Mindful Relationships

Have you ever thought about your relationships? I mean really sat down and thought long and hard about what your relationships mean to you, where they are at and where they are going. Have you ever considered the part that you play in the success or failure of past and present relationships and how they played out?

The Garden of Love

The Stoics believed that a rational and reasoned human being sought to derive the best possible outcomes in a mutually beneficial relationship. People do not exist for our own sake, we exist for the sake of each other. We are meant to be interdependent units that live in a system that depends on cooperation and collaboration between us and others; between human beings.

One could argue that the Stoics advocated “mindful relationships”. They believed that relationships were cultivated like a garden. With mindful effort and the correct amount of attention, sunlight, water and nutrients the garden will grow and prosper while the garden that is neglected will wither and die.

 

Mindfulness and People

Relationships can be challenging but also very rewarding. People that actually take time to reflect on their relationships and the way in which they manage them are more likely to create positive partnerships. One of the ways which we can recover a failing relationship or improve an existing one is through mindfulness. First we need to consider what kind of relationship we are in and where improvements are required before we can take meaningful action to improve them.

There are three types of relationships which exist and each is directly correlated to the degree of mindfulness generally applied:

1. Co-dependent relationships

Co-dependent relationships are based on an imbalance between two people that results in a dysfunctional dynamic. Usually this manifests as one person being over reliant on the approval of another. Without that recognition and approval the person feels invalidated, unloved or unwanted. Often these relationships are prone to subtle or open abuse by one party on the other usually without much resistance. The abuse is tolerated for the sake of the relationship. Because the person feels trapped in it they are unwilling or unable to demand change or leave. Mindfulness is not a factor in these relationships.

 

2. Independent relationships

Independent relationships are those in which both parties in a relationship are happily going about their own business without requiring the consent or support of the other. Often people in an independent relationship will appear to be living “separate lives”. They are on different wave lengths in their respective professional lives, personal interests and even family activities. A stable medium may exist for years but such couples generally drift apart after a while and find that they have little to nothing in common when they are forced to confront their relationship and face each other.

Married couples who dedicate all of their time and effort to raising kids and pursuing career and financial goals for example fit in to this category. When the kids flight the nest and retirement looms they are virtual strangers as they have failed to nurture their own relationship over the years. The degree of mindfulness in this relationship is low and based on ensuring that the other person is there and capable of functioning in their “role”. Life is purely one of routine and rushing from one thing to the next.

 

3. Interdependent relationships

Interdependent relationships are mindful relationships because partners understand, know and appreciate each other for who they are and what they bring to the relationship. Each is free to be their own person but at the same time they are there to support, validate and nurture the other in their own aspirations. Communication is the key foundation in the interdependent relationship as is the acknowledgement of the others views and needs. An open team approach resides over the relationship where each works with, not against the other. A dominant party does not exist as each are equal partners. Mutual trust and respect is a natural outcome. Such relationships are compassionate and honest and built to last.

Mindfulness for Life

In 2004 a study conducted by the University of North Carolina found that couples who practiced mindfulness saw real improvements in their relationships. The practice of mindfulness meditation also resulted in significant reduction in levels of stress and interpersonal conflict within the relationship. It could be argued that mindfulness could be the relationship therapy that many of us need.

A book was published in 2016 on the subject called “Mindful Relationships” (Exisle Publishing) by Dr Richard Chambers and Margie Ulbrick. The book explores “how we can use mindfulness to:

  • develop a more compassionate, friendly relationship with ourselves and others
  • increase awareness of our own and others’ relational patterns
  • calm and soothe our emotions and be there for others
  • communicate more effectively
  • enhance connection and empathy
  • reduce defensive patterns, allowing for more authenticity, and
  • work effectively within families and larger systems such as workplaces.

Case studies are included throughout to highlight key principles, as well as practical exercises to enable the reader to develop their mindfulness skills”.*

 

ACT

Mindfulness meditation** and recent modalities like Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) ***are two easy and practical ways to improve quality of life.  Mindfulness techniques can be applied to help with physical, emotional, mental and spiritual well being and personal development. To draw a Star Wars parallel, Yoda would have been an expert in mindfulness and given his age and general happy disposition and vitality the benefits of the practice clearly paid off!

By practicing mindfulness we are more likely to be in tune with our own feelings and the feelings of others. This opens the way for understanding and empathy. We begin to appreciate the needs of the other person and focus less on our own needs. As we start to pay more attention to our partner we find that it is reciprocated in return. Emotions can be played out in constructive ways. Rather than getting angry and resentful about our partner we can actually express ourselves in an open and transparent way. Through effective communication and active listening we engage in dialogue and come to mutual understanding. No one likes to be shut down or blocked out by their loved one. Mindfulness encourages us to engage with our emotions and with people in a calm and measured way without compromising our values.

