When something happens at work that activates your stress response, what do you do? Do you notice how if effects your body and your mind? How do you calm yourself down so that you can reset and deal effectively with the situation?
In this week’s vlog I offer a technique for de-stessing in less than a minute, that you can use anytime, anywhere. Many people I work with find it one of the most useful mindfulness techniques they learn. Here it is:
“We must exercise ourselves in the things which bring happiness, since, if that be present, we have everything, and, if that be absent, all our actions are directed toward attaining it.”
I love ancient wisdom that still has relevance today. It reminds me that there is something universal about the human predicament and it impresses me that someone’s words could be remembered and found useful for so long. I think it also gives us moral and philosophical guidance that our modern pancake culture (spread wide, with no depth) does not provide.
2,400 years ago, the Greek philosopher Epicurus said that people were making three mistakes about where to direct their energy in order to be happy: they were over-valuing romantic relationships, money and luxury, and that they were under-valuing friendship, satisfying work and simplicity. This couldn’t be more relevant now.
On my recent retreat I had a deeper experience of the truth of what he said, which I would like to share with you.
Romantic relationships vs friendships
“Of all the things which wisdom provides to make us entirely happy, much the greatest is the possession of friendship.”
Epicurus looked around him and saw many unhappy couples, broken marriages and relationships marred byjealousy, cheating and resentment. He saw the pleasure derived from them as being short-lived and that greater happiness can be found from spending time with like-minded friends.
On my retreat we were sixty men. We meditated together, ate, cooked, cleaned, shared rooms, respectfully shared a silent space for six days, were sensitive to each other’s needs around the dinner table, which was important because you couldn’t ask for what you wanted, and generally made an effort to make the experience a bit less about ourselves and a bit more about the collective.
It felt great! There was a sense of being looked after or held by the group.
‘Lifelong’ marital agreements currently last an average of 11.9 years. I’m sure you’ve got many friends you’ve had for longer than that. Friends therefore often provide more long-term stability than a lover.
Epicurus also found that there was a lot more trust and decency and less possessiveness amongst friends.
How often have you seen of spoken to your closest friends over the last month? Do you think you’d be happier if you made more effort with them?
Status & money vs fulfilling work
“The wise man who has become accustomed to necessities knows better how to share with others than how to take from them, so great a treasure of self-sufficiency has he found.”
Epicurus believed in the pursuit of wealth and status, people overlook the competition, jealousy, back-stabbing and long hours of toil that will be involved. He thought that such efforts would lead to weariness and disappointment. Sound familiar?
On this retreat we had the experience of cooking and cleaning for the group, which was actually very satisfying. Seeing the fruits of our labour as a visible, tangible thing and seeing people appreciating it, was very different to the nature of modern work where so much exists only in cyber-space, and we can often feel under-appreciated for what we do.
He believed that it’s not money and status that we really want, but the sense of satisfaction that is derived from having a positive impact on other people through our work.
Luxury vs simplicity
“If thou wilt make a man happy, add not unto his riches but take away from his desires.
Wow, if Epicurius thought the Greeks were obsessed with luxury, he hadn’t seen nothin! He was particularly struck by how many people want to live in a scenic, tranquil home, and believed that was because people want to feel peaceful.
Instead, he thought it was better to cultivate inner peace through simplicity, reflection and meditation.
On this retreat I shared a small, very simple room. I brought four t-shirts, one pair of shoes, one jumper and one book for ten days. No computer, no gadgets, and no access to media.
Our days followed the same routine of chi kung, meditation and meals. There were several hours every day of free time, which I spent reading, walking and sometimes just sitting drinking tea and looking out at the beautiful landscape.
One day I challenged myself to sit on a chair and do nothing for an hour. Not meditating, not reading, not thinking about anything in particular, just sitting. It was actually quite a liberating experience.
I’ve since resolved to spend more time teach day doing just that — not doing anything. It often feels a little uncomfortable at first, and I have a sense of looking around for something to do, but after a while I start to feel really peaceful.
Are you looking for happiness in the right place?
