How Mindful Focus Can Help Free Your Mind From Painful or Repeating Thoughts

How often do you feel plagued by a thought? Or you feel pushed around by an idea or image, as if it were a phantom bully, disrupting your concentration or making a moment of life, of school or work, more difficult? You begin to look more at the ghost that trails you than the people or events that face you. Especially in times like this, it can be difficult to find comfort and clarity.

 

One way to get free from an obsessive, painful or distracting thought is to center your mind on feeling a sensation. In this way you break the apparent chain of thought. Every time you stop reinforcing an old and hurtful habit and calm your mind, even for a second, you set your mind free and show yourself you can do it. Your mind stops rushing. You give yourself a moment’s respite and allow a new pattern to be created. Find a place safe and quiet enough so you can stop what you’re doing and close your eyes. You can be sitting or standing. And focus your attention on the air passing over your upper lip as you breathe out. Simply feel the air going out. Mind has only one object at a time. If you focus on feeling, you let go of thinking.

 

You can feel the temperature of the air as it passes over the upper lip, or whether the exhalation is smooth and deep, or choppy and shallow.

 

Then notice how your body automatically strives to open itself and take in air once again. Notice where you first feel the impulse to inhale and whether the impulse comes quickly or slowly. Then feel the air passing over your upper lip as you breathe in. Feel your whole body expanding, your belly, shoulders, and face as you return attention to the air entering through the nose.

 

Notice the pause between breaths. You get quiet. For a second, you are simply there. For a sweet second of life, all that is important is the simple enjoyment of life.

 

And then you want to let go of the air, and let go of tension. You settle into the sensation of letting go as you push the air out. If a thought does arise, congratulate yourself on being able to notice it. And then let it go by shifting your focus to the air passing out, over the upper lip as you exhale. Usually, what is most important is not what arises but how you respond. You become aware of the thought precisely in order to learn from it and let it go.

 

Breathe in and out through the nose. This is the cycle of a breath. When you are aware of it, you appreciate the simple, basic aspects of living. You are kinder to yourself.

 

If you are leading a group or class, first study and practice, daily, on your own, to know it from the “inside,” and possibly find a mindfulness teacher or counselor. You might give students a choice of where to focus, on the upper lip, on the shoulders, or on the bottom of your feet—focus wherever it is easier to focus. Focusing on the feet can be helpful for facing anxiety and fear as it helps you feel more grounded, or centered. You breathe out and feel your feet pressing down against the floor or earth as you push the air up, from your feet and out your nose. You focus directly on the breath and let everything else go. Then as you breathe in, feel the air enter your body and go all the way down to your feet. Feel your body expand slightly—your feet expand down, into the floor or earth.

 

Do this for three breaths, or three minutes, whenever you need it, or at a set time of day. Just a small investment of time can be significant. Start small and your body will ask for more.

 

You might feel that if you’re not rushed, you’re not important. In our society, it is easy to think the busier you look, the more important you feel. Being constantly connected to social media, for example, means people value you. The ping of the cell phone is an affirmation. So, especially for young people who grow up with digital media, being disconnected from technology or from busy-ness can mean to them they are less valuable or they are missing something. If you don’t fill each moment with tasks or texts or thoughts, you are wasting your time. But being connected to media often means being disconnected from yourself. You miss yourself. When you quiet your mind, you hear the world more fully and clearly.

 

Focusing on feeling is only one of many methods you can use. You can teach yourself to mindfully face uncomfortable emotions and question thoughts. If you turn away from feeling fear, for example, you let it rule. Usually, when you face something directly, you can break its hold on you. When you face what bothers you, you feel more powerful. Distraction is another technique many people use, reading a book, working out at a gym, or taking a walk in the woods when you want to “get out of your head” and back into the rest of the world.

 

To let go of a thought, it might also help to understand why you have thoughts. So study yourself. Thoughts are an expression of mind testing and abstracting from reality to create a viewpoint. The initial level of any mental state is what psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Siegel calls an “orienting response.” Brain and body systems become alerted and energized and you begin to feel. Then you get “elaborative appraisal” which involves activating memory, directing energy, and creating meaning. You feel bad, good, or neutral. You explain the world to yourself and you get the desire to hold, as in the emotion of joy or love, or push away, as in distaste or hate.