 

Meditate

Meditation is the most effective approach to cultivate mindfulness. The beauty about meditation is that it can be done alone or in group or as a couple. The intimacy and shared experience of meditation can build a stronger bond between people. The practice allows us to pay attention to our thoughts and remove the noise from our mind allowing us to be more open to others. We achieve a greater sense of inner peace and tranquillity. If those around us also meditate and practice mindfulness we begin to reside on similar mental wavelengths. Harmony is created. I believe that partners who meditate together are more likely to stay together. So if your partner is up for it, meditate and tend to your garden

 

You will know (the good from the bad) when you are calm, at peace, passive” – Yoda

 

* https://www.exislepublishing.com.au/Mindful-Relationships.html

** https://www.exislepublishing.com.au/Mindfulness-for-Life.html

***https://thehappinesstrap.com/ (The Happiness Trap Book)

InnSaei

I recently watched the documentary “InnSaei” on Netflix. InnSaei means intuition in the ancient Nordic language of Iceland. The literal translation of the word is “the sea within” and it can also mean to “see within” and to “see from the inside out”.  The word describes the human ability of being able to sense things from deep within, to perceive and understand the world beyond our five senses and rational mind.

The ancient Icelandic society was based on a maritime culture. The sea and the spiritual connection of the Vikings to it influenced their view of the world. Other ancient cultures had their own deeper understanding of reality and connection with nature. The Polynesians for example roamed the Pacific Ocean without the use of navigational tools other than maps made of sticks. The Australian aboriginals crossed the vast deserts finding water holes and direction by following the stories told by their ancestors in the dreaming and passed down. People had a strong sense of place which transcended logic and relied heavily on intuition and a spiritual connection to the land, sea and stars.

 

Intuition in a Left Hemisphere World

Everyone has intuition but few people can harness the potential power that it offers. Modern Western society is heavily reliant on logic and the application of objective reasoning. Our society favors the left hemisphere of the brain. The rational side of the psyche and the ability to accumulate knowledge and process data is preferred.

The right side of the brain is the center of intuition. It is where our ability to imagine and view the abstract and intangible resides. Creativity and spirituality as well as a deeper sense of reality originate in the right hemisphere. The “soul” of our character resides there. Combined with the rational left hemisphere the brain uses 98% of its mass to process the information and stimuli which the remaining 2% uses in all of our cognitive functions. The brain is a balanced organ, the left and right sides functioning in harmony to create the person you are. We are using a fraction of our capacity as human beings.

 

Rose Colored Glasses

Humans are less intuitive than ever before. The world is a different place now than it was in the past. Today we are bombarded with information and constantly distracted. The amount of data and stimuli processed by the average person who is connected to mass media and communications is staggering. This does not mean people are more intelligent or happier than they were in the past. The opposite is true. Humans are less connected in a tangible sense and more disconnected from their authentic selves and others. Wisdom is vanishing and being replaced with information overload. As a result people feel more alienated, less empowered and lost. Most don’t even know why and fall to drugs, alcohol and rampant consumerism to fill the void.

Sometimes it is also easy to feel that sobriety fails to deliver a perfect or fulfilling life. Being sober does not create an ideal utopia internally or externally. What it does do however is awaken intuition. We feel more aware of our surroundings and are more in touch with reality. The rose colored glasses that we wore as we were whistling in the dark of alcoholism are removed. Some of us land heavy on our feet. We have awoken from a slumber and before us lay the wreckage of our past and an uncertain future. All we have is this day, this moment to live.

Being intuitive is being in tune with the moment and everything that surrounds us. It is being able to imagine a transcendent state while keeping our feet planted firmly on the ground. Intuition is an inherent part of our psyche, a sixth sense that helps us function in this plane. It is the inner voice yearning to be heard. Combine intuition with experience, reason and logic and you ultimately have wisdom.

 

 

Blinded Jedi

The fictitious Jedi were intuitive. They could sense trouble before it appeared. To “sense a disturbance in the Force” was a highly tuned intuition at work. The Jedi could go further and apply the skill not only in their appreciation of others and assessment of situations but also in light saber fighting. To be effective in light saber, a Jedi had to be highly intuitive and be able to “sense” where an opponent would strike next. The Jedi had to fight as a combined physical, mental, emotional and spiritual unit completely in harmony. A light sabre duel was a battle that tested the intuitive power as well as skill, wit and “sangfroid”.  This is why is symbolizes the Jedi.

By sharpening their sensing skills with the use of a training helmet that blocked out vision and encouraged reliance on the Force, the Jedi were using intuition to act and counter a laser fired from a training aid. Over time the skill became so ingrained and refined that the light sabre could be used to deflect laser bolts fired from blasters back on to the enemy. The Jedi were able to close in with their opponents, evading laser bolts with nothing more than an ancient weapon and a use of their intuition and training.

 

 

Lead the Tail

Our intuitive powers may not be so sharp as to give us super human power but we can still make use of our intuition. To be Jedi is to use objectivity in dealing with perception but we should also use and trust our intuition. Emotions can often cloud our mind so we treat them mindfully. Passion is tempered in to something useful and constructive rather than being the “tail that leads the dog”.

With a heightened intuition we are more aware. Problems do not trouble us as much. We tend to find solutions without struggle. Relationships improve as our empathy and understanding of others improves. Self knowledge becomes broader and deeper. Not only do we know ourselves better but we know our selves in ways that evaded us before. We can anticipate life better and thereby our response to it. In the past we were uncomfortable in our own skin, now we are at ease with who we are. Every day we extend the boundaries and surpass our limits. Constantly improving we are able to redefine our own “impossible”. Decisions become more fluid and confident as we are able to blend calm logic with intuition. We are surer of ourselves.

