Disarming Your Negative Thoughts: How Meditation Helps

We expect too much of language. People use it to console, laugh, and express love. Phrases manage our relationships and help us make a living. We grab them to persuade and to injure.

Regrettably, our words also damage us. I refer to the private internal self-torture we alone can hear.

One remedy for this problem does not involve the pitiless expressions themselves. Instead, the method helps get us away from the typed black and white creatures inhabiting dictionaries, the ones we utter within our inner sanctum.

Allow me to explain the background first.

In cases of depression and anxiety, the voice inside our head is leaden, crushing. The word contraption called the brain pumps out endless discouragement, self-doubt, potential catastrophe, regret, and self-blame. All in letters of the alphabet, all caps in a giant font.

Some of this is caused by our genetic wiring, some learned. Homo sapiens survived because ancestors could anticipate problems and plan for defense. Communication helped. Thinking ahead and in our head was vital, allowing reflection on the past and learning from personal history, too. We take in criticism as they did, especially when young, to better adapt to conditions, meet inescapable demands, and achieve acceptance by the community.

For the troubled among us in particular, when nothing else occupies our attention, invading armies of words sometimes describe an unfortunate back story, accuse one of inadequacy, and generate fear of the future. The space between the ears is filled with emotionally charged, unsettling sentences. We try to avoid or escape them by occupying our time in productive and joyous activities, embracing love, and engaging in hobbies.

Some use the radio or TV to drown out their self-loathing. Books might distract, video games entertain. Others imbibe alcohol or take drugs. The lucky sleep self-recrimination away, fortunate unless slumber is all they can do.

When work and play are done — often late at night or when we are by ourselves — the loquacious intercranial attack picks up. Try as we do to kick the phrases away, they rebound in our direction. The more our ideas are repeated internally, the more they boomerang, as if connected to a rubber band we can only stretch so far before a snapping return to the original shape, shooting the trouble back at us.

The harsh routine at its worst implies, “Sorry, your lifetime allotment of happiness is used up.”The task for winning the battle for our distressed brain’s attention is to drain the words of their power. Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) can do some of that, increasing our ability to talk back to irrational cognitions.

Traditional dynamic psychotherapy, in addition, aims to relieve us of our sense of unworthiness based on mistreatment by parents and other misfortunes. Grief-work is necessary.

As for the rest, all of us benefit from being calmed and relieved of the tendency to give too much desperate meaning to the reflexive thoughts that seem to think themselves into us and against us.

Mindfulness meditation can address this. The usual instruction is to concentrate on your breathing. If you are like me, a few seconds into early meditation sessions a distraction will pull you away from a focus on the breath. Many of the intrusions are benign and random. This is typical and not a bad thing.

Once you recognize what happened you are informed how your mind works. Even more so, if the topic taking your attention off breathing is challenging and you notice this. Maybe it’s anxiety or worry about what is before you, perhaps downing yourself over a comment you made or sadness and anger about what a neighbor said about you.

The new meditator’s job is observing the unpleasantness and then returning attention to his inhalation and exhalation. You don’t flee the interruption, indeed you recognize it without judgment. Meditation experts tell us our value judgments (good/bad, right wrong, pleasant/unpleasant, positive/negative, wise/foolish) make such disruptive notions and feelings more painful than would otherwise be the case.

When everything goes as planned, a practice of daily meditation allows you to accept these thoughts for what they are (just thoughts). Life gets a bit easier. One’s intelligence is pulled away from self-disparagement, concentration improves, and you become calmer. Your head is emptied of incessant involuntary terminology and its tag-along emotions. Words separate from their previous emotional resonance and residue.

In one sense you have grown more observant of your cognitive and affective private life while more distant from it: less trapped and victimized by the historically fraught words. Their grip on you is loosened. A state of liberation follows, along with an experiential realization the punisher inside is not your master any longer: not essential to who you are.

A personal example: I once went to the Emergency Room with unendurable, hours-long pain from a kidney stone. I’d encountered a few such hard but injurious objects before, but never so lasting and punishing. I was given morphine, a narcotic.

