"Go as far as you can see,
Then see how far you can go."
- My Dad's Friend
I have this quote on the wall in my office to remind myself and my clients that while goals are very useful things, sometimes they can become overwhelming, or a stick to beat ourselves with. A goal can loom over us and discourage us by it's very size, or it may seem so far off that we are disheartened by the length of the journey ahead.
It's important to remember that we reach any destination step by step, day by day, breath by breath.
If you're looking to make a change in your life, or if there's a goal you want to reach, have a picture of where you want to eventually end up for sure, but then break it down into bitesize pieces that you can celebrate as you go.
For example, if you want to drop a stone, you might want to break that down into 2 pounds a week and acknowledge that win each week. The encouragement and sense of achievement you feel will keep you motivated to proceed.
If you're working on letting go of depression or anxiety, then acknowledge the 5 or 10 minutes of calm or light-heartedness you felt today, they really do count. Keep working, with compassion and care, and those 5 or 10 minutes will be come 15 or 20, 25, or 30, and some day, a reversal will happen, and there'll be more joy and calm than dark and worry.
Have faith and be steady on your course, as long as you are moving in the right direction, you will get there.
"I long to accomplish a great and noble task; but it is my chief duty to accomplish small tasks as if they were great and noble." - Helen Keller
It's in our nature to attempt to foresee difficulties in life so we can prepare ourselves for them. This skill has helped us stay alive back in the days when we lived in a hunter-gatherer society, when danger was always around the corner. It has helped us develop safer and more comfortable ways to live in, and get around our world. This skill helps us live our own lives with more ease and fewer nasty surprises.
However, some of us overdo this. We look into the future and see only darkness and hardship, we may tell ourselves that we are only trying to be prepared, or not leave ourselves open to disappointment, but what we are really doing is allowing the future that may not happen ruin the present. This can leave us stressed, tired, and depressed.
This week, see if you can catch yourself worrying about the future, or thinking of the bad that may happen.
Remember that you are not a fortune teller, and you cannot know the future.
See if you can notice three good things in your life right now, in this moment. (No matter how big or small)
Remember that each time we actively look for the good in life, we are training our brain to be more naturally aware of the positive. You never know, you might find that life is better than you think.
"I am an old man and have known many troubles, but most never happened." - Mark Twain
Back in the days of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, it was necessary to constantly scan for danger, as we were never far from the threat of being dinner for some larger and faster beast than ourselves. This tendency to be on the lookout for what bad thing may happen to us is still alive and well in the most primitive part of our brain today. So if you ever wondered why you remember the one bad thing your boss said about you, and you see to have forgotten the ten good things he or she said, our 'negativity bias' that kept us alive for thousands of years is the answer.
So how do we learn to allow the positive in as well?
We can train our brains to be more aware of the good things by bringing our conscious awareness to those good things.
Each night this week, write down at least 3 things that were good about your day. These things can be big or small, anything from a sweet birdsong you heard on the way to work, to a great performance review, it doesn't matter. What matters is that you consciously look for the good, not allowing the negativity bias to run the show and paint your days grey, when there's so much colour out there if you look for it. :)
"What we focus on, we empower and enlarge. Good multiplies when focused upon. Negativity multiplies when focused upon. The choice is ours: Which do we want more of?" - Julia Cameron
The beauty of coming home to the breath is that you never have far to go. The breath is always with you, and once you learn to work with it, it can be a source of refuge from the ups and downs of life.
A long deep breath signals the nervous system to calm down, that everything is ok. We all know that if we're anxious or upset, having someone tell us to calm down is likely to be of no benefit. Emotions can feel overwhelming, and the chatter of the mind deafening, leaving us feeling powerless and at their mercy. But a few minutes of long deep breathing targets the body directly, bypassing the chatter in your mind, and shifting focus away from emotional overwhelm.
The trick is to stay with the breath, and when the mind pulls you away again and again, come back again and again. Watch out for thoughts such as 'this isn't working', or 'this is too intense', and return to the breath, it will guide you to safety if you can remain patient and persistent.
As with any practice, making it a routine part of your life is key. See if you can commit to taking a few minutes out to belly breathe each day this week, and connect with the sense of safety and peace within.
“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.” ― Thich Nhat Hanh
"We have 60,000 thoughts a day, and 98% of them we had yesterday" - Tara Brach
Take a moment to think about this, is this true of your experience? I know it is of mine.
Often I find myself watching re-runs in my mind ranging from the mundane and necessary "What will I have for dinner today?" to the detrimental "Remember that time I said (insert stupid comment) to (insert person's name)? What an idiot I looked!".
What would happen if we opened up to this moment instead of watching re-runs in our minds?
Sure, there's comfort in watching a re-run, you know what will happen, you know how the story ends, there are no surprises, and there is a time and a place for that. But what are we missing out on by doing this? What new possibilities would open up if we were to be present and aware in this moment? What new things could we learn about ourselves and our relationships? Our work and our lives? What new story would we get to tell?
This week, set an intention to come back to your senses a few times a day and notice what's actually happening in the here and now. See if you can be curious about your inner and outer world, you never know what you might discover. :)
“Always hold fast to the present. Every situation, indeed every moment, is of infinite value, for it is the representative of a whole eternity.” — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Thought creates feeling, and feeling creates action.
