You don’t have to be a Buddhist to benefit from mindfulness. One of my passions is to de-mistify and secularize concepts that would otherwise be out of reach for anyone who may not belong to or be interested in understanding a specific religious affiliation.
It is now well known that certain Buddhist concepts can be very helpful in aiding us to be more happy, balanced, and in control of our emotional responses. One of these concepts is that of ‘equanimity’.
Equanimity is the capacity to see our own suffering and that of others with compassion without becoming either overwhelmed by it or indifferent to it. It is the capacity to look at all that surrounds us with the eye of a curious and compassionate observer. It is watching what goes on within us and outside of us with an open heart and without judgement, remembering that all that exists rises and passes away, all is impermanent, including joy, sorrow, pleasant and painful events, people, buildings, animals and nations; It is being able to let yourself rest amid everything that is impermanent while remaining balanced and peaceful; It is the capacity to extend loving kindness to all living beings without becoming enmeshed in their own drama, accepting the things that cannot be changed, having the courage to change those we can and cultivating the wisdom to know the difference.
Imagine being a judge at a court case: you are not indifferent to what you witness but you are not personally invested in it either. You are even and balanced. You are not disturbed by either chasing after pleasure or avoiding pain. You are simply present to what is without having to change it adjust it or control it in any way. Another word for this is ‘detachment’.
When we practice this capacity to lift up and “abstract’ ourselves from ourselves, it is as if we could look in on ourselves from the outside; in this way we stop identifying with our own emotions thoughts and feelings and we can choose how to respond consciously, rather than ‘react’ automatically to what we experience. This is the basis of emotional intelligence.
If we want to create change in our lives we must first accept where we are right now and take responsibility: we need to realize that we are creators. We can either be created by our unconscious thoughts words and behaviors or we can consciously choose to create what we want to experience more of. We are the inheritors of all the causes and conditions that have brought us here now. The thoughts and actions we have engaged in your life have created the outcomes we are now experiencing in our lives.
So what if we stopped wasting our energy blaming others or alternatively giving ourselves a hard time and putting yourself down ? What if instead we chose to be compassionate with ourselves , forgave ourselves and learned whatever we can from our experiences ?
Perhaps this way we could put our energy and focus to better use. We could be helping ourselves to become more aware of our automatic reactions, thoughts and emotions; we could then be practicing to focus our intention and attention towards conscious choice so we create the life we want.
As creators of our own ‘karma’, we need to learn how to care for others without becoming overwhelmed and developing empathy fatigue (and subsequently indifference). If we clearly look at the world, the struggles and suffering we see will make us sad. If instead of trying to avoid this we stay with the discomfort we will experience the wish to be of help to others.
If the need to be of benefit to others is rooted in love, we can learn to relax with the discomfort we experience and as a result we will be able to use the sadness to motivate us to help others whether through art, prayer, activism, charity or simply by being kind to those around us.
It is important to remember that no matter how much we may care we cannot live other people’s lives for them. So while taking the “three thousand year” view of things we must practice remaining with an open heart, practice loving kindness towards all living beings and remember that our responsibility in making the world a better place ends there.
We can wish fellow humans to learn to see the arising and passing of all things with equanimity and balance, while being as much as possible an example to them of such an attitude and perspective.
One of the practical ways to cultivate this quality of being ‘a witness’ to life is to practice being internally flexible, curious and learn how to focus and concentrate.
You can find some examples of these in the video on equanimity or you can get in touch to experience them first hand with me.
If you are interested in knowing more on the link between Mindfulness and psychotherapy you read this mindfulness buddhism and psychology article
One of the things that I have been noticing in my practice is how often people come to see me for social anxiety problems. I also have been aware of how reports seem to indicate this malady to be on the rise in recent times in the western world. So what can we make of this ? I have started to question how much of this excessive amount of anxiety is societal and how much is learned behavior coupled with genetic predisposition.
Even without delving into how our societal values vastly influence the importance of social status and its representation through social and traditional media, and even putting aside personal history I am starting to think that a fundamental part of the problem comes from being stuck in the teenage developmental error of assuming and believing that while everyone else is worth knowing and/or has a wonderful life we are not. This makes us feel insecure (and deepens our preexisting insecurities) and puts us in a position of being at -1 in social situations.
