Two audio hugs for your sweet self.
Two audio hugs for your sweet self.
Humans needed to survive in harsh conditions since our earliest cave dwelling days. As a result, our brains got very good at sensing danger. If we had a traumatic event, or even a close call, we had to learn from one experience to avoid those situations and any that looked like them in the future. A great survival skill, not so great for living anxiety free day to day.
To counteract that natural predisposition and create new neural pathways of joy, try the following:
Take 10 slow breaths whenever you are happy. Contentment also counts as happiness, at least, according to the Buddha. Following his example, you don’t have to wait until you are completely blissed-out, everyday little joys are ripe for reinforcement.
When you eat that first strawberry of the season, laugh out loud while reading a great book, notice the birds singing, watch children play, hear your favorite song, try something new and are surprised at how much you like it, get kissed or touched by a loved one, figure something out that eluded you, find yourself happy for no reason, or anything else that floats your boat, STOP and take 10 slow breaths while focusing on your happy feelings. You might even see if you can notice where in your body you sense them and breath into those spaces. For the fullest positive effect cultivate a feeling of gratitude.
Our brains really are wired to remember dangerous, bad, or threatening situations. That ship has sailed, it’s simply how we’re designed. Since neurons that fire together wire together, you can create new neural pathways through this practice. Not only will you feel better in the process, your amped up joy will strengthen your resistance to stress.
If you want a more physically oriented practice that helps you access good feelings when you are feeling depleted or down, try this yogic Breath of Joy:
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang
“Pain is not punishment, pleasure is not a reward. Both are just natural occurrences. Kindness, kindness, kindness.”
Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche to a bride and groom at their wedding.
Sometimes, life can feel like a whirlpool and you are being dragged into the vortex of hell. Hell can be dissonance in a relationship, financial or physical woes, or lack of purpose. Intense anxiety comes from thinking you can’t handle it and catastrophizing about how much worse things will get.
At those moments, the last thing you want is to delve deeper, or even allow the downward spiraling energy to carry you along, but that is exactly where freedom and relief lie. For what is at the end of any plunge but solid ground?
Allowing yourself to surrender to the inevitable, whether it be the dissolution of a relationship, facing an illness, dealing with debt, or acknowledging a sense of purposelessness, all have the capacity to jolt you into a new way of being with yourself and the world.
Unfortunately, the natural tendency is to fight tooth and nail to avoid an emotionally chaotic landslide. But fighting reality only creates more pain, anxiety, depression, anger, guilt, and feelings of worthlessness.
Instinctively, humans are designed to avoid what is fearful. Since cave dwelling times that helped us survive and evolve. Yet, even thousands of years ago, the Buddha realized running from reality (unless it was from a hungry tiger) only deepened fear. While the Buddha was not privy to current research on neurobiology, he was ahead of his time. We now know neurons that fire together wire together. Whatever you habitually do gets stronger until it becomes almost automatic. Thus, anxiety begets more anxiety until it can feel like living in a roiling sea of dread.
At first glance, it may seem that running away from what scares you, whether through an addiction or with other, less harmful, distractions keeps the demons at bay, but avoidance only makes your fears grow until you can no longer deny them. The greatest kindness you can show yourself is letting go into the free fall of life knowing you will land on solid ground. The terra firma of your own center.
While it may go against your grain to face your fears, this habit develops courage, perseverence, and self-discipline, the very trio that help you navigate life more easily.
One way to strengthen your ability to sit with reality is to start small.
First, give yourself a cosmic permission slip to feel whatever is true for you now.
Notice when you are disappointed. It could be your plans were cancelled, you sprained your ankle, or the grocery store was out of your favorite treat. Watch your reactions. Which parts of your body have tensed up? What are you thinking? Are you angry? Do you suddenly feel defeated? Are you projecting a bleak future?
Write them all down. Starting with your body, describe your physical feelings as best as you can. Then, breathe into the spaces that feel tight and see how they change. Next, look at your thoughts. Are they helpful? Are they true? What would you prefer to think? Finally, go inside and feel your feelings. Where did they come from? The two most likely places are your thoughts and your past experiences. What happened in your childhood when your desires were thwarted? Remind yourself, you are no longer that little child. You have amassed a slew of coping mechanisms, new ways of thinking, and behavioral interventions (like talking a walk, breath work, listening to music, having tea, calling a friend, etc.), any of which can be retrieved when you feel out of kilter.
Do you have a history of trauma? If so, even the slightest current challenge can trigger a cascade of negative bodily reactions and unwelcome emotions. For example, someone canceling a plan because they are ill can bring you back to other times when you felt abandoned. This is an unconscious process that can flood your system with a variety of sensations, thoughts, and feelings. The good news is accepting what is true for you now and gently moving towards it shows you you can handle more than you thought. That said, if you were abused it is important to get some help. You do not need to navigate those turbulent waters alone.
If you don’t already keep a journal, please get one and write in it. Many mind-body practitioners, including Dr. John Sarno and Dr. David Hanscom, attest to the value of journaling for treating a variety of psychogenic and auto-immune issues. A key ingredient here is to write out all your thoughts and feelings, no self-censorship. Psychologically, writing down whatever you are thinking and feeling cleanses it from your cranium.
University of Texas at Austin psychologist and researcher James Pennebaker contends that regular journaling strengthens immune cells, called T-lymphocytes. Other research indicates that journaling decreases the symptoms of asthma and rheumatoid arthritis. Pennebaker believes writing about stressful events helps you come to terms with them, thus reducing their impact on your physical health.
The act of writing accesses your rational, analytical left brain. This frees your right brain to create, intuit, and feel.
Writing also helps you:
Clarify your thoughts and feelings.
Gain self-knowledge; especially regarding people and situations that feel unhelpful, or even toxic, to you.
Release the emotional intensity from feeling angry, grief-stricken, or overwhelmed.
Become more mindful and present.
Because writing uses both sides of the brain it is an excellent way to solve problems and figure out creative ways to deal with difficult people. You might even find your perspective shifting as you write.
Keeping a journal allows you to track patterns and growth over time. One of the greatest benefits is how your own notes remind you of all you have already handled in your life. When current circumstances appear insurmountable, you can look back on previous challenges and see how you coped.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang
Merriam-Webster’s definition of boredom: The state of being weary and restless through lack of interest.
“One receives as reward for much ennui, despondency, boredom–such as a solitude without friends, books, duties, passions must bring with it–those quarter-hours of profoundest contemplation within oneself and nature. He who completely entrenches himself against boredom also entrenches himself against himself: he will never get to drink the strongest refreshing draught from his own innermost fountain.”
When was the last time you were bored? Were you really bored, or was that what you called your dissatisfied state? Can life be boring? Especially in this day and age, with internet access to knowledge about everything on earth: all music, movies, TV shows, art, university lectures, language programs, social networking, and video games. Is it possible to be bored? I don’t think so.
The next time you think you are bored, ask yourself if that is actually your state of mind, or are you feeling something else? I believe boredom is a code word for when we feel anxious, angry, worthless, lonely, depressed, or grief-stricken, and we don’t want to acknowledge those feelings. Saying you are bored is a subtler way of repressing unwanted thoughts and feelings.
As Nietzsche said, eschew boredom and you miss an amazing opportunity to connect with your innermost self. Boredom is not the enemy to be shunned at all costs, despite our society’s manic agenda to fill every minute with content of one sort or another. It can be a conduit to self-knowledge. Yes, I know it’s not fun to get in touch with unpleasant or disturbing feelings. However, if you avoid them they accrue and wreck havoc in all sorts of unconscious ways, like physical ailments, suddenly lashing out at people, nightmares, addictions, lack of motivation, depression, etc.
On the other hand, you can tap into feeling bored as a doorway into your deepest emotions. For example, notice when you typically get bored.
Are you alone?
With certain people?
Engaged in specific types of activities?
Perhaps, it’s simply a matter of declaring your independence and assertively taking more time to do what you want, rather than pleasing family and friends. Maybe you feel dissatisfied with the same job or hobby and want a change. If neither of those is true, it might be you just feel something unpleasant and call it boredom. If you think that could be what’s going on, sit down, and ask yourself:
What am I really feeling? If nothing immediately comes up, be patient and ask yourself again.
If that still elicits nothing, ask yourself:
What is going on in my life now?
Your primary relationships and work are good places to start. How do you feel when you are with your family, friends, co-workers? Are you fully engaged? Are you daydreaming about other options? Has something radically changed in your life that you might be reacting to with numbness? A death, illness, divorce, empty nest, job loss, etc? Numbness is part of the fight-flight-freeze reaction our sympathetic nervous system triggers when we feel threatened or extremely stressed. Numbness can feel a lot like boredom, and vice-versa.
As you unearth some feelings just sit with them. Notice where they are in your body and describe those physical feelings with words. Be curious and take the time to describe your sensations as accurately as possible. This can be difficult at first, and requires some patience. (Are you sensing some tension in your back? Tingling in your hands? Heat or cold anywhere? Heaviness in your limbs? Tightness in your shoulders or neck?) Describing the actual physical feelings you are experiencing can have a very grounding effect. Once you get in touch with those physical sensations, write down whatever thoughts and emotions accompany them. It’s great to keep a journal for this.
If you think your boredom is born of a sense of meaninglessness, ask yourself what you find meaningful. Are you living in accordance with your values? If you haven’t read it yet, read Viktor Frankl’s book: “Man’s Search For Meaning.”
Don’t feel like plumbing your depths in those ways? Try mindfulness. Pay attention to whatever is going on right now internally, externally, or both. Just embrace whatever comes up, accepting it with as much grace and equanimity as possible. No self-rating allowed, especially no self-criticism.
Experiment with switching your activity every hour. If you can’t do that, try every 90 minutes. You will be far more productive and energized.
Conversely, continuous activity, though it is socially sanctioned and appealing in its addictiveness, is not the answer as it simply masks the real issues and leaves you depleted with a lowered immune system.
Last but not least, if you do find yourself regularly feeling bored resist the urge to put yourself down for it, as that only compounds the felony and will make you feel lower than a snake’s wiggle. Accept that this is one of your coping mechanisms and a way to externalize your internal issues. It’s OK. There’s no right way to live, just your way, and that is evolving every minute. If you are not ready to psychologically depth dive, at least allow yourself the luxury of being where you are. It’s a beautiful gift, and always available if you give yourself a cosmic permission slip.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang
There must be something in the human brain that makes it enjoy playing with different, often opposite, ideas simultaneously. Ambivalence is incredibly helpful when we are brainstorming or problem-solving, less so when assessing the value of relationships. Fortunately, this natural proclivity to complicating our lives is beneficial. Unfortunately, it can also be time consuming and draining.
When it comes to relationships, if you have a history of abandonment in childhood (not only obvious neglect or abuse, but emotional unavailability, or over-controlling parents) you might feel predisposed to staying in a relationship that no longer works for you; or, embark on one unlikely to satisfy your emotional desires. (I know some might call those needs, but I subscribe to the idea you have only a handful of true needs and the rest of your longings are actually desires. Why? Because by calling wishes needs you ratchet up how crucial something is to you. If you think you desire something and you don’t get it you are disappointed. If you think you need something and don’t get it you can feel devastated.)
Looking back on your childhood, if you regularly experienced any form of abandonment, you are most likely seeking what you didn’t get from your parents: consistency, reliability, and attention. It can be difficult to see over-controlling parents as abandoning, but they are. Their invalidating behavior implied you were not able to make decisions for yourself, thereby leading you to believe you needed them for everything and couldn’t cope. This is just as damaging as neglect in that both sets of parenting behaviors create a sense of insecurity and anxiety.
In addition, over-controlling parents are often co-dependent and live their lives vicariously through their child. This puts enormous pressure on the child, as all children are born with the desire to please as a way of insuring their health and safety. If this type of parenting is successful for the needy parent, the child ends up either achieving what the parent pushes, or rebelling against it. Either way, as an adult, that person is often unaware of what he or she really wants. This encourages ambivalence and difficulty making decisions.
Since no relationship is perfect, it is natural to have moments when you question why you are with someone and other times when they seem like the sun, moon, and stars. Those are normal fluctuations of intimacy, the waxing and waning of interest in any long-term relationship. Natural ups and downs are nothing to be concerned about, as everyone has them. However, if the legacy of your childhood has you continually swinging from one extreme to the other, you might want to pay attention.
If you had controlling parents it is easy to see how you might equate controlling behaviors with love and care. Yet, another part of you, a more independent part, could crave autonomy. That part might easily rebel against anyone’s attempts to mold or control you. In general, while people do like a bit of nurturing from their partners, they do not want so much that it seems oppressive or stifling. If you grew up in a home with over-controlling parents you might feel as if your approach towards adult love relationships teeters from one end of the spectrum (loving the attention) to the other (resisting anything that even remotely looks like control). Naturally, this back and forth can feel like ambivalence. If you experience that in your relationship you may want to seek out a qualified therapist, as childhood issues are difficult to work out on one’s own.
To make things even more complicated, if you grew up with controlling parents you may have lived with anxiety about not pleasing them, or feeling as if they would not love you should you not follow their plans. This also makes adult relationships challenging, as you can be extremely sensitive to the slightest hint of a loved one’s rejection or disappointment. Once again, playing to your audience and not being true to your own wishes and desires.
Everyone has issues and triggers, and there’s some co-dependency in almost all relationships. The only time to be concerned is if they are getting in the way of your goals, whether at work, with your health, finances, social or love life.
What looks like ambivalence may really be fueled by deep-seated fears of abandonment. The ego loves to feel as if it’s running the show and can be very sneaky in its methods. It also likes black and white answers. For instance, it may seem as if you are choosing to end a relationship when, in fact, the ego just wants you to feel as if you are in the driver’s seat. You leave before someone someone might leave you. Yet another reason why it is so important to examine your history in relationships and your current motivation to stay or go.
Ambivalence is pretty easy to assess; but, how do you know if you have abandonment issues?
Reflect back on your childhood:
Were you cared for in predictable, loving ways?
Were your physical needs attended to in a timely manner?
Were your ways of being, your thoughts and feelings, respected and valued?
Were you heard?
Were you seen?
Did you feel as if your parents reliably had your back?
Were you encouraged to pursue your interests?
Were your successes celebrated?
Did you feel loved, cherished?
Of course, not even the best parents are always loving, aware of their child’s needs and desires, and attentive. It is what happened to you and what you felt most of the time that is important, as that is what shapes your view of others. Your childhood experiences with people, whether are they are trustworthy, for example, has direct bearing on what kinds of adult relationships your will forge.
Luckily, none of this is set in stone. With therapy it is possible to overcome many of the influences of the past. Internal Family Systems therapy, Object Relations Therapy, psychodynamic psychotherapy, Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy, yoga, meditation, yoga nidra, and may of the body oriented therapies can all be extremely helpful in creating the relationship with yourself you wish you had had with your parents. As you find within what you have been seeking outside yourself you become more and more capable of the true depth and intimacy you seek in relationships. It may be enough to create it with yourself. For many who have felt abandoned as children, it feels quite nourishing to connect to people platonically and/or romantically. To others, it feels most soothing and fulfilling to seek union with a higher power. Whatever your path, it takes great courage to explore your inner landscape and commit to personal evolution and self-compassion.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang
If we will be quiet and ready enough, we shall find compensation in every disappointment.
Henry David Thoreau
Many years ago, people expected to be disappointed with their leaders, bodies, relationships, and circumstances. Life was brutish and short. In the second half of the 20th century, when Americans were riding a post-war high, this view radically shifted. Since then, we have been bathed in advertising that blatantly says, “Buy this and you will be perennially happy.” It used to be cigarettes, booze, and cars. Now, it’s more likely to be the latest technological breakthrough. Regardless, the essential message is the same: You can attain joy 24/7. Clearly, that sets everyone up for one disappointment after another. In addition, we humans are really good at disappointing each other in personal relationships. But that is not the problem. The problem lies in our unrealistic idea that disappointments are awful, we can’t stand them, and we shouldn’t have to deal with them.
On the most prosaic level, your Netflix streaming videos will not always stream, and your iPod can freeze. Those are just minor, annoying inconveniences, and most people take them in their stride. You know things break down; but, it’s an entirely different situation when you are disappointed with yourself, your mate, child, sibling, or parent.
To make matters even more challenging, Pema Chodron, the Buddhist nun and author, has said: “It’s amazing how often disappointment hardens into anger.”
And, here’s the cherry on top: If you are dealing with abandonment issues you will likely frame each disappointment as just another abandonment or rejection. (See chapter: People Are Who They Are.)
The good news is by working skillfully you can head many of these disappointments off at the pass. How? By managing your expectations, and creating an inner sanctuary. (See chapters on Self-Soothing, Fall in Love With Yourself, Self-Compassion, It’s OK Sweetheart, Overcoming Abandonment Issues.)
Here are a few techniques to help you break away from some unhelpful, possibly habitual, patterns that just create more unhappiness and anger around disappointment.
* Ask yourself: “Is this about me? Did this person deliberately plan to hurt or reject me? If so, you may want to rethink that relationship, or the context in which the behavior occurred. You might feel differently about it if it happened during a fight, or just out of the blue. If it really had nothing to do with you, you can more easily detach. All humans have traits, and not all traits are lovable. Once you know it’s not about you, you can say something to yourself like: “I know s/he’s often sarcastic and I don’t like it, but that’s just how s/he is.” Then, you get to assess the situation without the added distraction of thinking it’s about you, because it isn’t.
* What are my expectations of myself? My family? My friends? Am I demanding or expecting more than is reasonable? This can be a sticky wicket, as many people think: “Well, I expect a lot from myself and thereby expect a ton from others.” That is exactly the kind of thinking that can create long-term disappointment that might harden into anger. Why not look lovingly at everything you do expect from yourself and see if you can’t lessen your internal pressure by being kinder and gentler. Miraculously, that also helps you develop more compassion and patience with other people’s issues.
* What thought habits have I cultivated that make me react so deeply to disappointment? Am I telling myself it’s awful or I can’t stand it? Do I think that person is horrible and should be punished? What if I challenged those thoughts? How awful is it, really? I know it’s unpleasant, and even very disturbing, but must I make it worse by thinking I can’t stand it?
* What if I started to think of each of my expectations of myself and others as little straight-jackets? They really do limit the range of behaviors I deem acceptable, hereby limiting my growth and the potential for growth in my relationships. What if disappointments actually foster my development? Each one certainly makes me sit up and take notice. They clearly provide opportunities for me to flex my emotional muscles, to let go of preconceived notions of how people and things have to be for me to be content, to love others as they are, and to accept myself with all my own idiosyncrasies. Of course, there is a limit to your tolerance for accepting people who perennially disappoint you. That calls for a re-evaluation of the relationship.
* Am I often disappointed in people? If so, perhaps I am habitually setting up unrealistic expectations, which could easily lead to anger. Is this also true of my relationship with myself? Am I a perfectionist, demanding such high standards and behaviors that no one, not even I, can meet them? If so, you might want to shift them.
* An insidious thing can sometimes happen when addressing these inner demands. You can begin to think, “Why bother, everyone will disappointment me. I’m better off not counting on anyone.” This only leads to feeling more isolated, depressed, and anxious. It may seem like a Herculean task to shift your expectations based on reality, yet it will end up creating better relationships with yourself and others.
* How can I reassure the little child inside me that most of the time people are not doing what they do to purposely hurt me? By taking the very best care of you, on every level: physical (sleeping enough, eating a healthy diet, exercising, getting fresh air, dealing with addictions), social (making time for friends and family), self-actualization (developing your skills and talents, expressing your creativity), financial (creating the best relationship you can have with money, planning for the future), spiritual (meditation, mantra work, possibly a religious organization, 12-Step group, yoga), and relationships (dealing with unhelpful patterns of behavior).
* Last but not least, choose to believe that everything, including all those pesky disappointments (especially, the huge ones), is happening for your highest good. How could that possibly be? Because it all helps you evolve, adjust, adapt, and, ultimately, set more realistic expectations for yourself and others. Then, when people still disappoint you you won’t be surprised or blame them. Remember, their behavior is not about you.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang
What would happen if you never took out the garbage? Pretty soon, it would become intolerable. Yet it’s all too easy to let the inner detritus of negative thoughts and feelings accrue, building on each other until they create a malodorous mess. Actively cleansing your mind of unnecessary and unhelpful old material can give you a new lease on life and create cranium space for alternate ways of thinking and processing experiences.
Just the way too much clutter actually inhibits the flow of chi (energy) in your home, mental clutter can block the acquisition of new information. In yoga we often talk about the Monkey Mind. The mind’s tendency to jump around like a a little frenzied monkey. One of the major goals of a yoga practice is to quiet the mind and fully inhabit the moment. The more detritus in your brain, the more there is to soothe.
Paradoxically, one sure-fire way to create a more cluttered cranium is to obsess about how awful it is to have unwanted thoughts. There’s nothing horrible about it, it’s simply the way the mind works, taking in all sorts of material whether relevant or irrelevant.
You can start this emotional house cleaning by grabbing a piece of paper. Using the following categories as a starting point, ask yourself if you are harboring any:
Negative thoughts about your:
work, or lack of it
If you find some, and I can’t imagine a person who has none, write them down. Look at them. Thoughts create feelings. Are these thoughts helping you? If not, try the next exercise.
Ask yourself, “What am I feeling now?”
