Einstein on Changing Your Life

I read an article in the New York Times this morning entitled:

Want to Be Creative on Purpose? Schedule It

Right off the bat I can tell you that it’s a quick and dirty read and probably true.  Written by Carl Richards aka Sketch Guy, the article’s opening thesis relies on artist Chuck Close’s famous quote “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.”  I love this quote.  I love the idea behind this quote.  It’s on par with Albert Einstein’s sentiment: ” Genius is 1% talent and 99% hard work.”

The idea presented by both Close and Einstein is something of an iconoclastic notion if you will.  If the definition of an iconoclast is “a person who attacks cherished beliefs, traditional institutions, etc., as being based on error or superstition,” then I suppose that an idea could do the same.  There is an idea within the subconscious of Western culture and many people that you have to be special, gifted, ultra-intelligent or somehow other in order to do or accomplish something remarkable.  People base their identities on this idea.  “I am special because I can do X,” or even more common “I am better than that group of people over there because I can do X or because I look like Y.”

The truth, however, is that who we are as people is expressed through our actions and choices.  I hold the belief that every human is unique and expresses some aspect of the Divine image making every human intrinsically valuable.  We express this value and pursue excellence in our lives not from a deficient self-perception driven by perfectionism but in order to express the worth that we already possess.  No one can steal this value from us, but, at the same time, the world can be robbed of witnessing our expression of this Divine essence in us as expressed through our personalities, actions, thought processes, and acts of generosity and charity when we ourselves are stifled due to trauma, various hardships, skewed self-perceptions, or even the most basic forms of human activities such as a lack of desire to act or change.  We, too, can be robbed of even understanding and experiencing our own value by these very things because the world around us is not set up to speak the truth.  Instead, we are surrounded by perceptual manipulations, deception, violence, and a constant barrage of the reality of endless representations of human suffering in its myriad forms.  What does compassion look like? What does goodness look like? What is the face of kindness? With all these songs on the radio about love, why is it so hard to find and experience?

At this point on my journey, I will have to agree with Close and Einstein.  There is no good time to start.  There is no better time to try.  To be frank, life will always be hard, and it will never be easy.  So, why not just start showing up in that one area that will not change or get better, and get to work? Take that 1% genius that you’ve got and apply 99% effort.

Now, this might be the moment when someone would say, “I don’t believe in any of that Divine image stuff.  I’m average and so is everyone else.  Every snowflake is unique and special.  Just like every other unique and special snowflake.”

In a way, this point of view makes my case for me even more.  Why? Well, the world is not full of Einsteins or Closes.  I’ll give you that, but take a look at Albert Einstein the man–not the myth:

“Einstein attended elementary school at the Luitpold Gymnasium in Munich. However, he felt alienated there and struggled with the institution’s rigid pedagogical style. He also had what were considered to be speech challenges…Albert was left at a relative’s boarding house in Munich to complete his schooling at the Luitpold Gymnasium. Faced with military duty when he turned of age, Albert allegedly withdrew from classes, using a doctor’s note to excuse himself and claim nervous exhaustion. With their son rejoining them in Italy, his parents understood Einstein’s perspective but were concerned about his future prospects as a school dropout and draft dodger…

After graduating from Polytechnic, Einstein faced major challenges in terms of finding academic positions, having alienated some professors over not attending class more regularly in lieu of studying independently. Meanwhile, Einstein continued to grow closer to Maric, but his parents were strongly against the relationship due her ethnic background. Nonetheless, Einstein continued to see her, with the two developing a correspondence via letters in which he expressed many of his scientific ideas. In 1902 the couple had a daughter, Lieserl, who might have been later raised by Maric’s relatives or given up for adoption. Her ultimate fate and whereabouts remain a mystery.

Einstein eventually found steady work in 1902 after receiving a referral for a clerk position in a Swiss patent office.” (Biography)

Einstein was like you or me.  He was living life while working on all his ideas in the background–the ideas that won him the Nobel Prize.  He faced hardship.  He struggled.  He didn’t even appear to be all that bright as a kid.  He dodged the draft! His parents didn’t like the woman he fell in love with due to her race.  He was underemployed.  Einstein? A patent clerk? Clearly, the human condition is still the same.  You.  Me.  Einstein.  We are the same in our humanity.  Unique, special, and just like everyone else.

There will never be a convenient time to show up and start doing what you really want.  There is never a good time to get something started.  There will always be reasons why you should not, and there will always be a case to be made against it.

But, there will always be two reasons why you should.

