Mindful Moments

I recently returned from a wonderful vacation in mid-coast Maine. A highlight of my trip was a visit to Jordan Pond in Acadia National Park. I’d been anticipating this moment for weeks, setting my sights on this special place to practice taking photos with my new digital SLR camera.

After checking out the scenery, I settled on a spot and unpacked my camera gear. Raising my camera to my eye, I scanned the horizon to capture the perfect shot. Snap, snap! I checked the viewfinder. Not bad, but you can do better! my judgmental-self commanded, as it often does when I’m attempting to master a new skill.

I wanted to let go of this nagging voice. I needed to do what I teach my clients to do. Pause. Breathe. Focus on the moment. Inhale one. Exhale one. Inhale two. Exhale two. By the time I counted to 10, practicing deep belly breaths, my body felt calmer and my mind was clearer, just like the water in this beautiful pond.

Move closer to the water’s edge, a quiet voice within said. No longer searching for the perfect shot, that’s when he magically appeared. Snap, snap!

This is the beauty of mindfulness practice. When we learn to still ourselves despite our many stressors, we open ourselves to see what’s ready to come into view. Clearer and calmer, we observe our world AND ourselves without judgment, and with intentional practice, we learn to let go of anxiety producing thoughts that muddy our mind.

 Life is a mirror and will reflect back to the thinker what he thinks into it, wrote spiritualist, Ernest Holmes. So take a look. Pay attention. Pause. Breathe. And if you need a little extra help, try vacationing in Maine (and be sure to pack your camera). But it’d be easier and much more cost-effective to simply download a mindfulness app.

Mindful Awareness

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.11540542764659807lzC75Ir8c

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all,

even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house,

empty of its furniture,

still, treat each guest honorably.

He (she) may be clearing you out for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in.

Be grateful for whomever comes, because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.

-Rumi

Entertain depression? Welcome in a dark thought or shameful feeling? You might be thinking, “Hell no! I’m not spending time with a ‘crowd of sorrows.’” But tell me, what good does it do to push them away or shame them into hiding? The odds are, they’re coming back, and next time, they might loom ever larger.

Rumi, a 13th century Persian poet, foretold a great truth that today’s neuropsychiatrists are proving empirically: accepting our thoughts, feelings and sensations without judgment can increase psychological well-being. Now I’m not equating “acceptance” with resignation. That would be called hopelessness. Instead, I’m referring to what scientists and sages describe as “mindful awareness”.

Mindful awareness, according to the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), is defined as paying attention to present moment experiences with openness, curiosity, and a willingness to be with what is. When we practice mindful awareness, we simply notice whatever arises in our bodies and minds, pleasant or unpleasant, without getting carried away or controlled by the experience. We have a thought; we don’t become our thoughts. We feel our feelings, but we’re not swept away by them. We learn to be with whatever shows up in the here and now instead of worrying about tomorrow or dwelling on yesterday.

I could go on with my thoughts on the subject, but I’d rather you spend 10-minutes learning more from a master, a former monk who puts an entertaining spin on the subject. And when you’re done watching this terrific TedTalk, considering downloading the app, Headspace, to help you deal with that crowd of sorrows or embrace unexpected joy.

Overcoming Suffering

The-Comedy-and-Tragedy-Masks-acting-204463_489_381I find it profoundly ironic that a comedic genius like Robin Williams ended his life in such a tragic way. Aristotle, our earliest literary critic, equated comedy with the ridiculous, tragedy with seriousness. Williams’ story of life and death illustrates the paradox of Ancient Greek theater, but it wasn’t until his “final act,” that we, his audience, fully acknowledged the seriousness of his suffering.

Williams was apparently in severe pain, yet the depth of his despair was eloquently cloaked in humor. I recently learned that he donned this mask in childhood to gain the attention of his stern father. One evening, while watching TV together, he saw a side of his father that was totally unfamiliar: a belly-laughing man enthralled by comedian Jonathan Winters. It was then and there, according to Williams, that Winters became his idol, a “Comedy Buddha,” who he’d strive to emulate. But did he do so at his own expense?

