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April Newsletter: A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind

1 Apr 2017 5:42 AM | Tim Burnett (Administrator)

April 2017 Newsletter

Letter from Tim

Wandering minds = less happiness

Dear {ContactField_First_Name},

Our minds are time traveling machines. When not truly focussed on what's happening right now our minds wander about half of the time, and when the mind wanders, where is it most likely to go? To the future and to the past. [See the Wandering Minds TED talk in Resources - right sidebar.]

In our classes and workshops we're constantly suggesting the dangers of excessive time traveling. 

It is true that the mind's ability to manufacture worlds that might exist in the future or re-generate the worlds of our past experience can be useful to us - how else would be make decisions or learn from what happens to us? 

Then again, rehearsing what we're going to do or rehashing what just happened might be useful to us the first time we do it, and maybe the second or third time, but but the 10th or the 100th time it's looking pretty doubtful. 

To make matters worse, our wandering, time traveling minds also exhibit a strong "negativity bias" [see Negativity Bias in Resources.]  What we remember from the past and predict of the future tends to be more disastrous, embarrassing, and just plain worse than what actually happened or actually will happen to us. And here we can so easily use a perceived or predicted exception to disprove any rule ("Just because this presentation went fine the last 100 times doesn't mean I'm not going to blow it this time!"). 

The “negativity bias” is not to say that bad things don't happen. Of course they do. But for most of us, most of the time, bad things are rare and most of the time we're surrounded by support, stability, and moment-to-moment opportunities to feel joy, connections, gratitude, and satisfaction in our lives. The time traveling, wandering mind just doesn't notice this as it's too busy ruminating over past failures and predicting future disasters. 

Instead, stay present

Recent research by an Australian group of researchers reinforces this Mindfulness 101 idea even further [see Present Moment Awareness in Resources.]. They found that people who take a more present-centered mental stance tend to feel more resilient in the face of stressful situations. They stay more grounded in their values, and remember a wider array of responses to difficult situations. And they are much less likely to try to avoid difficulty in maladaptive ways when it comes along. 

Lately I'm noticing that the benefits gained from present-centered awareness may be more profound than I realized. 

I'm fairly busy with teaching, running a mindfulness institute, helping to run a Zen center, my family, trying to stay in touch with friends, taking care of the body, household projects and repairs, doing my bit as an activist, and on and on. Your list details may differ but I bet your list isn't much shorter! 

And I enjoy and appreciate this life very deeply. But where my mind tends to go when anxiety flares is to the to-do list. So many things I'm probably not getting to, or forgetting, or have left half-done. There's a fear there of disappointing others. And if I look deeply a fear of ultimately being proven incompetent - a fraud. (A psychologist friend of mine named this for me as, "Fraud Syndrome"). 

And much as I enjoy a busy day of teaching, meeting with colleagues, practicing with the Zen community and so on, I always look forward to days with a lighter schedule at my home office which I think of as "catch up days." 

Even harder with time on my hands

The problem is: when I get finally to the catch up day I've longed for it often doesn't go the way I'd imagined.  

Rather than a relaxed and productive day of knocking the to-do list items out of the park. I find that with less structure my mind has more room to wander. It drifts into a feeling of overwhelm and I find myself doing low-priority tasks or procrastinating as a way to cope. I can even see my mind jumping to another task or even to the end of the day anticipating that I'll look back a this day with regret about my failure to have the focussed, productive day I'd longed for.  

What I'm learning is it's critically important that I make an active choice to focus on one thing at a time and to gently monitor my mind’s wandering tendencies throughout. I'm learning that the amount of mind wandering to the past and future, even the near future (like the next task after this one!) that's actually helpful during this kind of day is....basically zero.  

There are times for planning, sure, but mostly there are times to just do one thing. Just one thing. Just this. 

Adding a little structure to my day can also help. Yesterday I went to a yoga class, and with the 2 hour shorter day than I would have had without it I think I got more done and felt more satisfied with myself than I would have otherwise. 

So I'm doing my best to notice when I'm entering into the potential hazard of low-structure times when I hope to be productive and renew my intention to work gently and clearly with the mind in this present-centered way. The question I'm working with more and more is, "What am I doing now?" not, "What do I need to do today?"  

When it's hard, add kindness

And when the mind does it's thing and I can feel that downward spiral starting up, here's the other piece: kindness.  

I try my best to pause, smile to myself and the busy mind, and gently gather myself back to what I'm doing now. In our Mindful Self-Compassion classes there's the suggestion to treat the wandering mind more like an over-eager puppy or a toddler to guide lovingly and less like a problem child to discipline until he straightens out. 

