Introduction to Mindfulness Week #3:
The Art of Choosing Goals Wisely
This week we’ll focus on how to take the mindfulness skills you have learned and apply them to the things you want to change in your life. You will discover how to use the stillness you have learned to cultivate, and to tap into the wisdom you find there to guide you as you set your goals.
Now that you’ve learned how to cultivate focus what are you going to do with it?
Last week, I told you about the metaphor I learned from Thich Nhat Hanh – comparing the mind to a garden – you have to be careful which plants you choose to water. If you “water” every thought that enters your head, you’ll end up with a bunch of weeds and no room for the plants you really wanted to grow.
Mindfulness meditation slows us down enough so we can actually become aware of the mental clutter in our minds. And as we talked about last week, the thoughts that contribute to that background clutter can have an enormous impact on our lives.
Once you have developed the ability to discern self-limiting trains of thought from self-supporting ones, then you can make conscious decisions about which trains of thought to follow. You don’t have to listen to your negative self-talk. In fact, you don’t have to listen to any train of thought. With practice, you can learn to recognize helpful thoughts in the moment, follow those, and let the ones that aren’t supportive simply drift away.
Over the last decade or so, we have learned that the human brain has the amazing ability to grow new brain cells and develop new connections throughout a person’s lifetime. These abilities are called neurogenesis and neuroplasticity. Basically, the brain rewires itself to support whatever you pay the most attention to. Therefore, if you train your brain to pay attention to the things that really matter to you, you will be more likely to be able to actually achieve those things.
There’s immense power there. It’s worth restating.
1. Whatever you pay attention to actually has a direct effect on your brain’s physical structure.
2. Your brain will wire itself to support whatever you pay attention to. That’s why it’s so important to choose carefully where you give your attention.
Thus, in order to make the changes to your daily habits and get on the path to real and sustainable change, you need to be careful about how you choose your goals. Mindfulness practice is a powerful way to gain the clarity and wisdom you need to focus on the goals that really matter to you.
So be intentional with your attention. It makes a difference.
What do you want to achieve?
So many of us go through our daily routines without stopping to think about our bigger goals – our deepest intentions. When was the last time you stopped to think about what really matters to you? I’m talking about what is most deeply important to you at your core. When was the last time you consciously brought your core values into your decision-making process?
When we don’t approach our lives with this deeper perspective in mind, we tend to live on autopilot and move through life in a relatively superficial way. For most of us, things generally aren’t terrible, but they also aren’t fantastic. We go through our daily lives rarely feeling any real sense of clarity. Maybe there are things we want to achieve or change in our lives, but we don’t really know how to get there. Often we’re not even really sure where there is. And in the meantime it’s too easy to get and stay distracted by all the “chatter” of life.
To move forward you must first become still enough to identify your innermost values. It’s very difficult to find clarity in the midst of all that chatter. Think about a radio not fully dialed into a station. You’ll hear lots of static, but have a hard time making out what’s actually coming through. It is the same with us. When we’re constantly distracted by superficial chatter, it’s hard to hear our innermost voices in the static. Mindfulness practice helps you learn to slow down, find presence and gain clear reception of what is truly important to you.
The “simple” fact is this: The only way to ensure success for long-term goals is to have enough clarity and commitment to them that they overpower your desire to be taken off your path for short-term gratification. It isn’t luck and it is always possible, though it may not seem that way sometimes. It can be cultivated through practice – for anyone, starting at anytime.
Regardless of your past, now is always the best moment to practice.
Regardless of where you are, now is always the best time to make a change.
Let’s take eating as an example. If you want to make long-term changes to your eating habits, you have to become clear and committed enough to your goals that your desire to achieve those goals overpowers your desire to eat another cookie. It doesn’t matter if you have eaten unhealthily in the past — it only matters where you bring your attention now. Again, every moment is the best moment to practice. It doesn’t matter what you chose before – now always brings a new opportunity.
And the more you practice, the easier it becomes. The whole process is similar to getting a freight train moving. At first it takes enormous effort and you barely see any movement. But as you keep putting in effort, you begin to see real progress forward. And as you develop new habits, your brain actually starts to rewire itself to support them. And as you start practicing these new habits, you also start building momentum, which means that it becomes easier and easier to keep going in the direction you choose. You just have to first clearly identify the track you want to be on.
This week, your homework will help you set meaningful goals for yourself. Next week, we’ll talk about how to use your mindfulness skills to actually achieve those goals that you identify this week.
Week 3 Homework
This week’s homework assignment includes an audio track for you to download and listen to, along with a worksheet for you to complete. I recommend you set aside at least a half hour to complete the assignment. The audio track is about 13 minutes long, and the rest of the time will be spent in silence and writing. The audio track begins with a brief mindful breathing practice, much like the one you have already been practicing with. Then, it leads you into a visualization exercise designed to help you use the stillness you cultivate to do some deeper inquiry about your motivations and goals. Then, when the audio track is done, you will be instructed to complete the written part of the exercise. Please have the worksheet printed out and a pen or pencil handy before you start the audio track so you can go directly from listening to writing without any interruption.