I often explore with people what they really want in life, and feeling peaceful and contented comes quite high on the list. But they seem to be seeking that feeling by frantically rushing about, hoping that that if they cross enough things off their to do list, they’ll feel calm.
I’ve got a client who’s been regularly working until midnight, and when we talked it through he realised his aim was to have financial security, so that he could spend more time with his family, and in doing so was spending hardly any time with his family.
Sounds a bit mad doesn’t it?!
Call to action
Create some space in your life for inaction! If you’re always on the go, you won’t make time to reflect on what really matters to you, whether it’s your partner, your friends, meaningful work or having some peace and quiet to yourself.
My client arrived for the session looking tired and stressed. He told me that two days ago, his dad had had a stroke.
We were in a meeting room in the bank where he works.
“Wow, I’m sorry to hear that. How are you feeling now?”
“Angry.” said David, (not his real name). “He’s been eating crap and not exercising for years. He’s a doctor for goodness sake. He should know better. I can’t believe his disregard for his own health. It’s going to happen again unless he sorts himself out.”
I thought there were probably some more vulnerable feelings going on underneath the anger, but rather than probe him about them, I suggested we meditate.
I instructed him to focus his attention on his breath, notice what feelings came up, and ask himself, ‘Can I be with this?’. We did it for about ten minutes.
Afterwards I asked him what he noticed.
“Sadness was the main feeling.” he said. “And then I asked myself “Can I be with this?” and I said no! I didn’t feel comfortable feeling sad. I don’t think I ever have done.”
“What’s wrong with feeling sad?” I asked.
“I guess I see it as weak. It’s a negative emotion. I also worry that it won’t stop.”
“That you’ll just feel sad forever?” “Yes, although as I say that I know it’s not true. I also know really that it’s not weak.”
“It not. In fact it takes far more courage to be honest with yourself and other people about feeling sad than it does to suppress it. How did it feel to tell yourself, “No, I don’t want to feel this?”
“Right. Well suppressing how you feel never feels good, and it doesn’t work! It’s like pushing a beach ball under the water, it just springs back again even harder.”
He committed in that session to exploring more why he’s so resistant to feeling sadness, to talking about it with his wife and practising some body scan meditations that would help him feel it more.
A couple of sessions later, he told me he’s gone to see his dad, and talked to him about his health. He’d told him that he felt really sad about the fact that if he carries on like this, he’s going to drastically shorten the amount of time he can spend with his children and grandchildren
His dad was furious. His wife said later that she’d never seen him so angry. But David stayed calm, remembering that when he’d been angry before, it was covering over his deeper feelings, so he told his dad to just have a think about it.
The next morning, his dad came up to him and have him a massive hug, which was quite out of character. He had a big smile on his face and he told him “David, I’ve realised that I need to change the way I’m living. I want to get back in shape. I want have more years with you and my grandchildren.”
David was delighted. He felt like a massive weight was lifted from his shoulders. He’s optimistic that his dad will turn his life around. His wife couldn’t believe what had happened.
Before, he’d thought that by pushing away the feelings, it would help him concentrate at work. He now realised that dealing with it properly was actually what he needed to do in order to be able to focus.
As he reported all this he was smiling. He told me he’d never realised before ‘the Colossal Benefits of Sadness’.
I was touched and really proud of him. By having the courage to face into his own feelings, and to express them vulnerably to this dad, he’d improved the lives of everyone in his family, himself, and freed up a lot of head space to be able to perform better at work.
The truth is that we’re all suppressing or avoiding certain feelings that we don’t like. And we would all feel a colossal benefit if we did allow ourselves to feel them.
If it’s unclear to you what that might be, a great question to ask yourself during a meditation is “What am I resisting?”
If you’d like some help working through some anger or sadness, get in touch for a free consultation.
I’m celebrating it by doing something I find very beneficial for my happiness – being on a silent meditation retreat with Art of Meditation I left on Friday, and since that evening, I’ve not been allowed to speak, read a book, use a phone or a computer or even make eye contact with the other people on the retreat.
I wrote this blog just before I left, and set it up to send today. The wonders of modern technology!
