Archive: Meditation and Mindfulness

Non-Judging, one of the 7 pillars of mindfulness

Judgment

I first read of the 7 pillars of mindfulness in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book on mindfulness Full Catastrophe Living. These pillars are Buddhist principles that help us be present and mindful in our everyday living. The 7 meditations I offer to anyone who signs up on my website www.thehjoyofliving.co are based on these, and I use them in my own meditation practice.

The one I’d like to cover today is non-judging. When we judge, we form an opinion about something.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with that – it’s how our mind works – comparing and weighing whether something is good or not good for us.  It’s important to our security to be able to judge.  It’s what our minds do best – if our assumptions are solid and we have all the facts.

But judging can also be a sign of our lack of self-acceptance. For instance, when I find myself judging the way a friend addresses me, it’s probably because I’m not feeling good about myself and am afraid that others will feel the same about me. Let’s say I gained 5 pouds seemingly overnight; this is something I’m sensitive about, so I’ll likely notice if someone comments on my appearance, take it the wrong way, and generate a judgmental story in my mind that makes me feel miserable.

On the other hand, when I’m feeling good and confident, I’m far less sensitive to any supposed slights. When I’m feeling on top of my world, even if someone came up to me and was explicit about my size, I’d probably laugh it off, knowing that what they said was really about them and not so much about me.

When I’m busy judging, it means my mind is occupied, and I’m not even able to really see what’s actually going on around me. The act of deliberately not judging what comes into awareness means we are with whatever comes up, as an impartial witness.  It allows us to feel what the judgments hide – the pain or anguish that’s really going on inside us.

Some people believe that meditation is a means of making ourselves feel calm. Sometimes that happens. But at other times, we aren’t calm, and during those times, meditation helps us be with our lack of calmness, without judging that lack of calmness as good or bad, as some kind of failure or lack on our part.

I invite you to discover your own way of judging in your world, by takeing 10 minutes and noticing your own judging patterns – along with any underlying feelings that might arise. And when you do this, do it with kindness and compassion for whatever it is you find.

 

Maryanne Nicholls is a Registered Psychotherapist.  To find out more, gain access to her weekly newsletter, meditations and programmes, sign up at www.thejoyofliving.co .

Laughter

Picture this:  you’re with a group pf people – some you know, and the topic of discussion is about politics.  The mood is dark – you might feel angry or you might feel the tension rising.  Then someone cracks a joke and everyone laughs with a combination of appreciation and relief.  The underlying cause of the tension hasn’t gone, but the people in that group start to relax. And with that relaxation comes a greater willingness to listen.

We are always grateful to that person who has the skill of using laughter in a genuine way, because, as this small example demonstrates, laughter has a really important social function. Sophie Scott, Neuroscientist and stand-up comic, studies laughter. In her talk on Why we Laugh,  she talks about the physiology of laughter and hints at laughter’s social impact. I want to focus on the social impact of laughter.

All mammals laugh.  For so long, we (some of us) thought that only people laughed.  Not true.  All mammals laugh, and we (as mammals) laugh for two reasons: as a response to some form of physical stimulation (like tickling) or play. Specifically with humans, we are 13 times more likely to laugh for social reasons than over jokes. We laugh to show our friends we understand them, that we like them. Laughter helps us to regulate our emotions and to create bonds with others.

Further studies by other scientists have focused more on these social aspects of laughter.  Dr. Robert Levinson in California conducted a study where couples were put into a stressful situation; one person was to tell the other about something that bothered them about their partner.  This natural generated tension in anticipation. What Dr. Levinson found was that those people who dealt with this touchy topic using positive laughter were able to relieve the stress immediately. In fact, when following these and other couples, he found that those couples who use laughter reported higher levels of satisfaction in their relationship, and tended to stay together longer.

By now, we’ve all heard of laughter yoga, where people combine deep breathing techniques with forced belly laughter.  Even though it’s faked – at least at first – it does supposedly produce positive physiological effects in our bodies. But it isn’t for everyone.

The thing to take away from what we now know about laughter is this:

  1. Laughter – positive laughter (vs. derisive laughter) – decreases stress hormones and increases endorphins;
  2. Laughing socially – including at ourselves in this way –  helps us gain perspective and balance; and
  3. Laughter connects us with those we love.

