Internal vs. External Focus

Human beings possess the capacity for critical, self-reflective, thought. At its best, this internal process is really quite amazing. It's one of the qualities that helps us love and connect deeply with each other. It allows for personal growth and technological innovation. It helps us empathize with others. We are lucky to possess the capacity to think so deeply. At its worst, however, the same process of internal focus can be debilitating and life-interfering. It can lead to anxiety, panic, fear, and depression, amongst other things.  

Conversely, consider the canine who lives an externally focused existence: Dogs are not overly concerned with how they are viewed by strangers. Our beloved pets do not experience existential crisis or ponder their impending deaths late into the night. Instead, dogs live their lives focused on their immediate external worlds. Eat, sleep, mate, relax in the sun, play etc. Because of this, they are able to live quite contentedly, free from the mental health strife that we as humans often confront at some point in our lives. We could learn a lot from dogs. Their ability to stay present and recover from past stress/trauma, their openness to whatever new people have to offer, be it lavish treats or simple scratches behind the ears. In many ways, the lack of brain development serves them.

The lesson here seems to be that we need a balance of internal and external focus. We can use the same introspection that causes us problems for the good of assessing this balance. The percentage of time spent inwardly turned vs. focused on the external world will vary with each unique individual, but it seems that we all have a particular balance where we move through life most contentedly. Perhaps the measure of good health is not sitting perfectly in the middle, rather, wellness is about noticing when we are trending too far inward or outward and making a correction. Noticing and correcting quickly show a measure of flexibility that will undoubtedly enhance one's life. 

You may be too internally focused if you:

  • find yourself spinning out about certain thoughts (fixating)
  • have trouble sleeping at night, due to this kind of rumination
  • are spending large amounts of time by yourself
  • are not aware of your surroundings
  • feel disconnected from other people and your environment
  • are experiencing Anxiety, Depression, Panic Attacks etc. 
  • only want to engage in "what is the meaning of life?" type of conversations
  • never ask other people about what is going on in their lives
  • feel annoyed by everyone and everything
  • have a desire to live in a vacuum or join a monastery 

You may be too externally focused if you:

  • don't have a clear sense of your likes/dislikes (preferences)
  • feel passionless and purposeless
  • are regularly using drugs, alcohol, exercise, food etc. to numb out and/or cope
  • never check-in with yourself about hunger and rest cues
  • rarely, if ever, engage in self-care activities
  • feel the need to be constantly engaged socially
  • are overly concerned with your appearance
  • have trouble being alone
  • find yourself mindlessly scrolling on social media sites
  • avoid silence and stillness at all costs

Most of us move back and forth along a spectrum of these different types of focus. It's our job to notice when we're trending too far to one side or the other so that we can find balance and live a life of moderation where we intentionally move between internal and external focus in order to maximize our experience as humans. 

Differentiating: Snake or Stick?

For those of us who struggle with Anxiety or Depression (note, capital "A" Anxiety and capital "D" Depression), it's important to practice the process of differentiating. In the context of this post, I'm using the words "differentiate/ing/ion" to mean delineating between things (not to be confused with the process of differentiation as it applies to holding healthy boundaries in relationships).

It's important that we differentiate, because Depression loves to corral normal emotional responses for its purposes, as does Anxiety. Differentiating allows us to determine what is our Depression/Anxiety, and what is a normal response to an actual stimulus.

For example, experiences like grief, sadness, hurt, and anger often trigger our experience of Depression and are used for the purposes of creating a false sense of presence and power for the Depression itself. It's a normal process to grieve after the loss of a loved one. If someone cuts you off in traffic, a normal response would be to feel angry. A missed opportunity (stimulus) leads to feeling let down (normative response). An upcoming test causes stress and anxiety (small "a"). These things are normal. It's important not to be tricked into thinking that these responses are your Anxiety and/or Depression taking hold. That's exactly what the diseases want; they aim to narrow your focus and trick you into thinking they are everywhere! 

So, one of the easiest ways to differentiate in a situation is to follow these steps (a mindfulness practice in-and-of itself):

1) Identify the problematic feeling you're having 

2) Determine if there is a stimulus that can be linked to this feeling

3) Check the facts with yourself and/or others to validate that this feeling is a natural response to the identified stimulus

If you can do this, you're most likely experiencing a normative response to an unfortunate life situation and not your Anxiety and/or Depression. This is one MAJOR way that you can lessen the impact of both of these disorders. 

