Accepting What Is

Acceptance.

Mindfulness can help us learn to accept what is - to accept our life experience as it unfolds. As Eckhart Tolle likes to say, we must accept the "isness" of our lives. When we are mindful, we begin to observe whatever we are experiencing - our physical body, our thoughts, and our emotions - and simply notice our experience as it is happening.  We notice our bodies: tightness, tension, openness.  We notice our thoughts: "Why did I do that?"  "I can't do this." Or, "I'm never going to get his all done."  And, we notice our emotions: fear, sadness, joy.

One myth of mindfulness is that it eliminates all the bad stuff and leaves us to simply relish in the pleasant, joyful moments of life.  Mindfulness does not eliminate difficult emotions.  Instead, we become more skilled at self-awareness and better at understanding our experience without judging it or becoming overwhelmed by it.  We learn to be with whatever is there and feel it fully - the pleasant, the unpleasant and the neutral.  Rather than trying to get rid of it, fix it, or figure it out, we learn to sit with it, see it for what it is and accept it fully.

In this process, we begin to recognize that some things are simply out of our control, like other people's actions, illness or even our own feelings that can arise in response to those things. But by sitting with our experience, by observing what is there, and acknowledging it, we can begin to accept it as it is.  We can be with our sadness, our frustration, our anger or our feeling of powerlessness, and simply recognize that those are all OK to feel and they are justified simply because we are feeling them.  No judgment, just observation. Acceptance does NOT mean that we have to agree with the situation or that we have to like it, it simply means that we accept that it is happening.

While mindfulness helps us recognize that many things are outside of our control, it also helps us learn that there are many things within our control.  We can begin to exercise our power to choose how we want to view our situation, we can choose how we want to respond to it and we can choose which actions we want to take to move forward in a healthy and meaningful way.

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Mindfulness strategies we can use when faced with challenging situations:

(1) Focusing on A Pleasant or Neutral Present Moment Experience.  

Sometimes accepting your current situation can be incredibly difficult, particularly when you are facing great challenges. Often that difficulty brings up strong emotions like fear or anger.  When we are feeling overwhelmed and having difficulty sitting with strong emotions, it can be very helpful to direct our focus and attention to something neutral or pleasant. This is when our mindfulness practice gives us the insight to know that we are struggling or feeling overwhelmed, and the ability to place our attention on something more positive while our minds and bodies settle down.

Simple mindfulness practices like placing your attention on your breath, mindfully drinking your coffee, listening to the sounds around you or going outside and enjoying the full sensory experience of being in nature, can help you get out of your thinking mind and into your sensory world of experience. This can be at the very least a neutral experience and at best a quite pleasant one. Taking time out to take a few, deep, mindful breaths can also help activate your Rest and Digest response and turn off your Stress response. Practicing mindfulness in this way can help you relax, settle your mind, and add some pleasant, more joyful moments to your day.  I love this poem that beautifully expresses how we can move mindfully through our day   . . .

Walk Slowly (Danna Faulds) It only takes a reminder to breathe, a moment to be still, and just like that, something in me settles, softens, makes space for imperfection. The harsh voice of judgment drops to a whisper and I remember again that life isn't a relay race; that we will all cross the finish line; that waking up to life is what we were born for. As many times as I forget, catch myself charging forward without even knowing where I'm going, that many times I can make the choice to stop, to breathe, and be, and walk slowly into the mystery.

 

(2) Accepting What Is.

This may be much easier said than done, but it is the key to lowering our suffering.  In Buddhist teachings, suffering is caused by our struggle against what is. Life can be painful, but our true suffering comes from our struggle against what we cannot change.  We don't have to like it, we don't have to agree with it, we just have to accept that it is happening. This shift in mindset can help us move forward and take the necessary steps to cultivate a healthy approach to how we can move on in a healthy and productive way.

