January 13, 2017

To Be Positive or Not to Be Positive

We have all heard the advice "Just be positive!" at least once, but probably many more times. Even if we didn't, we have most likely wished we could be more positive. Based on that, it might seem like a positive attitude is the solution to all of our problems. But is it really?

I've always found positive affirmations strange. I never understood how standing in front of a mirror and chanting was supposed to make our words magically come true. It's kind of similar to trying to summon Bloody Mary. If I believe I'm stupid or ugly, repeating "I'm smart" and "I'm beautiful" will not solve my problem. Just like Bloody Mary won't appear if we keep repeat her name. Because when we are trying to chant such things, the problem is more deep-rooted than that.

The issue with positivity and the reason so many are drawn to it are the same--it's supposed to be a fast and easy solution. Sadly, there is no such thing.

So let's dissect this dilemma. Why do we we want to be positive in the first place? Probably because we are negative. We see ourselves, what happens to us, and the world as "bad." When we look at ourselves, we might see faults. When we look at our lives, we might see problems. When we look at the world, we might see evil. We might see them so much, that sometimes, it becomes all we see.

So in comes positivity. Because negativity is not all we should see, we know that, we are smart people. We know that there are good things in us, in our lives and in the world as well. So we try to force ourselves to see all those things. And that doesn't sound like such a bad thing. Because it's not.

Sometimes we need to remind ourselves of all the good in us and around us. Because that is how the world is--it is just as good as it is bad. And with our instinctively negative minds, it is useful to remind ourselves sometimes.

Great, but this didn't really solve our initial problem, did it? Like Einstein said, we cannot solve a problem with the same mind that created it. No matter how much we try to force a positive to take the place of a negative, it will always remain the other side of the same coin.

Trying to force ourselves to see the good is the same kind of self-deception as only seeing the bad. Because at the end of the day, both of them are just things we tell ourselves--they are just thoughts. And thoughts are not reality.

Once we realize that, a huge weight is lifted. We don't need to be anything. We don't need to force thoughts into our already crowded minds. What we can do is make a little more space in there.

I've mentioned my worst panic attack a couple of times before. I'm going to mention it again now. Because it was brought on by trying to force positivity.

I was traveling by bus, and this was at the time I was working through my agoraphobia, so as you can imagine, I was not feeling so great. Buses were my worst nightmare. But I wanted to get better, so I tried my best. I didn't want to feel like I would die if I traveled by bus, because that was just stupid and crazy, I knew that. I wanted to feel good, like a "normal" person.

So I sat on that bus and I tried to force as many positive things into my head as I could. I looked out the window and "Oh, look at the beautiful trees." You know, that kind of thing. By the time I got off the bus, my mind was so full of thoughts, I couldn't speak. My positivity plan didn't go so well.

It was horrible at the time, but it became one of the most valuable experiences for me. (So was it "good" or "bad"? Was it a positive or a negative experience? You can see that in reality, it was neither. Or both. You decide.) Among a lot of other things, it has taught me that forcing positivity does more harm than good. It's fake, just like any other thought in our heads--it's not real.

Since then I traveled by that exact same bus many times. It's still not my favorite pastime, but I do it with no problems most of the time. I think you know by now how I do it. That's right--by always practicing keeping my mind open, and not grabbing onto thoughts, may they be positive or negative ones.

Because life is what it is. We don't need to name and label every single thing, person and experience. Instead of cramming more thoughts into our minds, may they be positive or negative, we might benefit from practicing letting go of what is already there instead.

Nothing is as we think it is anyway.

"In Japan we have the phrase, "Shoshin," which means "beginner's mind." Our "original mind" includes everything within itself. It is always rich and sufficient within itself. This does not mean a closed mind, but actually an empty mind and a ready mind. If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything. It is open to everything. In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities; in the expert's mind there are few." - Shunryu Suzuki

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January 6, 2017

Thoughts Won't Keep You Safe--They Are Not Even Real

Thoughts come and go in the mind. It's normal to have all  kinds of thoughts. There's nothing wrong with them.

That's how we work, we see things, and we think something about them, we judge them, we name them, we label them. It's how the human brain works--it's how we try to make sense of the world.

So it's supposed to be a useful process, like most things our bodies do. But like most things, we can turn it against ourselves.

When we grab onto these thoughts, take them too seriously, and refuse to let them go, we make something out of them that they were never supposed to be. We turn an opinion into a fact. A judgement into truth. A thought into reality.

We use this process everywhere. When we see someone on the street and form an opinion about them without knowing anything about them. When we think we know what other people think about us. When something happens and we think it's the worst thing in the world. When we have an uncomfortable feeling inside of us and we cannot resist the urge to identify it, because without a name, it scares us.

We are afraid of everything that doesn't have a name. So we give names to everything, even if they don't fit.

These thoughts provide us comfort. They make us feel better by allowing us to feel like we actually know things. But do we, really?

