Our minds are incredible. Often they use passed experiences and similar situations to makes a judgment or decision about the situation. Efficient! Unfortunately, we often get it wrong and we find ourselves in a stress, reactivity loop that leads us to plausible, but often inaccurate assumptions. Why? Because our mind relies on the old experiences instead of the present moment. This kind of lightening fast thinking happens so quickly that we hardly notice. It occurs most often when we are running on autopilot. It is often associated with fight–flight–freeze response and stress. (I write more about inner voice here.) The question is can we live peacefully with stress?
It’s March. KCSM jazz radio hums along in the background as I type. I’m sitting at my dining room table overlooking our garden. The camellias have started to bloom and my Japanese maple has its first buds. I see there is a very gentle breeze because the bamboo in my neighbor’s garden is swaying ever so gently. Beyond both the evergreens and the still naked trees, the sky is clear and blue. The sun blazes in on me, so much so, that I closed the skylight because the room was getting too hot. That sounds like a lovely day signaling an early spring right? But having just come in from outside I know that while it looks glorious outside, in reality it is a bone chillingly cold -3°C. That’s 26°F. Our minds are often a lot like this moment.
Reacting is a lot like assuming because in both instances, we act in a certain way, without actual proof or investigation of what’s going on right now. How many times have I looked out the window, saw the sunshine and picked up a jacket instead of my coat and froze. Or the inverse, said to myself, “Oh, it’s February, so I must wear every layer I own plus my winter coat,” and sweated through the entire day? Most of us do things that fall into this category on a regular basis without a second thought. While I’m human and still sometimes fall for the tricks my mind plays on me, I have cultivated the ability to slow down and hear the chatter, the realizations, the knowing that streams through my head.
I had started to meditate before I took my first mindful meditation training course. While I could quiet my mind, it wasn’t until after followed the eight weeks MBSR course, that I could really hear and engage with the chatter. What does “engage with he chatter” mean exactly? Well when a thought pops into my head, I can investigate it. Ask myself if the thought is really true or not. And then once I’m clear on what’s really happening, I’ll respond in a way that is in my best interest instead of just reacting often with even realizing what is going, as I would have in the past. And as I have continued my practice I can connect with my thought both on the mat and in the real world as I lived, walked and talked in my daily life. I don’t need to be in a quiet room or hidden away to be connected to the present moment.
“Meditation has countless benefits – from better health to increased focus to a deeper sense of calm – but the biggie is the ability to respond instead of react to your impulses and urges. In meditation, instead of succumbing to deeply rooted habits of the mind like desire & aversion, you simply watch what comes up in your head non-judgmentally.”
―Dan Harris, 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works
You can rewire your brain in only 8 weeks? That sounds amazing, especially when we think about cheering ourselves on or congratulating ourself for a job well done. But what about the challenging emotions: the judgment, the negative self-talk and past hurts? What about all the memories and emotions that we often label as “unwanted?” Leo Babauta calls these moments a “beautiful practice ground” because this is a moment for us to practice looking at things differently. In a way, it’s an obvious opportunity in that we definitely know when we don’t like something. The challenge is to stop, think and respond and to approach our emotions with friendly curiosity, instead of blindly reacting.
If you want to, you can; maybe not the first or second or third time, but eventually if you try you can. And what then? Have a conversation with the habitual way of responding ask questions, like:
- Can I name exactly what I feel?
- Is the feeling accompanied by physical sensation in my body?
- Is what I’m thinking true, logical, plausible?
- How do I usually respond in moments like these?
- Has my usual way of responding helped me thus far?
- Is there a better way to approach this?
While you check in with yourself, you’re not required to actually do anything about it, except to be ready to sit next to these emotions with loving-kindness and non-judgment. There’s nothing wrong. There’s nothing wrong with you. There’s nothing to do or any place to do. Just listen. That said, for most getting next to our emotions is enough; they come and they go. They mirror the impermanence of nature.
But if you continue to feel strong difficult emotions after the moment has passed, don’t go it alone. The mindful thing is to ask for help if you need it. When mindful practices where developed all those thousands of years ago, as I understand it, people lived in community. Sages and teachers in largely monastic environments surrounded them. Swami Ambikananda is quotes in the Independent as saying, “Mediation wasn’t created to make you or me happy, but to help us fight the illusions we have and find out who we truly are.” You’re not going to get the kind of wisdom from an app, so get help if you need it.
“The truth is belonging starts with self-acceptance. Your level of belonging, in fact, can never be greater than your level of self-acceptance, because believing that you’re enough is what gives you the courage to be authentic, vulnerable and imperfect.
I’ve ignored that voice in my head and I’ve done what seemed like the right thing to do and I have had it all go terribly wrong. And experience has shown me that, the part of me that speak softly always knows the right answer. She has always known I could have more, be more secure, have more fun if I partnered, accepted, dialoged with her. I’ve also begun to accept that I’ve only wanted to be heard. I wanted me to reassure me. “Yes you are right. It shouldn’t have been that way. But we’ve survived worse. Let’s go do what we had planned anyway.” I’ve also learned that I only need to be heard by the one person and that person is me.
Anxiety triggers the fight–flight–freeze response. The loops is call reactivity. That physical response has kept us out of a lot of trouble from getting run over by cyclists to getting in car accidents. It is a good thing. Sometimes I feel anger, pain, uncertainty, discomfort, frustration and that’s ok. These too are normal emotions that serve a purpose. They protect us. They tell us to wait. They signal that something is off. These emotions let us know when we are headed in the right direction or not. Given that, can we really call them negative emotions? They are gifts to help guide us toward what we want. In recognizing this I can see a richer, more fulfillment and more free way to life. So while I appreciate them, I don’t want to be ruled by them because reactivity is just plain stressful. But this loop is the opposite of tuning into our inner voice. Thankfully with mindfulness we all live peacefully together.