Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Awareness: Looking Anxiety in the Face

In the practice of meditation one of the main "goals"--if we can call it a goal--is to learn to maintain an increasing sense of awareness.  The little secret is that awareness (reality) is always there.  We just aren't always aware that we are aware of it.  Instead, we are distracted by things like anxiety, fear, anger, and many other things, such as thoughts that float around obstructing our view of awareness.  It is said that in meditation you eventually become aware of reality rather than it being something you are striving for.  In other words, the more you meditate and perfect your awareness of reality, the more it appears to you.

When it comes to anxiety, we have to work at recognizing that it is like an object in the sky that catches our attention and begins to distract us from seeing things as they really are.  We can think of reality as the sky and when we look up into that sky, sometimes there are things that are "in" that sky that catch our attention, and we see these things just the way we might see clouds in the sky, and if you are like me, you can look at clouds and begin to get a little distracted by them.  That one looks like a dragon and maybe that one looks like the unfolding of a tornado, and maybe another looks like it could be heavy with rain.  Pretty soon... all you can see is the clouds (anxiety) and not reality (the sky) itself.

So with anxiety (as with many other of life's unnecessary distractions) we need to see these things for what they really are, and this should be done with as little to no judgment as is possible.  In other words, if you so happen to actually "notice" that you are anxious, try to notice without all the judgment that can follow, such as "what is wrong with me?", or "I should be better at this and not be so anxious." 

The way we get better and better at being aware is through meditative practice, and that can be done no matter if we are in seated meditation, walking meditation, moving meditation, or any activity at all  really.  For instance, try this little exercise: As you read these words that are a part of this paragraph, try to notice each and every time you see the letter "e".  Just read along, and then each time you see the letter "e", just notice it briefly.  So here you are, reading this paragraph, and suddenly the entire paragraph becomes something much more prominent before you.  Every word is now a central focus as you pay particular attention to catching each and every "e".  And we can do the same thing in everyday life if we just add in practices that help us learn to stay more present.

In her life's work, Charlotte Joko Beck worked to help people notice these things in their everyday life which were escaping notice due to distraction.  She wrote a book, Everyday Zen, in which she simplifies the entire Zen meditation process by clarifying that though it's not easy to accomplish, the main idea behind meditation and present-moment practices, is to become "present" in "every moment".

Before we end, take the time to meditate on the wonderful photo image presented with this blog entry.  It was created by Jeremy Gromoski and if you just come into the present long enough, you will notice something very interesting about what you see.  Some things can look very real, when they are not.  Just like our anxiety can.  But when we look anxiety directly in the face, most often we will find that it's an illusion created by our brain to convince us that some situation is life-threateningly dangerous, when it is not.

It's very important that we practice seeing things as they a really are.  The sky is always there, and yes, the clouds float in and out.  They shape-shift.  Appear and disappear.  But reality is always there, waiting for us to notice it.

Thanks to Jeremy Gromoski for his excellent photo image, Illusion.                                                                                                                           

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Striving for Peace: A way to reduce Stress and Tension

The New Year is coming.  2021!  And there is a lot of potential for peace in it.  The reason is because it's not hear yet and so we can set our intention on making it a peaceful year.  It's all in knowing what we want to accomplish.  

Setting an intention has a slightly different flavor to it than setting a goal or a resolution.  An intention indicates that something is the aim, and all efforts that follow will keep that aim in mind.

If we have a certain intention, then "most" of the activity and energy we apply in that direction is for the purpose of that intention, and therefore, we try to avoid activity and energy that is not going to serve that intention.  So having an intention to make 2021 a peaceful year should be full of activity that strives for peace.  You won't do it perfectly and yes, you will slip up.  But the idea is to move in that direction for the most part.

There is an area of study called "Peace studies", or sometimes called "Peace and Conflict studies."   The Institute for International Peace Studies at Notre Dame defines "peace" as "not just the absence of war", but also as "the presence of the conditions of a just and sustainable peace, including access to food and clean water, education for women and children, and security from physical harm."  In other words, there is "negative" peace, which is the absence of direct violence; and there is "positive" peace, which is the presence of justice.

So we have to look at the direction of our intention when we say we are striving for peace.  I'm sure many of us have heard ourselves and others claim we want peace, but then our actions and behavior don't necessarily seem intended toward something that looks like peace in the end.  To strive toward negative peace, we have to discontinue our own forms of violence, and to strive toward positive peace, we have to strive toward justice of many kinds.