Intuition becomes a big part of how we make decision and use our judgement. Sometimes we get our “gut feel” wrong but the more we use that inner compass the more skillful we are at applying it. With time and practice we are able to distinguish between subconscious bias and intuition which speaks to us at a much deeper level. Our Innsaei begins to speak to us as it spoke to the Vikings, the Islanders, the Aboriginals on Earth and the Jedi in the Star Wars Universe.

 

 

Sharpen Up

Five ways to improve and sharpen your intuition:

  1. Meditate: A formal practice of meditation clears the clutter and noise from the mind and allows ideas and thoughts to emerge which are fresh and unpolluted.
  2. Practice mindfulness: Be fully aware of your thoughts and actions as well as the sensations in your body. Listen to your gut as much as your logic and reasoning. Avoid jumping to conclusions or making rash decision. Intuition is not rushed or charged with emotion.
  3. Know the difference: Differentiating between bias and intuition can be difficult. If we encounter a guy who is 200 pounds, covered in tattoos and piercing and has a big beard our first impression might be negative. Then we find out he is a genuinely nice and generous guy who has a heart of gold. The initial impression was shallow bias, intuition means spending a bit of time to “suss” out people before tainting them with a lable based on stereotype or prejudice. Never judge a book by its cover.
  4. Spend time in nature: Reconnecting with nature re-awakens our intuition. Hunters and fishermen know this very well. As a surfer I can not stress the impact of nature on the psyche. A surfer is in tune with the ocean, she can sense the rhythm of the swell and anticipate how a wave will evolve, form and shape. It’s deeper than knowing, the ocean speaks to them. I know surfers who can sense when danger is about and will egress from the water finding our later that a shark was spotted close by.
  5. Trust your intuition: Sometimes we get a strong pull one way or another yet we ignore it. Later we realize our intuition was trying to tell us something. As a Medic I used to assess patients all the time. My questioning would provide answers that would direct my assessment and formulation of a treatment plan. I would dismiss a bit of epigastric pain as bit of indigestion and be ready to send them away but something would nag at me. Just to be safe I would apply a 12 lead ECG and probe further and realize that the person was having a silent MI (heart attack). “Gut Feel” in combination with good medical knowledge, experience and training is a valuable asset for Doctors, Nurses and Paramedics. Ignore your intuition at your own peril!

Years from Now

Star Wars may be a work of fiction but for many it sparked an interest in the infinite possibilities and the mystery of the cosmos. The Universe is vast. No one knows exactly how big or how old the Universe is. No one knows for certain how the big bang came about or when the Universe will end. Our cosmos comprises countless stars and worlds within billions of galaxies. There may also be multiverses and parallel universes.

The nature of time is also still being worked out. Time is not linear as we imagine but can be manipulated and reversed. Science postulates that time travel is feasible. If we can get the math and technology right it may be possible to pay our old self or our future self a visit.

Our human senses are limited as is our reach in space. Our physical existence is a mere instant in the expanse of time. We all exist in a finite box of space and time. The breadth of our knowledge and experience is perhaps a tiny fraction of our potential. Our impact in this lifetime even in human terms, pathetically small. The fact that often escapes us however is that all is interconnected. We may be small but we are a piece of the puzzle. A part of the whole.

 

You are a child of the universe, no less than the tress and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should” – Desiderata

 

 

The Wall

I looked out across a stretch of water separating us from the mainland and then down at a sea wall being built. A colleague standing beside me asked how long I thought the sea wall would last? Would it hold out for years, decades or centuries? I had no idea. The ocean and her tides sometimes has her own plans and she definitely has time and lots of it. I pointed out that the stretch of water in front of us would one day recede as the climate cooled and the sea level dropped. Before that it would likely rise. The ocean would rise and fall many times over the next hundred thousand years. Whether the sea wall lasted or not that long barely mattered. The preference would be that it lasted as long as it was needed but to what end, we have no control, we can only do what we can now. Our actions in building the wall will provide some guarantee but not all. Perhaps in centuries to come people will look at the wall and wonder about those that built it.

Is life like that? We throw all of our energy and commitment in to building a decent life. We invest so much in to our own growth and those of our loved ones. Much of our lives are spent learning how to function in the world and then dedicated to working and building a career. Years invested in paying off college fees, a mortgage and saving for retirement or our kids’ education. We come to old age and we look back on our life and how the time was spent. Did any of it mean anything, did it make a difference, will any of it matter a hundred years from now?

 

Butterfly Effect

Will it matter a hundred years from now? This is the question that keeps some of us awake at night. Those of us who know regret will ponder the meaning of life and question our impact. We want to achieve self-actualization and know that our lives meant something and made a difference. If we consider for a moment that our memories may be forgotten in a couple of generations, simply washed away with the tide of time it can seem life has played some cruel joke.

What if every thought, word and action mattered. The ripple effect of what you are doing this instant carries over the years of your life and the centuries beyond. Each action creates a butterfly effect that reverberates through time and has profound effects on those whom we know today and future generations that are to be born tomorrow.

The world is like a complex network of cause and effect, a rich tapestry. On the surface there is a rich design and underneath a jumble of countless threads. Every single thread represents a thought, a word an action. Each tree that falls and every fragile seedling that emerges from the ground has an impact on the world. Every child that is born makes a difference. Our choices made every instant carry in to the future in one form or another as they set a process in motion.

