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

On Being Ill

Many years ago, I went out for a Chinese food lunch with my then meditation teacher and mentor, Russel Delman. I was carrying a journal with me that I wrote in religiously. Russel kindly asked me, “Why do you do that?” “What?” I said. “Write in a journal.” “Just to work out my thoughts,” I said. “Plus, I just like the act of writing.” “Ok,” Russel said, “But just be mindful that thoughts are like cobwebs, the more we engage with them, the more we get stuck.”

This sentiment has stayed with me, and I am now cautious with regards to indulging my thoughts. But I am a writer and the writer is always trying to make sense of their experiences through the act of writing. If it helps another person, great. If not, that is ok as well. Ultimately, the writer writes because they need to make sense of things.

With this in mind, I would like to try and make some sense of the experience that I have been going through over the past month. I presume that the fact that I have the energy to do this is a sign that my health is improving. But last Monday, I could not move from bed.

For the past month, I have been very ill. It is strange for me to write that sentence since I have always been very mindful of my health. I guess you could say that I am currently experiencing my first real “adult” illness. Didn’t think it would occur at the age of 46, but I have known people who have come down with even more serious illnesses at younger ages. This illness really did sneak up on me, from nowhere.

I was around people who had come down with the flu and then I caught it as well. It was an ominous flu, it lingered and seemed like it was settling in deep inside. It did not move through its stages in the way a flu normally does, and it seemed that I experienced more serious and painful symptoms than any other flu I had had in the past. I knew deep down that this was not going to be good, but I rested, took lots of supplements and did what I could to improve.

Just when I thought the flu had finally moved on I came down with an illness I had never considered. “Shingles? What the hell is that?” I said as my father told me over the phone that that was what it sounded like I had and that I need to get to a doctor right away.

Shingles. It is one of the most painful illnesses a person can get. Basically, what shingles is is a re-activation of the chickenpox virus that never leaves a person’s body after it goes away. Later in life, when a person gets too run down, the chickenpox virus gets reactivated in person’s body and manifests as shingles- a burning, blistering, inflammation of a person’s nerve endings. Of course, leave it to me to come down with a serious case of shingles. My entire chest and back where on fire for weeks. I never take Advil or anything like that. But over the past few weeks I have consumed large amounts of Advil- that is how bad the pain was.

I believe that it is the things that we worry about that never really happen to us. I had never even thought about shingles and now here I am, my world practically brought to a screeching halt by it. It’s kind of funny in a dark humor kind of way. I now feel like my health is returning, the pain is greatly lessening, and the massive rash is disappearing. But it is a slow moving illness that leaves a body in a weakened state sometimes for months.

I have been spending a lot of time in bed. Just resting and giving my body what it needs to heal from this illness. I never realized that a person could spend so much time in bed but I have been too weak to do much else. Pain tends to deplete the body of all its energy, like nothing else. But I have been reading, meditating, watering my garden when I can, sleeping and working when I can. Last week I was continually thinking about how the outside world is a world for the healthy and how that world was a world I was no longer a member of anymore. I felt sad a lot. Health really is a possession just like your car. It is the most important possession you have. When it is gone, there is nothing you will ever want back so badly that the wanting hurts.

There is a quote by Eckhart Tolle that has brought me a lot of relief throughout this process. I came upon the quote as I was re-reading one of his books one afternoon while confined to bed and feeling sorry for myself. I was frightened about what could happen. I was worried that I may have to go into the hospital. I was worried that I may not live through this. I did not know if I could survive the pain. Sometimes I presume the body just cannot tolerate a continual high level of never ending pain. I was very nervous about where this all would lead and looked to various philosophers, meditation and spiritual teachers for consolation.

I think this is the worst part of being ill. The uncertainty. Not knowing what is going to happen. Feeling very vulnerable, like you are no longer in charge, no longer able to function without help. Knowing there is very little you can do as new and upsetting symptoms keep arising. You can fight against it, but this just creates a continual feeling of impending doom and worry. Or you can just accept what is happening to you. I was at this crossroads when I read this quote from Eckhart Tolle:

“Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it….this will miraculously transform your whole life.”

