Seize The Moment (A Friendly Message In A Bottle)

A fresh perspective often helps. It is like placing a new operating system into a computer that is not working right. Our older, more habitual ways of thinking and being take ahold of us really quick and before we know it we are sucked in and being held hostage by them. All logic goes out the window and once again we are lost in habitual negative thought (rumination). This is why I thought I would send you this friendly message in a bottle.

Seize the moment! The moment is all you ever really have. If you really examine all those worries spinning around in your mind, how many are actually happening right now? How many of your worries are actually grounded in the reality of this moment? How many of your previous worries have actually turned out that way you thought they would? (Probably none or at least very few.) It is important to ask yourself these questions if you want to seize the moment.

It might sound harsh but believe it or not most people just want to remain stuck and live in despair. Emerson called this a quiet life of desperation. When it really comes down to it, most of us just want to keep doing what we have been doing, just stay stuck. Things seem easier this way. We don’t really want to try. We don’t really want to understand why we feel the way we do. We don’t want to see what is really going on because then we would be forced to change. “Waiter! Can I just have another drink please!”

Why are we like this? Continually just perpetuating our own unhappiness?

Fear.

Fear causes people to prefer consistency, security and practicality. What is that old saying? Fear disguises itself as practicality. Something like that. We prefer the practical. We want to play it safe so we can remain secure. But there is a big problem with this way of thinking. When we make choices from a place of fear and we let fear run our lives, we often end up living lives we are not happy about living. We end up in places we don’t want to be in.

But people seem to prefer security over living the life they really want to live. We want a scripted plan so that we do not have to deal with the uncertainty of the future. The irony is that uncertainty or the absence of security are always here. No one knows what is going to happen tomorrow no matter how scripted your life is. No one has control over the uncertainty of life no matter how good at worrying they are. There really is no security even though we work so hard to create it. Worry is often a main symptom of of the never ending striving to defeat uncertainty.

When we really are seizing the moment, living life fully- anything can happen at any moment. But being present in this moment, realizing that what we are worried about happening is not happening now, frees us up to live more fully in this moment. Whether you need a scripted life or you are able to accept the general uncertainty of life- the future rarely unfolds just how you think it will.

Mindfulness is a helpful practice because it helps us to be able to put fear aside so that we are not making choices from a place of fear. I know that many people think this sentiment is morbid but the truth is that you are going to die. Maybe tomorrow or maybe in sixty years. Whatever the case- it will always feel too soon, so why not do what you want to do? Why not live the life you want to live? Why not seize this moment and live this moment fully? Why keep putting this off because in this moment you insist on continuing to make choices from a place of fear?

Mindfulness practice allows us to sit down with ourselves, ground our attention in the present moment and see clearly what is actually going on now. We are then better able to make a logical and clear assessment of reality when we do this. We are better able to see through all of the worry, self-doubt, self-loathing, fear and push through these negative emotions. It is only by pushing through these more unpleasant emotions that we can then seize the moment and really begin to live the kind of life that authentically feels like a good fit for us right now.

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.

On The Brink Of A Panic Attack

You are feeling uneasy. It’s like standing on the edge of a cliff and at any second you could fall off. You are apprehensive. Pensive. Your mind is racing. In order to keep yourself safe you have constricted every muscle in your body. You feel really tense. Concerned. Something really bad could happen at any moment. Your nervous systems feels like it could go into fight/flight at any second. You can feel your body trembling. Your stomach feels unwell. You are hanging on, hoping that you will not lose control. Every strange sensation in your body and every frightening thought in your mind threatens to push you over the edge into a full blown panic attack.

But wait. Hold on. Hang on. As uneasy and frightening as it feels, you can maintain control. Keep your breathing as regular as possible. Take off your shoes and socks and walk barefoot on the ground. Place your feet firmly on the ground. Force yourself to do this. Wiggle the hell out of your toes. Write in a journal. Draw. Play a musical instrument. Splash your face with cold water, over and over. Do whatever you can to get yourself out of your head. It is your thoughts about what could happen, about what you fear happening at any second that is the hand that is threatening to push you over the edge.

You have to take an active role in keeping yourself grounded. You have to trust that you can do this. Like holding something really fragile in your hands, you can hold this uneasiness without allowing it to break apart. Be patient. The fear/terror and uneasiness will come and go in waves until it gradually dissolves. You have to be willing to be uncomfortable, without freaking out, for a little bit. You have to be willing to stand still at the edge of the cliff, look down and trust that you are not going to fall off. You have to believe that you got this. That you can keep yourself controlled and grounded, while the storm gradually plays itself out within you.

