I’ve got a friend who’s been living on a sailboat for quite a while. He talks about the “aimless” feeling of living that far off the grid. Sometimes it’s comfortable; sometimes it’s not.
The comfortable part comports with Pema Chodron’s concept of “positive groundlessness.” Here’s an excerpt from this “Yoga with Daphne” blog that talks about that:
Pema Chodron spoke of a profound Buddhist concept Shenpa in her talk Positive Groundlessness: The Freedom to Choose Something Different. Through an understanding in the impermanence of all things in essence, and the ability to relax into this knowing. She offered a 3-step tools whom she deemed as “difficult”, but with practice, will help in not setting us back into our habits / patterns that keep us trapped, to not get stuck in the status quo or our perceived comfort zone, and to revel in the “unknowing” of it all.
Awareness (Jnana) ~ to notice when we get “hooked”- the baits, the triggers (expectations, fear, assumptions etc) that led us to believe that the rug is being pulled from under our feet, and our conditioned reflex to “fight/flight” by reacting with judgement, blame, anger, hate, even towards ourselves.
Desire ~ A desire to change – simply noticing or becoming aware isn’t enough if our default ego-driven response still goes “Yes, but…” A solid willingness to transform (Tapas) has to goes beyond superficial cognition, but also somatically. When the mind closes, the body contracts, and vice versa. Being able to allow our mind-body to stay open in challenging situations and self inquiring into the status quo can fundamentally change our behaviour.
Action ~ A life-long practice to keep coming back to this groundlessness in our words and actions. To keep falling flat on our faces and getting up, to not let our sense of righteousness drive us into believing that being right is more important than being love, to let our bleeding hearts crack open as we fall, and to allow this sense of groundlessness be the womb in which kindness and compassion flourish.
I was surprised to find that I haven’t blogged yet about “foreboding joy,” a topic that Brene Brown talks about a lot. Foreboding joy is when you prepare for the worst, even when they’re at their best. It’s a dress rehearsal for tragedy. For example, thinking “I love my friends. One day, they’ll be gone.”
People are mostly afraid of feeling emotional pain. So you wind up not experiencing joy in the moment because you feel too vulnerable. Here’s a quote from Brene pulled from this blog by Yemisi Fadiya:
Scarcity and fear drive foreboding joy. We’re afraid that the feeling of joy won’t last, or that we won’t be enough, or that the transition to disappointment (or whatever is in store for us next) will be too difficult. We’ve learned that giving in to joy is, at best, setting ourselves up for disappointment and, at worst, inviting disaster. And we struggle with the worthiness issue. Do we deserve our joy, given our inadequacies and imperfections? What about the starving children and the war-ravaged world? Who are we to be joyful?
For the title of this blog, I pulled this line from the wonderful series entitled “Genius: Aretha Franklin.” It fits in well with the notion that many of us are striving to meet certain goals. And as soon as we hit them, we don’t enjoy the moment – we quickly move onto the next thing.
I know that I am certainly guilty of that. Very much so. I was born to be goal-driven and I find that I rarely stop to appreciate the moments that I should relish. Guilty as charged.
A good case in point: I’m on the verge of announcing a new site that I’ve spent months writing content for – I’ve written over 450 blogs for it since the beginning of the year. It’s a free site for those interested in ESG (think climate and social issues), particularly about how companies strategize, report and disclose how those issues relate to them. I’m basically done with the site – and of course, I didn’t stop for a moment to think about how I should celebrate. Not until I drafted up this blog anyway…
Artie Wu of Preside Meditation has a great set of audio files that comprise his “Calm Study.” It includes a number of practical tips. One of my favorite is about “breathing like scuba.” Artie notes that we think of scuba diving as a relaxing activity because we’re typically looking at scenery that feels other-worldly when doing so. It’s also relaxing because of the breathing pattern that you use as a way to conserve the oxygen in your tank.
You’re taught to conserve air by breathing in a long, slow and gentle pattern. If you breathe quick & shallow, you’ll consume your tank faster. It’s a safety thing. Breathing long, slow and gentle calms your nervous system. It can change your mindset quickly. It’s like giving your mind a massage. As Artie notes, another way to think of breathing is that it’s the only voluntary and automatic physical activity that we engage in. If we don’t think about it, your breathing is automatic as your subconscious mind keeps you alive. But you can control your breath if you want – you can consciously speed it up or slow it down. You can voluntarily manipulate it.
Breathing is the only bodily activity that’s like your monkey mind. Your monkey mind will carry on and chatter away if you don’t pay attention to it. But if you focus, you can control that monkey and shut it down. This is where meditation comes in – to help you focus on the monkey.
So focusing on your breathing pattern can have a dual benefit. First you can calm down in the moment when you slow your breathing pattern down. But if you practice changing that pattern, you can gradually change your relationship to your monkey mind. I’ll be blogging more about “monkey mind,” but the jist is that a term to describe the stories that you tell yourself many times a day.
Like with nearly everything, the trick is to remember to practice. Artie notes you don’t need to try to practice all the time. Just practice on a regular basis. Artie uses the analogy of little children, you want to give them a little bit of guidance & structure – but you don’t want to be so strict that they don’t find out things for themselves or don’t have fun in their life. I set up a timer to remind myself to breathe gently four times per day. The beauty is that I can practice anytime – even at work or a party – because people won’t notice. I feel like I’m a rebel doing this, breaking all the social mores…
At the 26:24 mark of this podcast about handling fear & anxiety, Jonathan Foust reminds us how the Buddha said “your house is on fire” – which means that your body is subject to change. There is impermanence. It’s the remembering of what is true, that all things change.
