(This piece is an “unofficial sequel” to my last post, “Why I Don’t Force Myself To Be Happy.”)
Do you feel like you’re only creative in certain moments? I’ve worked with several people who said they only produce decent work at specific times of day, or when they’re in particular moods. The rest of the time, they told me, their thoughts and feelings get in the way, and the work that comes out of them just isn’t good enough.
One woman I worked with, who I’ll call Kelly, was a painter. Kelly had one hour each day that she called her “Magic Hour.” During the Magic Hour, she’d feel totally focused and inspired, and her ideas would naturally, effortlessly flow onto the canvas. The rest of the time, she didn’t feel capable of much more than touching up her Magic Hour work. She came to me hoping I could help her experience more Magic Hours.
“Bad” Feelings, Great Art
As we talked, one thing Kelly said jumped out at me—“I don’t work well when I feel bad.” When I asked what she meant, she explained that she “felt bad” when she was angry or afraid. When she felt those emotions, her art “turned ugly,” taking on a dark and disturbing quality. Looking at these paintings, she thought, would probably make others “feel bad” too.
As we explored Kelly’s belief that “it’s not okay to make people feel bad with my art,” what she began to see was that a lot of timeless art expresses the emotions she was talking about. Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” is a good example most of us are familiar with. The terrified figure and blood-red sky in the painting don’t exactly have us feel warm and fuzzy inside. Still, the painting conveys the artist’s feeling of fear so masterfully that it’s admired worldwide.
Kelly also started to see that, like Munch, she could use her “negative emotions” as fuel for her creativity, and that people appreciate art that skillfully conveys what the artist is feeling—even if those emotions are the kind Kelly saw as “bad.” With this in mind, she started more fully exploring the ideas that came up when it wasn’t “Magic Hour.” The art she’s been creating has been different, but definitely interesting.
As it turned out, Kelly didn’t actually need to experience more Magic Hours—she needed to be more accepting of the ideas that came up at other times of day.
Notice Your Self-Limitations
This story is a good illustration of how I see creativity. I think developing creativity has a lot to do with letting go of the artificial limits we put on our expression. When we’re feeling creatively blocked, often the problem isn’t that our minds are empty of ideas, but that we’re judging and pushing away the ideas that are coming up in the moment. In other words, we’re really just “blocking” ourselves.
The next time you’re feeling like you’re “uncreative” or you’ve “run out of ideas,” I invite you to try this exercise. Ask yourself: is it really true that you’re totally out of ideas? Or are you just rejecting a lot of possible ways to do the task you’re doing? And if you are pushing away a lot of possibilities, why?
This inquiry can teach you a lot about the places where you aren’t fully comfortable with yourself. Maybe, like Kelly, you think it’s not okay to create when you’re angry. Or perhaps you assume what you have to say is too controversial, and people will dislike you for saying it. Or maybe the ideas coming up for you seem too simple, because you feel a need to be complex or profound. If a belief like these comes up, ask yourself: how does it serve me to limit my creativity in this way?
Notice how just becoming aware of how you’re limiting your expression can increase your sense of freedom. When you let go of the belief that your creative work has to look a certain way, amazing new possibilities can open up.
Link Love: AlienBaby is a great example of a writer who really makes despair and frustration work for her, in a tragicomic sort of way. She denies that she’s piecing together a novel or autobiography from her blog posts, but I don’t believe her. Enjoy!
Like many people, finding happiness used to be my goal in life, and as an avid consumer of personal development products I learned a lot of techniques for getting there. You’ve probably heard many of these: think positive thoughts, force yourself to smile, take a warm bath, and so on.
For a while, I diligently used these methods, and at first they did a fairly good job of perking me up when I fell into a funk. But pretty soon, I noticed that using these techniques was starting to feel like a big effort. Constantly countering negative thoughts with positive ones, “turning my frown upside down,” and so on, began to consume a lot of time and energy. And I started wondering: is happiness worthwhile if I have to work so hard for it?
From Rejection To Curiosity
When I started getting deeper into mindfulness practices like yoga and meditation, and really noticing what was going on inside me, my perspective on happiness began to change. What I began to see was that my emotions are really just sensations I feel in my body. For example, sadness for me is a heavy feeling in my stomach, and anger is a heat and tightness in my lower back. (These words may mean different sensations to you.)
Another thing I started noticing is that, once I began seeing my emotions as simply physical sensations, they didn’t seem like such a problem anymore. Before, when I’d start experiencing that heaviness in my stomach that I called “sadness,” I used to resist the feeling, telling myself “come on, chin up, there’s nothing to be sad about.” My shoulders and my stomach would actually tense up as I tried to push the feeling away.
But today, when I get that feeling, my reaction is more like curiosity than rejection—“oh, it’s that sinking in my belly again,” I’ll say to myself calmly. And when I have this curious perspective, I start noticing things about my sadness that I never saw back when I was trying to squelch it. For instance, I notice that the heavy feeling seems to have a particular shape, color and temperature, and that it doesn’t just sit there—the energy actually moves around quite a bit before it fades away.
Most importantly, when I stop treating sadness as a problem, acting in spite of how I’m feeling becomes much easier. When my attention is no longer focused on how awful it is to be sad, how I’d rather feel better, and so on, I can start actually thinking about what I want, and going after it, despite the sensations I’m feeling in my body. Sadness, and other so-called “bad moods,” don’t have to paralyze me anymore.
