Vipassana and Mindfulness Blog

Mindfulness is simply practicing awareness with what's here. That's meditation, whether you're on a mountaintop, at work, or on a roller coaster.

My New Favorite Question

I have a new favorite question.

A wise man (namely, Thanissaro Bhikkhu) once said: “As the Buddha has pointed out, the attitude of ‘appropriate attention’ – the ability to focus on the right questions – is one of the most important skills to develop in the course of the practice. This skill is much more fruitful than an attitude that tries to come to the practice armed with all the right answers in advance.”

question

He’s also fond of reminding us that mindfulness is not synonymous with awareness, as we so often hear. When the Buddha taught the skill of mindfulness, he was referencing our faculty of memory; what are we “holding in mind?” So one of the things I hold in mind is the intention to examine what questions I’m asking … and what assumptions I might not be aware I’m making.

Our assumptions can show up in how we phrase our questions (known as “wording bias“), and even the way we ask questions carries significant meaning. Consider this common question we ask ourselves:

“Why do I keep overthinking about THAT thing?”

Depending on our attitude, this could be an open inquiry (“say, what processes are unfolding here?”) or an aggressive interrogation (“why does this keep happening? Just stop!”).

During a stressful time recently, I remembered – and held in mind! – a technique that I’ve found helpful again and again over my years of practice:

When life gets complicated, make the practice simpler.

When I saw how I was getting keyed up and feeling overwhelmed, I recalled two things. First, to stop getting carried away by the mind, it’s helpful to direct attention to bodily experience. And second, I needed to make my meditation practice (on and off the cushion) very, very, basic. What was the simplest question I could ask?

Maintaining my focus on the body, I asked, “where is there stress right now?” I took a moment to notice which part of the body appeared to feel the most anxious, or tense, or clenched. When I found that spot, I simply held my attention there, using my breathing as an anchor and a vantage point from which to observe that felt process.

Notice which questions I didn’t ask.

I didn’t ask WHY there was stress, or WHO caused it, or HOW it got there. I also didn’t ask where “my” stress was, or where “I” was feeling it. I avoided any phrasing that involved any kind of selfing, ownership, or blame. I didn’t even question how I should “fix” anything. It was completely about the experience in and of itself. (There’s certainly room for fixing and “selfing” in our practice, but this was about keeping it as basic as possible.)

I found that my experiences of stress, tension, and clenching often changed just by doing this. Why? Because these aren’t things that happen TO us; they’re activities we DO. Stressing, tensing, clenching … these are actions. They don’t happen on their own. Someone has to be DOING the stressing, tensing, and clenching. When I shifted my attention to inquiring into the result of these activities, I momentarily stopped doing them.

Once I interrupted the stress cycle, the experience changed, usually in the form of a subtle feeling of re-balancing.

The trick there is not to try to create the feeling of re-balancing (or anything else, for that matter), because that ironically adds stress and pressure to the situation. Simply set a new condition in place by asking the question, and see what the effects are. Observe what happens in the moment, and observe what happens over time.

I’ve found that doing this more often has a cumulative effect. The more I ask this question, the less I engage in the stress cycle in the first place. I’ve even started to notice how I react to difficult things more calmly, without even trying (or maybe because I’m not trying ūüėĄ).

So I’ve gotten into the habit of asking my new favorite question pretty regularly: “where is there stress right now?” What’s the worst that could happen … I can’t find any?

Questions? Comments? Ready to ask some new questions? Drop me a line or set up some time for some extra light on your path.

Upcoming Events

A Better Question Than “What If?”

Raised by a Jewish mother, I heard “what if” pretty often.

“What if you don’t study more for your math test? You don’t want to end up pumping gas for a living.” “What if you don’t get into college? Better hope the gas station is hiring.” “What if you’re late for work? They’ll fire you, and then ‚Ķ” You know where this is going; somehow, every scenario ended with me dispensing petroleum.

what if

There’s a time and a place for “what if.” It’s skillful to prepare for the future, and to have contingency plans ready for the unexpected or unwanted. What’s NOT skillful is using this line of thinking past the point of being useful. That’s where we seem to spend the most time with “what if” storylines; after they’ve crossed the line into grim rumination. It’s neither pleasant nor effective, but we still do it. Why?

What’s our motivation for repeatedly returning to this worry?

