Mindfulness and Fear

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Ah, fear…my old friend. I mean, fear…my old nemesis. I mean…what?

Fear has been living with me for so long, it’s like a part of the family — that abrasive relative you never talk back to but who holds everyone in their grip. You might sidestep, placate, appease, even confront, but still, they never really back down. Sometimes they’re sweet and charming and you get lulled into a false security, then…wham! Knocked down once again.

If you’re like me, your fear masquerades in many disguises. It often takes the form of disinterest. For example, I’ve had many job opportunities where I’ve given a dynamic first interview and gotten close to a new challenge. Then somehow I’d decide I wasn’t so interested anymore. I’d give a weak second interview, and instead of being the one to make the decision, it was made for me, in the form of no offer. Of course I’d tell myself I didn’t really want it anyway, and maybe I really didn’t. Or, I’d imagine the job was really too hard for me and who knows, it might have been. It took a long time to learn that the important thing wasn’t whether or not I could have done it, but that I gave up my power, and usually way too soon.

Fear of failure is certainly common, but fear of success can be equally strong. Getting closer to experiencing your own power can be a scary thing if you’re used to keeping it in check. I see it happen all the time with yoga students who are making great progress in their physical practice and suddenly get sidelined by injury, or somehow their schedule changes and they can no longer make it to class. The first time it happened to me, I was attending classes consistently and practicing diligently. One day I was practicing a headstand at the wall and brought my legs straight down and held them in a half-staff position — this was something I thought I’d never be able to do and it was exhilarating. What happened next? I found reasons to stop going to class. Progress halted. Again, it took me a long time to understand what was actually going on.

Using mindfulness to deal with fear is both effective and challenging. It requires the patience to sit with the many different faces of fear until your awareness is keen enough to recognize each. There can be a process of decoding the language of your own relationship to fear. It often manifests as physical symptoms, hiding unconsciously in the body. Mine has been lodged in my lower back for years, a literal “holding back.” This is why it’s important to avoid aggressive yoga practice. You might be working with more than just a tight muscle, and the whole body-mind continuum needs to work together to release something deeper.

It takes fortitude to recognize, tolerate and accept the role fear has played in your life. Luckily, there’s courage. No one likes the idea of being afraid, but we love the idea of having courage — which, by definition, includes feeling our fear, so it’s a winning concept. Lately, I’ve been feeling fear directly in my gut, where I believe it’s supposed to be. I’m pleased about this shift. I’m not always sure what I’m afraid of but at least I know what I’m dealing with, which makes it a lot easier to decide what to do.

Eventually, we’ve got to tell our fear to move out. Sure, it can visit — sometimes we actually need it to let us know what real danger is all about. But when we determine that there’s no real threat, or that the threat is in the past, it’s time to show fear the door. Then it’s more like a distant relative you’re glad you got to know, but you’re relieved it’s gone back home. Next time, maybe it can just phone.

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Mindfulness and Healing

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When we cut ourselves deeply, we cover the wound with a bandage to protect it and let it heal. It can be painful for quite a while. Eventually, we need to uncover the wound and expose it to the air in order for it to heal fully. We might develop some scar tissue, which serves to remind us of the injury and its cause. We might hate our scars, and try to cover them up. We might feel quite neutral towards them. We might even wear them as a badge of honor.

The psychic healing process has some parallels, but is generally a little more complex. Depending on the severity of our wounds and the environment we’re in, we may choose — often unconsciously — not to expose them at all, but instead to cover them up in a variety of ways. Like scar tissue, a whole new identity might grow over them. We might even forget who we were and what we felt like before we were wounded. How we relate to our wounds becomes the basis of our life experience.

As the child of a trauma survivor, my journey has had a particular complexity. In our house, the trauma was never discussed. It wasn’t even known to me consciously until right after my mother’s death, when, while taking a long walk outside during the shiva week, my father revealed it to my brother and me abruptly, suddenly, like the gasp of air that comes when you’ve been underwater too long and finally break the surface.

