meditation

How to Make Profound, Lasting Change

page0001-e1356913664777.jpg

When we lose a job, get a bad review, experience burn out, or our heart is broken, we often can’t help but experience a sense of groundlessness and paralysis. We struggle with meaning and end up feeling stuck.  Who am I, now?  How do I recover from the sense of frustration, overwhelm, or loss?  In this post, I am going to suggest that what stops us is not the situations themselves.  It’s never fun to lose a job or have our hearts broken, but there’s no inherent meaning in these losses.  In other words, the circumstances of our lives don’t make us unhappy.  Rather, our experience of them depends entirely on the meaning we bring to them.  Some perspectives empower us when faced with even the most difficult of situations and some render us incapacitated.  How we hold the circumstances of our lives can either grow us or take us down.

Part 1: Uncover your interpretations of the situations you find ourselves in.

Rarely do we relate to our actual experiences. Instead, we relate to the meaning we make of our experiences and the emotional charge we feel about the experience.

If we observe ourselves over a few days, we’ll notice an automatic, unconscious propensity to see that we’re always adding meaning to the experiences of our lives.  We have the tendency to fit each experience that shows up into an ongoing story we have about our lives and who we are.  In fact, rarely do we regard ourselves in relationship to the immediate circumstances we find ourselves in.  Instead of relating directly to our experiences, we often just relate to our beliefs, opinions, and judgments about the experiences.  And so when things fall apart, and we lose meaning in life, it can be incredibly helpful to reassess how we make meaning of our lives.

A 48-year old client, Mary, had been driven her whole life to make it big in the corporate world.  A year ago she arrived at my office and declared: “I am totally burnt out and am just going through the motions of my life.”  She didn’t sleep well; she’d gained ten pounds over the last few years; and her relationship with her girlfriend was suffering from her tendency to what she called “workaholic tendencies.”  She’d been to a psychologist already, and while that work had clued her into why she felt stuck, it still didn’t propel the change she desperately needed.

When I asked Mary why she didn’t leave or alter her situation in her job, she responded that to do so felt like torture.  Mary’s sense of purpose in life, up until that moment, revolved entirely around her work.  Her sense of self and the qualities of her relationships went down when her work went down.  Likewise, they went up when her work went well, not to mention the fact that she’d spent her whole life working her way to the top.  Now that she’d finally made it to the “big time,” she couldn’t help but look around and scratch her head, asking, “Is this as good as it gets.”  Her health and her personal relationships were suffering, and she found her colleagues, in fact, intolerable.

While Mary felt that to make a change would put her family in financial jeopardy, she knew, rationally speaking, that they’d do fine if she took a pay cut.  She, like most of my clients use the “financial card,” as an excuse not to make a change.  But when she looked closely, she was really afraid to upset her relationship with her girlfriend. As a child, her alcoholic mother had been inconsistent, sometimes present and sometimes altogether absent. When we looked at her “life’s story” it was obvious that she’d done everything in her power to give herself the security and safety that her mother constantly took away from her.  She’d lived her life in service to accruing professional accolades so she wouldn’t feel the way she felt as a little girl, scared and destitute.

Part 2: Meet the feelings you’re avoiding.

To make profound, lasting change not only must we uncover the background stories that help us make meaning of our experiences, but we also must meet the nervous system’s response to the experiences.  Embedded within each of our narratives is a statement like, “I never want to feel "x" again.”  "X" might be loneliness, sadness, anger or fear.  The narratives that live in the subtle background of our lives help us not only to succeed but also to avoid certain feelings.  If we’re ever going to really transform, we have to be willing to meet the feelings we’ve spent a lifetime avoiding. In Mary’s case, her workaholism protected her from the fear of being destitute. As Mary examined her life’s narrative and discovered her propensity to be risk averse, she started to confront bodily feelings of terror: fluttering feelings in the chest, queasiness in the stomach, and a knot in the throat.