My own insights into this process reveal at least a few answers. One is that I’m trying to resolve a future situation, and I think that the reason it’s unresolved isn’t because it hasn’t happened yet, but because I haven’t thought “hard enough” to find the right solution yet. Another is that I’m overthinking for the most classic reason: I’m trying not to FEEL something, usually fear. (Check your oil, ma’am?)

Ironically, another reason is that I’m USING that fear to “stay motivated” to make sure I’m covering all my bases. Most interestingly, I find that I engage in miserable “what iffing” so I can feel like I’m doing something about the situation here and now, so if the worst does happen, well ‚Ķ at least I tried, right? It’s not my fault; I put in all this effort! Look at how hard I worried!!

You could even say that one of my “what ifs” is “what if I don’t ‘what if?'”

Of all of the problems caused by unskillful “what ifs,” one of the nastiest is the way it doesn’t just focus on the worst-case scenario; it freezes on it. When I was agoraphobic, one overwhelming fear was “what if I have a panic attack in public?” I had a mental picture of melting down in some crowded location, with everyone backing away and staring. The image stuck on that moment like an old-school film reel stopping on a single cell. Even though no moment in my life had ever gotten “stuck” like that, I was somehow pretty sure that THAT moment of peak terror would finally be the one. That led to this early conversation with the psychologist who started me on my path:

Him: “If you didn’t have panic and agoraphobia, what would you do right now?”
Me: “I’d probably go to Harvard Square.” (This was 1998; there were still a few cool shops left.)
Him: “Why don’t you go?”
Me: “I’d have a panic attack.”
Him: “Understood ‚Ķ that’s an extremely scary and unpleasant experience. I’m not minimizing that. But then what?”
Me: “I just said, I’d have a panic attack.”
Him: “I’m not minimizing the feelings involved with that in any way. But then what?”

He stopped talking. And his gaze indicated that he wouldn’t be speaking again until I’d addressed his question. So I thought about it, and naturally looked to my previous experience as a guide for likely future outcomes. And there was one common thing about every panic episode of any intensity and duration I’d ever had, which made my answer pretty straightforward:

“At some point, it would have to end.” And two major shifts began.

First, I got past the frozen mental image; it was no longer the final word, an eternal damnation of horror. And second – without realizing the significance at the time – I shifted from “I would have a panic attack” to “it would eventually end.” Viewing it as an impermanent event automatically loosened my identification with the experience as being “me.” It was a critical shift in perspective, and one that has affected my perception and practice ever since.

As Thanissaro Bhikkhu notes in his outstanding Wings to Awakening, “[t]he ability to focus on the right questions ‚Ķ is much more fruitful than an attitude that tries to come to the practice armed with all the right answers in advance.” Or, if it resonates more:

Rowdy Roddy Piper is famous for saying “just when they think they got the answers, I change the questions.”

The next time you find yourself caught in the cycle of “what if,” try shifting the line of questioning. After all, if there was a truly satisfactory answer to that “what if,” you’d probably have found it by the 20th time.

There are worse things than working at the local gas station. In the spring of 1998, I’d have given anything to be functional enough to accomplish that. But regardless of our situation – real or imagined, now or in the future – we always have some options. We have the option to examine what questions we’re asking. We have the option to assess whether they’re still useful. And we DO have the option to generate a tar pit of “what if.”

But then what?

Questions? Comments? Ready to ask some new questions? Drop me a line or set up some time for some extra light on your path.

Upcoming Events

OG Mindfulness Isn’t About Awareness

We often hear that mindfulness is just about practicing awareness, but the “original gangster” of mindfulness never said that.

“Mindfulness is about paying attention to what you’re doing.” “Mindfulness means observing what’s happening.” “Mindfulness is simply being with the present moment.”

We usually hear about this “mindfulness” thing in the context of awareness, and even hear the terms used interchangeably. There are two problems with this. One, we already have a word that means awareness. (That would be “awareness.”) And two, mindfulness – as taught by the Buddha 2600 years ago – isn’t about merely being present.

Cultivating present-moment awareness is a skill that the Buddha called “alertness.” But alertness by itself isn’t going to be much use without some recollection of our past. To create a better present moment (and better present moments-to-be!), we need to hone different skill set.

We need the ability to remember what we’ve done in the past that’s led to a happiness that has been harmful to none (including us!) … and we need the ability to remember what we’ve done that hasn’t.

