Priming: The Science Side of Goals and Intentions

Last week I wrote about intentions and promised to add some science into the mix, and I mentioned the use of priming.

Looks like a giant eye to me.

Priming is basically when your response to something right now is affected by something that happened before. If we spend ten minutes looking at purple things in a book, you might be more likely to see the purple things while you go for a drive in the next hour. It gets much more complicated, and ends up relating to the discussions on intentions.

An Interesting New York Times Article: Priming Experiments & the Subconscious

There is a  NY Times article on priming  which explains an experiment where people held a cup of coffee for a stranger. Sometimes the coffee was hot, other times it was cold. The people then rated a hypothetical stranger that had nothing to do with anything. Those who held the cold coffee were more likely to judge the hypothetical person negatively than those who had held the hot coffee.

That article goes on to explain many little other ways that priming can work. People are more likely to tidy up if they smell a faint scent of cleaning liquid, they say. We are more likely to be stingy if we are playing a monetary game on a table with a briefcase on it than if the table has a backpack.

Priming & Goals

The article goes on to talk about how the “goals” that we have, such as to exercise, drink coffee, or mate, are like “neural software programs” that can only be run one at a time. That’s intense, right? The article itself is very intriguing and I recommend reading it if this kind of thing interests you. Here’s where my brain went with it:

Choosing The Things That Prime Our Brain

There are all kinds of things happening, all the time; the world is a huge collage of life and mess and beauty and pain. To some extent, we can choose what we want to notice most. The article makes it very clear that we cannot completely control this, and that is not what I am suggesting.

I do, however, think that since none of the cited experiments controlled for levels of mindfulness, there could be interesting findings if “time spent meditating each day” was taken into account, especially in relation to some of these goals. So let’s pretend that there is more hope than they make it seem like there is, shall we?

Right now, I can choose to focus on the sleeping dog, the sound of construction outside, the pretty tapestry on the wall, the bills in a stack that belong to someone else. Anything. According to that article, these things all may affect my actions in subtle ways. They may affect the words I use next, the way I feel about the first person who comments on this, or what I decide to make for dinner. According to me, I get to pick which ones are most important, at least sometimes, if I remember to.

Back to Intentions: What is My Background Goal Going to Be?

One of the ways that I use intentions is to have a vague sense of a goal. If I hold this goal or theme in mind sometimes, then I feel like I’m more likely to notice opportunities for it during my day. I also feel like there are certain times where I know this has happened.

An example:

Let’s say that I have a few goals currently. They include getting more exercise, getting more social contact, finding inspiration for short stories, and working on dog training. I don’t want to do them all the time every day, but they are general things I’d like to work on.

Now the day begins, and I have to get my work done on the computer. I have a few familiar choices. I can do it at home, I can do it at the coffee shop across the street, or I can do it at the coffee shop that is a bus ride away.

If my over arching goal of the day was to get more exercise,  I might be more likely to realize that the coffee shop a mile away allows me to get exercise before and after getting work done if I walk there. If my goal for the day was to focus on dog training over everything else, I might realize that saving time by not leaving the house would allow for extra dog training time. If my goal was to get inspiration, I might realize that the bus ride will be fun because I can people-watch there and at the faraway coffee place.

Does that example make sense? Because of the intentional attention I can pay to the thought “Today I would like to get more exercise,” I can be more likely to notice the opportunity for exercise as it naturally fits into the fabric of the day. This is the best explanation for how to use intentions, and it seems that the experiments are making it more clear than ever that these little things do matter.

How to Control the Little Things

These guys have been blooming for so many months; I adore them.

I guess one of the most daunting aspects of this whole thing is that the stimuli that seem to actually affect our minds are not always things we would even notice.  They say that trying to prime yourself is like trying to tickle yourself and it won’t work if you know you are doing it. However, I like to think of it more like planting seeds. Maybe intending to get more inspiration for short stories won’t necessarily lead to such a thing happening. But it might cause me to have that inclination to get on the bus indirectly, or at least to be more open to having the stories find me.

How do you feel about these studies? What kinds of things do you think may be influencing your subtle awareness at this very moment- a dirty dish near your computer? A clock ticking by your ear? The book you read last night? The video game you played yesterday?

Do you think that you can use the scientific notion of priming to achieve goals more effectively or would you prefer to do things without thinking about experiments?

How does the air feel on your face at this moment?

Morning Intentions For Happiness…Right?

There are a lot of things we are supposed to do in the morning.

We should write down our dreams, eat good breakfasts, and stretch. We should get hydrated, go for a jog, and meditate. Depending on who you ask, you’re a fool if you leave out one or more of these.

But what about morning intentions? Are they useful? Are we all supposed to do them so that we can be happy, shiny people bubbling with cheer and healthy bank accounts and perfect relationships in no time at all?

