Archive for the ‘habits’ Category

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Mindful Reading

July 18, 2016

I love to read. I always have something on hand with me, and I don’t mean skimming Facebook or email on my phone. I mean I sneak a look at a magazine or book whenever I get the chance. But I’ve been worrying that I am too slow a reader. There certainly is always too much to read, and my piles grow, both on my nightstand and by my desk. Thanks to The Productivity Show podcast, I heard about an online speed reading course called Rev It Up Reading.

Last week my family went to the beach, and my favorite way to spend time at the beach is reading. Since I’d have so much time to read, I decided to buy seven days of access to Rev It Up, so I could put the techniques to immediate use. The course was really helpful. Although I was already a pretty fast reader, my speed went up nearly 25%, and my comprehension improved too. And I realized that highly effective reading is really an application of some mindfulness practices to the page and screen.

It’s All About Attention

At its core, improving speed and comprehension are about improving attention. One common obstacle to rapid reading is regression, going back and rereading paragraphs (or pages!) we’ve already read. While we sometimes we reread because of a passage’s significance or complexity, it’s more common that we go back because we were looking at the words but not reading them. This is because we weren’t giving our attention to the reading, but were instead thinking about other things. We did the physical work of reading, but not the mental comprehension that provides us with the meaning in the words.

When I’m not on the road traveling, I often attend morning meditation at my temple. During the session we chant four different dharma passages. I’ve done this enough times now that I have them memorized. Because I’m not always confident I really can remember all the words, however, I usually have my booklet open in front of me. What I now notice is that, if I just read the words, my mind can easily stray. I think about other things. My chanting mind is on auto-pilot. But if I chant from memory, then I am more aware of the words, and I think more about their meaning. The chanting gets more of my attention, and becomes a more fulfilling practice.

Quieting the Monkey Mind

Subvocalization, sounding out the words we read, can also slow down our reading rate. We speak about 150 words a minute, so if we sound out every word we read, we’re reading much slower than the mind can think. The trick to quieting this voice is to read faster, bypassing the vocalization process and moving the reading process more directly from the eye to the brain. At first this can feel uncomfortable, and it’s easy to worry that we’re not comprehending as much. But with a little practice, we end up understanding more. Just as removing the training wheels leaves us a bit unsteady at first, the need to pay attention to our balance focuses us, and we end up being much faster and more effective bicyclists.

I think of the Buddhist concept of the monkey mind as a parallel to subvocalizing. Beginning meditators can be put off when they first notice the seemingly unending stream of thoughts the mind produces. I’ve had friends tell me that, after a single attempt at meditating, they want to give up the whole process. How can we have a quiet mind when there’s so much going on in there? But this internal chatter, often replaying the past or anticipating the future, is only noise. This monkey mind leaps from thought to thought, and appears to have boundless energy. But once we bring our attention to it, we see that the monkey mind can’t sustain itself. Our deeper consciousness stops feeding it. Meditation is just tapping into this consciousness, and returning to it every time we give our attention to our thoughts. With practice, we begin to feel more settled. Similarly, if we give our full attention to the words we’re reading, we can quiet the subvocalizing. We stop giving energy to the internal talking, and we end up reading faster and understanding more.

Won-Buddhism believes that meditation can happen anywhere, anytime. I’m now seeing that reading can be form of practice, too.

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Keeping My Resolutions

March 31, 2016

How are your New Year’s resolutions holding up? I’m batting .530.

The year is now a quarter over, and for two reasons I still remember my resolutions for 2016. The first is that, on New Year’s Eve, Vicki and I went to a “letting go” ceremony at my Won-Buddhist temple. Everybody wrote their regrets and missteps of 2015, and then burned them in a fire on the temple deck. When we returned to our cushions, we wrote down what we wanted to do in the new year. After I brought home my list, I glued it to the inside of my notebook for the year (see photo). I use my notebook to jot down ideas and reminders when I’m teaching, or participating in meetings, or other times when I think of ideas or want to remember to do something. I figured putting the list there would help me keep my resolutions top of mind. Yet I hardly ever look at it.

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Resolutions captured at 2015 “Letting Go” ceremony, Won-Buddhist Temple, Chapel Hill.

I don’t need to, for the second reason I still remember my resolutions: Momentum, a MacOS/iOS app for tracking habits. I love love love this app. Each time I do one of the five resolutions I made for myself, I get to check a box on the app, which turns green and makes a lovely little sound. I can see at a glance how well I’ve done over the past week, and how long my streak is for each habit. If I want to measure my progress, with one click I can export the data to Excel, then quickly total how many days, and thus what percentage of the year, I’ve done each habit. I’m a little disappointed that, overall, I’ve done just a bit more than half of all possible actions (reading and Korean are pulling me down). But those numbers are actually amazing, because I’m meeting way, way more resolutions than any other year, because the app, which sits on the dock of my Mac and the home screen of my phone, is always there. The net effect of Momentum: I’m slowly learning some Korean, I’m reading more books than usual, I’m walking/running regularly, I’m meditating more than ever, and I’m writing more than ever.

I am using other apps and web sites to help me reach my daily Momentum goals. If I have 15 minutes to learn Korean, I launch Memrise on my phone. I use RunKeeper to track my walks, runs, yoga classes and meditation sessions. I alternate between “hard copy” books and my Kindle (a must-have for a frequent flyer) and track my progress on GoodReads.

For my writing habit, I am using 750words.com, which I learned about from Vicki. This site, which I’m using right now to draft this post, gives you a blank screen on which to type (at least) 750 words a day. This number is based on a practice recommended by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way. She suggests starting your day with a 750-word free write, to get the creative juices flowing first thing. Possible side effects: the processing of dreams and otherwise unearthing of subconscious stuff that may or may not be important to surface, but which help you see what is really on your mind. You earn “points” each month for each day you write, and you earn more points if you write for consecutive days. It’ll congratulate you for streaks of 5 and 10 days (and, I’m guessing, more–so far my best run is 13 days). 

Thanks to methods both old school (writing down goals on paper) and new (apps and web), I’m feeling like I’m using my time this year more effectively than ever before. Even better, I feel like I’m slowly becoming more of the person I’d like to be.

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