Distracted

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Image by Lenus.me

Being constantly pulled into multiple directions seems like all we do these days, stimuli often fill in the gaps : whether it’s eating with our screens, listening to podcasts/music when we drive, juggling between a million browsers as we work on our computers…I can go on and on.

On our flight back to Kuching, there was a solo female traveler seated next to us, with a thick book sitting on her lap. Once the seatbelt sign is off, she put the book down, took out a sandwich from her bag, ate her sandwich, cleaned up, and continue reading again. I jokingly mentioned to my husband how the simple ritual of eating differs between this western girl vs us, the Asians, if you go into restaurants and cafes, you will notice alot of Asians tends to eat with the screens infront of them. Either that, or they’d take a million photos of the food untill they become cold and soggy.

Couple of months ago, I forced myself to eat without distraction. Force is a strong word, but that’s how difficult it felt to me. I held on to it for a long time. However, the deeper I got into my prep, the harder it was for me to stick to the ritual, even now, I am still taken aback by how much dieting has impacted my ability to concentrate and stick to my habits, especially towards the last few weeks of my prep. I do thrive on routines and months of habits tracking has built a pretty solid foundation for me, still, I have succumbed to the temptations a few times.

I think setting rules and boundaries for ourselves is so important, even thou these habits may seems frivolous to most, but they can train your discipline and they will add up over time. There are some non-negotiable rules I set for myself daily, such as no screens before 7am (since I wake up at around 5am daily), daily meditation is a must, and I must include a daily 30 minutes, stimuli-free walk outdoor (no podcasts and no music) daily. These small accomplishments serves as daily affirmations for me.

“A lack of self awareness is poison, reflection and review is the antidote.”

“By constant self discipline and self control, you can develop greatness of character.”

“The most powerful control we can ever attain, is to be in control of ourselves.”

An update on Meditation practice

A compilation of my meditation practice back in 2017

When I first started this blog, I wanted to document all things personal development related, at the time, I was in a transition of building new habits, I was inspired after reading the book Digital Minimalism by Dr. Cal Newport, and James Clear’s Atomic Habits.

There were a couple of habits that I wanted to work on, social media addiction is one thing (there will be another update soon), but I want to write about meditation, for I find that it is the backbone of how we can be more aware of our behaviours, thus bettering ourselves in all aspects of our lives.

I am not a stranger to meditation. Back in 2017, I’ve hired an online coach Olivier Goetgeluck. He has prescribed daily meditation practice as part of the training program for me. I believe the Universe knew what I needed then, that’s why I was connected to Olivier. At the time, I had no problem adhering to all the physical training he has prescribed for me, but I struggled with the meditation practice.

I remember how anxious I felt each time I had to start meditating, thoughts were constantly running through my head, it felt as if I was having an anxiety attack, I remember I could barely sit for 3 minutes in the first 1-2 weeks.

I’ve made great progress overtime, I’d meditate for 20-30 minutes atleast 3/4 times a week, sometimes I even took my practice outdoor. I felt so proud of myself, it was even more satisfying that any fitness achievement.

After 6 months with Olivier, I eventually moved back into powerlifting/physique training, I tried to keep up with the practice, but I relapsed. I was doing it very sparingly, until I stopped doing it completely.

Fast forward to March this year, after reading Atomic Habits, meditation was the first habit that I wanted to cement. There are so many helpful tips from the book, but the three main points that has helped me the most was :

Master the art of showing up

Repetitions

Habits Tracking

To summarize the three points as listed above : I only have to show up, duration didn’t matter as much, with that, I’ve gained enough repetitions, which then help the habit stick. I’ve also used bullet journaling to help me stay accountable.

Referring to my blog posts on meditation, I’ve started back in early April, I’ve probably only missed 3-5 days since then. I prefer to do it first thing in the morning, before I even brush my teeth, for 20-30 minutes a day. On days that I have to go out early for work, I simply move it to the end of the day.

It is the single, most powerful tool you can use anywhere, anytime to improve your mental well being, better than any supplementation or medication intervention.

What are the benefits ? I didn’t really care about all the scientific research on meditation, although they may help further convince you to start. What I’ve noticed with myself is that, I am much more aware of my behaviour. Take driving for example, I used to be very hot headed on the road, other drivers used to piss me off easily, not anymore. I use to look for distraction (browsing on the phone…horrible, I know) with every brief stop in between traffic lights, I’ve stopped doing that either…there are many many other examples, but you get the idea.

