Human Limits

Exploring performance and health with Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

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Mindfulness for Christmas?

In my post around Thanksgiving I made the case for optimism as a justifiable approach to the world.  The general idea is that many things have gotten better and many seemingly unsolvable problems have been addressed in the last 40 or so years.   Part or my motivation was reminding people that life goes on and things frequently get better no matter how crazy the world seems at any given moment.  In the past few weeks a number of things have led me to think that optimism and something called mindfulness go hand in hand.

First, what is mindfulness?   One way to look at it is just simply paying attention or being more engaged in what you are actually doing.   In other words stop distracting yourself.    Tough to do in a world full of electronic and other goodies and interruptions.   Based on personal experience and chatting with others, I think a major reason people who are committed exercisers stay with it is because their exercise time is something they “own” and includes a chance to focus and get into what is usually called the “zone”.  The elite athletes do it and so can you.  When it happens you too can be a religious mystic………

Below is a little brain candy about mindfulness that you can give yourself for Christmas:

  • Here is a link to an interesting article on mindfulness and the need to sometimes let things percolate.  There is a saying in medicine “don’t just do something stand there!”   Wise advice to consider before you push the overreact button, or respond too quickly to an irritating e-mail.   There is no retrieve button, and part of life is learning what to ignore.


  • The book ”Finding Flow” has a number of ideas about how to get more “Flow” into your life.   From what I can tell flow, mindfulness and the zone are different names for the same thing.   A quick summary might be the internal satisfaction associated with engagement in a challenging activity and doing it well for its own sake independent of an external outcome.   Not too different from the definition of success and other ideas promulgated by legendary basketball coach John Wooden.   Wooden learned in his early 50s that shorter practices devoted almost exclusively to a limited number of fundamentals and simple plays paradoxically made his teams better.   At the same time he stopped scouting the other team preferring instead to devote his energy (and the energy of his team) to what they had total control over…….their focus, effort and execution.   Coach Wooden had learned to ignore or maybe how to focus by ignoring.


  • There are some good resources about how to use what might be called micro breaks to do a little deep breathing and refocus throughout the day.   My colleague and collaborator John Schmidt, a psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh, has used these techniques to help people with chronic pain move forward and get more out of life.   John tells me they can work for us all and he recommends the short book “Wherever You Go, There You Are”.    Here is a handout he uses with his patients.


  • In some of my posts around the Olympics I highlighted what the great coaches know and how they help the athletes they supervise “relax and win”.   In other words put forth seemingly super human efforts effortlessly.   These very same approaches can help us all.


  • My friend Terry Laughlin, who is one of the great coaches, has two interesting recent posts on his blog.  One is related to mindfulness, adult learning and successful aging.   Terry started off many years ago trying to help people swim faster and now he helps them understand that the fastest swimmers swim slower (fewer strokes to cross the pool) using less force.    His second post is about how a video of one of his disciples became the most watched swimming video ever.  In e-mail conversations with Terry he has taught me that to streamline your swimming stroke you must first streamline your mind (just like Coach Wooden streamlined his approach).   Perhaps there is a more general principle here to streamline your life……your organization……your whatever, perhaps you must first streamline your own mind.


So maybe give yourself the gift of mindfulness this Christmas.   And remember the words of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry who wrote the “Little Prince” and was also a pioneering aviator.   His advice below might seem counter-intuitive, but less truly is frequently more and the examples highlighted above are just a few that prove the point.   Enjoy the process of streamlining your mind in 2013.


“…perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away…”


2 Responses to “Mindfulness for Christmas?”

  1. December 24th, 2012 at 11:42 am

    Amy Ijams says:

    This piece was thoughtfully written at a very relevant time.
    Your links add substance and I look forward to digging into them further.
    Thanks for your thoughts and research. I enjoy your writing.

  2. December 27th, 2012 at 11:53 am

    Matt Laye says:

    Its great to see your perspective on a forum different from the pages of journals where I am most familiar with your work. You make really compelling cases in yours posts and its an inspiration for me as a basic scientist seeing how you easily cross over to a more public venue. I find it hard myself and you do it seemingly effortlessly. Keep it up.

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