What Your Stress Response Says About You

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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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.

How To Become A Mindfulness Teacher

Recently I have received not a lot, but an unusual amount of emails and phone calls from people asking me how they can become a mindfulness teacher.

I admit, I have been surprised by this since I do not think of myself as a mindfulness teacher. A part of me feels flattered that people are seeking out this kind of guidance from me but another part of me feels perplexed. Asking me how to become a mindfulness teacher is like asking an abstract painter to explain how she or he made that strange, abstract painting. It is not an easy thing to do.

My first inclination is to respond to people by saying, “I really don’t know” or “Read a lot of books on mindfulness and then apply what you learn.” But I recognize that this knee jerk reaction is a kind of unwillingness to talk about how I think a person becomes a mindfulness teacher (although reading a lot of books is important).

I never set my life’s course in the direction of becoming a mindfulness teacher. It is not something that I ever thought possible for me. I have always approached mindfulness in an effort to help myself more skillfully deal with the intense anxiety, depression and anger that I have struggled with much of my life.

Fifteen or so years ago while I was meditating in my small apartment in Oakland, I did have a vision of myself as an older man, sitting in the lotus position with a group of other people also seated in lotus position. We were all sitting in a circle practicing meditation and it kind of seemed like I was the teacher but I was not sure. I remember thinking that it would be nice to be able to be a meditation teacher but I had no idea how that kind of thing could ever happen since at the time I was consuming high doses of paxil, beer and marijuana to get through my anxious days.

Fifteen or so years later and people are asking me how to be a mindfulness teacher. It does feel strange. I do think, “Who, me?” But let me tell you how I think this sort of thing happened.

Professional Development Mindfulness Seminars, Mindfulness Certification Programs, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Programs and other mindfulness courses that you can take are all helpful in developing your understanding of the basic principles and application of mindfulness practice. They are almost always a necessary first step to install in your brain a better functioning operating system than the damaged one you have kept running all this time. But finishing one of these mindfulness programs is really just the very beginning and far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far from the end of your mindfulness education.

How you then proceed to deal with your daily suffering is the much more important part of your education.

Are you aware of your mortality right now? Are you aware that this next breath could really be your very last? If not and you want to be a mindfulness teacher you might want to work on this. The continual awareness of your own mortality is one of the most important understandings you will need to have in order to be an effective mindfulness teacher.

Why? Because when you are really aware of the impermanence that underlies every single aspect of our lives, it allows you to place a much greater value on letting things go and living as fully as possible in this moment. This moment will mean more to you than anything else.

The reason why most of us are not present is because we have forgotten that we are going to die. We are operating under the false assumption that life goes on forever. As a result we refuse to slow down. We take ourselves very seriously.

The moment you become more aware of your own mortality, the present moment automatically takes on a much greater value. You are not as easily caught up in emotions and thoughts about the future and past. You are not as easily seduced by judgemental thoughts of yourself and others. It becomes much easier to accept things as they are, let them go, have some compassion and live more fully in this moment.

Are you noticing that you are breathing in or out right now? 

A mindfulness teacher without a deep and personal understanding of the importance of this breath, of living life from moment to moment, aware of but not attached to everything that is going on, is like a bird without wings. It just doesn’t make any sense. No certification program or class can provide you with this innate and immediate understanding of your own (and everyone else’s) unavoidable end. This is something you will have to come to on your own, through your own life experience. A mindfulness teacher ideally acquires this very real understanding and insight long before they find themselves in a hospital bed.

The present moment is not really a real thing. The moment you become aware of the present moment it is already the past. The future is continually becoming the past, so in a sense there is not really an exact present moment. I use the term present moment in the same way a religious person might use the term God. It is pointing to an experience of something that is never really right here. A mindfulness teacher knows that the present moment just means being aware of the experience you are having right now rather than being completely lost in thought.

Being aware of our present moment experience (sensations in the body, sounds, smells, tastes, breathing) rather than being caught in the web of the wandering mind, is the essence of mindfulness practice.

There are mindfulness teachers and practitioners who are very dialed in to their present moment experience almost all of the time. I have studied with teachers who could be called expert meditators and as a result are not that invested in their egos. When we talk about being caught up in the wandering mind (identified with thought after thought after thought) this just means a person is very identified with their ego. There are mindfulness teachers who have worked hard and thus are not very ego driven. As a result, they suffer much less than you and I.

