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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February 10, 2017

Hand in hand, my demon and I walk.

It is wired into us to turn away from the negative. To try to avoid anything painful, uncomfortable or anything we label as "bad."

But is working to make our lives as pain-free as possible a useful aspiration?

Most of my life, I struggled with anxiety. When I was little, I thought it was how every human felt. When I grew up and it got worse, I just wanted it to go away. Every thought, every feeling associated with it, I just wanted to forget it and never remember it again like a useless memory that slips from the mind unnoticed.

But that never happened. Because trying to forget is basically the very act of remembering.

Then I realized that life was very much like a Chinese finger trap--the more you want to leave something behind, the more stuck you get to it. What you resist persists. What you fight, you strengthen. That kind of thing.

Many people choose not to keep up with current events, because the state of the world we live in can be devastating sometimes. Many choose not to educate themselves about how their food is made or what the plastic bottles they throw in the trash does to the world. Or about what a single offensive word can cause another human being to feel and why. Because why plague our minds with such negative things, right?

I was once in a very low place myself, when I couldn't handle the tragedies of the world, so I chose to surround myself with positivity. I needed uplifting, because I was trying to crawl out of a hole I had sunk into too deeply. And before I could turn toward the pain of the whole world, I had to gather the courage to slowly turn toward my own.

Only after facing our own tragedy can we turn toward the tragedy of others.

Life is not homogeneous. It is made up of joy and sorrow. Of happiness and pain. Of positive and negative. If we are only seeing one side, our lives are incomplete.

It is so easy to get stuck in pain, which is the very reason we chase happiness. But neither is complete without the other. Wanting to be happy all the time means wanting to live in a lie.

There are so many horrors in this world. Just as many horrors as there are wonders. When someone is hurt, there will be people rushing to their aid. When someone's rights are threatened, crowds will come together in protest. A tree falls in a storm at one side of the Earth, and a flower grows from the concrete on the other. A lion is shot by hunters, and another is rescued by environmental activists. As Thich Nhat Hanh said, "It would be a pity if we were only aware of suffering."

I think it's important to add that it's also a pity to only chase happiness and turn away from pain. Because only by allowing ourselves to live through pain can we experience the other side of the coin--happiness.

When we have an aversion to discomfort, pain, embarrassment, suffering or anything "negative," a fear lingers in the backdrop of our lives like a constant demon behind our backs we are too scared to turn around and face. And with a demon behind one's back, who could be carefree, at peace and happy?

Once I started to practice leaning into my fears, welcoming them, instead of wanting to outrun them, my anxiety was not in control of me anymore. Because I was not afraid of it. I didn't want to leave it behind anymore. I have accepted it as a part of myself. A part that I cannot leave behind, but that can never keep me from going forward anyway. Hand in hand, my demon and I walk. 

If you think about the people who are at peace with life, they are not happy because they have turned away from the darkness in the world and in themselves--they are at peace because of the exact opposite; because they turned toward it.

There is razor-thin mountain ridge between joy and sorrow. From this ridge, we can see life as it is. And from here, there is nothing left to turn away from.

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

 "Lean into the sharp points and fully experience them. The essence of bravery is being without self-deception. Wisdom is inherent in understanding emotions." - Pema Chodron

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February 3, 2017

Letting Go of Control

When we are children, we don't have a need to be in control. We have no idea how things should be, and we are not even concerned, because we are taken care of. But as we grow up, we start developing concepts of how our lives should be, how we should be and how the world should be.

Continuing on that road, it's not hard to find ourselves with the need to control everything. We know how everything should be, we know how we should be. Or at least we think we know. But that's another issue.

I know many of us crave control because we are afraid. We are afraid that something horrible will happen if we don't keep everything in check. But that's not true. Life happens, whether we stress about it or not.

Actually, being able to let go of control is supposed to be a good thing. Having such little control means we can relax, after all. But it's not that easy. We can't go back to how we used to be when we were children, because now there is no parent to deal with our problems for us. So we would rather avoid having any problems, hence the need for control.

1. Control is about avoidance

We want to control, because we want to avoid. We want to avoid looking bad or feeling bad or doing something we don't want to do.

What is important to realize is that we had no control in the first place. We might think that we have avoided feeling bad or looking bad because our need to control was so strong that we made it happen somehow, but the reality is that it would have happened the exact same way even if we didn't stress over our situation. Just try dropping your control strategies and you will see.

