Tweet, tweet

A couple of months ago, I decided to join the world of Twitter.  It’s become a way for me to share interesting or inspiring information with anyone who’d like to follow me.  I don’t use it for personal updates, and I welcome anyone to follow me who might enjoy reading the information I share in my tweets.  To visit my Twitter page and begin following me, go to: twitter.com/anneihnenma.

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The stories we tell ourselves

I’ll notice that I’m having an unpleasant feeling, and then I’ll see my mind pick a story to match that feeling. It’s as if it’s selecting a book from a shelf in my personal library.  What’s going on here?  Perhaps the story helps me believe this uncomfortable feeling isn’t my fault (after all, it was that rude driver who made me so angry!) or gives me a plan for making it go away (once I get this house cleaned up I can feel more relaxed). Maybe this story helps reinforce a sense of who I see myself to be (I am always calm under pressure; this stressed out feeling isn’t me!).

Whatever the reason, the stories actually make things worse, escalating the unpleasant feelings and increasing unhappiness.  The mind loves to cling to these stories and will play them over and over again, embellishing them and linking them to even more stories.  Pretty soon I’ve created a feature length movie in my head, starring me and my unhappiness! It doesn’t take too long to become completely miserable.

Storymaking is something we all do, and it’s human nature.  We have the marvelous ability to analyze and understand, to plan and create and predict, which serves us well in many contexts.  But when it comes to emotion, we really are better off letting the storymaking go. Over and over, my meditation teachers say, hold the stories lightly, let them go. It isn’t easy and takes lots of practice.   Sometimes I manage to loosen the vice grip I hold on these stories.  And the more I do this, the more at peace I feel.  The feelings, and the stories I attach to them, are freer to rise and pass away.

But don’t we need to know why we’re feeling what we’re feeling? Certainly it’s good to have insights about our experience.  Paradoxically, though, these insights don’t come through hanging on to memories of the past or beliefs about ourselves. Insight comes through returning to the present moment experience, over and over. Doing this helps us see things, and ourselves, more clearly.

We don’t need to push our stories away or try not to have such thoughts; this is a trap that that takes us away from our experience and blinds us to the truth of who we are.

Have the thought, appreciate it, and then let it go. Kind of a catchy mantra, don’t you think?

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Anxious times

With the election just days away and daily news reports of economic woes, many (if not most) of us are feeling concerned and perhaps even anxious about the state of the world.  We wait on pins and needles for the stock market to find its bottom and our country to choose the candidate we feel is best equipped to lead us out of this mess.  This waiting is difficult, to be sure. And it’s normal to feel fearful and anxious under circumstances such as these. But anxiety can take on a life of its own, throwing us into a state of high alert and making it difficult to get through our days.

The problem with anxiety isn’t anxiety itself, but our reaction to it.  We are naturally predisposed to react to anxiety by trying to make it go away; it doesn’t feel good, and we don’t like it. But in trying to make it stop, we only make it worse. We become anxious about being anxious, and the spiral begins.

Our minds have this amazing ability to plan, predict, and respond to threats.  We know how to take control and make things better, and it’s skills like these that make civilization possible!  But when it comes to anxiety, these skills can lead us to spin out of control.

How does this happen?  Our bodies are wired to run  from threats, from the tiger that wants to catch us and make us its dinner.  When we feel threatened, adrenaline is released, and this causes several things to happen: our heart rate increases, digestion shuts down, our thinking processes become more reactive and jittery (and less reasoned and introspective). Blood is diverted into our limbs so we can run and physically fight off whatever it is that’s attacking us. Fueled by adrenaline, the mind kicks into high gear, assessing the source of the threat, and predicting what’s going to happen if we don’t deal with it.  For example, Jane feels anxious about the economy. Her mind conjures up scenarios of losing her home, her job, her health.  She pictures poverty, sickness, and ruin.  These thoughts and images just increase her anxiety, and the cycle repeats, with the images becoming even more dire and more threatening.  Pretty soon she’s on the verge of a panic attack. Her instincts are telling her to run, but how can she run away from her own thoughts?  She wants to get rid of the thing that’s threatening her, but how can she do that when the threat is a scary future she’s created in her imagination? And, most importantly, how can she make reasoned choices about her finances or job or who to vote for when her mind is operating in fight-or-flight mode?

