You can't think your way out of overthinking things just trust and let go
Have you ever encountered someone who you immediately felt at ease with? Someone who, without word or gesture, signals something within you that evokes a sense of safety and unspoken understanding? Every week when I do my grocery shopping after work, my eyes hopefully scan the self checkout for my favorite cashier. I’ve only “met” this person a handful of times. I don’t even know his name. But there is a palpable connection between us that I can’t help but imagine he feels just as clearly as I do. There is a certain magnetic quality or gravity in the air between us. Often it’s hard for me to get a read of people or what they’re thinking/feeling, but other times, I feel completely confident that they like me and enjoy my presence as much as I enjoy theirs, however inconsequential it may be.
What exactly is this indefinable quality I pick up in certain people, and how exactly am I sensing it, by what means, when on the surface, everything is so mundane and commonplace? Do other people feel this strange, instant connection? Are they drawn to the same people that I am? Is it something inherent in these particular people that sets others at ease and draws people in? Or do we all have our own brand of energy that captures the attention of specific, compatible people?
I’ve recently heard someone complain about the idea of such “energies.” They rightly proclaim that energy is a measurable quality that can be quantified. Still what would you have me call these more ethereal sensations? I agree they aren’t necessarily “energy” but then what are they? I’ve got to call them something. My education in psychology would lead me to believe that this is just an expression of unconscious biases that have formed from past experiences. Perhaps someone with a similar facial structure or tone of voice was once important to me. Maybe they remind me of my mother. Maybe I get “bad vibes” from someone who resembles in some slight way a school yard bully. This explanation does not satisfy the reciprocity of this experience though. Why should the other person feel similarly toward me? Perhaps I also subconsciously respond to them in a more agreeable, charismatic manner because they have set me at ease, but I genuinely don’t believe myself to behave very differently. After all, how differently could one respond within the span of a few pleasantries at a grocery store checkout?
In the same vain I can’t help but believe in the idea of “vibrations,” particularly “raising your vibration.” Even though I can’t explain it, I’ve felt it. I’ve felt the way that in certain states of mind, spiritual practices, an almost divine sense of awareness, moving realizations and impressions come easily to me. Yet the very same thoughts in a less positive state of mind seem ridiculous and leave a bitter taste in my mouth. This drastic shift can even occur within the span of a day, even a few hours! Physically though, what has changed? The only answer that somewhat satisfies this question in my mind is that I am in either a higher or lower energetic state. The words themselves may amount to utter nonsense, but nevertheless, the experience remains. I can see the effects of these different states in my self-talk, in my entire body.
All of these questions remain frustratingly unanswerable as far as I can tell. They are hard enough to verbalize, let alone understand empirically. New, more pressing questions naturally arise from them. How can I utilize this strange shapeless coexisting reality of vibrations and energies to my benefit? Are these energies destined to only be felt, never directed or created? There are many sources online that claim to offer advice for “raising your vibration” but despite my best efforts, they never seem to result in the desired change in me. One obstacle is the practical impossibility of performing some of the vibration raising activities when I find myself in that lower energetic level. I guess it could be said that it just takes persistent practice. After all, I seem completely capable and well versed in lowering my vibration. One thought or critical word is all it takes to destroy my good mood and positive mindset.
My impression at the moment is that these abstract, slippery sensations are not to be understood intellectually. The manipulation of such things (if even possible) is not a skill that can be taught to us. We must each learn to notice, accept, and respond to these inner mysteries in our own unique ways. While this is far from a satisfying answer, it’s all I’ve got for now.
The hardest place to be is right where you are. In the space between the finish and the start.Half Alive
A few months ago, in an effort to recover from my disordered eating habits, I began practicing mindful eating. Mindful eating, for those who don’t know, is essentially exactly what it sounds like. Rather than watching TV or reading or even talking to your partner, you focus all of your attention solely on the act of eating. I did a pretty good job of doing this for a month or so, but since then I’ve fallen back into my old habits to some extent. I still practice eating my breakfast and lunch mindfully, free from distraction, but I’ve started to only eat half of my dinner in this way. Allowing myself to go back to watching Netflix or something afterward.
Although I am proud of myself for the progress I have been able to maintain, I can’t help but be a bit frustrated I haven’t been able to keep my mindful eating practice going entirely. When I ask myself why that is, the answer I always arrive at is that it’s just too tiring to be mindful for so much of my day. Despite that being how I genuinely feel, it still doesn’t make total sense to me. How is focusing on one thing more tiring than spreading out my attention and multitasking? Shouldn’t that be the other way around?