A lot of people think a week of silence sounds crazy. Many can’t believe I would pay to do it. One friend suggested he could shut me in a cupboard for a week and I could give him the money. I didn’t fancy that!
This is my third time doing this particular retreat. Here are some of the reasons I keep going back:
The best conditions for meditation
If you’ve meditated before, you know what it’s like. Constant thoughts about things you need to do, things that have just happened, people who have annoyed you, people you’re worried you’ve annoyed… it can be hard to even experience a few moments of quiet in your mind.
On a retreat, it’s much easier for your mind to go quiet because all the distractions, things to do, choices and annoying people in your life have been taken away. This allows your mind to settle, which means that you experience a much great sense of calm, clarity and concentration than one would ever experience on a normal day, and it’s very pleasant!
Ramping up my concentration
Every day I train myself to concentrate during up to an hour of meditation as a formal practice, and during the rest of the day I try to focus on the present moment as much as possible. On this retreat I am doing five to six hours of formal practice every day, and by the end I can stay concentrated for about 95% of the time during a 40 minute meditation.
Facing all my difficult thoughts and emotions
Pascal said, “The source of all humanity’s problems is man’s inability to sit quietly, in a room, alone.” If he was right, then this is pretty important work I’m doing!
The most destructive things we do in our lives are to avoid feelings we don’t like. In a retreat like this, there’s no escape! It’s an opportunity to make peace with your inner world.
Burgs, who leads the retreat, is a very wise guy and he gives talks every day about the nature of the mind, emotions, and ethics. I learn new things every time that if I apply make me happier. He puts a lot of emphasis on simplifying your life and kindness, for example.
Also, having that much space allows me to reflect on what’s really important for me in life – what do I really want to do? What do I want to stop doing?! Who do I need to apologise to who I’ve upset? How is the way I’m living not in alignment with my values or what I really enjoy or find exciting?
A proper detox
After these retreats I feel my mind and body have been given a really deep clean out. I remember Burgs once saying “You wouldn’t go this long without giving your car a MOT!”
We catch up on sleep – lights out by 10pm to allow our minds and bodies to rest and recharge. We eat healthily and there’s no caffeine, sugar or alcohol on the retreat. There’s also no meat. We spend a whole week acting ethically, doing no harm to anyone, and doing a lot of good to ourselves.
What about you?
If you’ve never been on a retreat before, I really recommend it. Start with a weekend or one day, and build up. Some people go straight to a ten day silence, and I think that’s a bit much!
Also, silence is such a good thing for allowing our minds and bodies to calm down. Do you allow yourself any silence during the day? Could you have a silent breakfast with no reading either? Or go for a walk without putting your earphones in?
I look forward to sharing my insights with you when I’m back!
People sometimes say to me “I am an anxious person.” To me, this implies that there is something permanent about the way they are. That there are certain traits that we are just stuck with. I find it quite a depressing thought. If I struggle with anxiety now, I always will do because that’s just who I am.
It also suggests that there is nothing you can do about it. It’s disempowering. Fortunately, it’s also delusional.
It doesn’t take much scrutiny to see that there is nothing permanent about experiencing anxiety. If you think back to 5 years ago or 10 years ago, or to when you were a child, did you experience exactly the same levels of anxiety as you do now? Do you expect to experience it the same way now as when you’re 70 or 80 years old?
Are you the same person you were 10 years ago? Have they not been some big changes in the way that you think and feel and the beliefs you have about the world?
Is the anxiety you experienced last week exactly the same as the week before?
I’m sure if you pause to reflect on it, you will see that there is nothing permanent about the way you experience anxiety, or any other emotion. In fact, nothing is permenant.
In the words of Heraclitus:
““No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”
In my own life, I have seen myself become more and more calm and optimistic the more I have practised meditation. And in the lives of my clients I have seen them become steadily less anxious the more they have practised too.
It is understandable that people think that there is something permenant about the way the brain works. Until about 20 years ago, the mainstream view in psychology was that when you became an adult your brain was more or less fixed.
That was until a landmark study into the brains of London taxi drivers. Pre-Uber, they all had to do “the Knowledge”, which meant memorising the names and locations of all the streets in London.
