May 22, 2017

The Drama in Your Head: Don't Think So Much, You Can't Control Anything Anyway

Do you know the feeling when somebody wants to start unnecessary drama and you simply don't want to take part in it? I'm sure everyone knows that feeling.

But what if the drama is not coming from someone else, but it's taking place in our own heads? 

It's easy to see needless behavior in others. It's not so easy when it comes to ourselves. Because everything we do makes sense in our own minds. Our own drama seems very much necessary to us.

Ask yourself the following: How much time do you spend with the drama in your own head?

What goes on in a person's head is highly personal. But we all have our inner dialogues that are unique to us. We can practice recognizing them and stepping back from them.

Lots of times, we are problem-solving in our heads, troubleshooting issues that are not actually there in real life. It's a way of trying to have control, so we feel less vulnerable and more ready, more in power.

It's a common misconception that we are entirely responsible for what happens to us. This belief brings with it the grasping for control, since we feel like we have to be in charge of everything.

The victim blaming mentality is incredibly common, and it doesn't simply affect victims of crimes, but everyone who thinks this way. Since a person who blames others for what happened to them also thinks that we are all responsible for what happens to us, and we should aim to control everything about our lives for harm to elude us. If harm doesn't elude us, it's our fault--we did something wrong.

This is a coping mechanism for a lot of people. If they can feel in control, they can believe that horrible things will not happen to them. When we see the news of someone famous passing at our age, the first thing we search for in the article is the cause of death. So we can make sure that it can't happen to us. They had a preexisting condition or had substance abuse problems. They ate unhealthy foods, that's why they got sick. It will never happen to us, because we don't do any of the things they did.

We don't want pain in our lives. So we convince ourselves that if we try really hard, we can avoid it. That is anxiety itself. Bad things only happen to people who deserve them, we think. Who "had it coming." This belief blocks compassion and reinforces the unhealthy need to be in control of the uncontrollable.

Eating healthy is a great habit. Taking care of ourselves is wonderful, healthy and important. And, of course, there are a lot of hardships we can avoid if we take care of ourselves. But that's not the same as being in control of everything. That we can avoid every pain. A lot of information is coded into our DNA. No amount of healthy eating will save a person from inherent diabetes. It will help manage the situation, but it will not make it disappear completely.

It's important for our own mental and emotional well-being to accept the following: Bad things happen to people who did absolutely nothing to generate them.

And thus we are back to the drama in our minds. That endless debate in our heads about how we can stay in control. To quote Einstein, "We cannot solve problems with the same mind that created them."

There is a lot of power and intelligence in the words "I don't know." We don't know what's going to happen. We scarcely even know what is happening right now. The strain for control is nothing more than meaningless exertion. Very much like the drama of others we don't participate in. As Haruki Murakami wrote, "Nothing so consumes a person as meaningless exertion."

So what can we do then? We can take a step back from the drama in our minds. We can refuse to participate. To get carried away into meaningless exertion. The opposite of getting too involved with our minds is being present. In our lives, in the moment, in the now. Not analyzing, thinking, trying to control the moment, but simply being here for it. Without strain. Without meaningless exertion.

It's not easy, and it doesn't come naturally. We have to practice, coming back to our lives time and time again. But it's a healthy practice and an incredibly rewarding one. We could all use a little stepping back from all the drama.

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

"Don't allow yourself to be carried away anymore. Resist. Each mindful step is a step toward freedom. This kind of freedom is not political freedom. It's freedom from the past, from the future, from our worries and fears." - Thich Nhat Hanh

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May 5, 2017

How to Master Being Calm When You Have Anxiety

"My biggest dream is to calm down."

This post I saw on Tumblr is funny, because it seems exaggerated, but it's actually spot on. It might not be true for all of us, but I think a lot of people can identify with it in some way.

Especially those of us who have anxiety.

I work on myself every day, so I can be as calm and peaceful as I can be. If one has peace, what else do they need, right?

Relaxation is not easy, not even to the average human being. There is always something to be tense about. To be honest, I think my anxiety has helped me a lot to calm down. I'm a walking oxymoron, I know. But the fact is that having an anxious brain has allowed me to understand how anxiety operates. And once you understand how anxiety works, you also see how you can calm down.

Anxiety is like the ghosts in Super Mario--as long as you don't look at it, it haunts you, but the moment you turn around to face it, it runs away in fear.

