We all accumulate baggage throughout our lives, much of it stuff we might be happier if we did not continue to carry with us. There are regrets, losses, perceived slights that we hold on to, to name just a few. We often wish things were different regarding these experiences, that we had acted differently or made different choices, that a relationship hadn’t ended, or that someone had acted differently toward us. Yet in this moment, things are just as they are, and wishing they were different will not make them so. “Wanting things to be different than they are” is a basic definition of suffering often used in mindfulness practice. Mindfulness has been defined as “Intentional present moment nonjudgmental awareness with kindness”. So is it possible to just be with our experience as it is, without judgment, noticing any desire for things to be different that arises? There are often little things that we wish were different- the temperature to be cooler, the environment to be quieter, the chair to be more comfortable. And as we pay attention, we may notice that more significant wishes for things to be different also arise. When this happens, we can pay attention, noticing what we feel in the body, what thoughts come up, what emotions are present. We might notice gnawing in the pit of the stomach as thoughts of something mean we said to a friend arise, and become aware that we have been holding on to feeling guilty. Noticing this, we can ask ourselves, is there something I might do that would help the situation, perhaps apologize?
Many of us hold on to our beliefs about the way things should be even when doing this makes us feel worse. Thoughts arise in our minds justifying our position. I recently watched a movie that brought this home to me. The main character, Jordan, was developing a relationship with a divorced woman whom he really liked. Then he discovers that she is still occasionally seeing her ex-husband. Even though the man’s relationship with her is just beginning, he feels betrayed and he breaks things off, telling himself that he could never be with someone who does this. He then ruminates about how bad his situation is, despite another friend pointing out to him that it was his decision to break things off, and that it is his choice whether to continue to feel slighted and miserable, or to let go of his belief that he could never have a relationship with a woman who continues to see her ex and maybe be happier. The friend tell him “It takes courage to be happy”. Ultimately Jordan recognizes that it is his fear of heartbreak, of being hurt again, that prevents him from pursuing the relationship. He decides to summon the courage to give it another try, rather than deciding it was over before it had even really gotten started. “It takes courage to be happy”. I think this often describes situations we find ourselves in like the one in the movie. Our beliefs about the way things should be affect the ways we see our situations and we can easily get caught up in justifying our reactions
Summer is here, which can often be a good time to practice mindfulness. There may be more time to practice formally by meditating regularly. With meditation practice we often say that more is better, and it is also important to remember that any practice is better than none. This can apply to even a few minutes a day, perhaps pausing before getting out of bed in the morning to do a short body scan or attention-focused meditation, noticing breathing, sounds or other sensations arising from the body. If more time is available, there is good evidence that meditating for 15 minutes a day can have positive effects on stress and emotion regulation. The evidence for benefits increases further with longer periods of meditation. In addition to practicing formal meditation, summer offers many opportunities to practice mindfulness in everyday life. Many people take vacations during the summer and, if so, we may notice the anticipation that arises when thinking about returning to a favorite location, or traveling to a new destination. Some of the anticipation may be positive, related to old memories or excitement about going somewhere new.
When we practice attention-focused meditation, we choose an object to focus on, like the breath, and place our attention there. We may follow a few breaths, then the attention wanders, often to thoughts and we get caught up in thinking. Eventually we will notice the thinking, and we can choose to return the attention back to focusing on breathing again. We do this over and over again. With time, the period of time between thoughts might begin to increase, and we become aware of awareness, of paying attention without thoughts arising. In this space without thoughts, we can just be aware of our present moment experience. At first we may only be aware of wherever we have chosen to place our attention, perhaps noticing the sensations of breathing or the points of contact from sitting. We can also pay attention to the mind, noticing the absence of thoughts. How is this absence of thought experienced? With no thoughts there is no judging, no worrying, no wanting things to be different than they are. There are no thoughts of the future or of the past, there is only the present moment. In the space between thoughts, everything is just as it is.
Thinking is obviously necessary to accomplish many tasks- around the house, at work, for hobbies and leisure activities. Yet our minds continue to generate thoughts at other times, thoughts that often distract us from our present moment experience, and often increase our stress as negative thoughts or worries arise. We live our lives in the present moment, and if we are caught up in thinking about the past or the future, we may miss what is unfolding right now. Humans have an innate negativity bias, so the thoughts that arise are often worries about what has happened in the past or what might happen in the future. When thoughts arise, recognizing whether they are about something over which we have some control or whether they are focused on something beyond our sphere of influence is important. If the thoughts are about something we have control over, we can focus on how to address the issue. For instance, if we are worried about money, we can look at our budget and see where we might spend less or earn more. If the thoughts are about something over which we have no control, perhaps an event in the past that had a negative outcome that is still bothering us, we can first recognize this.