Let me explain: if we all realized that we are in the same boat and that everyone is as ‘messed up’ and as fundamentally OK as everyone else the way we relate would change. We would stop trying to impress others or being impressed by their seeming social success and we would relate to them as equals; as a result when talking / meeting a new person we would both start at level 0, not level +1 or -1 (better or worse than them).
Step number one then would be to question the fundamental assumption that others are better than us and decide to take a position of fundamental equality. Every time you realize you are putting yourself down when comparing yourself to someone else ask yourself the question: how do I know this is true ? Can I prove it ? What is the evidence against it ? And actively look beyond the surface.
Question your own values. What makes you worth knowing is not how much money you have or how thin you are (among other common concerns) but the unique flavor of the way you experience the world. There is no right or wrong way to experience it . There is only genuine communication of your experience and genuine interest in other people’s experience. When we genuinely tell others how we feel about anything we connect as equals, it is easier for others to accept us and as a result our anxiety assuages.
Finally: think about someone who seems at genuine ease with others. What are they doing ? Model yourself after their positive qualities you wish to acquire. And when in a difficult situation ask yourself : what would this person do ? Now take a leap of faith and do it . Notice what’s different. Persist. Change takes time and effort. You will get out of it as much as you put into it.
In a previous article I have explored how our negative core beliefs keep us stuck. If you are not familiar with this I suggest you read “How to get Unstuck” first.
Now before going ahead make yourself comfortable. Take a pen and paper and get ready to do some very valuable work that will make a real difference in your life. Take your time with this. The more you put into it the more you will get out of it.
Ok, let’s get down to work: start by writing down the first restrictive negative belief you want to change. Then proceed with the following steps:
1) On a scale of 1-10 how true does this belief subjectively feel ?
2) On a scale of 1-1- how true is this belief in reality ? (be as neutral and objective as possible)
3) When does this belief the most emotionally convincing ?
4) When does it feel the least emotionally convincing ? Take your time answering this question as this will reveal to you what conditions exasperate the issue and what make it better.
5) What actual evidence do you have for this belief ? what supports it ? Be realistic and as neutral as possible
6) What actual evidence contradicts and challenges this belief ? What evidence is there to show you it might not be necessarily true ?
7) What possible advantages are making you want to hold on to it ? In what way could this belief be serving you beneficially in some perverse way ?
8) What disadvantages are there in holding on to it ?
9) Now remind yourself of a circumstance in the past when you had doubts about a belief . Go back to that time and recall what it felt like to experience doubt. How did you know you were doubting your previously firm beliefs? what were you experiencing ? what made you change your mind?
10) Recalling and staying with this doubting state start doubting your current belief. Ask yourself those questions again : does this belief really fit with what is truly important to me? In the past, when did this belief interfere with what I wanted to do? What would it be like to be free of this old belief?
11) After rolling these questions in your mind for a while focus again.
Is this negative belief an over generalization ? Is it the result of catastrophising ? Is it just a personal attack against your person or others ? Does it label you or others into something fixed ? Is it the result of demanding of yourself something unreasonable, such as ‘you SHOULD be or do such and such” ?
12) After careful consideration how true does your old belief feel now on a scale of 1-10 ? Now comes the fun part: relax , take a few deep breathes and close your eyes. Imagine that there’s a furnace somewhere deep inside yourself.
If you really want to permanently destroy that old belief imagine throwing it into that fire and watch it burn away into ashes. Take pleasure in doing this.
13) Now ask yourself: what would be a more helpful and realistic alternative belief to have? State it positively (say what you want not what you don’t want!) .
Make sure you are happy with it. Word it in the present tense, as if it was happening now. (i.e. I believe I am good enough as I am, or, I believe I deserve love just as I am)
14) On a scale of 1-10 how true does it feel right now?
15) As you did before ask yourself , when does the new belief feel the least and the most emotionally convincing.
16) Examine the evidence against this new belief ? Is there any problem with it ? Then find evidence that proves its correctness and usefulness. Write it down
17) Write down any disadvantages there may be for holding this new positive belief. Be as objective as possible
18) Write down all the advantages of holding this new positive belief now.
19) Now go inside yourself again. Recall a time in the past when you felt receptive and willing to learn. Remember what it was like to be open to change and new beliefs. How did it feel ? Re-live that time in as much detail as possible. Where in your body did you feel those feelings ? What were you telling yourself ? Do all it is possible now to achieve that same state again now.
