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Jedi Mind Training for Normal Humans

I’m an unabashed Star Wars geek. Nearly all of my favorite scenes in the series involve a Jedi leaning into the Force:

  • Luke is hanging upside down, helpless with his feet frozen to the roof of a wampa cave. He breathes deeply, calms his mind, and stretches out with the Force to get his light saber out of the snow.

  • Red and blue lightsabers flash in a wintry forest as Rey and Kylo Ren duel. As Rey’s feet press against the edge of a chasm, Kylo shouts, “You need a teacher! I could show you the ways of the Force.” A switch flips in Rey’s mind, “The Force…” She closes her eyes, takes a breath, and the tide of battle turns.

  • And for the cuteness + awesomeness factor, there’s the first moment we see Baby Yoda tap into the Force by lifting a massive, enraged, rhinoceros-like Mudhorn off its feet.

Of course, I’m no Jedi master and can’t actually wield a lightsaber or Force lift a charging Mudhorn. But I can train and activate my inner Jedi, and so can you.

An everyday example

This past Friday I spent an hour and a half on and off throughout the day cleaning the kitchen -- doing a huge pile of dishes, sweeping the floor, picking up and putting away all the family clutter that accumulates on the counters. I felt super proud of myself that I fit that task in between five hours of Zoom meetings and a trip to the grocery store.

I emerge from my home office and head to the kitchen. My husband, Jason (whom I love fiercely), appears to be making dinner. “What do you need help with?” I ask.

Jason replies, “Well, I just finished cleaning the kitchen, wiping all the counters, cleaning the stove…” and suddenly I can’t hear another thing he says. What do you mean cleaning the kitchen? Can you not see how much cleaner the kitchen is than when you left this morning? A monster rears up inside.

I become unable to take in new information. My heart races. My shoulders tense. Sometimes my eye twitches. I want to shout or cry, perhaps both at the same time. It’s a minor, unintended slight, but these are my body’s symptoms of stress. I have become adept at recognizing them.

So I tap into the Force. Not the actual Force, but I have an inner Jedi inside me that I can access anytime. Just like Luke, Rey or Baby Yoda, I take a deep breath, calm my mind, and act from my inner Jedi.

Jedi mind training

Mindfulness is a research-backed Jedi mind trick for us regular humans who aren’t blessed with rock lifting, light saber dueling, or psychic superpowers. Some of you might be thinking that mindfulness is just a wack-a-doodle self-care trend akin to a fad diet or Marie Kondo’s “keep only that which sparks joy” extreme tidying. For others it conjures images of Buddhist monks sitting cross legged on a mountaintop for hours on end.

Really, mindfulness is a skill anyone can learn to direct your attention to what’s happening in the present moment without attachment or judgement. I love the analogy of mindfulness as allowing your mind to become a city guard on watch duty in the tower of an ancient walled city. Your mind is in the present, observant, aware, and attentive to whatever may be happening inside the city (your thoughts, feelings, and sensations) or outside the walls (all the stuff going on in the outside world). But its job is to stay in the guard tower and let someone else handle any problems: Hmmm… curious, there’s smoke coming from a field out there. Or perhaps you hear raised voices and a thud from the town square. I wonder what that’s about. Let’s observe a little longer before I call down to the Guard on patrol who can go check it out.

It’s important to note that mindfulness is not emptying your mind, having no thoughts, and relaxing. Like a Jedi in a difficult situation, it’s being present, centered, and aware of the full situation inside your body and out.

Mindfulness can happen in a moment. A brief check in with my inner Jedi was all I needed to tame the monster inside me when my husband made his comment about cleaning the kitchen: Take a breath. I wonder what this is about. Oh, Jason’s tired and hungry. Funny, I guess I am too. He never actually criticized my efforts. I bet he is seeking appreciation for his efforts. We’re good.

Or mindfulness can be a sustained practice. It’s Jedi mind training. Like fire drills or soccer drills, mindfulness practice makes it easier to tap into the Force when you need it. For years, my go-to mindfulness practice has been Buddhify, a beautiful phone app with 5-15 minute guided mindfulness meditations. Most days, I fall asleep and/or wake up to one of their meditations. I like to use it when I’m waiting around to pick up the kids from school or on a work break. (And no, they aren’t paying me anything to promote them.) But there’s a ton of other great options including Headspace and Calm.

The amazing thing is that mindfulness works! There’s evidence that mindfulness can reduce stress, sharpen your attention, and improve relationships. I particularly love this one study by Malte Friese and colleagues. It’s not a surprise that looking at disgusting videos of surgeries and people popping massive pimples would impair your performance on a cognitively demanding task. Five minutes of mindfulness meditation restores your performance, demonstrating that even a brief mindfulness break in your day can reset your brain and help you focus.