Once medicated my body reminded me the affliction was yet there, but I was distanced and detached from the hurt: more accepting of it. I no longer cared. My feelings about the discomfort dissolved. For a meditator who is far enough along, the concepts once capable of hijacking your well-being lose the authority to harm you, though you still sometimes note the same terms in your head. You stop giving them importance, thus robbing them of their “truth” and impact.

Instead, you deem the terms as arguable statements, not indictments of your worth. They rest easier, not allowed to be a part of you, not taken to heart. These perceptions and notions have detached from your identity. The experience is like reading a book or watching a movie about someone else, not you. Separation from such things permits you to see the world and yourself in a more objective fashion.

In effect, the meaningful labels you attached to many of these internal communications lose their sticking ability, as if the “glue” adhering to your self-image dried up. The stickers fall off. The readiness to judge falls away. Room for beauty and fascination take up space once occupied by darkness.

Nor is your decision-making as likely to be influenced by the hyper-emotional thought-generation machine. The enemy within the language has been disarmed. Life can be more in your control, free of the ever-growing clutter of self-inflicted emotions and concepts you’ve been living with. The reprogrammed cerebral cortex is more settled. Moments of serenity are possible.

Do not minimize the amount of work involved in the process. Most people I’ve known who try meditation give up early. They believe they are “bad at it,” bored, or report the assault of troublesome beliefs and worries entering their attempt to quiet the mind makes them worse than before. Others only begin when their suffering is already at a peak rather than when depression or anxiety is not so present. Some find the needed time and discipline of a once-a-day devotion to the endeavor more than they can do.

I can only say that persistence, dedication, and the capacity to wait for delayed gratification are useful in meditation and much else in life. Combined with CBT (including any needed grief-work), the world may open to you in a new and better way.

—–

The first photo is of Cadillac Mountain in Arcadia National Park. Next comes Composition VII by Kandinsky, followed by 72 Seconds Before Actual Sunrise, Southern California, USA by Jessie Eastland from Wikimedia Commons. Finally, The Rayleigh Effect, Seconds Before Sunrise in New Zealand by Moriori, also from Wikimedia Commons.

A Dozen Ways to Avoid Regret (and a Warning about Endless Therapy)

512px-claude_monet_impression_soleil_levant_1872

When we suffer regret we are, by definition, occupied with the past. We lament things we did or didn’t do, time lost, vanished opportunities. Perhaps, however, it would be useful thinking about how to avoid regret going forward. Here are a few guidelines:

  • Recognize life’s limitations, learn from failure, and don’t stop trying. Anyone with imagination can think of several possible lives to lead, places to go, experiences to pursue. If  you are honest you can even envision a different spouse or children, no matter your great good fortune in those you have. Thus, the world is like a candy store in which only so much consumption of sweets is possible, to borrow a metaphor from Haruki Murakami and Forrest Gump. The earlier you recognize this the more you are forced to refine and narrow your choices. Moreover, you must reach for some of those candies without ever having tasted them and before obtaining experience in how to grasp each one artfully, a guarantee of mistakes. We can only learn from disappointments and try again. Live your values as best you can: dive deep into those few candied heaps of life you deem worth the effort in the short time permitted. Don’t end your days saying, “I should have” or  “Why did I waste my time on … ” Or, worst of all, “Why didn’t I?” Michael Jordan, basketball hero, said:

I’ve missed over 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games.Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.