  1. You want to.
  2. You were made to.

So, whatever it is in your life that is keeping you from moving forward and attaining that “something better” space that you just know you were made to occupy, I suggest this with great humility–start showing up and getting to work.  A year will pass, and you could be closer to where you want to be if you started today.  Or, you could be right where you are today next year.  You are as brilliant, talented, and capable as anyone else.  If you don’t believe you are, then start there.

If there is never a good time to change your life, then perhaps the best time to try is now.

The Essence of Healing

I wanted to write something germane to your life and process.  Something that might speak to you.  To anyone.  To everyone.  Perhaps this might.

I go to therapy every Tuesday.  I like to think that I’m ‘getting it done’ whatever ‘it’ is, but, as with all sorts of processes, I stalled.  I wasn’t wasting time per se, but I wasn’t hitting it hard.  I’ve been at this for two years now which shocks me.  I want to finish it…whatever ‘it’ is.

Once again, I was in the Hot Seat, and my therapist was looking at me as he does.

“So, what would you like today to be about?” he asked.

I inwardly groaned.  I knew what was on my mind.  Fear.  I was afraid.  I had been feeling dread for a few weeks.  A nameless dread.  A creeping anxiety that would ooze into me and out of me at the same time until I felt paralyzed in both my body and life.  I couldn’t make choices.  It’s not that I couldn’t make good choices.  I couldn’t seem to make any choices.  As much as I’ve learned about cognitive distortions and mindfulness, I still felt caught up in the washing machine of my own inner turmoil.  It wasn’t depression exactly.  It felt like a flavor of anxiety.  A big anxiety.  Generalized.  A suffocating fog that shrouded every area of my life.

I knew what I was afraid of, and I feared that if I talked about it, then I might empower it.  I decided that I didn’t want to talk about it or even give it room; and yet it was taking up all too much room in me.  So, I attempted to name it.

I admitted to my therapist that I was very afraid that I would break apart at some point.  Now that I’ve written it out it seems rather harmless or silly, but that’s not how it feels.  The ‘what if’ questions were dogging me relentlessly.  “What if something happens to me that I can’t recover from? What if I can’t endure the pain? What if I am dehumanized to such a degree that I become a dispirited, soulless, desolate woman? What if something happens that I simply can’t bounce back from?” As soon as these questions begin, I freeze.  I have no answers for them.  I hold my breath.  I begin to feel a profound fear that shuts down my thinking brain and activates my limbic system.  There is no longer any reason.  Only a warped instinct that seeks to hijack all my rational processes and turns me into a reptile.

For months, I thought that if I didn’t acknowledge it, then it might stop.  It did not.  It festered.  I cried trying to describe it.  I thought that perhaps just engaging in the act of sharing my turmoil might lessen the burden.  It did not.

After I had revealed my fears to my therapist, he looked at me quizzically.

“So, you are afraid of breaking? That something might happen to you that is so terrible you will not be able to recover? That you will become a shell of a woman?” he asked.

I nodded.

“Hasn’t that already happened to you?” he asked looking somewhat confused.

“Has it?” I asked beginning to feel confused as well.

“Well, how desolate were you after you returned from being abducted?” he asked.

“Oh my gosh, I was definitely shattered after that,” I said.

“And how empty and in despair were you when you came to see me two years ago?” he asked.

“I was about as low as I’ve ever been,” I admitted.

“How low were you when you cut your father out of your life? And your mother? How much anguish have you known all in all? How existentially destroyed have you felt?”

I had no answer.  I just sat there crying.

“So, it’s pretty clear that you have what it takes to heal, isn’t it?” he asked.

I didn’t consider that.  I didn’t want to consider that.  I felt exhausted.

“There is a limit to how much a person can actually experience in terms of pain.  In terms of physical pain, a person will pass out once that limit is reached.  In terms of emotional pain, you’ve probably reached that.  There isn’t another level to your pain.  You’ve been there.  You’ve done that.  You already know what it’s like, and you’ve already recovered from it,” he explained.

Honestly, I did not know that.  I kept anticipating an exponential increase in emotional pain.

“So, I have what it takes? I don’t need to be fearful that something will break me? I’ve already been faced with the worst and survived it?” I asked feeling suspicious.

“Yes.  Your fear is not based in truth although your past experiences certainly legitimize your anxiety.” he said.

“I’m afraid that I’ll have to do it again.  That something so profoundly terrible will happen to me that I’ll have to rebuild myself yet again, and I’m so afraid of paying the price again.  It is so hard.  It is excruciatingly painful.  I can’t begin to adequately describe how hard it was to come back and try to live again after being abducted and everything that entailed.  After my marriage.  After everything that happened within that relationship,” I cried.