RAIN mindfulness meditation

One of my favorite stress-relieving mindfulness meditations is RAIN, which stands for Recognize, Allow, Investigate, Non-identify. You can try the RAIN meditation in full through Buddhify.

Recognize. Notice and name what you are feeling. What are your body’s signs of stress and difficult emotions. Do you hold stress in your shoulders? Face? Neck? Stomach? What do your heart and lungs do? Are you hot or cold?

Name it to tame it. “Hello hurt. Hello lack of appreciation. Hello anger. I see you. Hello racing heart and tense shoulders. I see you too.”

Allow. When there’s stress and difficult emotions, there’s also a tendency to either suppress it or beat yourself up.

  • “I shouldn’t feel this way.”

  • “Why can’t I just get over it? What’s wrong with me?”

  • “Nobody else freaks out like this. I’m so stupid.”

  • “I don’t have time for this.”

  • “You’re being weak and insecure. Again.”

What you feel is what you feel. Feelings and emotions are normal parts of human experience. All of us feel stress and get emotional. Judgement and self-criticism are insidious and just add an extra layer of negativity to make the whole situation worse. Our biology is built to evaluate threats and respond to them with emotions. It’s normal. You should feel this way. You will get over it eventually, that’s how your biology works. Nothing is wrong with you.

Investigate. Here’s where you get to ask questions and make sense of what is going on. Be the curious scientist or nosy anthropologist studying your own brain.

  • What else can you observe that wasn’t obvious at first?

  • Your stress must be happening for a reason… why?

  • What can you learn from this?

Non-identify. Finally, there’s real value in dissociating your core identity from the stressor. Who you are is not your stress. I love the analogy of stressors as dark clouds and storms passing through. You and your mind are the sky and the landscape below. That’s what’s actually real and permanent. The storm will pass. The rain will soak into the earth, and plants will grow from the water. The sky will clear, and the sun will come out again.

What about the really big things?

You might be saying, Sure, Irene. RAIN might work when it’s a medium-sized thing. But what about the really big things like the death of loved one, job burnout, or a truly traumatic experience?

Mindfulness can work for the really really big things in life too. Take a look at the work of Lucy Hone, a resilience expert and researcher with a fabulous Ted Talk. In 2014, her 12-year old daughter and her daughter’s best friend died in a car crash. The basic outline of RAIN helped her through her grief.

Read More

This is a great layperson’s article busting 5 myths about mindfulness by Ellen Hendriksen. And if you really want to geek out, this article in Nature Neuroscience reviews the research on mindfulness and the brain.

Humans have a huge range of emotions, though there’s some evidence that all emotions are grounded in 5-7 universal human emotions that all cultures experience: anger, fear, joy, sadness, disgust, and possibly surprise and contempt as well. Yet sometimes it’s hard to find the right word for what you are feeling, especially when the situation is complex and there’s a tangle of different emotions. In that case, take a look at Paul Ekmans’ Atlas of Emotions, a beautiful interactive website to help us learn to recognize and identify the range of human emotions we can experience. I had the privilege of studying with Dr. Paul Ekman in graduate school and his work is top notch. Plus there’s a cool factor: Dr. Ekman was the science advisor for Pixar’s Inside Out film!

Side note

Can we pretend that the prequel Star Wars trilogy (Episodes 1-3 from Phantom Menace to Revenge of the Sith) never happened? Thanks.

Going Further

This spring, I’m offering a special, complimentary “Resilience Session” for overwhelmed leaders in education, nonprofits, or public service. Many amongst my tribe of do gooders, myself included, feel like we are holding the world on their shoulders. We’ve survived a year of pandemic conditions (has it really been a full year?!?) and are exhausted. We are stuck between huge external challenges (financial woes, never ending to do lists, family responsibilities...) and mighty internal monsters (perfectionism, imposter syndrome, hyperachieverism, people pleasing...). Help is here.

In this one-hour session you will:

  • Craft a clear vision for the life you want, full of meaningful work & life activities that bring you joy and flow (what I call “energy enhancers”).

  • Clarify the specific areas causing you to feel so overwhelmed and unbalanced (your “energy drains”).

  • Design an action plan to cultivate work-life synergy.

  • Leave this session renewed, inspired, and re-energized to do good in this world.

Why are you offering this? I’m perfecting my process for helping my clients 5D their energy drains (Do, Dump, Delegate, Date, or Re-Define them). You get to benefit. Also, I’m considering launching a group coaching program related to my “Restoring Joy and Balance” class, but want to do some groundwork to better understand what people need right now.

This will not end with a high pressure sales pitch. I will ask, “What have you found to be most valuable about this conversation?” and “Would you like me to continue serving you?” That’s it. If you want to know more about what I offer, great! If not, I’ll thank you for your help in perfecting my process and wish you well on your way, directing you towards resources if I can.

If you’re interested, please sign up for a free Resilience Session on my calendar.

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