I'll end with two hypotheticals to illustrate the importance of this process:

1) You're hiking in the woods along a single-track trail, and suddenly, just in your periphery, you notice what appears to be a snake lurking in the grass a few feet to the right of you. Immediately and instinctually, you run forward several meters, eager to get away from the snake and out of its sight. For the rest of your hike, you're consumed with thoughts of snakes. Every stick, root, branch, and movement in the grass signals SNAKE and your adrenaline and stress become more actively engaged. Your baseline anxiety goes up, tainting the peaceful hike.

2) You're hiking in the woods along a single-track trail and suddenly, just in your periphery, you notice what appears to be a snake lurking in the grass a few feet to the right. Immediately you stop, breathe, and take a closer look. Upon further inspection from a safe distance, you realize that what you thought was a snake is actually a stick. Noticing your heart racing, you take a few mindful breaths and re-ground yourself. For the rest of your hike, you're able to take in the beauty and nature, more present and calm, having down-regulated from the snake scare. You enjoy the peaceful hike.

Our world certainly has its share of snakes, but through differentiation, we come to realize that they are not as rampant as we might fear. 

Keys to More Contented Living, Part 3: REST!

The space between the logs and embers (and the oxygen that exists there-in) is a necessary component of any bright, blazing fire. Simply piling a bunch of logs on top of one another--packed in as closely together as possible--will not create a strong fire. In fact, it's likely the blaze won't fire up at all. 

In much the same way, we need to create space for rest in our lives to ignite our purposes and passions. With so many professions pushing employees to do more and more with less and less (look at public school teaching for an example of this), it's becoming harder and harder to make space for down-time. The distractions of life and the influx of screens have also impacted the quality of our rest. With that said, rest should be appropriately balanced and considered in two arenas: quality and quantity. Remember, balance is key here as well. Too much rest can lead to laziness and lethargy. It's important to set flexible patterns and habits into place to ensure that you have the energy to get things done in a meaningful and sustainable way. 

Suggestions for improving sleep:

  • Develop a healthy sleep routine/ritual. Suggestions for things to include in a routine: light stretching, drinking a cup of hot tea, personal hygeine, and some leisure reading
  • No screens within 90 minutes of going to bed and no caffeine after noon
  • Keep your bedroom cool, roughly 65 degrees if possible
  • Sleeping naked and with the sheets/blankets untucked will allow for freedom of movement that helps prevent being startled awake or bound up while resting
  • Eat a banana in the evening (don't ask...I've heard that it helps!). But seriously, make sure you go to bed satiated
  • Cover your will only stress you out
  • Keep a journal by the bed to right down any last-minute things you remember to-do the next day
  • Reserve your bed for sleeping only (Don't do hw, eat, or watch TV in bed)

If you are having trouble falling asleep:

  • Get up and attempt a "do-over" with your sleep routine. Don't endlessly toss and turn. If you haven't fallen asleep after about 45-60 minutes and your thoughts start to spin about not being able to fall asleep, that's when you know it's time to get all the way up and do something outside of your bedroom. Try a 5-10 minute mindfulness meditation around acceptance/relaxation once you're up and out of bed.
  • If your thoughts are spinning out in other directions, use your journal to write them down. This act of "taking out and putting down" may help you acknowledge and accept the thoughts. As a result, you might find that they're able to go on by at that point.

When it comes to rest, we tend to default to sleep as the main source. While sleep is important, it's not the only way we can rest. So, I'll send you off with... 

10 other ways that you can incorporate rest into the day:

  1. Build in a 5-10 minute formal mindfulness practice in the middle of the day to attend to your mind and body. This could be a good transition from work to the start of your lunch break.
  2. Informal mindfulness practice can be used in micro-moments spent washing your hands, walking from one place to the next, drinking a beverage, listening to music, or simply taking a few breaths and stretching (pandiculation).
  3. Don't work during your lunchtime. Eat mindfully.
  4. Eat foods and do things that make you feel good in your body.
  5. Get outside periodically, feel the sun or rain on your face and take a few deep breaths of fresh air.
  6. Always be reading something for leisure. Keep that book with you for easy and healthy escape.
  7. Take breaks and change your body position every now and then.
  8. Limit screen time.
  9. Go for a walk and get away for 15 minutes, if possible
  10. Avoid "multi-tasking"...being "good at multi-tasking" only means you're good at wearing yourself out.

Keys to More Contented Living, Part 2: PURPOSE!

