We're all freaking out. It may be a little. It may be a lot. It may come and go in waves of panic. The thing is, this is a pretty reasonable response to a completely uncertain situation. Uncertainty sparks our fight or flight/stress response because we feel threatened and want to defend ourselves (and our loved ones) from harm. It's really hard to know how much preparation is enough - how much news-gathering is enough.
It's in this time that mindfulness can really help us manage. We can use our experiences as part of our practice - ways to learn more about ourselves, and to bring patience and kindness to what's happening. The moment to moment awareness we cultivate in mindfulness can help keep us from becoming overwhelmed, and help us determine what is helpful and what is unhelpful as things unfold within and around us.
I notice myself jumping into thoughts of what if, for example. What if my husband or one of my kids gets sick? What if I get sick, or my mother? How will I cope? What if this goes on for many months? I notice that when I go to those what if thoughts, my body feels tense in several places. My stomach feels a little upset. My breathing is shallow and a little rapid. Overall, pretty uncomfortable, and I'm doing it to myself with my thoughts.
What's more, I'm not actually achieving anything with these thoughts. This is not to say that we don't have to do some amount of planning, but what I do in the what if thinking is actually making me feel powerless and panicked. My thinking gets muddled. I become irritable. Past a certain amount of helpful planning, the what if thoughts are just unhelpful.
If when I notice this what if thinking I shift my attention to what is actually happening in the moment - the places where my body is making contact with a chair, the floor, places my hands are touching - I feel more grounded. I can take a deep breath into my abdomen and exhale slowly. These things help me calm my body which allows me to think more clearly and calmly. I can recognize the unhelpfulness of what if thinking. I can notice that in this present moment I am safe and well.
We can use this period of slowing down and physical distancing to practice mindfulness. The lessons we learn about how our minds and bodies respond to the uncertainty and danger of this uncharted territory we're all in, and what are helpful responses versus unhelpful reactions will serve us well in whatever comes next. We can sit with ourselves and learn to be more patient and kind with our own minds, We can train oursleves to be more awake in each moment - choosing our responses with more wisdom.
Perfection. We continuously strive toward it in big and small ways, consciously and unconsciously. Given that we human beings are inherently flawed, we’re setting ourselves up for repeated failure. Striving for anything can bring tension and anxiety, let alone the idea of perfection. We can feel exhausted, burned out from working for perfection. We can accomplish less when we struggle this way than if we recognize the value of good instead.
It isn’t necessary to be perfect. As Voltaire said, “Perfect is the enemy of the good.” We can neglect the good enough when we seek perfection. This feeds the critical inner voice most of us carry around. It supports the idea that we aren’t enough just as we are, and by extension, nothing we do is good enough. What would it be like to know when you’ve done your best and be satisfied with that?
The best we can do is subject to circumstances — it’s relative. We have to be able to assess the present moment and know what we can really, honestly do given the circumstances of that moment. We can recognize the self-limiting stories we tell ourselves that sabotage the good enough. You know, the stories that tell us what we are good at and bad at, what we can do and what we will fail at, what we are supposed to do and not do, should do and shouldn’t do, etc., etc.
In working for perfection we have expectation stories, too, for how things should be. These expectations are also ways we set ourselves up. Life is uncertain. Things change from moment to moment. No one ever said things will turn out the way we expect. Expectations can create rigidity, not flexibility — breaking, rather than bending. We aren’t open to possibilities other than our expectations.
We become so accustomed to these stories that we barely notice them arising. Without awareness, we cannot see the story for what it is, recognize its unhelpfulness, and take a different perspective. We cannot assess the present circumstances clearly and determine what would be the most helpful and appropriate way to respond in the present.
Improving our ability to be aware, and the quality of attention we pay from moment to moment can happen through practicing mindfulness meditation, and by bringing mindful attention to regular activities throughout the day. In meditation, we can learn to notice when our minds wander, where they go, and patiently return our attention to an anchor, like the breath. This repetitive noticing and returning strengthens our attention “muscle;” helping us to more easily choose what we pay attention to instead of being dragged around by our thoughts. We also have the time to get to know our minds — see where our minds most often wander, and what those thoughts feel like in our minds and bodies. (These are hints as to their helpfulness or unhelpfulness.) We can begin to see that our thoughts come and go like the weather. We don’t need to take them so seriously.
