Hell Is Other People?

I was once the quintessential “angry young man.” Alost everyone pissed me off. I wasn’t the type who screamed and yelled or became violent but when I got angry I would internalize it. I shut down and would stonewall the person I was angry at for days or weeks! Or I would withdrawal into myself and not talk with anyone. A few times a year the pressure would get released when someone did something that really upset me. Then my temper would just let lose. I never hurt another person physically, but anger in all its manifestations can be very damaging to oneself and others emotionally. For various reasons, other people created a kind of hell inside me.

The French existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote, “Hell is other people.” For a long time I believed this was true. But is this really? Yes, other people can be disappointing and difficult but do other people really have the power to create our inner hell? Or are we the ones who we let other people do this to us?

I am sure most people have said things like, “You are really stressing me out,” or “You make me so angry.” I know I have. But is this really true? Is it other people who are stressing us out or are we giving away all of our inner power to other people thus letting them stress us out?

Well, I think the answer is yes and no. It can be very challenging to be the kind of person who just remains unaffected by other people. To be that person who just doesn’t care and is able to remain completely relaxed and grounded in the face of adversity. It is possible to be this way (I thought Barack Obama was a great example of this when he was President) but it often requires a great mastery of the skill known as self-control.

 

The cool thing about mindfulness is that the more we practice, the more self-control we get. It is like an innate, positive side-effect of practicing mindfulness. What this means is that the more we practice mindfulness the better we get at responding to stressors rather than reacting to them. Make no mistake about it, there is a gigantic difference between reacting and responding. Reacting causes stress whereas responding cuts it in half. Reacting is habitual and automatic, responding requires awareness and conscious choice. The mind makes a great servant, but a terrible master, so the saying goes.

When we let other people stress us out or make us angry it is usually because we are reacting to that other person. They do something we don’t like, we get triggered and then instantly go into fight or flight mode. We fire right back or pull away. It is usually all downhill from here. In this situation, it is true that hell can be caused by other people. We tend to live in a culture that supports, reinforces and teaches this way of reactive behavior towards adversity.

But when we are able to be mindful, we gain the ability (or skill) to become more self-aware, to not react to every single trigger that goes off in us. When we are more self-aware we can notice that we have been triggered and then respond to the trigger, rather automatically reacting to it. We can notice that our bodies have become tense, that our mind is creating all kinds of negative thoughts, that our heart rate has gone up and we can also be aware of our impulse to react. But we don’t have to give in to this. We can just smile at it in the same way that we would smile at an old person walking slowly across the street. “I see you, but I am going to exercise compassion and not get all stressed out.”

Instead of reacting, we can focus on our breathing, feel our feet on the ground, notice the wave of heated emotions invading our chest and just let it go in the same way that we would watch a bird fly across the sky. We don’t have to give in to the negative thoughts and heated emotions. When we are able to act from a more grounded, self-aware, less automatic place- hell is no longer other people. We no longer let other people have this kind of control and power over us.

Ultimately we are the ones who determine whether we want hell to be other people or not. We are the ones who let other people get to us. We let other people stress us out more than we need to. Human beings are very resilient creatures. We can get bent out of shape, but we always have the ability to come back into shape quickly. The more we practice mindfulness, the more we gain the ability to come back into shape quickly after being bent out of shape. Gone are the days of hanging onto stress or anger for an entire day or days! Yeah we will get upset or stressed out because of other people. It is only natural for most of us. But we can be aware that this has happened and then let it go as quickly as possible. Return to the present moment and move on with our lives without carrying that heavy, stressful, emotionally damaging load.

There is great freedom (and health) in being able to respond to other people in this way.

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What Your Stress Response Says About You

As a psychotherapist, I often hear people talk about how they just get so stressed out over the smallest stuff but they feel like they can’t control it. They know the stress is not good for them and that they should not get so stressed over such small things, but it just keeps happening anyways. “Something happens, blood pressure goes up and there is not much I can do about it. I just get so easily stressed out.” I hear this a lot.

This morning I watched an interesting lecture on depression given at Stanford University by Robert Sapolsky, who is an author and one of the world’s leading nueroendocronologists. In this lecture, which I will link to below if you are interested in watching it, Sapolsky explains how depression is a serious biological disease just like diabetes. In fact, Sapolsky states that depression is one of the most damaging diseases that a person can experience.

