I recently suffered, survived, and thrived at a weeklong silent meditation retreat. If you know me, you understand what an accomplishment it was for me to be silent for a week. My wife couldn’t imagine it!
Meditation retreats are enlightening…they turn up the lights on our internal world and our perception of the external world. A week of mediation leaves no room to escape seeing oneself with the clarity of a microscope. Acceptance, compassion, and suspension of judgment are the meditator’s tools. A retreat is not a magical mystery tour, nor a vacation. It is the challenging practice of seeing and accepting life as it is, impermanent as it is, at any given moment.
As expected, the retreat experience did not cure my ADHD. I took it with me, sat on a meditation cushion with it, experienced it fully, and brought it back home with me.
You might ask, then, how my ADHD brain has benefited from meditation retreats. Here’s how. I see my symptoms more clearly. I observe lapses in mindfulness more quickly and reset my attention more seamlessly. I listen more fully and speak more succinctly. I’m less defensive when criticized. I complain less and attend more to the beauty that surrounds me. I’m less judgmental of myself and others. I’m more conscious of ways I can be helpful to others in my daily life, and more aware of when I need to pause and regard myself as I regard others. Over the many years that I have practiced meditation, I have gradually achieved more ease of being in my life.
Now, you might ask how I know that I still suffer from symptoms of ADHD. Here’s how. For one thing, I discovered on day six of the recent retreat, while turning the pages of the schedule, that it had a seventh day! I had scheduled psychotherapy clients for that entire last day. My need to depart early changed the work schedule. When preparing to take a walk on my last morning, I was approached by a retreat manager who whispered, “Are you making breakfast this morning?” I mimicked his whisper, “Yes, I’m on my way now,” which was partially true…I only had to turn downhill to the left, instead of uphill to the right (the cafeteria was downhill).
I elected to journal in my room during an optional yoga period one day (I injured myself at yoga the day before…who does that?). After the yoga period, I mistakenly thought it was time for the next walking meditation, and I walked right past the person striking the moktok, a wooden instrument that alerts us to the next round of sitting meditation. I discovered at the end of my half-hour walk that all the other participants were where they (and I) belonged…on the meditation cushions.
I felt certain that other meditators saw me as oppositional. But judging them for judging me was not mindfully correct at an insight meditation retreat. The judgment was just my mental activity and not necessarily theirs. I returned my attention to observing my string of incessant thoughts, as if watching them on a screen. I dropped the judgment…aware that I don’t know what I don’t know…and don’t need to try to know what I can’t know…and don’t even need to try not to try…to know…you know?
Ease of being does not come easily, but the benefits are worth the effort — i.e., the effort involved in abandoning unwise effort. The practice of meditation has proven beneficial to adults with ADHD, but it will not “cure” a neurological difference that you were born with. Living well with ADHD requires acceptance and practice, not just understanding. It is not about becoming better than you are…it is about being who you are and cultivating skills to unleash your creativity and resourcefulness.
This inspiring article is from Casey Dixon who coaches adults with ADHD. Many of her clients are university professors and attorneys throughout the U.S. She is a great resource with her coaching practice and her second website that includes brief and accessible mindfulness exercises. You can find links to her practices on my “resources” page.
Forget your goals for a moment and consider your core values. What would a meaningful life look like for you? What is important for you to accomplish in your time on this planet? What have you done today that reflects what you value. If you value writing as a form of entertaining or informing others, have you done anything today that corresponds with that value? If you value being kind to others, have you engaged in acts of kindness today? If you value earning enough money to support your family and your children’s future, are you taking some action today on your path to actualizing that value? As someone who values taking care of your mind and body, what have you eaten today, and where did you exercise?
If you are criticizing yourself for what you are not doing, you are not learning anything from your experience of avoiding. Avoiding taking action on what is important to you is not failing…at least not yet…it is simply not activating.
For years, I thought self-criticism was not only normal, but necessary. It was a noble way to challenge my lazy self and insulate me from the pain of being judged. But it only made activating appear more difficult than it is. Having your attention derailed by something more immediately rewarding is understandable; it feels good. Unwillingness to fee temporary discomfort (e.g., fearing failure) may be the biggest obstruction to starting and sustaining effort.
