We know that meditation is beneficial. It’s hard nowadays to escape the ever present pictures of the smiling Buddha, and the articles praising meditations efficacy, reaching from calming the mind to lowering blood pressure.
But how do we get ourselves to fit yet another chore that’s “good for you” into our schedule?
There are no easy answers, because if you want to turn a blind eye, you will. Just like with going to the gym. Or eating your vegetables.
But those of you who are willing to take a shot at it, there are a few tricks to help push yourself.
First and foremost: Forget that your mind will be quiet. It won’t. It takes many years of consistent practice to come to a place of emptiness of thought.
In the meantime, look at it this way: Your thoughts will not be eliminated, but they will slow down, and that in itself will feel like a relief.
Allow your thoughts to be chaotic. How can we expect perfection without any or little training? We don’t expect it when it comes to our bodies. Or our professional skills. We know that it takes hard work to come to a place of mastery.
But somehow we entertain this illusion that we should be able to control our minds just like that; and when we can’t, we feel bad, and nobody wants to feel bad. So all good intentions go out the window, and there’s not going to be any meditation.
Accept that the mind is busy. When we say “the brain just functions that way” it’s easier to allow this busyness than to think, “I can’t pull it off, I am a failure”.
No one can, when they first sit down.
Be prepared for your mind to trail off, and to lose focus. Over and over and over.
But if you sit just ten minutes in silence, you will have removed yourself from a lot of noise and obligations and stress. That in itself has a calming effect.
Make your meditation a routine activity. Do it in the morning. If you postpone it until bedtime, you’ll most likely …
It’s bad enough feeling anxious or depressed. But what makes the emotional pain so much worse, is that we can’t just accept what it going on inside our minds. We have to criticize ourselves for being afraid, angry, jealous and so on. That’s what really brings us down: the inner critic.
Let’s say something went wrong at work. One of your clients decided to go with another firm and you feel directly affected. It’s one thing to get over the loss of business. It means loss of income, loss of contacts, loss of reputation.
It wouldn’t be so bad to just let it go and be done with it.
But that’s usually not the end of the story. We start to feel that we should’ve known they weren’t happy; that it’s something we did wrong, and it’s solely our responsibility. We should’ve done this to prevent their leaving, and that to find a quick replacement.
We come down hard on ourselves and cannot possibly forgive that we can’t read other people’s minds, or potentially made a mistake. It’s unacceptable that we’re human, and humans can’t always know.
What’s needed in order to silence the self-critical voices in out head is self-compassion.
We need to look at ourselves with the benevolence and understanding we’d offer a child or a good friend. “Don’t worry so much”, we could say to ourselves. “You did everything you could. You worked your butt off, talked to everyone you could and made a big effort to make the client happy. Sometimes we can’t control all the factors, and I can’t know all the ins and outs of why they left our company.”
It’s important to put yourself in the shoes of someone who will talk you down from your self-blame and relentless criticism.
And it’s not just psychological strategy to get familiar with self-compassion; there are actual studies that have shown it’s positive affects.
New research concludes that self-compassion leads to “significant positive association with self-reported measures of happiness, optimism, positive affect, wisdom, personal initiative, curiosity and exploration, agreeableness, extroversion, and conscientiousness.”
If we can leave …
Lots of people are shy. I am, kind of. It doesn’t come out as much, now that I don’t go to loud parties and crowded bars anymore. I prefer lunch dates and small dinner parties, and my social needs are fully met by being in quieter and smaller settings.
A big part of why people suffer so much around others is because they feel they should abide by certain social standards. Sometimes they’re not even aware that they don’t like particular forms of gathering.
Some college students (or former college students) prefer to binge drink rather than admit to themselves that they feel awkward around people they don’t know very well. The alcohol kills all anxiety and serves as a social lubricant in order to feel more comfortable.
Sometimes it’s possible to stick to a limit of one or two drinks that hold them over all night. A moderate amount of alcohol can work well to calm the anxiety without being excessive. Unfortunately, many people can’t stop once there’s a mild buzz, especially when everybody else is knocking down glass after glass.
The difficulty in trying to hold a conversation when in the grip of social anxiety, is the flightyness we communicate to others. We feel insecure about whether we have anything interesting to say, and this belief is openly displayed on our face, for everyone to spot.
Our gaze goes somewhere towards the other end of the room, our voice falters, maybe our whole body is turned inwards or away. We start thinking about our own awkwardness rather than what we’re trying to say, and come across as flighty and unfocussed.
This is often what makes the person we’re trying to talk to lose interest, or wonder what’s going on. If we ourselves don’t believe that what we have to say is worthwhile, then others will do just the same.
The key to dealing with this anxiety is presence and awareness. As soon as we begin to focus intently on what we’re trying to communicate and how it’s going to be received, there’s a whole different emphasis on the connection between the two people involved …
One of my clients came in the other day and was quite upset. About herself.
“Why can’t I just stick to my guns?” she asked aghast.
It’s something that happens to her quite frequently. She thinks she has an opinion about something, but as soon as someone else explains why they think differently, she sways over to the other side.
“It bothers me that I am so understanding” she concluded.
Indeed, her understanding of others regularly makes her forget her own point of view.
It’s the old story: it’s hard to just say no, put up a boundary and side with one’s own experience. Whenever another influence appears, your own position takes a back seat. We call it self defeat.
Of course, there is always the need for balance. Someone who blindly and continually insists on their point of view is not well adjusted either. Unevenness towards either side – too little consistence or too much – is undesirable.
We need to remember to put up a firm boundary towards others when we feel that we are taken over too easily.
How do we do that?