Everyone underestimates how often we laugh. As a social experiment, spend a day noting when you laugh, and how it alters you in that moment.

I want to mention how this newsletter is structured, because I’ve discovered some confusion with some of my readers.  The newsletter is in three parts: the first part is my contribution; the second is a video I’ve found that relates to the topic in part 1, but most often is not referenced in part 1 (it offers a different point of view); the third is a quote. I hope this eliminates the confusion, and that you enjoy all three parts.

How Laughing at Yourself Can Change the World | Brad Jenkins

Quotes of the Week

Time can be kept by clocks and calendars, measured in inches and wrinkles, and caught in images and photographs. But if we are lucky, it can also be counted in a life well spent, full of learning, love, and laughter.

-Cameron Diaz

Blessed are those who laugh at themselves, for they shall never cease to be amused

-Anon

Announcements
At times we need more  – we know the logic, know what to do. And yet something is still blocking us. I offer both one-on-one consultations and coaching packages.  For more information, visit my website www.thejoyofliving.co/services-and-programs or contact me directly at maryanne@thejoyofliving.co

Affect Tolerance, or How to Love Pain

mindfulness

Affect tolerance is all about learning to tolerate chronic pain.  It’s a big topic, especially around mindfulness practitioners, because being mindful can help someone learn to be OK with chronic pain – even love it!

Having a mindfulness practice helps in at least three ways: it helps us bear pain, it helps us accept aspects of ourselves that we try to ignore (which only serves to intensify the pain), and it helps us adjust our priorities to those that are more in line with life and wellness.

  1. It helps us bear pain. Often when we’re in pain, we make it much worse with our self-talk. “This is intolerable!” “I just can’t do anything with this pain and it makes me so angry!” – are two examples of how we can make the pain we feel remain centre-stage. Learning to separate our negative and un-helpful self-talk from the actual sensations not only provides some objective detachment, but also calms the talk.  This can very effectively reduce the actual sensation of pain. You can see this yourself the next time you feel a pain, say, in your hip: sit in a way that supports that painful part of your body, close your eyes, and breathe.  Then go to the actual area of pain, and imagine breathing right into that area – without attempting to alter the sensation; simply breathing into it; being with it. Do this for a few minutes and notice if there are any changes in the sensation as a result.  Most often, you will notice there is a change – a diminishing or softening of the sensation.
  2. It helps us accept ourselves as a whole, instead of limiting that acceptance to certain parts of ourselves. Pain can be a “pain”, but it can also be a friend – by telling us when we’ve gone too far. As we age, our bodies become increasingly limited in their ability to respond to our demands. Instead of fighting this, honoring what our body is able to do – and not able to do – is going to make us – ultimately – more content, moving from self-judgment and self-criticism to self-appreciation and support.
  3. It helps us adjust our priorities – to those that better serve us. This is closely linked to self-acceptance, and is really an extension of that idea: comparison to others who we judge as more fit or less in pain can only lead to misery. For instance, I can compare myself to my slim friend who can eat anything she wants, then judge myself wanting because I can’t eat anything I want without gaining weight and adding pressure to my knees.  Or, I can chose to focus instead on my successes – my depth of knowledge on what truly nourishes me, for instance; which I have only because I must watch what I eat. My priority can be to be ‘better than’, or it can be to be healthy and happy with what I have.  My choice.

My mother, for a number of reasons, had severe osteoporosis in her old age.  Because of this ailment, she had trouble walking and was almost constantly in pain. At first she fought it and ultimately made things worse by doing so.  Then she learned to accept and live with it, getting on with her life as best she could. She didn’t have a mindfulness practice – not much was known about mindfulness in the Western world at that time – but she did learn to really appreciate what was available to her, along with her limitations.  I can only wonder now what having a practice could have done for her.

Maryanne Nicholls is a Registered Psychotherapist.  To find out more, gain access to her weekly newsletter, meditations and programmes, sign up at www.thejoyofliving.co .

Mindful Intimacy

Mindful Intimacy

Almost a year ago, I attended a conference on Mindfulness and Psychotherapy, sponsored by Harvard University.  I was going through one of my all-too-frequent periods of physical challenges, so all I could manage was to get myself to the lectures in-between resting in my room.  Fortunately it rained a lot, and the friend I’d planned on meeting had to go elsewhere, so resting in the cool darkness of my room was perfect! I’m glad I made the effort; the quality of the talks and their speakers made it all worth-while.

