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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March 10, 2017

Making a Bad Day Less Bad

Painting by Adam Scythe

The older I become, the more I learn to accept the darker parts of life. When I was younger, I thought the goal was to eliminate everything negative. To get rid of life's bumps and make everything nice and smooth.

I see a lot of people who struggle with life because of this reason. I'm still one of those people. I always will be, probably.

We want all our days to be good days. That is the standard. We are addicted to joy.

Joy is great, don't get me wrong. It's a natural part of life. But so is sorrow. Whatever shape it might take in one's life. This sorrow is what most of us have such a hard time accepting. We hide it like a secret we should be ashamed of and check if our mask of joy is still on straight.

It's not acceptable to be anything other than joyful. We cannot accept it in ourselves, so we avoid it in others.

This is a never-ending struggle with our own existence. Because there will be bad days. On the good ones, our guard is down, because "everything is as it should be". But the bad days we have to resist, we have to fight.

Keeping up this resistance and the carrying that mask of perfection on our faces is incredibly exhausting. And it creates even more sorrow. Because we are sad about our sadness, we are scared of our fear. We multiply our pain.

What happens if we accept that we don't need to be anything other than we are? That we don't need to control our feelings all the time? That we can just sit in peace and be unapologetically ourselves?

Feelings are just feelings. Thoughts are just thoughts. They are just there. If we don't take them so seriously, and we don't want to control them all the time, we might even be able to smile to them. Because actually, they don't mean that much.

Feelings and thoughts are much like spoiled children. They often throw a tantrum and demand our attention. You can't reason with a child. You can't give in to them and let them control you, because that will just make the child even more spoiled and demanding. My mom always ignored me when I was throwing tantrums. It worked great, let me tell you. If no one's listening, there's no use in shouting.

If we don't take them too seriously, feelings and thoughts can't control us.

We can practice allowing ourselves to be however we are in the moment. Everything changes all the time anyway, so nothing lasts for long. Don't make the mistake of thinking that negative feelings last forever--they don't. They will pass. Just like the positive ones pass. Then they come again.

When we let go of trying to control everything about ourselves and make everything "bad" into a "good" something awesome happens. Without resistance, nothing feels as horrible. We might just be able to accept ourselves as we are. Feelings and all.

“The most difficult times for many of us are the ones we give ourselves.” - Pema Chödrön

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March 3, 2017

Can We Change Who We Are? Leaving the "Bad" Parts of Us Behind


There is a fine line between wanting to better ourselves and wanting to become different people.

There was a time in my life--probably multiple times, actually--when I wished I could leave a part of myself behind and just become a different person. We all have that part of ourselves we don't like. When we imagine ourselves without that part, we are near perfect.

For me, it was anxiety. That demon of a feeling made my life very close to unbearable at one point. And I wished more than anything for it to go away. Somewhere under it, I was a different person, I felt it. Without it, I could be myself, I could be free, I could be happy.

I'm sure we all know this feeling. That if "that one thing" would just disappear from our lives, we could be truly ourselves. We could be happy. There are a lot of different types of hardships in this world, and everybody carries around something different like an invisible but very heavy backpack.

It seems obvious that if we could put that backpack down and forget that it ever existed, we could prance forward, carefree. But could we, really? Or is that just what we think would happen?

Who would we be without our pain?

We can only answer this question theoretically, since we will never be able to live a life of only pleasantries. But some suggest that the answer would not be as simple as we imagine it to be.

Haruki Murakami introduces the idea in his novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle that upon losing the pain they so desperately want to get rid of, instead of becoming the joyful person they imagined, a person would become an empty shell, unable to feel anything at all.

Nothing is as black and white as we think it is, that's for sure. What we think is going to happen turns out to be a completely different thing in the end. We think we are pulling one thread out, but everything ends up unraveling.

How we deal with pain, may that be physical, emotional or in the form of any kind of hardship, is one of the core questions of being a human. Because pain is an inevitable part of life.

That's why we try to better ourselves. So we can deal with our own, unique pain better, and maybe to lessen the pain of those we love. And that's a beautiful thing. But where does bettering ourselves end, and wanting to leave an essential part of ourselves behind begin?

There are many things about ourselves we cannot change, no matter how much we try. Just like we cannot change the color of our eyes or our skin, there are certain areas of our brain we cannot change either. We cannot change our past, we cannot control every emotion we feel or the thoughts that enter our mind.

Thinking that we should be in control only makes us feel like failures. We will never be in full control of every aspect of ourselves. We were never supposed to be.

On this side of things, another fine line approaches. And that is between accepting who we are and throwing our hands up in the air, declaring "I can't change!". We cannot change a lot of things about ourselves, and we cannot fully control what happens to us either. But we can choose how we react to all those things.

