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“What lies behind us and what lies before us are of little importance compared to what lies within us.”
~Ralph Waldo Emerson
Most of us are familiar with fictional tale “The Wizard of Oz.” In this story, a twister picked up Dorothy’s Kansas house, with her inside, and carried it to the Land of Oz. Dorothy’s mission throughout the remainder of the adventure was to return home. The residents of Oz suggested that she follow the yellow brick road to Emerald City in order to find the Wizard, who supposedly would help her return.
Along the way she met companions: the Scarecrow, who was convinced his life would be better if he only had a brain; the Tin Man, who desired a heart; and the Lion, who believed he was deficient of courage. Each of these characters thought that he was lacking something and put his faith in the legendary Wizard to give him what was missing. However, when they finally reach the Emerald City, their expectations were shattered to find an unsympathetic Wizard. Nevertheless, as they continued the journey, each one illustrated the quality he felt was most absent: the Scarecrow demonstrated wisdom, the Tin Man embodied tenderness, and the Lion behaved bravely. In each case, they revealed that they had those inherent virtues the whole time, but they just weren’t adept at accessing them in the beginning. The Wizard, who turned out to be a charlatan, could only present the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion with outward symbols in recognition of their qualities: a diploma, a medal, and a testimonial, respectively. The Wizard wasn’t able to give them anything they didn’t already possess.
And, what about Dorothy; she still hadn’t found a way home to Kansas? When the Wizard’s hot air balloon finally sailed away from Oz without her, Dorothy believed her last option for returning was lost. Yet, auspiciously, Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, appeared once again. Glinda informed Dorothy that she didn’t need to be helped any longer. In fact, Dorothy always had the power to go back to Kansas, but she had to learn it for herself.
Mindfulness practice often follows much the same journey. When first arriving at this practice, many of us have been seeking solace, fulfillment, and security from sources outside of ourselves; to provide what we believe to be lacking or to fill perceived holes in our lives. Yet, we have not found satisfaction in those attempts. In contrast, as we cultivate mindfulness skills, we find a greater ability to bring our attention to our own experience, rather than searching externally. In doing so, we essentially develop the capacity to come into closer contact with our intrinsic nature, to find our way home. Reconnecting with our inner wisdom, heart, and courage is possible. Buddha is commonly quoted as having said, “Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without.” We realize we always have had this power. We just needed to learn how to access it. And, essentially, the way we do this is by bringing our awareness into the present moment, rather than unconsciously becoming engaged in distractions, either outside of ourselves or in our own mind. Bringing your attention to the present moment is the equivalent of Dorothy clicking her heals together and saying, “There’s no place like home.”
“it is here
in the breath
it is here
in the stillness between breaths
it is here
in the active mind
it is here
in the resting mind
it is here
in the dream’s panorama
it is here
in each moment of awakening
it is here
when all is well
it is here
when fear has nothing left to fear
there is pure noticing
there is no need for doing
no frantic searching
can find the obvious
no seeking needed
to find that which seeks
it is here
where it can never be lost
“We can easily manage if we will only take, each day, the burden appointed to it. But the load will be too heavy for us if we carry yesterday’s burden over again today, and then add the burden of the morrow before we are required to bear it.”
– John Newton
I’ll begin by sharing with you an often told anecdote. A lecturer, when explaining the impacts of stress to an audience, raised a glass of water and asked, “How heavy is this glass of water?” Answers called out ranged from 8 oz. to 20 oz. The lecturer replied, “The absolute weight doesn’t matter. It depends on how long you try to hold it. If you hold it for a minute, that’s not a problem. If you hold it for an hour, your arm will ache. If you hold it for a day, you’ll have to call an ambulance. In each case, it’s the same weight, but the longer you hold it, the heavier it becomes.” She continued, “And that’s the way it is with stress. If we carry our burdens all the time, no matter how minor they seem, sooner or later, as the burden becomes increasingly heavy, it becomes an obstacle for us.”
Likewise, each of us is vulnerable to preoccupations, from the moment we arise in the morning until we fall asleep at night. Knowingly or unknowingly, we accumulate these concerns and carry them around with us, picking up more and more without freeing ourselves of the previous ones. As we do so, they become a greater and greater burden. You may be surprised at how much weight you are hauling day to day. And that energy can be better employed for things that really matter right now.