Bringing our full attention and using our senses during any activity can help bring us out of the virtual reality of thoughts and into the present moment. The body is always in the present. When we use our senses we connect with the experience we are actually having from moment to moment. Not thinking about things that have already happened, or may or may not happen in the future. Making this part of the way we operate builds a habit of pausing the chatter in the mind. This allows for conscious perspective-taking, choice-making.
Don’t stress out about the time you do not have to commit to this. You can try meditating for any amount of time. The length of time isn’t as important as the dailyness of the practice. Start with an amount of time that works for you. You can always add more when and if it’s doable. Be friendly and patient with yourself.
You can begin the practice of mindful activities by committing to at least one thing you will do every day with mindful attention. It doesn’t have to take more time. This can be things like showering, brushing your teeth, washing your hands, walking from your car into work. Fully experiencing through your senses what you are doing when you are doing it. Each time your mind wanders off, patiently bringing it back to your senses. The idea is to make it a habit — part of your daily routine.
Recognizing our thoughts for what they are — just thoughts — reduces the power they have over us. Perfection thoughts and expectation thoughts are all creations of our minds — stories we tell ourselves. We can choose how we respond to them. We really do have options. Practicing mindfulness helps us come into the present, assess what is actually happening, and recognize when our thoughts and actions are helpful or unhelpful. We can recognize when our perfectionism is getting in the way, clouding our judgment about when we’ve done our best, and it’s enough. This is powerful and liberating. Perfectionism is a trap. Free yourself.
It makes sense that we want to avoid difficulty in our lives. Right? Who wants trouble? Our ancestors learned that avoiding trouble and difficulty meant longer life. But in our current circumstances we can't always avoid trouble. In fact, it can be helpful at times. Now the task becomes learning to manage the troubling and difficult, and how to use them to our benefit.
Managing difficult things requires some amount of effort and even courage on our part. They are needed to face things that are hard and unpleasant. In mindfulness, we talk about how courage and effort have to be wisely used. The idea is not to force, or strain ourselves - gritting our teeth with determination. Rather, it's to learn to first observe the reaction the mind and body have to difficulty. Recognizing the instinct to retreat, lash out, avoid or numb. In recognizing, there is no need for judgement. We're simply observing our reactions with interest and kindness.
It takes courage to sit with what's difficult, but we don't have to face it all at once. If we start to notice a feeling of overwhelm, we can let up - rest for a bit. Each time we take time to observe with courage our difficulties, we can gently push against our limits. This is not the teeth-gritting type of pushing. Instead, it's gentle and attentive; sensing how we're doing and when we've had enough for the time being.
For example, maybe a friend or family member has hurt or offended you. You might notice your first reaction is to shut them out. This may be natural, but not helpful in the long run. You can, instead, sit quietly and observe what this feeling of hurt/offense feels like. What are the thoughts that arise? Is there anger, sadness, fear, loneliness? What does it feel like in your body? Maybe there is a heaviness in your chest, a pit in your stomach, tension in your shoulders or jaw.
As you observe these reactions, you're bringing curiosity to the process. You may begin to judge what you're noticing. You may notice you begin to try to make something "happen." You may even have expectations about what should result from your patient observation. See if you can let these go, and instead be kind and patient with yourself - just watching what's going on with receptivity.
When we courageously face our difficulties, we can learn about ourselves. We can allow that the best and wisest response may not be our first reaction. We can learn that we're resilient, and can rebound from the hard things in life. We can learn that what we really want is not to hold a grudge, or to shut people out; that those create their own difficulties. These things require time for quiet reflection, like meditation. Time to allow ourselves to fully experience each moment as it unfolds with focused attention. It doesn't have to be hours on a cushion, but it does require an amount of time carved out of each day. This is an investment in ourselves and in our over-all sense of well being, which then impacts all we do, and feel, and think.
As human beings, our ability to connect with others is vital to our sense of well-being. But good communication skills don't always come naturally. When we're talking with someone, often we're not really listening to what they're actually saying. We are more likely to be formulating our response or thinking of something else entirely.
Much of the time when we're in conversation with others we say what we think the other person wants to hear or present a false front - not our authentic selves. We may be reactive or defensive.
These kinds of interactions tend to come from a less-than-conscious need to protect ourselves from injury. This makes sense on one hand; no one wants to be hurt, to feel inferior, or weak. The problem is that when we communicate through these screens and filters we have a poorer quality of connection with the other person. When the quality of our connections is poor, we feel more isolated and alone, which, of course, is hurtful.
