Whatever you give your attention to gets bigger.
I can’t remember the first time I heard this. It might have been from my mother, who isn’t one to stew or dwell, or an early yoga teacher, or an old book. I know it was during my teenage years, at a time when I was probably stewing and dwelling a lot on things that maybe—imagine ça?!—didn’t really matter all that much in the grand scheme of things. Stewing is understandable: It’s what teenagers (and the rest of us) do all the time. But I had an early sense that looping thoughts and unproductive lines of mental inquiry could and should somehow be avoided. Easier said than done, obviously. This early lesson was my first clue as to how.
But what exactly are we talking about? The idea is simple, and it doesn’t require flaky hocus-pocus thinking (which is my specialty, obvs) to accept. Simply, whatever you focus on—good, bad, stressful, pleasant, anxiety-provoking, calming, exciting—is amplified in the mind. It takes up space. It grows. Put even more simply: Whatever you’re thinking about, you’re thinking about. If that thing is bad, then you have bad in your head. If that thing is good, you have good in your head.
None of this would matter, of course, if we saw everything as it really is, but we don’t. We have a single sticky thought and then launch a search-and-capture mission in our mind looking for other things that support that original one. As we do this, the idea pile-on grows and the next thing you know it, that silly, fleeting thought has pitched a tent in our mind and won’t budge, Occupy-styles.
Unfortunately we do this more with negative thoughts than positive ones. Let’s call this, gently, a “not very productive way to use our brains.”
But here’s the good news: The process that can make us miserable can also be flipped on its head to cultivate joy, compassion, peace and love if we do it right. We know our thoughts affect our feelings, and our feelings affect our physical body. They can trigger stress hormones, aggravate chronic pain, promote inflammation, disrupt sleep, trigger breakouts—the list goes on. And nothing on that list is awesome.
On the flip side, focusing deliberately and carefully on positive things can have an opposite effect. I was reminded about this recently when I was struggling with looping thoughts. As anyone who’s been there (all of you) knows, you can get exactly nowhere in that state of mind. Of course, anyone who’s been there (again, all of you) knows that when you’re in that state of mind it can be very hard to rip yourself from it and say: OK, stupid thought, I’m not going to think you anymore. Instead I’m going to think about what I want, what I’m happy about, what I’m grateful for.
But as with all good habits, this one is self-perpetuating. The more you force yourself to do it, kicking and screaming, faking it until you make it, the more you see it works, and then the more likely you are to keep doing it.
An important point here: This is not like The Secret, and not about changing the course of events with your brain. We can’t do that, unfortunately. And sometimes bad things do happen! But thinking about them all the time can’t stop that, so this trains your mind to quiet down in the face of things you can’t control (everything!) and cultivate some good feelings while you’re at it.
Whatever you give your attention to gets bigger.
Trust us! It’s true. Now, what to do about it?
There are a million ways to practice visualization, and it has many different applications. Here are five I like.
1. Mentally rehearse positive outcomes. This is big with athletes, and can have a very practical application…or be an example of magical thinking (see below), depending on how you use it. Good yoga teachers will tell you to spend months literally visualizing the steps to get into a headstand—a challenging pose, no question—before you actually try to get upside down in the middle of the room. When I first learned it, my teacher wouldn’t let us practice against the wall because it would set us up with a crutch, she said. Instead, we had to picture a headstand, step by step, until we could do it. Similarly, a University of Chicago study looked at how mental rehearsing, as it’s sometimes called, might help basketball players with their free throws; the results were unequivocal, with visualizers sinking the ball way more than the controls. Professional athletes talk about this, and Olympians too.
The scientific explanation seems to be that repeatedly thinking about doing something creates neural patterns in the brain for that action—a blueprint, if you will. Your brain then trains your body to execute that thing, because it already knows how to. Crazy! And true.