I’d Rather Be Peaceful Than Happy
Today, I think of my goal in life as peace instead of happiness. No matter how amazing my life becomes, I’m probably going to have “negative” feelings from time to time, and when those emotions come up I want to calmly allow them and even be curious about what they have to offer me. I haven’t got this down completely—I have moments when I find myself fighting my emotions and telling myself I should feel differently. But when I’m able to be at peace with whatever experience I’m having, life becomes a lot easier.
Of course, if techniques for making yourself happy are working for you, more power to you. Everyone’s mind and body is unique, and different approaches work for different people. But if trying to make yourself happy is feeling like a lot of frustration and work, I invite you to try something different for a moment.
When you feel unhappy, instead of resisting the feeling, try focusing on how that unhappiness feels in your body—like I talked about with the sinking feeling in my stomach. What sensations tell you that you’re unhappy? Notice how just asking this question changes how you relate to what you’re feeling. Instead of being something threatening that you need to push away, your unhappiness becomes an object of curiosity. And the more you inquire into it and understand it, the more peaceful and composed you can be when it comes up.
Link Love: I want to spotlight Duff McDuffee’s new blog, Beyond Growth, which looks like it will be a welcome step forward in the evolution of personal development writing. I thought about Duff when I was doing this post because I was saying something kind of counterintuitive and his writing often does this as well.
There’s a nasty mental trap we often fall into when we’re considering trying something new, whether in our business, our social lives, or somewhere else. I’m talking about what’s often called “the chicken or egg problem.” The way of thinking I mean goes like this: “I can’t do A unless I do B, but I can’t do B unless I do A. So I guess I won’t bother trying to do either A or B.”
I’ll give you a few examples from my own life. When I first got interested in doing speaking engagements, I faced what I saw as a dilemma. On one hand, I thought, I was unlikely to get many engagements unless I had a book to promote. But on the other, if I sent a book idea to a publisher, they probably wouldn’t take it seriously unless I’d done a bunch of speaking engagements and built up a “platform.”
There’s a similar example from my teenage years. When I started high school, I hadn’t gone to middle school with the other kids in my class, and so I didn’t have friends coming in. However, that wasn’t the painful part. What created suffering was my belief that no one would want to hang out with me unless I had other friends. But of course, I couldn’t have “other friends” unless I made some in the first place. (I’m noticing I feel a little embarrassed talking about my high school experiences, but I’ll leave it in here to expand my comfort zone. )
In both examples, it took me a while to free myself from the mental rut I’d fallen into. But in the end, I did, and I want to share some of the ideas I explored that helped me pursue what I wanted.
1. Realize That Others Have Been There. On the speaking issue, one realization that shifted my perspective was that every well-known author and speaker must have faced exactly the same problem. There was a time when every aspiring writer confronted the stark reality of having no book, speaking engagements, or “platform” of any kind. Yet somehow, they made do.
One example that immediately came to mind for me was Dr. Wayne Dyer, author of countless books offering what I’d call “self-help from a spiritual perspective,” and a role model of mine. Dyer was a college professor when he wrote his first book, Your Erroneous Zones. He offered the book to some publishers, but they rejected it.
I suspect many in Dyer’s situation would have either given up and slunk back into academia, or spent years publishing magazine articles to build up credentials that would impress a publisher. But not Dyer—he self-published his book, quit his job, and toured the country in his station wagon selling his work to bookstores. The book sold so well that a major publisher picked it up and it became a bestseller.
With Dyer’s inspiring example in mind, I decided to self-publish my audio program, and I’ll do the same shortly with my full-length book. Obviously, they’ll soon be bestsellers too, right?
2. What Would Happen If You Did? Like I said, one assumption behind the “chicken or egg” mindset is that we “can’t” do A unless we do B first. When we’re stuck in this mentality, one question we don’t often think to ask is: what do we really mean by “can’t”?
My isolated, unhappy first year of high school drove me to seriously consider this question. What I realized was that my belief that I “couldn’t” make friends without already having them was wildly exaggerated. After all, it’s not like it was physically impossible to ask someone to be my friend without already having a big social group—I wouldn’t need to defy gravity or travel back in time.
So I asked myself: what am I actually afraid of? The answer that came up was that what I really feared was others’ disapproval. I was worried that, if I tried to be friends with someone, they might call me a “loser” or otherwise ridicule me for not having “enough” of a social life. And when I understood this, I saw there was actually very little to be afraid of. Getting put down might sting a little, but I strongly doubted it would kill me.
This simple shift in my way of thinking expanded my sense of freedom to meet people, and I started coming out of my shell (a process that’s still ongoing today ).
3. Focus On The Gifts You’re Giving. Somehow, this whole “chicken or egg problem” seems to magically disappear when we take our attention off all the suffering we’ll supposedly cause ourselves and others by doing what we want, and focus on what we’ll contribute to the world with our efforts.
Take my experience with giving talks. When I took a close look at what I was really afraid of when it came to booking speaking engagements, what I discovered was that I was worried I’d be “bothering” the event planners I wanted to call. My attention was entirely focused on the inconvenience I’d supposedly cause people by asking them to have me as a speaker, and none of it was on the gifts people would receive from my talk.