I can’t tell you how many times I have repeated this to myself over the past few weeks. It has been so helpful. In each moment, accepting what I have been going through as if I had chosen it, has allowed me to make peace with the situation I am in. Rather than getting lost in self-pity, worrying about what could happen or being angry at myself for being in this situation (which happens when we get ill) I accepted what I was going through as If I had chosen it. And then there was nothing else for me to do but rest, go easy and just be with what I was experiencing. Such is life. I think it is at this point that I started to get better. If not physically, certainly psychologically. And mental health is so important when the body is battling illness, I have found.

 

I try to live my life mindfully. As a mindfulness teacher, I want to practice what I preach. But I am human. Prior to getting this illness, I got busy. I opened a new mindfulness meditation center, I was maintaining a full-time private practice as a psychotherapist, I was trying to write a novel and a graphic novel. I was also working hard at maintaining a marriage, other relationships, a home and taking care of four dogs. Like everyone else, I got caught up. I knew I was overwhelmed but I thought I was handling it. However, stress is a strange thing, we think we have it under control but we really don’t. Sometimes we realize this the hard way.

One thing I have continually been thinking about during this illness is that I do not want to go back to the person I was before this illness. “If I make it out of this, I will not go back to being that guy. I have had enough of him. Who I will be instead I do not know, but I don’t want to be that guy anymore.” This is what I have been telling myself. So, I have been reading a lot about Zen. I have been meditating regularly. I have been moving a lot slower and I have basically renounced the future and chosen to live my life as fully as possible in this moment. It feels as if I have been gradually training the past twenty years for this moment. As of now, this is the main activity or practice that means the most to me- just being present, calm and aware in this moment of life. Not writing novels. Not making money. Not what other people need or think. Not what I do not like about my life. Not all the things I have to get done. Not the person I want to be. Just being present and free in this moment is what is most important to me now.

In Zen Buddhism, there is this idea of transience. Basically, the belief is that everything is transient because everything is always changing. Nothing remains the same from moment to moment. As a result, when a person experiences pleasure, there is also pain inherent in the pleasure since soon it will change into that. When we experience illness, there is health in the illness since soon it will change into that. “When the sun sets it is also rising. When the sun rises, it is also setting.” Within every experience there is also the opposite experience since everything is transient (always changing). From a Zen perspective, the idea is to just be concentrated on what is in this moment. Don’t attach to any of it because it will be the opposite experience soon enough.

This is basically how I have been living my life right now. I was not living my life like this before. As mindful as I thought I was being, I was caught up in a lot of my emotions and thoughts. I was getting upset. I was very attached to my negative emotions, not really realizing the transient nature of all things. I am not going to punish myself for this since I realize that the things we teach and help others with are often the very thing that we ourselves need the most. If this wasn’t true, we would not be able to really help others because we would not be able to relate.

I still feel very weak and have unpleasant shooting and burning pains every now and then but it is nothing like before. I don’t know how much this illness has weakened my body and I don’t know what will happen to me as a result of this illness in the future. This uncertainty creates some feelings of apprehension but it creates more of a commitment to being concentrated on the activity of being fully present in this moment. I am grateful to this illness for this.

I often heard people talk about how illness was a great teacher. I have even known people who have said that they would never want to go back to their lives before cancer. I confess to not really understanding when people would say this. But now I get it. Like I said, I don’t want to go back to that guy I was before the illness. He was a good guy but he was not really doing what he needed to do to exist in a state of calm and well-being. What was I thinking? I thought I was a meditator and mindfulness teacher? How did this happen? Some bad habits die hard and we often require a serious illness to make us more aware of what really matters.

Before I got ill, I read this passage in a book of essays by Henry Miller. It said something like if we refuse to become aware on our own, life will open the flood gates on us and shock us into awareness. Makes me shiver as I write this because it was a kind of ominous prognostication of things to come. When I read that passage I remember thinking that I really needed to get my shit together. I needed to get things under control because I was taking on too much responsibility and stressing out about so many different things. But I always put it off for another day and then the flood gates opened on me.

Notes From The Present Moment, #2

I am home alone. Things are quiet. All around me birds are chirping. The loud leaf blower and lawn mower are gone. For the first time in a week I have the afternoon to be still. To do nothing. I had a stomach ache for awhile but now it is gone. All things pass.