What I found really interesting about Sapolsky’s lecture was when he started talking about how depression as a state where someone cannot get out of bed, is not really what depression is. A more accurate biological manifestation of depression is a continual heightened stress response. This means that a defining characteristic of a person with depression is an continual activation of their stress response. Interesting, right? Like a machine gun going off all day, a person with depression is often experiencing an uncontrollable stress response to various things in their life that don’t warrant the kind of stressed out response they get. This gradually wears a person down over time and causes them to feel worn out, low energy, low drive and unable to get out of bed at times.

We often think of depression as a depressed or heavy state. I found it fascinating that depression can manifest as an over-active, hyper-stimulated state. A person who is always getting upset or stressed out over the simplest things (like dishes not be done, being late, closet not organized, someone cutting them off in traffic or saying something they don’t like, etc, etc…) is actually experiencing a major symptom of depression.

I am interested in this because as a mindfulness teacher and practitioner one of my main interests in mindfulness is its ability to help us get much more skilled when it comes to dealing with our stress response. Instead of our stress response to various little things causing our entire day to be ruined because we get so upset or stressed out, mindfulness helps us to respond positively to our stress response by noticing that it has kicked in and then being able to let it go. This is often called self-regulation.

Since an elevated and often uncontrollable stress response is a main characteristic of depression, I find this lecture encouraging since it validates what I already know- that regular mindfulness practice is an effective intervention for depression (and anxiety). Practicing mindfulness also encourages a person to take a more active role in their mental and physical health rather than engaging in learned helplessness, which causes the depressed state to spiral downwards.

 

You can watch the lecture here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NOAgplgTxfc

How To Radically Improve The Quality Of Your Life Right Now.

The real question for any human being who is struggling or suffering is, “How can you change the here and now rather than needing to get someplace else in order to feel better?” When we practice mindfulness techniques we are engaging in a strategy of mental freedom: the transformation of the negative, habitual and familiar ways of being into more calm, content and self-regulating ways of living.

The main point of mindfulness meditation is to gradually learn how to identify your own habitual, negative, self-destructive thought patterns and then to be able to bring yourself out of them. You are learning how to become aware of when you are lost in habitual thought and then you are learning how to shorten the duration of these negative thought patterns by focusing your attention on the present moment and then letting the thoughts go.

When I teach people this simple technique the most common answer I hear is, “It is so obvious and simple but so hard to remember to do!” It is hard because we are so easily absorbed into our negative ways of thinking. These ways of thinking are familiar and habitual. They are learned when we are kids and most of us reinforce them for our entire lives. Even though these negative thought processes cause us so much pain and suffering, we still refuse to let them go.

It is through the continual practice of mindfulness meditation that we gradually learn that we do have a choice, we can chose to let negative thoughts go. Doing this on a daily basis can radically improve the quality of your life. It really is that simple but you have to be willing to practice it. No one can do it for you and I guess this is what ultimatly makes it hard.

I used to be so deeply identified with negative, habitual thinking. It was never ending. I was angry most of the time, always stressed out and worried about everything. I had a severe anxiety disorder, which landed me in more emergency rooms than I want to admit. I was always angry at my parents and even after years of therapy I could not get the angry thoughts out of my head. (It did not help that they were continually behaving in ways that upset me.) The only temporary “solution” that I found that worked was Paxil and booze. But once the booze wore off and the Paxil kicked back in, I felt sedated most of the time with a low level feeling of anxiety, impending doom and anger just waiting to break through the surface. It was a really unpleasant cycle that I never imagined I would come out of. Fifteen years later and lots of time spent practicing mindfulness meditation- and the cycle has ended only because I am now able to stop it before it gets started.

Through the practice of mindfulness mediation I have cultivated the ability to be aware of when I start to become identified with negative, habitual thinking and 95% of the time I am able to let these thoughts go and return my focus to a more peaceful and satisfied present moment awareness. What a remarkable difference this has made in my overall quality of life! No longer lost in the same, repetitive, negative thought patterns that held me hostage for so many years.

