“If I had to do it over, I’d do things differently”, said a very wealthy man as he lay on a semi-firm hospital bed in his last few hours of life. The Rabbi sitting next to him replied, “What would that be.” The man continued, “I’ve spent my entire life in a feverish drive to be the best at what I do and to acquire the most wealth and to me that was success. But I think I missed the boat. If I had to do it over again I’d really understand what is sinking in at this moment. It’s all about connection. It’s all about who you love and how you love them and that is what matters.”
In 2005 I conducted a national research study attempting to support people in cultivating more mindful moments in daily life and seeing what affect that had on their levels of stress and well-being. It turned out that with just 5 minutes a day for 5 days a week for 3 weeks, there was a statistically significant effect for that time. I went further and conducted interviews with the participants to understand what the experience was of these moments that had the most significant effect. The top quality that was mentioned over and over again was that of “connection.”
The message: When we feel connected to something or someone in a moment, not only are we present, but it seems to have positive effects on our levels of stress and well-being. More importantly, it appears to be at the foundation the quality of being present of what may be most important in life.
This connection may just start with us. What I mean by that is beginning to acknowledge what we’re feeling in a particular moment is a step toward connection. Even if we don’t want to accept the feeling, we can acknowledge the reality of its presence. If it’s a particularly difficult emotion and we feel safe enough to do so, we can spend some time really feeling into it and “being with” it, instead of trying to “fix it.” This is connecting, which the dying man said is …
When we’re not feeling well, our thoughts seem entirely believable and convincing. They are the truth! Here is a simple test to make the point that thoughts are not facts, and we don’t need to take them so seriously.
Here is a list of common negative thoughts adapted from Hollon and Kandall 1980. Look through the list and how believable they seem at this moment. Rate it for yourself on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being highest.
Automatic Negative Thoughts
1. I feel like I’m up against the world
2. I’m no good
3. What can’t I ever succeed?
4. No one understands me.
5. I’ve let people down.
6. I don’t think I can go on.
7. I wish I were a better person
8. I’m so weak
9. My life’s not going the way I want it to
10. I’m so disappointed in myself
11. Nothing feels good anymore
12. I can’t stand this anymore
13. I can’t get started
14. What’s wrong with me?
15. I wish I were somewhere else.
16. I can’t get things together
17. I hate myself.
18. I’m worthless.
19. I wish I could just disappear
20. What’s the matter with me?
21. I’m a loser
22. My life is a mess.
23. I’m a failure
24. I’ll never make it.
25. I feel so helpless.
26. Something has to change.
27. There must be something wrong with me.
28. My future is bleak.
29. It’s just not worth it.
30. I can’t finish anything.
If you are not as depressed as you have been, how strongly, if at all, do you believe each of these thoughts RIGHT NOW?
When you were at your worst (most anxious or depressed), how strongly did you believe these then?
More often than not, these are much less convincing and believable when we’re feeling well, leaving us to the inevitable conclusion that these thoughts are not facts and we can acknowledge their presence when they come visit us and let them be, knowing that we don’t have to get dragged through the mud with them. Gently bring attention back to what is most important to pay attention to in that moment. You may do this over and over again holding a sense of compassion and kindness toward yourself during this process.
As always, please …
Why is this Present Moment so Important?
The morning wind spreads its fresh smell.
We must get up and take that in,
that wind that lets us live.
Breathe, before it’s gone.
Allow this to be just a simple poem by 13th century Sufi Poet Rumi to bring awareness back to the understanding that in life we often get kicked on auto-pilot and tune out things that may be supportive to our mental health. We can take this poem at its word and notice that so often we are in such a rush in the morning, even on beautiful mornings, that we don’t take a moment to take in its fresh smell (unless you’re living in an industrial city, but don’t worry there are other fresh smells there). Even though many of us ignore the fact, this breath that we breathe is temporary and for us as individuals, one day we will cease to take these breaths. So what would it be like to pay attention to it from time to time as if it really mattered?
Instead of rushing around in the morning with tense muscles, a racing mind on what needs to be done that day, and potential feelings of stress and anxiousness, bring yourself back to right now and be here for a moment. This can set precedence for the rest of the day.
Now, this is not to say wake up every morning, stick your nose out the window and all will be well. This is really just to say, can we become aware when we’re getting perpetually drawn into auto-pilot and question what may be in the moment that we’re missing. There may be many pleasant things that we don’t notice because we’re so focused on where we need to be or where we wish we weren’t. For example, the warmth of the sunshine on the face, your child’s smile, the tastiness of breakfast, a warm shower, or even a sense of quiet. Awareness of these moments can support you during more difficult moments during the day.
Life is fragile and relatively short at the end of the day. What would you do if this moment or this …
In an earlier blog I explored the importance of letting down the mask that almost all of us put up in order to keep uncomfortable feelings at bay. I laid out a short process on how to acknowledge the mask and begin to let it down. However, often times in this process there is so much fear that it is difficult to even see the mask or begin to let it down. This is where Lovingkindness comes in.