But this is not the kind of mindfulness teacher I am. I suffer. I struggle. I am still identified with my ego. I kind of like my ego and don’t want to eradicate it. I am just like most of the other people I teach- trying to more successfully and skillfully manage my own physical and psychological afflictions through the practice of mindfulness.

I still deal with anxiety, anger and depression- sometimes a lot more often that I care to admit. But to be a mindfulness teacher I do think it is important to suffer and struggle with these very human things. It is important to humanize yourself by being open about your own personal struggles instead of trying to come of as a person who has all their shit together. People will see through this (hopefully).

Besides, what use is a mindfulness teacher to people who are really struggling with very human difficulties if they are not willing to honestly share how they use mindfulness to deal with their own personal struggles? This is the essence of being a mindfulness teacher. Show people how you do it and let them decide if they want to apply it or not.

I could be wrong, but a mindfulness teacher who has eradicated all anger, anxiety, depression, grief does not exist. This is why it is important not to hide behind credentials, certifications, status and degrees by pretending like you have eradicated suffering, because you will always know this is just not true. As a result you will feel like an imposter.

Be courageous. Talk about your shit. Talk about your struggles and about how you apply mindfulness to the problems in your own life.

When you are angry, depressed or freaking out take the time to apply the basic principles of mindfulness practice. Do this again and again. This will be the most important and never ending aspect of your mindfulness education. No matter how angry or sad or worried or afraid or angry or depressed you get, keep coming back to your awareness of the present moment. Notice that you are breathing in and out. Let it go. If you can do this successfully more often than not- this will be your greatest qualification as a mindfulness teacher.

If you notice that days or weeks go by where you forget to apply the basic principles of mindfulness practice becuase you are all caught up in frantic thoughts and emotions, this is normal. You are human. It is just important that at some point you remember to bring yourself back to the awareness of the present moment and let go of whatever crap you have been caught up in.

If you go away from the present moment a thousand times, what is important is that you bring yourself back into the present moment a thousand and one times.

Remember the importance of being fully alive in this moment rather than being caught up in worry, remorse or judgment. None of it is as important as you think. Let it go. Practice living your life from moment to moment rather than living in terms of tasks you need to accomplish and/or worry about. When you realize you have gotten caught up in thoughts and have been living your very precious and very mortal life from the neck up (lost in your head) bring yourself back to what is happening right now. Do this again and again and again……..

It is the degree to which you suffer and then apply the basic principles of mindfulness practice while being honest with others (and yourself) about your process, which will determine the degree to which you are effective as a mindfulness teacher.

Confessions Of An Imperfect Mindfulness Teacher

When I began my formal mindfulness training in 1998, it was certainly not to become a mindfulness teacher. This was the furthest thing from my mind. I wanted to work on myself and potentially heal the various physical and psychological issues that I was struggling with. I wanted to find more peace and quiet in a mind that was up until that point filled with worry, panic, anger, uncertainty, confusion and self-judgment. The irony is that today I still practice mindfulness for the exact same reasons that I started practicing almost two decades ago.

I have never had any interest in enlightenment or nirvana. I have never had much interest in transcending my more materialistic or egoic limitations through some sort of spiritual transformation. I have zero problems with other people who are interested in spirituality and religion (unless they try and push their beliefs onto me), these belief systems have just never really been for me. I have always been someone who prefers learning how to be fully right here, right now. My interest is in learning how to be as fully present in my life as is humanly possible, since I realize that my struggles with worry, dissatisfaction and anxiety are mainly a result of thoughts about the future and my struggles with anger and depression are mainly rooted in thoughts about the past.

The more and more that I have cultivated the ability to be fully present, fully right here and right now- the less that I have struggled with anxiety, dissatisfaction, worry, anger and depression. But being fully present, for me, is a daily, moment by moment practice. The more I practice the less tormented I get. The more present I become. This is my practice in a nutshell.

I do find it challenging to be a mindfulness teacher. Like I said, I never set out to teach mindfulness. I was always happy learning mindfulness from and practicing with others who were much further down the path than I was. My wife and I started the mindfulness group in Claremont because after moving to Claremont from the San Fransisco Bay Area, I could find no place in LA to practice mindfulness. I started the group so that I could have a place to practice mindfulness with others, and I feel very grateful for what this group has become.

