Mindfulness and Meditation · Repurposed Life

Utopian distopia

Why are we homosapiens so unhappy with life?

I read through blogs and posts and comments and find so many people dissatisfied with this or that aspect of their lives, their countries, their families, their selves, and I wonder how we got caught up in this vicious circle.

We don’t see other animals exhibiting this massive form of anxiety. Not many dogs walking around at 2 years old depressed with teenage angst. No giraffe riots against a rival pack of zebras. Everything else just sort of lives on balanced harmony, understanding some basic principles of life to guild them. Food. Shelter. Babies.

You can argue that our bigger capacity brains are capable of weaving much more complex stories, but why would an intelectually superior being invite increasing amounts of discontent and anxiety into their daily lives?

Well, I think we are a victim of our own success….

Telling Stories

Early man (and woman) hunter and gatherers, just beginning to create social structures and form herds, had to find ways of creating order within the group. This is the structure upon which we built the sustainable communities we have all over the world today.

People work together for the common good. They make sacrifices so that all may benefit. So, these early groups started to tell stories to one another to teach, to pass down information, and to create order within the community. People were assigned jobs and accordingly we’re awarded benefits in the tribe for performing those jobs well.

No longer was every person able to focus just on providing for themselves and their family alone. Over time, the tribe became the most important focus of your life. Your needs we’re not met unless the hunters did their job today. Your house had no roof unless the gatherers brought back leaves and sticks.

Here is where the expectations of others begins to develop. We begin to judge others, as well as judge ourselves. Are we meeting the expectations of the tribe? Should we have a higher status in the tribe? Should form an alliance with that family to split from those families that we don’t agree with?

Fast forward 100,000 years

Over time, these little expectations expand and grow and multiply into a million little stories about everything we see, do, touch and feel. About remembering how everything in the universe works and the right way to hold your fork. About which days of the week are for fun and which are for work. About who you’re supposed to like and how to keep your hair looking nice. About how life should be full of adventure and money and love and peace and meaning.

…when all we were really promised when we plopped out into this world was that we would breath and eat and have instinctual impulses and feelings that drive us to do the things that make us feel good.

Dopamine and serotonin

Feeling good is really what it’s all about. We humans and every other animals on the planet are driven by the motivation to release these chemicals in our brains. We feel hungry, we eat, dopamine and serotonin. We need money, we work, we get paid, dopamine and serotonin.

All these other stories, objectives and expectations conflict with and get in the way of figuring out how to satisfy the overwhelming desire to feel good.

This complicates and confuses us beyond measure. We compare, contrast, judge and evaluate our level of feeling good to everyone and everything around us to see if we could be feeling better than we are.

Finding Utopia

Utopia is a place of contentment. It does not have anything to do with our surroundings or circumstances.

We need to stop looking for joy in the things we have or the things we do or the status of the world. Understand that your brain is just searching for a hit of dopamine and serotonin and find those things that give it to you.

It could be cuddling with your kids or making a craft or helping your grandma. Be content with one hit at a time. Work toward big goals by setting yourself up for a million little accomplishments of dopamine releases along the way.

We won’t solve the puzzle of life, and we were never meant to. Our only purpose here is self-fulfillment. Even if you’re the most humanitarian person in the world, your motivation is because it makes you feel good.

Find what makes you feel good, and do it. That’s the only way to find true Utopia for you.

P.S. My disclaimer about doing bad things that make you feel good: if there are consequences that will not make you feel good later, then you need to think those through and stop right there. Even animals learn this. That’s what all the other neuro-pathways are for. Don’t be stupid.

Mindfulness and Meditation

Guilt Free Day

With my extreme tendency to feel guilty about everything, all of the time, I have started to try implementing “Guilt Free” days periodically, when things get just too overwhelming.

This means that I basically let myself off the hook for all the little things that I beat myself up for endlessly. Things being late to my daughter’s game, forgetting to get milk when I was at the store, not sending a birthday card, missing a deadline at work, forgetting to email someone back, not having the laundry folded, not having the dishes done, not having dinner planned, not working enough on my blog, not getting up at 5 am to do yoga, not playing with my kids enough, not paying a bill on time….this list goes on and on, baby.