Fortunately, mindfulness provides an opportunity for you to lighten your load, to free yourself of these burdens. By asking yourself to be aware of your experience in the here and now, to be fully in the present moment, you can release the energy you are expending on preoccupations that have been consuming your attention. Additionally, as you do this, you can become more familiar with the nature of the concerns that pull your attention and gain insight into those patterns. Recognizing these patterns enables you to allow the preoccupations to arise and pass, without grabbing hold of them, thus freeing you from their encumbrance.
In the midst of a recent group mindfulness practice, one of the participants, Donald, described an experience of his burdens easing in this manner: “And then, between one mindful footstep and another, I realized that I was free. In the moment, I had escaped the weight of the world. The bills, the projects, the politics… None of that was with me in the now. Nor are they now. I am aware of them, patiently waiting their turn. But I’m no longer carrying them, in the now.”
To help facilitate this process, each time I lead an all-day retreat, as part of an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program, I offer students the opportunity to lighten their load when the retreat begins. As we check in, I encourage students to hand over to me, for safe keeping during the day, any preoccupations they are carrying with them. To be clear, these are not burdens I add to my own plate, instead, I place them into a virtual, infinite storage space where they can be housed. Students hand over things such as concerns about a work project, a child’s soccer game that is being missed, anxieties about health, errands that need to be run, and a variety of other tasks on “to do” lists. This process assists students by freeing up their attention so that they are more able to bring their awareness fully into the present moment throughout the day. At the end of the retreat, students have the option to collect items they had entrusted to me, or keep them in the storage area more permanently. There are very few people who end up taking back items from the storage area; only things that still require attention are retrieved.
You can do this for yourself. First, recognize what you are carrying around with you – really stop and pay attention as you consider this. Then, before you go any further, out of kindness for yourself, put down anything that may be a burden to you right now. (There is plenty of room in the virtual storage space for your burdens to be housed, so go ahead put them there.) Start even for a moment, and if you can, refrain from picking them back up again. (You may leave them in the storage area permanently.) Repeat this process on a regular basis to continue to lighten your load.
“It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.”
– Lou Holtz
“There is more to life than increasing its speed.”
– Mohandas K. Gandhi
In over fifteen years of supporting people who are experiencing the effects of stress in their lives, one thing hasn’t changed: people generally feel overwhelmed by the demands they are facing and by their attempts to keep up with them; they are busy— too busy. This is true whether individuals are students, in professional careers, non-professional workers, unemployed job seekers or retired. Commonly, newly retired people attend my classes having expected retirement to bring them relief from the busyness of their employed life, only to find a that they are caught up in different kinds of demands, but still don’t feel like they have enough time.
The question becomes, is all of this busyness, with the wear and tear it is taking in our lives, really taking us somewhere worthwhile? Or instead, are most of us merely caught, knowingly or unknowingly, on the hamster wheel of life, running faster and faster without a meaningful payoff?
Tim Kreider, in a recent essay he wrote entitled “The ‘Busy’ Trap1,” spoke to this trend of being too busy: “Almost everyone I know is busy. They feel anxious and guilty when they aren’t either working or doing something to promote their work.” “The present hysteria,” according to Kreider,” is not a necessary or inevitable condition of life; it’s something we’ve chosen, if only by our acquiescence to it.” Kreider asserted that in our current culture, busyness is often “a boast disguised as a complaint.” “It makes you feel important, sought-after and put-upon.” And this complaint is coming from those who are “busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.” Furthermore, he maintained that “busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.” He said, “I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter.” On the other hand, Kreider advocated the value of inactivity: “Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets.” He concluded by stating, “Life is too short to be busy.”
If you are not convinced of Kreider’s argument in support of slowing down your busyness, you might be interested to read the top five regrets of the dying2, as compiled by Bonnie Ware, a nurse who spent several years working in palliative care, caring for patients in the last 12 weeks of their lives. The regrets of the dying recorded by Ware support the conviction made by Paul Tsongis, “Nobody on his deathbed ever said, ‘I wish I had spent more time at the office’”:
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
Ware comments about regret number five are particularly significant: “This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again.” Too often, people do not see the cost of remaining caught up in their busyness until they no longer have the choice to make changes.
