Turning a page on a year includes multiple lists looking back at the best of. One interesting list I saw was the 4 Greatest Psychological Discoveries of 2014. While this is one person’s list, I was most fascinated by the commonality of all 4 topics. They all speak to the need to be more conscious of who we are and what we are doing at any given moment. As people continue to focus on resolutions for change, perhaps there is something to how we cultivate the focus needed to strive to fulfill our goals.
Every day of every year, scientists toil away in their efforts to understand the workings of the human mind. What makes us happy? How do our emotions work? What should we be doing differently in our lives to make ourselves healthier, happier and stronger?
Each year, a few studies stand out as particularly helpful by outlining a clear path to accomplish a better and healthier life; studies that everyone should know about. Here are four such studies from the year 2014. I hope they will help you to shape your coming year.
We look for happiness in all the wrong places: We typically think of major life events, raises, large purchases, and success as the main sources of happiness in our lives.
But a Harvard University study by Zhang, et al., 2014 shows that we are overlooking a powerful and readily available font of happiness: the small things that happen from day to day. In this study, students were asked to place 5 mundane items that represented their daily lives in a time capsule, and to predict how much happiness it would bring them to see these items 3 months later. The students drastically under-predicted the joy they actually felt when the time capsules were opened.
The Implication: Pay more attention to the small things that happen in your daily life. Small sources of joy are powerful.
The mind/body connection: 2014 was the Year for Mindfulness. The concept of mindfulness has gradually morphed from simply “being in the moment” to a more complex definition: “being aware of your own thoughts and feelings in the moment.” This new way of viewing mindfulness has opened doors to new areas of research.
In 2014, study after study has shown that mindful people are better off in a variety of different ways. In fact, higher emotional self-awareness has been found to improve your overall health. A Brown University Study by Loucks, et al., 2014 showed that people who are more aware of what they are thinking and feeling in the moment have lower BMI (body mass index), lower fasting glucose, less smoking and higher levels of physical activity.
The Implication: We should all work on being more aware of what we are thinking and feeling in the moment, and why.
There is a simple way to fight your own negativity and anxiety: Negative, obsessive thinking is a common part of many emotional and psychological problems. A new study byNota & Coles, 2014 offers an option to try if you would like to reduce your own negative thinking patterns. These researchers found a clear connection between going to bed late at night, inadequate sleep, and excessive negative thinking/worrying. More studies are planned, but in the meantime, it makes sense to try this relatively easy fix.
The Implication: Try going to bed earlier and work toward getting 8 hours of sleep per night, and see if it helps reduce your negative, anxiety-driven thinking patterns.
People who treat themselves with compassion feel better about themselves and their bodies: A 2014 study byKelly et al., 2014 found that women who treat themselves with more kindness and compassion are better able to cope with disappointments and setbacks in life. They were also less reactive to other people’s judgments or criticisms of their body shape and size.
The Implication: If you are kind to yourself in the face of your own mistakes and flaws, you will be a stronger and more resilient person overall.
In a nutshell, here are my wishes for you in 2015:
That you will take joy from the small things in your daily life
That you will be aware of what you are feeling in the moment
That you will take care of yourself by getting enough sleep
That you will treat yourself with the same kindness and compassion that you offer others
Jonice Webb has a PhD in clinical psychology, and is author of the book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. Webb has been licensed to practice since 1991. She has been interviewed on NPR and over thirty radio shows across the United States and Canada about the topic of her book, and has been quoted as a psychologist expert in the Chicago Tribune. Prior to joining PsychCentral, she was the Mental Health Editor for BellaOnline, the second largest women’s website in the world. She currently has a private psychotherapy practice in Lexington, MA, where she specializes in the treatment of couples and families. Webb currently resides in the Boston area with her husband and two children. To read more about Dr. Webb, her book and Childhood Emotional Neglect, you can visit her website, Emotionalneglect.com; or view her short videos on YouTube.
I wanted to share the following words from Rabbi Marc Angel pertaining to this week’s Torah portion. I found his thoughts powerful and meaningful and wanted to share them. I find we need strong, caring relationships to help navigate us through the loss of other relationships in our lives.
“And Isaac brought her [Rebecca] into his mother Sarah’s tent, and took Rebeccah, and she became his wife; and he loved her. And Isaac was comforted for his mother (Bereishith 24:67).”