The second key to contented living is Purpose. Purpose is the thing that gets you out of bed in the morning. It provides a channel for passion. One might have multiple Purposes. Generally speaking, one can arrive at his or her Purpose(s) by thinking about goals and then zooming out to find the greater good being attempted. Some examples include: to help others, to work hard, to connect with others, to earn the respect of others, to create, to love passionately, to grow the healthy self, to be a good parent and/or spouse, to lead a spiritual life, to manage life's challenges with grace, etc. It's my belief that living with purpose(s) leads to a more content life. Let's look at how Purposes look different from Goals (goal-setting being highly touted in our society) and then examine why living with intention around your Purpose(s) works. 

How living with Purpose differs from living to accomplish a Goal

Goals are tangible, measurable accomplishments we try to achieve at a given point in the future. As such, they become another distinct marker of success or failure. If not approached carefully, goals can get co-opted by our propensity for black and white thinking; meet a goal, you're a to meet a goal, you're a failure. This is a risk. The real issue here, in my opinion, is that goals are typically celebrated only after they are achieved, and then another goal is quickly set and the past accomplishment is forgotten. As a result, there is little opportunity left on a day-to-day basis to celebrate one's good work. For those with eating disorders or other mental health struggles, goal-setting is especially tricky, because disorders are excellent at coming up with goals that serve their own purposes. Remember that numbers, rigid thinking, and tangible markers of progress can be easily co-opted by one's disordered parts.

Purposes are something you wake up and work with every single morning. One can actualize purpose in many micro-moments throughout his or her day. For this reason, living with Purpose offers many more opportunities for celebration and positive reinforcement. Because this motivator is harder to quantify, it becomes less likely to be storied as a failure. There are numerous opportunities to get back on the horse. You can sleep soundly each night, knowing you lived that day with your purpose(s) in mind. What are some Purposes in your life?

Why living with Purpose works

Purpose gets us out of our heads and into relationship with the world. As such, we're less likely to spin around our critical thoughts and feel isolated from others or alone in the world. Living with purpose creates connections that help us feel more grounded and present. Because Purpose is more generalized than a specific goal, we can even connect with others around our common purposes.

Here's the cool part of it: Approaching each day with purpose will ultimately lead to accomplishing goals. By shifting our attention to the purposes in our lives, we focus on the process and not the end result. As a result, we not only feel more content, but I believe we set ourselves up for greater and more frequent achievements.


Follow-up and Hypothesis Related to Key 1: Play

Before starting in on the second Key to Contented Living (which I will post soon), I wanted to offer some thoughts as follow-up to Part 1, which outlined the importance of play. I'm typically not one for sports analogies, references, or metaphors, but this just felt very appropriate to Key 1 and possibly illuminating in terms of offering another added benefit of approaching activities with a play mentality, rather than uber-competitiveness, extreme focus, or seriousness.

Leading up to Super Bowl 50, Cam Newton (phenom quarterback of the Carolina Panthers) had been receiving lots of feedback from the press/media which could basically be summarized with these kinds of sentiments: "Newton doesn't take the game seriously enough", "Cam will have to get more serious and focused to lead the Panthers to a win at the Super Bowl", etc...

Well, for those of you who watched that game and/or read the subsequent commentary on it, Newton's focus and serious approach in the Super Bowl stood out in stark comparison to the fun-loving, playful way he had approached games all season.

Now, I admittedly hadn't watched the Panthers play all season (or any football team for that matter!*) but apparently Newton had quite the reputation for big smiles, celebratory dances, and a fun-loving attitude on the field. Quite simply, he made it look easy and the game seemed to come naturally to him. Suffice it to say, he played really, really well.

I couldn't help but wonder if the press's critique of Newton's approach to playing football leading up to the big game** negatively affected his ability to perform on the big day. Approaching the thing with serious and rigid focus really seemed to throw him off. Perhaps it added a kind of stress and pressure that wasn't helpful to him and didn't allow him to naturally play the game the way he had all year. 

So, I offer the hypothesis that approaching activities with a "play" mentality MIGHT in some cases actually allow us to perform better. Competition can be healthy too, but we need not dismiss play. 

*Full disclosure: I did watch almost all of Super Bowl 50, but it was more out of anthropological interest than for the game itself. I tend not to support football as an enterprise, due to all of the research relating the sport to chronic traumatic brain injury and early onset dementia (along with other mental health issues). Read "League of Denial" for more on this. 

**it seems worth noting that we still refer to these things as "games" even though we criticize players who don't take them seriously enough

Keys to More Contented Living, Part 1: PLAY!

