Archive for acceptance

The power to choose is yours

Power to choose“The thought manifests as the word; The word manifests as the deed; The deed develops into habit; And habit hardens into character. So watch the thought and its ways with care, And let it spring from love born out of concern for all beings. As the shadow follows the body, as we think, so we become.”      Buddha, Dhammapada

This week in my yoga class my teacher shared a saying that spoke to me and I have been thinking about it ever since.  She said “If you don’t choose your feeling tone, your past will choose it for you.” As I pondered it, I knew that it rang true.  If each day, each moment I am not conscious of what intention I have my life then I can only react out of my unconscious habits.  Those habits have been shaped over my life, most of them being formed in my childhood and early adulthood.

It is the same for all of us.  The past  shaped us and will continue to rule us unless we become more mindful of the new path we desire.  For example, if we are raised in a family where shame was used to control us, we will easily sink into shame  even when others are not intending to shame us.  If we were raised in a very judgmental family, we will be quick to judge others and ourselves, even when we would prefer to be compassionate. This reaction results from our need to be vigilant to such tactics to deal with the environment in the past.  As such, we continually scan for evidence of the same negativity in our current situation.  Our brains are programmed to be aware of any such “threats” that exist, even when there are really only a few of them in the present moment.  Being able to  spot them immediately helped us to survive when we were children.  Our brains are hardwired to notice and  respond to the threats, real or imagined.

If we are to choose a different path, we need to heal the wounds of the past.  One way to do that is by using positive experiences to counter the negative one.  Rick Hanson, in his book Buddha’s Brain*, suggests two methods of doing this.  The first option is to let all the positive experiences that occur in the present  sink into the old pains.  To do this we have to maximize the positive experience. We need to replay it over and over in our mind, making a full colorful “movie” of it to see in our mind’s eye so that we really can get a full body experience of it.  Savor the positive moment.  Let it strengthen and replace some of the negative experiences in the past.  This helps to give us today what we should have received as a child.

The second option is to replace negative material that surfaces with positive emotions and memories that will be its antidote.  For example, if you have felt weak and dependent in the past, let a current experience of strength bathe it with healing.  If hurt from past neglect or rejection in relationships continues to make you feel unworthy, bring to mind where you are loved by other people or God.  Hanson suggests adding a thought such as “I got through all that, I’m still here and many people love me.”  While the memory of the pain will not vanish, using these two techniques will help it to diminish.  It will allow you to move on to the future you desire, rather than have the past choose it for you.

For more information about the use this technique and how it impact us at a neurological level, I refer you to Hanson’s  book.  Cognitive behavioral therapy also has many different methods to help us change our thoughts.  As quoted in the passage above, our thoughts lead to words, deeds, habits and character.  Our feeling tone or our intentions are intrinsically related to our thoughts.  By watching both our intentions and our thoughts we can begin to change our character.  One of the best places for this thought to spring from is from love and compassion, both for ourselves and the world.

* Hanson, Rick and Mendius, Richard, Buddha’s Brain: the practical neuroscience of happiness, love & wisdom, New Harbinger Publications, 2009.

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

IMG_0508When Bobby McFarren first came out with the song, Don’t Worry, Be Happy, I thought he must just be high on something.  It sounded too pat an answer to life’s many difficulties.  It couldn’t be as easy as just telling yourself or someone not to worry and focus on being happy, could it?  Maybe he was a typical laid back man from the tropics who lazed around in the sun all day.  What did he have to be worried about?  Well, it turns out he was from the States and a world class musician to boot.  And what he had to say is true.  We can control the level of our worry by  focusing on being happy.

How can we do that?  Dr. Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist, and Dr. Richard Mendius, a neurologist, havewritten a book called Buddha’s Brain: The practical neuroscience of happiness, Love & Wisdom.   This book outlines in detail how to decrease our stress and be happy. According to them, scientists have recently mapped out the neurotransmitters (chemicals in the brain) that are involved in emotions such as anxiety and depression.  These chemicals are key to firing parts of the brain that alert us to danger in our environment so that we have an increased chance of survival.  Over the thousands of years of human evolution, these pathways have developed to a level that our brains can make split second decisions whether to fight or flight or just relax.  Since these pathways are key to our survival,  they get the most traction in our brain.

