August 18, 2017

Overcoming Addiction with Mindfulness


I used to smoke a pack of cigarettes a day. I also used to take highly addictive sedatives on a daily basis. I haven't smoked in 10 years and haven't taken any kind of mood altering drug in 4 years. I don't have cravings for them at all anymore. I don't even take pain medication now. Before, I wanted to run away from the uncomfortable feelings inside me. Now, I prefer to live through my experience, whatever it might be, because I learned how to do that.

Coming off of the drugs was one of the hardest things I've done. When going through withdrawal, I remember just sitting in the middle of my chaotic thoughts and feelings, not even knowing what was real and what was not, and just peacefully smiling to it all. I had gotten ready for it. There was only one thing I made myself remember: Just sit behind it all with peace.

Whatever we are addicted to makes us feel good. So we seek it out over and over again to recreate that feeling. Addictive behavior can also be a control strategy to reduce negative emotions like anxiety, anger or depression.

Addiction is the exaggeration of the basic human instinct to move away from pain and move toward pleasure instead.

But there is a way to deal with this very human instinct. Being able to sit with your thoughts knowing that you are the one in control, not them, is the most empowering and liberating thing. Change doesn't happen from one moment to the other. Mindfulness is a lifelong practice. But it will also be your greatest ally.

1. Recognize your habitual behavior by being aware of your thoughts and feelings

It's important to understand that we act out of habit. Addiction triggerssituational and emotional cuesmake us engage in addictive behavior. It's a very human response.

We all have strategies to cope with our uncomfortable emotions and thoughts. Some people take a bath when they are stressed, some watch television. Others eat cake when they are sad. This basic desire to move away from our internal turmoil and make ourselves feel good is in all of us. In itself, this instinct is not bad or evil. We are human, after all, and always will be.

Change can happen when we realize we act out of habit. That the same process happens in us over and over again. We operate on autopilot, and these habits are in charge of what we do, because we are unaware of them. If we train the mind to concentrate on the present moment and notice the thoughts and feelings that arise in us, we can recognize our internal habits.

2. Be the non-judgmental observer of your internal mechanisms

But we can step back and take a good look at them. Not do anything, just look. At the thoughts floating in our heads, the feelings and emotions in our bodies. There's nothing inside of us that we need to push away. Look now. At the thoughts that always tell you that you need to engage in addictive behavior. Look at the emotions that make you feel like you have no other choice.

Don't judge them. Just look. They are just thoughts. Just feelings. Floating around in the human shape that is you. There's nothing to be afraid of in there. Practice sitting with them. They are just visitors.

3. Choose your action instead of automatic behavior

Now that you see your internal mechanisms, you have a choice. A choice to act on them out of habit or to move toward change. To build something new.

Thoughts are just thoughts. They are only true if you believe them. Now that you see them, you can act the way you choose to act. Whatever is happening inside of you, when you are the observer of it all, you can be who you choose to be. You can choose your response to it all. And peace is always an available choice.

Practice concentrating on the present moment. Be aware of what is happening inside you. Whatever it is, it's fine. You don't need to run. You can just observe and understand. Throughout your daily life, you can always practice being the peaceful observer behind your thoughts and feelings. You will gain a strong understanding of the fact that they can't control you. That what you do can be your choice.

Now that you see your internal mechanisms, you can notice that gap between your carvings and engaging in addictive behavior. That instinct to move away from pain and move toward pleasure will always be there, lurking somewhere in the back of your mind. But as you practice looking at it as the non-judgmental observer, it will become more and more like background noise that you can barely hear.

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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August 4, 2017

What You Don't Like About Yourself Can Make You Great


Often, we might feel like we want to be more "normal." Whatever "normal" means.

We are tired of carrying all the feelings, all the thoughts around. They weigh us down like bricks. They are heavy. We want to be someone else, someone more "average," someone who fits in.

The people who surround us are likely going trough different things than us. The probability of us having someone in our lives who has a similar internal world is low. So we can easily feel alone with what we carry.

