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.

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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

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.

What The World Really Needs Now

It saddens me deeply to see what is going on in the world today. What happened just today in Barcelona is such a sad tragedy. Las Ramblas district in Barcelona is such an old, gothic, literary, multi-cultural and cool part of the world. I had some of the best times of my life in Las Ramblas district. There is so much life, beauty, art, personality and inspiration there. It makes me so sad to see what has happened today in this part of the world.

Much of the time I just don’t fully understand all this senseless violence that is going on. I understand that it is a manifestation of hate, acts of war. I understand that many radicalized people are at war with people, values and countries whom they find fault with. But what I don’t understand is how people could be so deeply identified with certain thoughts, beliefs and emotions that they are willing to kill, injure and traumatize so many people. This kind of obsessive and profound identification with the ego just escapes my ability to comprehend.

I understand that we all have things that outrage us, upset us. I understand that many of us can feel hateful and resentful. But to hurt other people? To run people over with a van, bus or car? Are you kidding me? This is pure madness as far as I am concerned. The fact that someone can get this caught up in their own thoughts and emotions, is one of the real tragedies as far as I am concerned.

All thoughts and emotions are like clouds drifting across the sky. No matter how important we think our beliefs, grievances and problems are- it will all be dust soon enough. A hundred years ago people were equally as caught up in all of their problems and where are they now? Where are all their problems now? Too get so caught up in what we think, believe and feel is such a mistake in logic that the consequences, as we are seeing, can be so tragic.

Logically we know that we are all here on earth for a limited time. Logically we know that the things we stress out over, when placed in a larger context, are really not that big of a deal. Logically we know that thoughts, emotions and beliefs are not really worth getting so stressed out over. It is only when we are being illogical that we get caught up in the smaller picture. We lose perspective and forget that we are all mortal and these things really do not matter as much as we think that they do. Unfortunately, so many people are stuck in illogical ways of being right now.

When we are able to just become present, to relax that tight grip on our identification with all of our thoughts, emotions and beliefs, what we notice is that some semblance of logic begins to return. We get more clarity. We become aware of the bigger picture and as a result our thoughts and emotions and beliefs and problems don’t feel like as big of a deal. Unfortunately, so much of the harm and tragedy being committed in today’s world is a result of people who are lost in an illogical state. They become so illogical that the illogic feels logical, normal. But it is not normal. The consequences of being lost in illogical states of mind sometimes manifests in the form of a willingness to run innocent people over, hurting others. This is not sane.

What the world needs now is more logic. Please, you may feel like there is nothing to be done about the events unfolding in the world today. You may feel fearful and/or helpless. But one thing you can do is not perpetuate illogical ways of being in your own family, relationships, community. If you are someone who is taking all of your problems and emotions and thoughts very seriously see if you can stop doing it. You are not in a logical state. See if you can just return your attention to the present moment and return to a more logical state. A state with some semblance of peace, non-reactivity, perspective and calm. You may think this is no big deal but I assure you- the last thing the world needs now is more people caught in the grip of their egos running around.

I once had a teacher who told me that it was so important that I remain peaceful and loving even though at the time I was teaching high school in the inner city and living in a city I felt was so full of violence and anger. She told me that if even one person could practice being loving and calm in the middle of what was a city filled with anger, busyness, violence and egotism, that this person could have a powerful opposite effect in various ways. This is often called The Butterfly Effect.

So, if possible, please stop attaching so strongly to everything you think, feel and believe. Loosen the grip a bit. Settle more into a place of calm and ease. Relax. Let some degree of logic return. I could be wrong but I feel that this is what the world needs right now, more than anything else.

Snake Oil

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

Pleasing Other People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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