Mindfulness is really easy to not practice it because at first it can be boring, intimidating and seem pointless.
But – it is a practice, not a solution. It takes time but it pays off. I want to help make it easier for you.
Here are 5 methods you can use to incorporate mindfulness into your everyday life.
Pockets of peace
Meditation for most people can be pretty daunting. It’s tough to just sit in a room for 10 minutes and observe your thoughts if you’ve never done it before.
Instead, try 30s to 2 minutes of paying attention to your breathing or your surroundings. I recommend having nothing in your hands (especially your phone).
You can do this as many times as you want throughout the day. This way it doesn’t feel like an overwhelming obligation you’re tempted to skip.
Treat yourself to “pockets of peace” throughout the day.
Mindful eating is an important technique to keep in your toolbox.
When you’re eating, for the first few spoonfuls (forkfuls… whatever, you get the point), try to appreciate the flavours and textures of the food. If you do this, you can actually appreciate food much more, especially if you made it yourself.
Another technique is… I pretend I’m a chef who’s figuring out what spices are in my food. Even if I know all of them in advance.
It’s silly but it’s fun, and I like to pretend.
Similar to the pockets of peace earlier, when you’re cleaning the house, instead of treating it as something you hate or want to run away from, try this:
Your house, your body, whatever you choose to clean, is important because you spend a lot of time with it.
When you clean it, you’re helping it get back to its best.
You’re making your environment better. Whether it’s one dish, a fluffy afro or folding away one shirt.
The morning can be extremely hectic because
1) Who wants to be awake in the morning
2) It’s time to prepare for work
But, stay with me now, you can do some stretching for 30 seconds, and do them without any distractions.
Not only do you get to treat your body well but you get to practice mindfulness at the same time.
Every year, I write something for my birthday, reflecting on how I’ve developed over the past year and how I hope to improve for the next year.
Last year, I answered two questions – Do I love myself? and what am I grateful for?
I can say I love myself more for the positive changes I’ve managed to make to my health. Even if I’m still dealing with a substantial amount of pain daily, I’ve maintained a regular swimming and yoga habit. There’s still a long way to go with overall self-compassion though.
I was grateful for a number of things. Many of them including friendships, the ability to exercise, charity, vegetables (yes, really) and books.
These still hold true. I believe I am extremely lucky for the friends and family that I have. I still exercise, read and donate to charity. But…
Let me tell you something about vegetables.
One sunny day in July I went to a vegan market in Hackney. It was pretty small considering how large some markets in London can be. However, there were peanut butter blondies so I was sure that all was going to be OK regardless if my lunch sucked (it didn’t).
I had a burger that was remarkably sloppy and literally, everything fell out into the little paper that was holding it. I got some on the floor and I dirtied my jeans. The tiny napkin they gave me barely cleaned my pinky finger.
At the same time all of this was happening, I was slowly, but surely, tipping towards the floor because I weigh a lot and the bench I was sat on was very wobbly. Everyone else on this table, while regular-sized humans, were all smaller than me.
I was in a perpetual state of fear that I’d fall over and embarrass myself.
I did not fall over. However, one of the leaflets I used to clean myself , was a Challenge22+ leaflet (what is shame? I do not know.)
The aim of this challenge was to go vegan for 22 days, join the facebook group and have the chance to talk nutritionists and other people trying out this vegan hype. I didn’t put any pressure on myself to complete the challenge. If I didn’t, I’d just continue on as normal.
22 days came and went and I was transferred to the Challenge22+ graduate’s group. Cool. Nothing special but cool.
40 days came and went. If this was for lent, I’d ironically win a milk chocolate Easter egg or something.
Then 50, 60, 70… all the way up to today. I’m still going and let me tell you – it’s brilliant.
During that time, I’ve learned a lot about the treatment of animals, the impact of animal products on our likelihood for chronic diseases and on the environment.
Last year, when I said I was grateful for vegetables because they’re like an automatic rainbow for your plate, I guess I didn’t know how much I like rainbows.
Cooking in the kitchen is a different challenge now and now my tastebuds are regularly blessed with new flavours and textures. I also get complimented on how healthy my shopping trolley looks in Tesco.
Little do they know, all of the junk food is hidden underneath the spinach.
So thank you, everyone, over at Challenge22+. This is the most significant change I’ve had over the past year and any time I reflect on it, I’m grateful. My attitude toward animals has changed completely and I believe I’m more in line with being compassionate towards others – even if they don’t have big toes or thumbs.
