The year 2018 passed in a blur, and to be honest, I'm glad it's over. I had many awesome experiences. And I was "sufficiently challenged", as my friend Evy likes to put it. This is not necessarily a bad thing. We grow from challenges and become clearer about what we want and what we don't want. Then all we need is focus and mindfulness to move forward. The much-cited Law of Attraction is rather simple: whatever you focus your attention on will get bigger in your experience. Happy or sad, pleasant or unpleasant, wanted or unwanted, the thoughts in your mind attract more of the same. So as we begin another journey around the sun with new -- or repeated -- resolutions, how do we focus our energy on what we desire, rather than on the things that make life unpleasant?
We are genetically predisposed to our mind's negativity bias. For the evolution of our species it was beneficial to remember foremost the painful, damaging experiences. As a caveman, once you got burned by fire, you did not forget the experience. You were more careful around fire and avoided more physical damage. This is why we remember negative experiences better than the good stuff.
However, if cavemen avoided fire altogether after being burned, they would have frozen to death in a Northern winter. So while one part of the mind rings the alarm at the sight of fire, another says: "This is good, nice and warm." Both aspects are right. Both deserve attention, and optimally they modify each other to create safe, prudent behavior. In an extremely oversimplified nutshell, this is mindfulness: paying non-judgmental attention to the different, often contradictory parts of your being. On the basis of such awareness and acceptance you can learn to navigate life with your personal inner GPS.
In her brilliant book "Loving What Is", Byron Katie asks four questions regarding any thought that causes distress:
1. Is it true?
2. Can I know with absolute certainty that this is true?
3. How do I feel when I think this thought?
4. Who would I be in this moment without this thought?
"How do I feel when I think this thought?" is really important if I want to attract more positive experiences in my life. In many situations I am not able to immediately change the external circumstances. But if I don't like how I feel under these circumstances, I can examine the story I am telling myself about the situation and determine if I get some satisfaction from my story. Am I the victim? Do I benefit from feeling like a victim? If it makes me more angry, what is the benefit?
Short bursts of anger are energizing, invigorating. They call us to action and help us survive dangerous situations. Anger is a necessary progression when we claw our way out of depression. Anger may arise as a signal that someone has crossed my boundaries. In that case, feeling my anger and acting appropriately helps me to reaffirm boundaries for my safety and comfort. That is satisfying and beneficial. However, if I am still angry about a transgression of my boundaries 5 hours or 50 years after the fact, the anger serves only this purpose: to raise my blood pressure and make life unpleasant. Why would I do that? Habit. I have repeated an angry thought pattern so many times, it has formed an 8 lane freeway in my brain. Once I've headed up the on-ramp, I am cruising.
In my childhood, people frequently transgressed my boundaries, and I was helpless to do anything about it. Expressing my anger had very unpleasant consequences, so I did not repeat the expression more than a few times. Therefore, anger did not lead to the satisfying resolution of reestablished boundaries, and it remained stuffed away, building and growing, attracting more of the same. Eventually my anger turned against me, because it had nowhere else to go. This caused dis-ease, and I got sick. I know I am not the only one with such an experience.
With a habit of thinking angry thoughts, it is very easy to find things to be angry about. The world is full of injustice, atrocities and sheer stupidity to get upset over. People LIKE being upset over such things. The Evening News proves that. TV stations need to sell ads, and bad news attracts more viewers than happy news. If our focus is on things that make us angry, the world will deliver plenty of justifications to be angry. That is the Law of Attraction.
However, it works the other way around, as well. When we come to the conclusion that we would like to feel better, physically and emotionally, we can turn off the TV and look around our neighborhood for evidence of goodness. There is plenty of evidence in our daily lives that kindness exists, and that it is natural to the human condition. Find kindness in yourself, and you will find it reflected in your environment. When I walk through town looking into people's eyes with a smile and the intention to lift someone's spirit, I am met with smiles in return. Not by everyone. Some people are just too caught up in their struggles with life, and they don't notice me smiling at them. That's okay. Smiling makes ME happier. It puts a bounce in MY step. And then good things can happen.
When I am feeling joyful and expanded, I am in greater alignment with the Goodness of Life, and it will present itself as delightful synchronicities. I end up in the right place at the right time. I meet a person with the solution to my problem just when I need it. I have an inspired thought and act on it, causing a cascade of beneficial effects for everyone involved. The right words come to me at the right moment. I need a little extra cash, and someone tips me for my services. I am in the zone and things are flowing.
How do I get into the zone when I am not? When I am on my mental freeway of anger, resentment or depression, how do I find an exit ramp? Fast, busy traffic may carry me miles down the road, and it takes a lot of backtracking to get to where I really want to go, which is to feel good. It is much easier to recognize the on-ramp to my anger freeway as I am approaching it and not take it, but that takes mindful practice. Sometimes I succeed, often I don't.
Intentional distraction from my familiar thought patterns provides a diversion for me. I turn my mind to something totally unrelated that makes me feel better. Playing sudoku or a card game on my phone. Intensely listening to good music. Reading a good book or watching a movie. Taking a bath and being aware of my bodily sensations. Recalling things I find most pleasing, like memories of beautiful places I have been to, people and activities I really like. I hug trees and play with my dog or snuggle with the cat. I go for a ride. I meditate. Focus on my work. Do something nice for someone else. I go through my practice of gratitude. We all have much to be grateful for, starting with a roof over our heads, food on the table, and the ability to get out of bed most mornings. I can be grateful for my toothbrush and indoor plumbing. For the elevator in my office building when my hip is aching. For not getting hurt myself when I drove into a deer on Christmas eve.
Finding a silver lining in the clouds makes them dissipate. Above the clouds, the sun or stars are always shining. The essence of my being is the sky, not the weather. This too shall pass. All manifestations are impermanent. My soul always experiences contrast; what else is an eternal creator being supposed to do? There is nothing wrong with where I am at in this moment. I am simply having an experience. All these thoughts and mantras are exit ramps for me. Find or make up your own. Affirmations only work when they actually ring true to you.
If I can hold a positive feeling in my mind for just a minute or so, and if I can intentionally relax the muscles of my face, neck and shoulders and take a few deep breaths, I have found an exit ramp. Getting into the zone usually takes a little longer. Practice is good. It actually does not make perfect, because there is no such thing as "perfect" in a world that is constantly evolving. We are always in the process of becoming something else, new and different. Do your best to relax into that thought, and smile. At the end of an upper level CranioSacral Therapy class a student said to me with astonishment:
"You know, it feels GOOD to feel good!"
In 2019, give yourself permission to embrace feeling GOOD as a mindfulness practice even for just a few minutes per day. Over time you will pave a new freeway of positive thought habits, which will take you to the zone quickly and easily. May the New Year bring you many genuine smiles!