Deceptive Mental States

Every day I wake up I choose love, I choose light, and I try.

The Submarines – You, Me, and the Bourgeoisie

What are we supposed to do when we cannot trust our own minds? This is where I believe faith comes into even an atheist’s life. At least for me, this is where I try to practice faith. You might be asking, well why wouldn’t you trust your own mind in the first place? If you are one of the lucky few who have no mental illness, then you may never encounter this dilemma. However, for someone like me, who suffers from an anxiety disorder, there are many times I’m left unsure of whether something is a genuine concern or if I’m spiraling into delusional, distorted perceptions and over reacting. It can be extremely difficult to tell the difference. Not only that, even if I determine logically that I am being a bit dramatic, it doesn’t make it any easier to calm myself down emotionally or silence my racing thoughts.

This happens to a certain degree every single night. As the day dwindles away, my brain is running low on my natural mood stabilizing hormones and dopamine/serotonin stores. I am always at my lowest and most stressed in the evening hours when I am physically and mentally tired. Even though I am consciously aware of this skewed perception at the end of the day, I never fail to fall pray to the thoughts and worries that arise. I know that no matter how serious my problems appear at night, if I just allow myself to sleep on it, I’ll have a completely different and more balanced opinion and perspective come morning when I feel energized and refreshed again.

It’s important for us to pay attention to our moods and thoughts at different intervals of the day, month, and year. Eventually we may notice a pattern. For instance, as I mentioned, I feel more vulnerable to anxiety in the evenings. I also feel much more susceptible of falling into depression during the winter months. I become more irritable and emotional about a week before my period each month. Once we notice these factors and the way they affect our thought patterns and sensitivity, we can begin to acknowledge when we may not be in a great place to make big decisions or judge a problem or situation accurately. Then we can try to adjust our actions accordingly.

Now, I said try to adjust, because even once we notice and acknowledge these patterns, it’s not as easy as you might think to convince ourselves we’re being irrational in the moment. Last night I felt like the world was falling down around me. I couldn’t stop thinking about financial concerns. I was distraught about my elderly dog’s health. I was ruminating on the way the seemingly minuscule issues of today could potentially snowball into unavoidable catastrophes decades in the future. What if my parents die? How will I afford retirement? What if I develop health issues? Should I leave the job I love for a better paying one? What if that’s a mistake? All of these basically unanswerable questions were swirling around in my head demanding to be answered and planned for accordingly right now. All of these concerns felt terribly urgent despite the fact the day before they weren’t even on my radar.

The deceptive part about anxiety is that it does serve a real, evolutionary purpose. Stress feels urgent and important because in our past as a species, it was. We weren’t made to be able to ignore these mental signals. It wasn’t an option to distract ourselves or even simply sit in our anxious discomfort when it was a life or death situation. Back then, we really did need to act immediately in order to survive. So don’t be too hard on yourself if it seems impossible to talk yourself down from these mental states. Your brain and body aren’t broken. They are simply doing what they were designed to do to protect you. It just doesn’t exactly transfer over well to our modern, often long-term, problems.

This is where faith comes in for me. I don’t exactly know what I am putting my faith in exactly. Maybe I am just having faith in myself. After all, how many millions of times have I felt like I was going to burst into flames if I didn’t solve all of my problems immediately, only to realize it wasn’t that bad the next morning? How many times have I feared I wouldn’t be able to cope with a worst case scenario, only to discover I’m much stronger than I ever believed I could be when I actually have to face one? I’ve made it this far. I have to believe in myself and trust that no matter what happens, I’ll be able to handle it somehow, even if I don’t know the exact details in this moment.

It’s may be hard, but in the moments when we find ourselves most likely overreacting or stuck in a distorted perception of ourselves or the situation at hand, we must practice faith. Just try to notice how your body feels instead of trying to “fix” everything so you feel better. Breathe deeply. Relax your shoulders. Give yourself a massage or activate a few acupressure points. Notice when you get tangled in your thinking mind and gently draw yourself back to the physical sensations in your body. Your brain is most likely telling you: You can’t just breathe. It’s not safe to allow these feelings. We have to do something! Don’t let these worries dissipate. They are too important. Notice whatever inner dialogue that arises to try to convince you of the urgency of the moment. Say to yourself: I know these thoughts feel really big and important right now. But I also know I am not at my best mental state to judge that at the moment. I’ve felt this way many times before. I trust that, just as it was those times, everything is going to be okay. I am okay. I am safe. I have faith in my future self and his/her/their ability to handle each issue as it presents itself. I don’t need to be prepared for every eventuality before it arises.