Humor — such an incredible salve for many an aching heart. Research now proves that humor can increase feelings of resilience, hope and optimism, but paradoxically, research also shows that humor, especially the self-deprecating brand, can be used to mask feelings of low self-worth, anxiety and depression. Williams wasn’t a stranger to this style of humor, especially when joking about his battle with addiction. He lived with this disease for several decades, and in addition, suffered with severe clinical depression, and possibly, bipolar disorder.

To live is to suffer, wrote Nietzsche. I don’t mean to sound morbid. I’m not a nihilist who believes that suffering is useless. I believe what Helen Keller believed: All the world is full of suffering, it is also full of overcoming it.

Suffering, in its original sense, meant “undergoing.” Overcoming suffering requires a prolonged commitment to face what feels insurmountable and heal whatever ails us so that we might become more compassionate and complete as human beings. The 13th century poet, Rumi, encourages us with his words…Don’t turn away, Keep your gaze on the bandaged place. That’s where the light enters you. 

When we look at the bandaged place without resistance or self-criticism, we experience a “progressive softening”, writes Christopher Germer, Ph.D. In his book, The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion, he defines five stages of acceptance: 1) Aversion—resistance, avoidance, rumination; 2) Curiosity—turning toward discomfort with interest; 3) Tolerance—safely enduring; 4) Allowing—letting feelings come and go; 5) Friendship—embracing, seeing hidden value.

I don’t believe Robin Williams avoided suffering. Conversely, I think he endured it far too long. Maybe he desperately wanted to take off the mask that had become his overarching identity, interchanging the ridiculous with the seriousness in a more public way (and he did, tragically). If only a youthful Robin could have discovered a comic like Kevin Breel, in addition to Jonathan Winters, maybe he’d still be with us. Breel, an advocate for mental health, is determined to “shatter the silence of suffering,” speaking out about his battle with depression and suicidal thoughts.

You’ve got to watch Breel’s 11-minute TED Talk, especially if you, or anyone you know, suffers from depression or other mental or emotional anguish. It’s quite moving. And if you are suffering from any severe emotional distress, please don’t suffer in silence. Seek help.

 

I Am Worthy, No Matter What

self-love1I’ve been on the hunt for days, poking around the internet to find an intelligent article on how to strengthen our self-worth. I struck gold today, discovering a powerful speech delivered by comedian Amy Schumer  at a Ms. Foundation gala. She cut to the core of the issue, illustrating how regrettable decisions made in youth can diminish our self-worth, but reversely, how courage and self-compassion will set us free from the belief of “never good enough.”

The root cause of low self-worth varies greatly, just as the image it projects. It can result from blatant neglect, abuse or abandonment, but also from subtler experiences that cause us to doubt or diminish ourselves. It’s inflicted on mass through cultural condemnation — by racism, sexism, or ageism.  It’s fueled when society proclaims, “You gotta be a rock star, a billionaire, a stud, or a stunner” to be valued in our time. “You gotta work yourself to death to make yourself ‘big’ or starve yourself to death to make yourself small.”

The reality of “never good enough” drives us hard on the outside as it drives us crazy within. We want to fit in, be loved, and feel valued. When we don’t, especially as youth, we develop strategies to hide our flaws or compensate for feeling insecure. As we grow into adulthood, many learn to numb the pain of unworthiness with alcohol, drugs, sex, food or other addictions. Some of us start putting others down in an attempt to build ourselves up. We approval-seek, strive for perfection, or jump from one self-improvement project to the next. Like Amy, some of us fall into bed with men we want to want us, only to discover that we feel worth-less after the dirty deed is done.

Buddhist psychologist, Tara Brach, Ph.D., illuminates the “trance of unworthiness” in her book, Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of the Buddha.

Perhaps the biggest tragedy of our lives is that freedom is possible, yet we can pass our years away trapped in the same old patterns. Entangled in the trance of unworthiness, we grow accustomed to caging ourselves in with self-judgment and anxiety, with restlessness or dissatisfaction…the behaviors we use to keep us from feeling the pain only fuel our suffering. Not only do our escape strategies amplify the feeling that something is wrong with us, they stop us from attending to the very parts of ourselves that most need our attention to heal.