Self-criticism is pointless, superfluous, obstructive, and above all, it is self-centered. Being task-centered instead is a better way to move forward. You don’t need to bother yourself about your mild discomfort; it is not abnormal. Just put your wheels on the tracks…nothing more…and when you get derailed, return the wheels to the tracks as often as necessary. Acceptance is more useful than self-criticism.
How does it feel to be told you’re not okay as you are, and that you need to overhaul yourself? This message appears too often in the professional world of “treating” adults with ADHD. It is insulting and inhibiting. One popular author and speaker claims to be healing ADHD. Try following his advice and see for yourself if you no longer have ADHD afterward?
Doubting your brain’s potential is not a place to start. Judgment impedes progress, according to research that I’ve reviewed. Acceptance and willingness, on the other hand, are foundations for improved functioning.
I could have written a book to make you feel bad about yourself and promised to fix your broken brain. But then I would have to live with myself for tricking you into believing that I’m your personal savior. Instead, I think you’re better off understanding and accepting your brain so you can get busy actualizing your dreams rather than dreaming about brainpower.
Negative thoughts about yourself may be your biggest problem, bigger than the symptoms of ADHD. People with average ability often accomplish more than people with genius IQs. Overachievers are not obsessed with trying to perfect their brains. I’m less impressed with how well someone sharpens his tools than how well he uses them.
Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, author of My Stroke of Insight, said, “Stop saying you’re wasting time; it’s a waste of time to say it.” The opposite of wasting time is doing something. I believe that most adults with ADHD already have all they need to start and finish tasks. Dr. Russell Barkley said it’s not that adults with ADHD “don’t know what to do; they don’t do what they know.”
The youngest success story featured in my book was fifteen when I first met him. He underachieved in high school, and some of his teachers thought he was oppositional. One teacher told him that she understood him and knew he was going to do well. He is now a clinical psychologist conducting research at a major university. When I interviewed him for the book, he told me this: “Encouragement changes lives, and criticism makes you want to give up.”
Surround yourself with supportive people who will encourage you, and then start doing what you know.
When is “good enough” good enough? A professional helper with an excessive change-orientation could be contributing to your self-defeating thoughts, like this one: “I’m not competent enough to accomplish my goals…I need to be better than I am to achieve my vision.” Change at the expense of acceptance contributes to negative judgment about one’s potential. Dependence on the helper may make the helper feel valued, but it may have the opposite effect on clients who already minimize their value. Their experience of not being seen, accepted, and respected for who they are is familiar. Their self-doubt has a history.
Recent research suggests that non-judgmental self-observation and radical acceptance are critical in managing emotions and overcoming self-defeating thoughts and behavior. The power of acceptance and commitment are well documented as catalysts for development and change.
We have the power to accept our cognitive differences and commit to action, despite uncomfortable feelings and negative thoughts. Living well with ADHD means attending mindfully to what we want to accomplish and not being sidetracked by excessive attention to symptoms and limitations. Reviewing published research on these topics last night, I came across this: “Thoughts are not facts.” And I recently read the following powerful sentence in a book on mindfulness: “Feelings just are.”
Perfectionism can derail you; whereas, acceptance of your thoughts and feelings can prevent them from slowing you down. They’re just thoughts and feelings. In the 1980’s, I was inspired by a song whose chorus began with, “Ain’t nothin’ gonna break my stride…”
Ten Dimes: In 1979 I was a frequent flyer at a coin laundry on West End Avenue near Vanderbilt University. I lived in the neighborhood. There was a woman working there who wore an apron-like pouch strapped around her waist. She made change so customers could have quarters for the washing machines and dimes for the dryers. The washers were lined up in the center of the room, and dryers were along the west wall. Customers sat in folding chairs along the front window and east wall. The place was like a library for Vanderbilt students. They quietly read their textbooks while waiting.
I needed change for the dryer one evening and gave the coin lady a dollar for ten dimes. I put all of the dimes in my left pocket. All ten went through a hole in my pocket and rolled out in ten directions when they hit the tile floor. Customers in the “student section” looked up from their books to watch my performance as I searched and recovered ten dimes.