My mother never dealt with her trauma; instead, she left a legacy of mental and emotional knots for me to inherit and unravel. This long and winding road has shaped me, informing my choices and governing my growth. It’s had everything to do with why I learned from an early age to hide and compartmentalize the different aspects of my life, so much so that it took years to fully realize the extent to which I did this and the impact that it had, and even more years to pull the pieces back together.

More than anything else, the practices of Yoga, meditation and mindfulness have been the most profound for me in penetrating the layers of identity and exposing these psychic wounds. In mindfulness we say that the important thing is not whether or not we experience difficult emotions, but rather how we relate to them. In my case, there’s been a lot of stop and go. Fully experiencing the pain was, many times, too threatening, and I’d back away from the edge. At the same time, tasting the freedom that lay just beyond was enticing, but evoked an equal threat. It’s been a frustrating and often paralyzing dynamic.

While we may like the idea of healing, it’s important to understand that it is a painful process. However if we turn away from it, our patterns simply repeat themselves.
I’ve watched myself, time and time again, sabotage opportunities, ruin relationships and thwart my own success. Many times I punished myself for this, which was like kicking my own legs out from under me just when I was trying to stand back up. I’ve harbored shame, guilt, and a haunting sense of unworthiness. It’s taken a good deal of self-compassion to face this fully, accept myself and truly let go of the past.

Listening to the pain takes patience, and learning to respect how much we can tolerate at any given time. As we do in our practice, we need to keep returning our attention to the present and relate to our energy in a new way. By letting the waves of anger, sadness, regret and loss move up and out of us, we make more space for calmness and joy. Experiencing that fully serves to build our faith; with more faith, we develop the strength to keep going. It makes me think of what happens in weight training — as the stress makes the muscles develop microscopic tears, it is scar tissue that heals them and rebuilds them even stronger than before. Instead of choosing to hide in shame, all of us who are healing would do well to think of ourselves as weight lifters, Olympic-style, going for the gold.

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Got Till It’s Gone

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Sometimes a popular song offers more than just a catchy tune — it can also hold a nugget of wisdom that has universal appeal. When Joni Mitchell sang, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you got till it’s gone,” she hit on something that mindfulness practice uncovers.

Recently I lost my voice to laryngitis after a longer-than-usual cold that threw me for a loop. After two weeks of intense symptoms I finally resolved to call the doctor. However after waking from a night of particularly intense hacking, I found I was unable to speak. This had never happened before and my initial reaction was intense fear. When I realized I wouldn’t be able to make myself heard or understood on the phone, the edges of panic moved closer. Since I live alone, the feeling was magnified. I quickly got to work texting and emailing friends and neighbors, creating a support network that helped me cope. One friend called the doctor for me; another called my client and explained to her that I’d have to cancel. I used texting throughout the day to stay in touch with people, and thankfully I have enough supportive people in my life that I didn’t feel completely alone.

So what does this have to do with mindfulness practice? Mindfulness is being aware (and non-judgmental) of what is happening in the present and facing it fully. It also creates some space around our habitual patterns so that we don’t necessarily get trapped by our automatic reactions. As soon as that happens, it begins to get interesting. When we‘re able to face things fully, we find we have choices.

The objective reality of having laryngitis was that I couldn’t speak — or rather, couldn’t speak above a garbled whisper. The choices then became myriad. There was fear, but how should I deal with it? Freeze? Or find those alternative means of communication and support? I could opt to become depressed over this sudden limitation (I couldn’t work for a while, which meant I would lose income, which bummed me out), or I could accept a situation I just couldn’t control. I could worry about how long this was going to last (and a little online research showed that it might last as long as a week), or I could think about things I could do that didn’t rely on speaking. Social events were out of the picture — even dinner with a friend (who didn’t worry about my possible contagion) wouldn’t work. But I could read, I could write, I could watch t.v. (okay, it doesn’t take a case of laryngitis to make me do that). I could also choose to pay attention to what it was like to not speak (even to myself, which I’ll admit I do frequently), and realize how lucky I am that normally, I can order my sandwich directly at the deli and not have to pass it to the counterman on a slip of paper. In other words, I could appreciate what I’d had now that it was gone.

