In the last post in this series (over at Urban Monk), I talked about some yoga asanas, or poses, that can help us restore our focus and motivation as we work — without even getting up from our desks. In this article, I’ll speak more generally about how yoga helps us develop what I call Awareness and Allowing — two capacities that are key to giving us the efficiency and enjoyment we want in what we do.
1. Awareness. Almost immediately, when I started doing yoga, I became much more attuned to the sensations coming up in my body. I noticed all this tension, tingling, heat and so on that I hadn’t been conscious of before.
Another thing I began to notice was that certain sensations would come up right before I’d find myself procrastinating or putting off a project. I’d start getting this antsy, jittery feeling in my arms and legs, as if there were some danger I needed to run from, and then I’d find myself checking e-mail or pursuing some other distraction.
I eventually realized that I was putting off my work because I didn’t want to experience those antsy feelings. Because I found those sensations disturbing and uncomfortable, I’d fallen into the habit of checking e-mail, surfing the Web or doing something else to distract myself from them.
Understanding that those jittery feelings were what I was trying to escape helped put my procrastination in perspective. If discomfort in my body was really all I was running from, why was I running at all? Wasn’t moving forward in my projects more important to me than avoiding those sensations?
Of course, yoga isn’t the only way to develop Awareness — you don’t need to learn to contort your body into a pretzel shape to be aware of the sensations you’re feeling. :) A simpler approach, in my experience, is to pause whenever you find yourself about to put off a task, and just bring your awareness into your body and notice what’s coming up.
2. Allowing. If you’ve done yoga, I imagine you’ve had the experience of getting into a pose that involved a really deep stretch, and brought up intense sensations. Perhaps you stayed in the pose, despite its intensity. And when you did, you noticed the sensations becoming more comfortable and less threatening.
By Allowing, I mean just that — staying with an uncomfortable sensation that’s coming up, rather than resisting or fleeing from it. This attitude of Allowing, I think, isn’t just for the time we spend on the yoga mat or the meditation cushion — it’s also very helpful in our working lives.
Suppose, for example, you’re working on a project and you start getting bored. Most of us would react to that boredom by doing something to “take the edge off” — maybe playing a few hands of Solitaire on the computer, messing around on social media, and so on.
What if, instead, we chose to stay with that feeling — breathe, relax our bodies, and just allow the sensations to wash over us? What if we decided, instead of pushing our boredom away, to get intimate and familiar with it?
The biggest benefit of learning to Allow the discomfort that comes up as we work is that it gives us control over our own schedules. Most of us are like Pavlov’s Dogs, automatically turning away from our work whenever unpleasantness arises. Developing the ability to drop our resistance to that unpleasantness, and keep moving forward, helps put us in charge of what and how much we get done.
In an earlier post, I suggested that we can actually enjoy marketing when we’re able to tap into our natural compassion and concern for others. As I said, I think this often requires us to let go of the ways we protect ourselves from getting hurt when we interact with another person.
For example, if we’re at a networking event, and we’re worried that others won’t take seriously what we have to offer, maybe we’ll loudly brag about our products and services, not letting anyone get a word in edgewise. However, this tends to get us exactly what we don’t want — people we interact with feel annoyed and don’t want to buy from us.
It would be nice if we could simply drop all these self-protection strategies and “get real.” Unfortunately, it isn’t usually that easy. Many of us developed these strategies a long time ago, and have been relying on them for a long time to get through life. Thus, they’ve become unconscious and habitual — we no longer even notice we’re using them.
How do we get conscious of the ways we’re sabotaging ourselves? In this post, I want to offer an exercise I’ve found very helpful in creating this kind of awareness. It’s simple, but it can be surprisingly intense and revealing.
You’ll need a partner to do this exercise. Stand across from each other and make eye contact, remaining silent for a few minutes. As you face the other person, silently ask yourself a few questions:
1. Where am I tense? Bring your awareness into your body, and notice any tight places. For example, maybe your shoulders are tensing up, as if you’re about to be attacked and you’re preparing to defend yourself. Perhaps you find your lips curling into a strained grin, as if you need to please the other person or convince them everything’s okay.