Bringing peace to your daily life includes bringing peace to your community, including your home, neighborhood, town and city.  So as you approach 2021, try to set your intention on less violence in all of its many forms, while also moving toward actions that support justice, which means acting in accordance with "moral rightness based on ethics"--and that includes fairness.

If you want to be a part of a peaceful 2021 it's going to mean taking a look at yourself and your own daily thoughts and behavior.  If you find yourself thinking you are not a part of the problem, sit with that for a moment and try to dig a little deeper.  Look until you see a human place where you can change for the better and be a part of the solution. 

Thanks to John Attebury for the great photo (quote added),

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Post Election Anxiety and The Way Out of Hell

In the movie Gandhi there is a scene in which a Hindu man approaches Gandhi and tells him, "I'm in hell".  The man was tortured by guilt for killing a Muslim boy out of revenge after Muslims killed his own son.  He was also upset that Gandhi was fasting for political reasons and feared he would die from lack of food and that his death would amplify his already heavy burden of guilt.  Gandhi tells the man that he "knows the way out of hell," and that the solution for his guilt was to find a young Muslim boy whose parents had also been killed, and raise him as his own.  But the catch was, he had to raise him as Muslim, not as a Hindu.  In other words, it was the man himself that needed to change in order for any escape from hell to happen.  He'd be required to expand his own awareness, education, and knowledge of his enemy in order to escape his heavy burden of hell.

In Hollywood it's never clear if scenes like this are based on reality or dramatized for effect, but it was known that Gandhi felt that the Hindus and Muslims were all part of the same thread and belonged to the land of India.  And though he saw them all as one, they had become deeply divided and saw one another as enemies.  Yet, his solution for this man (at least in the movie anyway), was for him to travel into the world of those he called his enemy and get to know them at the level of love, where he would learn to know them and their beliefs, and see that they are from the same human cloth as he was.

This concept of ending conflict and animosity by getting to know your enemy--even growing to love your enemy--as yourself, is not new.  Gurus and spiritual leaders throughout history have taught the importance of seeing that there is no separation between us in the large scheme of things.  To see those you disagree with as fellow human beings prevents you from dehumanizing them, and history has shown that the dehumanization of our enemies moves us to begin justifying abuse, violence and destruction against them.  Does this mean you always have to agree with others?  No.  What it means is that you must learn to live with (and even grow to love) those you disagree with.  

Here in America, where the presidential election was only a week ago, the talk of finding our way to unity has already begun, just as it did after the 2016 election.  Many in America are fatigued of the polarization and bickering between those who disagree on a broad assortment of issues, and the 50% that voted one way are discouraged by the 50% who voted the other.  But what is the metaphorical equivalent of raising your enemy's child as your own?  How do we find our "way out of hell" here in America, where half the country thinks one way, and the other half seem to always disagree?

One way to reduce our anxiety about the dilemma we Americans find ourselves in is to begin to take a closer look and ask what each one of us can do to become a part of the solution of unity that everyone seems to want.  Do we have to agree on all the issues?  No.  But a change can come within each one of us in which we step a little closer to trying to get to know those we've come to call our enemy.  Being able to agree to disagree is the radical notion that people with different views can live in peace together and don't have to insist that it's one way or the other.  Wiggle room can reveal a middle ground for compromise or polite and peaceful debate.

In his lifetime Gandhi took up the art of the charkha, which is a spinning wheel used to make thread.  It became a symbolic representation during his time in India of independence and self-reliance, as well as self-governance.  I also like to think of it as a symbolic reminder that we are all from the same thread.  We are all weaved together on this precious planet as one human race and it is imperative that we learn to get along in peace, despite our differing beliefs.

So, think about this path out of hell when you are celebrating your seasonal holidays through November and December of 2020, and as you approach the new year, consider making a resolution to step toward (instead of away) from those you consider your enemy.  Start getting to know who these other human beings are and work to see yourself in them, as you allow them to see themselves in you.  And as you travel this path out of hell, you will eventually begin to see that you, and those you disagree with, are really spun from the same cloth.

