Oh fear…take my hand, let’s go.

climbing kid 2This is what I saw when I walked into the climbing gym yesterday…a little kid scaling the wall like falling just wasn’t an option for her. I was thoroughly impressed. Then, it occurred to me that maybe fear of objectively safe things is something we learn in adulthood. Lucky us.

But wait, it’s not all bad news. One of the major benefits of being an adult is the power of choice. Why not apply that to your relationship with fear? You can choose to run away from your fear or choose to stare at it stunned…but what if you choose to become friends with your fear? Friends (ideally) accept you for what you are; they don’t try to change you. They guide you toward paths that allow you to grow and they’re loyal through it all.

At one point, the job I used to have was my dream job so leaving it was definitely scary. So scary in fact that I had to take a macro-perspective of the fear itself to get a handle on it all. That’s when I realized that I could decide that my fear wasn’t going to stop me from doing the things my heart wanted to do. Instead, I chose to use that fear as a guide. I let the presence of fear be an indicator that I was facing the potential for some important personal growth.

That shift in perspective is what makes me appreciate my fear, tuck it in my pocket and take it along with me on whatever proverbial mountain I happen to be climbing. And like any trusted friend, fear is always there for me. Of course after scaling one mountain, it takes a bigger one to bring on the fear next time. And thank god for that because otherwise, I wouldn’t know if I was evolving or not.

If you’re not convinced that you and fear can buddy up, try this mantra that I learned from Swamiji, a man who I visited at his wall-less house in a Balinese rice paddy (seriously).

“Oh fear, I’m not afraid of you. Take my hand, let’s go.” 

How to meditate…yes, it’s really that simple.

An old psychologist named Albert Bandura figured out that when people don’t believe they can do something, they’re not very motivated to do it. I’d say the reason why people don’t meditate, even the ones that know it’s good for them, is that they don’t believe they can “sit still, empty their minds, and reach mystical states of consciousness.” Well, good news…that’s not what meditation is! Trust me, if you’re reading this, you have the attentional powers to meditate.

Our brains are designed to think about things, that’s what industrialized our world. What we can stand to improve however, is our ability to choose what we think about and when we think about it. Meditation is the cross-training that will allow us to do that.

If you want to meditate, try watching the activity in your mind the same way you watch a movie. Rather than getting attached to your thoughts by thinking about the what if’s of the past and making mental to-do lists for the future, simply notice that you’re thinking and then bring your attention to something in the present moment. I suggest your breath since we all have it, all the time. Breathing provides lots of different sensations to attend to e.g., air passing through your nostirls, ribs expanding, white noise, etc.

As for logistics…somewhere quiet without distractions is a good start. Being comfortable will go a long way too. Personally, I like the classic cross-legged on a pillow position. Sitting in a chair with your feet on the floor works too. Remember, our physical position influences our state of mind. Be at ease and alert in your body, and your mind will follow.

My final and most important point..let go of achieving anything. Meditating with expectations and goals will only lead to self-judgment. There is no perfect way to meditate, there is only your way. That might mean five minutes breathing in your car before you drive to work or sitting in silence on a silk pillow imported from India. It doesn’t matter how long you sit or how many times you bring your attention to the present. Just begin and be open to whatever happens or doesn’t happen.

STOP here and take one breath right now, noticing the expansion of your body on the inhale and the relaxing of your body on the exhale.

Congrats my friend, you just meditated.

Why athletes should meditate

I’ve never met a high performance athlete who didn’t cross train. Why do they do it? Because it allows individual skills to be easily isolated and improved. Practicing meditation is the same as a hockey player doing off-ice balance drills. But instead of better balance, you get an improved ability to manage your inner dialogue and to focus your attention. And, those skills can give athletes the edge they need to outperform their competitors.

Let’s use another sport…running. No matter how beautiful your route, at some point you will have a negative thought. Maybe your knee hurts, or you’re thirsty, or you just don’t want to go on anymore. Meditation teaches you to detach from your thoughts. Just watch them come and go without getting involved with them. How helpful would it be to simply notice an uncomfortable sensation in your body without needing to label or judge it?

Meditation also builds your capacity to stay present. Bye bye worries of the past and future. A seasoned meditator can sustain their attention on the sensations in their body, rather than getting caught up with self-doubt. If you’re wondering, “what about focusing on the race strategy?” Touché. Not a bad place for an athlete’s focus to be. But still, athletes need to have the skills to tune out the distractions from competitors and from their own inner critic.

I remember when I first started racing as a sprint kayaker, I looked around a lot and it made me panic to see my competitors closeby. The physiological reactions of panic are no good for maximal physical performance. Once I learned to focus on myself, my race, my body…well that’s when I started winning.

So, to all athletes out there, consider adding meditation to your training plan. You’ll improve your ability to handle negative thoughts, to visualize success, and to simply enjoy every delicious moment of your race.

Coming next How to meditate…yes, it’s really that simple.

Goals versus intentions

For most of my life I’ve been what you would call a high-achiever, or very  goal-oriented. I didn’t often take time to appreciate an accomplishment, I just moved my focus to the next thing that was bigger and better. A lot of the goals I had were based on what society deems as better or what you “should” do. And admittedly, I’m driven by a desire to be better than other people.

That worked out…for awhile. Then, I burnt out of the corporate world and was left asking myself if anything I was doing was having any real impact. That question took me on a four month spiritual yoga journey to Asia where I removed all plans, all to-do lists, all goals. Just be; tune into my body to decide what I wanted to do each day. When you create all that time and space for yourself by removing the should’s and must’s, it’s amazing how clearly you know what you want.

A conscious thought of wanting to be in a gym again would be followed by a chance encounter with someone who happened to invite me along to the only fitness centre on the island. I call those conscious thoughts intentions. They’re different from goals because 1) they come from a place deeper within you than logic and reason, and 2) you don’t concern yourself with how to make it happen, you just know you want it.

I had many of these intentions while I was away, and now that I’m back in Canada, most of them have happened, and it seems without trying very hard. And yes, that contradicts a long-held belief of mine that when you want something, you do everything you can to get it. I can’t ignore the evidence though. I’ve continued to set weekly intentions (and I write them on a whiteboard in my dining room) and it’s amazing how much power that has had in my life. So, give it a try. Tune in to your deeper place and acknowledge what you really want. Then, let go of figuring out how it will happen and trust that it will come to you at the right time, in the right way.