Are you aware that you are breathing right now?
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.
Some things are far beyond our control. No matter how hard we try, we just can’t see them coming. Today, I was officially inaugurated in as The Mindfulness Guy. Not by choice. Not by want. Just by fate. Had no idea that it was going to happen. I just went to the market to get a few things for dinner.
I never set out to be The Mindfulness Guy. I have set out to be many things in my life (professional tennis player, fiction writer, abstract painter, successful blogger) but everything that I have set out to become on my own terms, has failed. The things that I did not set out to become, that I became as a result of necessity, destiny or practicality (security) seem to be the things at which I succeed.
I live in a town but I prefer to call it a city. The reason why I prefer to call it a city is because no one waves here. People keep to themselves. In a town, it seems like strangers, acquaintances and friends are always waving back and forth at each other. Not here. I work as a mindfulness psychotherapist. I lead mindfulness groups. I work with individuals, couples and families in private practice where I teach them mindfulness skills. This is what I do in the city where I live.
I’m not a Buddhist. I’m not spiritual or religious. I am not very interested in matters pertaining to psychology or the neurobiological aspects of brain functioning (like most mindfulness teachers are). I have no desire to have a following (like most mindfulness teachers do). I try to work as little as possible (most mindfulness teachers seem to work all the time). I’m just a guy who enjoys practicing mindfulness and helping others to live less stress filled lives.
For at least a decade I had debilitating anxiety and panic attacks. I was depressed and angry most of the time. I was an alcoholic and habitual marijuana user. There were few things that I enjoyed more than numbing my unruly brain with substances. I was introduced to a few people who were serious mindfulness practitioners, started practicing with them regularly and in time the panic attacks, intense anxiety, depression and uncontrollable anger went away. Despite my skepticism, I was impressed that mindfulness actually worked for me. So I have stuck with it.
By no real effort of my own, it just so happens that I am able to teach others what I was taught. People can take it or leave it. This is as far as I go with my work as a mindfulness teacher. I don’t read much about mindfulness. I don’t go to lectures about mindfulness. I do not watch videos about mindfulness. When speaking with others I don’t refer to myself as a mindfulness teacher or psychotherapist and I prefer not to talk about mindfulness when I am not working. I just practice mindfulness because it helps me. This is why I was shocked when I was in the market looking for maple syrup (and wondering if I should buy molasses instead) and heard some lady shout: “Hey mindfulness guy, help us!”
At first I thought, “Who’s the mindfulness guy?” I looked around the market to see if I could catch a glimpse of my competition and suddenly noticed that a lady, dressed in the market’s uniform, was kneeling down above a body that was wiggling all over the floor. The strange thing was that this lady was looking directly at me.
“Hey mindfulness guy, come here please!!,” she yelled in my direction. “Who me?” I said pointing at my chest. I do not know why I was so surprised at being the one who was being summoned, but I was. “Yes, please come here NOW!” I quickly grabbed a random maple syrup off the shelf, put it in my basket and then walked over towards where the woman was kneeling down. A large group of people, all with shopping baskets hanging from their hands, gathered around the woman wiggling around on her back, on the floor. The kneeling woman who called for me was the store manager and I recognized her because she had come to a few of my mindfulness groups. She told me that the person wiggling around on the floor was having a panic attack. She asked me to use mindfulness to help settle the person down. This was a very unusual situation for me to be in.
I admit, I was slightly annoyed. When I am out in public I do not like to be bothered. I prefer to just go out, do my thing, maintain some degree of anonymity and then return home. I am not the type of person who says hello to people I recognize and then engage in brief conversation. I would rather avoid this. Why I am this way I do not know. One of my previous therapists called it anti-social behavior disorder after I had walked past her on the street one day and pretended not to see her. She knew I did. I do not see the need to label this behavior “anti-social,” I think it is just a fundamental aspect of being an introvert.