This part of the journey can be very uncomfortable and equally counterintuitive. Each of us spends a whole lifetime avoiding these feelings.  Turning around and looking at them can be like turning around and facing the demon we swore off almost a lifetime ago.  It takes incredible courage, even-mindedness, tenacity and compassion to ride the waves of emotional pain.  And to do so can feel like this:

Heavy-heartedness… irritation in the chest… boredom… really heavy heartedness… tightness in the ribs…. burning rage…heat in the face…tight throat… boredom… fatigue… numbness… impatience and boredom…. nothing… nothing…nothing…hurt

Often times my clients will ask, “Why would I want to be with this shit?”  Often my response is that to meet it is to transform it.  To avoid it is to let it rule you.”  If we don’t meet the body’s response, we miss a deep learning that our suffering has to show us. So as Mary met the fluttering, queasiness, and knots in one of our meetings, her “fear of change” lost its hold on her.

Part 3: Reinterpret the experience in such a way that it leaves you powerful.

At that point, she was no longer afraid to feel her terror.  She could see that she didn’t need to be a workaholic her whole life in order to avoid “ending up broke, homeless, and alone.”  Instead, she was at choice to create a new narrative, one that created possibility and that empowered her.  When Mary tapped into the wiser and more intuitive parts of her being she could see that instead of her burn out being an obstacle, that it could be seen as an omen for change.  “I could work less, maybe even go to yoga class, and have time to eat a meal with Donna [her girlfriend].” Instead of creating less safety, this crossroads might give her an opportunity to explore a new way of being in the world, one in which work wasn’t the only focus, but, instead, included family and intimacy.

Part 4: Make the insight real through action that leads to specific and measurable outcomes.

All it takes is a moment to see our situations in a light that renders us free, powerful, or expressed.  But to make the changes necessary to fulfill this recognition a clear set of goals accompanied by practice. Once Mary committed to a change in her work, she started to look for new work opportunities, both within her corporation and outside.  She made a point of meeting colleagues within her network.  It took time and a lot of what I call “t.s.o.-ing”—trying shit out--to stumble upon an opportunity that excited her and gave her the flexibility she needed.  She knew that she’d have to surrender some of the clout of her previous job, and so she also established some practices that made this transition easier on her nervous system.

Part 5: Practice mind-body techniques that support the nervous system and facilitate the change.

Mary and I co-created a morning ritual.  Each morning she did some movement, whether it was yoga I taught her or taking a walk with her girlfriend.  I also taught her a few simple meditations, which she could practice for 5-15 minutes.  Finally she wrote in her journal on an inquiry I’d assign her each week. An inquiry is an open-ended question that can be answered from many different sides that gives new insights each way we look at it. One inquiry that uncovered a landmine of insight for her was, “What must I drop in order to gain something new?”  This question helped her discover the confidence that she wasn’t just dropping off altogether but that her change would put her in touch with something new.

Slowly, over a six-month period, Mary discovered the right fit she’d been looking for in a new company. To an outsider, that move might have been seen as a demotion, but to her the move enhanced the quality of her life immensely.  She worked less; had more time to explore new ways of relating and playing with her girlfriend; and found time for herself.  Essentially, this move provided the breathing room Mary needed to replenish the well that had dried up inside of her.

Exercise

  1. Very briefly, write an account of your life and conclude with the situation you currently find yourself in.  Keep the writing to a minimum of one page.
  2. Reread your brief account once.
  3. Notice how your life’s story influences the current circumstances you’re in.  Does  it empower or disempower your circumstances?
  4. Review your brief account, again, this time, reading your account out loud.
  5. Notice how it makes you feel in your head, throat, heart, belly, and genitals once you’ve completed the account.  Do you notice any emotion, sensation, or charge in these areas of the body?
  6. If you notice that you do, read the account out loud, once again.
  7. Repeat steps 5 and 6 until any feeling of constraint has altogether gone away.
  8. Notice if there’s a new meaning you start to derive from the circumstances you find yourself in accompanied by new possibilities for yourself and your life.
  9. Write them down on a piece of paper.
  10. Hire a coach. A coach will hold you accountable to making the changes in life you sense you need to make.  Don’t bother trying to do this part alone.  Creating something new can be incredibly daunting.  A good coach is really a skilled change agent.  He or she will collaborate with you in designing practices that will make the process of change easier, fun, and intelligent, too.

