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Posts Tagged ‘mindfulness’

I read this essay by the movie reviewer Film Crit Hulk (it’s interesting, but it is also super, super long, so fair warning), and I thought, oh, I should blog about despair. Because it seems to be going around lately. I know a lot of people who have been having a rough time personally, and then there’s been the whole GamerGate thing, and the global warming impending apocalypse thing, and the posting nude pictures of actresses thing, and a bunch of other things. And, well, it’s not a huge stretch to think that some people are experiencing despair right now.

Despair is a difficult experience to live through. It comes with its own built-in gravity well, in that once you find yourself in that despair place, it is not always obvious how to move forward or through it. So there you sit, in this incredibly painful state, feeling like really important things are broken and there’s nothing you can do about it.

And then I read my friend Damien’s post about Brene Brown’s book Daring Greatly, and you might remember I adore Brene Brown and think the work she’s done is really important. And reading through the list of strategies she talks about, I think they are somewhat applicable to dealing with despair as well as living a wholehearted life. So that’s one resource that’s out there.

But really I want to talk about what I do when facing despair, because that’s what I know. As usual, take what seems useful and discard the rest.

  1. Self care, self care, self care. If you are feeling despair, then you are going to need to self care the shit out of yourself. Beyond the basics (eat, hydrate, sleep, exercise/move), this includes giving yourself alone time or people time depending on what you need. For me, I often want lots of time with Nala. This also includes allowing yourself to be distracted or take a break from the despair. I don’t care how a big a problem it is or how big a realization you’ve had; being in full-on despair mode 24/7 is simply not healthy. Dealing with it is great, but not at the cost of complete burn-out. Finally, this covers allowing yourself to disengage and set boundaries as needed.
  2. Focus on the present moment. Sometimes despair involves things that happened in the past or things we’re afraid will happen in the future. And those things are important and provoke strong feelings and need to be grappled with. But to pull myself out of the despair, paying attention to right now right this second instead can be helpful.
  3. Baby steps. Despair requires patience, because maybe you’re beginning to feel better and then something happens and you fall right back down the well. But if I can think of even one tiny positive thing I can do to help my situation or take care of myself or reframe, then I am better off than I was before.
  4. Vent. Or cry. Or both. Sometimes I just need to let it out, and if I have a safe space in which to express myself, it can be extremely helpful. This one requires judgment because it totally backfires if the space turns out not to be safe after all. But you can do it alone or in writing (or with a pet) too.
  5. Try to stand apart from your emotional reality. Or in other words, try to call yourself on your black and white thinking. Despair can be overwhelming, and it can feel really, really big. For example, if you have been experiencing a lot of really bad behavior from other people, it can begin to feel like all people are awful, or all people are going to betray you, or whatever universal your brain has decided to come up with. But while your experience of that feeling is real, that doesn’t mean it necessarily reflects the external reality. So to pull out of it, you can think of one person who has treated you well. Maybe you can even text them or message them or call them or whatever it is you do to communicate. Or you can just think of a nice thing they did or said that one time. Then think of another person. Then another. Look at data if you need to: pull up a nice text or a nice email someone sent you.
  6. Don’t give up on yourself. Even if you really feel like it. You can give up on everything and everybody else, especially if you’re having a nice venting session, but hold onto that self-esteem like you’re in space and it’s your oxygen tank. YOU WILL NEED IT. GUARANTEED.
  7. Find a reason to hope. It can be a dumb reason, like the fact that ice cream exists or Nala is consistently adorable. That’s okay.
  8. Remember: everything changes. I don’t know if anyone else finds this idea comforting, but it has been my fall-back in hard times for at least ten years, maybe longer. If none of the above works, or if it’s not possible at the moment, and you’re wrapped up in the stifling blanket of despair, knowing it won’t go on forever and ever because that’s not how the world works gives you something to hold onto.
A reason to hope.

A reason to hope.

Hang in there, my friends. Or, as Theodora Goss said:

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I saw a quotation some time ago on Facebook, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I’d decided to blog about it for my first post of 2014. Then a week or two ago, it popped up again, shared by someone different, a sign of the resonance of the idea.

“I am not what happened to me. I am what I choose to become.” -Carl Jung

I don’t believe that we can unilaterally leave our pasts behind us. We carry them with us, whether we’re aware of it or not, whether we want to or not, no matter how far we travel. The past happened, and we can either deny that fact and muddle along in blindness, or we can work towards knowledge and acceptance. What happens to us does change us.

But.

We still have choices. We get to choose who we’re going to strive to become. We get to choose how we’re going to move forward. We can choose to let our pasts define us OR we can choose to define ourselves on our own terms.

Photo Credit: h.koppdelaney via Compfight cc

I used to be afraid that my experiences would cause me to close myself off, that I would become bitter and jaded. But because I was aware of that possibility and decided I didn’t want it for myself, I worked hard to ensure it didn’t happen. I got to choose which way to send myself. And now, more than a decade later, I might occasionally experience a touch of cynicism, but that’s it. No overwhelming bitterness, no hatred of the world, and in some ways I’m more open than I’ve ever been.

