December 2, 2016

Mindfulness with Anxiety and An Exercise for Anxious Moments

We all act out of habit. The same thought patterns circulate in us, making us feel the same feelings, have the same impulses, do the same actions over and over again.

Even if those thoughts slightly change, they can always trigger the same impulses and feelings in us. I know I've experienced this with anxiety.

The anxiety I experience has always been with me, ever since I was a child, but it has transformed and changed throughout the years. When I learned to deal with one thought, one symptom, another one popped up, resulting in the same kind of anxiety and panic. Even though it was the same anxiety, it seemed new, because the thought and feeling that accompanied it were different.

That's how all of our feelings work. My husband doesn't usually experience anxiety, he tends to feel anger. The thoughts that trigger his anger have changed throughout his life, but the feeling of anger is always the same.

Where I'm going with this is that it is always our thoughts that fuel our feelings. When we learn to deal with one particular thought, another one will come in its place to trigger the same feeling.

I'm guessing this is what people mean when they say that until we learn from a something, it will continue to happen to us.

When I'm feeling strong anxiety, I often try to remember my worst panic attack. My head was so full of worries then that I couldn't speak. I thought I was suffocating, fainting and having a stroke at the same time. It wasn't fun at the time. But when I think back now, I know that nothing of what I thought was happening was actually happening. I wasn't suffocating, I wasn't about to faint, and I wasn't having a stroke. I just had a mind filled with horrible thoughts that seemed too real.

But when I look back at my worst panic attack, I actually find it kind of funny. It's also fascinating how a person can cause so much suffering to themselves out of nothing but a thought.

What I can conclude from everything I've experienced with anxiety is that the mind cannot be trusted. We have to learn to see that what our minds tell us is ridiculous, like we see it when we look back. We have to learn to see that in the moment. That's why I think back to my worst panic attack and make the connection--what is happening right now is the same kind of ridiculous.

Everything is fine. Everything will be fine. The only problem is that we believe what our minds tell us even when it's untrue.

Our minds pick and choose the tiniest physical sensations to support their claims, and we cannot see all the signs that point in the exact opposite direction--that we are fine.

An exercise for anxious moments:

1. Touch your thoughts lightly and let the bubble float away.
Whenever I catch a thought in my mind at times like these, I like to imagine touching them lightly, and at my touch they turn into a bubble and float away. I just touch them lightly and let them float away.

2. Turn toward your feelings.
It is a very instinctual response to want to push every feeling away in an anxious moment. But once we placed our thoughts in bubbles and let them float away, there is nothing left telling us that we need to be afraid, so we can turn toward our feelings with curiosity.

We can see that that uncomfortable feeling in our stomach is just tension, just like the dryness in our mouth. We can look at ourselves with compassion--every feeling that is in there has been the response to all those thoughts we are now forming into bubbles.

3. Relax into the moment as much as you can.

From all of this, it's clear that the source of anxiety is the mind, our thoughts. The body will always respond to the thoughts we believe.

So what we have to work with when we want to work with anxiety, is always the mind and its thoughts. We can practice noticing these untrue thoughts that trigger our anxiety sooner and sooner, and lightly touch them, allowing them to float away in a colorful bubble instead of holding on to them and allowing them to suffocate us.

So let's get to sending those beautiful bubbles, my friends, all the while knowing that so many of us are doing the same--you are never alone.

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

"Don’t let your mind bully your body into believing it must carry the burden of its worries." - Astrid Alauda

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November 25, 2016

It's Okay to Be Afraid, Just Don't Believe Your Thoughts

One of my biggest and most useful realizations has been understanding that my thoughts are just thoughts.

When I was struggling with anxiety, I never even noticed my thoughts. When someone suggested I should work on my thoughts, I didn't even understand what they were talking about. I had never looked at my thoughts or observed them in any way. I had no idea I had been ruthlessly kicked around by them until then.

When I first started to sit with myself and meditate, you can imagine how new it was to me to be faced with all the thoughts I had been thinking. To sum it up, I wasn't surprised at all that I was consumed by anxiety all the time--with those thoughts, everybody would have been.

So I made it my mission to keep my thoughts in check, and it's a mission I'm still on today. At first, when I started, I naively thought that I can banish those thoughts forever, and one day, I will not have to deal with them at all. 

Several years later, I know that is not the case. Our brains are more complicated than that, and certain thought patterns can never be unlearned completely. That's why we will always have to keep up the practice.

When some time had passed, I remember being annoyed with myself when the same thoughts and feelings arose in me as before. I should have completely annihilated them by now, I thought. I put myself down and thought it was my fault that I still felt anxious sometimes.