So here is what helped me toward the dream of calming down:

1. Accept yourself. Darkness and all.

Anxiety is not something to defeat, it is something to learn to live with. And one can live a full and peaceful life with it. There's nothing to get rid of or suppress. Only to understand and react to.

One of my favorite people ever, Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, has said,

"Our darkness is contributive in the same way that manure is essential to the rose. We must learn to accept our own darkness if we want to overcome our own neurosis. We cannot change anything unless we accept it. I myself am the enemy who must be loved."

Whatever your darkness might be, you have one. We all have. Turning away from it, denying its existence is counterproductive. The "if I ignore it, maybe it will go away" attitude doesn't work. It only makes it stronger, like the ghosts in Super Mario.

So what can we do instead of turning away? What would Carl Jung do? Alan Watts said the following:

"[Jung] was the sort of man who could feel anxious and afraid and guilty without being ashamed of feeling this way. In other words, he understood that an integrated person is not a person who has simply eliminated the sense of guilt or the sense of anxiety from his life--who is fearless and wooden and kind of sage of stone. He is a person who feels all these things, but has no recriminations against himself for feeling them."

There you go. If Carl Jung said it's okay, then it's okay.

2. Be in the now.

In our minds, we tend to be everywhere except for now. If you have an anxious brain, like I do, then you are probably in the future most of the time. In the very near future, to be exact, in the "I'm about to die" kind of future.

The anxious brain is scared to death. And it grabs onto every little sign that can validate its suggestion that its fear will come true. "You feel a tingle in your throat? Yep, that's it. All's about to end. I told you."

But if you take a step back from the future in your head, the death threat becomes a simple tingle in the throat. And that is all it will ever be. As Thich Nhat Hanh said,

"This is it. I have arrived in this moment. And the only moment is now. This is it."

That next thing you are so afraid of, the thing you are sure is going to happen--it's not going to happen. It will forever remain in your head. So come back to the present moment instead. It's nice here.

3. Imagine your anxiety as a person.

Therapists use this method often, and I find it to be very helpful as well. Seeing other people's issues is much easier than seeing our own.

I imagine my own anxiety like an old lady. She's very haggard, poor thing, and she is afraid of everything. Her life basically revolves around the constant fear of death. She is convinced every day, that this is the day when she will finally die. But then nothing ends up happening, because she's fine. She not that old. Still, every day, she waits for death, and she doesn't do it with grace or peace, oh no. She is terrified of everything, and is convinced that the world should revolve around keeping her safe. Nothing else interests her.

Such a sad existence, don't you think? I'm very sure that I don't want to be like her. So whenever my anxious brain starts talking and I'm debating if I should listen to it, I just bring the old lady to mind. Do I want to listen to her? I really, really don't.

So I do the opposite of what she says. She's a bit paranoid, you know. Believing her would be like believing aliens are about to land and take me away. That, for some reason, my brain doesn't believe. Seeing that what my brain does believe is just as ridiculous makes things clearer.

4. Focus your attention carefully.

What we do with our attention matters the most. When we are anxious, what we are focusing on is making us anxious. We focus on the thought that we are afraid of happening and we scan ourselves or the world for evidences to support this thought. Like we did with the throat example in the second point.

Once we understand that this thought is coming from the haggard old lady, we can move our attention from it. "This is it," the present moment is all that we will ever have to deal with. So we can move our attention to it.

Our attention has to rest on something. Usually our focus is on our thoughts. If we are anxious, the focus is definitely on our thoughts. That's why people love movies, books, games, music--they distract them from their thoughts. They allow them to "turn off" for a while. But as we have established in the first point, ignoring the darkness will not make it go away.

Distancing ourselves will not solve the problem. Our attention will just bounce back when that movie ends. We have to understand everything we have talked about in the previous three points in order for us to be able to move our attention.

So what can we move our attention to if not our thoughts? I don't know about you, but I want to be able to calm down without the help of any sort of distraction. The dream of calming down is sitting in the middle of chaos or in a completely empty room and still have to ability to stay calm.

Thoughts are not real. The goal is to focus on what is real, which is reality.