We also need to be able to hold this in mind while we’re being alert to the present moment, so we can apply this mindfulness-based wisdom to shape our lives skillfully.

That’s mindfulness.

Confusion and misinterpretation about the Buddha’s teachings arise from missing this context. Without it, we quickly slip into the defeatist mindset that says “freedom is just completely surrendering to whatever is here, because you can’t do anything about it anyway.” And when we start practicing, we sometimes think that’s actually the case, because we find that surrender feels better than fighting! But …

This practice isn’t about passively surrendering, because that’s not freedom.

As Thanissaro Bhikkhu says in Ask Yourself the Buddha’s Question: “Sometimes we hear about meditation as being all about accepting, accepting, accepting. Well, the things you want to accept are the facts that you are acting, and your actions are having an impact on your experience.” The skills of mindfulness – as it was originally taught – allow us to change our input to the various cycles in our lives. We act in cycles. We speak in cycles. And most critically, we think in cycles. Mindfulness, combined with alertness, makes it possible to create better input to get better output.

Like any other skill, we usually suck at first. There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s expected. Building a new skill is mostly learning how to suck less. There’s lots of experimentation involved: try one thing, see the result, try something else based on the result, and see that result. Lather, rinse, repeat.

The process of doing this continuously is what the Buddha called “ardency.” It’s a persistent effort. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an all-out, exhausting effort. The example I like to give is the way water slowly wears away rock. It doesn’t happen all at once; it’s from gentle, continuous contact.

The powerful combination of mindfulness, alertness, and ardency can take us to actual freedom.

Observing the present moment isn’t wrong; it’s just not the whole story. And it’s not mindfulness … at least not according to the OG.

Questions? Comments? Ready to build mindfulness skills? Drop me a line or set up some time for guidance.

Upcoming Events

Meditation as an Appliance

One of the most poignant things I ever heard happened at the unlikeliest of moments.

I played in my first rock band during my middle years of high school. (We were terrible.) Since I was the drummer, we defaulted to rehearsing in my mother’s basement. Being a typical unfinished, damp basement, we had a portable dehumidifier on a shelf near my drum kit. As the humidity in the room rose, it would start up and run with a fairly loud hum; once the moisture dropped to a level the appliance considered acceptable, it turned off and waited for an increase to trigger it again.

Mindfulness as an Appliance

One evening, we were playing (if you want to call it that) a song (again, if you want to call it that), and when we finished, we started talking for several minutes. The dehumidifier had apparently kicked on while we were playing, and was still running when we stopped and talked. During a pause in the conversation, the humidifier happened to turn off, leaving a sudden, gaping silence. One of my bandmates perfectly summed up the experience:

“That’s one of those noises you don’t hear until it stops.”

Years later, this assessment came back to me during a sitting. The style of meditation that I practice and teach was developed and taught by the Buddha over 2500 years ago. His sole purpose for teaching was to show others how he released himself from stress and suffering so that we might do the same. Now, as then, so much of our stress and suffering comes from the thoughts, speech, and action we’re doing on auto-pilot.

Some of these patterns might have been useful earlier in our lives, and we never stopped to reassess them. Perhaps some of them were taught to us – explicitly or otherwise – and were never actually helpful, but became habitual regardless. Each auto-pilot habit – whether it’s an outward physical activity, or just an internal thought pattern – is like that noise we don’t hear anymore.

Until it stops.

Insight arises when the inner noise we haven’t been hearing finally stops.

Like that trusty old dehumidifier, we dial ourselves up and down based on how we’re perceiving our inner and outer environment. If our perceptions aren’t accurate, we can’t regulate ourselves properly. We end up running when we don’t need to, and find that we can’t operate properly when the time is right. Worst of all, because we haven’t honed our skills of perception, we can’t even perceive THAT imbalance accurately, and we remain trapped in the cycle of stress and suffering. This is what the Buddha referred to as “ignorance,” and this is how it compounds itself.

In vipassana (insight meditation) practice, we learn how to hear that noise inside ‚Ķ and also see how we’re creating it.

Fortunately, this is still OUR cycle, which means we can change it; it’s Karma 101 that we can each only change our own cycles. As we follow the Buddha’s guidance and develop skillful qualities like concentration and mindfulness, we sharpen our discernment. This paves the way for that “clear seeing” we’re always talking about, and it’s that clear seeing – or, more appropriately for our current metaphor, clear hearing – that gives us the information we need. Like how we should tune our levels for peak performance. Like which auto-pilot habits might not be serving us anymore.