2. What am I afraid they’ll do? Are you worried that the other person will do something hurtful? Maybe, for instance, they’ll turn their back and ignore you? Yell at you and accuse you of screwing up? Deceive you and take advantage of you in some way?
3. How do I want them to see me? What do you want the other person to think about you? For example, perhaps you want them to think you’re totally calm about doing this exercise? That you’re “nice” and not dangerous to them? That you’re tough and you can protect yourself if need be?
4. What do I want them to do? Is there something you want (or maybe even need) from them right now? Do you want them to smile at you? Or maybe you just want them to go away and leave you alone?
Now, consider the possibility that you’re bringing exactly the same attitudes and desires into every interaction. If you’re feeling afraid of the other person, for example, you’re probably feeling afraid of a lot of people you deal with in your daily life.
As you might imagine, this exercise is often uncomfortable. If you don’t like “awkward silences” in conversations, you sure won’t enjoy this! However, the awareness it can create is invaluable. Often, just realizing the ways you’re tensing up, protecting yourself from the other person, trying to convince them of something, and so on is enough to help you let go of those strategies.
As Fritz Perls, the creator of Gestalt therapy, put it, awareness by itself is transformative.
As some of you know, in my writing on productivity, I often talk about developing a new relationship with the thoughts and feelings that come up and disrupt our focus as we’re working. Instead of using time and energy pushing those inner experiences away, I suggest that we allow them to be, just as they are, and let them pass away on their own.
When I say this, people sometimes get concerned that, if they take my advice, they’ll become stuck in a repetitive pattern of thinking or feeling. In other words, if they don’t force the thought or feeling away, it will get stronger or stay around longer.
This seems like a common concern, so I think it will be useful to look at it in this piece. I think the most important thing to remember here is the difference between ruminating about an inner experience and simply allowing it. My sense is that people tend to confuse the two — they think I’m asking them to ruminate when all I want them to do is allow.
Rumination is something we’re all painfully familiar with. We have an uncomfortable thought or feeling — worrying about what the boss will think of our work, for instance — and we find ourselves wallowing in the experience, practically savoring it. “Yeah, that’d be terrible if he didn’t like the project,” we think. “Off-the-charts terrible. Super-mega-gonzo-terrible.”
It’s a nasty habit, and it’s no wonder we’re scared of getting stuck in it. Naturally, we tend to assume the only way to stop ourselves from ruminating is to resist the experience — to attack or undermine it with our thoughts.
Maybe, for instance, we’ll try to comfort ourselves by telling ourselves the situation isn’t really so bad. After all, we’re putting a lot of effort into this project, the boss is usually pretty even-tempered, and it wouldn’t be the end of the world if he got mad.
Unfortunately, these efforts often backfire. Frustratingly, for every argument we come up with against our worry, another one in favor of it tends to pop into our minds. But my work probably isn’t as good this week because I’m getting over a cold, we think. The boss is angrier lately because of that situation with his kids. It’s November and that’s a tough month for everyone.
While this epic cognitive battle is raging, our work isn’t getting done, and running in mental circles can be physically tiring. In a nutshell, I’m saying that, when we resist an experience, the result is often just as painful as what happens when we ruminate.
Allowing Is Like Driving
Allowing, letting your thoughts and emotions pass away, is the opposite of resistance. Here’s an illustration that’s useful for me. Take something in your life that you interact with regularly but don’t pay much attention to. I like to use the road underneath my car while I drive as an example. I don’t usually form opinions of the road as I’m driving over it, and I don’t think about it after I’m done driving on it. I simply let it pass.
Suppose you saw your inner experience like driving down the road — that you didn’t form opinions about your thoughts and feelings, try to argue against them, run away from them, or do anything about them. That you just let them pass by, like the asphalt beneath your car.
Meditation teachers have described this practice in a number of ways. Some call it “becoming unclutched” — releasing your grip on your thoughts and feelings, as if they were balloons and you were letting them float off into the air. Others talk about “stepping out of the stream of thought” — as if you’ve been wading in a stream, and you stepped out of it and let it rush by.
Allowing our inner experience may seem difficult when we first try it, because we’re so afraid of getting stuck in rumination that resistance seems like the only way. But when we get more familiar with it, I think, we find that it’s much easier and relaxing than fighting against ourselves.
