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How to Practice Mindfulness and Overcome Life’s Frustrations

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Practice Mindfulness Meditation

How to Practice Mindfulness: When you feel overwhelmed by life’s frustrations, practicing mindfulness can help.

Somedays I feel like a fireman, running around putting out Life’s Little Fires, or as I like to call them L.L.F.s.  These aren’t catastrophes, but rather the annoyances that pop up and burn you on the backside like a like a hot coal from a campfire. L.L.F.s make life difficult.  As a client of mine recently said, “I’d like to make it through just one day with things going right!” I could relate. In fact, just today I saw my morning about to go up in smoke.

I had an early Skype session scheduled with my writing coach, but the gods-of-the-internet just weren’t going to have it. He could hear me, but I couldn’t hear him. I could see him, but he couldn’t see me. We were disconnected, then reconnected and disconnected again. We spent a good portion of our session just trying to get started. After several attempts to reboot my system, then switching to a different computer, resetting my internet protocol and sacrificing a computer mouse as a burnt offering, we appeased the gods and eventually connected.

When I find myself in these frustrating situations, my first response is to throw my hands up in exasperation and yell expletives to the sky. However, of late, I’ve been practicing “Mindfulness,” and found it useful for squelching the little fires of life. Mindfulness is a popular word in the mental health field that originally comes from the practice of Buddhist meditation. It’s the psychological process of becoming acutely aware in a nonjudgmental way of the present moment while entering into the harmony of the body, the mind, and the spirit. Or in less “woo-woo terms,” mindfulness is simply noticing what’s going on rather than reacting to it.

I’m the first to admit that practicing mindfulness is way easier when things are going well. After all, when things are going my way being in the moment is a piece of cake. But, I’m also learning that being mindful in the moments of complications and difficulties to be truly beneficial. To quote Thich Nhat Hanh, “The present moment is filled with joy and happiness. If you are attentive, you will see it.”  Somewhere in the midst of the annoyances of L.L.F.s resides joy and happiness.  I just have to find it within my body, mind, and spirit. Here’s how I break that down:

Body: The brain is the physical organ that orchestrates our bodily functions. When I’m frustrated my brain perceives danger and engages the fight or flight response. When this happens adrenaline is released, my heart pumps faster, my breathing gets shallow, and my body becomes prepared to run or fight. An unfortunate byproduct of this defense system is to decrease the blood flow to the part of the brain responsible for problem-solving and rational thought. When I’m frustrated I’m not thinking clearly. By noticing what’s going on in my brain I can change what’s going on in the rest of my body.  Mindfulness reminds me to focus on my breath, slowing down the flood of adrenalin and re-engaging my brain’s ability to attend to the goodness all around me. As I was trying to get Skype working this morning I noticed my breathing, slowed it down and became aware of the sensations in my body. It wasn’t easy, but it did help me to let go of my anxiety and move forward with the call, which ended up being an excellent session

Mind: The mind is the transparent internal system of our emotions, thoughts, and beliefs. To be mindful of my mind is to notice and become aware of that system in the present moment. Mindfulness shifts my thinking towards observing what’s going on in this internal system. My thoughts move away from the problem and I just experience the moment.  An odd thing happened when I did this today; I was able to release the distress and recognize that it was simply an opportunity to expand my spiritual practice.

Spirit: The spirit is the part of the self that connects to that which is larger than me, the source of all things. In the midst of the L.L.F.s, I thought of a quote by Tony Robins who said, “The universe isn’t doing this to you, it’s doing this for you!” As I contemplated this for a moment, I reminded myself that virtues are the spiritual tools that allow me to find the connection. The opportunity to expand my patience was the gift of the day. As the wise King Solomon said, “The end of the matter is better than its beginning, and patience is better than pride.” As I practiced patience and listened to my spirit, and I noticed a sense of peace and purpose that lead to writing this post… And that’s kind of cool.

Later in the day, I drove past a sign on the outside of an athletic club.  It read, “If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you.” Since to be alive is to be in a constant state of learning, growing and changing, is it any wonder why we’re so often challenged?  I love how Pema Chodron puts it: “If we learn to open our hearts, anyone, including the people who drive us crazy, can be our teachers,” or in this case, the L.L.F.s. Even though today was challenging, by being mindful to the present moments, these complications ended up being gifts from the gods of fire. By the way; does anyone know a good place to scatter the ashes of a burnt computer mouse?

The Secret to Escaping Life’s Frustrations

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Self-compassion how to deal with frustration and anger

The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: How to deal with frustration and anger by using this tool.

“What’s this?” I asked my dad as I held up my prize.It was the spring of my fourth-grade year, and my school was hosting our annual PTA spring fair. My school’s cafeteria, now a boardwalk of homemade carnival games, smelled of popcorn, cotton candy, and sweat.  I had just tossed a ping-pong ball into a cup and won this contraption.