  • Improve your choices. Moving through life, take stock, reflect. Write down your analysis, perhaps every five or 10 years. Look where you’ve been, where you are, and where you would like to go. I’m talking about what career you might still pursue, what you’d like to learn about, how much of yourself you hope to devote to relationships, what personal characteristics you still wish to alter, where you’d like to live, what you’d like to see, and the legacy you might leave behind. No one can do everything, be everything. Too much candy, too little time, too much indigestion.
  • Since we can’t invent more hours, we are left to determine how best to spend our allotment. If you hope to become World Champion in the art of perusing and responding to tweets, stop reading this now. You are wasting minutes you could devote to your curious focus on 140 characters or less. For myself, I watch TV/video less than an hour a day on most days, except for those in the baseball season! Why? Because I value the time spent in the company of fine novelists, historians, and ancient philosophers more than what is on the tube. Some of this might strike you as elitist, but no. Literature isn’t automatically “superior” to TV, film, or theater. I’ve simply made a choice: my personal preference. You can find superb TV shows if that is what you believe is a good use of your day. I’m suggesting you think through choices. Assuming you are mature, the most satisfying life possible for you will be a life designed by you — not a consequence of habit or the persuasion of advertising, the boss, or friends. Quiet consideration of how you spend your waking hours is essential to the success of your plan, especially if you are not happy.
  • Be active, take risks, always seek to grow. Some of these endeavors will assume the form of self-disclosure and vulnerability, some the shape of honest self-reflection, some the act of trying new things. The courage to know yourself and then be yourself is never easy. The ground is shifting under all of us. Move, don’t sit still. Reinvent yourself, at least a bit. Proceed, don’t rush, but live with intensity. Walter Pater wrote:

To burn always with this hard gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.

256px-soleil_couchant_sur_le_vercors

  • Be wary of bucket lists. I’m referring to the postponement of activities until late in life, the things you want to do before you begin residence below ground. Several problems come with delay: a) you might not live long enough. b) if you are forever looking forward you won’t live in the moment and experience joy in the now. c) bucket lists assume excellence at predicting what will bring fulfillment in 10, 20, or 40 years. We are poor at this. Research on “affective forecasting” (being able to predict how life events will influence our emotions) affirms the weakness. Richard Posner, in his book Aging and Old Age, puts the dilemma of anticipating our future self this way. Say we sentence a 20-year-old to life in prison. Are we punishing the same person when he is 65? That is, does a man change over time? Possibly deepen, mature, give up old hobbies and take on new ones, learn more; become enriched and transformed by love or literature or experience, turn grateful or embittered, for or against life? Unless we can predict the manner in which events and people will work on us and how we will work on ourselves, we might realize a long postponed trip to Paris would have been better in life’s springtime; or, in my case, a Chicago Cubs World Series victory would have meant more to me at 20, when I lived and died by the team’s fortunes, than it did in 2016. By the way, I didn’t plan on morphing into a less avid fan. I simply changed.
  • Regret can be a result of idealization. As Janet Landman observes in her book, Regret: The Persistence of the Possible, this emotional state is akin to the aftermath of a decision made at a fork in the road. We reach the divide and must choose. Proceeding down the chosen path, past the time of easily retracing our steps, we think: “I was mistaken. The other way was better.” But really, do we know?  We only understand the lived experience of the choice we made. The other avenue is easy to idealize because it exists in imagination, because we didn’t encounter the imperfections one can only suffer by a different choosing. Do you wish to spend a lifetime lamenting a mirage?
  • Ask whether there is another side to losses, mistakes, and missed opportunities. I am not Pollyanna. Few who read my writing regularly would think so, I suspect. I will say, however, that I have learned far more from the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” than from any other source. Not every mistake can be rationalized, not every loss offers even close to equal compensation in some other form. But before you devote the rest of your days to regret, take a few moments to seek what can be learned from life’s hard and unequal distribution of pain. Perhaps you can create some good out of your awareness of those things you did or didn’t do, the words you said or didn’t say, the chances missed and the poorly chosen roads endured — if not for yourself, then for someone else.
  • Remember that research says you will be happier if you take newfound money and buy a cup of coffee for a stranger than if you use the gift for yourself. King Midas wasn’t a happy guy, was he? Take a hard look at your desire to gain triumphant, towering status and wealth.