Last month’s Musing focused on having a conversation with someone with whom we’d had a difficult interaction. This month the topic is about how we might move on without having such a conversation. Difficult interactions with others can lead us to feel many different negative emotions, such as anger or resentment, and may result in us going over the event repeatedly, trying to understand what happened or imagining how things might have gone differently. Often this does not accomplish much except to make us feel worse. Getting caught up in the story of what happened in the past does not change the events although we still can learn from them so that similar situations might have a different outcome in the future. When we find ourselves in these situations it can be helpful to pause and assess what is happening. First, is it even possible to take any action regarding the others involved? If we can address it with the other person directly then we might choose to do so as was discussed last month. But what if we can’t do this, perhaps because it was a one-time interaction with someone we don’t know, or if we choose not to because it is too difficult or there is too much risk?
“Inviting our thoughts and feelings into awareness allows us to learn from them rather than be driven by them.” -Daniel J. Siegel When we choose to try a sitting meditation, we are making a special time and place for non-doing in our lives. The regular practice of sitting meditation provides the opportunity to wake up to this moment, the only moment we truly have. Our lives move at such a hectic pace that it can become a blur of lived but un-noticed moments. It can be as if we are sleep walking through life, moving in a type of automaticity, not noticing how we really feel, what we really think, how we truly want to live. The days can become weeks, the weeks can become months, the months can become years and before we realize it, much time has passed, and we have missed most of our life. Mindfulness is waking up to the present moment on purpose without judgement. It is setting our intention to pay attention and then focusing our attention and observing the underlying attitudes that show up. It’s about letting go – letting go of expectations and letting the present moment be as it is. It’s about developing patience and openness towards ourselves with kindness and curiosity, being aware of the tendency to push to achieve an outcome or to resist those experiences that are unpleasant. It’s about the tendency to judge.
"Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better." -Maya Angelou S-T-O-P Stop: Pause, notice what’s in the body in this moment Take a breath: feel the breath as it flows throughout Observe all that’s here: Stressed? Angry? Anxious? Bored? Proceed: after recognizing what shows up, knowing there’s freedom to choose. We’ve been talking about unknowingly feeding into our anxiety over the last two Musings. What “feeds” do we gravitate towards when feeling anxious? There was an invitation for us to take a mindful moment before surfing our social media by pausing to collect some data before automatically engaging with Instagram, grabbing that candy bar, checking our email or twitter account. Pausing to notice what sensations are here in the body, where they are felt, and what thoughts or emotions are provoked before proceeding. With this information we can ask ourselves, who’s in the driver seat, me, or my anxiety? Here’s a little science behind how this works. It’s called operant conditioning or reward-based learning. Our minds set up habit loops based on the results of our actions. These results are interpreted by the brain as “rewards”. These rewards shape our behavior. With positive reinforcement, we learn to do more behaviors that make good feelings continue.
“Most of the shadows of this life are caused by our standing in our own sunshine.” Ralph Waldo Emerson Understanding the Habit Loop and How We Feed It The definition of anxiety is a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome. Where does anxiety come from? Without even knowing it we may be feeding it or making it worse in attempts to make ourselves feel better. We mentioned “feeds” in last month’s Musing, the endless activities that can consume our time and attention. Feed binging is just one way we may be playing into our anxiety. There is nothing wrong with the feeds depending on but how we are in relationship to them. However, this relationship may be making our anxiety worse. Because anxiety is at an all-time high, it is worth considering. The iPhone was designed after a casino, with all the bells and whistles to keep our attention. It activates our sympathetic nervous system, the flight, fight or freeze system in the body. You get that nice hit on your Instagram and your phone “bings”. Someone “likes” you. This feels good and now you want to post again. You may think, I want to feel good right now, I’m going to post something, and I’ll feel better. This repeated behavior begins to lay down a habit. Post- get a bing- feel better.
“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.” - Alan Watts What is mindfulness training? Mindfulness training is practicing how to operate in present moment awareness intentionally and non-judgmentally. In our current societal state of being driven by distraction, this has become a lost art. Consciously or unconsciously, we tend to choose to distract our attention away from whatever- usually something uncomfortable to something more comfortable. Those cute little puppy videos, Tic Tok, Instagram or our cell phones are good at this. It’s so automatic, we aren’t even aware of it. There are endless “feeds” today in which to spend our time and attention. Although there is nothing inherently wrong with these feeds, they can impact our lives in some unknowingly adverse ways by increasing anxiety. Take a few moments reflecting on how many feeds you find yourself spending your time pursuing. Here are just a few examples of our daily “feeds”.