It’s Not Who You Are

I came up with this phrase as a way of unwinding the tendency to take my perceptions of others as objective truth:

It’s not who you are. It’s how what you do filters through who I am.

We cannot know people, or anything, directly. We experience everything through our senses. These experiences are packaged with the full weight of our conditioning, beliefs, and history before they even enter consciousness. We can’t hope to know what’s “really happening.” In a sense, it’s not even relevant.

The best we can do is know our biases. We can accept that each of us is a perceiving system in constant flux. We’re angry, we experience things one way. We’re tired, we experience things another way. We’re 5 years old, we experience things another way. It’s cloudy. We’ve just been dumped. We’ve gotten a promotion. We haven’t eaten for hours. We went for a run this morning…the context and the perceiver are inseparable. Each and every new experience effects the lens through which experience is understood.

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“Can We End The Meditation Madness”

This article was the most emailed article on over the weekend.

On one level, I agree with Adam Grant. Mindfulness is not a panacea. And although it provides many well-tested benefits (here’s a meta-analysis of 209 studies involving over 12,000 participants), it certainly isn’t the only “effective treatment for a variety of psychological problems.” It is one of many, and ought to be coupled with others (like psychotherapy, regular exercise, nourishing relationships, a healthy diet, etc.).

That said, there is a deeper benefit of mindfulness which is rare, hard to measure, and often overlooked. When practiced as an integrated path—including practice in life, incorporating impeccable ethics, integrating even the most onerous parts of ourselves—it can offer what is traditionally promised: complete freedom from suffering. Mindfulness can open the door to a love which is more profound than any we could find in a relationship, and a sense of well-being which is utterly independent of the conditions of our lives. No matter how many times I notice that a rubber band can be used as an eraser, I will never find that sort of freedom.

So in a sense, it all comes down to this: What are you seeking? Do you want stress reduction? Do you want a better night’s sleep? Is a boost in your happiness enough, or are you looking for something deeper?

Five Ways To Come Back Into Balance

We all get stressed. We all get thrown off. When we need to come back into balance, each one of us has a different set of tools with which to do that. Generally, some of them are skillful, and some of them are not. Some of them keep us in the present moment, and some of them don’t. Here are five helpful strategies that you can add to your toolkit:

  1. Use your thoughts – Most of us use thinking to regulate our emotions already! It’s just that a lot of the thoughts we think in moments of stress are not kind or soothing (much more on that issue here). The good news is, we can use mantra-based practices (phrase repetition) to generate positive content in our minds, and positive emotion in our bodies. This is a simple, powerful way to rebalance. Click here for instructions.
  2. Use your friends – Vastly under-acknowledged in meditation circles is the importance of co-regulation (the balancing and synchronizing that happens automatically when humans come into empathetic contact with one another). We are herd animals. We can’t go it alone! That said, you may not reliably feel good when you connect with others. It’s possible that they don’t know how to connect well. You might not either! We use the social tools that we learn from our families as children, so if you have trouble connecting, you haven’t done anything wrong. That said, you can learn new social tools through meditation. Read here for more on this point.
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Rumination – Part 2

Last week, we started a discussion on rumination—what it is, why we do it, and how it can be harmful. It’s clear to see the damage that rumination can cause in day-to-day life. We can live almost continuously in an inner world of fear, resentments, and unpleasantness, while external experience passes us by. In the words of T.S. Eliot, “distracted from distraction by distraction.”

So what can we do?!
Essentially, rumination is thinking to regulate the emotional experience of the present moment. So as long as we’re using thinking to balance ourselves out, it can be any thinking! We can think pleasant thoughts, and that will serve the same purpose that unpleasant thoughts have been serving! In other words, it isn’t actually about the content of the thoughts, but rather, their function.*

But we don’t want to think pleasant thoughts in just any old way. As meditators, the classic practice is called lovingkindness. This link provides detailed instructions. If you’ve used this technique before, you may notice I’ve set it up differently than most teachers. Neuroscience research has found that the technique is most effective if it is grounded in a present-moment experience (like a feeling or a state of mind) rather than a sentimental reflection. I choose a state of mind because it gets us out of the body, which is often in pain in the moments when we need the technique most!

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Rumination – Part 1

Keeling-fire-engine-illustrationThis is the first of two parts in a series about rumination (also known as self-generated emotion). This topic has been very relevant to the people I work with and somewhat difficult to understand. Hopefully in the next few weeks, it will start to make sense through these posts…

According to a paper published in 2004, Rumination is "repetitive thoughts…directed primarily toward processing the content of self-referent information [i.e. emotion] and not toward immediate goal-directed action." In other words, rumination is repetitive thinking which, though it may seem to be moving you toward clarity or action, is primarily functioning to manage your emotional experience.

You may have noticed this yourself: certain types of stories that your mind habitually tells, which pull you out of the present and stir up a predictable emotional response (be it resentment, shame, sadness, anger, blame, fear, anxiety, moral outrage, or even positive emotions like happiness, love, security, trust, humor, etc). Depending on your childhood conditioning, you may find that your mind is doing this much of the day.

Why is this significant?
From a mindfulness perspective, we're trying to find ways to stay in the present moment, knowing that being present makes us happier. One issue with rumination is that it replays content from the past or fantasies about the future, taking you out of the present moment. But that alone is not necessarily a "bad" thing (more on that later)—the more significant issue is the negative emotions that this process often generates* and the reinforcement of unsupportive beliefs. This combo:

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