Archive for Mindfulness

Help! My life is out of control!

stressWe all know that life is stressful. In fact, without a certain amount of stress, life would be boring to most of us. We use certain internal stressors such as deadlines to make sure we stay on track with our responsibilities and appointments. Some stress comes from positive events in our lives such as a new marriage or birth of a baby. Other times, it is from a death in the family, financial worries, or too many demands at work. We live in a fast paced world that asks us to keep up a whirlwind speed that can become overwhelming at times. When we become overwhelmed by tasks, deadlines or commitments, we can move from stress to di-stress.

Stress and anxiety are the fight or flight instinct that is our body’s natural way of responding to emergencies. When there is an actual emergency, this instinct allows us to think clearly and quickly respond to what is needed. Hormones race through our body to speed up our heart and other physical processes. They help us to avoid or deal with the threat. However, because we have the ability to anticipate problems, many of us fall into chronic worry or planning for possible problems that never even materialize. Thoughts about these possibilities can trigger the same flood of hormones and stress. Chronic anxiety leads to impairment of the immune system and increases the risk of physical and mental problems. This can lead to increased physical problems such as autoimmune diseases, coronary artery disease and decreased satisfaction with life.

Signs of stress vary among individuals but may include:

  • Worry, anxiety, or panic attacks
  • Sadness or depression
  • Feeling pressured and hurried
  • Irritability and moodiness
  • Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
  • Physical symptoms, such as stomach problems, headaches, or chest pain
  • Allergic reactions, such as a skin rash or asthma
  • Problems sleeping
  • Drinking too much alcohol, smoking, or misusing drugs
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Eating too much or not enough

Mindfulness is a great tool for coping with stress and anxiety. This practice involves stilling the mind by letting go of thoughts or emotions as they arise and tuning back into the present moment. Simply focusing on the breath or our body can do this. It is a practice of letting go of the thoughts that will, without a doubt, arise. The only definition of successful practice is that when we notice we are thinking or feeling, we name it and let it go, returning to the focus of the present moment. Practicing this type of stillness is best done as a routine before we are in the midst of an upsetting situation. Then when these situations occur, we can lean on our practice of letting go of anxious thoughts that are not helpful to solving the problem but just add stress. A great resource describing how to apply this technique specifically to anxiety is The Mindful Way through Anxiey: Break Free from Chronic Worry and Reclaim Your Life by Susan Orsillo, PhD & Lizabeth Roemer, PhD.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is also another tool that can help to alleviate the anxiety we feel. There are several different techniques in this field that can be applied to anxiety. The first step is learning how to identify these thoughts and differentiating the rational from the irrational. A therapist can help us to isolate the thoughts that are causing the anxiety and teach us ways to challenge them to decrease anxiety. This type of therapy has been shown to be a very effective means of reigning in our chronic worry, anger or depression. A good resource to read to become familiar with this tool is When Panic Attacks by David Burns, MD.

It is also important to remember to take time for self-care in the form of spending time with friends and family and getting the proper nutrition, exercise and sleep. Participating in positive activities and having fun is an important stress reducer. Watch any negative self-talk about not being able to cope or being competent. Seek out people that are supportive and caring. View problems as challenges rather than insurmountable obstacles. Remember, stress is normal but anxiety can be met head on and decreased. Don’t be afraid to seek the help of a friend or therapist if life begins to feel overwhelming and nothing seems to help. We all need help at one time or another and no one needs to go it alone.

Learning to Balance

balanceI recently returned from a trip to Europe where I was able to visit my granddaughter and her parents.   It was a fun trip filled with new experiences for all of us.  My granddaughter was learning many new things. One of them was to sit up on her own. If she over-reached for a toy, she fell forwards or backwards.  She was working on developing a strong core to be able to stay upright and to right herself  if she fell.  Additionally, we took a trip to a new country for me–England.

Overall, there was plenty of new information to take in and integrate into my knowledge of the world.  I started thinking about the need for both adaptability and stability as we approach new situations.  We need them both to learn and grow.  Without adaptability we remain stuck in our old way of perceiving reality and without a solid core or center we can feel out of sorts and confused.