The study found that the posterior hippocampus in taxidrivers was physically bigger than in an average person. And the longer someone had been a taxi driver for, the larger was this area of their brain. Before they started training, their hippocampus was the same size as anybody else’s.
What this study showed was that the brain physically changes depending on what we do with it, even as an adult. This is called neuroplasticity. Faculties of the brain can become stronger or weaker just like muscles.
Meditation has been found to weaken the connections to the brain’s stress centre, the amygdala, and strengthen areas associated with emotional regulation.
To say “I am anxious person”, is equivalent to saying I am a person who can’t speak Portuguese. In the latter example it seems more obvious that if I were to practice Portuguese regularly, I would be able to speak it better.
But it’s the same. If you practice relating to anxious thoughts and feelings more acceptingly, you will experience less of it.
Language is also important here. It is more accurate to say “I often experience anxiety”, than to say “I am an anxious person.” The former allows for the possibility for change, the latter will reinforce to yourself that you’re stuck like this.
What I find exciting about meditation, is it shows that pretty much everything is trainable. You can train calmness, compassion, concentration, contentment – and not only qualities that begin with C! Also acceptance, kindness, self-awareness, emotional intelligence and patience.
They’re only two things required: the belief that it is possible and the perseverance in following it through. So what are you waiting for?
I recently came across the suggestion that if you want to get a taste of what meditation is about, instantly, you can try the following exercise.
When you’re feeling a difficult emotion like anger, anxiety or sadness, sit down and just say to yourself, or rather to the feeling, “Bring it on!” Focus your attention on what’s happening in your body and just let it happen.
The image that came to mind when I heard this was of Lieutenant Dan in Forrest Gump when he’s sitting at the top of the mast during the storm. The rain is lashing down and the waves are rocking the boat from side to side, and he’s shouting “It’s time for a show-down — you and me! You’ll never sink this boat!”
Our most intense feelings are the ones we most want to hide from. Mindfulness is actually a practice of feeling your feelings more acutely. When people don’t realise this, or think that it’s supposed to make them feel better straight away, it can really put them off.
A friend who did her first very meditation with me said that she was never going to do it again because it made her feel her back pain, which before the meditation she couldn’t. Another said her anxiety felt stronger when she meditated, so maybe she should stop.
It’s understandable. Of course we want to escape pain or discomfort if we can. But ignoring, suppressing or numbing emotions may sometimes work as a short term strategy — but, think about it, does it ever work for you in the longer term?
If you ignore your back pain and keep doing what’s causing it, it’ll get worse. If you don’t face up to your anxiety, it might well self-perpetuate.
But mindfulness isn’t just about feeling it more, it’s also about learning to be OK with it. To allow whatever feelings are there to be there.
This, again, is a rebellion against natural selection, which has designed your feelings to control your behaviour. The stronger the perceived threat or reward, the stronger the feeling and the stronger the feeling, the greater the motivation to take an action will will help you pass your genes onto the next generation.
Evolutionary biologist Georges Romanes wrote, ten years after Darwin,
“Pleasure and pain must have been evolved as the subjective accompaniment of processes which are respectively beneficial or injurious to the organism, and so evolved for the purpose or to the end that the organism should seek the one and shun the other.”
When you sit there and say “Bring it on” you’re throwing down the gauntlet to natural selection and saying “I will not be controlled by my feelings!”
An Indian sage once said “There is only one question worth asking: what are you afraid to feel?”
If the answer is nothing, then the world is your oyster.
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Last week I wrote in my blog that mindfulness had helped me lose my social media/email addiction, and someone responded to it asking how.
First, here’s a definition of addiction:
Addiction is a condition that results when a person ingests a substance (e.g., alcohol,cocaine, nicotine) or engages in an activity (e.g., gambling, sex, shopping) that can be pleasurable but the continued use/act of which becomes compulsive and interferes with ordinary life responsibilities, such as work, relationships, or health. Users may not be aware that their behavior is out of control and causing problems for themselves and others.