JUST LOOK AT JOSHUA AND HAROUN. JOSHUA IS MY LIFE MASCOT. HE’S JUST THE BEST.
If they make it, we’re all gonna make it.
I have composed myself. We can move on.
My values and self-improvement
When I first started these birthday posts, I would write about the values that I try to live with and act in accordance with.
Without going into detail of various shortcomings I feel I have had over the past year, I think the overall problem that can be taken from that is that, yes these values are good to live in accordance to. But that’s about it – they’re good and nice to have.
I spent more time thinking about the values themselves than how I’m going to do that.
I can look back on the year but I have nothing concrete to measure it against. My journal entries exist but they are not focused on these values in particular.
This doesn’t mean I will sit down each day with a checklist in my hand saying things like “Did I improve with compassion?” or “Did I give myself permission to be content?” Nah, we all know that isn’t going to happen.
After the first few days, I’d probably misplace my pen by a few centimetres and use that as an excuse to not bother.
I will not try to quantify every aspect of my life because 1) who has time for that, 2) who wants to have time for that, and 3) that won’t help.
However, I think more regular reflection would go a long way. Maybe I’ll share that with you all here. Maybe.
Lastly, a word on self-improvement.
To the extra attentive folk reading, the last post I made was in 2018… for my birthday.
This failure to write started off as standard procrastination. Then it extended into something different. I fell out of love with self-improvement.
I stopped reading self-improvement articles because I felt as though many articles simply lacked context. Both in terms of the author appreciating the context in which they are writing from and the potential context from which their audience is reading from.
If the advice needs to reach as many people as possible, then it needs to be extremely general and watered down. Overall, a lot of it became boring to read and there was nothing for me to contribute to the genre.
I still enjoy writing but haven’t had the confidence to post anything as a result.
I’m not saying goodbye to my blog but I may try to explore different interests. Who knows – if there’s one thing I’ve learned this year – there’s always more to learn about yourself.
If you’ve been ill for any period of time, you know that it’s more difficult to do things you need to do or even enjoy. Usually, when you get better, your energy and motivation levels improve also.
Chronic illness makes that equation slightly more complex.
Even when the pain leaves, the motivation levels may stay as low as they were when you were ill. If you’ve noticed this phenomenon, you may wonder why, beyond the clearest answer – “depression”.
How chronic illness ruins motivation
Robert Malenka of Stanford University and his colleagues studied chronic pain in mice. They showed that persistent pain resulted in mice being less and less likely to work for food in comparison to their pain-free friends.
Long-term pain (in this case, a week for the mice), resulted in nerve-cell changes in the nucleus accumbens which is important for processing reward and reinforcement.
When the pain was relieved, the mice were still less willing to work for food even if they were hungry.
The researchers asked if they did not work for food because…
their pain was too severe?
they no longer valued food as much?
they lacked motivation?
More tests showed that they could walk fine and still valued food. Their pain was relieved. They lacked motivation.
Although Dr. Malenka’s study was valuable, it may not be best to directly translate these findings to humans. What we can take from this is that long-term pain seems to reduce motivation even after the pain has left.
There seems to be a slight edge taken off life when you’re in pain because you grow to expect the pain to continue. More tasks appear futile because they were difficult or unable to be completed in the past.
Moreover, we must also be aware of the complex intertwining with depression, fatigue and emotional tiredness that comes with living with an illness for a long period of time. Quite literally, it can change you physically and mentally.
What can we do about it?
Now we know that chronic pain can influence motivation even when the pain isn’t there, we can start with the first tip:
There are days when pain isn’t as bad but we still don’t want to do anything. Now we know why.
To stop yourself from falling victim to the useless command of “just snap out of it!”, understand that it’s more important to be on your own team and to forgive yourself if things don’t always go to plan.
2. Start small…
…and stay small.
I’ve long been an advocate of making small, healthier changes that you can do every day. They are more sustainable, more enjoyable, easier to do and easier to fit into the day. Not everything needs to be a 100% effort – and they’re useless if you can rarely put in that effort.
5 minute daily walks
5 minute meditation
20 minutes of reading
The daily actions vary from person to person. Some people can manage 30 minutes of walking a day, other people find it difficult to walk to the kitchen sometimes. No need to feel ashamed or arrogant about whatever stage we’re at.
