Monthly Archives: July 2013

Mindfulness: a doable alternative for when you can’t think positive

zen stones

Life is full of paradox. And we are living, breathing paradoxes.

We hold opposing viewpoints, conflicting values, and competing commitments. We have a kind heart and a selfish streak. We soar and we falter.

In the midst of life’s ups and downs, self-help gurus, positive psychologists, motivational speakers, and well-meaning friends remind us to think positive:

Reframe the situation. Debunk your limiting beliefs. Transform your negative self-image. Look on the bright side. Make lemonade out of lemons.

Positivity certainly has its place and its benefits. But it’s not the only path to caring for your well-being, gaining contentment, seeing possibilities, facing your fears, acquiring skills, and achieving success.

What’s more, it is hard to change your negativity into positive thoughts when you feel like crap and you’re not equipped to dig yourself out of the hole. Pep talks and affirmations can only take you so far.

What’s the doable alternative? 

“Every moment is unique, unknown, completely fresh.” – Pema Chödrön, The Places That Scare You

Instead of trying to change the thoughts that bring you discomfort, embrace them as they are. Welcome them as your teacher, guide, and even your friend.

Develop your capacity to live with paradox. This starts with mindfulness: moment-to-moment awareness of what is before you, with open curiosity and no agenda.

Mindfulness is a skill you can cultivate through yoga, meditation, gardening, walking, or any other experience that allows you to be present in the moment, without judgment. It is also a way of being that is always available to you.

With mindfulness, you’re not working to transform your negative thoughts into positive outlooks. Rather, you’re simply observing the bare facts and raw reality. You drop the labels and loosen your grip on the story line underlying your thoughts.

From a place of centered awareness, you make conscious choices that are grounded in reality. It’s not that you won’t feel pain, make mistakes, or get angry. But you’ll be better able to open up to situations as they unfold, let go more easily, make peace with the past, and apply the lessons you learn to the present and in the future.

By practicing mindfulness and by being mindful, you can begin to change your relationship with undesired thoughts and accompanying feelings. You learn to tap into the infinite, non-evaluative, inner witness that can sit with any experience.  As such, the need to think positive before you take appropriate action becomes less desperate.

Why is mindful thinking more doable than positive thinking? 

“With mindful awareness, challenging situations become more manageable, not because anything changes about them or even because how you think and feel about them has changed. Instead, they become more manageable because you learn a new way of approaching your experiences — your thoughts, your feelings, your bodily sensations — allowing them to be just as they are and greeting them with friendliness, gentleness, and compassion.” – Dr. Catherine Vieten, Mindful Motherhood

As I continue my journey to becoming a first-time mother, I find mindfulness especially valuable. My grand excitement, pure joy, and massive strength co-exist with my sheer terror, intense uncertainty and strong self-doubt. There’s so much paradox to process.

We all want to think positive and feel good about life-transforming events. But when there are multiple variables and limitless unknowns, positive thinking and feeling good can be out of reach.

Feigning positivity when you’re downright anxious or outright ambivalent creates inner tension. Mindful thinking, on the other hand, allows you to stay in integrity and find calmness on your own terms, at your individual pace, in due course.

With mindfulness, you give your fears and conflicting beliefs the attention and respect they deserve. You don’t have to cover them up with a smile or wish them away with idealistic thoughts. You zero in on where you have the most power and influence.

You recognize when you lose your patience, do the unthinkable, and say harsh things. You forgive yourself more quickly so you can make amends more peacefully. You stop complaining and whining. You come to terms with your situation or you do something to change it.

By facing circumstances precisely as they are, without any self-deceit, you develop your adaptability, decide what you want to stand for, and show up as a pillar of strength, despite the paradoxes.

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Photo by: Jack Kennard

Create for its own sake (even when it won’t bring you fame, fortune or fans), part 1

knitWhen time is tight and you need to make a living, it’s normal to have your unpaid pursuits take a backseat to paid work. Creating for yourself and for your pure enjoyment seems like a luxury you can’t afford.

But as Todd Henry, author of The Accidental Creative, points out, “unnecessary creating” often reignites passion and fuels insights for your day job. For this and other reasons, it’s essential to do non-essential creative activities.