 

Survivors

Being a survivor of a violent and abusive upbringing I can see how pain and misery can have massive repercussions in a life. Sometimes we remember hurtful things that were said to us when we were very young. Perhaps the people who said them were a parent, a sibling or a close friend. Those words or actions have never been forgotten and they influence us in some way. The way we choose to treat others may also be a product of the way we were treated in the past. Through those choices we are perpetuating something that started perhaps decades or centuries ago.

By deciding to be sober many of us changed the future in ways we cannot imagine and will never know. That is a good thing if we do good.

 

Shape the Future

The Jedi were mindful about time and space and their reach across it. They were mindful of the impacts that their actions had not just in the here and now but across the galaxy and far in to the future. Unlike the Jedi we cannot jump in to a star ship and hyperspace from one end of the Galaxy to the other. We cannot influence what happens on another world. Our actions here on Earth, no matter how trivial, do still have an immediate and a long term impact.

 

“A hundred years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove . . . . but the world maybe different because I was important in the life of a child.” – Forest E Witcraft

The choices that we make as consumers will decide whether unethical and polluting companies continue to operate. Our unsustainable use of resources may deprive someone else or make life more impoverished to someone we have never met. The way we speak to our kids and the way we conduct ourselves can have far reaching consequences. What we do now can make a difference in one hundred years. You and I may not be remembered but a long forgotten act of cruelty or kindness will still be felt and perhaps not just on our world.

Remember that.

Jedi live in the present moment

Jedi live in the here and now, and don’t have stress about the future or the past. This isn’t as easy as it might seem because the mind always rushes to the future or past. Contact with the Living Force always occurs in the present moment. The mind is our tool, and we need to stop the incessant thinking and mental chatter that comes from the mind in order to be conscious of the present moment, and to live in the present moment. We need to control the mind, and not let the mind control us.

(The 33 Jedi Traits)

Like Air

Mindfulness is defined by the Webster dictionary as “The practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis.” Other sources define mindfulness as pretty much the same thing, the practice of being present in the here and now. In other words being mentally right here in this present moment as you read these words. Mindfulness is nothing more than that. If we still our mind for a minute and sense every quiver, every sensation in our body without judgement. If we allow thoughts to pass like clouds without engaging them. We are completely aware of what is happening inside and outside of ourselves with each passing breath, that is mindfulness.

“Mindfulness is about being fully awake in our lives.
It is about perceiving the exquisite vividness of each moment.
We also gain immediate access to our own powerful inner resources
for insight, transformation, and healing”.

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Mindfulness is a word that has a lot of connotations and brings up a lot of imagery like meditating monks, yoga on the beach or a child humming while drawing shapes. All of these things are mindfulness in action. The word is also a cliché.

In recent years the term has become a buzz word in marketing, entrepreneurship, leadership and the health industry. Thousands of books and magazine articles have been written on the health benefits of Mindfulness and hundreds more on how to be mindful. Entire shelves and racks in book shops and magazine stores are full of coloring books that promote mindful practices by sitting for a few minutes a day shading in shapes with colored pencils.

Psychologists refer their clients to courses and apps that teach and guide them through mindfulness techniques. There is mindfulness techniques offered for all activities, cooking, cleaning, running, walking, child raising, working and breathing. The sheer genius of business to make a multi-billion industry out of Mindfulness astounds me. Since Eckhart Tolle penned the “Power of Now” the mindfulness craze has touched just about everyone in the west.

I have friends who are lifelong Buddhists. They watch the current phenomena with despair and  bemoan the rampant commercialization of Mindfulness. They feel that a noble practice has been hijacked for profit. The idea that someone could do something as audacious as sell mindfulness for vast profits seems insane. It is like selling air.

 

The Past

What many people don’t realize is that mindfulness has been around for a very long time. In fact it is part of our makeup. The Eastern and Western philosophies and spiritual traditions have advocated mindfulness and the power of living in the Now for millennia. Mindfulness is no mystery, people just don’t live in the present. Our minds are perched in the past as we ruminate on events or regrets.

We ask ourselves “why” and berate ourselves for mistakes as if we could turn the clock back and make things right. Of course we can’t and to think this way is a form of insanity. The best we can do is learn from the past and resolve not to make the same mistakes again. We can and should make amends for past mistakes if we can. If we can’t we should learn to forgive ourselves and others and move on with our life

Listing the wrongs I had to done to people in my past and seeking to make amends was a Step I took in my first year of recovery. It was one of the hardest but also the most rewarding experiences of my life. I was compelled to face my role in past grievances and let the blame on others go. Grievances, blame and grudges against people and organizations were forgotten. I started to realize where I had made mistakes and burned bridges. Resentment seemed like such a foolish notion and I was able to forgive and let go. Those I approached and confessed my wrongs were open armed and understanding.

I began to realize the value of sincerity and honesty. Humility without self depreciation and mutual respect for others became virtues more valuable than gold. I realized my resentments and belligerency and refusal to forgive and forget had cost me many opportunities. Determined to place it all behind me I moved on with my life. The past is there as a resource. The best lessons in life are learned from the worst mistakes. I don’t reside in the past now but I won’t forget it either.