About attention, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote beautifully:

"Tea is an act complete in its simplicity. When I drink tea, there is only me and the tea. The rest of the world dissolves. There are no worries about the future. No dwelling on past mistakes. Tea is simple: loose-leaf tea, hot pure water, a cup. I inhale the scent, tiny delicate pieces of the tea floating above the cup. I drink the tea, the essence of the leaves becoming a part of me. I am informed by the tea, changed. This is the act of life, in one pure moment, and in this act the truth of the world suddenly becomes revealed: all the complexity, pain, drama of life is a pretense, invented in our minds for no good purpose. There is only the tea, and me, converging."

We can focus on whatever is around us in this moment. When we drink our tea, we can be there to drink our tea. When we eat our food, we can be there to eat our food. When we walk, we can be there to feel our feet touching to ground. To feel the air on our skin. To see the world around us. Even when we feel anxious and take an uncomfortable breath, we can be there for that breath. 

Anxiety is very introspective. It wants us to keep checking ourselves, to constantly stand on guard and search for evidence of a possible doom. It doesn't let us look outside and live. By placing our attention on the world and on the people around us, we break it's cycle.

Anxiety is a strange kind of death--it cannot hold us if we decide to live anyway. And that's exactly what makes us so brave and just plain awesome--being afraid, but being who we want to be anyway.

"Grief for a future not yet lived is the hardest kind of grief to bear." - from my novel Forgotten Beast

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April 21, 2017

3 Tips to Master the Art of Relaxation

Relaxation is not as easy as we might think. The intention alone is not enough. We are not as in control of ourselves as we like to think.

It gives us comfort to feel like we are in control of ourselves. That we can control our bodies and our minds. That we can always feel the way we want to feel. But that is not the case. 

1. We are not in control. There's no need to strain.

We are living organisms who function on their own. Our heart beats without us ever thinking about it. We breathe without ever having to be afraid we will forget. Nutrients are absorbed, waste is created, our cells regenerate, our nails grow, our bodies get tired when it's time for us to recharge with sleep. We function without ever having to do a thing.

The brain is the most complex organ of the body, but it's still an organ. It does its own thing. It makes us feel fear, anger, joy, sadness and all sorts of things. It tries its best to aid us with our understanding of the world.

We easily feel very guilty about what our bodies do, forgetting that we are not in control. Pema Chödrön explains this beautifully in her book When Things Fall Apart.

"My moods are continuously shifting like the weather. I am definitely not in control of what thoughts or emotions are going to arise, nor can I halt their flow. Stillness is followed by movement, movement flows back into stillness. Even the most persistent physical pain, when I pay attention to it, changes like the tides. 
I feel gratitude to the Buddha for pointing out that what we struggle against all our lives can be acknowledged as ordinary experience. Life does continually go up and down. People and situations are unpredictable and so is everything else. Everybody knows the pain of getting what we don't want: saints, sinners, winners, losers. I feel gratitude that someone saw the truth and pointed out that we don't suffer this kind of pain because of our personal inability to get things right."

The first step to relaxation is always to accept this fact about ourselves. Imagine the weight lifted off of us when we finally understand it.

2. Let go of your thoughts.

You don't have to control your thoughts. As we have established in the first point, you can't do that. So there's no need to strain yourself and then feel bad you didn't succeed.

But that doesn't mean we have to let our thoughts control us.

Relaxation is not about controlling our thoughts and feelings, but about not letting our thoughts and feelings control us. They are just thoughts and feelings after all. Thoughts are not reality and feelings will pass. All is well.

When we are overwhelmed, it is useful to practice letting go of our thoughts instead of holding on to them, so that our thoughts stop feeding our feelings. There is no need for thinking in such a situation. Letting go of our thoughts, our story lines, is a good step toward relaxation.

3. Don't run--relax into it.

When humans are faced with anything uncomfortable, they run. Away. And what is most uncomfortable to us are our feelings.

We cannot run away from ourselves. So there is no use in struggling. We probably have control strategies that we think work. But feelings pass on their own. Us doing anything against them is just the illusion of control. So we might as well relax into it and let it pass on its own. No feeling lasts for long. Even with our non-peace, we  can be at peace.

In short: We cannot control. So we don't have to think so hard. We can practice relaxing into our feelings. They will pass on their own without us ever having to do anything.

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

"Letting go is a practice; it's an art." - Thich Nhat Hanh

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April 7, 2017

Thoughts Can't Kill You

I have someone in my life who tells me horrible things. They show me unsettling pictures sometimes and pester me with them, they tell me how bad I am and how scared I should be because of the terrible future that's about to come. And I cannot tell them anything, because they are one of those to whom no matter what you try to say, it makes no difference. It's like you're talking to brick wall--no conversation possible.