One of the speakers was Willa Miller, Founder and Spiritual Director of Natural Dharma Fellowship in Boston.  She began with a stretch, and then a meditation, so that we could be supported in being present for what she wanted to share with us. A beautiful, and highly meaningful way to share her talk on Mindful Intimacy with us.  This isn’t, after all, a topic that can be truly appreciated without bringing the audience along. She lead more meditations during her time up there (I can’t recall how long she was up there – it felt like no time, but was probably an hour and a half). With each one, she spoke of and demonstrated the intimacy of solitary meditation.

How so? In 5 ways, we all shared the moment:

  1. Learned from a teacher – Ms. Miller was up there, leading us all one meditation at a time – something we all shared in as a result;
  2. Our relationship to the breath – since this was her focus, it was also ours;
  3. Our relationship with the present moment – there is no intimacy without presence, and being mindful is all about being present;
  4. With our immediate senses – similar to breathing together, we were, each of us, aware of hearing her voice and feeling our breathing;
  5. With our mind’s content – because she was teaching us as we meditated, we had something to focus on and think about, while at the same time, being fully present.

This kind of meditating practice is often called Relational Meditation. Its surprisingly intimate, and perhaps for this reason, energizing.  I left that lecture feeling well for the first time in a week.  I’m not claiming it was the meditation, but we do know that connection heals; that connection is, indeed, essential for human growth and wellness.

And so I leave you with this suggestion:  experiment with meditating by yourself and in groups, then note how you feel energetically.  I’d love to hear your feedback, and invite you to leave a comment below.

Time enough for courtesy

Imagine this:  You’re standing in line at the bank. These days, because almost everything is done online or at ATM’s, standing in line at the bank can be very long and tedious, because no one stands in line unless they have something complicated to do.  You begin to fidget, thinking about the list of to-do’s for the day that probably won’t get done if you stand there much longer. You’ve been there for what seems like an hour, and finally feel you might reach the teller in another 15 minutes, when someone enters, looking harried, and cuts in front of you.  This person is loaded down with ledger books, cheques and cash bulging from a number of pockets.  Not a quick service.

What do you do?  You might feel shocked and say something like: Excuse me, the end of the line is behind that 10th person! You might feel outraged and simply move in front of them, leaving it to the person behind you to deal with it. Or you might take a breath and have a talk with him or her to discover what’s going on.

I’ve done all three at different times. From my personal experience, only the third alternative leaves me feeling good and at peace.  No matter how rushed I am, not taking time to consider the other person never pays off.

So easy to say – and agree to. So hard to do when we’re rushed. Therefore. I have a challenge for you: next time you’re rushed, no matter what you’re doing or where you are, set your watch and take 10 minutes to do nothing.

Time Passing – Stephen Wilkes

time

Quote of the Week
Life is not so short but that there is always time enough for courtesy.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson

Announcements
At times we need more  – we know the logic, know what to do. And yet something is still blocking us. I offer both one-on-one consultations and coaching packages.  For more information, visit my website www.thejoyofliving.co/services-and-programs or contact me directly at maryanne@thejoyofliving.co

 

 

Angry Woman (and Man)

A friend walked into my living room and had a look on her face that brooked no questions. She wasn’t about to explode; didn’t look like she was about to melt down.  Instead she looked too peaceful, too poised, spoke in a tone that was just a little too reasonable.  I know her, and I knew this meant she was – for the moment – unreachable.

It may be my imagination, but it seems I’m beginning to see this increasingly – in my clients, friends and sometimes in myself. In fact, I noticed this in me a few days ago, and decided to make becoming aware of it part of my morning mantra.

There are a ton of articles on angry women, all of them either praising them or asking why it’s OK for men and not OK for women to be angry.  And maybe that’s what’s happening: in business, anger in a woman is seen as unattractive; like she can’t control her emotions. But because of all the press over this – and the pushback from women in business – women are beginning to express their anger.

This is great! Except when the anger is misdirected – and this is what I’m seeing increasingly – with both men and women.  For instance, my friend was angry at her son because … well … the list is long. She knows her real source of anger is with herself – that she let herself down and ended up taking it out on her son, making her even angrier – but she just can’t seem to stop it.  Then later she feels remorse and an almost driven need to make amends.

