Tis the season to feel a bit down, overwhelmed and stressed. When the mind is focusing on the negative details of life, it’s practicing seeing things through this lens and what we practice and repeat creates a habit of thoughts, feelings, emotions and sensations. I call this getting caught in a “depressive loop.”
Mindfulness is about being aware of what lens we’re wearing when looking at life, so we can be more intentional. The unintentional act of looking toward the future with a negative lens can really sap our motivation to make any progress toward a more fruitful and positive future. After all, if we’re anticipating doomsday, what’s the point in even trying? This is major fruit for procrastination too.
Feeling depressed lights up the avoidance circuits in the brain. It’s experienced as a disengagement from life. In Uncovering Happiness I go through the science and practice of a handful of natural anti-depressants that live within every one of us.
But when we’re feeling overwhelmed with life, our negative thinking arises again, “What’s the point” or “Who cares.” But these thoughts are not facts, even the ones that say they are.
Martin Luther King, Jr. had some wise words for us about this.
Over 35 years ago Louis renounced his tenure as a professor in philosophy and robed up to begin his life as a monk. In an NY Times interview with Chip Brown, Nordstrom conveyed some insights into the connection between his trauma and abandonment as a child that revealed a hidden motive in his work with meditation.
“The Zen experience of forgetting the self was very natural to me,” he told me last fall. “I had already been engaged in forgetting and abandoning the self in my childhood, which was filled with the fear of how unreal things seemed.”
For Nordstrom, meditation felt like a natural fit as there was a familiarity and calmness that came from detaching from thoughts,
Note: There are plenty more, but I thought these top the charts.
Myth #1: Mindfulness if for taking a time-out from life, quieting the mind and reducing stress.
Truth: I think this is the #1 myth out there because it’s my experience that this is how people initially experience the practice. One of the greatest entry points to mindfulness in the West is Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). This is a fantastic program with wonderful science behind it, but the name is just for marketing. The ultimate goal isn’t meant to be stress reduction. The goal of mindfulness and MBSR is to wake up to the inner workings of our mental, emotional and physical processes, recognize the connectedness between people and operate in the world with greater self-compassion and compassion.
However, the initial practices can often give people sense of relief from a busy mind and can then be equated with a mental break. While there’s nothing wrong with using it this way, it also minimizes the power of mindfulness.
The paradox here is when we’re able to do just be present to our minds, emotions and bodies, the stressful relationship tends to quiet down, but when we try and quiet the mind down, we often add fuel to the fire.
Myth #2: You need to carve out plenty of time in a serene “mindful” space.
For a number of months now hundreds of people have been taking the Basics in Mindfulness Meditation: 28 day program challenge to bring more mindfulness, self-compassion, compassion and balance into their lives. Throughout the course questions are asked that I field and one came in recently that I thought important to bring to all people as it is a seminar question of our time.
Hi Elisha, Thank you for this very helpful course. I notice that my thoughts start whirring around in my head when I have had an emotional encounter. I try to accept the thoughts, acknowledge it being there, then focus on breathing or the body scan but my mind races back to that emotion I experience of sadness. How can I pull myself into the moment when this happens? Will appreciate your advice.
We all experience resistance everyday when we’re trying to do something that matters. Whether you want to sit and meditate, work on a new project, get out and exercise, whatever it is that is in the direction of growth, resistance comes
alive. In my next book Uncovering Happiness (can’t wait to share it with you – January, 2015), I explore some of the neuroscience behind what keeps us stuck in a depressive loop and how to get unstuck and even find our natural anti-depressants and thrive. While resistance lies within a depressive spiral, you don’t have to have had experienced depression in the past to know resistance, it’s a universal daily experience for all of us.
But the deeper question is, where does it reside in the brain and how do we overcome it?
I don’t believe anyone has conducted and brain scan specifically on resistance, but one thing we do know is that the right side of the prefrontal region that lies behind your forehead lights up when we’re trying to avoid something. This same region also lights up with negative emotions.