I’ve published a guest post at The Change Blog called “How Getting Used To Silence Can Help Your Productivity.” It’s about how developing the ability to tolerate silence helps us concentrate on our projects and get more done. I hope you find it useful and I look forward to seeing you there!
When I was ten years old, I traveled with my Dad and brother through Malibu, California, and I didn’t like it one bit. I didn’t care at all that there were massive trees, sweeping ocean views, or lizards and all other kinds of unique creatures frolicking about. What I really wanted was to get back to reading my books, which at the time were probably fantasy paperbacks or Hardy Boys novels.
A few days ago, I returned to Malibu with my brother, and had a radically different experience. We hiked for a few hours to the top of a hill overlooking the ocean and several lush valleys. When I first took in the view, I had to close my eyes for a few moments because my senses felt overloaded by the beauty of the scenery. When I opened my eyes again, I was so overwhelmed by the existence of such a place that I found myself crying. I stretched out my arms and let out a shout of joy.
When I recovered from my ecstasy, I reflected on why my experience of this setting was so different from how it was when I was a kid. After giving it some thought, I realized it was because I’ve begun to let the world affect me. In other words, I’m actually allowing what happens around me to have an emotional impact. This new approach to life let me fully experience—and be blown away by—the majesty of my surroundings.
This experience also helped me understand my relationship with the world when I was a kid. I recognized that, when I was younger, I decided—consciously or otherwise—that it was safer and easier not to allow the world to affect me. If I didn’t let the world impact me, I didn’t have to feel sad, angry or neglected. Somehow, I actually switched off my ability to feel in response to what was going on around me. It was as if I were a turtle viewing the outside world from within the safety of its shell.
Although retreating into my shell protected me from getting hurt, it also prevented me from really experiencing joy and fulfillment in life. I’d be puzzled and frustrated when I’d see other people bliss out at the sight of an amazing wilderness scene. When someone told me how deeply in love they were with an intimate partner, I’d harbor the nagging suspicion that they were lying or exaggerating—come on, I’d think, no relationship with a human being can affect you that strongly. These and many other examples gave me the sense that I wasn’t fully human—that I was only experiencing a watered-down version of life.
Eventually, I resolved to take action to find out whether more richness was possible in my experience of the world. I took up a number of practices to achieve this, but one critical move I made was to deliberately put myself in environments I tended to avoid before. These were places like the wilderness, social events with a lot of people and stimulation, and sports games—places where I tended to feel, and obey, the impulse to dive back into my books and escape the world.
When I got into one of these settings, I’d feel the boredom and frustration, and the desire to isolate myself again, mounting. But instead of obeying that impulse, I stood where I was, breathed deeply, and allowed the tension in my body to arise and pass away. When I fully allowed my frustration to be, without running away or distracting myself from it, I was surprised at how strong it was. It seemed as if every cell in my body were screaming to get away from the environment I’d put myself in—as if just standing in the middle of the forest actually put me in danger.
But when the tension finally died down, it was replaced by an almost overwhelming sense of wonder. I was suddenly aware of how beautiful and complex the world around me was, and this awareness was so overpowering I could hardly keep my eyes open. The colors seemed so vivid, and the details so sharp, that I felt as if I’d only just begun to truly see.
This, I realized, is how human beings are meant to experience the world. And I resolved never to go back to my old ways of thinking and perceiving—even if this new approach to being in the world might expose me to intense and sometimes uncomfortable emotions.
This new perspective has done more than just help me appreciate nature. In all my activities, I feel more motivated and fulfilled, and less pessimistic and cynical. Because my experience of everything I do and see feels more alive, I’ve begun feeling peaceful even when doing mundane things I used to loathe, like shopping and fixing my car. When I reflect on how my experience has transformed, I’m reminded of Wayne Dyer‘s discussion of how our perspective ultimately creates the quality of our lives in Real Magic: Creating Miracles In Everyday Life:
Keeping in mind that thoughts are yours to create, and that your mind is the repository for all that you experience, take a good look at how you use that mind. . . . Not only do you become what you think about, the world also becomes what you think about. Those who think that the world is a dark place are blind to the light that might illuminate their lives. Those who see the light of the world view the dark spots as merely potential light.