Friday, October 9, 2020

2020 Election Stress and Anxiety Reduction

Most of us are too young to have experienced the famous radio show broadcast of the "War of  the Worlds" in 1938, in which a radio theatre presented (quite realistically), the idea that Martians had invaded the world.  There was an immediate fear response based on belief that the story being broadcast was real.  There was "widespread outrage" later, and the broadcasters were heavily criticized for being deceptive.  There were even "calls for regulation by the Federal Communications Commission."

As I write this current blog entry it is only 22 days to the 2020 election.  Already the mood and energy approaching that day is stirring.  It's not exactly exciting, and not exactly even a relief.  Instead, I sense that many people are having anticipatory anxiety, or perhaps unease about another unknown-to-come and all the chain of events that will follow either outcome.  Unfortunately, like the War of the Worlds broadcast, there are all kinds of fear inducing stories being weaved throughout social media right now, and it seems anxiety and stress are high in many corners of the globe.

In the duration period between November 3rd, 2020, and inauguration day in January, we American citizens are not going to be very much unlike a scared (but well-meaning) resident who, with good intention, buys a gun for protection in the home.  But how many times have we all read the sad story of such a citizen, having taken all the necessary safety classes about the handling and storage of that gun, who then finds themselves face to face with an apparent intruder in the night and is forced to make a decision one never thought they'd  have to.  Yet, on seeing a shadow through groggy eyes, pulls the trigger, only to discover later that they have killed their own child or spouse, or perhaps a visiting guest just moving about in the night to find the restroom.

It's probably true that, like the citizen who buys a gun for protection, most Americans have good intention to protect this home they call the United States.  But just like the groggy-eyed home-owner in the night, we are also at risk after November 3rd of accidentally and inadvertently harming members of our own communities.  So stress and anxiety levels during that time will need to be kept in check.  Preparing for this difficult pocket of time now can help you stay focused on reality, and be ready to decipher what's real and what's hype in the midst of the after-election chaos that is coming.  And is coming.  

We know there is no "War of the Worlds", so how do we work now to avoid belief in such false and unnecessary fear stories.  How do we work to stay calm during the coming duration from November 3rd, 2020, to inauguration day on January 20th?  

Well, usually anxiety surfaces with the activation of the fight or flight response, and because of the highly charged political atmosphere in the country right now, we are becoming either hypervigilant (i.e., a response usually resulting from trauma), or we are becoming full of anticipatory anxiety about what's coming up next (i.e. debates, protests, elections, etc.).  One of the first things to prepare for now is deciphering sensationalized stories that are frequently promoted on social media.  So be vigilant for these as they are more unbelievable (and certainly more obvious) than many care to admit.  

In addition, be very realistic about the kinds of things that will show up in your Facebook or twitter feeds after the elections.  It goes without saying that you should not buy into anything that suggests you take up your arms and head for the streets.  Anything that promotes such kinds of behavior after the elections should be immediately suspect and dismissed.  Don't go running with your weapon to greet that "intruder in the night".  It's exactly what we don't need and is the result of a fear and belief response that is misguided and dangerous.  If we believe we are in danger, anxiety levels will rise.  So one of the most important things you can do to lower your stress and anxiety is to work very hard to decipher if your belief in sudden fear-promoting stories are realistic or not.

Regardless of the election outcome, actively participating in an ongoing set of relaxation techniques will be key in staying stress free in November, December and on into the New Year.  Increasing use of meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery, breath work, art therapy, journaling and all the things you have found helpful in the past to keep your stress level down, should be ready.  Pay attention to where your "what if" thinking goes and rein in all forms of Catastrophic Thinking.  

As has been said many times in this blog, it's what we believe that leads to the rise in our anxiety.  If we truly believe there is danger, then the body will react with a fear (anxiety/stress) response.  So be very vigilant right now about what you really believe is and is not dangerous.  After the election in particular, be fully aware of what it is you are buying into and how your body is responding to those beliefs.  Be a part of the rational thinking that can take place during that time, and not a part of any false narrative that is being spun and fed to social media in the form of memes. 

