(By Tal Gur)
We live in a 24/7 fast-paced world. From the moment the internet came into being, we've been constantly “ON,” constantly on our devices, constantly on-the-go. Most of us race through our days without taking enough time to renew our mind, body, and spirit.
When you think about it, we rarely stop in our daily lives with today's growing addiction to be chronically busy. Our rhythms are rushed, and our days become a blur. Faced with relentless demands and obligations, it often feels as if we are on a continuous marathon run, especially at work. Email after email flood into our inbox with never-ending tasks, demands, and short deadlines. We finish a project or a task, and there's immediately a new one on the horizon.
If the above description relates to you, then here’s something to consider: renewal is not only important for our well-being and health; renewal is also necessary for our productivity and performance.
Elite athletes and world class leaders know the importance of renewal and recovery for their performance. Very early on in their journey, they learn that in order for them to grow and keep on expanding, they must recover—not just physically but also mentally.
Or, put differently, elite athletes and world class leaders know that peak performance is dependent on the skillful management of their energy. They know how to balance their energy expenditure with intermittent energy renewal.
At a physical level, energy is derived from the interaction between oxygen and glucose. However, when it comes to energy and performance, few of us even consider the importance of breathing to energize ourselves and optimize performance.
What is important to remember in relation to our discussion is that we can use breathing to either summon vital energy or to relax deeply.
For example, rapid, short exhales can stimulate energy, alertness, and focus. (You can Google “breath of fire technique” or “breathing techniques.”) Similarly, extending the exhalation prompts relaxation and recovery. For instance, breathing in for a count of three and out for a count of six quiets the body but also the mind and the emotions.
We won’t get into lengthy discussion about breathing techniques. However, at the most basic level, you want to bring awareness to how deep or shallow you breathe. When you breathe shallowly, you don't get rid of toxins properly, and you put a strain on your body and hence your energy levels.
Take pause and think about your own life: how well do you manage your energy throughout your day? Do you sometimes feel exhausted, unmotivated, unfocused, like you’re running an endless marathon?
If so, read on, and consider instilling new renewal rituals to support your creative work and well-being. But first, let's take a closer look at the difference between two basic functions of our mind: sensing and thinking.
Sensing Vs. Thinking
Sense and thought use different parts of the brain and have opposite mental roles. The former is relaxing, while the latter often creates excitement, thus concealing the other.
Thinking is usually quick, busy, and abrupt, involving past and future. It is a high energy state which is exciting at times, but can also be exhausting. Thinking burns energy fast, and when done for a long time, it throws us into a state of enervation.
Sensing is the opposite; it conserves energy, has a low emotional charge, and lets the body soften and relax. Sensing results in slower, more regular brain waves, which is closer to our natural state.
To relax and be in the moment means concentrating on present sensations of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. Sense meditation is the centre of the tactile sensation of your body; for example, consciously savouring the flavours of an apple you just took a bite of, feeling the softness of your clothes on your skin, listening to the rain, and so on.
Sense meditation also helps to focus on the present moment, offering a break from the past and the future and all connected suffering. By consciously listening, looking, or tasting, the energy is removed from certain parts of the brain, briefly depleting the supply of oxygen and glucose and, as a result, weakening the developing thoughts.
We are all capable of sensing naturally, although it does not mean that we do it effectively. In reality, we perhaps only knowingly spend very little time in sensing mode. More often than not, we live in our minds more than in our bodies.
It is estimated that we speak to ourselves at a rate of 500 to 1000 words a minute, and we are not aware of those thoughts. Practice focusing more sincerely to improve sensing. The mind accurately speeds from one thought to the next within microseconds, and our capability to taste, smell, or hear is very insignificant.
The secret is to choose what to concentrate on, then put everything else in the background. It does not matter if you focus on your body, an object, or an activity. It is the quantity of your focusing that determines how relaxed you will become, not what you are focusing on.
Shifting into Sensing Mode
At any given time, we have the option to switch between sensing and thinking modes, but in reality, we rarely do. Most of us spend the bulk of the day in thinking mode, rather than becoming alive to the present moment and allowing ourselves to experience the world in a more sensual way, a world with richer, deeper colors.