When I took a moment to remember the service I wanted to offer others with my workshops, suddenly the whole dilemma of “I need a book to be a speaker, but I need to be a speaker to have a book” disappeared, and booking engagements seemed like the obvious and natural thing to do. It’s funny how our concerns can seem so “logical” in one moment, and then become trivial when we get into a better mood.
(This is the second part of a series I began a few months back with “Don’t Wait To Do Your ‘Real Work’,” an article about overcoming the fears that often hold us back from pursuing work that genuinely excites us.)
Much has been written about the importance of finding work that not only supports you financially but also deeply moves you. Many people react to this kind of advice by thinking something like “well, it’s nice that you can do something you’re passionate about, but I’m focused on trying to survive right now.” Presumably they figure that, once things are more financially stable for them, doing work that feels meaningful can finally become a priority. Or maybe they’ve grown too cynical to believe it’s even possible for them to enjoy working.
Doing something we’re genuinely interested in, of course, isn’t the only thing we tend to put off until we find the financial security we’re looking for. Many of us also put off taking our intimate relationships and outside pursuits as deeply as we’d like, hoping one day we’ll feel secure enough to go for what we want. The trouble is that, for many of us, the sense of security we crave never seems to arrive. For many of us, no matter what we achieve in terms of money and material rewards, a nagging fear that it could all disappear tomorrow lurks in the background.
We tend to assume that the sense of stability we’re seeking will come if we just work a little harder or longer. But is this true? I’ve known many wealthy people who, despite their material success, seem trapped in “survival mode,” fearing they’ll make a mistake and the abundance in their lives will dry up tomorrow. And of course, there are more public examples of famous actors, like Johnny Depp and Jennifer Lopez, who have, surprisingly (at least to me), been concerned that their careers won’t last.
What this suggests to me is that money won’t give us the lasting feeling of security many of us are chasing. Instead, I think it has more to do with our view of the universe. That is, do we see it as a basically safe place, where we’ll probably come out okay if we take some risks and even make a few mistakes? Or do we see the universe as unforgiving and hostile, likely to punish or destroy us for even a minor slipup? If we hold the second view, it’s not surprising that, no matter how secure our job seems, and how much money we have, that fear that “everything’s going to fall apart” keeps its hold on us.
If the degree of security we feel really depends on how we see the universe, how can we shift our perspective to develop the feeling of safety we want? In working with clients, I see it as one of my roles to help them cultivate what A.H. Almaas calls a sense of “basic trust,” or a “confidence in the goodness of the universe.” Here are three approaches to developing a more trusting perspective on life that I’ve found useful:
1. Let Go Of The Idea That “Insecurity Equals Success.” Many of us have spent our lives believing, consciously or otherwise, something like this: the more afraid I am of failing, the more successful I’m likely to be. We tend to assume that anxiety about running out of money or not achieving the status we want in our careers will keep us motivated. If we weren’t so afraid, after all, we’d have no reason to get out of bed or off the couch.
First, notice that this way of thinking puts you on a treadmill you can’t get off. If you really have to stay fearful to stay motivated, you can never allow yourself to relax and let go of your anxiety, because if you did, you’d lose your will to go on. Also, notice that this mindset can actually harm your productivity. When you’re constantly worried about your career security or performance, the time and energy you spend tossing and turning at night, endlessly second-guessing the work you produce, and so on don’t contribute much to advancing your career.
Most importantly, if you recognize that you’ve been thinking this way, just consider for a moment the possibility that sources of motivation other than fear exist. There are things you can enjoy doing so much, and feel so deeply moved by, that you don’t even think about the money, material rewards, or whatever else you’re earning when you do them. In other words, you can enjoy the process of doing those things without even thinking about the end product you’re creating.
Take the activities in your life you see as “play,” for instance. Suppose you enjoy running. Running is obviously a great way to stay healthy, but while you’re running you don’t need to focus your mind on the product—good health—to like doing it. You can enjoy the pure process of it, without giving any thought to the results you’re getting. Once you see this is possible, the next step is to find something you enjoy the process of doing—whether it’s fishing, computer programming, dog training or something else—and incorporating that into the work you do.
2. Face The Possibility Of Failure. Although we all seem to be afraid of failing in our careers and elsewhere, many of us never seriously consider what “failure” really means to us, and what we’d do to pick ourselves back up again if we did fail. When we take a hard look at these issues, we often find that the risk of failure no longer seems so terrifying.
I invite you to honestly ask yourself: what’s your definition of failure? Would it mean losing your job? Getting negative comments from the boss on a project? Not meeting your sales targets? Once you have an answer in mind, give some thought to what you’d do if that worst-case scenario came true. Would you find another job or career? Sell a few of your possessions? Take some time off and write a book?
Most of us are unwilling to seriously consider what we’d do if we “failed,” because even thinking about that feels too scary—it’s almost as if we’d die if the situation we’re imagining came about. But when we actually contemplate how we’d handle a “failure,” and begin coming up with fallback plans, we often discover a strength and resourcefulness in ourselves we didn’t know we had. In fact, we’d probably manage to survive and even thrive in the face of setbacks.