We may not be able to single-handedly get the election or the economy under control.  But we can respond more skillfully to whatever amount of fear or anxiety we’re experiencing, and in the process feel better as we wait for things to settle. And feeling better can help us find effective ways to respond to the what’s happening in the world.

There are a couple of strategies that can be helpful.  First of all, pay attention to experiences that are increasing your anxiety.  if the news is getting you all fired up, turn it off. With 24-hour news reports available on hundreds of cable channels and thousands of websites, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. Providing an already anxious mind with more data just adds fuel to the fire.  Take a break; the world will wait for you!

The second strategy that can be helpful is to use some simple mindfulness techniques to break the spiral of thoughts that increase our anxiety. Doing so helps us tolerate the experience of anxiety, which allows it to pass and helps us get back to a state in which we can make rational choices rather than operate under the sway of fear and a false sense of urgency.  It’s like being in the ocean when a big wave comes.  If you’ve been to the beach, you probably know that the way to deal with a big, scary wave is to dive under it and let it break over you.  By using mindfulness and dropping your attention into the body, you allow the wave of anxiety to break and move along. (For those of you who are unfamiliar with mindfulness, I’ve listed some basic instructions at the end of this post.)

Mindfulness practice won’t make the anxiety go away, but it can help prevent the anxiety from getting any worse than it already is, and in the process, help it dissipate. Mindfulness helps us tolerate the experience of anxiety so that we don’t exacerbate it by trying to push it away.

Please note: If your anxiety feels like more than you can handle or if you’re becoming unable to function in your daily life, then it’s time to seek help from a therapist, counselor, or medical professional. Mindfulness practice and self-care can help, but sometimes they aren’t enough.  If you need help, get it.

Basic Mindfulness Instructions

Start by placing your attention in the body. The breath is often used because it’s always there and it can be calming to focus on the breath.  Breathe naturally and notice what it feels like to breathe by paying attention to the sensations in the nostrils, chest, or belly.  If it isn’t calming and comfortable to focus on the breath, you can choose another object to focus on, such as the hands or feet, feeling them as if from the inside. You can close your eyes, if that feels comfortable.  But if closing your eyes increases your anxiety, keep them open and focus your attention on the floor or another object. If you’re feeling especially anxious, it can be soothing and calming to look out a window or up at the sky.

As you focus on your breath or other sensation, your mind will wander off.  That’s fine, that’s just what minds do.  When you notice that it’s wandered, just label it “thinking”  (say to yourself, “thinking”) and return to the breath or whatever object you’re focusing on. Continue to do this for a few minutes or even longer, anytime you notice your fear or other uncomfortable emotions arising. Remember, this isn’t about making your anxiety or discomfort go away, and it isn’t about emptying your mind of thoughts. It’s about finding some solid ground on which to stand as you wait for the anxiety to pass.

You can also schedule a “breath break”, taking 5 minutes out of your day to practice some mindfulness, or tie your mindfulness practice to an activity such as waiting for a meeting, at the beginning of your lunch break, or everytime you walk down the hall.

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Summer

Summer in Seattle, when it finally gets around to happening, is glorious. The days are long, the clouds have lifted (for the most part), and it’s difficult to stay indoors. I wake up with the sun shining through my window, to the sound of birds. In Seattle in the summer, the sky is a beautiful shade of blue. The lawns turn brown, but the evergreens glow in the summer sunlight.

All this is to say that right now, it’s difficult for me to think deep thoughts. Where did my brain go? It went outside. Like a big outbreath, my attention turns to the natural world, and this is as it should be, I think.