Or like how crappy our band might be.

Questions? Comments? Ready to recalibrate yourself? Drop me a line or set up some time for some extra light on your path.

Fixing Our Requirements for Happiness

Fixing our requirements for happiness helps us avoid two classic traps.

We have requirements for happiness – or “RFH” – in all parts of life, ranging from our finances, careers, and relationships to … well, having just one more glass of wine, or maybe getting that new iPhone. (Is there a new iPhone right now? There must be, there’s always a new iPhone.) And then there are those other little areas where we have lots of requirements, like health, comfort, safety, and security. Do any of these resonate?

Requirements for happiness are about as sure as death and taxes. But if we can sidestep two big traps, we can turn them to our advantage.

Requirements for Happiness

We fall in the first trap when we send our RFH outward. If we have an RFH for how another person must feel or act, our well-being is in their hands. If our RFH is that a particular situation must go as we wish, our good humor teeters upon external causes and effects (some of which we can’t even see). And that RFH for having a desired thing? How many times have we seen that happiness fade away after we get the thing?

Avoiding this trap doesn’t mean denying that we care, not making a reasonable effort for optimal conditions, or not getting a new smartphone…

… it simply means that we don’t submit our equanimity to the whims of unstable circumstances.

And this leads us right to the second trap: not realizing that all of these requirements (commonly known as “attachments” in Buddhism) aren’t actually about the objects, people, or situations themselves. They’re about how we think we’ll feel if we have them just the way we want them. And how do we think we’ll feel? Wait for it …

Happy.

So the real requirement for happiness is … happiness? Now we’re starting to see the real flaw here …

Requirements for Happiness


Let’s short-circuit this catch-22.

There are different kinds of happiness, but the one we’re examining here has two important characteristics. First: it’s is a process, not a destination. Like anything else based on cause and effect, it arises, changes, and passes. And second: it’s a by-product. Happiness arises as a result of doing things other than trying to be happy.

In my experience, the fastest way to feel unhappy is to try to achieve – and hold on to – happiness.

“Am I happy now? How about now? Now?” ūüôĄ

Just like the examples of external requirements above, if our RFH says that we must feel a certain way internally, we attempt to balance our well-being on inconstant states (in this case, the feelings themselves) where our direct control is limited.

In other words, we’re still submitting our equanimity to the whims of unstable circumstances; they’re just in a different place. And by trying to enforce stability on that place – which our mind likes to think it CAN – we unwittingly cause more chaos.

When our requirement for happiness is to feel happy, we’ve fallen into trap number two. (Or, more accurately, we’ve stepped in number two. ūüí©)

Ironically, every requirement for happiness creates the conditions for the exact opposite of its supposed purpose. Every RFH we have gives us another reason to decide that we are not happy.

Does this mean that we shouldn’t set goals, strive for self-improvement, and feel the pride of accomplishment? Of course not. That’s the process of living and growing; mindfulness practice itself is the honing of skills to build a more solid happiness. We see what happens when we decide that an outcome or feeling beyond our complete control must meet our requirement in order for us to “be happy,” and we fix the REAL problem with that system.

The actual sources of our unhappiness – not what we think are the sources – are often hiding in plain sight.

Mindfulness and insight meditation are the most powerful tools I’ve found for spotting, managing, and releasing these unskillful beasts. Why? Because we create a space where we don’t NEED requirements for happiness. Not only is it a freakin’ relief, it also allows for the clear seeing that flushes out our camouflaged agents of misery.

This is step one in fixing our requirements for happiness so they’re more effective and sustainable. And when we look back to see how we had been trying to create happiness using the mindset of “the beatings shall continue until morale improves,” it can be hard not to laugh a little.

But it’s ok if you don’t. It’s not required.

Questions? Comments? Ready to take the next step toward fixing your requirements for happiness? Drop me a line or set up some time for some extra light on your path.


Disintegrating Dread

Dread.

I led a couple of sessions about¬†dread¬†recently and wanted to share a high-level overview of three insights I’ve gained while working with this intense emotion.

I’ve always felt like¬†dread¬†was an invisible – yet impossibly heavy – blanket that kept me from being able to move. I thought of¬†dread¬†as being this static, monolithic THING.