Here I’m going to re-explore the question of happiness and how to find it through morning intentions. There are no solid answers to be found here, only some things that have been helping me to feel less crazy lately.
Happiness: Hmmmm….

I’ve been reading a great book about happiness recently called “The Happiness Trap.” Undoubtedly, it will show up in more than a few posts from here on in. The main thing I’m gaining from it is the acknowledgement that there are various definitions of “happy.”

A lot of times, we take the word to mean “a pleasurable feeling,” and we seek it out to no end, beating ourselves up if we can’t achieve it.

The other definition has to do with living a meaningful life. Living a life that is in line with your values, and that is fulfilling. Such a life will not always meet the expectation of a “pleasurable feeling”.

Even the healthiest long-term relationship is bound to have some ups and downs, and a healthy life is not going to be bliss and cheer every step of the way. Acknowledging this is important. My morning intentions are not for bliss; they are for living a life that feels real and friendly to the person living it.

Which Things Always Create A Desirable Feeling?

There are certain things that I do sometimes that never fail to lead to me feeling good. Some of these include:

  • Running with the dog.
  • Reading a fictional book for at least a half an hour.
  • Looking at the sky or a natural surrounding for a few minutes without thinking too much about it.
  • Drawing, doodling, creating art with colors on paper.
  • Making up ditties on the guitar for characters in my short stories to understand them better.
  • Cooking a nice meal.

These things generally never make me feel worse, or more stressed, or more anxious, or like I wasted time.  They are things I love, things that nourish me and help me to improve a skill that I value. The problem is, on most days I don’t have time for each and every one of them.

So sometimes, in the morning or during the heat of my workday, I will commit to one of them; and do an intention that way. Instead of a complex list of things that are supposed to bring me some type of happiness, I’ll pick something that is likely to lead to inspiration and a feeling of working with a fulfilling life.

 

Respecting the Uniqueness of Each Day with Morning Intentions

Each day is a unique conglomeration of factors. Sometimes you feel like you are getting sick. Other times, you feel on fire with creativity. Your hand might hurt from yesterday’s writing episode, or your legs might hurt from yesterday’s workout. On certain days, you are booked with plans and on others, your schedule is blissfully open.  This is important too, I think.

No intention is going to work every single day of the week.

Listen to your body, to your mind, to the mood it is in. Listen to the weather and your schedule. Think of an intention based on those things; give yourself room to notice what the day is saying.

If you wake up and feel like you are coming down with a cold and you notice that it is rainy and chilly, perhaps the nature walk intention is not the ideal one to commit to. Perhaps today is a good day for the hot tea and bath intention.

Keeping It Simple

Sometimes it’s fun to make an elaborate plan. Today after work I shall finish 2,000 more words of my short story and I shall also run three miles whilst creating a slow-cooked turkey dinner with herbs from my garden! Yes, a perfect day in paradise! But all of that can lead to some rushing, some frantic energy, and a whole lot of lack in the slow enjoyment department.

Keep it simple. Maybe one intention a day is good. Maybe your intention is about your health.  “Today, I will smoke one less cigarette than normal.” or, “Today, I will get a vegetable that I have not tried in a long time.” Something small, easy, doable. Or, something vague. “Today I will notice how my body feels after each meal.”

Forgiveness, Acceptance, and Compassion

I am trying to learn more about compassion and how to use it in relation to my own destructive emotions. So far, I know that one thing that truly seems to work for me and troublesome or “negative” emotions is to welcome them. That’s easier said than done.

But I feel a bit closer to acceptance after asking myself:

  • Where does this emotion affect my body?
  • How would I explain this feeling in my body?
  • How long has this feeling been happening?
  • How long will it happen, can I time it?
  • What is happening outside of this feeling?

These things are not directly accepting or welcoming a feeling, but they do encourage curiosity which lets me see the feeling in a way that is more useful than just fusing with it and letting it dominate my awareness.

Do you have feelings that can get in the way of your creativity, your writing, your music, your joy?

The Best Morning Intentions For Happiness

Having wide intentions, broad strokes of awareness, and many things to pick from can be a great way to have each day bring you to a more healthy relationship with yourself & your community. Or at least, they do that for me.

Don’t try to be too “happy” and don’t assume that others are feeling that way, either. Don’t try to make a million intentions that you’ll never keep up with, or stay too focused on getting excess money and a perfect relationship. Stay real, stay here, look at what is happening now. Find those things that always leave you in a better place and do one of them every so often with abandon.

The Science of Morning Intentions

This will be an upcoming topic for a post. I am going to do some research on various things, including priming, memory, and adrenaline.

 

Do you use morning intentions? Do you use them to try and attract more money, or a partner, or to get healthier? Or something else?