As a small example of this, bathrooms in Europe are quite different from those here in the United States.  While there are some similarities, there are many challenges one faces when trying to accomplish the simple task of toileting, especially in public places.  Some have self contained rooms with both sink and toilet; others have common sink areas.  So far, that seems similar to the US, right?  But the faucets connected to those sinks came in all shapes and functions. At times I would just stare at them, not knowing how to even turn them on. I never saw one that was automatic like the ones common in the states.  However, there were ones where the faucet was hidden in the stem that tried to fool me into thinking they were automatic.  This made the task of washing my hands a challenge sometimes.  Also, reading the signage in some of the stalls was a bit like trying to assemble furniture from IKEA.

It was important to remain flexible while dealing with this common but important task.  It helped to use what researchers call fluid intelligence.  According to psychologists Robert Cattell and John Horn , fluid intelligence is the “capacity to think logically and solve problems in novel situations, independent of acquired knowledge. It is the ability to analyze novel problems, identify patterns and relationships that underpin these problems and the extrapolation of these using logic.”  Being flexible helped me to search “outside the box” for a solution.  Additionally, I could draw upon my experience in other situations or my “crystallized intelligence” to make a best guess on how to proceed.

Using flexibility or adaptability is important in many of life circumstances.  At the same time, it is important to have a sense of your deep identity to keep yourself centered and grounded.  If either of these two qualities are out of balance, we can “fall over” just like my granddaughter did when she over-reached her center of gravity. We can ground ourselves through centering prayer, mindfulness, breath work and many other ways of stabilizing ourselves in the present moment.  We can practice flexibility by trying new things in our everyday life,  even if they take us out of our comfort zone.  If we can stay in balance with these two tasks, we will be able to deal with most of life’s challenges or at least be able to right ourselves when we “fall.”

What Makes True Happiness?

IMG_2368A young waitress serving the Dali Lama at a ski resort sat down at the table and asked him what was the meaning of life.   He answered immediately, “The meaning of life is happiness.” He raised his finger, leaning forward, focusing on her as if she were the only person in the world. “Hard question is not, ‘What is meaning of life?’ That is easy question to answer! No, hard question is what make happiness. Money? Big house? Accomplishment? Friends? Or…” He paused. “Compassion and good heart? This is question all human beings must try to answer: What makes true happiness?

What makes true happiness?  That is a good question for all of us to ponder.  This question seems to have many different answers depending on whether we are young or old, poor or rich, depressed or feeling upbeat.  Does it really depend on our situation or age or does it depend on our attitude and approach to life?  If we are focused on gaining material possessions or a great job, does that give us great happiness?  Maybe,  if we are living in poverty.  If this is the way to happiness, how do we reconcile the fact that some of the happiest people are also poor? There are challenges in life due to poverty, chronic pain, discrimination etc. I am not suggesting that these don’t need to be addressed.  However, if these challenges are perceived as overwhelming or take over all our focus, we miss the positive things that occur in our lives as well.  And many of us in the first world, act as if we have extreme poverty when it is far from the truth.  Instead we worry over have the latest gadget or clothes when we have more than enough.

We all need to feel we have a purpose in life.  This is what organized religion has provided in the past for many of the baby boomer generation.  With the advent of scientific discoveries, the ability to know so many facts at the touch of a button, and the picture of earth sent back from space, we have become an untethered people. We are no longer tied to a geographical spot on the map. Expectations no longer limit us.  We expect more and more in everything we do and have. Consumerism is encouraged as a good way to stabilize the economy.  We have lost our purpose of life or at least one that came predetermined for us by our elders or our religious leaders.  We look to our government to give us a national perspective but even this is divide and not to be trusted.  Where can we search for the meaning of true happiness?

How can we adopt the Dali Lama’s suggestion that compassion and a good heart is the road to happiness?  Firstly, we need to focus on having compassion for ourselves; not demanding perfection in everything we do but learning from failures and mistakes with an open and generous heart.   We can learn to laugh at our foibles at the same time not allowing them to define who we are as a person.  Claiming our belovedness as a child of God (or whatever we call the energy that unites all of us and yet is more than just us) can help us to feel secure and worthwhile.

We can  greet each day as it is, allowing it to unfold without expectations of how it needs to be in order for us to be happy.  Suspending judgment until we truly understand and can empathize with people we interact can allow us to feel compassion and openness in our hearts.   We can acknowledge pain with an open heart but not add to it by our thoughts or resistance to the pain.  We can sit with our emotions until we are clear about what action we need to take if any.