Our natural habitat isn’t this climate-controlled, carpeted world we live in. It’s the dirt and trees and sky. Being outside, especially on a warm summer day, can feel like a soothing balm. Attuning to the natural world, I feel a reassurance and resonance that I haven’t been able to find any other way.

I encourage you to go outside. Even if it’s just your backyard or local park, spend some time outside. Just sit there, if you can, or take a walk, and do this without a lot of conversation. Leave your iPod and cell phone at home. Look up at the sky. Let your body and mind align to the natural world, to your natural habitat. The time to turn inward will return, just as surely as the inbreath follows the outbreath.

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The Complete Idiot's Guide

I am pleased to announce the publication of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Mindfulness, a book I co-authored with Carolyn Flynn.

You don’t have to be a Buddhist to practice mindfulness or benefit from it, and you don’t have to have a regular meditation practice to start bringing mindfulness into your life. Although meditation practice cultivates mindfulness in a way nothing else can, even non-meditators can learn to pay attention to the present moment.

The book gives basic instructions for sitting and walking meditation, for lovingkindness (metta) practice, and for working with the breath in a mindful way. We also suggest ways to bring mindfulness into your daily life, no matter what you’re doing or what you’re feeling. It isn’t necessary to be calm and still and quiet to practice mindfulness. In fact, it’s during times of stress or busyness that mindfulness can benefit us the most, and can teach us some pretty interesting things about our minds and the way we make sense of our experience.

It is my hope that readers of this book find it a useful introduction to mindfulness, and that the suggestions it offers for bringing mindfulness into daily life are helpful and beneficial.

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On Retreat

Last month, I went on a silent meditation retreat. Going on retreat is a gift I give myself twice a year; it deepens my meditation practice and helps me access parts of myself that stay hidden in the activity and distraction of daily life.

Often, these inner explorations take me into difficult, uncomfortable territory and I spend my retreats sitting with anxiety, fear, loneliness and heartache. On retreat, this stuff becomes front and center, and there’s nowhere to go but inward. Old wounds come to the surface, and I re-experience them as if they’re happening all over again. It’s a painful experience, of course, but reconnecting with the pain and meeting it with acceptance and kindness is the balm these wounds need to heal. And in this process of healing, I connect with a deep, resonant joy and sweetness that can only be found by meeting myself with an open heart.

The first time I went on retreat, I wondered how it would be to not speak or make eye contact. I discovered that it’s a wonderful relief to set aside the choreography of daily social interaction. And while it’s true that on retreat I’m alone in my silence, I’m actually not alone because I’m sitting with other retreatants, people who are going through their own realms of suffering and joy. We have the guidance and wisdom of an experienced teacher, who not only gives daily talks and instruction, but is available to help when we feel stuck in our practice. In the safety of retreat community, I find fortitude and courage to face what’s within. And while it may not always be an enjoyable experience, it’s always worth the effort.

For an extensive list of retreat centers and other meditation resources, please visit the Insight Meditation Society’s resource page at www.dharma.org/ims/mr_links.html.

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Self-Talk

Thinking about the ways we talk to ourselves, I realize that there’s a potential trap with positive self-talk and affirmations. When we try to use these techniques to make our pain go away, we actually perpetuate it. But when we speak to ourselves from our hearts, with unconditional acceptance of our pain, then we can invite healing into the wounded places within our psyches.

The intention of self-talk and affirmations is to respond in a helpful, healing way to difficult emotional experiences such as fear or shame. Shame is an especially painful emotion; it’s a feeling of being flawed, broken, or not good enough. The world isn’t bad; it’s me who’s bad. We learn this stance as children in order to survive intolerable situations and trauma. (“If’ it’s my fault, there’s a possibility I can fix it.”)

