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Resiliency Habit # 3: Brain Fitness: Stilling the Mind & Staying in the Present Moment

Posted Nov 9th, 2018

9 Habits of Resilience for Highly Effective Leaders:

  1. Building Commitment to Ourselves
  2. Physical Fitness
  3. Brain Fitness: Stilling the mind, developing patience
  4. Brain Fitness: Focusing the mind
  5. Knowing Our Purpose
  6. Integrative thinking
  7. Daily Reflection
  8. Personal Operating Principles
  9. Building and Maintaining Networks | Coming Soon!

Habit #3: Brain Fitness: Stilling the Mind & Staying in the Present Moment

“Meditation is brain training” - Oprah

Stilling the mind is an art and a science. It produces calmness, clarity and increased capacity, and, like all forms of resilience, is a product of energy management. It has a positive affect on brain chemistry and enhances our ability to focus the mind.

Stop reading for a moment and close your eyes, bringing attention to the thoughts running through your head. Now open your eyes and let that register. No doubt there were a jumble of thoughts ranging from:

  • I don’t really want to do this now
  • What do I have to do to prepare for my next meeting?
  • What factors do I need to consider in solving problem x?
  • I wonder how my son is doing on his exam right now?

All to show that if we do not organize our thoughts they run us. They are often out of our awareness, they are chaotic, and there are far too many of them to make us effective or focused thinkers. We have about 60,000 thoughts per day. Many of them are recycled. Most thoughts involve remembering the past or planning for the future. They clutter our minds and take us out of the present moment. We are distracted.

Many of us have “racing minds” which means we are always thinking ahead towards outcome and solution, even when we are in dialogue with others and should be listening, considering input, and working with it in the moment. Racing mind creates reaction, not response, and impatience. Others of us, especially senior leaders, no matter how much we espouse the need to be strategic in our thinking, and to align our team’s work to the critical few priorities, do not take time to think, plan or reflect. We are busy doing all day long and our thinking is tactical and reactive. How does that serve us or our organization?

Resilience by definition means agile response in the immediate present. So the practice of exercising awareness and choice in regards to our thoughts allows us to relax, rest the mind, and improve its agility.

Now add in the pressures of an ever-changing environment, uncertain circumstances or an at-risk relationship and a habit of not focusing our thinking on assessment and creating a well-considered plan, puts us at risk. And take into account the reality that we all default to a habit of judging people and situations through the filters formed in the past. We may be operating from a mistaken belief that “all junior partners are gunning for our job”, or “David exercises poor decision making capability”, or “I’ve seen a situation like this before and know the solution” even though talking the other person through the thinking process would serve us all better. Such beliefs prevent us from doing our best thinking in the present moment.

These are all bad mental habits.

What are effective habits of thinking and how do we develop them?

First consider the recent scientific findings that just as we have circadian rhythms in our bodies during the night, we have mirrored ultradian rhythms during our waking hours. This means that we can maintain mental focus and high energy for 90 – 120 minutes and then we fall into a physiological trough for 10-20 minutes. This shows itself as fuzzy-headedness, drowsiness, and loss of focus. If we push through it with sheer will or stimulants such as sugar or caffeine, we get a temporary burst of energy but our cycles of focus will decrease as the day progresses. If instead we rest our minds, they will regenerate.

How best to do that in a short period of time? Get into your body. Run up and down stairs, walk in nature. Breathe. Meditate.

Tool #1: Breathing

Let’s start with breathing, which is the only autonomic (meaning automatic like heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature) function over which we also have conscious control. We take about 13,000 breaths per day while awake. Breath is the link between the body and the mind and if we do it mindfully, it is the quickest way to rest and restore the functioning of the mind throughout the lower energy cycles in our day. We are always breathing; so it is the simplest tool to use to still the mind. It brings us into our body so that we have an alternative to thinking.

Take a moment right now and put your hand on your lower abdomen, just below your belly button. Does your abdomen rise on the in-breath and relax on the exhalation, or is all the action in your chest instead? Does your breath flow in a steady rhythm or is it choppy? Most of us use the chest muscles to expand the lungs rather than the diaphragm muscle. When instead we activate the diaphragm through belly breathing, we inflate the lungs more and take in more oxygen which the hungry brain needs for sane thinking.

If we notice our breathing is shallow, we inhale more with our chest muscles, thus increasing heart rate and blood pressure and creating fatigue and anxiety. Instead practice the 10 Belly Breath exercise with me right now. Sit with your feet flat on the floor, spine straight and eyes closed. Start with a sigh of relief, a long exhale. Then breathe into the belly through the nose, feeling the belly rise as if it were a balloon you are filling with air. Hold your breath momentarily and visualize the lungs filling with oxygen. Exhale through the mouth slowly, making a “whoosh” sound or a long sigh. Keep pushing the breath out even after you think it is all gone. There will be more. This resets the diaphragm. Repeat the process for 10 breaths, focusing on the sensation of the movement of the air in and out of your body. Go as slowly as you possibly can.

