Posts tagged ‘Mindfulness’
“A stumble may prevent a fall.”
It isn’t uncommon to beat yourself up when you catch yourself in a mindless state. In that moment of realization, the automatic voice of your inner critic enters telling you why you need to kick yourself for your behavior or thoughts, not unlike the ad in which the person hits herself on the forehead when she realizes “I could have had a V8!” Most often the event is something simple and not too harmful; for example, a friend of mine recently told me that he had left some farm-fresh, organic vegetables in the car by mistake and by the time he remembered, hours later, they were no longer edible. There are other times when the outcome is more costly or takes greater wear and tear on you.
Especially when you are new to the practice of mindfulness, you are vulnerable to judging yourself for these gaps in awareness; after all, it is violating the premise of mindfulness to not be present. This self-punishment, however, does not serve you; it is a form of optional suffering that doesn’t add value to your experience and can be counter-productive. Berating yourself does nothing to minimize the chances you will get caught in that same mindless reaction again in the future.
What if, as an alternative, you find the opportunity concealed in these mindless moments? With awareness, these mindless states can actually transform into opportunities for insight. Insight occurs when instead of feeding your inner critic through self-judgment, you notice what hooked you or pulled you away from being present, and see it more clearly. Over time, you may recognize that acknowledging the preoccupations which ensnare your attention is an instrumental part of your path toward greater mindfulness. Those precious moments of awareness are what afford you choice to respond effectively as opposed to the automatic reactions in which you’ve been unconsciously engaged.
So next time you catch yourself in a state of mindless reactivity, before you berate yourself, instead, congratulate yourself for noticing. Relish that crucial moment of awareness and welcome any insight you may bring to light. Overtime, as you continue to practice mindfulness in this manner, it is as if you are gradually uncovering the pearls hidden inside your oysters!
Autobiography in Five Short Chapters
I walk down the street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I fall in. I am lost … I am helpless… It isn’t my fault. It takes forever to find a way out.
I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I pretend I don’t see it.I fall in again. I can’t believe I am in the same place. But, it isn’t my fault. It still takes a long time to get out.
I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I see it is there. I still fall in … it’s a habit. My eyes are open. I know where I am. It is my fault. I get out immediately.
I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I walk around it.
I walk down another street.
“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
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.
“Patience is something you admire in the driver behind you and scorn in the one ahead.”
– Mac McCleary
Driving is an activity that most of us do on a daily basis. It also tends to incur a significant amount of stress. In fact, commuting to and from work may be the most stressful part of the day for some people. It is, at a minimum, a contributing factor to the accumulation and cycle of stress within daily life. Therefore, this an especially fruitful place to apply mindfulness skills.
The practice of mindful driving entails paying attention to your experience (what you see, hear, feel, smell) while driving rather than getting engaged in other stimulation or being preoccupied by your thoughts. There is plenty to pay attention to while you are driving. In fact, for many people, driving is a very stimulating experience on its own, even without adding other distractions. So when we then engage in additional stimulation, it can be overwhelming to our system.
Here are some suggestions for driving with more mindful awareness:
- Turn off all optional sound (radio: music/news/talk; CD/tape; mp3 player)
- Eliminate other distractions (phone, food, etc.)
- When you are stopped, either at a red light or in heavy traffic, use that as an opportunity to check in with yourself. Notice if you are holding tension in your body and see if you can release that. Areas particularly vulnerable to tension while driving are your jaw (notice if you are clenching your teeth) as well as your arms and hands (notice if your fists are tightening). Notice if your mind is preoccupied and see if you can return your awareness to the moment. Taking a few abdominal breaths can be helpful to bring yourself back to balance.
- When on the freeway, select one of the right-hand-most lanes and drive at or close to the speed limit, unless conditions demand that all drivers slow down. Allow other drivers to pass you if they seem to want to exceed your speed. People commonly have a misconception regarding how much time will be saved by going faster. It may surprise you to learn that calculations estimate by increasing your speed from 65mph to 75mph you may only save 1 minute 14 seconds every 10 miles. According to Natural Resources Canada, speedy and aggressive driving burns excessive fuel and money and only saves a matter of minutes.