I believe we can do all of the above. If we practice doing this each day we will grow into compassionate and open people who find happiness if most of our lives.  It takes practice and humor when we miss the target but we can learn to rewire our brains towards happiness. Neuroscience is discovering how this occurs.  The practice of mindfulness is aiding many people to do just this. Listed below are several good books that have been published on the subject.  I have also included a website. We each are in charge of our happiness and can change the attitude with which we approach our situation and the world.

  • http://www.rickhanson.net/writings/just-one-thing
  • Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm and Confidence, by Rick Hanson
  • Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life, by Thich Nhat Hanh
  • The Mindful Way through Anxiety: Break Free from Chronic Worry and Reclaim your Life, by Orsillo, Roemer, and Segal
  • The Mindful Way through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness, by William, Teasdale, Segal and Kabat-Zinn

 

 

The Patience To Wait

candlelight” Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving till the right action arises by itself? The Master doesn’t seek fulfillment. Not seeking, not expecting, she is present, and can welcome all things.”  Lao-tzu

As autumn draws to a close and winter closes in, the darkness appears to win the battle over the light.  It is a time of drawing inward and setting our houses ablaze with light.  We move towards the Season of Light, which is celebrated in many different cultures and spiritual traditions with the lighting of candles and the gathering around a fire.  In ancient times, these rituals were done to ensure that the light would return to the earth, providing the warmth and energy needed to provide growth for the spring plantings.  Christianity celebrates this time as Advent, which is a period of great hope and expectancy.  But do we have the patience to wait?  Can we remain open and receptive, allowing ourselves a time of emptiness without trying first to fill it with some direction or wish list for the how we want to be transformed?

Patience is a hard thing to learn.  When my sons were little, I used to ask for patience so that I could be a good mom.  I wanted to be happy with them, not wanting them to be older than they were or different than they were.  I was told by more than one person to be careful what you ask for, because instead of just getting patience free of charge, life would give you opportunities to practice patience.  And boy did I get lots of opportunities to practice!  Patience is an active thing.  It is more about leaning into whatever life presents you and learning to be fully present with it.  It is not about having a preconceived notion of what the right action is but waiting until “the mud settles” and the right action becomes obvious.  When I responded to one of my son’s antics by yelling or being upset, I missed the opportunity to use it as a teaching moment.  I also missed the humor contained in most of the things they tried and alienated the relationship I had with them.  I got a chance to practice this over and over and eventually got better at it, I believe.  You would have to ask them to get their side of the story, but we have a very good relationship now so I think I did some things right, some of the time at least.

Mindfulness is a way to practice patience.  According to Williams et al in their book The Mindful Way through Depression,

“Mindfulness is the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to things as they are…  (It) means paying attention to things as they actually are in any given moment, however they are, rather than as we want them to be.”  

This practice is about stilling the mind by letting go of thoughts or emotions as they arise and tuning back into the present moment.  This can be done by focusing on the breath or the body or the food you are eating.  It is as simple as bringing your attention back to what is happening around you at the moment.  It is a practice of letting go of the thoughts that will, without a doubt, arise.  They will attempt to move your attention off the present, into planning for the future or ruminating about the past. These thoughts arise even for seasoned practitioners of mindfulness.  The only definition of successful practice is that when you notice you are thinking or feeling, you name it and let it go, returning to the focus of the present moment.  Practicing this type of stillness or patience is best done as a routine before you are in the midst of an upsetting situation.  Then when these situations occur, you can lean on your practice of letting go and waiting until the right action arises.  Above all, being non-judgmental about the times you are not able to be patient, allows you to practice a key aspect of mindfulness–the acceptance of whatever is happening at the given moment rather than some goal of perfection we desire.  And you will get many times to practice this if you are like most of us.

 According to Pema Chodron, a Buddhist monk,

“Personal discovery and growth come from letting there be room for all of this to happen; room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.  Suffering comes from wishing things were different. Misery is self-inflicted, when we are expecting the “ideal” to overcome the “actual” or needing things (or people or places) to be different for us so that we can then be happy.”

As Lao-tzu states, if we keep our expectations open, not seeking a specific end to the interaction with others or with our spiritual journey, we are able to welcome all things and use them to enhance our understanding of ourselves and others.  Each event in our life can bring us closer to our true self. And in this way, we can move towards bringing back the light we need for growth and energy in our own lives and in the lives of others around us.

Lao-Tzu (translated by Stephen Mitchell), Tao Te Ching

Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal, and Jon Kabat-Zinn, The Mindful Way through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness.

Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart: Heartfelt Advice for Hard Times.

 

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

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