 

You might hold on to a thought in order to control what you feel can’t be controlled. You might worry about something occurring in order to magically prevent its occurrence. You might think your viewpoint is the absolute truth in order to prevent yourself from noticing how contingent and subjective a truth is. You might hold on to a thought out of fear of having nothing to hold on to.

 

When your mind quiets, you are more likely to directly notice the feeling that precedes thought. You can notice an idea without being caught by it. When you mistake the thought about an event or person as the entire story, you miss so much. When you focus on feeling, it shifts your perspective so you perceive and live more deeply the entire reality out of which the thought arises. You feel more centered and enjoy more fully the individual moments of your life. When the mind is calm, you act, teach, and learn more effectively.

Breaking Free

I am pissed, along with, I hope, millions of others. Pissed and afraid of the policies and actions of Mr. T, his administration, and his Congressional followers who share his viewpoint or are afraid to oppose him.

 

One example of a policy that sows fear is this Senate (and House) tax bill. This bill is an outrage. If you don’t know much about it, not only was it rushed through without holding hearings or including Democrats in the design of the bill, but it is a direct assault on the lives of most of us. On the surface, it lowers taxes on many in the middle class. However, it eliminates deductions and credits (like for college education) important to the middle class. The CBO says it will lead to a large increase in the cost of medical insurance (it will cut the individual mandate portion of the ACA). It will increase the national debt (by over $1 trillion) due to large tax cuts to the rich and corporations, leading to across-the-board federal spending cuts, including cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. Such cuts in Medicare coverage could lead to a loss of coverage for expensive treatments, like for cancer patients. Cuts in Medicaid will lead to cuts in care for children and the disabled, etc. The overall result will be an increase in the cost of living for most of us.

 

And consider that the debt might lead to an inability of the government to pay for infrastructure maintenance and improvement, or to adequately fund the agencies needed to prepare for and respond to the increasing destruction caused by extreme weather events triggered by Global Warming.

 

Bills like this sow fear. They sow a fear for our children. They sow a fear for our public education system, cutting sources of funding for public schools while providing publicly funded incentives to send children to private schools. They sow a fear that the remnants of justice left in the legal system will be eliminated if this administration continues as it has. They sow fear for our voting rights and the ability of common citizens to influence policies.

 

And imagine the implications of giving the wealthy, who already have too much money and power, even more money to spend on influencing elections. The wealth gap in the US has been growing for years, especially since Reagan. According to Wikipedia, the top 1% now own more income than the bottom 90%. This bill will further the inequity.

 

Few Americans agree with this bill, too many don’t know enough about it, yet Republicans continue to work it. Most have shown little care for the citizens they are sworn to serve, little care for anyone other than themselves and their wealthy donors.

 

A few nights ago, Lawrence O’Donnell interviewed a psychiatrist named Dr. Lance Dodes, who talked about the President probably being close to psychosis or mental illness, when he’s under stress. One (of many) piece(s) of evidence for this viewpoint was Mr. T’s recent claims that it wasn’t his voice that appeared in the Access Hollywood video, even though he, in the past, admitted saying what the video records him saying.

 

We are all being influenced by his behavior and state of mind. We see how easily he feels threatened or under attack. He acts like someone who tells himself we are in a state of “war of all against all,” where only the rich are valuable, and the rest are powerless pawns. I don’t know how to end the suffering of Mr. T, but I know that anyone who supports him is supporting his delusion. I know that political, social and personal action is needed to end the suffering he is imposing on the rest of us.

 

Fear, like all emotion, is constructed out of a story we tell ourselves, and the feelings and sensations we experience. To let go of fear, we have to learn from and then let go of the story and the way of thinking about reality that supports that fear. People who say “We have already lost our democracy” or “There is nothing we can do,” or “All politicians are equally bad” is to make Mr. T’s story our own. It is to give up and make ourselves powerless. As long as we can object, call politicians, give money to causes, take to the streets, and vote, we have at least some elements of a democracy. The more we act, the more we feel we can act.