You’ve got this. I believe in you.

Keep Calm and Take the Anxiety Test! - My Mental Health

Talent & Creativity

The older I get the more saddened I am by how few people seem to have their own artistic or creative hobbies. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve heard people admitting with downcast eyes that they “can’t sing.” Even I struggle with the idea of dancing in front of anyone else, and until recently even when I’m alone. I don’t remember where I heard this, but I’ll never forget it because it made such an impression on me. A reporter went to a tribal community for a documentary. The tribe was having a festival of sorts and wanted the reporter to join them as they sang. When he told the leader that he couldn’t sing, they stared at him perplexed. This was such a strange concept to them that at first they assumed me meant he was physically incapable of singing. It hadn’t occurred to them that what he really meant was, I’m not a good enough singer.

As children we didn’t stop ourselves from doing things because we weren’t as good as celebrities or others in our lives. Kids sing and dance and draw and create endlessly. It’s one of the most special parts of human nature. Somewhere along the line, we became ashamed though. We’ve gotten it into our heads that we don’t deserve to spend time and energy on these things unless we are “talented.” (Whatever that means.) So often when I show other people my drawings they respond with, “wow, I wish I could draw.” Sometimes they’ll even recount to me how much they loved to draw as a child. This is so heartbreaking to me, partially because I understand the feeling.

My sister is a wonderful artist. At the height of her painting career, I had already moved away from drawing, but certainly wouldn’t have felt it worthwhile anymore comparing myself to her artwork. Eventually she stopped painting all together though for another reason entirely. Her reason wasn’t that she wasn’t good enough, it was because she couldn’t make a living painting. This is the other side of the same problem. We either think we aren’t good enough, or that it isn’t worth it if we aren’t able to monetize our work. I have to suspect that our capitalistic culture is to blame for these absurd notions we all seem to share.

Even though I’ve been making a point to write and draw every single day for over a year now, I am still constantly battling my own self-doubt. There are definitely far more days where I create something I deem mediocre than days where I impress myself, but it’s important to remember that each of those days holds the same value. Art and creativity aren’t about being superior to others or making money. These endeavors are not limited to an exalted few. They are an essential aspect of human nature. We were made to create. There is no such thing as “talented” or “untalented.” It’s all a matter of perspective. The more you practice, the better you will inevitably become, but even that isn’t my point. My point is that it doesn’t matter.

Whether you believe what you create is “good” or not, keep creating! Art isn’t about comparison and metrics and measurements. We all contain a deep well of creative energy that we allow to stagnate from disuse. And if you find yourself still shaking your head thinking “I’m just not creative” imagine a crayon drawing given to you by a child. I feel most of us have had this experience or at least can imagine it. When I got a bit older, I thought adults must have just pretended to like my pathetic scribbles and misshapen forms. However, now as an adult myself, who is often the proud recipient of such art, I understand that my parents and teachers really did love what I created all those years ago. Art has the power to make people happy, to make you happy, if you let it. And it has nothing to do with how professional or perfect it is. Art is about who made it, not the final product.

I always think back to a little character my friend drew a few years ago while we were playing a game. She never does anything creative anymore, although she used to draw just as much as I did when we were kids. She was embarrassed to reveal this little doodle to me, but even all these years later, I think back on it and smile. It was so incredibly adorable (yet so far away from what she was “supposed” to draw for the game.) It brought me so much joy. It wasn’t just the drawing itself either. It was the fact that this wonderfully unique little creature had come out of the mind of my dear friend. Anything creative is a glimpse into the private mind of the creator, and that is where its value truly lies.