So, what can we do to communicate in a way that drives connection? We can become more aware of our own thoughts and feelings from moment to moment. When we are aware we can notice our own motivations for speaking. We can notice when we're becoming reactive and choose to let it go, soften our approach, and choose our response with more wisdom and intention. Are we making assumptions or having expectations? We can also listen fully to the person who's speaking. When we notice our mind wandering, we gently guide our attention back to the speaker. We can make eye contact, notice the person's facial expressions, body position, intonation. We can refrain from responding right away; giving them a chance to complete their thought.
This kind of authentic communication is an act of compassion and kindness for ourselves and others. We're giving the gift of sincerity. When we are with someone who is fully present - really listening to us, and speaking from their authentic self - we feel it. It feels good. It feels good to the giver as well.
It doesn't have to take more time, but it does require some effort. It's not what we're used to. We can practice authentic or mindful communication with strangers, as well as those closest to us - people at work, people in our personal lives. The closer the relationship, the more vulnerable we feel to injury. So we defend ourselves with those close to us as well.
We can improve our connections, though, and perhaps influence others to do the same. It's an experiment you can try any time. Maybe trying to respond authentically to the person who checks you out at the grocery - make eye contact, answer questions thoughtfully and honestly. Maybe inquire as to how they're doing from a place of genuine interest, and listen fully to their response. See if you don't feel better.
In a class I was teaching a couple of weeks ago, one of the participants mentioned that since beginning to practice mindfulness she has noticed that her attitude about advancing her career has begun to change. She used to feel pressure to reach certain goals, and take on certain projects that she felt were expected of her in order to progress in her field. This created a lot of tension for her. She felt constricted, and not entirely in control. She was losing the joy she once experienced from her work.
When we listen to the voices outside ourselves, we can allow them to get too powerful - to speak too loudly. In this way our own inner wisdom is muted. Our choices begin to feel not so much like choices as necessities, requirements, demands. In our careers this can lead to diminished interest and satisfaction.
We typically spend a great deal of our lives at work, so it's important to be able to feel engaged and happy there. If we've worked/studied hard to get where we are only to feel dissatisfied, this can exacerbate our unhappiness. We can create a self-limiting story we tell ourselves about why things are this way, how trapped we feel, we have no options, if we want to advance we have to keep doing these things, etc, etc.
It's important to pause and examine what it is we really value, and what it is we really want for ourselves. Not what we've come to think we should do. Looking at why we chose the job we have. Is that reason still important to us? If it's still important, can we reconnect with it?
It can be helpful to find the goals, projects, and parts of our job that resonate. Even if the job we have is one of necessity rather than the ideal, connecting with larger values we hold like providing for our families, work ethic, kindness and connection to others, always doing one's best, etc. can help us find satisfaction.
Going back to the participant in my class, she said she began to really listen to her own inner voice - her gut, if you will - about which projects and goals had real meaning for her. She was able to step out of the story she'd been telling herself. She could examine her projects and goals individually and decide whether or not she could really connect with an interest and desire to work on them.
What she began to realize was that she actually liked most of what she was doing. A few projects had worked to kind of beat her down and overwhelm her, and she had begun to feel less in control. The story she'd created had become the only thing she heard. When she examined things mindfully - noticing the thoughts, feelings, body sensations associated with each individual undertaking - she could separate out the fact from the story. She began to feel more empowered; consciously making choices that connected her to her own meaning.
With mindfulness practice we can learn to pause regularly. In that pause we can step back and observe what is actually happening in the moment; taking ourselves out of the autopilot of thought we've been caught up in. We learn to recognize the stories we tell ourselves, and notice their impact. We can sort out what is our emotional reaction from what is actually happening.
Mindfulness can help us connect with what is important to us in the larger sense. We can determine what drive, achievement, and success mean to us as individuals. When we tie our actions and choices to these things over and over again, we feel better.
How we respond to information we perceive from others
We can't help but be influenced by others. We're wired to perceive information from those around us. So, by becoming more aware of my own thoughts, emotions, body sensations, can I also become more aware of the information I'm receiving from others - even the information that isn't readily apparent?
I know that I can be influenced by the "vibe" I receive from people in my classes, for example. Without awareness, I can allow this information to alter the way I feel about what I'm saying, or the way I say things. It may even be just one person from whom I feel this vibe that creates the alteration.
Vibes can be interpreted in a range from positive to negative, and that informs the influence they have on the perceiver. I could get anxious or flustered if I perceive someone to have a critical vibe. Or I could get angry. If someone has an excited or interested, attentive vibe I might be inspired to also be excited or pleased.
