Is This Useful?

“Is this useful?” That was a question posed by Joseph Goldstein in one of the meditations offered on 10% Happier.

While he was referring to the thoughts and feelings that constantly tug at our focus and divert us from being present in our own lives, I would extend that question to the multitude of digital distractions at our fingertips.

Dozens of times a day I pick up my phone and fall headlong into a compulsive search for the tiniest hit of digital dopamine while neglecting everything right on front of me. It’s an addiction. Even now as I write the faint glow of my phone is tantalizing me into grabbing it just in case anything monumental has occurred in the last five minutes.

For several years I often wondered what I had done all day. I couldn’t remember, yet I felt so overwhelmed and busy. What was I so busy doing? I was buried in my phone. My time evaporated with each bit I shaved off for social media, games, apps and email. All those slivers add up into hours, days, weeks…

Click by click I was serving time in a self-imposed digital prison. I could have used that time growing or making or living or building or reading or loving or talking or walking or writing. Instead I was fulfilling my lifelong dream of becoming the Foursquare Mayor of the Ralph Kramden Statue.

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I can’t stop using my phone. Complete abstention is impossible. But I can modify my behavior and change the relationship. I can set limits and curtail the empty minutes and hours wasted.

Below are just a few things I do to limit my time online and on my phone. Rigorous pruning of my daily digital commitment has yielded powerful results. Sometimes it means tough choices, but I guarantee the time and freedom gained make up for the low-calorie enjoyment lost.

  • Unsubscribe from email lists.
  • Delete unnecessary apps.
  • Turn off all sounds and notifications.
  • Don’t take phone to meetings or the bathroom.
  • Close time wasting browser windows.
  • Drop RSS feeds.
  • At home, leave the phone in another room.

So what is useful in my life? You may notice I write frequently about six daily habits or practices that I have instituted over the last few years. All of these require putting down the phone and reclaiming my day.

Meditation. I take ten to fifteen minutes to sit and do nothing. The sense of calm and well being I feel most days is a direct result of meditation. It stops the negative chattering in my head and reinforces the good things.

Exercise. I lose weight, tension and stress. I gain strength, confidence and calm. With regular exercise, I feel sharper, more focused, and better prepared to handle the challenges of the day. It can be as easy as a short walk or as hard as I want to make it.

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Float, Float On

Suspended in a warm pool of water, I float in the pitch black. There is no sound, just a loud, overpowering silence. I am falling, slowly, but steadily. I spin around in a whirlpool and wonder when I will be sucked down the drain. When my toe touches something solid. I remember for a moment where I am and what is happening. Then I drift off into the darkness and begin to fall once again.

I first became interested in flotation tanks years ago watching William Hurt lose his mind in Altered States. He played a doctor who would ingest huge amounts of drugs, seeking transcendence in a sensory deprivation tank. It was a fantastic movie and the thought of floating in suspended animation had great appeal to my teenage mind.

Decades later I began to meditate and explore the idea of altered consciousness, but without drugs. Once again the isolation tank called my name. I researched places and prices, but never took the leap. I may have slipped a few hints and my wonderful fiancée scored me a newbie two float package for my birthday at the Aspire Center for Health + Wellness.

Their site claims the following benefits from flotation.

1 Magnesium promotes muscle relaxation and improves overall sleep quality.

2 Researcbh shows that floating improves Theta wave activation, key for better relaxation and deep meditation.

3 It is scientifically proven to improve short term and chronic pain conditions.

4 The brain becomes more right side dominant without senses, which promotes creativity.

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Lady In Bikini Not Included

Without hesitation I booked my first appointment. They offer two different flotation tanks, Oasis or Tranquility. Opting for Tranqulity, I inspected the massive white and blue pod dominating the room. The technician gave me the lowdown, showing me the light switch in the tub as well as the button to open and close the hatch. She gave me earplugs that I would need when  I got in the pod. She set the timer for 66 minutes and left the room. I ditched my clothes, rinsed off and entered the murky warm water.

So here I am bare ass naked settling into a body temperature pool of water loaded with 1000 pounds of epsom salt. This allows the body to float on the surface. I laid back, popped in the earplugs, shut off the lights and closed the lid.

My first impression was of the complete blackness and absolute silence. It was very peaceful and I waited for the magic to happen. For the first trick my neck and shoulders ached. The air was stuffy and the salt water leaked past the earplugs. For a few interminable minutes I had buyer’s remorse. The discomfort was acute and made more so by the isolation. Once I settled in I began to lose track of time. 10 minutes? 20 minutes? At a point time became irrelevant. My body felt heavy beyond belief as if gravity had doubled or tripled. I pushed my hands down slowly and could feel the water rise. Moving just a finger seemed to create a tiny tidal wave in my secret pod world.

Expecting the ultimate meditation opportunity, I tried to relax and focus on my breath. Instead of the usual calm my brain exploded with an overload of disconnected, insane thoughts. A wild cacophony of random sounds, colors and images rocketed through my head. I tried a few times to hush the tornado between my ears, but meditation wasn’t going to happen. I couldn’t stop the raging flow of my mind. I teetered between awareness and a vague dreamlike state. None of it made sense.

At one point I imagined that the world was ending and here I was floating butt naked in a pool of dirty salt water. Disaster was all around me, but I was tucked away in my hidden bunker. I would emerge to the smoking ruins of civilization covered in a rime of epsom salts and flecks of other people’s skin and hair.

Then the lights came back on. My 66 minutes were up. Was it already over? The pod automatically opened. Had I done that by accident?  I felt groggy and heavy. Could I even use my muscles? I staggered up and grabbed a towel, stumbling over to the shower with pod water pouring all over the floor. It wasn’t until I was dressed and had some fresh water to drink that I began to feel normal. The rest of my day was very mellow and my energy level hovered somewhere between sluggish and slow.

