Ajahn Chah was the spiritual teacher to many leading mindfulness teachers. He had a wonderful saying when it comes to being present in life, “It’s like this.” This saying always stuck with me as a great truth and a way to bring me back to the moment when my mind was spinning due to something stressful or difficult. In 2011, I realized that not only is “it like this,” but my mind would quickly begin swimming again and I would then say, “ah, and this too.” When I said, “and this too,” it brought me back once again to being here.
However, recently I found a new, practical and powerful use for the phrase, “It’s like this…and this too” that has everything to do with cultivating perspective and happiness.
It’s like this…
There’s nothing like the uncomfortable emotion of negative stress, anxiety, sadness, anger, shame, guilt or disgust to get the head spinning. It’s natural, the brain is trying to figure out how to balance us. So it jumps to the future thinking of worst case scenarios so we can be prepared, or it ruminates on all the negative facts of the past so we can use our history to mine for optimal decisions. At best, this auto-pilot mental looping keeps us stuck and at worst exacerbates the difficulty.
In that moment, when we say, “It’s like this,” this moment is exactly like this, we’re pausing to see the mental looping, the emotion, the physical sensation, the urge to engage in this destructive behavior. Neuroscience shows that when we note things it down-regulates the amygala or alarm center of the brain and brings activity back to the prefrontal cortex (PFC), the emotional regulator.
So at that point the body starts calming down a bit, we’re no longer in the throws of the mental and emotional looping and have widened the space between stimulus and response where perspective and choice lie. (This last piece references Viktor Frankl’s quote, “Between stimulus and response there’s a space, in that space lies our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom”).
…and this too
“And this too” now can be used for something else. Without ignoring the difficulty, we can now widen the lens to be aware of what’s good right now. This is not a Pollyanna fantasy, it’s a moment of looking for good facts to balance out the brain’s overemphasis on the negative. Maybe most of my body is healthy right now; maybe the sun is shining; maybe we’re safe as compared to others in the world; maybe we have a job, a car, or food that’s accessible to us. Maybe we have friends or the ability to see, hear, smell, touch and taste. Maybe in this moment, we’re not sick and can breathe clearly and walk without pain.
When we pause for a moment, there are so many good things going on in our lives, in fact, I would say that as long as we’re alive, most likely there is more good going on than bad. But the brain is wired to make a bigger deal out of what’s seemingly difficult because it’s wired to keep us safe, not make us happy.
Studies are also very clear that when we intentionally pay attention to what’s good in life, it gives us a boost in stress reduction and well-being. It’s even better if when you’re able to linger on the good for 5-10 seconds. This helps deepen the memory and experience of it.
So the next time you have a difficult moment, there a few steps you can take:
- Acknowledge the difficult moment – “It’s like this…”
- Investigate the difficulty – Ask yourself, what the feeling is and maybe what you’re needing. Maybe it’s to be with the feeling in a caring way, sending ourselves the message that I can be with this and it’s going to be okay.
- Say…”and this too” – Without negating what’s difficult, you can also balance out the negativity bias by asking yourself, “what’s good in the moment?” Then see if you can linger with it for a few seconds, playing with experience of holding both.
As always, treat this as an experiment. Allow your experience to be your guide.
Elisha Goldstein, PhD