But I still see myself as a mindfulness practitioner, not really a teacher. When I lead mindfulness individual sessions, groups and seminars I look at it more as sharing my practice with others (rather than instructing others in what they should do). I talk about the things that I am practicing in my own life in the hopes that other people will use my mindfulness practice as a foundation from which to go forward and build their own practice. Mindfulness is a very creative practice. I have found that no two ways of practicing mindfulness are exactly the same. Over time, everyone makes mindfulness into something that is their own if they are doing it right. I suppose this is why I am drawn to mindfulness practice- it is an open and creative practice that only really works for a person if they find a way to turn into into something that is their own creation.

This may be why it is challenging for me to be a mindfulness teacher. I think a lot of self-help, motivational, religious or meditation teachers must struggle with this. There seems to be this unspoken expectation that the teacher is this perfect person that has it all figured out and is going to pass along to the student how they have figured everything out and healed themselves completely. As a result the student will be transformed and fixed. No more problems in life. I am yet to meet a teacher who has no problems or issues (though many will present themselves this way in order to succeed in their position) but I think it is the collective expectation. There is no doubt that the most successful spiritual, self-help, religious and mediation teachers are the ones who present as having it all figured out. Masters at their craft.

I am a flawed individual who struggles with various emotional and psychological issues just like every other human being on earth. As someone who teaches mindfulness I do not want to give off the disingenuous impression that I am a master who has figured it all out. This would be a terrible way to have to live my life- being someone who I am not. And more money in the bank is just not worth it. I want to be a very human mindfulness teacher, one who struggled just like everyone else but applies mindfulness to better manage my daily struggles. This feels more interesting to me.

I try to be as open and transparent as possible about my struggles as a human being so that I can help others to see how I apply mindfulness to better my mental and physical health. This I feel is the most important teaching that I can offer other people. It allows me to continue to feel authentic and truthful in how I present myself to the world. I feel that it is also an important learning opportunity for those who struggle with similar issues. I practice mindfulness for the same reason that everyone else does- I am trying to obtain more presence and peace in my life. I presume that if I ever arrive at a point where I have achieved absolute peace, perfection and presence, I will probably no longer have the desire to teach.

Many people think that mindfulness is a very simplistic practice. What do you mean just breathe when I still have all this anger in me and issues that I need to figure out? What do you mean just breathe and hear sounds when I am really struggling with serious problems that need to be resolved in my life? There are things I really need to figure out! I can certainly relate to this since I at one time felt the exact same way.

Mindfulness may seem simplistic because life is filled with so much suffering and agony. Who knows, maybe we will all go to our graves kicking and screaming but I feel that the pursuit of peace is a very noble pursuit (especially after a lifetime of suffering). Even if a continual state of presence and peace is just not possible in our fast-paced contemporary world, it is the pursuit that is important. And it has been my experience that through pursuing peace and presence, I have experienced a lot more peace and presence in my life. The alternative is more suffering. The most important part of mindfulness practice is a willingness to no longer be as defined by our suffering. Everything else gradually falls into place once we are willing to begin the process of letting it go.

The Mindfulness Guy

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 End.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections While Sitting In A Chair

I sit down in my chair. I set my meditation timer for thirty minutes and then place the palms of my hands on my knees. I feel the material of my sweat pants. I straighten my spine, place both feet flat on the ground. I notice my shoulders are constricted so I loosen them down towards the ground. I move my chin slightly in towards my chest. I then close my eyes.

Here I am, sitting in a chair. I am aware of myself as I am in this moment. I can feel the back of the chair pressing against my spine. I notice the bottom part of my body pressing into the seat of the chair. There is the sound of a distant train. Birds are singing their songs.

I follow my breathing as oxygen moves in and out through my nose. I notice my chest expanding and contracting with each inhalation and exhalation. There are a plethora of sensations in my body. Tingling sensations. Pulsations. Pressure. Tightness. A pleasant feeling of relaxation and space.

I am just sitting here doing nothing except being present with life. Nothing to do, nowhere to go. Just sitting.

I pay attention to my breathing as if I were on a walk with a friend. Breathing in and out. I notice that my brain is generating a lot of thoughts. It’s busy upstairs, I think to myself. I notice how I am thinking about many different things. Thoughts that come out of nowhere and go back in to nowhere. I continually let thoughts go by returning my attention to this moment.