- In heavy highway traffic, pick a lane and stay in it, but not the fast lane. Over the course of many miles, all lanes will go approximately the same speed. In the end, excessive lane changing will not get you to your destination any faster, and ultimately only makes traffic run more slowly overall. It also increases your chances of a collision. According to some statistics, 10% of crashes are due to lane changes.
- Leave a few minutes earlier than you think will be required to arrive at your destination. Giving yourself this buffer may be one of the best ways to reduce the stress that arises from time pressure. Tip: Google Maps will not only provide you with driving directions to your destination but you can also ask to see up-to-date traffic conditions to help you plan your route before you leave.
- And if you are running behind schedule while you are on the road, or get caught in unexpected traffic, accept that you will arrive whenever you arrive. Let go of your tendency to strive to make up for lost time or change the circumstances you are in. Once you are on the road, you have fewer means to significantly impact when you will arrive.
Driving need not be a necessary evil. Instead, it can be another opportunity to bring mindfulness into your daily life. Try some of these suggestions to see if you can reduce the toll that driving takes on your health and well-being.
“Freedom is from within.”
– Frank Lloyd Wright
Every year at this time, seven or eight days honor the Jewish festival of Passover. Passover is the Jewish holiday that commemorates the story of the Exodus, in which the ancient Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt. As told in the Book of Exodus in the Bible, God instructs Moses to confront the Pharaoh and tell him to “Let my people go.” This departure was just the beginning of the long journey of the Israelites out of Egypt, through the wilderness to Mount Sinai. And it is this time each year when Jews all over the world celebrate their escape from bondage and release of oppression.
Whether you are Jewish or not, you can celebrate the meaning of this holiday. After all, we each value, and aspire to have, freedom in our lives. And, through mindfulness practices, we all can attain a greater experience of it. Just as it is told that Moses led the Jews on a journey out of slavery to freedom, mindfulness is a path to freedom as well. This path, however, is an internal one.
To understand this better, it is first helpful to distinguish that the interpretation of “freedom” in the West revolves around the rights of the individual. We tend to think of it as the freedom to do what one wishes; it is determined in many ways by our external environment. While in Buddhism, “freedom” refers to a release from the traps of personal desires or attachments; this state arises from within. More specifically, according to Buddhism, suffering is understood to exist as a universal phenomenon, and every individual has the potential for liberation from it.
The main objective of mindfulness practice, therefore, is to free ourselves from the fundamental causes of suffering. In this context, the roots of suffering are considered to be certain mental events that are afflictive, that cause us pain. The primary afflictive mental events are described as desire (craving or greed), hatred (the wish to harm), and delusion (which distorts our perception of reality). There are others, too, including pride and envy.1 It is through the practice of mindful awareness that we can begin to recognize when we are caught in these afflictive mental states and only then have the choice and opportunity to release ourselves from the suffering they bring about. In other words, with mindful awareness we can start to recognize the triggers and preoccupations that cause us to react in habitually unhealthy ways and instead choose a response that may serve us better.
Instead of Moses confronting the Pharaoh with the statement, “Let my people go,” we can remind ourselves to “Let our attachment go,” whenever we notice we are caught in these unhealthy states of mind. By doing so, we can free ourselves of that suffering. This freedom from the suffering that arises within us is something we can each do for ourselves, regardless of the external conditions in which we reside. It is an ongoing practice, however, not just one pilgrimage. As we embark upon this life-long journey, the more we recognize and release our attachments, the freer we become.
1. Ricard, Matthiew. Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill. New York: NY, Little, Brown and Company (2006)
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
– Viktor E. Frankl
“I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened. “
– Mark Twain
“What, me worry?” is the signature phrase of Alfred E. Neuman, the fictional mascot and iconic cover boy of Mad magazine. His mischievous character is depicted as not having a care in the world. Unlike Alfred, many of us are plagued by worries from time to time. In fact, there are times when you might relate more to Ray Lamontagne’s lyrics from his song, Trouble: “Worry … Worry, worry, worry, worry. Worry just will not seem to leave my mind alone.”
Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a worry as a “mental distress or agitation resulting from concern usually for something impending or anticipated.” From a cognitive-behavioral psychology viewpoint, a worry is a type of distorted thought, one that is exaggerated or irrational – out of balance from reality. More specifically, worry can be categorized as a form of catastrophic thinking: believing that something is far worse than it actually is. These thoughts can stem from an event, from which you think of all of the worst consequences, dwelling on the worst possible outcome. Or they can come from your own imagination of the future, anticipating all of the possible things that can go wrong, thinking of all of the “what If’s,” or expecting disaster.
In a mindfulness class last year, I asked my students whether worries are really necessary for our lives to function well. One student, Kirk, inquired further, “If you aren’t worrying, does that mean that you don’t care? Will things still get done if I don’t worry about them?” He pointed out that sometimes we get into the habit of believing that worry is a representation of how much we care about someone or something. So if we aren’t worrying, we are afraid that we don’t care or things won’t get done. In fact, worry can become so habitual that lack of worry may feel foreign or unsettling. Kirk pointed out that he was even worried about not worrying. Another student, Gloria, felt the same way. She then started to question whether the results of things were different when she worried or didn’t worry about them. In her exploration, she found that the results were the same whether she worried or didn’t; therefore, the worry wasn’t necessary or helpful. A third student, Arlene, suggested that it can be detrimental to try to go “cold turkey” reducing worry. Instead, she finds it more helpful to have something to replace it, such as a song, or a poem that is affirming.
Sometimes we start to believe that our worry is what is responsible for keeping things from happening. For example, I may unconsciously think that as long as I worry about a certain possibility, it won’t happen. One student, Robert, told a illustrative story about a man who watered his lawn even when it was raining. When neighbor asked why, the man replied, “To keep the elephants away.” When the neighbor pointed out that there weren’t any elephants anywhere near, the man claimed, “See, it works!” Sometimes, we rationalize that the worry is working – keeping bad things at bay. And then, when bad things don’t happen, we attribute it to the fact that we worried, thus, reinforcing the pattern. In this way we can mistakenly develop an illusion that we actually have control over the outcome of the future, merely from our thoughts about it.
These patterns of thought are not harmless. Preoccupation with our worries may keep us from noticing the toll that it actually takes physically, emotionally and interpersonally. The energy that you are spending worrying may actually be reducing the quality of your life in each moment. For instance, if you check in with your experience when you are in the midst of worry; you may notice physical impacts, such as tension in your body, digestive disruption, inability to sleep or even pain; you may notice emotional impacts such as anger or frustration; you may notice interpersonal impacts, such as not listening to other people when they are trying to communicate with you. Additionally, you may begin to notice a chain of distorted thoughts that get triggered, escalating this state or keeping you engaged for a prolonged period. By paying attention, you might recognize that there is a cost to your worry, not only for you but for others around you!
There is an alternative, however. Instead of allowing your worries to continue to take a toll on you, try working with them in a more mindful way:
- Start to notice when you are caught in worrying thoughts
- Write the worrisome thoughts down to make a record of them when they occur along with some notes about how you are feeling physically, emotionally, interpersonally (how you are reacting) and other thoughts that may get triggered. This helps you develop greater awareness not only of the thoughts themselves, but of the price you are paying as you engage in them.
- You may begin to see patterns emerge: what conditions trigger these worries, or how you end up feeling physically, emotionally or interpersonally.
- The next time you catch yourself engaged in worrisome thoughts, try rebutting those thoughts with a more balance or affirmative alternative.
An example of this process:
Situation: Your teenager when out to a movie with friends in the evening. It is raining very hard and he was supposed to be home by 11pm. It is now 11:30pm.
A catastrophic thought: “He was hurt in a car accident or in some other terrible situation.”
A rebuttal to that thought: “He is a teenager and may not be paying as much attention to the time as I’d like him to. He might still be having fun with his friends instead of recognizing how late it is.”
With mindful awareness, you have the opportunity to minimize the amount of time and energy you spend worrying. You may find that your life continues to function well without it and, moreover, you may actually find that the quality of your moment-to-moment experience improves.
“In every life we have some trouble
When you worry you make it double”
– Bobby McFerrin