This does not have to be your fate, however. I was fortunate to have my eyes opened to the dangers of getting caught in what Kreider referred to as “The ‘Busy’ Trap” many years ago when I took a time management class. Most of that day-long class was spent identifying very detailed goals for the next month, three months, six months, one year, three years, five years, ten years, and on through the next 100 years of our lives. It was a taxing and exhausting process. Toward the end of the day, we were told to write the goals for two more periods: the last six months and final one week of our lives. We were then asked to review the goals for the next 100 years of our lives to see if we incorporated the goals that we identified for the last six months and final week of our lives. Many people in the class, including me, realized that the goals for our final days did not show up in the goals we set for the next 100 years of our lives. The point was clearly made in this experiential process: if the goals for the last six months and week of our life tend to reveal those aspects that are most meaningful to us, why, then, do we go through life on a daily basis without incorporating them into our life! Pablo Neruda answered this question most eloquently in his poem, “Keeping Quiet” when he said, “If we weren’t unanimous about keeping our lives so much in motion, if we could do nothing for once, perhaps a great silence would interrupt this sadness, this never understanding ourselves and threatening ourselves with death.”
Accordingly, I offer you the invitation to slow down periodically with the intention of recognizing what is most meaningful to you in your life. Ask yourself, if you knew that you only had six months to live, how would you employ that time? And if you only had one week to live how would you choose to spend that week? Then see how you can consciously integrate and prioritize those features into your day-to-day existence. Continue taking baby steps in this direction and you will find that you have the capability to step off of the hamster wheel!
“For fast-acting relief, try slowing down.”
– Lily Tomlin
“Sometimes it seems your ever-increasing list of things to do can leave you feeling totally undone.”
– Susan Mitchell and Catherine Christie, I’d Kill for a Cookie
Stress is a fact of life. No one is totally free of it, as long as you are alive. The negative effects of stress can take a serious toll on the quality of your life. And you may be one of those persons who have been feeling more stress lately.
If so, join the club. In research published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology1 on April 12, 2012 psychological stress was assessed in 3 national surveys administered in 1983, 2006, and 2009 using the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS). The results of this study show an increase in stress over time in almost every demographic category from 1983 to 2009, ranging from 10%-30%. Stress increased 18% for women and 24% for men during this period. Stress increased little in response to the 2008-2009 economic downturn except among White, middle-aged, college-educated men with full-time jobs. This group’s increase was almost double that of any other demographic group.
Overall, throughout the years of the study period, women reported having higher stress levels as compared to men; findings show that stress increases with decreasing age, education and income; and unemployed persons reported higher levels of stress, while retired persons reported lower levels. “These data suggest greater stress-related health risks among women, younger adults, those of lower socioeconomic status, and men potentially subject to substantial losses of income and wealth.” 1
If you are one of those persons who feel the effects of stress in your life, don’t despair. You have more influence over the amount of stress you experience than you may think. Here are seven lifestyle habits that will reduce your stress levels and improve the quality of your life:
- Practice meditation and relaxation skills on a regular basis
- Exercise daily – a combination of aerobic exercise with some strength training is optimal
- Get enough sleep
- Eat nutritious food and less of it
- Minimize exposure to toxic substances (and toxic environments)
- Maintain social and supportive connections, and
- Schedule pleasant activities each week
This may sound like a lot to take on. But don’t think of it as an all or nothing proposition. Every step you take in these directions will make a positive difference. And as you do so, you will begin to notice increased energy, a more positive state of mind, and greater tolerance, all of which will make it easier for you to manage your day-to-day commitments more effectively and with less stress.
- COHEN, S. and JANICKI-DEVERTS, D. (2012), Who’s Stressed? Distributions of Psychological Stress in the United States in Probability Samples from 1983, 2006, and 2009. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 42: 1320–1334. doi: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.2012.00900.x
“The time to relax is when you don’t have time for it.”
– Attributed to both Jim Goodwin and Sydney J. Harris
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound,
in fear of what my life and my children’s life may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water,
and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives
with forethought of grief.
I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
– Wendell Berry
American Farmer, Professor, Novelist and Poet
Throughout human history, people have turned to nature as a source of healing, renewal and contemplation. Each of us can recall encounters with nature that helped us feel revitalized, in touch with our core self, or more whole. Personally, I recollect, as a child, the exhilarating feeling of skiing on peaks of the Rocky Mountains without another sole in sight. The memory of renewal I felt in those moments has stayed with me ever since. There are times when I feel the longing to go for a walk in the forest, or along the shores of the ocean, or to climb a mountain, to reconnect with this natural sense of ease. We all seem to intuitively know that nature has this restorative effect on us.