This focus on body sensation gives the mind a rest. If you like, count each breath, or repeat the word “re-lax” or “let – go” , first syllable on the inhale, second on the exhale. At the end of the cycle of 10 breaths, notice how you feel physically. This may feel awkward at first and many people have difficulty training their body to breathe in through the belly. With time, you’ll get it. It is a wonderful technique to use in the moment when you are feeling rushed or stressed, before an important meeting, or while listening to an irate client. Give a sigh and then breathe deeply several times. Make a Save Your Breath sign and post it on your computer.

Andrew Weill Breathing Technique

Exhale through the mouth with a whooshing sound. Place the tip of your tongue on the soft palate of the roof of your mouth behind your front teeth. Inhale to the count of 3. Hold your breath for the count of 4, appreciating the nurturing the oxygen brings to your whole body. Breathe out very slowly through the mouth to the count of 8. If at first you can’t slow the breath down to the count of 8, not to worry. Keep counting to 8 anyway as you will eventually train yourself to do this. Repeat this cycle 3 more x for the first 3 weeks and then increase to a cycle of 8.

Tool #2: Meditation

“The only definition of a good meditation is one that you did.” - Joan Borysenko

Another very effective method of stilling the mind is meditation. I can hear you thinking “ Oh no, I’ve tried that and it’s impossible. I have too many thoughts. I can’t shut them down. I don’t have time.”etc. These conclusions illustrate another mistaken belief. Meditation does not require sitting totally still in the lotus position on a mountain top. It simply means a practice that moves us from frenetic, chaotic overthinking to a calm, quiet state for a period of time on a systematic basis so that you can refresh the mental function. If I were to ask you what you are thinking right now, chances are that you wouldn’t be able to tell me.

Similarly, sometimes when we’re driving on the highway we realize we missed the exit and yet we also don’t know what we were thinking about. This illustrates how often we are not masters of our own attention. We are not living in awareness and are therefore not exercising choice. Meditation trains us to keep our awareness in the present moment, and to exercise choice in how and when we focus our minds and when we give them a break.

The challenge of this technique is to do it no matter how stressed, busy or overwhelmed you are. The goal of meditation is not to experience peace and quiet during a practice session. That may well not happen. The goal is to train the monkey mind so that gradually you feel more aware, calm and agile at all times. To be alive is to have thoughts. This mental martial art practice is about not attaching to thoughts when they arise. It’s about allowing and accepting all thoughts as if they were waves coming in and going out on the shoreline. Neither indulge them nor push them away. When thoughts come ( and trust me, they will), you have a choice. You can witness them objectively and let them go or keep on thinking. In 10 minutes you might have to bring your mind back to the focus dozens of times.

This strengthens the mental muscles of letting go. After just a few weeks of practice, you’ll see that it’s much easier to control your mind throughout the day.What are the tools for meditation? There are many, some passive and some very active. In his book “Meditation in a New York Minute” Mark Thornton, an investment banker, describes many such exercises. Each one brings your focus to the present moment and the inner space by way of a technique like conscious breathing, repeating a word or phrase, visualizing, or performing a routine activity such as eating, mindfully. I recommend that you check some out, find one that you like, and practice daily for 10 minutes for 30 days. This creates a positive habit. And did I mention that serotonin, that feel-good chemical will be released into your blood stream? Yes!

Olympic coaches such as Runne Gustafson of the Swedish Winter Olympic team found breathing and meditation improved performance in his athletes by means of a strengthened immune system, better sleep, lower blood pressure, lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, accelerated muscle repair, renewed energy,and an increased sense of calmness, contentment, clarity.

For each practice, you simply uncross your arms and legs, sit with your feet flat on the floor and your spine erect. Focus your breathing on your lower abdomen, filling it with oxygen as you inhale through the nose and feeling it collapse on an exhalation through the mouth. Some alternatives include:

Thich Nhat Hanh’s Peace Breaths 

A simple technique that uses memories of being in nature to reclaim a desired state of relaxation or calmness.

Here are some examples:

Breathing in, I see myself as a lake.
Breathing out I am still

Breathing in I see myself as a mountain.
Breathing out, I feel stable.

Breathing in I see myself as a stream
Breathing out I feel fresh.

Whatever stem you use, visualize yourself in that place of nature and remember how it affected your senses and made you feel.

Chi Gung for Calm

Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.

Bend your knees slightly.

Put your hands by your side with palms facing forward.

Take a long, deep breath in. As you inhale, clench your fists and bring them toward your chin, with your elbows almost touching. Tighten all the muscles in your body, particularly the face, chest, arms and shoulders. The stance is similar to a boxer’s.

Hold your breath for the count of 6.

Exhale slowly through the mouth, unclench your fists, relax your fingers and chest, and bring your hands by your side with palms facing outward, releasing all tension.

Repeat 5 times.

Following one of these brain fitness strategies, you will find yourself able to focus your attention incisively throughout the day. I also highly recommend that you reserve time during the day to do your most strategic thinking at a time when your energy cycle is high (usually the morning). Protect this time and do not allow any interruptions. Everyone will benefit and you will go from feeling overwhelmed and believing that you are never doing your best work, to feeling on top of the important and no longer simply reactive to the urgent.

Let me know how your practice goes!!


“Meditation in a New York Minute” Mark Thornton
“Getting in the Gap” Wayne Dyer
“Inner Peace for Busy People” Joan Borysenko
“The Power of Now” Eckhart Tolle

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