habit. Real-life example: hearing the buzzing tone or beep when you receive a notification on your phone.

Over time, habits become deeply ingrained. Over many repetitions of this habit loop, the transition between cue, craving, routine, and reward become automatic, meaning you do not have to consciously think about doing the routine anymore, you just start doing it once you are presented with the cue. 

Research on behaviour change has revealed the key steps for establishing new habits:

  1. Pick one habit at a time. Although the idea of making a big change and integrating many nourishing activities into your daily life may be intriguing, research has shown that establishing one new habit at a time is most efficient and sustainable. Once this new habit becomes automatic, you can choose another activity that you would like to become a habit. 
  2. Tiny steps. Again, it might be tempting to start this new activity at full capacity but to make it become automatic and lasting we want to start literally with baby steps. Our brains learn through repetition therefore it is crucial to start small enough that we won’t skip any of the occurrences of the new activity we have planned for. During the first week do not more than a 10th of the activity, make it so easy that it would be ridiculous to skip (e.g. if you want to meditate every day, make the first unit 1 minute of meditation during that first week) if you have not missed more than one occurrence during week one, increase during week two.   
  3. Make use of existing (automatic) habits. One simple trick is to make use of the automatisms you have already established and attach the new activity directly to another habit you do automatically (e.g. brushing your teeth, getting dressed, preparing a meal etc.). This leaves no room for doubt about when you should do the activity. 
  4. Set a cue. Once the new habit has become automatic, the cue will become the trigger that tells your brain to start the routine. Until then, the cue is your reminder to consciously decide to start the activity that you want to become an automatic habit. While establishing the habit, you decide what the cue will be, this can be very different and personal depending on the activity you choose (e.g. a post-it, an alarm on your phone, seeing your sport shoes, walking up a flight of stairs, the doorknob to your office … etc.). 
  5. Identify the reward. As craving is the motor driving us to perform the routine it is important to understand what feels pleasant and rewarding about doing this new habit. During the first days, pay close attention to pleasant thoughts, feelings and body sensations that occur during or after performing the new routine. Do not miss this crucial step! Notice why it is pleasant, write it down and share it with someone in order to anchor this new knowledge. 
  6. Hold yourself accountable. How will you hold yourself accountable when you feel like quitting? Tell a friend, colleague or family member about your new habit and ask them if you can report to that person each week on whether you have done the activity. Maybe they want to join you? Or in some cases, there might be a group you could join that performs the activity. Fact is, we are less likely to quit if we are not the only one witnessing our “failure”. 
  7. Have a plan. Most importantly, be specific about when – at what exact moment, day and time – you want to perform the new habit. Write this in your agenda or block the timeslot in your calendar. Then set your cue accordingly. Part of the planning is to identify risks that could prevent you from performing the new habit. Be honest with yourself, think what could happen and what measures could you take now in order to mitigate these risks. Lastly, know that you can start fresh at any moment. There will be days that for whatever reason you won’t do the activity, not a big deal but don’t fall of the horse twice in a row, just get back on.


A guide to mindfulness meditation

A widespread false believe is that meditation can be achieved by some people but is too difficult for others. That is not true. Just like the ability to be mindful, everyone can meditate and it can be of great help to everyone – no matter what their personal situation is. Everyone is able to observe their thoughts or their breath. Everyone is able to focus on the arising and passing of their internal thoughts, feelings and body sensations or to be open to perceive external events.

However, it requires a certain amount of patience and commitment, which is sometimes difficult, especially when we come across our mental patterns during meditation, which often produce “negative” inner states such as boredom, anger or restlessness.

It is not always easy to face these things when they appear during meditation. But precisely by observing and working with these states internally, we can develop opportunities to deal with them wisely and compassionately.

Getting started…

Meditation posture: basic guidelines

Having a firm base.

Being comfortable. 

Being relaxed and alert. 

You can meditate in any posture, no matter whether sitting on a chair or in full lotus pose on a cushion. Below some guidelines for each pose.

Sitting on a chair:

Kneeling astride cushions or meditation bench:

Varieties of sitting cross-legged on a cushion:

Breathing Meditation 

Settling 

1. Settle into a comfortable sitting position, either on a chair, or on the floor with your buttocks supported by a meditation cushions or a meditation bench. Experiment with the height of the cushions or stool until you feel comfortably and firmly supported. 

2. Allow the back to adopt an erect, dignified, and comfortable posture. If sitting on a chair, have the feet flat on the floor with the legs uncrossed. Put your hands softly on your legs. Gently close the eyes if that feels comfortable. If not, let the gaze fall unfocused on the floor about 2m away from you. 

Awareness of the body sitting

3. Bring your awareness to the level of physical sensations by focusing your attention on the sensations of touch, contact, and pressure in your body where it makes contact with the floor and with whatever you are sitting on. Spend a minute or two exploring these sensations. 

Focusing on the sensations of breathing 

4. Now bring your awareness to the breath cycle and find that spot in your body where you feel the breath most strongly or pleasantly today. That might be your nostrils, your chest or in the lower abdomen and simply observe as the breath moves in and out of this part of the body, just as you did in the previous exercise during the course. 

5. As best you can, follow with your awareness the changing physical sensations for the full duration of the in-breath and the full duration of the out breath, perhaps noticing the slight pauses between one in-breath and the following out-breath, and between one out-breath and the following in-breath. 

6. There is no need to try to control the breathing in any way – simply let the breath breathe itself. As best you can, bring this attitude of accepting to the rest of your experience – there is nothing to be fixed, no particular state to be achieved – simply allow your experience to be your experience without needing it to be any other way than it is. 

And when the mind wanders? 

7. Sooner or later (usually sooner), the mind will wander away from the focus on the breath to thoughts, planning, daydreams, judging this experience – whatever – this is perfectly OK – it’s simply what minds do – it is not a mistake or a failure. When you notice that your awareness is no longer on the breath, gently congratulate yourself – you have come back and are once more aware of your experience! Then, gently escorting the awareness back to the breath sensations in the part of the body that you’ve chosen, renewing the intention to pay attention to this in-breath or this out-breath, whichever is here when you return. 

8. However often you notice that the mind has wandered (and this will quite likely happen over and over and over again), each time, as best you can, congratulate yourself for being mindful in the moment, briefly acknowledge where the mind has been, gently bring attention back to the breath, and simply resume following, in awareness, the changing pattern of physical sensations that come with each in-breath, with each out-breath. 

9. You might invite a quality of kindliness to your awareness, perhaps seeing the repeated wanderings of the mind as opportunities to bring patience and gentle curiosity to your experience. 

Do this for 10 minutes 

10. Continue with the practice for 10 minutes, or longer if you wish, perhaps reminding yourself from time to time that the intention is simply to be aware of your experience in each moment, as best you can, using the breath as an anchor to gently reconnect with the here and now each time that you notice that the mind has wandered and is no longer following the breath.