Lovingkindness practice has been called the healer of fear. While many know this process as metta practice from Buddhist philosophy, the art of lovingkindness has been found in many traditions from the Greeks coining the term Agape to the Jews practicing Chesed. However, the metta practice lays a practice that is easy to convey and millions of people have found supportive in cultivating more kindness to themselves, their community, and the world. For our purposes, we’ll just begin with ourselves and another.
Note: Notice if any judgments arise, “this can’t help me”, “I’ve tried this once in the past, or something like it, forget it”, or “This sounds woo-woo”. Just be aware of these judgments as strong habits of the mind trying to keep the status quo. Then gently bring you attention back to this practice.
In this practice we are cultivating wishes or aspirations for ourselves. This is not an affirmation practice, we are not telling ourselves that we something that is not there at the moment, we are simply wishing ourselves to be happy, healthy, free from harm, and free from fear. You can come up with your own wishes for yourself, but these should be things you can also wish to others.
So take a seat, feel into your body, and just notice how you are doing in this moment, physically and emotionally. Then repeat these phrases a few times to yourself with real intention.
May I be safe & protected from inner & outer harm.
May I be truly happy and deeply peaceful.
May I live my life with ease.
May I have love and compassion for myself.
May I love myself completely – just the way I am.
May I be …
Anyone who has ever gone through a time in their life where they haven’t felt well, whether it was depression or anxiety, is all-too-familiar with the process of putting on a mask in order to function in everyday life. This is the minds way of protecting itself against the thick black paste of emotions that may enter in and devour us at any moment. This strategy may have saved us as children, allowing us to cope in an unsettling environment, but the strategy is outdated and is not the most effective now. The problem is, the mask is on so tight now, that we wouldn’t dare try and take it off for fear that what lies underneath will drag us down into a pit from which we will never return.
We have so much fear inside of us. But it is critical for us to understand that this mask, while it had its day, is hindering our ability to actually experience life, both the pleasant and the unpleasant. It’s as if it is helping us to just survive and when we’re just surviving we’re blocking out both uncomfortable and comfortable emotions. Optimally, we would be able t let down this mask and be able to radically accept ourselves as we are moment-to-moment creating greater self-acceptance, peace and harmony. But this is a gentle process, so how do we do it? The primary step is to acknowledge and accept the reality that there is a mask there.
Here’s how to get to know the mask and let it down:
The mask is easiest to notice as tension that resides physically on the entire body, including the head. Take a moment (and you can do this now) to sense into any tension that you may be feeling right now. See if you can bring an attitude of non-judgment to it or notice if there are any judgments, let them be, and then gently come back to feeling into the body from the bones, to the muscles to the skin. Notice any holding, tension, or tightness.
Now, as you breathe, focus on breathing with these areas. In other …
Part of the struggle we all live with is a constant desire to get away from the place we are currently in. We either feel discomfort and want to get away from it or we feel like we don’t have enough and so we’re reaching for something somewhere else. In either case, this cultivates a sense of dis-ease where we are never satisfied with where we are and in a state of constant tension. Author and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) founder Jon Kabat-Zinn has a wonderful saying in his book Wherever You Go, There You Are. He says, “This is it!”
What does that mean? Life is full of ups and downs, lefts and rights, smiles and frowns (sorry, couldn’t help the putting in the rhyme here). It’s all part of it. At one moment someone is being born, at another someone is passing away. Someone gets promoted while another gets laid off. People are getting married while others are getting divorces. It’s all happening and it triggers all kinds of unpleasant and pleasant thoughts, feelings and emotions in us at any given moment. We may feel sadness, frustration, joy, excitement, anger, confusion. All of these feelings coming and going from day to day, from moment to moment.
Sometimes it’s helpful to notice when we’re trying to get away from something unpleasant or desperately reaching for something that’s pleasant and become aware of the dis-ease this is causing. This habitual approach doesn’t work and we need to test out a new relationship to ourselves. One way to start doing this is noticing when we are caught in this trap and saying to ourselves, “This is it” and then settling into the moment with a S.T.O.P (Stop, Take a breath, Observe thoughts, feelings, and emotions, Proceed) practice.
However, even in doing this practice there is a danger of trying to get to some kind of special state. You may notice yourself struggling because your mind is trying to do this practice, but there is so much tension it is distracting. “This is it!” When this happens, this is the experience. You can just come to your breath …
Hearing. A sense we often take for granted. So many sounds coming and going in a moment, but so often we’re on auto-pilot, in our minds thinking about this, worrying about that, fantasizing, catastrophizing, or ruminating on past regrets. We often forget about this gift. For many of us, because of our brains and our ear drums we have this gift of audibility. Let this blog be a reminder to close your eyes and just pay attention to sounds. Why do this?
