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Columns , Leadership

Your unique path to mindfulness and flow

Identify an appealing activity that you can consistently incorporate into your regular routine.

Your unique path to mindfulness and flow
Dr. Rob Trimble, Trey Cutler and Dr. Jeff Thoren, from left, took part in the 2016 Solvang Century, a 100-mile cycling event.

Our most recent article, “Flow in Uncertain Times” — read it at bit.ly/TVBFlow — reviewed the key elements of the flow state. When in flow, we are likely to:

  • Have clear goals that we are inspired to pursue.
  • Experience a deep focus of attention and effectively tune out distractions.
  • Be fully present and accepting of the realities of the moment.
  • Display confidence while being unattached to our ego needs or to any need to be in control.

Rereading the list, we realized that we’ve experienced those things while cycling, especially while participating in “century rides,” where the goal of 100 miles in one day is quite clear and we share the challenging yet energizing experience with many other riders. We have fond memories of the 2016 Solvang Century ride, when we completed the picturesque, albeit hilly, course together along with veterinary colleague Dr. Rob Trimble.

Flow, as we learned in Solvang, California, is a time of full awareness and aliveness when our inner critic goes silent and we are left with a deep sense of being connected to our bodies and senses. We are fully “in the moment.”

Expert trainer Cara Bradley suggests that we think of flow as mindfulness in action. So, clearly, there is a close relationship between mindfulness and flow.

What’s All the Buzz?

We’ve touched on the topic of mindfulness previously. Mindful.org sums up mindfulness as “the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.” It’s about non-judgmental acceptance of “what is,” including our thoughts, perceptions, feelings and body sensations.

Over the past 30 years, hundreds of studies have shown that when people practice mindfulness regularly, they experience desirable changes in their sense of well-being, their relationships, their ability to concentrate, their experience of physical and emotional pain, and their capacity to enjoy life. After eight weeks of practicing mindfulness, participants in one of the most interesting studies had less activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain active in the fight-flight-freeze response. More recently, researchers have found that the amygdala shrinks with mindfulness practice and that a corresponding decrease in anxiety occurs.

Practice Makes Perfect

The catch, of course, is that achieving these glorious benefits takes discipline and practice. We know that becoming more mindful and present is a proven strategy for developing resilience and for counteracting stress, distraction and busyness. The problem, though, is that as the evidence supporting the case for mindfulness grows more overwhelming, so does the prospect of trying to fit mindfulness practice into the already busy schedules and lives of veterinary professionals. The authors of this column are no exception.

In previous articles, we’ve shared some common approaches to meditation and centering practices. These excellent and worthwhile practices can, unfortunately, be difficult for many of us to consistently prioritize. Well-being expert Dr. Nate Klemp refers to these as “monk-style” approaches to meditation. They portray meditation as a practice that requires us to set aside time and create distance from the chaos and distractions of everyday life.

There are two problems with focusing exclusively on this model.

The first is that many busy professionals conclude they simply don’t have the time. Meditation quickly becomes yet another rock in the backpack of modern life, another “have to” that takes time and mental energy out of the day.

The second, more fundamental, problem is that the monk-style model of meditation leads us to view meditation practice and life as separate. Meditation is that thing that happens for 10 to 30 minutes. We get present with the breath while sitting in silence, tucked neatly away from the chaos of life. Life is that thing that happens as soon as the final gong rings when the text messages and emails flood in and we have to go back to rushing through the day.

The solution, Dr. Klemp says, is to stop trying to meditate like monks in a monastery and to shift to a more integrated approach. This involves finding opportunities throughout your day to shift your attention from ordinary states of stress, distraction and mind wandering to what’s happening right here, right now in the present moment.

Miles Are Meditation

Putting two and two together, the thought occurred to us, “What if cycling could be a legitimate way to practice mindfulness and, therefore, have more access to experiencing its benefits and more consistently accessing flow?”