When we recognize we’re capable of dealing with most of the challenges we may face in our work, a peace and focus set in as we go through our normal routine. The risks we thought were too frightening to take, the conversations we thought were too difficult to have, and so on start to feel more manageable, and the success we’re looking for starts to feel more available.
3. Notice How The Fear Of Failure Feels. Ultimately, the worry that things will “fall apart,” in your career or elsewhere, is just a sensation you experience somewhere in your body—for many people, it’s the feeling of some part of their bodies tensing up. Like a cramp or a crick in your neck, it may be uncomfortable, but it isn’t likely to seriously hurt or kill you, and in fact it tends to pass away quickly.
Take a moment, the next time you’re feeling anxiety about your career, financial security, or something similar, to observe how that fear manifests in your body. What sensations let you know you’re feeling afraid?
When you simply start to notice how anxiety about failure feels for you, your relationship with that sensation begins to change. Many of us hold back from pursuing our most deep-seated goals—whether it’s the business we’re interested in starting, the screenplay we’d like to write, the relationship we’d like to have, and so on—to avoid experiencing this fear. But when we realize that the emotion of fear is actually a quickly passing bunch of sensations in our bodies, it ceases to look so threatening.
When we perceive our anxiety about failure for what it really is, the universe starts to look like a less hostile and more welcoming place to exist. And we come to see that the feeling of security we’ve been looking for can actually be found within ourselves.
If you’ve read personal development literature, you’re probably familiar with the idea of affirmations. When we say an affirmation, we affirm some positive quality we have—examples would include saying “I am lovable,” “I am powerful,” “I am charismatic,” and so on. The idea is to convince our unconscious minds to adopt these beliefs, and ultimately change the way we behave in the world so we find the business successes, relationships and so on that we’re looking for.
For some people, affirmations seem to “work”—that is, when they say affirmations, they feel a comforting warmth inside, and perhaps they even start to notice benefits in their lives in the long run. Others have a different experience—anger, disgust, apathy or some other “negative emotion” arises when they say affirmations, and they quickly become cynical about the idea. This is the kind of experience that often leads people to think that affirmations “don’t work.”
In this article, I’m going to talk about the reasons we may find ourselves “rejecting” the affirmations we use, how that can actually give us valuable information about ourselves, and how we can reframe our affirmations in that situation to find the encouragement and empowerment we’re looking for.
My Shift In Perspective
A while back, when I’d say an affirmation, I’d often have the rejection experience I described. Instead of feeling an inner warmth, I’d feel my shoulders tightening up, and sometimes a little nausea. It’s as if an inner voice disagreed with, and even mocked, what I was saying. This reaction initially had me give up on affirmations, concluding they were useless. But I found a new perspective when I started reading books that combined ideas from psychology and spirituality, most notably the works of spiritual teacher A.H. Almaas.
The perspective I came to was that each of us, in our deepest essence, has all the sorts of qualities we tend to mention in our affirmations. We’re naturally loving, strong, compassionate, joyful and so on. So when we say affirmations, we’re merely acknowledging qualities we already have, and that we share with all of humanity. However, early in our lives, we get into the habit of repressing and forgetting these traits. The reason is that other people do not “mirror” them back to us—they don’t recognize or appreciate these qualities.
For example, if as kids we like to jump and dance around, but our parents keep telling us to shut up and sit down, they are not mirroring our natural joyfulness—instead, they’re criticizing it. Because we want our parents’ love and support, we learn to shut off our spontaneous joy and go around acting serious and somber. Eventually, we lose consciousness of the fact that we were ever joyful to begin with. Unconsciously, however, part of us stays angry about our caregivers’ failure to mirror our essence. We develop what psychologist Heinz Kohut called narcissistic rage.
Our narcissistic rage stays with us into our adult lives, and gets triggered whenever someone in the world fails to acknowledge our essential qualities. If our parents were domineering and controlling toward us, and failed to mirror our will, for instance, we’re likely to feel enraged when someone later in life fails to do so as well—perhaps the boss curtly telling us what to do at work, as if our time and what we want don’t matter.
Why Affirmations Can Bring Up Anger
My sense is that saying affirmations can trigger our narcissistic rage as well. Saying “I love myself,” for instance, may remind us of moments where our caregivers didn’t show us love—where our essential quality of love, in other words, was not mirrored—and our anger about those early moments may arise. Saying “I am strong” may bring up memories of times when we felt pushed around or bullied. Thus, rather than giving us a rush of inner warmth or the positive feelings we’re expecting, affirmations can have us feel angry, cynical or despondent.
On the plus side, when we find ourselves rejecting or reacting negatively to an affirmation, we learn more about the places where we have an unmet need to be mirrored—a need to have someone acknowledge and appreciate one of our essential qualities. If rage arises when we say “I am lovable,” for example, that rage points us to our need for others to see that we’re lovable beings.
One incredible thing I’ve found is that, when I discover this kind of unmet need within myself, I actually have the power to work toward meeting it. When I simply acknowledge the need, or admit it exists, I can feel the need being fulfilled, and I can feel a warmth in my body where I may have felt irritation or discomfort before. If I admit I need others to acknowledge my compassion, for instance, I start to feel my need for acknowledgment healing in that moment, and any rage I may have felt at not being acknowledged subsiding.