Often, we use affirmations to make emotional pain go away, as if we are taking a sledgehammer to it. Attempting to destroy it, we debate with it, deny it, or try to prove it wrong. For example, responding to shaming messages by repeating a phrase such as “I am a good person” negates the messages our wounds are sending us. It’s as if we are responding to a child who’s been hurt by saying, “No, you’re not hurt, you’re fine. Stop crying.” By denying these shaming messages, we try to make them go away, but we’re actually shoving them deep down inside, below the level of awareness. We tell ourselves the pain and shame is gone, but it’s not. You can’t talk these things away.

In contrast, self-talk that arises from the heart has a different quality. This form of self-talk accepts our shame and wounds and brings them close to us, fully into our awareness, speaking to them from the kindest, most loving parts of ourselves. Like a parent comforting a child, we say to this pain, “I see that you’re hurting and I know that you’re scared. But you’re safe now, and I’m here for you. You did the best you could, and I love you, no matter what you do.” When we talk to ourselves this way, we aren’t demanding that the pain stop or go away. Instead, we offer it unconditional acceptance and love. This is a healing stance that integrates the psyche rather than breaking it into pieces.

On a silent meditation retreat a couple of years ago, my mind decided to sing the same song over and over to me for fifteen hours. It wasn’t even a whole song; it was the chorus of Joni Mitchell’s song, A Case of You (“I could drink a case of you…. and I would still be on my feet….”) I became so agitated by this that I couldn’t sit still, and in desperation decided to take a walk in the woods. As I set off for my walk, I was practically running down the road, and I suddenly realized that I was literally trying to run away from myself. And with this realization, my heart broke open and I understood that my mind wasn’t singing this song to annoy me, it was singing because it was terrified. So I said to my mind, “I see that you’re singing because you’re scared, and it’s okay that you’re scared. You just keep singing as long as you need to and I’ll be here for you.” At that point, the singing stopped. Completely. And I was filled with compassion for myself, and for all who feel afraid of the dark places within.

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Knowing each other

Thinking some more about this idea that the only thing we know for certain is what we’re experiencing in this moment, I think about what it means, then, to know another person.

There are people in my life I’ve known for a very long time, people who have characteristics that are consistent and that I’ve come to depend on. I know, for example, that the people in my household will most likely respond to me in a certain way when I walk through the door at the end of the day. This thought gives me great comfort and happiness, and I look forward to this homecoming ritual.

But if I cling too tightly to this ritual, it leaves little room for my loved ones to have a bad day or be somehow unavailable to me when I walk through the door. If they change the ritual, it can feel personal, as if they’re doing it to me.

Our fear of the people in our lives changing can lead us to stifle and suffocate them. We can get caught up in thoughts such as “If he goes back to school and broadens his horizons, will he still find me interesting?” or “If she goes into therapy, will she leave me to go find herself and hook up with somebody who’s more spiritual?”, or “I need you to laugh at my jokes so I can feel okay about myself”.

Therapist and author John Welwood (www.johnwelwood.com) writes eloquently about the paradox between meeting our own needs and being open to change in ourselves and in the other:

The Buddha likened meditative awareness to tuning a musical instrument—the strings must be neither too tight nor too loose. If we hold on too tight or let go too much, we lose our balance. This kind of balancing act is crucial in relationships. While it is important to respect our own needs (the earth principle), we must also be able to let go of being too identified with them (the heaven principle). While we must be able to meet another with engagement and commitment (form), we must also be able to let go of the relationship, drop all our agendas and ideas about it, and give the connection room to ebb and flow as it may (emptiness). And though we must loosen our boundaries to unite with another person, if we simply merge with the other, we may lose ourselves in the relationship—which usually spells disaster. Relationship is full of these contradictions.

Toward a Psychology of Awakening, pp. 242-243

When we meditate, we work on the relationship we have with ourselves and with our true nature. We cultivate the ability to stay present with whatever presents itself to us, no matter how upsetting or disturbing it may be. Meditation gives us a way to welcome these aspects of ourselves with compassion and wisdom and acceptance. We learn to hold both sides of the relationship paradox within ourselves – our need to feel we know ourselves and can count on our sense of who we are to nagivate in this world as well as our need to be open to discovering the unknown within ourselves, to seeing and experiencing what our heart is calling us to do. It’s a difficult dance, one we spend the remainder of our lives learning.