Recently I found myself, like Amy, reliving an experience that happened during my freshman year. I sensed some danger going “there”, but I also knew that if I paid attention to my thoughts, feelings, and actions, without judging myself, I could rewrite my story of unworthiness into a story of abiding self-love. I decided to go for it, carefully. With each step forward, I remained mindful of my choices. I didn’t escape into old patterns; instead, I watched them play out with a curious eye. In the process, I garnered the courage to face what I feared most as a child — rejection. It hurt like hell, but I didn’t resist. I knew I had to feel what I’d buried long ago.

Now don’t get me wrong. There’s still a kid inside of me who doesn’t want to feel rejected. Who does! But I’ll never succumb to a strategy designed to mask my childhood pain. The pain is gone. The pattern’s been replaced by a belief that proclaims, I am worthy, no matter what you do or say.

I must conclude with Amy’s words, because her thoughts are definitely worthy of your time. She writes with power and humor…

I can be reduced to that lost college freshman so quickly sometimes. I want to quit. Not performing, but being a woman altogether. I want to throw my hands in the air, after reading a mean Twitter comment, and say, ‘All right! You got it. You figured me out. I’m not pretty. I’m not thin. I do not deserve to use my voice. I’ll start wearing a burqa and start waiting tables at pancake house. All my self-worth is based on what you can see.’ But then I think, f**k that. I am not laying in that freshman bed anymore ever again. I am a woman with thoughts and questions and shit to say. I say if I’m beautiful. I say if I’m strong. You will not determine my story — I will. I am not who I sleep with. I am not my weight. I am not my mother. I am myself. And I am all of you, and I thank you.

Emotional Honesty

The final regret of the dying, according to Bronnie Ware, author of The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing, is “I wish I had the courage to express my feelings.”  Many of her patients suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. Ware writes, They settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.

What might their lives have been like if they chose to be emotionally honest? How might your life be different if you told others how you truly felt?

Recently, I worked with a client who was a breast cancer survivor. She was a highly intelligent woman, yet deeply disconnected from her feelings. She talked about locking her emotions away in a “Pandora’s Box.” She was acutely aware of how this choice fueled her passive-aggressive behavior and caused her to drink too much. Still, she didn’t know how to change her ways. She was terrified of opening up what was hidden deep inside.

I gently probed to help her discover why she continued to stuff her feelings. While sharing her childhood history, she told me that she never saw her mother cry until two years prior to our meeting (this woman was 51 yrs of age.) Interestingly, her mother had lost one son in an automobile accident and another to a chronic illness years before (my client’s brothers) and lost nearly all of her possessions in Hurricane Katrina.

Hmm! Such tragedy, yet my client’s mother hadn’t shed a single tear over the death of her children or loss of her worldly possessions, at least not in public. Hmm? Nor did my client cry while recounting this story or talking about her emotionally abusive marriage.

I don’t know about you, but I would have been boohooing for days. Crying for me is cleansing, a salve to heal my soul. Still, many individual have difficulty expressing their feelings, especially the “negative” kind, like sadness, fear, and grief. Like my client, many people were taught that being emotional means being weak, overly sensitive, or disrespectful. Buck up and stop being a crybaby. There’s nothing to be afraid of (you wimp). Don’t you raise your voice young lady! That’s no way for a nice girl to act.

Thankfully, times are changing. Daniel Goleman’s book on Emotional Intelligence (EQ) has changed our minds and begun to change our hearts. Yet still, EQ only scratches the surface. It doesn’t address what’s tucked away in Pandora’s Box. That’s why my client, and millions of people all over the globe, continue to numb their feelings with alcohol, drugs, food and other addictive pastimes; distract themselves with work, shopping, and other compulsive activities; or dissociate from painful memories for fear that overwhelming emotions will take them down.

Being aware of your feelings IS the first step, but it’s insufficient in creating a healthy life. Renowned neuroscientist, Candance Pert, has proven that emotions reside in every cell of our bodies, and that when we stifle the flow of our emotional energy, sorrow can turn into depression, anger into aggression, and fear into phobias or panic attacks. And it’s not only our mental health that is negatively affected. Neuroscience is proving that bottled up emotions can contribute to systemic inflammation in our bodies which results in cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s.

