Your Mind is Like A Smoke Alarm

This morning I awoke to prepare breakfast at a retreat center, and was surprised by how many people were up at 6 a.m.  As it turns out, one of the smoke alarms was chirping, giving most people in the house an early wake-up call. The alarm became a topic of conversation as retreatants sipped their morning tea and coffee. They were clearly annoyed and disappointed in being robbed of a precious opportunity to sleep in a little before 7 a.m. meditation.

As I listened to the conversations, I had the thought that our minds are a lot like smoke alarms. As humans, we often are consumed by repetitive thoughts, many of which are unproductive and often self-critical, and can become annoyances in our daily lives, slowing us down in our creative processes and self-growth. Yet, many of us keep listening to them, again and again, which is akin to letting a smoke alarm chirp for hours or days upon end.

I think some of it comes down to a belief that our thoughts are out of our control. Meditation, mindfulness practice and self-inquiry teach us there is another way. Being able to identify a thought that doesn’t serve us, and proactively taking steps to quiet it – whether through deep breathing, walking meditation, or other techniques – is like taking the time and effort to change the smoke alarm battery.

Trying to quiet our minds by giving in to cravings, addictions or unconscious habits is like the makeshift solutions we try when the smoke alarm is sounding – jiggling it around, pushing various buttons – which might offer some short-term quietude, but ultimately the noise starts back up. Some of us disconnect the alarm or remove the old batteries to get the sound to stop, but then the alarm doesn’t provide any function. This is likely completely numbing out our mind so that we enter a stupor, unable to tend to our life demands.

When you notice a repetitive thought, let it be a wake up call, a call to action. Find techniques that work, and change the batteries in your mind. If you were to put new batteries in your smoke alarm and it kept chirping, you would assume a battery was bad and try another one. If the same thoughts return, change the battery again, maybe trying another technique that you know has the power to bring you to a calm place.

 And just like smoke alarms require maintenance (we’re told to check them every couple months), find routine practices you can do – daily or weekly – that cultivate the same sense of peace in your mind.  In the same way you’re unlikely to ever hear the low-battery signal in your smoke alarm if you’ve changed the batteries regularly, a regular meditation or mindfulness practice helps to eliminate the repetitive thought cycles we get caught up in.

Unlike so many things that are beyond our control – traffic, other people’s reactions and so on, thankfully both smoke alarms and our minds can be tamed with ease. Be grateful the ability to quiet your mind is just a breath away – no ladders needed. 


Lower the Dimmer Switch on Your Seasonal Stress

Some call it the most wonderful time of the year, others call it the most stressful. The holidays can bring us great cheer, but in our quest to be festive we often find ourselves depleted, between all the parties, family interactions, and indulgence in sugary treats. Add to this short days and longer nights, and pretty soon all you want to do is hibernate like so many creatures are preparing to do this time of year. In this season, or other times where we let stress overtake us, it can be easy to go, go, go at such a pace that we completely use up every last ounce of energy. While this tactic can feel productive in the moment, it can tax both the body and mind in damaging ways that take time to recover from. Think of it like this: if you drive your car until it runs completely out of gas because you're too busy bouncing from appointment to appointment to stop and fill it up, what happens? You end up spending a lot more time on the side of the road dealing with AAA or finding someone to bring some gas to you than you would have if you'd simply taken a couple minutes in the midst of the craziness to simply put some gas – even just a gallon or two – into the tank. 

The same goes for your body and mind: taking time – as little as a minute – to refuel can have lasting an profound effects for your whole day. Anytime we consciously stop the busyness and interrupt our stress, we automatically send the body a signal to take a momentary break from operating in its "fight, flight or flee" mode, where we tend to spend a lot of our waking time especially this time of year. When we are able to do this, we activate our parasympathetic nervous system (responsible for rest, digestion and rejuvenation), which sends powerful signals throughout the body to perform simple maintenance-related tasks that support our health and well-being. 

When we push ourselves to our edge day after day, we often become like the car that's run out of gas - we are more prone to get sick, we become irritable and lacking in holiday cheer, or find ourselves completely depleted and unable to keep up at the pace life demands.


In an ideal world, we might take a couple days to retreat in a season such as this, but given all that our modern lives ask of us, instead of hitting the off switch completely, many of us are simply grateful to have a "dimmer switch" to lessen the intensity of our stress.

Here are four great ways to dim your stress this holiday season, all in 30-minutes or less. Choose the amount of time you have and take a moment to practice being instead of doing. All of these activities are great ways to dim your stress and let the radiant light of your true being shine a little brighter:

1 minute: Set a timer, then close your eyes. Take a full, deep inhalation followed by a long, slow exhalation. Continue until time is up, seeing if you can lengthen each progressive in/out-breath pair. When the timer sounds, take just a moment more to notice the effect this quick practice had on your state of being.

13 minutes: Grab a cushion and listen to my guided recording of one of my personal favorite meditations. I learned this one from Pablo Das, who received it from Dr. Rick Hanson, author of the amazing book Buddha's Brain. I've taught this meditation to many people, and so many of them have credited it for getting them through some pretty tough and dark times. This meditation specifically builds up parts of the brain that help us conquer our feelings of lack or deprivation. So if you're struggling because you feel like you don't have enough – or that you are not enough – this practice is for you! Click here to listen now (or right-click the link to download).

20 minutes: Try a mindful walking practice. Allow yourself to be attentive to each step, feeling as your foot connects with the earth. Bonus points if you sync your steps with your breaths! You could simply take a walk near your home or office or get out into nature for some time away from it all. You can even practice mindful walking when you're out in the hordes doing last-minute holiday errands. Allow yourself to go slow and see what happens.

30 minutes: Break out your yoga mat and enjoy this free Rest and Rejuvenate yoga practice with Jillian Pransky. I had the great good fortune to complete a restorative yoga teacher training with Jillian in October, and she is truly a masterful teacher. I hope you enjoy this as much as I did!

A Holiday Meditation


The holidays are supposed to be "the most wonderful time of the year," but for so many people, they instead are a time of stress and overindulgence. While we tend to over-consume in every way possible - from party foods to buying gifts we feel social pressure to give, many of us are left feeling rather empty by the time the new year rolls around.

Along with this emptiness, we often get caught up on what is lacking in our lives - whether it's money to buy special gifts, time to accomplish everything on our to-do lists, the right partner to celebrate with, etc. These feelings of deprivation can send us into the depths of depression at a time when we feel so much social pressure to be cheerful, which can then lead to further spirals of self-judgement and inner criticism.

The following meditation is inspired by a practice offered by Rick Hanson, who wrote the book Buddha's Brain, which is a fabulous introduction to the research neuroscientists have conducted on the effects of meditation and other contemplative arts. This meditation specifically builds up areas of our brain that are responsible for helping us feel safe, secure and that we have enough. Done daily, this meditation is like preventative medicine against the poisonous thoughts of lack, jealousy and greed.

In the recording below, we practice for about 10 minutes (beginning by connecting to the breath, and then proceeding through three sets of instructions), but know that you can do this meditation in less than two minutes on your own (spending about 30 seconds with each of the instructions). The more you practice, the more you build up your natural defenses to social pressures telling you that you must acquire new or be something different to find happiness and meaning in your life. Start today...whether you practice just once, or on an on-going basis, the results are noticeable and profound in my experience.

Click here to listen to the meditation (right-click to save file to your computer).