And as we learn this dance, it affects our relationships with the people in our lives. We can enjoy and appreciate all they have to offer us, and even come to depend on them in various ways. But we can learn to release the vice-grip we have on our sense of who they are, and instead hold it lightly, which opens us to fresher, newer ways of seeing and knowing them.

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Not Knowing

The only thing I can ever know for certain is what I’m experiencing in this very moment. (Notice that I said “what I’m experiencing”, not “what’s happening”.) What I experienced in the previous moment is memory, and memory is faulty. What I’ll experience in the next moment hasn’t happened yet, so while I can predict – sometimes with accuracy – what will happen, I can’t really know for sure until the moment arrives.

This awareness has some interesting implications. To really understand this truth, to get in our bones, can be terrifying. If we don’t know what’s going to happen next, and we can’t be sure we remember exactly what happened in the past, it can feel like we don’t have much to hold on to. It can bring us smack in the face with our fears and doubts and uncertainties.

But this awareness can also be liberating; it can free us of our need for things to be a certain way. Rather than resting our reassurance on predictions of the future or detailed analyses of our past, we can have faith in our ability to respond to whatever arises from moment to moment. We can allow ourselves to see more clearly the multiple possibilities available in each moment.

It isn’t that we shouldn’t plan or anticipate; this is in our nature and it’s useful to do so. Rather, it’s about holding these plans and anticipations lightly, reminding ourselves that we may make plans, but we really do not know what’s going to happen until it happens.

When I think about this, I think about skiing. When a skiier starts off down the slope, she has some idea of what it will be like, based on past experience and her awareness of the conditions. But she can’t know for certain what will happen on this run until it happens. She relies on her skills, training, and past experience, but she has to stay aware of what’s happening in the moment so that she can respond to it.

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Distraction

Distraction has gotten a bad reputation among people who want to live more fully in the present moment. By definition, a distraction is anything that takes us away from the moment; it’s seemingly the antithesis of mindfulness.

But distractions are useful and necessary for those times when what’s happening in the moment is too overwhelming. Psychologist John Briere (www.johnbriere.com) tells us that distraction and other avoidance strategies are part of our natural, inborn system for processing traumatic memories. We have to be able to step away from painful memories and overwhelming emotional experiences in order to keep them workable, and distraction works very well in this regard.

The problem with distraction isn’t distraction per se. Rather, it’s the way we go about it. Our need for distraction can be so strong that often we do it automatically and unconsciously. Think about the last time you found yourself distracted. Chances are, you were spaced out and unaware of what you were doing; perhaps you suddenly found yourself in the mall handing your credit card to a cashier, or in front of the TV watching something you’ve seen a dozen times before, or diving into a big bowl of ice cream, or doing something else that you knew you’d later regret.

So what to do? Is there a way to mindfully engage in distraction? I believe there is, that we can train ourselves to engage in distraction deliberately and with intention. The next time you catch yourself engaging in distraction, just notice what you’re doing. See it as a sign that you’re feeling anxious or overwhelmed, and name this to yourself. Allow yourself to go ahead and eat the ice cream or watch the rerun, but be honest with yourself about what you’re doing, staying as aware as possible while you do it. As much as you can, be kind and understanding, rather than judging yourself. Over time, you can begin to be more conscious of your need for distraction and you can choose to engage in it consciously, rather than on auto-pilot.

Obviously, there are things some of us use to distract ourselves that can be harmful, such as abuse of alcohol and drugs. Becoming conscious of the times we need to be distracted and the things we choose to distract ourselves with puts us in a position where we can make better, healthier choices about the ways we take a break from painful experience.

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