The great medieval Bible commentator, Rabbi David Kimhi (known popularly as Radak), noted: “Although three years had passed between Sarah’s death and Isaac’s marriage to Rebeccah, yet he was mourning her [Sarah], and was comforted in that [Rebeccah] was good as his mother was.”
It appears, then, that Isaac mourned his mother inconsolably for three years. But once Rebeccah entered his life, “he was comforted for his mother.” Rebeccah had those qualities and virtues which characterized Sarah, and Isaac finally found consolation from the loss of his mother.
What is consolation?
Let us first state what consolation does not accomplish: it does not bring back the dead. It does not change reality. The beloved person has died and cannot be replaced.
Consolation does not deny reality. Rather, it attempts to cope with death by providing hope for the future. Death is a fact of human existence. It is distressing to lose a loved one. It is possible to sink into a deep depression when grieving. Consolation attempts to redirect mourning into a positive, future-oriented direction. Yes, a loved one has died; yes, the pain is real. No, the deceased loved one cannot be brought back to life.
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, in a lecture in memory of his father, stated: “…It seems to me as if my father were yet alive, although four years have come and gone since his death. It is in a qualitative sense that I experience his nearness and spirit tonight…Our sages have said…the righteous are exalted in death more than in life. If time be measured qualitatively, we may understand how their influence lingers on after their death and why the past is eternally bound with the present.”
With the passage of time, the mourner comes to experience the presence of the deceased loved one with a “qualitative time-awareness.” The focus is shifted from daily interactions that used to take place with the deceased. Instead, the mourner gains a deeper sense of the qualities and virtues of the deceased. With the passage of time, the mourning mellows into a calmer, wiser appreciation of the life of the one who has passed on. The bitter pain of mourning is softened. Consolation sets in.
Apparently, Isaac was so distraught at the passing of his mother that he had trouble developing this “qualitative time-awareness.” Her death traumatized him, and he could not shake off his feelings of grief.
Let us remember the nature of the relationship between Sarah and her son, Isaac. She gave birth to him when she was already quite elderly. To her, Isaac was a miraculous gift from God. She must surely have doted over him and enjoyed every moment with him. When she perceived that Ishmael was taking advantage of Isaac, she compelled Abraham to expel Hagar and Ishmael from the household. Only Isaac was to be Abraham’s true heir and successor.
Sarah loved Isaac with a total love. Indeed, Isaac could not fail to realize that the only person in the world he could fully trust was his mother Sarah. Hagar and Ishmael were certainly not to be relied upon. After the Akeidah, Isaac must surely have had misgivings about trusting his father Abraham, who had raised a knife to his throat.
When Sarah died, Isaac felt very alone in the universe. There was no one who loved him with an unqualified love. There was no one who understood him fully. There was no one to whom he could turn for genuine consolation. So he mourned for three years. He felt lost and abandoned.
But even more painful than being unloved by anyone, Isaac had no one whom he himself loved with a full love. A loveless life is a tragic life, a life of perpetual mourning.
And then Rebeccah enters the scene. “And Rebeccah lifted up her eyes, and when she saw Isaac she alighted from the camel…and she took her veil and covered herself (24:65).” Abraham’s servant explained to Isaac that Rebeccah had been chosen to become Isaac’s wife.
Instead of hesitating nervously, Isaac suddenly came to life. He was immediately impressed with Rebeccah’s modest and respectful behavior. This was a dramatic instance of love at first sight. Lonely Isaac now had love in his life again. Lonely Rebeccah—and she must have been lonely coming to a new land to start a new life among people she did not know—saw in Isaac a meditative, sensitive man—a man worthy of her love.
Isaac was consoled on the loss of his mother. He saw in Rebeccah those special qualities that had characterized Sarah. More than that, he found in Rebeccah the love which had been absent from his life since Sarah’s death. He was now able to deal with Sarah’s death because he now had a future with Rebeccah. He could redirect his thoughts to moving his life forward instead of grieving for an irretrievable past.
I have often told mourners: You never get over the death of a loved one; but you learn to get through it. The deceased loved ones remain with us “qualitatively” as long as we live. We treasure our memories of their lives, and we carry those memories with us as we forge our ways into the future. We find consolation not by forgetting them, but by bringing them along with us every day of our lives.
We find consolation through the power of love, the blessing of loving and being loved.