When you are feeling ready, you can simply sit with whatever you are feeling and allow yourself to feel it fully.  Invite it into your meditation, as we say. You can simply label it - anger, sadness, disappointment, etc.  Notice how it feels in your body.  And, simply notice how that feeling may change by simply observing it and accepting it as it is.  Soften into it.  One of my mindfulness teachers likes to point out that the word emotion has the word "motion" in it for a reason, and that is because emotions will move through us if we allow them to.

 

(3) Self-Compassion. 

One critical part of all mindfulness practice is self-compassion.  It is OK to feel anger, it is OK to have trouble accepting what is. Be aware and be careful not to add on a layer of self-judgment and self-criticism to what you are experiencing. By using your mindfulness practice to simply see what you are experiencing, to feel it fully, to acknowledge it and to accept it, you can begin to move forward. This self-compassion is a critical part of your self-care. Remember, we are not trying to eliminate, suppress or "correct" our emotional response, we are simply trying to recognize what we are feeling and accept it fully.  We are human and our feelings are real and justified simply because they are there.  In doing this, we can allow our emotions to move through us so we can move on.

 

(4) Acceptance and Mindful Parenting.

Acceptance is critical in mindful parenting.  Too often we try to correct our children or tell them why what they are feeling is not valid or why they should not feel that way.  For example, we may catch ourselves saying, "One day you will realize how silly this is."  Instead, we need to listen fully and attentively, offering them our open, nonjudgmental attention. We must turn off our mental running commentary and hear what they are saying.  Try not to interrupt.  Just listen.  Be aware of your own thoughts and judgments and how those may be interfering with your ability to simply listen and absorb.  Accept what they are feeling simply because they are feeling it.  Finally, we need to validate what they are feeling and let them know that we hear them.  For example, we can simply say, "Wow, that must have been very hurtful."  Simply listening without judging or trying to solve a problem, accepting fully what your child is feeling and validating those feelings can create an open and meaningful channel of communication.  It fosters deep connection and a safe space for them to feel heard and understood.  It also allows them a healthy roadmap to process their own feelings.

Mindfulness and the Value of Being in the Present Moment

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I recently read Ruth Whippman's New York Times Sunday Review Opinion entitled, Actually, Let's Not Be in the Moment.  Her thoughts inspired me to think deeply about the value of mindfulness and being in the present moment.  Together with some mindfulness teachers around the country, we have been sharing our thoughts in response to this article, which I wanted to share with all of you.
I understand Ms. Whippman's frustrations about mindfulness, but I am afraid that she has misunderstood the practice of mindfulness itself. The danger in the modern teaching of mindfulness is that many are looking at it as a "quick fix" to our problems and a short-cut to happiness without fully understanding what it actually is and how to practice it.

I have seen firsthand over the past seven years the benefits of mindfulness being taught in schools, in inner city youth programs, in hospitals, in prisons and in private classes.  My fear is that many people who would benefit greatly from mindfulness will read this article and never try this incredibly helpful practice.

My colleague, Julie Bayer Salzman, sent the following response to the New York Times, which I think sums up so many important points.

A letter from a wonderful colleague to the New York Times . . .

After reading Ms. Whippman’s account of her experience with Mindfulness, I encourage her to continue her practice, not abandon it. Her frustration is normal, and I believe stems from a common misconception about Mindfulness. Mindfulness is not about "constantly policing our thoughts away from the past, the future, the imagination or the abstract"; it is simply about being aware of what we're thinking, how we're feeling, or what is happening in and around us, at any given moment. There is no judgment in the practice; there is only awareness. Nor is there shame in a wandering mind – we all have them! But most of us, too, can probably identify with the distress that comes from a mind that is constantly preoccupied with either the past or future, and cannot focus on the present. There is a practical benefit to training the mind to stay present, and a reason it’s referred to as a “practice” as opposed to a philosophy.

Her statement that "we give inner-city schoolchildren mindfulness classes rather than engage with education equality" disregards the proof that teaching kids mindfulness has positive effects on not just the individual child, but the classroom as a whole. Obviously there are issues that need to be fixed in an educational system that tries to find quick and easy solutions to deep, systemic problems, but that has nothing to do with the relevance of Mindfulness in the 21st century classroom.