Thanks to pluslexia for the great photo   *

Monday, September 14, 2020

The Stress and Anxiety of Uncertainty

Throughout the duration of COVID-19 a common expressed worry is one of "uncertainty".  Many people feel unease at the reality that the future is pretty much unknown.  We're not really sure how this will pan out, mainly because none of us who are alive have ever lived through anything like this before.  Those who have kids may have never had to home school or worry about their kids exposed to COVID in a school setting before.  Those of us out working in the world have never had to wonder when we will go back to the office, or if we will go back to the office, or if --in the end--employers will even keep the office we all once worked in.  We now all carry with us a sense of uncertainty about how long this will last, as well as uncertainty about what to believe in the mass of information that is not always what it seems. 

This chronic state of uncertainty leads to stress and anxiety that can fill us with irrational kinds of faulty thinking.  In other words, where there are no answers, we might make the mistake of filling in the unknown gap with what seems like a plausible answer.  However, if we are using faulty thinking styles, we can make cognitive errors and fill in those gaps with inaccurate and even mythological information.  

In addition, there is a difference between anticipatory anxiety and uncertainty.  With anticipatory anxiety we at least have a general idea of what it is we are afraid of and what might be coming.  We can anticipate a scenario in our mind of that feared thing and then prepare for it the best we can.  But when it comes to uncertainty, the mind draws a blank.  The new anxiety and stress is in not knowing what to even envision or prepare for.  In that case, an instinctual human system can become hypervigilant and become filled with a general sense of unease in trying to always be ready for it knows not what.

The best way to handle this general sense of uncertainty is to practice relaxation techniques as frequently as possible so that the body counters the chronic tendency to want to be tense all the time.  We can try to train our bodies to be mostly relaxed as frequently as possible, which in the end also prepares us for the best overall reaction to any stressor that eventually comes along.

Another way to cope with uncertainty is to not create expectations about how uncertainty "should" be or how we "wish" it to be in the end.  All that does is create a readiness for disappointment, which can be expressed in stressful emotions like anger, sadness, and more worry.  There is a difference between having a positive attitude--which aims for "hoping" for good outcomes--and the other option of setting oneself up for disappointment by expecting in advance that the outcome one wants or prefers will be the outcome that happens.

When you get right down to it, uncertainty means we don't know the answer.  When we don't know the answer to something our brains start searching for a way to fill in that uncomfortable gap.  We can put all kinds of things in that gap, but that does not mean that whatever we put in that gap is the correct answer.  If instead, we look at the reality of the uncertainty, we can act appropriately and decipher the most rational way to cope.  When the body is uncertain if it needs to prepare for danger, we can intervene and help it instead to feel a general sense of peace and relaxation, which also prepares it in the long run for any need to ready for danger, if necessary.

Thanks to Nguyen Thanh Lam for the great photo

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Healthy Resistance to Stress

If you are like most others, you were probably trying to just wait out the COVID-19 pandemic in hope of things eventually just getting back to "normal".  But it looks like whatever it is we are experiencing now "is" the new normal, and accepting that is really most of the battle regarding the stress that this real change brings. 

It's symbolic and synchronistic, I suppose, that all of this comes near the edge of seasonal change, as Fall is right around the corner and the unknown continues to lie ahead of us all.

Many folks are still sitting on another kind of edge as well, and that is the one between human survival and just trying to flourish in this life.  How do we sort out how to scramble for employment, income, safety, and basic needs while also trying to find peace, joy, harmony and a stress free life for ourselves?  For some the reality of having tied one's ego up in a job title has hurried in hard existential questions about identity, purpose, and meaning.  The problem is that to cling to anything at all--be it a job, job title, marriage, house, business, project, money, or even health--is a big mistake.  None of these will stay the same even if you manage to keep them.  Never-the-less, it's only human nature for us to do what we need to do to survive and once survival needs are met, only then do we bother to notice the stress that surviving has put on us.  

So, the way we respond to stress is very important.  It was Hans Selye who created the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) model to help us understand the stress response.  It has three stages:  The Alarm stage in which a stressor is introduced to our environment.  The Resistance stage in which we do our best to cope with that stressor (sometimes not in the healthiest of ways).  And finally the Exhaustion stage.  

Many of us are still in the Resistance stage regarding the stress brought on by COVID-19 and something that is important for us to realize is that this stage cannot be maintained forever.  If we are not coping well, then all of our resources will eventually become depleted and we will reach the stage of Exhaustion, which puts us at risk for a weakened immune system and vulnerability for illnesses we were initially trying to avoid.  Therefore, it's crucial that we work to have the healthiest coping styles we can muster up during the Resistance stage of stress.