“That,” My dad said, “is a Chinese finger-trap!” He smiled as if he had a secret.

“How’s it work?” I asked. “Stick your index fingers in it, one on each side,” my dad replied. I placed my fingers inside the cylinder of woven bamboo. “Now try to get out of it,” he smiled.

As I pulled, my fingers were indeed trapped. The harder I pulled, the tighter the checkered device became. My dad looked more than amused as I struggled for a good couple of minutes until I felt like my little digits were about to pop out of their joints. Seeing my frustration, my dad said, “Don’t pull. Just relax. Now push in.” As I did, the trap loosened. Low and behold I was able to free myself.

“Where’s my little brother!” I said, scanning the crowd with a deviousness grin.

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Somedays I feel like I am that nine years old, stuck all over again. Only this time I’m snared in my day to day struggles; traffic is bad, taxes are due, cars breakdown, deadlines loom, and people get cranky. I don’t mean to be negative, but the little boy in me wants to scream “Give me a flippin break!! Why can’t things just be easy for once?” I know, “First World” problems, right?  Nevertheless, I get angry, frustrated, anxious and sad, along with a myriad of other painful feelings when things don’t go my way.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who feels this way. In fact, for centuries, every school of religion, philosophy, and psychology has attempted to answer the question of human suffering. While they disagree on many things, they all tend to agree on this; Life, like the Chinese finger trap, is a paradox.  The more I think about it, the more I’m beginning to see that what I learned that day at the school fair applies well to life: Release control, press into “what is” to find my way through.  

As I’ve been thinking about this, I identified a few areas where releasing control and pressing into might make my life less complicated.  

Pressing into the uncertainty of the outcome
All too often I have already determined the “desired outcome, ” and I want things to work on my terms. However, what I want and what I get are often mutually exclusive. When I have an expectation that goes unmet, it typically manifests into a resentment.  Resentments cut the soul with the blade of disappointment leaving the scars of discouragement and discontent.  Yet, when I release control and press into the uncertainty of the outcome, I free myself to explore other possibilities. The magic then is that I find the peace of mind I was looking for in the first place.

Pressing into the unpredictability of others’ behaviors
Oh, this is a bitter pill to swallow! Why can’t others just do what I want them to do or not do the things I don’t want them to do? After all, I only want what’s best for everyone… right? Truth be told, even under my most altruistic desire lays ego gratification. When I try to control others, I am in their business, I ultimately suffer and so do my relationships.  As Byron Katie (author of Loving What Is) puts it, “If you are living your life and I am mentally living your life, who is here living mine? We’re both over there. Being mentally in your business keeps me from being present in my own. I am separate from myself, wondering why my life doesn’t work. To think that I know what’s best for anyone else is to be out of my business.” I’ve found when I stay in “my business” I’m no longer stuck obsessively controlling others, which lead to greater satisfaction and enjoyment in my relationships.

Pressing into the uncontrollability of circumstance
My argument is that if I give in and let everything happen, I become a victim of circumstances.  I mean do I just accept injustices? Do I allow poverty, disease, global warming, homophobia, and bigotry to go on while I grab my banjo, folk song and bury my head in the sand? And yet the ugly truth is that I cannot change the circumstances of the world! Then I remember the words of Mahatma Gandhi: “We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.”  I unlock freedom when I press into the knowledge that I can only choose to control and change myself, and I become the change I want to see in the world.

All in all, I’m learning that there is a flow to life. Lao Tzu said, “Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them – that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” Life is like a stream that runs a course, and I’ve often thought there are but two choices: go with the flow, or swim against it. The rebel in me wants to go against it.  But pressing in has taught me there is a third option: I can get in the flow and use self-control as my rudder steering out of the way of suffering.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go find my nephew and show him my Chinese Finger Trap.

 

Voices In My Head: Three Ways to Stop Negative Thinking

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Stop Negative Thinking Inner Critic

Three Ways To Help Stop Negative Thinking and Silence Your Inner Critic.

For decades I was plagued by a bully who beat me up at every chance he had. He didn’t live on my street or go to my school; he lived in my head. He harrassed me with negative thoughts and daily threw spitballs at my confidence. Later I would learn that many of us live with this constant distress. It’s called the “Inner Critic.”

The Inner Critic is a stream of ruminating thoughts. “I’m not good enough,” it says. “I will look stupid if I try this.” ”That’s only for people who are smart, lucky, and good-looking. And by the way, I am none of these.” It mocks us, berates us and screws with our self-esteem. For me, these unwelcomed thoughts came from nowhere yet would stick around like a turd on the bottom of my shoe.