At the 30:15 mark, Jonathan notes that we all have this baked-in thirst for four things:
1. For pleasure
2. For being successful
3. For praise
4. For fame
And the corollary to that we have a fear of pain, of loss, of blame and of shame. These inevitably are tied to our core sense of anxiety and dissatisfaction in our lives. The good news is that it raises the question of “who are you in the absence of desire? In the absence of pushing away or aversion?”
I’m in agreement with much of what is said in this LinkedIn post by Mark McCartney entitled “Ignore much of how meditation is sold.” Here’s an excerpt:
Companies exaggerate its instant positive effects and many meditators do likewise. They have spent their lives being good students in school, good employees at work and can’t help themselves in trying to be “good” meditators – competing with each other and regurgitating experiences that they’ve read about as their own.
None of which is my business, each to their own. The problem I have is that in both the exaggeration of it effect and in the exaggeration of the depth and serenity of someone’s practice, it leads people that are new at meditation to feel like they are doing it wrong. They end up thinking they are bad meditators and ultimately quit before they’ve really started.
But I would say the biggest thing that confuses newbies is that they sit and wait for their mind to be quieted immediately. That’s not going to happen. Those stories will still come. You might meditate for 50 years, 100 years, and those stories are still going to float into your mind. That’s just part of being human. Meditation won’t turn those off. It won’t turn you into a robot.
Unfortunately, many beginners expect this sudden transformation – perhaps because we live in a society where the answer to most things is “there’s a pill for that.” What meditation does allow you to do is to learn to recognize the stories for what they are – they’re just stories. And once you get the hang of that recognition, you can start to change the storyline, change the arc of your character – and sometimes even find that complete silence while meditating. Now that’s a result I can live with!
As someone who tries to consistently approach each day with “Beginner’s Mind” – not easy to do with all those stories we tell ourselves – I found this dharma talk from Jonathan Foust to be one that I treasure. It has particular appeal to me because I left a job that I was closely identified with about 15 months ago and that was a real challenge. It sometimes still is.
Over the past few years, Jonathan has shared the advice to “not chase shiny objects” when you’re making a big change like the one I did. And as he notes, that can be a real challenge. Particularly for me because I like to dive deep into whatever project, whatever cause, I decide to pursue. So it’s difficult to pause and let the moment pass without jumping in with two feet.
At the 31:52 mark, Jonathan makes these points about starting again:
1. Recognizing that it’s about what’s happening, but also about how you’re relating to what’s happening. What is your perception?
2. Understanding the reality of what are the challenges that you face right now. In the short term, what support do you need to move forward?
3. Learning what’s important to you. What are your values? What is calling you? What has heart to it?
4. How do you move forward? What are the next steps? Your priorities? What allies would be useful? Do you need training or coaching? How will you feel at the end? Creating the habits to help you fill your cup.
If you know me, you know that I am “driven.” I’m driven in my professional pursuits, in my very active lifestyle. I’m often up before 5 am and I’m off. But yet, I like to think that I am fairly laid back. Perhaps I’m fooling myself.
But I do remember a time when I wasn’t driven. That I truly led a life of “haven’t thought about tomorrow.” In high school, my chum Perry – God rest your soul, brother – and I would drive around with a quarter gallon of gas in the tank, wondering when we would run dry. (Yes, it would run dry.) It’s idiotic, I know. But there was a thrill to it and I wouldn’t dare do something like that now. Anyway, it reminded me of this song by Trevor Hall (with Brett Dennen pitching in)…
Like many of us, I’m struggling with the re-entry into society. Although I wouldn’t classify myself as an introvert, I have anti-human tendencies like most. And now that I’m among the lucky who are vaccinated, I’m pushing myself to get back out there. It’s not easy.
This NY Times article entitled “Feeling Blah During the Pandemic? It’s Called Languishing …” touches upon this phenomenon. Here’s an excerpt:
Psychologists find that one of the best strategies for managing emotions is to name them. Last spring, during the acute anguish of the pandemic, the most viral post in the history of Harvard Business Review was an article describing our collective discomfort as grief. Along with the loss of loved ones, we were mourning the loss of normalcy. “Grief.” It gave us a familiar vocabulary to understand what had felt like an unfamiliar experience. Although we hadn’t faced a pandemic before, most of us had faced loss. It helped us crystallize lessons from our own past resilience — and gain confidence in our ability to face present adversity.
We still have a lot to learn about what causes languishing and how to cure it, but naming it might be a first step. It could help to defog our vision, giving us a clearer window into what had been a blurry experience. It could remind us that we aren’t alone: languishing is common and shared.
And it could give us a socially acceptable response to “How are you?”
Instead of saying “Great!” or “Fine,” imagine if we answered, “Honestly, I’m languishing.” It would be a refreshing foil for toxic positivity — that quintessentially American pressure to be upbeat at all times.
This excerpt offers some help:
So what can we do about it? A concept called “flow” may be an antidote to languishing. Flow is that elusive state of absorption in a meaningful challenge or a momentary bond, where your sense of time, place and self melts away. During the early days of the pandemic, the best predictor of well-being wasn’t optimism or mindfulness — it was flow. People who became more immersed in their projects managed to avoid languishing and maintained their prepandemic happiness.
An early-morning word game catapults me into flow. A late-night Netflix binge sometimes does the trick too — it transports you into a story where you feel attached to the characters and concerned for their welfare.
While finding new challenges, enjoyable experiences and meaningful work are all possible remedies to languishing, it’s hard to find flow when you can’t focus. This was a problem long before the pandemic, when people were habitually checking email 74 times a day and switching tasks every 10 minutes. In the past year, many of us also have been struggling with interruptions from kids around the house, colleagues around the world, and bosses around the clock. Meh.
Also see this NY Times piece entitled “How to Feel Better,” suggesting using cooking as a way to get into some flow…