We have evolved to pay greater attention to unpleasant experiences. This has created a negativity bias that overlooks good news and focuses on any possible dangers or threats in our environment.  With the development of our prefrontal cortex (the part of our brain that separates us from other animals), we have even been able to imagine possible scenarios, thus developing anticipatory anxiety about the danger we might meet in the future.  While this might serve us well if we were ever to meet such a circumstance, for the most part this tendency causes us to worry unnecessarily, even before something happens.  It causes unnecessary suffering more often than it prepares us for disaster.

The good news is that we also have the ability to retrain our brains to focus on more pleasant experiences which can increase the neural pathways that are devoted to feeling good.  You can actually change the “wiring in your brain” by using some simple, easy remedies.  Drs. Hanson and Mendius suggests first of all that we look consciously for and take in positive experiences, letting them sink into our awareness by actually savoring them.  This helps them to be consolidated in our memories. We can then use the positive memories to counteract a painful one that is occurring in the present.  For example, during the birth of my second child, I was able to use the memory of how good it was to hold my first child after he was born to help me cope with the pain of labor.

Their book is full of many other helpful suggestions that help us cool the fires of the sympathetic nervous system which is the one that produces the stress-related hormones.Instead, we use these techniques to activate the parasympathetic nervous system which allows calming, soothing and healing hormones to spread throughout your body.  Some of these techniques are familiar to many of us, such as progressive relaxation, deep breathing, mindfulness, meditation and imagery.   Cognitive behavioral therapy techniques can be of help in this area as well, challenging negative thoughts with realistic challenges.  The authors’ suggestions are too many to cover in this brief article.  I would recommend that you read their book.  Don’t be scared off by all the technical terms for the brain and its wiring.  The authors really explain this in a way that we all can understand.  Dr. Hanson also has a website that is worth visiting .  (http://www.rickhanson.net/)

So Bobby McFerrin was on to something in 1988 with his catchy tune.  I even can catch myself these days humming a few bars as I take his advise and let go of the negative filters. Instead, I choose to focus on the blessings and gratitude I feel for all that is positive in my life.  I would suggest the same for you.  Don’t Worry, Be Happy–it will change the way your brain works!

 

Surprise: A Gratefulness Practice

Most of us love surprises.  A beautiful box under the tree at Christmas time will bring exclamations of awe and joy.  A thoughtful card from a friend sent without any particular reason will elicit a smile on our faces.  But how many of us stay awake enough to notice all the surprises that greet us each day?  According to a friend of mine, it took his travel to a Scandinavian country for a year to notice upon his return the birds that sang all the time in his native India.  It is easy to habituate to those little things that surround us all the time.

Spring is a good time to become aware of such surprises.  For example, having more daylight each day as the sun begins its travels back to the northern hemisphere.  Yesterday as I left my office, I noticed that it was still light outside and just this little change lifted my spirits.  Taking a walk, I noticed daffodils starting to show their yellow heads and crocuses that added purples and yellows to the landscape.  These small but not unexpected occurrences can come as a surprise when we stop taking for granted the environment around us and just notice it as if for the first time.

The practice of gratitude involves a three step process that helps us to really notice what is around us.  The first is to wake up.  Just to ask ourselves several times a day, “Isn’t this surprising?” begins to orient us to being alive in our life rather than walking through our life in a hypnotic trance.  Surprise is not always good but even with pain or disappointment there can be a gift if we are awake to the experience.  Awareness helps us to see the opportunity in each occurrence so that we can respond fully to it.  We can also take the opportunity to respond in a grateful manner.  For example, recently I tore a ligament in my knee.  Through the pain of learning to walk normally again, I experienced how complicated this “simple” act truly is.  I felt like a baby learning how to take her first steps. Now I take joy in being able to walk without a limp.

David Steindl-Rast suggests this simple process in order to cultivate gratefulness in our lives:

“My simple recipe for a joyful day is this: stop and wake up; look and be aware of what you see; then go on with all the alertness you can muster for the opportunity the moment offers.”