So, you might ask, what does this have to do with the quality of our attention? It turns out there is a significant relationship between nature and the quality of our attention.
Researchers, doctors Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, at the University of Michigan have been studying a neurological phenomenon called Distraction Attention Fatigue (DAF). DAF occurs when we are faced with many stimuli that are drawing our attention while we are attempting to focus on a task, or going about our daily lives. These may be sounds, visual encounters, or events that attract our attention involuntarily, pulling us into the environment around us. We are constantly bombarded by these small stimuli, which don’t allow us to rest or reflect. In time, the part of our brain that enables us to concentrate gets overworked, as it attempts to inhibit these distractions that are unrelated to the task at hand, and eventually becomes worn out, fatigued.1
DAF can result from a variety of activities which require the brain to inhibit stimulus. Activities such as multitasking, working after a lack of sleep or in an environment with distracting noise, performing concentration-intensive tasks and problem-solving can bring on DAF, as can stress from emergencies or deadlines.
Symptoms of Distraction Attention Fatigue can occur emotionally, cognitively, and interpersonally and may include: heightened irritability: restlessness; short-temperedness; confusion, and/or forgetfulness; feelings of impulsiveness; an inability to plan; impaired judgment; and misperception or missing social cues.2 All of these symptoms are indicative that something is not working right in the inhibitory capability of the brain.
Fortunately, nature has a restorative effect on the symptoms of Distraction Attention Fatigue. Stephen and Rachel Kaplan came up with the concept of Attention Restoration Theory to describe the process of nature healing the worn-out mind. More specifically, when the Directed Attention of an individual becomes fatigued, one of the most effective ways to recover is to find ways of attending that are effortless.3 Nature has a way of grabbing our attention in an involuntary way, that doesn’t require us to make an effort, and allows our directed attention to rest. Exposure to nature lets us feel refreshed, after which we can focus better when the task requires us to do so.
Numerous research studies have validated the claims of the Attention Restoration Theory. Studies have shown that DAF experienced by cancer patients after surgery improves dramatically after 120 minutes per week of exposure to a natural environment.4 Similarly, experiments have found that spending even a few minutes in an urban environment can impair the brain’s ability to focus and manage self-control whereas walking in nature or viewing pictures of nature can improve cognitive functioning.5 Likewise, recent experimentation done at the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory suggests that children with ADHD concentrate significantly better after 20 minutes walking in a city park as compared to the same amount of time walking downtown or in an urban neighborhood.6 In addition, research conducted by Rachel Kaplan found that office workers with windows which provided views of nature – a few trees, landscaping or signs of vegetation – felt less frustrated and more patient, found their job more challenging, expressed greater enthusiasm for it, and reported higher life satisfaction as well as overall health.7 Kaplan concluded that windows provide an excellent means to rest directed attention for a brief moment or for a longer time.
Even a little bit of mother nature has a positive effect on the quality of your attention and can help you be more relaxed, more focused, more in control and happier.
Here are some ways you can rest your Directed Attention:
- Spend time regularly in a natural environment: go to a park; walk along a tree-lined street, on a wooded trail, or at the beach; or do some gardening.
- While at work, take moments to look out a window with a view of nature.
- Get outside periodically during your active day and try the suggestion described in my blog article: Using Your Senses to Calm an Agitated Mind.
- Look at pictures of nature, when you don’t have access to a natural environment.
- Take some time for retreat or solitude in a contemplative setting.
- Get a good night of sleep.
- Kaplan, R.; Kaplan, S. (1989). The experience of nature: A psychological perspective. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-34939-2.
- Berman, Mark G., and Kaplan, Stephen (2010).“Directed Attention as a Common Resource for Executive Functioning and Self-Regulation.” Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5.1: 43-57.
- Kaplan, S. (1995). “The restorative benefits of nature: Toward an integrative framework.” Journal of Environmental Psychology, 15, 169-182.
- Cimprich, Bernadine PhD, RN, FAAN; Ronis, David L. PhD. (2003). “An Environmental Intervention to Restore Attention in Women With Newly Diagnosed Breast Cancer.” Cancer Nursing, 26(4): 284-292
- Berman, M., Jonides, J., Kaplan, S. (2008). “The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting With Nature,” Psychological Science, 19, 1027-1212.