Is it anxiety, depression, anger, guilt, or something else?
When you think “I feel my life is out of control,” or “I feel like a failure,” those are actually thoughts, not feelings.
If you find yourself mistaking thoughts for feelings you can clarify between them by asking:
“When I tell myself my life is out of control or I am a failure, how do I feel?”
Another way to separate a thought from a feeling is to remember there are really only a handful of major negative feelings.
To make things even more complicated, some things that sound like feelings are really physical, not emotional.
When I talk about feelings I am speaking of emotions.
There are even certain words, like boredom, that masquerade as a feeling, and can fool you into thinking you are bored. In fact, boredom is almost always a code word for something else, like loneliness, grief, depression, or anger.
Clearly, it is not always so easy to identify a feeling. The negative ones like anxiety, depression, anger, guilt, and worthlessness make themselves felt fairly strongly.
Once you have identified your negative feeling, ask: “What would be its opposite?”
Allow yourself the opportunity to really think about the 180° opposite and explore what that might feel like. Sometimes, that’s all you need to do to create a major shift. On other days, you may not feel like making the effort to alter your mood. That’s ok. Letting yourself feel your feelings, while remembering they will change, can be just as freeing as actively working to shift them. (You may want to re-read that last line as it’s easy to forget.)
Luckily, once you become aware of the whirlwind of internal thoughts you can usually calm them by putting the focus on your body.
Body Check-in, or Notice and Name: (This technique is also mentioned in the next chapter: Self-Soothing.)
Do a slow body check starting at the crown of your head and working down towards the soles of your feet, or vice-versa. As you navigate your awareness to the various parts of your body ask:
“What am I noticing here? Is it tightness, tension, itchiness, heat, cold, shakiness, expansion, contraction, discomfort, twitchy, or obstructed? Is there pressure, pain, a particular shape, motion, texture, color, heaviness, lightness, buzzing, singing, humming, scents, emptiness, numbness, burning, etc.?”
Once you describe it, just sit with it.
Then, allow whatever is true for you now to be. Breathe into that space as you tell yourself it’s ok. Allow the breath to soften and soothe any tight areas. No agenda, just allowing and watching to see what happens.
If you are feeling particularly open minded, you may want to ask that part what it is trying to tell you. You might ask what it would like from you, or what it wants you to know. (I know this sounds a bit unusual, but it really helps take the focus away from intellectualizing to paying attention to the way your unconscious mind can communicate via your body.)
By taking the time to plumb your depths you can cleanse your inner abode of unhelpful thoughts and feelings. Of course, it’s impossible to do a clean sweep, as nagging thoughts and feelings like to camp out in the nooks and crannies of our body-mind. These exercises, if done regularly, create a dialogue between you and your various parts allowing them to feel increasingly comfortable with the vicissitudes of life.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang
Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.
If you grew up in a family where there was little nurturing, or unpredictable nurturing, especially during the first 18 months of life, you may have a difficult time self-soothing. Alternatively, if you were lucky enough to have had parents, or any caregiver, who was adept at calming you down with a hug and loving, kind words, you have taken in those behaviors and can claim them as your own. When life gets challenging, you know how to emotionally realign.
If it wasn’t merely the absence of loving interaction in your childhood, but the trauma of abuse or neglect, it can be extremely hard to imagine you deserve to feel good about yourself. You do. The past doesn’t have to be your future, no matter how long you have been feeling unworthy.
If you didn’t get loving reassurance when upset as an infant or child, you can still retrain your mind to quiet negative self-talk. Those internal diatribes often get triggered by a break-up, job loss, death, or bad diagnosis, and can easily activate anxiety, panic, or numbness.
Like anything else, the only way to get really good at self-soothing when you don’t have an inner template from infancy and childhood, is to practice giving yourself what you would ideally like from someone else. Learning self-calming techniques can be simple. The only way they get entrenched to the point you will actually use them in a crisis is if you practice them regularly, especially when life is not in turmoil.
Think of times when you have handled bad news. No matter how you dealt with them, you lived. No one says you have to navigate life’s stresses elegantly. Sometimes, just getting to the other side alive is good enough. So, please don’t trip yourself up by rating how you are dealing with a given situation. Give yourself credit for simply getting from one breath to the next.
While there are a plenitude of great ways to work with your thoughts from traditions in Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy and Cognitive Behavior Therapy, there are times when you simply want to feel better immediately, without having to dispute whatever thoughts led to your disturbance. Having a cache of self-soothing techniques can be incredibly helpful.
Here are some I find especially good at calming the inner chaos:
First, remember these two truths:
All things end, the blissful and the miserable.
You can stand what you don’t like, unless you brainwash yourself into thinking otherwise.
In the Internal Family Systems model, we have a term called a “part attack.” It is when one part, let’s call it the “scaredy cat” takes over and floods you with anxiety. Of course, you could have other parts that inundate you with depression, guilt, worthlessness, or anger. Regardless of the specific emotion and the part involved, it usually feels very overwhelming. It can even seem immobilizing. When that happens, you can consciously call upon other parts inside you, like a resilient part, an inner loving parent, or any other part that helps you feel safe and heard. Let that part listen to the one causing the part attack. Hear all its concerns, validate them, and ask what would make it feel safe. As unusual as this technique may sound, it is incredibly soothing and effective.
Experiment with Jin Shin Jyutsu finger holds. They are remarkably simple and no one will know you are using them, so they can be used when you are disturbed in public. Here’s a link to get you started: http://jsj-holds.blogspot.com/search/label/attitudes (once there, scroll down the page for photos and more detailed information).
Check out the chapter on this site called Breathwork. It is full of techniques to help you switch from your sympathetic nervous system (fight, flight, freeze) to your parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest).
Use a technique I call Notice & Name. With compassion and curiosity notice where in your body you feel a particular emotion. Now, do your best to describe it. You can start at the crown of your head and work down to your toes or from the soles of your feet moving up to the crown of your head. Pay attention to any areas that feel tight, twitchy, hot, cold, obstructed, itchy, or tense. See if there is pressure, pain, a particular shape, motion, texture, color, heaviness, lightness, buzzing, singing, humming, scents, emptiness, numbness, burning, etc. Once you describe it, just sit with it. You might ask what it would like from you, or what it is trying to tell you. (I know this also sounds a bit different, but it really helps take the focus away from intellectualizing to paying attention to the body.)
Try a mantra. You can use English words and phrases like the ones found on this site under: Affirmations, Manifesto for Emotional Self-Care, and It’s OK Sweetheart; or, you can try one of the Sanskrit mantras listed under: Mantras. By repeating thoughts that run counter to your internal dialogue, especially if it’s harsh, you can actually create new neural pathways. In time, these become so strong they will supersede the old, self-critical ones.
Do some yoga. Even if it is just one posture. Not only will it calm your nervous system, and make you physically strong and supple, it will also help you meet your emotional and psychological issues with more awareness and compassion. By holding postures that don’t always feel comfortable you build up your frustration tolerance, and gain a new appreciation for your inner fortitude.
Try a wonderful meditation called : “Soften, Soothe, and Allow” by Chris Germer. Here’s a link to the free downloadable version: http://www.mindfulselfcompassion.org/audio/SoftenSootheAllow.MP3
If that seems like too much effort, use the simplest technique of all:
As you inhale say: Breathing in I am breathing in.
As you exhale say: Breathing out I breathe out.
It is incredibly difficult to grow up in a family where you have been unseen, mistreated, or physically harmed and come out thinking you deserve joy. You do. You deserve every goodness the world has to offer. After all, you weren’t born believing you were unworthy. People and experiences had to teach you that. Just as you learned one way, you can learn new ways of being tender and compassionate to your sweet self. I know it’s a ton of work. The good news, as the French psychologist Émile Coué said years ago, is: Every day in every way you are getting better and better. These self-soothing techniques simply accelerate the process.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang
“Faust complained about having two souls in his breast, but I harbor a whole crowd of them and they quarrel. It is like being in a republic.”
Otto von Bismarck
Every day, you are faced with conflicts. Have a donut or a yogurt? Take a few minutes to meditate or vacuum? Save your money or give in to that new iPhone? Such is the banality and ubiquity of inner conflict. You might think all that practice navigating choices while considering the emotional valence of each one would make it easier, but it doesn’t.
When the conflict is whether to take out the garbage or have another cup of tea, it is not such a big deal. But, when the raging ambivalence is whether to stay or leave, or some other equally big decision, it can feel torturous. If your inner conflict is like a tornado picking up all your emotional detritus on its path, it is best to aggressively do nothing. While doing nothing behaviorally is your safest option, this is a wonderful time to practice being with what is. Just sitting with the confusion, conflict, and urge to make a decision. Of course, it is not easy to be mindful when your mind feels like a blender. It is far more natural to desire ending the pain and limbo of not knowing, which is why forcing a decision can be quite compelling. Yet, allowing yourself to be with the discomfort is truly the path to greater peace.
This can be quite challenging if you are in the habit of scratching every itch and getting immediate gratification. By giving in to the call to decide, so the inner tumult of polarized parts abates, you “Act in haste and repent at leisure.” As seductive as it is, choosing short-term relief ultimately produces long-term pain.
Sitting with discomfort actually strengthens your emotional muscles, especially the one for higher frustration tolerance. Our brains are wired to avoid pain, so allowing yourself to sit with indecision can feel very awkward and unpleasant. With a little practice you will find you can handle it better, and may even start to feel some joy at being able to be with what is, especially when you don’t like it.
Allow yourself to be curious. What does it feel like to surrender to what is? Letting go of the urge to control your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors while settling in to the initial discomfort can be scary. It can also be a portal to a different kind of joy. The bliss that comes from believing you don’t have to do anything. Of course, there are times when you must make a decision, but mostly the pull to decide feels like a huge pressure because the ego wants to feel in control and intensely dislikes not taking action nor having the answers. If you can park your ego outside the door, even for a few minutes, you allow yourself to explore the peace that comes from letting everything be as it is.
It also helps to resist the urge to rate your experience and your reactions to it. Seek out any negative self talk that might be sabotaging your happiness. Not only will it harsh your mellow, it will trigger a flight or flight response from your sympathetic nervous system, making you feel even worse and creating a stronger desire for immediate resolution.
Are you thinking: “If only I could come to some decision and know what I really want, then I would be happy.” There will always be “if only…then” ideas trampolining through your cranium. When you notice them, think back to another time you believed you would be happy if only X, Y, or Z happened. Either it happened, or didn’t. Either you were happier or not; but, that emotion didn’t last. It never does. Feelings come and go. Here you are, again, magically thinking that solving this conundrum is so crucial it has the ability to make or break your joy for the foreseeable future. (Studies have shown humans have a set point for happiness. No matter what happens to us, we usually revert to whatever level of joy we are wired for within about five months.) Think of “if only…then” as idea sirens luring you to the rocks of dissatisfaction. As long as you find them beguiling you will risk your emotional balance. By lashing yourself to the mast of allowing things to be as they are you can successfully bypass the sirens’ call, switch from your sympathetic (fight, flight, or freeze) to parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest), and wait for the right answer to come. It will, just be patient with the process. The concept may sound simple, but it is far from easy, or quick to learn.
Begin by challenging your old notions that:
Immediate resolution is best.
You can’t stand what you don’t like.
You must not vacillate.
Not knowing is a sign of weakness.
You are wasting precious time being in limbo.
It’s awful to be indecisive.
You are too afraid to take the plunge.
This decision determines the course of your future, so you better choose correctly.
It takes great courage to face your demons (see chapter on Facing Your Demons).
Only brave souls even attempt to sit with what is, let alone embrace it.
The very thing you try to shun is the source of your emotional freedom.
Forcing yourself to make a decision before you are ready often leads to unhappiness later on.
The pressure you feel to do something is usually an illusion. There is time, take it.
Whatever the outcome of your decision, you will make the best of it, even if it is just to choose differently next time.
Patience is an incredibly useful, and often underrated, skill. Trust that clarity will come, and wait for it.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang
This is a very short, restorative, centering meditation you can do sitting on the floor, sitting in a chair, or even lying down.
To start, center yourself with a few deep diaphragmatic breaths, making each one a bit slower than the last.
With your hands in prayer, and thumbs touching at the third eye, quietly whisper or think the Sanskrit word shanti which means peace. Do this a few times while you focus your attention at the third eye, a little above and between the eyebrows.
Move your hands, still in prayer, to your lips and whisper or think the Sanskrit word shakti which means power. As you breathe, allow yourself to feel your own power and commitment to what you want in life.
Lastly, with your hands in prayer at your heart whisper or think the Sanskrit word prema, for love. Breathing slowly and mindfully, focus your energy on your heart and your intention to deepen your compassion for yourself and others. When you are ready, with your hands still at your heart center, whisper or think the Sanskrit word bhakti, for devotion. As you breathe calmly and slowly, remind yourself where you want your energy to flow, asking: “What am I devoted to?”
Rest your hands in your lap, or if you are lying down, on your lower abdomen, and feel the effects of this soothing practice on your body, mind, and spirit.
If you would like some music in the background, I recommend the GRACE CD by Snatam Kaur, especially her track: LONG TIME SUN, a classic Kundalini chant, in English; or, the LOVE IS SPACE CD by Deva Premal.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang
Whether we talk of warring nations or wounded spouses, the one thing that maintains antagonism and distance is the tendency to blame and shame. To make matters worse, continuous fault-finding often leads to holding a grudge which can turn into damning the other so vehemently the chances for reconciliation become slim.
So, why do we humans persist in this behavior? Blaming serves deep psychological desires: to feel blameless oneself, to scapegoat another, to switch from a defensive to offensive position, to play god and punish people who hurt or disappoint us, and, last but not least, to protect one’s ego.
The common phrase: “Someone must be to blame for this” neatly addresses our society’s penchant to punish undesirable behavior, even though that rarely increases the desirable ones.
The proliferation of prisons and recidivism among criminals are perfect examples of how blaming, shaming, and punishing usually create more bad behavior.
The urge to blame is typically triggered when you don’t get what you want, or feel entitled to. This knee jerk response may feel satisfying at first because it exonerates us from any responsibility and punishes another; however, it only hinders any chances for reconciliation and rapprochement. Most people intuitively know that, but assigning blame and meting out punishment are hard habits to break as both deeply satisfy the ego’s love of basking in self-righteousness. Unfortunately, the potential long-term gains get sacrificed for the short-term ego boost.
Here are some ways to tame the blame:
Watch how easy it is to rush to judgment. Then, take a minute to focus your energy on your heart center and gather up some compassion. Remind yourself: People who behave badly are usually just acting out their suffering. By remembering this and sending them some compassion, you can soften your heart. It softens towards them and you, for who never does hurtful, thoughtless, inconsiderate, or selfish things? By cultivating understanding when others miss the mark, you will find yourself lavishing more kindness on yourself, too.
Notice any demands you might have made of this person, situation, or of life. Any “shoulds, musts, or have-tos” you are generating in response to something you did not like or agree with. Ask yourself: “What law of the universe says people should behave the way I want them to?” or “Must life always be easy and fair?” or “What law of the universe says I must get what I want simply because I want it?” or “Must people who disappoint me be punished?”
On the other hand, if you find yourself full of self-blame, or guilt, please read the chapter on this site called: “Guilt, The Useless Emotion.” If you apply its suggestions and philosophy, your guilt will evaporate.
When you blame others you are effectively saying, “You are bad.” When you blame yourself, the internal message is “I’m bad.” Both can easily escalate to blaming and shaming, neither of which help anyone change for the better. But, worse than that, they entrench the thought that someone is a huge screw-up and deserves to feel lower than a snake’s wiggle. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter much whether that someone is you or another because when anyone feels unworthy, or ashamed, it hurts everyone.
When you feel ashamed it effects every aspect of your life: your relationships with friends, family, mates, co-workers, bosses, and yourself. Its tendrils reach deep down into your sense of who you are, what you can accomplish, and even your dreams. Lodged in shame is the kernel of unworthiness that blocks you from being your truest, most developed self as it saps your energy and enthusiasm for life. There is absolutely no upside in feeling shame. If you think your sense of shame comes from ideas instilled in childhood consider getting professional help. You can feel better. Everyone is born with a capacity for joy and wholeness, don’t let shame keep stealing yours.
Naturally, there are times when you will miss the mark. Taking responsibility never equals assuming blame or larding on the guilt. Paradoxically, by taking responsibility it is less likely you will ruminate over your lapses in judgment or behavior. Instead, you are likely to make amends and change some ineffective or insensitive behaviors.
On an energetic level, guilt and blame deplete your energy as they fuel negativity towards yourself and others. Emotionally, guilt and blame either make you feel depressed or angry. Behaviorally, they often lead to isolation, resentment, fights, shunning others, and a host of physical symptoms born from all that anger and tension.
Imagine how different you would feel if you ditched the blame and shame. What burdens would be lifted, and how much more easily you would flow through those inevitable times when people, life, or even you, disappoint you.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang
Some days, it may seem as if you are boxing with your brain. The hits keep coming, and it’s all you can do to fend them off. Perhaps, you are orchestrating a life that is overflowing with responsibilities. Do you put a ton of pressure on yourself thinking everything has to be done perfectly? Maybe, you are taking care of an elderly relative, have a health crisis, or financial worries. Whatever the onslaught looks like, you can always choose to be present, even though it is not easy when the present feels overwhelming. At those times, practicing mindfulness is possible but difficult. By focusing on your breath, acknowledging the challenge du jour, and reminding yourself you are here for the full buffet of life, not just the dishes you like, you can re-center yourself.
When you want to stop the world and take a break but there’s no way you can make time to meditate, do yoga, read a book, or watch the clouds, you can find refuge in the breath. While many recommend deep, slow breathing to calm your nervous system; sometimes, it is simply too hard to do. If that is the case for you now, it may be best to first ground yourself. If you are standing, feel the earth under your feet and remind yourself you are connected to all that is. If you are sitting, notice where your body is touching the chair and allow it to sink in a little deeper. Then, imagine the breath is coming in from your left nostril and going out the right. Then, it comes in from the right and goes out the left. (You can find a detailed description of this pattern in the chapter called Breath Work.)
All stress is exacerbated when it reverberates, hence my coining the term: emotional reverb. It describes the way minds and bodies have a tendency to repeat thoughts and feelings, on both emotional and physical planes, even when you consciously know that repetition is unproductive. Rather than stay mired in a cycle of incessant unhelpful thoughts and feelings, you can switch gears. If you are reading a book but find your thoughts wandering into troublesome territory get up. Bake a pan of brownies, take a walk, call a friend, do some errands, or listen to upbeat music. Anything to break the rumination.
It’s natural to feel overwhelmed by life. A multiplicity of challenging things all occur at the same time leaving you feeling tired, frazzled, and wondering if you can cope.
If you have a tendency to be perfectionistic, you are probably increasing your stress and feeling even more cooked. The pressure you put on yourself to excel ratchets up your tension and activates your sympathetic nervous system (fight, flight or freeze). At the end of the day, even if you accomplished your goal and everything worked out beautifully, you may still feel overwhelmed because of that unrelenting internal perfectionistic, critical voice.
The first thing to address, believe it or not, is not actually feeling overwhelmed, but seeing if you are putting yourself down for feeling overwhelmed. Perhaps, you hear an inner cacophony of self-criticism, like:
I should be able to handle this without feeling as if I’m imploding.
What’s wrong with me? The littlest thing sends me over the edge.
I should be more resilient, patient, and calm.
I’m such a mess, I just can’t cope.
Ask yourself if any of those statements are really true.
Everyone feels overwhelmed sometimes, why shouldn’t you? Torpedo those perfectionistic thoughts that just add emotional bricks to your load by challenging your unhelpful beliefs as vociferously as you can.
Where is it written I should handle all problems with poise and equanimity?
What 11th commandment says I shouldn’t feel stressed when responsibilities fill my days?
Must I feel competetive with other people’s ways of navigating life?
Isn’t it enough to have so much on my plate without adding a hefty portion of self-downing?
(Please refer to Albert Ellis’ book: HOW TO STUBBORNLY REFUSE TO MAKE YOURSELF MISERABLE ABOUT ANYTHING, YES, ANYTHING! for a detailed and pragmatic way to tackle unhelpful thoughts.)
Think of all the times you have felt buffeted about by life’s slings and arrows. Somehow, you managed to deal with every single one. Yes, there were moments when you felt touched by grace and sashayed through a troubling experience. Then, there were times you gritted your teeth and suffered through each miserable second. Either way, you survived.
In the throes of overwhelment, it is all too easy to forget your resilience. Resilience is not about gliding effortlessly through stress; but, knowing you can withstand something scary, unpleasant, or debilitating. Like your self-confidence that grows with each new accomplishment, resilience increases every time you navigate a challenging situation.
Last but not least, lack of rest and downtime contribute mightily to feeling overwhelmed.
Try this little self-assessment: Take a piece of paper and write down everything, even the littlest things, you have done since waking this morning. Ask yourself: Is there any way I could have omitted something and just sat quietly for five minutes?