“Do you know that you have what it takes to come back though? Should your worst fears come true? Do you have what it takes?” he asked leaning towards me.

And that’s when I was still.  I sat with the very things that had been paralyzing me.  I went back into the memories of my lowest, most broken places.  The moment when I knew that my captor was going to kill me if I didn’t make a break for it.  The moment in my marriage when I knew I was going to die from an autoimmune disease if I didn’t get out.  What did those moments have in common? How exactly did I survive and make it to where I am now?

Clarity.  In those moments, everything became crystal clear for me.  I felt little to nothing in those moments.  Suddenly, a much deeper instinct came online, and everything came into focus.  I heard a clear voice: “Run.  Get out.  Do whatever it takes.  It’s time.”  And, I did.  Worries about the future fell away.  It was very much like standing in the eye of a storm.  I grew up in East Texas, the land of hurricanes.  When I was a child, I once went outside when the eye of a hurricane was passing over our neighborhood.  The winds had been powerful and violent, and debris, pine needles and branches covered everything within walking distance.  The calm that descended upon us as the eye passed over was chilling.  My mother yelled at me to come inside, but I wanted to experience the ephemeral peace of these legendary storms.  This is comparable to what happened to me when I realized that I had to make big decisions about my own survival be it in life and death circumstances or in abusive relationships.

My therapist called those experiences finding “my essence”.  And, that is what I would leave you with.

I am convinced that humans can survive anything, but I have never been interested in survival.  I have always wanted to live a meaningful life, and my definition of a “meaningful life” has evolved over time.  Nonetheless, the idea that we have an essence that is unique to us and cannot be obliterated or annihilated by trauma encourages me.  It is fear of annihilation that was at the root of my profound anxiety.  How much betrayal could I tolerate? How much suffering could I overcome? What if I reach a point when I finally succumb to suffering and am left in desolation for the rest of my life?

I have to ask those questions as I venture into the darkness in therapy because, at times in therapy, we will stand eye to eye with the monsters.  Only you know who your monsters are, but I suspect that we all have at least one.  And, our monsters know our names and our softest spots.  They know how to kill us be it metaphorically or in real life.  Your courage and bravery don’t emerge when you’re on top of the world embracing the joy.  Your courage, your essence, is forged when you’re blinded by the utter darkness of your fear, pain, and suffering, and yet you choose to get up and act even if you are guaranteed nothing but more fear, pain, and suffering.  In my experience, that’s when your essential self lights up, and you can actually start to see again.

I am still wrestling with my anxiety, but it’s getting better.  No one said that the road to building a better life would be easy or even a fair process, but I can state this with certainty.  You will know what you’re made of as you engage in this.

Your essence will come forward, and you’ll find that you were capable of a lot more than you ever thought.




Migraines and Anxiety

I want to write something on the more practical side.  I’ve written before about the fact that I have migraines.  Sweet fancy Moses, do I.  Before I was treated by a neurologist, I had roughly twenty migraines a month.  My quality of life had plummeted into the Laurentian Abyss.

It is natural to ask if I was contributing to a lifestyle that caused migraines.  Nope.  I was slammed into by a drunk driver one morning no less than seven times.  The injuries I sustained from that crash left me with a very irritated brain, so says my neurologist, and I now have chronic migraine disease.  I have done and continue to try to do everything I can to prevent and treat this condition.  In the meantime, I want to share some information that might be helpful to you should you take the most successful abortive medication for migraine on the pharmaceutical scene–triptan medication.

The triptan class of drugs is a miracle worker in terms of stopping migraine.  One injection of Imitrex into the thigh, and your migraine is halted in about fifteen minutes.  For those of us who have endured the seven-day, transformed migraine, this is nothing short of touching the hem of Jesus’ prayer shawl.  A year and half ago, I had a major surgery.  Between the intubation, anesthesia, and narcotic drugs administered for pain management, I developed a severe migraine in the hospital.  Triptans were not administered due to hospital politics and a failure to contact my neurologist.  Instead, high and repeated doses of a drug stronger than morphine were administered to me, and it did nothing except increase the migraine pain.  Twenty four hours later, after a seizure and repeated projectile vomiting due to the migraine, my surgeon wised up, called my neurologist, and prescribed IM Imitrex.  Fifteen minutes later? The migraine was abating.  That’s how effective triptans are.

Triptans, however, have a dark side.  Think of them like your friendly Shoulder Angel and Devil.  They are angelic in that they stop your migraines very effectively.  They are positively diabolical in that they do other rather nefarious things, too.  What might that be?