Reframing Our Affirmations To Acknowledge Our Needs
I encourage you to try this if you’ve had trouble with affirmations in the past. If you notice an affirmation that has you feel irritated, disgusted, or something similar, try just saying aloud that you need to be seen as having the quality you’re affirming. For instance, if you said the affirmation “I am powerful,” and you felt your body rejecting that idea, try saying out loud “I need my power to be seen,” or “I need people to acknowledge my power.” You may notice, when you do this, that the pain of the need for others to mirror your power weakens somewhat.
You may also notice, as you continue doing this exercise, that the angry, resistant reactions that tend to arise in other areas of your life start to become less intense. For example, maybe you normally feel angry when you think about a person in your life—perhaps a parent, loved one, friend, or someone else—because you feel like they don’t see or acknowledge some important part of you. When you recognize your own ability to meet that need from within yourself, and begin to fulfill it, your rage at people who don’t meet your needs begins to subside.
To help ourselves in this way, we need to learn to accept the feelings of rage, despair and resistance that can come up when we say affirmations. Rather than turning away from the practice because it doesn’t make us feel how we want, we need to stay curious about what our negative reactions are telling us regarding the places we can do our own healing.
Successfully doing this exercise also requires us to accept the possibility that we have unmet needs. At first glance, many of us might balk at this idea, because we believe it’s weak and contemptible to admit our needs—even if the only person we’re admitting them to is ourselves. We need to cultivate a faith that the first step in fulfilling our needs is acknowledging they exist, and breathing through the intense feelings that recognizing them can produce in our bodies. If we can find this faith within ourselves, affirmations—though they seem simple—can be a deeply transformative exercise.
So if you’ve tried affirmations before, but they haven’t seemed to “work” for one reason or another, I encourage you to give them another try and see if you can notice, without judgment, how you feel when you affirm your positive qualities, and explore what those feelings can teach you about yourself and your opportunities to heal and grow.
I have a friend who, until lately, always seemed upset about something. If he wasn’t complaining about how someone in his personal life frustrated or let him down, he’d be angry about some current event in the world. If someone asked why he was so upset, he’d usually insist that any reasonable person would be angry about what was happening, and that if the other person knew what was really going on they’d feel the same way.
Recently, my friend had a sudden shift in his perspective. He was talking to his girlfriend, and—not surprisingly—complaining about something going on in local politics. Eventually, she became fed up and rather pointedly suggested that, if he had a problem with what was going on, he should do something about it. Otherwise, if the issue didn’t mean enough to him to inspire him to act, he should forget about it.
On one level, my friend later told me, he realized the truth of his girlfriend’s words. He wasn’t accomplishing anything by bemoaning what was going on in his life or the world except making himself and others unhappy. At a deeper level, my friend had a strongly negative reaction to what she said. This was the part of him, he recognized, that was firmly attached to his habit of complaining. The reason, he realized with disturbing clarity, was that complaining made him feel smart.
Somewhere along the line, my friend saw, he’d developed the belief that people who were happy and satisfied with their lives were either ignorant or kidding themselves. After all, he thought, there are so many things in the world worth getting upset about, and anyone who isn’t angry about them must simply not be paying attention.
Because he wanted to feel and look intelligent, he adopted the habit of constantly griping about some event or problem in the world. His girlfriend’s frustration reminded him he had a choice in how he reacted to life, and armed with that knowledge he decided to change his attitude.
This story started me thinking about the wide variety of ways in which human beings get attached to being negative. Although most people wouldn’t admit to wanting to feel unhappy, many of us have adopted patterns of thinking and behavior seemingly designed to keep unhappiness in our lives. Whether we criticize ourselves, create drama in relationships, hold onto grudges, or something else, each of us seems to have a unique and long-standing strategy for holding onto our negativity.
As my friend’s example illustrates, many of us have had these habits for so long that they’ve become unconscious and automatic, and we’ve forgotten there are other possible approaches to living. When someone with a fresh perspective makes us aware of the ways we’re bringing negativity into our lives, often just having that awareness is enough to start loosening the grip our habitual patterns have on us.
In the interest of fostering this kind of awareness and change, I’ll describe several common ways of acting and thinking we use—often unconsciously—to keep unhappiness in our lives.
1. Trying To Change A Situation Through Mental Resistance. Some part of our minds seems convinced that, if we get irritated enough about a situation in our lives, we can change it for the better. The frustration we feel and express when our cars break down is a common example of this tendency. When we have a flat tire, for instance, some of us kick the tire or pound on some other part of the car, in the seeming hope that we can beat the car into submission and make it work properly again.
To most of us, it seems “normal” to react to events in our lives with annoyance, even if there’s no possibility that getting annoyed will help and all we’re doing is making more suffering for ourselves. We may even be so accustomed to behaving this way that we no longer see ourselves as having a choice, or don’t even consciously notice we’re doing it anymore. As psychologist and shaman Serge Kahili King writes in Urban Shaman, “criticism is such a subtle thing when habitual that it can race across your mind before you notice.”
Our perspective quickly changes, however, when we start observing ourselves as we’re reacting to situations we dislike. By observing yourself, I mean getting a clear idea of the sensations arising in your body as you start becoming irritated, and the behaviors you usually engage in to express that irritation.
