Continual FEAR

Whether we are aware of it or not, most of us these days tend to live in a continual state of fear. Fear seems to be what is operating our mental and physical vehicles, determining the ways we live our lives. Some amount of fear can be a positive thing in terms of survival and motivation but too much fear makes life one long anxiety drag.

There is a long list of fears we deal with daily. Fear of being negatively judged by others, fear of not being able to sustain what we have, fear of being found out as the person we really are, fear of being discredited, fear of not being able to remain safe and secure in a world that seems to be growing more and more insecure. And then there are the fears of our own mortality, fear of illness, fear of growing old, fear of being hurt by others, fear of being the victim of a random act of violence and on and on. With all of these continual fears going on within us, it is a wonder that many of us still seem to be holding it together.

We tend to cope with our continual fear with our smartphones, eating, booze, working, inflating our egos, drugs, various forms of entertainment, ideological belief systems, shopping and more eating. But the fear always seems to be there just under the surface. We wake up with it at 3am, it finds us mid-way through the day when things slow down. We are good sometimes at hiding from the continual fear, but it never goes away.

Living a life from a place of fear is no fun at all. It is similar to being a prisoner on the run. An unpleasant way to live the one, impermanent life we currently have. So what can we do? Is there any possible way to be free of this continual fear?

Human beings are troubled and struggling in one shape or form. To struggle and be troubled by daily existence is as human as breathing. No one on this planet suffers from perfection, even if they are really good at pretending like they do. But we do not have to be troubled and struggle to the point where we are kept up at night by our worries or we are living life as a prisoner on the run.

Our brains are plastic and our nervous systems are always open to new possibilities of learning. What this means is that we are able to change things for the better if we put in the effort. Most people tend not to like this part because the effort is not easy, and will instead reach for their smartphones or something to eat. I am guilty of this myself. But we do not have to remain confined in the same way of being, day after day.

If we do want to change things within ourselves (not suffer as much) we need to learn to inhibit our old, more destructive patterns by opening up a space between our tendency to react in the same old ways to various stimuli and the potential to do something new. Opening a space is what helps us to interrupt our old and habitual reactive patterns and respond in a new way, thus tapping into our brains plasticity (ability to respond to life differently) and our nervous systems ability to learn new ways of being.

Despite continual fear being a main staple in contemporary life, mindfulness does give us the ability to be aware of when fear has taken over, when fear is running our life and then rather than reacting to this fear in the same old way (which can snowball into complete misery), opening a space within which you can acknowledge the fear and then let the fear move through (which it will do if you let it).

Without the ability to open a space, fear has no place to go, gets blocked up and remains continual fear.

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The Weight Of Obligations

At the end of a day working as a psychotherapist, I can’t help but wonder if unwanted obligations are not the main cause of so many physical and mental illnesses. On a typical day I will see between six and eight clients, most of whom have lives that are filled with things they have to attend to, but do not really want to do.

In America we tend to see this as the normal way life is. It is as natural as the sun coming up in the morning. We have all these obligations to tend to, things that we do not really want to do, but we do them anyways because in a sense we must.

For most Americans, work tends to be one of the main obligations that people would rather not spend their time tending to if they did not have to. Afterall, the definition of happiness is doing exactly what you want to be doing.

But as Americans we have been taught to remedy the unhappiness of doing what we have to do but do not really want to do by buying things. In fact, the more we are able to buy, the nicer the things we own, the more successful we are seen as being.

But I am not so sure that buying things really brings lasting happiness. Yesterday, I bought a really nice table my wife and I have wanted for some time. A few hours later we were arguing about a problem we have been having with one of our dogs. I couldn’t help but note that the happiness from buying the expensive table did not last long.

I realize that in America we see everyone working hard and then buying their way up the status ladder with the money they have earned. This is just what we do, it is how we have been taught to live and we don’t really question it, except maybe when we are in a hospital bed.

I wish that the things we bought from the money earned doing things we do not really want to be doing but are pretending like we really like doing, brought long-lasting happiness. I really do. But the truth is that this way of achieving happiness is like stacking more stuff in a garage that is already over-filled. You buy a car or a house and a dog or have a few kids and then you just have to spend more of your time doing things that you do not really want to be doing with your limited time.