The same old habitual, negative thought processes are still there. I presume they will always be there more or less. It is how my brain developed. But by noticing when I begin to become identified with the negative, habitual thoughts and then by letting them go, I am continually able to change my here and now experience. Where once I would be angry or anxious for hours, days or weeks I am now able to feel calm and at ease in under five minutes (most of the time). I am able to transform my present moment experience so that I experience more well-being and contentment and be much, much less caught up in the drama that once filled my entire life.

This is how we radically improve the quality of our lives right now. It is a continual practice of being aware of and then letting habitual, negative thoughts go. I have trained as a psychotherapist, been through years of my own psychotherapy and psychoanalysis, read immense amounts of self help books. I have been in and out of doctor’s offices and endlessly searched for answers and it is only this simple mindfulness technique that I have found really works when properly applied. It is all we need to do. We just have to be willing to do it. Again and again and again. Day in and day out.

Letting the negative, habitual thoughts go by bring your attention back to right now. What one meditation teacher I studied with calls, “Hearing the birds chirping in the trees rather than being lost in the thoughts whirling around in your tired mind.”

The Mindfulness Bookmark

If you are anything like me, it is a continual effort to remain present. I have a brain that is constantly looking for the next thing, continually thinking about doing something else, continually worrying about what might go wrong, continually planning, evaluating and judging. My brain is a control freak. It wants to figure everything out. It wants to take care of everything. It wants to think about things that will most likely never happen. My brain seems to only really rest when I watch a movie, stare off into my iPhone, listen to music, meditate or engage in other activities that engage my attention and focus.

My brain is a brain that resists the security, fulfillment and clarity of the present moment.

For whatever reason, my brain is always on duty. Always getting ahead of me. Always judging and resisting. Always pushing away and reacting. Always projecting itself into the future. In psychological terminology this is referred to as hyperactivity or chronic hyperarousal (normally the result of trauma). The diagnosis for this is Generalized Anxiety Disorder, a condition that is all too common in our modern world.

My brain always wants to accomplish things. It wants to figure things out. “Go, go, go!!,” it says. After a cup of coffee it really gets going. It judges, it projects, it worries, it imagines. It is fascinating watching my brain do what it does. I don’t need to watch films or television- the activity of my brain is entertaining enough. I don’t want to imagine what it was like for me when I was not able to observe the workings of my brain but instead was just helplessly going along with wherever it took me. It got so bad in my twenties that I needed Paxil, weed and booze to cope. Can not imagine the road I would of gone down without running into mindfulness practice.

Michael Brown, a meditation teacher and author, calls this kind of brain the conditioned, unconscious brain. What is meant by unconscious is that the individual is not aware of how their thoughts are creating their subjective experience. This is often what is meant by “you do it to yourself.” He refers to this unconsciousness factor as the fundamental and all pervasive human illness. It is responsible for more stress related physical illnesses, broken marriages, violent behaviors, accidents, dysfunctional relationships, addictive behaviors, mental health issues and general life dissatisfaction levels than we are even close to being aware of. It is the cause of so many undesirable effects.

In my psychotherapy practice, I see proof of this all day, everyday. The root of the vast majority of mental duress that I see people suffering from (and medicating for) is a brain that is running out of control. The speed at which a person’s out of control thoughts are moving is exhausting their body, causing uncomfortable and sometimes serious physical and psychological symptoms. Their brain is worn down by all the rapid-fire thinking and as a result they feel anxious, depressed, tired and chronically worried. They are often totally unconscious about how their thoughts are creating their subjective experience. The moment these individuals are able to slow things down, to become more conscious and focused in the present moment- it is amazing to watch the uncomfortable mental and physical symptoms that tormented them melt away. The hard part is getting them to come back to this more conscious space when not in my office! How easy it is to be taken over by an out of control brain without any technique in place to slow it down.

For me, mindfulness practice is not about abolishing my ego and becoming an all-loving-enlightened-being. It is not about attaining some spiritual or religious realizations that allow me to live in a space of bliss, love, peace and truth. Not interested in that. I like my ego too much to hand it over. I value the wide range of human emotions I experience and the various creations of the ego such as literature, art, music, film, design and ideas. I use mindfulness as a way to continually bring myself back to the present moment. For me, mindfulness practice is like using a bookmark while reading. I am continually moving forward in my life, experiencing a wide range of emotions, feelings and thoughts- mindfulness practice just allows me to mark the space I am at. To remember the place I am in right now.