For instance, perhaps irritation manifests for you as a sinking feeling in your chest, a tightening in your shoulders, a heat in your forehead, or something else. As for the behaviors you do when you’re irritated, perhaps you yell at people, withdraw from contact with others, clench your fists, and so on.
When we gain an understanding of how we normally tend to react, often we suddenly feel a sense of freedom in how we respond to our circumstances. Once we recognize the ways we usually behave, feel and think, we begin to become conscious of that our way of being isn’t the only possible way. Equipped with this knowledge, we can choose a more constructive and less stressful way to respond to situations we encounter in life.
2. Making An Identity Out Of Our Negativity. It seems human beings have a deep-seated need to create an identity—to incorporate certain things we do, think and have into our idea of who we are. We get feelings of security and power from thinking and saying things like “I’m a computer programmer,” “I’m a father,” “I’m a member of this or that political party,” and so on—as if programming computers, raising children and having a party membership were aspects of our being or essence, rather than just activities we do from time to time.
Sometimes, consciously or otherwise, we treat our craving for an identity as more important than our happiness. This occurs when we make an identity out of unhappy situations in our lives. For example, perhaps we get into the habit of telling ourselves and others “I have an illness,” “I lost a loved one,” “I was mistreated as a child,” and so on, and deriving a feeling of safety or uniqueness from saying these things.
We limit our growth and happiness when we treat these events as part of who we are rather than simply experiences we had. Instead of letting our pain pass away, we cling to and even celebrate it. As Buddhist teacher B. Alan Wallace sagely writes in Tibetan Buddhism From The Ground Up, “identification with depression obscures the fluctuations that are taking place from one moment to the next, replacing them instead with a sense of homogeneous continuity.”
Awareness, again, helps us end our identification with our difficult experiences. To gain awareness in this area, we need to watch ourselves for those moments when we get perverse satisfaction from telling people how unhappy we are, or how terrible past events in our lives were. These are places where we’re deriving a sense of self from our painful experiences. Simply recognizing where we’re creating an identity out of our misery helps us see that we have choice in how we define ourselves, and that we can leave behind the aspects of our identities that no longer serve us.
3. Feeling Superior For Being Unhappy. As Bertrand Russell observed in The Conquest Of Happiness, we often meet people who “are genuinely unhappy, but they are proud of their unhappiness, which they attribute to the nature of the universe and consider to be the only rational attitude for an enlightened man.”
Some of us, like the friend I discussed earlier, derive a feeling of superiority from being perpetually unhappy or dissatisfied. We might, like my friend, complain constantly because we associate negativity with intelligence. Perhaps we adopt a jaded, cynical attitude toward the world because it makes us feel well-informed and cultured. Maybe we relentlessly criticize others to feel morally righteous. And so on.
While we may get a temporary high from judging and condemning people and circumstances in our lives, this attitude ultimately holds us back. Our negativity keeps us in an unhappy, unproductive place and damages our relationships with others. When we watch ourselves carefully for places where our negativity has us feel better than other people, we take a significant step toward restoring peace and focus to our mental lives.
“If you aren’t outraged, you aren’t paying attention,” says a popular bumper sticker in the United States. If you aren’t angry about the current political situation, in other words, you must be uncaring or ignorant. But is this really true? Isn’t it possible to understand, and work to change, what’s going on without getting “outraged” and bringing extra suffering into your life? Just considering this kind of question can do much to free us from our habitually negative patterns of thought and action.
Much of today’s personal development literature is about how the type of thoughts you think influence your reality. Some authors focus on how what you think about tends to appear in the world. For example, in their view, if you constantly visualize a beautiful house, you’re likely to eventually live in one, and if you’re focused on how hard it is to pay the bills, you’re likely to stay broke. Others talk about the way your thoughts affect your emotions, observing how positive and negative thoughts impact your mood.
While I agree that the kind of thoughts you think can affect your quality of life, I think it’s also important to recognize how the amount of thinking you do shapes your experience of living. There’s a growing recognition that too much thought of any kind, whether positive or negative, can bring needless suffering into your life.
We need our minds to survive and thrive in the world. Like anything else, however, thinking when it’s overused becomes self-destructive. Some psychologists estimate that on average we think one thought per second, for a total of about 60,000 per day. As I suspect many of us will attest, a large portion of those thoughts aren’t helpful at all. Most of the worrying, fantasizing, reminiscing, judging, and so on we routinely do is nothing but repetitive and distracting.
I’ll discuss some of the ways excess thinking takes away our ability to fully participate in and enjoy life, and make some suggestions about how to stem the constant stream of thought.
Thinking Takes Our Attention Out Of The Present
One often recognized hazard of excessive thinking is that it makes it hard for us to effectively respond to our present circumstances. When our attention is on what happened in the past, what might happen in the future, how others perceive us, and so on, we can’t deal with the challenges we face right now.
For instance, as many of us have probably experienced firsthand, accidents happen when we get “lost in thought.” It’s when our minds are “somewhere else” that we crash our cars, slip and fall, make errors in projects at work, and so forth. As Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh writes in The Miracle Of Mindfulness: An Introduction To The Practice Of Meditation, “the person who practices mindfulness should be no less awake than the driver of a car; if the practitioner isn’t awake he will be possessed by dispersion and forgetfulness, just as the drowsy driver is likely to cause a grave accident.”