I know when I get angry like this: I know it because it doesn’t feel good – it feels filled with garbage.  The pattern for me is my anger actually begins earlier as anxiety or overwhelm. I may look at the list of things I think I need to do with dismay, thinking I’ll never get through it all.  Then I might wonder if I even have it in me to do it, and what was I thinking getting myself involved in this particular project anyway.  Then I’ll really up the anti by musing on what others must be thinking about me and my foolishness.  That’s when some poor sucker pops up and happens to say the wrong thing at the wrong time (which by now could be anything at any time), and I lash out. So, added to my dismay and anger is remorse.

This whole thing happens without much awareness on my part.  Hence my morning reminder: when I build into my day an awareness of what I’m thinking and feeling, and where it all might lead, I can begin to act in a way that brings positive change, rather than negative feelings.

If you find yourself getting angry or carrying it into your day, there are three things you can do to support yourself in a positive way:

  • Be prepared. Bring an awareness into your day about how you’re feeling, especially if it involves fear, anxiety or overwhelm.  Being aware helps you take responsibility for your feelings and the situation you find yourself in.
  • Take care.  If you’re like me, when you’re feeling overwhelmed or anxious, you’re also extra sensitive.  If so, add an extra dose of self-care, giving yourself space to deal with the emotions that come up, recognizing that you may interpret what others say negatively as a result. Self-care isn’t merely a good thing; it’s essential to living a happy and balanced life.
  • Learn to say No. One essential of self-care is knowing when it’s best to say No!, or at the least, delay responding.  This is, for me, the most powerful thing I can do for myself.  “I’ll get back to you on this” gives you time to get into a better place and respond thoughtfully rather than react emotionally.

Eckhart Tolle has his own way of addressing anger – see the video below.

It’s great to be able to feel and express our anger. Learning to express it “cleanly” with no garbage is well worth the effort.

I’d love to hear what you do, and am certain other readers would like to hear it too.  So I invite you to leave a comment below.

Eckhart Tolle – Expressing Anger

Quote of the Week

I am awfully greedy; I want everything from life. I want to be a woman and to be a man, to have many friends and to have loneliness, to work much and write good books, to travel and enjoy myself, to be selfish and to be unselfish… You see, it is difficult to get all which I want. And then when I do not succeed I get mad with anger.
― Simone de Beauvoir

 

Announcements
At times we need more  – we know the logic, know what to do. And yet something is still blocking us.  I offer both one-on-one consultations and coaching packages.  For more information, visit my website www.thejoyofliving.co/services-and-programs or contact me directly at maryanne@thejoyofliving.co

Celebrating Success

We hear a lot these days about the person who strives and works hard and finally reaches a place in their lives where success is at their doorstep, only to quit or sabotage their efforts at that crucial moment. We call that fear of success and associate it with not wanting to fail (see Susanne Babbel’s article on this subject in Psychology Today. Some of us secretly expect the worst, and rather than see this happen, we avoid real success.

I thought I was fine with success: I’ve had my moments of failure – lots of them, but I’ve also had some great successes in my life, hard won, that I’m proud of. Then all last week I noticed a deep rumbling inside me – a niggling unease, annoyed at anything that popped up, distracted. I couldn’t pinpoint it. A friend said she noticed this in her clients, so I wondered if it had something to do with the season – air pressure or something. I’ve been working on refreshing my business offerings for a few months now, and getting close to actually implementing them, and it finally struck me – like a large ripe melon breaking over my head – that I was really agitated about the idea of putting this out. The closer I get to actually doing it, the more excuses I come up with to delay it.

I know I’m not the only one out there who has this or a similar fear, so I’m sharing what I’ve done to help me through this.

  • Acknowledge my feelings. Acknowledge my fears around succeeding, knowing that they’re deep.  I’ve discovered that self-care is the best medicine when we hit on something that hurts, and deeply held feelings are no different.  My way of acknowledging my fears is to be with them – sit with my feelings, walk with them.  I may do some journaling but usually not; then after a while I notice my feelings lifting and I know it’s time to move on.
  • Take small steps. Big steps when I’m feeling scared and vulnerable feel like climbing a 100 foot wall. So I break down that wall into smaller ones that I might even leapfrog over. Then I schedule the steps – my way of committing to action. This may not be your way, but whatever it is, it begins with making each step bite-sized.
  • Celebrate every success.  No matter how “small”, because every success is “proof” that I am successfully putting myself out.  These successes include the small steps toward my goal; they also include everything in my life that bring me joy – enjoying a good healthy meal, going on an invigorating walk, spending time in nature, getting a good night’s sleep, and most of all, spending time with my friends.

