Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Goodbye, nostalgia! Hello, Thanksgiving! Appreciation journals for the win.

As the holiday season approaches, so does nostalgia. The word itself is blended from Greek and Homeric words, combining both "homecoming" and "ache." It's a sentimental, melancholy longing for the past. 

Whether or not we genuinely long for the past, that nostalgic feeling is triggered by smell, music, and weather, so it's no wonder that this season transports us! Among all the ordinary, forgotten events of childhood and beyond, our repeated annual traditions have worn deep grooves in us, like the groove of Bing Crosby's "White Christmas," which is playing somewhere right now whether you like it or not. (I'm currently playing it. I like it.)

Whether it's the clean, cold smell in the air on Thanksgiving day, the taste of turkey, or just too many hot spiked ciders, we can easily find ourselves in that holiday time machine that our brains have built for us. Oh what fun it is to ride in a one-horse open time machine, right? Sure, it can be! 

But picture Scrooge beyond the windowpane, during his visit with the Angel of Christmas Past. We can't interact with our memories. Whether they're positive or negative, there they stand, out of reach yet sometimes holding tremendous emotional power over us in the present. When our minds journey to the unchangeable past, what judgments does it make?

Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now describes how, when thoughts are in the past, we either deem the past or the present to be better. Preferring the past can keep us from feeling at peace with the present: we want things back the way they were, and that's impossible. A painful past can also keep us from fully appreciating the present. Some of us "hate the holidays" because of the unfulfilled expectations and psychological injuries of childhood, formative years, or adulthood before dramatic changes like death, divorce, or disease. It's all what you make of it.

If you're like me, holiday memories are like most memories: a blend of happy and horrible. Now that I'm a grown-ass lady, I choose to take the good and leave the bad as much as possible. I'm cultivating the positive traditions that I want to create, like hosting a holiday party for friends. And, I'm making a special effort to focus on the present, and the positive, every day. 

Meet my appreciation journal. Each night, I write down 3 things to be thankful for that day. I've been doing this for a month so far, and almost immediately, I noticed myself reframing my thoughts of the whole day around the good things that happened. This practice grounds me in the present, and it makes me feel wildly fortunate and thankful, which is a total mood enhancer.

My journal.
Awareness of the present is the antidote to preoccupation with the past, and it can also cure melancholy. It works for both past-preferential and present-preferential nostalgics. Those terms sound real right? I invented them, but it's true. The cure for dwelling on how shitty everything used to be is realizing, well, it's not now! The cure for dwelling on how much more awesome everything used to be is realizing, well, lots of things are still awesome! It's hard not to feel more positive when you pause each night to think of the good things. 

A surprise benefit of writing daily appreciations is realizing that even some difficult moments have a silver lining, and thus can be reframed into good things. That's called cognitive restructuring (an actual term) and it will help you move past negative thoughts and experiences. It challenges the black-or-white, irrational thinking that leads to pessimism and the belief that negative experiences are likely to repeat. Recognizing the abundance of positive experiences we have every day tells us, instead, that positive experiences are likely to repeat. The result is a happier, more optimistic, more confident you. Appreciation journals for the win.

Thanksgiving might not be perfect this year. Not for those who can't afford a special meal, maybe not for you and your crazy family, and maybe not for me and mine. Addiction is a disease my dad has, and he's recently relapsed after a few solid years of sobriety. This turn in his life, and in our relationship, breaks my particularly vulnerable holiday heart. 

And although undeniably sad and stressful events like this one have often sucked me down the rabbit hole of similar holiday hurts -- all those unfulfilled expectations of how things ought to have been -- I now refuse to dwell on that. I recognize that doing so would draw my energy into a negative void. Instead, I choose to radiate joy and love toward the people in my life who, like me, are doing their best to live well and feel connected. This doesn't mean I forsake my dad: I hold a positive vision for his health and recovery.

Alongside any and all challenges, there is always someone or something to appreciate, and that's who and what deserves our attention most. Thank who there is to thank today, love who there is to love, and remember that one of those people is yourself. Happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

This is the thing that frustrates me most about life.

Here it is: the nature of life itself is just so damn needy. Do any states of being last? Anything worth having, loving, or feeling requires such continuous cultivation to maintain! You're never done 'til you're dead.

Let's say you've worked for weeks to create a new habit of daily exercise, better nutrition, daily meditation, or a more positive mental attitude. You begin to enjoy enormous benefits and results! You've got more energy; your body's feeling firm and flexible; your relationships are thriving; and most importantly, you're HAPPY. 

"How could I have lived any other way?" you ask yourself. The old you with those silly old problems seems like some kind of alien. You're convinced that, "this is me, from now on. I have arrived." 

Inevitably, obstacles and distractions creep into our positive practices, sometimes so subtly that you don't even notice until the damage is done. Riding a high of the arrival of health and happiness, you've mistakenly thought that you can work a little less hard and be a little less consistent. 