The Future

We also tend to compromise the present by projecting our minds in to the Future. We are always heading somewhere. Goals and targets are set. Preconceived conditions are made that determine what our imagined state of happiness or fulfillment is. We set conditions like; “Once I get that promotion things will be perfect” and “I’ll finish my degree and life will be great” or “Once I make a couple of million I’ll retire and be happy”. These statements make two assumptions about the future which are largely out of our control; that these events will occur as planned and that we’ll derive a perpetual state of fulfillment, happiness or contentment on reaching that goal.

Obviously life does not always play along with our plans and when they do we find ourselves no better off than when we started. The Promotion provides more money and perks but has more responsibility and stress. The degree allows us to do other things but life is anything but “great” because we can’t start the career the course promised or we get jaded as reality bites. We eventually make enough money to retire and find ourselves too old to “really live” or we retire early and find that life is not so green on the other side of the day to day grind.

The Lure of Tomorrow

When I was in the Army I volunteered for a posting to a country in Africa. I decided that the posting would provide invaluable experience and would be worth two years of my life. Within a few months I was counting the days and months down to the end of my rotation. I dreamed of what it would be like when I got back home and imagined wonderful things. Depression set in as the months dragged on and the tempo ranged from full alert on long range patrols to days of mind numbing barrack duties.

Eventually the day arrived when I got on a plane and flew out. The elation was short lived. Months later I was wishing I was back. I hear veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq say the same thing, wanted to be home and then wanted to be back. For two years I lived with my head in some place other than the here and now.

I can still remember laying in the desert under a sky filled with stars and hearing jackals yelping in the distance. The burning sunsets over a parched land in all its splendor. The call of wild birds in the mountain forests and the cries of Baboons. Mountains that rose above the desert capped with clouds and covered in ancient forests. A train of camels being led by men wearing skirts gilded with large belts bearing long curved swords. Images that haunt me to this day and yet at the time I was utterly miserable and longed for a better tomorrow.

One of the reasons alcoholism is so spiritually debilitating is because it keeps us anywhere but in the Now. We don’t want to face the reality of the present moment. So we drink to escape to an imagined past or a better future.

Living in the Now

What is a modern day cliché has actually been known for thousands of years. Life happens in the here and now. Not in the past and not in some time in the future. The past is gone beyond recall and the future is uncertain. Every moment we find ourselves in is the Now. There is no time other than the Now which really matters. We plan for the future in the Now, we regret or remember the past in the Now. Our mind may be trying to drag us to the future, our Ego may be ruminating on the past but all of this is happening in the present moment. Every moment that we are absent is a moment lost.

The benefits of living in the Now are well documented. Everyone knows that stress is a killer. Research has shown that mindfulness practice leads to lower stress and anxiety levels. Lower stress in turn has a benefit to cardiovascular health, sleep and immunity. We become more in tune with our emotions and learn to deal with them objectively and constructively. Our senses become more refined, we begin to notice the world around us more.

Listening to others becomes easier. We are able to stop and appreciate the sights and sounds of life. Food is tasted rather than being hurriedly shoved in to our mouths. We become more conscious of our body in a healthy way and start to care for it more.

The things that upset us or caused us anxiety and depression in the past no longer have that effect. We are more resilient and accepting of life’s vicissitudes. Relationships with other people improve and as we become more self accepting we start to appreciate others more and are more empathetic. We find ourselves calm in the midst of a raging storm. Who would not want that?

You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes every day
– unless you’re too busy –
then you should sit for an hour.

– Old Zen adage –

Practice

Meditation is a mindfulness exercise however one can practice mindfulness anywhere, anytime. While driving a car, brushing the dog, washing the dishes, listening to music, playing with the kids and in fact doing just about any activity. It is simply paying attention to what you are doing. Commit your mind to the task with intent. If you are washing the dishes you are only washing the dishes and nothing else. Feel the water on your hands, the hardness of the porcelain and cutlery. Hear the sounds it makes. Use all of your senses.

Allow mental intrusions to pass without engaging them. You can focus on the breath, the rise and fall of your chest or abdomen. If thoughts distract you simply return to the breath. There is a saying that when an old man sits, he only sits, there is nothing else going on; this is the essence of mindfulness.

Look to this day:
For it is life, the very life of life.
In its brief course
Lie all the verities and realities of your existence.
The bliss of growth,
The glory of action,
The splendour of achievement
Are but experiences of time.

For yesterday is but a dream
And tomorrow is only a vision;
And today well-lived, makes
Yesterday a dream of happiness
And every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well therefore to this day;
Such is the salutation to the ever-new dawn!

Sanskrit proverb

Future

You cannot prevent what you cannot see coming. You can only do what you think is right at each moment as you live it. We can plan, hope, and dread the future. What we cannot do is know it.” – Qui-Gon Jinn

We spend a lot of time “time traveling”. We reflect on the past or project in to the Future playing out scenarios, ruminating or dreaming. Most of the time our minds are focused on getting to a destination in time, place or circumstance. Rather than living in the moment we focus our mind on plans and outcomes at some point in the future while not ruminating on the Past.

Unlike the past which cannot be altered or changed the future is not set. Every decision made every moment shifts the forward trajectory. We often marvel at the serendipity of events or their complete and utter chance and circumstance. The insignificant choices that you make, what you decide to do or say at any given moment can have an impact that carries on for years and decades. It can affect your life in innumerable ways and the lives of others too.