The Neuroscience of Happiness

746e4f64f0c2f824ec9c1db2005c0974.jpg

I wanted to share some ah-ha's I experienced while listening to a TED Talk by Shaun Anchor, author of Happiness Advantage.  What  l love about Anchor’s message is that our cultural orientation around fixing what’s wrong is being invalidated by science.  So, if we’re depressed, we go see a so-called 'expert' who diagnoses what’s wrong and treats the problem. That way of looking at things may apply well in engineering or technology, but it doesn’t really pan out too well for us humans in our quest for happiness.  And, most importantly, neuroscience is actually demonstrating this to be true.

DO-HAVE-BE

We live in a cultural paradigm rooted in doing and having in order to be happy:  by working harder, working elsewhere, getting that raise, finding that partner, etc. we will be happier.  We all have experienced the fallacy of this way of thinking.  We’ve all succeeded in one way or another but eventually discover that we don’t, in fact, experience the happiness that we thought the job or the paycheck would bring us.

Anchor demonstrates that research now shows that “90% of long-term happiness is predicted not by the external world, but by the way your brain processes this world.  If we change it, if we change our formula for happiness and success, we can change the way we affect reality.”  Another way of saying this is that if happiness is where you come from, you don’t need to go out and look for it; in fact, it comes to you.

Dopamine: The Happiness Neurotransmitter

From a scientific standpoint, when we’re happy, the neurotransmitter, dopamine is released in the brain.  By the way, research has shown that acupuncture's main effects in the body are to release dopamine.  Dopamine not only affects an overall sense of wellbeing, but it increases our capacity to learn, be creative, and experience increased levels of vibrancy.  In fact, “Your brain at positive is 31% more productive than your brain at negative, neutral, or stressed.”

Practicing Happiness

The good news is that it doesn’t take a whole lot to develop the knack of optimism, positivity, and happiness. Anchor sites research that has found that the brain can be rewired within 21 days doing the following three practices:

  1. 3 Gratitudes:  Writing three things you’re grateful for.  This results in the brain “starting to scan the world not for the negative, but for the positive.”
  2. Journaling about one positive experience you’ve had over the last 24 hours. “This exercise teaches your brain that your behavior matters.”
  3. Meditation “allows your brain to get over the cultural ADHD that we’ve been creating by trying to do multiple things at once, allowing us to focus on the task at hand.”
  4. Random acts of kindness: Praising someone in your social support network.

What’s exciting about Anchor’s message is that science is demonstrating what yogis, meditators, and mystics have been saying forever, happiness is right here and right now, and it doesn’t take much to recognize it, just simple daily practice.  My hunch and hope is that as scientific findings start to show up in mainstream media, we’ll all experience a cultural paradigm shift from trying to fix what’s wrong with ourselves and one another to appreciating each of our unique gifts.

The Drishti: Looking Out & Looking In

A friend of mine is struggling in her relationship with her boyfriend.  They've been together for quite some time, but he's feeling stuck and wants to move on.  He tells her that he's in love with her, but then tells her that he needs to move out, to find his own place.  She's getting all sorts of mixed messages, and she can't help but vacillate between wanting him to stay or demanding that he just moves on. Either way, she feels hostage to his moods and to his indecisiveness.  She says, "I can't really move forward in my life until he makes a decision."

While not all of us have been in a position like this, we can all empathize with her. We've all experienced the sense that our happiness, security, or well-being was in the hands of someone or something outside of ourselves.  The problem my friend is stuck with is that she's in a perspective that leaves her powerless.  All the power is in his hands.  Each time she feels elated or crushed by his next intended move on the chess board of their life together, she has no say.