 

We also have to allow ourselves to face uncomfortable emotions and sensations. If we turn away from feeling fear, we let it rule. Of course, there are times to step back from feelings. But usually, if we become aware of them, and we break emotions down to individual sensations, of a particular quality and in a particular location, and breathe into that area of the body, then the sensations we feel become merely sensations. A huge ball of emotion becomes something to study. Fear then changes to openness and our actions originate in our understanding, not our fear. Fear becomes a source of energy for learning more about a situation; we feel more powerful and are more powerful.

 

What is happening to our country is so unjust, so destructive, ignorant, and greedy, it is unbelievable. We have to call it what it is, face it and do what we can to change it, or we will end up supporting it.

 

This week, Congress will try to reconcile and vote on a final tax bill. The GOP will try, once again, to rush it through. Everyone, please do whatever you can. It was the energetic citizen response to the Senate Health Care bill that stopped it. Call Congresspeople, write, protest. Call repeatedly, to show them we are here, and we hear and understand what they are doing.

 

***

Suggestions to Call:

Congresspeople:

Charlie Dent

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen

Darrell Issa –Barbara Comstock-

Any of the New York, New Jersey, California representatives might oppose the tax plan (except for Reed (202) 225 3161 and Katko, I think)

Claudia Tenney-(NY) 202 225-3665

 

Senators:

Susan Collins – (202) 224-2523

John McCain – (202) 224-2235

Ron Johnson – (202) 224-5323

Shelley Moore Capito – (202) 224-6472
Jeff Flake – (202) 224-4521
Cory Gardner – (202) 224-5941
Rob Portman – (202) 224-3353

Bob Corker – (202) 224-3344

Lisa Murkowski – (202) 224-6665

Let Love Live

I’m sure you, too, are amazed at scenes like this: You’re watching your child at play, or a puppy running around the yard. Or you’re walking in the woods and see a kit (baby fox) or a butterfly.

 

Or—I am sitting in bed, a magazine on my lap. My wife is next to me, doing a puzzle. In between us, near our feet, are two cats, sleeping. I look at them, at all of us, and feel awe. Ok, the cats are simply sleeping, my wife, puzzling. But there is such trust on that bed. These beings want to be here, with me, with each other. They care. Or we care.

 

One of the cats, Milo, starts twitching, as if dreaming. He wraps his front paws around and over his head, as if to hide. I lean over and touch his back, and the shaking stops. He relaxes, releases his head and turns over, showing me his belly. There is such vulnerability there, delicacy. I give myself to you, and you give it back, enhanced.

 

I am reading an article in the September issue of Lion’s Roar: Buddhist Wisdom For Our Time. It is a wonderful conversation between two Buddhist meditators and educators, Sharon Salzberg and Bell Hooks, about “The Power of Real Love.” Sharon talks of growing up thinking that love is something given by others, but she now realizes it is an ability, a capacity, maybe even a responsibility we have in ourselves. Bell Hooks talks of love as residing in our actions, not just in our feelings. But in this day, in this political climate, where fear and hate are so frequently in the news—How do we love? How do we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and care when the forces of domination seem to surround us?

 

Actions taken out of love can be the most difficult and painful in our lives—and the most liberating. There is more power in the touch of love than can be conceived and dreamed in fear and hate. Fear can be a message to wake up and observe more closely or to turn away. But it is built on opposition, and is unstable. It lasts only as long as we maintain a threat or an enemy, and a wall. Those outside the wall are rejected; those inside the wall are suspect. Such fear needs our compliance with it in order to succeed.

 

And this is our choice each day. You, me, all of us still have this choice. Will we touch and be touched by what is happening to those who share the earth with us? Will we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and learn what is going on, to care and to act? Will we allow love to live in us, or will we cover our heads and hearts with fear?

 

**And thank you to Bell Hooks and Sharon Salzberg (and Lion’s Roar) for the conversation and teachings.

Joy

Joy—What is it? Such a short and simple word. Sit quietly for a moment and let a moment of joy come to you. Maybe it will be a memory from the past. Maybe just a touch of the emotion itself will fill your heart. What do you feel? A sense of lightness, bubbling, or overflowing? A weight lifted from your chest? A release of something deep down, a sense of letting go or coming alive? An opening? You might feel you’ve discovered a secret and want to share it. Your hands might want to rise up, your body want to dance, your face smile, as if you were embracing the world, and your self.