Imitrex, known generically as Sumatriptan, increases anxiety levels in people:

“There is evidence suggesting that Imitrex (Sumatriptan) can induce anxiogenic effects in humans.  In a double-blind, placebo-controlled study involving 15 patients diagnosed with panic disorder, it was discovered that Sumatriptan significantly increased anxiety symptoms compared to the placebo.  While it is unclear as to whether the drug increases anxiety among those without preexisting anxiety disorders, many would speculate that it could.

Results from another study noted that Sumatriptan increased fear of simulated speaking compared to a placebo.  Researchers noted that cortisol concentrations increased, vigilance increased, and prolactin levels decreased.  It is hypothesized that Sumatriptan exacerbates anxiety by lowering serotonin levels in the synaptic cleft, thereby facilitating opposite serotonergic effects compared to SSRIs (which reduce anxiety).

Additionally, Sumatriptan causes the phenomenon known as “brain fog” wherein you just can’t think clearly, or, as I describe it, you can’t get your shit together inside or out:

“An unfortunate side effect that you may experience while taking Sumatriptan is “brain fog” or inability to think clearly.  As the drug kicks in, you may have a difficult time thinking clearly, organizing your thoughts, and may feel as if you’re in some sort of twilight zone – your thoughts are clouded.  There are numerous potential mechanisms that may be responsible for inducing brain fog among Sumatriptan users.

Sumatriptan increases blood flow velocity, modulates serotonin receptors (and serotonergic neurotransmission), and alters trigeminal nerve activation.  The culmination of these effects may facilitate the induction of brain fog for certain individuals.  This brain fog may linger even after the anti-headache effects of the drug have faded due to the fact that your neurotransmission will need to reset itself to a homeostatic baseline.” (Online source)

My personal favorite of all the side effects of taking triptan medication would be the “I’ve become a dumb ass” side effect aka “cognitive blunting”:

“In addition to the already-mentioned side effect of brain fog or “clouded thinking,” you may notice cognitive impairment from Sumatriptan.  The degree to which your cognitive function suffers may be based upon the dosage of Sumatriptan administered, your baseline neurophysiology, and genetics.  For certain individuals, serotonergic modulation at 5-HT1B and 5-HT1D receptor sites has a noticeably deleterious effect upon cognition.

You may find that after taking a Sumatriptan pill, your ability to stay productive in a cognitively-demanding occupation and/or academic pursuits – is significantly hampered.  Fortunately, most cognitive deficits associated with Sumatriptan are transient and normative cognitive function is restored after Sumatriptan is eliminated from systemic circulation.  However, some users may notice that it takes a day or two for complete cognitive recovery after experiencing drug-induced deficits.” (Online source)

What does all this mean? Well, what I have observed is that whenever I use triptans now I feel very anxious afterwards for hours.  I feel like crying, and my thoughts become negatively distorted.  Because I’m so mentally foggy, however, I struggle to mentalize or reframe anything.  I just feel stuck or paralyzed coupled with deeply anxious and generally upset.  In the middle of this “wave”, I can tell myself that this experience is due to the migraine medication, and it will pass.  It’s cold comfort.  It still sucks, and I still feel terrible.

If you experience something similar when treating your migraines with triptans, then you are not alone.  Many, many migraineurs suffer similarly.  I bring this forward because if you struggle with anxiety or any form of it like PTSD, for example, then you might feel something akin to being triggered since you are experiencing a resurgence in anxiety symptomology.  We experience anxiety somatically, in our bodies, as much as we do in how we think–cognitively.  Rest assured, however, that the cascade of anxiety and depressive symptoms that you might experience while treating a migraine with triptans is actually due to the side effect profile of the drug.  It will pass as will the migraine.

In the meantime, I just discovered this book written by Dr. Carol Bernstein of Harvard Medical School.  She is the founder of the Women’s Headache Center near Boston and a migraine sufferer herself.  She is a practicing neurologist, too.  Perhaps you will find this helpful, too, should you struggle with migraine.

Profound Trauma and EMDR

I have been writing about EMDR and the process of therapy for a few reasons.  I often tell people that therapy is good.  Go to therapy! But then I’m met with this common response: “Why?” That’s legit.  Why indeed.  Providing documentation of the actual process, I reasoned, might help people understand why one chooses the therapeutic process over white knuckling it through daily life, stoic and independent.

