Surfing A Tsunami…and the Now Effect
As the pace of my personal and professional life speeds up, with the final, final revisions of the book due in two weeks, with needing to quickly learn to navigate PowerPoint, Skype, LinkedIn, and a host of other techno-whizzbangs I have historically been phobic about, with engaging as conscientiously as possible with the continued ups and downs of health and disease in several close family members and, as election day approaches, health and disease in the larger body politic as well…
…I feel like I’ve been “surfing a tsunami” lately. More to cope with than I can gracefully cope with. I’ve written a book on resilience and, with the increased velocity of all that’s going on, find myself praying every day, “May I not miss this day.”
I’ve found the practices of self-compassion (September 2012 e-newsletter) extremely valuable, bringing kindness and an embracing acceptance of my difficulties with the difficulties of the moment – moment by moment by moment. And with this month’s e-newsletter, I’m treasuring the benefit of pausing in the present moment – to calm the body and clear the mind, to “find the secret in the spaces” and to re-engage with my life from a place of more curiosity and optimism – the benefit of the Now Effect.
May these reflections be useful to you and yours.
In The Now Effect: How This Moment Can Change the Rest of Your Life, (see Resources below) Elisha Goldstein offers many practical tools for creating a sense of space between events and our awareness of those events, so that we can create choice points and choose new responses wisely. The tools offered help us focus our attention – researchers have found a significant positive correlation between focused attention and happiness – and access the awareness that allows us to unhook our minds from the conditioned responses that keep us stuck in anxiety and stress.
We know the power of mindfulness to notice our thoughts, to notice and change our responses to those thoughts, to notice and change patterns of response, even heavy duty patterns like catastrophizing, exaggerating the negative and discounting the positive, mind reading and projecting, over-shoulding, shaming-blaming. When we drop into a space of awareness and shift our attention to the now, we widen the space between events and our responses to them. We can step out of the snowball effect of worrying and stressing and, more calmly and clearly, choose to respond to the tsunamis of our lives more wisely.
One of the things most helpful to me in learning about the Now Effect is that the tools are offered in very, very short chapters – 2-4 pages each. A story to introduce a concept, the concept, an inquiry to explore the concept or an exercise to implement the practice of it. Super easy to understand; very easy and practical to implement. All anchored in a simple practice threaded throughout the book of See, Touch, Go: SEE what’s in front of you or where your mind has wandered; TOUCH the moment; GO back to your intention to focus your attention in the present and cultivate the Now Effect. While brushing your teeth, waiting at a stop light, petting the cat. As the 15th century Indian poet Kabir said: “Wherever you are, that is the entry point.” To both come out of automatic pilot and to stop the snowballing of thoughts and find the secret in the spaces.
While each practice easily stands alone, Goldstein presents them in such a way that they gently steadily build on each other: pause and check in, anchor in the now, name the mind trap that is keeping you stuck, ride the surge of sensations and emotions in the body-mind until they pass, re-direct attention to wholesome intention, choose different path. Doing these practices five minutes at a time, even 30 seconds at a time, many times a day or week, adds up. You can reap the full benefit of the Now Effect: creating choice points that can change the trajectory of your life, deeply and permanently.
There’s also some very accessible neuroscience showing that how we pay attention and what we pay attention to have a dramatic effect on how the brain grows. Choosing to focus our attention in certain skillful ways changes the architecture of the brain, changes the way we think even before we think. We can dramatically increase the flexibility in our brains, thus exponentially increasing possibilities and options. Many of the tools offered in the book prime our mind toward these choice points, in a spirit of playful discipline, like practicing using the breath as an anchor several billion times.
We learn: “When you place enough attention on any one thing, your mind becomes subconsciously primed to see the world through that lens. Where you choose to place your attention has an effect on the memories you create in your mind. Every experience you have is stored as a memory to serve as a reference point for your mind to interpret the present and anticipate the future. This conditioning begins early on in life, and continues through adulthood. Awareness of the present moment and practices of kindness and compassion create new memories. If our perception of reality is influenced by what we spend our time paying attention to from moment to moment, it’s a good idea to look at what’s influencing our thoughts and the way we see the world.”
Getting to know the brain allows us to step outside of the chaos and trauma pockets in the mind and relate to experience rather than from experience. We learn about the narrative network of the brain, the seat of “me.”
We learn how to work skillfully with our minds as the ultimate storytellers, the minds that tell us who we are, what we can accomplish, what’s to be feared, who’s to be accepted, and ultimately what we believe. All influencing the way we think before we think.
Noticing habitual patterns of the mind stretches the space between our awareness and the thoughts themselves. We learn the difference between thinking and knowing you’re thinking and come to an awareness of the space between the knower (you) and the known (the thought) so that we can experience truly: you are not your thoughts. So that you relate to thoughts rather than from thoughts. When you can observe thoughts as mental events rather than as who you are, you can re-write the limiting beliefs that keep you stuck. Once we recognize that a past memory is impacting our perception of the present moment, we can step outside of it, create a space, and break free from it.