Tidal wave of dread

But then I noticed that there was also a racing urgency contained within. There’s an energy that seeks to stave off the dreaded¬†event, if not the¬†dread¬†itself.¬†This feeling wasn’t just an immobile blanket … it was also a rushing, towering tidal wave.

I also saw the way dread shifted depending on various factors, like the time of day or quality of sleep. So it not only had movement, but its fluctuations were subject to the laws of cause and effect (which will sound familiar to those who have heard me discuss karma).

These characteristics led me to my first insight: dread is not a thing. Dread is a process.

The recognition of dread’s movement, fluctuations, and existence as a process led to my next realization:¬†if¬†dread¬†is a moving, changing process, then¬†something must be perpetuating it.

What I discovered was that¬†dread¬†shares a factor with so many other emotions: it¬†self-perpetuates¬†by feeding off of its own momentum. When we feel angry, we don’t usually just feel angry about the thing we think we’re angry about. We also feel angry about the fact that our ease has been thrown into a raging turmoil. We usually feel sad about feeling sad, depressed about being depressed, happy about being happy …

… and we feel¬†dread¬†about feeling¬†dread.

But dread is a process, and that process is necessarily changed when we change the object of our attention. If we make the process ITSELF the object of our attention, we change its momentum. So how do we do that?

One way is by using a technique that arose from the third insight: disintegration. Not disintegration in terms of “poof, it disappeared” (although that would be nice too), but literal¬†dis-integration: separating the components of the process.¬†

The physical, mental, and emotional components of¬†dread¬†– each of which are processes themselves! – create interconnected feedback loops. A mental storyline sparks an emotional reaction, which amps up the body’s fight-or-flight response … and that response “confirms” to the subconscious mind that there really is an emergency. We’re off to the races.

A mindfulness practice that focuses on each component individually – typically while using the breathing as an anchor – allows us to loosen these links, which robs the cycles of the fuel they need to perpetuate.

This gives us a solid foundation for understanding these links in real-time, as well as increasing our familiarity with each individual component. This familiarity with how each piece REALLY is (as opposed to the way we fear it WILL be) eases the discomfort that comes with unfamiliarity Рwhich our fight-or-flight mind perceives as unsafe rather than simply uncomfortable. In this way, we dismantle this crippling contraption from several angles at once.

Of course, all of this isn’t to say that we’ll never feel¬†dread¬†again. It’s part of the package we signed up for (or more accurately, a couple of OTHER people signed us up for some number of decades ago). But if we can make our experience of the process of¬†dread¬†a little less dreadful … well, THAT’S something I’ll sign up for personally.

Questions? Comments? Ready to break some links? Drop me a line or set up some time to dis-integrate dread.


Housebound Revisited, Part 2: Grief

Part 1grief of Housebound Revisited looked at my first journal entry just after I hit bottom. As I was getting ready to publish this followup, I came across “I‚Äôm Grieving During the Coronavirus Pandemic. You May Be, Too” in the New York Times and found that it aligned.

In the midst of sudden or unexpected change, our survival mechanisms take over. At some level, most of us are in a holding pattern of fight-or-flight right now … but that’s not meant to be a holding pattern. It’s designed to be a short-term reaction to keep us alive so we can then deal with any other non-mortal concerns (like grief) soon after.

In this situation, however, we have a prolonged threat accompanying (and causing) our loss of life as we know it. Even for those of us fortunate enough not to be directly affected (or have loved ones affected) by the virus, there may be grief waiting to be processed … and it might not be waiting quietly.

When I told my psychologist in 1998 how my life had changed so quickly, he mentioned something fairly obvious that I had completely missed. Through the relentless panic and suffocating depression, I couldn’t see that I was experiencing grief for the loss of stable, long-term anchors I had suddenly left behind forever. I wonder how many of us might be missing a similar nuance through the haze of louder emotions demanding our attention … and whether that might be by well-intentioned – but unsustainable – design.

 

April 26, 1998

He said I’ve never suffered a “loss” like this before. That struck me; I haven’t been able to get that phrase out of my mind. Am I not depressed so much as grieving? Am I exhibiting symptoms like someone dealing with the death of a loved one?

I’m having difficulty getting through Sundays. I have a long history of feeling (situational) depression on Sundays anyway.

The most depressing part right now is not being able to see the end of the tunnel. Am I making it worse by being concerned about that?