Breathe. Feel your feet touching the ground. Notice your body trembling. Notice your palms sweating. Notice your mind racing. Notice that your body feels like it is on high alert. Notice that the back of your neck, your throat and your chest has tightened up. Wiggle your toes. Breathe. Notice that you feel a bit dizzy. You feel like you can not think straight. Maybe there is a strange taste in your mouth. Maybe you feel like you are dissociating. Just notice all of this without freaking out. Carry this extreme discomfort, just like you would carefully carry anything that might freak you out. Use every inner muscle you have to remain calm.

Notice how the threatening waves come and go. Kind of like how a stomach ache comes and goes. One minute you are feeling a little better and the next minute a strong wave comes back again that threatens to knock you off your feet. Notice that it comes in waves and when it gets intense again, remember that it is a wave. It will pass just like the last one did. All you need to do is keep yourself grounded. Feel your feet on the ground. Notice that your feet have contracted and force yourself to place them flat on the ground. Wiggle your toes. Keep your breathing as regular and deep as possible. Hold on. Do not freak out. This will pass through.

Remember that your thoughts are not telling you the truth. They are the hand that wants to push you over the edge. You have to do whatever you can to get out of your head. To stop identifying with your terrifying thoughts. If you do not want to have a full-blown panic attack- this is your one responsibility. You have to make this effort. Don’t be too afraid. There is too high of a price to pay for not being willing to get out of your head. Do something, even though you feel like freezing up. Write an email on your phone. Draw. Play a musical instrument. Walk barefoot on grass. Take a cold shower. Get out of your car and walk around barefoot. Focus on anything other than your thoughts. Keep your breathing as regular as possible. Stay out of your head as much as possible. Just hold it for a little while longer, without freaking out. And then notice what happens.

Suddenly you will feel better, like you have some control back. Suddenly it will feel like the worst part of the horrifying storm has passed through. Your nervous system will feel like it has relaxed a bit. Your heart rate has come down. You will wait and wonder if it is really over. You might feel hypervigilant for a moment. You are not feeling as dizzy now. You no longer feel as dissociated. The alarm in your head is fading away. Can you trust this? Is the worst part really over or will it return at any second? You will wait, searching for any sign of its possible return.

But then you will realize things are safe now. You can turn around and walk away from the edge of the cliff now. The storm has passed. You made it through. You will feel immense relief. I am so glad that is over now, you will think. You might even feel really happy, like you just escaped potential catastrophe. You can hear sounds again. You chest, neck, back and brain have all loosened up. Its like being reborn, almost. Phew, you dodged a bullet. Now you have a new lease on life. You are ok now. You might feel really exhausted. You made it through. You survived that one without freaking out. Good work.

Now you know how to do it. Now you know how to ride it out the next time it happens. Keep practicing. Riding waves that feel really horrifying takes practice but now you know that it can be done. Remember, like all things in life, the immense fear and discomfort that you are feeling when you are on the brink of having a panic attack is impermanent. It will, without a doubt, pass. Your job is to learn how to hold on, without freaking out.

Angry All The Time?

Everyone has some degree of anger. Anger can be a healthy, motivating emotion. But it is too often destructive to ourselves and those we love. Anger seems to exist on a continuum. On one side of the continuum there are those who get mildly angry every once in awhile but then can get over it quickly and on the other side are those who exist in a chronic state of anger and irritation. Anger and irritation follow these people around like an obsessed past lover who does not want to let go.

If you tend to find yourself on the latter part of this continuum more often than not- then anger is a serious, serious, serious problem in your life. The reason why it is a serious problem is because it is constantly getting in the way of you experiencing fulfillment, connection and purpose in your life. Your anger is taking a huge toll on your body (especially your heart, blood pressure, brain and nervous system), it is harming other people in your life, it is isolating you from others and it is erasing any sense of gratitude you might otherwise have. Your anger is literally draining the good right out of your life.

I tend to think that feelings of frustration and anger come from a person’s perceived inability to deal with or control something that appears to be a problem. So in this sense anger is really a manifestation of anxiety. When a person feels like they lack control in their life- what tends to vanish is a deeper sense of autonomy and self-reliance. Without a feeling of autonomy and self-reliance everything becomes a potential trigger. Everything can become a symbol for the lack of control that you feel in your life. Even stray cat or dog hairs on the floor. As a result you end up getting overwhelmed by all the small stuff, all the time.

This can manifest in various areas. Here are just a few of those areas:

Cannot stand some people and their ideas.

Cannot control emotions.

Repeatedly get really low.

Feel a lack of progress in your life and a failure to meet your own goals.

Don’t feel good about you.

Easily lose interest in things.

Socially withdrawn.

Always frustrated with others.

Continually feel stressed, helpless, overwhelmed and screwed.

Now it is true that anger is just one part of who you are. Even though you experience continual irritation or anger does not mean that you are not a good person and that you do not experience days where the anger is absent. It does not mean that you are not loving and kind. It just means that you have a significant amount of anger and anxiety that lives in you (it is literally like a substance in you) and it can get in your way at any time and leave you feeling like you have no control over your emotional state. This can feel really discouraging and just ends up perpetuating the anger.