More than anything else, I want to use my coaching and writing to help others access the way of experiencing the world I’ve described. If we did nothing more than learn to “let the world in,” and fully experience the depth and beauty of our surroundings, I’m convinced life would be more livable—and perhaps even enjoyable—for many of us.
As I enjoy writing and public speaking, and generally put a lot of importance on verbal expression, I haven’t always given my nonverbal communication the attention it deserves. Traditionally, I’ve had mixed feelings about becoming more aware of the messages my body conveys to others. On one hand, I understand how central body language is to creating rapport between people. On the other, I don’t want to get overly self-conscious about my nonverbal communication, and to go through my everyday interactions filled with anxiety about the impression my body is creating.
This was before I learned that the best way to build rapport with someone else—to create a sense of connection with them—is simply to give them your full attention. People, I’ve found, can sense it when your attention is completely focused on them, and when they do, they feel deeply secure, relaxed and understood.
This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Many of us are accustomed to letting our minds wander when we talk to others, and only half-listening to our conversation partners. Some of us plan or worry about our daily activities while we’re conversing; others mentally rehearse what they’re going to say when the other person finishes; and still others are constantly looking around for something more stimulating in the surrounding environment. To be fully attentive, we have to quiet these mental distractions.
Nor will pretending to listen help. I’m talking about actually giving someone your full attention—not moving your body or speaking in an effort to convince them they have it. For instance, it’s possible to make unbroken eye contact, lean your body forward so as to pick up every word, and say “yeah, I’m listening,” but for your awareness to be lost in your own thoughts. If this is happening, you won’t achieve the kind of rapport you want, and the other person will get a nagging sense that something is out of place.
I first recognized this during a conversation with a friend a while back. She is an inveterate worrier, and she tends to bring up basically the same anxieties with me every time we talk. After a while, I have to admit, I got tired of running over the same list of problems, and I started using the moments when she’d bring up her worries as opportunities to think about other tasks I needed to deal with. My eyes would be focused on hers, and I’d nod and acknowledge what she said, but my attention would be elsewhere.
One day, I decided to try a different approach. I did my best to empty my mind of thoughts of the past and possible future, and to place my full attention on her as she spun her tale of woe. I fixed my awareness not only on the words she was saying, but on the tone of her voice and the place it seemed to be coming from in her body.
After I’d spent a few minutes in this state of simply perceiving her, without any mind activity, I started noticing subtle changes in her behavior. Her eyes began to widen and look more alert, her face took on a healthier color, and she began to grin and giggle even as she listed her anxieties. Eventually, she broke into a full smile, and the conversation completely shifted gears from her unhappiness to how much she enjoyed seeing me again. I did nothing to create this change in her, apart from listening with an unclouded, undistracted mind.
Another interesting observation I made was that giving my friend my full attention improved my own emotional state. When I held her in my thought-free awareness, a warm feeling spread through my chest, and I started to more richly experience the joy of being with her as well. I felt completely willing—and wanting—to listen to anything she might say, even if it was her standard list of woes all over again.
In that moment, it struck me that “paying attention” is a somewhat misleading expression. The idea that I’m “paying” attention to someone implies that I’m giving them something without receiving anything in return—or, perhaps, that I’m expecting them to “repay” me in the future. In fact, however, lending my friend my undivided attention helped both of us enjoy the conversation more.
Since then, I’ve made a conscious attempt to bring my full attention to every interaction I have in my daily life. Whether I’m talking to a client, a loved one, or the guy who takes my order at the coffee shop, I’ve made a habit of putting aside all my outside concerns and fully holding that person in my awareness. I’ve found that, even though the words used in my regular interactions haven’t changed much—I still ask the coffee shop guy for a drink and thank him when he gets it—my conversations have a new quality of joy and aliveness about them.
Scholars in diverse fields have long understood the connection between fully listening to a person and developing rapport with them. Psychologist Karl Menninger, for instance, wrote that “[l]istening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward. When we are listened to, it creates us, and makes us unfold and expand.”
Similarly, physician Gary Allan Ratson observes that devoting your full attention to someone is more likely to create a sense of connection than any sort of “attention-paying” body language. As he writes, “[i]t’s more than our welcoming smile, warm eyes, gentle movements, and sincere tone of voice that warms another’s heart. These are manifestations of the primary loving awareness that puts people at ease, makes them feel at home, and assures them that someone cares.”