But remember this: Whatever you're feeling, thousands of other people in the world are going through the exact same thing. You might not know them, but they are out there. You are never alone.

What we have inside is like a sword--it can easily cut us if we try to push it away, unknowing what it really is. But if we learn to wield it, it can make us the greatest warriors.

The thoughts in our heads don't define us. We are not our thoughts.

The feelings in our bodies can't control us. We are not our feelings.

What matters is who we choose to be despite of them. That's what makes us great. When we are scared, but we go forward anyway. When we are angry, but we choose to be kind. When we smile to our sadness. That's when we wield the sword without cutting ourselves.

We are not the fear, the anger, the sadness and all the intrusive thoughts that come with them. We are the ones who smile with peace, who choose to be kind, the ones who go forward anyway.

The very thing we try so hard to put down, to push away, can make us something great, something that is truly and uniquely us. Inside of every one of us, there's a potential for a strong warrior.

So instead of working on pushing away what makes us uncomfortable, maybe we can try going deep into it instead. See who we will be once we come out the other side.

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

“So even if the hot loneliness is there, and for 1.6 seconds we sit with that restlessness when yesterday we couldn't sit for even one, that's the journey of the warrior.” - Pema Chödrön

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July 28, 2017

Unlearning Harmful Mind Habits


We all have habits that are ingrained in our minds. These habits can be accompanied by emotional responses as well. We make habits out of anger, sadness and anxiety.

Habits are like folding a piece of paper--the more we fold it at the same crease, the deeper the crease will get. Naturally the paper folds at the crease we made. It's easy to not even notice our habits as we operate on autopilot.

These habits can bring feelings with them--anger, sadness, anxiety. If you pay close attention to yourself, you can notice that you always worry about the same things. You have the same thoughts that make you angry. And very similar thought patterns go through your mind when you get sad.

Our minds are predictable--they work like machines. If we spend time with them, notice our thoughts and get to know them, we can learn how we work.

I used to be anxious most of the time. There was a time when I couldn't do much because the thoughts in my head controlled everything I did--because I believed them. These thoughts were always the same. Over and over they played in my head, and again and again I listened to them. Until one day, when I learned about mindfulness and realized that I have another choice. I am not a victim and I don't have to suffer. I can stand behind my thoughts as a witness and not act out of fear.

I'm not saying it was easy and that it happened from one moment to the other. It was years of work to unlearn my harmful habits and built new ones in their stead. And there are certain things you can never completely unlearn. But I practice not going with my thoughts and reacting to them the way I want to be, not how my thoughts tell me I should be. 

Today, I live a full and peaceful life. Once, there was nothing I could do, I could barely get out of bed, and now there is nothing I can't do. Because I'm the one who decides what I can and cannot do. And I say I can do anything. Even the things that make me afraid. Especially the things that make me afraid. I chase my fears like an adventurer.

The best part is that we can step in. Create new creases in the paper. We don't have to be slaves to our minds, we can practice being their masters. We can trace back where our feelings come from and practice stepping in earlier and earlier into our thought processes.

Thoughts are not facts. Thoughts are not reality. We don't have to go with them. We can choose to stay right here--outside of them. We can choose our reactions instead of being controlled by thoughts. We can practice being who we choose to be.

It's always possible to unlearn what we have learned and build new habits instead. It won't be quick neither will it be easy, but it's the best work. It's finally learning how to be free.

A guided meditation on the topic can be listened to here

“Sometimes life isn’t about anything new that we have to learn, but about what we have to UNlearn instead.” - Timber Hawkeye (credit also goes to him for the paper folding metaphor)

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July 21, 2017

How to Be Yourself: A Mindful Approach


We all have trouble being ourselves sometimes. A big part of our lives consists of searching for who we are.

Who we are is always there, our relaxed and calm self, under all that we carry. Under how we want to seem, under the need for control, under our ingrained habits.

With all the feelings and thoughts inside of us, it is easy to get carried away. Our feelings and thoughts serve an evolutionary purpose, but a lot of the time, they harm us rather than help us. They were supposed to protect us, but they can easily became like a broken machine--repeating thoughts and reinforcing feelings that might feel like they are keeping us safe, but are actually harming us.