I used to have lots of success and positive feedback in school and I realize how much I miss that. Now I’m in an area where I enjoy the work, but feel less confident because I’m still new, and these things are harder for me to grasp than psychology was. Sometimes I feel like I don’t know anything and I get worried when I feel that way.

April 28, 1998

I’m not used to feeling depressed without anger. At least anger gave me energy (and focus).

 

Heh. Yeah. The first recognition of the symbiotic relationship between fear/depression/anxiety and anger. What did Obi-Wan say about taking a first step into a larger world?

 

Housebound Revisited, Part 1: Anchors

anchorsIt was 22 years ago this month that I became housebound. There was no clear end in sight, and the only sure thing was that life couldn’t ever be the same if I made it through. For a very different reason, most of us are living that same scenario today. It seems like a good time to look back and share a journal from the very beginning of my practice.

This first entry came two days after full-on agoraphobia took over, and one day after first meeting the psychologist who would introduce me to mindfulness and insight meditation.

Three months earlier, I moved out of the only house I’d ever lived in. Three months before that, I landed a dream job in my new IT career … or so I thought. The dream soon became a nightmare of anxiety sparked by the unpredictability of a consulting job that could send me any place at any time. Ironically, before that anxiety set in, I felt like I had “reached my goal” of having the right job for the long haul; for the first time, there was no “next step” to work toward.

With both constants in my life suddenly gone for the first time within a few months, I felt ungrounded and dissociated. My finely honed skills of self-distraction and denial no longer stood a chance against the new tag team of job anxiety and panic disorder. Once the bottom finally fell out, I knew that I’d have to look for a more predictable job … but going back to ANY kind of work was a long way off …

April 22, 1998

I used to have solid anchors; my old home at one end, and my goals at the other. Now they’re both loose … there have been major disruptions in deep-rooted things that have never changed and I’m disconnected in strange territory. I’ve defined myself in terms of the two anchors; one establishing my entire past and one directing my future. Now one anchor has been uprooted and the other anchor is “gone” … and both for the first time. Nothing is pulling me toward the future. Job interviews may help but it’s probably better to get some work done on the issue of the other anchor first (I have to trust my own feelings on this issue). Who am I without my anchors? I’m not used to just “being.”

In retrospect: were the anchors really keeping me grounded? Or just holding me down?

 

Dystopia … Agoraphobia … WrestleMania?

This is how it all ended. Or maybe how it began.

Most people probably don’t know I’m a fan of professional wrestling. Even fewer people know about wrestling’s quirky little intersection with my mindfulness practice.

My psychological collapse – detailed elsewhere, such as The Art of War When Panic Attacks – cascaded on April 20, 1998. Three weeks earlier, I attended WrestleMania XIV (where Mike Tyson counted the pinfall for Stone Cold Steve Austin’s first WWF championship). And for three months before THAT, I freaked out about it.

agoraphobia

I got the first inkling that my mental walls were cracking in November of ’97. My foundation of load-bearing denial skills – honed over seven years – were finally buckling under the weight of anxiety and panic. The only comfort I found was in retreating from life. It was less anxiety-provoking to be near home; so I stayed near home. It was more comfortable to avoid crowds; so I avoided crowds.

And my comfort zone did what it does when it isn’t growing. It started shrinking.

Like the inverse of a drug tolerance, in order to maintain the same level of comfort, I had to be closer and closer to home. I had to avoid smaller and smaller crowds.

By January, I was already looking for ways to make it so I would theoretically never have to leave the house again. Having just moved into a new apartment with my (now) wife, my best friends lived one floor down. Perfect! Social life covered. And we just got one of those new cable modems; I wonder if I can do all my work remotely? Oh, and Stop and Shop has that Peapod thing now, right? Don’t even have to go out to buy food!

There was one problem, though. Four months earlier, I had bought tickets for WrestleMania. In Boston. At the Garden. With 18,000 of my closest friends.

I still remember watching the countdowns to the event on the wrestling shows … “10 weeks until WrestleMania!” “Eight weeks!” “Six weeks!” As the numbers went down, the terror shot up.

It was like watching the New Year’s Eve ball dropping on your death.

Obviously, I lived through it … and as mentioned, finally hit bottom less than a month later. My “comfort zone” had been reduced to our apartment. Even the house I’d grown up in – still “home” just a few months earlier, and all of seven blocks away on the same street – was not safe territory. For months, I was a shut-in on disability, quarantined by a mental prison. The walls that had once kept fear and panic out now trapped me within.