It takes courage to face our fears, and knowhow.  You may be able to figure it out for yourself, or you may need some help doing it.  I needed help, and never regretted getting it.

Celebrating success feeds my soul. Being stuck in the terror of putting myself out there doesn’t. Knowing this helps me chose to move through the terror.

I’d love to hear what you do, and am certain other readers would like to hear it too.  So I invite you to leave a comment below.

Jane & Lily – doing well in their success

2017-04-16_1810
Quote of the Week
You must do the thing you think you cannot do.
– Eleanor Roosevelt
Announcements
At times we need more  – we know the logic, know what to do. And yet something is still blocking us.  As a registered psychotherapist and stress coach, I offer individual one-on-one consultations. For more information, visit my websitewww.thejoyofliving.co/programs or contact me directly at maryanne@thejoyofliving.co

Time – waits for no one?

I came across the lyrics of the Rolling Stone’s famous song Time waits for no one. The words are haunting and became famous because we can all feel their impact: Time waits for no one, it won’t wait for me.

I feel it; it’s often been a driving force behind my decisions: I was afraid I’d die of boredom; I was afraid I’d be too old too soon; I was afraid I’d miss out on an opportunity that might never show up again.  And so I’d jump in, unprepared and often blind, just so I could close that possibility of missing out on something.

A lot of people do this. In fact, more and more people today are driven by this fear of missing out. Jumping on this or that particular train makes us feel good – at least for the moment: we feel like we’re doing something positive, it’s exciting and energizing. It’s exciting like a roller coaster is exciting: experiencing the fear of diving down into a seeming abyss, feeling the relief when we arrive in one piece shortly after. It feels positive because we feel good doing it – energized and alive.  It’s often called “good stress” and lauded as something that’s a positive influencer in our lives.

However, reality and appearance can sometimes diverge, and I believe that’s true here: humans evolved to have stress in their lives, but occasionally, not every day and all day. When our ancestors needed to hunt a dangerous animal, or protect their home against attack, they were able to instantly summon the clarity, strength and stamina needed to do that.  It no doubt felt good to have a successful hunt and successfully defend their homes – just as it does for us today.  Then there would be a much longer period of rest and recovery, where their systems had a chance to heal and rebuild. In that way, they maintained a balance between restorative and stressful activities.

Today that balance is reversed: we spend most of our time in some kind of stress – in our businesses or careers, raising children on top of that, and keeping up with mortgages and student loans.  We tend to work longer hours than our parents did, and carry a debt load that they didn’t even contemplate.

No matter how you slice it, even if most of the time it feels good, this can’t be good for us.

Eventually, we start to notice physical changes – fatigue, digestive issues for instance, that won’t go away for long. So we eat better, exercise better, maybe spare an hour a week for social activities – and that helps, but not completely. Because we are still wired to “not missing out”.

Time waits for no one, it won’t wait for me.

Not everyone is impacted by this drive. I’m really talking to those who are.  I’ve been one of you, was eventually impacted physically, and had to learn to live a lot differently. The biggest thing I had to learn was to address my fear of missing out.

This is a big topic, and not one easily covered.  But there are a few things you can do for yourself to begin to address this:

  • Awareness of your pattern. Always the first essential step to any worthwhile change: being aware of how we are driven by time provides a benchmark and a starting point.  Notice when you start to rush; when you brush off being with friends and colleagues to relax and socialize; when you dive into something new with little or no consideration.  What’s your particular pattern?
  • Beginning in a positive way. It’s amazingly difficult to take the first 10 minutes of the day and simply sit. In my practice, I discuss this with every client – a few of them are able to incorporate it into their lives – most fail to do so.  Master Time is a very hard task-master, and simply refuses to let us sit calmly with whatever is happening at that moment – even for 10 minutes.  And yet it’s probably the most positive thing we can do for ourselves, and will make a difference to the rest of our day.  So see if you can tolerate even 3 minutes, to start, then build it into 10.
  • Being kind to ourselves. This means no judgments, no comparisons to some idealized view of what should be vs what is, especially within ourselves. Change at this fundamental level takes commitment, courage, and – yes – time.