Similarly, overthinking also removes our ability to enjoy what we’re doing right now. This issue arises for many of us in the work context. At work, our minds tend to be on how others will receive the projects we’re doing, how much money we’ll make this year, what we’re going to do at the end of the day, and so on.
When our minds are fixated on the possible future, anxiety about the outcome of our efforts strips us of our concentration and our capacity for joy. Those of us who lack passion for what we do often assume it’s because the projects we’re working on are boring and frustrating, but sometimes the real problem is that we aren’t paying enough attention to our work to be able to appreciate it.
As I see it, excess thinking is most destructive in our relationships with people. So often, whether we’re dealing with loved ones, colleagues or strangers, our minds are occupied with the image we’re projecting to others and our anxieties about other areas of our lives, instead of focused on listening to and being with the other person. This deprives us of our ability to enjoy the conversation, and doesn’t allow the other person to feel heard and acknowledged.
By contrast, listening with a clear mind to another person produces fulfillment and depth in our relationships. As psychologist Charlotte Kasl writes in her enjoyable book If The Buddha Dated, if we relate to others with a mind unclouded by thought, “we listen intently, becoming attuned to the other’s experience and not pasting them into our story lines,” and “we reveal ourselves in the interest of making an authentic connection, not impressing or placating someone.”
Positive Thinking Is Good, But In Moderation
What about positive thinking? How can it be harmful to visualize improvements you want to make in your circumstances? How can it be bad to remember enjoyable times in your life? As I mentioned earlier, too much thinking of any kind, no matter how positive, takes away your ability to enjoy and respond to the present moment. But another problem with excess positive thinking–as with all thinking–is that it makes the mind louder.
I’ve noticed, both in self-observation and working with clients, that each thought we think seems to increase the intensity and intrusiveness of the thoughts that follow. The more we feed the mind with our thinking, the more it interferes with our ability to live life right now. It’s as if the mind is a ravenous animal like a pig, and each time we think we feed the pig and make it bigger. As the pig grows, the amount of care and feeding it needs increases, and it puts more demands on our attention. When we quiet our minds, we put the pig on a diet and it takes up less space in our awareness.
This aspect of the mind becomes particularly pronounced when our thoughts abruptly shift from empowering to discouraging. For a little while, we take a pleasant trip through reminiscing about the “good times,” fantasizing about amazing things we’ll accomplish, and so on. Our mental journey keeps occupying more and more of our attention until we’re almost completely immersed in a fantasy world, but that’s okay for the moment because it’s making us happy.
Suddenly, one of our thoughts hits a sour note. We remember a difficult interaction with someone, how we aren’t getting what we want in life, how many obligations we have, or something else. With the mind at peak volume, the blast of negative thinking plunges us into despair. As Eckhart Tolle puts it in A New Earth, “positive emotions generated by the ego already contain within themselves their opposite into which they can quickly turn.” For instance, “what the ego calls love is addictiveness and possessive clinging that can turn into hate within a second.”
One important lesson to take away from the mind’s tendency to get “louder” as we feed it is that positive thoughts aren’t always the best way to escape the trap of destructive thinking. The conventional wisdom has it that, if we have a disempowering thought like “I’m weak,” we should immediately counter it with something affirming like “I’m strong” to keep ourselves out of a downward emotional spiral. Sometimes, however, all positive thinking does is turn up the mind’s “volume,” so that our mental negativity hits us harder when it eventually returns.
Next time you find yourself mired in negative thinking, I invite you to simply allow the thoughts to be, rather than coming up with more thoughts to “defend yourself” and thus feeding the mind. Gradually, your thoughts will likely fade away, leaving you again at peace. As meditation teacher Bill Scheffel puts it in Loving-Kindness Meditation, “mindfulness means calm abiding. Calm abiding is a way of letting thoughts subside. It is not an attempt to stop thought—just relax our involvement in the constant stream of thinking most of us do.”
The Key To A Mental Diet Plan
There are many strategies out there to help us free ourselves from excessive thinking—whether they’re meditation techniques, physical exercises, special kinds of music or something else—and there isn’t space to address them all here. However, I think the key point to remember is that most of these techniques seem to emphasize keeping your attention on your sensory experience. In other words, staying in touch with what you’re seeing, hearing, feeling and so on in this moment is an effective way to curb unnecessary mind activity.
The technique I’ve found most useful in holding my attention on my sensory experience is simply to focus on the pressure of my feet against the ground. If you haven’t tried this before, take a second right now to notice what your feet feel like on the floor.
You may be surprised by the richness and breadth of the sensations you experience. These might include tingling, warmth, throbbing, prickling, and a lot of other feelings that words don’t exist to describe. What’s more, you may notice as you pay attention to the feelings in your feet that they change over time, arising and subsiding like ripples on the surface of a lake.
Bringing your awareness fully into the body, and the amazing variety of sensations you can feel in it, is often enough to absorb much of your attention and direct it away from the mind. As Drs. Aggie Casey and Herbert Benson put it in Mind Your Heart: A Mind/Body Approach To Stress Management, Exercise And Nutrition For Heart Health, “your mind quiets and negative thoughts fade as you focus on your body,” and “if you quiet the body, you can calm the mind.”