What does “stay small” mean?
It means, on pain-free days or simply days that you feel good, you may not want to take advantage of that and do everything you’ve hoped for. It feeds into the boom and bust cycle of pain management.
Day 1: 5/10 | Day 2: 6/10 | Day 3: 4/10 | Day 4: 1/10 NOW WE RUN A MARATHON WHILE COOKING FOR 100 PEOPLE
Day 5: 9/10 – We do nothing.
We want to have a reasonable amount of consistency in our days so that we can consistently feel rewarded for our efforts regardless of our pain levels. That is easier said than done but still possible to a degree.
If we feed into the boom and bust cycle, even those days where your body doesn’t feel like it’s on fire can result in us doing very little.
3. Take time to slow down
Some days, all the medication or tips in the world can’t really help us. But we can try our best to take some time to ourselves and slow down just a bit.
Whether that is through:
Taking a few deep breaths
Stroking our hands lightly
Eating and drinking mindfully
Hugging a teddy bear (or person… subject to availability, of course)
We can experiment with healthy ways to stop ourselves from getting lost in the self-hatred or anxiety that comes from a lack of motivation and depression.
Chronic pain often makes us ask ourselves – why bother? We can very easily build resentment towards our condition and ourselves. Who doesn’t want to have more control over their lives?
I won’t tell you that you should feel a certain way after reading this. I certainly won’t say that you should feel motivated. However, do take away that small, sustainable changes can be a healthy way to manage pain and our motivation levels.
To end, I quote Toni Bernhard…
May you make the best use of what is in your power and take the rest as it happens.
How many new year resolutions have been broken and revitalised already? How many are still going strong?
That doesn’t matter too much. We all hear the same advice – make it a habit. Shoot for sustainable change rather than drastic alterations to our lifestyle. If you slip up once, get back on track as quickly as possible.
I agree with all of this advice because it’s helpful. However, it doesn’t address the main problem I find with New Year Resolutions.
They’re often boring and create too much pressure for perfection.
Who cares about being healthy when Pringles are £1? or exercise when it’s raining and windy?
2018 isn’t special. Neither will 2019 be. There is nothing grand about the change of year. We all know this, yet depend on it anyway even if we decide not to formally create any resolutions.
Why is this a misleading mindset?
Let’s take a quick look at the term “resolution”:
The firm decision to do or not to do something
“I’m going to exercise more”
“I’m going to eat less junk”
“I’m going to call my parents once a week”
Whatever the form, the underlying philosophy is that “this is the time I finally make a change!” When we make resolutions, we often treat them as though we should make a specific change and if we fail, we are failures. That isn’t true – it’s a misleading train of thought.
Experiments and Projects
I returned to an idea I probably heard from the likes of Tim Ferriss and that is the two week experiment and six month project.
Experiments are an opportunity to try something new or do something slightly differently. They view failure as a possibility rather than something which must be avoided at all costs.
With New Year Resolutions, we always have the possiblity that we’ll fail but it’s as though we choose to ignore it because we believe we can will ourselves to success (it’s not that easy).
Two weeks is a short enough timeframe for our efforts not to feel unproductive and damaging. If we choose to jump ship early, we haven’t sunk too much time into it. If we enjoy it, we can simply carry on and maybe we’ll stick with it long enough.
It’s also a short enough timeframe for it to stay exciting, I’ve found. It’s like we get to become a slightly different person for a short time! Given how easy it is to get stuck in mundane routines, small changes can be wonderful.
The six month project allows for an overarching theme to come from the experiments.
A six month project: Learn data visualisation.
Two-week experiment no.1: Only utilise data on a sport you know nothing about when creating visualisations.
Two-week experiment no.2: Produce a new visualisation every two days.
Two-week experiement no.3: Work on a detailed visualisation that utilises a new skill and produce a story at the end of the two weeks.
You get the idea?
A current example of mine is the following.
Six month project: Lose weight.
Two-week experiment no.1: Have a vegan meal a day
It’s been going very well actually. They’re fun and a helpful break from the bad and good habits that I’ve maintained for a while.
Try the following:
Write down a goal you’ve wanted to achieve.
Think: six months has passed – what do I want it to look like? That is your new project.
Experiment: what’s an interesting way to make progress on your project? What haven’t you tried before? What has been unsuccessful in the past and how might you make a change to it?