I am continually bookmarking myself. This is my mindfulness practice. Bookmarking here, bookmarking there. Bookmarking when I get angry, irritated, anxious, excited, depressed, judgmental, worried, nervous. Bookmarking when I notice that I am in a hurry and when I am in a difficult situation. Bookmarking when I notice that I am worrying about the future or resisting what is happening in the present. I am continually bookmarking myself, again and again and again. It is like I am a reader with ADD, continually starting and then stopping, starting and stopping. As a result of this practice, I am continually coming back to solid ground. I experience more peace and wellbeing. More clarity and calm. A deep sense of confidence, contentment and creativity. I don’t need medications or magical elixirs to calm things down. I can take care of that by using the mindfulness bookmark throughout my day. In whatever situation I am in. Again and again and again, continually bringing myself back to the place that I am in right now. Remembering to pay attention in this moment, to this breath- the only place real sanity can be found.

Notes From The Present Moment, #2

I am home alone. Things are quiet. All around me birds are chirping. The loud leaf blower and lawn mower are gone. For the first time in a week I have the afternoon to be still. To do nothing. I had a stomach ache for awhile but now it is gone. All things pass.

Mindfulness practice has helped me to become fairly adept at becoming comfortable with discomfort. From my practice I have learned through experience that all physical and psychological pain and discomfort are always coming and going, which makes it a little easier for me to be present with what is. I don’t panic or worry about aches and pains like I used to in my more hypochondriacal days. I realize now that pains and discomfort come and go like the wind. I don’t need to freak out about it.

Thoughts and emotions are not as easy for me. In this moment it is easy to be mindful, to just be present with what is. I notice that my mind is active, it seems to be telling me that there is so much to be done, so much to do. “Move it! Get stuff done!” it yells as I sit here on my couch, but I can follow my breath, stay present with sounds, sensations, awareness and let that voice do its thing without needing “to do” much about it. Like the Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron recommends- I smile into that rarely satisfied voice in my head, which seems to quiet it down.

I know that the root of the “Get stuff done!” voice is fear. Fear about not doing enough. Fear about not securing my future or present. Fear about not becoming the identity my ego wants to be. Through mindfulness practice and a lifetime of experience, I seem to be getting more adept at learning to make friends with fear. Fear seems to be as apart of me as my blood is and it is through learning how to live with it (rather than trying to pretend it is not there or numbing it out) that I seem to be experiencing more peace and contentment in life. I can see now that fear is just random and habitual thoughts projected onto an always uncertain future.

The afternoon breeze is blowing the wind chimes around. The vibratory bell like sounds are pleasant to hear. Birds are flying quickly around in my garden, playing in the mid-afternoon sun. My two German Shepherds are napping on the backyard wood deck, which thanks to the gardener is no longer covered with fallen leaves and heaps of dog hair.

Agitation, anger and worry. These emotions and the thoughts that come with them seem more challenging to deal with. This morning while I was driving in my car with a friend, who is also a fellow psychotherapist, I noticed that I felt agitated. He would not stop talking and he was talking at such a high speed that I felt agitation growing in my body like water coming to a boil. I find that it is most challenging to remain present when in the company of individuals who are not present at all. Their self-absorption seems contagious. It is always challenging for me to be in relationship with those who are not present, while simultaneously remaining present and non-reactive. This is a work in progress.

As I was driving, my psychotherapist friend was nowhere near where his body and breath were. He was in yesterday and tomorrow land. He was in analyze and judgement land. I forced myself to follow my breath and notice my sorroundings. It felt like lifting a heavy weight. “I am breathing in, I am breathing out,” I repeated silently to myself while trying to keep myself non-judgmentally open to what my friend was saying while also focusing on where I was. The more I followed my breath, the more my agitation became manageable and the less I wanted to tell him to “Just stop! Please take a breath man!”