EMDR is a modality of treatment allowing for the adaptive processing of trauma vs. the maladaptive processing of trauma or repeated compartmentalization of traumatic memories when they arise.  We can process our trauma to be sure, but the important thing to note here is whether or not we have adaptively processed it or maladaptively processed it.  Doing sound cognitive work with a therapist to address core beliefs followed up by learning what healthy boundaries look like in various normal life situations and relationships as well as internalizing what true validation looks and feels like lay a foundation for the work of EMDR.  I have suggested mindfulness as a way to practice developing and rooting new and healthy core beliefs because it puts us in the driver’s seat of our own cognitions rather than in the “washing machine” of every movement, distortion, and whim of the brain and its chemistry.  You cannot control the content that your brain puts out.  Learning how to respond (or not respond) is entirely up to us.  When something like PTSD is at work, however, reacting to the brain’s propaganda and cognitive distortions is habitual and feels necessary.  Unlearning this in order to heal and find peace in our own bodies and selves is vital for recovery and eventual flourishing.

Doesn’t that sound nice on paper?

I’ll be truthful with you here.  The process is grueling.  I have grown to despise EMDR, but it works.  My brain is fully committed.  I leave a session feeling hollowed out only to feel unsettled and ill-at-ease soon thereafter.  Something is coming forward.  Something I compartmentalized and didn’t want to deal with.  Something I really don’t care to look at now.  And then, lo, it’s in the forefront shouting, “Hey! Look at me! Deal with me next!”  Must I? Yes.  It’s time.  Thank you, brain.

The phenomenon that I experience now is one of memories without context or content first.  Then the content and context follows.  Initially, I will not understand what is happening to me.  I will suddenly feel strong emotions usually at an inconvenient time and place.  The emotions and thoughts associated with the memory will play out, and my present self will observe the event with great confusion.  I will often feel panicked over what is happening.  It will almost feel like a panic attack or flashback as the unfolding of the emotional and cognitive memory peaks, and then it will diminish.  This has happened a few times, and this usually happens around extremely bad events in my past where there has been torture of some kind.  The emotions and cognitions around the event emerge first before the event itself will come forward.  I suspect that this is my brain’s way of being helpful–a slow introduction.  It in no way feels helpful because I don’t have a clue as to what is happening when it does.  Sometimes I think I’m having a hypoglycemic event.  I feel like I am the last one to the party every time this happens.

For example, I experienced this last week, and I was caught up in the emotional onslaught very quickly.  I eventually retired to my room to attempt to regulate and “get to the bottom” of whatever was overtaking me.  I was truly panicking–out of the blue.  And there was something else, too.  I was suddenly afraid for my life.  I felt trapped and utterly despairing.  The phrase, “No one is coming for you,” was repeating itself in my mind.  I pushed against the entire thing for about twenty minutes until another thought emerged.  What if I just leaned into it? What if something beneficial was happening? That felt abhorrent to me, but fighting this experience was producing suffering.  So, I tried speaking aloud and saying the one thing that frightened me the most about the entire experience: “No one is coming for you.”  Suddenly, it was all there.

My father.  His wife.  One of their long interrogation sessions inspired by his Special Forces training.  Theirs was a folie à deux relationship.  She told him what to do, and he did it.  She watched and smiled while he remained steely.  Most of the time.  She was outwardly sadistic.  He was internally so.  Not this time.  He blatantly told me that he was going to kill me via torture using implements that I’d seen around his house.  I was very young.  They were both into psychological torture.  This, more than anything, terrified me.  And he punctuated his threats with, “No one is coming for you.”  What I find so interesting about this is that this very same phrase was used when I was trafficked.  That’s why I fought so hard to escape.  Fear of torture.  Not death.  Torture.

I rarely share details of my past experiences because I find that the sharing itself contributes to a culture of morbid curiosity or even narcissism which is so pervasive on the Internet.  Keeping my own experiences generalized allows you, the reader, to tie in your own life experiences as you read which is my goal.  So, why would I share this? Torture isn’t exactly the most common of life experiences.  I share this particular example because 1) this is my most recent experience with EMDR 2) because I want to elucidate the power of EMDR to aid in healing from trauma–even profound trauma.

Why does something like this matter really? Well, you can’t have an emotional bomb like this in your psyche.  You have to diffuse it.  You must adaptively process this.  This is, by all accounts, a horrible thing, and no person will do as well as they could in life if they don’t heal after it.  There is something else though that matters perhaps more.  Whenever I find myself in a perceived no-win situation, I panic in an extreme way and begin to feel despair which often paralyzes me.  Eventually, I will fight to win, but I can’t problem solve well.  I am usually overcome with dread and fear of death.  This past torture situation is why.  This is most likely the root of it.  Many of our present self-sabotaging behaviors and character flaws are rooted in past experiences.  No amount of will power will change them particularly if its your past self sabotaging your present.  By the way, that’s another reason to go to therapy.