The truth is feelings come and go. People think what they want to think. And we are who we are--and whatever that is, it's good enough.

People have lost their ability to just let things happen. Maybe we never had that ability to begin with, but it's definitely a useful skill to develop.

It's not because of your control that things are the way they are. They would be the same anyway. You would just be a lot less stressed out without the attempt to control.

2. Don't think too much

People simultaneously overestimate and underestimate the power of their thoughts. We tend to regard our thoughts as truths, and very rarely do we question them. If we think something will happen, that it must be true. If we think we are bad people, then we must be so. When we think we can't do something, we believe it without ever even trying. But on the other hand, we don't see how much power our thoughts have on us. That if we change our thinking, we change the world we see.

A huge part of my struggle with anxiety was my need for control. I was very afraid of certain things, so I did everything to avoid them, to make sure they didn't happen to me. This results in irrational behavior, because we are not in control, no matter how much we think we are.

I know I've done many things, I still do many things, that come from my need to control. I overthink what clothes I should wear sometimes or what I should say or what I should or should not do. But honestly, no one needs to think this much about anything. The only thing it achieves is creating stress.

More living, less thinking, I say.

3. Less of me is more

Leonard Cohen said, "The less there was of me, the happier I got." I love this, because it refers to our constant need to label ourselves, to show ourselves in a certain way, to contain ourselves. This kind of containment is like captivity--it doesn't allow life to move one bit. It's a need for life to stop so we can arrange the pieces the way we want. But that's not life, it's the opposite--it's a peculiar kind of death.

We are who we are, and that is what we have to learn to live with as best we can. What will happen will happen, and there's not much we can do to control it. All we can do is treat our bodies, minds and each other well, and do what we do with love.

The most empowering feeling is knowing that you are not in control, but going forward anyway. Not turning away from the unknown, but going into it. Because no one has any control. But some, the courageous ones, go forward anyway.

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

“Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat.” - Ralph Ellison

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January 27, 2017

Learning to Relax

One might think that relaxation is an easy task. You just sit down and do nothing, it doesn't sound difficult at all. Yet, to relax is one of the hardest skills to master.

To be able to relax means that we have to come to the conclusion that we can relax. That there is nothing else to take care of. That we can let go of control, because we were never in control to begin with. Most of the time, we don't allow ourselves to completely relax.

Some people try very hard to relax, but they never can. I was one of those people a couple of years ago, and sometimes, I still am.

Being able to relax and be calm had become one of my priorities. If we're calm then nothing else can go too wrong. And if something does happen, there is no place better to deal with it than from a calm state of mind. That's why I say, one can never be too calm.

First, it is important to understand that in order for us to be able to relax, we have to allow ourselves to relax. The only reason we can't relax is that we don't let ourselves. Because we feel like something more important requires our attention, so we don't let ourselves let go of that something and just calm down.

That something we hold on to can be a feeling and its accompanying thought. For example, we think we cannot relax as long as we feel anxious or angry or uncomfortable, because these feelings don't allow us to calm down--they are the opposites of calm after all.

But that's like thinking we can only be happy in the future. When we have money or achieve our goals or something of the sort. But the problem with this kind of mindset is that it is exactly that--a mindset. And mindsets don't magically change just because something happens. They stay the same, no matter what happens outside of us.

That's why one's feelings don't change when their circumstances change, or at least not for long. The mind always falls back to its usual patterns until we step in and make an effort to react to ourselves differently. Until we start to practice.

It's the same with allowing ourselves to relax--our minds can always find a reason not to. There's always something to worry about, something to be angry about. But honestly, the energy we spend on worry, anger, self-loathing or image is a waste. It accomplishes nothing. It doesn't represent what's important to us. If we don't like a situation, we should act to change it. If we can't act, then it's best if we let it go. Otherwise, we just waste our energies on nothing.

I've had my troubles with anxiety and panic, and there was a time when I was glad to be not panicking. I couldn't even imagine what it was like being calm. But one day I understood that I could react to my own feelings any way I wanted to. I don't have to follow my thoughts and panic or worry all the time.

I can react to my thoughts with calm, knowing that they are just thoughts, not reality. I can react to my feelings with calm, knowing that they are just visitors, not me.

And so the practice started.

Of course, it was not easy. It's still not. That's why it's called a practice. But the realization itself did take a huge weight off my shoulders. And since then, for years and years, I practiced being calm through it all. I still do. Because I understood the fundamental essence of calmness. You have to allow yourself to relax.