But now I had to come out of my self-created shell. I had to act like an extrovert and make conversation with a woman who was wiggling around on the floor in a state of extreme panic. The woman looked like she was in her mid-forties and I noticed that her hair was dyed purple and she had a nose ring. She was wearing a Bernie Sanders For President t-shirt and was sweating profusely, shaking, hyperventilating, stomping her feet down onto the ground and shouting out, “I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!”
I have certainly been in this similar panicked situation myself, but never on the floor of a crowded supermarket (thankfully). I noticed that Huey Lewis And The News was playing on the store speakers and I wished someone would turn it off. “This man can help you, he’s the mindfulness guy,” the store manager said to the woman wiggling and sweating and hyperventilating all over the ground. The Mindfulness Guy? Really? Did you have to introduce me to her in this way?, I thought to myself. But there was no time for my ego right now. I had to act. I had to figure out how to teach mindfulness to someone who was in the middle of a panic attack on a supermarket floor. I decided to do a body scan.
“Oh god, oh god, I can’t breathe!,” she kept saying. “I can’t breathe!, I can’t breathe!” “Ok, ok. Everything is going to be all right. You are going to be fine, I promise you. I just need you to really try to notice the sensations that are present in your feet. Just become aware of the sensations in your feet,” I told her as I rested my hand gently on her chest. “I can’t breathe! I cant breathe!,” she kept yelling out. “Please, just pay attention to your feet. Notice the sensations in the soles of your feet. Can you feel tingling sensations? Are your feet warm or cold? Can you feel pulsations in your feet?” I asked. “I can’t fucking breathe and you want me to feel my feet!?” the lady shouted out at me. Ok, this is not working, I thought to myself.
She continued to wiggle, shake, sweat and hyperventilate. I decided to do some basic mindfulness breathing with her. “Ok, I want you to just focus on your breathing moving in and out through your nose. Just follow your breathing as it moves in and out through your nose. Don’t try to control your breathing, just let it move in through your nose and then back out again. Just follow the breath with your awareness.” As I told her this I was modeling how to do it for her and occasionally she would look at me and watch but then she suddenly said, “I can’t breathe you son of a bitch and you want me to follow my breathing! Help me! Oh god help me! I can’t breathe! I don’t want to die! Get me a doctor not this fucking mindfulness lunatic!” I couldn’t believe that this woman was shouting this at me. I was only trying to help. It was embarrassing but I had to remain calm. I could not take her insults personally. I needed to act fast before everything was lost.
I noticed that there was a large stack of Alhambra bottled waters by my side. The water was on sale. A few times in the distant past I had used the splashing cold water on your face method to calm myself down from a panic attack. I quickly grabbed a bottled water from the stack, which caused the entire stack to come falling down on to the ground. Bottled waters bouncing around everywhere. But this was a crisis situation and in a crisis no one cares much about maintaining how things look. You just need to do what you got to in order to get control of a situation. So I opened the bottled water and poured it out all over the panicked woman’s chest and face.
I could hear gasps of shock from the crowd that had gathered around as I emptied the water bottle onto the woman. They could not believe what I was doing. I knew that if this did not work I was doomed. I would be killed in a supermarket by an angry crowd who would use their shopping baskets to clobber me.
This is why I was so relieved when I noticed the woman suddenly stopped wiggling. She sat right up, looked directly at me and said, “What the fuck?! What did you do that for?!” She used her hands and shirt to wipe the water off her face. She shook out water from her drenched hair. “You son of a bitch! What did you pour water all over me for?!” The woman was so angry that she stood right up off the floor, like suddenly she had gotten all of her muscle back. I stood up along with her not sure what to do next. I was concerned that the woman would attack me since she looked enraged. All I could think to say to her was, “Can you at least breathe ok now?” And then there was a silence. All I could hear was the terrible music playing on the store speakers.