An hour or so ago, Old Man Bob from the senior center (I pay him to come every few weeks and tend to my backyard), rang my doorbell. I was present as I was sitting on my couch but when I jumped up to answer my door I forgot about my breath. Thoughts like, “Who is it?” “Why is someone at my front door?” caused my heart rate to rise and my nervous system to go into a slight reactive mode. “How are you Randall?” Old Man Bob said with a smile as I opened my front door. “Hey Bob,” I replied with a smile. I told him that I would walk around back, put away the barking dogs and open the back gate for him.

As I walked into my backyard I instinctually slowed myself down. I noticed how becoming reactive had caused me to completely forget about my breath. I became aware of each step that I took and tuned back into the sound of birds and wind chimes. “Mindfulness practice is a practice of continually, again and again, returning our attention back to the present moment,” the meditation teacher Jack Kornfield often says.

It is so easy to stop being present but it takes some effort to return to the present. As I put away my dogs I noticed that the stomach ache I had had all night and into the morning was gone. Aware that I was breathing in and aware that I was breathing out, I mindfully walked over to the gate and was aware of the movements of my body as I pulled the gate open. It felt good to be aware in this moment rather than being absorbed in some future or past place in my head. Again a smile formed on my face.

Old Man Bob was standing there with his lawn mower and garden tools when I opened the gate. He was wearing shorts and a yellow t-shirt that said, “Still Maui Living!” “What a beautiful day to be alive,” he said with wrinkles collecting in the corners of his weathered face. I breathed in and out and agreed.

Suffering: How To Find Your Own Way Out

Suffering is defined as the experience of pain, illness or injury. To suffer basically means to become worse off because of being negatively affected by something. Whether it is a difficult husband, an unloving parent, an illness, an economic difficulty, or a barking dog- we suffer when we end up worse off because of the things that happen to us.

Worse off than what though? Worse off than what we were before? Worse off than the never ending perfection that life should be? Worse off because of the fantasy in our heads of how people should act? Worse off than the way our lives should turn out? The problem with this logic is that it is a fairly tale. Yes, I used that word fairly intentionally. Believing that life should be fair, should be how we want it to be, is the root of human misery.

When I look back on how much I have suffered because people, events, my own body and life situations were not how I wanted them to be, I can only laugh. It is not so much a joy-filled laugh. Instead, I suppose I am laughing at my own reactions.

One thing that every human being has in common, from Brad Pitt all the way to the guy who sits on the side of the freeway by my house- unfair things happen to all of us. The degree to which we suffer is always determined by the degree to which we think things are not fair.

Most of us end up worse off when difficult things happen. We go into stress mode. Our nervous systems take off into fight, flight or freeze. We resist what is. We can’t relax. We don’t know that there is an alternative way to be. When something bad feels like it is happening or going to happen- we resist it. We get frightened. We don’t feel safe. We try and push the fear away. “Get it out of here! I don’t like this! This feels terrible and I want it to change now! It is not fair!” This is what we are yelling on the inside. As a result, we end up worse off.

Some, for whatever reason, remain calm and accepting of the flow of life. Non-reactive and unsurprised by the fact that yes, shit happens. That life is unfair. That life is a series of events and situations that can always potentially cause us to end up worse off. The irony is that when we fully accept this- we suffer less.

A person can not become a shaman without first having become very ill and then found their way back to health. A person who has suffered deeply and then is able to find a practice or a methodology to help her or himself to not end up worse off every time difficult and unfair things happen, has mastered the art of living.

One thing is certain- things will keep happening (almost everyday) that challenge our ability to not end up worse off. The good news is that we will have continual opportunities to practice, learn and free ourselves from suffering every day. There will not be enough money sometimes. People will pass away. We will come across difficult people. We will not like our work. Dreams will not be fulfilled. We will experience illness. Someone will say something we do not like. We will feel sad, hurt, angry and anxious. Such is life. But we can choose to use our difficulties and life challenges to learn, grow and change or we can just keep on reacting and remain the same.

Do we chose to end up worse off every time life happens, every time our nervous system gets triggered just because difficult and unfair things happen? Just because we feel various unpleasant emotions? Or do we accept that all of this is a normal part of life and then begin the practice of learning how to accept life as it is rather than ending up worse off every time things are not how we want them to be?