I'm pretty sure you have the same exact thing in your life. I'm talking about thoughts.

It's quite interesting, isn't it, that our own worst companions are usually ourselves. It takes a lifetime to learn how to deal with that voice in our heads. It doesn't help that thoughts are rarely talked about.

Thoughts scare us like nothing else.

If a negative thought enters our minds, we feel like we are done for. Now that we have thought about it, we can never un-think it, we are slaves to it forever--that's how we tend to feel. Which is ridiculous, isn't it? Why do we feel like thoughts have power over reality?

I've had conversations with a lot of people whose main issue was that their thoughts bothered them. "I have these horrible thoughts," they would tell me. "And I fear that they will come true." I know how that feels, to be terrified of your own thoughts--it's one of the worst things anyone can experience. It's what mental illness is. But we all suffer from this to some extent, not just those of us with mental illness.

Things won't happen just because you think them.

We can easily believe that whatever pops into our heads will become reality. That's what worry is. Anxiety. Paranoia. Even self-doubt. Same thing, just different levels and morphs of it.

What happens has nothing to do with our thoughts. Even our own actions come from much deeper-seated mechanisms than conscious thought.

We have no control.

We just think we do. We blame ourselves for everything wrong in our lives. We blame ourselves for our feelings, we blame ourselves for our thoughts. Because we think we are in control.

We have no control over most things. And that's okay. Thoughts come and go. Feelings come and go. Things happen. We are not the ones to blame.

There is one thing we can do.

We don't need to somehow get rid of our thoughts. We don't need to push away our feelings or reject them. Whenever we try to resist a part of us, we are doing ourselves a disservice.

What we can do, is practice our reaction to them. Seeing our thoughts as only thinking. Not confusing them with reality. Being mindful of the present moment.

React with peace.

We can learn to accept our thoughts and feelings, knowing that they don't define us. How we react to them does. And that, we can always start practicing.

"A thought is harmless unless we believe it." - Byron Katie

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March 31, 2017

What We Think About Is Not Real: Building a Relationship With Reality

We all live in our own little worlds to some extent. Believing what we choose to believe, doing what we choose to do. That's how it's supposed to be.

The twist is that the ones who can make life the most miserable for us is ourselves.

We are afraid of what other people might think of us, because we already think it about ourselves. We are afraid of the future because we think we know what might happen. We hate others because we think we understand it all. We hate ourselves because we think we are not good enough,

These are also thoughts we choose to believe.

We love thinking about what we cannot know, like the future or how horrible we are as people, because it is just more stimulating and interesting to think about the mysterious. But many times, we end up forming our reality based on our thoughts and not facts.

Everyone has thought of themselves as stupid, ugly or simply horrible at some point in their lives. Everyone has also experienced being afraid of something that never ended up happening. These are times when we believe our thoughts unconditionally, even when they have no basis in reality. We are just afraid. And we succumb to it.

It is important to build a relationship with reality. More often than not, it is an unreality that makes us suffer.

A truly horrible person, who does despicable things, does not think of themselves as a horrible person. In their mind, they are doing the right thing. It's the same with people who have gone insane--they don't think they are insane; they think they are completely normal. They have lost contact with reality.

Thinking there is something wrong with us is actually the sign of awareness. It means that whatever we are dealing with is workable. In that work, we can incorporate building our relationship with reality.

I know people who think very lowly of themselves, even though they are the most amazing people I know with kind hearts, sharp minds and unmatched talents. I also tend to think things about myself that have nothing to do with reality.

At those times, I practice stepping back from my thoughts and concentrate my attention on what is real. What my actions actually say about me. Not what my thoughts tell me.

When anxiety strikes, I do the same. I concentrate my attention on the present moment, not what I imagine will happen. It's practicing seeing what is real and what is not.

It's basically a skill to turn one's attention from thoughts to the world. From inside to outside. From unreality to reality.

It's easy to get lost in our minds. We could all use a map with emergency exits that mark how to get out of there. But until that's invented, we can always practice building a solid relationship with reality.

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

“It is always the false that makes you suffer, the false desires and fears, the false values and ideas, the false relationships between people. Abandon the false and you are free of pain; truth makes happy, truth liberates.” - Nisargadatta Maharaj

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