Recently, I did my own experiment. I had five minutes and spent them sitting with my eyes closed focusing on my breath. First, I equalized my inhales and exhales; then, I lengthened the exhale until it was twice as long as the inhale. The benefits were obvious and immediate. I felt calm, centered, and relaxed. You would think I would have taken that mini-break every day since; but, alas, I have not. It’s all too easy to let life intrude. I’ll just do one more thing. Why? Since no one dies with their in-box empty, it might be the illusion of control. The more we do, the more we delude ourselves into thinking we have things covered. In some ways, that’s true, since procrastination often leads to more stress. The key is balance. The sweet spot of greater inner peace lies between too much activity and too little, too many things to do versus too few. As paradoxical as it sounds, having the strength to rest takes a great deal of focus and self-discipline. I invite you to join me as I make rest more of a priority.
(*I know overwhelment is not a word, yet; but, as the daughter of a lexicographer I am putting in a plug that it becomes one. Without it, all other options are wordy, cumbersome, and awkward.)
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang
If you can remember everyone’s behavior is a reflection of them and not you, even when the fall-out directly effects you, then their tone or attitude doesn’t have to send you into a tailspin.
The benefits of shifting cognitive gears and thinking, “This has absolutely nothing to do with me,” are truly beyond belief. Instead of taking things personally, you detach with love from other people’s issues, agendas, and projections. You become less defensive, reactive, and easily angered. Reframing your thoughts does not come easily or naturally, and takes a bit of practice, so let’s get started.
Say, for example, someone close to you takes a tone you think is sarcastic, impatient, or condescending. Does that press your buttons? Does it trigger past memories of someone, perhaps a parent, who took that tone and catalyzed feelings of shame, embarrassment, ineptitude, or unworthiness in you? If so, join the club. Everyone has had those experiences. Of course, that doesn’t make it good, just part of life. The question is: How can you deal with it?
First, remind yourself:
This is not about me.
This is not about my parent.
I am no longer a child.
I do not have to take this personally, even if it feels like an attack.
This is not about my past. This person is not consciously trying to press my buttons. Perhaps, they feel threatened, angry, or vindictive and are unconscious of how those emotions might be influencing their behavior.
Even if they are saying things in a tone of voice that reminds me of old pattens and pain, I do not have to react without recognizing I have a choice. I can choose to see their behavior as a reflection of them, not me.
If someone’s tone is consistently pressing my buttons I can talk with them, look at my own responses, and own them. By taking responsibility for my emotional reactions, I reclaim my power over myself.
In the moment, when you feel your sympathetic nervous system engaging its flight, flight, or freeze modes, consciously take a deep, deep breath. Feel it infiltrate every cell as you inhale and relax each one as you exhale. Feel yourself grounded in your seat or feet, connected to stability and firm resolve. Your agenda is to keep breathing, feel secure, and only speak once you have thought about your response. This may mean there are longer pauses between their remarks and your retorts. Let that be just fine. It’s not chess, and no timer will chime if you take a few extra seconds.
By allowing yourself to notice your reactions on physical, emotional and cognitive levels without rushing to react, you can calm down and process what is happening.
Assume the best. Choose to believe this person is not trying to push your buttons. However, if you know they are itching for a fight, let that be another reason to keep calm.
If you feel threatened, ask yourself: Is there any real danger? Naturally, if you think someone might assault you get away as fast as possible. More typically, it is emotional pain or interpersonal conflict we want to avoid. If that is the case, remind yourself how you have lived through plenty of pain and conflict in the past. While it wasn’t pleasant, you survived. That should help calm you even more, enabling you to respond thoughtfully, rather than lash out defensively. Later on, when you can leisurely assess the situation, you may decide to spend less or no more time with that person; or, if they are very close to you, you may want to work through things. That may mean talking about it once tempers cool, or enlisting the help of a therapist.
Another way people typically get defensive is when their expectations meet reality. Expectations are a sure-fire way of setting yourself up for disappointment on a good day, and anger or depression on a bad one. If you keep cultivating unrealistic expectations about all the people in your life you will find yourself reacting badly to their tone of voice or attitude.
Perhaps, you discussed someone’s sarcastic or condescending tone of voice and are surprised when they talk to you that way again. Just because you alerted them to their verbal patterns does not mean they will change them. Thinking other people will adjust their habits to suit your desires is a guaranteed path to disappointment, as is trying to motivate them to want to change. Rather than embark on a fool’s errand, you might want to work on the only person you can change: you.
Last but not least, resist the urge to think, “If they really loved me they would change.” and “They know how much this bothers me. Obviously don’t care enough to behave differently.” Those thoughts may sound rational but aren’t. They are a perfect example of unrealistic expectations and assuming you know what motivates someone else’s behavior. Since each head is its own universe, you can’t possibly know. Resist the urge to analyze other people’s actions and erroneously attribute negative motivations to them. Sometimes, people are just oblivious, distracted with their own issues, or forget how much something bothers you. Hard as this may be to believe, even if someone adores you, you aren’t the center of their universe every minute of every day. They are.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang
“To regret one’s own experiences is to arrest one’s own development.
To deny one’s own experiences is to put a lie into the lips of one’s own life.
It is no less than a denial of the soul.”
Oscar Wilde, De Profundis
“And that is how we are. By strength of will we cut off our inner intuitive knowledge from admitted consciousness.
This causes a state of dread, or apprehension, which makes the blow ten times worse when it does fall.”
D.H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover
We all do it: deny certain things just so we can get through the day with less stress, fewer negative interpersonal issues, and a minimum of cognitive dissonance. Perhaps, we stop counting how many drinks we had, how much money we spent, or how many chocolates we ate. It is all in the name of avoiding the truth. What truth? The truth that we may find our job meaningless, haven’t the slightest interest in our mate, feel constantly overwhelmed from the demands and responsibilities of raising a family, experience physical aches and pains we ignore, drink way too much caffeine, take a plethora of medications to quiet the demons, and live with an inner cacophony of self-criticism. Those certainly sound like a boat load of genuine issues, and they are. However, they are also all capable of distracting us from our deeper unconscious conflicts.
Some people carry their issues to the grave through denial, while others choose to face their fears and do the scary work of plumbing their depths through self-revelation. It is extremely frightening to acknowledge how much you might dislike your mate, feel ambivalent about child rearing, or work in a soul deadening job; however, allowing anxiety (about the possible fall-out of looking at your life) to stymie your ultimate growth could ultimately create more pain.
My mother likes to say she hates change even when it’s for the better. I know she’s not alone in that view. Unless you are an excitement junkie, you probably agree with her. Facing the hard realities of life, with its potential for intense upheaval, is typically something we go into kicking and screaming. Who wants to clean up the mess after an emotional tsunami? No one. The good news is just the way you have to pulverize everything to make a great smoothie, things may be smashed to bits, but there will be gains you can’t even begin to imagine. Focusing on possible losses only delays your growth. That’s OK, too, as we often have to feel a situation is untenable before we actually do anything about it.
Bear in mind, it is natural to live with some denial. If we didn’t we would feel constantly overwhelmed and too numb to do anything. Give yourself credit for having the courage to plumb your depths, and lavish yourself with compassion as you gently explore some of the following options for getting more in touch.
Ask yourself: What am I avoiding facing?
This is a very tough question.
A portal to it may be asking yourself when do I feel my most difficult and challenging emotions?
Is the situation triggering guilt, anger, depression, anxiety, or a combo plate?
Is there any pattern I can discern?
What might I be denying that I am distracting myself from seeing?
A good way to ferret that out is by looking at your favorite addictions, habits, and dependencies.
When do you most typically engage in them? Are there certain triggers that activate those behaviors?
If so, simply delay your usual habit for five minutes and see what emerges.
You might also want to try writing down your thoughts and feelings before engaging in your addiction, during it, and afterwards. I know this will intrude on the mind-numbing loveliness the habit engenders, but the insights you gain will be worth it.
If all that seems too heavy for now, you might want to try asking yourself what is really going on when you feel any unpleasant emotion, even something as mundane as frustration, annoyance, or irritability.
What are you thinking? If you are angry, you are probably demanding you, others, or the universe be different.
Experiment with allowing life to be unpleasant, difficult, annoying, frustrating, and disturbing, because, it will continue to be.
You will be a much happier human if you can adjust to reality, since reality is not about to re-orient itself to suit your desires or demands.
Last but not least, you can try making a list of “100 things I might be denying.” There probably will not be 100, but this particular exercise is an excellent way to tap into your unconscious mind.
Here’s how it is done:
Number a piece of paper from 1-100.
Title the top of the page: Things I Might Be Denying.
Set a timer for 20 minutes and write as fast as you can without any censoring. Repeat any item as many times as it occurs to you.
The idea is to allow your thoughts to flow. At the end, look over your list and see if any themes emerge. What emotion(s) do they typically trigger?
If you are dealing with an addiction try a 12 Step program. It will not only provide a way out, but give you a room full of other people with similar challenges who can truly relate with compassion and empathy. These days, you can even do a virtual meeting through teleconferencing.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang
“…may my mind stroll about hungry
and fearless and thirsty and supple…”
e.e. cummings’ may my heart always be open
It’s not a revolution, it’s an evolution. I think it’s personal evolution that will bring about planetary evolution. So that’s what I’m focusing on.
Be not afraid of growing slowly; be afraid only of standing still.
How do you think your perception of life might shift if you viewed everything through the lens of your constantly evolving self, understanding each thought, action and emotion moved you towards a greater ability to love and learn? Each victory, defeat, or challenge would be just another opportunity to change and grow. Since life is fraught with uncertainty and transitions, why not choose to view them all as catalysts for personal evolution?
When living is hard, and it certainly can be, why not embrace the discomfort, pain, inconvenience, and ego injuries with curiosity? Do the opposite of what you initially desire–running away–and paradoxically, run towards the challenge. What an opportunity to see how capable you really are. How much you can handle, and how deep wells of compassion for yourself and others open up when you move towards that which you don’t like.
Of course, it is natural to rant and rail against the injustices, aggravations, inconveniences, and indignities of life; and, that can feel cathartic and freeing. Unfortunately, rarely does mere venting build resilience or make you feel better in the long run. Taking a paradoxical approach and moving towards what you want to shun can be refreshing and full of interesting surprises. It shifts your perspective 180 degrees, enabling you to see something positive in a situation that only seemed miserable seconds earlier. Committing to approach something negative with a different attitude reminds you that, no matter what the situation, you can almost always choose your response.
The ancient yogis knew this and practiced setting intentions, meditating (either seated, with breath work, or doing yoga postures to calm the body-mind), and using mantras as ways to harness the mind’s power to enhance feelings of self-determination. You may get the flu, your request for a mortgage can be denied, the job promotion you wanted goes to a colleague, or any one of a multitude of things happens that harshes your mellow. In almost every case, except those that involve brain damage, you can consciously choose to re-frame your perspective. Is it easy? Absolutely not. Though, with perseverence and practice it becomes easier.
The toughest aspect of this path is how frequently you can get derailed. It might be a small catalyst, like someone cutting you off the road, or a large one like the death of a parent. You thought you had practiced accepting life on life’s terms; yet, suddenly, you are feeling angry, anxious, guilty, worthless, hopeless, or depressed. This happens to almost everyone, and is no reflection on your desire to maintain emotional homeostasis. As a matter of fact, it is simply a cosmic reminder to take a breath, think differently, re-focus your perspective; or, just stop and be grateful for every gift that has been bestowed on you.
In Buddhism, the concept of shenpa refers to our ability to get hooked into unpleasant emotional and behavioral reactions, including shutting down, when certain buttons are pushed. Even if you have been working diligently on yourself for decades, you will get hooked. So, it is crucial to be vigilant for times when complacency and ego appear. Thinking you are so firmly rooted in your balanced view of life that nothing can blow it up is just hubris. The ego loves to think it has something all nailed down; but, life’s vicissitudes are always ready to teach it a lesson. The best strategy is to gracefully accept how challenging being human can be. Give life’s quirky surprises the respect they deserve, and give yourself credit for doing what you can to navigate the ups and downs.
When things are going your way, enjoy them to the hilt, for they won’t last. When tough times emerge remember your practices (they are strewn throughout this website: cognitive, physical, spiritual, nutritional, social, etc.), and re-commit to doing them. While almost all require some measure of self-discipline, each will help you feel a greater sense of control, even if it is just observing a breath while waiting for the challenge du jour to end.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang
“You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.”
There is no one right way to live. There is only your way in this moment. Whether you are experiencing abject misery, overwhelming joy, or numbness, this is your minute. Claim it as part of your unique experience on this earth. After all, since you are only a visitor, why not approach everything as fascinating? If you really feel like raising the bar, you could even consider all aspects of your life sacred. Should you choose to adopt that world view, you might find yourself more comfortable riding the seas of unpredictability that show up daily.
Of course, it is natural to get caught up in an emotion or experience and think it will never end. Whether it is physical pain, euphoria, or something else entirely it is all too easy to lose sight of the fact that everything, yes, everything, ends. Clinging to the joys and shunning the difficulties only makes life harder.
What if you adopted a completely different view, one that embraces everything as part of your adventure on planet earth? Each moment would be a portal into understanding the varieties of experience. Not judging, comparing, or getting lost along the spectrum of discerning whether something brings joy or grief. Just being. Right now. In this moment. No story line to keep you company, no drama to create, only awareness and curiosity.
How differently would you think?
What might your new attitude feel like?
How would you approach what arises?
What effect would that openness and acceptance have on your relationship with yourself and others?
This is not about spiritual perfectionism, but gently, lovingly, coaxing yourself back into an appreciation of the moment, whatever it feels like. Not every moment, just those you want to fully experience.
While there is no emotional terra firma, you can anchor yourself in the present, allow all thoughts and feelings to flow through you, and cultivate genuine wonder. Empowered with joy, openness, and curiosity you can truly inhabit the fullness of your life.
An exercise that grounds you in the moment while tapping into your ability to appreciate the most mundane, yet potentially bliss-inducing, aspects of your environment, is the 5-4-3-2-1 meditation. It is quite simple, yet profound.
Wherever you are, notice 5 things you can see, then 5 things you can hear, and then 5 things you can physically feel. Continue with four things in each category, then 3 things in each category, then 2 and, finally, 1. Give yourself about 15 minutes to complete one full cycle. It is preferable to find new things, but not necessary.
Even simpler, just consciously allow whatever your experience is right now. Stop reading, take a breath, and assess how you are processing this moment. Are you being critical? Angry? Stoic? Resigned? Numb? Perhaps, you are grateful, joyful, accepting, open, or unconditionally self-accepting. The more you pay attention and do these mini check-ins, the more you will notice the emotional vicissitudes of life as they occur. Once you allow your ever-changing, full range of thoughts and feelings, and agree to being present and human for whatever crosses your path, life will feel more manageable and interesting.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang
All addictions, like all obsessive-compulsive disorders, serve one purpose: To push unpleasant feelings out of your conscious awareness. It makes no difference if you are addicted to alcohol, shopping, pornography, pain killers, pot, food, cocaine, gambling, or anything else, the key to recovery is finding peace. Peace from incessant thoughts urging you to obsessively repeat behaviors that sabotage your joy.
The first step in freeing yourself from addiction is minimizing or stopping the behavior. As hard as it is to believe, that is just the beginning. The real work is staying away from your old ways, which is only possible if underlying issues are acknowledged and addressed. One of the reasons 12 Step programs are so helpful is that once the addictive behavior is under control, their philosophy and practices help prevent relapses.
Whether it is overcoming addiction to perfection, difficulty being assertive, or the challenge of self-compassion, the community of a 12 Step group, with its tradition of sharing even one’s darkest thoughts and unappealing behaviors, can be a great path to recovery. In addition, 12 Step programs give you a whole new circle of people with whom to relate. This is especially helpful if your addiction often involves others whose company can trigger cravings and undesirable behaviors.
While there are many ancient practices that can alleviate anxiety, depression, loneliness, guilt, grief, feelings of worthlessness, and anger, here are three worth using every day. Like a muscle, they build emotional strength and resilience while calming your nervous system. Since the goal of recovery is to treat the underlying issues that catalyze addictive behaviors, not merely to eliminate the behaviors, a multi-pronged approach is best.
Breath work is an easy way to feel some sense of control, as well as a conduit to slowing down and allowing time to make the decision not to engage in your compulsion. Since breathing is already familiar and available every minute of your life, working with it can feel natural from the start. Here, however, you consciously choose to use your breath to harness the power of your parasympathetic nervous system by engaging the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve connects the brain to the pharynx, vocal chords, lungs, heart, stomach, intestines, to different glands that produce enzymes and hormones, influencing digestion, metabolism, and more. Its effects on your lungs, heart and the connection to your brain is quite amazing, as it rules both your body and mind. The easiest way to influence your mind and decrease stress is by activating the calming parasympathetic pathways of your nervous system. While it is certainly not second nature to control the parasympathetic nervous system at will, it can be done though breath work. The simple act of holding your breath for a slow count of four and then exhaling to a slow count of four, stimulates the vagus nerve relaxing your body and mind. (See the chapter on breath work for a variety of practices, including the 4-4-4 breath, that will soothe you almost immediately.)
Meditation is another path to inner peace and to gaining a greater sense of control over your thoughts and emotions. The simplest, but not easiest, meditation technique is noticing the qualities of your breath (the temperature, where you feel the air entering and exiting your body, its duration, intensity, etc.) as you inhale and exhale. This is called Vipassana meditation. When thoughts arise, just notice them, accept them, and, if you choose, label them: worrying, imagining, anger, rehearsing, grief, remorse, for example. You can do this lying down, but it is often easier if you are seated in a chair, or in a cross-legged position with a cushion or pillow under your sit bones. Don’t get discouraged if your mind wanders. That’s the nature of mind. Just allow your thoughts to come and go. Trying to control them or achieve a blank slate will only make them more persistent.
You may also love the practice of yoga nidra, an ancient yogic guided meditation that so calms the body and mind it actually creates theta waves in the brain. Yoga nidra translates from the Sanskrit to mean yogic sleep, but you are not asleep. You are in a liminal place between waking and sleep. In deep sleep you experience delta brain waves. In yoga nidra you enjoy alpha and theta brain waves. This is especially useful for people who have had trauma, or suffer from PTSD. (There is a link to a fantastic free hour long yoga nidra practice under the blogroll section of this site: “elsie’s yoga nidra.” Or, you can download a free copy from iTunes by going to podcasts, to Elsie’s Yoga, to episode #62. The meditation begins after her 15 minute chat with one of her listeners. I also like a Yoga Nidra CD by Swami Janakananda from Amazon. They are quite different and beneficial in their own unique ways.)
The third skill you may want to add to your repertoire of healing strategies is compassionate inquiry. By delving into whatever is disturbing you, you can calm your thoughts and nervous system, while cultivating greater lovingkindness towards yourself and others. Exploring your thoughts with compassion is not the same thing as ruminating or worrying, which are simply different ways of obsessing and creating stress. Try this, start with any uncomfortable thought or emotion by going into your body and, like Sherlock Holmes, sleuthing out what you are feeling physically. Is there tightness, contraction, tingling, numbness, pain, heat, cold, spasms, or anything else you can notice? Gently breathe into that spot. No, you can’t literally breathe into it, but by directing your attention to that area it will soften, relax, and the blood flow will increase. Now, breathe slowly into your diaphragm. As you feel your body relax, ask yourself what you might have been thinking and feeling to create that physical condition. Remember, there is no judging, just compassionate inquiry. Allow and accept whatever comes up with the kindness you might show a child. If you hear a harsh, critical voice, ask it to gently step aside. By allowing and accepting your deepest thoughts and feelings, your mind feels heard and steps off the carousel of incessant inner scrutiny and speculation, letting the flow of unpleasant emotions ebb.
Some days one technique will suffice, and other days you may need all three. By practicing, especially during less challenging times, you build up inner resources that will naturally appear when life is more demanding.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang
“I saw grief drinking a cup
of sorrow and called out,
‘It tastes sweet, does it not?’
‘You’ve caught me,’ grief answered,
‘and you’ve ruined my business.
……How can I sell sorrow,
when you know it’s a blessing?'”
HOW CAN I KEEP FROM SINGING?
My life goes on in endless song
above earth’s lamentations,
I hear the real, though far-off hymn
that hails a new creation.
Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear its music ringing,
It sounds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?
While though the tempest loudly roars,
I hear the truth, it liveth.
And though the darkness ’round me close,
songs in the night it giveth.
No storm can shake my inmost calm,
while to that rock I’m clinging.
Since love is lord of heaven and earth
how can I keep from singing?
When tyrants tremble in their fear
and hear their death knell ringing,
when friends rejoice both far and near
how can I keep from singing?
In prison cell and dungeon vile
our thoughts to them are winging,
when friends by shame are undefiled
how can I keep from singing?
Enya’s version of an 1860’s hymn originally titled, “Always Rejoicing.”
For the joy of it, watch Enya’s You Tube version: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zdRSRTqOyi4
Even in the midst of the most intense suffering there is always something to savor. Perhaps, it is the ability to feel, the knowledge you had something to lose, or the perspective that this too shall pass. All can shift your thoughts into a realm of peace. It may sound almost impossible, but even when you are brought to your knees with suffering there is the opportunity for gratitude and joy. Sometimes, it is simply the ability to feel the depths of your pain and loss. When that happens, allow yourself to explore what it is to be human and fully experiencing a well of emotion. After all, what are we here for if not to pay attention and embrace every moment just as it is, whether raw and miserable or full of bliss?