I try to keep things simple for my clients, believing that life enhancement need not be some version of rocket science or require one to empty out his or her pockets. We can make noticeable improvements by turning our attention to some free and accessible areas just waiting to be tapped. So, when asked about some simple ways to improve one's current situation, I always return to three main points, which I'll spend some time outlining in a three part blog series in the coming weeks.

It's my belief that when someone experiences the feeling of life being out of balance, typically it can be traced back to some imbalance or scarcity in one, if not multiple, of the three areas I'll be writing about. Finding balance with and putting energy into these three areas are surefire ways to move toward more contentment, so STAY TUNED. To start off the series, the first topic is PLAY!


As adults, most of us forget how to truly play. Read the opening to The Little Prince (one of my favorites!) for more on this. Children are the best, but oft ignored, teachers of this precious pastime. Why does this matter? Researchers are now linking stress to many major illnesses, both psychological and physiological in nature. For many years, mysterious physical and psychological pain has been mystifying all types of clinicians. What we now know is that many of the symptoms we haven't been able to explain can be linked to stress. Interestingly enough, no drug on the market is being prescribed that can match the positive effects of a simple behavioral intervention. It turns out, PLAY is the antidote to stress. It can literally undo the harm and fatigue caused by too much stress hormone release. Sadly, however, without our awareness, we slowly lose touch with the childhood activity known as play and turn to the pressures, responsibilities, demands, and competition that run rampant in our adult lives.

Simply put, play is light-hearted, spontaneous, imaginative, flexible and creative activity that exists outside of the stress of rigid time limits, competition, and/or hard and fast goals. Ask adults how they play, and they will quickly respond with things like: going to the gym, writing, running, cooking, gardening, painting etc. While these all might be considered play, it could be beneficial to subject the activities we do to the qualifications listed above, and see how they fair. With further scrutiny, I typically find that what most adults consider to be play, is actually another source of stress, guilt, self-harm, and worst yet, sometimes even shame. For example: "I don't make it to the gym enough...I'm just so lazy" "I'd like to sell more of my art, but it's not that good" or "I used to be really good at guitar, but I hardly have time to practice now." In many cases, the things we think we do to relieve stress are actually increasing the stress in our lives. This is not say that competition, pressure, and goal-setting can't be healthy and promote other types of personal growth. It's just that activities that revolve around these things shouldn't be filed under the category known as play, and they probably are not serving to counter stress in the way that play activity could.

One of the easiest ways to get back in touch with play is to watch your own kids, or friends' children play. If this isn't an option for you, I invite you to ask yourself these questions as you engage in your activity and try to determine if it counts as play in the way I've outlined here:

Am I smiling while I do this activity?

Is it impossible to do the activity the "wrong" way?

Will I feel better about myself after the activity concludes?

Am I doing this activity because I want to, and not because I feel I must?

Does this activity allow me reprieve from the pressures of everyday life?

If you can answer "yes" to these questions, you're probably onto something.

Give yourself permission to play more and you will reduce the stress in your life!



Filling the Void of Addiction

The original sense of addiction involved being bound over, dedicated, either legally or spiritually. To devote one’s life, plunge in.
— David Foster Wallace's INFINITE JEST

I've been thinking about addiction lately, and then this morning I was reading Infinite Jest--in an attempt to finally get to the end of this large literary goal--and the above quote slowed me down. This sense of addiction as an act of me, it leaves the state of being open to multiple route for storying. Ultimately, I think it can be useful in thinking about filling the void that giving up a harmful addiction leaves.

Jest deals a lot with this concept of addiction and more specifically how we as humans are quite prone to becoming addicted. Wallace observes how our culture and our economic structure thrive on our being addicted in myriad ways. More specifically, in Infinite Jest, DFW examines many of the different ways that we as a society entertain ourselves and how these various "entertainments" quite readily become addictive patterns. What's so brilliant about DFW's work here (besides the magnitude and skill of it, written in a relatively short period of time--something like 3 years--simply put: it's a tome, but a work of genius!) is that he is able to situate different addictions next to one another in ways that play with a hierarchy we as a society have created. For instance, the deadliest and most debilitating addiction in the work is not to any of the hard drugs he writes about (make no mistake, in the book these cause their share of harm too), rather the most addictive thing is a particular film "cartridge" (film) that is so addictive in nature the viewer must continuously view it, losing regard for hygiene, food, interaction etc...ultimately, the viewer is rendered a vegetable, and out of reach from those who might help, but fear their own exposure to, and demise from, the cartridge. But DFW doesn't stop here, he comments about addiction to causes, sex, sports, AA/NA groups, radio (other media), relationships, and other aspects of technology that either are, or in the future, may be present in our world. 