Now, be reasonable. I don’t recommend you try fasting for two weeks or skydiving without a parachute to aid weightloss.
It’s that little voice in your head which tells you “I want this and that and everything in between!” or “I don’t want this because it’s horrible!”
It isn’t a kind voice but one of consistent temptation. It’s a quiet and smooth voice which can infiltrate your thoughts without a problem. And when we’re bombarded with advertising and deals designed to make you panic, the voice comes out in full force, puts on its lawyer suit and starts justifying everything it possibly can.
Unfortunately, the Want Monster is also dumb because wanting is all it can do. It doesn’t disappear once we have what we apparently desire. Rather, it presses the snooze button and waits for another opportunity to wake up again.
It’s an unquenchable thirst.
Tanha – the Buddhist idea of the self-focused desire to want more and more. We justify it by thinking that we will have a peace of mind after it appears.
But nah. That doesn’t happen.
I Want What You Have
I was eating lunch with my sister when I was about 7. We were having chicken wings with rice and stew. I finished mine, she hadn’t finished hers. And I sat down and ate the rest of my food in peace.
Ok, of course not. I stared at her plate of food until my gran gave me her wings and replaced my sister’s food with a boney piece of meat.
She held a grudge for years. Hell, I’d be mad too because those wings were magnificent.
This somewhat comical example of just wanting what other people have. Kids do it all the time. Adults do it too but with things more ambitious than chicken wings and toys.
Here is the science.
Lebreton et al in Your Goal Is Mine: Unraveling Mimetic Desires in the Human Brain, explores this in a lot of detail but I want to get to the important part for our purposes.
First, it’s really easy to start mimicking the desires of other people. The authors simply showed the participants pictures of sweets that looked slightly different and had an unseen person pick one. Uniformly, the participants preferred the sweet picked by the unseen person.
Second and most importantly, we don’t want something because someone else has it, we value something because someone else values it. This means that we believe the reward given by the item is greater because other people have it and we value highly valued things (sorry for the mouthful).
What does this mean for us?
The Want Monster will always have something to feast on and desire!
How can we want less?
I’ll say that there’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting things. Rather, it’s a source of suffering because our desires are ever changing and we can never seem to satisfy them.
Even if we get what we want.
So clearly, giving into our desires every time they pop up, isn’t a healthy way to address them.
What are your values?
When we notice the Want Monster knocking on our door, we may want to ask if what it is offering matches the values we want to live by and the long-term goals we have for ourselves.
We don’t always need to tell the Want Monster to click its heels three times and disappear. Addressing it with some calm can resolve the conflict the quickest.
If you haven’t thought through your values and long-term desires, you may want to take a few minutes from your day to think about it. Here is the example I wrote at 21.
The “If/Only” test
Another helpful pointer from Toni Bernhard (bloody love every word she puts on paper).
It helps us find out – do we think we’ll be completely satisfied if we got this one thing?
If only I had my sisters chicken wings, I’d be satisfied.
If only I wasn’t ill, I’d be completely happy.
If only I had new shoes, I’d feel better with my shoe collection.
If only I had this new job, I’d feel useful again.
Looking over these things, it seems odd to think that one new thing can put an end to the desires that we have. That isn’t to say they can’t help but I suggest we try moving away from believing that satisfying the Want Monster is the way to get it to leave.
After I had my sister’s chicken wings, I went back to the kitchen to look for more. There weren’t anymore.
Our happiness quickly gives way to new wants and don’t wants.
Focus on the desire rather than the object of the desire
The above test helps gently shift our attention towards mindfully thinking about the fact that we’re desiring something rather than what we are desiring.
It is helpful to realise that satisfying particular desires doesn’t lead to sustained happiness because more appear in its place.
When we notice this desire, we can simply let it be. With time, it’ll pass. That’s why it’s said, “if you want something, wait a week and see if you forget about it”. (OK, it’s probably more elegant than that but I’m an amateur.)
Desires aren’t all bad.
To end, I want to clarify something that could be easily mistaken. Don’t take this as me saying all desires are bad.
I’ve used the term Want Monster because unchecked desires can often lead us down a dangerous path.
We begin to follow our desires blindly rather than let our desires be guided by our values. If we want junk food but we also have a greater aim to feed your body good foods, it is the Want Monster guiding us to make decisions, for example.
Generally, the Want Monster is much more focused on the short term rather than the long term.