We can see our thoughts as just thoughts. We can see our feelings as just feelings. We can see our pain as an inevitable part of life--of ourselves. And even though we cannot control all of those things, we don't have to let them control us either.

Conclusion

To sum up, the pain we so desperately want to leave behind is an inevitable part of life, and possibly an essential part of our selves. Wanting to run from it or leave it behind won't work--it only makes things worse. But claiming we cannot change will not help anyone either. Rather, like with most things in life, we have to find that path in the very middle we can walk on. If we look closely and understand, we can accept all the things about ourselves we cannot change, all the while seeing that we can work with them.

I still feel anxious a lot of the time. But I'm not afraid of my own feelings and thoughts anymore. I don't want to control them, because I know they can't control me. I just let them be. I can always practice being who I want to be, despite of them. Their presence just helps me to be a stronger, more rounded human being. My pain makes me complete. It doesn't have to make me suffer.

We can live with our pain, we don't have to live through it. We don't have to control it, and we don't have to let it control us either. We can learn to live and let ourselves live.

"Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional."

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February 17, 2017

Nothing Is What We Thought: 3 Tips for Our Issues


The more I learn about how the human mind works, the more baffled I am that we are never taught anything about it.

Bullying, friendship and relationship drama, low self-worth, anxiety--issues most us face growing up would be much easier to deal with if we learned about the human mind, thus understanding ourselves and others better. A lack of understanding only causes these early life experiences to grow into bigger issues in adulthood.

As an adult, I see how many issues I have. And I also see that they all stem from my early life. Some from my childhood, some from my teenage years and some from young adulthood.

We all go through different experiences, and it is important to learn to process these experiences in a healthy way so that we don't draw faulty conclusions from them that stick with us for a lifetime. So that if someone says that we are ugly, we will not store that away in our minds as fact. Or when people make us feel uncomfortable, we don't develop a habit out of shaming ourselves for our feelings.

1. Nothing is what we think

We look at our thoughts as truths. We don't doubt them, and if anyone else doubts them, we get outraged. We think we remember the past and see the future. Because if it's in our heads, then it's bound to be true.

But our memories are only distortions of the past. And we never know what will happen in the future. 

The feelings we are so afraid of--they are not like we think. Fear is not as scary as we think. Pain is not as painful as we imagine. Love cannot be thought. So many things in life can only be experienced, yet we believe that how we picture them is how they really are.

Just because we think something, doesn't not make it true. An opinion is not a fact. Thoughts don't come to life. And what we think doesn't define us at all--what we do does.

2. Feelings are not shameful

It is especially prominent in our society that we are required to hide our feelings, because we are supposed to act in a certain way. How unnatural and harmful.

We see this all the time with social roles like gender roles, but the same kind of thinking manifests in many unnoticed areas in our lives.

Any sort of "negative" feeling is frowned upon. We shouldn't be sad or anxious, and if we are, we should learn to hide it or pop a pill to just make it stop. It's unacceptable to feel. Feelings have become a sort of social plague that people cannot face neither in themselves nor in others. It's absurd, because it is the most natural part of being a person.

We are supposed to shun what makes us human. No wonder we have issues.

Our feelings are never random. They are not enemies, they are friends who carry important information about us. Not turning away from them, but learning to turn toward them is very important in understanding ourselves and others.

You have a place in this world, just the way you are.

But this does not mean allowing our feelings to control us. Feelings are still just feelings and thoughts are just thoughts. When we understand that, we are free of their control, and we can practice reacting to them the way we want. This is very important.

3. Pain is a good thing

Instinctively, we all want to avoid anything that is not comfortable. We chase joy and avoid pain. But pain, may that be emotional or physical, is a part of life. The more we try to avoid it, the more painful it will be when we can't.

We cannot avoid, we cannot control, we cannot repress. We just think we can. So we worry, we are anxious, we are crippled by fear. With avoidance, we only miss out on life.

Think of all the people or fictional characters you admire, the heroes, the cool ones. What makes them so awesome is that they don't mind what happens. They go into the uncomfortable instead of running away from it.

What makes someone strong is the willingness to go through their pain, whatever that might be. And in our own small ways, we can all do that. Pain of any kind is not a bad thing. It's an inevitable part of life. It's what can make us strong.

These are just three little things, but they changed my life dramatically once I realized them and started practicing them in my daily life. I wonder how different our lives would be if we realized them sooner.

"The trick is to keep exploring and not bail out, even when we find out that something is not what we thought. That's what we're going to discover again and again and again. Nothing is what we thought. I can say that with great confidence. Emptiness is not what we thought. Neither is mindfulness or fear. Compassion––not what we thought. Love. Buddha nature. Courage. These are code words for things we don't know in our minds, but any of us could experience them. These are words that point to what life really is when we let things fall apart and let ourselves be nailed to the present moment." - Pema Chodron

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