The saddest part of this whole cultural predicament is that our deeply ingrained beliefs about productivity, creativity, and talent leave a lot of us disillusioned with art all together. I want to say, if you like doing something, do it, whether you’re “good” at it or not. But that isn’t enough. The joy of creating has been tainted by these critical thoughts, so much so that I lot of us don’t enjoy creative pursuits. After all why would you enjoy something that makes you feel inferior and “untalented”? For this reason, I would encourage everyone to make an effort to integrate more creative hobbies into their daily routine, whether you think you’ll enjoy it or not. Just do it as an experiment. You may surprise yourself. At the very least, you’ll be giving your right brain some much needed exercise.

3 Common Fallacies About Creativity

Get Excited About Being Kind to Yourself

A few days ago, I woke up feeling sluggish and sick. My stomach was tight. I felt queasy. I wanted to throw up. This is not the first time I’ve woken up in this awful condition. In fact it’s been happening more and more frequently in the last few months. It was getting to the point that I would worry as I went to bed whether or not I’d have to push through this discomfort as I got ready for work the next morning.

It wasn’t as though I didn’t know why this was happening. The discomfort I was experiencing was indigestion from stuffing my face immediately before falling asleep. I knew that this wasn’t in my own best interest for many reasons apart from the physical symptoms I would occasionally experience the following morning. I was becoming particularly worried about this unfortunate habit after learning more about my gut microbiome and the fact that the body is not intended to be digesting food while we sleep.

For some reason, on this particular occasion I finally decided enough was enough. I was going to make sure that I showed myself the respect and kindness I deserved. No more waking up sick when I was able to prevent it. It certainly wasn’t worth it. I didn’t even get much enjoyment out of my little late night mini binges. It was just a habit that formed in the aftermath of the uglier stages of my eating disorder. Perhaps a necessary stepping-stone at one time, but now I was ready to do better.

Part of me is always extremely fearful when I set an intention to alter my eating habits. The whole topic is tinged with toxic thoughts for me. Yet this time it felt slightly different. This was perhaps one of the only times that I was changing my eating habits for my own wellbeing, not as a weight loss tactic. I really tried to steer clear of thoughts about this causing me to eat less or lose weight from not eating so late at night. I reminded myself that these things were not important to me. This change was about being kind to myself, not “self improvement.”

With this loving kindness in my heart, I have been following through with my new goal for the past few days. To my surprise, it has been a lot easier than I anticipated. It has even helped me get back into mindful eating again. Food is not a reward, nor is withholding it a punishment. Eating is just a normal part of my day, something natural that helps me make my body and mind a more comfortable place to be, like going to the bathroom.

The best part of this change in my routine, apart from feeling light and energized when I wake up, is all the extra time it allows me to have in the evening. Now instead of spending the whole day looking forward to a meal, I look forward to my cozy, contented, full bellied self-care afterward. My favorite part of the last few days has been making a cup of tea, smoking a bong, and reading a book as I cuddle up with my furry babies in my extra comfy Christmas hygeekrog. I can’t imagine anything more pleasant, except perhaps sharing this space with my partner as well.

The best way to make new healthy habits is to focus on the real reason that we want to change. Even if our goal was weight loss, behind that goal is still the thought that this will make us happy. So skip the middle man and just make the goal being happy right from the start. And what is the surest way to make ourselves happy? It certainly isn’t making strict rules and beating ourselves up for not meeting our own expectations. All we need to do to make ourselves happy is to act from a place of love and compassion, to offer ourselves unconditional acceptance, love, and forgiveness. With this driving us, any new habit can become something we look forward to rather than something that causes us grief.

Space to Witness

One of the most common misconceptions I encounter when it comes to meditation is that the goal is to “clear your mind.” Not gonna lie, I thought this was the purpose for the longest time myself. Yet this is a very unfortunate misunderstanding that can cause people to give up on the practice all together. It seems like an impossible goal, and that’s because it is. Our minds are meant to always be thinking. We should be grateful for that fact and all that our brains do for us in every moment. There is no way for us to completely turn off our inner thoughts. And there is no need to. Meditation is not about doing that at all.

There are many different forms of meditation, but to my knowledge, none of them have the intention of emptying your mind of all thought. Meditation is about focus. It is training our brains to pay attention. The object of that focus really doesn’t matter. Regardless of what you choose, the intention is to keep bringing your mind back to that object. And I say bringing your mind back because it is inevitably going to wander and stray from your point of focus, especially if you are just beginning your practice. Our job while meditating isn’t to criticize or judge ourselves when we notice this wandering. It’s just to notice. That’s it. Our minds are our most powerful muscles, and just as other muscles need training and exercise to become stronger, so do our minds.