The daily decision to remain sober for example is a good example. I choose sobriety and in making that decision I influence the future. Not only my future but also those close to me and perhaps someone I have never met before. If I chose the opposite and took a drink I would set in motion a chain of events in consequence to that decision. I would likely get drunk, upset those close to me, fail in my duties and possibly, even, get in to a car and have an accident that cause the death or life time injury to another.  All of these things can flow from the decisions I choose. I have partial control over the future and therefore I have an inherent responsibility in the outcomes.

Power over the Future

I partially disagree with Qui-Gon Jinn on the first note “you cannot prevent”. It is true that things will happen that are completely out of our control. For example, the economy can turn sour and mass unemployment can directly impact on us. The Government can change policies which affect our ability to pay for Health Care or Education. A freak accident can occur on our way to work. Some things are completely out of our control, some things aren’t. I can still take action now that prepares me for the unforeseen. I still have a degree of control over how I choose to respond.

We can  prevent what we cannot see coming. We are not powerless in recovery or in life or anything. I may not have control over most things but I do have partial control over some things.

Where my own thoughts and conducts is concerned, I do have full control. I have control over my mind. In the event that I get drunk however I forfeit much of that control. Once I take a drink I lose my choices. I am no longer responsible or competent but tragically I still have an impact on the future.

Premeditatio malorum

One of the ways I deal with the “things I cannot change” is to practice the Stoic exercise of Premeditatio malorum* or negative visualization. Without slipping in to morbid contemplation I will visualize scenarios that “might occur”. For example I will entertain losing my job due to redundancy, getting in to arrears on my mortgage and losing my house. This of course leads to stress on my marriage which might culminate in separation and divorce. Rather than causing anxiety and panic for something that seems rather common today, I train myself mentally to accept the outcome in advance and continue to do my best in life.  I accept that it will suck and it will hurt and cause a lot of hardship but I also know that I’ve been through worse and things will turn out OK.

The exercise also reminds me to be grateful for my job, car, house, marriage and life. All of these things being transient and impermanent. They are still important at least to me, however I have to be prepared for the worst.

In my line of work we are constantly doing risk assessments. “”What If” scenarios are used to factor in unforeseen outcomes and hidden hazards. We cannot premeditate every thing but we take the time to think things through, develop a plan and add flexibility to account for surprises. We plan to succeed but we also prepare for failure. This is something that any one can apply in to their lives. Being sober is accepting that life is not going to be “happily forever after” all the time.

The Power of Now

We have the power through our own choices to affect our own lives and the lives of others. Powerlessness suggests the opposite and being recovered, being sober is being empowered.

I am powerfully recovered” – Anne Wayman ”Powerfully Recovered”

The best we can do is to live moment to moment in accordance with our principles. It is true that we cannot not know the Future. I personally don’t believe that a crystal ball or the morning paper horoscope reveals anything credible. I don’t use that to plan my day.

“We can plan, hope and dread the future”, but perhaps it is better to focus on how we can make a better future through the choices that we make in the present. You can make goals and plans and dream of a better future but action happens in the now. Get to work and adjust your sails when you need to as the winds of fate will change. Embrace that.

Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” – Buddha

*Further information on Negative Visualization can be found here

Mindfulness and Meditation

Your focus determines your reality” – Qui-Gon Jinn (The Phantom Menace)

Spiritual practices such as prayer and meditation have been shown to improve psychological well-being and reduce depression and anxiety. Prayer while mostly associated with religious practice is also used by people to help them cope with difficult situations or to seek guidance from a Higher Power. Meditation is also often associated with monastic or religious practice but is also increasingly being recommended as a natural treatment to those who are recovering from alcoholism and drug abuse, the survivors of childhood abuse and trauma, the bereaved and those with anxiety and depression. Mindfulness is probably one of the most ubiquitous and popular methods used today to address almost any undesired mental state.

Feeling anxious or hurried? Try focusing on the breath and bringing yourself to the moment. Irritated by the driver who just cut you off in Traffic? Be mindful and smile inwardly, do not allow thoughts to cloud the serenity of the moment…Breathe…

Mindfulness, meditation, contemplation and prayer are essentially the same thing but practiced in slightly different ways and each carries a different connotation. At the basic level all are exercises in bringing the mind to the present moment and giving it the full attention that it deserves. Over the next few months we will explore each.

Besides the clear benefits to mental and emotional well-being, mindfulness practices have also been shown to effectively change the brain through neuroplasticity. Research has shown that people who devote 20 minutes daily to quiet prayer or contemplation, meditation or mindfulness will have an effect on the neural pathways of the brain and in time the organizational structure of the brain and the patterns of thought and behavior in a person will gradually change.

Meditation

Meditation is generally accepted as a formal practice of being completely aware through a process of focus on an internal or external source for a period of time. Some people imagine that meditation is a form of relaxation and reverie. Meditation is actually being completely aware of every sensation in the body, every passing thought and the external environment and having no judgment either good or bad to any of it. The body is completely relaxed and the mind is sharpened and aware. Thoughts recede in the background and awareness expands inward and outwards. A sense of joy emanates from deep within as if the body has re-discovered its natural state of being. Through Meditation you are being completely mindful. Although meditation is seen more as a formal practice of sitting in a lotus position and either focusing on the breath or repeating a mantra, Mindfulness is the state that is being achieved.