The woman’s face immediately changed. She looked around for a moment as if she was trying to figure something out. I stood there waiting for whatever was going to happen next. This is a big part of my mindfulness practice, the practice of just being comfortable with uncertainty and just allowing things to unfold naturally while keeping myself present with what is. I focused on my breathing as I noticed that the woman was realizing that her panic had gone away. Her angry face suddenly turned into a happier face and then everything turned upside down. This complete stranger threw her arms around me and gave me a very constricting hug. Now I could not breathe but all I could do was stay present with the discomfort and put my arms around her. She kept saying, ”Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you so much. You are truly the mindfulness guy. You saved my life!” I could feel her tears on my neck and thought to myself, oh shit.
The hug lasted a lot longer than I would have liked but it stopped right when the crowd suddenly started clapping. The woman let go of me, stepped backwards towards the crowd and joined them in giving me a standing ovation. I noticed some people were crying. And then something really unexpected happened. The woman, the store manager and the large crowd standing around all began chanting: ”Mindfulness Guy!!, Mindfulness Guy!!, Mindfulness Guy!!, Mindfulness Guy!!” They repeated this over and over again and I thought it would never end. I wished they would stop but I just stood there thanking them because I did not know what else to do. It felt humiliating to be the center of attention in this way but I followed my breathing, stayed aware of sensations in my body and accepted what is.
The store manager walked up and hugged me and then kissed me on the cheek. She said, “Thank you so much! I need to come to more of your mindfulness groups. Please let me know when you check out. I want to give you a 50% discount.” Thankfully the crowd gradually dispersed but suddenly there was a long line of people, still holding their shopping baskets in their hands, and now wanting to shake my hand and get a business card from me. Business had been slow lately and I thought that this could be a good way to get some new customers. I felt excited about the prospect of my business picking up again but when I reached into my pocket to grab my wallet (within which I kept my business cards) I realized I had forgotten my wallet at home. This does not look good, was the thought I had. I picked a bottled water up off the ground and drank it down.
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.”
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.
Life does not often work out the way that we need or want it to. Things are always changing. Everything seems to be in a continual state of flux. As a result, some people have a stronger need than others to control. There are a lot of things that are outside of our control. Even we ourselves often feel outside of our control. We often do the thing that we think we should not do and then we judge ourselves for doing what we are doing. When we feel like we have little control over ourselves, our need to control our external environments often increases.
Clean House Syndrome (CHS) or Environment Control Syndrome (ECS), is a specific form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Clean House Syndrome is not yet in the DSM (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), but it is a specific syndrome that I have come up with as a result of observing and trying to better understand the emotional and psychological states that afflict human beings through my work as a psychotherapist. Like individuals with OCD (who try and control their situation), individuals with CHS channel all of their feelings of anxiety and instability into their homes. The way that an anorexic finds control and stability in not consuming certain foods, an individual with CHS controls her or his external environment by keeping it clean and organized.
The main cause of CHS is judgment and a need for control. When we do not feel in control of our lives or ourselves, it is only natural that we would try and seek out a feeling of stability through the one thing that can provide us with a sense of control- our homes.
The more that we feel like we are not doing what we should be doing (self-judgment), the more we will get agitated, anxious and/or angry when that pile of laundry or that disorganized closet is not doing what it should be doing- getting clean and organized. And after all, judgments are just final conclusions that we come to within our minds about others, the world and ourselves. The problem with these final conclusions is that they are most often incorrect. As a result we end up living lives, where most of our stress and unhappiness is the result of false conclusions that we create. No wonder we will feel agitated, anxious, disdainful and/or angry a lot of the time. CHS is a direct result of trying to control the instability that is often created by these judgments.
The opposite of control and judgment is a state of being able to relax and “go with the flow.” It is a state of accepting what is and being able to be at ease with what is without needing to control outcomes. The result of this is an inner state that is filled with more calm, perspective, appreciation and equanimity. Less dis-ease. Needing our homes to always be clean and ordered (and being in a state of agitation or dis-ease when they are not) is a result of not being able to be present with life just as it is. The moment we see the dirty toilet or dirty floor our judgment and need to control gets triggered. Our perspective narrows and rather than being able to accept what is and either cleaning the toilet or easefully letting it be until we can get to it some other time, we become reactive.