If you’re hoping for more meaningful and fulfilling interactions with others, the most important practice I can recommend is to bring your full awareness to your conversations. This works best when you pay attention to more than just the other person’s words—when you can hold their movements, voice tone, and other aspects of their expression in your awareness, they’ll feel most cared for and respected, and rapport tends to follow naturally. Not only is it pleasurable for others to receive your full attention—you’ll also feel more joy in your interactions when you’re completely focused on them.
(This article appeared in the Carnival of Improving Life, located at http://posts.blogcarnival.com/page.php?p=142750.)
For many years, I was tormented by memories of uncomfortable events from my past. I’d find myself constantly reliving arguments I had with others, breakups of relationships, disappointments in my career, and so forth. The painful part of these memories was what I’d feel in my body as I rehashed them in my mind. I would feel an unpleasant tension and heat in my upper back, right below my shoulder blades.
A disturbing part of my habit of reliving difficult events was the sensation that I was choosing to do it. I had this feeling in the rare moments when my mind would be completely silent, undisturbed by thought. When my mind would go quiet like that, I’d be able to tolerate it for a little while, but then I’d start feeling strangely uneasy. To relieve my unease, I’d start searching my memories for something—anything—to break the silence. Invariably, it seemed, I came upon memories of unpleasant events and replayed them in my mind, causing more physical discomfort. It was almost as if I was addicted to mentally hurting myself.
How, I wondered, did I develop this habit? Why would I want to dig up these unpleasant memories and create tension in my body? The answer came to me one day when I was meditating. When I meditate, I breathe without pausing between my inhalations and exhalations. This approach gives me a warm, peaceful sensation in my abdomen and back. The experience of feeling my body from the inside—of feeling the “inner body,” as some spiritual teachers call it—helps to calm me and hold my attention in the present moment. It can also be quite blissful.
I noticed during that meditation that the warm sensation was filling the area right below my shoulder blades—the area that tensed up when I’d mentally rehash a painful memory. This was interesting, because most of the time I was numb in that area. It was only while meditating, and beating myself up over the past, that I felt sensation there at all.
Then an intuition hit me. What if I was reliving painful memories because I wanted to have more feeling in that area of my body? What if, by replaying difficult events, I was trying to access my “inner body,” and experience the peace and focus I’d felt during meditation? Maybe I had such a strong, unconscious desire to access that peace, and to feel more of my body, that I was hurting myself to achieve those goals.
I decided to test this theory the next time I found myself replaying uncomfortable events from my past. When I had one of those moments again, I closed my eyes and fell into my meditative breathing pattern. After a little while, I connected with my inner body, feeling a warmth radiate out from my abdomen, through my chest, and into my upper back. As I’d predicted, the difficult memories began to subside until they disappeared from my awareness. When I accessed my inner body through meditation, I no longer needed to dredge up unpleasant memories to feel myself from within.
This was an exciting realization for me, as I’d wanted freedom from my painful memories for a long time. I continued to practice entering a meditative state whenever I’d remember difficult events. Eventually, I became so accustomed to quickly accessing my inner body that I stopped needing meditation to do it. Whenever the bad memories came up, I could instantly connect with a deep sense of peace, and the memories would dissolve. This helped me kick my addiction to rehashing the past.
If you’re constantly plagued by uncomfortable memories, I invite you to try a similar exercise. Notice where you feel the pain or discomfort in your body when you relive the events. Then, do an exercise or practice that causes you to feel sensation in that area. As I noted, meditation using the “circular breathing” I talked about earlier—a technique I learned from Michael Brown‘s book The Presence Process—helps me connect with the part of the “inner body” that my difficult memories stimulate. You might also try physical exercises that cause you to feel more inner sensation. Qi Gong, which is specifically intended to put you in touch with the inner body, is a particularly good example.
You may observe that, when you take up more practices to feel your inner energy field, the need to dig up unpleasant events begins fading away. And as you experience the inner body more often, you’ll find that accessing it becomes easier and easier. You don’t need to rehash painful memories to connect with your inner body—you can do it in far more peaceful and empowering ways.