We can’t always control what happens in our lives. We can’t control the decisions of others. But we can make choices about how we’re going to act and what we’re going to try to focus on. We can’t always prevent unproductive thoughts, but we can notice that we’re having the unproductive thoughts, recognize them for what they are, and deliberately replace them with more helpful thoughts.

The past has given us wounds and wisdom. It has given us strength and scars. And now every moment is an opportunity to use that wisdom and honor those scars and take control of our personal stories.

I’ll leave you with another quotation that feels right for this year:

“There is one thing which gives radiance to everything. It is the idea of something around the corner.” – G.K. Chesterton

May you all have beauty around your next corner, as well as the mindfulness to enjoy the radiance before you reach it.

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Theodora Goss recently wrote one of those lists of what she’s learned in her life. The entire post is worth a read, but I was particularly interested in her #9:

“Your habits create who you are.”

I completely agree with Dora. Our habits are the building blocks of our lives and of our identities. I actually love this truth because while changing habits can be difficult, it is very possible. So that means if we don’t like our lives or identities, we can work towards doing something about that.

Photo Credit: Celestine Chua via Compfight cc

Take the identity of being a writer, for example. (How could I not go there?) Some people are satisfied with the daydream of being a writer, which is fine but unlikely to bring about the reality. But for people who seriously want to claim the writer identity, it’s all about habits. It’s about making the time to write on a regular basis. It’s about making a commitment to finish projects. It’s about revising and reading other people’s work and thinking critically and educating yourself to become better. All those activities can be developed into habits over time.

This works for personality traits to a certain extent, too. We all have our original set points for different traits, and some of us will have to work harder than others to change and maintain those points, or will have limits to where we can move those points. But we can choose to encourage new habits that develop a certain trait. I used to be quite shy when I was younger, but I decided it wasn’t really very fun to be shy. So I practiced meeting people, I practiced inviting people to do things, I said yes to invitations, and I cultivated new hobbies that encouraged me to be social. I still have my shy moments, but now I often look at those moments as a challenge or game that I can try to succeed at as opposed to a miserable experience. And really, most of the time I’m not very shy at all because of the habits I eventually formed. I’ve talked to several other people who have had similar experiences.

And finally, habits even affect the kind of thoughts we have. That’s what Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is all about. If we decide we want to be more positive, we can explicitly practice framing our thoughts in more positive ways until it becomes second nature. If we want more self esteem, we can practice thinking kinder thoughts about ourselves until, you’ve got it, those thoughts become second nature (or at least more frequent). Sometimes a lot of how we see the world is affected by our individual thought patterns, which are really just habits of thinking we’ve picked up over time.

When I think about it, I realize how strongly my habits shape my life, from how I spend my time to what and how I think to what my actual expressed priorities are. Of course, habits can arise FROM those priorities as well as shape what those priorities are. I think that’s why I care so much about living an examined life, so I can be more conscious about choosing those priorities and figuring out how to express them rather than have priorities happen TO me.

What habits have you chosen to develop? What habits do you want to change?

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I’ve been thinking about non-attachment.

When we discussed Buddhism in high school, I thought non-attachment sounded very sterile, like it encouraged people to not care about anything. This was a misunderstanding on my part, of course. Any religion that talks so much about compassion and loving-kindness isn’t about the not caring. It’s more complicated than that, and it has to do with our relationship with desire.

We are not always going to get everything we want. When we do get one thing we want, then we want something else. Sometimes we get caught in a trap of thinking, if only I had blah blah blah (where blah blah blah can be a certain type of career, a certain type of relationship, a certain level of health, a certain amount of money, etc. etc.), then everything would be perfect. My life would be complete.

But that generally isn’t so. We get a certain amount of money, and then maybe our health goes down the tubes. We get a certain type of career only to realize we really want to go up another tier or do something else altogether. Our health improves, and then maybe a close friend gets sick, or she moves away and then we miss her and busy ourselves thinking, if only I had more friends. We desperately wish for something in the future, but we can’t be sure of the outcome.

And sometimes we simply don’t get what we want at all. We can’t quit that irritating day job. Our family won’t stop making demands on us that we can’t meet. We have a chronic health condition. We get laid off, we don’t get into the program that would have made all the difference, we can’t afford this workshop or that trip or those material goods.

Right this second my back hurts and I want it to stop hurting. Sometime soon I’ll stop typing and do a few stretches and exercises, and it will probably feel a little better. But that won’t last. Over time I can strengthen my back so it feels more better more of the time. But really I want the pain to stop now, and permanently, with no effort. I’m not going to get what I want. These little moments of not getting what we want happen all the time.

Photo by David Boyle

Which is where non-attachment comes in. I think of it as the acceptance of thwarted desire. It’s the awareness that this is our reality, that we want and yet we’re not going to get everything we want. And that it’s okay that this is true. We will want something, and then that wanting will eventually pass. It might take a long time to do so, or it might not. Everything changes, and changes, and changes again. And the more we can be aware of this movement, and even embrace it, the less suffering we will experience.

At least, this is what I’ve been thinking about. Sitting with the feeling of desire, which keeps coming up. Watching it, and the emotions it often comes with, and remembering this is just one moment. I think it helps to be aware of what’s going on and allow ourselves to pay attention to that experience. But if you want a whole list of great suggestions of how to practice and think about non-attachment, read what Lori Deschene has to say about it.

What do you think?


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