2. Picture what you want. Of course, if the outcome you’re looking for is of the more interpersonal nature—about your career, or your kids, or your husband or wife—it doesn’t work the same way. You can train your brain all you want, but when there are other people involved, all bets are off, right? Well… Sort of. I’m a big believer in creating the conditions for the outcome you want. You can’t make magic happen (mayyyybe), but you can create the right conditions for things to happen, and part of that, for me, is focusing on positive thoughts—what I want as opposed to what I’m scared of. Alexandra and I are both really keen on this. To do it, simply picture what you want. Not just having it, but getting it. Really imagine, with your eyes closed and your mind focused, what it would feel like to have that thing, or what it would feel like not have to worry about that other thing. Put yourself there, and think about what it looks like, feels like, smells like. Set a scene, and give it your attention and then go back to it often.
3. Imagine thoughts shrinking…or growing. When I have a thought that won’t budge and is stressing me out, I like to name it—Oh, hey, mean thought that is telling me I will never be a prima ballerina—and then picture it in a circle in my mind, almost like a sign that’s been tacked up for me to read. I picture the thought I don’t like, and then I picture the circle shrinking slowly until it’s a speck instead of a menacing, pulsating globe of badness. Similarly, if I want to cultivate something positive, like peace of mind, or the feeling that everything is as it should be, then I do the same, only I start small and picture it growing in my mind until it takes up all the space I can imagine. This fills me with a feeling of wellbeing that is indescribable. I’m not sure why, but I trust it.
4. Do the white light thing. We’re getting increasingly weird here! OK so this one is just what it sounds like. Call to mind a thought, a circumstance, a person, an illness—anything that is giving you a little bit of a headache right now—and really hold that person or idea in your mind. Focus on it like you’re studying a map. Look at it, and identify what it looks like. Try as best you can not to THINK about it, but just see it in your mind. Then you get out your magic white-light wand and tap your thought three times (LOL), basking it in white light. If you want to pick another color, feel free. Whatever color signifies peace and healing to you is the color to pick here. Bask that thing in light like your life depends on it. Then when you’re done, do it again.
5. Picture a person you see as an evolved being and stare at them. This can be your grandpa or your guru, your lover of your childhood best friend—anyone who to you represents peace or wisdom or love. Maybe it’s someone who loves you unconditionally or a spiritual guide. I was taught this by one of my teachers, and he recommends picking someone you actually know or have come into contact with, as opposed to someone sort of remote, like Gandhi or the Virgin Mary (unless, of course, you’ve met them). Picture them sitting in front of you at eye level and just give them a gander. Look at the outline of their body, and their eyes, and their face. Smile at them, maybe. Hold them in your mind for a few minutes, and then when you’re done, say thank you.
Has anyone else tried visualization or mental rehearsing? Do you think it could help you stop bad thoughts in their tracks?
OK maybe that’s not exactly what happened but hear me out: On Tuesday, I did a TV interview for work. It was super fun! But if there’s one thing I don’t love about these things, it’s the makeup. Not really because it isn’t “clean”—I do this infrequently, so that’s not really a concern. It’s just that there’s so much of it.
I’ve tried to do my own makeup for TV before, and guess what? It sort of looks like crap. In TV land, everyone—including the dudes—is pancaked, so when you’re not, it just looks bizarre. Plus, these things are always rushed, I don’t like being too fussy, and I can’t afford to hire my own all-naturals makeup artist.
But here’s the rub: conventional makeup really, really irritates my skin. So does the stress of work and, yes, being on the tube—I love doing it in the moment, but beforehand, I get nervous! I have written before about how my complexion is far less temperamental than it used to be, and a big reason for that is the fact that I’m super strict about what I’ll put on it. I also try to be very consistent with my stress-busting strategies: Yoga a bunch of times a week, regular bedtimes, daily meditation, some nondenominational prayer. These things make a big difference in how I feel (and look), and when they get thrown off—and they all have lately—well, you know what happens.
So by the time Tuesday night rolled around, I was fending off a freakout that I would wake up the next day with monsters on my face. I could feel them coming on. Now, as fate would have it, I also had tickets to see my favorite musician perform for just the second time in my life—despite the fact I’ve been a rap fan since I was in elementary school. So off I go to the show. I knew from the first song that this would be the best concert I’ve ever been to—and it was!
I had SUCH a ball. I danced and sang along like an unbridled dork for two hours, fell asleep peaceful and happy, woke up peaceful and happy and…way clearer. Yup. Monsters averted!