The thing is, if I'm aware of how I'm responding to vibes, I can pause enough to realize that my perception could be wrong, for starters. I can determine whether or not it's helpful information. I can choose to reframe, and move my attention away from the vibe if it's not helpful.
In the example of teaching my class, if I recognize that I'm being unhelpfully influenced by perceived vibes, I can feel that in my mind and body. Noticing allows me to briefly adjust. I can recognize that I may or may not be right. I can reconnect with the value I have to teach mindfulness because I believe it to be really helpful for people. I can choose to place my attention on that value, and/or someone in the room who seems engaged, rather than on the perceived negative vibe.
The other piece is to recognize that what we think we're perceiving could be just as much, if not more, about our own stories; the things we tell ourselves about ourselves and others. Here again, these are stories we've created, and they may or may not be true. We may have a story we tell ourselves about not being good enough, for example, and this story would make it more likely that we perceive criticism or doubt from others.
The point is that when we practice mindfulness we train ourselves in awareness. So we're less likely to act reflexively or thoughtlessly. We understand ourselves better, and can recognize our thoughts and feelings before acting on them. When we're able to make choices this way, and act with intention, we feel better.
I was driving when a song by Sheryl Crow came on the radio. One of the lines was, "It's not having what you want. It's wanting what you've got." I thought, "Well, isn't that the truth."
It isn't that I hadn't heard those lyrics before, but they seemed to jump out at me this time. Between holiday shopping, post holiday sale advertisements, the need I was feeling to make the perfect addition to my sweater collection, and the knowledge that I already had too much stuff and needed to prune, I was in a bit of a struggle. Add to that my concern about the shrinking number of things we can recycle, and the amount of waste we produce, and I was really feeling an almost palpable push and pull.
It's only human nature to want to acquire things, and do things to make our lives better. It's wired into us as a means for survival. The thing is, the perfect sweater isn't going to improve my life. I already have a closet full of previously perfect sweaters. Once we get the thing(s) we want - the thing(s) we need to make us happy or complete - we're only temporarily satisfied. It turns out there's actually something else we really need, and then we'll be good.
The mind is always looking for something else it needs to be happy. Somehow the current situation isn't enough. This underlying sense of dissatisfaction really impacts our overall sense of well being. It's the idea that sitting in a meeting, for example, and constantly thinking about how much longer it will last, what we'll do afterward, what we have to do after that, or any number of other things that leads us to feel that the present situation is somehow unsatisfactory.
Mindfully bringing awareness to the present moment - feeling the places of contact for our feet, rear end, hands, feeling the breath flowing - can help us pause and recognize where our minds have taken us. Maybe we become aware of the tension present in the mind and body. This awareness allows us to notice that in fact, the present moment is fine. We are clothed, fed, sheltered. Even more, we have people who like us, value us, love and care for us. The meeting, the work day, the snow we're shoveling are, in fact, satisfactory, even pleasant at times.
Maybe I get the new sweater, or maybe I don't. The important thing is that I am aware of the wanting mind. I can consciously and intentionally make a choice. I am not acting out of some compulsion, or rationalization blindly thinking that my satisfaction hangs on this purchase. With mindfulness practice I have created a pause between the stimulus and my response. I can become aware of the fact that my situation is quite satisfactory. I can connect more easily to my core values when I make my choice mindfully. This is what leads to a sense of real well being.
Lately I've been pondering unconditional love. Because if we make a distinction by naming it unconditional, then other forms of love must be conditional. So, what does this mean?
When we think of unconditional love, it's usually the kind of love we offer another that has no strings attached. No matter what that person does, we will love them anyway. We don't have to like everything they do, but we love them nonetheless. This kind of love is most often offered to people like our children, or our pets.
What, then, is conditional love? What are the conditions that have to exist for us to love another? Maybe it's trust, kindness, compassion. But trust, for example, is sometimes tricky. Even those we trust most can occasionally be subject to our doubts.
So I started to think about what it feels like to give love unconditionally, and I noticed that it feels really good. I'm offering someone else love without holding anything back. It's pretty liberating, and pretty terrific, really. I'm giving something, but getting a lot, too.
Looking at conditional love, I noticed that it doesn't feel as good. There is, to one degree or another, a guardedness. This guardedness feels a bit constricting. There is a bit of tension in the mind, and even in the body.
My question now is, what would it be like to love unconditionally all the time? Is it possible? What do I risk? I can get hurt by the people I currently offer unconditional love to, but it doesn't stop me. I can get hurt by those to whom I offer conditional love just as well.