- Faber Taylor, A. & Kuo, F.E. (2009). “Children with attention deficits concentrate better after walk in the park.” Journal of Attention Disorders, 12, 402-409.
- Kaplan, Rachel (1993). “The role of nature in the context of the workplace”. Landscape and urban planning 26 (1): 193–201.
“The natural rhythms of the forest, of the trees and the streams give a sense of uplift and well-being to our minds. They ground us. This provides a very important foundation for the meditation practice. It comes to feel natural to be by yourself and you come to a delight in solitude.”
– Ajahn Jayasaro, The Forest Path
Occasionally people ask me about the transition from my role as a software marketing professional to being a mindfulness instructor and stress management consultant/coach. If you are one of those people who is interested in hearing about my career path and mindfulness in the workplace, below is a link to a 30-minute interview with Career/Life Coach Steve Piazzale, Ph.D. as part of the cable television series he hosts and produces, “You’re Hired.”
You’re Hired January 29, 2012
Julie Forbes, Mindfulness in the Workplace
Steve Piazzale, Ph.D., Career/Life Coach (www.BayAreaCareerCoach.com) interviews Julie Forbes, Stress Management Consultant and Coach. Julie discusses her interesting career path and what she learned about career transitions that might surprise you. She also discusses mindfulness and stress reduction and offers tips on how to remain mindful and therefore less stressed in the workplace.
If you’d like to learn more about Steve Piazzale and the services he provides to help people optimizing their careers, here is how to contact him:
Steve Piazzale, Ph.D.
Get the work you want and deserve!
Other episodes of “You’re Hired” can be viewed on demand.
“Praise and blame, gain and loss, pleasure and sorrow come and go like the wind. To be happy, rest like a giant tree, in the midst of them all.”
– The Buddha
One of the most common misconceptions about meditation is that it is used as a way to stop your thoughts and other experiences that preoccupy you, or at least push them aside for the duration of the practice. Contrary to this perception, mindfulness is, instead, a means of becoming more familiar with your thoughts, emotions and physical experiences; rather than trying to push them away, the intention is to acknowledge their presence and meet them as they are. To do otherwise is to be caught by these experiences, personalizing them, and allowing them to unconsciously drive your reactions. Mindfulness enables you to have choice in how you respond to your experiences, once you have acknowledged them, whether they are cognitive, emotional or physical in nature.
Without mindfulness, when you are caught in reaction to your unacknowledged experiences, it can feel as if you are on “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride,” a Disneyland attraction at that is a twisting, curving ride in the dark: from moment to moment, the rider does not know how long he or she will proceed in a straight line or which direction he or she may suddenly turn. It can feel as if you are out of control of, and sometimes overwhelmed by, what you are experiencing.
Practicing mindfulness provides you with an alternative to this unconscious reactivity, which is a source of much of the suffering in peoples’ day-to-day lives. Equanimity is the ability to respond with balance, or an even mind, amidst the changing conditions in life: the ups, the downs, even the neutral places. Equanimity helps to give you the strength when things don’t go the way you hoped for, wanted or expected. This state of balance is not to be confused with indifference. In contrast, equanimity is the absence of either being hooked by or denying your experience and instead responding from the awareness and acceptance of how things are, without judgment. It is through equanimity that you may find peace and reduce your suffering.
Matthiew Ricard, in his book, Happiness, likens equanimity to the depths of the ocean, “A storm may be raging at the surface, but the depths remain calm. The wise man always remains connected to the depths. On the other hand, he who knows only the surface and is unaware of the depths is lost when he is buffeted by the waves of suffering.”1 Constant changes are a universal part of life. The sense of peace that many people seek arrives from the ability to ride with the changing realities of life with mindfulness, without losing grounding: understanding that all things are in constant change and that it is our own reactions to situations in life that cause us added suffering – we have influence over that.
One way you can assert influence over your reactivity is to cultivate equanimity. This can be deliberately done by repeating some simple phrases to yourself that reinforce this intention for steadiness in your life. Here are some examples of phrases that you can repeat for yourself:
- May I accept things as they are.
- No matter how I might wish things could be otherwise, things are the way they are.