There are so many chirping birds out there. Why are they making so much noise? What are they so happy about? Thinking, I tell myself and then bring my attention back to the present moment. In the distance I can hear cars speeding by. There goes a siren. Hope someone is getting the help they need. An airplane moves across the sky. I follow the sound of the airplane until it disappears.

Is that an owl that I hear? Maybe not. what could it be? There is a fly buzzing around the room. I can’t stand the sound that a fly makes as it flies around the room. So much nervous energy! Chill out man! Should I get up and swat it? No just learn to live with it. Let it be there and respect all life. I realize that I am lost in thought again and no longer paying attention to my breathing. I return my attention to following my breathing. Breathe in, breathe out, I repeat to myself. I notice the sensations of my feet touching the ground.

My head has tilted backwards, causing my chin to point slightly up towards the sky. I slowly bring my chin back down towards my chest. Feels more comfortable this way, I think to myself.

A bird flies past my window.

It’s a bit cold in this room. Should I get up and turn on the heat? Just be present with the cold. Just let the cold be there. Ok. Follow your breathing. I notice that I am telling myself this. Thinking again, I say to myself.

There is the sound of a barking dog. What kind of dog is it? Another airplane moves across the sky. I hear a high pitched beeping sound. Maybe it is a truck in reverse? There is a tingling sensation all over my body. I smile as I realize that I am fully aware of the experience that I am having in this moment. Fully present and aware. How pleasant it feels to just be fully here in this moment. It comes on quick and then goes away just as fast.

I notice a painful sensation in my back. Maybe I should move a bit just to lessen the pain? No, just let the pain be there. Accept the pain as it is and just continue to follow your breathing. I notice that I am thinking and I return my attention to following my breathing, hearing various sounds, feeling my feet on the ground, noticing my chest expanding and contracting with each breath. I let the pain be there as it is. The pain becomes tolerable. I can live with it.

Another airplane is moving across the sky. So many airplanes. Humans are so busy, always coming and going and moving at such high speeds. It’s a kind of collective madness. The world needs to slow down! I notice that I am thinking again and return my attention to my breathing.

I follow my breathing as it moves in and out through my nose. Breathing in, breathing out. My dog barks. My head falls back without me even noticing. I bring my chin back down towards my chest. I am aware of my chest expanding and contracting with each breath. How much longer this is going to last? I notice that I am thinking again.

So many other thoughts that keep coming and going. Thoughts about this, thoughts about that- mostly nonsense. It seems as if my brain is moving as quickly as the cars and airplanes out there in the world. I notice all different kinds of thoughts. There is a judgmental thought. There is a worried thought. There is an angry thought. There is a thought about the future. There is another judgmental thought. Thought after thought, like a stream with no end.

I get caught up in certain thoughts. The fearful and judgmental thoughts are particularly sticky. Just being aware that I am thinking allows me to return my attention to the present moment. I let the thought go. Again and again.

This is the only thing I need to be doing right now, I tell myself. I am present with my life as it is right now.

And then there are more thoughts. When is the dam timer going to go off? Hasn’t it been thirty minutes already? I notice that I am thinking again and then return my attention to my breathing. The singing birds are now quiet. An airplane moves across the sky. Busy air travel day, I think. I feel my digestion. I notice a pain in my gut. It could be cancer. It could be an ulcer. You are getting older. There you go again, I tell myself. Just by being aware of the fearful thoughts I notice that the thoughts disappear. I return my attention to my breathing. I feel calm.

There is the sensation of pain in my back. There is a openness in my chest that was not there before. Bird sounds and a ringing sensation in my ears. I am breathing. I am just sitting here in a chair. I notice how good it feels to be present with my life as it is. I am just being. I smile.

Maybe I should meditate again later? I want to keep feeling this way. There is an absence of all anxiety. Thinking again, I tell myself. I notice the sound of truck. There is that fly again. Just let it be.

I sit there. Fly sounds. Cars sounds. Bird sounds. Airplane sounds. My life.

The palms of my hands are still resting on my knees. My chin is pointing up at the sky again. My hands feel cold. There are various pulsations in my fingertips. Is that an owl that I hear or some other kind of bird?

The timer goes off. I open my eyes. I smile.