My experiment will be to have the intention to love unconditionally. I'm sure I won't always succeed, but the intention means I will keep the idea present day to day - moment to moment. By practicing mindfulness my awareness of my thoughts and actions is enhanced. So, it becomes part of my practice to be aware of this intention, and to observe myself as I try to intentionally bring unconditional love to others. I can notice when I push back against this notion. When I put up my defenses. I can be kind and patient with myself. Knowing that I can try again at any moment.
I was giving a talk this week, and the subject of gratitude came up. This is a subject that we also discuss in my Mindfulness 2 class. It's one that has gotten some amount of press lately, as well. The reason gratitude is being talked about more and more is because studies have shown that when we're grateful it improves our sense of well-being by improving our physical and mental health, and making us more resilient.
It can be a little sticky, though, this idea of gratitude. Because often we attach a should to the experience. I should be grateful to have dishes to wash. I should be grateful to have a car to get stuck in traffic in. When we do this shoulding the impact is to make us feel bad - as though we're ungrateful, not a good person. The experience is more that we've failed in some way.
Instead, we can become aware of things we are authentically grateful for. In fact we can bring this gratitude awareness to any moment. We can be grateful for the big things, as well as the very small things as they occur to us throughout the day.
An audience member at the talk I gave said she has made a habit of noticing little things throughout the day - gratitude for the sun shining, gratitude for the person holding the door for her, gratitude for a kind word from a coworker. She said this practice can be helpful for her when she might have previously complained, too. Which is different than shoulding. In this case, this person places the focus of her attention on something she's grateful for in that very moment, which helps her move away from what might become a complaint, or criticism. It isn't to mask the bad feeling, or to tell herself how she should be feeling. Rather, this habit helps her simply shift the focus of her attention.
Because mindfulness helps us train our minds and strengthens the muscle of attention, it makes it easier for us to choose what we pay attention to. We aren't dragged around by our thoughts as much. We become aware of our minds and bodies, and what they're telling us in any given moment. We can more easily discern when a thought or behavior is helpful or not. With this kind of awareness we can more easily choose gratitude at any moment.
How to inhabit the space between ignoring difficult things and being overwhelmed by them
I was talking with someone the other day who was saying that she felt overwhelmed by the suffering she sees in the world, and her inability to make a real impact on it. This sentiment struck a chord with me, as I remember feeling similarly in the past. It made me think about how I manage those feelings now (or at least do my best to manage). It seems that my mindfulness practice has helped me find a middle space between denying the sadness and suffering in the world, and being overwhelmed by it.
One thing that has helped is noticing that while there is ugliness and suffering, there is also beauty and joy. They exist at the same time. Accepting that it isn't all one thing or another, that I can hold these contradicting experiences together at the same time, seems to make it much less likely that I am overwhelmed by either emotion. I feel more balanced by this understanding.
Sometimes we may notice that we are more likely to absorb, or hang onto the unpleasant things than we are the pleasant. This is natural. From an evolutionary perspective, we've survived by constantly being on the lookout for what is dangerous, or harmful. In this way we ensured our survival, and that our genes would be passed on. We can notice now, though, that this isn't always very helpful. In fact, it makes us anxious and defensive.
In order to counteract this habit of ours, we might have to pay extra attention to the pleasant, joyful, beautiful moments that come to us all the time. It requires a bit of effort, especially at first, but it really has made a huge difference for me, and for many of the people I teach. It involves really allowing yourself to absorb the positive experience - body and mind.
Another thing that has been really helpful is to realize that I can intend to be kind in each moment. I don't have to have a plan to save the world. I can do my part to bring kindness all the time. This means even in difficult times, and with difficult people. It also means being kind to myself. So, it's not easy, but it is amazingly impactful.
Mindfulness practice creates a space where I can be aware of my own feelings and motivations, and notice that I have options. With this freedom, I can recognize when I have an opportunity to let go of judgment, or criticism for example, and choose to bring kindness to the experience. I can notice when I am lost in the autopilot of thinking, and missing the kindness or beauty in front of me.
Managing suffering does not preclude us from acting on our outrage or dissatisfaction. In fact, when we aren't feeling overwhelmed, we can be more productive and helpful. We can also respond thoughtfully rather than react from a place of fear and distress. When we're able to do this, we feel better.
Suzanne Cushwa Rusnak, MEd, MSSA, LSW
I've been teaching mindfulness since 2011, and want to have a vehicle to communicate with people who are interested in exploring mindfulness in this kind of informal way.