It means I don’t tell myself how stupid I am, or how disorganized I am, or what a terrible mom I am or whatever other self-deprocating insults I can throw at myself. I just recognize what happened and move on. Yes, move on and don’t over think it.

This doesn’t mean I don’t care or don’t try, it just let’s me give my brain a break from the psychobabble broken record that keeps us from being able to enjoy the present without the weight of obligation heavy on our shoulders.

We are flooded with a million demands on our time and attention everyday. I find that these demands stack up like a disorganized pile of garbage all around me and I can’t enjoy a single moment of life unless I get this stack in order, handled and cleared up. The problem is that the stack never goes away and never stops growing.

If I intentionally take small breaks from the madness by stopping the guilt cycle, I hope to find some relief from the pressure I put on myself and find a way to poke a hole in the garbage to enjoy the sunshine all around me.

Try it one day and give yourself a little relief. Give yourself a Guilt Free Day, and tomorrow you can go right back to feeling guilty about so you don’t let yourself get too cozy in the idea that you might be doing alright…(just another thing I usually feel guilty about).

Mindfulness and Meditation

Tips for reducing anxiety on the spot

I’ve been having a very difficult last few weeks juggling stress at work, family life and the monotony of day to day. During the time I’ve realized there are two different ways to deal with this anxiety. There is the short term and the long term management of this stress.

Today I am focusing on the short term. The “how the hell do I get through another day (or hour or minute) like this” solutions. When you’re stressed, it’s not often that your issues are resolved quickly (or ever sometimes). So, you have have a way to reach down deep and find a way to carry on to the next minute so you even have a fighting chance to get through to the other side.

  1. Meditate – If you haven’t already started meditating, download the Headspace app and start the trial version. Or use any number of guided meditations you can find online now. The breathing and mind-quieting techniques you will learn will be the most valuable tool in your arsenal.
  2. Put someone else’s needs first – Doing this instantly takes you out of the self-loathing mindset. You may just put a smile on someone’s face or fulfill a long ignored need or obligation, but either way you are not focusing on yourself and this helps stop the viscous cycle in your mind.
  3. Go out – Change your scenery, take a walk, take a different route to work, just do something to change up your environment.  Your brain will notice new things or be distracted by new challenges or just be uplifted by the sunshine.  This is a change you don’t have to work to hard at that can make an instant difference.
  4. Declutter – A messy desk or room or to-do list can make you feel overwhelmed and buried under loads of confusion.  When you clear out the mess, your brain is able to realistically envision what is on your plate and ignore the garbage.
  5. Do one thing – Anything.  Sometimes you can’t even drag yourself out of bed or off the couch, however, just getting up and doing something else will occupy your brain with something other than dwelling on the misery.  Also, accomplishing something, anything, can send a small burst of triumph  your brain and get you moving in the right direction.  Wash the dishes, fold some laundry, write in your journal, call your mother, any number of things will qualify.
  6. Stop dwelling on it – Your mind is a steal trap when it comes to toxic thoughts.  Once those thoughts cease to be helpful, though, they need to be dropped.  A common technique in meditation is “noting and releasing”.  This is where you note the thoughts your having and then refocus on the present.  Every time the thought arises, you acknowledge it’s there (“hello, demon thoughts”), then go back to your task at hand (“I have work right now, I’m not able to focus on you”).  This becomes easier and easier the more you practice.
  7. Wallow in it – This is directly contrary to the last two items, but sometimes letting your brain take the misery as deep as it can go will allow you to basically exhaust the cloud of anxiety that surrounds you.  Allow your mind to envision the worst scenarios and take you to the darkest place, cry your heart out and wallow in the self-misery.  Then, miraculously, at some point, your brain gets tired of doing that, bored of it really, and will make the decision for you to get up and move on with your day.