Overall, though I understand her tone is intentionally witty and sarcastic, I am disheartened to know that this “opinion” is going to be read by millions of Times readers and add to the various misinterpretations of the practice that already exist. The essence of Mindfulness has been diluted and distorted, leading people to believe it is something it is not. It is not about “not thinking”, or being calm, or even finding happiness. Though a degree of happiness (perhaps “contentment” is a better word) and present-moment awareness are by-products of the practice, they are not the goal of the practice itself. Actually, there is no goal. It is in the "doing" that "being" arises.

At the end of her piece, Ms. Whippman writes: "rather than expending our energy struggling to stay in the Moment, we should simply be grateful that our brains allow us to be elsewhere." That's the one statement where I am in agreement with her, precisely because of my practice - for gratitude is at the core of the work (yes, even being grateful for a wandering mind!). The “struggle” need only exist for as long as one chooses.

It takes time for Mindfulness to take root, and the guidance of people/organizations who really know what they’re doing. I hope she does not give up.

The danger in choosing Ms. Whippman's  course of avoiding our reality by constantly escaping into a dream of some possible future happiness is that we can live our whole lives doing this only to realize one day that that brighter future has happened and we missed out on ever materialized, and we have actually missed so much of our lives by refusing to be awake and present for it. 
- Julie Bayer Salzman

School Stress: 3 Mindful Practices for Calm, Focused and Happy Teens

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Stress among teens is reaching epidemic proportions. This excessive, prolonged stress affects their bodies and their brains. Researchers at the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University found that when toxic stress is triggered continually over a period of time it can have a cumulative toll on an individual’s physical and mental health — for a lifetime. As the mother of two teenagers and one pre-teen, and as a mindfulness teacher working with teens, I see every day the tremendous stress our teenagers experience in their young lives. I often ask the teens I work with to make a list of what stresses them out. Homework, school and college admissions are always at the top of the list. Now, they have added a new stressor to their list – their cellphones— as they are admitting that their compulsion to check their devices, and the added pressure that comes with that constant connectivity, is distracting and anxiety provoking.

This overload of schoolwork, the pressure to succeed in an extremely competitive culture and their constant connectivity leaves our teenagers with no time or ability to disconnect from their peers, to relax and unwind or to connect with their families.

As a result, we are seeing record levels of anxiety, depression, insomnia, attention disorders and even suicide among our teens. Studies also show that teens are turning to unhealthy coping mechanisms like drugs and alcohol, to tune out or avoid the discomfort of their anxiety. There is a critical need for parents and children to learn skills that will not only help them cope with this stress, but will also help them thrive.  I am thrilled to be partnering with Partnership for Drug-Free Kids to help parents and teens learn healthy ways to cope with stress.   To read more on Mindful Practices for Calm, Focused and Happy Teens, click here.

My Mindful Way Through this Election

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As I awoke Wednesday morning to the election results, I found myself feeling shock, disbelief and uncertainty about our country’s future. After a presidential election fueled by ugly rhetoric, fear and divisiveness, our country is hurting and people are feeling overwhelmed and unsure how to cope with their intense feelings. As I do everyday, I turn to my mindfulness practice as a source of comfort and strength during this extremely challenging time. Here are some mindful ways through the aftershocks of this election. Impermanence. Mindfulness helps us recognize the impermanence of our experiences. Our breath comes and goes, our emotions ebb and flow, political movements rise and fall, and presidencies start and end. Recognizing the impermanence of life’s experiences helps us endure the discomfort of unpleasant feelings and the challenges of difficult times by recognizing that this too shall pass. Remind yourself of this often, and remember that we all have the capacity and inner strength to carry on.