One thing we’re wanting to do is intentionally practice and repeat shifting the activity to the left prefrontal region that is more associated with approaching things in life and with resiliency.
The fact is resistance is relentless, it’s a deeply ingrained wiring that we all have to move away from what the brain anticipates to be uncomfortable and stay with what’s comfortable. Not only is this hardwired into most of us, but we’ve practiced is so often that it’s strengthened the default. The brain has such a lock on us, that we’re not even aware of it.
This is why procrastination is so common.
So what do we do about it?
The best way to get the brain to change it seems is through engaging novelty. Kids are doing it like crazy, everything is new. I remember when my oldest was born and we’d walk around the neighborhood. I’d grab a leaf on a tree and say, “See this, this is a leaf. Look closely at the shape and see how it has veins.” In the process I was interacting with life as if for the first time and it inspired wonder and joy within me. I tapped into something important and I knew it.
In the now famous book Tuesdays with Morrie, Morrie points us in the direction of happiness:
“So many people walk around with a meaningless life. They seem half-asleep, even when they’re busy doing things they think are important. This is because they’re chasing the wrong things. The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.”
If someone shares something with you that is incredibly painful and you try to lighten the moment, that may be a lack of empathy. Empathy is about understanding where someone is coming from and caring about them, it says nothing about trying to make someone feel better. The following is a good descriptive cartoon that illuminates the difference between sympathy and empathy from a talk with Brene Brown, author of Daring Greatly.
Are there places in your life where someone’s discomfort leaves you feeling uncertain of what to say? Or maybe their pain is simply making you
One of the wonderful surprises of being a therapist all these years is how big the gift of being of service can be. I have the privilege of knowing people intimately and supporting them in opening their hearts and uncovering happiness. When I sit with that, it gives me an immense sense of purpose. Herein lies life’s beautiful paradox: The more love you give away, the more love you have. The ripple effects give me immense joy.
Through this experience I’ve realized at times it’s important to relay back what I’ve learned.
1. Essential Books to Have at Your Bedside
Aside from Uncovering Happiness: Overcoming Depression with Mindfulness and Self-Compassion (debut: January, 2015) - wink! – I’m a big fan of books that keep it simple. Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist Monk who writes simply and elegantly and I am a fan of many of his works. Taming the Tiger Within and The Miracle of Mindfulness are some of my favorites.
2. What’s the biggest myth about therapy?
That there’s an end goal.
I don’t mean that people need to be in therapy for an indefinite time, but there’s a faulty notion of achieving some end state. This focus makes therapy more difficult as the mind is cluttered with an expectation instead of focusing on learning. Even if insurance only covers 10 sessions and wants a definitive end goal, we have to always keep in mind that therapy is a vehicle for learning and while we can begin to master certain ways of being, growing and learning about ourselves in life never ends.
3. What seems to be the biggest obstacle for clients in therapy?
Take two minutes to read this blog post; it may truly be the thing today that can save your life.
First before we begin, watch this surprising video below (runtime 1:47).
The National Safety Council says there are currently 1.6 million accidents per year for texting while driving.
How could it not be true that the way many of us engage with Smartphones while in the car is not responsible for a rising amount of death tolls and injuries?
To some extent, it’s important to understand how the brain science may be working in the case of driving with the phone.
Many media outlets have been talking for a number of years now about how ubiquitous mindfulness is, the impact it’s having in a variety of sectors and all the wonderful science that continues to be published. But I noticed that many people in the media don’t talk much about the actual formal practice of mindfulness meditation and that’s probably because it can be a hard habit to establish. One thing I’ve learned is if you want to establish a practice you have to look directly at what’s getting in the way and allow those obstacles to be your greatest teachers.
Here are five obstacles that have been in people’s way for thousands of years and the antidotes to get over them.
Antidote: We have to remember that thoughts are just thoughts; they’re not facts (even the ones that say they are). When we notice this doubt slipping