Here’s the thing: Anyone who has broken out a bunch knows that the anxiety that comes with a breakout is way worse than the breakout itself. Even worse, in my opinion, is that sinking dread you feel when you know a breakout is coming! Of course you never look as bad as you think you look, but the crazy psychological tricks you’ll play on yourself when your skin is cranky can be miserable.
Thankfully, because I had such a packed day—and a day packed with things I was giddy about—I had no time to indulge in those crappy feelings. Instead, I had more fun than I’d had in ages. And just like that, my skin bounced back. It isn’t perfect, but it’s calm, and it’s healing.
Was it the cascade of feel-good hormones? A fluky monthly hormonal shift that happened at just the right time? Was it…Jay-Z? I’m not sure. But it was a good reminder that happiness, good old fashioned fun, and not taking yourself (or your skin) too seriously can produce miraculous results.
So the next time you feel a bad one coming on, maybe do something super fun? That would be my advice from here on in. (That and green tea clay, naturally.)
Has anyone else noticed anything like this? And do you have any feel-better strategies to beat off a bad skin day (or week, or year)?
Hello, sweet things. A couple of weeks ago we launched a meditation challenge. If you didn’t do the challenge but are interested in starting a daily practice, please do, and let us know how it goes in the comments. (Some tips for beginners here.) Also, be reminded, that we said there was a prize! Three lucky winners will get presents in the mail from Essence of Vali, and they are announced below.
We were inspired (and, being honest, surprised) that so many of you gave it a go. Sitting still is hard, but it gets easier every day, as several of you noted in your letters.
A lot of you said that you were sleeping better, which is music to our ears. One writer said “I learned that I love meditating!” and you ALL (yes, all) of you said you intended to keep up the practice even after the challenge ended. Autumn said she felt more focused overall, and without trying. “It came naturally. It was a small difference, but it was noticeable.”
Some of you noted that after just a couple of days, five minutes went by in a blink. Letter writer Nicole used an alarm, and writes: “Day 1 and 2 I was anticipating the alarm, hoping that it would go off already! However, by the third day I was actually alarmed when the alarm went off—pun intended!!” (Um, Nicole, you’re adorable.)
Many of you said you found your mind wandered (normal) but that mantra helped. Some of you used “Let Go,” which we recommended, and one of you even went all the way with “Ohm Namashivaya” (looking at you, Rebecca!).
Literally every one of you who wrote to us said you really enjoyed meditating daily and Jana wrote: “It’s amazing how quickly I’ve begun craving meditation.”
Another writer likened it to training for a race: “When you train for running, you’re like ‘OK, today I’m going to run an extra mile.’ I’m not sure what the heck this is training for…clarity of mind?” Yes! That!
The most touching comment, to me, was this, from Bettina in Germany: “Knowing that there are people who are doing this with me for the past week makes it more meaningful—like I’m participating in a world movement!” (How are you all so freaking cute?! Really.)
And finally, Moksha from Montreal took the words right out of our mouths:
“There are constantly a billion ways for our minds to be engaged (even in extremely positive ways) but I suspect that one of the things people are very hungry for, whether they know it or not, is emptiness and the recognition of emptiness.”
As we said, three lucky people would win a prize from an aromatherapist we love. Her name is Valerie Bennis and we first met her while we were researching our book. She makes wonderful mixtures for her line Essence of Vali, and is so passionate about what she does.
Her sleep formula is incredibly powerful, and it smells so good we wish we could wear it as perfume. (Can’t do that, though—you’d be snoozing all over the place.) We also love her other mixtures and three of you have won care packages from her.
Drum roll please….
1. Nicole, from Hoboken, NJ
2. Katherine, from Houston, TX
3. Jana, New York, NY
Let’s all congratulate the ladies, and if you did the challenge but never wrote to us, or want to talk more about meditation, or aromatherapy (mmmm), weigh in, in the comments.
Image from meditation challenge participant Alex Newell. Thanks, Alex!!