To live our best lives and die with little regret, I believe it’s essential to let out our feelings in a constructive manner. According to author and psychotherapist, Miriam Greenspan…

Goleman’s focus on the need to control potentially destructive impulses neglects the value of free-flowing emotional energy when it’s mindfully tolerated. The free flow of the dark emotions can’t happen in a contain-and-manage kind of process. What Goleman wants control to accomplish is better accomplished through emotional tolerance and mindfulness. These skills prevent the dark emotions from becoming destructive. When we can tolerate emotional energy mindfully, we can control our impulses without suppressing our emotions. Strictly speaking, it’s not our emotions that we control, but our actions. The emotional intelligence of the dark emotions moves us not to management but to transformation.

Learning to be emotionally honest can be scary. Expressing your feelings to those that matter does take courage. But remember, if you learned to suppress you can learn to express.

If you need a helping hand in opening up your Pandora’s Box, I highly recommend Greenspan’s book, Healing Through the Dark Emotions. But don’t stop there. Spend some time with a trusted therapist or a caring friend who can comfort you along the way.

Choose Happiness

The third regret of the nearly departed, according Bronnie Ware, author of The Five Regrets of the Dying, is not choosing to live a happier life. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until the end of life, that the dying people Ware cared for realized that the fear of change kept them pretending to others, and to themselves, that they were content. They settled for the “so-called” comfort of familiarity, and in doing so, they remained stuck in old patterns and habits. Pretense trumped happiness.

Thankfully, happiness is becoming a hot topic these days, not only in the popular press, but more surprisingly, with policy makers around the world. Just last month, the United Nations published the first ever World Happiness Report and Congressman Tim Ryan of Ohio shared the stage at an international symposium with a Buddhist monk, Matthieu Ricard, who has been dubbed the “happiest person in the world.”  Even though Ryan and Ricard spend the majority of their time in vastly different worlds, Washington vs. Tibet, both men share a common reality that holds the promise of increasing happiness for people all over the globe.

According to Ricard, right-hand man for the Dalai Lama, and author of Happiness, A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill, achieving durable happiness is a skill that requires sustained effort in training the mind and developing a set of human qualities such as inner peace, mindfulness, and altruistic love. Ryan, in his recently published book, A Mindful Nation, writes about the key elements needed to take on the challenges we face in our country—inner strength, resilience, and awareness of who we really are.  These two men share a similar philosophy and practice a skill that has contributed to human happiness throughout the ages—mindfulness meditation.

Neuroscience is proving that mindfulness plays a key role in creating well-being and reducing negativity, not only in individuals, but in society at large.  Now you may be thinking, I’d be happier having more cash in the bank and a new car in the garage. Mindfulness! How in the world will this make me happy?  Just hear me out.

The pursuit of happiness, a key principle of our democracy, has come under increased scrutiny since the economic meltdown–and rightly so. Many of us have fallen into a state of depression or grown anxious over how to pay our bills. I understand completely, and I empathize. But I also know that happiness isn’t simply achieved by making more money. Research shows a weak correlation between income and global happiness.

Personal wealth definitely impacts our level of “life satisfaction,” a subjective measure used in Hedonic Psychology, but it has little or no impact on our “eudaimonism,” a state of well-being that results from living in accordance with our daimon, or true self. This ideal may sound New Age-y, but it’s not. It’s older than dirt, a philosophy birthed by Aristotle.

Eudaimonic well-being occurs when people’s life activities mesh with deeply held values; when people are fully engaged and feel intensively alive and authentic. Maybe that’s why Ricard, a monk who lives in a monastery and donates his book profits to charity, is considered the happiest man in the world. His brain, like that of other long-term practitioners of meditation, has developed the capacity to disengage from mental confusion and self-centered afflictions. Research now proves that meditating strengthens the centers of the brain that contribute to good feelings and compassion.

Food for thought, or “non-thought”, don’t you think? Yesterday, Congressman Ryan encouraged a generation of future leaders at UC-Berkeley on the merits of mindfulness meditation. He’s advocating that schools across America teach the skill of mindfulness to our kids. I never could have imagined that the U.N. would produce a report that contained the word   “happiness” in its title during my lifetime. Nor would I have thought that U.S. economists would be questioning the merits of GDP and considering GNH—Gross National Happiness— following the lead of Bhutan, a nation whose Gross National Income is 18,491 times smaller than ours.

I’m happy to be living at a time when the world is breaking old patterns; I’m grateful to be witnessing the vision of mindful leaders taking root before my eyes.

“Gross National Product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.” –Robert F. Kennedy