Sounds easy enough right? Well, I’ve always found one of the most fascinating parts of meditation to be just how difficult that really is. Doing nothing should be a simple task, but when you actually try to do it, you realize just how conditioned we are to always be doing or at least planning something. You realize how oddly uncomfortable it is to do nothing. You start to see all the ways your mind and body want to rebel against it. And while it does get easier with regular practice, there will always be days where it feels like the first time all over again. Those days that you find the hardest are the most important of all.

The hard days give us the opportunity to witness how we treat ourselves, how we speak to ourselves when things don’t go the way we want them to. Even though the brain may revert to it’s favorite hurtful comments, this might be the first time you’ve ever been present enough to really notice what those are. There are a few reflexive phrases my brain likes to throw out that, until I began meditating, I had no idea I was even saying to myself, let alone how often. It makes me think of that common school yard taunt: sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. You can tell how dated that saying is, because now we have learned that words can hurt us too, even the words we say to ourselves. In fact, the way we speak to ourselves may matter most of all. Because these are often the words we take as gospel truth and believe without question.

While meditation alone does not necessarily help us to reframe this negative self-talk, being aware of that internal dialogue is the first step in doing so. The longer I practice meditation, the quicker I am to realize when I am being cruel to myself. Whereas before I either didn’t notice at all or felt too enmeshed in those painful feelings to extricate myself from them, now it is as if I can take a step outside of myself even in intense moments. The benefit of that space is that I am able to use it to choose a different path.

Now rather than piling on insults when I’m already having a bad day or have made a mistake, it’s easier for me to offer myself understanding and compassion instead of criticism. A lot of the repeated commentary inside my head is downright shocking to me when I examine it. There are so many deeply held unconscious beliefs I’ve been holding onto for years that when I lay them out in front of me seem absolutely awful. Meditation hasn’t stopped these thoughts from coming up, but it has helped me catch them when they do. And that alone has made a tremendous difference in my day to day life.

So while meditation is not what a lot of people imagine it to be at first. It is still one of the most valuable practices that I’ve incorporated into my life. It has allowed me to begin to heal in ways that I never thought possible. It has allowed me the space to craft an entirely new relationship with myself, which in turn helps me strengthen the relationships I have with other people in my life. It is one of the most beautiful gifts that we can choose to give ourselves each and every day.

Just 10 minutes of mindfulness meditation can improve verbal learning and  memory processes, study finds

Anxiety From the Outside

Even though mental illnesses are be discussed more and more openly, and average people have a better understanding of them than they once did, it is still hard to tell if someone without mental illness really “gets” the struggles faced by those who do. I still remember talking to a client of mine and explaining to him the way my anxiety used to make it impossible for me to talk to people even in the most innocuous circumstances. His own brother was the same way and I was explaining to him that it wasn’t just an excuse for being anti-social as he suspected. Even after hearing my story, he seemed skeptical and unable to wrap his mind around what I was telling him.

Since that day, I’ve become more and more concerned with the way others may interpret my behavior. With both my social work career and my yoga teaching, there are expectations that I am unable to meet even after years of practice. My yoga studio constantly urges me to walk around the room more, watch my students more closely, offer adjustments, etc. The child advocacy center where I work, encourages me to stay in the waiting room with the kids and family the entire time that they are hear not just at the beginning and end of their appointment. Neither of these tasks seems too daunting. Even when I contemplate the idea myself, it seems doable.

However, even with the best intentions going in, I can never manage to do as well as I hope. In the moment, my fear takes hold of me. Nothing besides avoiding the situation seems to matter at all to me at that point. I would do anything to just escape, regardless of the consequences. And usually, I give in to that fear and fall into my usual pattern. I’m not sure even the possibility of losing my position all together would be enough to rival the fear of the action itself.