I realize that all of this is not all that different from standard advice on getting things done. But the key to actually enjoying our low-structure productive times is mindfulness and self-compassion. A settledness in breathing helps. Attending to the body helps. Holding each task in our mind firmly but gently and appreciating our efforts as we go along with a softness around the outcome helps too. 

After you finish reading the newsletter I invite you ask yourself: What am I doing right now? Can you stay with that with stability and kindness? And forgiveness when you wander off! 



Learn the basics - live, online

Mindfulness Fundamentals Online Course. Our popular 4-week introduction to Mindfulness in the MBSR style now available online with a mix of self-paced and live interactive online content. Live meetings Tuesdays 6pm-8pm starting April 11th, plus includes the April 23rd Retreat at Home.

Treat Yourself - A Weekend of Mindfulness

An overnight retreat is a great way to extend the practice you've started after one of our classes!

Spring Weekend Retreat (Samish) - Friday-Sunday April 7-9

New Online Retreat Series - Try the first one free.

Retreat at Home. A three-hour LIVE online retreat offered on Sundays from 2pm-5pm PST on April 23rdMay 14th, and June 11th.  Join from the comfort of your own home using the Zoom video conferencing system. We're excited about this convenient way to renew our practice together from wherever we are. NOTE: The April 23rd retreat is FREE.

Become a mindfulness teacher!

If you've been feeling the call, there are a couple of spots in the training cohort that begins in September.

Click here for more info.

Discounts and Continuing Education

Alumni discount option. To encourage alumni to continue to refine and grow their practice, alumni can re-take their classes and/or attend retreats at a reduced rate. 

Continuing Education Credits.  Available for an increasing number of our course offerings. Upcoming events that include continuing ed:

Mindful Self-Compassion 5-day Training Retreat.


Wandering Minds TED talk: Click here.

Negativity Bias - Article by Rick Hanson: Click here.

Present-moment awareness research: Click Here

Scholarship Fund

We try to make our classes and retreats accessible to everyone, regardless of ability to pay. Our sliding fee scale helps, but many with the most need for mindfulness are the least able to pay.

You can help by making a tax-deductible donation to our Scholarship FundThank you!

Upcoming Classes

Information on all our classes and retreats can be found on our site:
Mindfulness Northwest Events

 Seattle Area Classes

 Bellingham Area Classes

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (Seattle). Thursday evenings, April 6 - May 25.

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (Kirkland). Wednesday evenings, April 12 - May 31.

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (Federal Way). Thursday evenings, April 13 - June 1.

Meeting Mindfulness & Self-Compassion workshop with the Whole U (Seattle) Saturday, April 22.

Mindfulness for Healthcare Professionals (hosted by the Everett Clinic). Wednesday evenings, May 17 - June 14. 

Fundamentals of Mindfulness (Kirkland) Wednesday evenings, July 12 - August 2.

Fundamentals of Mindfulness (Seattle) Thursday evenings, July 6 - August 3.
Compassion Cultivation Training. The next step after MSC. Monday evenings, April 10 - June 12.

Tending Relationships with a Mindful Heart workshop. Saturday April 15th.

Taking the Path of Mindfulness. Thursday evenings, May 4 - June 8. 

Mindfulness for Health Care Professionals. Monday evenings June 26 - July 31. 

Online Classes

Fundamentals of Mindfulness, Tuesdays April 11 - May 2, plus Sunday April 23rd.

Upcoming Retreats

Information on all our classes and retreats can be found on our site:
Mindfulness Northwest Events

 Day Retreats

 Multi-Day Retreats

Meeting Mindfulness with the Whole-U (Seattle) - Saturday April 22

Retreat at Home (Online) - FREE! - Sunday April 23

A Day of Mindfulness in Seattle - Saturday May 13

Retreat at Home (Online) - Sunday May 14

A Day of Mindfulness at Brightwater Center  (Woodinville) - Saturday May 27

Summer Day of Mindfulness at Brightwater Center - Saturday July 29

Spring Weekend Retreat (Samish) - Friday-Sunday April 7-9

Mindful Self-Compassion Intensive (Tacoma) - Sunday - Friday May 7-12
Flying inAirport shuttle now available.

Mindful Self-Compassion at Tassajara. Hosted by the San Francisco Zen Center, with Tim Burnett and Michelle Becker - July 20-24. A unique opportunity for practice in one of the most beautiful and peaceful places on the planet.

Plan Ahead!

Roots of Compassion 5-day Retreat 2017 - August 27 - September 1st
Flying in? Airporter shuttle available.

Roots of Mindfulness 7-day Retreat 2017 October 15-22
Flying in? Airporter shuttle available.

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