I used to go through life without really seeing or hearing much of the world around me. Instead, I was mostly seeing images and hearing sounds created by my mind. Rather than seeing what was happening in the world, I was watching mental pictures of past events from my life—usually ones I regretted, and of possible future events—usually unpleasant ones. Instead of hearing the sounds occurring in the world, I was listening to songs I’d heard in the past, and to mental recordings of criticisms people had leveled at me before or might make in the future.
I wasn’t hallucinating, or otherwise “mentally ill”—at least, not by our society’s standards. I could tell the mental images and sounds apart from reality. Like many of us, I’d simply chosen to live almost entirely in my mind. This would have been all right if my mind were a decent place to live. However, as I suggested earlier, it wasn’t. The pictures and sounds I created with my mind were almost always painful, and physically tiring, to experience.
Unfortunately, over the years, I completely forgot I’d consciously decided to fill my life with mentally-created pictures and sounds. I came to believe living in my mind was perfectly natural, and that humans were simply created to live that way. In fact, it was an addictive habit I no longer remembered how to break.
I had an experience that changed my perception one night when I was lying in bed. I tended to play music in my mind to help myself sleep. This particular night, I became frustrated with the songs I was hearing. As the saying goes, I couldn’t get some song “out of my head”—I seemed to have set my mental CD player on “repeat”—and I wanted to listen to a different one. I’d be successful at changing the music for a few moments, but then the new song would fade out and be replaced by the old, irritating one again. After trying in vain for a while to change my mental radio station, I gave up and decided I wanted the darn thing turned off completely.
Startlingly, when I had this thought, my mental radio actually did switch off. I heard nothing but the minimal sounds in the room, and the sounds of my pulse and breathing. At first, the emptiness was frightening—it was as though, if I didn’t leave the radio on, something would leap out of the silence and attack me. I suddenly remembered I’d experienced this emptiness before, as a young child. I recalled lying in bed, feeling alone and scared by the silence. And, with surprising clarity, I remembered deciding to turn my mental radio on, and leave it on, so I wouldn’t have to feel alone or frightened. The music in my head wasn’t a natural part of being human—I had consciously chosen to create it.
This time, however, I tried leaving the music in my head off. After a few minutes, I began feeling a peaceful warmth in my body. The silence started to feel natural and welcoming, like an old friend I was finally reuniting with after many years apart. I fell asleep shortly after that realization.
When I woke up and had to return to the outside world, I found that I still had access to the peace I’d felt the night before. All I had to do, even in a busy city with loud noise all around, was to focus on turning off the mental radio and listening to what was actually going on around me. Simply hearing the real world, rather than the music in my head, was a very soothing experience.
To be sure, I wasn’t completely free of mental images and sounds after that day. Like I said, living in my mind was a habit I’d constantly indulged for most of my life. Initially, I felt an almost irresistible urge to switch the music back on. I had to pay close attention to my thoughts to make sure this urge didn’t overcome me. If I wasn’t alert enough, I’d unconsciously turn on the music—or, worse, I would dive into a stream of negative, destructive thinking. But with practice, my alertness increased, and my tendency to automatically turn on the radio lessened.
If you find yourself plagued by unwanted mental images and sounds, I have a recommendation for you. The next time you have a moment to sit by yourself, whether you’re in a quiet or a noisy space, simply focus on the world around you. See and hear what’s really going on in the world, without watching mental movies or listening to mental voices or music. Just let your senses take in reality, without mentally commenting on it or imagining things that happened or might happen in it.
At the outset, you’ll probably find it difficult to keep the mental images and sounds turned off. You may find them creeping back into your awareness, no matter how you try to sustain your focus. When this happens, don’t shame yourself—just hold your attention on the real world, and the images and sounds will gradually subside. You may also feel the urge to fight back against your mind, particularly if it’s constantly replaying painful experiences. I used to do this a lot myself—I’d yell at my mind to shut up, because I was trying to concentrate or enjoy my life. However, this only makes your mind into an enemy, and intensifies the negativity of your thoughts.
As you work on stemming the flow of mental images and sounds, the state of peace and emptiness will start to feel more natural. And, in fact, it is. You’ll come to see that directly experiencing the world, without constant mental chatter, is your natural state. It takes effort, and it is tiresome, to operate TV and radio stations in your mind that are constantly broadcasting, and you don’t need to do it. Switching off your mental TV and radio can bring a peace and aliveness to your existence you may never have felt before.