After a while, a thought may arise. When this happens, either allow the thought to occur and pass away, leaving you again focused on your sensory experience, or visualize the thought flowing out of your body into the ground. For the latter exercise, look at the thought as if it’s an electric charge, and you are “grounding out” the charge by directing it through your body into the floor. You’ll likely find that the thought subsides into the emptiness from which it came.
It’s also helpful to recognize how much we can accomplish in our lives without using our minds. In fact, there are many things it’s impossible to do effectively while our minds are active. When we’re doing an intensely physical activity like playing basketball or rock climbing, allowing thoughts about the past or future to cloud our awareness strips away our skill and enjoyment.
In these and other activities, we have to essentially turn off our minds and let our bodies operate on instinct. We need to enter what psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi famously called a state of “flow,” where our attention is entirely on what we’re doing and “out of our heads,” to perform well and have fun.
If you haven’t experimented with reducing the amount of thinking you regularly do, I invite you to try it, if only for a few minutes or hours at a time. I think you’ll be surprised by the peace and focus this practice can bring you.
If you’ve read self-help literature, you’ve probably heard about the “inner critic”—the mental voice that constantly tells you that you’re not good enough, and bombards you with memories of difficult events and visions of nightmarish possible futures. There are many schools of thought on how to deal with the critic, and most focus on developing more positive beliefs about oneself or using techniques to quiet one’s mind.
However, I recently had an idea about the critic that hasn’t received as much coverage: what if we actually created what we call the “inner critic” to please ourselves? What if, on some level, we actually enjoy the suffering it causes us? What if the critic were like an addictive drug, and we could stop using it, go “cold turkey,” and kick the habit completely?
I’ll start explaining this by observing that many of us seem to enjoy feeling like we’re “right” and others are “wrong.” We crave the sense that we’re more assertive, convincing, prudent, logical or moral than someone else. For this reason, many people seek out and create conflicts in their lives—whether they be adversarial business negotiations, shouting matches between spouses, or, in extreme cases, physical fights.
Many of us crave that feeling of “rightness” so strongly that we’ll use even the most minor mistakes by others as opportunities to loudly proclaim how much better we are than them. We see this on the highway, where people scream obscenities at and threaten to kill each other for driving too slowly; or in crowded places, where people will take someone slightly bumping into them as the gravest and most personal of insults.
Not everyone seeks that feeling of rightness by putting others down. Some of us feel uncomfortable with telling others they’re wrong or attacking them in some other way, but we still want to experience the high “being right” gives us. Thus, we create someone to fight with in our minds. We create a mental adversary, an “inner critic,” who constantly attacks us for our perceived shortcomings, and we fight back against it. This is very convenient. We don’t have to look for an “outer critic,” an opponent in the outside world, to fight against—we’ve got one right here in the comfort of our own heads.
We can recognize this in the ways we respond to the inner critic. Many of us shout down the critic, telling it to shut up or yelling profanity at it. Others debate the critic, reminding it of all we’ve accomplished in our lives and defending ourselves against its accusations. Still others complain about the critic—“oh, if only I didn’t have this mental voice keeping me from getting what I want!” People whom our society considers “mentally ill” may physically attack themselves, trying to beat the critic out of their brains. In each case, we’re trying to feel like we’re more “right” than the critic, or that we’ve “defeated” it in mental combat.
Unfortunately, just as picking fights in the outside world can get us hurt, constant battle with the inner critic can wear us out. Putting the critic down, reasoning with it, complaining about it, and fighting it in all the other ways we do is physically draining and creates tension in our bodies. When you’re locked in constant battle with the critic, you feel like what rock band Blue Oyster Cult called “the veteran of a thousand psychic wars.”
The key to stopping this inner conflict is to kick your addiction to feeling that you are “right,” and that someone else, even if it is a mind-generated entity, is “wrong.” You can do this, I’ve found, by staying alert for those moments when you start craving conflict. The habit of conflict-seeking has probably been an unconscious one for most of your life, but if you hold your attention on it, you can see it for what it is.
As I described in an earlier article, in those moments, you experience a sensation as if your mind is an attic through which someone is rummaging. The attic contains embarrassing pictures, letters and drawings from your childhood, and the person rummaging through them is looking for something to humiliate you with. Eventually, the person finds something, and shows the embarrassing document to you. This is when the criticism or difficult memory pops into your head, and you start fighting against it to feed your conflict addiction.
If you watch this mental process carefully, you’ll likely come to the surprising realization that you have at least some control over it. You are the person rummaging through your mind, looking for compromising information to use against yourself. You are searching for a memory or other thought to resist, to fight with. But you probably don’t feel that you’re in complete control of this process. Your search for conflict has become compulsive—much as a smoker just can’t seem to quit.
When you feel that craving for conflict, see if you can simply allow it to be. Just acknowledge that your mind is seeking something to fight against, without looking for something to satisfy that urge with. If you’re unable to keep yourself from seeking out thoughts and memories to attack yourself with, bring the same acceptance to those thoughts and memories. Simply allow them to be, without suppressing, belittling, or arguing against them, and you will not feed your hunger for internal strife.
This practice seems difficult at first, but it rapidly becomes easier, and the potential gains are tremendous. Abandoning the habit of seeking mental conflict, of creating an “inner critic,” can bring you closer to the inner peace you’ve desired but may have had trouble achieving.
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.)