teaching, tips, and other sundry things I've learned along the way
Last time we chatted, or I like to think of it as chatting, I talked about feeling powerless. For me, feeling powerless is something I have struggled with throughout my life, and these “unprecedented times” have no doubt fostered that feeling in many people. If you think some of your unhappiness is due to feelings of powerlessness, what can you do? It’s easy – stop thinking about it! You can thank me later.
Ok, so of course it’s not that easy. If it was, we’d all be like our dogs and cats, enjoying the sunshine, getting excited about a squirrel, and then going back to sleep. Actually, there’s no magic bullet to annoying, unpleasant or harmful thoughts - followed soon by their sidekick feelings - but awareness is half the battle. After countless books, podcasts, and courses, my Sparks notes summary to dealing with thoughts comes down to 3 major techniques: question your thoughts, mindfulness, and meditation. I know the words mindfulness and meditation have been thrown around a lot, but don’t check out yet because I have some specific suggestions as to how to use these tools.
Before I get into each technique, I want to revisit this idea of powerlessness in the context of needing to control things. In Part I, I referred to Mo Gawdat’s Talks at Google about our need to control. When things are not in our control, we feel powerless. Mo doesn’t recommend abandoning all control, because some attempts at control move things forward. For example, if you live in a flood plain, rather than hoping that it doesn’t rain heavily it makes sense to exert some control through building barriers, moving etc. Rather than abandoning all control, Mo recommends thinking about the things you’re trying to control and pick a few high priority areas that you want to attempt some degree of control. I put the latter in italics because things are never totally under our control. Be aware of the cost of “control” and the cost to your happiness. This awareness might help you trim your “control list”.
Let’s say you’ve narrowed down your control list to a few key items. What happens when life throws you a curveball? (Spoiler alert: life will throw you a curveball at some point). How you respond makes all the difference. Mo uses the term “committed acceptance” and Eckhart Tolle, a well-known spiritual teacher, uses the word surrender. While both of these terms may seem to imply giving up, that is not the case. What they do mean is to stop arguing with reality, so that you can respond rather than react. Let’s say you’re on your way to an important dinner meeting with a potential employer. You’ve heard that this employer is really a stickler for being on time, so you leave a little early to make sure you’re not late. It’s raining heavily, and as you’re driving you swerve to miss a biker who can’t see well and end up on the side of the road in the mud. If you are angry and just react, you might choose to keep hitting the gas and getting even more stuck. Here is where the committed acceptance/surrender comes in. Committed acceptance helps you respond rather than react. Rather than continuing to “gun the engine” in an angry response, you accept that you’re stuck, which then allows you to take effective action such as finding some wood or cardboard, calling a tow truck, or cajoling a friend to help.
If you’ve read any self-help literature, you’ve probably run across the phrase “what we resist persists”. To continue the story, let’s say you can’t get your car out and end up calling a tow truck. You call your potential employer and explain the situation. He understands but doesn’t really care – he’s left the restaurant and is no longer considering you for the position. Yikes! You “resist” this event for days, maybe even weeks – going over each step in your head. Why did I take that route? Who does he think he is? Each time you play the conversation over in your head the anger comes back. You’ve heard him tell you “I’m sorry but you’re no longer a candidate” 50 times in the past two weeks. What you resist persists. Sometimes your anger is perfectly justified. You tell several of your friends about this incident and they confirm that this guy is a total jerk. Maybe you even get so angry that you send an email specifically telling him he’s a jerk and you wouldn’t want to work for him anyway! Probably not the best move. Plus, you’ve spent a lot of energy over the past 2 weeks being angry with not much to show for it. I realize that anger can be motivating, but often anger comes from reaction rather than a place of perspective where more effective action can be taken. From a state of committed acceptance, perhaps you reach out to the potential employer and explain yourself again. Alternatively, you renew your job search, maybe even entertain additional schooling. Each of these actions are more effective than arguing with the reality of the situation and fueling your anger.
Committed acceptance sounds great you might say, but it’s one of those things that’s easier said than done. When something big happens, like job loss, divorce, the centennial pandemic, etc. how can you “leave it” as I tell my dog, so that you can move on to committed acceptance?
Well, it’s a good news/bad news kind of answer. The bad news -you can’t stop thinking. The good news - you can be aware of and redirect your thoughts. This is a key skill for happiness. Not to go all Buddhist on folks, but thoughts are the major, source of suffering in our lives. Let me give you a brief explanation of three ways that I’ve found helpful to deal with the monkey mind.