20) Staying with that memory of feeling receptive and open focus on your new belief. How would it feel to accept this new belief ? How is it better than the previous one? How different would your life be if you held this new belief as your own ? What would you be doing that you were doing before? What could you achieve and overcome that you weren’t able to before? Think about all this and engage with your new belief.
21) Now evaluate your new belief. Do you need to make any changes? Can you improve on it in any way ? How good do you feel holding it ? On a scale of 1-10 how true does it feel now?
Now decide to take some action. What can you do differently right now, today, as a result of having acquired this new belief ? If you truly believed in it, what would you do differently? Set yourself a task based on this belief being true and decide what action you would take.
Start doing things differently right now so that your new belief gets empirical support and you experience it in your life. This way it gets verified, enhanced and supported and therefore embedded in your new behavior patterns.
Have fun with it, experiment and watch your life change and feel great as a result !
When we are blocked in an area of our lives it often is due to the fact that we feel safer that way. We may feel unhappy but that is easier to deal with than our fear of the unknown. We begin to change when the pain we experience in staying stuck is bigger than the anticipated pain of change.
A lot of fear comes down to our negative core beliefs : deeply held beliefs acquired some time in the past due to painful experiences. Becoming conscious and challenging these beliefs is the first step in the process of change.
For a moment, think about something you would really like to do or be right now but don’t feel able to. When you’ve got that, write it down. Do that now. Maybe you have always wanted to be an artist so write down “I am a capable and talented artist”.
Now, in all probability a voice in your head has just emerged to criticize this statement bringing up all sorts of reasons why this is either impossible or a bad idea. Positive affirmations can give us a sense of safety and hope if we let them but at first you will probably feel they sound fake, embarassing or not right. No surprise there. If you have spent all your life bludgeoning yourself with negative beliefs such as “I am worthless” or “I am not good enough” or “I must be perfect to deserve success” anything else will sound unfamiliar and syrupy or cheesy . So saying to yourself ” I am lovable just as I am” or “I am capable and confident” will surely sound untrue at first.
The problem with not accepting a belief because it doesn’ t sound right though is that feelings are a result of thoughts and if you want to change a feeling you have got to change the thought first. It’s a bit like the idea of “fake it til you make it”. You can’t wait to feel it to believe it, you gotta believe it to feel it! Luckily there are some ways to get around this obstacle, but all of these do involve a certain willingness to suspend judgement and take a leap of faith, as well as engage our rational mind doubting limiting old beliefs.
So what is that critical monster in your head saying when you tell it you already are what you want to be ?( After saying your affirmation: i.e. “I am ok just as I am” )
Listen to the objections that come your way. What s the cruel voice saying inside your head ? “so you’re ok as you are… ah ah sure you are!”, “who are you kidding?”, “You are ugly”, “You will never change”, “You can’t do anything right”, “No-one will ever love you unless you are perfect”, etc etc… You will be amazed at the rotten things you can come up with. Write them down. These are your personal negative core beliefs.
Once you have written them down you can start having a good look at where these beliefs come from: Mom and dad? Your school bully? The boy/girl you were in love with when you were ten? Teachers that pushed you too hard? Your little jealous sister ? Scan your blurts for possible sources. Time travel back into your life in five year increments and list by name who influenced you the most in each block of time.
Once you have identified these challenge their opinions. What self serving reason could they have had to have done or said what they did do or say? How did their own worldview influence them ? What did they believe about themselves ? What messages did they grow up with ? Remember this is not about blaming or condoning, just understanding and distinguishing their beliefs from what yours would be if you hadn’t accepted theirs as true. If there is still a lot of emotional energy involved in recalling these memories you might have to release it first so you can forgive them and yourself and move on.
Keep in mind that it is also possible your negative beliefs may come from subtle non direct messages received from your environment or from an experience of something that happened to you where others were not directly involved:
Maybe you felt different because of a situation you found yourself in; maybe you were abandoned by a significant other; maybe you fell ill and became isolated; maybe you were born with something that set you apart from others and you yourself came up with the negative conclusion that you were not Ok just as you were: the possibilities are endless and very personal.
Whatever your monster is, after it has been brought up to the light of day you can start working on challenging its critical voice and changing those negative beliefs that keep you stuck and unhappy. If you would like help with a practical cognitive behavioral approach to this, read this article about “how to get rid of negative core beliefs”.