For many of us, the days are stressful and full of moments of cynicism and skepticism. I find this to be especially true when seeing all that is going on in the world and feeling a loss of control. As such, being positive and trying to avoid the doldrums can be too much to work towards. I found this short piece that lists out 6 strategies for positive thinking. I particularly like the notion that for many, it can be as simple as reframing our thoughts. If the day has you down, perhaps some of the following can be helpful in bringing it back up.
“Your attitude, not your aptitude, will determine your altitude.” – Zig Ziglar
You may have heard the saying that “attitude is everything.”
Whether you want to go that far or not, attitude is pretty damn important.
I really doubt you’ll find a happy and successful person out there with a poor attitude.
This is because attitude is directly related to whether or not you will live a happy, meaningful, and energized life.
Think about it, would you rather be the complainer who is down on their luck always focusing on the negative, or the person always finding new opportunities and looking at the bright side?
A positive attitude can completely change our life!
When we have a positive attitude we can deal with problems more effectively and will end up bouncing back more quickly from mistake and setbacks.
So, learning how to manage your attitude is crucial if you want to improve your life.
I know it isn’t easy to manage our attitude, and frankly it takes hard work.
So, here are six strategies to help you develop more control over your attitude.
1. Your attitude is up to you
First thing first: You are responsible for your attitude. Your attitude is an an inside-out job. It doesn’t come from your circumstance but instead from how you interpret your circumstances. You are in charge of how you respond to what happens to you. Start taking full responsibility for your attitude today.
2. Your thoughts are your reality
Many people don’t realize that how they think about something is ultimately how they will feel about it. In the words of supercoachMicheal Neill, “we don’t feel our environment, we feel our thinking.”If you want to control your attitude you must be aware of how you are thinking about your situation. If you focus on the negative things are going to suck! Keep things in perspective and stop only focusing on the negative!
3. Gratitude is the key
I know there are things to worry about and sometimes we really need to deal with problems. But if we aren’t careful our problems can become consuming and we forget about the good stuff. We all have things to be grateful for even when problems occur. We can still find ways to enjoy life even if things aren’t going our way. Focus on what you are grateful for. Literally make a list of five things you’re grateful for right now!
4. Avoid negative news
If you want to stay positive be aware of your surroundings. Avoid negative news and stay away from people who bring you down. Be conscious about spending time with encouraging people and taking in positive information from books, podcast, or blogs. Put yourself on a negativity diet. Just like you would be aware of what you feed your body, pay attention to what you feed your mind.
5. Look for the lesson
There is always something we can pull away from a bad situation. It may not be clear at the time, but there is always a lesson to be learned. What can you learn from a difficult situation? How can you use the situation to help you become a better person? Remember that life is a journey and we are always growing and learning.
6. Keep your eye on the prize
Keep the big picture in mind. Learn to focus on the long-term results you want instead of short-term emotions. Every day you have a choice to make positive decisions. Don’t let yesterday’s mistakes get in the way of what you want. Keep your vision in mind and focus on how you will feel when you reach your goals.
“Adopting the right attitude can convert a negative stress into a positive one.” – Hans Selye
Joe is a life-transition coach and a Licensed Master Level Psychologist (LMLP) in the state of Kansas. He is the creator and editor of the personal development blog Shake off the Grind which provides digital content, coaching, and products to help people with personal growth, emotional wellness, and spiritual development. He is also an advisory board member for the American Institute of Health Care Professionals (AIHCP) and is a certified meditation instructor.
As the author below indicates, we often look for instantaneous results when we try and change. While the reality is that true change is long and arduous, with many setbacks, perhaps we can start with some of the advice offered below.
Traditional psychoanalysis has the patient coming to treatment three to four times a week, lying on a couch and free-associating to whatever comes to mind.
The theory behind this treatment is that free-association increases awareness of what is in the unconscious mind. Once you make the unconscious conscious, patients should, theoretically, become less neurotic.
That type of treatment seemed to work well for the idle rich in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
But does it work well in the digital era?
No way. We want our problems solved quickly. We want solutions to be provided speedily. We savor the power of parsimony. The fewer the words, the more we value them. Short, sweet and to the point is preferable.
Is it possible to take the wisdom of Freud and apply it to the Twitter generation? I’m going to give it a shot. Here goes:
Quit comparing yourself to the best. You don’t have to be the best to make a valuable, worthwhile contribution to the world.
Don’t belittle yourself. Quit calling yourself derogatory names. Laugh good-naturedly at your mistakes, but don’t denigrate who you are and what you’re about.
