Archives for February, 2012
Many of us feel overwhelmed and scattered by the daily stressors others put on us, and we put on ourselves: Must prepare for work. Need to pick up kids. Fix broken light in basement. Neglected to work out yet again... Feelings of guilt are inevitable when we are constantly overstretched. Sometimes we can de-clutter our life and get rid of some of the jobs that stress us out. Other times it's impossible. And that's when we have to just take a moment and ground ourselves. So much of our day we is controlled by our head. Thoughts chase each other at a rapid pace, or get caught up in an endless loop. The body becomes a slave of our thinking mind and is almost entirely banned from the attention budget we have every day. But it's our body that literally grounds us. Our mind doesn't provide us with any kind of weight that would make us feel more stable. It's our feet that touch the ground we stand on, it's our hands that can hold on to a banister, our arms that embrace another. When our mind drives us crazy, the body will provide the needed stability. We must draw our energy away from the thinking mind and pay attention to our hands and feet.
Mindfulness has changed my life. I'm not exaggerating. It is as dramatic as that. I used to walk the world in a state of mental haze. I had trouble reading people's non-verbal cues, was unaware of my surroundings and had little capacity for empathy. All that has changed for me. And my life continues to change. My life, well as the lives of countless other people who meditate. Writer and and fellow mindfulness blogger on PsychCentral, Elisha Goldstein, has described his experience with it as well as that of other people in his compelling new book "The Now Effect." In it, we learn about a powerful tool called STOP, which is an easy to remember acronym for a simple yet very effective mindfulness technique: S stands for Stop, T for take a deep breath, O for observe what's happening in that moment in your mind, body and surroundings. And finally P for proceed to what has to be done right there. Mindfulness means first and foremost to be present. And for us mindless creatures, that's the hardest thing to do. Because it requires to pay attention, and that means to make an effort. At least initially, before it becomes a routine.
Most of us like to cultivate our strengths and push our weaknesses aside. Who wants to deal with their hunger to control the behavior of others, which is often what's underneath all the worries and anxieties we carry around? Who wants to fess up to the quiet seductiveness and conflict avoidance that is usually sported by pleasers of all genders? Who is willingly exploring their need to be in charge among the notorious caretakers out there? But, alas, these less flattering qualities often represent the flip side of our fear of being overlooked and disregarded. It's very difficult to stand up and actively protect the victimized parts of ourselves by taking responsibility for our less flattering characteristics. Instead, we get defensive and block out what we don't want to see. I've certainly been there. I've been reading a little book by a Jungian psychoanalyst called "Owning Your Own Shadow." The author, Robert Johnson, argues that we all have parts of our egos that have been disavowed, split off and pushed into a hidden corner of our psyche.
Sometimes, it's so much easier being nice to people who are not part of the family. We tend to take our loved ones for granted. Oh yeah, mom will always check in with me. My wife won't go away any time soon. Children are for life, even when we fight with them. It’s comforting to know that we have a secure family network. And then there are the times when they have to pay for our moodiness. When we feel stressed and emotionally drained by other factors of life, it’s the ones closest to us who will know about it. Our spouses especially tend to become an easy target when things don’t work so well for us. I certainly have blamed my husband for some minor lapse – like forgetting to bring something from the store -- when the real cause for my upset was something outside of our relationship. But the deeper reasons for our depression and anxiety aren’t always clear to us. Some couples persistently blame each other for not attending to each other’s needs, when the original hurt or neglect took place much earlier in life, in childhood or adolescence.
One of my first clients in my psychotherapy practice expressed what I experienced over and over in people with depression: a pervasive feeling of entrapment, of feeling like there is no choice but to give in to what is dictated or expected, either by our parents or other family members, by our work or by our bodies. Sometimes there is no way to resist what is forced on us. When our health is failing and all remedies have been exhausted, we have to learn how to live with the limitations of our bodies. When we feel stuck in an unhappy marriage and divorce is not an option, we have to learn how to make do. When our workload is too much to bear but we can't afford to leave, we have to find other ways to be satisfied. Sometimes it helps to try and find meaningful activities or relationships outside of the area of frustration. If your wife is overly critical but you can't get her to stop, you can try to reconnect with your estranged daughter. Or it can help to join a group or a church where you can forge new relationships and feel a rewarding bond to the teachers or other members there. Acceptance is the first thing we have to try and do when we can't control certain circumstances of our life. How do we get there? Usually with the help of a mixture of endless frustration and letting go.
Many of us have trouble being by ourselves. We are overcome by fear. What if something happens and no one is there to help? What if someone breaks into my house, robs me, hurts me? What if no one pays attention to me, and I am left alone with my thoughts and doubts? Anxiety of being lonely is often deeply rooted in the experience of having been abandoned, either factually or emotionally. When a beloved parent dies early in life or becomes seriously ill or leaves the family, it is experienced as a traumatic loss that is never made up for. But it's not just about losing someone. When we are unable to be alone, often it is because of a perception that we are lacking. We lack the ability to take care of ourselves. Or to connect with others. We don't feel confident that who we are is good and whole and worthy. We need to be reassured that someone else wants to hang around us, and the other person's attention makes us feel safe and and valued. It's when we can't value ourselves that the need for attention from the outside world becomes paramount. The good news is that we can learn to be by ourselves. What we need when we are in the grip of loneliness is connection. And when connection with people is hard to achieve, we can get it from other beings in our world.
Forgiveness is a wonderful thing. But so hard to come by. Sometimes it's too hard to forgive. When an abusive parent won't admit to their mistakes and keeps blaming their children for what went wrong in their relationship; when a spouse is cheating and denies any responsibility; when a friend gets into trouble over and over and won't hear the concern we have for them; when a relationship is just too one-sided and toxic; when only one person makes an effort and the other is passive and in denial; it can be impossible to just forgive. As Noah Levine writes in his book The Heart of the Revolution: "The freedom of forgiveness often includes a firm boundary and loving distance from those who harmed us." But when forgiveness isn't easy to achieve, it doesn't mean that we have to be stuck with our grudge and disappointment. That is the time when we have to let go.