I've had my struggles with anxiety. And I always look back at the thoughts I once used to believe. The thoughts that scared me so much. The thoughts that seemed so real that I was scared to let them go. But those thoughts I so desperately held onto never had anything to do with reality. No matter how much I felt they did.

We worry because we feel we need to. We are afraid because we feel it will keep us safe. But thoughts cannot keep us safe. Because they were never real. And they never will be.

Just because we think someone is evil doesn't mean they actually are. Just because we have a strange feeling in our stomach which we cannot identify doesn't mean it's cancer. Just because we think someone hates us, doesn't mean they do.

It's one of the most useful skills we can develop--a kind of skepticism toward our own thoughts.

I imagine thoughts as falling stars in the night sky. They were never meant to be stopped or grabbed onto. They were meant to fly across the sky and then disappear.

The good news is that we can always practice by keeping our mind open. The most common form of meditation is to focus on our breathing. Since the mind always wants to grab onto something, it's easier to grab onto the breath. But there's a type of meditation where you don't focus on anything. You just keep your mind open. Letting thoughts move like falling stars, without grabbing onto them or anything else. 

It's not only during meditation when we can practice keeping the mind open. During our everyday lives, we can always practice seeing our thoughts and letting them move on, knowing that thoughts are not reality.

Bringing a thought like this into life is like raising the dead--it's not supposed to happen. And like the living dead, thoughts that are brought into reality can be scary kind of monsters.

So instead of creating monsters, let's practice keeping our minds open, and let the falling stars of our thoughts fly by.

A guided meditation on the topic can be listened to here.

“You are the sky. Everything else – it’s just the weather.” - Pema Chödrön

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December 30, 2016

Abandoning Hope Is a Good Thing

Many people search for a constant state of happiness. A bulletproof recipe that can always lift them up. 

But chasing happiness brings with it a completely different kind of beast--the avoidance of anything that is not happiness.

Trying to replicate a great time we had had in the past is something we have all done before. And whenever we try, for some reason, we never end up having that great of a time as we had the first time.

Because we want to control our experience by chasing happiness and don't just allow life to happen. Unexpected great times are common, forced great times are rare.

It's very interesting to look at this whole topic from the outside. How much we, human beings, can't stand anything other than happiness. How much we want to avoid everything else. 

But there is a third state besides positive and negative--neutral. This neutral state is when nothing really happens. We are not in pain, but we are not bursting with happiness either. Most of us would be in this neutral state most of the time, but there is one problem with us humans--we can't stand emptiness either.

Because emptiness means something is coming. Emptiness means that the space will soon be filled with something. And we desperately want that to be happiness. So the cycle continues.

When nothing's wrong, the mind creates a problem. It fills the emptiness. But why can't we just stay in this moment, whatever it is, without fearing for the next? And without wanting it to be under our control?

Because what happens when we abandon fear for what the space will be filled with and abandon hope with it as well? We just relax. And not really care about what happens. Because we realize that trying to control it is a waste of time and energy anyway.

It's not because of our effort that happiness comes. It comes anyway. Sadness comes. Anxiety comes. Anger comes. Excitement comes. And then they go. But beneath it all, we stay. And with our steadfast calmness, we can welcome all of them and let them pass as well.

We are not our feelings, our moods. We can be the calm behind them. We don't have to be swayed by our thoughts and feelings. It's neither necessary nor possible to be happy all the time. But what can always be underneath whatever comes, is an unwavering sense of peace. That, we can always practice.

"In a nontheistic state of mind, abandoning hope is an affirmation, the beginning of the beginning. You could even put “Abandon Hope” on your refrigerator door instead of more conventional aspirations like “Everyday in everyway, I’m getting better and better.” We hold onto hope and it robs us of the present moment. If hope and fear are two different sides of the same coin, so are hopelessness and confidence. If we’re willing to give up hope that insecurity and pain can be exterminated, then we can have the courage to relax with the groundlessness of our situation." - Pema Chodron

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December 23, 2016

Spending Time with Thoughts Is Not Worth It

We spend so much of our lives searching for comfort. Trying to secure our lives, our moods, our situations.

It's common to want stability. But is there such a thing, really?

If I look back on my life, I know that I've spent a large portion of it with my thoughts, worrying. None of those worries ever came true. Talk about a waste of time.

Most of us modern humans have everything we need. We have a place to sleep, food to eat, peace to live in and freedom to do what we want. Yet, we are constantly stressed. Why?

Maybe because we forgot how to be grateful. Our minds automatically go to places like "What if I lose this?" or "What if something bad happens?" or "How could life be better?" instead of settling into the moment, looking at what's around us and being grateful for it all.

Entangled in our thoughts, life passes us by without us even noticing. And when we finally look up, we realize that we have spent all our lives chasing or avoiding something else, and never really got to live.