Mindfully addressing our desires and remembering the unquenchable thirst will allow us to live closer to our personal values and get things that mean the most to us.
If I could go back in time, I would give my sister’s chicken wings back and enjoy my rice and stew in peace.
As always, thank you for reading!
No question for today. All I ask is that you share your thoughts on this topic!
Engaging life challenges us to be fully present and actively involved in our moment-to-moment experience, without clinging to joy and without resisting sorrow.
~ Toni Bernhard
The act of greeting whatever confronts us with an even temper and steady reaction.
Cultivating this state is how we stay calm regardless of whatever confronts us rather than adding on top of our suffering with the emotions that come from clinging to joy and resisting sorrow.
When we face particularly difficult emotions or situations, without any training, it can be very easy to pile suffering on top of our experiences without realising it.
Toni Bernhard says:
Grasping at what is pleasant sets us up for impermanence dukkha because change is inevitable.
Resisting what is unpleasant serves only to add stress to what is already a difficult situation.
When I was first told by my doctor that there wasn’t much to do about my pain, I came home and was so angry I kicked a hole in my door.
During a summer, I had a few days when I didn’t experience any pain and it was so strange but I became extremely happy thinking that my pain had solved itself.
In both of these situations, I didn’t treat them with an evenness of temper. Rather, I allowed myself to become overly consumed with them which led to suffering later down the road.
Calm in the pleasant
Please don’t mistake what I’m saying to mean “evenness of temper means to kill hope”. It does not. As Martin Luther King Jr says:
We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.
Rather, it means that we allow ourselves to fully experience the good times but not to expect it to last forever. When we remember that pleasant moments don’t last forever and they’re simply one of the ten thousand joys we’ll experience, it gives us the opportunity to savour the present more!
If anything, it’s simply a reminder of the truth. However, it’s not a depressing one when we come to understand that when one joy ends, it means another will come again! If I worry that the happiness is leaving, then I’m only adding to the extra sadness that I’m going to experience. It’s a funny little paradox.
“I’ll enjoy this experience while it lasts, knowing that, like all phenomena, it will pass and another experience will take its place”
Calm in the unpleasant
Now, this is more difficult.
Tough emotions tend to bring out sadness, fear or anger. All of these emotions have the uncanny ability to pull us into the darkness they create and keep us there. While we remember that these emotions will change and leave, it still seems hard to keep ourselves out of its gravitational pull.
However, in order to explore your emotions, you will first need to have some kind of calm and the ability to look inwards.
The main thing to realize is that the emotion won’t going to last forever. It never does.
How to stay Calm during pleasant and unpleasant experiences
Sit down with some alertness. If it’s more comfortable, lie down.
Asking yourself “what emotions am I experiencing right now?”
Then describe it neutrally. If you’re angry, try saying “Anger is present”. If you’re sad, try saying “sadness is being experienced”. If you’re happy, try “Happiness is in the air”.
Whatever it is, your aim while meditating isn’t to solve anything.
While we meditate, we want to acknowledge how we’re feeling and simply experience it. If you find your mind running away again (because that’s what minds do), calmly bring yourself back to the moment and see what happens.
If we go in with no expectations, then it’s going to make the entire process smoother. If we go in with expectations that we’re going to screw up or that we’re going to come out an enlightened person, we’ll only be disappointed.
This releases us from the burden of trying to keep sadness from ever infiltrating our lives and from straining our best to keep happiness from leaving. They both leave. They’ll both return at some point.
2. Utilise Positive Self-talk
Meditation is like practising before kick-off. What about when we become angry or sad, what do we do then?
Describe emotions neutrally.
Like mentioned above: Take yourself out of the equation and just describe the emotion. This removes the force that personal attachment has when thinking about how we feel.
“I am sad” -> “sadness is happening”
“I am in pain” -> “pain is present”
“I’m really happy” -> “happiness is in the air”
2. Acknowledge ups and downs come and go.
A common theme recently – emotions come and go. To remind us of this, we can say the following:
“May we accept with grace both our successes and disappointments”
“This is only one of the ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows”
“We can experience things without needing to fix them”
“Let’s not get lost in this moment but engage with it meaningfully”
Talking in terms of “we” rather than “I” helps reinforce the idea that I can talk to myself as though I am my friend. It’s worthwhile.