Mindfulness

You can experience and practice mindfulness in almost any situation and should strive to do so. Washing dishes, brushing your teeth, walking or running, eating food or making love are all acts that if done mindfully becomes an experience in to which you immerse yourself rather than a mindless exercise. Book stores these days are abound with coloring books that promote the practice of mindfulness through the simple act of coloring in pictures.

Being mindful in your thoughts, words and actions is also important as it clears the mind and places emphasis on purpose and in staying calm particularly during times when emotions may be charged. Mindfulness is simply applying focus and attention to the present moment. Our mind often resembles a tree full of chattering monkeys. Meditation, mindfulness and prayer silences those monkeys and puts us in touch with our higher self.

Focus is the Key

Whatever it is you are doing today, give it the full attention that it deserves. If you are conversing with a friend or family member, listen intently and notice their facial expressions, the tone of their voice and their subtle movements. Experience the food and drink you put in your mouth, taste the flavor, feel the texture and smell the aroma. Take a moment to breathe in fresh air when you step outside in the morning and pause to appreciate the sights and sounds around you rather than being preoccupied with distracting thoughts.

Say a short prayer of gratitude or affirmation to center yourself. Take a moment to breathe deeply three or four times and then to scan your body from head to toe allowing each part of the body part of relax in turn. Focus on your breath, count breaths if required and if your mind drifts gently bring it back to the breath and continue for a minute or more.

The beauty with this practice is that you can do it almost anywhere, anytime whether you are sitting in a waiting room or waiting for a Bus, walking or even running. The ego would prefer that we remain disconnected from the present and confine our mind in the past or projected to the future, anywhere but now. That is the state that most people find normal, however the reality is that the opposite is true, a state of Zen is the most natural state of being that a human can achieve and it is in all of us waiting to be tapped.

The Jedi Mind Trick and the Happiness Trap

Jedi Mind Tricks

The Jedi Mind Trick was used by the Jedi in Star Wars to influence and alter a person’s belief or perception of a certain thing. In “A New Hope” Obi-Wan Kenobi uses the Jedi Mind trick to get past a Storm Trooper check point with the Droids being hunted by the Empire as they contain the stolen plans to the Death Star. Using suggestion, Obi-Wan is able to persuade the Clones that the two Droids are not the one’s they are looking for.

Jedi Mind tricks are used on several occasions by the Jedi as an alternative to direct action. The Mind Trick had its limits. It was useless against life forms with a strong sense of self will and mind. The winged Toydarians for example, were immune to it, probably because they were so good at selling spare parts to Bounty Hunters. The closest thing to the Jedi Mind trick in the real world is persuasion and suggestion. I can think of many times I was convinced to purchase something that I didn’t really need probably due more to my own gullibility rather than the Force.

“I am not the Drunk you are looking for”

Over the years I tried to apply a version of the Jedi Mind trick on others and found my powers lacking. People usually don’t want to do something unless they see personal benefit.  People are generally persuaded to something through reason, fear or the offer of reward. Once the motivating factor is removed, they stop doing it.

Jedi Mind tricks do not work in reality, I can’t wave my hand in front of a Police Officer and say “You have only had one beer, there is no need for a sobriety test”. I can try but I’ll probably get laughed at and then arrested. In some states they probably throw the book at people attempting to “Jedi mind-trick” law enforcement Officers.

So if I can’t “Jedi Mind Trick” my boss to give me a pay rise or a day off, my teenage daughter to tidy her room or my wife to cook my favorite dish can I use it on myself? That is, can I use a form of Jedi Mind Trick to help me achieve a sense of equanimity and balance? How can I mind trick myself to happiness?

“Wishful Drinking”

There are two ways to trick your mind in to a better state. One is based on a false perception of reality and only works for a short time because deep down you know it’s not real. We call that “wishful thinking” or in my case it was “wishful drinking”. That is, getting drunk to feel better and capture a fleeting sense of happiness, fulfillment and contentedness. The other way takes effort and requires mental training. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is one such method based on Mindfulness and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

“Wishful Drinking” of course is also a book by Carrie Fisher where she recalls the story of her struggle with alcohol, drug abuse and depression. It is a humorous and at times sad portrayal of a woman we came to know and love as Princess Leia. The relevance of course is that Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is all about achieving equanimity and balance, not a shallow illusion of happiness. Happiness is your own personal view point and what makes you “happy” will change over time. I know it has for me. In the book, Carrie Fisher makes the following point about happiness which many of us can relate to.

Happy is one of the many things I’m likely to be over the course of a day and certainly over the course of a lifetime. But I think if you have the expectation that you’re going to be happy throughout your life–more to the point, if you have a need to be comfortable all the time–well, among other things, you have the makings of a classic drug addict or alcoholic.”
― Carrie Fisher, “Wishful Drinking”.

Happy versus “Happiness”

We know of course that life is not a fairy tale and if we expect to be happy and fulfilled all the time we are setting ourselves up for disappointment. The concept of true “Happiness” seems elusive but it is not. I have seen the happiest and most contented people alive in some of the most modest of settings in the poorest countries in Africa, South America and Asia.