All of this got me thinking about the recent research on addiction, which challenges the traditional notion that drugs/substances infiltrate "sick" brains and then become addictive in-and-of themselves. New research is showing that we become addicted to the most stimulating thing in our environment. In other words, we devote ourselves to the thing that we like best. If that's drugs, it's drugs. If it's video games, it's video games. If it's a cause, it's a cause. Again, the thing that imprints on us is the thing that stands out the most to us as being appealing. What we steer ourselves towards being addicted to may not necessarily fit with society's more objective perspectives. To be clear, nature and nurture still pull their weight in helping us make this decision. No doubt there are biological, cultural, and family-of-origin predispositions and experiences that can make certain objects of addiction have greater pull. Still, I would propose that the question of HOW as in "how do we get better?" vs. the WHY of "why am I addicted?" may be the place where our energy is best expended. It's been my experience that one must not always know the "Why" to get to the "How". The why explains, and the how can heal.

We know that when one chooses sobriety from an addiction (working a recovery program) he or she will be left with a huge void. Remember, if we've grown addicted, chances are it's one of, if not THE, most stimulating thing in our world. This means we probably did it a lot! As humans, it's likely that we're going to need to fill that void somehow. AA and its sister programs do a nice job of filling the space. The harmful daily habit is replaced with a better habit; 90 meetings in 90 days, drug-using friends are replaced by recovery friends, dealer is replaced by sponsor, immersion in 12-step culture replaces immersion in drug culture, etc. However, while AA works for many people (indeed, it is the most proven way that people maintain sobriety from drugs/alcohol), it may not fit for all. By zooming out and looking at the purpose it serves, we can find other options.

What I advocate for is that individuals seek to fill the void of addiction SOME HOW, when they are attempting to abstain from __________. In doing so, I think it is useful to start by seeking out several different replacements to fill the void, rather than looking at any one thing to completely take its place. Eventually, if one of those things is a more healthy option, that may be movement along the right path and constitute healthier living. We're not going for perfect, just BETTER.

The bottom line: the taking away will leave a sense of emptiness. Ideally, we can sit in this emptiness and use the space as an opportunity for examination and curiosity. When this becomes unbearable or leads to cravings to go back to the unhealthy thing, we can use our being prone to addictive behavior in our favor. The goal is to find sustainable, more healthy options of stimuli that imprint on us. Consider: relationships (partners/friends etc.), creative endeavors (music/art/dance), religion/spirituality, reconnecting with healthy family members, gaining a new role in family, school, or work. 

In this way, sobriety can be reframed as something that creates space for expansion, something that allows room for us to make ourselves better humans, rather than something that simply leaves a void.

What is Therapy and Why does it Work?

My goal for this post is to present a succinct and accessible explanation for what therapy is and why it works. Sure, I could go into the systems and communication theories that underly post-modern practice. I am able to discuss various therapeutic models and theories of change, but all of this stuff would probably bore most readers who aren't themselves practitioners. So, to the masses (whoever you are!), here we go:

What is therapy?

In my opinion, at its core, psychotherapy consists of two essential parts:

1. The creation of a safe space for one or more living beings who desire change

2. Attending, staying, and connecting in that space for a given amount of time

Why it works...

Our world pulls us away constantly, through our own habituated distractedness. Here's the thing: it's not all our fault! This movement has arisen as a result of technology, media, and many other facets of the modern world for which no single individual is responsible. The fact is, most people are spending less and less time interfacing fully and directly with other humans. The increase and accessibility of virtual/tele/digital communication has eroded our opportunity for, and comfortability with, face-to-face communication. While we can communicate farther and more efficiently than ever before, something is being lost. This quote from A General Theory of Love expresses the sentiment nicely:

The vocation of psychotherapy confers a few unexpected fringe benefits on its practitioners, and the following is one of them. It impels participation in a process that our modern world has all but forgotten: sitting in a room with another person for hours at a time with no purpose in mind but attending. As you do so, another world expands and comes alive to your senses—a world governed by forces that were old before humanity began.

