Snake Oil

I do feel that most healing modalities are snake oil, more or less. They just don’t really work in the long term. At least this has been my experience. I am a psychotherapist and even psychotherapy feels more like short-term gain but I am not sure of its long-term benefits. At times, I even wonder about mindfulness. I have been practicing mindfulness, seeking to help myself through mindfulness, for two decades now, and sometimes I wonder about how much it has helped my life. But the truth is that as a teacher and practitioner of mindfulness I have never wanted it to be about this. I don’t want to be that person who makes money off of other people’s problems when I am not certain I can cure them. Nor do I want to seek out the eradication of my own problems through any belief system, which I am not so sure even works. I just want to live my life feeling as good as I can. I would like my inner state to be a pleasant place to inhabit. And this is all mindfulness has been about for me- how to be present in my life. I am not offering anyone or myself a quick fix and I am not offering a solution to all or any problems. I am offering others guidance on how to be more present in their lives because when I really think about it, this is the one, real, long-lasting benefit I have gotten from mindfulness practice.

Pleasing Other People

We all do it to a certain extent. Some more than others. People pleasing is more often than not, not a fun way to live. Another term for people pleasing is caring way too much.

It is actually impossible to please everyone, even though we try so hard. It’s just not going to happen no matter how hard you try. At some point, someone will get upset with you. Humans are very difficult to please and they are not known for being clear and open when upset with you. We keep it in and try and avoid conflict.

The difficult thing about people pleasing is the overthinking that comes along with it. “Did I do something to upset that person?” “Why is that person acting odd towards me?” “Is that person angry with me?” How many of us have stayed awake at night with thoughts similar to this?

Generally speaking, overthinking is the futile act of trying to figure out if or if not everyone is pleased with you. Overthinking takes up a lot of time and mental space.

People pleasers tend to want to fix things if they feel like they have done wrong. But the problem is that people pleasers ALWAYS feel like they have done wrong even when everything is just fine. So they continually end up stressing themselves out over nothing. But sometimes they are right, however there is nothing they can do about it anyways. You can never know for certain if someone is pleased with you. No matter how hard you try, it is impossible to know for certain- so why bother?

A fundamental aspect of mindfulness practice is being able to be comfortable with uncertainty. Uncertainty is the one thing that most of us tend to really not like. Uncertainty has been known to drive more people crazy than anything else.

We want certainty and a lot of us kill ourselves emotionally to get it. But in many ways uncertainty is much more logical than certainty is since in reality there are few things we can no for sure. When it comes to trying to please everyone, keep in mind that this is an impossible goal. It is not going to happen. Instead, see if you can practice becoming comfortable with not knowing and accepting that this is just how it is. In the end, this is a much more pleasant way to live.

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 Fly, The Stone and The Present Moment

A fly sits on a warm stone, enjoying the morning sun. It looks still, secure and content but suddenly it flies off. Then it is back again, then it flies off again, then it is back again, then it flies off again. The fly can not seem to make up its mind. So much to do, so little time left to live. It is having a difficult time deciding what to do. It returns to the stone, becomes still again for just a few seconds but then is gone yet again. I notice that the fly is flying all around the stone, lands on the dirt close to it but then flies away again.

We are not that different from this fly. The warmth, security and contentment that is experienced on the stone is a metaphor for the present moment and the fly is a metaphor for how our brains work. We struggle (some more than others) to remain present. We are like the fly who keeps coming back to the stone, then flies away again. The moment that we become present we notice that we feel a great relief. We feel happier, calmer, more secure but then we are gone again. Off to do something, accomplish tasks, judge others or ourselves, check something that we feel we are missing out on, worry about what might or might not happen in the future and before we know it we have returned to a state filled with anxiety, dissatisfaction, unfulfillment, anger and stress.

But then some of us are able to bring ourselves back to the present moment. Most of us remain here for just a moment or two before we fly off again, pulled away by our speedy and judgmental brains. The entire point of regularly practicing mindfulness meditation is that we are training ourselves to develop our capacity (which, we all have) for living more and more in the present moment. In a world where there are flies buzzing all around us, out of control- without regularly practicing mindfulness meditation it is very difficult, if not impossible, to cultivate the capacity to remain present. We practice mindfulness so that we can remain grounded on that stone for longer periods of time, experiencing more contentment, security, calm and relief. As a result we live much more satisfying, fulfilling and less tormented lives.