What made these “poor” people happy? Well, they know who they are, they feel connected with and valued by their community, they are surrounded by loved ones and they feel like they are making a contribution. They live simple and productive lives and realize what truly matters. Most of all they are committed to living in accordance with their principles and values.

Watch the Netflix documentary “Happy” if you don’t believe me.

People who are unhappy are unhappy about not being happy as they define it. This is called the “Happiness Trap” (Harris, 2008). Sound like a Jedi Mind Trick?

ACT

This is what Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is about. It is a mind hack that adjusts our perception of ourselves and our response to life in a realistic and honest way. It gets us out of the “Happiness Trap”. There is no simple and temporary “Jedi Mind Trick” to it. The idea is not to “fool” our brain but to train it in “right thought” through pragmatism and mindfulness. With practice ACT rewires how we think about ourselves and the things that bother us and with practice it takes barely any effort to apply in our lives.

The method has been used to help treat veterans suffering anxiety and PTSD and as an alternative to drug therapy. ACT is also gaining popularity with Psychologists and Therapists as a simple and easy way to treat addiction, anxiety and depression. The US DVA promotes ACT as one modality and offers a free app called ACT Coach to use in conjunction with therapy and meditation.

The core principles of ACT are acceptance, commitment and action. The key primer is mindfulness. All of these are key Jedi traits:

  • Defuse and reject beliefs and thoughts that do not serve;
  • Accept feelings, sensations and emotion and let them come and go without struggle;
  • Identify your values and commit to them;
  • Be present in the moment. Observe your thoughts and feelings without judgement;
  • Commit to action that demonstrates you values and those that improve yourself.

The wonderful thing about ACT is that it is so easy to do with practice and can be incorporated in to a meditation practice. The very essence of ACT is in the 12 Steps program so if you are working the steps alone, with a home group or a sponsor there is a good chance you are doing it already and reaping the benefits in your recovery. If not, discuss it with your Therapist and explore it as an option, try it and if it works for you keep doing it.

References:

Fisher, C (2009). Wishful Drinking. Simon & Schuster.

Harris, R. (2008). The Happiness Trap: How to stop struggling and start living. Boston, MA: Trumpeter.

Mindfulness in Action

‘You will know good from bad when you are calm, at peace, passive” – Yoda

These words follow from Yoda admonishing Luke Skywalker to “unlearn what you have learned”. The essence of the words are mindfulness. To be free of the noise and turmoil that often hijacks our minds and derails our better judgment. How often have you been pressed to act on a hasty decision or an emotional response rather than take a deep breath and reserve the right to act or respond later?

I know some of the best speeches I ever made were the ones I later regretted. They were full of passion or venom and self-righteous anger and while my words got all the attention they deserved the reaction and consequences were not intended.  Perhaps if I had bit my tongue, gone for a walk or simply decided to remain silent things may have been different and worked out better. I would not have found myself in a position where I needed to apologize and make amends later.

Being “calm, at peace, passive” describes a state of equanimity where emotions are calmed, passions are absent and thoughts, words and actions are considered mindfully and with full awareness of their impacts now and in the future. In this state the mind is also clear of clutter and judgment and more likely to objectively respond to circumstances that may appear undesirable.

Having a clear mind also allows one to better receive knowledge and to learn from a teacher. Yoda was making an observation of Luke’s state of mind and lack of experience and giving him the key to progressing as a Jedi. He was challenging Luke to “empty his cup and return with an empty mind” in the spirit of the Zen Teacher. I don’t know about you but I was never a good student if I felt like I knew it all already and went in to a class with a negative attitude. The truth is, we never stop learning and there is no harm in being taught the same thing a second, third or fourth time, you may actually learn something new!

Coming in to recovery I had to calm down and embrace the “easy does it” approach. I had to learn to take things as they came without judgment, to recognize that my inner turmoil was nothing more than a mental projection manifesting as a set of emotions. Much of what I was sensing as I “came to know sanity” was not real, I had to simply acknowledge, accept and let these emotions go. In  time through applying mindfulness and meditation I began to be more calm and truly live “one day at a time” seeking to be more present and in the moment.

The brain does change with time through neuroplasticity and over a span of months I found that I changed gradually, at first I didn’t notice but people remarked that I seemed “different”, more calm. Progress can takes months and years, the important thing to remember is that recovery and personal growth is a metaphor for a life journey, one never reaches perfection and the end of the road is the day we die. You may falter and fall along the way but get up and keep going, you may never be completely free of your inner Demons but it does get better.

Mindfulness – Spot Meditation

Take a minute now and then through the day to simply breathe and follow the rise and fall of your diaphragm as you inhale and exhale.

Close your eyes if you need to and quietly say “Calm”, breath in and say “At Peace”, breath in again deeply and say “Passive”.

Slowly exhale on every out breath and let your body relax. Take a moment to scan your body for any obvious tension and let it go.

Now observe without total judgment what is going on inside your mind, throw a beam of light on it. Any negative thoughts will flight when observed, let them Go without judgment.

Now do the same and impartially observe any emotions inside you, focus on the center of your core just below the solar plexus.

Feel any tightness or tension there, explore it without judgment and finally let it go imagining the space is filled with a Golden Light.

Now breathe in again deeply three or four more times, open your eyes if they are closed and look around the room.

Notice how you feel different and everything looks a little sharper? That is mindfulness in action.