If we subscribe to the idea that we are only moving further along the continuum of communicating more indirectly, it should follow that therapy is only becoming MORE effective. Therapy works because it intervenes. It creates space for a relationship to develop that is unique and impactful. It is a relationship that urges us to attend and recognize each other as living human beings with hearts as well as brains. A therapy session is a practice in mindfulness and a devotion to connectedness. It is a practice in relating and accepting. In therapy, a client has the opportunity to feel the undivided attention of another human being for a significant amount of time. It may be one of the few spaces where this kind of attending still exists.

But what do you get out of this? What's the thing that you walk away with as a result? To name a few of the products that therapy sells: connectedness, grounding, presence, patience, confidence, healing, empathy, forgiveness, love, reflection, mindfulness, worthiness... 

'Tis the Season: Gratitudes and Intentions

The holidays can bring up all sorts of emotions for people. As such, this time presents us with a wonderful opportunity to slow down and tune in to our current state of being. This "slowing down" requires us to be more purposeful than ever before, as the pace of life seems to constantly speed up. Technology and modern media now make sustained attention more and more difficult! 

Case and point: I was invited to watch football at an old friend's house over the winter break, and so I headed over, more to reconnect than actually watch sports. While there, I noticed that every time I'd look at the television, a different pair of teams was playing. I innocently asked my friend and his buddies what was going on, as none of them seemed to be turning the television channel to prompt the switch between games. The viewing telecast (apparently called "NFL Redzone") allows viewers to watch only the highlights and replays of the biggest plays from the most crucial moments of all NFL games happening at any given moment in time. No longer must fans be asked to watch all of the "boring" in-between moments. Even watching a sports game is not entertainment enough! The games seemed to switch every 5-10 seconds. After watching this for about 45 minutes, I felt more anxious and more tense. We're being conditioned to be distracted!

So, I invite you all to take this time to slow-down and practice a kind of sustained attention on gratitudes for 2015 and intentions for the upcoming year. What better way to celebrate the new year. I recently emailed with a former client who was discussing the black/white nature of setting a New Year's Resolution or calling it "New" at all. She preferred to refer to the changeover as a "continuing", which I really liked. So, as you continue through this holiday season, again, I offer you two questions to meditate on, rather than setting a New Year's resolution:

What are you grateful for in 2015?

A note about gratitude: Research shows that reflecting on and sharing gratitude can literally make you happier. Don't believe me? Check out this sweet YouTube video that presents some case studies in succinct, yet tear-jerking, fashion and prove just that:

What are your intentions for 2016?

A note about intentions: By the principle of "energy follows thought" (which is related to the "law of attraction"), we can manifest reality based on the thoughts we allow and hold in our minds. A similar thing occurs based on how the systems we are embedded in approach and attend to us. Don't believe me? Try walking around with an "I am the shit" attitude for one day, and see how people respond to you. Next, try walking around with an "I am a PIECE of shit" attitude for a day, and see how differently those around you respond. The proof is in the pudding. Another experiment randomly divided up a similar group of rats into two different groups, and then separated the two groups into two different cages; one cage had the label "Smart Rats" and the other "Dumb Rats". These were two random samples of the same species of rat with roughly the same intelligence, mind you. After being handled by participants exposed to both the rats and the signs on the cages, the "smart rats" out-performed the "dumb rats" every time in side by side competition. The energy of the handlers, impacted by their thoughts about the rats based on the signage, rubbed off on the rats in a VERY real way. Energy follows thought. By mindfully setting an intention, and then revisiting that intention with ATTENTION, we can manifest it.

So, what are you grateful for in 2015?

What are your intentions for 2016?


Critical Thought and the Second Level of Awareness

In my last post, I mentioned that our experience of our thoughts is very REAL. This means that we do actually have the critical, negative, hurtful thoughts that we experience and they can harm us and cause us suffering. It's quite common; this is our reality. These thoughts, however, are not necessarily TRUE, and the ability to which they can harm us is more closely linked to how much truth we attribute to them, than the reality of the thoughts themselves. 

I will explain further. The brain is a thought machine. Its job is to constantly churn out thoughts, much like that ticker tape you see running at the bottom of news feeds on TV. For a multitude of different possible reasons (that I won't go into here, because they vary according to each unique individual's temperament and experience) many of these thoughts happen to be critical thoughts. I'll say it again: EVERYONE experiences critical thoughts. The potential for these types of thoughts to wreak havoc on our psyches is directly related to how much truth we attribute to them. For example, if I had the thought: "I am unworthy of love and kindness from others" (level one) and I next assign truth to this (a level two action), I am giving that thought a tremendous amount of power and allowing it to do damage to self-worth. I am effectively arming that thought; this is dangerous for me. Someone else may have the exact same thought and be able to dismiss it due to protective factors: They may practice non-attachment and let it drift by without clinging to it (a skill honed through meditation), they may counter it with a healthy thought (ie. I give love and kindness, therefore I am worthy of receiving love and kindness from others...a CBT technique), or they might check-in with a trusted person who can counter it for them (I call this "checking the facts"). The bottom line:

It's what we do on this "second level" of awareness that matters. We all have the level one critical thoughts. What we DO with those thoughts--how we think about and story the sum total of these thoughts--is what really matters for our mental health. 