Question your thoughts
Let’s go back to where we started - feeling powerless. Hopefully y’all are back in the lab full or mostly full tilt under the likely restrictions of masks, spacing, etc. During lock down, though, you may have had thoughts that the situation is totally out of your control and there’s nothing you can do. I say “thoughts” because often you have more power than you realize, but your brain is telling you that you’re powerless. Because the brain wants to be right, it then merrily goes along finding ways to back up that statement. In addition, the brain is a sifter. To make life easier, the brain filters all the stimuli that’s out there. Mostly that’s a good thing, so that once we learn to drive, for example, we don’t need to think about every little thing that goes into the complex task of driving. We just get in the car and go. However, the bad thing is that sometimes we only “see” things that back up our thoughts. If we think we are powerless, then the brain will tend to focus on things that support that statement. If that’s not convincing enough, then your brain will take you through your past and bring up experiences that support the thought.
By questioning our thoughts, we take a step back and ask whether the thought is really true. When you tell yourself “Nothing ever goes right for me” or “I can’t get a break” ask yourself whether this is really true. Go back through your past and find examples where things did go right. The master of questioning your thoughts is Byron Katie. She developed 4 questions we can ask ourselves to help deal with undesirable thoughts. Katie also has tons of videos on YouTube where she takes folks through the 4 questions – definitely worth watching. Although questioning your thoughts is a good way to counter negative thoughts, it has another benefit which is to separate you and your thoughts. Who are you? You are the one questioning your thoughts. Separating you from your thoughts helps create perspective and objectivity so that you see your thoughts as they are rather than as “the truth”.
Your thoughts can’t take you to shame town if you’re busy thinking about something else. Mindfulness is all about staying in the present and focusing on the here and now rather than mentally living in the past or the future. However, if you just had a big blow up with your significant other, “mindfully” washing the dishes is tough. You can try to pay attention to the smell of the soap, the slippery sensation of the soap and water, etc but you’ll probably drift back to that argument pretty quickly. Until you’re a mindfulness master, I recommend starting with something that demands your attention. For me, that’s playing the violin. Playing an instrument is demanding enough that you can’t ruminate and play at the same time. Other examples might be playing basketball, cooking, gardening – anything that takes enough of your attention that it’s hard to think about something else.
Meditation is another great way to practice distancing yourself from your thoughts, which makes committed acceptance much easier. As I’m sure you’re aware, one common way to meditate is to focus on your breathing. If you truly focus on the sensation of your breathing, you can’t think about the past or future. However, you will lose focus pretty quickly and thoughts will return. When you notice the thoughts, that is an example of awareness. You then go back to focusing on the breath, etc. The good thing about this type of meditation is that if you start doing this at home in a quiet space, you’ll may notice yourself taking a moment to focus on your breathing while standing in line at the check-out counter, while stuck in traffic, etc. Focusing on your breathing is a great way to take a “time out” when you’re having a stressful day. Like mindfulness, though, if a fresh hurt is really bothering you, focusing on your breathing is hard. For times like these, I recommend guided meditations. You can focus on the directions of someone else, which makes it a little easier to get away from your thoughts. Deepak Chopra (+/- Oprah) has a great series of meditations which are a combo of both “food for thought” and quiet time with music. These come in short (10-15 minutes) or extended (about 30 min) versions. Insight Timer is another great resource for meditations, with guided meditations, music only, and several classes. It also has a search function where you can search both type of meditation and length. The basic app is free or you can add on for $60/year.
Like anything that’s worthwhile, these techniques take practice. I promise the practice will be worthwhile, not only for yourself but for those around you.
Questions? Comments? I’m a major introvert, so I’m always up for a conversation with myself, but sometimes it’s good to get out of the cave and connect with others.
Resources mentioned and more:
Byron Katie - https://thework.com. See also books on Amazon.
Insight Timer (found on the app store). One of my favorites is the Garden of Babylon by Jim Rajan.
Deepak Chopra meditations - https://chopracentermeditation.com. Paid on his website but many on YouTube. He also has a new book about meditation coming out Sept 22 via the big box internet store in the sky.
The Mind Illuminated by John Yates – great resource for those who want to delve deeper into meditation and mindfulness.
Song from the Cartoon Network show Steven Universe “Here Comes a Thought” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dHg50mdODFM. Great for kids of all ages.