Letting Go. Mindfulness also helps us cope with the relentless torrent of thoughts and emotions that continue to overwhelm us. Our emotions are being triggered by two different thoughts right now. First, how did this happen? Second, what will happen next? Obsessive rumination about the past triggers anger, resentment and regret. Uncertainty about the future triggers fear. We must recognize that we cannot change the past or control the future. No matter how much we think about it, that won’t change. Instead these thoughts will only keep us stuck in unpleasant emotions. Know yourself and understand what is triggering you. It may be time to turn off the TV for a while, spend some time in nature, and enjoy thinking about something else. Know what is causing you to feel fear, frustration and anxiety, and simply allow yourself to feel whatever you are feeling. Let it come and let it go.

 

Try this . . .

A short mindfulness practice to let go of strong emotions:

In the moment of strong negative emotions, the best way to let go is to allow your emotions to pass through you. Try this mindfulness practice to let go:

 

  1. Feel it. Recognize what you are feeling and allow yourself to simply feel it, recognizing how your feelings are felt in your body - - tightness, tension, stomach upset. Just feel it. All feelings are welcome and part of our human experience. All feelings come and go.
  2. Notice your thoughts. Notice what thoughts are fueling your emotions. Feelings are like a small fire and our thoughts are the kerosene that fuel the flames. Our thoughts stoke our fears and keep our emotional fire burning. By noticing our thoughts and recognizing that our ruminations are not serving us, we can begin to create space between our thoughts and our emotional response to those thoughts.
  3. Let it go. Once we allow ourselves to recognize our thoughts and our feelings, we can simply accept them as they are, and we can begin to let them move through us.  Then, we can begin to let them go, so that we can move forward in a healthy and productive way.
  4. Be Present. To help us in letting go, try focusing on what is actually happening right now. You may be sitting comfortably reading this. And, you are OK. Notice this. When we focus on the present moment, and what is happening right now, we can begin to appreciate that we are fine. The only moment that we will ever have is this one. So, get out of your head and into your life as it unfolds. There are many treasures there waiting to be noticed. Be awake and be present for them, and learn to appreciate the “OKness” of right now.

 

Acceptance. This is a hard one, I admit, but it is the key to minimizing our suffering and acceptance allows us to move forward. We must accept what is. When we struggle against what is, we cause ourselves tremendous suffering. We don’t have to like it, but we do have to accept it. We also have to accept the fact that we simply do not know what will be. These are uncertain times, and uncertainty breeds fear. The only thing that is certain is that we have absolutely no idea what will happen next. If we linger in our dire predictions of the future, which are based on nothing but conjecture, we continue to live in fear. We need to fully accept what is and the uncertainty of what will be, which will allow us to move on.

 

Feeling into Action. Fear is a normal part of our human experience. It alerts us to danger and is an essential part of our ability to survive. However, fear can be incredibly harmful when it prohibits us from acting and leaves us unable to respond in a rational, compassionate and wise way. That is why we must be able to calm our emotions, accept what is, and use those feelings to motivate us into wise action.

Mindfulness helps us recognize when we are coming from a place of fear, and allows us the choice of turning to compassion and openheartedness instead. The practice helps us to recognize that we all are human and that we are all more alike than we are different. If we focus on our differences, we remain divided. If we focus on our similarities, we can begin to heal the wounds of division, hatred and “otherness.”

Compassion meditation practice offers us the opportunity to recognize that we are all part of something much larger than ourselves and that we are all inextricably connected to one another. So, we must use our energy to better understand each other, with a sense of interest and curiosity, instead of criticism and judgment. At the end of the day, everyone wants to be happy. By opening our hearts even to those that cause us pain, we can create a new perspective from which we view each other. As Sharon Salzberg explains in her book Real Happiness, “Sending lovingkindness to a difficult person is a process of relaxing the heart and freeing yourself from fear and corrosive resentment – a profound, challenging, and liberating process . . .”

 

Find the Silver Lining. In every moment of every day, we have a choice of how we want to view the world. By choosing to focus on the good in others, instead of the bad, we begin to see ourselves in others and to see others in ourselves, no longer harboring the “us” versus “them” mindset.