Recently, a friend told me she’d like to feel more optimistic. She would like to believe that the world is a fundamentally good place, and that, no matter how difficult her life may seem right now, things will work out all right in the end. But when she looks at the world, all she seems to see are unkind, angry and neglectful people, and financial, relationship and health-related crises waiting to happen. “How can I be an optimist in this world?” she asked me. “What do you think about all the time that makes you so positive?”
From the wording of her question, I could see why she was having trouble. She saw optimism as something one attains by thinking the right thoughts. Many people who hold this view use techniques like repeating “I am optimistic” to themselves to convince their unconscious minds that they are positive thinkers. I don’t see optimism that way—I view it as a physical state one enters by using one’s body. The positive thoughts my friend wanted naturally result from being in that physical state.
The state I’m talking about is one of awe and wonderment at the beauty and complexity of you, as a human being, and the world around you. Even something as seemingly unremarkable as a leaf is a webwork of elegant and dazzlingly intricate biological structures. In a state of awe at the world’s splendor, it’s impossible to see the world as a hostile, hurtful place. If you take the time to drink it in and fully appreciate it, the world really can’t be anything but benevolent and welcoming.
How do you use your body to get into this state? Observe yourself, and the outside world, attentively. Notice not only the extraordinary beauty and functionality of your body’s design on the outside, but the symphony of sensations you feel on the inside. In the outside world, look for details you may not have seen before. For instance, when I started trying to be more perceptive about my surroundings, I realized I’d never before noticed that I have a lovely view of some mountain peaks from where I live. There are almost certainly some features of the landscape around you that have escaped your awareness because your mind was on something else.
When I’m in this perceptive state, and I can’t help but wonder at the world’s intricate beauty, it’s impossible for me to think negative thoughts. When I think of something that usually annoys me, I find myself marveling at the fact that I exist and can experience emotions rather than stewing in my irritation. I can remain conscious of the fact that there are obstacles facing me in my life, but I focus on ways to overcome those obstacles instead of dwelling on how imposing or frustrating they seem.
By contrast, I get into a pessimistic state, and the world starts to look painful and uninviting, when I lose my sense of wonderment. This happens when I start taking the world for granted, as though I’ve seen it all and there’s nothing new to experience. “Oh, that’s just another leaf,” I think when I see a leaf. “I’ve got places to be and people to see. I don’t have time to gaze lovingly at dirt and shrubbery.”
Soon enough, I start mentally putting everything I perceive into a bland, lifeless category. “Oh, that’s just another sunset; just another project; just another evening with the same old friend.” Eventually, the whole world looks like the same old thing, and I feel chronically bored with every aspect of my life. And then I start wondering where all my optimism went!
Of course, when I suggested to my friend that she cultivate optimism by attentively observing the world, she said she couldn’t fit that into her schedule. She’s a busy, high-powered attorney, she told me, and she doesn’t have time for new-agey hippie pursuits. I pointed out, however, that she doesn’t need to spend a month living in a tent to have the experiences I’m talking about. She could simply go through her regular routine in a more perceptive state—for instance, while driving her car, she could notice more details of the landscape as it rolls by.
When my friend tried becoming more aware of her surroundings, she said she felt a little frightened at first. The complexity of the world seemed dizzying, and too much to take in. But eventually, her heightened awareness started to feel comfortable and empowering. And when she was in that state, she was unable to see the world as hostile and uninviting. Instead of feeling despair when she looked around, she felt curious and interested, and even her daily routine took on a new richness and aliveness. This didn’t happen because I logically convinced her, or because she convinced herself, that she should be optimistic—she entered that state naturally by being in awe of the world.
If, like my friend, you’d like to feel more optimistic but think you don’t know how, start by recognizing that you won’t get there by thinking. Coming up with reasons why you ought to be more positive won’t change your emotional state. Instead, try taking a closer look at yourself and the world, noticing the delightful details you hadn’t picked up on before. If you develop a genuine appreciation for the world’s beauty, optimism will follow close behind.
(This article appeared in the Happiness Carnival, located at http://posts.blogcarnival.com/page.php?p=142835.)