That doesn’t mean I don’t get frustrated and angry. I do, more often than I like. It’s definitely much more easier for me to catch myself thinking certain thoughts, if I feel angry, I would be giving myself a pep talk, :”Why are you angry? It’s not going to help the situation.” By then, I would have already calm down. This has been incredible in terms of managing my emotional intelligence…thou I have to admit, I am forever a work in progress.

That’s the whole point, when we aim to become a better human being, there is no final destination, it’s a constant work in progress.

I will be going for a meditation retreat, probably not as hardcore as 10 days silent retreat, (I just can’t do that to Anya) but a weekend away just to learn to skill would be very beneficial for me. I feel I am finally ready.

And I hope I’ve convinced you to start.

 

 

Nancy

Of meditation and things 

While attending Claudia’s wedding last night, I was seated next to a beautiful lady. She gracefully held out her hand towards me and introduced herself : “Nancy”, her name. Petite, shoulder length hair, fit, looks to be in her 40s, (looks is deceiving after all, turns out, she’s in her 50s)

I learnt that she happened to be connected to Claudia through meditation. Vipassana meditation facility, specifically, which Claudia has recommended to me when I was going through a difficult time. I couldn’t commit to the 9 days program they provides, perhaps, commit is not the right word, I just wasn’t ready.

Thou I have cultivated a daily meditation practice, I have never been exposed to any formal teachings of meditation, which I think will benefit me. There is only so much you can learn through reading other people’s experiences, or watching Youtube videos. While enrolling into a program will be an ultimate goal for me (settling family and work commitments will be tricky), but sitting next to someone who has been actively practising meditation for 20 years was a good opportunity for me to learn.

As wedding program proceeds and dishes were served, I bombarded her with questions :

“Is using mantra a form of cheating ?” was the first thing I’ve asked.

While there is no right and wrong ways of meditating, I do like to know how to block my thoughts without needing to rely on chanting mantras in my mind. She briefly explained to me while using mantra can be effective for a beginner, but eventually, we have to learn not to use it as a crutch.

“Do you still feel agitated ?”

“Do you ever act out?”

“How about road rage?” (1.5 days with KL traffic was enough for me)

It’s obvious by now that you can get a sense of how I am with my emotions and impulses, and this is why most of my questions revolves around them. I’ll be the first to admit, I am often very impulsive and emotional.

It was certainly comforting knowing that Nancy, even after practising meditation for over 20 years, still feels these emotions on daily basis. She further affirmed my beliefs that as humans, we are emotional beings after all. When impulses or emotions arises, be aware of them, catch the thoughts and stay put, they’ll eventually subside.

When I can’t repress my feelings, I often feel like a failure. I can’t even keep track of the number of times I feel annoyed or agitated at something on daily basis, and when I feel the annoyance, I feel annoyed that I feel these annoyance. (And you’re the real MVP if you’re not yet annoyed by the confusing statement) I realise this is where I get it all wrong, I am not supposed to be emotionless, in true stoicism spirit, it’s how you react upon those annoyance that matters. We are the master of our mind after all, nothing can inflict annoyance on us except ourselves : our own thoughts.

The key to achieving a higher level of intellects and wisdom is no doubt self awareness, with self awareness comes self reflection, which is valuable in any pursuit of self development.

Unsurprisingly, Nancy is also not on any social media, except watsapp, which we exchanged our contacts and already I am formulating on inviting her for a cuppa to extend our conversations when I do visit KL again. Dorothy and I really enjoyed the conversations we’ve had throughout the evening. I felt lucky especially, that Universe (or Claudia, in this sense) connected me with the people that I needed to connect with.

PS : (Another beautiful lady, Lee Kheng, sitting at the same table also happens to be a volunteer at this other meditation facility called Kenchara Forest retreat based in Bentong, Pahang.) They offer short courses on introduction to meditation techniques, requires only 2 days. As I plan for my retreat I also like to share some information on meditation camps here based in Malaysia here.

Vipassana Meditation Retreat

Kenchara Forest Retreat

Good habits are as addictive as bad habits

I drew alot of inspiration from Jame’s Clear’s book “Atomic Habits”. Despite my best effort, prior to his book, my attempt to build habits were futile, as I would always revert to my old ways. It’s a combination between his book and Dr. Cal Newport’s book “Deep Work” that has helped me cement alot of the life changing good habits that I currently have, and I am forever grateful.