- May I offer my care and presence without conditions, knowing they may be met by anger, gratitude or indifference.
- I wish you happiness and peace, but cannot make your choices for you.
- I care about your pain, but cannot control it.
- Although I wish only the best for you, I also know that your actions, not my wishes for you, will determine your happiness or unhappiness.
- May I remain in peace, and let go of expectations.
- May I offer love, knowing I cannot control the course of life, suffering or death.
- May I see my limits compassionately, just as I see the limitations of others.
Choose one or two of the above phrases that resonate with you and practice repeating them to yourself. Even if the phrases do not feel authentic at first, over time, you may begin to live more in line with the intention that these phrases evoke.
1. Ricard, Matthieu. Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company, 2007, page 66.
“I am not afraid of storms for I am learning how to sail my ship.”
– Louisa May Alcott
“When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability… To be alive is to be vulnerable.”
– Madeline L’Engle
If you look up the definition of “vulnerable” in the dictionary, you will find it to mean: 1. capable of being physically or emotionally wounded, and 2. open to attack or damage1; It is a state of being exposed or feeling raw.
This level of exposure can feel very scary. On a daily basis, we minimize this insecurity by creating structures within which we can function with the uncertainties we face: we craft a public image of ourselves that we project to others and we construct an identity for ourselves as a basis to stand upon. Residing within these structures we remain protected from perceived harm, often based on former wounding. However, these constructs also limit us from connecting on a deeper basis with ourselves and one another.
While this protection helps us to get by day to day and even survive, if we begin to rely on these structures as constant and genuine, we can deceive ourselves. Maintaining the illusion that we can have ultimate control in our lives, we lose touch with the reality that everything is constantly changing. Whether we like it or not, there will inevitably be times when the sense of identity to which we are clinging no longer serves us, or the façade that we are presenting no longer fits well. Even when we know this intellectually, it can be challenging for us to release our grip on these structures in which we’re so invested. After all, it can be very frightening to look inside and find nothing to hold onto. Worse, if they disintegrate on their own, it can be even more painful; we may face an unavoidable crisis. As Alison Luterman points out in her poem, Stripping, we are terrified to find out what lies beneath this armor:
I want to strip. It’s the jewel
at the center I seek; let me be oyster, hoarding pearl.
Let me be coal, sheltering diamond.
Though in my heart of hearts I am afraid
I may be onion, each white circle
of stinky tears hiding another
exactly like it, Or rose:
whose petals are her everything.
Ultimately, we can overlook the fact that we must let go of these old structures if we are to grow. Consequently, residing with our vulnerability is actually a gateway to our development. According to Gail Sheehy, “With each passage of human growth, we must shed a protective structure [like a hardy crustacean]. We are left exposed and vulnerable – but also yeasty and embryonic again, capable of stretching in ways we hadn’t known before.”
In our culture, being vulnerable is commonly viewed as a weakness. Relating without the external layers of protection (the façade or mask), can be likened to Samson cutting off his hair – diminishing one’s strength. In reality, residing with our vulnerability may, instead, actually enable us to access innate inner strength and a source of power.
How, then, may we embrace our vulnerability? The answer lies in our willingness to spend time with ourselves, to look more closely at how we are reacting to the uncertainty we face in life and to old wounds that remain open. As we become familiar with our attempt to create and maintain a protective structure we create the possibility of letting it go when we realize it is causing us suffering. Mindfulness meditation provides a way for us to meet ourselves in this compassionate manner. Pema Chödrön speaks to the potential of this effort:
The only reason we don’t open our hearts and minds to other people is
that they trigger confusion in us that we don’t feel brave enough or sane
enough to deal with. To the degree that we look clearly and
compassionately at ourselves, we feel confident and fearless about
looking into someone else’s eyes
Through mindfulness practice, there is an opportunity to reside within the spaciousness of change and groundlessness of reality, rather than to perceive them as a threat. When we are mindful of and acknowledge our present experience, we have a means of touching the tender places that may be scary. By hanging out with these raw places in ourselves, in the safe container of meditation, without needing to do or change anything, we can explore what it is like to relate to them with friendliness rather than contraction and what is like to let go of our reaction rather than to contribute to it.
Finally, Gil Fronsdal, the primary teacher for the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City, CA, suggests that adding a contemplation, reflection and inquiry component to mindfulness meditation can be a skillful way to learn more about these areas of vulnerability. One way to do this is through writing or journaling when you touch these sensitive places in your practice.