So it goes. What took days, weeks, or months to achieve takes half the time to let fall by the wayside. Suddenly, your pants are tighter. You've just snapped at your spouse. Last week, you were mesmerized by a beautiful sunset: your whole being buzzed with profound appreciation as you stood and screamed, "life is beautiful!!!" Who the hell was that? This week, you don't even notice the sunset because you're making a beeline for whiskey, french fries, and cigarettes. Instant gratification begins to take precedence; hard work goes bye bye.

Incredibly frustrating, don't you agree? There is, in fact, no such thing as arriving. There is, in fact, only continuous maintenance of how and who you want to be. It's a cycle of living well, riding the high, followed by a fall off the wagon, the return of suffering, and the need to start over and over again. 

Just noticing that you're feeling better as a result of positive behaviors ought to be accompanied by a little reminder that cultivation is the true cure! Wellness lies in the positive behavior itself, not in the outcome. We want to believe that our efforts are a one-time payment; we will receive something everlasting in return; we will be happy forever thereafter. But we've ridden the cycle full circle, and we've come to know that this is not the case. 

So, just keep pedaling. You will gain speed, you will gain altitude, oxygen will flood your blood and you'll feel fan-fucking-tastic! Then, from time to time, you'll hit a banana peel, or get distracted by something shiny. That's okay; it's frustrating but it's life. Mindfulness is noticing when your focus has wandered; it's the strengthening of your mind's capacity to bring you back to the calm, peaceful, loving self that enables you to behave in ways that benefit you and those around you. The more you practice this resiliency, the faster you'll notice that you've strayed, and as a result, you'll fall less far.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

News Flash! You are not your worst moments.

When that thing you said repeats in your mind like an overplayed song...

When a choice you made has affected the course of your life, and you wonder if your choice was right or wrong...

The urge to change something that happened long ago... to go back in time; rewrite your history...

Your most embarrassing, painful, or regrettable moments repeated again and again...

Few but Zen monks keep their minds completely focused on the present. Assuming you're not a Zen monk, repetitive thoughts affect you. Repetitive thinking can be positive when you're savoring past positive moments, or positively anticipating a moment in the future, but more commonly, repetitive thought is like a plague. It's the negative past moments, or the worrisome future moments, that intrude into our experience of the present.

By calling to mind past negative experiences, we relive them. Your thoughts are intangible, yet your body reacts the same way to things that are actually happening as it does to the memories that you are reliving. Think about a heated argument in the past, and your blood pressure rises in the present. Walk your mind through your most embarrassing moment, and your cheeks flush, your heart speeds, your breath comes out in a huff as you shake your head to will it away.

Repeatedly reliving past negative moments causes stress to accumulate in the body as if those experiences were actually happening over and over again. You age yourself when you live the past more than once. And whenever you relive a negative moment, you add to your stored consciousness of negative experiences. This increases your belief that those same negative experiences will repeat in the future, which leads to increased stress, anxiety, and even depression.

So, cut the shit. Here's a secret (that isn't really so secret): there's not a person on Earth who has never put their foot in their mouth, made a difficult decision that they sometimes question, or fallen up the stairs in front of the football team (metaphorically speaking). Life's not perfect, and you're not perfect. There's a reason why they say "shit happens."

Also, shit happens for a reason. Not only in the sense that everything happens to make you who you are and bring you to where you're going. Not being able to let go of a negative memory happens for a reason, too. Repetitive thinking is your mind calling upon you to face that past experience, head on. Acknowledge it, and accept it, and let it hit you full force. Ask yourself:
  • Why is this memory powerful enough to keep me mentally stuck on it? 
  • What did that experience signify to me? 
  • What can I learn from it? 
  • How can I behave, now, in order to fill my mind with new positive experiences?
When you mess up, it can feel like the whole world is watching, and judging. They're not. It's you who's watching most closely and judging most harshly.

When you mess up, it can feel like you just lost your last chance at happiness, or success. You didn't. Your life is so full of opportunities that you can't possibly entertain them all. To see even one or two of those opportunities, you have to be mentally and emotionally open and present. You can't see that your best moment is happening, or is just around the corner, if you're stuck thinking about your worst moment in the past.

The negative intrusive memories that plague you all have something in common: together they tell the story of your fear. You are reliving past events because you're afraid that event will recur, or you're afraid that event defines you.

"I can't be confident, because I am a person who has had this embarrassing moment." 
"I won't say the right thing because one time, I said something totally wrong."  
"I'm not good at that. Once, I failed at that so miserably that I'll never try it again."

Stop. You are not your worst moments. Replace those old scripts.

"I choose to be confident. Confidence invites a positive outcome."
"I choose to communicate, honestly and wholly. Communication connects me to those I care about."
"I'm thankful for what I learned from that experience. Now, I know more, and I can try again."

Past failure doesn't ensure future failure; only preoccupation with failure does. Each moment is a blank slate upon which you have the enormous opportunity to write your own history. Approach this moment with openness, a willingness to learn, a willingness to listen, apply, and try.

When a negative thought recurs in your mind, remember: reliving the past ages you. Why multiply your negative experiences? Painful things have happened, but they do not need to happen again and again in your mind. Breathe, experience the present, and engage with it as the person you want to be. The past does not define you; the present does.