What does suffering have to do with your capacity for joy? Plenty. As you allow all your feelings, you increase your openness to rapture. It takes courage to go to the darkest places in your heart. Paradoxically, the rebound effect is becoming so expansive you not only embrace what happiness life showers on you, but also actively seek more.
Learning how to find bliss is a skill that improves with practice. Stop right this minute and look around you. If you can see out a window, notice what is happening. Find the beauty of clouds, rain, snow, sun, whatever presents itself. Really look. Seek out the tiniest details of of nature’s daily pageant. If you work in an office cubicle, look at whatever you have brought in to personalize your space. Is it a picture of family or friends? Perhaps, it’s that mountain you climbed, or want to climb. Maybe it’s an empty coffee cup. Just take a moment to fully appreciate what each of those things implies, whether connection, love, exilharation, anticipation, or feeling sated.
Just like that little exercise, the key to finding more joy is to narrow your scope. Look for the smallest things that make your heart sing.
You can also increase your opportunities for happiness with a bit of self-exploration. Notice when you feel expansive or contracted. Are there certain people in your life in whose presence you feel your body tighten? Are there times when you feel so open it is as if your cells are mingling with the ineffable? It will take some assertiveness skills and a commitment to self-care, but you can increase the good catalysts in your life, and decrease those that create stress and contraction.
Once you have honed your happiness skills, make sure you are fully enjoying whatever peace and joy has been bestowed on you. You can actually squeeze more rapture out of any positive experience by ratcheting up your awareness and being fully present. Then, just so you can feel even more connected to your divine inner light, share it. Smile at anyone and everyone. Give something away. Reach out to someone who may be lonely or bereft. Bake some cookies for your neighbors. Give someone, even a stranger, a compliment. Now, watch the power of spreading your positive energy as it not only expands your delight, but creates more for others.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang
Sometimes, the thought of being in love may seem as appealing as a root canal, but the desire to connect deeply with another soul can be quite powerful. Seeking love and connection may have been a nascent or cryogenically preserved wish, but when catalyzed by a potential partner, it can astound you with its ferocity. This is true whether you are 26 or 76. The heart wants what the heart wants. That doesn’t mean you will glom on to anyone who draws breath. If break-ups or divorce have taught you anything it is to choose wisely. On the other hand, love can sometimes appear out of the blue and rock your world.
When you think of being love sick it’s easy to picture a sixteen year old; however, if love comes rattling your cage you may find yourself unable to eat or sleep with any regularity. (They don’t call it falling madly in love for nothing.) The Cinderella story has stood the test of time for a very good reason: love can wake you up so completely that it feels as if you are reborn. Not just in terms of melding with another soul, but even more deeply with yourself, as it accesses dormant parts and brings you closer to the ineffable.
Naturally, with love comes feelings of vulnerability. Your inner protectors may prefer you not be in love as it could break your heart, and they will (unconsciously) put roadblocks in your way. These might range from a sudden tendency to criticize your beloved, to physical issues, like migraines, stomach problems, or muscle pain. If this happens, thank your subconscious mind for wanting to keep you safe, while reminding it you are an adult capable of navigating life’s challenges. You may also want to tell those protective parts you are consciously choosing to take a chance on love, even though you know it might cause future pain.
There is a vast difference between protection and over-protection. If your inner protectors are working overtime, they may wreak so much physical and emotional havoc that you could think love isn’t worth the trouble. Be careful of turning away from an opportunity to really connect with someone because of inner fears and past experiences. It is all too easy to watch over-protection segue into paralyzing anxiety. Talk realistically to yourself. Acknowledge your concerns and the risks you are taking to open your heart. Also recognize the bigger danger of allowing fear to sabotage potential joy. Assume the best. You have learned from those other relationships, and you will be vigilant enough to protect yourself while allowing some fun, affection, and connection into your life.
If your anxiety is triggered by trust issues, it is important to remember that it is not about whether or not you can trust someone else; but, whether you have built up a good enough relationship with yourself to trust your ability to handle life’s vicissitudes and disappointments. Counter-intuitively, the trust focus is on you, not the other person. Assume you have the inner strength to both open your heart and protect it at the same time. (If you are a yogi, you already know the delight in heart opening back bends, as well as the calm that comes from forward bends. Life is like yoga: you want the inner balance that comes from both, not to mention twists, which being newly in love will surely provide.) You may also enjoy reading the chapters on Trust and People Are Who They Are.
Another path to finding peace and love in romantic relationships is giving up the notion that someone has to change to be your ideal partner. If you find yourself still attached to that concept, try thinking the person who could change might be you. Start by cultivating more acceptance and compassion for yourself. The more emotional generosity, forgiveness, and understanding you bestow on yourself, the more you will have to lavish on others.
If you would like to practice a bit of heart chakra opening, try visualizing a warm pink light in the center of your chest. Breathe into this light as you say: I freely open my heart to loving myself, loving others, and receiving love.
If you think you are ready to invite love back into your life, you may want to use the following Sanskrit mantra: Sat Patim Dehi Parameshwara. As with all mantras, it is best if you do a full mala (the string of 108 beads that helps you count your repetitions). The practice is to repeat your mantra 108 times a day for 40 days. This may sound daunting, but it will only take about 10 minutes. If you skip a day you have to start from the beginning. (Here’s a little help with the pronunciation, from a video of the mantra being chanted: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jk1L2zC6rpQ.)
Once you have attracted an appropriate potential partner, you may want to follow-up with another powerful mantra for removing obstacles: Om gum ganapataye Namaha. In this case, the obstacles are your own roadblocks to embracing love, like old patterns and self-sabotaging behaviors. (Here’s a link to a video of Deva Premal chanting this mantra: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LMCqI3I0Hio. If you would like to learn more about mantras, take a look at the chapter called: Mantras, or read Thomas Ashley Farrand’s book, “Healing Mantras.”)
The interesting thing about attracting love is how once your body, mind, and spirit are ready it appears.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang
Nothing is wrong—whatever is happening is just “real life.”
The holidays have an uncanny way of triggering grief. Once accessed, this deep sadness can have a boomerang effect as it sweeps up all past losses bringing them right to your emotional doorstep. Naturally, this dustpan of misery can feel as if it coats every cell of your body-mind. Tough as it is, the only way to get through it is by feeling your feelings.
As natural as it is to resist pain, stuffing your feelings doesn’t eradicate them. In fact, unacknowledged grief typically surfaces as another emotion or undesirable behavior. This persistent shape-shifter may show up in the guise of anger, depression, anxiety, worthlessness, or guilt. Physically, it can create aches and pains, stomach issues, fatigue, headaches, insomnia, lack of appetite, addictions, etc. So, rather than trying to banish grief from your emotional vocabulary try allowing it some expression. You might want to do something really radical and embrace it.
Accepting grief, loss, and sadness requires a fundamental shift in your expectations of life, starting with the notion that you will not always feel good, you won’t always like what is happening, and, sometimes, reality bites. Contracting against and fighting what is true for you now only produces more pain. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, closing off to pain increases your anxiety about it the next time it shows up. Welcoming scary, unpleasant, or challenging feelings is not intuitive to Western minds, yet it can strengthen your resilience and make you feel more in control. You may not be able to change a difficult situation, but you can open to it. True acceptance entails an element of surrendering to life, rather than muscling through it, with all the tension and resistance that implies.
In yoga, one of the major focal points is finding the sweet spot between effort and surrender. You don’t want to tighten up so much your body goes rigid with effort, making you lose your balance, or create an injury. On the other hand, letting go completely also throws you off balance and prevents you from entering the posture mindfully. The same is true in day-to-day life. Surrendering to what is enables you to work towards accepting it and doing whatever might alleviate your pain. Yet, there are times of despair and grief when the only option is allowing your experience, just as it is, until it stops; and, it will stop.
When anything, and holidays are notorious for this, pushes your grief button, remember: you are here for the whole experience of life. Yes, the loneliness, illness, money worries, disappointments, losses, anxiety, insecurity, relationship issues, depression, shock, betrayal, as well as the wonder, unbounded joy, sense of oneness, peace, grace, smiles, hugs, and all those times you have the guts to radically open your heart, even though it has been through the ringer.
There’s no denying it’s tough to navigate through the high seas of life’s challenges. Nobody enjoys being drenched in emotional, physical, or spiritual misery, which the holidays can easily catalyze. But it is part of life. As long as you are here, the best you can do is not add to your pain by fighting your current reality.
Try reaching out. There are plenty of other souls finding the holidays challenging and many would welcome the chance for some venting and compassion. If you don’t know of others in the same boat, seek out different supports: a therapist, web communities, free podcasts on Buddhism and meditation, religious groups, or meditation sanghas. Just going to your local library or coffee house can prove you are not the only one flying solo. Try a meet-up group (http://www.meet-up.com) as a way to connect with people interested in making new friends or doing some activities you also enjoy.
While the focus here has been on accepting the reality of this moment, whatever it is, it is equally important to remember your perspective, feelings, and bodily sensations shift every second. Sometimes, simply waiting for shift to happen is all you need to get through miserable moments.
Copyright Nicole S./ Urdang
If things were different they wouldn’t be the same.
From an episode of Law & Order
Every decision comes with a cornucopia of unanticipated consequences. How could it be otherwise? Like crystals growing in a petri dish, they build, one on top of another, into configurations previously unimagined. Similarly, every second in life is full of mystery and ripe with unforeseen possibilities.
Think back to when you were young. Could you ever have imagined the twists and turns life would take? Were most of your relationships, experiences, challenges, or transformations predictable? What if you consciously decided to see them all as perfect catalysts for your growth, whether you liked them, or not?
No matter how challenging your circumstances, you are blessed with free will. You can choose your thoughts, the templates through which you view your experiences. Even if emotions drench you like a tsunami leaving confusion in their wake, you can still accept the onslaught as an opportunity to feel, change, and grow, rather than regret the choices that brought you to this place.
Regret is such a hubris filled thought. It implies there would have been a better outcome if only you had made different choices. A wild assumption with no basis in reality. If you had chosen other options things definitely would have been different, maybe worse. Why torture yourself by inventing rosier scenarios when you haven’t the foggiest idea what might have happened? The truth is all decisions spark chains of reactions you can’t possibly anticipate, let alone imagine. Unless you are clairvoyant, it is highly unlikely you can accurately say what would have happened had you acted differently. The only thing you can be sure of is the mental torture that comes from wondering, and Monday morning quarterbacking.
Where does the urge to imagine alternatives come from? Dissatisfaction and ego. The notion you could have chosen another path and all would have worked out beautifully. But there is absolutely no guarantee that course would have yielded happier results. The only thing you can know for sure is that there would have been another trajectory with its own set of unforeseen consequences. It is an assumption to think those would have been more gratifying or agreeable. It is somewhat egotistical to think you should have known the outcomes of your actions before taking them. You couldn’t because no one can. Unfortunately, the times you did guess correctly only fuel the egoic notion you should always be able to predict the results of your actions. Obviously, that is impossible. Thinking it only leads to remorse, grief, guilt, anxiety, and depression.
A veritable slew of factors, some conscious and some unconscious, collaborated to tip the scales in favor of one decision. The trick is to ride the waves without looking back and thinking you should have predicted all outcomes so you could be enjoying more happiness now. When looked at this way, doesn’t it seem unhelpful to blame yourself for things you couldn’t possibly have known?
The most loving way to deal with thoughts of regret and “shoulda, woulda, coulda,” is to remind yourself you didn’t know what would happen as a result of each decision you made, and consciously choose to believe everything is happening for your highest good. It may not be true, but it certainly beats alternative views. Since you get to choose, why not pick the thoughts that give you peace of mind and foster an optimistic outlook?
The following are a trio of healing meditations to help banish the tendency to regret. You can focus on one, two, or all three.
Sit comfortably and breathe naturally.
Open to what is. Your life now.
Settle into the grace of your unique experiences on this earth, and recall some of the most satisfying ones.
Welcome the unfolding of your life with curiosity and compassion.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang
To fall in love with yourself is the first secret to happiness.
To love yourself right now, just as you are, is to give yourself heaven. Don’t wait until you die. If you wait, you die now. If you love, you live now.
You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve love and affection.
Yes! As radical as this sounds, by falling in love with yourself you can accomplish two major life tasks:
1. Change your harsh, critical inner dialogue to something loving, positive, and supportive; and,
2. Choose a potential partner wisely. Not out of desperation or longing for someone to complete you, but because you come to respect, cherish and enjoy them.
What happens when you fall in love?
Your world suddenly shifts completely to the other person. You pay them undivided attention, listen to what they want, and try to give it to them.
Your heart opens.
You want the best for them.
You become wildly generous in all ways.
You show patience, tolerance, and understanding.
You give them the benefit of the doubt.
You focus on their best qualities and ignore the rest.
You are affectionate, considerate, complimentary, and loving.
You crave their company.
You trust them.
You even like their quirky behaviors.
You support and encourage them.
You feel protective and have their back.
You forgive easily.
Now, imagine giving all those wonderful things to yourself.
Really imagine it.
Each and every one.
How does that feel?
If it’s fabulous, turn your reverie into action. Do everything you possibly can to show yourself tenderness, consideration, patience, and compassion.
Now, watch how your relationship with yourself changes.
Lest some of you think this is narcissistic, it is not. Falling in love with yourself doesn’t mean you think you’re better than anyone else, just equally deserving of kindness, compassion, and time. You realize how wonderfully healing it can be to appreciate and care for yourself. Paradoxically, the more lovingly you treat yourself, the more tenderness, compassion, and patience you will have for others.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang
These days it seems as if every website, book, and podcast is encouraging self-compassion as a path to inner freedom and peace. And rightly so. Showering yourself with loving kindness will surely make you feel better, no matter what’s ailing your body, mind, or spirit. The problem is, how exactly do you do it?
While self-compassion may include physical self-care, like eating healthily and exercising, it goes far beyond that. Those wonderfully supportive habits build resilience and stamina to navigate life’s vicissitudes; but, when emotional distress is flooding every cell of your body-mind you want reliable calming techniques that work quickly.
Some of the deepest self-compassionate behaviors require a fair amount of practice before they naturally show up during stressful events. It’s almost like learning a new language, a vocabulary of self-care. Since so much of that inner work benefits from repetition, the sooner you start, the sooner you reap the rewards of being able to self-center in challenging times.
Alleviating emotional storms often comes down to using techniques that will reliably derail your sympathetic nervous system’s fight, flight, or freeze response. Nothing is as easily available as the breath. Learning to breathe deeply allows you to switch from your sympathetic nervous system to your parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest). You can find an array of breath practices on this site under Breath Work. By consciously befriending your breath, you instinctively breathe more slowly and deeply in stressful situations. But, self-compassion is far more than learning new ways of breathing. It runs the gamut from the most basic life skills to the deepest spiritual practices. The following is a partial list of compassionate behaviors which I will add to as I think of new ways to steep yourself in loving kindness.
Allow whatever is true for you in this moment, no matter how odious and how strong your urge to flee from it like from a rabid dog.
Actually staying with what is is far harder than it sounds. When every cell in your body is crying out for relief it takes a boatload of courage to abide with what may be extreme emotional, spiritual, or physical pain. Yet, that is exactly what will move you through it faster.
Talk to yourself. Figure out what you would most like to hear in this moment. It might even help to write it down and read your thoughts out loud. Read them again, and again, until you feel them taking root.
Back to your breath. Don’t try to control it, just notice it, and allow it to be exactly as it is. The length, shallowness, depth, pace, temperature, where you can feel it in your body as you inhale and exhale, how it disperses through you, and anything else that captures your attention. Not only does this center your mind by giving it something tangible on which to focus, it actually alters you physically.
Remind yourself that life can change in an instant, and often does. Everything, from the ecstasy to the misery will pass.
There are no bad thoughts or feelings, just whatever comes up.
Access that deep place in you, your essence, where everything is OK in spite of the turmoil disturbing your peace at the moment.
Repeat Louise Hay’s favorite affirmation: “Everything is happening for my highest good,” and give yourself the gift of believing it.
Work with a therapist to heal past traumata that might be blocking your path to self-compassion.
Develop a yoga and meditation practice to help calm you physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Practice Jin Shin Jyutsu finger holds. Jin Shin Jyutsu is an ancient Japanese healing art that can be learned in seconds. The finger holds offer incredibly simple and amazingly effective ways to calm you, whether your stress is from anxiety, grief, anger, or other unpleasant emotions. An excellent site to explore is: http://jsj-holds.blogspot.com/
Envision how you would like to handle this feeling, situation, or physical condition. Ask yourself: “What could I change right now to bring me closer to that ideal?”
You may want to cultivate what I have come to call my Inner Dharma Teacher (IDT). This is your inner repository of love, kindness, patience, curiosity, intuition, nurturing, innate wisdom, and experience you can access by consciously calling on it for support when life is being especially challenging. It really doesn’t matter what the difficulty is because anything you find threatening wants to be soothed and reassured that you can cope. The more you access your IDT, the more he or she will be there for you when the need arises.
Partners, friends, family, teachers, clergy, and therapists can only do so much. At some point, it is a question of what have you digested and incorporated into who you are so you can call up self-compassion in all its forms when needed.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang
Man cannot stand a meaningless life.
Viktor Frankl’s book, “Man’s Search For Meaning,” focuses on the importance of finding a sense of purpose in life, no matter how heinous your external circumstances. The first half explores different ways his fellow prisoners reacted to incarceration at Auschwitz, while the second part details Logotherapy, the psychological model he developed from the death camp experience.
If you are reading this you are probably not in as horrific a situation as Dr. Frankl was; however, it can still feel mighty challenging to infuse life with meaning when issues with work, health, family, finances, etc. weigh you down. Often, one’s internal list of priorities doesn’t even include a search for meaning; and, more’s the pity, since finding meaning in anything you do makes it easier to bear the more odious experiences life hands out.
There are as many ways to find meaning in life as there are people. Typically they have two things in common: feeling useful and appreciated. The first one is fairly obvious, the second, less so.
No matter how spiritually evolved you are, you still have an ego, and it will express itself until your last breath. By feeding it a healthy dose of appreciation (whether from external sources, yourself, or a combination of the two), you infuse your time on earth with more meaning.
Just as eating does not mean gorging, some external ego nourishment will not turn you into what Albert Ellis called a Love Slob, someone who thinks it’s horrible if they don’t get massive amounts of approval from others. Here, balance is key. You don’t want to be so dependent on other people’s approbation that you shrivel up emotionally without it; on the other hand, setting up your life so you get regular doses of appreciation simply feels good. While doing good is its own reward, few people are truly satisfied with absolutely no recognition. Nor, is that necessarily a wise goal, since it is through interacting with others that you can feel validated for your unique contributions to society.
A healthy ego is not an inflated one. It enables you to go out into the world with enough confidence to do what fulfills you and benefits others. Knowing what you do well ignites your vibrancy and engagement in life, while giving you the strength to acknowledge what doesn’t come easily and address those areas.
Here are a few reminders of all you do to contribute your unique talents to the world:
taking care of yourself
being considerate to others
caring for elderly relatives
rehabbing or repurposing things
giving to charity
caring for animals
growing a flower or vegetable
planting a tree
helping your friends, family, and neighbors
Forms of appreciation might include:
saying thank you
keeping a gratitude journal
noticing ways you are changing and growing
sending cards, texts, or emails to let people know you value them
One could argue that having a life full of meaning might preclude the desire for appreciation, but feeling valued often adds to one’s sense of meaning and joy in contributing to the world, thus insuring you keep sharing your unique gifts.
The ultimate way to guarantee you will feel appreciated is to practice appreciating yourself. It is easy to keep the focus outwards, seeking what you want from others, but one way you can be sure of getting approval is to make it an inside job. You may think it won’t feel as good as it would if you get it from someone else, but that simply tells you how little you value your own opinion. Practice dwelling and basking in the myriad joys you create every day for yourself and others. Something as simple as fully acknowledging another soul with a smile, hug, handshake, or deep listening has an enormous impact on the world.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang
God grant me the serenity to accept the people I cannot change, the courage to change the one I can, and the wisdom to know it’s me.
Variation of an excerpt from “The Serenity Prayer”
People are who they are and they will show you who they are. To be mad at them for expressing their true nature is like being angry at birds for flying.
Of course, accepting this can be extremely difficult and frustrating. Most people want to think they, or the force of their love, can change someone. Others believe if their partner, child, or parent loved them enough they would alter their behavior. While some simply can’t accept how family, friends, or co-workers behave, persisting in blaming them for not changing. All variations of non-acceptance are rooted in the ego’s unrelenting tendency to take everything personally and think those near and dear should conform to your expectations.
The good news is: it is not about you! That is not a judgment of your value, simply an acknowledgment of how strongly each soul inhabits itself and its own way of being in the world. Fortunately, or unfortunately, that unique package of thoughts, feelings and behaviors is driven to express itself 24/7. (Even if someone manages to suppress their true nature, by middle age it will break through those dams and assert itself even more strongly.) Again, this is all about each person being his or herself, not about how wonderful a sister, brother, daughter, son, employee, parent, or partner you are.
Since everyone has an ego, it is incredibly easy to think other people’s behavior is a commentary on how they feel about you, but it really is about them, not you. Just like you, when they look in a mirror they see themselves, not the significant people in their life, no matter how central those folks might be.