Like my Great Uncle said, who was a holocaust survivor and never seemed worse off because of all he lost and experienced (he was known for never expressing self-pity or negativity about his life, and always loudly expressed that he was “doing great!” until he decided to “call it a day” when he died at the age of 96):

“I never expected that any of this should be any different anyways.”

I spent a good chunk of my life not understanding what he meant. As a result- I often ended up worse off.

Practicing What I Preach (Using Mindfulness To Come Out Of The Ditch).

Some days are more difficult than others to practice the things that I help others to practice in their own lives. When everything is flowing along smoothly in my life and going as I want it to go, practicing mindfulness is as simple as breathing. But when I receive an unfair parking ticket, or a family member behaves in a way that is hurtful or irritating, or I feel like I am fighting off the flu, or my house seems really out of order, or the bills pile up, or a person treats someone I love without care, or I am experiencing anxiety while driving on the freeway, or I am running late- practicing mindfulness becomes much more challenging.

You might have similar things that occur in your life that make it really difficult for you to stay present and not get caught up in looping, habitual thoughts. When I notice that I have gotten upset or irritated or anxious, what I immediately notice is a real difficulty getting outside of my head. Again and again I catch myself caught up in thinking about what the person did, how I feel about them, how I feel, what kind of person they are, what is going to happen, what I am going to do, why this is not being done right, how I am going to respond to them, I am going to get in trouble and on and on and on and on. Sometimes pulling myself out of the endless loop of thoughts and the accompanying emotions, feels like a battle I am really struggling to win.

But what I notice when utilizing mindfulness techniques when times get tough is that they work- even if just for a minute or two at a time. The second I am able to pull myself away from thinking and instead focus on my breathing, take in my immediate environment and relocate myself in the present moment- I begin to feel immediately better. My chest lightens, my blood pressure drops, my mind clears and everything starts to feel ok again. It almost feels like taking off a really heavy jacket and putting it down someplace else.

The more and more I am able to practice this, what I notice is the more and more the hurt, irritation, anxiety, anger and all the accompanying looping thoughts decrease and eventually go away. It is like being set free and returning to living my life the way I want to live it (happily and with as little stress and emotional duress as possible). But in order for this to happen in a way that does not end up taking up my entire day and/or end up causing someone else unnecessary emotional suffering- I have to continually be aware of when I am caught up in ruminative negative thinking and then let it go by returning to the breath.

One of the greatest discoveries in my life has been becoming aware of the fact that there is a way out of hurt, anger, depression, anxiety, stress and all the other difficult emotional states that once held me hostage. For example, I used to be an excellent stonewaller. I would get hurt and angry and then engage in stonewalling- sometimes for days. I did not choose to do this, it just seemed like a habitual reaction to feeling hurt. It felt like carrying around a hundred pounds of brick in my chest and my body responded by developing health problems. This behavior would also hurt the person that I was in a relationship with. Not a healthy behavior to be caught in because it sucks all the joy right out of life.

I’m happy to report that I do not stonewall anymore but I still do get hurt, angry, sad, anxious and irritated from time to time. What has made all the difference in the world is becoming aware of the fact that I have been triggered and knowing that as a result am caught up in all kinds of negative thoughts. The next step is to no longer identify with those thoughts and I do this by returning my focus to the present moment (again and again) through the technique of mindfulness. What used to take an entire day or days to come out of now takes about ten minutes or so at the most. Phew.

You do not have to physically and mentally suffer as much and as long as you do just because you might be feeling hurt, angry, sad, afraid, stressed out, depressed or irritated. All you have to do is identify that these states are perpetuated by being mindlessly caught up in negative thinking. You can let the thoughts go by just noticing that you are lost in thought. Return your attention to your breathing. To the present moment and then get on with enjoying the day and all of the wonderful potential that exists in your life right now. It is there waiting- all you have to do is become aware of the negative thoughts and then let the thoughts go.

This is what I practice doing, sometimes twenty or thirty times on a tough day. I do it because it works. Now I get what one of my mindfulness instructors meant when he continually referred to mindfulness as a kind of superpower that we can carry around with us wherever we go.