I just recently read a study in which scientists concluded that fears cannot be unlearned. The connection has been made in the brain, so all we can do is make new connections next to it. For example, most people are afraid of spiders to some degree. It's an ingrained fear passed down to us by our ancestors, research suggests. This link in the brain between "spider" and "danger" cannot be undone. But, and that is a big but, we can expose ourselves to it, and form new connections in the brain.

My husband used to be very afraid of spiders. A couple of months ago, he decided to work on his fear. Every time he sees a spider, he puts his hand down next to it so it crawls on him. At first, it was hard for him to do this. He was afraid when he first did. He was afraid when he did it for the second and third time. He is still afraid today. But the stronger the connection between "spider" and "harmless" becomes, the less intense the fear is. He says the fear has gotten much less intense, and subsides just as quickly as it arises now.

That's how we can work on anything in our minds. With anxiety, I do the same by reacting to it with as much peace as I can. No matter how horrible I feel, I always try to react to my feelings with peace and calm, strengthening the connection between "anxiety" and "harmless" in my brain.

Just a couple of days ago, I was meditating in a regular wooden chair. The kind you have next to the dining table. Keep in mind that this was my first time meditating on this chair. I usually meditate on the floor or on the couch. I sat comfortably in the lotus position, and meditated for about ten minutes without problems. Then a thought entered my mind: I could fall back with this chair so easily, the thought whispered something similar. And immediately, the most intriguing thing happened: I started to feel like the chair was actually falling backward. The chair didn't move, I didn't move, nobody in the room moved, but I still felt like the chair was falling.

That is my habitual pattern right there: I think something, and then I actually feel like it's happening. That is the basis of my anxiety, and I think the basis of most people's anxiety. 

I was wise enough to react to this thought with peace. I saw through it--I knew it had no basis in reality, so I kept sitting with steadfastness, knowing that I didn't need to react to it with anything other than peace. Even though I felt like the chair was falling backward, I sat with closed eyes, knowing better.

It is doing the exact opposite our thoughts tell us, but thoughts were never our most trustworthy friends. They can be very convincing though, and it's hard to see that what they are saying has no basis in reality. We have to trust ourselves, and understand that we do know better. That spider is not scary. This thought is not true. I can be calm. In my eyes, that is being a true badass--acting how we want to act, not how our thoughts and feelings tell us to; daring to feel our feelings instead of trying to run away from them.

Where we live, there are no poisonous spiders. They can do absolutely no harm to us here. Yet, so many people fear them. When we are anxious, we can fear all kinds of things that will not happen, and they are not as scary and horrible as our minds make them out to be at all.

That's why it is so important to be aware of our thoughts. To see through them. They will always try to pull us back toward the connections in our brain that have already been made. Connections we probably wouldn't have authorized if we had a say in them.

We can always practice seeing our thoughts for what they are--just thoughts. They can only pull us if we follow them.

Whatever happens in our internal world, we can choose to be the calm behind it all. The more we practice being at peace, the more it will be ingrained in our brains that we can be calm. Our original fears will always be there, but so will the new connections we have made by knowing thoughts are just thoughts, and practicing peace.

Life is not about defeating our demons after all, it's about . . . I'll let the Ancient One finish this one:

“We never lose our demons, we only learn to live above them.” - The Ancient One

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November 18, 2016

Overcoming Irrational Beliefs

Learning about mindfulness and how we can overcome our habitual patterns can be extremely useful. There are many amazing books we can read and great blogs we can follow that can be constant reminders for us how to stay mindful and keep working on our personal peace.

"If you can get the inside right, the outside will fall into place," is a quote by Eckhart Tolle, and I agree with it wholeheartedly. The very first step is always to sit with ourselves, learn about our thought patterns and observe our habitual responses. Once we do that, we can start reacting to ourselves differently--not as slaves to our thoughts, feelings and habits, but as masters of ourselves.

When a thought comes up, we can identify it as just a thought and let it go, without being limited and controlled by it. These thoughts are highly personal, we can have them about ourselves, others or anything else. What's common in all of them is that they are irrational, and they arise in us time and time again, forming habits out of our actions.

It can be a thought about how worthless we think we are, it can be a thought that says we have to be afraid, that something horrible is about to come, it can be a thought about how heartless we think everybody is or a simple belief that if we do everything "right," we can avoid pain.

If we think we should be afraid, we might try to avoid certain situations.

If we think everybody is heartless, we might try to avoid others.

If we think what happens to us depends on how well we do things, every time something painful happens, we blame ourselves, demeaning ourselves more and more every time.

Once we pay attention to ourselves, we can see how these thoughts, these beliefs affect not just our feelings, but our actions as well. And we can start refuting them and letting them go.