The same can be said when we zoom out and examine the reality of our lives as they currently exist. The reality of what we're doing with our lives matters much less than the story we tell ourselves about what we're doing with our lives. I'll provide another example to illustrate:

You take a day off from going to the gym or exercising (level one); Do you write the story that you were lazy and worthless, do you write the story that you listened to your body and rested, or maybe you write a story that exists somewhere in between? (all options for level two awareness actions)

In this case, taking the day off, in and of itself, is not the issue. The actual event has little affect on you. The way this real life, level one, event is storied, however, has great implications for what happens the next day. Before long, patterns of thinking and then behaviors take over. (Energy follows thought! More on that in my next post).

At issue here is the fact that the brain is "plastic," meaning it can be changed throughout the lifespan. We're able to remember this easily when it comes to how we approach impressionable children, but we wrongly assume that it gets fixed at a certain point. The types of thoughts to which we attach, further carve out grooves that make it more likely that we will use those harmful neural channels in the future.

If you're like me, you probably find this both scary and relieving (Ha! Awareness of multiple level two options where I choose to hold both). By practicing mindfulness around the types of thoughts we're attaching to, we can decide which channels we utilize. This means that the longer we can break the pattern of going down the channels of critical thought, the easier it will be to use other, more positive, channels. Eventually your brain will not so quickly default to the critical, harmful story. 

As a way of just starting to practice this concept today,  try to differentiate between the two levels. Are you aware of what's happening on both level one and level two? This is a mindfulness practice. The act of separating reality from the story of your reality is an AWESOME first step.

After you do this, you can begin to open up awareness to other possible stories, and then selectively attend to those that are most helpful and healthy for you. Remember, you get to decide what is true.

Mindfulness as Daily Practice

One of the simplest and most easily accessible definitions I've come across for "mindfulness" is "the mind observing itself". It's for this reason that mindfulness is made available to us in what I call "micro-moments" (quick moments of awareness) throughout the day. In this way, mindfulness can become a daily practice, interwoven into the franticness of our daily lives.

For a long time I sought grounding and peace through a daily morning meditation; that is, focused and set periods of time sitting on a meditation cushion, attempting to clear my mind of distracting thoughts by practicing non-attachment to whatever would enter the cognitive space. While this proved to be an interesting exercise in discipline and patience, I found that the meditation did not necessarily carry over into the rest of my day.

One day, after describing my daily process for trying to stay present/aware to a psychiatrist friend/mentor, he challenged me to try something different. I had been describing a pattern that I was working to fix:

"I find myself frequently rushing through the day, so focused on what's next or where I'm supposed to be that I miss out on the present moment. Sometimes at the end of the day, I wonder if I've really been there for anything I did. I'm getting through life, but that's not good enough; I want to experience life. I feel calm at the end of my meditation sessions in the morning, but then I feel like I get thrusted into the rapidly moving current of the day. I become so focused on the next thing, that I never have the opportunity to look around and appreciate the scenery."

His response:

"The next time you find yourself in a hurry, don't do anything. Just note, either in your head or maybe even by saying out out loud: 'wow, I'm really in a hurry right now'. Don't attempt to stop and meditate, don't do any intervention, just acknowledge what's happening in the moment." [hence, the mind observing itself]

Amazingly, this quick acknowledgement proved quite effective. I began to notice that simply acknowledging what was happening ("I'm in a hurry") began to help me slow down, breathe, and bring more presence to the current moment. What happened is I would inevitably slow down. It didn't take 20 minutes, it didn't require a meditation cushion, and it could be applied anywhere and under any conditions.

So, I invite you to try this. If you need help, set a watch or phone alarm to go off at a few key times throughout your day. Or, pick a recurring daily activity (maybe washing your hands). When this stimulus happens, allow the mind to observe itself. What's happening for you in those moments?

Are you in a hurry?

Are you feeling inadequate or like a failure?