Fall brings with it cold and flu season, the one thing none of us want to take risks with, especially this year.  So you can start now to strengthen your coping styles for dealing with whatever stressors COVID-19 has brought your way.  Here are some ideas to notice about your own coping right now:

  • Are you eating well, taking in healthy foods?  Or are you going for the sugar and junk food?
  • Are you drinking or using other substances more?  Or using natural relaxation techniques?
  • Are you coping by shopping and spending?  Or are you journaling about your frustrations?
  • Are you closing the world off?  Or reaching out to talk with others who are also coping?
  • Are you getting enough exercise?  Or planting in front of the awful daily news stories?
  • Are  you asking for help?  Or trying to do the impossible all by yourself?
  • Are you searching for available resources?  Or playing the victim and deciding it's hopeless?
  • Are  you seeing and appreciating the possibilities around you?  Or giving up?
What's important here is to not let yourself reach the stage of Exhaustion where the immune system falls below homeostasis (that neutral place of normal functioning).  The holidays and winter can bring with them feelings of depression (Seasonal Affective Disorder) and lowered motivation.  So prepare now by upping your game to include better and healthy coping styles.  At least give yourself the upper hand to cope in the best way you possibly can.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Creativity: The Stress Reduction Solution

As the COVID situation drags on here in America, stress levels remain high, as does depression and discouragement.  But one thing human beings have that perhaps other species do not is the power of creativity.  And during this time of isolation, quarantine, work-from-home, unemployment, and illness, it's important to use that power of creativity--more than ever before--to make your world something you can live with and thrive in.

Over the years our society has become adapted to high levels of entertainment.  From the constant availability of our phones and computers, to the endless ongoing events such as concerts, nightclubs, plays, and movies.  Local community guides have typically always had things to go do and give a try, and there has rarely been even the rainiest day that we cannot find something to keep us busy.  But COVID is challenging us to come up with many of these things on our own now.  Concerts and restaurants are closed, and even if one does find an event going on, it's not quite the same with the need to wear a mask and keep a distance of at least six feet, which changes the experience of most things entirely.

So now is the time to use the creativity that comes with this unique larger brain we are so proud of.  Let's not let its propensity of survival (i.e., to think of the worst-case-scenario in order to survive) bring us to our knees with discouragement.  In fact, in this age of modern technology--which is guaranteed to keep us distracted until the extinction of our species--this is the greatest opportunity we could ever imagine of getting a shot at learning to do something other than what we've been repetitively and ceaselessly doing every day for years.

Our stress comes from wanting things to be other than what they really are.  And right now, many things are changed.  And for many of those changed things, it does not look promising that things are going to go back to the way they were.  So continuing to want them to return to the way they were only causes suffering.

Instead, it's important to move on.  Let go of what was prior to COVID arriving, and begin to get creative now about the present and how it will shape the future.  Stress levels will only rise by  hanging on to a dead corpse, but stress levels can fall with acceptance of reality, which removes the oppressive feelings brought on by a refusal to let go of the way things once were.  COVID has changed the world and it's important to lift our heads from the steady focus we've had them on just to get through it, and now look up and look around us to see this changed world.

For instance, the world of work has just changed for good.   When COVID is long gone, this change will still remain.  It's possible we've just now entered an entirely different world of work-from-home that will alter everything from the commercial office industry to traffic statistics.  A large percentage of jobs may be changed now forever, and if we aren't going back, then we must adapt.  Change is hard and frustrating at first, but once the adaptation is made, forward momentum can pick up again.

So go ahead and mourn the loss of the way your life was before COVID.  It's important to mourn and get the feelings processed.  But then it's time to also process what the losses mean.  Yes, it's disappointing to not be able to get back to where we were before this all started, and most would admit they've held that desire in the back of their mind since it all began.  But the truth is, things are on a forward moving path and there is no going back.  It's time to decide now how you will create a new life for yourself in this continually changing situation. 

Stress levels remain high, but they can be lessened by tapping into the creativity of the human brain and coming up with new ways of functioning now regardless of if that is at home or work.  Don't wait for your favorite entertainment venue to reopen so you can once again be entertained.  Better is to be creative and think outside the box for safe and enjoyable things to do on your own.  Don't let giving up be the only option.  Adapt and thrive! 

Thanks to Don Miller for the great photo