Equanimity is a small practice on the face of it but also remarkably difficult. It’s not something I have down completely but I can thank myself for the small times when I do manage to get it done because it helps me enjoy happier moments and not add suffering to the times I’m in a lot of pain or remarkably tired.
Some days it’ll go well, some days it’ll suck. Other days we’ll forget about it completely. We don’t hate ourselves for these fluctuations in progress. We treat these realizations with calm then move on. With time and practice, it becomes easier.
We’ll appreciate more that we’re simply a working draft with flaws, mistakes, sorrows, and joys.
2. Start with those we do not have a complicated relationship with
Oddly enough, it’s those closest to us which may cause us the most sadness. The self-comparison is often that bit more intense.
But when we start with people our relationship isn’t too complicated with, we reduce the chances of feeling envious or frustrated because we see less of their lives (and have less to compare ourselves too).
So this can be a distant friend or an acquaintance. We take ourselves out of the equation and simply experience the happiness that comes from someone else’s joy.
When we start practising appreciative joy towards people who are closer to us, that feeling becomes more intense and valuable. We’re likely to understand just how much someone wanted that job or how hard they worked to achieve the results they did.
The extra context, instead of inspiring envy, intensifies the joy.
3. Keep your ego in check
Ego is the Enemysays Ryan Holiday and in many respects, I agree. Especially when it comes to being happy for other people.
When the feelings of jealousy and frustration arise due to someone else’s happiness, much of it can be attributed to our ego being starved for attention and jealousy is its way of taking it back.
It doesn’t care whether it brings sadness or happiness, all it wants is attention.
It’s incredibly difficult to be genuinely happy for another person and at the same time be completely self-absorbed.
So when you notice those feelings arise you can ask yourself: am I simply craving attention? The answer is likely “yes”. If it is, you can gently return you attention to the other person’s happiness.
4. Enjoy being happy
It may be tempting to think something along the lines of “I don’t deserve to be happy because someone else is happy!”
That’s just the comparison monster creeping in again. And it’s speaking complete tosh.
When do you deserve to be happy, then? When you’ve crushed everyone around you with your unwavering financial success? When everyone in the world is happy for you and you’re too cool to smile and say thanks?
Forget about whether you deserve to be happy by rejoicing in someone else’s joy.
What you’re doing is a lovely act of compassion. You’re allowing yourself to calm the feelings of envy and you’re directing even more happiness and pride in someone else’s path.
How wonderful is that?
And that is appreciative joy. A remarkably simple practice but one which brings plenty of happiness to everyone who experiences it.
We’ll experience different emotions all the time. And that’s perfectly fine.
2. Greet your sadness as a friend
I first came across this idea from Toni Bernhard who recommends that we see our emotions as friends that have come to stay – usually uninvited.
Even though we may be annoyed by this in real life, we can still treat them with kindness and in turn we treat ourselves with kindness.
The idea behind this is simple: if we treat our emotions as friends, we treat ourselves with compassion. Sadness feeds off sadness. With compassion, sadness gets bored and leaves. Maybe next time he won’t stay as long!
3. Don’t order yourself around
“I shouldn’t feel sad!”
“I shouldn’t feel angry, it was a meaningless interaction!”
“I shouldn’t feel this or that – I should only feel that!”
Now imagine saying this to a child about happiness … or anything else.
Why should we feel any kind of way? We can literally just experience emotions without trying to invalidate them.
Plus if we order ourselves to stop feeling a particular way, it’s just a first class ticket to feeling sad again!
Try removing the word “should” from your sentences when talking about how you feel. Accept them and with time, it’ll leave.
(That’s why stuff like “just be happy!” is pretty meaningless or worse yet, detrimental to actually feeling happy. Who wants to be under pressure to smile!)
4. Let yourself be vulnerable
Often, a reason why we struggle to accept different emotions is because we’re trying to present ourself in a particular light. Whether that’s to our friends or family. Or towards ourselves.
But with some privacy, we can experience whatever we want.
Dismiss the “I must be strong” mindset because sadness, crying, frustration aren’t signs of weakness!
If you fall, we’ll catch you :)
And with this, we can find some peace in sadness. We don’t exhaust ourselves running away because that just means it’ll keep chasing us. Rather, we accept it’s a normal experience and most importantly:
Sadness, like all moods and emotions, are impermanent.
As always, thank you for reading!
My question for you is:
How do you handle sadness? Do you think it’s healthy?
If there’s anything close to a bible in the self-improvement sphere, I’m sure there will be two verses which seem completely contradictory.