This is a pep-rally post: I want you all to do the challenge, and I want to make it easier because meditation can seem really hard! Actually, though, it’s not that hard—it’s really not. But I didn’t know that before, and so, herewith, 11 things that might make a daily meditation practice feel a little more manageable. I know everyone’s practice is totally different! So this is just me sharing what I have learned, because had I known these things when I started (and stopped, and started, and stopped), I think it might have stuck with it a lot sooner.
I hope it helps, and please also share your tips in the comments.
1. Use a timer. There are apps for that, and they make cute gong sounds when the time’s up. You can set it for five minutes to start, and then just decide in advance that for the next five minutes, you can’t do anything but sit there. You can think about anything you want, but you can’t DO anything. Five minutes may feel like an eternity, but if you can brush your teeth for two minutes twice a day, or you can gchat with your best friend for four hours every day, you can sit still for five. Just decide you will, and then do it.
2. Don’t worry about whether or not you are doing it right. There are a million different ways to make bread. Every loaf has a few key ingredients. Beyond that, they may vary in flavor, texture, time in the oven—but it’s all still bread. Think of meditation the same way. As long as you have the basics down—sitting still, not doing other stuff at the same time, being quiet, then doing it again tomorrow—you’re doing a fine job.
3. Understand that when thoughts come up—and they will—it doesn’t mean you blew it. The mind never shuts up completely—even when we think it’s quiet, there are other channels running in the background. It’s OK even if those channels are blaring on high volume in the foreground, also. Over time this will just happen less.
Trust the process. And in the meantime, accept that your mind is not going to shut up, probably ever, and that’s OK. It will quiet down over time, though.
4. Get comfortable. When you first start meditating, you might find it’s really uncomfortable to sit cross legged in the middle of a room. (That’s because it is uncomfortable—until one day it isn’t anymore.) In yoga, they teach you to prop up your butt with pillows or blankets to get your hips higher than your knees. Why? Because it’s much easier to stack your spine and sit up if straight you do.
So prop up your butt. And since you are more likely to sit for five minutes if you aren’t worried about how much you suck at sitting, lean against a wall. The goal here is to be still—not to look like Christy Turlington in the (RED) campaign.
5. Picture yourself sitting there. OK, let’s get weird for a second: If you can picture yourself sitting there, you can understand, if only fleetingly, that your mind and your body are not the same thing. They say in meditation classes that you should “observe” your thoughts. This has always struck me as abstract and confusing. How many brains do I have? How can I observe my thoughts if they are coming from the brain I’m supposed to be observing them from? Turns out it’s actually possible (see below) but instead, I like to focus on the image of my own physical body, sitting wherever I am at that moment. Sometimes, I cast that image in bright white light, also (LOL).
6. Name your thoughts as they come up. “I should make pasta for dinner.” You probably should! But you can’t do that for at least the next five minutes, so instead, say to yourself “You just thought about what you’re going to eat for dinner.” If you can identify your thoughts, no matter what they are—”That guy in the elevator was cute,” “I’ve run out of underwear, I should probably do my laundry”—it takes you out of their grip and stops your mind from following that thought any further. It’s really hard to plan romantic getaways with elevator boyfriend or sort your laundry into piles if you have to stop at every thought and acknowledge it.
7. Smile. Not like in Eat Pray Love. We’re not talking exaggerated facial contortions here—just smile sweetly and subtly. When you’re smiling, even when you smile voluntarily (which is to say “fake-smiling”) your brain changes. It’s kind of nuts, but it’s true: Fake-smiling activates the same signals of enjoyment in the brain as real-smiles. Since some goals of meditation are contentment, compassion and a sense of wellbeing, this is a great shortcut. I’ve found that when I start with a fake smile, it turns into a real smile pretty quickly—and not to be a total cornball, but it’s really powerful when that happens. Try it!
8. Use a simple mantra—and don’t overthink it. I remember the first time I heard about people using mantra I felt like a reject for not having one yet…
Then my teacher Lesley D. taught me one: “Let go.” (Tou-ché.) Another one I love, from my teacher Dechen: “Yes, Thank You.” “Yes” on the inhale, “thank you” on the exhale. You can also use “ohm,” or whatever else you like. You pick, but don’t overthink it like I did. Pick one, commit to it, and get breathing.