At a talk I attended recently, the wonderful Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh said that we don’t appreciate how good our head usually feels until we have a headache. Once the headache is gone, we are suddenly refreshed by the absence of the pain. We could argue that it’s human nature to take so much of our lives for granted, but meditation practice reminds us that we can also choose to cultivate awareness and gratitude for things, and for people. How often do we hear of people losing loved ones without ever having told them how they truly felt, or resolving longstanding issues between them? Ironically, I had chosen this particular week not to speak to my boyfriend over a communication mishap (we have a lot of those). It also commemorated 25 years since my mother passed away — and trust me, there was a world of unspokenness between us.

It isn’t always easy to look at ourselves and see clearly what we’re doing and not doing. The great power of mindfulness is in the choices that awareness brings us. We can choose to recognize and appreciate the good, even miraculous elements that are present in every day, as well as fully experience our pains and sorrows. After all, one of life’s fundamental truths is that everything is impermanent, so we can be sure that no matter what we’ve got, one day it’s going to be gone.

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On Anger

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Yeah, I went there.

As I sit down to write this, I realize this could be a multi-installation post, as there are many facets to this topic. The first that comes to mind is my gripe with referring to anger — along with fear, sadness and the like — as a “negative” emotion. While a particular emotion might feel unpleasant, uncomfortable, difficult, turbulent or otherwise challenging, classifying it as negative implies — in my view — that it is unwanted, something to be gotten rid of or avoided, and replaced with another that is more “spiritually desirable” — probably joy, contentment or calm.

This is fruitless on a couple of levels.

First of all, anger exists. If mindfulness is about being present with what exists in the moment without judgment, then we need to accept the reality of anger. Approaching it with the attitude that we need to get rid of it or avoid it sets up a subtle (or not so subtle) resistance, a barrier that prevents us from knowing it intimately, and learning what it has to show us. This brings me to the second level.

I believe that anger, like all emotions, indicates that something is meaningful to us; otherwise it wouldn’t be getting our attention. Figuring out what that something is — hurtful or unjust behavior? an abuse of power? an insult to our ego? — and how to deal with it really becomes the meat of our work. Do we react or do we respond? If we react, we might fight (physically or verbally), throw a chair, fire an employee — there’s no end to the creative outlets we can find to discharge the energy. However, while reactivity may result in a decreased charge (often temporarily), we are still left with the challenge of understanding what our anger is really showing us, and why we got so hooked in the first place.

This can be extraordinarily difficult.

For example, I am generally a very calm, grounded person. I often think before I speak and I’m not particularly impulsive. Recently, as I was coming off a very crowded subway car, I was careful to hold my bag high above a baby in a stroller in front of me and step around it, to avoid knocking into either baby or stroller. Regardless of my taking extra care, the young mother chose to push me away from the stroller as I walked by. I was shocked by the intensity of my reaction — as I stepped onto the platform, I was so angry that I was literally blinded for a few seconds, unable to see a thing. I never experienced that before and it was extremely unsettling.

Once I was off the train my vision cleared, and I was quickly consumed by stories, assumptions and judgments about the young woman and her seemingly unnecessary behavior. Whether or not any of them were true, she was already far away and I was left with the residual charge. I breathed, and realized I had a choice. I could replay the incident over and over in my mind, fanning the flames and increasing the likelihood that some other random person or event would soon set me off again, or I could make a conscious effort to shift my attention and let go. I was able to choose the latter, and once the charge was gone, to reflect and understand what nerve had really been struck in that situation. It was also a good opportunity to also realize how easy it might have been to yell, or hit back — behavior I often see and frequently judge in other people.

Anger, perhaps more than any other emotion, tends to generate strong reactivity. It is associated with the fire element, and fire can be impossible to tolerate. How long can you keep your hand over an open flame? Fleeing fire is an involuntary reaction. In sitting practice we cultivate non-reactivity by noticing the actual quality of the feeling while it is present — that heat, that wrenching of the gut, that blurred vision — but keep returning to the neutral anchor of the breath. As we practice, we also notice that the charge in itself often dissipates quickly, but it is the endless string of story lines we create around a situation that continually keeps our fires stoked. I think that’s the place where we have to get really curious.