If a thought is only real in our minds, our feelings and our actions, and there is nothing in reality to support its validity, that thought is irrational.

We don't need to hold on so tightly to something that is not even true.

Meditation can help a lot with this process--in getting the inside right. But it's not the only thing we can do.

Whilst working on our inside worlds, we can also start challenging ourselves. And I think this is very important in helping us implement our new practice.

Just like with any belief, it is not enough if it only exists in our minds--we have to put it into our actions as well.

We can refute these thoughts on the inside and on the outside as well--on the inside, we practice letting them go, and on the outside we don't allow them to control our actions.

If you want to avoid something, go do it instead.

It is important that we come to this realization on our own, and we are not forced into something we don't want to do. If we are forced into something we would rather avoid, and we don't see how it could do us good, it will not end up being a useful experience, because we have to understand ourselves first in order to benefit from it.

But once we understand how useful it is to go to the places that scare us, there's nothing better we can do for ourselves than go there, all the while practicing refuting our thoughts on the inside.

Let's take me for example. I have always had issues with anxiety. Many times, my thought patterns would tell me that I needed to be afraid, so I would avoid going places, and tried as hard as I could to stay in my comfort zone, the only place I thought was safe.

But now I know that these thoughts are irrational. So when I find myself afraid of doing something, I ready my mind, knowing that I will have thoughts I will have to refute and let go of, and I go to the places that scare me. Thoughts do arise in the process, but it's the best place to practice letting them go, knowing that they are not truths.

So today, I invite you to go to the places that scare you, may they be actual places or figurative ones. To challenge your beliefs. Our anxious or judgmental thoughts are liars. Every single one of them. And they only have power over us as long as we believe them.

So let's refute them, and show them that there is nothing to be afraid of, that there is nothing to hate, and go to the places that scare us with our heads held high.

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

“The essence of bravery is being without self-deception.” - Pema Chödrön

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November 11, 2016

Turning Fear Into Strength: How to Be a Hero

This world needs strong people. It always has, and it always will. No one wants to be a coward, but we usually don't know how to be courageous. Everyone wants to be a hero, even those who end up being the villains.

I certainly felt like a coward many times in my life, especially when I let anxiety rule me. But we can learn a lot from our own feelings. In fact, these debilitating feelings are the exact places where we can learn how to be courageous.

We are all human beings. We all experience the same range of emotions. We are all afraid of many things. We all get sad. And we all get angry when we or what we love and believe in is threatened.

Bodhisattvas are dedicated to assisting all sentient beings in achieving complete enlightenment. They are basically Zen warriors, and I love reading about how they practice.

The story that stuck with me the most was written by Pema Chodron in her book, When Things Fall Apart. She tells this story about her Buddhist meditation teacher, Trungpa Rinpoche:

"He told a story about traveling with his attendants to a monastery he’d never seen before. As they neared the gates, he saw a large guard dog with huge teeth and red eyes. It was growling ferociously and struggling to get free from the chain that held it. The dog seemed desperate to attack them. As Rinpoche got closer, he could see its bluish tongue and spittle spraying from its mouth. They walked past the dog, keeping their distance, and entered the gate. Suddenly the chain broke and the dog rushed at them. The attendants screamed and froze in terror. Rinpoche turned and ran as fast as he could—straight at the dog. The dog was so surprised that he put his tail between his legs and ran away."

We all want to be the heroes like Rinpoche is in this story. The ones we grew up watching on television or read about in books. But when an aggressive dog is running toward us, it's human nature to panic and run the other way. To run toward it is against every fiber of our being--but that's exactly where courage lies.

Heroes would run toward the dog, may they be fictitious or real. Not because they are not afraid--they feel the same kind of fear as any of us--but because they do not turn away from their fear; they run straight toward it. Because they know they can face it.

That is strength itself. Standing tall right in the middle of fear.

The dog in this story can represent many things in our lives. It can be a person or a place. And it can also be something that is not outside of us, but inside--a thought, a feeling or any kind of discomfort or pain.

As someone who had to deal with anxiety most of her life, I know what it's like to fear the outside world, and I also know what it's like to be terrified of my own self. To fear what feelings would arise in me next and feel utterly defenseless against them.

Whatever our personal vicious dog represents, we instinctively want to run and hide from it. We cry and tremble and pity ourselves that life threw such a horrible thing our way. But you know what? Maybe life didn't throw it to mess with us. Maybe it threw it so we could become heroes.

Just like every one of us feels fear, every one of us is capable of being courageous. Because bravery is not being fearless--it's having the courage to look that fear in the eye.