Our brains are designed to do the problem solving for us.  Whenever we find ourselves in a situation that produces strong feelings in us, our brains attempt to solve the problem.  One way in which our brains do this for us is by looking back over past experiences in order to see how any previous experiences were similar and how they were solved.  For those of us with extreme backgrounds, some of our past experiences were deplorable.  When our brains go searching for past experiences evocative of the present, we may find ourselves caught up in a renewed traumatic experience.  This very reason is why EMDR is vital for living in the present and developing a more meaningful life.  Once a trauma is adaptively processed, should the brain draw on a past memory that was traumatic, it won’t pack the traumatic punch.  Perhaps it will even be off the table in terms of past experiences that the brain will draw on for present and future problem solving, and we will be less presently influenced by it.

What I must note now is this: You cannot do profound trauma work alone.  When I fully assembled this past experience–the emotional, cognitive, and visual memory–I was distraught and devastated.  I was in the middle of it and re-living it.  I felt in the present what my 7 year-old self felt in the past.  I was under the covers in my bed weeping, and I honestly didn’t know what was true in that moment.  Was anyone coming for me? Was that true? Had anyone ever come for me in my life? I was plummeting into the emotional-dysregulation-cognitive-distortion-pit-of-despair.  Fast.  I could see my father’s face so clearly.  And his wife’s.  Her sadistic grin.  His cold eyes.  It was all too real.

Then my phone rang.  It was him.  My boyfriend.  Gotta get myself together.  Clear the throat, but he knew as soon as I answered.  I spilled it all, but I didn’t want to.  This? This is too dark.  I felt too vulnerable.  To be honest, I am sick of myself.  I am sick of my process, and I am very afraid that everyone around me is sick of it, too.  Who wants to stick around for torture and suffering of this magnitude? I don’t! I want to be done, but he said everything opposite to how I felt.

And this is what you need.  People who will believe in you and your healing process when you have grown tired of yourself.  When you are afraid.  When you don’t like it.  When you fear that everyone will leave.

When you’re afraid that no one will come for you.

You must keep going.  At all costs.  This work is the most important work you will ever do.  So, I will say what I always say, keep going.

Mindfulness and Your Thoughts

Here is a powerful idea:

Your memories and damaging thoughts are like propaganda.  They are not real.  They are not you.

To quote Rhett and Link from Good Mythical Morning, let’s talk about that.

Why is it so hard to get a hold of our own minds? Why are we run over by our emotions, moods, and thoughts? Why are cognitive distortions such a problem? This is why:

  • when you start to feel a little sad, anxious or irritable, it’s not the mood that does the damage but how you react to it.
  •  the effort of trying to free yourself from a bad mood or bout of unhappiness—of working out why you’re unhappy and what you can do about it—often makes things worse. It’s like being trapped in quicksand—the more you struggle to be free, the deeper you sink.

“When you begin to feel a little unhappy, it’s natural to try and think your way out of the problem of being unhappy. You try to establish what is making you unhappy and then find a solution. In the process, you can easily dredge up past regrets and conjure up future worries. This further lowers your mood. It doesn’t take long before you start to feel bad for failing to discover a way of cheering yourself up. The “inner critic,” which lives inside us all, begins to whisper that it’s your fault, that you should try harder, whatever the cost. You soon start to feel separated from the deepest and wisest parts of yourself. You get lost in a seemingly endless cycle of recrimination and self-judgment; finding yourself at fault for not meeting your ideals, for not being the person you wish you could be.” (Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World)

Let’s stop here.  In the process of trying to solve our emotional distress, thoughts emerge.  Recall what I’ve been posting about core beliefs.  This is when those core beliefs come into play.  Let’s look at an example.

When I was living in France, I lived directly next to another American named Liz.  She was the most even-tempered person I think I’ve ever met.  We became fast friends and traveled everywhere together.  She was never in a bad mood.  She always seemed happy.  I have rarely met anyone like her.  One day, however, she returned with a test in hand and tears on her face.  She had failed an exam, and the teacher in characteristic French fashion had shamed her with one eloquent sentence on the test: “Il faut essayer un peu,” meaning “You have to at least try a little bit.”  Ouch! I waited for her to explode or lie in bed for days questioning her existence or capabilities.  She had studied.  I took the same test.  We studied together.  Nope.  It never happened.  Why?

She didn’t have any negative identity-based core beliefs.  She had a good childhood and adolescence.  She didn’t have abuse in her background.  She didn’t really tie performance to identity.  She hadn’t experienced trauma.  She was very fortunate.  She felt the sting of the shame and the immediate failure, and then, lo, she moved on.  She self-regulated.