Any time I try to imagine leading an entirely mindful, present life, this is the obstacle that I envision. It just seems like too much work. But why does it seem like that? Logically I don’t see how there could be that much of a difference between focused attention and scattered attention. Either way I am still awake and conscious and processing my surroundings the entire time. I wonder if there is a difference in the amount of energy we exert between the two or if this is just a false perception I employ to avoid myself.
I find myself giving the excuse, “I just need a break,” when I want to skip out on a mindful dinner. But how is eating and watching Netflix more of a break than just eating? Why does it seem like such an effort to just be still? I’m sure a lot of it has to do with unconscious conditioning, but it feels like there is more to it than that somehow. Where do I go when I am not being mindful? When I’m zoning out? Sometimes it feels as if my consciousness dissipates and I am just floating by on autopilot. And to a certain degree, I enjoy how that feels. It’s nice to not have to focus on anything. Even though I truly believe a more mindful life is inevitably a happier one as well. Why then do my mindless moments hold so much importance for me? Why does it seem like a nightmare to imagine being mindful 24/7?
It makes me wonder what the consciousness of a monk might feel like. Have they reached a state of perpetual mindfulness? Is that even possible? What might that be like? Considering this also brings to mind a quote from Aldous Huxley’s book, The Doors of Perception:
To make biological survival possible, Mind at Large has to be funneled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system. What comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive on the surface of this particular planet.The Doors of Perception; Aldous Huxley
If you’re not familiar with this book, in it Huxley is describing his thoughts and experiences while under the influence of psychedelic drugs, particularly Mescaline. From Huxley’s description, this drug allows the doors of our perception to be flung wide open. We are aware of everything all at once. All of the sensory information that the brain would normally filter out is being noticed. And while this is a profoundly beautiful and moving experience according to Huxley, it is also quite overwhelming. That is why he believes our normal conscious mind is filtered through was he has labeled the “reducing valve.”
I don’t know if this is truly relatable to regular, every day consciousness, but that is how mindfulness feels to me sometimes. It has the ability to make even the most mundane, monotonous moments beautiful and profound, yet it can become tiresome and overwhelming trying to remain in this highly focused state for too long.
Then again, perhaps mindfulness is more like a muscle. Maybe the more I practice, the less of an effort it will seem to be. Just like doing a 150lb. deadlift might seem impossible at first, if you keep slowly increasing your maximum weight, you’ll get there eventually. There is still so much that I don’t fully understand about mindfulness and the obstacles standing in the way of it for me. I am hopeful that with further practice and contemplation, I will be able to uncover some of the answers I’m looking for.
If there is one thing I’ve learned from my meditation practice, it is the importance and value of focusing our minds. I’ve gotten to the point where I genuinely don’t think it matters what we decide to focus on. The simple act of focusing itself is what brings us clarity and calm. As someone who is easily distracted, it’s hard not to get caught up on the decision of what to focus on, even during meditation. Should I focus my attention on my breath, my heart space, my connection with the earth, a visualization? There are so many options that it becomes overwhelming. I find myself switching back and fourth a lot of the time, unable to settle on just one.
Until recently, I was under the assumption that breath awareness was one of the simplest forms of meditation. I often get frustrated with myself for having such a hard time with it after so many years. But recently I heard a meditation teacher discuss the challenges of this type of meditation, validating a lot of the recurring thoughts that pop up for me during my practice. For one thing, saying “focus on the breath” isn’t a very clear instruction. The breath is a very complex thing. It is fluid, ever changing, and tied to a lot of difficult emotions.
Another problem with breath awareness is the body image issues that often arise with it. Until hearing this person speak about it, part of me thought I was the only one that struggled with allowing a natural belly breath during a seated meditation. (It’s a little bit easier for me when lying down.) People, especially women, are told to suck in their stomach, to flatten and hide it. Yet now we are expected to allow it to expand fully and breathe deeply into our diaphragm? It’s hard to let go of years of emotional baggage in order to do so. I always get distracted by my feelings of shame and self-judgement while trying to breathe into my belly. Then instead of focusing on the breath, I’m meditating on negative self-talk, which is only harming me.