Allowing yourself to become more familiar with these intrinsic aspects of yourself, as challenging as it may be, frees you to respond from this authentic place instead of being driven by fear. Hafiz emphasizes this possibility in his poem, It Felt Love: “How did the rose ever open its heart and give to this world all its beauty? It felt the encouragement of light against its being, otherwise, we all remain too frightened.”
2. John Welwood, “Vulnerability and Power in the Therapeutic Process” in Awakening the Heart (1983).
“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”
– Brene Brown
“There are no mistakes. The events we bring upon ourselves, no matter how unpleasant, are necessary in order to learn what we need to learn; whatever steps we take, they’re necessary to reach the places we’ve chosen to go.”
— Richard Bach
The wandering mind is the often the most dominant experience when anyone first attempts to learn mindfulness practice. Although it is a natural characteristic of being human, most of us don’t realize how busy our minds are until someone asks us to pay attention to our experience, such as the breath, for an extended time; we are generally unaware that preoccupations about the future or the past have such a strong grip on us. Therefore, many people interpret that they are “doing the practice wrong” when they realize that their mind is wandering so frequently and that they are ensnared by those thoughts. They judge themselves as not being good at practicing mindfulness.
Instead, it is helpful to understand that you free yourself of the grip of your wandering mind by noticing when you are caught by it. It is in that moment of noticing that you are preoccupied by thoughts that you have the opportunity to bring your awareness back to the here and now. Ultimately, you foster the increasing ability to bring your mind into the present moment by noticing when it is not present, and learning to welcome it back, rather than punitively judging yourself when you are not paying attention. You are not “doing the practice wrong,” this is actually how you develop the practice of mindfulness.
Mindfulness is a process, like building a muscle that gets stronger with use over time. Physiologically, you are creating new neural pathways that support your ability to bring your awareness into the present, and each time you repeat that pattern, the neural pathway becomes stronger and the signal becomes faster. With greater use, that pathway is easier for you to access. So, to cultivate mindfulness, follow the advice of Saint Francis de Sales, “If the heart wanders or is distracted, bring it back to the point quite gently …. And even if you did nothing during the whole of your hour but bring your heart back …, though it went away every time you brought it back, your hour would be very well employed.”
Carl Jung asserted, “Mistakes are, after all, the foundations of truth, and if a man does not know what a thing is, it is at least an increase in knowledge if he knows what it is not.” Accordingly, knowing that your mind is not in the present moment, that it, instead, has been wandering, is a valuable experience. This helps you to learn to differentiate when your mind is actually present. Also enables you to develop insight about the patterns of thought that pull and preoccupy your attention. As counterintuitive as it may sound, learning more about your wandering mind, and your tendency to get seduced by it, helps you develop the capability to be present more often.
The same is true regarding any aspect of your experience, not merely your wandering mind. In her poem, Unconditional, Jennifer Paine Welwood suggests,
Willing to experience aloneness,
I discover connection everywhere;
Turning to face my fear,
I meet the warrior who lives within…
Opening to my loss,
I gain the embrace of the universe;
Surrendering into emptiness,
I find fullness without end.
For example, if you feel impatient, rather than fighting against that feeling and trying to force yourself to act patient, instead you may learn about patience by exploring and becoming more familiar with your experience of impatience – acknowledging it fully and getting to know it more intimately. Patience then comes from your ability to be free of impatience.
Similarly, rather than pushing away experiences of pain to try to minimize your discomfort, see what it is like to be willing to explore your experience of pain. By turning your awareness in towards it, taking a very close look at the pain, noticing how it feels in your body, separately from the thoughts that are triggered, you may at some point notice moments of being free of the grip the pain has upon you.
Instead of judging yourself, congratulate yourself for noticing when your mind has wandered, or that you feel impatient or what the experience of pain feels like. This is the heart of the mindfulness practice, insight, knowing what your experience truly is in the moment.
“When we are capable of living in the moment, free from the tyranny of “shoulds,” free from the nagging sensation that this moment isn’t right, we will have peaceful hearts.”