This certainly proved handy for me as I was wrestling with an impossibly full to-do list. Coming to see that I was caught in old beliefs about all the bad things that would happen if I didn’t get everything on my list done yesterday already, I could begin to give myself permission to do enough to keep my head above water, but not everything, not perfectly, not always on time. Good enough was truly good enough.
We learn about the negativity bias that seeps and creeps into everyday thinking. We learn to creates new memories for our sub-conscious mind to reference when filtering the experience of the moment. To seed our minds for appreciation, gratitude, playfulness, curiosity, and to connect to others to bolster our resilience. To deal with overwhelm, as Mother Teresa suggests, by doing small things with great love.
We learn deep breathing to calm the body, then to name our experience so the pre-frontal cortex can activate the release of the neurotransmitter GABA, the natural valium of the brain, to calm down the fear circuit in the amygdala.
We learn specific tools , some of which may already be familiar to you:
* Focusing on the breath as an anchor: “Breathing in I calm my body; breathing out, I calm my mind.”
* If you can name it, you can tame it (the pre-frontal cortex regulating the fear circuit)
* Identifying automatic negative thoughts (ANTS) (changing ANTs to APTs – automatic positive thoughts – is in my book too.)
* Saying “Just like me” in our encounters with other people to overcome the illusion of separation and dis-connection that leads to loneliness
STOP – Stop, Take a Breath, Observe the experience of the mind, Proceed to what is most important.
We learn about emotional contagion: that our brains mimic the moods and behaviors of people around us. Emotional contagion can increase either loneliness or happiness, depending on who you are hanging out with. Researchers have found: the more quality relationships you have, the greater your contentment, the lower your stress, and the longer you live.
We learn about the mirror neurons that create a neural bridge of empathy and support our social intelligence. One bit of research data new to me: each additional person in your life who is feeling well boosts your chance of feeling well by 9%.
We learn to work with difficult emotions. By bringing a sense of kindness and compassion to experiences of anger, fear, shame, or depression ,we relate to the pain rather than from the pain.
We can use a deep awareness of impermanence to work with any emotion – it is what it is, while it is. And use deep acknowledgement of the imperfection inherent in human condition so can get on with the practices of kindness and compassion toward these imperfect, afflictive experiences.
I found these practices useful in surfing my recent tsunami as well. Rather than stubbornly ignoring the rising tide of worry and stress from the mushrooming to-do list, I could instead focus my attention on the sensations of that worry and stress in my body, come into the present moment, create a space of awareness between my growing agitation and my knowing the agitation, then begin to bring some kindness and compassion to those experiences, relating to them with kindness rather than from the worry itself. The kindness and compassion actually began to create some trust in my own competence to manage the flood well. The new relationships to my experience allowed me to choose to change my old workaholic patterns, slow down, think more clearly, and choose more wisely.
Goldstein suggests, with deepening practice, the Now Effect allows aha!’s, the moments of clarity, that allow us to see the deepest truths, values, and sacredness of our lives. Beyond personal well-being, the Now Effect allows more skillful engagement with people and events and the world around us. There’s a shift in the use of our own wise mind from rare appearances to the place we live from. A place the teachings of all the wisdom traditions point to – of more gratitude, forgiveness, hope, compassion, and love.
I was happy, and grateful, that I could come to a place expressed in this quote from the Irish poet John O’Donohue: “Experience each day as a sacred gift, woven around the heart of wonder.” Yes, indeed.
POETRY AND QUOTES TO INSPIRE
[from The Now Effect:]
No valid plans for the future can be made by those who have no capacity for living now.
– Alan Watts
* * * * *
You can hold back from the suffering of the world, you have permission to do so, and it is in accordance with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could have avoided.
– Franz Kafka
* * * * *
Life is the sum of all your choices.
* * * * *
When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.
– Lao Tzu
* * * * *
We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.
– Albert Einstein
* * * * *
Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy
– Thich Nhat Hanh
* * * * *
Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.
– Dalai Lama
STORIES TO LEARN FROM
Elisha Goldstein passed on this story from British author Jack Kent who uses a wonderful children’s story as a metaphor for creating choice points by embracing all of our experiences in the moment, even what’s difficult.
One day Billy Bixbee woke up and was surprised but curious to find a little dragon the size of a kitten in his room. After petting the dragon for a while, Billy enthusiastically went downstairs to tell his parents what he had found. As they laughed, his mom assured him, “Billy, there’s no such thing as a dragon.” As kids, we mostly believe what our parents tell us, and Billy did too, so he decided not to pay attention to or pet the dragon anymore.
The next day Billy saw the dragon again but it had doubled in size. When he went to his parents again, they gave him the same response. After a few days, the dragon continued to increase in size and was now taking up a majority of the space in their house.
The parents started to notice that the house had moved and the father asked, “How did this happen?’ Billy replied, “It was the dragon, who grew so big that he lifted the house and moved it!” There’s no such things as dragons,” his mom again told him. “There is a dragon!” Billy insisted. As Billy reached down to pat the dragon’s head, the dragon, being acknowledged, quickly shrank to a tiny size and the space in the house returned.