Not only does this constant internal battle make me feel guilty, like I’m not serving my students and clients well enough, it also makes me wonder what my coworkers think about it. I’ve expressed to them that the reason I resist their advice is because of my anxiety. Even so, I don’t know if they are able to fully comprehend what I mean. I am afraid that, like my former client and his brother, they think I am just making excuses to get out of doing my job. To a certain extent, I even feel like it’s an excuse. But it’s not an excuse to avoid working, or because I don’t care, it’s an excuse to avoid paralyzing fear. I would happily do ten times the amount of paperwork if it allowed me to have less interaction with people. It’s not that I’m lazy and don’t want to do work. I’m just afraid. I’m afraid to the extent that sometimes it really does feel like I am unable to do what is expected of me.

Because I have lived with this anxiety my entire life, it makes perfect sense to me when I see someone else avoiding a task that to others seems simple. But I also see the way others judge them for that avoidance. People who have not experienced this irrational anxiety just can’t comprehend how it feels. Which is why I always go out of my way to accommodate people I meet who are clearly socially anxious. For instance, I have a neighbor that never looks at me or waves or says hi even though we pass each other quite regularly. I know that most people would be offended by that and think he is a rude person. But I find him endearing because I know how he feels. Honestly, I wish more people were like him. It’s a huge energetic effort for me to smile and wave and make small talk with neighbors every time I leave my house.

I understand why these behaviors seem odd and uncaring from the outside. I don’t expect people to be able to understand something so illogical if they’ve never experienced it. I just hope that the people in my life understand that, even when it might not look like it, I really am trying my best. Making a phone call or siting with someone for an hour might seem extremely easy to most people, but just know that there are a lot of us that find it comparable to walking a tight rope or holding a python. Imagine if you had to face your greatest fear each and every day. It’s exhausting at best, and traumatizing at worst. So please try to be patient with us. We really are trying.

Fear vs. Phobia: What's the Difference? | The Recovery Village

24/7 Mindfulness

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.

What is Mindfulness & What's its Role in the Workplace

Narrowing Our Focus

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.

Why Intelligent Minds Embrace the Rule of Focus | Inc.com

The Nature of Wanting

how I deal with wanting to disappear | by Anthony James Williams | Medium

What are you wanting right now? Perhaps it’s to go back to sleep or for the weekend to finally arrive or maybe even something more significant like a new job or to leave your partner. Whatever it is that you are longing for, have you thought about what will happen if and when you get what you want? I know whenever I want something, the unspoken assumption is that once I get this thing, life will be better, my nagging desire will finally cease. I have to laugh at myself, because even though years of experience have shown me this is not true, I still believe it in the back of my mind. I think we all do to some extent.

It dawned on me this morning that wanting is part of what it means to be alive. Even though we may reach our goals or obtain whatever it is we desire, that wanting is not going to go away. There will always be something else to fixate on. We are all going through life chasing a moving target. At first this can seem rather depressing. Will we never truly reach happiness then?

Like most things in life, there is more than one way to look at this. Rather than feeling defeated, we can feel freed. “How on earth is that freeing?”, you may ask. Well think of it like this: we won’t ever be able to end that wanting sensation within ourselves, however knowing that, we can redefine what happiness means for us. If we’ll never end all desire, we can stop focusing so much on the ones we have. We can realize how foolish it is to think, “I’ll be happy when this or that happens.” Instead we can make the decision to be happy right now, knowing that happiness no longer means we lack all longing. We can make peace with our desires, accepting that whether or not we reach them isn’t what determines our ability to be happy.

Instead of spinning our wheels endlessly trying to get more and more and never feeling satisfied, we can use that energy to hold space for and accept our wanting nature. In this way, wanting and anxiety are quite similar. We are spurred to action in an effort to avoid the discomfort of wanting as well as the discomfort of anxiety. The sensation of these mental states in our bodies seems intolerable at times. We distract ourselves from these unpleasant feelings by convincing ourselves that we can “fix” them. That we will reach some distant point in the future where wanting and anxiety are just not a part of us anymore. When we can stop running and realize the futility of this exercise in avoidance, we can learn to make friends with these aspects of life.

I’m not saying that we just give up on achieving our dreams or trying to make our lives more comfortable. I’m just saying that as we work towards our goals, whatever they may be, we can be happy whether we reach them or not. And we can be happy while we’re reaching for them.