I'm a big fan of anime. They can be extremely inspirational to me. Characters can be faced with hundreds of monsters, can break their bones, lose their sight, have everything taken away from them, and they still stand up, they still keep going, because they know that there is always something to fight for, may that be friendship, love or the goodness in people. They are always, always stronger than their instinct to run away. 

These stories are all metaphors. We usually don't face monsters in our lives. But our daily challenges are just as important, if not more. Every day, we face a vicious dog or a monster--something we would rather run away from. But by facing them, we are given a chance to become strong--to become heroes.

That's what the whole world comes down to--whether we can deal with these small monsters or not. Whether we run away from them or turn toward them courageously. Because the outside world, all the huge issues we face as a species--they all come down to this everyday battle between us and our personal monsters.

Someone who dares to run toward their inner monsters is capable of dealing with anything in the outer world.

So let's stand up. Let's look the vicious dog in the eye, and instead of running away from it, let's run toward it, with courage. All it takes is a choice. Strength is a choice. Bravery is a choice. Becoming a hero is a choice.

Instead of waiting for the world to save us and take away our suffering, let's be the ones to alliterate our own suffering and help others by taming our personal monsters. Instead of waiting for heroes, let's be heroes ourselves.

Where there is fear, there is a chance for a great hero to be born. All it takes is turning around and running straight toward it.

“There is no illusion greater than fear.” - Lao Tzu

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November 4, 2016

Why You Can't Trust Your Feelings

We're used to hearing that we should trust our instincts, our gut feelings. For a very long time, I did just that. I believed in my feelings unconditionally. I followed them wherever they led me. Until I realized that my feelings couldn't be trusted at all.

It's the brain that produces these feelings. It's thanks to the brain that we can feel fear or sadness or happiness. But the brain doesn't simply look at one thing and see only that. What I mean is that whatever we look at, whatever we experience, we don't simply experience it without internal commentary. The brain wants to identify, the brain wants to label, so it adds to whatever we're seeing.

For example, a person who grew up in a townhouse will not simply see a townhouse when they look at one. The feeling of their childhood will be brought back with it. That feeling has nothing to do with the townhouse, only the person.

A person who doesn't enjoy social interaction will not simply sit and enjoy another person's company. They will feel uncomfortable with that person and want to leave as soon as possible. It's not because of the other person that they feel uncomfortable, it's because of themselves. (Their brain and habitual behavioral patterns to be exact.)

Someone who is afraid of dogs will not only see a dog, they will also generate fear and an urge to flee. That has nothing to do with the dog, only the person. The dog might be the nicest dog on the planet, and it wouldn't even matter.

For humans, there is no objective reality. Our experiences are complex and unique to us and our brains.

We all have a way our brains work. Some people tend to get angry, some sad, some worried. We all have our own set of fears and triggers, experiences and memories. We all have our habitual behavioral patterns.

So my question is the this: Do you think that following our feelings is a good idea when they are so incredibly personal? In every one of our feelings, our past experiences, traumas, misconceptions are present. The same feelings arise in us time after time, because it's our brains' habitual response to certain stimuli.

Our feelings are not divine messages, they are the results of our biological and psychological patterns.

I tend to get anxious and worried, sometimes even a bit panicky. That's how I always was. It's how my brain works. I feel like something bad is about to happen often. But I've learned not to trust that feeling. Because it's a faulty pattern of my brain. I cannot trust when I'm feeling anxious, I cannot trust when I feel like something's about to happen. I cannot trust my feelings. And there is something incredibly soothing about that.

Whenever I feel like I need to be stressed, I'm not, because I cannot trust my feelings. Whenever I feel like I should panic, I don't, because I cannot trust my feelings. I know how I operate. And I learned to react to myself. I learned not to take myself too seriously.

This doesn't mean I will step in front of a bus because I don't listen to my instincts. That is not instinct, that is common sense. And unlike instinct, common sense in my good friend.

A lot of unfortunate things have happened because people trusted their feelings and went after them blindly. Feelings can be used to justify discrimination, hate, paranoia, racism and violence in extreme cases. People try to twist the world so it can fit their feelings. But our feelings don't mean as much as we think.

If we learn to understand ourselves better, we might realize that there is no reason we cannot calm down. No problem was ever caused by being too calm. Even when the feeling of anxiety is running around inside of me, bouncing off the walls, I'd rather stay calm than panic. I don't always manage to stay calm, of course, but knowing that it's my best choice has turned me from being anxious all day, every day, and having multiple panic attacks a day to being a more or less calm person.

And there is one thing I can say for sure: One can never be too calm, my friends, one can never be too calm.

"Feelings are just visitors. Let them come and go." - Mooji

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