The idea that we can experience an emotion and not fix it but simply allow it to pass might be a new idea.  You can wake up in the morning with mild anxiety and simply allow it to exist without asking repeatedly, “Why am I anxious? When did I feel this way before? What is this about?” but instead begin to recognize that you are not your anxious feelings might feel like a non-option.  Aren’t we supposed to chase down every negative emotion and solve them? Well, as studies are beginning to reveal, we aren’t actually solving anything:

“We get drawn into this emotional quicksand because our state of mind is intimately connected with memory. The mind is constantly trawling through memories to find those that echo our current emotional state. For example, if you feel threatened, the mind instantly digs up memories of when you felt endangered in the past, so that you can spot similarities and find a way of escaping. It happens in an instant, before you’re even aware of it. It’s a basic survival skill honed by millions of years of evolution. It’s incredibly powerful and almost impossible to stop.

The same is true with unhappiness, anxiety and stress. It is normal to feel a little unhappy from time to time, but sometimes a few sad thoughts can end up triggering a cascade of unhappy memories, negative emotions and harsh judgments. Before long, hours or even days can be colored by negative self-critical thoughts such as, What’s wrong with me? My life is a mess. What will happen when they discover how useless I really am?

Such self-attacking thoughts are incredibly powerful, and once they gather momentum they are almost impossible to stop.  One thought or feeling triggers the next, and then the next … Soon, the original thought—no matter how fleeting—has gathered up a raft of similar sadnesses, anxieties and fears and you’ve become enmeshed in your own sorrow.” (Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World)

I relate to this on so many levels.  I don’t generally attack myself, but, in a millisecond, my mind provides me with ways of escaping when similarities in the present line up with similarities to the past.  My mind will generate thoughts like, “Do you remember the last time you felt like this? Your ex caused you to feel like this.  Your mother did this.  Your father did this…”  Ad infinitem.  I will find a pattern and draw conclusions so quickly.  I won’t even know that I’ve done it.  Suddenly, I’m in tears or panicking or wondering if I’m safe.  I will begin to wonder if anyone in my life is trustworthy.  All because one thought was generated in my mind and I had to figure it out!

What can we do about it?

“You can’t stop the triggering of unhappy memories, self-critical thoughts and judgmental ways of thinking—but you can stop what happens next. You can stop the spiral from feeding off itself and triggering the next cycle of negative thoughts. You can stop the cascade of destructive emotions that can end up making you unhappy, anxious, stressed, irritable or exhausted.

Mindfulness meditation teaches you to recognize memories and damaging thoughts as they arise. It reminds you that they are memories. They are like propaganda, they are not real. They are not you. You can learn to observe negative thoughts as they arise, let them stay a while and then simply watch them evaporate before your eyes. And when this occurs, an extraordinary thing can happen: a profound sense of happiness and peace fills the void.” (Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World)

Ah yes, we are back at mindfulness again.  It seems that there is so much more to it than coloring books.

For Getting Your Mindfulness On:

Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World

The Eight-Week Mindfulness Plan

I’ve written about mindfulness before.  Everyone is talking about mindfulness.  It is the cultural buzzword at the moment.  All those coloring books abounding in bookstores and even garage sales? They’re taken from the ancient tradition of the meditation Mandala practiced by Buddhist monks:

It sounds like a pretty concept.  Mindfulness.  It’s even a pretty sounding word.  Say it.  Miiiiiiindfulness.  Why is it emerging into Western culture with such force? Well, this is why:

According to Mark Williams and Danny Penman, “Numerous psychological studies have shown that regular meditators are happier and more contented than average.  These are not just important results in themselves but have huge medical significance, as such positive emotions are linked to a longer and healthier life.” (Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World)

Williams and Penman state with evidence:

  • “Anxiety, depression and irritability all decrease with regular sessions of meditation. Memory also improves, reaction times become faster and mental and physical stamina increase.
  • Regular meditators enjoy better and more fulfilling relationships.
    Studies worldwide have found that meditation reduces the key indicators of chronic stress, including hypertension.
  • Meditation has also been found to be effective in reducing the impact of serious conditions, such as chronic pain and cancer, and can even help to relieve drug and alcohol dependence.
  • Studies have now shown that meditation bolsters the immune system and thus helps to fight off colds, flu and other diseases.” (Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World)

Here is what mindfulness meditation is not:

  • Meditation is not a religion. Mindfulness is simply a method of mental training. Many people who practice meditation are themselves religious, but then again, many atheists and agnostics are avid meditators too.
  • You don’t have to sit cross-legged on the floor (like the pictures you may have seen in magazines or on TV), but you can if you want to. Most people who come to our classes sit on chairs to meditate, but you can also practice bringing mindful awareness to whatever you are doing on planes, trains, or while walking to work. You can meditate more or less anywhere.
  • Mindfulness practice does not take a lot of time, although some patience and persistence are required. Many people soon find that meditation liberates them from the pressures of time, so they have more of it to spend on other things.
  • Meditation is not complicated. Nor is it about “success” or “failure.” Even when meditation feels difficult, you’ll have learned something valuable about the workings of the mind and thus will have benefited psychologically
  • It will not deaden your mind or prevent you from striving toward important career or lifestyle goals; nor will it trick you into falsely adopting a Pollyanna attitude to life. Meditation is not about accepting the unacceptable. It is about seeing the world with greater clarity so that you can take wiser and more considered action to change those things that need to be changed. Meditation helps cultivate a deep and compassionate awareness that allows you to assess your goals and find the optimum path towards realizing your deepest values.” ( Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World)

Now that we’ve established that, what is it then that we are all about? Well, honestly, I’d like to be happy.  This is what I am building.  A happy life.  Sure, we can wax philosophical until the end of the age about the true nature of happiness.  Is it external to us? Is it an internal state? Is it a mere evanescent phenomenon and, therefore, a wasteful pursuit that we should abandon altogether in place of contentment? For the sake of the current discussion, I am leaving that discussion aside because it distracts us from what I really want to discuss.  Mindfulness.  And how we sabotage our own attempts to progress in life.  How exactly do we sabotage ourselves? What are we doing wrong when we are trying so hard?

Williams and Penn explain:

“Our moods naturally wax and wane. It’s the way we’re meant to be. But certain patterns of thinking can turn a short-term dip in vitality or emotional well-being into longer periods of anxiety, stress, unhappiness and exhaustion. A brief moment of sadness, anger or anxiety can end up tipping you into a “bad mood” that colors a whole day or far, far longer. Recent scientific discoveries have shown how these normal emotional fluxes can lead to long-term unhappiness, acute anxiety and even depression. But, more importantly, these discoveries have also revealed the path to becoming a happier and more “centered” person, by showing that:

  • when you start to feel a little sad, anxious or irritable, it’s not the mood that does the damage but how you react to it.
  • the effort of trying to free yourself from a bad mood or bout of unhappiness—of working out why you’re unhappy and what you can do about it—often makes things worse. It’s like being trapped in quicksand—the more you struggle to be free, the deeper you sink.

As soon as we understand how the mind works, it becomes obvious why we all suffer from bouts of unhappiness, stress and irritability from time to time. When you begin to feel a little unhappy, it’s natural to try and think your way out of the problem of being unhappy. You try to establish what is making you unhappy and then find a solution. In the process, you can easily dredge up past regrets and conjure up future worries. This further lowers your mood. It doesn’t take long before you start to feel bad for failing to discover a way of cheering yourself up. The “inner critic,” which lives inside us all, begins to whisper that it’s your fault, that you should try harder, whatever the cost. You soon start to feel separated from the deepest and wisest parts of yourself. You get lost in a seemingly endless cycle of recrimination and self-judgment; finding yourself at fault for not meeting your ideals, for not being the person you wish you could be.” (Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World)

Does this sound familiar to you? I see myself in this.  So, what will a mindfulness meditation program actually do then?

“Mindfulness…encourages you to break some of the unconscious habits of thinking and behaving that stop you from living life to the full. Many judgmental and self-critical thoughts arise out of habitual ways of thinking and acting. By breaking with some of your daily routines, you’ll progressively dissolve some of these negative thinking patterns and become more mindful and aware. You may be astonished by how much more happiness and joy are attainable with even tiny changes to the way you live your life.

Habit breaking is straightforward. It’s as simple as not sitting in the same chair at meetings, switching off the television for a while or taking a different route to work. You may also be asked to plant some seeds and watch them grow, or perhaps look after a friend’s pet for a few days or go and watch a film at your local cinema. Such simple things—acting together with a short meditation each day—really can make your life more joyous and fulfilled.” (Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World)

It is with the spirit of moving forward and truly building something better that I recommend Williams and Penman’s 8-week mindfulness plan.  Get this book.  Get the audiobook.  Do the exercises.  Their book is full of scientific evidence that will knock your socks off.  You will get to know yourself and your brain better.  You will understand why you do what you do and experience self-acceptance along the way rather than self-judgment.  It will come as a huge relief rather than another reason to feel inadequate.  It is in no way hard, and it will introduce you to a better way of thinking, doing, and being.  I will be writing posts as I follow the plan for the next eight weeks, but wouldn’t it be fun to do it together? Send me your stories! I’ll post them!