One thing that I’ve found helpful more recently is to get even more specific with my breath awareness. There is so much going on when we think about our breath. There a lots of different areas we can choose to focus on. For instance, I’ve been narrowing my focus down to the way the air feels as it leaves and enters my nostrils. You might also choose to focus on the way the breath feels in other areas of the body, or the temperature difference on the inhale vs. the exhale. Maybe you’d like to focus on the sounds you make while breathing. There are lots of different things about the act of breathing to pay attention to, if you find the “breath” too amorphous and vague.
At least for me, it’s very beneficial to pick something very small and specific if I want to achieve that soothing, flow-state of focus. Even though it’s tempting to bounce back and forth between options, it’s important to commit to whatever you decide to focus on and stick to it. Rest assured that regardless of what you choose, the result will be the same. It’s the act of focusing that we are trying to practice, so the object of that focus is irrelevant.
Racing thoughts are a common part of anxiety. It feels like there are just so many things demanding our attention. It becomes overwhelming. Focusing our minds is a great way to calm ourselves down when we are feeling stressed out. Even if you don’t have time to sit down and do a formal meditation, you can always find a meditative state no matter where you are or what you’re doing. All you have to do is decide on something small to focus on. If you are walking, you might decide to focus on the way the heels of your feet feel when they contact the ground underneath you. If you are drawing, you might focus on the movement of your hand or the sensation of touching your brush or pen to the surface of the paper or canvas. If you are cooking, maybe focus on the way the foods smell as you prepare them, or the sounds of chopping and heating the ingredients. If you’re washing the dishes you might focus on the temperature of the water and how it feels against your skin. Or the sounds of the dishes as they clink against one another.
In today’s world filled with endless distractions vying for our attention, it can be especially difficult to stay focused on anything for very long. If you’re someone like me who has had trouble keeping your attention where you want it, try choosing an even smaller, simpler point to focus on. While it hasn’t made things perfect, it has definitely helped me a lot during my meditation and also when stressful moments arise. Most importantly, practice offering yourself compassion when you’re struggling. I promise you it’ll be worth the struggle. Focus is a muscle that we can build up more and more of over time. The older I get the more I realize just how important our focus is. It genuinely shapes our entire reality. The more we strengthen our ability to direct that focus towards what we want, the more ease we will begin to experience in our lives.
Once again, my yoga class this morning has inspired my writing topic for the day. In my yoga teacher training we learned about something called PNF (Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation.) Essentially this is just using your muscles to resist or push against whatever stretch you are in for a few moments before relaxing the muscles, allowing you to sink and relax even deeper into the pose. It is similar to the idea of clenching different muscles before releasing them to relax more fully and release stress. It is a fascinating and useful technique to be sure.
One of the beautiful things about yoga is that we can take what we learn on the mat out into the rest of our lives. So what can we take with us from PNF? Well it draws our attention to the idea of working with resistance. A lot of the things we do in yoga class can be looked at as metaphors for how to live our lives with more ease. For the most part, people don’t like resistance. We don’t want to have our plans altered or interrupted. We don’t want disagreements or dissent. We just want everything to run smoothly in exactly the way that we want it to. We can even start to feel cheated or hopeless when things don’t go our way.
Using PNF in yoga not only allows our bodies to become more flexible and go deeper into difficult postures, it reminds us that we can use resistance in our everyday lives to our own advantage as well. We just have to be patient and use what life gives us rather than trying to reject it or avoid it. The other day at work my friends and I were discussing the idea of having bad memories changed or erased like in The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Although it is undoubtedly an interesting, tempting concept, none of us were convinced actually going through with such a procedure would be a good idea or something we would choose for ourselves. Thought experiments like this help us to reflect on the ways in which we can actually be grateful for all of the hardships we have experienced in our lives. In the moment, a lot of the things that happen to us seem unfair, unbearable even, but later on we come to realize that those same events have allowed us to become who we are today. Perhaps they made us stronger, wiser, more resilient, or even led us down a new path we wouldn’t have taken otherwise.
Looking back, it can be easy to see how some of my worst life experiences were worth the pain I went through. However, that doesn’t make it any easier to accept the difficulties I face in my present. I’m trying to remember that PNF perspective though. Even if at first it seems like I’m being held back or led away from where I want to be, it may actually be the opposite. I’m trying to stay strong in the face of adversity and trust that one day I will be grateful for even these painful times. I’m even trying to be grateful for them right now, even though I don’t yet know what they may lead to down the road. All I can do is keep moving forward and have faith that I’ll get to where I want to be one day, despite (or even because of) the struggles along the way.
I have been thinking a lot lately about how I create my own suffering. I have been so fortunate in this life. I really have not ever experienced any true suffering. I have always had food, water, shelter, family, and friends to support me. I got a free education all the way through college. I have been healthy and so have my loved ones for the most part. I have basically wanted for nothing in my life. And I am truly grateful for that.
I so often lose sight of all of that though. Somehow I still manage to find reasons to suffer. The mind seems to always be looking for problems, for ways to fix things. Even when changing the situation is useless or even impossible. Internally we rise up against so many little aspects of our day. We wrestle with our own discomfort and rejection of reality. In the end nothing is as bad as our resistance makes it seem.
I read a metaphor that sums this idea up perfectly. Imagine a leaf landing on the still mirror-like surface of a pond. It is going to create ripples. Maybe we don’t like these ripples. Maybe we were staring at the reflections in the water. So we try to remove the disturbance, resist it. But in the process of trying to get rid of the leaf’s ripples, we end up creating even more disturbance in the water. Now it will take even longer to return to stillness.
There will be things that come along in life that are truly unpleasant, but even those problems are best accepted and allowed to pass through you. The brain seems to think the best way of preparing for the future is to “protect” ourselves from anything we dislike and lock ourselves away, closing off our heart. But in reality all of these small, daily, disturbances are gifts. They are opportunities to practice releasing, allowing, letting go. I want to use these minor moments as training to learn to live each moment with more ease and less resistance.
I try to think of this practice as a game. After all, I have always taken life too seriously. But this game is more challenging than I thought. I find myself getting easily frustrated with myself. After years of building up a strong tendency to resist every moment, it is incredibly difficult to learn to release and let things pass through you instead.
My mind is quite crafty and persuasive when it wants to be. It throws out endless reasons why we must resist. It jumps from one thought to the next, stirring up my fears and anxieties, encouraging me to close my heart, to seal myself off, to “protect” myself. But what I’m really trying to protect myself from is my own internal dialogue. What happens if I decide not to defend against it? It cannot hurt me. All it can do is talk and rustle around inside my head. I don’t have to let it touch me or let my heart close because of what it says.
So far, I don’t think I’ve been very successful at this game of releasing and allowing. But I am not going to give up. I am going to keep trying until my heart is perpetually open. Even though I am already impatient to achieve peace within myself, I know that this is the work of a life time. I’ll have to be patient and gentle with myself as I continue along on this new journey.
I don’t know why, but I have felt especially grateful lately. I feel as though things are finally looking up for me, even though not much has really changed on the outside. This morning I drove nearly an hour away to teach my yoga class in a horrific blizzard. My area does a dismal job of taking care of the roads, so it ended up taking me nearly two hours to make the drive this morning. Normally I would have been insanely stressed about that, as well as angry that no one had treated the roads at all. But instead, I was able to focus on the positive more easily than I usually am. I found myself feeling grateful that I had woken up on time and left early enough to give myself plenty of time to drive as slowly as I needed to. I was grateful that I remembered to heat up my car for ten minutes before I headed out. I was grateful that I had recently gotten new tires put on my car. I was grateful that I already got gas the day before. I was grateful that my car didn’t slide or go off the road, grateful that I made it to my class unscathed, grateful that a good bit of my students still came out into such awful weather to practice with me. So much to be grateful for!
Even on my way home, when I got directed off the highway in an unfamiliar neighborhood due to some accident, I remained relatively unbothered. I was just grateful that I was not the one in an accident. Plus the detour took me past an adorable metal dinosaur sculpture in someone’s yard, that I had never had any reason to drive past before. What a treat! Now as I sit at my home, I am so grateful to be back safe and sound with my sweet fur babies. Nothing feels better than being warm and cozy inside with the heat running and a mug of hot coffee nearby as you glance out the window into the blinding brilliance of a snow-covered world.
I’m not sure why I’ve been feeling more at ease lately. I’d like to think that I have made some important spiritual progress, but I don’t know. I have been reading some beneficial books, but it’s hard to imagine they could have already had such a profound effect on me. All I know is that I have been feeling more calm, more grateful, more open. I’ve even been having happier dreams lately. Without knowing what to attribute this shift too, I am worried that it won’t last. But even so, I am going to fully embrace and enjoy it while it does.