Imagine this scenario: I wake up in the morning and immediately think of all I have to do today, it's a long list, and the thought comes "How will I ever get all this done?", quickly followed by "X always looks so in control, and she's busier than me, why am I such a failure, when will I ever get it together?" In response to this thought, my heart sinks, my shoulders slump, my head feels heavy. I feel tired already, so I turn over and go for a snooze. When I wake, it's late and I think "sure half the day is gone, what's the point??".
This is the power of thought.
Now imagine an alternate scenario: I wake up in the morning and immediately think of all I have to do today, it's a long list, and the thought comes "How will I ever get all this done?" --I immediately step in and ask myself "Where will this thinking take me?". I decide instead to remind myself that I am a person who can get things done, that even if it all isn't done by evening, that doesn't make me a bad person, and, that I am worth the effort to do the work of choosing to think and act differently. (It does take effort, especially in the beginning when all evidence points to the futility of even trying, but persist, and it will get easier.
Are you worth it?
"Your thoughts are a catalyst for self-perpetuating cycles. What you think directly influences how you feel and how you behave. So if you think you’re a failure, you’ll feel like a failure. Then, you’ll act like a failure, which reinforces your belief that you must be a failure." - Amy Morin
If you knew that your body doesn't know the difference between a thought and reality, would it change how you think?
When we worry - when we run scenarios of what can go wrong, or bad things that might happen, the body actually produces stress hormones in response to the worry thoughts, and we enter stress responses such as the fight/flight/freeze responses. If we do this often enough it can lead to inflammation in the body, and while we sit home safe on our sofas, our own thoughts are making us stressed and ill.
Check in regularly with your mind, and when you find it wandering off to worry, or into fearful places, come back to the present.
Ask yourself - is there actually any danger right now?
In this moment, is there actually anything to worry about? - If there is, then what action can you take?
If there's no action you can take right now, can you let those thoughts go?
"The body cannot tell the difference between events that are actual threats to survival and events that are present in thought alone." - Joan Borysenko
There is a Buddhist saying: "Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional". This is often illustrated with the story of the two arrows.
Imagine you are walking along and you are hit by an arrow, obviously it will hurt! There is nothing you could have done differently to avoid the arrow, you were in it's path and that's that.
The 'second arrow' is how you react to the first. If you react by focusing on how you should never have been shot in the first place, or maybe getting angry at the person who shot you, or getting into a story of how unfair life is--this is adding a second arrow of suffering to the first.
Instead, we can choose to accept and observe the pain of the first arrow, letting it move through us and fade into the past, perhaps learning not to walk that same path we got shot on again!
We can see how this translates to life. Pain is indeed inevitable. No life is free from pain, we fall over, we lose people, we get ill, we want things we can't have. All these are first arrows. We can learn, with patience and Mindfulness, to accept these first arrows without creating second ones.
Something I find helpful to when I've found myself busy with a second arrow, is to remember that we are not here for long, we never know the date or hour when life ends or is altered forever, so it is up to me; how do I want to spend my time here?
“When a person has a reaction to something in their environment, there’s a 90 second chemical process that happens in the body; after that, any remaining emotional response is just the person choosing to stay in that emotional loop.
Something happens in the external world and chemicals are flushed through your body which puts it on full alert. For those chemicals to totally flush out of the body it takes less than 90 seconds.
This means that for 90 seconds you can watch the process happening, you can feel it happening, and then you can watch it go away.
After that, if you continue to feel fear, anger, and so on, you need to look at the thoughts that you’re thinking that are re-stimulating the circuitry that is resulting in you having this physiological response over and over again.” - Jill Bolte-Taylor, My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Sceintist’s Personal Journey
This quote reflects what Mindfulness training is all about.
As long as we are alive, as long as we love and care for people and things, there will be joy and pain. We can't avoid our emotions, and efforts to do so usually wind up causing more pain. Better to learn to form a healthier relationship with our emotions, so we can live and love fully and fearlessly.
If you would like to learn more about mindfulness, and how to apply it in your life, click here.
"Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom." - Viktor E. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning
One of the trickiest things with depression and anxiety is that they can steal your motivation to do the things that will take you to a better place mentally.
Any of us who experience depression or low mood will know how it is to have the internal battle of knowing that a walk for example will make us feel better, but struggling to find the energy to get up and go do it.
Those of us with anxiety may relate to feeling wound up, having the thought that doing a mindfulness meditation will help us, but feeling that we'll be too anxious to make it through to the end of the recording.
It's a catch 22 that we need to stop in it's tracks. If we wait til we feel like doing the thing that will help us, we'll never do it. Anxiety and depression will see to that. However, if we can do our best to ignore the feeling and do it anyway, over time, the depression will lift, and the anxiety will soothe.
If you're not feeling great today, do something. Take a walk or do some yoga, do a meditation, phone a friend, something. It's a step in the right direction. Do the same tomorrow and you've taken another step, same the next day, and the next. Before you know it, you'll be in a better place.
The Weekly Minute is a blog I write each week with the aim of providing proven tools to help promote positive mental health.
The collection of short, practical mindfulness and therapy tools for self-reflection and self-improvement, can equip people to take their mental well-being into their own hands, and improve their quality of life.
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