256px-sonnenaufgang_schilf_im_winter

  • Be careful how much time you spend looking back. I am on thin ice in saying so. A good therapist begins with history. The untying of binding emotional knots is essential, often requiring discovery of how they came to be, where they remain, and more. Danger exists, however, in believing every knot requires attention, every cognitive or behavioral change demands agonizing soul-searching. Some will loosen with the passage of time, others aren’t too important. CBT (Cognitive Behavior Therapy) is able to master many without endless and wrenching historical probing. Meanwhile, weigh the time spent on a backward focus versus possible gains from attention to the now via action. Curtail whatever retrospective view isn’t essential to making a satisfying life. Is this avoidance, cowardice? Only sometimes. Psychotherapy in-depth encourages a seemingly perpetual return to the bottomless gorge of your memory-distressed soul until you dredge up every dark thing at its floor. Sometimes we must put an end to reruns and begin a new season in the installment series of our lives. Your therapist might urge digging deeper. He may be correct. I’m here to say — on reflection — my patients sometimes knew when to stop when I didn’t.
  • Is there room for gratitude? Such a sentiment is hard to summon in the midst of despair, maybe impossible. The practice of routinely reminding yourself what is good can, nonetheless, diminish sadness much of the time.
  • Time is always moving forward and doesn’t permit time-travel for do-overs. Those facts set the stage for regret. Not because you made horrible mistakes, but because you are human and were thrown into a set of unalterable physical laws (as are all of us). The best way we can deal with what nature offers is to make good use of the present and plan for the future, even though the person for whom we are planning (our future self) may not be as thrilled as we hope with the baton we pass him. Regret is inevitable because our genetic inheritance keeps us unsatisfied, always seeking more and better. Those early humans without such ambitions — those who were easily satisfied — didn’t survive, nor did their offspring become our ancestors. Evolution enabled the perpetuation of our forefathers’ genes in the form of their progeny, but offered no guarantee of joy in our status, our mate, or our job. Regret, therefore, is built into who we are: restless creatures still driven by the biological imperative to behave in a way that increases the chances of our genes surviving, even past our reproductive years.
  • Learn to forgive yourself. You cannot do everything, you will never be perfect, you will disappoint and injure others, your imprint on the planet will (unless your last name is Will Shakespeare or Hawking or Beethoven) be small. We are always learning and forever changing course. Do your best, try to do better, and leave it at that. Life is punishing enough for most of us without volunteering for the cross and offering to hammer in the nails, to boot. As a Christian colleague occasionally told her patients, “Get off the cross, we need the wood.”

You need the wood, too. Take the timber and carve a sculpture or draw a lovely image or build a house; or burn it to keep yourself and another good human warm. Leave the job of summing up your life to history, assuming history cares.

In my book that is enough.

The top painting is Impression, Sunrise by Claude Monet. The second photo is Sunset Over the Vercors Mountains, Seen From Grenoble by Guillaume Piolle. Finally, Sunrise with Reeds in Winter is the work of Benjamin Gimmel. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Treating Insecurity and Anxiety: Eight Roads to a Solution

512px-Anxiety_cloudImagine you are considering therapy for the first time. Or perhaps your treatment isn’t working. You stand at a crossroads, like the hub of a wheel where eight spokes beckon for attention. How should you choose among them?

Not all are good and you may even realize that as you decide. Here is a guide to thinking about what to do (and what not to do) with the weighty package of insecurities velcroed to your life. Click the link for a comprehensive list of the signs of insecurity.

ALCOHOL AND DRUGS. The issue of substance dependency should not be ignored. Recall the old Chinese proverb, “First the man takes the drink, then the drink takes the man.” Alcohol’s comforting relief and buoyancy is commonly replaced by longer term emotional darkness. Marijuana (cannabis) might mellow the smoker out but leaves underlying insecurity and anxiety untouched when sober. If you are attempting psychotherapy, best to tell the counselor the extent of your substance use straight away. The deepest wounds are slippery things. Grasping them is harder (if not impossible) when alcohol or drugs add to the excess lubrication.

WILLPOWER AND SELF-ANALYSIS. The old saying tells us, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Yes, some few people manage their own psychotherapeutic project. Indeed, Freud analyzed himself. What is required? Although I know of no research on this, I suspect one needs a strong capacity for self-reflection, high intelligence, some degree of emotional openness, the courage to look in the mirror, tenacity, and knowledge gained through reading about treatment. Willpower is necessary because the self-analyst must inevitably get out of his head and leap the wall of fear to master behaviors blocked by insecurity: good eye contact, self-assertion, saying no, asking for things, making uncomfortable phone calls, inviting someone on a date, public speaking, etc.