Usually, we’re switching into sensing mode whenever something important captures our attention: the scent of a freshly baked cake hits us with a passing breeze, a song begins to play on the radio, a friendly dog passes us, a dry leaf falls down from a tree. We sense and immediately plunge into thinking mode, labeling and judging what we've just experienced.
Often we plunge too deep, only to find ourselves minutes later waking up from a stream of unconscious thoughts. It's only through awareness and mindful practice that we can consciously stay in the calming, sensing mode for a longer period, and by doing so, shift into a more balanced, sensual life.
By activating the conscious part of our mind and observing what it does, we're able to choose when and how much we want to think. We don't have to do anything other than just notice our thoughts as they arise and pass, while keeping our attention on the triggering sensation.
In fact, trying to block our thoughts can actually do the opposite; it can trigger more thoughts and physical tension throughout our body.
Short Sensing Meditations
When people think of meditation, the image of a monk wearing a white robe, sitting cross-legged in the wilderness comes to mind as the stereotype. While practicing long, seated meditations can be beneficial, I personally believe that short moments of sensing awareness, repeated regularly throughout the day, can be as valuable, if not even more so, for our new, fast-paced world.
I call these short and relaxed moments “Renewal Meditations.” They can be very effective because they fit better into our day and can keep us more balanced in the midst of our busy lives.
In fact, many people today use these forms of meditation without even knowing it. For example, the person who listens to relaxing music every evening, the old woman who waters her plants in late afternoon—they each have their own style of meditation.
Meditation is simply a focused awareness practice, and it’s not as difficult as it may sound. All you need is an open mind and the dedication to continue with it and not give up because it’s too boring, or too hard, or too… The mind tends to resist meditation because it likes to think. Remember, enjoying the benefits of meditation is not like taking an over-the-counter pill to help relieve an ache or pain; it usually takes time, commitment, and consistency.
With this in mind, let’s look at a few sensing meditation options:
1. Short Eating Meditation - The majority of us like eating because, even to the detriment of our health, it is the most sensual action of our day. Food is similar to pain because it has the ability to wipe out the problems from our past and future in our minds. You can constantly divert yourself from thinking too much by concentrating on something sensual; Eating Meditation is perfect for this reason.
Eating Meditation will also assist you in losing weight. We are more inclined to take larger bites when we are anxious, and our mouth has to work just as hard to break it down. As meditation decreases anxiety, it makes us less likely to reach out for that craving, and makes us less drowsy as an effect of eating. When you eat more slowly, you let your hunger sensors set off in a natural way. The body's hunger signal takes about 15-20 minutes to turn off after sufficient food has entered the stomach.
In addition, being aware of what you consume lowers the habit of shoveling unnecessary food into your mouth, and it prevents your mind from wandering off. Most people who practice daily mediation are less stout than average because they hardly ever overeat like we are prone to doing when we are nervous, exhausted, or simply because we consume on cruise control.
Another thought to ponder in this context is when we eat, we have a tendency to swallow before our food is sufficiently chewed, and we send chunks down for our stomachs to sort out. This is not exactly a comforting way to eat. We can eat an apple, for example, while barely tasting it, not giving ourselves the joy of feeling its skin, of its fresh juice on our tongue, of its sweet smell and crunchy texture. Our thoughts rise up within us for a reason, but we often dwell on them more than needed.
The alternative is simple: Take small bites, eat slowly, and temporarily halt between mouthfuls; “When eating, just eat,” said the Buddha. By eating consciously and focusing on the food, rather than the laptop screen, for example, we're likely to be able to taste and smell food better. We're also likely to eat less and healthier.
The next time you eat, try to eat slowly and taste every single bite. Feel the moment of contact, register the taste while chewing, and don't swallow until your food is completely broken down.
Also, make sure you breathe in and pause before you lift your fork again. This will assist the stomach to settle better as you eat. When you take smaller bites each time, the stomach is more settled and ready for digestion. There is precisely enough space to take pleasure in the tastes as it should be. In particular, there will be no overcrowding or pressure to swallow it too soon. As mentioned, the stomach demands a specific amount of time to absorb a batch of food comfortably.
If you feel overstuffed at the end of a meal, it is frequently because you gulped your food down. Listen to your stomach; it will inform you when you are eating too fast. Chefs and gourmets are truly accustomed to the sensuality of food, which is one of the fantastic luxuries in life. Eating consciously is the only way to be thankful for that luxury.