As you move through your day today, notice when you find yourself wanting something. Whether it is something big or small, just pause and explore what it feels like to want. Is there a sense of urgency or anxiety there? Do you feel pressured to take action, to obtain whatever it is you’re wanting? Can you remain still and just breathe into this feeling? Try acknowledging the importance of this feeling. Say thank you and offer gratitude to this nature of wanting within you. Be mindful of the ways in which this internal motivation has helped you get to where you are today. Practice enjoying the chase as well as the reward at the end.

Happiness is not ahead of you in some distant future. Happiness is not something to be earned or captured. Happiness is our nature in the same way that wanting is our nature. Both can exist simultaneously if practice opening our hearts and minds to that possibility and allow them to.

Learning to Be Happy (Even When You Don’t Get What You Want)

True Contentment: In Simplicity — SECOND CITY CHURCH

The other day, while listening to a talk given by the American spiritual teacher and guru, Ram Dass, he said something along the lines of: Learn how to be happy even when you don’t get what you want. For some reason, the way he said these words really struck me. There is something about listening to the gentle, slow, thoughtful voice of a spiritual leader that allows simple ideas to penetrate directly to your soul. Since then I have kept that idea close to my heart.

It’s so easy to forget that external circumstances don’t dictate our internal state. Finding contentment where we are now, doesn’t mean that we won’t want things anymore. However, we won’t allow the outcome of these wants to decide how we feel. Certain desires are easier to let go of than others, but it’s important to remind ourselves that we always have the power to let go and reside in happiness.

All of us already know how to do this to a certain extent. We have varying levels of wanting. We may want to have a certain fruit for breakfast only to realize that it has spoiled and we must find something else to eat. Depending on who you are, this usually isn’t enough to ruin your day or mood. We simply think, “oh, rats” and prepare another food. On the other hand, we may be planning to get married only to have our
fiancée leave us at the alter. That’s not going to be as easy to let go of as a rotten mango.

I wonder, though. How much the variation in reaction has to do with our preconceived ideas about the “appropriate” reaction in each scenario. When I used to get upset, it genuinely felt like I had no choice. Then in addition to not getting what I wanted, I felt an added level of suffering due to a feeling of powerlessness. There is a certain freedom in simply knowing we have the ability to choose.

When my ex left me the last time, I remember feeling frustrated that now I’d have to go back to being sad and miserable. The idea of doing that seemed so repulsive to me that I decided I didn’t care if that’s what I was supposed to feel. I decided to discard my ideas of what I thought society expected of me in that scenario. I didn’t want to be sad anymore, and for the first time in such a situation, I realized I had the choice not to be.

Sometimes just remembering that we have that choice is enough. This doesn’t mean that you’ll never experience sadness, anger, frustration, or suffering again. There are some times in life that we actually want to feel sad, and that’s okay. There is a difference between holding space for a genuine emotion and feeling trapped by one.

The next time I find myself not getting what I want, rather than getting upset and ruminating, I’m going to use it as an opportunity. Each time something doesn’t go the way you planned, it’s an opportunity to practice being happy anyway. One of my favorite questions to ask myself is: Can I love myself even though…? Fill in the blank. Now I’d like to add another question: Can I be happy even though….? Sometimes phrasing the issue in this way allows us to see the choice we have. When I’m getting down on myself because of some small flaw, asking the question, “can I still love myself,” brings things back into perspective and reminds me what really matters. If I can still love myself anyway, why bother being upset about whatever it may be? The same goes for “can I be happy anyway.”

Asking these types of questions also helps me be more lighthearted about the problem. Sometimes the answer isn’t clear in that moment. Then I become curious. Can I? Let’s find out. It can be fun to explore our own hearts and minds and find a path back to happiness. And just like paths in the forest, these paths become more worn and easier to follow the more we use them. So don’t worry if your mind seems like particularly dense woodlands right now. You can still make those paths. Even if it’s hard at first, know that it only gets easier.

Ram Dass talks about 'Becoming Nobody,' the documentary on his spiritual  journey | Datebook

Finding the Feeling

For years now, I have practiced yoga, meditation, and gratitude daily. While I’ve definitely noticed improvements in my mental health since implementing these practices, it still feels like the changes I’ve experienced have been underwhelming. I thought that after such diligent effort over so many years, that I would be further along in my spiritual journey by this point. I still struggle daily with feelings of inadequacy, guilt, shame, anger, jealousy, fear, anxiety, etc.