 

I remember such moments. I remember receiving an email from my agent that my book was going to be published. I could barely believe it. Excitement and ordinariness both arose in me. Here was an email—I had received thousands of emails before, but none like this one. It was as if I had been hoping for this moment for my entire life. As if all prior emails had this one buried within them as a possibility. Likewise, when good friends or family came to visit. Or snow days, or at least when I first heard the announcement of a snow day. A burden was lifted. Or something feared was ended.

 

Joy can be what pushes back against fear. All emotion has this dynamic quality to it. No emotion is just one emotion. When one emotion surfaces, others arise on the borders. Love can carry fear as well as joy. Why is there fear with joy and love? Because love is allowing yourself to be vulnerable. Part of the ecstasy of love is the affirmation and sense of strength that comes from believing in yourself enough to know you can do this, you can feel this, even though pain might result from it.

 

When afraid, what do you do? Fear is a turning away from a threat or the possibility of pain, of hurt. It can be running away from others, from life, or a walling off, a way of hiding. It is the flight-freeze response. When afraid, you want safety and control. One way you gain a sense of safety is by rigidly controlling the moments of your life. You bind up time by filling moments with the simple and familiar, so nothing unknown and unfamiliar can occur. Fear is of the unknown or what might happen to the known.

 

You can do the same with your mind, filling it with thoughts and worries. Worries can seem like little magical mental devices you use to ward off what you worry about or fear. You deep down think “if I worry enough, what I worry about won’t occur.” You fill your mind with thoughts you’ve had hundreds of times before, to ward off the possibly dangerous and unknown with the safe and known, or with what you have already lived through. You use these worries and thoughts even though they might not be fun, because you’re focused on safety first, not joy.

 

The problem is you can go too far and create what you want to avoid. In order to maintain a wall, you have to create a sense of there being dangers outside the wall that must be avoided. You want to live. But by walling yourself off, you might wall away excitement, friendships, a sense of being fully alive. When you rigidly control the moments of your life, you don’t actually feel safe. You feel rigid. Rigid is another way to say fragile and fearful.

 

You have to let the light in in order to see what you have or could have. You have to take some chances in order to know you are capable of doing so. You have to embrace life, as much as you can at the time, and even when it’s difficult, in order to feel embraced. You can’t totally wall away the sense of vulnerability, because within it lies hidden not only life, but love and joy.

Those Who Lie to Create Fear vs Those Who Face Even Death to Reveal the Lie.

As the inauguration nears, or as any feared event draws near, what do you do? If you’re a teacher and your students are anxious and fearful, maybe it’s due to a test or a presentation, or a difficult situation in the world, what do you do? Do you go on, and basically ignore the situation, or do you acknowledge and face it? How do you face it? How do you allow yourself to notice and understand what hurts and oppresses you so you can take action to end it?

 

Take a moment. Too often people rush through life and miss the simple things, simple pleasures. Without knowing yourself and the feeling, emotion, the anticipation in your body and mind, all that you do can be compromised. So, begin with the simplest thing. Close your eyes and put attention on your breath. Simply breathe. Breathe in. Breathe out. You do it every second of every day. It can be your lifeline, your awakening. Breathe in and be aware of breathing in. Breathe out and be aware of breathing out. Breathe in and notice what you do. Notice the sensations of taking in air, taking in the world. Breathe out and notice letting go, pushing out, settling down, focusing. It’s ok to take a moment for yourself. 

 

Notice any place of discomfort as you breathe in. Just notice its feel and placement. And breathe out and move on. Notice any thoughts or images that arise. Simply notice with your in-breath, and let go with the out-breath.

 

As you breathe in, allow to come to mind a time that you helped another person, or stood up for a principle, stood up for what was right. What images come to mind when you think of helping others or helping one other person? Have you ever witnessed one person helping another, or imagined doing so yourself? What happened or what did you imagine? It doesn’t have to be dramatic, like in the movies. It can be something simple, like sticking up for someone or speaking out—or putting yourself at some risk.