9. Close your eyes—or maybe just keep them open. A divisive point, for sure, but meditation practices where you keep your eyes open or at half-mast trip me up. But I have a girlfriend who has the opposite problem: She closes her eyes and can’t focus. Point is, do what works for you.
10. Try an compassion exercise. Some of us like structure! A nice meditation for people who want a technique is compassion or loving-kindness meditation. There are different versions of this—you can google around and find one you like—but here’s the one I learned. First, you call to mind your own self and say silently “May I be happy, may I be peaceful, may I be healthy, may I be free.” Next, call to mind someone you love, and say the same, but replace the Is with yous, obviously. Next, call to mind someone who is pissing you off or making you sad, and do it for them. From there, you can extend this meditation out to the entire world (“may all beings everywhere be happy” etc.). This part loses some people. If you’re one of them, then when you’re done with the person who you’re upset with, do someone else you love so you end on a good note.
Finally, 11. Don’t expect to see bright blue flashing lights/meet God for the first time/find eternal bliss/solve all your problems/pass through to another dimension.
I was lucky enough to see a very special monk speak a while back here in New York and the topic of the lecture was “Compassion and the True Nature of the Mind.” Like, whoa. Even he made jokes about how heady that sounded. He said that the “true nature of the mind”—that thing we’re all trying to get to through meditation—is really, really simple. It isn’t a shiny new toy. It’s not sexy. There’s no story to tell your friends. You aren’t trading in your current mind for a better one. It’s hard to describe, and this kind of talk can get pretty esoteric and frustrating pretty quick, but the point is: There is no magic, weird, out-there thing to find—in fact, it’s the opposite. Meditation is like peeling back layers of crap and then in the middle is a simple, sweet thing that has been there all along, and always will be.
(Maybe that’s just me. If YOU have found the secret passageway to that other dimension, please let us know.) Now, what tips do you have to share?
Amazing image via
Ask any healer, therapist, acupuncturist and MD who knows anything about anything, and they will tell you that meditation is good for you. It can reduce stress, depression and your perception of physical pain, it increases compassion, feelings of empathy and even rational thinking. It can improve your relationships with other people, and make you be nicer to yourself. Heck, it even changes the physical structure of your brain after just eight weeks of regular practice.
You’ve been told a million times you should meditate and we bet you’ve dabbled with it here and there—until you got bored, or your legs fell asleep, or your butt was sore, or you suddenly realized now was the perfect time to sort your entire closet by color.
If you don’t meditate every day, we think you should give it a shot. We’re going to do it too!
Truth is, the world would be a much better place if everyone on the planet meditated every day, but since that isn’t going to happen, gotta start with ourselves. If you already do this daily, please cheer everyone else on in the comments with your happy stories about how now your life is better in every way imaginable, K?
So let’s go! Let’s do this thing. There’s strength in numbers, and if the Beatles can do it, so can you. What we’re asking is this: Seven days. In a row. Some time in the next two weeks.
Some rules: Don’t lie.
Instructions: For seven (7!) consecutive days, sit quietly alone for a minimum of 5 minutes—set a timer, it helps a lot. Then write us an email at nomoredirtylooks (at) gmail (dot) com with OHM in the subject line, and include your first name and location, written thusly “Siobhan, Brooklyn, NY” and a brief description of how you felt at the end of your seven days. Send this to us by the end of the day Sunday, September 25th.
Prize: We will pick three winners at random and winners will get a sweet prize in the mail from Essence of Vali, a stunning aromatherapy line. One person will get “Calm—lavender, orange & ylang ylang (for overall stress),” one person will get “Sleep —lavender, marjoram, cedarwood & ylang ylang (for anti anxiety and sleep issues),” and one person will get “Fortify—cedarwood, rosewood & spruce (for grounding).”
The reason for the challenge: Meditation is one of the few things everyone can do—and at no cost, for a mere five minutes a day—to improve their wellbeing, their focus, their ability to feel joy and weather hard times. And, I mean, shoot: All that can only make you more beautiful, too, right? Inside and out.