I am writing this blog from Ohio. I am well aware that I am surrounded by many people who have vastly different political views than I do. Over the past few days, I have had meaningful conversations with them about their families and their lives. I have heard about their troubles and their concerns. I have heard that they feel completely abandoned by our political system, and by our politicians. Some are single-issue voters who voted based on their deeply held religious views on abortion. I have learned that each person has their own unique story and their own distinct perspective. Despite our differences, everyone wants our country to prosper and everyone wants a better life for themselves, their children and their grandchildren.

This election presents an opportunity for a better future and this is our silver lining. We have a choice. We can fall into the abyss of hatred, fear and anger, and let it paralyze us. Or, we can take this opportunity to look deeply into the hearts and minds of our fellow citizens, hear them and learn from them, so that we can take wise and compassionate action to make real change for a better future for everyone.

As I awoke Wednesday morning to the election results, I found myself feeling shock, disbelief and uncertainty about our country’s future. After a presidential election fueled by ugly rhetoric, fear and divisiveness, our country is hurting and people are feeling overwhelmed and unsure how to cope with their intense feelings. As I do every day, I turn to my mindfulness practice as a source of comfort and strength during this extremely challenging time. Here are some mindful ways through the aftershocks of this election.

 

Impermanence. Mindfulness helps us recognize the impermanence of our experiences. Our breath comes and goes, our emotions ebb and flow, political movements rise and fall, and presidencies start and end. Recognizing the impermanence of life’s experiences helps us endure the discomfort of unpleasant feelings and the challenges of difficult times by recognizing that this too shall pass. Remind yourself of this often, and remember that we all have the capacity and inner strength to carry on.

 

Letting Go. Mindfulness also helps us cope with the relentless torrent of thoughts and emotions that continue to overwhelm us. Our emotions are being triggered by two different thoughts right now. First, how did this happen? Second, what will happen next? Obsessive rumination about what already happened triggers anger and sadness. Uncertainty about the future triggers fear. We must recognize that we cannot change the past or control the future. No matter how much we think about it, that won’t change. Instead, these thoughts will only keep us stuck in unpleasant emotions. Know yourself and understand what is triggering you. It may be time to turn off the TV for a while and enjoy thinking about something else. Know what is causing you to feel fear, frustration, and anxiety, and simply allow yourself to feel whatever you are feeling but then let it go so you can move forward.

 

Acceptance. This is a hard one, I admit, but it is the key to minimizing our suffering and acceptance allows us to move forward. We must accept what is. When we struggle against what is, we cause ourselves tremendous suffering. We don’t have to like it, but we do have to accept it. We also have to accept the fact that we simply do not know what will be. These are uncertain times, and uncertainty breeds fear. The only thing that is certain is that we have absolutely no idea what will happen next. If we linger in our dire predictions of the future, which are based on nothing but conjecture, we continue to live in fear. We need to fully accept what is and the uncertainty of what will be, which will allow us to move on.

 

Feeling into Action. Fear is a normal part of our human experience. It alerts us to danger and is an essential part of our ability to survive. However, fear can be incredibly harmful when it prohibits us from acting and leaves us unable to respond in a rational, compassionate and wise way. That is why we must be able to calm our emotions, accept what is, and use those feelings to motivate us into wise action.

Mindfulness helps us recognize when we are coming from a place of fear and allows us the choice of turning to compassion and openheartedness instead. The practice helps us to recognize that we all are human and that we are all more alike than we are different. If we focus on our differences, we remain divided. If we focus on our similarities, we can begin to heal the wounds of division, hatred and “otherness.” At the end of the day, everyone wants to be happy. By opening our hearts even to those that cause us pain, we can create a new perspective from which we view each other people. As Sharon Salzberg explains in her book Real Happiness, “Sending lovingkindness to a difficult person is a process of relaxing the heart and freeing yourself from fear and corrosive resentment – a profound, challenging, and liberating process . . .”