What complicates this is how other people’s behavior, even though it is all about them, affects you. If a drunk driver ploughs into your car you are definitely affected by their action, even though its creation had nothing to do with you. Similarly, if your friend, relative, or partner behaves badly towards you it may be very unpleasant, but it really has nothing to do with you. I know this can seem a little mind bending, and you might think, “Well, what if I did something bad, like gambled away all our savings?” Again, you can’t cause a reaction in someone. They create it themselves; otherwise, everyone would respond exactly the same way to all situations. In fact, people may react differently to the same situation at different times in their life, depending on their mood, hormones, diet, age-related issues, health, etc.
Not only is their behavior not about you, even when it looks as if it’s directed at you it is still about them. If someone behaves insensitively, or cruelly to you, it is a reflection of them, not you. Even if you behaved badly first, their reaction is theirs to own.
Even if you are the most loving, supportive, generous soul on earth some people will just take advantage of you. If that seems to happen frequently, it is far better to learn to set boundaries and develop assertiveness skills than to bemoan the fact that others don’t behave as you would, or you would wish them to. Accepting people as they are, for who they are, is not an easy task; but, once you detach a bit from your ego and resist the temptation to equate their behavior with their love (or lack of it), it becomes possible. Even a little taste of accepting others is a heady experience. Just imagine how free you could feel if you let people be themselves. You may not like them, you may say good-bye to some, you may see others less frequently; but, at the end of the day, not only will you enjoy what they bring to the table you will also find you accept your own sweet self more easily.
It is also wise to remember how most people don’t wake up, rub their palms together, laugh devilishly, and plan ways to harsh your mellow. They are simply trying to get through their day with some equanimity, kindness, and ease. They may accidentally bump into you, step on your foot, or unleash some pent-up anger in your direction. It probably wasn’t with any conscious intention to hurt you. Yes, it still smarts and annoys. Perhaps, during those moments when you might want to retaliate, conjure up an image of a time you accidentally lashed out at someone with displaced fury or ignored their smile when your mind was a million miles away. Wouldn’t you want them to have some compassion for you, and cut you a bit of slack? Gift your open-hearted understanding to anyone who inadvertently projects their issues onto you and watch how it heals both of you.
Another antidote to those situations is to behaviorally be the change you want to see. Practice awareness and set an intention to connect with anyone who crosses your path, whether family, friend, or stranger. Give what you seek and, miraculously, you will find it reflected back to you.
While changing oneself is challenging, thinking you can change someone else is a bee-line to misery. Even if they do change, they are likely to go back to their old ways of being. People can ditch an addiction, develop an exercise habit, change their diet, and even stick with those things, but changing their personality is quite another matter, and not likely to last because personality is pretty hard-wired.
What you can do is shift the focus to you, change your perspective and your behaviors. Sometimes, associating with a different group of people, whether a self help oriented one like a 12-step program, or a social or special interest group through meet-up.com, or your local religious community, can kick some new ways of thinking into gear, and allow you to let go of old, unhelpful perceptions and behaviors. You may not be able to change someone else, but you can certainly change the way you perceive their behaviors.
Not taking things personally, allows you to better evaluate what is wonderful about the relationship and separate it from those aspects that are merely a reflection of someone else’s demons, like their addiction, for example. (See If You Love an Addict.)
If you look back on any long term relationship you have had, you will notice how many times someone has shown you their true nature. Of course, if you were young, you may have thought you, and the force of their love or your love, could alter them. Even if you succeeded in bringing out some latent qualities, their deepest personality traits will ultimately surface. The one thing you can trust is they will be who they are meant to be, whether that’s Cruella De Vil, Mother Theresa, or, thankfully, all the options in between.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang
“You have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. What you’ll discover will be wonderful. What you’ll discover is yourself.”
Intuition is like wisdom, it builds over a lifetime. While people generally have no trouble enlisting their intellect to make decisions, using intuition is slipperier and more elusive. Western culture typically trains us to trust our brains and distrust other ways of knowing, which can be very limiting. Intuition is the dynamic blend of knowledge from all sources, not only intellectual and historical. Your body, and each of your five senses, remembers things on a cellular level that resist description and purely cerebral understanding.
Intuition is multi-faceted, comprehensive knowing. It is the synthesis of wisdom, physical experiences, your own nature, personality, spirit, and myriad other ways life gets processed that defy understanding. Luckily, it isn’t necessary to fully comprehend something to employ it.
The following are a trio of techniques to enhance your relationship with your inner guru. With practice, you will come to trust and rely on your intuition, make better decisions, and increase your self-confidence.
TRAIN yourself to hear that knowing voice, the repository of your life’s experiences on all levels.
Practice deeply listening to your intuition and sitting with whatever comes up. You may not be ready to act, but you can be aware.
Each time you tap into your gut feelings you enhance the communication between your conscious and unconscious mind.
The goal is to appreciate this holistic way of knowing, even though you may never understand it fully.
TRUST in the mystery, as you allow messages from your brain, heart, and gut to converge and guide you.
Consciously choose to have faith in yourself. This radical choice grounds you more deeply into your unique ways of being in the world.
Develop appreciation for your inner wisdom. In time, acting on your intuition will become second nature.
TRIAGE. Sit with a question until solutions appear. They will.
Be patient, not every situation requires immediate attention.
Some things are like tea, they need to steep for a while.
Waiting can be like a buried seed in winter. It appears to be unproductive, but it’s gathering steam to burst forth and flower.
Whatever you decide, don’t ignore the whisper or the roar. It’s very easy to push these tendrils of intuition back underground, as fears trigger suppression of that inner voice. The fear might be of the unknown, of taking a chance, of trusting oneself rather than others, of upsetting your status quo, of failure, of success, of standing up for oneself, of what others might think, of disappointing someone, etc. All conspire to keep you from following your gut. They are just distractions from betting on yourself and life. It’s not about playing it safe, it’s about living fully, which is different for everyone. In “Romantics Anonymous,” a sweet little French film, the male lead says he was incessantly told by his father, “Let’s hope nothing happens to us.” It may be amusing in the movie, but it’s a recipe for a very constricted experience of life. (See “No Mistakes, Only Lessons” chapter.)
All too often, the things you ignore come back to bite you. The bite may manifest as interpersonal conflict, work issues, depression, health problems, anxiety, avoidance, inner dissonance, addiction, suicidal thoughts, or self-destructive behaviors. It takes courage to listen to that inner teacher and act on what you hear. Sometimes, the immediate result doesn’t feel good. There will probably be some emotional, behavioral, and life changing consequences since intuition is typically activated when an important decision needs to be made. Don’t mistake unpleasant, scary, or threatening fall-out as proof you shouldn’t have listened to your inner GPS. It’s just your body, mind, and spirit adjusting to something new. These repercussions might last minutes, weeks, or years, depending on how many aspects of your life were affected by your decision and to what degree.
In our culture, patience is not a virtue it’s practically obsolete. Buck the tide. Be gentle and tolerant with the time it takes to make changes and adjust to them. Practice meditation and yoga to cultivate the art of sitting with frustration and not knowing. As you do, you will become more comfortable with allowing growth and change to unfold in their own good time, rather than forcing them into some rigid or limited idea of the only options you can see now. (See “Responses To Get Over It Already.”)
Another useful technique is to use your body as a way to connect more deeply with your intuition. When you have a sense of something being right, or not right for you, go inside and find where you feel that physically. Is it in your chest? Your gut? Your lower back? Some people use this as a short cut to intuitively knowing what they don’t want to do. For example, you may say yes to something and immediately get a pain in your neck. With a little practice acknowledging that pain, you can say no to what triggers it. That may require some assertiveness skills, especially learning how to disappoint someone tactfully and with resolve.
What might interfere with listening to your intuition? Mindless activities, or anything done in a rote, unconscious way, like addictions. The purpose of all addictions, or obsessive-compulsive behaviors, is to push unpleasant thoughts and feelings out of your conscious awareness. So, if you have been entrenched in an addiction, or any other obsessive-compulsive behavior, this work may seem daunting. In time, as you deepen and strengthen your recovery, you will begin to hear your intuitive voice. It’s a slow process, so be patient. If you haven’t heard it for years, it will be a faint whisper. Later, as you develop more trust for your inner guidance, that little voice will get louder and louder, until it is almost impossible to ignore. Making decisions becomes easier with this deeper synergy between your heart, mind, and gut.
What you appreciate grows. Be grateful for your ability to sense situations, people, and your path. If you can only tune in to the tiniest whisper, be happy with that. If you are not ready to let your inner guru guide you, just wait. Eventually, you will come to trust your intuition and reap the rewards of following it.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang
We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and by the depth of our answers.
What makes asking the questions and working on their answers such a courageous act is its potential to shatter our status quo. Yet, it is precisely by plumbing our depths that we move towards greater self-compassion, self-knowledge, and self-actualization.
Abandoning the idea that there is one, right answer is also crucial, as many paths may lead you to the same place. Different answers are just better suited to different ages and stages. By consciously detaching from seeking the one, perfect answer, you can let the ebb and flow of changing thoughts, feelings, situations, and sensibilities encourage greater openness and flexibility in your journey.
Naturally, your responses to these questions will shift and morph with time. Thinking about your answers grounds you through increased awareness of thoughts, feelings, and dreams. Bolstered with self-knowledge, you are more likely to make better choices.
As you look at the following list, it is helpful to have an almost playful attitude. They may be serious questions, but you can approach them in a more light hearted way. Be open to devoting a minute, a day, or a week to each. Alternatively, you can intuitively pick the one that speaks to you now and allow your mind to freely meander around it. As you do, you might find it useful to write down what comes up. It may be a thought, bodily sensation, memory, or feeling, all are worth exploring. Another illuminating option is to come back to the same question later and answer it again, without first looking at your previous responses. This can be especially enlightening and surprising if you have waited months between writing, as it shows you, in your own words, how you have grown.
If you are part of a self-help group you may want to choose a question and allow everyone to share their responses within the safety of a deep listening paradigm, where each person speaks without interruptions or comments from others.
Think of the questions as catalysts to greater self-knowledge. Choose a way to work with them that speaks to you. Running through the list like a locomotive may capture immediate uncensored reactions, while savoring each one separately gives you time to mine it for all its potential. Feel free to add any other questions that occur to you.
What makes my spirits soar?
What makes me feel safe?
What reliably improves my mood?
How do I show myself compassion?
How do I nurture myself?
What, or who, helps me unburden myself?
With whom do I share my deepest thoughts and feelings?
What parts of my shadow am I projecting on to others? (You might want to read the Demons chapter for more on this Jungian concept.)
What do I do every day to replenish my spirit?
How do I support myself: emotionally, spiritually, financially, physically, intellectually, socially?
How often am I truly living in the moment?
What are my hot buttons, and how do I allow other people to press them?
How do I want to approach the challenges in my life?
What am I practicing? This could be a formal practice like yoga or meditation, or an informal one, like taking a daily walk.
What am I unconsciously practicing, my automatic behaviors and knee-jerk reactions?
Assuming I get to choose my thoughts, what would I like to think about myself, work, family, home, body, friendships, nature, and spirit?
What can I do to increase my financial stability? (You may want to check the book: “Your Money or Your life” by Vicki Robin, Joe Dominguez and Monique Tilford )
With whom do I spend my time? Is it gratifying?
Am I comfortable with solitude?
How do I relax?
Whose company nourishes my spirit?
What makes me laugh?
Am I paying attention to everything that is going well in my life and taking time to feel grateful?
How often do I consciously choose thoughts that help me feel positive, balanced, or peaceful?
How can I anchor myself in this moment?
Am I creating the life I want?
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang
Panoramic awareness is based on a certain amount of trust, or optimism. Basically nothing is regarded as a failure or as dangerous. Rather, whatever arises is experienced as part of a creative and loving relationship toward oneself.
The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.
From a very young age we are trained to seek out and notice everything that is wrong. Beginning with our earliest days in school, we are told how to correctly spell, add, subtract and multiply. This vigilance for mistakes can be extremely helpful; however, there are times when it is inhibiting, like when the art teacher corrects our drawing, or the music teacher tells us the song we wrote is too weird. Of course, not all teachers take that approach, but if they do, it cramps our creativity. Picasso’s lopsided faces or Loudon Wainwright’s lyrics never would have gotten “A”s.
If we choose a profession like medicine, law, accounting or plumbing, we are again trained to seek out and eliminate what is wrong. Of course, you want your dentist or electrician to notice what’s amiss and fix it, but perfectionism in all areas of life is stifling. If you think you have to do everything perfectly from your first attempt, you won’t try many new things, and your days will be less rich.
On a more global level, we watch or read the news and learn of wars, floods, financial collapses, famines, and, once again, focus on everything that is broken or hurting.
It’s no wonder we see ourselves as lacking and needing repair.
What if you took the radical approach that you are perfect just the way you are, right now? Yes, you, with all your thoughts, feelings, talents, yearnings. You are whole, complete, and fine just as you are. You don’t need to lose weight, make more money, have more friends, or meet your dream partner to feel good and peaceful in yourself right this minute. You can choose to go against all that training of looking for defects and focus on the positives. In a way, this is similar to a gratitude practice, though in an evolved gratitude practice you can be just as thankful for the things you don’t enjoy as for those you love, since you assume everything is happening for your highest good.
By thinking you are complete as you are and you don’t need anything or anyone to make you better, you open your heart to your own sweet self, just as you are right this minute. You may not like everything about yourself or your life but you can work on accepting things and people as they are, including you.
Instead of doing a daily or hourly inventory of what’s wrong, look for what is right. By seeing everything as part of your journey, even when you you don’t like it, you can practice radical acceptance.
Here’s a different twist, try noticing what is upsetting as a way of reevaluating your judgment about your perception. It is a lot easier to accept things we deem difficult or unpleasant when we stop telling ourselves they should be different. Clearly, we don’t control the universe; but, we can learn to think differently about everyone, including ourself. By focusing on what is going well, and you can choose to view life positively if you change your attitude, you will feel more bouyant, open, and joyful. In the meantime, by embracing what you have previously shunned you welcome all life’s experiences, not just the puppies and rainbows.
Why not assume you are here for the full catastrophe, as Zorba the Greek said. Practice a bit of Buddhist mindfulness, or yogic witnessing, and observe without judging or evaluating. This doesn’t mean you will welcome a divorce, bad diagnosis, empty nest, bankruptcy, or other big challenges, but you will approach them as opportunities to learn, grow, and experience life in this moment, in this body, on this planet.
We yogis like to say everyone is our teacher. Everyone and everything. Some lessons are very hard and others easy; with practice, you can embrace them all.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang
I have always found the easiest way to distinguish sadness from depression is to ask yourself if your overwhelmingly negative, hopeless feelings penetrate every cell of your body. Say yes, and you are probably depressed.
It is natural to think there is a continuum going from sadness to depression, but, actually, there is one continuum for sadness and a separate one for depression. You can be a little sad or deeply sad, a little depressed, or deeply depressed; but deeply sad never equals even a little depressed. They are completely different feelings. Depression is a full body experience, sadness is not.
Sadness is when your gerbil dies but you can still go to work. Depression is when your partner chooses someone over you, and you feel so rotten it is as if every part of your body, mind, and spirit is affected. Depression is bleak, dark and hopeless. Despair rules. On the other hand, you may feel numb, as if nothing is registering on your emotional radar screen.
When you’re depressed there isn’t much that gives you pleasure. If sad, you can still enjoy some chocolate or a beautiful sunset.
It can be helpful to distinguish a few things:
Is your depression from an external source, like a bad diagnosis, big disappointment, divorce, death, or job loss; or, did it develop from an internal concept, self-rating, idea, or state of mind? If your depression was sparked by grief, you may want to deal with that, and assume it is not depression, per se, but another aspect of your reaction to loss.(See the chapters on grief for more on its protean landscape.) Generally speaking, if your depression is linked to an external event it is more likely to respond to treatment fairly quickly. On the other hand, if it came from internal issues you have been wrestling with for years, you may want to consider professional help. Some people respond quickly, while others may take longer. All that matters is taking the first step.
In this day and age, it is easy to think a depressed person needs medication. While there are situations when that is appropriate, in many instances it is not necessary. In Germany, for example, if you go to a psychiatrist with mild to moderate depression he or she will suggest St. John’s Wort. Taking fish oil, and vitamin D3 are also invaluable in lifting your spirits.
Numerous studies have shown that any exercise helps combat depression. Something as seemingly simple as walking, assuming you swing your arms at the same time, actually balances out the hemispheres of the brain, allowing you to think more clearly. In addition, that rhythmic motion helps banish obsessive thoughts that often accompany the blues.
Dietary changes make a difference, especially if you keep your blood sugar levels as stable as possible by not skipping meals, and eating a balanced breakfast. In the early 1800s, when Dr. Samuel Hahnemann was developing his theory of homeopathy, he wrote, before you give anyone any remedy, make sure they are sleeping, eating a balanced diet, and getting some sun. The most basic self-care can have enormous benefits.
Even though it may be the last thing you feel like doing, socializing has been known to soothe feelings of estrangement, isolation, and worthlessness. So, fight the inertia to stay put and make some plans. Meeting someone for tea, or running into people as you do errands, can have a salutary effect.
One thing the research seems to consistently show is how cognitive-behavioral therapy helps change depression-creating thoughts to ones that soothe your emotions and shift your perspective on life. What is less obvious, is how many ways there are to change your thoughts. Many new age books, like “Ask and It Is Given” by the Hicks’ provide numerous techniques for shaping your thoughts and reframing unhelpful perspectives and attitudes to ones that serve you. I am still very partial to Albert Ellis’ classic “How To Stubbornly Refuse To Make Yourself Miserable About Anything, Yes, Anything!”
Dr. Ellis would have been the first person to remind you that catastrophizing about one’s mood only makes it worse. If you catch yourself saying how awful it is to feel depressed or how you can’t stand it, remind yourself you can stand what you don’t like. By upping the emotional ante with awfulizing thoughts, you actually increase bad feelings. Yes, they feel rotten, but they won’t last. You can combat pernicious thoughts with the paradoxical, Buddhist, technique of exploring your feelings. By going deeply into what scares you most, you prove how, debilitating as they are, they won’t kill you. This difficult practice, of sitting with extreme discomfort, builds emotional muscle. To support your efforts, try reading or listening to books or lectures by Pema Chodron, a brilliant contemporary Buddhist nun.
On a behavioral level, you can improve your mood by raising endorphins, the naturally occurring feel-good chemicals in the brain. Exercise, yoga, meditation, kundalini yoga, Kapalabhati breath work (find a youTube link), laughing, spending time with children and pets, dancing, singing, playing music, and engaging in something creative (this might be an art or craft project, cooking, baking, furniture making, writing, or decorating), all can jump start your mood, especially if you do them.
To decrease crankiness, try eating mood altering foods like complex carbs, beans, and chocolate. (See Chocolate’s Healing Powers on this site.) It is also a good idea to avoid wine, beer, and liquor since they act as depressants. Drink herbal tea, especially uplifting mint, and calming chamomile. Don’t skip even one meal, as it will lower your blood sugar level and add to your emotional ups and downs. Try eating three meals and two snacks a day. They don’t have to be big portions, just enough to keep your blood sugar on an even keel.
Journaling can be a real refuge when life seems oppressive. Venting, writing poetry, and making gratitude lists all quiet emotional noise, and re-orient your thinking.
You can always make an appointment to talk with a therapist or clergy person. Friends and family may not want to hear how depressed you’re feeling as they find it too threatening, and feel obliged to make you better, even though that’s not their job, and they often don’t know what to say.
Take the Beck Depression Inventory so you can better assess your true psychological state.
BDI link: http://thecenterforcreativeevolution.com/wp-content/sitefiles/~public/test-beck%20depression%20inventory.pdf
If you think you are depressed, or you are having thoughts of suicide, please seek help. There are numerous avenues you can pursue, whether it is calling a counselor, a 24 hour hot line, clergy, or your doctor. Help is there if you want it.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang
If you felt abandoned as a child, if you feel abandoned now, the key to reclaiming your wholeness is to commit to being there for yourself in a loving, compassionate way right this minute.
Of course, that can be highly challenging, as old habits die hard. Feelings of isolation and worthlessness may have become familiar companions. If you have been re-indocrinating yourself for years with the same messages you heard as a child, and treating yourself harshly, becoming tenderhearted can seem daunting. It is easy to feel overwhelmed even before you start, since old messages can feel deeply ingrained. Stick with new ones and you will reap the rewards of self-compassion, gentleness, kindness, and patience with yourself. Practicing different ways of reacting to stress creates new neural pathways that eventually become almost automatic. Changing requires diligence, commitment, and self-discipline, all of which get easier as you start seeing results. In time, by talking lovingly to yourself every day, those messages will replace most of your previous self-downing inner dialogue.
To shift from the old to the new, you have to tune in to your self talk, which is typically a barrage of negativity. Then, after you have identified your critical thoughts, lovingly accept them. You are not agreeing with them, but accepting that they have existed and came to you through parents, teachers, coaches, clergy, friends, or other family members. As a child, you didn’t consciously choose to believe this nonsense, but repetition from others ingrained it.