Anxiety, for example, is a clear example of this. We feel anxious and have an urge to fight or flee, because the body, the mind believes we are in danger and wants to save us. But the danger is not real, it is a delusion. We feel like if we don't keep control, we will get hurt in some way. This doesn't help us, in the end, only hurts us.

We often think that if we could get rid of our feelings and thoughts, we could be completely ourselves, we could be happy and carefree. If we could stop being nervous, anxious, angry or sad, we could be ourselves. We feel our true selves sitting under the large pile of emotions and thoughts, and we want to free it.

This way, we go against our feelings, we try to push them away. But resisting them so only gives them more power over us. We resist them because we fear them. And we cannot be at peace if we are afraid of what is inside us.

So the first step toward ourselves is accepting our feelings and thoughts. Accepting them doesn't mean we have to be controlled by them. We can stand above them as their witness. And as we stop fighting what's inside us, stop being afraid, and give up the need to control every feeling and every thought, there we will be--relaxed and calm beneath it all.

It's this strain to be somehow different that steers us away from ourselves. If we soften and allow it all to be, we can be ourselves peacefully, relaxed and unapologetically.

How we feel and the thoughts inside our heads are not our enemies. They cannot hurt us if we don't believe them. We can always start practicing relaxing with ourselves in different situations.

I had severe anxiety, and it took me a long time to get down to myself, to softly accept and let go of all the thoughts and feelings I was having almost all the time. It took practice for me to be able to sit at a table with someone, for example, and not want to run away and feel like something horrible would happen. I wanted to control everything, so nothing would go wrong. But I practiced letting that illusory control strategy go and just allow things to happen. It's not easy, because it is a part of our minds, and it always will be. We can't get rid of it, but we can learn to live above it. And that's more than enough.

Being yourself and being at peace does not mean you don't feel anything besides peace, rather it is a mastery of all that is inside of you.

"Courage is the mastery of fear, not the absence of it." - Ambrose Redmon
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July 7, 2017

Peace Beyond Thought


We tend to follow our thoughts. We believe everything we think and act accordingly. And the body follows the thought, no matter if it's true or not.

Our bodies believe what we believe.

If we believe we are ill, we will feel ill. If we believe we are in danger, our bodies will tense up, ready to fight or flee. The body reacts to what we believe.

Often, we live among thoughts rather than in the real world. Our thoughts become our reality. We avoid what we fear. We crave control. So we stay in the space our thoughts deem safe.

Overthinking is a need for control.

We think because we want to have control. So we can avoid what we don't want. So we can seem how we want to seem. We want to manipulate our experience and control ourselves--every feeling we feel.

But this endless thirst for control only pulls us away from our lives. From what is real. From the present moment.

Thoughts are not reality.

Reality is beyond thought. You don't have to think about breathing, yet you breathe. When you touch a surface, you don't think about the sensation, you feel it against your skin. You can't think the joy you feel from a loved one's embrace. You can't think love.

Thinking complicates most things. Once you step into these situations with thought, they slip through your fingers like sand, and the meaning is lost.

Thoughts lie to us a lot of the time. They tell us we're not good enough, that we are in danger, that everything is horrible. But beyond thought, there's reality.

A mindfulness exercise:

Try it. What's reality like right now? What's this present moment like, not distorted by thoughts? Don't judge, just allow yourself to be.

It is always possible to practice mindfulness and let thoughts go. It's not easy, because we are wired to think all the time. But it is important to recognize where thinking and overthinking harms us.

During my experience with anxiety, this was very important. Even when I was afraid to do something, I had to go against that thought and do it anyway. I didn't want to stay locked inside my anxious mind, so I had to step out into life and live instead of think.

It feels like throwing away a security blanket or unfastening a seat belt, but this step that is so hard to take, the step that feels the most uncomfortable, is the step toward peace.

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 everyone is suffering from it, so it is considered normal. This incessant mental noise prevents you from finding that realm of inner stillness that is inseparable from Being.” - Eckhart Tolle

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