Avoid sitting on the sidelines, bemoaning your circumstances without taking any action to improve your lot in life.
Even the best ideas are worthless unless you use your energy to execute them.
When you’re overstressed and overworked, take a break. Rest. Relax. Enjoy. Be with optimistic people. Then, get back to work.
Tolerate disappointment. There are days in which nothing works out well. This is a “bad day.” Don’t make it into a life position.
Allow your interests to emerge in their own way. Don’t attempt to make them fit into the box you (or others) think they should fit into.
Because a decision didn’t work out as expected doesn’t necessarily make it a bad decision. Reflect on what went wrong, however, before you move on to your next decision.
Acknowledge what you experienced in your early years. But put your energy toward living in the present where making good decisions can truly enhance your life.
Keep doing what you enjoy doing even if there’s no immediate reward to it.
When you believe in yourself, it’s amazing what you can accomplish.
Success is not an overnight happening. It’s the result of a consistent, driving energy that keeps you engaged, focused and moving forward.
Well, there it is. A dozen pieces of advice — short and succinct. Freud would appreciate, maybe even envy them.
Will just reading this advice allow you to make dramatic changes in your life? I doubt it. Freud was right. It takes time to change ingrained ideas and tenacious habits. But does it take as much time as Freud believed? Absolutely not!
Our sense of time is dramatically different than it was for people who lived 100 years ago. A few months of therapy once a week or even bi-monthly can help people truly change the direction of their lives by clarifying their thoughts, modifying their emotions and expanding their options.
And long-term therapy (still only once a week) is an amazing experience that can transform a life — from one that’s plagued with stress, tension and negativity to one that’s enriched, energized and full of enthusiasm.
Dr. Sapadin is a psychologist and success coach who specializes in helping people overcome self-defeating patterns of behavior, particularly debilitating fear and chronic procrastination. She is the author of 6 self-help books that have been published in 6 countries. Dr. Sapadin has been honored with “Fellow” status by the American Psychological Association, an indication that her work has an international impact on the field of psychology. Visit her website at www.psychwisdom.com. Contact her at LSapadin[at]DrSapadin.com. To learn more about her books on overcoming procrastination, visit http://www.BeatProcrastinationCoach.com.
This blog avoids political conversation for a variety of reasons. And so while the piece I am sharing below is tied into the current events in the Middle East, my purpose for sharing it here is not to get into a discussion about Israel or the goings on at the moment. Rather, the article below is a well thought out piece on how social media can be a platform that foments the violent rhetoric we desperately need to avoid with each other. As I often focus my posts on the uses of technology for spiritual growth and overall well-being, this reflection is an important contribution.
Conflicts exist, but hiding behind one’s computer to express words of hurt is only exacerbates the problems at hand. In the following article, Yehuda Kurtzer, President of The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, a Fellow of The Shalom Hartman Institute’s iEngage Project, and the author of Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past (Brandeis, 2012), presents a compelling idea about how to make the upcoming Jewish fast day of the 17th of Tammuz into a true day of introspection and change. I found it compelling as a spiritual practice for a fast day as well as an deep reflection on the dangers social media can present when mishandled.
As sad as the situation in Israel has been over the past month – the kidnapping and brutal murder of the three teenagers, the revenge lynching and subsequent rioting, the barrage of rockets from Gaza and the retaliatory bombing of Gaza – the climate that has emerged on social media has made the experience of living through all of these traumas substantially worse.
The political polarization that already exists in our community has been further entrenched by the cult of instant interpretation of the news in spite of the often-total absence of facts. The need to prevent a cognitive dissonance between our ideologies and the latest traumatic news has turned us against each other, resulting in vicious acts of demonization and de-legitimization against individuals who hold different views.
Statements that respond to the current anxiety by encouraging the use of force are reduced to accusations of fascism; statements encouraging moderation are mocked as naive self-hatred. And perhaps most perversely, many of those attempting to model something different on social media – prayer rallies, lofty interpretations, detached ethical proclamations – come across as preachy, paternalistic, and astonishingly self-aggrandizing. Encouraging people to pray may be the responsibility of a religious leader, but posting “selfies” of oneself praying is something quite different.
