“They bit off more than they could chew, and then they chewed it.” Howard Friedman and Leslie Martin, The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life
from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study
In this exercise, we attend to our unpleasant thoughts, feelings,memories or physiological states by harnessing the power of our gentle and observant mind. It turns out that if we identify and make room for the unpleasant, it loses some of its hold on us!
When you first notice an unpleasant thought or feeling or body sensation,invite it to be present while you focus on it. Simply allow it to exist… without any judgments or evaluations… without denial or resistance. After all, if you notice it, it already exists!
Next,assign a light and looselabelto the unpleasant state.Give it a name like “pain” or “irritation” or “stomach ache”… even “Ouch.” Frequently, naming an unpleasant experience frees us from being stuck with it demanding our attention. Remember, our brain likes closure… and naming provides a bit of closure.
After you recognize and name your unpleasant state, explore its impact on you.How does the unpleasant state feel in your body? How does it move you to think… feel… or act? What does it teach you about YOU?
Finally,recognize that unpleasant states are part of our human existence and “Of course” we don’t have to like them! Breathe in and out as you say to yourself something like, “It’s okay” or “I’m okay” or “This, too, shall pass” … any mantra that brings you greater ease.
Remind yourself that you have tolerated unpleasant states before and will tolerate them again. In fact, there is growing evidence to support that you are stronger for having faced them.
According to psychologists Friedman and Martin, it’s one of the ways we build the strength to live the life that matters to us!
In the 1960s, psychologist Aaron Beck developed Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) in order to help people:
recognize the impact of their dysfunctional thoughts (interpretations, beliefs, predictions) and
modify their thoughts (interpretations, beliefs, predictions) to be more accurate and useful
As he challenged his clients to “think differently” and more positively, CBT became the most empirically-based “cure” for depression and anxiety, an outcome that still exists today.
How did he teach clients to recognize the impact of and modify their thoughts? He took a process that our brain uses naturally — reframing — and he made it intentional (and he called the technique “cognitive restructuring” for any of you who want the official term used in CBT).
This exercise is about intentionally using your Values in Action (VIA) strengths as the tool to shift your thoughts (interpretations, beliefs, predictions) to change your experience into a more positive and nurturing one.
Consider an activity that falls in your “Don’t enjoy, but is necessary” category. My example is daily physical therapy, which has gotten more and more difficult to approach as I enter my sixth month of PT.
Notice the impact on your body when it is time to begin this activity.
Observe your self-talk as you approach the activity… being gentle with yourself when you hear the internal chatter, no matter what it is like. It will most likely have a quality of, “This is something I want to AVOID because __fill-in-the-blank__.”
Don’t forget to use your Return and Rest practices to increase your ability to focus!
Now purposefully change your self-talk by choosing one of your VIA strengths to bring to the activity with you. Seek a quality of, “This is something I don’t mind APPROACHING because I get to use my __fill-in-the-blank VIA_ strength.” In my case, I use two VIA strengths that work well together: I tell myself I’m learning a little bit of what physically handicapped individuals might feel like so I have greater compassion (Perspective value) and use my Love of Learning to keep track of my physical and emotional reactions, like a scientist.
Notice the impact on your body as you reframe the activity to be less avoidance- and more approach-oriented.
Keep bringing the spotlight of attention to the “value behind the activity” approach orientation as long as you can do it gently.
Many of you have asked for help with the formal exercises, explaining the challenge you feel attempting to conduct a breathing exercise at work (in an office cubicle bustling with busy-ness) or at home (with a continuation of “demands” and no place to hide). I completely understand and though I sometimes take a trip to sit in my car or on an untraveled stairwell step to have a private place to breathe, I know it’s not always feasible to leave a workstation.
When I am stuck where I am and there is a lot of commotion going on around me, I do the following mindful breathing exercise, which is similar to one from yesterday. Do you notice the similarities? They involve talking to yourself. Again, this is a formal exercise because we do nothing else but breathe for 1-3 minutes.
Begin the exercise by taking a deeper than average breath in… and then releasing your breath fully as you breathe out, perhaps even adding a sigh. When we are in the midst of commotion, it helps to let go of extra tension and that’s what this does when repeated 2-3 times.
Now switch to saying something like this to yourself as you breathe in and out. The “smile” can be internal (to yourself) or external (others can see). It’s the spirit behind the smile that counts… which brings me to a story from my mentor, Crazy Don, if you want to check it out.
“Breathing in, I add calm to my life.
Breathing out, I smile at the commotion around me.”
End the exercise with an actual external smile, Mona Lisa-like… because you just pulled off some major brain training!
Awareness that our intuition could benefit from some correction… makes clear
the need for disciplined training of the mind. Intuition works well in some realms, but it needs restraints and checks in others.
– David Myers, Intuition: Its Powers and Perils
Our brain is rarely quiet in its mission to take in information (ATTENTION) and evaluate the information it receives (ATTITUDE). It will interpret, evaluate and nudge us to act before we fully appreciate all the information available to us… because it relies on a pattern recognition response acquired from our experience.
Now pattern recognition is “intuitive,” a kind of thinking without awareness. Neuroscientists have even measured it and, would you believe, there is a 0.3 second gap between the brain waves that initiate our reaction and our conscious awareness of decision making! David Myers explains it this way: “Our gut level attitudes guide our actions, and THEN our rational mind makes sense of them.”
The “power” of this process is obvious: We can act quickly and accurately when we rely on our expertise. Fortunately or unfortunately, the perils exist, too. Among them:
“Garbage, in; garbage out” when we construct inaccurate memories… and all memories are constructed!
Intuition is strongly affected by our mood… and negative moods over-estimate negative events.
We operate from a self-serving bias (i.e., We see ourselves as better than average).
On challenging tasks, we tend to be more confident than correct.
When accuracy really matters, can you trust your intuition? The wisest answer to that question comes from deep self-understanding. When we check our hunches, gut feelings, and voices within against available evidence, keeping notes of our experience so we don’t have to rely on constructed memory.
Gently observe any compelling (and especially “confident”) thought, feeling or sensation as it arises in reaction to information today… without any attempt to condemn, condone or congratulate yourself about the hunch, gut feeling or inner experience.
Welcome all information as it unfolds, saying to yourself, “Of course I would feel this way (or think this way, or believe this way) when you feel confident that what you sense is real or right or accurate.
Allow yourself to live with uncertainty in the moment… without encouragement or resistance… by breathing mindfully… in and out, slow and deep, with calm and ease, and a smile to release… as you are mindful about the limits to our knowledge, predictions, judgments, etc.
Write a note to yourself about your beliefs, predictions, judgments, etc. along with any observations of how they came to you, and how they felt in your body. After a month of doing this, you will have a pretty good idea of which personal experiences to trust and which may be misleading.
This “non-attachment practice” is our first step towards developing authentic compassion.