Sure maybe life is not the way that you want it to be. Maybe you lack the passion for the things that you have to do. This is a problem but it is not the real problem. Plenty of people do things they do not want to do but still remain generally happy in their lives. Even if all your dreams and expectations came true- a person with chronic anger would still feel unfulfilled and irritated most of the time. Like Carl Jung stated, “what we resist just persists.”

So the real question becomes, how does a person change their perceived inability to deal with or control something that appears to be a problem? Get a new job? Make more money? Find a better partner? Become a rock star? These things might help a bit, but only for a short period of time. Eventually you will lose interest and just feel irritated and emotionally overwhelmed again most of the time.

What is crucial is that a person is able to establish an inner sense of emotional control.

I believe that anger is hard wired into our biology. We inherit it from our parents (and others sometimes) and they get it from their parents and on and on. This is why I look at anger as a biological issue, not so much a psychological one. We can talk about anger all we want. It may bring short-term relief, but it won’t change our biological conditioning.

Just like our bodies need water to remain hydrated, it is so crucial that a person with chronic anger and irritation integrates effective techniques into their daily life in order to establish a better sense of emotional control (especially if they would like to avoid being on medication and experiencing a series of dysfunctional relationships).

Mindfulness techniques offer an individual the ability to better control emotions so that emotions are not running your life (emotional regulation). Mindfulness also helps us to practice interpersonal effectiveness, which will help us to stop harming others in our lives and start relating to others without always getting angry or frustrated. Finally (and in my mind most importantly), mindfulness techniques help us develop something called distress tolerance, which helps us to cope with stressful situations without getting too upset.

Ultimately a person who has anger issues is really struggling with a deeper anxiety. The anxiety of not feeling in control in their lives. Even though this lack of control may seem like it comes from external factors, it is really an internal issue. When you feel like you have more control over your internal emotional state, you will notice a lot less anger manifesting in your life. As a result there will be more room for the gratitude, joy and satisfaction to creep in.

The Real Power Of Right Now

The truth of the matter is that we do not ever really permanently overcome anything. To overcome is a verb, which means to succeed in dealing with a problem or difficulty again and again and again and again. To overcome something is a lifetime practice.

As some of you have realized by now, to be human means to be confronted with continually arising problems and difficulties. As soon as we have been successful in dealing with one problem or difficulty- WHAM! a new one is there to take its place.

This is why it is best to think of success as a process rather than being a noun or something permanent that we attain. Success is as fleeting and impermanent as everything else. One moment we may feel its benefits but the next moment we are aware of its absence.

This is why I believe that our real life’s work is in learning how to effectively manage, handle, deal with, carry and regulate the suffering that comes along with being human. Depression and anxiety are very palpable experiences that cause a person to feel like they are being consumed by their fear, worry, darkness or anger.

These uncomfortable emotions feel like they are taking us over and we feel like there is little we can do to defend ourselves against them. But there is a lot we can do. This is one thing that I know for certain (and there are not many things that I can express with this kind of certainty)- we can empower ourselves to feel better, to feel more in control despite the suffering we feel.

Without question, my real life’s work has been to learn how to be able to effectively manage or handle my fear, anger, sadness, worry and despair when it arises. Through practicing mindfulness techniques I find my self stuck less and less in negative and unpleasant emotional states.

It is not that I do not feel anger, depression, anxiety, pain or sadness anymore. I experience these states in some form almost everyday (if even for just five seconds) but again and again I am successful at keeping myself present and just carrying the discomfort until it passes. This causes the negative emotional states to not feel so strong when I encounter them and to pass away fairly quickly once I become aware of them and let them run their course.

It is through learning how to effectively manage my more unpleasant emotions and thoughts that I am able to find more and more equanimity, contentment, freedom and peace in my own life. This is what I mean by transforming suffering.

In one of my notebooks from a workshop that I took with Jack Kornfield I made a note of several things he said. One of those notes that I put a star besides says: “As we practice the art of mindful living, a spaciousness will open up for us around our feelings, thoughts and perceptions and we will be less likely to be reactive to the unpleasant situations in our lives.”

In the seminar this Saturday I will be helping individuals learn and integrate several mindfulness techniques that I learned from Jack Kornfield, Jon Kabat-Zinn and several other mindfulness teachers. These techniques (or practices) empower us to feel like right NOW, in this very moment, we possess tools that we can use to create a much less stressful experience for ourselves and those whom we are closest to.

And after all it is important to remember what Carl Jung said about practice, “A person who gets past the age of thirty and does not have some kind of daily practice to keep themselves grounded in sanity will most certainly lose their minds over and over again.”