1. Accept yourself.
2. Never stop trying to improve.
Acceptance doesn’t seem to mesh well with the desire to improve.
Acceptance gives us the impression that we can be happy with how we are now.
Improvement implies there is something wrong with us and it needs to be bettered. If we accept ourselves and our flaws, then we reduce the motivation to become a better person at the same time.
A large reason why “acceptance” of personal flaws and so on may be taught is because it reduces the amount of needless self-criticism we throw at ourselves. Many efforts to improve ourselves come from a dissatisfaction with how we view ourselves. I’ve tried to show that it’s helpful to practice self-compassion and forgiveness.
But, if we accept ourselves, how do we stop ourselves from becoming complacent?
Are acceptance and complacency the same?
I view it as scale. If you have Dissatisfaction on one end and Complacency on the other, Acceptance is around the middle:
Scott Miker makes the subtle difference clear (he uses content instead of acceptance):
Being content means being happy. Being complacent means refusing to work to improve.
There’s more to this than meets the eye – I believe you can accept your situation without being happy but that’s for another blog post.
However, it is helpful enough for now. With the definition above, complacency implies reaching a comfort zone and taking it for granted. We may even see something that we dislike about ourselves or the external situation, but because we are just comfortable enough, we refuse to do anything about it.
We can liken it to choosing to stay in bed all the time, while disliking the idea that we aren’t being productive.
Acceptance on the other hand is an active emotion. It involves gratitude and honesty. And, quite frankly, it can be incredibly difficult to accept things. It’s normal to resist things that don’t go 100% our way even if all it causes is more mental anguish.
Acceptance is tough because it forces me to see the limits of my days and the limits of my abilities (at the moment).
We don’t always realise it but failure to accept things is often a problem with the ego. “I don’t want to accept that I am finding this more difficult than expected.” Really, there isn’t anything wrong with that and it might help us to address these problems if we accept they exist first.
Returning to the main topic:
Improvement is just what you do.
To understand what it is like to mesh acceptance with self-improvement, imagine yourself as a plant.
Plants just grow. They look at the sun, ask “hey can I have some food”, then stretch as much as they can to get it. The sun says “yeah sure, just give my human friends some oxygen” and bam, the plant grows.
If the sun is taking a day off, the plant chills for a bit. It’s just fine being a plant.
I may be off with a few details. I haven’t taken biology since 2011.
The point is, you can accept yourself at each stage of your development while continuing to grow and better yourself. It’s just what you do.
Self-improvement (and I’d hope, improving the world comes along with it), does not need to stem from negativity or hatred centred around a particular aspect of your life. It often starts that way, but it doesn’t need to continue that way.
Like a plant, you can just enjoy being a plant.
Like a plant, you can also just keep on growing.
I’m going to leaf the plant analogy alone now…
How can I accept myself without becoming complacent?
Now we can appreciate what it means to practice self-acceptance without becoming complacent and never choosing to improve.
What does this look like in practice?
1. Leave the ego at the door
Your ego will tell you, in all sorts of ways, that you’re perfect and shouldn’t find things difficult.
It doesn’t necessarily manifest itself in some kind of narcissism. You can prevent yourself from improving because you refuse to see yourself make mistakes. It’s safer to never try if you never want to make a mistake.
The end goal doesn’t always define you. Sometimes, they’re out of your control. What you can control to the best of your ability is the process you use to reach your goals.
If I’m trying to lose weight, I can set a goal but place all of my attention on ensuring I have a good diet and workout regime.
If I’m trying to become a better writer, I can set a goal of some kind but I can make sure I sit down and write every single day. When I write every day, I can make sure I keep on challenging myself.
3. Take time to be grateful
Intertwined with acceptance comes gratitude.
You can find something, however small, to be thankful for. So despite our challenges and moments of difficulty, we can still find people, events or things we value deeply.
It helps us stop becoming overly disappointed with every tough time we experience and blame everything either on ourselves or something external to us. When we do this, we yearn for our comfort zone because it’s the easiest place to be. It shields us from potential failure and criticism.
Yet, when we take the time to be thankful for something, we open ourselves up for the opportunity to acknowledge something we want to improve and accept ourselves for who we are.
A person who keeps growing.
Acceptance to me is seeing the limits you have at the moment and using them to your advantage.
Complacency is giving up in face of them.