After you have wrapped your mind around the concept of accepting what you want to annihilate, meet each negative thought with a question and a gentle, caring answer. For example, if you tell yourself you are lazy, ask if that’s true. It may be true some of the time (as it is for almost all humans) but is it true 100% if the time? If not, you can’t honestly call yourself lazy. To earn a name, you have to be that way 100% of the time, just the way my couch has to be a couch 24/7 for me to conceptualize it as one. If it turns into a camel at night it’s not a couch. I don’t know what it is, but I can’t call it a couch anymore.
Similarly, you may sometimes behave lazily, but that doesn’t make you lazy. Look for every example where you have been motivated and achieved something. Seek proof that your initial self-assesment was wrong. Once you have amassed some evidence, start using it to gently, and lovingly, tell yourself all the things you wished you had heard as a child, and want to hear now. Do this with as much heart and passion as you can muster. Continually remind yourself you are lovable, worthwhile, and unique.
Keep talking to yourself in this kind, supportive way as much as you possibly can. Eventually, these new messages will replace all the old negative self-downing that made you feel lower than a snake’s wiggle.
Every time you choose self-compassion over self-criticism you help cement a new, loving relationship with yourself. Suddenly, you feel more confident, relaxed, safe, and open to life.
When you encounter a block, and you will because this inner dialogue is deeply ingrained, assume it’s a natural part of your healing process. Acknowledge the strength of your old beliefs and re-double your efforts to create new ones.
It is not unusual to feel a bit unmoored from these changes. Understanding what a huge cognitive shift your are undertaking, and giving yourself credit for bravely doing this work, will ease those uncomfortable moments. Typically, they occur when you begin to feel better. It’s almost as if your unconscious mind is daring you to move forward. Well, that’s OK because you are up to the challenge with your goal of self-compassion more clearly in sight.
Remember, whatever you are experiencing: You can’t be too kind to yourself.
Sometimes, people mistake self-compassion for selfishness and narcissism. The Buddha said, There is no one more deserving of compassion than you. Taking the very best care of yourself is beneficial to everyone as you will have more love and generosity to spread around once you feel better, and more deserving of kindness and respect. All New Age philosophy is predicated on our creating our own lives. Of course, as children we were powerless, but once adult we can envision the life we want and bit by bit make it a reality.
Feelings of abandonment are disturbing on a very primal level and cut right to our core. The last thing you want to do is abandon your sweet self.
A few days of practicing these new responses will feel good, but months of reinforcement will make this second nature. Every time you substitute kindness for criticism you improve your relationship with yourself.
When you feel depressed, abandoned, anxious, or worthless that’s a big clue you are telling yourself something harsh and untrue. Challenge your beliefs vociferously in the context of unconditional self love and watch your life improve.
Another technique is to simply ask yourself: “What would I have to think to feel better about this?”
As counter-intuitive as it sounds, your feelings are there to feel; so, if you feel overwhelmed, go into it. Resist the urge to distract yourself with something. Temporarily escaping from the unpleasant feelings only makes them come back with a vengeance. By exploring and accepting them, they lose their power. It’s almost like when you agree with someone who is looking for a fight. It takes the wind out of their sails.
These emotional storms are part of your healing passage to a calmer you. If they feel overwhelming, you may want to talk with a counselor or therapist for guidance and support. In the meantime, take the very best care of your sweet self.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang
A death, divorce, illness, sudden unemployment, or any major loss, creates chaos in your life. This emotional fracturing, as well as the practical aftershocks of dealing with estates, lawyers, housing, finances, doctors, etc., often yields intense feelings that can be overwhelming.
When you think you simply can’t assimilate another thing, it’s crucial to just stop. Even if you have never meditated, simply sitting or lying down and paying attention to your breath will calm your nervous system and give you the literal breather you need.
Sometimes, it’s too hard to stay still, so take a walk; but, it is imperative you give yourself a break from the internal chatter, and incessant activities that may be consuming every waking moment. When you think you don’t have a minute to sit, lie down, or walk, that’s when you desperately need the break. Take it and watch the world continue to spin on its axis.
A big part of healing through grief is connecting with yourself while putting all the parts back together in a new way that makes you feel safe and whole.
As you know, this process of reconnecting all the emotional, physical, and spiritual dots can be an exhausting and chaotic ride. One minute, there’s a sense of control and growing mastery, and the next, you’re surfing a sea of feelings.
Part of the immediate task is showing up with what yogis call Beginner’s Mind and Witness Consciousness. Beginner’s mind means cultivating an attitude of openness when approaching something new, without preconceived notions, just as a beginner would. This particular grief experience is terra incognita; you haven’t had it before. By abandoning all your ideas about how you “should” feel, or behave, you allow yourself to safely feel what is true in this moment. That cosmic permission slip, coupled with open awareness, allows you to fully experience this moment, and all it entails emotionally. While you may want to run from it as if it’s a hungry tiger, the only way out is through. Avoidance may provide short term relief, but often brings long term pain.
Witness consciousness means retraining your mind to detach enough so you can have some objectivity. It is practicing watching something with a neutral perspective, and not identifying with it. Both of these yogic techniques encourage you to leave your ego outside the door. You will never totally succeed in completely detaching from your ego, but these practices allow you to experience the freedom and joy of not taking everything personally, while enhancing your chances for greater inner peace.
Beginner’s mind, witness consciousness, and self-compassion are the trifecta for healing from almost anything. They shore you up, increase your perspective, and allow for enough detachment to see things more clearly.
Just as in yoga, where each visit to the mat reveals something new, the process of unraveling the threads of grief is fresh every minute. Whether it’s a crying spell, a fit of anger, guilt, or deep sadness, recognizing how each one is unique keeps you open to the process of change and transformation.
The chaos of grief is caused, in part, by the old issues it triggers, like abandonment and post-traumatic stress. During times of acute emotional turmoil, being exquisitely gentle with yourself can ease the pain. Recognizing unhelpful thought patterns, and challenging them as vociferously as possible, will also make you feel better and more in control.
The chaotic emotional fallout of grief can also be assuaged by establishing simple routines, like having a tea break at the same time every day, getting some exercise, listening to soothing music (see the chapter on book, CD, and DVD recommendations for ideas), meditating, calling someone supportive, eating at regular intervals, watching the sky, spending time with your pet, or anything else that’s readily available. The simpler, and more easily available the activity, the greater the chance you will make it a habit and it can reliably calm the chaos.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang
Life will give you whatever experience is most helpful for the evolution of your consciousness. How do you know this is the experience you need? Because this is the experience you are having at this moment.
If you are reading this, the demons haven’t won.
Facing your demons is part of life. From your earliest moments when you might have been hungry and the breast or bottle wasn’t immediately available to later life crises, like divorce, death, job loss, financial hardship, illness, and other challenges, everyone is beset with demons. When things are particularly rough, it may seem as if the demons are winning, but as long as you live and breathe, you’re the victor.
Demons are excellent shape-shifters and can morph from one torturous form to another in the blink of an eye. Fear of rejection, worthlessness, false pride, anxiety, failure, pain, jealousy, anger, depression, and giving up on oneself are just some of the guises they assume.
It’s important to remember just how resilient you are, especially in the midst of an invasion. When I say invasion, I mean those times when you feel so overwhelmed by life you think you simply can’t stand another minute. When the emotional pain, grief, or hopelessness is all you can see. At those moments, it is crucial to remember how time limited everything really is, including you. Even if you live a long life, it will still be a relatively short span in the body; and, being incarnate is fraught with all sorts of experiences. When the less appealing ones visit, it’s best to welcome them with open arms, as counter-intuitive as that may seem. By denying what is really happening for you, or repressing your feelings with addictions or unhealthy habits, you forgo the opportunity to grow. You miss the chance to spar with scary thoughts, ugly impulses, or overwhelming grief, all of which move you into a more evolved and compassionate place.
There are still many people out there, and I don’t mean drug dealers, who will offer you a way around your misery. Advertisers will tell you life can be rosy if only you buy X, Y, or Z. Some new-agers will claim a quick way to nirvana, and there are myriad options for dulling one’s pain with obsessive-compulsive behaviors of all kinds. Don’t be beguiled by their dog and pony show. Who wouldn’t want an easy way out from pain? Sign me up! I’d love to think there was some quick panacea; but, after 40 years of studying psychology, religion, and philosophy I truly believe the only way out is through.
That doesn’t mean you have to weather every storm alone. This is the time to ask for and graciously accept help. Whether it is from a friend, relative, therapist, hotline, clergy person, or 12-step group, please avail yourself of any support you can. Just because many of us were brought up with that old Calvinist ethic of independence and self-sufficiency doesn’t mean it was right. If you were traveling West in a covered wagon you definitely needed to be one tough cookie, but most folks are not braving the wilds.
In some accounts, when the Buddha was under the Bodhi tree seeking enlightenment the demons came. He tried to fight them off for days. Finally, realizing that, at best, they would reach an impasse, he invited them to sit with him. I like to think of this as the Buddha inviting his demons to tea. Take a page from the Buddha’s book, befriend your demons. Undoubtedly, you will learn something, and develop more resilience in the process.
Jung, Freud’s disciple, believed each of us has a shadow side and we need to embrace it to be fully human, alive, and whole. By inviting your demons to tea, you own your shadow. You bravely go where many fear to tread. You have the guts to face your anger, fear, jealousy, lack of self-acceptance, guilt, and anything else you deem unacceptable. By dancing with the demons you reclaim your power. If you keep trying to bury them, you unconsciously feed each one and it comes out in projection, attributing all your own issues to others. (Everyone does this to some degree, but being unaware of doing it is problematic.)
It takes guts to face your demons. Luckily, everyone has the innate capacity to tread this rocky path, and has. Have you been ill? Divorced? Child of divorced parents? Child of an alcoholic or addict? Moved to a place where you knew no one? Weathered a financial storm? Been estranged from family? Experienced the death of a loved one? If so, you faced your demons. You courageously soldiered on. It wasn’t easy or fun, but you persevered, even when you thought the pain would never stop. Slowly but surely, it abated. At first, you may not have even noticed the subtle lessening of your anger, anxiety, or grief, but as the weeks and months wore on you started to feel more alive and open. That resiliency supports you through every challenge, allowing you to stretch beyond what you thought your limits were, and finding more capacity to bear what you thought was unbearable.
You are here for the whole enchilada, not just the kittens and rainbows. The sooner you embrace the totality of life, its highs, lows, and everything in between, the sooner you will find some measure of peace. Practicing affirmations, self-soothing thoughts, or a comforting prayer or mantra, will ease you through those trying times everyone has. No one is exempt, no matter what their life looks like, or what story they tell you. Every life is mix of treasures and traumas.
By persevering, speaking lovingly to yourself when the going gets rough, and assuming the best, you will make it to the other side.
Just like all the molecules in you and around you, things are constantly moving and shifting. Whatever you feel at this moment won’t last. It can’t. That’s what makes life so interesting and bittersweet. By embracing the vicissitudes of life with compassion for yourself and others, you allow yourself to fully experience whatever is happening to you right now. Yes, this is also known as mindfulness, acceptance, and liberation.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang
While there are a multitude of distractions and amusements available to anyone with a library card, it is not unusual to go through periods of boredom when not even the most scintillating book, movie, or conversation will sate the crankiness demon. At those times, it is best to stop whatever you are doing and simply sit with what is. Are you feeling annoyed, frustrated, agitated, sad, or self-critical? Welcome whatever comes up. Investigate it. Do something paradoxical and try to increase the feeling. This may sound counter-productive, but it will actually help you figure out what is going on. If you let yourself go deeply into your boredom the underlying issue will surface. Once it does, ask yourself how you want to handle it. Consciously choose to explore your thoughts and feelings though journaling, talking with someone (friend, relative, clergy, or therapist), or simply breathing, meditating, and allowing them.
Boredom is uncomfortable, and it is natural to want to banish it immediately. By exploring what is going on right this minute, you allow yourself to relax with what’s coming up. It is only a feeling. You have probably felt every emotion before, whether fear, joy, anger, love, anxiety, sadness, or grief, and you’re still alive.
Boredom is often a code word for something else. It seems to appear when your internal state is so strong anything external loses its power to divert you. The irritability comes from wanting relief from those simmering uncomfortable feelings and knowing the only way out is through. When nothing feels right or good, just breathing can be a refuge.
No one likes feeling irritable, bored, or restless. Nor should you. Perhaps, the purpose of these annoying feelings is to wake you out of a funk. Sometimes, an unpleasant state of mind is necessary when routine ways of being and doing have sucked the novelty out of life. Variety does spice things up, and without it living can lose its luster. Whether it’s trying different foods, listening to new music, taking a drive to an unknown locale, or going to an art opening, mixing things up helps you thrive. In addition to creating new neural pathways, unpredictability and spontaneity create a sense of surprise and delight. Of course, it has to be the right amount. Too much novelty and you feel groundless, too little and you’re bored.
Maintaining emotional balance is not easy. Life, with all its demands, intrudes on the best laid plans. So, boredom, restlessness, and groundlessness appear. Re-grounding yourself can be as easy as feeling your body sitting, standing, or moving, eating something mindfully, looking out a window and really seeing what meets your gaze, taking a walk, calling a friend, listening to music, writing in your journal, or anything else that uses some of that irritable energy. Even meditation, not an easy feat when you are feeling crabby, is helpful, since it reminds you this is merely a passing state you can label and release. Actually, you are not really releasing the state as much as your attachment to it.
Boredom, restlessness, and groundlessness are simply different terms for feeling temporarily stuck and uncomfortable. You will not stay in this state of mind. Everything changes, and that is what makes life so interesting. You never know what’s next. By sitting with what is, or actively shaking things up a bit, you practice mindfulness or self-determination. Sometimes, one will work better than the other. It’s always good to have a few arrows in your quiver since one day sitting with your feelings will be the right choice, and another doing something proactively will work.
The following grounding techniques utilize your ability to actively focus attention on something external to distract you from whatever thoughts and feelings seem unpleasant, overwhelming, or boring. (They are from another chapter called Grounding Techniques.)
5-4-3-2-1 meditation. Wherever you are, notice 5 things you can see, then 5 things you can hear, and then 5 things you can physically feel. Continue with four things in each category, then 3 things in each category, then 2 and, finally, 1. Allow about 15 minutes to complete one full cycle. It is preferable to find new things, but not necessary.
Another 5-4-3-2-1 meditation. Wherever you are, notice 5 objects, 5 colors, 5 shapes, and 5 textures, then 4 in each category,, then 3, then 2, and 1.
Think of all the vocabulary words you can rememeber from another language you studied.
Recall your favorite foods, places you have visited, movies, books, or music.
Recite a poem you memorized as a child.
Describe in minute detail a mundane activity you do every day, like brushing your teeth: I pick up the toothbrush, I turn on the water, I wet the toothbrush, I put toothpaste on the toothbrush, etc.
Imagine a time when you felt very safe and describe it in great detail, using all five senses.
Sing a song.
Build a sanctuary in your head. Add as much detail as possible.
Focus on where your body is contacting the floor, a chair, or bed. Breathe into that place.
Widen and stretch your fingers and toes. Relax them and repeat.
Repeat a prayer, affirmation, or mantra. Use a rosary or mala beads to help anchor the repetitions.
Count backwards by threes from 100.
List how many things you can do, from the mundane to the most sophisticated.
Play old car games in your head, like Geography (where you say the name of a place and use the last letter of that place as the first letter of your next one) or I Packed My Trunk and In It I Put an A (apple), a B (beta endorphin), a C (color wheel), to Z, going through the whole alphabet, starting from A each time you add another letter.
Look out the window and notice subtle color differences in the sky, cloud configurations, trees and branches, or the various shapes and sizes of leaves.
Feel your breath. Remind yourself that you are alive, and whatever you are feeling is part of life. You are here to feel it all.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang
I have a confession to make: I don’t believe you can feel happy 24/7, any more than you can feel anything every minute for your entire life. We are designed to feel a broad spectrum of emotions because, so far, they have kept us safe and helped perpetuate the human race.
We all know how something that feels bad can actually redound to your highest good in the future. But, being the hedonists we are designed to be, we naturally avoid pain and seek pleasure. What if sitting with discomfort helped us make peace with it, increased our frustration tolerance and our ability to accept life as it is? As Albert Ellis used to say, it’s a choice between short-term hedonism and long-term hedonism. If we forego the pleasure of the moment we can reap greater benefits in the future. In today’s society, delaying gratification is not popular; however, when we learn to sit with what we don’t like we actually build emotional muscle and can handle the next challenge with greater ease.
When we feel anxious, for example, our first inclination is for relief, which usually consists of avoidance. We can distract ourselves with TV, video games, pornography, food, alcohol, drugs (including prescription psychotropics), gambling, etc. and create new problems; or, we can do the last thing we instinctively gravitate towards: sit with the feeling. Yes, just allow it. Breathe into it. Can you feel the discomfort physically? If so, notice its characteristics. Is your breathing shallow? Is your back tense? Do you feel a headache coming on? Is your jaw clenched Are your shoulders hunched up? Is your abdomen tight? Breathe into whatever you notice.
Give yourself permission to feel your feelings. With practice, it will help you accept yourself and your reality. By resting in awareness you stop fighting what is true for you now and open to the possibility that it is all OK. You can handle what you don’t like.
Many incredibly intelligent and insightful souls, like the Buddha, Ram Dass, and Tolle have encouraged us to be here now. That means being with whatever comes up. Your job isn’t to like everything, but to be aware and open. Luckily, this becomes easier when you remind yourself everything passes, the pleasant and the unpleasant.
It is crucial to understand that the goal here is not necessarily to figure out why you are feeling what you’re feeling, but to stay with the discomfort. You may even want to cultivate some curiosity about what you are feeling.
Granted, mindfulness practice is counter-intuitive, but when you are fully in the moment you can actually relax into what is. Resisting your feelings often increases them and their power. No harm will come to you if you embrace your feelings, though it may be uncomfortable. In time, you will notice a feeling or sensation and, rather than avoid it, you will label and accept it. Another great benefit of this practice is that by gently and lovingly accepting where you are you become more compassionate with yourself and others.
Impermanence is the name of the game. Nothing lasts, good or bad. You may not care to remind yourself of that in the middle of an ice cream sundae (though it might make you more appreciative and increase your enjoyment), but it is helpful to remember when times are tough.
Once you allow yourself to be with what is true for you now, remember the quote: “Pain is inevitable but suffering is optional.” By resisting the urge to rate your feelings, or yourself as bad for having them, you will begin to know the peace that comes from acceptance, and your discomfort won’t morph into suffering.
Here are some exercises to help you on your path to emotional freedom:
Consciously stop yourself a few times a day to do an internal check.
What am I feeling now?
Can I allow this feeling, whether physical, emotional or spiritual, without trying to repress it, or distract myself from it?
Stay with whatever comes up, especially if you don’t like it.
Try to label what you are experiencing. For example: tightness in my throat, muscle spasms in my low back, tension in my jaw, etc.
Name your emotions as if you were simply observing them, like: anxiety, sadness, anger, resentment, grief, etc.
Breathe into any area of discomfort, and keep drawing your breath there until you feel it relax.
Immerse yourself in Buddhist thought by reading books by Pema Chodron, and listening to podcasts on iTunes like: A Quiet Mind, The I.D. Project, or interviews on Sounds True.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang
If hope is the thing with feathers, as Emily Dickenson said, then trust floats on gossamer wings.
Most people lose that child-like trust with the end of a first love, but not all. I have known a handful of souls who maintained it until death, or appeared to, but it’s certainly not the norm. Life intrudes on the fantasy that someone will be an all-loving, supportive parent. Paradoxically, if you had toxic parents, it’s even harder to relinquish this desire as yearning for a kinder, gentler life becomes a mission to get what you missed as a child.
Whether trust is broken by an affair, an addiction, or the gradual departure of someone’s heartfelt interest, it requires a radical shift in your world view. Emotionally adjusting to that cognitive terra incognita takes time and energy, but is worth it as it builds maturity and a commitment to being responsible for yourself.
At the end of the day, if you truly trusted someone and found out he or she was unworthy of that level of faith, you may swing to the opposite side of the pendulum and feel wary of everyone. That’s OK. It’s temporary. When you have been badly burned it’s natural to fear fire. Eventually, you will allow people into your heart again. You may never trust anyone else 100%. That’s fine, because the real task is learning to trust yourself. Before we explore ways to build self trust, let’s look at what trust entails.
Trust may mean your parent, child, mate, friend, business partner will:
Take care of you when you’re sick or old.
Tell you the truth.
Treat you kindly.
Keep your secrets.
Honestly, and with compassion, share most of their thoughts, feelings, and personal information.
Listen to your thoughts, opinions, and concerns.
Have your best interests at heart.
Everyone has their own notion of what trust feels like. On some level, trust is having faith in someone else’s ability to truly know and support you. This may mean nurturing, protecting, listening, contributing financially, knowing what you are thinking without you having to say it, anticipating your desires, etc. As you can see, it’s a tall order. The most realistic approach is to hope someone who loves you will do their best, most of the time, to act for your highest good. It doesn’t hurt to remember that everyone is after their own happiness, and they will usually put that before yours. So, if the relationship is reciprocal and they feel they are getting most of what they want, they will make a bigger effort to please you. If not, they will have less incentive.