In the beginning, these daily practices were done very intentionally. It was easy to remain mindful because everything was so new to me. However, after solidifying these routines, they became just that, routines. Many days I find myself just going through the motions. That is the reason I haven’t been able to enjoy more of the benefits ever after so many years. I also think this may be a reason some people find themselves giving up on yoga, meditation, and mindfulness all together.

We must always be careful not to allow these things to become just words, just routines. Going through the motions may be better than doing nothing at all, but it isn’t going to result in the profound changes we’re seeking in ourselves. Yoga isn’t about the shapes the body takes, it’s about where the mind goes, learning to watch our own thoughts, learning to let go, to make peace with our perceived flaws or shortcomings, and so much more. In the same way, a daily gratitude practice isn’t about how fast you can list things off, or being able to fill up a whole page. It’s about the energy, the emotion behind the things your listing.

It’s almost funny when I think about it. I don’t know why I would expect writing a list of things I’m grateful for to be any different than writing a grocery list considering the way I normally feel while doing so. I usually don’t feel anything at all. If anything, I feel annoyed. “Ugh, I don’t have time for this. I can’t think of anything to write. Why am I such an ungrateful person? Why is this so hard for me?” That’s usually the kinds of thoughts occupying my mind as I struggle to think of enough bullet points to fill the page in my gratitude journal. Saying the words, “I am grateful,” isn’t enough. You’ve got to feel it too.

Now for some people this may just be something that blossoms naturally from doing the practice. That’s how it is for all of us at the beginning I think. But for an emotionally blunted person like myself, after the initial novelty of the practices begins to wear off, it takes a bit more effort to uncover that emotional energy. Words and actions may help to illicit certain feelings, but we can’t allow ourselves to become to distracted by the words and actions alone. It’s the energy, the emotion, the sensation, that really matters. Having the emotion without the words, will still work wonders. Having the words without the feeling behind it, does nothing.

So the next time you embark on any mindfulness practice, try to focus on the energy behind your intention. What is your goal in doing this practice? What types of feelings and emotions are you trying to invite into your life? Are you trying to train your brain to quickly list things? Or are you trying to train your brain to actually experience a certain kind of energetic state? If you want to be able to more easily experience gratitude, you’ve got to actually practice feeling grateful, not just telling yourself you are.

This may be a lot more difficult of a practice, if you’re like me. I really struggle to get in touch with my emotions. If someone told me to imagine what love feels like, I’d feel confusion and maybe anxiety rather than love. If that sounds like you, try this short exercise:

  1. Close your eyes.
  2. Take 5 slow, deep breaths in and out.
  3. Now, imagine someone or something that you love. At first, you might still struggle to feel anything. If that’s the case, keep concentrating on more and more details. You might try to remember and recreate in your mind a memory with this person/animal/object.
  4. Once you’ve got a clear image in your head, move back into your body. What types of sensations are you experiencing? What do you feel and where are you feeling it? Maybe you feel an opening in your heart space or a lightness in your stomach.
  5. Whatever you’re feeling, focus on those bodily sensations. That is love. Not the words, not the thoughts, but this, right here, this feeling.
  6. Stay with that feeling for awhile, breathe into it, explore it, try to savor the subtleties of it so that you may more easily call yourself back to this energetic state in the future. Try to memorize every aspect.
  7. When you’re ready, you may release the practice and open your eyes. You can come back to this practice as many times as you need to. Eventually it will become easier and easier to cultivate this feeling whenever you want to.

If you’ve been practicing for a long time like I have and are just now coming to this realization, no worries. Obviously it took me this long to realize too. No need to be harsh on yourself about it or feel like you’ve just been wasting time up until now. The foundation you laid by “going through the motions” has led you to a place where you’re now able to delve more deeply into your practice, to add a new layer to your daily routine. We all move through our spiritual practice at our own pace, with our own unique obstacles along the way. Honor where you are now and keep moving forward.

If you have a daily gratitude practice, maybe today try to list only 1-3 things. Rather than quantity, focus on the quality of emotion behind each listed item. Let me know how it goes! I’d also love to know: What does love feel like in your body? What does gratitude feel like to you?

Gratitude Journal for a positive mindset - The Happi Empire