Now that I own a home and have dogs and some nice things, I have to spend a lot of my time engaged in home care and dog care and organizing and paying for all the things I own. The time I spend doing the things I really want to be doing has grown exponentially shorter. If I complain about this, I feel guilty because I feel like I should be grateful for what I have. I remember having very little and I should be happy that I finally have a nice and comfortable lifestyle. But I sure spent a lot more time doing the things I liked to do when I was poor.

This is what I call a middle-class syndrome. Middle-class because day after day in my work as a psychotherapist I see people dealing with the anxiety, depression, chronic worry and stress that are symptoms of this particular syndrome.

Because happiness is having the ability to do whatever the hell it is you really want to do (and not just on the weekends), I often tell my clients that they must find balance.

Unfortunately, it is the nature of economic life in America that most people will have to work jobs that are not the ideal way that they would like to be spending their time. They will also have to do a lot of things outside their jobs that are not the ideal way they would like to be spending their time. It is just how we have set up economic life in America.

If a person goes an entire day without spending some time doing exactly what they want to be doing, this is a recipe for misery.

Everyday a person needs to try and take the power back by committing themselves to doing exactly what they want to do- even if it is on a lunch break. For me it is reading, writing, making art, meditating and listening to music. If I do not do a few of these things everyday, I will feel despair. If I neglect these things for too many days I will just start to feel like a hopeless robot going through the motions with no real purpose or interest driving my life.

If we want a shot at feeling good we must make the effort to balance out our daily lives by doing things that we want to do (and not just when we get in bed at the end of a day with a book). If this is for too long neglected the anger, stress and depression that we feel will manifest in a physical and/or mental illness.

I am not sure that there are too many people who get to do exactly what they want to do all the time. I am sure that even Donald Trump would rather not put on a suit somedays. Life in the current late-capitalist American economic system that we are living in, means spending a large majority of our time obligated to things that we do not really want to be doing.

Like I said, most see this as normal and do what they must without thinking much about it. This is what the powers system wants, a non-questioning, submissive, automaton.

But we are human beings and I believe that the point of being alive is to be able to enjoy your life as much as possible; to be able to do exactly what you want to do most of the time. I believe that we were designed to live this way and nothing we purchase is worth its exchange. It is just the current system that we are all living within that has messed this up by encouraging us to turn our lives into a never ending series of weighted obligations.

If you really want to do the things that you want to be doing in your everyday life, you are going to have to really try. Because after all, the person easiest to neglect is yourself.

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.

Notes From The Present Moment

Here I sit, in front of my digital typewriter. It is a Saturday morning and the sun is hanging bright in the blue sky. I just finished watering my garden. I wanted to drench the plants, trees, flowers and grass in water before the afternoon summer heat consumes them. As I was watering I noticed a snap of Autumn in the air but as quickly as a snap comes, it went away.

There were butterflies, dragonflies and hummingbirds that I presume showed up in my garden to grab a drink of water from the hose. They flew through and around the water like children at play in a park. I noticed the warm sensation of my feet making contact with the grass and the rays from the sun soaking themselves into my skin. My breathing was slow and shallow and I noticed that my mind would continually wander off thinking about a hundred different things and I would continually bring my mind back to the awareness of just being present in the garden.

I feel grateful for mindfulness practice because without the skill of being able to be present more than I am not, I imagine my life would be filled with anxiety and dread. I don’t care much for thinking about the future nor do I really tend to the past. But my mind will travel to these foreign places without my say so and I am grateful that I have the awareness, trust and the ability to bring my mind back into the present moment.

Make no mistake about it, a person needs a lot of trust to be present. Most people are too filled with anxiety to be present. They feel like if they are present their lives will somehow fall apart or not be worth living. They will not get done what they need to or maybe they feel like they will have nothing to do. This is a myth that is simply not true. The opposite is actually true- the more present we are the better we tend to things. I am grateful that I know this to be a fact through my years of practice. I never thought about the possibility of having a beautiful garden at some point in my future. I don’t think about if I will continue to have this garden. All I know and care about is that it is here now.

