Tuesday, February 3, 2015

My Own Social Experiments

Back in 2011 I wrote here, "But I love projects. I really do!  For me, they make the ordinary extraordinary." I found that quote by searching under one of my tags, "projects," because I've written about them more than once. And my sentiment about them has not changed; I still love projects!

When I speak about projects, though, they are not always hands-on affairs, though often they are. There are plenty of projects available online. Some that I have participated in have been knit/crochet-alongs, photography projects, sketching projects, read-alongs and more. Of course, there are individual projects too. I have pushed myself to blog daily, run, pray, and more. In fact, any time I set a goal, I think of it as a kind of project. This is why I don't shy away from new year's resolutions whether they be health and fitness related, education related, or creativity related. I am always excited to see where a new project takes me.

Two weeks ago I gave myself a short, fun project. My social experiment was to smile at everyone I saw for one week. And do you know what I found out? It was harder than I thought it was going to be.

For me, I found it kind of awkward to give a big smile. Most of my smiling at strangers, I find, is more of a closed-mouth, brief upturn of the lips. But a big, genuine smile was more challenging to create because, lets face it, not a lot of people smile when they are out and about.

In fact, one of the other challenges I faced was just getting people to make eye-contact with me. I was surprised to see how we all go about our business - being together in a shared space - without actually looking at each other, or at least looking at each other eye-to-eye. The habit is mine as well and I had to remind myself when I was out to actually try to look at people. Sometimes I honestly forgot and I would realize, upon coming out of a store, that I had not actually looked at anyone! Even the cashiers who helped me rarely made eye contact with me and if they did it was very brief, indeed. This brief, half-a-second looking is much more common than actually maintaining any gaze and that was a problem I encountered too. If we actually did make eye-contact, the person was so quick to pull his or her gaze away that I didn't even get a chance to smile.

But I did manage to share a few smiles over the week and I even got a few in return. I plan to try this more an more. Science has a lot to say about happiness in general these days and even a few things to say about smiling in particular. Science, in fact, is one of the driving factors for my newest undertaking, meditation.

Perhaps you saw in this post that I plan to practice at least 10 to 15 minutes of meditation daily during the month of February. I hope that after this practice time I will like it well enough to continue. That is the draw: what will I discover?

I have tried meditating off and on over the years, but for hardly any time at all. As with most things you want to do well and appreciate the benefits of, you simply cannot dabble. You can't expect to become a runner by running once every few months. You can't expect to get in shape by trying to live on salads for a week and getting to the gym once. You can't expect to paint well or play the violin well or ride a horse well or anything unless you devote time and attention to the activity.

I have heard for far too long over the years of the many, many benefits of meditation, but I have never experienced any of it for myself because I haven't stuck with it. Likewise, with making a concerted effort to change my thought patterns to more positive thinking as well as the things I have done to manage anxiety, I have had to practice.

We are blessed enough to be living in a time when neuroscience is really exploding. I love hearing about new discoveries that are being made about the brain.

Perhaps you are familiar with Amy Cuddy's famous 2012 Ted Talk, "Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are." This is one of the interesting things I am talking about (and includes smiling!). Our brains work in such amazing ways; we are not always aware of how or why they respond the way they do, but we are learning!

Recently, I caught part of a program on our local National Public Radio station, Minnesota Public Radio. The program airs daily and is called "MPR News Presents" and it is broadcasts of talks given by various people on any number of topics. This program aired on December 31, 2014 and was a talk given in October 2014 at Augsburg College in Minneapolis by neuropsychologist, Rick Hanson called, "Hardwiring Happiness." I didn't get a chance to listen to the whole show, as I was heading into Trader Joe's. I am planning to listen to the whole program right after I'm finished with this post! The part that I did catch that was so interesting to me, though, was a part about how studies are showing that our brains can literally change shape with our thinking. Our brains are constantly being rewired for good or ill and now we know we can play an active part in that. This resonates with me deeply, because I do believe that I have made changes in my thought patterns over the last few years that have really enabled me to respond differently now to circumstances I experience today than the way I used to respond to them.

Here is what I hope to gain with meditation: I am not looking to free myself of all thoughts. What I do hope to gain is a greater sense of control over my response to the myriad of thoughts I experience on a daily basis.

I read this recently somewhere: Just as you do not need to let other people's negative opinions of you or comments to you affect your sense of who you are, you also should not let their positive opinions affect you either. That was new and interesting to me. It's not that we can't enjoy and be thankful for a kind thing someone says about us or to us, but if we let that begin to shape our opinion of ourselves, then we are giving that person too much power. Because, of course, if their opinion of us were to change then we would let that affect us as well.

No. My identity is in Christ and I know what He did for me and how valuable He believes I am no matter what anyone thinks of me. This is more than enough.

I now apply this thinking to my own thoughts. Some thoughts are positive and some are negative, but they are just thoughts unless they are grounded in the reality of what is happening right now. So, some days I wake up feeling low, but I can understand that this is just a thought or a feeling (caused by any number of things: lack of sleep, hormones, a virus, etc.) in my physical being. It is temporary and I don't need to allow it to lead me around by the nose. I can, instead, choose different thoughts and I can choose to remain in the present in order to appreciate my life right now. This is the tool of meditation. Practicing remaining in the present is a gift. Then when I am tempted to worry, for example, because, oh, am I tempted to worry... I can remember that first I give my concerns to God in prayer. And then the tool of meditation that I practice and hone on a daily basis will come into play and help my mind remain where I am right now and not wander off into some scary, imagined future.

This is what I believe meditation can do for us. This is what I am willing to invest time in to see if I am right. And I also am wondering if I will discover anything else along the way. I don't know because I've never tried. But now I'm about to learn. See you on the other side!

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