I found all ten with no help from unsympathetic students. Not one student helped me, even after my encore performance when I put the ten dimes back into the same pocket with the same outcome! What snobs! The worst part was having to hang around because my clothes needed drying and the dryer needed dimes.
Paradox: I called my wife at work recently to suggest meeting at a restaurant near my office after work. She is accustomed to arriving at restaurants before me, at the time we agreed on. She expects me to be a few minutes late. On this occasion, I was on time. I scoped out the place, expecting to see her at a table, but she wasn’t there. I was proud that I had beaten her this time.
The hostess asked, “How many?”
Distracted, I replied, “I beat my wife!” She looked shocked.
“Oh no,” I said, “I didn’t mean that I beat my wife…I beat her here…no, I have never beaten her, here or anywhere…I don’t beat my wife…she usually beats me…no, I don’t mean…what I mean is…she is normally on time and I’m not!”
There are large and small risks associated with ADHD. I recall events in my life that could have been disastrous, and one recent event that only affected my appearance temporarily.
Here is my hyperbolic short list of dangerous events and situations, up to age 30:
- When I was a toddler, my brother and I competed to see who could get the front wheel of his tricycle closest to the edge of our front porch without toppling down the steps. I lost!
- As a pre-teen I took walks on the railroad tracks that bordered our back yard.
- As a teen I sometimes sped across railroad tracks when the signal was flashing and the gates were descending, to avoid having to wait for a train to pass.
- At 16 I was an occasional passenger with fearless drivers of fast cars with few safety features.
- One night at 17 I could hardly keep my eyes on the road because my date was so stunning. I ran into the back of a car at a traffic light. It was one of many last first dates.
- One night at age 20, I thought I was on a main road rather than a similar looking street one block over. I passed a stop sign, jumped a ditch, and plowed up someone’s front yard!
- I took many risks as a naive 28-year-old driving across the country and up and down the west coast. I was a magnet for Stephen King characters in Santa Cruz.
- I got to know my wife after we married, rather than before. I proposed a few months after meeting her. She remains with me 38 years later.
Here is a recent minor event that changed my appearance in 5 mindless seconds:
I could have passed up trimming my beard one morning last week when I was in a rush to get to the office. But trimming with electric clippers was fast, and my 3/8-inch attachment allowed for a precise cut. I removed the attachment to blow off debris from a previous trimming. I turned on the switch, and in one motion I made a path up the right side of my chin. I was shocked to see the result of forgetting to put the attachment back on. There was no time to fully evaluate the beard’s viability, but it wasn’t very pretty. So, I continued clipping as fast as I could until there was nothing left but nubs to shave off with my razor. If only I had started getting ready earlier, or proceeded at a mindful pace…
So it goes.
Here are a few simple tips for understanding and practicing focused attention (mindfulness) and open awareness in meditation.
Mindfulness meditation is as much about returning to an object of attention as it is about focusing on it. We rarely maintain fixed attention for a full meditation period. In fact, we may only have short periods of fixed attention on an object and need to return again and again. Doing so with kindness and compassion, rather than frustration, is key.
Being present with the body, physical sensations and emotions is about relaxing into the experience, whatever it is, rather than resisting or tensing up. “That which we resist persists.”
In working with thoughts in meditation, our relationship to thought is more important than the content of the thoughts themselves. That is, we observe the flow of thinking without getting caught up in the narrative. Its like we’re watching a stream flow by or a train coming into the station and then heading out again without getting on.
Open awareness meditation is about noticing sounds arising and passing near and far and experiencing the changing flow of all experience, internally and externally, in the open space of mind – a mind as wide as the sky. We are letting go of the idea that our mind is limited to our head or any fixed point of reference. We do include awareness of breath and body in this practice, but we don’t fix our attention there. In fact, this practice works best when we are able to let go of effort and rest in the great embrace of open awareness, allowing all things to arise and pass away, attaching to none.
As we deepen into this practice, the boundary between inside and outside dissolves, and the duality of subject and object disappears.
I don’t recommend toggling back and forth between focused attention and open awareness during one meditation session. Find a practice to settle on until you feel stable. Many people, especially more experienced meditators, begin with focused attention and naturally shift into open awareness as their concentration deepens. If you struggle with open awareness because your mind wanders without a fixed object of attention, you may find the guided meditation, “Mind Like Sky” helpful. You can listen to it here.