It is understandable why we look to these technologies for solace in moments like this. We have bought into the promises that these media permit us to bridge the gaps between us, hear competing viewpoints, and empathize with those far away that are suffering. Nobody mistakes Facebook friendships for actual friendships, but the technology assures us that a global conversation never before imagined is not only possible but also real. And needless to say, we should be grateful that these media allow us to check in with loved ones in these anxious times.
And yet, the failure of social media to improve public discourse in a moment of crisis should not be surprising. Though we pretend that social media encourage an open marketplace of ideas and provide a reasonable context for social discourse, in reality they are at best a pale substitute for real human contact – or worse, a masking or avoidance of it.
Our tradition encourages the values of productive disagreement and the responsibility to rebuke those we think are wrong, but those ideals and obligations stem from an understanding that all people are created in the image of God; more critically, they emerge from the assumption that we actually see one another when we attempt to engage in this thorny work. And democratic society needs healthy debate about political decision-making even, or especially, at the moments when the society is being tested.
But social media fail on both fronts. They provide an opportunity to rebuke without consequence, to impress our ideas on others without a real framework for meaningful response, and to present our lives, ethics, and choices as superior to others, without the mirror provided by others that should rightly make us self-conscious about how we present ourselves.
There is a long-standing critique of social media that many of us self-style our personal “brands” and images in ways that are far different (and look better) than the more complex realities of our lives; in crisis, and in moments of profound anxiety, this narcissism quickly transforms from being harmless to being destructive. Coupled with the built-in nature of the media – which reward speed and wit more than long-developed substance – the pitfalls of instant commentary and vitriolic response emerge easily, and the usefulness of the media for public discourse are undercut by their own limitations.
Perhaps the Jewish liturgical year offers us the opportunity for a moment of respite and reflection. Tuesday, July 15, is the fast day of 17 Tammuz, a unique day of mourning which commemorates not the destruction of the Temple itself but the breaching of the walls of the city that – in retrospect – signaled the inevitability of the cataclysm which ensued. It is therefore a day to mark the anticipation of destruction, to take stock of the behaviors and degradations that inevitably signal the breakdown of the social order. In our mythical-ethical narrative, which intertwines the collapse of Jewish sovereignty with the failures of social and communal behavior, this particular day of penitence and fasting is meant to be jarring: What looms on the horizon, and what awaits us in our failure to correct our wrongs?
So, I want to publicly propose an idea developed together with my colleague Rabbi Joanna Samuels: that as the deterioration of Jewish civil discourse is so visible in our social media, we use the day of 17 Tammuz for a widespread ta’anit dibur – a silent fast – in which we commit to keep quiet on these platforms, and strain ourselves to choose introspection over their corrosive capabilities.
As befitting a public fast, those who would pray, should pray – but should refrain from advertising their prayers. We should study, but we need not broadcast our ideas to others to convey how meritorious our own learning is. We should continue to follow the news – whether from the comfort of our living rooms or in the bleak fluorescence of our protected rooms – but we should mute the urge to interpret the news for others or judge the political opinions of those with whom we disagree.
One of the legacies of the prophets was their insistence that even when the people were actually being obedient to the tradition – such as offering up the right sacrifices at the right times – they were missing the point of the tradition itself, wrapping themselves in self-righteous cloaks of piety and self-pity, instead of fulfilling our mission of spreading justice and righteousness.
There could be no greater hypocrisy than a fast day in these dark times spent lamenting our fate in synagogue, while demonizing others on Twitter, or making claims of repentance via grandiose displays to others of the magnitude of our religiosity. On this upcoming fast day, there is so much on which we can quietly reflect: so much brokenness, sadness, and anxiety. In this moment, a little social silence – replacing those familiar buzzes with real human contact and conversation, real prayer and study, and restraint not just from food and drink but also from toxic (virtual) discourse – could do all of us some good.
Meditation is seen as a universally based method of spiritual growth. And while this is clearly the case for most people, even something seemingly as important and powerful has a dark side. The article below was an eye opener to me, not so much about the dark side but as a reminder that spiritual practice needs guidance. Practicing without safeguards can be a precursor to emotional and psychological danger. In Jewish tradition, we have an ancient idea from the book Ethics of Our Fathers that a good practice is to “make a rabbi for yourself.” I have always thought this was something beyond finding someone to direct you in what to do. It is also a warning to have someone to bounce one’s experiences off of who is potentially more experienced.