Whether you write poetry, draw, paint, sculpt, bake a pie, design jewelry, make home videos, build a shed or play a musical instrument, the act of creating for its own sake – without the need to meet deadlines, answer to others, or live up to external standards  –brings tremendous benefits.

Below are some:

You get to stretch your limits and take risks with few or no consequences.

If your creation sucks, nothing gets harmed and no one gets hurt (besides your ego and you, perhaps). You’re not getting paid for it. There are no set objectives, deadlines, customer demands, or product specifications to meet.

When you create just for yourself, it’s easier to let go of outcomes and forget results. You are less worrisome about failure and more open to the learning process.

I find that playing piano allows me to challenge myself in a risk-free, low-pressure way. Although I might keep a personal agenda for my progress and make certain agreements with my piano teacher, there are no pressing goals or timelines to meet.

Because it’s just for my entertainment, I don’t have to prepare for a recital to prove my chops. Only three persons have heard me play: my piano teacher (because we meet for weekly lessons), my husband (because he lives with me), and my sister (because she’s currently our houseguest).

I spent as much as three to six months learning pieces like Bach’s Prelude in C Major from the Well-Tempered Clavier; Erik Satie’s Gymnopédie No.1 and Trois Gnossienne No. 1; Yann Tiersen’s Comp D’un Autre Ete , and Dustin O’Halloran’s Opus 23. Although relatively simple, they are quite a stretch from when I began taking lessons four years ago.

You experience flow when you engage fully with an activity that you enjoy.

Author and psychologist Mikhail Csikszentmihalyi, who did extensive research on happiness and creativity, notes that you feel most fulfilled when you are in a flow state – complete absorption with or full immersion in what you’re doing.

Play is as valuable to adults as it is to kids. When you pursue a creative or artistic hobby for fun, you lose track of time, find your groove and get into the zone. This can profoundly deepen your presence and transform your experience of life.

You develop innate talent, cultivate skills, and exercise parts of your brain that largely go untapped in your paid work.

Instead of being the expert who is steeped in practicality, you get to be the beginner with the fresh outlook. Honing a curious mindset in side projects ultimately feeds into your paid work as expanded creativity, strengthened focus, and brilliant inventiveness.

You have an outlet to ease boredom and avoid burnout in your day job.

No matter what field you’re in – whether you’re an artist, copywriter, accountant or engineer – the demands of paid work can stifle your creativity.

You might feel constrained, frustrated and limited because you need to consider what clients want, what attracts customers, and what the market demands.  You make a certain product that meets a certain standard in a certain time frame for a certain consumer.

During my years of law practice, I’ve found that lawyers fall into three basic groups in terms of how satisfied they are with their profession. Some really dig it. (They live it. Breathe it. Consume it.) Some are utterly bored by it or overwhelmed by it (or both). And some love parts and hate other parts.

I happen to fall into the last group.  I fully engage with the parts I love and use creative pursuits to help deal with the parts I hate.

Having an outlet to create for yourself takes the edge off, feeds your soul, and re-energizes you for challenges at work. It gives you opportunity to experiment with ideas, explore different possibilities, and invent new stuff on your own terms.

Your creative pursuit could turn into a flexible source of livelihood, a sellable product or service, or a viable business that aligns with your passion.

While earning fame, fortune and fans are not the ultimate goal or the real reason you do it, this could be the net result.

A year ago, I started a blog with the tagline “Empowering Insights for Life, Work and Business” simply to explore these topics and my love of writing. I didn’t know who exactly would read it and how many readers it would attract. Over time, the blog became a way to build my coaching business. So now blogging is not something I do just for fun.

Writing for an audience isn’t a bad thing. It helped hone my blogging skills to the point where I got a post featured on Lifehacker.com and became a contributing writer/expert for Lifehack.com. These are top productivity blogs that attract millions of unique visitors each month.

But writing for an audience (whether I’m paid or not) adds pressure to post more often and to produce more engaging content. So what starts out as unnecessary can become what Todd Henry calls “on-demand creative work.”

To relieve any pressure I might feel about blogging, I play piano and indulge in other purely creative pursuits that have no set timelines or external standards to meet.

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Now that you know the potential benefits, create or continue to create for yourself, on your own terms.  Make something for your own enjoyment (something you love or would love doing even if you could never earn any recognition, money or praise from it).

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Photo by: Sally, Queenie & the Dew