Are you being critical of yourself?

Are you loving yourself? 

Do you feel strong and capable?

Notice the thing, whatever it is, and treat it with non-judgment and non-attachment. The acknowledgement itself is the intervention. 

Finally, remember that the thoughts you notice are REAL but they are not necessarily TRUE. (More on that for my next post...)

Tara Brach's free podcasts have been getting a lot of air time for me lately, thanks to a good recommendation from a therapist friend in Portland. They helped inspire this post. Check them out HERE.

I'll end with this quote from the Dalai Lama:

" so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived."

Food, "Diets", and Normal Eating

Restrictive diets seem to be quite popular these days, staking claims to improve health and well-being. I too have been sucked in at times, so I have no judgment about this. The problem is, I find the concept of "dieting" in general to be not all that healthy. Here's why it concerns me:

1. Calling certain foods "bad" increases their power. When people deprive themselves of certain foods that are natural for them to want (I'll get into that later), they are more likely to binge on the food when they "allow" themselves to eat it. In my experience, when I've had an "I will not or do not eat ___" attitude, I find that it dominates my thoughts in an unhealthy way. The detriment to mental health is tremendous and should not be overlooked. Which brings me to point two:

2. The MENTAL HEALTH repercussions of restrictive dieting are not addressed by people who evangelize these rigid eating rules/patterns. Diets can serve as gateway drugs to eating disorders that cause millions of men and women around the world to suffer. Mental suffering also takes its toll.

3. Mental health affects physical health and vice versa...both positively and negatively. To look at either of these in isolation is very problematic, and this is another huge issue when people approach life with rigidity, rather than flexibility and balance. When people experience a greater sense of purpose, worth, and mental well-being they will be more active, and thus, more healthy/physically fit. The obsessive, rigid, consumed brain will affect the body over time in an equally detrimental way. Mental stress/strain can manifest as chronic physical pain/injury. 

4. The RELATIONAL repercussions of dieting are not addressed by people who evangelize extreme, rigid eating rules/patterns. Eating is a communal experience that brings people together. This has happened across cultures and for centuries. If you can't go out with friends who want to share a pizza, or if you need to bring your own salad to the restaurant while everyone else shares in the experience in order to adhere to a rigid diet, you are missing out on a relational experience and a growth opportunity. We experience joy and contribute to a sense of self through interacting with others. The shared experience is powerful and our relational experiences shape us, support us, provide reflections that create sense of self, and help us keep perspective. Rigid food rules and patterns inhibit this. In addition, being mentally consumed by strict adherence to any diet will affect one's ability to be present and engaged with others.

5. Deprivation of certain foods means inhibiting the fulfillment of other, equally important, hungers. It may be true that we need more/less of certain types of nutrients or foods. Even so, we have other hungers that rigid diets prevent us from satisfying. For example, food is attached to memory. It may be a deeply moving experience for an older, displaced, southern couple to make the "southern style" macaroni and cheese they remember from childhood that they had each year around holiday time and other special occasions. Enjoying this dish may call to mind wonderful memories from childhood/holidays and help them feel closer to family and their roots, which are far away. If a diet deprives someone of satisfying this "Memory/Nostalgia Hunger," this is also a lost opportunity.

So, in an effort to not be problem saturated, here's what I would propose.

Trust your body enough to handle flexible, balanced eating and rely on its cues to tell you when to eat, drink, and move.

I really like this conceptualization of "Normal" eating which I first encountered in a chapter called Developing Body Trust by Deb Burgard:

"Normal eating is being able to eat when you are hungry and continue eating until you are satisfied. It is being able to choose food you like and eat it and truly get enough of it--not just stop eating because you think you should. Normal eating is being able to use some moderate constraint in your food selection to get the right food, but not being so restrictive that you miss out on pleasurable foods. Normal eating is giving yourself permission to eat sometimes because you are happy, sad or bored, or just because it feels good. Normal eating is three meals a day or it can be choosing to munch along. It is leaving some cookies on the plate because you know you can have some again tomorrow, or it is eating more now because they taste so wonderful when they are fresh. Normal eating is overeating at times: feeling stuffed and uncomfortable. It is also undereating at times and wishing you had more. Normal eating is trusting your body to make up for your mistakes in eating. Normal eating takes up some of your time and attention but keeps its place as only one important area in your life. In short, normal eating is flexible. It varies in response to your emotions, your schedule, your hunger, and your proximity to food." (Satter, 1987, pp.69-70).