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.

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 …” 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 … 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 … 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 … 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.

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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?

 

The Art of War When Panic Attacks

The Art of War When Panic Attacks

 

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” — Sun Tzu, “The Art of War”
“We experience moments absolutely free from worry. These brief respites are called panic.” – Cullen Hightower

 

How do you tell people you’re falling apart from the most first-world problem ever?

 

Just after graduating from high school, I experienced a traumatic event whose parting gift was panic disorder. I developed a fear of panic attacks, and the vicious cycle of fear led to constant vigilance for the hellish symptoms. Swirling thoughts … heart palpitations … icy sweat … feeling trapped and disassociated. And that horrible moment when breathing broke free of my control … that was the final signal that my ticket was punched, the train had left the station, and I didn’t know if (or when, or how) I was going to make it back. The terror was relentless: “What if I lose it in public where everyone can see?” “What if I lose it in private where no one can help?” “Am I going crazy?”

Through the horrifying haze of exhaustion and desperation, I managed to notice that the attacks only happened when I was worrying about them — which, of course, was all the time. But in those rare moments when my attention was drawn elsewhere, I seemed to be ok. Unable to find a more suitable escape from my own mind, I learned to avoid my feelings of fear through distraction. When the demons stirred, I occupied myself with thoughts about ways to fix other issues I was having at the time: school, money (or lack thereof), and girls (same).

 

I was a skinny, broke college kid with a bad complexion. I had no shortage of material.

 

Ruminating on how to solve those kinds of problems gave me enough distance from my REAL uglies to get by. Ironically enough, I earned an honors degree in Social Psychology while deliberately waging this campaign of denial. Cute, no?

Then, at 25, a funny thing happened. Actually, several funny things happened very quickly. I started a new career. I landed a good-paying job. I met the right girl and we moved in together. For the first time, everything was terrific.

Um. Houston?

It was the most first-world problem ever: I had “solved” all my problems, and without those trusty distractions available, eight years of suppressed fear rushed to fill the void.

 

I discovered that denial — like any other unsustainable tactic based on brute force instead of genuine power — can seem to work really well, until it doesn’t.

 

Behind me: an escape route buried by an avalanche of fear. Dead ahead: grinning beasts sensing freedom. And within: psychological armor and weaponry in a smoking ruin. The harder I tried to hold it together, the faster I circled the drain. Sleep became rare and disjointed, and I rapidly lost weight after years without wavering a single pound. The body I occupied became an alien threat, feeling frighteningly weightless and yet impossibly heavy at the same time. Intensely suspicious of betrayal by my own mental and physical form, the inevitable fall came within weeks and I hit bottom with an unceremonious thud. Moving as if underwater and unable to go beyond my front door (let alone make the unthinkable 15-minute commute to work), I became housebound and went on short-term disability. Diagnosis: clinical depression, anxiety, panic disorder, and agoraphobia.

I explained my situation to a therapist and presented my idea for how to deal with my crippling cycle of panic and dread:

 

“I need you to help me kill my panic.”

 

He allowed a small compassionate smile and offered, “I’m not sure if that’s what we really want to do; maybe we should find ways of working with it instead.” Too weak to argue, I mustered a small nod, but inside I was quite certain: “No. I want to kill it.”

It turned out that he was a mindfulness teacher — decades before mindfulness went mainstream! —  and he guided me through a short session of anapanasati (mindfulness of breathing) and vipassana (insight meditation). I’d love to tell you that my life changed that day, but frankly, the experience didn’t affect me one way or the other. Regardless, he recommended I do it at home at least once a day. My thought:

 

“Doc, you better have something stronger than this; I’ve got real problems.”

 

I decided to try it anyway; I was already trapped at home all day with no other options. Once this little experiment inevitably failed, we could move on to the real treatment, right?

My first solo sit the following morning lasted 17 minutes, and it felt like 17 hours … but my utter lack of expectation actually worked in my favor. In the last couple of minutes of that sitting, I actually felt … hope. It was shocking; I hadn’t felt anything remotely close to hope in months.

 

If hope could surface, unbidden … what else might come up? What else had I been unable to see through my panic-stricken haze?

 

With the help of my unexpected new teacher, I slowly and painstakingly learned how to safely open to discomfort, then fear, and finally terror. Light began to seep into the cracks formed by deep inner shifts. With ever-increasing clarity, I saw “myself”– and what is not my “self.”

Except for a couple of bouts with the flu and a nasty round of food poisoning  — neither of which I can recommend — I’ve sat every morning for over 20 years. I’ve learned how to skillfully navigate my mental trenches and forge new paths from them. I’ve learned how to surf the inner waves instead of getting swept away by them. And I’ve learned that your knees might have questions if you force lotus pose every morning. (Really, don’t do it.)

I’ve also pretty much given up on this experiment ever failing.

But while the sitting is important, it isn’t the point. We don’t practice for the sake of the practice; it’s about taking the practice off the cushion and living. And now I live — really, actually LIVE — not just more than I did during my long dance with denial, but far more than even before the trauma nearly a decade earlier.

 

You can gain much from this practice, but what’s truly remarkable is what you can LOSE.

 

I’ve lost the need for psychological weapons, along with the misguided desire to fight the inner beasts and demons; I know their names and their backstories now, and sometimes we swap old war stories over beers. A decades-long anger management issue that never quite got out of hand — but was always just THAT close — packed up and left town with no forwarding address. And that early recognition that I seemed to be ok when my attention was drawn somewhere other than fearful rumination? I’ve gained understanding about this exact effect from recent scientific research about the wiring of our minds and brains, but more importantly, I’ve seen the source of self-condemnation that so often comes with this package of quirks we call the human condition, and have learned to let that go too.

 

Our stories are unique, but they’re rarely all that different. We are only ever in the wars that we bring with us.

 

I spent years on my eventual plummet to the bottom, then more years working my way back to the light. My very first insight when I started practicing was “if you fight yourself, you’ve already lost.” The hundreds of pages of insights that I’ve logged over the two decades since then — and their distillation into a workable, modular framework I call the MINDFUL Spiral of Growth — are based on teachings over 2500 years old: clear seeing, developing wisdom, skillfully responding instead of reacting, and ultimately reducing suffering. These are so universal that they still apply to all of us right here, right now.

 

Mindfulness and insight meditation will give you everything if you ask nothing of them. It’s less about knowing where to look and more about learning how to see.

 

Today, I run Mindfulness in Blue Jeans and host free Boston Mindfulness and Insight Meditation Meetup events where I share my insights and experience so others may enjoy the profound benefits that changed my life. Insight Timer is an outstanding free app that I use daily, and they recently published my first guided audio meditation (“The Art of True Release”). I’ve connected with wonderful people on Insight Timer; in fact, many members of my Meetup group are people I met using their social community features. People locally and globally are sharing gratitude for the way I’ve sparked long-needed shifts for them, and there aren’t words to describe the incredible sense of connection and mutual accomplishment that comes with that.

But as happy as I am to share my story, I want to hear yours. Are you at war? On a path to peace? A little of both and looking for a signpost? Or maybe you’re completely lost and unsure where to begin (which I know can feel hopeless and overwhelming, but is truly full of possibility)?

 

I invite you to sign up for my monthly mailing list at the bottom of this page and respond to the welcome message that includes a free download of Unlocking Acceptance.

 

I’m also happy to talk via my web page, Meetup, Insight Timer, Facebook, or a message in a bottle. You can tell anything to a guy who had to explain that he couldn’t go to work because he ran out of problems.

 

 

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