 

If you imagined someone else taking action, what do you think this person felt afterwards? Or if you saw yourself doing such an act, what did it feel like for you to do this? Imagine the feeling, when you’re home, safe, knowing you could do what you did. Would you do it again? Was it the right thing to do? Sit for a moment with the feeling of knowing you could imagine and take action to help others or do the right thing.

 

All through history people have been helping others, facing adversity, taking risks. Study history. You are not alone. This struggle needs to be awakened, refought and refined, improving it, strengthening your self, as it is needed. When have your parents helped others or faced fearsome events? When have you? When were people in the past as afraid for the future as many people are now? When were people of this nation afraid of the government or people in the government?

 

Think of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his version of the Witch-Trials. He “rose suddenly to national fame in February, 1950 when he asserted in a speech that he had a list of ‘members of the Communist Party and members of a spy ring’ who were employed in the State Department.” It was a lie. He stoked the fears of communist takeover during the Cold War and went after writers and actors as well as people in the government and gay men and others, accusing them of disloyalty or being communist sympathizers or committing sex crimes, when for most the only crime they committed was being different from or opposing him. He destroyed the lives of many good people all to fuel his own selfish desire for power. Many times in history, the fear of an external threat was distorted into a fear of our own neighbors, all to fuel the hunger for power by a few.

 

McCarthy was eventually censured by the Senate and the lies of the man who was once popular and feared were revealed. He died a despised man. That can happen again. When did people in the US and other nations fight such oppressive leaders or fight to change the government or social institutions? Think of the Women’s Suffrage movement, for example, or the anti-slavery or Civil Rights movement. Think of people who faced even death to do what was right and awaken the “conscience of a nation,” Martin Luther King Jr., for example.

 

We are here, now, in a new moment. I hope we all learn from history the importance and power of facing fear and injustice.

 

When you’re anxious and afraid, you can feel brittle. You can hold onto the fear as if it was your identity and fear letting it go. But it is fear itself that is brittle. Fear serves a purpose. It is telling you to wake up. Beyond that, it no longer serves you. It is telling you to beware and turn away from some person or event, but it is too easy to interpret it as telling you to turn away from this moment that you feel it. As little children, we learned to turn away from many uncomfortable feelings. But when you notice and simply study it; notice “I know that biting sensation in my stomach, that trembling in my knees.” And you take a deep breath anyway and move on. The fear dissolves. You think more clearly. Your life takes on more meaning. You come back to this very moment, this very breath, now. That’s a powerful place to be.

 

 

 

Grief and Fear Can Motivate Clarity and Action

Like practically everyone I know, I am in shock. I feel afraid. I feel, like commonly happens with grief, that I could have done more. To me, the very roots of society have been shaken.

 

Society is built out of social bonds. Of course, fear can be a bond, but only a tenuous one. When the bond is built on opposition, built on hating, it is very unstable. It lasts only as long as you can maintain an enemy and must be constantly re-created. So not only those outside the wall are rejected, inside the wall is always suspect. Since this President-elect used blatant hate and fear to win office, there is great weakness in his administration and also great danger.

 

When the heart burns with fear and grief, the mind must awaken. It just must. When the earth itself feels like it will break open and weep, stop. Breathe as calmly as possible. What you hear is not the earth speaking. It is the world of your heart in that moment. The earth has a different message, if you can see, hear and feel it. When you feel fear, it could be telling you to turn away. Or it could mean sharpen your observation, get ready to act. That is the message here.

 

Because society is also built from mental bonds, how you interpret your own messages to yourself, your ideas, your stories, your ways of responding to what others do, as well as what you feel, must be studied and understood. On Facebook this morning there were so many people saying we must come together, share hugs, strategize; feel and think together. This is real. This I say yes to. I think we must find ways for such a yes.

 

Maybe I was too complacent. Maybe I held back. All that matters now is that I, we, use such energy to think more deeply, to feel others more deeply, feel our mutual need, and act with clarity, caring and commitment. That is the only way I can think of to face the fear engendered by this election.