When chopping onions, just chop onions

oprah

Quote of the Week
You can have it all. Just not all at once.
― Oprah Winfrey

Announcements
At times we need more  – we know the logic, know what to do. And yet something is still blocking us.  As a registered psychotherapist and stress coach, I offer individual one-on-one consultations. For more information, visit my websitewww.thejoyofliving.co/programs or contact me directly at maryanne@thejoyofliving.co

Developing our own voice

How often have you been silent when you really wanted to say something? It might have been on behalf of someone else, but most often it’s on our own behalf when we lose our voice. And it’s mostly women who do this.

Women are taught in many societies to stay in the background; being dominant is seen as unfeminine – Still! – and is, at the least, discouraged.

Or – how often these days have you been admonished to speak up when you really didn’t feel comfortable doing so? Staying silent is seen as a sign of weakness and timidity – and may really be a sign of introversion and consideration.  Sometimes it’s not something you may be interested in enough to speak up.

Either way, there’s judgment from others and ourselves about how we ‘should’ act and respond.

I find my voice in my writing and being with others one-on-one.  I was raised to speak only when spoken to – it’s true – and I didn’t like it.  But my heroes as I grew into adulthood were always the silent types, speaking only when it mattered.  Growing up in my home was chaotic and loud, and my way of retreating from all that noise when I was a teenager was into books, where the good guys weren’t the ones screaming the loudest.
I’m also a therapist, well and thoroughly taught to stay out of the spotlight, allowing my clients to take that place.

Having said this, I know that sometimes it’s simply a convenient ‘go-to’ when I’m nervous about speaking up. When I find myself judging, or feel that others are judging me, then I know I’m quiet when I need to be the reverse.

Speaking up isn’t a rule or an obligation, unless you’re keeping quiet when you’d rather not.  Being authentic is the point.  Even more to the point is that we cheat the world of our voice.

Pat Blumenthal was also raised to be polite and keep her thoughts to herself. Then one day she realized that by doing so, she was missing opportunities to influence outcomes — “to change an opinion, to clear up a misunderstanding, to give support, to challenge an assumption, to keep someone from making a mistake”.
As we keep ourselves from speaking up, it becomes a habit, and our voice begins to fade, even to ourselves.
So speak up when it matters most to you. Here are three things to help you determine when that is (courtesy of Martha Beck :

  • Assess. Honestly assess what’s happening around and inside you. What if you live with someone who never cleans up after themselves.  This person may be your husband, wife, roommate – it doesn’t matter.  You might not care picking up after them, or you might be talking yourself into not caring every day.  If so, then try this: imagine you could summon a ‘wise observer’ who’s able to see things from a disinterested perspective. Ask yourself, what would this observer see and say? It might be that he or she would see something minor that isn’t worth making a fuss over.  Or, the observer might see the roommate or spouse acting like a ‘pig’, leaving their garbage for you to pick up; and inside you there’s a building resentment and fear of what they might do if you suddenly didn’t pick up after them. ‘Seeing’ this way can help us really understand what’s happening. Then, and only then, ask yourself what you want to do.
  • Take action. If you have something to say, then express it as authentically as possible.  If you’ve decided to take some action, then follow through.
  • Wait out the reaction or response. There may be a reaction, especially if the person sees you saying or doing something they aren’t used to.  You may want to bolt, but know that the fit will pass eventually.  So sit it out, and don’t run away.
A note of caution: the above is assuming you aren’t dealing with a physical abuser.  If you are, then protect yourself by physically removing yourself from the space. Otherwise, stick it out, and make your voice count.

 

A Haircut Taught Cindy Crawford to Speak Up for Herself

 

 

Quote of the Week
It took me quite a long time to develop a voice, and now that I have it, I am not going to be silent. – Madeleine Albright

Announcements
At times we need more  – we know the logic, know what to do. And yet something is still blocking us.  As a registered psychotherapist and stress coach, I offer individual one-on-one consultations. For more information, visit my websitewww.thejoyofliving.co/programs or contact me directly at maryanne@thejoyofliving.co

The dark before the dawn …

“The darkest hour is just before the dawn.” I’m sure you’ve heard and read this all your life.  Where did it originate? Apparently, the first to use it in literature was an English theologian in 1650, but he was probably not the first to use it. We see it a lot, especially in self-help books, journals and workshops, also in literature.