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Through therapy and a program of recovery, I learned that there was another voice. This one was a little friendlier but tended to get truncated by my Inner Critic. Still, he was there if I only listened. I was introduced to my “Inner Advocate.” My Inner Advocate is creative. He’s a risk taker and likes to help me solve problems. He is optimistic. My Inner Advocate is pulling for me like a cosmic cheerleader on Super Bowl Sunday. He says things to me like, “I can do this, I have what it takes!” “Let’s make the world a better place!” and “I look damn fine in yellow!”
When we find ourselves burdened with inner dialog that is constantly berating us, we may become discouraged. Nevertheless, we all have an Inner Advocate accessible to us. Our advocate is our authentic self. It resides in the deepest part of our souls waiting to be asked to come out and dance.

We have all have experienced hurt, trauma, and abuse at some level; as a result, negativity can hold our confidence hostage for fear of being wounded again. If we want to live in authenticity, we have to have the courage to listen to the still small voice of the Inner Advocate.

In his work, “The Legend Of Bagger Vance,” Steven Pressfield’s protagonist describes the Inner Advocate as our “authentic swing.” “Inside each and every one of us is one true authentic swing… Somethin’ we was born with… Somethin’ that’s ours and ours alone… Somethin’ that can’t be taught to ya or learned… Something that got to be remembered… Over time the world can, rob us of that swing… It get buried inside us under all our wouldas and couldas and shouldas… Some folk even forget what their swing was like…” If you’ve forgotten your swing, you can find it again, if you’re willing to tune into its frequency.

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Once a negative thought begins to attack our conscious, we can’t just “not” think about it. That’s like trying to not think of a pink elephant! Instead, we have to make a deliberate decision to replace the thought with something different… say a blue alligator. Think of it like this: When I’m listening to the radio, and a song comes on do you know what I do? I change the channel. We all have the power to switch the channel and tune into something more to our liking. When I let my monkey brain be the D.J. he tends to throw out random negative thought thoughts. When I recognize this, I can put my Inner Advocate controls the station once more.

Beverly Engel, The author of “The Nice Girl Syndrome,” puts it this way: “Turn down the volume of your negative inner voice and create a nurturing inner voice to take its place. When you make a mistake, forgive yourself, learn from it, and move on instead of obsessing about it. Equally important, don’t allow anyone else to dwell on your mistakes or shortcomings or to expect perfection from you.”

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For me, tuning into positive thoughts and listening to my Inner Advocate was challenging and took a lot of practice. But once I learned to identify whose voice was in control, I was able to change the channel and invoke my Inner Advocate. Soon the Inner Critic learned to be quiet. I found practicing the “Three Rs of challenging thoughts” to be helpful.

Three R’s of challenging thoughts

1. Recognize: My first step was only to recognize when the Inner Critic hijacked my brain. To do this more consciously, I got one of those rubber bracelets. Whenever I observed I was having self-deprecating thoughts, I move the bracelet to the other wrist. It sounds silly, but by doing this physical act, I started to program the neuro-pathways in my brain to connect to the body, which created greater awareness.

2. Refute: Secondly, I learned that thoughts are just thoughts. They are little bits of electricity that drive randomly through my brain. I can’t stop my mind from thinking any more than I can stop my heart from pumping blood. However, I can choose my thoughts. As I learned to recognize when the Inner Critic is in the driver’s seat, I would refute the negativity by reciting a two-part mantra. The first part would be to say to myself, “That’s an interesting thought… but it’s just a thought! It’s not true.” This little statement took power away from the Inner Critic and gave me the ability to move to the second part of the mantra.

3. Reverse the Negative: After I said to myself, “That’s an interesting thought… but it’s just a thought! It’s not true,” I would say, “In fact, it is just as likely that _______.” I would fill in the blank with the exact opposite of the negative thought. For example, my critic might say “I’m going to make a huge mistake and fail.” I would reverse the idea by saying to myself, “It’s just as likely that I’m going to do great and be a huge success.” I would then continue to choose to think about the success. If my Inner Critic tried to get back in the forefront, I would repeat the three steps.

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Challenging a bully takes courage. Some days I have to stand up repeatedly to my Inner Critic. He tries to intimidate me, get me to back down and fall in line. Just this morning I had the thought “I should just give up on my writing. No one cares what I have to say.” I felt the overwhelming rush of discouragement wash over my body. Then I remembered the three R’s and recognized I was about to be Shanghaied by my bully once again. I said to myself “That’s an interesting thought, but it’s just a thought. In fact, it’s just as likely that I have something important to offer the world, what I say matters and maybe I can help someone, even if it’s in the smallest ways.” I had to remind myself that the Inner Critic’s words are lies and my thoughts can only hurt me if I let them. In the end, when I confronted my Inner Critic with authenticity and courage, like most bullies, he backed down and ran away.

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