Since 2016, one of us (Jeff) has increasingly become an avid cyclist and unsuccessful monk-style meditator, so it made perfect sense for Jeff to explore this alternate approach to mindfulness practice.

Jeff explains:

“Cycling is about reconnecting with and being aware of feelings, physical sensations and the world around me. It’s about confronting and overcoming challenges and limits. It’s about self-reliance balanced with embracing the company of others.

“Above all, it’s about awareness. The bike gives me so many different things to focus on. The beauty of my surroundings, the direction and velocity of the wind, the volume of traffic on the road, the operating condition of my bicycle all bring me back to the immediate moment. And this is what mindfulness practice is all about!

“When I find myself outside of the present moment, such as ruminating about past events, worrying about the future or being emotionally triggered by immediate reactions to my current circumstances, I’ve found Dr. Elisha Goldstein’s ‘breathe and expand’ technique — it’s summarized at upper right — to be most useful.

“I’m learning that the awareness I develop on my bike can help me detach from entrenched thought patterns, relax and view things more objectively. No value judgment, no good-bad, no right-wrong. ‘I’m riding into a strong headwind. This hill is steep. It’s hot outside today.’ All are accepted. These might not sound much like traditional approaches to meditation, but a good ride is one of the best ways I’ve found to focus, clear my head and reconnect with myself and the world.”

(We recommend the book “Mindful Thoughts for Cyclists: Finding Balance on Two Wheels,” by Nick Moore.)

Discover Your Own Path

So, if you, too, have struggled with integrating monk-style meditation into your daily routine, there’s hope. If cycling isn’t your thing, though, no worries. There are other options unique to your preferences and lifestyle.

In his InsideHook post “How to Achieve Mindfulness Without Having to Actually Meditate,” Tanner Garrity suggests this: “Think of activities in your life that erase hours from the clock. The ones you look forward to, or perhaps the ones you don’t think much about at all. They come, they go, but by the end of it all, you feel measurably more relaxed. These activities can be considered ‘backdoor’ avenues to mindfulness.”

These might be activities where you already experience some degree of flow.

Ask yourself, “In what enjoyable activity could I intentionally and mindfully practice redirecting my attention back to the present?” Perhaps the “breathe and expand” technique outlined above is something you could experiment with? Cooking? Running? Gardening? Do-it-yourself projects? Listening to live music? Hiking? Being in nature? These are just a few possibilities to consider.

So, what’s your unique path to practicing and expanding your capacity for mindfulness and the experience of flow? If monk-style meditation isn’t working for you, identify an appealing activity that you can consistently incorporate into your regular routine, and then begin a new practice.

Go With the Flow co-columnist Trey Cutler is an attorney specializing in veterinary business matters. Co-columnist Dr. Jeff Thoren is the founder of Gifted Leaders, a company offering leadership and coaching services. He serves on the Today’s Veterinary Business editorial advisory board.


BREATHE AND EXPAND

Dr. Elisha Goldstein, a psychologist and co-founder of The Center for Mindful Living in West Los Angeles, developed what he called a “one-minute practice that will start to train your brain to access that space of awareness where choice, possibility and opportunity lie.” Here is Dr. Goldstein’s “breathe and expand” technique in the words of co-columnist Dr. Jeff Thoren:

  • Breathe: I spend a few moments focusing on deep belly breaths — in through my nose and out through my mouth. If my mind wanders, I notice and redirect my attention back to my breathing.
  • Expand: This first involves expanding my attention into my body and doing a mini body scan. I zero in on feeling the various parts of my body and, if I detect any tension or tightness, I intentionally try to let it soften. For me, this typically involves dropping my shoulders and relaxing my neck muscles, two places where I typically carry tension. Next, this expansion can include noticing my thoughts and emotions in a nonjudgmental way or leaning into my five senses, perhaps paying extra attention to my peripheral vision or sense of hearing to detect things, such as birds chirping, that I’d previously been oblivious to.

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