CAUTION: Occasional and Sudden Rising Waves

“To understand music, you must listen to it. But so long as you are thinking, I am listening to this music, you are not listening.” –Alan Watts

Many years ago I was walking on the jagged rocks along the Northern California coast when I noticed this sign:

CAUTION: Occasional and Sudden Rising Waves

Of course the inner rebel in me discarded the signs warning and five minutes or so after walking past it, I was engulfed by a massive wave that came out of nowhere! Fortunately I had enough time to brace myself for the coming fight between man and nature. After being dragged under and pulled dozens of feet out into the sea, I was able to use every ounce of my youthful vigor to swim back on to the rocks (never before or since have I experienced such joy upon touching a rock). I was filled with salt water, exhaustion and could already see the beginnings of large bruises that would swell up on my skin for weeks. I got really lucky since a young man is no match for the sea. As I limped back to my car that afternoon I remember thinking, “I should of paid more attention to that sign.”

When it comes to our own inner oceans, emotions are the waves and thoughts are the sign. If we are paying attention and notice a continual stream of negative, unpleasant thoughts- we have a chance of not getting swept up by our more difficult emotions. But if we choose not to pay attention, discard the signs and stay absorbed in our inner environments, chances are we will get swept out to sea.

It’s not easy to pay attention. Not easy at all, especially when we are down, perturbed, angry, sad or discouraged. Usually when we are in these states we want to attach to our thoughts like glue. We pick our nails, pull our hair, itch our skin, drink alcohol, watch TV, read, work, focus intensely on other people, ruminate, eat, mess around on our phones (mini computers) and think too much all to avoid paying attention. We prefer to just walk along the coast, thinking about our experience rather than being aware of the experience we are having. Who can blame us? After all we think it’s easier and more comfortable to just walk along without paying attention to the signs. Until we get swept out to sea.

Mindfulness is a continual process of paying attention to the signs. The thoughts in our mind can tell us a lot about where our bodies are at. Daniel Siegel, who is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute, along with several other neurobiologists were able to agree on a single definition of what the mind is:

The mind is a process that regulates the flow of energy and information …it’s embodied and relational…where is the mind? It’s in your body and in your relationships.

The mind tells us everything about where our bodies and are relationships are at. Everything. Depending upon how our minds are regulating the flow of information and energy (which is continually moving through us) determines the degree to which we experience mental, physical and relational or interpersonal health. If the flow of information and energy is poorly regulated, it is our bodies and relationships that pay the price. We (and those who are close to us) end up tired and with emotional and physical bruises that only seem to grow larger as time goes on.

The remarkable thing about our minds is that it is interactive and plastic. Unlike waves in an ocean, a rainstorm or our livers or colons we can actually use and change our minds to work towards our advantage if we choose. We may not be able to control the kind of thoughts that come careening their way through our consciousness, but we do have the capacity to tap into our minds ability to self-regulate. By self-regulate I mean paying attention or being aware. We can be aware of the energy (emotions) and information (thoughts) that is continually flowing through our body and mind and chose to not get caught up in it (staying aware of the bigger picture rather than getting caught up in the story of I).

It’s through mindfulness practice that we can develop the capacity to utilize our minds innate ability to self-regulate. If you are someone who is always getting swept up by the waves this is crucial to understand: you have a mind that is not paying attention to the sign. What I mean by this is that your mind is not effectively regulating the flow of information and energy moving through it and as a result it is causing your body, your spirit and your relationships a lot of unnecessary pain.

This weekend I returned to that coastline where I was swept out to sea. The sign was still there even though now it has more rust and seagull droppings on it. I read the sign a few times even though I already knew what it said. I even thanked the sign for letting me know of potential dangers ahead. I then continued to walk across the large rocks that made up the coastline. As I walked I paid attention to my in-breath and out-breath. I was aware of the sensations in my feet as I carefully stepped from rock to rock. I was aware of the sounds that I was hearing (waves, seagulls, fog horn, seals). I was also aware that a large amount of anxious thoughts were racing through my mind. Here is a glimpse of the information that was moving through my mind: caution!, caution!, watch out, be careful, turn back, the waves are going to get you, you are going to get dragged out to sea and never return, it’s going to happen again, it’s about to happen at any second!, run, retreat!

In my body I felt all of the uncomfortable symptoms of fear (constriction, shallow breathing, raised heart rate, sweaty palms). I was aware of my nervous systems automatic need to flee. But I continued to walk along the coast aware and regulating the flow of information and energy moving within me. I was able to stay present with what is- a man walking a long the sea. It was not easy but I’m happy to report that that afternoon I did not get swept out to sea. I was paying attention to the sign and was even able to dodge a few large waves. I saw them coming.

After an hour or so of hanging out on the coastline and watching the waves, birds, boats, seals, sounds, breath, thoughts and sensations all come and go, I walked back to my car and took myself out for lunch.