And you can only do that when you understand that you don't need to keep your guard up. That nothing will happen if you let yourself be calm. The only thing that will happen is that you will be a relaxed human being with a clear mind, capable to act on what is truly important to them. And that doesn't sound wrong, if you ask me.

A guided meditation on the topic can be listened to here

"It's not because you have the intention to relax that you can relax. You need insight in order to relax. Letting go is a practice; it's an art. One day, when you're strong enough and determined enough, you'll let go of the afflictions that make you suffer." - Thich Nhat Hanh

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January 13, 2017

To Be Positive or Not to Be Positive

We have all heard the advice "Just be positive!" at least once, but probably many more times. Even if we didn't, we have most likely wished we could be more positive. Based on that, it might seem like a positive attitude is the solution to all of our problems. But is it really?

I've always found positive affirmations strange. I never understood how standing in front of a mirror and chanting was supposed to make our words magically come true. It's kind of similar to trying to summon Bloody Mary. If I believe I'm stupid or ugly, repeating "I'm smart" and "I'm beautiful" will not solve my problem. Just like Bloody Mary won't appear if we keep repeat her name. Because when we are trying to chant such things, the problem is more deep-rooted than that.

The issue with positivity and the reason so many are drawn to it are the same--it's supposed to be a fast and easy solution. Sadly, there is no such thing.

So let's dissect this dilemma. Why do we we want to be positive in the first place? Probably because we are negative. We see ourselves, what happens to us, and the world as "bad." When we look at ourselves, we might see faults. When we look at our lives, we might see problems. When we look at the world, we might see evil. We might see them so much, that sometimes, it becomes all we see.

So in comes positivity. Because negativity is not all we should see, we know that, we are smart people. We know that there are good things in us, in our lives and in the world as well. So we try to force ourselves to see all those things. And that doesn't sound like such a bad thing. Because it's not.

Sometimes we need to remind ourselves of all the good in us and around us. Because that is how the world is--it is just as good as it is bad. And with our instinctively negative minds, it is useful to remind ourselves sometimes.

Great, but this didn't really solve our initial problem, did it? Like Einstein said, we cannot solve a problem with the same mind that created it. No matter how much we try to force a positive to take the place of a negative, it will always remain the other side of the same coin.

Trying to force ourselves to see the good is the same kind of self-deception as only seeing the bad. Because at the end of the day, both of them are just things we tell ourselves--they are just thoughts. And thoughts are not reality.

Once we realize that, a huge weight is lifted. We don't need to be anything. We don't need to force thoughts into our already crowded minds. What we can do is make a little more space in there.

I've mentioned my worst panic attack a couple of times before. I'm going to mention it again now. Because it was brought on by trying to force positivity.

I was traveling by bus, and this was at the time I was working through my agoraphobia, so as you can imagine, I was not feeling so great. Buses were my worst nightmare. But I wanted to get better, so I tried my best. I didn't want to feel like I would die if I traveled by bus, because that was just stupid and crazy, I knew that. I wanted to feel good, like a "normal" person.

So I sat on that bus and I tried to force as many positive things into my head as I could. I looked out the window and "Oh, look at the beautiful trees." You know, that kind of thing. By the time I got off the bus, my mind was so full of thoughts, I couldn't speak. My positivity plan didn't go so well.

It was horrible at the time, but it became one of the most valuable experiences for me. (So was it "good" or "bad"? Was it a positive or a negative experience? You can see that in reality, it was neither. Or both. You decide.) Among a lot of other things, it has taught me that forcing positivity does more harm than good. It's fake, just like any other thought in our heads--it's not real.

Since then I traveled by that exact same bus many times. It's still not my favorite pastime, but I do it with no problems most of the time. I think you know by now how I do it. That's right--by always practicing keeping my mind open, and not grabbing onto thoughts, may they be positive or negative ones.

Because life is what it is. We don't need to name and label every single thing, person and experience. Instead of cramming more thoughts into our minds, may they be positive or negative, we might benefit from practicing letting go of what is already there instead.

Nothing is as we think it is anyway.

"In Japan we have the phrase, "Shoshin," which means "beginner's mind." Our "original mind" includes everything within itself. It is always rich and sufficient within itself. This does not mean a closed mind, but actually an empty mind and a ready mind. If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything. It is open to everything. In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities; in the expert's mind there are few." - Shunryu Suzuki

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