Here’s how it interfered with my life and responsibilities:
My other business is a video production company. I would spend about five minutes editing, and then check my emails. Then another three minutes editing… maybe they’ve replied now, I better check again. This made me miss lots of deadlines.
I would get halfway down a page I was reading and then decide I urgently had to message someone. It therefore took me forever to finish a book and I found it very hard remember what I’d read.
I would be waiting for the traffic lights to change on my bike and rather than ‘waste’ those moments just sitting there, I’d check my emails. Filling all those little spaces made my mind feel full and I was a lot more forgetful.
I’d find it hard to listen when someone was talking, so it degraded my relationships and interactions with people.
I wouldn’t appreciate my surroundings: the sky, the changing seasons, the steam rising from my tea… because I was too agitated and distracted.
Sometimes the behaviour would be driven by wanting to avoid boredom, sometimes I was stuck on something and rather than try to solve it I’d distract myself, sometimes there was a particular person I was desperately impatient to receive a message from.
For this to change I didn’t revert to a ‘dumb’ phone with no apps, I didn’t quit Facebook and or go on a digital detox. It was just a bi-product of sitting in meditation for twenty minutes every day and thereby training myself not to instantly respond to impulses.
I’d have an itch, and instead of scratching it, I would just observe it. I’d watch how the desire to scratch it rose and I feared that it would become unbearable as it continued. But what actually happened is that the itch vanished. Then it might pop up somewhere else on my body, and I would observe it, and it would disappear.
This is harder to do outside of meditation, because you’re much less concentrated, but I can do it more and more.
Another thing that happened is that I started to enjoy being focused, immersed in something or in ‘flow’ more, and being distracted felt increasingly jarring and unpleasant. I would sit on a bus and enjoy having some silence and space more than looking at my screen.
I saw a series of stages in how my behaviour would change:
Unconscious behaviour – I don’t realise I’m doing it
I notice I’m doing it as I’m doing it
I notice I have an urge to do it before I do it
I no longer have the urge
Some of the highest paid, most intelligent people in the world are designing phones, apps and games to make them as addictive as possible so that you use them more. The default set up is to have notifications appearing on your computer, tablet and phone all the time.
So my top tips for unshackling your mind from its notification cravings are:
If natural selection were personified you could say she has one goal and one goal only – to get your genes into the next generation. She incentivises you to do things that will help you to do that through pain and pleasure. She doesn’t care if you’re happy and if being deluded about reality is an advantage, that went into our design.
The anxiety advantage
The early humans who didn’t worry about danger got eaten by saber-tooth tigers or fell off cliffs. The ones who were worried even though 99% of the times there was no danger, survived because of the 1% of times it meant they avoided it. Hence we’ve evolved to being a species of neurotic nutters.
It was an advantage for us to be deluded about the true levels of danger, and now we suffer the consequences. A very high proportion of the time we worry about things that will never happen or affect us.
The greed advantage
Scientists did an experiment to measure the dopamine (pleasure chemical) in rats when they gave them fruit juice. The dopamine hit lasted one third of a second. Think about the last time you indulged in a sweet treat for yourself. How many seconds do you think the pleasure lasted?
They then trained the rats to know that when they saw a light turn on they could expect the fruit juice to be delivered soon after. The dopamine hit for the anticipation of the fruit juice was far higher than for the actual tasting of it.
Not only that but when the fruit juice did arrive, in some cases no dopamine was released, so that all the pleasure was in the anticipation.
Natural selection wants us to crave things that will help us pass on our genes: food, sex, social status, and to feel pleasure when we get them. However, she doesn’t want us to feel satisfied for long so that we’re motivated to search for the next meal or person to mate with.
The status update advantage
I think this helps us to understand how we’ve become so addicted to social media. For early man, higher social status might have meant more opportunities to mate, being given food and protection. Rejection meant possible death, fending for oneself outside of the tribe.
Now we have a clear metric of our social status: the number of friends on Facebook, the number of ‘Likes’. Before, when we got a compliment, maybe no one else would see it. Now hundreds of people can see how popular we are.