It is only this moment which is real, everything else is just a fiction created by our minds. A fiction only because it is not what is happening now. Most tend to live a life in fictional places. Maybe this is why so many people do not like reading fiction- because they already spend so much of their lives in fiction. I don’t know. But I do know that if we spend too much time in fictions, we neglect things now. If I can be present while watering my garden, I will do a much more thorough job. Over time, my garden will be much healthier because I tended to it with presence rather than rushing through and possibly not giving the plants, flowers, grass and trees the water and attention they need.

The sound of an ambulance siren just raced past my house. Whenever I hear an ambulance or fire engine siren, I always think that there is someone in great need out there who is probably very relieved to be hearing that sound. I used to be aggravated by the loud sound of sirens but that was selfish of me to be frustrated by a sound that is bringing with it the help that someone needs.

For me, the sound of a siren is a continual reminder of the fragility of all life. It helps me not take things so seriously. At any moment, at any time the siren could be coming for one of us. After being ill for the past month, I became very aware of that fine line between being able to be independent and suddenly needing help. Whenever I hear a siren, I am not only grateful that it is not coming for me, but I am reminded of the importance of living in the present moment because who knows when it will be.

In meditation retreat centers, singing bowls are used throughout the day to remind a person to gently guide their attention back into the present moment. Since I live close to a busy street where ambulances and fire engines often pass through, I use the sound of the sirens in the same way I would use the sound of singing bowls when on meditation retreat. I gently bring my attention back into the present moment. I notice my breathing moving in and out. I become aware of sensations in my body. I notice smells and sounds that I am hearing. I lean into the present moment. And then I am just here, present in my life without trying to gain anything. No future, no past, no need to get something more. Just this moment.

This is how you earn a life.

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.

Things All Over The Place

Things all over the place. Someday, some yet unknown civilization will study us and think that we had things all over the place. We are consumed by our things and few things ever remain in their right place.

I love some of my things, but does this mean I need to have things all over the place? Has humanity really evolved to have this many things all over the place? Can our brains really handle all these things all over the place? Just about all of our homes have things all over the place. There are things everywhere, too many to name.

Some of us are lucky enough to have the time, energy and/or money to have things continually kept in their right place. Few of us are disciplined enough to keep everything right where it needs to be, at all times. After all, this is the only way that most of us could maintain sanity and stability with things.

We have built our lives in order to have things all over the place. This is what we do. This is where human ingenuity has landed us. We labor away and then we collect things. It is fun buying things with our hard earned cash. If we did not do this what would be the point of our labor? We certainly don’t love the things we do for cash so we better enjoy the spending of it.

We end up with things all over the place.

What we did for fun becomes an excess of things all over the place. Memories materialized into things.

And now our lives become about keeping things in their right place. Learning how to not get so angry when things are all over the place. Figuring out how to keep things from getting all over the place. Straining our relationships because of the stress of having things all over the place. Not spending our time more meaningfully because we are too tired after dealing with things all over the place. Wishing we could just be comfortable with things all over the place but never being able to achieve this ideal.

Those who are perfectly at home and relaxed with things all over the place are the enlightened beings in our day and age of too many things all over the place.

Our world is surrounded by things all over the place. The inside of our homes is a reflection of the clutter all around. Everything is out of place. There is clutter everywhere, unless you are fortunate enough to live where no one else or only a few are around. But chances are you still live in a home with things all over the place. We live in a world of things all over the place and our homes become microcosmic portraitures of this macrocosmic condition.

It is inevitable. When we live with things all over the place our inner worlds become filled with things all over the place. Everything is out of place on the outside because everything is out of place on the inside. Or is everything out of place on the inside because everything is out of place on the outside?

Thoughts all over the place. An endless number of things to get done. Different feelings running into one another. Continually trying to get things organized on the inside but never feeling able to. Looking towards drugs and alcohol to help us straighten things out, if only for a minute. Meditating, doing yoga, going to therapists, reading self-help books, going on retreat- all in the hope of effectively dealing with these things all over the place.

No scientific research is needed to tell us we live in a world, inside and out, with too many things all over the place. We are buried beneath these things, always struggling to find a way to get things in order. We struggle to remain organized inside and out. We try as hard as we can to deal with things all over the place. But more often than not, our only shot at survival is to say fuck it and accept that this is now a world with things all over the place.