It’s popular because it’s true. We’ve all worked on something important to us, finally reaching a moment of despair, only to have the answer we’d been searching for suddenly materialize.  Or for those of us who have struggled with something in our lives that keeps turning up and blocking us – over and over – until we loose hope of ever turning that around, and then shortly after, we find the answer, and then change happens. The feeling of new discovery after such bleakness is indescribable.

Uri Alon in his Ted Talk on Why science demands a leap into the unknown  describes what he discovered as a PhD candidate:  he was in the middle of writing his thesis, and found that all his assumptions were incorrect, everything he tried led nowhere; he lost all sense of direction, felt unworthy, that he couldn’t be a scientist.  He didn’t end up quitting, and eventually made it through with the help of his friends and colleagues, ending up discovered something completely new that proved to be the key point of his thesis.  Afterwards he remembered feeling an amazing sense of calmness – the reward for hanging in there and waiting for the magic to happen.

Then, a few years later, it happened again – he was working away and getting nowhere, final ready to throw it in, and that’s when he made another new discovery.  Then, he began to hear from other researchers that they’d had similar experiences. As it happens, Uri is a man of many talents and passions, and one of these is as an improv actor.  If you know about improv, then you know that it’s about getting up on stage with no clue about what’s going to be handed to you; and whatever is handed you, it’s up to you to make something of it, regardless of the consequences.  When he was learning to be one, he was told exactly what was going to happen: that he would get on stage, having no idea what would happen, and that he would get stuck and fail miserably! The whole experience was to learn how to be creative in that stuck place.

This improv approach is exactly, he realized, what he wanted to nurture in himself, his colleagues and his students.  We all assume that if we have a question A – and want to reach the answer – B (whatever that may be), we do our experiments or take action, and eventually – pretty directly – get to B.  But in fact, it’s never a straight line to the answer.  Instead, we try, fail, try again, and keep going around and around in seemingly endless circles until we are stuck.  He calls this the Cloud. We can be lost in this cloud for a short or long period, but one thing is certain – we will end up in that cloud.  It’s because this cloud stands at the boundary between the known and the unknown.  If we continue to explore the problem inside the cloud, then eventually we might notice something new coming out of the cloud that relates to A, but not to B.  This is something we weren’t looking for or expecting -C.

What he came to realize is that in order to discover something truly new, we must change at least one of the basic assumptions we’re making. B is some thing or experience we know something about at the beginning, but C is brand new. Hanging onto our assumptions will drive us around in circles forever.

The cloud is therefore unavoidable, but that doesn’t mean such deep and dark despair is.  Again Uri went to his work in improv: In improv, the actors learn to always say “Yes, and …” to any challenge. They’ve discovered that saying “Yes, and” bypasses the inner critic and often brings us to the brand new answer – without going first to a place of despair and hopelessness. (It may be a place of temporary high anxiety, but not hopelessness.)

Saying “Yes, and” is a way of changing direction deliberately with hope and curiosity replacing inner resistance and ultimately hopelessness.  Sherwin Nuland in his Ted Talk on the extraordinary in ordinary people, talked about hope.  He discovered that the concept of hope is based on the Indo-European root – keu – which is the same root that ‘cure’ comes from; and it means going in a different way. Hope is about looking in new directions that we hadn’t previously guessed or expected.

Growing, learning something new, discovering new pathways, all require change in us, and change requires changing directions. If you think you know where you’re going, you’re not going in the right direction. The process of change means we will end up in the cloud – that boundary between the known and the unknown, and when we do, we can either approach it in resistance and despair, or in the hopefulness of “Yes, and”.  Pema Chödrön might add: Be more like a river than a rock.

Pema Chödrön – How to let go and accept change

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Quote of the Week

Hope does not consist of the expectation that things will come out exactly right, but the expectation that they will make sense regardless of how they come out. – Vaklav Havel, Breaking the Peace

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At times we need more  – we know the logic, know what to do. And yet something is still blocking us.  As a registered psychotherapist and stress coach, I offer individual one-on-one consultations. For more information, visit my websitewww.thejoyofliving.co/programs or contact me directly at maryanne@thejoyofliving.co