As always, thank you for reading!
My question for you is:
What progress have you made towards accepting your flaws?
“If you notice any uncomfortable feelings while you’re trying to meditate, just invite them in”
Now why on earth would I want to do that?! That’s stupid.
“Inviting discomfort is one way to learn how to stop fighting against them and accept them”
Well I don’t want to accept this – that makes me feel like I’m giving up. Plus, it’s just shitty.
That was my thought process while listening to a guided meditation during a group session. Thankfully all of these thoughts stayed in my head – otherwise I would have disturbed a lot of people… and insulted the teacher.
The little dialogue above demonstrated the personal resistance I had towards living in the present when the present becomes difficult. It’s normal to mentally check out of difficulty when we come across it because it’s normal to want to do the easier thing.
However, it isn’t always better for us. It can quickly lead to more stressful thinking patterns that make us feel worse. If I feel sad, it might be easier to start thinking about why I feel sad and what could have caused it and dig our way down that rabbit hole. Or I may try to distract myself and never address the thinking that consistently causes me to feel bad about something.
You may become angry because you feel that you should be able to control something but with a bit more thinking, you’d find that most of it was out of your control.
And it goes on. How do we manage this?
How to stay mindful when the present isn’t pleasant
Acknowledge it’ll feel uncomfortable
You can say this aloud if you want. Negative emotional or physical feelings suck but we often begin our resistance here by refusing to admit that sometimes you’ll just feel uncomfortable.
It’s not always fair nor does it always have a grand lesson at the end. Acknowledging the discomfort is the first step to prevent our mind from running away from the uncomfortable.
This does not mean you’re giving in. It’s like observing a fact that’s simply happening.
“I’m in pain, yes but this does not mean I want to be in pain”
2. Remove yourself from the story and remove judgement – make everything neutral
Toni Bernhard in, How to Live with Chronic Illness, teaches a skill that I’ve found simple but useful.
Stop judging the moment and just describe it.
If you’re in pain try saying “pain is happening” rather than “I am in so much pain”.
If you’re sad, try “Sadness is present” rather than “I am in the darkness again”.
If you’ve experienced disappointment, try “Disappointment is present” rather than “I was really let down by my friend”.
I’ve found this takes away some of the bite from the negative emotions that arise and reduce the suffering that we can easily add-on top of ourselves. It gives us the opportunity to watch the emotion rather than feed it with more negativity.
This isn’t lying to yourself.
3. Ask yourself these four questions (and another one at the end):
To help halt stressful thoughts, it may be worthwhile to asking yourself these questions offered by Byron Katie:
Is the thought true?
Am I absolutely sure it is true?
How do I feel when I think the thought?
Who would I be without the thought?
Then turn it around – what if something else is the case?
This helps us respond skillfully to stressful thoughts that make the pleasant moment uncomfortable. Let’s go through this together with an example:
My thought here is that I am incapable of creating good work so I should never try.
Is the thought true?
Yes, I’m writing this right now and it’s terrible – so many mistakes!
2. Am I absolutely sure it is true?
Perhaps not – I have a bad habit of being a harsh critic who refuses to see the good.
3. How do I feel when I think the thought?
I feel disappointed and angry. I’m trying my best to create high quality work but my efforts don’t pay off. I become angry because I seem to be wasting my time.
4. Who would I be without the thought?
A person who creates without expectation. A person who tries their best because they believe that is the most useful way to stick to their own values.
5. The turnaround – how can the story be changed?
Here, we change the story slightly just to see what other possibilities are out there. Then think of reasons why it might be true.
Now, what if I’m a person who creates helpful work and has the ability to get better if he keeps trying?
My blog posts have improved from a few years ago and I’m more comfortable in my own voice.
If I never try, I’ll never have the opportunity to improve.
My academic writing is better than it was when I started.
Will you always believe this turnaround? No. Sometimes you’ll need someone else to tell you these things. But it’s a start – and a reminder that the negative thought you have now isn’t the only possibility in the world.
4. Remember, it takes practice.
I’ve written these pointers in the hopes that you’ll be able to live in the present even when it’s difficult. With time will come acceptance and a clearer mindset to make useful change happen.
Yet, it doesn’t all come instantly. I try to remind myself of points like this regularly because negative thinking, when times get tough, is a difficult habit to break out of.
We all have positive and negative thinking habits. This does not mean our ways of thinking are permanently broken.