For one, sounds are happening right now and like the breath and body sensations can be something to anchor us to this present moment when our mind is headed in a direction of increasing distress. This is not to avoid what is uncomfortable in the moment, but to ground us so we can work with it effectively.
Paying attention to sounds also teaches us another lesson. In doing this we come to understand that our minds tend to want more of some sounds and want to get away from others. Just being aware of this can show us the process of clinging and aversion. When we cling to something in life (e.g., comfortable emotions) and those emotions pass, as they always will, the mind sets itself up for disappointment. Without an awareness of this process, the mind begins to judge the experience as bad or wrong and then begins to associate with all kinds of things that are bad and wrong about life and before you know it, it is stuck in a cycle of ruminating on things past or catastrophizing about future problems that aren’t even here. The same is true for aversion. When the mind is trying to get away from things that are unpleasant (e.g. uncomfortable emotions) it is in a constant battle and struggle, creating tension and dis-ease. Sometimes the wiser path is to learn to acknowledge things as they are in the moment, and knowing that even uncomfortable emotions come and go.
This is easier said than done, especially if you’ve suffered from traumas such as major depression or panic attacks which condition you to believe that uncomfortable emotions mean you …
In his book Taming the Tiger Within: Meditations for Transforming Difficult Emotions, acclaimed author and Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hanh writes:
Recognize and embrace your anger when it manifests itself. Care for it with tenderness rather than suppressing it.
In an earlier article I wrote about the difference between destructive and constructive anger and how Thich Nhat Hanh writes about taking care of our anger. There are three things you can do to help take care of your anger.
Along with knowing the warning signs, it’s important to acknowledge in our own minds when anger is here. We can even say; anger is here right now. This nonjudgmental acknowledgment is critical recognizing that there is discontent in us at the moment and it would be wise to do the next step.
I was warned about this. People told me that getting a smartphone where you have multiple avenues to receive messages can be dangerous. In my case I got the Blackberry where I can receive messages via voice, text, email, or blackberry messenger. Why the warning? Because every time the red light blinks on it a voice comes up inside of me “oh, there is something for me that needs attention.” In other words, an irrational sense of urgency arises in me that draws me to the phone. In many ways, this is much like an addictive behavior where I get kicked on auto-pilot and move toward engaging with the substance (aka crack-berry).
This morning I was on a walk with my little infant and found myself checking my email and responding to a colleague. I let the colleague in on the fact that I was on a walk with my son. The colleague responded, “That is great, now get off the phone, AND BE PRESENT!” She was right, I was on auto-pilot, caught in a habitual cycle of engaging with this little machine. Now, there’s nothing wrong with engaging with sending people messages when we’re on the go, but for me, I noticed it was starting to take away from my experiences of being present with the world around me and also with my family.
This has actually become more dangerous as people are feeling compelled to engage with these machines while driving in the car, not only at stoplights, but while actually driving. More and more states are banning the use of interacting with these phones while in the car, unless you are “hands-free.” How Is this relevant to you?
If you do not have one of these little machines yet, at some point or another, it is highly likely that you will, so maybe this can pre-empt the addictive behavior from occurring. What can we do to break this cycle once we’re in it? We don’t need to throw the baby out with the bathwater, we can actually use the machines to help us. I have begun to schedule little reminder pop ups in my …
Whether we’re in the midst of a storm of anxiety or depression or we’ve come out of the storm but are in fear of relapse, strong uncomfortable emotions can seem like the devil’s spawn that we try our best to ward off against. For many of us there is a fear that these strong emotions will be overwhelming and lead us back into the great abyss of depression or another round of intense anxiety. However, it is in this very struggle of non-acceptance or non-acknowledgment of this feeling that our misery becomes compounded. Although our minds believe they are doing the best thing for us, their acts are not skillful. What’s another way?
In the mindfulness circles the acronym R.A.I.N has floated around to support people in dealing with difficult emotions. It has been found in Tara Brach’s book Radical Acceptance, Jack Kornfield has said it, and you will find it the upcoming Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook that I have co-authored with Bob Stahl, Ph.D (February, 2010). Here is a sneak peek:
“R” is to recognize when a strong emotion is present. “A” is to allow or acknowledge that it is indeed there. “I” is to investigate and bring self-inquiry to the body, feelings, and mind, and “N” is to non-identify with what’s there. This non-identification is very useful in that it helps to deflate the story and cultivates wise understanding in the recognition that the emotion is just another passing mind state and not a definition of who you are. Just like seeing a movie, standing back and watching the actors play out their dramas, by non-identifying with your story and seeing it as impermanent, this will help assist in loosening your own tight grip of identification. Utilizing R.A.I. N. as a practice can help you bring space to be with things as they are and grow in deeper understanding of what drives, underlies or fuels our fears, anger, and sadness.
Turning into our emotions can feel a bit foreign since most of us live in such a pain denying culture. Isn’t it time to begin acknowledging stress, anxiety or pain rather than …