The fly has not yet returned to the stone.

The Mindfulness of Beer

images-3If your mind is anything like mine, then it is always changing it’s mind. One minute it is present and before you know it, it’s off and running with some negative thought. It almost seems impossible to control at times. Thoughts filled with fear, anger, judgement come rushing in like a freeway filled with rush hour traffic. I suppose this is the reason that I love beer. Despite the fact that when I drink beer I get bloated, feel like my belly is getting larger than I am comfortable with and often feel unwell a few hours after drinking it- I love what beer does to my mind. It usually takes two beers before I get the full mindfulness effect, but after I finish my first beer I notice the slowing of my mind effect.

This slowing of my mind effect is not to be taken lightly. I get such joy from this containment of my normally tyrannical mind that I will start to smile the moment I feel the buzz take hold. After my second beer the slowing of my mind effect turns into the complete halting of my mind effect. It is as if my mind goes limp, powerless over the alcohol that is numbing it into submission. What joy there is in these moments! For an hour or so- I am free!

I like the taste of beer, but more importantly I have been using it for its so-called mindfulness effects for over twenty years (with a few breaks in-between). If I am in the midst of feeling incredibly anxious, there is nothing like a beer to quiet my mind. My mind can generating scary and life threatening images and thoughts about my own demise but the moment I finish my first beer it is like a door has been opened and I can walk out into a spacious and peace-filled field where nothing is threatening. But as wonderful as this spacious field is, I can not help but wonder- is a quiet mind a mindful mind?

I could be wrong but I think a mindful mind is hardly ever quiet. The mindful mind is doing what a mind was created to do- generate thoughts. But the difference between a mindful mind and a beer buzzed mind is that the mindful mind is actively working hard to just let the thoughts come and go by keeping the focus on the breath, sounds and bodily sensations. The beer buzzed mind is “all good” in the moment. It is at peace and therefore has no real need for any meditative practices. But the beer buzzed mind is like putting a band-aide over a bleeding wound. The problem with this is it often hurts when it comes time to rip the band-aide off.

But man (and women) can not live on beer alone. The life enhancing and pleasant mind numbing effects of beer only last for a few hours and leave a person like me with a icky feeling in my gut, a hangover, a few extra pounds around my mid-section and a slight depression that any person experiences when they realize that something good does not last.

The pleasure/relief that I feel while experiencing a beer buzzed mind has kept me drinking a few beers, a few days a week (and a few more beers than that one or two days a week) despite the negative consequences. It is as if I am willing to put my body and mind through all the unpleasant post-beer effects just to spend an hour or two, maybe three, in a joyful beer buzzed place. Sounds silly, but in many ways I am willing to sacrifice my health for the sake of numbing that bullying part of my mind that is always making things more difficult than they need to be.

I know that this approach to mindfulness is all wrong. When I drink my beer I can hear some of my mindfulness teachers screaming at me: What the hell are you doing! Stay present with what is, rather than taking the beer escape! I know, I know- but still I find the mindfulness of beer a hard state to pass up. I love sitting there and gulping down my first beer like an asthmatic sucking on their inhaler waiting for the much needed relief to come. Once the relief comes it is so pleasant to feel normal again. When I drink my second beer I always think how pleasant it would be if my mind always felt this way. I also wonder if my mind has some kind of structural defect, which causes it to generate so many unpleasant thoughts (it has been this way my entire life). I wonder if other people have a mind that normally feels like my mind does after two beers: quiet, spacious, positive, relaxed and excited about life. In a nut shell, after two beers I am having fun and when a person has a mind that is always generating negative, existential, frightening, worried thoughts- having fun is a big deal.

However, I know there is a price to pay for most kinds of fun and I seem to be willing to pay for it. The mindfulness of beer comes with a price and as I sit here now writing this brief essay, I am still paying that price (and I only drank three beers and a sake last night!). If mindfulness is a present moment, non-judgemental state of awareness then the mindfulness of beer is something else. I am not sure what exactly it is but I know that I love it when it is there. Unfortunately, like a dysfunctional relationship, when it is gone I see it for exactly what it is- a pleasant escape from this moment.