THE SEARCH FOR A STRONGMAN. Some rely on a mate to perform avoided tasks. The significant other becomes a caretaker or body-guard, an individual who is sought to do the jobs the hesitant one believes he cannot: return a product to a store, accompany him to events otherwise avoided, and so forth. This is no solution to anxiety or insecurity, but a human crutch to sidestep the need to change. Another danger: too often the protector becomes an overlord, pushing you around or worse; the mister turned monster you hoped he would protect you against.

PSYCHOTROPIC MEDICATION. Medications, like other drugs, carry possible side-effects. Antidepressants can impair sexual performance, anti-anxiety tablets often have addictive properties. While a good psychiatrist will carefully watch for these, pharmaceuticals do not create a sense of security and confidence beyond the time you use them. Moreover, to the extent that the psychotropics help you feel better, your motivation to tackle underlying reasons for your symptoms may be reduced. That said, sometimes susceptibility to anxiety and depression is inherited and biologically-based, making the booster of drugs a necessary and permanent mode of treatment.

Girl_suffering_from_anxiety

AVOIDANCE AND THE INTERNET. Anticipation of discomfort, humiliation, or failure translates to turning down invitations — limiting chances for growth, accomplishment, and joy. The troubled soul is assaulted by hatchet-bearing ideas that have become permanent, non-rent-paying residents in the head. The data set of the insecure is based on an unfortunate history. The job of recovery translates to writing over your old history by gradually taking on social challenges and accumulating successes reinforcing your effort.

Beware the false god of the internet! The more time you worship at its alter and “let your fingers do the walking” on the keyboard, the less you have for direct human contact (involving actual walking out of the apartment). For all its marvels, this deux ex machina can become a screen behind which to hide the human face, trading yours for a virtual one. Yes, social media can be a stepping stone to a life beyond the keypad. For many, however, it’s another form of concealment and self-distraction. You can identify too fervent online social network disciples by the pain they will suffer for their god: a malady called text neck, the product of bending over their smartphone.

PSYCHODYNAMIC PSYCHOTHERAPY. Psychodynamic treatment, the traditional talking cure, can be a foundational part of counseling. It helps one clear the life-history undergrowth undermining a healthy self-image, planting  seeds of sturdiness to deflect the inevitable defeats we all encounter. Such counseling also lifts the weight of self-blame by recognizing the fingerprints of others on one’s problematic background story. It cannot stop there, of course. Grief and grieving demand attention.

Beyond relieving submerged pain, one must eventually take psychoanalytic insight for a test-drive: try new behaviors just as one would a new car before purchase. However much a “depth psychology” approach is needed, empirically based (research supported) interventions provide the practical impetus for emotional availability, symptom reduction, and behavioral change.

COGNITIVE-BEHAVIORAL THERAPY (CBT). Many of the well-researched and effective treatments just referred to fall into the category of CBT. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), for example, is among those problems amenable to this set of tools. Indeed, attempting a solution for OCD psychodynamically is, in contrast, a therapeutic cul-de-sac. CBT can often, however, be combined with more traditional talking therapy to join the best of both worlds.

ACT (ACCEPTANCE AND COMMITMENT THERAPY). ACT is described in the following way on its website: “Developed within a coherent theoretical and philosophical framework, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a unique empirically based psychological intervention that uses acceptance and mindfulness strategies, together with commitment and behavior change strategies, to increase psychological flexibility. Psychological flexibility means contacting the present moment fully as a conscious human being, and based on what the situation affords, changing or persisting in behavior in the service of chosen values.”

Plowing through this technical language, ACT deals with the losses most patients have sustained, traveling from a grieving process toward acceptance of those life circumstances that can’t be changed, reduced avoidance, learning to live in the moment via meditation, deciding what is most important to you, and choosing behavior consistent with your stated values.

WE ALL TAKE TURNS at life’s crossroads. Sometimes the best advice is to make no movement, patiently waiting for the traffic to clear. Do remember, however, not choosing is also a choice. The clock is always ticking, even if, in the digital age, we must strain to hear it.

The top image by John Hain is called Anxiety Cloud sourced from Wikipedia Commons. The photo beneath it is Girl Suffering from Anxiety by Bablekahn at Kurdish Wikipedia.