A Profound Meditation on the Self

The recognition that we always have a say, however, is what is the essence of the practice of drishti in Ashtanga Yoga.  Mostly, when teachers discuss drishti, they talk about it as a way to keep the mind focused in the present moment. They describe the various gazing points as tools to keep the mind anchored in the present moment, much like the bandhas or the sound  of the ujjayi breath.  But it's my sense that the drishti is so much more profound than this.  It's really a meditation on waking up to where we direct our attention and how it effects our relationship to the Self.

The Windows of the Soul

You know the saying, "The eyes are the windows to the soul"?  When we say this, we think about looking into another's eyes, but when we practice drishti during or Ashtanga practice, we're looking through our own eyes and deep into our own souls.  Drishti, in the context of Ashtanga Yoga, is a form of sense withdrawal (pratyahara).  While we gaze at the tip of nose (nasagrai drishti) or the hand (hastagrai drishti), we're not simply looking at objects, but we're noticing the gazer that is gazing at them.

While the Sanskrit word, drishti, means to gaze, the drashtaa is the seer, and the drishya is the object that is seen or known.  So, for example, if we're gazing at the tip of the nose (nasagrai drishti), the nose is the drishya, the capacity to gaze is the drishti, and the one that gazes is the drashtaa. The significance of this triad known in Sanskrit as triputi is that when we're practicing the drishti, it isn't exclusively the nose we're really looking at.  Rather, it's the whole phenomenon of the self (drashtaa)  looking (drishti) at the nose (drishya).  And so the nose is really a profound meditation into the questions: Who it is that is looking at the nose?  In short, the drishti is not just a point of concentration that keeps us focused outward, but an inquiry into the relationship of the seer within (drashtaa) and to the objects that define it.

Choose Your Gaze Wisely

As I shared the practice of drishti with my friend, she began to see that his indecisiveness was simply a stimulus that evoked feelings of pain and uncertainty that have always been with her and that were independent of him.  In addition, she could see that she wasn't simply at the whim of his uncertainty but that by continuing to gaze (drishti) at his uncertainty (drishya), she (drashtaa) was choosing to suffer.  The most significant revelation she discovered through this practice was that by continuing to direct her attention toward his doubt, she didn't have to be with her own regret and insecurity, as well as her wisdom and depth.  By waiting for his decision, she didn't have to make one, herself.

Once she woke up to her role in his vacillation, she could be at choice.  She could ask the questions: Did she want to continue to put energy into and empower his vacillation?  What wounds did she need to handle that predated their relationship?  And did she want to continue to wait for him to decide to stay or go, or could she find a different path?

The practice of drishti allowed her to see she could be conscious of and at choice in where she focused her attention.  By focusing entirely on being held captive to his capriciousness, it left her uncertain, scared, and even sleepless.  But if she redirected the awareness on the greater learning this experience evoked in her, then she could actually use it to grow.  In addition, she recognized that by focusing on the negative in him, she only experienced pain and negativity within herself.  So she chose to redirect the focus of their conversation from what his next move will be to how they could consciously collaborate in designing a new relationship with one another.  All of this recognition simply occurred because she was able to recognize that her gaze, her drishti, didn't just have an object that it was attached to.  On the other end was her, a subject, a soul, and a spirit very much at choice in terms of where she wanted to direct her gaze.

To me, that's the power of drishti. It's not just something you do when you're practicing asana.  If we consider all of life "the practice," then we can start to wake up to where we're focusing our attention.  Do we point it in directions that feed us and remind us of the rapture, wonder, and mystery that we are? Or do we point it at situations, people, and things that suck us dry and leave us with a sense of our impotence?  Mastering drishti is a life-long endeavor because it's really the development of the capacity to wake up to both what we see, what it tells us about ourselves, and what choices we want to make, as a result.  And so next time you're in downward dog, gazing in the direction of your navel, begin this profound inquiry by asking yourself, "Who is it that's gazing?"