There are three important things to remember about trust:
1. Your decision to trust someone is a gift to you, not to them. You do it for peace of mind.
2. You can always trust people to be themselves.
2. If they betray you, it is a reflection of who they are, and says nothing about you.
If you have been betrayed and your trust was breached, it may be a good idea to use the above concepts as mantras until they become automatic. When something bad happens, it is all too easy to let feelings of insecurity, vulnerability, and grief distort your perception. Thinking more clearly will change your feelings from anger, despair, worthlessness, hopelessness, depression, and anxiety to acceptance, optimism, sadness, and concern, all of which will help you adjust to a new reality.
Trusting yourself is much harder than handing yourself over to someone else. After all, you came into the world as a helpless infant who needed adult care and attention, so on some very deep level, it’s tempting to want to feel fully nurtured by someone. Since everyone has some abandonment issues, this desire is heightened by the fear that those we love the most will eventually leave. The good news is until you drop the body, as they say in India, you can always count on yourself. It may take a lot of practice to prove to yourself you are truly capable of healthy self-care, but you are. Keep at it and the emotional rewards will accrue, until, one day, you will automatically guide yourself towards self-loving thoughts and behaviors.
How can you build inner security and self-trust?
Patiently accept your own pace as you move forward in your journey.
Take responsibility for yourself emotionally, financially, physically, socially, intellectually, vocationally, and spiritually.
Practice supportive self-talk by saying loving things to yourself. Even if you are lucky enough to have friends, family, or a therapist who repeatedly tells you calming,
helpful things, there is something deeply soothing about being able to hear those words in your head, and comfort yourself with them anytime—knowing you really mean them. Either way, the more you hear them, the more quickly they will become second nature, eventually eclipsing the cacophony of internal self-downing you may have been immersed in for as long as you can remember.
Everything, no matter how awful it might feel in the moment, is for your highest good and personal evolution. When you are struggling, miserable, grief-stricken, and saturated with anxiety, it seems almost impossible to remember this deep truth. Even if you don’t believe it, just keep repeating it. Eventually, you will see the way life constantly shifts and changes. It’s just like a seesaw, only now, you know you are the fulcrum.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang
“What annoyances are more painful than those of which we cannot complain?”
Marquis de Custine
“Things are seldom what they seem, skim milk masquerades as cream.”
From H.M.S. Pinafore by Gilbert and Sullivan
Have you ever noticed yourself vacillating between feeling grateful and complaining? Take heart, they don’t cancel each other out, nor do they have to compete. As strange as it may seem, both are necessary for you to maintain a balanced view of life. Repressing negative thoughts and feelings is not healthy or desirable. Allowing the full spectrum of emotions is your ticket to a more authentic, content life. If we weren’t supposed to experience rage, frustration, anger, irritation, jealousy, envy, or any other “negative” emotion they would all have been extinct by now. The fact that everyone has the full complement of feelings is evidence they are necessary. Having them and acknowledging they exist is not the same thing as expressing them inappropriately. It is far better to write in your journal than to escalate your anger into road rage, or homicidal behavior. Unfortunately, many people, especially women, are trained to think they have to be “sugar and spice and everything nice” as the old nursery rhyme used to say. Not only can this be stultifying emotionally, it can morph into all sorts of physical issues, some of which can be painful to the point of immobilization.
Dr. John Sarno, who wrote a number of books, beginning with “Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection,” has always maintained emotions you find unacceptable get expressed physically in the form of TMS, tension myositis syndrome. The purpose of this muscle tension, and the pain it produces, is to distract you from negative thoughts and feelings you deem inappropriate to your self-concept as a good, kind, loving, generous, person. The cure is to allow 15-30 minutes a day to journal your nastiest, angriest, and most loathsome thoughts. On the face of it, you may think this goes against everything written on this site about envisioning the best and allowing it to come to you. It doesn’t. To paraphrase Carl Jung, we all have a shadow side and denying it only creates misery. By taking time every day to let your darkest thoughts and feelings rise to conscious awareness, you keep them from festering and expressing themselves in other, more insidious ways.
According to Dr. Sarno, it is typically the nicest people who suffer from TMS the most. They are do-gooders, perfectionists, self-critical, overly responsible, and prone to guilt. Naturally, allowing and acknowledging a slew of negative thoughts and feelings is anathema to people whose very existence has depended on being perceived as loving, giving, and kind-hearted. But, if not allowing yourself to peer into your dark side produces chronic pain, or other challenging physical symptoms that intrude on your life, you may want to experiment with a little emotional spelunking.
Do you want to be the person who is so invested in being seen as 100% lovely, kind, generous, patient, self-sacrificing, etc. that you are willing to live with inner emotional turmoil and physical symptoms? That may sound like a rhetorical question, but it isn’t. Many people choose that route because it can be incredibly ego-gratifying. If you find yourself suffering from chronic pain, migraines, IBS, insomnia, or other intrusive physical issues, you may want to give Dr. Sarno’s prescription a try.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang
Everyone feels anxious sometimes. Our technologically driven society has accelerated the pace at which people live, increasing the pressure to be available 24/7 and handle everything immediately. Along with all the other stresses of daily life in the 21st century, like jobs, family care, food preparation, education, home maintenance, doctor appointments, recreation, and socializing, this creates a sense of urgency that easily morphs into anxiety. While these are all externally driven, and fairly obvious, the deeper culprits are internal thoughts, far more slippery and harder to discern.
A holistic approach to lowering your anxiety (you will never eliminate it completely) focuses on cognitive, behavioral, nutritional, spiritual, environmental, and, if warranted, homeopathic and herbal support.
Many people think fear and anxiety are the same thing. They are not. Fear is when there is an immediate threat, like your house is burning down and you have no idea where you will live. Anxiety is when you are safe, but imagine your house burning down next week.
Whenever you make a demand of yourself, have a perfectionistic goal, assume the worst, or focus on the future, you are stoking your anxiety. It may seem as if anxiety appears unbidden, but it doesn’t. Your repetitive thoughts and worrying create tension. Tension can trigger butterflies in your stomach, teeth grinding, hyper-vigilance, dry mouth, digestive issues, insomnia, sweating, trembling, twitching, nightmares, rapid breathing, decreased concentration, tachycardia, headaches, muscle tension, dizziness, changes in appetite, jumpiness, and exhaustion, just to name a few.
The first thing is to pay attention to your thoughts. When you feel anxious, ask yourself, “What am I thinking to create this tension?” Then, pretend you are a scientist and ask, “Are my thoughts true? Can I back them up with real data?”
Imagine each thought sitting on the witness stand and you’re the prosecutor.
Challenge your worst case scenarios by asking:
How do I know this will happen?
Even if it does, who says I can’t handle it?
Must I see challenges as awful, horrible, or unbearable?
Haven’t I dealt with everything that has happened to me, so far?
Where is it written that I have to enjoy everything?
How does not feeling or acting in control 24/7 make me a failure?
Do I have to do everything perfectly to deserve some peace of mind?
Everyone’s life is a series of peaks and valleys, why should mine be different?
Now, answer these questions honestly, and you’ll see how much freer and more relaxed you feel.
It is also helpful to keep an anxiety diary where you write down when you feel anxious, and rate each episode on an intensity scale from one to ten. This helps you see varying levels of anxiety, and shows you your biggest triggers. Conversely, thinking of times when you felt relaxed, and seeing what they have in common, increases your chances of finding behaviors that cultivate more inner peace.
One of my favorite techniques to combat anxiety through re-framing your thoughts is the following:
Number a piece of paper from 100, at the top, to one at the bottom, counting down by five. So you have 100, 95, 90, etc. all the way down the left side of the page.
Now, think of the worst thing that could possibly happen to you physically, like an incurable disease, and put it at number 100.
At the bottom of the page, put the most minor physical thing that could happen to you, like a paper cut or a stubbed toe.
Figure out where things like blindness, breaking a leg, a stomach flu, etc. might go until you have filled in all 21 lines.
When you next feel anxious, look at your list and ask yourself which thing you would trade for your anxiety right now.
Try to choose the thing you would really rather have than your current anxiety.
Look at its corresponding number and that will tell you the percentage of badness you think your anxiety rates.
For example, you feel anxious about an upcoming test. After careful consideration, you decide you’d rather have a bad cold than feel this anxiety. A bad cold is number 10 on your list. So, now you know, when push comes to shove, you really only think your anxiety is 10% bad.
This helps you completely re-frame and reduce your perception of how bad your anxiety really is and lowers it. It also stops the tendency to catastrophize about feeling anxious.
Dr. Albert Ellis, the founder of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, used to suggest Rational-Emotive Imagery as a way to fortify oneself against anxiety.
When not feeling especially anxious, you sit someplace comfortable, close your eyes, and make yourself feel anxious. (It may take a few minutes, so be patient.)
Try for an 8 on a scale of 1-10.
Once you’re there, lower your anxiety to about a 2-4 on that same scale.
Open your eyes and ask yourself what you did to create your anxiety and how you lessened it.
You are likely to discover certain thoughts or images that create and deflate your anxiety.
The more you practice this, the more you will retrain yourself and feel less anxious. Aim for a few times a day for a month.
Remember, all humans experience some anxiety; so, the goal is not to extinguish all of it, but to get it to a manageable level.
Discomfort anxiety is rarely spoken of, but quite ubiquitous. It’s the anxiety you feel when you think you will be uncomfortable in a future situation. It may be anxiety about going for a dental cleaning, asking someone out on a date, or attending a party where you don’t know many people. In your imaginary scenario you won’t be in severe pain, but you may feel discomfort. Sometimes, it’s helpful to recognize discomfort anxiety as different from “regular” anxiety because it helps tamp it down.
You can also try experimenting with anti-awfulizing thoughts, like:
“I have had dental work before and I was fine.”
“Plenty of people ask someone out on a date and live to tell of it. What’s the worst thing that can happen? I’ll be rejected. No one I know has ever died of rejection. I can deal with it, even if it is unpleasant.”
One of my all-time favorite anxiety busters is the 4-4-4 breath. With a closed mouth, breathing through your nose, slowly (slowly means like counting one Mississippi, two Mississippi, etc.) inhale to a count of four, hold your breath for another slow count of four, and exhale, for a count of four. Five cycles of this technique will shift your sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) to your parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest). It’s incredibly simple, but very effective.
Another breathing exercise that is especially good for hyperventilating is to exhale and hold your breath as long as you comfortably can. Doing this a few times will also redirect your nervous system.
If you are near a fridge try the Dive Technique: Grab a cold pack, or bag of ice cubes or frozen veggies. Put it on your forehead. If possible, have it cover the line between your scalp and lips. Hold your breath for 30 seconds. In less than a minute this will calm your autonomic nervous system, lowering your pulse and breath rate. It works the same way your body immediately adjusts to cold water when your face goes into a dive: pulse and respiration slow down. An excellent ally for panic, anxiety, and PTS. To make it portable, just keep one of those instant cold packs in your bag, briefcase, or car.
Here are some vitamin, herbal, and homeopathic suggestions. Please talk with your health care provider before taking any of these as they may interfere with other medications you may be using, or be contraindicated for certain health issues.
400 mg of Magnesium Citrate gently lowers anxiety, and is an excellent prophylactic if you want to feel calmer on a daily basis.
Bach’s Rescue Remedy has been helping people decrease their stress, panic, and anxiety since the 1930s. Just a few drops on your tongue, or in a water bottle you can sip all day, will soothe your jangled nerves.
Rock Rose, another Bach remedy, is truly amazing at quelling panic attacks. Literally, within 20 seconds of taking a few drops under your tongue you will notice a cellular change in your system. You won’t feel drugged, but you will be soothed enough so you can go on.
Passionflower, an herb you can easily find as a tincture, is very gentle on your liver and can be used 2-3 times a day for many months with confidence. Think of it as a concentrated tea that tames anxiety. You may also notice a positive cumulative effect if you use it for a few weeks.
Melissa, also known by it’s English name: Lemon Balm, is an excellent soporific and anti-rumination remedy. It’s best taken 15 minutes before bed to quiet the mind and induce sleep. This herb is suggested for occasional use, or for a few especially challenging weeks, because long-term use can strain your liver.
While there are a plethora of mantras and affirmations that can quiet the mind, I especially like the following for their emotional strength and brevity:
Right this minute everything is fine.
Right now, I’m OK.
Last but not least, give yourself a cosmic permission slip to feel anxious. Paradoxically, the real culprit of persistent anxiety is telling yourself it is not OK to feel it. This self-censoring actually increases your anxiety and takes it from anxiety about the original situation (tests, doctors, finances, etc.) into anxiety about feeling anxious. The truth is: you have felt anxious in the past and survived. Thinking this way actually increases your tolerance for discomfort and allows you to start using all the above strategies and techniques.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang
Manifesto: a public declaration of intentions, opinions, objectives, or motives.
As a long-time yogi, I have been setting an intention before my daily practice for over ten years. Perhaps, it was this habit that prompted me to write my first manifesto in 2004. Gathering healing thoughts and wishes into one short document was enlightening, centering, and deeply positive. Since others have found this process helpful, I wanted to share the method and give you some suggestions for possible inclusions in your own manifesto.
The best thing you can do when you start to write anything is let it flow. As you allow thoughts, feelings and ideas to take shape on the page, give yourself the gift of writing without interruption. That means both carving out a little time for yourself, as well as not stopping to edit your words. You can revise and re-write later on.
If you like brainstorming, write the word “Manifesto” in the middle of a blank page and let your mind wander. When an idea pops into your head write it in a circle around that central word. Then, focus on each word and write what comes to mind in a line branching out from it. That may be enough for one day. If you feel like continuing, focus on any word or concept that speaks to you and think of your wish for your own growth, development, or peace as it relates to that idea.
Daydream. Recent studies show that encouraging your mind to wander in what appears to be an aimless manner actually generates creative solutions to problems, and is just as valid as any other kind of “work.” If you regularly keep a journal, or a dream journal, you may find re-reading entries gives you plenty of fodder for your manifesto.
If you have a health issue, you might explore ways to be more comfortable with your body, think of phrases that help you let go of preconceived notions about your health, and accept things as they are since you can be sure they will change. In situations you can’t control, it is often best to find power in letting go, and allowing what is to be exactly as it is.
During a particularly transformative or transitioning period, you may want to focus your intentions on building resilience. Certain life events, like being a new parent, taking a job, or moving naturally inspire new thoughts and wishes. Let your mind wander and imagine ways you would like to be in this stage of your life.
If you are working with a therapist, there may be recurring themes you want to address.
Whether you try some of these suggestions, read the examples below, or just start writing, it is best to remember, your manifesto is an ever changing, fluid document meant to support you on your journey to your truest self. It is not a rigid set of rules or “shoulds” to encourage negative self-talk, or critical self-evaluations. Let your imagination run wild. Think of how you would like to live your life and write what comes from that deep, all-knowing place.
Here are some ideas to stoke your own creative process:
I embrace my humanity and fallibility.
I appreciate every goodness and kindness in my life by practicing gratitude.
I allow my body, mind, and spirit the time and space to heal.
Every day, I make time for self-reflection.
I am exactly where I am supposed to be in this moment.
I get outside and let nature work her magic.
All I seek is already within me.
I tenderly acknowledge the small, vulnerable child in myself and others.
I surround myself with beauty.
I give my body the movement or stillness it seeks.
When I feel hopeless, I let myself take another breath until despair departs.
I regularly tune in to nourish any areas I have neglected, whether social, creative, physical, spiritual, or intellectual.
I acknowledge my losses and grieve, letting go when the time is right.
I cultivate patience during the fallow times for they nourish and prepare me for a bountiful harvest I may not be able to see in those dormant, but fertile, moments.
Every day, my heart opens a little more with compassion for myself and others.
I allow myself to feel and express all emotions.
I carefully and authentically share my truths.
When I say or do something insensitive or thoughtless I apologize.
I take all the time I need to be with grief, hurt, and anger knowing they will pass.
Appreciating my unique gifts comes easily and naturally to me.
I rise to the joys and challenges of each day, knowing I have made it through every one, so far.
I allow life to unfold and surprise me.
I welcome the rhythms of my body, mind, and spirit as they continually evolve.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang
We often think the three words that will change our lives are “I love you,” but there are actually four words that will improve and enhance all your relationships. They are: “Thank You,” and “I’m Sorry.”
Just as a little experiment, recall a difficult situation you encountered with another person. If one of you had apologized would things have worked out better?
Now, think of a situation when someone did apologize to you sincerely. Did you feel a seismic shift in your heart? Did you notice every muscle in your body soften and relax?
What about the last time someone thanked you in a meaningful way? How did that feel? Did you find yourself more open to life afterward?
Can you recall saying thank you and seeing the joy it brought another?
It is almost impossible to over-estimate the power of these four words and all they imply. The world would look radically different if everyone in power routinely used them.
I’m sorry shows humility, taking responsibility for one’s actions and regret. It takes a strong person to apologize.
Thank you reminds the speaker of their gratitude. As Max Strom said, “We can’t feel gratitude and stress at the same time.” So, if for no other reason than reducing your stress levels, practice thanking everyone for everything they do to make your life better.
What gets in the way of using these phrases more frequently, especially considering their power?
Rushing and just not taking the time to think of possible consequences of your words or actions.
Allowing yourself to get out of the habit.
Assuming the other person knew you appreciated what they did and you don’t have to say anything.
Thinking it’s quid pro quo: they didn’t thank you, so why should you thank them?
Erroneously believing apologizing is groveling. Nothing could be further from the truth. When you apologize you are taking a stand, showing assertiveness, and actively changing the direction of an interaction.
Thinking that acknowledging an error makes you “bad,” and, by apologizing, everyone will know you made a mistake. Which brings us to perfectionism. It’s easy to delude yourself into believing that if you push your mistakes under the rug and ignore them (not apologizing is an attempt at this) others will not fault you. There are two crucial aspects of this kind of thinking. One, in general, people are more likely to rate you poorly if you don’t apologize than if you do, though their opinion of you is really none of your business. Two, perfectionistic thinking, which is all about feeding the ego, hampers your ability to apologize because to do so you have to admit you regret something you did, and face your fallibility. The simplest cure for perfectionism is daring to be average. By allowing yourself to be human you give yourself a cosmic permission slip to relax.
Thinking an apology gives the other person the upper hand. It doesn’t.
Believing it makes you inferior to the other person. How can anything make you inferior to anyone?
False pride, believing your ego will lose something if you admit your human fallibility.
Shame or humiliation from having to face a mistake, even though there’s no shame in admitting errors. Quite the opposite. It takes guts to say “I was wrong.” Personally, I don’t believe there are mistakes, only lessons.
Embarrassment, caring a great deal about how you appear to others. It can only help you to care less what others think of you, as it enhances your confidence in your own choices and decisions.
Assuming apologizing diminishes you in some way. Similar to the dynamic some people have where they believe complimenting a person takes something away from them, or weakens them. Nothing could be further from the truth. Apologizing makes you feel powerful because you change your relationship by being positively assertive. It’s easy to think of assertiveness when you want to stand up to someone, but assertiveness also applies to those situations when you tremble with fear at the thought of admitting fallibility.
Tips for increasing the use of these four powerful words:
Seek out situations where you can show your gratitude. The cashier at the supermarket, the person at the phone company, someone who planted a tree or flower in your neighborhood (yes, I am suggesting you actually go into the store and thank the owner for making your neighborhood more beautiful), and, of course, all those near and dear who show their caring in so many ways. Last but not least, you may want to thank god or the universe for all your blessings.
As we have seen, saying I’m sorry can be more difficult than expressing gratitude. Think of it as a challenge. Anytime you might have offended or hurt someone, intentionally or not, apologize.
These four words are, perhaps, the most empowering we have. With them, you can redirect the course of relationships, heal old wounds, and achieve greater peace. Why be stingy with them when they can change the course of your life? Lavish yourself, yes yourself, and others with these words and watch the magic.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang
I have never been a big fan of sending little children to therapy, as I believe they value their parents’ input more than a stranger’s. Most kids are slow to trust people they don’t know, which is why I typically suggest the parents come in so I can teach them different ways of interacting with their child. I have found this is far more direct and cost-effective, and it avoids pathologizing the child for what he is going through. By normalizing his reactions to whatever challenge he’s facing, and having the parent(s) intervene and lend support, the child heals faster and develops a stronger bond with the parent(s). Not only is this efficient, but most people generally prefer their child bonding more deeply to them than to a therapist.
Sometimes, parents feel guilty about certain situations, like divorce, for example, and its effects on their children. There is a vast difference between guilt and responsibility. You may be responsible, or partly responsible, but you do not have to feel guilty. Guilt is self-punishment. In my experience, divorce is punishing enough without adding to the pain. The truth is, in most instances, you, not a professional, are best suited to help your child; and, your child will receive that help more easily than if it had come from a stranger. This is especially true if he is under age seven, the age of reason.
Sticking with the divorce example, your little one is already going through enough adjustments, whether cognitive, emotional, physical, changes in their home environment, shifting family alliances, religious worship routines, sibling issues, step-parents, and dealing with school. The last thing he needs is to have to adapt to another adult, no matter how caring and competent the therapist may be. The time it would take for a counselor to earn his trust could be far better utilized helping you, the parent, learn some helpful techniques. In addition, your child will see you as more capable. Yes, it’s one more thing for you to do in the whirlpool of activity that is modern life. You could think of it as another brick on your load, or you could view it as an investment.