 

Thank you for listening.

When You’re Feeling Stressed, Anxious, and Out of Time

Almost every school year as a teacher, usually in the beginning of May, I would begin to realize the year was almost over. What once seemed like a tremendous length of time now was almost gone. Earlier in the year, I had to think carefully about what to do for each class. Now, there was too much to do and not enough time to do it all. The once lengthy year was over too quickly.

 

If you feel the same, this is a wonderful time to practice mindfulness, with yourself and your students. The calmer you are and the clearer your thinking, the more you can do. Students are feeling every bit as strapped for time, stressed, maybe anxious, as you. It is so easy to get lost in worries. Worry, stress, anxiety are forms of feeling threatened. The end of the year can give all the thoughts and concerns that you didn’t deal with over the year the stimulus they need to burst into the open and be revived.

 

What might you do? Besides being very clear with students about what is due when, and helping them figure out how long different assignments might take to complete, talk about stress levels and anxiety. Talk about planning and how taking action is one way to lessen anxiety. Talk about being aware of the story you tell yourself about yourself and your capabilities, as well as of how you think about and plan for the future.

 

Start by questioning and being open to the stories you tell yourself. It is not just the end of year deadlines that cause the stress but how you think about the situation. You knew for months about most of the work you now need to accomplish. The end of the year brings up the end of anything, or everything. You feel judgment day is almost upon you and the power of judgment is in someone else’s hands, not your own. You feel threatened or you feel the image you have of yourself is threatened.

 

The feeling of being judged is increased when you feel so stressed for time that you don’t want to think about it. The awareness of feeling threatened can be uncomfortable, can itself seem like a threat, and so your response might be to want to turn it off, to hide behind drugs or speeding thoughts or social media. But to turn off awareness you reinforce the stress. You might feel that to let go of thoughts about the future or let go of the anxiety, you would crumble and nothing would get done. If you can’t handle your own sensations of stress, you might feel you can’t handle your schoolwork.

 

You feel not only less capable but more constricted and so no longer do the things that normally allow you to let go of tension. You feel anxious because you have lost touch with your own depth and want it back. You have narrowed your sense of who you are to who you fear you are, or to how you fear others might see you.

 

But take a moment to breathe in and think about this. You can only feel bad about an image of yourself because you know there is something more. To know an image is not right you must have a notion of what is right. Without a deep sense that there is so much more to you, you couldn’t recognize how this feared image is a diminished one.  

 

So instead of believing judgmental thoughts, question them. Teachers, remind students, and students, remind yourselves, of your own depths. To counter feeling time poor, slow down. Give yourself a few moments each day to close your eyes and breathe calmly, or look at something beautiful, or exercise with intensity. By giving yourself time, you feel you have more time to give; you feel more in control. In September, the year feels so long it might seem too difficult to commit yourself to meditate each morning and appreciate each moment. But for only a few weeks or a few days or a few moments, certainly you can handle it. One moment at a time. The nearness of the end can make each moment feel more precious.

 

Fear is the emotion that tells you to turn away. Instead, try curiosity. Try openness. Ask yourself: Is it easier to do intellectual work when you fear it —or when you are intrigued, open, or engaged? How can you assess your own work if you aren’t aware of your own feelings? So, instead of turning away in fear, embrace your work as much as possible with curiosity. Take your own stress as something to learn from and study. Studying your own mind and body can be difficult and complex, but it is the most rewarding course you will ever take. It is a course that lasts your whole life. When you take time to notice what is going on and be present, the world feels more open to you, spacious, limitless, and you feel limitless.

 

Practice noticing stressful sensations as soon as they arise. Where do you feel stress? Anxiety? What does it feel like? Close your eyes partly or fully and take a breath in; then let the breath out. When you inhale, notice if you feel tension in your body and breathe into the tense area. Then breathe out and feel your body relaxing, letting go of the breath, letting go of tension. Noticing the stressful sensations as soon as they arise and switching your attention from the story you tell yourself about stress to your physical act of breathing, can interrupt the stress response and interrupt fear. You feel your life is more your own. You feel more capable and alive.