Do you find that having some type of intention can help you with your writing, such as a set goal for the amount of words to do in a day? (Especially now that NaNoWriMo is coming up…)

Or is the whole business of “intentions” some type of hippie crap that is best left to the vultures?

Creating Wider-Than-WordPress Community: Facebook Pages & Blog Awards

At first, I was very excited about my blog’s associated Facebook page. I have recently been trying to make it a better place for people who like the blog. Something about the constantly-displayed statistics seems to just make me want to keep improving. I considered making it a home for my blog awards.

Now I notice I’m having lots of questions about the point of the page to begin with. Maybe you guys feel similar things with your Facebook blog pages, or maybe you have some useful feedback for these questions.

Feelings About Blog Awards:

I love blog awards in some ways, especially when I get them from someone that I admire, or when they show me that someone really did appreciate our connection.

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Life Lessons from ACL Music Festival

Clouds like music, too.

As any of my Instagram followers are all too aware of, I spent this weekend at Austin City Limits music festival. This post is about the life lessons that can be found at music festivals but can be applied to everyday life, insecurities, bad moods and anxieties.

Choose Your Stage

ACL has quite a few stages and they do a good job of balancing it out so that you can hear the group you are watching. Sometimes, like when Steve Earle went on, other bands like Bassnectar seemed to have more than their fair share of sound space, but that’s all right. When you walk around between stages, there are times that you can hear more than one band at once.

During some of those times, you are thinking, “Where should I go?” Maybe you don’t know any of the bands enough to make a choice based on the past, so you have to just go with what you feel.

That is an awful lot like feeling various moods starting to happen and realizing that you have to make a choice, isn’t it? If you’re like me, you can sometimes feel the little tingle of a bad mood or fit of grouchiness long before it gets a stronghold. You probably see some signs. The slight overreaction to stubbing your toe, the scowl on your face when you realize that it’s too humid for your liking. Whatever it is, you have a sign.

That’s sort of like hearing the strong bass of a song nearby, and wondering if perhaps you’d like to go join the people there. Maybe at the same time, there is a mellow bluegrass jam happening in the other direction. In terms of moods, that would be like noticing that even though you sense the bad mood, you also see the dog’s smiling face, the sunshine amidst the mugginess, the feeling of the ground, anything that is not the grouch-mood.

You can walk towards one song or the other based on what you feel  in the moment, which is little bits of both. If you acknowledge the existence of multiple stages, multiple moods and feelings, then you at least have a bit more of a choice, even if you can still hear little bits of Bassnectar when you are really focusing on Steve Earle.

The Things You Don’t See

At a music festival, there is plenty that you don’t see.  Our neighbor gave us wrist bands that got us into certain backstage areas, so we got to see things from different angles than most. During one of the smaller bands, I spotted a girl doing Yoga in the safe darkness under the stage.

Some wires going into the ground.

I’m sure nobody on the other side of the stage thought about her existence or even considered it. If you asked them, “Hey, do you think there’s a girl doing Yoga under the stage right now?” They probably wouldn’t doubt you too much, but it would just be something they never even considered.

I wonder how many things like that are happening at this very moment. There’s always something unseen, unthought of, undreampt. Does anyone else find that to be comforting?

What Does The Downpour Feel Like?

During a band called the Big Gigantic, there was a rain storm. Since I don’t have a good phone case, I don’t have pictures; but the crowd was wild and we were in the middle of it. It was surreal to see people getting extremely happy during the downpour. Maybe next time an intense mood or bout of anxiety happens, I can enjoy the intensity of it, the sheer power of it, rather than judging it as “bad” or “good”.

Standing in the rain and not being afraid of it or running away from it was incredibly fulfilling. Feeling it on my face, my hair, soaking my clothes, getting all over my stuff; there was simply nothing that could be done. The rain simply felt wonderful in that moment because it was clean, new, wet, alive. There were people, there was music, there was a sky and a ground and things were just lovely because they were there.

Comparisons Don’t Work; Leave Room For Being Surprised

This may just be my brain, but when I’m in a group of people and feeling some anxiety, sometimes the comparison-function starts to kick in.

This was the first big festival I’ve been to in many years, and I’m almost 30. Since most of the crowd seemed to be made of attractive young people, my brain started beating me up rather quickly.

For awhile, my self-esteem sank to the very ground that everyone was trampling. I’ll never be as in shape as these people, I’ll never have awesome shiny hair like these people, I’ll never get to be young again, yada yada yada. It took awhile for me to seriously put a halt to all that nonsense.

A new friend brought us up to a platform on the side of the stage. It gave me a perspective that was hard to come by in such a literal sense in that crowd, but easy to come by metaphorically during other times, like right now. I think it’s called “taking a step back.”

Enjoying a beer and waiting for the Chili Peppers

I looked at those people and started to realize that maybe things weren’t so bad for me and my aging self. Maybe there were benefits to getting older, to having experience, to not being 15 and hormonally insane.