It's easy to spend our whole lives in our minds, constantly thinking about what might go wrong or how things should be. It takes effort to settle into the moment and dare to be in it.

Let's take right now, for example. If you stop and look at this moment, what do you see in it? Without preconceptions or judgments, what does this moment hold?

For a short while, it is easy to come back to the present and let our unnecessary thoughts go. It takes a bit more effort to be like that all the time.

It's probably not even possible to be like that all the time, we are humans after all. But we can always practice catching ourselves when our minds wander and focus our attention on what is real in the present moment.

The urge is strong to go with thoughts, because they give us a sense of security. A false sense of security, to be exact. Along with a false sense of control.

We might as well live our lives instead of constantly trying to control what will happen. After all, this moment is our life. And it forever will be.

Wanting to always be comfortable is futile. Discomfort cannot be avoided. If we resist it, it only becomes stronger.

As for me, I'd rather go into the uncomfortable than avoid life. So when I look back, I will know that I lived, and didn't hide from it all inside my head. That I experienced every moment, whatever it held, and I spent my time with life instead of with my thoughts.

A guided meditation on the topic can be listened to here.

“Breathing in, I calm body and mind. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment I know this is the only moment.” - Thich Nhat Hanh

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December 16, 2016

Instead of Chasing Happiness, Search the Darkness

The ever-present paradox of man is that we want to be happy, but the more we chase that happiness, the more it eludes us.

There is always a reason for starting to look into spirituality, psychology or philosophy. We are all human beings, we all have our demons. And we are all searching for ways to be happy.

No matter how peaceful and happy one might seem, none of us can avoid painful feelings and other difficulties in life. That's just how it is. But the human will dies last, and we keep forever chasing that blue butterfly of happiness, desperately trying to figure out how we could make it settle on our shoulders.

I started reading all sorts of texts when I was going through a particularly hard time, and didn't know what to do. I had no idea how to be happy or cheerful or calm; it was like I had lost the ability to feel those feelings.

I wanted a way to escape my own feelings and create new ones instead. But what I had to realize was that my resistance to these feelings was exactly what was not letting them go. My determination to turn away from what I was feeling, to run away, to escape was so strong that it fueled the feelings. By turning away, I only intensified them.

There is no way around pain, only through.

Even now, after many years of practicing mindfulness, I find myself struggling sometimes. Because we have this false idea that if we live life correctly, then we should always be happy. And if any sort of pain enters, it is somehow our fault, and we have to get rid of it immediately.

It is hardwired in us to turn away from the uncomfortable. As if by doing so, we could escape it somehow.

I continually have to remind myself that the goal is not to eliminate pain and hurt and uncomfortable feelings. But to learn to welcome them. The goal is not to gain control somehow, to finally figure out how to live, but to accept our lack of control and be fine with it.

Pema Chödrön wrote about this in her book, When Things Fall Apart:
“We think that if we just meditated enough or jogged enough or ate perfect food, everything would be perfect. But from the point of view of someone who is awake, that’s death. Seeking security or perfection, rejoicing in feeling confirmed and whole, self contained and comfortable, is some kind of death. It doesn’t have any fresh air. There’s no room for something to come in and interrupt all that. We are killing the moment by controlling our experience.”
 We don't have much control over anything, really, neither on the outside, nor on the inside. Feelings arise, thoughts too, things happen. But that doesn't mean we cannot welcome all that with open arms, even when every instinct in our body tells us to close up and run.

We cannot avoid pain, no matter how far we try to run. We cannot control the uncontrollable, no matter how much we plan. So why even try? When we could just sit in peace and make friends with them instead?

The poet Rumi wrote about Night Travelers who search the darkness instead of running from it. Who are willing to go into their own fear, pain, anger. Because they know that inside that pain, there are invaluable treasures. (A guided meditation on the topic can be listened to here.)

If we are willing to turn toward our pain, our darkness, and welcome it instead of pushing it away, there is no more resistance; and as the pain passes, we become smarter and calmer, because we realize that we survived, and even without doing anything the feeling passed.

So here's an exercise:

Step one: Let the story line go

You can call it story line, you can call it thoughts, it doesn't matter. Thoughts are just thoughts, judgments are just judgments, labels are just labels. Not truths. Touch those thoughts gently and let them float away.

Nothing is like we think it is. If we try to imagine fear or any feeling, it is not like how we think it is. Experiencing and thinking are two very different things.

Just because you think something does not make it true.

Step two: Invite the moment in

When I'm feeling a strong emotion, the instinctual response is always to run away or do something that will make it pass. When I catch myself, I try to do the exact opposite and invite the feeling in. Just sit with it and invite it in. That is what this moment contains, so it's no use trying to turn away. Lean into the feeling and invite it in instead. You'd be surprised how much less uncomfortable it becomes.

Let's be Night Travelers together and instead of running away, let's search the darkness for treasures.

"I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain." - Frank Herbert

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