I believe we need our anger. After all, no social justice movement was ever engaged without the fuel of anger behind it. The widespread public outrage over the murder of Trayvon Martin clearly indicates there is something in our collective consciousness requiring attention — be it the ongoing reality of racism, the state of gun laws, the criminal justice process or more. We don’t need to argue that our anger is justified. It is.

However, could our first step be to feel that raw, fiery, explosive energy, and just stay? And if we stay and the energy transforms (as fire does), what else might we find? Maybe pure, unadulterated sorrow and grief over the loss of a young and vibrant life? Seething frustration over not knowing or understanding the thoughts and feelings leading up to the event? Paralyzing helplessness over a justice system we don’t understand or control?

I think we might find all of this and more, including the realization that life is so uncertain and fragile that acknowledging this truth can practically make you breathless — and that is a feeling very few of us want to face head-on. But if we mustered up the courage to do it — to face it, feel it, and ask it “WHAT?” — I wonder what kind of change might be possible.

All from anger.

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On Obsession

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I’ve been thinking lately about obsession.

Reflecting on a bad breakup (are there any good breakups?) where the stream of thoughts went something like this: How could he just end it like that? How could he say all those things and still act like that? It doesn’t make sense. I can’t believe it. But I have to believe it. Still, it makes no sense. You know what, I don’t want to think about this anymore, it’s just making me unhappy. I’m not going to think about it. I think I’ll do some practice instead — let me get my mat out. Yes, that’s better. I’m glad I’m not thinking about it anymore. It just hurts to think about it. I still can’t believe it though. I just think it could have gone so differently. It doesn’t make any sense. If only he would have — no, I said I’m not thinking about it anymore. It’s over, it’s done. I’m moving on. Yes. There’s a training I want to go to, let me register for that. That will be productive. Yes, focus on something productive, something positive. That will feel much better. It’s already much better. Still…I just don’t see how he could do that. It makes no sense. Why did it have to happen like that? I don’t deserve this. If only he would have…if only I could have…if only…if only…if only…” And so on.

A situation like this is an enormous opportunity to explore the concept of suffering, which, in Buddhist terms, is defined as maintaining our attachment to things that are destined to change. And since everything is fundamentally impermanent, that means everything! For me, it was a process of being able to look rationally at the situation, see what was good, what was bad, acknowledge that many (most) relationships don’t work out the way you hope they will, feel the disappointment, the hurt, the anger and the grief. All good, right? At the same time, however, it was a process of repeating entire streams of thought, fantasies and story lines over and over, which only reinforced the pain. Meditation practice was an invaluable help, with its training in shifting our attention away from our thoughts and feelings, bringing it back to the neutrality of the breath, and noticing how this affects our experience. It showed me how I can be emotionally devastated one minute, but then, when caught up in another activity — like teaching a class or researching something on the Internet — feel completely fine. Truly illustrative of how our thoughts can create our experiences, and an indicator of the empowerment potential in understanding how our minds work and creating change.

What I find most interesting, though, is why we obsess in the first place. We know we can’t change the past. Do we really want to experience more pain? The best answer I have at this point reminds of me of an old song by Carly Simon: “Suffering was the only thing made me feel I was alive…” Obsessive thinking keeps the pain fresh, giving us a feeling of aliveness. And even if something or someone is not physically present in our lives, obsessing about them can give us the illusion that they are, maintaining our feeling of connection — but our connection is actually to the suffering! The attachment can be so important that while we may take temporary pain relievers of every type — pills, alcohol, food, sex, shopping, you name it — or find new relationships that repeat the same old patterns, we never really go in for the root.

If you think about a painful situation you’ve experienced where you too kept replaying those tapes in your mind and making yourself miserable, can you identify with that process making you feel alive in some way? Or making you feel like you could hold onto something? Is it possible to realize that fundamental impermanence and let the waves of our pain, our grief, even our joy and love come and go like the tides? If we can understand this, together, then maybe we can learn to live our way into the other part of the song: “Now I haven’t got time for the pain, I haven’t got room for the pain, I haven’t the need for the pain.” Amen.

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