Dr. Goldstein’s commentary:
So it is with our lives. The old adage, “What we resist persists,” is too true. We say no to stress, no to fear, no to love, no to anger, no to connection. When a moment is met with “No!” a contraction occurs, walls are thrown up, and the body becomes tense, preparing to fight, flee, or freeze. The fact is, whenever you resist the pain that’s there, your suffering increases.
As the pressure mounts, our mind builds up even more resistance and our chances of making change diminishes. As strange as it may seem, a fundamental building block of creating change is learning how to say “Yes!” to whatever feeling is there in this moment.
Saying “Yes!” creates a different experience. It fosters openness, warmth, spaciousness, and an awakening of our hearts and minds to our lives. Saying “Yes!” doesn’t mean we want what is here or even that we like it, but it acknowledges the reality that it is here.
Tara Brach, the author of Radical Acceptance, suggests, “You just pause. Let go of thoughts and come in to your body – notice what’s going on. It’s not saying yes to everything for the rest of your life. It’s merely yes for this moment. Your heart relaxes and your mind opens.”
(See Goldstein’s exercise to work with your dragons in Exercises to Practice below)
EXERCISES TO PRACTICE
5-STEP CHEAT SHEET
1. Wherever you are, that is the entry point. This moment, now, no matter what is happening. To come into the space of awareness of the present moment; to notice places where you are hooked; to recognize the moment as a choice point; to expand your perspective and consider alternative choices. Keep this phrase in mind so that even in difficult moments you can be reminded of the way into the now.
2. Treat this process as an experiment without expecting miracles. As soon as you expect some magical moment of enlightenment to occur, the mind sets up an internal monitor that searches for that and adds stress to what is naturally there. On top of that, any potential sign that the magic is not there opens the door for your attention to be diverted to doubts, which inevitably takes you away from the now. Use playful discipline. As you engage in these practices to access the moments of now, set the intention to really devote yourself to them and bring in the attitude of play, curiosity, experimentation.
3. Look for the spaces within the practice. Prime your mind with intention to notice your experience with kindness, compassion, curiosity, openness, and flexibility. Just as we notice the spaces of awareness in our daily live, we can also notice the spaces of choice in the practices themselves.
4. Practice See, Touch Go. As you practice inhabiting the now, whenever you notice you’re back in old habits, see them (name them) touch them lightly, and re-direct your attention back to what is most important and wholesome in your life. Whenever you engage in any new practice, it’s absolutely expected that you will fall off the wagon. There’s no value in judging yourself for wandering off because it’s a given; stressors and old habits arise and take us off track. Practice “See, touch, go.” When you notice you haven’t practiced for a while, SEE where you’ve gone off to, TOUCH the moment, and gently GO back to your intention to inhabit the now.
5. Connect with other people also choosing to spend more time cultivate the now effect to support the playful discipline that strengthens it.
WORKING WITH YOUR DRAGONS
Take a moment to consider who your dragons are. What feelings arise within you that you resist, sending the message of “No!” Are they feelings of sadness, stress, anger, grief, fear, or maybe even joy?
To get a feel for this, think of a situation that happened in the last week that brought up a difficult feelings, such as anxiety, annoyance, or even shame. Maybe it was a conflict with someone at work, an argument with a loved one the potential loss of someone close to you, or something you did that you feel bad about. Now let this scenario play through your mind like a movie reel and pause it at the moment of difficulty. Notice if there is a feeling or subtle thoughts of wanting to be anywhere else but here. That is the snap judgment of “No!” occurring. This is the feeling of resistance. When we can’t accept the reality of the present moments and we fall into cycles of avoidance or escape, we add tension and stress and inevitable increase our suffering.
Consider what life would be like if you always walked around with thoughts and feelings of “No!”
Now practice tuning in to the feeling and saying “Yes!” this is a feeling of allowing, welcoming, and letting whatever is here be as it is. It sends the message internally that you are okay just the way you are.
What do you notice?
The fact is, whatever we practice and repeat becomes automatic. Habitually saying “No!” reinforces a belief that you are not okay and something is wrong with you. If you practice saying “Yes!” the message that is sent is you are okay just as you are, which leads to greater self-acceptance, self-trust, and self-reliance.
Throughout today, see if you can practice noticing when you’re saying “no!” to a feeling that is here, and in that space of awareness, practice saying “Yes!” to the reality that is here and see what happens.
The Now Effect: How This Moment Can Change the Rest of Your Life, by Elisha Goldstein. New York: Atria Books, 2012.
Artful and easy, the book has links to instructional videos – downloadable to your smart phone – of Dr. Goldstein teaching these practices.
www.elishagoldstein.com : daily Now Moment reminders that prime your brain toward the principles of this book. Also weekly e-newsletters and free monthly phone conference calls.
www.youtube.com/NowEffect for more teachings.