Awareness is the key, as always. When do you tend to get swept away by others? In a certain social setting, with your in-laws, your wife’s girlfriends, your high school buddies, your doctor?
People in authority have the most power over us – whether it’s a domineering relative, a store clerk or a cop. Any kind of uniform will usually do the trick.
Observe yourself when your determination begins to soften and the other person wins out just by the sheer volume of their words or their voice.
Put both feet on the ground, straighten your posture and stay firm.
Your have come to your own conclusions, and they are worth no less than anybody else’s.
Recently, one of my patients insisted that her boyfriend be able to read her every desire from her eyes. As she contemplated what it would be like to let go of this habit, she asked a question that gets to the heart of letting go: “Do you want to be right or do you want to he happy?”
We all have our attachments.
We get attached to the idea that our spouses should know exactly what our needs are. We get attached to knowing our way to work and get pissed off when the road is blocked. We get attached to things always going our way and feel stifled when they don’t.
Sometimes we have to literally let go of a relationship that is no longer a good idea.
When a friendship has run its course and feels chronically stale or exhausting. When an ex is moving on with his life and doesn’t have time for us anymore. When a relative is destroying himself with drugs or alcohol and we realize that we only sustain the addiction.
Life is difficult at times. There is no one who is spared. Pain is necessary so we can appreciate the joy of life. There is not one without the other.
The earlier we can accept that, the less we will suffer. Only then can we be free.
“What if my boss saw me do xyz and starts thinking less of me?”
“My brother-in-law made a snide remark about our cousin, what if he talks badly about me as well?”
“I overheard my mom saying I look fat in that dress, I feel terrible.”
Other people’s opinions can wreak havoc on our self esteem. We take their judgements at face value and allow a careless remark to torture us for a long time.
To some degree, the attitudes in our most important social groups provide orientation and structure. It’s not that we shouldn’t care about anybody’s opinion at all. But we also shouldn’t let somebody dominate our mental well being.
Self doubt is one of the most destructive forces for our sense of self. If another person plants the seed of self doubt in our minds and we get stuck in it, we may very well end up in a depression.
When you feel the effects of someone else’s words get to you, put up an mental barrier around yourself. Imagine a protective shield go up that prevents any negative influence from getting to you.
If it gets out of hand, remove yourself from the source of negativity.
Remember, it’s nothing but a person’s opinion. We give others authority over whether their remark get through to us. We have the power to reject them or allow them to find their way in.
Look at the larger picture. Considering the sphere of your town, your country, our whole planet, one small person’s words mean nothing.
Imagine you are an astronaut, looking back at the earth from space. This view renders all chatter, all the self importance of small minds meaningless.
It’s up to you what you want to do with it.
One of my patients came in this week in full workout gear, having biked from his home to my office. He smiled and relayed a message he got from a friend who is a psychiatrist: Instead of taking an SSRI-antidepressant, he recommended working out three times a week.
The effects, said the specialist, would be the same in cases of mild to moderate anxiety and depression.
The message concurs with a recent New York Times article about how to motivate people to exercise. Most of us know first hand that the threats of weight gain and heart disease don’t do much to get us moving.
But as soon as mental health and happiness is addressed, people seem to pay attention.
Despite all the online manuals about “10 ways improve your night’s rest,” and so on, sleep is an under-researched topic. Writer David K. Randall is now trying to close the gap with his new book “Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep.”
In one chapter he focuses solely on the strange history of the bed, and how it influences relationships.
Sleep is a highly underestimated factor in a person’s day-to-day well being. When we aren’t rested, our capacity to contain frustration goes out the window. We get irritated, testy and blow every minor incident out of proportion.
It’s a bit like the infamous low blood sugar phenomena that most women will immediately recognize. When basic needs like sleep or nourishment aren’t met, the stress levels go up dramatically.
(On a side note: most temper tantrums in children go back to low blood sugar. I guess we as adults aren’t all that much more advanced…)
The use of the internet is pervasive in our culture. So much that the American Psychiatric Association is recommending further research on the condition called “Internet Use Disorder” in the upcoming diagnostic manual DSM V.
The disorder primarily refers to Internet gaming, however, it does include the criteria of “withdrawal symptoms when internet is taken away.” Sound familiar?
Addiction is not the only mental health condition that the internet can trigger. The other one is depression.
A recent article in the Scientific American suggests that people who rapidly move around on dozens of websites, engaging in fleeting contact, are most likely to get depressed:
“Peer-to-peer file sharing, heavy emailing and chatting online, and a tendency to quickly switch between multiple websites and other online resources all predict a greater propensity to experience symptoms of depression. Quickly switching between websites may reflect anhedonia (a decreased ability to experience emotions), as people desperately seek for emotional stimulation. Similarly, excessive emailing and chatting may signify a relative lack of strong face-to-face relationships, as people strive to maintain contact either with faraway friends or new people met online.”
It is the depth of emotion that is seen as critical for normal affect. The enormous amount of distraction that’s offered online seduces us into paying less and less attention towards a single topic — or people, for that matter.
Let me be clear – I’m not advocating for the uninhibited expression of fury and abuse here. Far from it.
But anger is a normal reaction to frustration and unfairness. And it has to be looked at honestly.
Especially in spiritual communities, anger easily becomes a bone of contention. We are supposed to love each other as we love ourselves (which may not be all that much to begin with, really), be kind and mindful and polite and so on.
The chronic repression of anger in childhood leads to compliant children; boys and girls who don’t know what they want because they were only there to attend to the parents’ needs — for example their need to have a “good boy” or a “sweet girl.”
When there is no room for anger whatsoever, it goes underground and expresses itself later in the form of uncontrollable outbursts or depression.