I sympathise when people say bad habits are hard to kick, they are, but good habits are as addictive as bad habits. You can build a new habit to get rid of the old ones. I have found this strategy extremely effective, if you were to quit any habit cold turkey without finding another replacement, you are bound to relapse.

That doesn’t mean I don’t ever relapse, I do, but overtime, the frequency of these “relapse episodes” reduce significantly. Good habits are addictive, when you are able to set a rule for yourself and comply to them, you’ll feel really good about yourself.

A few tips that has helped me with forming good habits :

Bullet journaling

Never miss twice (if you miss once, just make sure you don’t miss it twice)

Master the art of showing up

This has been the biggest takeaway I got from “Atomic Habits”. Take my swimming practice for example. Some days I just feel so exhausted and tired and I don’t want to go, but I go anyway, even if I don’t intend to stay for long. I’d tell myself, you just have to show up. I apply the same philosophy to my daily meditation too, “I just have to show up.” Months later, meditation is now my daily routine, as intuitive as brushing my teeth in the morning.

From the Daily Stoic

What bad habit did I curb today? How am I better? Were my actions just? How can I improve?

Impulses of all kinds are going to come, and your work is to control them

“Whenever you get an impression of some pleasure, as with any impression, guard yourself from being carried away by it, let it await your action, give yourself a pause. After that, bring to mind both times, first when you have enjoyed the pleasure and later when you will regret it and hate yourself. Then compare to those the joy and satisfaction you’d feel for abstaining altogether. However, if a seemingly appropriate time arises to act on it, don’t be overcome by its comfort, pleasantness, and allure—but against all of this, how much better the consciousness of conquering it.”

Indulging might actually be worse than resisting, the urge begins to lose its appeal. In this way, self-control becomes the real pleasure, and the temptation becomes the regret.

Atomic Habits : Meditation

These days, I really look forward to sitting down and writing on this blog, although I think I lack focus and my blog posts feels rather scattered, but these words, they represent a fragment of my present thoughts.

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Instead of a “tick”, I now use a rating system for my habits bullet journaling.

Progress on meditation 

I have moved up to tracking the quality of certain habits I’m trying to cultivate (such as meditation and reading), instead of just tracking the days I do them because I have been very consistent with them. Just weeks ago, I was struggling with sitting still for 5 minutes, these days, I start everyday with a 20 mins meditation and on days I feel agitated and flustered, I’d often end my day with a short 5-10 minutes meditation as well, even thou I am often interrupted by my lovely toddler Anya.

It feels rather vague, tracking quality instead of quantity with meditation, however, after weeks of experimenting with it, I am confident to say I can now distinguish between a poor session vs a good one. Some days I am simply “not there”, despite forcing myself to sit longer, while some sessions feels short but I am more present and focused.

The benefits I have noticed definitely motivate me to keep the ritual going : less anxiety, better concentration, better anger management, (if you have a toddler like mine, you’d understand) I just feel more level-headed.

Meditations comes in many forms, I particularly enjoy meditating in the car (eyes open, transfixed at one point, in between traffic light). I began enjoying walking and driving without any music or podcasts, I have gotten used to letting my mind wonder (content with being bored) instead of reaching for distraction every minute of the day. Each night, we’d sit in the park and watch Anya play, and we enjoy a brief conversations about our day without the distraction of devices.

I stop thinking about wanting to “fix” myself. I am a constant work in progress, but I am not broken in anyway.

“I like to think the best of me, is still hiding up my sleeves” John Mayer

 

 

 

Mara : Feeding your demon

Illustrations by Carole Hénaff.

I’ve began to take more walks without my phone these days, just me and my thoughts, no distraction. And I thought alot about my struggles with my inner Mara on my morning walk this morning.

What is Mara?

Mara is the demon that tempted Prince Siddhartha (Gautama Buddha) by trying to seduce him with the vision of beautiful women who, in various legends, are often said to be Mara’s daughters. In Buddhist cosmology, Mara is associated with death, rebirth and desire. Nyanaponika Thera has described Mara as “the personification of the forces antagonistic to enlightenment.” 