Mindfulness practice has helped me to become fairly adept at becoming comfortable with discomfort. From my practice I have learned through experience that all physical and psychological pain and discomfort are always coming and going, which makes it a little easier for me to be present with what is. I don’t panic or worry about aches and pains like I used to in my more hypochondriacal days. I realize now that pains and discomfort come and go like the wind. I don’t need to freak out about it.

Thoughts and emotions are not as easy for me. In this moment it is easy to be mindful, to just be present with what is. I notice that my mind is active, it seems to be telling me that there is so much to be done, so much to do. “Move it! Get stuff done!” it yells as I sit here on my couch, but I can follow my breath, stay present with sounds, sensations, awareness and let that voice do its thing without needing “to do” much about it. Like the Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron recommends- I smile into that rarely satisfied voice in my head, which seems to quiet it down.

I know that the root of the “Get stuff done!” voice is fear. Fear about not doing enough. Fear about not securing my future or present. Fear about not becoming the identity my ego wants to be. Through mindfulness practice and a lifetime of experience, I seem to be getting more adept at learning to make friends with fear. Fear seems to be as apart of me as my blood is and it is through learning how to live with it (rather than trying to pretend it is not there or numbing it out) that I seem to be experiencing more peace and contentment in life. I can see now that fear is just random and habitual thoughts projected onto an always uncertain future.

The afternoon breeze is blowing the wind chimes around. The vibratory bell like sounds are pleasant to hear. Birds are flying quickly around in my garden, playing in the mid-afternoon sun. My two German Shepherds are napping on the backyard wood deck, which thanks to the gardener is no longer covered with fallen leaves and heaps of dog hair.

Agitation, anger and worry. These emotions and the thoughts that come with them seem more challenging to deal with. This morning while I was driving in my car with a friend, who is also a fellow psychotherapist, I noticed that I felt agitated. He would not stop talking and he was talking at such a high speed that I felt agitation growing in my body like water coming to a boil. I find that it is most challenging to remain present when in the company of individuals who are not present at all. Their self-absorption seems contagious. It is always challenging for me to be in relationship with those who are not present, while simultaneously remaining present and non-reactive. This is a work in progress.

As I was driving, my psychotherapist friend was nowhere near where his body and breath were. He was in yesterday and tomorrow land. He was in analyze and judgement land. I forced myself to follow my breath and notice my sorroundings. It felt like lifting a heavy weight. “I am breathing in, I am breathing out,” I repeated silently to myself while trying to keep myself non-judgmentally open to what my friend was saying while also focusing on where I was. The more I followed my breath, the more my agitation became manageable and the less I wanted to tell him to “Just stop! Please take a breath man!”

An hour or so ago, Old Man Bob from the senior center (I pay him to come every few weeks and tend to my backyard), rang my doorbell. I was present as I was sitting on my couch but when I jumped up to answer my door I forgot about my breath. Thoughts like, “Who is it?” “Why is someone at my front door?” caused my heart rate to rise and my nervous system to go into a slight reactive mode. “How are you Randall?” Old Man Bob said with a smile as I opened my front door. “Hey Bob,” I replied with a smile. I told him that I would walk around back, put away the barking dogs and open the back gate for him.

As I walked into my backyard I instinctually slowed myself down. I noticed how becoming reactive had caused me to completely forget about my breath. I became aware of each step that I took and tuned back into the sound of birds and wind chimes. “Mindfulness practice is a practice of continually, again and again, returning our attention back to the present moment,” the meditation teacher Jack Kornfield often says.

It is so easy to stop being present but it takes some effort to return to the present. As I put away my dogs I noticed that the stomach ache I had had all night and into the morning was gone. Aware that I was breathing in and aware that I was breathing out, I mindfully walked over to the gate and was aware of the movements of my body as I pulled the gate open. It felt good to be aware in this moment rather than being absorbed in some future or past place in my head. Again a smile formed on my face.

Old Man Bob was standing there with his lawn mower and garden tools when I opened the gate. He was wearing shorts and a yellow t-shirt that said, “Still Maui Living!” “What a beautiful day to be alive,” he said with wrinkles collecting in the corners of his weathered face. I breathed in and out and agreed.