Finally, and maybe most important, realize that your brain is a stress machine!  It is why we still exist on the planet and have not been eaten alive by everything bigger and stronger than us.  We fear, we limit, we stress.  It is how our brains are wired.  Understanding that your downward spiral of pain may not be a direct reflection of the world around you, but rather the symptomatic results of 100,000 years of evolution is really the FIRST and BEST step towards a happy, healthy and content life.

Mindfulness and Meditation

Why the breath, always the breath…

I have decided that I do not need to teach people how to be mindful or how to meditate. There are hundreds of teachers and scholars who can do this…Buddha, Lao Tse Ching, Deepak Choprah, Headspace, just to name a few. You should explore all kinds of teachers of mindfulness and meditation because not everything may resonate with you. Plus, the more you learn, the more depth you have in your knowledge and understanding of the world around you and your inner self.

Instead, what I would like to do is share some of the struggles, insights and perspectives that have helped me grasp and understand the reasons and truths behind the mindful revolution, why it works, and why it is fundamentally logical from an evolutionary perspective.

So, I will start where I started…someone told me that I needed to sit and focus on my breath….always, start with the breath. Feel yourself breath. Listen to yourself breath. Count your breaths. Focus on your breath. Breath fast, breath slow, breath deeply, breath shallow. Breath in your chest, breath in your stomach, breath in your limbs.

Every meditation you ever do will start with your breath. But, what am I supposed to do with my breath? I did not get it when I first started. Why do I care about how I breath? Every book I read told me to breath but did not tell me why. I am the kind of person that needs to know why.

Despite not receiving an answer, I plunged ahead…following directions telling me to just keep practicing and promises that it would eventually become clear. One day, however, I heard an idea that clicked in my ead. Your brain can’t focus on more than two items at a time; therefore, your breath counts as one, and whatever else you’re “meditating on,” either noticing, or feeling or sounds or pondering or achieving enlightenment, counts as the other. This leaves out the ability to let your mind wander aimlessly with any random thoughts that take you away.

I think of my breath as a metronome. It maintains the rhythm to my symphony. It is always there. I carry it with me. I can use my metronome at home, at work, in my car, on a hike or where ever I am, at any moment with no additional effort. It is free, it is constant, and it is uniquely mine.

Beginning every mediation with the breath also builds muscle memory in the neurological pathways of your brain. Whatever stress relief or enlightenment that you achieve while meditating is a reward that your brain recognizes begins with the breath. As time goes on, your brain associates the breath with the positive, mindful freedom that get with mediation. Over time, certain breaths can actually trigger meditative, mindfulness in only a few seconds, with only one or two breaths.

So, keep on breathing, even if it feels like it doesn’t make any sense. Then also read and listen to guided meditations (I love Headspace.com) to help you understand all the rest of the other good stuff….cause that’s where the bounty is, my friend. Breathing is just the ship you take to get there!

Mindfulness and Meditation

You Choose

I’ve recently had a bit of a breakthrough.

Granted it’s at the end of a week long vacation at Disney world, the happiest place on Earth, but I really do think it’s a revelation that I’ve been trying to grasp for quite some time.

I’ve been taking some anxiety medication for the last several years and I’ve recently cut down on the dosage in an effort to get off the prescription medication and use mindfulness more effectively to handle my stress and anxiety. Well, it has proved to be quite an effort as my tendencies to over think, over react and get way too bent out of shape by everything crept back into my daily habits and generally drove everyone crazy, including me most of all.

This experience, however, has given me some valuable struggle time. It has me revisiting some old patterns and allowed me to learn to deal with them in a new, mindful way. And one of the lessons of mindfulness that I’ve put to use is that I cannot control others, but I can control the way that the actions of others affect me. I’m the one who is going to let events or thoughts affect me, and I choose how to let them impact my mood, thought patterns and actions.

I choose.

I….me…choose what is best for me.

Others can choose to lay guilt or stress or their own choices at my feet and I choose whether to take them up and carry their burden or walk away and take a different path.