Those with CHS are not able to let life be. This is why it is a syndrome (it creates psychological disorder). Individuals with CHS need to think that they are keeping everything within their control at all times. If they do not feel like things are within their control they experience anxiety, agitation, depression, judgment, restlessness and/or disdain. When things are messy in the home, they feel an intense need to create the feeling of order and stability in their external environment that they lack within themselves.
The antidote to CHS is the cultivation of inner states of acceptance, awareness, satisfaction, appreciation and stability (mindfulness). When this is done the prognosis is often that self-esteem, psychological and emotional health and overall life satisfaction increase immensely.
She was angry for years at her husband for how he treated her. The loss of his father caused him to remain in deep grief for years. The job that he hated but had to work at caused him so much daily rage and negativity. She was so angry at the world. His parents really upset him.
From a mindfulness perspective the problem is not the husband, the deceased father, the unpleasant job, the world, the parents. It is not the things outside of ourselves that cause us unhappiness and suffering. The real cause of suffering is the anger, the grief, the rage, the negativity that we are so identified with. When we are focusing all of our attention outside of ourselves, when we believe that the reasons for our suffering are because of the “things out there,” we are like someone who is bleeding to death and not addressing the wound. We have become the cause of our own suffering.
Mindfulness is an emotional, behavioral and mental state of mind. Like all other mental states (anger, anxiety, joy, depression, excitement, dread, rage, etc..), the mindful state arises and passes away depending upon the kind of thoughts and feelings a person becomes identified with. The more negative the thoughts and feelings are, the more difficult it becomes to maintain a mindful mental state.
The Zen teacher and writer Shunryu Suzuki, in his classic book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind writes:
Nothing comes from outside your mind. Usually we think of our mind as receiving impressions and experiences from outside, but that is not the true understanding of our mind. The true understanding is that the mind includes everything; when you think something comes from outside it means only that something appears in your mind. Nothing outside yourself can cause any trouble. You yourself make the waves in your mind. If you leave your mind as it is, it will become calm. This mind is called big mind.
In mindfulness practice, awareness is the same as what is referred to as “big mind” in Zen practice. Through focusing our attention on the present moment (breathing, sensation, sounds, thoughts- the here and right now) we are cultivating a big mind. When we become aware and accepting of what is happening within us right now, we begin to cultivate a mindful state.
To have a good day today, does not imply that we feel happy and relaxed. No, quite the opposite is true. Happiness just means the presence of positive thoughts and feelings. It is a transitory emotional state just like all other emotional states. Having a good day today has nothing to do with feeling happy or free of anxiety. It means that we are able to become aware of and fully accept whatever is happening within us right now. We stop fighting. We stop resisting. We stop beating ourselves up. We stop wanting things to change or be different than what they are right now. We notice when we are judging others and let it be. As a result of doing this we drop into our lives exactly as they are right now. We become present with what is. We are taking responsibility for the quality of our lives right now. Things become more manageable. We feel a greater degree of what it means to be free.
Acceptance is the opposite of attachment. When we are attached to our anger, our pain, our hurt, our stress, our anxiety, our unhappiness, our greed, our indignation- we are causing our own suffering. When we are able to become aware of the emotional and mental states that are present in us right now and accept them as they are- we create a “big mind,” a mindful mental state. A mindful state is a peaceful state. Even someone who is dying right now, may not feel happy, but they can choose to be in a very peaceful state.
Using acceptance and awareness to return to this mindful mental state when we recognize that we are not fully accepting our lives as they are (“what is”), when we are resisting, wanting things to be different, blaming or fighting back- is how we can stop suffering and have a good day today. Right now. Ultimately, the ball is in our court from moment to moment to moment.