As a (really) famous former wrestler might say: why in the blue hell am I bringing all this up?

For most of us, it’s been pretty surreal to see what’s happening right now. Life – even more than usual – has quickly become a Black-Mirror-esque dystopia of empty streets and virtual gatherings. (I attended my first yoga class via Zoom last night.) But for me, there’s been an extra layer of deja-vu: it’s WrestleMania season.

I’m a shut-in at WrestleMania time again. With seven billion of my closest friends.

And that latter bit is my point here. Fear … anxiety … panic … uncertainty … lockdown … yeah, I remember these digs. Hell, my initials are still carved on that tree over there.

If you need a hand from someone who knows these trenches, I’m here.

Along with my (now free) guided audio sessions and (now Zoom-accessible) Meetups, I’m seeing my clients via Zoom and I’m increasing my flexibility by offering 30-minute sessions as well as sliding scales. For now, standard appointments (via Zoom) can still be booked on my sessions page; if you’d like to discuss an alternate arrangement, drop me a line and we can get something sorted right away.

Stay safe … and breathe.

 

Staying on Track When Under Attack

Staying on track takes practice.

During a recent conversation with someone, I asked a seemingly benign question … and received what felt like an ambush of sarcasm ridiculing my query.

I know – stop the presses, right? But that’s not the interesting part.

What’s interesting is watching the train-wreck of thoughts that often unfold from that kind of experience.

First, the initial surprise registers. “Wait, what just happened?”

Staying on track

It seems like anger immediately follows, but anger is merely the hard shell that quickly surrounds fear. (With practice, our awareness becomes sharp enough to spot that soft chewy center of vulnerability BEFORE the protective outer layer forms.) “They said what? Danger! Threat! Fire in the hole!”

Finally, anger swoops in to “help” the fear, setting up a symbiotic dialogue that calcifies our sense of identity as the starring player in this deepening storyline:

Anger: “Did you say you’re under attack? Oh, trust me, I’ll finish what they dared to start.”

Fear: “But did you hear what they said to me? Can they do that?”

A: “Hell NO they can’t.”

F: “But what if … what if they’re right? Did I screw up?”

A: “They are NOT right. YOU are right. Here, I’ll replay the whole thing to you over and over, showing you each time exactly why you’re right.”

F: “But even if I’m right, I can’t be seen as someone that people can just talk to like that! How do I stop that?”

Of course, what we actually do next – based on anger’s next response – varies from person to person (and varies across time for any one person). Typically, we direct that roiling energy as an outward counter-strike¬†or an inward simmering rage. In both cases, the well-intentioned but dysfunctional dialogue often continues for minutes, days, or even years. That’s a long-ass train wreck!

A key turning point in my practice was noticing the real question underlying this frantic inner conversation:

“What do I have to do to regain the comfortable sense of self I had before this perceived threat to it?” As soon as I saw that more clearly, a second question finally had a chance to arise in the resulting space: “if the roles had been reversed in this situation, what would I have said differently?”

That’s when things broke open.

I saw myself fielding the original conversational question in a congenial way, juxtaposed against the reaction that I felt I received. And I realized that the more general question I was asking myself was this: “would I have handled this question or situation in tune with my inner moral compass?” My answer was an immediate “yes.”

Suddenly things became super-clear, at a felt, experiential level. What else could I possibly want beyond knowing that I’d have acted skillfully? What WAS there to be done beyond that? Simply put: nothing. With a wry smile, I felt that comfortable sense of self return … only to notice that I no longer found it necessary.

Yet another freeing paradox of insight meditation: when I finally found a sense of self that couldn’t be threatened, I discovered that I didn’t need it anyway.

Ultimately, we’re each responsible only for ourselves. What “they” say to us doesn’t actually reflect on us; it reflects where they are on their path. We can wish them well or ill (and that DOES reflect on us), but that’s about as far as it goes. The only question that we really need to ask is “where am I on my path?” The answer we receive gives us something we can ACTUALLY work on … and then let go.

Now that’s keeping things on track.

Questions? Thoughts? Ready to break things open? Drop me a line or set up a session to get on track.


Content Copyright © 2024 by Mindfulness in Blue Jeans LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Terms of Use | Privacy Policy
Website by Dolce Vittoria Design Group