This type of compassion meditation practice also offers us the opportunity to recognize that we are all part of something much larger than ourselves and that we are all inextricably connected to one another. So, we must use our energy to better understand each other, with a sense of interest and curiosity, instead of criticism and judgment. We must look at what is best for our country  and harness our energy in this moment in history to take action to move this country forward.

 

Find the Silver Lining. In every moment of every day, we have a choice of how we want to view the world. By choosing to focus on the good in others, instead of the bad, we begin to see ourselves in others and to see others in ourselves, no longer harboring the “us” versus “them” mindset.

I am writing this blog from Ohio. I am well aware that I am surrounded by many people who have vastly different political views than I do. Over the past few days, I have had meaningful conversations with them about their families and their lives. I have heard about their troubles and their concerns. I have heard that they feel completely abandoned by our political system, and by our politicians. Some are single-issue voters who voted based on their deeply held religious views on abortion. I have learned that each person has their own unique story and their own distinct perspective. Despite our differences, everyone wants our country to prosper and everyone wants a better life for themselves, their children and their grandchildren.

This election presents an opportunity for a better future and this is our silver lining. We have a choice. We can fall into the abyss of hatred, fear, and anger, and let it paralyze us. Or, we can take this opportunity to look deeply into the hearts and minds of our fellow citizens, listen to them and learn from them, so that we can come together and make real change for a better future for everyone.

 

 

Weekly Wisdom #59

“The stream of thinking has enormous momentum that can easily drag you along with it. Every thought pretends that it matters so much. The human mind, in its desire to know, understand, and control, mistakes its opinions and viewpoints for the truth. It says: this is how it is. You have to be larger than thought to realize that however you interpret "your life" or someone else's life or behavior, however you judge any situation, it is no more than a viewpoint, one of many possible perspectives. It is no more than a bundle of thoughts. But reality is one unified whole, in which all things are interwoven, where nothing exists in and by itself.” - Eckhart Tolle

Growing Happiness

"Sometimes the smallest things take up the most room in your heart." - Winnie the Pooh

The new science of "Happiness" is proving that we can grow our own happiness.  By taking just a few minutes each day to focus on the good, we can cultivate positive feelings.  Just like practicing the violin or hitting the tennis ball, with repetition and practice we can get better at focusing on the good in our lives, which by its very nature, allows less time to focus on the bad.  Here are a few simple ways to grow your own happiness:

(1) Pay attention to simple pleasures.  Drinking a cup of tea, walking your dog or hugging a child can be incredibly joyful experiences if you take the time to notice how good they actually feel.  Take time out every day to slow down and place your full attention on something that feels good.  It takes less time than going to the gym or preparing a healthy meal, yet it will greatly increase your overall feeling of wellbeing.

(2) Watch the sunset.  Study after study shows that immersing yourself in nature will increase your happiness.  Breathe in fresh air, look at the majestic, old trees around you or watch the magical colors in the sky.  Just a few minutes each day spent outside, appreciating the beauty and the awe of nature will greatly increase your daily dose of happiness.

(3) Focus on those you love.  If you spend a few minutes each day thinking about someone you love, you can actually feel love.  As you hold that person in your attention and send them love and well wishes, you can begin to notice how that feels -- and it feels good.  Then, simply allow yourself to feel a bit of gratitude for having that person in your life.

(4) Send yourself love.  Often, we are our harshest critic, and sending ourselves love can be challenging.  Try spending a little time each day to self-reflect on what you did well, and not what you did wrong or didn't do at all. Try looking in the mirror and notice what you like, rather than what you don't like. Remind yourself each day that you are doing your best, and that is good enough. Simply notice how good it feels to send a little love your own way.  Remember, “You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe deserve your love and affection.”

Each day is a brand new day full of opportunities to learn, to experience the world and to connect with yourself and with the world around you.  Take a little time to grow and nurture your own happiness and see how that joy will grow and will spread to those around you.