I am also beginning to understand the depths to which people are truly screwed up and dominated and controlled by their emotions and instincts. This lends new insight into the responsibility I have to bear those burdens that others place at my feet. Burdens of guilt or shame or stress or fear are so driven by environmental, emotional, cultural and societal influences that none of the thoughts and feelings we experience are real or fundamental truth. When you step back and truly evaluate the situation, you tend to find that, all things being equal, everything and everyone is basically just feeding off one another’s individual interpretation of the world around them. And the world you allow yourself to accept is the one that you bind yourself to.

So with each new day, each new emotional struggle, and each new experience, I am making new choices about how I will react, how I will feel and how much baggage I will carry around with me. I will look at how the opinions, ambitions and personal hang ups of each individual affects the way they project their influence on me.

And, I will choose how to let them affect me.

Mindfulness and Meditation

What am I actually trying to achieve when I meditate?

This question perplexed me for quite a while.  It’s almost like they don’t tell you everything up front because they want to surprise it on you when you get there…Kapow!  Enlightenment!  Now you get it, right?  Uh…no.  Please explain what I am going for here… Well, here is what I eventually learned over the course of several books, lots of practice and even more conversations, ponderings and analyzing.

So, at first, nothing.  At first, it is really ok to go into meditation expecting nothing.  This is what I did.  I had no idea what to expect, so I really didn’t get much out of it.  I started “practicing” by just breathing and focusing on my breath and focusing on my feet on the floor and…mind wandering…oh yeah, focusing on the way my butt feels in my seat, focusing on my…squirrel…on my breath.  This is pretty much how it went for several months of meditating.  I have to admit, it was pretty boring.   Rest assured, young padawan, you are laying the foundations for the next step.

It really wasn’t until I laid on one more level, “Noting,” that the magic really started to happen.  And, I have to say…it hit me like a ton of bricks, and it truly was magical!

We start “Noting” by paying attention to when our mind wanders.  We note that it has wandered, and we get back to meditating.  We don’t get angry with ourselves, or say we’re stupid for not staying focused.  Everyone’s mind wanders.  The entire point of meditation is to stop your mind from wandering and be present.  This is 2500 years of religion, science, yogi’s and spiritualists just to learn how to stop your mind for going off for a walk every 5 seconds.  Once you realize that this is no different than every other soul who ever walked the planet, you tend to start giving yourself a break on it here and there.

So, we meditate, and we “note,” and we breathe, and we wander, and we “note,” and we breathe….and this goes on and on, again, for a few months.  Better now…I can SEE how crazy my mind is, but that doesn’t help me do anything about it yet.

There are all sorts of techniques for “noting” and I would suggest you try them all.  However, the one that I found to be most powerful and almost instantly pulled me out of myself and in a sort of “hover above without judgement” perspective, was to narrate my life as if I was writing a biography.  In other words, “…when Elizabeth would drive in her car, this was when her mind started really going.  She could pass ten miles without even noticing a car around her.  She mostly focused on work, she had to get everything right.  This was her livelihood, her family’s livelihood.  She was responsible for them.  This is why she felt so much stress about it all the time…”

This is where my favorite guru Andy Piccombe, creator of Headspace, helped me understand the next step.  Once you start “noting” your mind wandering, then you start “noting” what it does to you.  Does it make you angry, does your heart start racing?  Does whatever you’re focused on need your attention.  What is the source of that feeling?  When you can notice your feelings and emotions without reacting to them, you can start to study and understand their source.  You step back and survey the landscape, then you step back again and survey that landscape, then again, and again and so forth, until you realize that the original source of discomfort or stress is really not the source of it at all.  And sometimes, you find that the source is so silly that it’s really not even worth focusing on.  Sometimes you find that it’s the same source over and over and it’s time you took some action on a negative influence in your life.

There is so much more to meditation, really more than I even know myself at this point, but this small exercise has had truly mind blowing effects on my mental state and well being.  And, the more I practice meditating, the better I get at it.  I can trigger the “noting” of my emotions by a few deep breaths, and stop dwelling on what’s IN my mind, and instead focus on what’s around me happening right NOW.

And right now is really the only place to be.