2. Short Music Meditation - Rich in sensation and feeling, music naturally draws us away from thought, helping us to hold our attention and focus. When we listen more carefully to music, we can feel it resonating in our bodies, and our mind immediately becomes clearer.
Sometimes you become so absorbed in the music that you are aware of nothing else, forgetting yourself and your problems completely, if only for a few seconds. This is when the music seems exceptionally beautiful. In fact, your alert, clear state of mind is what makes the music so entrancing.
The best music meditation is the one that calms the thinking mind. Whether slow, tranquil, passionate, classical, or modern, any music will do, as long as it quiets the thinking mind's attention-seeking activity.
You can use music to set a mood without actually focusing on it, like focusing on your breathing or scanning the body with soft music in the background. From time to time, you will notice the music but not as your main focus—like random sounds, it does not actually penetrate your mind.
Using deep meditation music can act as a safety net when your mind wanders. As the sensory qualities of the music also tend to augment the sensory flavour of your meditation, be quite clear whether you are meditating with the music in the background or on the music as the focus.
Unlike music that you can deliberately meditate on, deep meditation music should be quite bland, as anything exciting or even remotely interesting can easily distract you from your primary meditation object. Nature sounds or relaxation music are quite suitable.
Finally, the music needs to be about half the normal volume, given that when we meditate, our hearing becomes very acute. Deep meditation music should be so quiet that it does not dominate consciousness, like the random sounds, something that you notice in passing and often not at all.
3. Short Sound Meditation - Sound is constantly around us, which makes listening an extremely convenient mode of meditation, as you can practically do it anytime and anywhere—whether it be with calming sounds or noise created in the course of doing something.
Paying attention to the sounds near you for a moment can be soothing. A small instant of listening can create pleasant results because not only the sounds are soothing, but also the action of listening is a lot more calming than the action of thinking. Sound meditation crafts the mind to be sharper and clearer.
Listening quickly removes you from a conscious state and patterns of stress response, as unsystematic sounds are more often than not psychologically unbiased compared to one’s thoughts. Additionally, listening is mindlessly simple and therefore burns hardly any energy—simply listen to the noises around you from one minute to the next.
Next time you feel like you have low energy, close your eyes, take a deep breath, and listen to the sounds around you. The stress acquired from your work environment may still be the same as before, but you will return calmer and more relaxed, able to handle situations you face during the day.
4. Short Sight Meditation - With sight meditation, if you can relax with your eyes open, you can do it anytime, wherever you are. People, however, frequently have trouble meditating with their eyes open; they find it tough to relax without escaping from the world and falling into inactivity.
In fact, we all concentrate on visual objects without realizing we are doing so… We look at pleasant things that grab our attention, staring attentively when we are exhausted or bored, or fascinated by the calming flow of water or the fury of fire embers. It is common, but it will be more rewarding if we do it knowingly.
Everyone can do this for a few moments. Once your eyes settle on one object, they will begin to soften just about to the point of being out of focus, and your entire face is apt to soften in sympathy as well. Let your eyes wander slowly over the object and lightly examine its colour, shape, and texture. Search for the faint details that are not obvious at first. Concentrate by getting your mind interested in the object and soak up its features like a sponge.
One thing to remember: try not to stare blankly at the object hoping to go into a mesmerizing daze. Keep in mind that what you are doing is very normal, you’re merely looking at an object more carefully than usual.
Let your imagination play with the object; associations and images occur naturally every time we look at something for long periods. We can also recall something from our memory banks. All we need is something to anchor our mind to.
Being calm and relaxed, if you do it regularly during the day, is definitely more effective and beneficial than if you are overrun with high anxiety.
5. Short Breathing Meditation - As you already know, many meditations involve focusing on the breath. We can use this type of short meditation to either summon vital energy or to relax deeply. What’s important to remember for this discussion is that extending the exhalation prompts relaxation and recovery.
My suggestion is to instill a short breathing meditation each time you take a break and/or before every meal. The actual act of meditation can be as simple as breathing in to a count of three and out to a count of six. This simple practice quiets not just the body but also the mind and the emotions.