We really do have as many things to be grateful for as we have to complain about.  It is just that we start to take those things for granted quicker than we do the ones that are irritating.  A good practice is to record in a journal at the end of the day all those things that surprised you that day and for which you are grateful.  If you follow these simple steps, you will find that you experience more happiness no matter what life gives you that day.

Resources:         David Steindl-Rast: Essential Writings, Edited by Clare Hallward

                         A Blessing in Disguise,  Edited by Andrea Joy Cohen, M.D.

                        Sacred Necessities: gifts for living with passion, purpose & grace, Terry Hershey

Self-Compassion

    “Perhaps most importantly, having compassion for yourself means that you honor and accept your humanness… The more you open your heart to this reality instead of constantly fighting against it, the more you will be able to feel compassion for yourself and all your fellow humans in the experience of life.”

                                                             Kristin Neff

 I don’t know about you, but I am harder on myself than I am on other people. Not that I don’t judge other people and at times have trouble being compassionate about their situation. That also occurs too frequently for comfort. But even so, I am much harder on myself. I can critique a small incident to death! ” I should have said this, I should have done that” or “I shouldn’t have said that, what was I thinking when I did that!” Those thoughts flow through my head on many occasions. Perfection always seems to be my target but never my accomplishment.  It is hard to accept myself just the way I am, warts and all.

Self-compassion is the key to acceptance. Mistakes are just part of the human condition. When we acknowledge that we are human, we can feel more compassion for ourselves when we fail to live up to our values. Dr. Kristin Neff is a psychologist that has done extensive research on compassion. She found that self compassion is different from self-pity, self-indulgence or self-esteem. She states, “self-compassion is not based on self-evaluations. People feel compassion for themselves because all human beings deserve compassion and understanding, not because they possess some particular set of traits (pretty, smart, talented, and so on). This means that with self-compassion, you don’t have to feel better than others to feel good about yourself. Self-compassion also allows for greater self-clarity, because personal failings can be acknowledged with kindness and do not need to be hidden.”

For more information on what she has discovered and techniques she has found helpful, check out her website.

 In my yoga class, we are focusing on contentment. Contentment doesn’t mean the lack of suffering or pain but the ability to be present to what is, the “now”, and feeling gratitude rather than irritation. One of the main tools for obtaining this is self-compassion. Rather than critique our current feelings or situation, we are encouraged to rest in the knowledge that we are where and who we are supposed to be. Each situation is an opportunity for learning and growing. Each feeling is present for the moment and need not linger if we don’t feed it to make it bigger than it is. Fighting against reality makes it worse. Acceptance is the key to contentment. We must first notice what we are experiencing internally, welcome it rather than fight it, and bathe it in the light of compassion or love. When we do this, we are able to release it sooner.

Mary Mrozowski is the author of a technique that is helpful in doing this. It is call the Welcoming Practice. It has three parts: Focus, Welcome and Letting Go. First, when a distressing emotion or physical pain arises, you focus on what is going on with the sensations in your body. Are your shoulders tight? Do you have a headache? Is your heart pounding? Don’t analyze why, just stay present with the sensations in the body. Second, welcome the sensation by naming it. Say to yourself, “Welcome pain” or Welcome anger” or Welcome fear.” You are not welcoming the outer situation that caused it but only the inner experience of it. With the welcome of the inner experience comes the release of judgment and the beginning of self compassion. Third, when you seem ready to do so, release the feeling and allow it to dissipate. You can say “I let go of this anger or pain.” This release may only be for the moment. It may return. But the present moment is what is important with this technique. If it returns, you can repeat the technique to deal with that moment. There are many resources on using this technique and this link Welcoming prayer will guide you to these.

As we develop more compassion for ourselves, we will also become more compassionate with others and our world. Hopefully, in doing so, our hearts will become large enough to care for the world in the way it needs so desperately right now.

 

Resources

 Centering Prayer and Inner Awareness, Cynthia Bourgeault

Forgiving Yourself: Why You Must, How You Can, Robert Lauer and Jeanette Lauer

Self Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind, Kristin Neff, PhD