What exactly does it mean to observe anxiety? When I ask clients how they felt when confronted with a stressful event, they almost always tell me what they thought, not how they felt. They say things like, “I felt like he was going to yell at me.” That is a thought…not a feeling. A feeling would be, “I felt afraid,” or “I felt the sensation of fear.”
What does it mean to observe the sensation of fear? By directing your attention inward, and not toward the person who was going to yell at you, you can locate where you are feeling the sensation in your body. I almost always feel fear and anxiety at the top of my abdomen, beneath the sternum. Getting close enough to the sensation to fully experience it demystifies and normalizes it.
We naturally try to avoid or escape situations that stimulate anxious feelings, but we also try to avoid or escape the feelings. This is a mistake because it is impossible not to feel what you feel. Your feelings are involuntary, but your thoughts are the stories you construct. When you push back against feelings, you believe your stories…the emotionally reactive thoughts. When you ride a rollercoaster, you don’t actually believe you are going to die, and the feeling subsides when you exit.
When you don’t disturb yourself about rising feelings, and instead, experience them like waves in the ocean, you will notice when the emotional waves recede. When you move up close to an uncomfortable feeling–like leaning into a cold wind–you are tolerating it. When you brace yourself against it, it bothers you. Pushing back intensifies the very feeling you are wishing not to have.
Living well with ADHD calls for living well with your emotional experiences…accepting the ups and downs of life’s rollercoaster. There is no alternative if you want to embrace life fully. Emotions are the color of life.
Mindful observation of mindlessness is inconceivable…and possible. It is inconceivable in that conceptualizing is something other than meditating. In fact, it is the opposite and, therefore, cannot be a solution to mindlessness. Put another way, you can’t solve an excessive thinking problem by thinking about it. Stepping back from mental chatter–not into it–enhances mindful awareness. A brain full of chatter is like a water glass that is too full; there is no room for more water. But there is plenty of room for water when the glass is empty. Decluttering the mind makes room for simple observation…just noticing without evaluating what you’re noticing.
When meditating, I’m seldom aware of the precise moment when drifting starts. With consistent practice, my sharpened attention notices the drifting sooner than when I’m not consistently practicing. Meditating is not about stopping thoughts, a common misconception, but about turning up the lights so you can see your thoughts, feelings, and life around you. The more you practice, the more you see.
Awareness of your internal and external experience does not require thinking about your experience. What did an apple taste like before humans had language to describe it? Tasting an apple requires no thought or description of the experience.
When meditating, here is what you should do the moment you become aware that you are starting to get lost in thought: Don’t waste a thought over it! Just gently return your attention to present-moment awareness…to your “observation deck.”
A cluttered brain wanders aimlessly. Think about what your mind is like when you are falling asleep. Your mind-wandering state is what some neurologists call the “default system,” the receding of alertness. When you wake up in the morning, your brain returns to alertness as the default system recedes and the “executive system” comes back online. In your daily life, when you recognize the drift and return your attention to the present moment, you are exercising the executive system.
I believe that most adults with ADHD are unfamiliar with an open state of awareness. We don’t go there naturally. We’re too stuck in a selective state of attention, always focused on something, often a low-priority activity. Getting stuck in selective attention is one reason we don’t notice the clock or competing priorities. We can get lost in a task without regard for its relative importance because determing relative importance (prioritizing) requires an open state of awareness. We tend instead to lock our attention into what is right in front of us, to the exclusion of just about everything else, including our spouses!
Open awareness is necessary for intentionally directing your attention. The last time I was on a local television talk show, I noticed the absence of camera operators I had come to know. The studio was now equipped with robotic cameras. Before going on the air, the interviewer pointed to a small camera behind me, mounted high on a wall near the ceiling. A director sits in a booth directing the four robotic cameras using that small camera on the wall. He makes continuous decisions about zooming in and out, switching cameras on and off, and moving them into position to shift the viewer’s observation (attention) from the talk-show set to the news desk.
I told the interviewer, “That small camera is what my brain needs!” I need the wide-angle view to expand my awareness, the zoom feature to focus in and then zoom back out, and the authority to direct my attention to where I need it to go.