The crowd stretched farther than a picture could capture. There were people excited to be in the front, happy to be in the back, and happy to be behind the stage, watching the show on a TV screen around a circular open bar. I watched through the sides of the stage, watching the crowd going mad over the music. I was happy to be where I was, and everything somehow worked. Like a giant puzzle. Everyone brought their own little piece, and no two bodies were occupying the same spot at the same time. It all worked and everyone was different, with their own beauty and their own grace. It felt so clear; we were all in this together.

 

My Intentions
I would like to always leave a little room for my mind to be surprised by what is happening. I’d like to have fewer expectations and comparisons and gracefully step up into the older years of my life without fighting them, because they are coming for me anyway. And I would like to never forget that. I may not get to be a teenager again, but I can watch the youth of today having fun just like I can watch the Chili Peppers crowd dancing and jumping while I enjoy the whole thing from a different vantage point.

I can look at the same mood or mindset differently, experiencing the intensity like a rainfall during a wild song, feeling it as exciting instead of scary or uncomfortable. Life is happening always; might as well experience as many stages as possible and from many angles while I still can.

How About You?

How about you guys, have you gone to many music festivals lately? Do you feel like you can pick between moods like different stages, or is it more like you are in one crowd and the band keeps changing on you?

Do you feel like your brain compares you to others too much, not enough, or just enough?

When’s the last time you felt a real raindrop falling on your face?

 

Drinking the Juice of Coincidence: David Byrne, Anne Lamott, and God.

Read the book “Bird by Bird.” Go see David Byrne. Let amazing things happen.

Something rather amazing happened the other day.

I saw David Byrne and St. Vincent. But that wasn’t all.

When I got home from the show, I picked up my copy of “Bird by Bird” written by Anne Lamott. I have been reading it for a few weeks now, very slowly, savoring each page. I had probably read the last page of the third chapter about 20 times in the past week

 

 

 

I picked up the book after the show because the feeling of the music was still so palpable, I wanted to do something great with that energy;  like absorb some of Anne Lamott’s wisdom. I decided it was finally time to move on to the next page rather than re-read the last one again.

Here is an excerpt of what I read next, and it spans pages 28-31, so I apologize for not fully replicating the original flow of the text:

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people…Perfectionism is one way our muscles cramp. In some cases, we don’t even know that the wounds and the cramping are there, but both limit us. They keep us moving and writing in tight, worried ways. They keep us standing back or backing away from life… So how do we break through them and get on? It’s easier if you believe in God, but not impossible if you don’t…Now, it might be that your God is an uptight, judgmental perfectionist…but a priest friend of mine has cautioned me away from the standard God of our childhoods, who loves and guides you and then, if you are bad, roasts you: God as high school principal in a gray suit who never remembered your name…If this is your God, maybe you need to blend in the influence of someone who is ever so slightly more amused by you, someone less anal. David Byrne is good, for instance. Gracie Allan is good. Mr. Rogers will work.”

There is no way to explain how it felt to see that. My eyes triple-checked it in a flash, his name sat there like lead, like it was the only word I had ever truly read in my life. Like it was the only word that ever was and would ever be real. How could it be? And in that one word, Byrne, my whole universe collapsed and sprang forth. I was thunderstruck.

It was like things all came together, it was the solid center, the thing I’d been looking for, it was God!

Then Vicki Winslow made a post called “Something is Happening Around Me…” that further solidified what I felt. That there is always this magic, always this infusion of “wow” in what is around us. My book was supposed to be about that, and somewhere along the way the true feeling of those ridiculous coincidences slipped into the past. I am thankful for the refreshment.

For me, that feeling of seeing David Byrne’s name on the page right after the concert had the quality of a Zen koan; it helped me to wake up. I can look at any leaf of the tree across the street, and allow it to have a similar breathy magic to it; it’s not quite the same of course, but it does help remind me that in each little thing there is the same “wow” that was in those letters when I read them. For that one moment, I was just able to see it more clearly.

It’s like after you look at the night sky through a telescope, you never quite see it the same way. You know there are little smoky donuts and dust storms and things that are not visible with the naked eye..but you have seen them, so you know the depth that is possible. No longer will you see it as a one-dimensional sheet of black with some stars, even on a cloudy night.

I am simply grateful this week for such a coincidence, especially because now as I try to let go of perfectionism, I really do feel like God-mixed-with-David-Byrne is looking over my shoulder and patting me on the back when I do a good job.

 

Have you had any really cool coincidences lately, or in the past?

Do you think it means something when there is a coincidence like that, or do you think it’s just simply some events lining up in a way at random?

And what are those clouds in your sky doing right now? The ones in mine are long and bloated, moving with a quickness that seems to be happening despite their best efforts to take a nap.