You post something, get some likes, and experience a dopamine hit of pleasure… for a few seconds maybe? Then it wears off and you’re searching for the next hit. Hence the addiction.
Are we stuck like this?!
One of the things we’re learning to do in mindfulness is, instead of allowing thoughts and behaviours to be driven by our feelings and impulses, is to take a step back and just observe them so that we’re not controlled by them.
Mindfulness helps us to take back the reigns. It’s quite an ambitious project: essentially a rebellion against natural selection.
It’s definitely been working for me: I used to be addicted to social media for example, and I’ve now broken that addiction. I’m still quite addicted to biscuits though. Especially the chocolate covered stem ginger ones. But unshackling yourself from millions of years of genetic programming was never going to be a quick fix!
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It’s a little secret that no one talks about so we can easily assume we’re the only one that suffers from it. It holds us back from our goals, our dream job or meeting our ideal partner… it’s the inner critic.
The inner critic is the voice inside our heads that says we’re not good enough so we shouldn’t even bother trying. It says that so and so doesn’t like us because why would they like us anyway?! It tells us that we’ll never amount to much and it’s much safer to keep things exactly as they are. No grand plans or daring actions, thank you.
We might think that when we reach a certain level of experience and success that this voice will go away. In fact the more successful we are, often the stronger it is.
I heard that after the director or the latest Star Wars film, J. J. Abrams, showed his first edit to the production company and they said the loved it, he walked away thinking, “They would say that. They’ve invested £3 billion in it. It’s not good enough.”
It’s not that successful people don’t have an inner critic, they’re just good at dealing with it.
You’ve probably tried a few times telling it to shut up and go away. You’ve probably just accepted that what it says is true, many times in your life, even though it didn’t feel good. But how can you deal with this voice effectively, so that it doesn’t hold you back?
I recently listened to a great podcast in which Coach Jennie, a specialist in this area, gave out a few tips.
Don’t fight it
You may well have experienced that the harder you try to ignore or avoid your inner critic, the more it comes back. Like trying to push a ball under water in a swimming pool.
Actually your inner critic is your friend. They don’t want you to do anything that would threaten your relationships, your status or your safety. They’re trying to look out for you. The key is to develop a good relationship with them.
Give it a name
I called mine Negative Nelly. I’ve also heard people calling them Barry, Hilda or Fred. This is helpful so that you’re clear that this voice isn’t you. It isn’t the truth. It’s just a voice in your head.
I put a stickman in the middle of the paper with frown on his face. I then wrote down all the most common things he says. For example, mine sometimes tells me that I’m not qualified or experienced enough to do what I do. I even hesitated in writing that in case it made it more likely that you thought that about me!
Remember the opposite perspective
For example, when I have thoughts about not being good enough I remind myself of all the feedback and testimonials I’ve had from individuals and groups that have told me that I’ve had an impact on them and therefore I am good enough. Remind yourself of that every time the critic questions you, without telling it to F*** off. It is good to question whether you could improve or could do with more training sometimes!
Just do it anyway and look at the results
My critic used to tell me that I shouldn’t offer people coaching or mindfulness because they’d think I was only doing it for the money. But I approached people about it, even though I still had that fear.
My friend Adam Woodhall promotes the idea that action creates belief. The more I could see that when I approached people, my fears were totally unwarranted – more often than not they wanted to be offered my services – the more I changed my beliefs.
Remember it’s a good sign!
My favourite thing to remember about the inner critic is that it surfaces more when you’re doing something outside of your comfort zone – reaching for a promotion, setting up a business or trying something new. When you’re in your comfort zone, they don’t show up much. So them being present is a sign that you’re pushing yourself and that’s a good thing!
Just think what you could achieve if you didn’t let that negative voice in your head hold you back. The sky is not the limit. That’s why there are footprints on the moon (a bit cheesy I know, but it’s true!)
Would you like to set some goals for this year? Are you free tonight at 7pm? If the answers to those questions are yes, then you might like to join my webinar tonight at 7pm: Creating My Dream 2017.
We’re going to be reflecting deeply on what we want this year, creating a drawing of it and then committing to some bold actions towards it. You can sign up here.