The biggest positive impact you can have on a child, besides being loving, is providing consistency. By working with a therapist yourself, you maintain your place as the expert in your child’s universe. He will feel more secure knowing Mom or Dad is capable of guiding the way through this new, scary landscape.
There are certainly some times (usually of extreme abuse or trauma) that taking a young child to a therapist is warranted, but in most cases, and for less severe issues, the parents’ reassurance, patience, acceptance, and attention will best soothe, guide, and support the child’s healing.
The situation is different when it comes to teens and pre-teens. They often welcome the opportunity to talk with someone more objective, as confidentially speaking with an adult who is neither parent, coach, nor relative affords them the opportunity to thoroughly vent. This unbridled expression of anger, grief, and (sometimes) self-blame is crucial to letting go of what they wanted and accepting what is often quite challenging: a new reality.
Teens and pre-teens are often extraordinarily adept at fooling adults into thinking they are OK when they aren’t. They see the parents are stressed out and don’t want to be a burden. In some cases, they may even think being high maintenance leads to abandonment. This can often lead to their putting on a mask of higher functioning for the parent’s benefit. If your pre-teen or teen seems to be just peachy in the aftermath of a divorce, or any other life-changing experience, trying spending some time with him. A good trick is to take a long drive or walk, where you can talk without having to literally face each other. Young people are far more likely to confide in you if they don’t feel judged. Just looking at them straight-on can trigger their tendency to keep secrets.
In therapy, the teen is assured of confidentiality (unless he is a danger to himself or others), which gives him a safe haven. Conversely, little children naturally feel safest with a parent, so the same dynamic, with its healing potential, doesn’t apply to all age groups.
In this day and age, it would be remiss not to talk about psychotropic medication for children and teens. My first impulse is to avoid meds whenever there is a workable alternative. As a holistic psychotherapist, I gravitate towards empowering people of all ages without the use of pharmaceuticals; however, there are times when medication is appropriate. Here are a few questions to ask yourself before embarking on a mainstream, drug-oriented approach:
Is there an unusual amount of change going on in our household?
Could my child’s reaction be appropriate for the transitioning family situation? (Transitions may include moving, changing schools, divorce, blending into a new family, medical issues, pressure from a sports team, or “normal” age-stage adjustments.)
Could this behavior be coming from normal hormonal shifts?
Is there bullying at school?
Is there emotional or physical abuse on the home front?
Is my child eating a healthy, balanced diet?
Is he sleeping enough? Most children do not get enough sleep and this contributes to moodiness, short tempers, poor concentration at school, and acting out.
Is my teen going through a break-up? Don’t minimize the effect this can have. You may think it’s puppy love, but for your teen it’s the end of the world as they know it.
Is my child isolated socially?
Could my pre-teen or teen be doing drugs?
Is my child outside enough? Vitamin D levels affect mood.
Does my child get enough exercise?
Is my child challenged to her ability at school, or bored?
Does my child have enough extracurricular activities to stimulate him, or so many that he is stressed?
As you can see, there are plenty of times when a therapist’s intervention with your child is warranted, and many others when improving your own skills will make all the difference. Support and techniques from a therapist build your confidence, enabling you to help your child navigate rough seas. This empowers you, keeps a natural adjustment period from morphing into something pathological, and helps you forge a deeper relationship with your child. All good.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang
There is something appealing about the old saying, “When life hands you lemons make lemonade.” As unpoetic as it may be, I would add, just give yourself time to find a pitcher, buy the sugar, and stir it all up.
Similarly, even the harshest reality is an opportunity to learn, grow, and develop if you give yourself permission to move at whatever pace feels right, even though it may be slower than is typical for you. During a transition, changing, evolving, and ripening into an expanded version of yourself not only means giving yourself the gift of time to tune in to what feels right for you now, but time to integrate new ways of being in the world.
Everyone and everything is in a constant state of flux. When you are in the midst of a major transformation, whether precipitated by a death, diagnosis of an illness, divorce, empty nest, retirement, new job, or a move, you are faced with the various and intense ways your life, perspective, priorities, and even values, may be shifting.
At those times, the best you can do is slow down and breathe.
By letting these shifts of consciousness and circumstance wash over you without taking immediate action, you allow their effects and your reactions to seep in. Once you have had a little time to process, integrate and imagine new ways of living your life, you can begin to slowly change your behaviors. On the other hand, if you leap into the vortex you may not have the inner awareness, stability, or perspective to navigate its swirling possibilities.
Proceeding slowly, with your eyes wide open, won’t prevent making mistakes, but it will reduce their number. Paying attention to your inner reactions, whether physical responses, emotions, thoughts, or intuition, helps you base your decisions on a deeper knowledge of what might really enhance and expand your life rather than limit or shrink it.
If you find yourself taking this suggestion too far, i.e. procrastinating, ask yourself if you are avoiding something or protecting yourself. The ability to plumb your depths and discern the difference can only come from years of life experience making choices and seeing which ones were helpful and which unhelpful.
If your goal is to evolve into your truest, best self you need time to discover what is most meaningful. Understanding your priorities, values, and aspirations helps you shape a life infused with purpose and joy. Making decisions before you have allowed yourself to drop the chrysalis is a bit like driving a car without lessons. You might make it safely home, but it will be a harrowing ride.
It takes great self-control to slow down, let things marinate, and even allow confusion. You won’t stay in limbo forever. After a shock, the best treatment is rest. Rest until you feel energized, mobilized, and focused. It’s natural to think you will never feel like embracing life again, but you will.
Forcing yourself to move on or make big decisions before you are ready, ultimately limits your options. Test the waters, experiment. Try different ways of being, whether they are social, vocational, recreational, spiritual, dietary, or romantic. You can ditch anything that doesn’t feel right, though it sometimes takes a little time to know what really feeds your heart, mind, and soul. Give yourself a cosmic permission slip to wait, to breathe, to open up to all the possibilities.
Here are a few experiments to get you started:
Make a list of 100 things you want to do before you die.
The way to do this most effectively is to number a page from 1-100.
Set a timer for 20 minutes, and write as fast as you can.
You may repeat anything as often as it occurs to you. This allows your mind to flow, unimpeded by self-censoring.
When you are done, it’s easy to group your list into themes by counting how many times each one has occurred. Since you have a list of 100, you can convert these into percentages to find out what is most important to you now.
Do something completely different from your normal routine. If you are very pro-active, lie on the couch for an hour, take a long bath, go to a coffee house and people watch. If your tendency is to chill 24/7 you might like to schedule yourself with a few activities, one right after the other. If you always eat your meals out, cook something. If you always cook, meet a friend at a restaurant. Whatever you choose, do something radically different.
Similarly, if you naturally gravitate towards solitude seek out company. There are all sorts of interesting social options, whatever your interests, on http://www.meetup.com. On the other hand, if you are a social butterfly, try spending some quality time alone.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang
In America everyone is indoctrinated to believe that doing well ensures a good life. Certainly, it’s satisfying to succeed, whether at work, school, relationships, sports, or anything else, but even if you do everything according to society’s plan, there is no guarantee life will be peachy.
At various times you may find yourself facing unexpected challenges. Perhaps, your work ceases to have meaning, your children disappoint you, you or loved ones face health issues, you have major financial losses, or your mate leaves or dies.
Even the strongest soul can feel rocked to their core under such circumstances.
When life is going along fairly smoothly it’s easy to ride the smaller ups and downs, but when things fall apart, and the ups and downs are no longer little waves, but tsunamis, your resilience is really tested.
If you have had, or are now experiencing, a bracing life transition, you may want to ask yourself the following questions:
What has happened to my sense of self?
How am I re-grouping?
If I am an introvert am I getting out enough? If I am an extrovert am I taking time for solitude?
Am I asking for help?
Am I giving myself emotional support?
How do I deal with my deepest feelings? Can I embrace them without judging myself?
How well am I caring for my physical self? (Sleeping enough? Eating healthily? Exercising?)
How do I cope with feeling groundless? (See Grounding Techniques.)
These periods can be very frightening; but, one way or another, you will live through everything that doesn’t kill you.
By embracing all your thoughts and feelings, even when they are dark and threaten to annihilate you, you start a conversation with yourself that reveals inner reserves you didn’t know you had.
Keeping a journal, a dream journal (see Dream Journaling for suggestions), meditating, or working with a therapist, helps avoid the tendency to suppress unpleasant feelings, like depression, anxiety, doubt, guilt, grief, loss, loneliness, etc. When you delve into the dark recesses of your heart-mind, you befriend the shadow aspects of yourself, those challenging emotions most people like to avoid. I would be a big advocate of suppression and repression if they worked. Unfortunately, all they do is move you towards addictions, and postpone feeling better in a deeper, more authentic way.
What we resist persists, so, in the long run, courageously facing one’s demons will pay dividends the rest of your life. By integrating previously repressed (shadow) aspects of yourself, like anger, jealousy, greed, etc., you become more self-accepting and less afraid. You are less likely to project your own unconscious issues on others, and you grow into the complete person you were born to be. Neither good nor bad, just human.
The more you accept yourself in all your humanness, the more compassion you will have for others.
If you retreat from your fears with addictions (whether gambling, cutting, alcohol, drugs, pornography, overeating, shopping, exercise, or anything else), you delay learning some of life’s most useful lessons:
You can stand what you don’t like.
You are here for the whole enchilada. Not just the appealing parts.
The tendency to catastrophize is lessened when you remind yourself you have survived, even thrived, through some hellacious times.
You may want to write a list of 10 things you have endured that, at the time, you never thought you could stand.
No lessons are more valuable than those from your own experience.
Reviewing your list helps you remember you can stand far more than you realize.
When your heart is heavy, when you feel alone, when life looks bleak, open your arms and say,
“It’s OK sweetheart. I am here. I can learn from this. I can use this to see how strong I really am. Next time, it will be easier.”
When you feel something scary or unpleasant tell yourself, “It’s OK to feel this. Let me feel this. I can handle it.”
It’s natural to want others to reassure you. Hearing these words from a friend, relative, or therapist, can be very helpful. Learning to speak gentle, loving statements to yourself, and believing them, fosters emotional self-sufficiency, deep peace and serenity. It’s not that you don’t need people; we’re all interdependent. It’s that you can self-soothe. Be patient. It takes years of practice to get there. Years of experiencing the futility of ranting and railing against what is, of demanding a quick fix, of feeling your tenuous ability to handle life; and, years of loving, supportive self-talk to change your course. (See Affirmations, Litany of Love, and Manifesto for Emotional Self-care.)
Stick with your new paradigm. What could be more important than learning to cherish and calm your own sweet self?
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang
The paradigm of Sisyphus hauling his boulder up the mountain only to have it roll down as he almost reaches the summit is so deeply ingrained in our psyches it’s easy to forget how stressful life is even when you do manage to push the boulder over the top. Naturally, major life transitions, like, divorce, moving, death, job loss, etc., exhaust you, but positive events also sap your energy. Simply put: all life is stressful, the good, difficult, and mundane.
If you want a fascinating glimpse into the major stressors check out this link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holmes_and_Rahe_stress_scale. You will find many life events that, on the surface, appear to be positive, but pack an emotional wallop. Perhaps, it’s adjusting to change that is the real challenge.
Since stress is a fact of life, it’s always helpful to have a trove of techniques to smooth the way. Among them is sound therapy. Listening to certain types of sounds can engage and calm the mind-body, and are as accessible as your library or computer.
A number of creative souls have been working with sound as a healing modality. Alex Theory coined the term” “vibraceuticals” to describe the benefits of sound therapy, or “psycho-acoustics.” He also works with binaural beats, the practice of creating music that synchs both hemispheres of the brain (“hemi-synch”). This is similar to the ancient yogic technique of alternate nostril breathing, but you don’t actively do anything. Simply listening achieves the similar results.
Another key concept in sound therapy is entrainment. Entrainment is what happens when you sit in a room with a metronome and within 5-20 minutes your heartbeat is synchronized with the metronome’s ticks. Using this theory, musicians have developed soundscapes designed to slow your heart rate and calm your mind. Just as you might expect, higher-faster frequencies are stimulating and lower–slower ones are calming.
Recently, while on a trip to Vermont, I was able to experience a sound massage. For half an hour I was bathed in tones from crystal bowls, tuning forks, and an enormous gong that felt as if it were vibrating all the molecules in the room, including those in me. I thought a live session, as opposed to listening to a CD, would be more soothing. While it was definitely intense, the results were not any better than what I have achieved with my iPod.
Jonathan Goldman, another pioneer in this field, and the creator of one of my all-time favorite CDs, Ultimate Om, puts people on a massage table and bathes them in different sounds that he makes with his voice. It’s a variety of sound massage that seems to depend on intuition and the ability to “tune in” to the other person.
David Ison, composer, audio designer, and sound engineer created TheraSound to help heal himself after a particularly bad car accident. TheraSound’s efficacy was validated by a three-year study done at the National Institutes of Health, showing its ability to elicit the relaxation response (activate the parasympathetic nervous system), and significantly reduce pain, anxiety, and depression.
The following is a list of some of my favorite sound healing CDs. Choosing music from this genre is very individual and requires a certain amount of trial and error. It would be great if you could borrow them from the library, but most libraries do not stock this material. While you can preview CDs on Amazon or iTunes, these are typically long-playing and you will only hear a 30 second clip.
I recommend checking the prices on Amazon as some complete albums are available for 99 cents.
Golden Bowls of Compassion by Karma Moffett. (The technology on this CD, and her others, is beyond compare. An incredible bargain on Amazon.)
Ultimate Om by Jonathan Goldman
Air by Alex Theory
Prism by Alex Theory
Neroli by Brian Eno
Hearing Solar Winds Alight by David Hykes and the Harmonic Choir
Ison Sleep System by David Ison (And David’s CD: Free Yourself From Chronic Pain.)
Crystal Bowl Meditation by Ami and Steve Sciulli
Music as Medicine by Nawang Khechog and Carlos Nakai
There are two books you might also enjoy:
Healing Sounds by Jonathan Goldman
Sound Medicine by Wayne Perry (includes a CD)
Mr. Perry’s book deals with my last topic: Toning: using your own voice to heal.
Remember, in addition to the music’s actual resonance, you want it to touch you emotionally. Different CDs will affect you differently on different days. Familiarizing yourself with these composers enables you to choose music according to your mood.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang
Simple, not easy!
Old Chinese saying
What a strange world where loving yourself isn’t second nature. Perhaps everyone is born with the capacity to love oneself, but the vagaries of life steal attention from this sacred task. Luckily, with a little awareness and effort, you can consciously reconnect with the natural grace of loving yourself.
Take a moment and ask: How do I show myself love?
If you already use self-acceptance, gentleness, positive self-talk; if you rest when you are weary, eat when you are hungry, go off alone when you crave solitude, welcome company when you seek connection; in other words, if you habitually nurture your mind, body and spirit congratulate yourself. You are in the minority.
If treating yourself lovingly, kindly, and patiently does not come naturally, you might want to write a list of 100 things you could do to show how much you cherish yourself.
There is a special technique for this exercise.
Title the first page: 100 Ways I Show Myself Love
Number the lines from 1-100.
Set a timer for 20 minutes.
Write as fast as you can without pausing.
You may repeat things as often as they occur to you.
When you are done, notice major themes. How many times did the same thing come up? By writing a list of 100, it’s easy to take a percentage of the most frequently occurring items and see which ones really speak to you. The next step is to do those on a regular basis.
As the yogis say: What we practice we become. If you practice paying attention to what you body-mind-spirit wants or needs and provide it, not only will you get in the habit of attending to yourself; but, you will notice cues sooner, be more in touch emotionally, and take time to rejuvenate before you start running on fumes.
Adult life is full of responsibilities that require time and energy. It’s all too easy to let your to-do list take precedence over your desire for stillness and self-replenishing. Once you commit to a daily dose of self-care you will be amazed at how time will suddenly expand to allow for revitalization.
This is a far cry from self-indulgence. Just as sleeping gives you energy for the next day, these activities allow you to pause and pay attention to what you are feeling, thinking, and experiencing. There is an abundance of research showing how mindfulness practices lower blood pressure, increase productivity, boost immune function, and help stabilize moods, all of which benefits everyone in your life.
Here are a few things for which you might find time, even in the busiest of days.
As my friend Stephanie does, every morning and evening, resolve to be good to yourself.
Eat delicious, nourishing food, including dark chocolate. (See: chocolate’s healing powers) It is not just ingesting the chocolate that’s helpful, it’s taking the time to savor it.
Pay attention to your automatic thoughts. Are they self-downing, critical, or negative? If so, consciously replace them with a positive inner dialogue. To jump start this new way of thinking check out: affirmations.
Drink herbal tea. It forces you to slow down and focus on something besides your tasks or thoughts.
Take a three minute break to stare out the window, open a door and breathe in some fresh air, or close your eyes and tune into your breath.
Try a yoga nidra practice. This is an ancient guided meditation that can take from 15-60 minutes and will leave you feeling relaxed and energized.
(There are many to choose from. One of my favorites is available free from Elsie’s Yoga Class, an iTunes podcast. It’s #62 of her offerings.)
Give yourself the gift of long, slow, deep breaths throughout the day.
Spend 10 minutes writing your thoughts and feelings in a journal. Just the way a bath cleanses your physical body, this practice helps clear the mind.
Regularly re-read your list of 100 Ways I Show Myself Love and do them. If those practices don’t seem helpful, take the time to re-write your list.
Listen to what your heart, mind, and body want, and act on those yearnings.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang
One of my favorite healing modalities is sound therapy, since everyone who is not deaf has a cornucopia of experiences with sound. Perhaps, it was the sound of a kind voice, birds chirping, music from their teen years, lullabies, the ebb and flow of the ocean, sacred music, a baby’s laugh, or a lover’s whispers, each carries emotional resonance. The merest reminder of these sounds can trigger a well of feelings and memories. Like a Möbius strip, it becomes impossible to find a beginning or end, since music can be such a synesthetic experience, blending the senses to the point that you actually feel the music physically in your cells or experience it as color. Some synesthetes have been known to even smell or taste sounds.
There are many types of sound healing, and they can be divided into two main groups: passive and active. Passive sound healing involves listening while active sound healing uses the voice.
Today’s foray into sound healing will focus on a technique called Toning that uses the body as an instrument. (Other methods using the voice include chanting, humming, certain types of yogic breath work, like bee breath, and singing.)
Toning was first developed by Laurel Elizabeth Keyes, an author, lecturer and counselor, who died in 1983. Her book, Toning, was published ten years earlier.
Ms. Keyes became convinced of the power of sound as she used it to maintain her own health and that of others, even those far away who didn’t know she was toning for them (a practice similar to intercessory prayer.)
Ms. Keyes was intrigued and inspired by Dorothy Retallack’s famous study of the effects of different types of music on plant movement. When rock music played, the plants leaned away from it at an 80º angle, their root structures became shallow and they produced no flowers. Conversely, plants exposed to classical music actually wrapped their vines around the radio, their roots were strong and plentiful, and their foliage luxuriant. While we are not plants, plants and people are made up of a large portion of water. It may be the water molecules reacting to sound in this manner. (If anyone has seen the movie “What the Bleep Do We Know,” you may recall the amazing photographs of water molecules that had been exposed to different types of sound from rock music to yelling, to classical music.) It seems quite probable that music, voice, or noise can have a salutary or deleterious effect on the listener. From there, it’s only a baby step to harnessing the power of sound to heal physically and emotionally. Ms. Keyes called this sonar acupuncture.
Ms. Keyes also talked about the beneficial effects of groaning on pain relief. Perhaps, you have experienced this yourself when you had a stomachache or a sprained ankle? Groaning, or cursing, can actually release tension. It’s bad enough to experience pain, but when we respond by tensing our muscles, we only make it worse. Toning, moaning, or groaning lets out extra energy and stimulates circulation (especially, when the sound is directed toward a painful part of the body) and may release some muscular tension.
We are all made of molecules moving at various rates of speed, depending on whether they are the air in our lungs, the cells of our bones, blood, muscles, skin, brain matter, etc. Movement produces vibration. Think of a bee’s wings moving so rapidly they produce an audible buzz. It is possible that all the molecules in our body produce sound but they are inaudible to the human ear. By creating sound through groans and tones, we can mobilize our cells into more harmony or dissonance, depending on the sound and the intention behind it.
Here are some basic instructions on Toning:
1. Relax the body while standing, sitting or lying down. It helps to let yourself breathe deeply into the diaphragm, relax the shoulders, and allow the jaw to drop a little as the tongue settles.
2. Groan, allow the sound to rise, and let go. The sound can meander wherever it wants to, until it manifests as a high, flawless note. You may need to experiment with different sounds (groaning, moaning, humming), and raising or lowering the note until it stabilizes.
3. You may want to experiment with the vowel sounds: AAh, Oh, Ooh, and Eee while you notice where in your body you feel the tones resonate. Yogis have been using Om or Aum for millennia. Try a few rounds of it at various notes to experience an oasis of deep calm. Om is said to be the sound of everything on earth.
Ms. Keyes liked to think of Toning as an “inner cleansing.” She suggested practicing every morning.
You may also enjoy “Awakening Through Sound” by Chloe Goodchild. It’s an excellent CD course on the transformative power of sound and voice. You can find it as a download from http://www.soundstrue.com. If you add your name to their mailing list they will send you emails with great savings opportunities.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang