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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March 24, 2017

Free of Delusions: Think Less, Be Present More

The average human think tens of thousands of thoughts a day. That's a thought every couple of seconds.

I imagine our thoughts like an endless line of faceless men standing next to each other like soldiers. We are the sergeants, walking in front of them. Most of them, we don't even notice. But it often happens that in front of one, we stop.

We pull it out from the line and look at it closely. What is this? Is it real? Is it dangerous? Whatever it says, we believe it without reservation. 

We can become obsessed with it, and even if the thought has no basis in reality, we believe it. A thought can become our faulty reality.

Why do we do this to ourselves? The question might arise. Thinking makes us feel safe--it makes us feel prepared. We believe our thoughts because we feel like we are one step ahead of life if we do. It's an illusion of control. UFOs won't be able to abduct us if we are prepared for their attack.

Considering something as absurd as someone being afraid of aliens can be very useful. Because in our own small ways, we believe in the same kind of absurdities. Seeing that can make it easier for us to let them go.

Of course we can't shut our minds off. And we don't have to. It's very useful if we learn how to use it. But these thoughts that have nothing to do with reality, yet we believe them--we can practice letting them go. Allowing the faceless soldier to fall back in line, we can continue onward.

Because of anxiety, I had (and still have) many of these faceless soldiers that I have an urge to stare at. Thoughts can feel very real, especially when they are accompanied by strong feelings. Feelings and thoughts validate each other, and it doesn't take long for us to fall into their trap, abandoning reality for them.

Being free of delusions is a practice--most likely a lifelong one. But it's never too late to start practicing.

What matters is what we do with out attention. Do we give attention to our thoughts? Or do we turn our attention outward, and connect with what is real instead?

That is why in meditation, we focus our attention on our breathing. Our breathing is now, not in the future and not in the past, and it is always there for us, anchoring us to what is real.

Many times when we are among people, we are lost in our heads instead of being with them. We worry what they think, how we look, and we focus our attention on our thoughts so much that we cannot be present in reality. We might not be able to carry a conversation, we might not be able to pay attention. Because our attention is elsewhere, somewhere deep in our minds, staring at the face of a faceless soldier. And this is just one example. 

These thoughts can feel so real that it can be hard to let them go. But the more we practice seeing our thinking as "just thinking," the easier it will get.

There is nothing to be afraid of. Even if there is, thinking will not save us. So let's practice focusing our attention more on what is real around us--and live.

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

"Not to be able to stop thinking is a dreadful affliction, but we don't realize this because almost everybody is suffering from it, so it is considered normal." - Eckhart Tolle

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March 17, 2017

Building Confidence with Anxiety, Anger or Sadness

When dealing with ourselves, our thoughts, feelings and emotions, confidence is of vital importance.

Believing in oneself might not immediately come to mind when talking about issues with anxiety, anger or other strong emotions. They are states of mind accompanied by strong feelings, and dealing with them usually requires being able to reach a calm attitude. If we manage to become calm, we are not controlled by our strong emotions anymore. Sounds simple enough.

When someone is angry or anxious, the advice they most often get is "just calm down." As if calming down was as easy as that. Being able to calm down when in such a chaotic emotional and mental state requires a lot more than simply the will to calm down.

There is always a voice in our head at times like these. A voice that makes us believe that going deeper into the feeling is the right choice--getting more angry, sad or scared. But is it?

Let's take anxiety for example. When anxiety strikes, the voice in our heads says "You have to be afraid. Something horrible is about to happen. Run." And the rational part of our brain tries to step in and reassure us that nothing is happening.

"What is that?"
"Everything's fine."
"No, it's not!"
"But it is."
"No, it's not. Do you feel that feeling? That's the obvious sign of something horrible!"
"You're fine. It's nothing."
"But I'm dying!"

It's kind of how it goes. Anyone who is familiar with anxiety can relate, I think.

We have to get acquainted with this conversation in our head, because it will happen time and time again. This conversation is different for everyone and it evokes different emotions. We all know our own personal weaknesses. The sooner we can recognize it and step into this conversation, the lesser the emotional response will be. And this is where confidence comes in.

We have to learn to be confident in the thoughts we choose to believe.

If we believed the calm ones that try to tell us we can, in fact, let go of what makes us afraid or angry or sad, there would be no problem. The problem is that we cannot fully believe in them. We believe the voice that pushes us toward feeling the emotion. The one that tells us that we need to be afraid or angry or sad. Because all the reasons for the emotion are true.

We might feel tiny in the face of these emotions. They are like violent ocean waves carrying us deep under water. We might feel powerless against them.

Practicing feeling confident in the face of our own emotions is the basis of confidence. If we can be confident with our own feelings and thoughts, there will be nothing in the outside world that can shake that confidence.

Because what it all comes down to is that what we feel the most powerless against are our own emotions. But we are not as tiny as we feel. We can always practice switching our perspective--we are the larger ones.

We don't have to be controlled by feelings and thoughts Just because they are there, doesn't mean they have to be in charge. We can accept them and choose not to follow them at the same time. Because we are in charge. We are the larger ones.

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

"True happiness and true power lie in understanding yourself, accepting yourself, having confidence in yourself." ― Thich Nhat Hanh

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