At the most basic level, you want to bring awareness to how deep or shallow you breathe. When you breathe shallowly, you don't get rid of toxins properly and you put a strain on your body and hence your energy levels.
It is all well and good to relax and sense the world around us with eyes closed during a meditation session, but doing so during our daily life, such as waiting for a bus in a noisy street, can be more challenging. Our daily activities are more complex and composed of rapidly changing sub-activities with a large variety of sensory data, such as sounds, sights, scents, and tastes.
One of the best ways to meet this challenge is to slow down and notice the sub-activities within each activity sequence. While making tea for example, you can notice how you open the cupboard, take out a cup, choose a tea bag, boil water, etc. We are then able to see the exact moment that each sub-activity stops and the next one starts. This is in fact a common practice with normal breathing meditation, where the meditator notices and pauses between each breath.
The idea of “being present” is familiar to most of us, but it usually remains just an idea. We want to practice it repeatedly and on a daily basis until it becomes natural and second nature to us.
Put it differently, we want to create supporting, positive rituals, ones that become automatic over time. These serial rituals serve as powerful tools through which we effectively manage energy in the service of our goals.
Among them, one of the most important rituals for energy renewal is working in cycles.
Working in Cycles
Our body operates in cycles in which our energy flows up and down. You may be familiar with the Ultradian cycle in relation to the human body’s sleeping patterns, but there are many other cycles as well, which naturally flicker between high and low energy.
Everything from the beating of your heart to the speed of your breathing to your sleeping patterns works in cycles. Some of the other Ultradian cycles of the body are thermoregulation, hormonal release, urination, bowel activity, and appetite.
The basic idea here is that every X amount of minutes (60, 90, or 120), you take a rest break. If you don't, you're setting yourself up for Ultradian Stress Syndrome, which involves tiredness, irritability, and loss of mental focus. If you ignore the body's natural need of a break for longer, it can accumulate and lead to sickness.
As Winston Churchill, who used to nap in the middle of the day during times of war, put it so eloquently: “Nature had not intended mankind to work from 8 in the morning until midnight without the refreshment of blessed oblivion which, even if it only lasts 20 minutes, is sufficient to renew all the vital forces.'”
So align your body with your natural energy cycles and take a fifteen to twenty minute break every 60 to 120 minutes. Get up, stretch, walk around, and clear your mind to boost your productivity.
Sleeping in Cycles
Working in cycles can help, but if you want to become even more effective, you should start paying attention to your sleep patterns.
Sleep is by far the most important renewal factor. It heals and rejuvenates the body, reduces stress, fortifies the immune system, regenerates brain function and increases memory retention. Without it, the ability to learn and retain information is weakened, and if chronic sleep deprivation becomes a way of life, it usually leads to an array of illnesses.
In order to maximize the benefits of sleep, it is important to understand and practice sleep cycles. Our body sleeps in multiple cycles throughout the night. A complete sleep cycle is about ninety minutes long and most people go through five sleep cycles during an eight hour sleep period. Each sleep cycle has multiple almost-awake moments (REM stage) when you are naturally closest to waking, and these are the best times to be woken up.
If you wake up in the middle of a sleep cycle (deep sleep stage) because you use an alarm, then you will probably feel very tired and groggy no matter how long you were asleep. Your body simply wants to complete the cycle it was in.
So in order to wake up refreshed, set an alarm based on a sleep cycles calculation. Simply adjust the time you want to wake up until you find the best rising time. For example: after six, seven and a half, or nine hours. And if possible, do not use an alarm at all and let your body wake up naturally.
The benefits of taking breaks through short renewal meditations are endless: not only will your energy improve, you will begin to look at life with a calm and positive mind. Getting to know just a small portion of the many benefits that meditation brings is sometimes enough to get people motivated to start meditating.
For example, stress-related conditions are on the rise as more people get physically ill when they become stressed out and distracted thinking about everyday demands. Stress also causes a person to lose sleep, and when you are fatigued, your body becomes more perceptible to illnesses such as common colds.
Establish a higher level of awareness and look at stress symptoms as a sign: your body telling you to slow down. Our human bodies are simply not built to take on exuberant amounts of stress. Short renewal meditations are essential to getting your stress under control and preventing these potential illnesses.
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