– Joan Borysenko, A Woman’s Book of Life
“Shoulds” are a form of distorted thoughts – thought patterns that have become habitual and unchecked; thoughts that may have become unconsciously out of balance. As such, they often do not reflect the reality of your experience. Nonetheless, when you are plagued by “shoulds” permeating your thoughts, they are likely to provoke you to react; since you generally believe them at the time, they may have significant power over you.
“Shoulds” arise from your beliefs. As Matthew McKay, Ph.D. and Patrick Fanning explain, “Since most beliefs and rules are formed in response to needs, they have nothing to do with truth or reality. They are generated by parental, cultural, and peer expectations and by your needs to feel loved, to belong, and to feel safe and good about yourself.”1 If you don’t live up to your “shoulds,” you judge yourself to be a bad and unworthy person, perhaps torturing yourself with guilt and shame. Not only do you hold yourself accountable to these expectations, you also tend to project these same expectations onto others and judge them by how they live up to these “shoulds” as well.
Then again, not all of your beliefs, rules, and “shoulds” are unhealthy. You can tell whether they are healthy or unhealthy by examining them and applying the following criteria:1
Healthy Values Unhealthy values
- Flexible (exceptions and quotas) Rigid (global, no exceptions or quotas)
- Owned (examined and tested) Introjected (unquestioned acceptance)
- Realistic (based on consequences) Unrealistic (based on “rightness”)
- Life-enhancing (acknowledge your Life-restricting (ignore your needs and feelings)
needs and feelings)
With mindfulness, you have the opportunity to notice when you are being tortured by “shoulds.” In these moments of awareness you are able to examine the nature of these beliefs to understand better whether they are healthy or unhealthy. Question whether these “shoulds” make sense given who you are right now. If they are unhealthy, you may notice the presence of guilt, conflict, obligation, or avoidance in a particular area of your life; these “shoulds” are often used by your internal critic to attack your self-esteem. To address these unhealthy beliefs, you can deliberately challenge and revise them so that they better match your reality. For example, if you have the thought, “I shouldn’t make mistakes.” you can counter that with the response, “Not making mistakes was important to my father. However, this job is new to me and I am just learning. I can only learn by trying and sometimes that means that I will make a mistake.” Alternatively, you may be able to let go of the unhealthy “shoulds” once you are able to acknowledge their presence and the effect they are having on you. On the other hand, if you examine “shoulds” that are troubling you and determine them to be healthy guidelines, then you can more consciously choose how to respond in a way that is consistent with these beliefs and no longer be preoccupied by them.
Arleen’s story, freeing herself from “shoulds”:
Arleen recently participated in an eight-week mindfulness program. When she first arrived in the class, she was challenged with problems sleeping. Over the weeks, as Arleen learned mindfulness practices and became more aware of her thoughts, she started to recognize an insidious “should list.” As she described it, “the thinking is that I have all these “shoulds” in my mind waiting to be accomplished. If I don’t hold fast to them then one will slip by and not get completed. There are all sorts of “shoulds”: I should change the closet light, should get my taxes done, should call my brother, should dust the baseboards, etc.”
As an experiment Arleen gave herself an hour to write down 50 “shoulds.” She knew she’d never be able to come up with 50 but she decided to use the rest of the hour to prioritize the list so she would get something accomplished with this seemingly wasted hour. Paper and pen in her hand, at 3p.m. she began making her list. It started slowly; five “shoulds,” ten. Then she stopped counting as they began flowing out of her pen. Soon, one page was filled and another. When she finally stopped writing, Arleen had three pages filled with “shoulds.” It was 4:30; she had been writing for an hour and a half. Every “should” was there on the paper to be saved, looked over and scratched off as accomplished.
“It felt great,” Arleen proclaimed, “I knew it was all safely written down so nothing would or lost or forgotten. I put it in the desk drawer. Ta dah! Done, accomplished. That night, 10:30pm I head to bed, turned off the light and fell asleep. The next morning, at 8a.m., I woke up. Gosh, I’m usually up at 5:30a.m. Oh well, it feels good. The night, I slept eight hours and the next night and the next.”
Through mindfulness practice, as you develop greater awareness of the nature of your thoughts, you, too, can free yourself from the tyranny of “shoulds” and, instead, enable yourself to live in this present moment.
1. McKay, Matthew, Ph.D and Fanning, Patrick. Self-Esteem. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc., 1992.
“A man should look for what is, and not for what he thinks should be.”
– Albert Einstein