Float 2 took place one week later. This time I chose Oasis, a rectangular tank that’s bigger and a bit more old school. Since I’d had time to process the previous float, week 2 was less a revelation. I was already a pro and I slipped off my clothes, took a quick shower and slid into the body temperature water, closing the lid and waited for the lights to go down. Once inside I laid back and bounced like a buoy from side to side until the water settled.

Let’s talk about that water. First of all it has a slightly pungent odor, not offensive, but with a certain staleness, perhaps a hint of dirty gym socks. It is slick and slightly slimy. This time I thought a lot more about all the naked bodies that have floated in that same briny tub. While the idea of so many nether parts soaking in the ooze is gross, the 1000 pounds of epsom salt does kill everything in its path.

To avoid the stiffness and discomfort in my neck and shoulders the float technician suggested I use the inflatable neck pillow this time around. While the pillow relieved the muscle tension it created a bit of a disconnect from the water. I wasn’t completely immersed. My ears were above water and I could hear the sounds of the building.

However I was much more relaxed, my mind considerably calmer and more focused. Meditation almost happened, but I couldn’t quite get there. My brain wasn’t ricocheting in a dozen different directions, but sensory deprivation only served to amplify the white noise in my skull to fill the void. I was much more aware of time passing. The hour slowly drifted by on a river of random thoughts, never entering the sleepy, dreamy state I achieved the week before. When the lights came on I calmly stepped out, refreshed and alert.

I’ve checked this off my bucket list, but wonder if I will do it again. With two floats under my belt I realize it wasn’t what I expected. I had envisioned a William Hurt Altered States style mind altering transformation. Instead I had a synapse exploding confused first float followed by a calm and relaxing second float. Both hours in the pod offered a chance to competely disconnect from time and the world for an hour, leaving me relaxed and kind of dopey for the rest of the day. I am curious how the experience would evolve if I floated regularly.

Hmm, it’s not cheap and I have a birthday coming up. Hint, hint.

Don’t Look Where You Don’t Want to Go

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That’s Gonna Hurt

By Anthony DeLorenzo (http://www.flickr.com/photos/delorenzo/2675869443/) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

There’s a smart mountain biking adage, “Don’t look where you don’t want to go.” Mountain biking requires intense concentration, quick thinking and immediate reactions. Bombing down a hill strewn with rocks, roots, trees and dropoffs can mean instant stitches, broken bones or worse.

The trick is to pick a clean line, focusing solely on that. The rider must look ahead to see what’s next while simultaneously threading the trail right in front of the bike. Do not stare at the tree you hope to avoid. Do not glance at the cliff. Keep your eyes off the giant mud puddle. Target only the trail where you want your bike to go.

I’ve had enough stitches, bruises, scrapes, cuts, broken bones and near misses (not counting thousands of dollars of bike repairs) to know that looking where I don’t want to go often results in going exactly there. Ooof! Looked at the tree, hate some bark. Gazed at the mud bog, chioked down a pound of dirt soup.

Sure, you can wreck even when things are perfect, but I have found that focusing on the trail and charting my direction without distraction results in fewer mishaps and even the occasional state of flow. To sound trite, you become one with the bike. Obstacles melt away, the trail passes beneath the bike and every twist and turn comes with grace and ease. It’s what makes mountain biking magical. The thrill of conquering a brutal trail with minimal bodily and equipment damage is exhilarating.

So what does this have to do with day to day living? I don’t get on a mountain bike much anymore, but the lessons learned on the trail pay dividends. The key concept to success on a nasty trail or on a tyoical day is Don’t Look Where You Don’t Want To Go. This is all about focus, concentration and targeting my goals.

If I get caught up in distractions, spending my time regretting the past or caught up in pregaming the future, I lose the immediacy of this moment. Once I disconnect I will hit a tree, skid on a root or slide right off the trail. There are enough challenges heading my way at any moment, why look the wrong way?

If I think I will lose my job, my mind obsesses about the horrors of unemployment. If I feel a relationship is souring, I will focus on how it’s souring rather than how I can repair it. The list goes on. The results of obsessing on a past I can’t change and a future I can’t predict are never positive. So many things become a self-fulfilling prophecy when I look where I don’t want to go. Get your eyes back on the trail.

I reached a point a few years back where I was mired in busyness, distracted by anything and everything. My productivity and overall state of mind suffered. All I did was look where I didn’t want to go and wound up going there.

How could I get back on track? How could I regain focus and concentrate on what mattered? After slogging through a few years of going nowhere fast I decided to show up for my own life.

Step by step, I instituted a set of daily practices to reconnect with myself and chart a smarter way forward. Each of these added to my mental, physical and emotional well-being.

EXERCISE was the first step. For years I had been a distance runner and cyclist, but had almost stopped working out. I made a decision to make fitness a key goal again. As I ran and eode my bike more I began to feel energized and and more confident.

MEDITATION was the second. Forget everything you assume about meditation. Think about taking two steps back, sitting still and focusing on your breath. Instead of filling my every moment with the incessant distractions of modern life I gave myself 15 minutes a day to do nothing but be present. A sense of calm and serenity

WRITING every day came next. Thinking about writing is not writing. The only to  way to write is pen in hand, ass in chair, words on page. The benefits of writing are numerous and I detailed them here.

Daily GRATITUDE offered me the chance to be thankful for everything and everyone in my life. Instead of obsessing on what’s wrong and how it must be everyone else’s fault, I write down what is great and magical in the people, places and rhings right around me.

These daily practices shifted my focus from all the obstacles and distractions in my life back to the trail right in front of me. Of course, what works for me won’t work for everyone, but I’ve seen the powerful impact of positive actions. Today, I choose to look where I want to go and I find myself getting there most of the time.