“the personification of the forces antagonistic to enlightenment.” 

We all have them, Mara, morph into different forms, trying to distract us from what we want to accomplish. I have been working on fighting one particular Mara that is draining my mental energy, my efforts seem futile, there are times I thought I’ve made good progress, then I relapsed, then I feel so guilty and bad about myself. The more frequent my determination is threatened by the Mara, the weaker I become to resist the temptation.

I feel sick.

Then I came across this article, and I thought, perhaps I’ve got it all wrong.

Feeding our demons rather than fighting them contradicts the conventional approach of fighting against whatever assails us. But it turns out to be a remarkably effective path to inner integration.

Demons (maras in Sanskrit) are not bloodthirsty ghouls waiting for us in dark corners. Demons are within us. They are energies we experience every day, such as fear, illness, depression, anxiety, trauma, relationship difficulties, and addiction.

Anything that drains our energy and blocks us from being completely awake is a demon. The approach of giving form to these inner forces and feeding them, rather than struggling against them, was originally articulated by an eleventh-century female Tibetan Buddhist teacher named Machig Labdrön (1055–1145). The spiritual practice she developed was called Chöd, and it generated such amazing results that it became very popular, spreading widely throughout Tibet and beyond.

The article entails methods to use meditation to “feed our demons” instead of fighting them. Which I found highly enlightening. Since I practice meditation every morning, I will give this a go and see how it goes.

Water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend. Bruce Lee

Meditation : Day 3, 30 mins a day

Some observations regarding my meditation practice.

Everybody practice meditation for different reasons, I have to quote Haemin Sunim again : I don’t have big ambition, I simply want to be able to enjoy my breaths.

Throughout this whole process of trying to better myself, it is very important for me to observe myself empathetically, free from any judgement.

It is no surprise that google is monitoring my every behavior, as this video of Nathaniel Drew pops up on my youtube feed, and it got me thinking, maybe I should set aside a time for my practice. Prior to this, I already meditate 10-15 mins daily, I do this rather aimlessly, I’d look at my clock before I start, and again after I finished. While setting a time goal may seem rigid to most, I think it will help me cement the habit. 30 minutes seem reasonable, so on Monday, I began.

5.30am, turned on the timer on my phone. 30 minutes countdown, and I began.

Instead of the seiza posture Olivier has taught me previously, I sat instead. I supinated my palms and layer them on my crotch. I have no idea what I was doing, I was simply trying to find a comfortable position.

Again, drifting, drifting,drifting, from thought to thought. Alot of re-routing my attention to my breaths. I’d drift then I’d tell myself to focus on my breath. Inhaled and exhaled slowly. Soon, agitation begin to set in, my legs are feeling numb, I felt like I was slouching (It would be fun to do a timelapse video sometimes, I am sure I wasn’t really sitting quietly) It is at this point that I began to tell myself, “Maybe I didn’t set the timer, this felt like forever ! I am sure I’ve passed the 30 minutes mark.” I tried to persevere, “Just hang on a little longer, I am sure you are getting very very close now.” And in the end I opened my eyes before the timer went off, and I always do so as if I have just emerged from the water.

Kinda funny if you think about it, this defeats the purpose of meditating, it was supposed to help me feel calm but towards the end I lost it. It was like Game of Thrones in my mind (I’ve never watched the series LOL)

Subjectively speaking, I did rather well

Monday : 2 minutes short of 30 minutes

Tuesday : 5 minutes short of 30 minutes

Wednesday : 3 minutes short of 30 minutes

My legs were so numb that each time I come out of it, I’d lay on the floor and close my eyes, and continue to focus on my breathing until I feel “recovered” from it.

Side note : I’ve just listened to this podcast by Sigma Nutrition, and Nick Gant, (he’s the director of the Exercise Neurometabolism Laboratory at the University of Auckland)

When asked what is his one advice to improve our cognitive function, he answered :”Just do one hard thing everyday.” And he briefly mentioned how meditating can be that hard thing that challenges our cognitive function. It really resonates with me. Sure, it gets easier with time but it simply isn’t human nature to sit and think about “nothing”. But I think, it is one thing that men perform exceedingly well, this explains why most monks who meditates are men. I am certain if my husband meditates, he will definitely do better than me.

 

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Haemin Sunim : Author of The Things you can see only when you slow down. Image credit to Penguin Books