Set back on quiet College Hill in Providence, Rhode Island, sits a dignified, four story, 19th-century house that belongs to Dr. Willoughby Britton. Inside, it is warm, spacious, and organized. The shelves are stocked with organic foods. A solid wood dining room table seats up to 12. Plants are ubiquitous. Comfortable pillows are never far from reach. The basement—with its own bed, living space, and private bathroom—often hosts a rotating cast of yogis and meditation teachers. Britton’s own living space and office are on the second floor. The real sanctuary, however, is on the third floor, where people come from all over to rent rooms, work with Britton, and rest. But they’re not there to restore themselves with meditation—they’re recovering from it.
“I started having thoughts like, ‘Let me take over you,’ combined with confusion and tons of terror,” says David, a polite, articulate 27-year-old who arrived at Britton’s Cheetah House in 2013. “I had a vision of death with a scythe and a hood, and the thought ‘Kill yourself’ over and over again.”
Michael, 25, was a certified yoga teacher when he made his way to Cheetah House. He explains that during the course of his meditation practice his “body stopped digesting food. I had no idea what was happening.” For three years he believed he was “permanently ruined” by meditation.
“Recovery,” “permanently ruined”—these are not words one typically encounters when discussing a contemplative practice.
On a cold November night last fall, I drove to Cheetah House. A former student of Britton’s, I joined the group in time for a Shabbat dinner. We blessed the challah, then the wine; recited prayers in English and Hebrew; and began eating.
Britton, an assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior, works at the Brown University Medical School. She receives regular phone calls, emails, and letters from people around the world in various states of impairment. Most of them worry no one will believe—let alone understand—their stories of meditation-induced affliction. Her investigation of this phenomenon, called “The Dark Night Project,” is an effort to document, analyze, and publicize accounts of the adverse effects of contemplative practices.
The morning after our Shabbat dinner, in Britton’s kitchen, David outlines the history of his own contemplative path. His first retreat was “very non-normal,” he says, “and very good … divine. There was stuff dropping away … [and] electric shocks through my body. [My] core sense of self, a persistent consciousness, the thoughts and stuff, were not me.” He tells me it was the best thing that had ever happened to him, an “orgasm of the soul, felt throughout my internal world.”
David explains that he finally felt awake. But it didn’t last.
Still high off his retreat, he declined an offer to attend law school, aggravating his parents. His best friends didn’t understand him, or his “insane” stories of life on retreat.
“I had a fear of being thought of as crazy,” he says, “I felt extremely sensitive, vulnerable, and naked.”
Not knowing what to do with himself, David moved to Korea to teach English, got bored, dropped out of the program, and moved back in with his parents. Eventually, life lost its meaning. Colors began to fade. Spiritually dry, David didn’t care about anything anymore. Everything he had found pleasurable before the retreat—hanging out with friends, playing music, drinking—all of that “turned to dirt,” he says, “a plate of beautiful food turned to dirt.”
He traveled back and forth from Asia to home seeking guidance, but found only a deep, persistent dissatisfaction in himself. After “bumming around Thailand for a bit,” he moved to San Francisco, got a job, and sat through several more two- and 10-week meditation retreats. Then, in 2012, David sold his car to pay for a retreat at the Cloud Mountain Center that torments him still.
“Psychological hell,” is how he describes it. “It would come and go in waves. I’d be in the middle of practice and what would come to mind was everything I didn’t want to think about, every feeling I didn’t want to feel.” David felt “pebble-sized” spasms emerge from inside a “dense knot” in his belly.
He panicked. Increasingly vivid pornographic fantasies and repressed memories from his childhood began to surface.
“I just started freaking out,” he says, “and at some point, I just surrendered to the onslaught of unwanted sexual thoughts … a sexual Rolodex of every taboo.” As soon as he did, however, “there was some goodness to it.” After years of pushing away his emotional, instinctual drives, something inside David was “reattached,” he says.
Toward the end of his time at the Cloud Mountain Center, David shared his ongoing experiences with the retreat leaders, who assured him it was probably just his “ego’s defenses” acting up. “They were really comforting,” he says, “even though I thought I was going to become schizophrenic.”
According to a survey by the National Institutes of Health, 10 percent of respondents—representing more than 20 million adult Americans—tried meditating between 2006 and 2007, a 1.8 percent increase from a similar survey in 2002. At that rate, by 2017, there may be more than 27 million American adults with a recent meditation experience.
In late January this year, Time magazine featured acover story on “the mindful revolution,” an account of the extent to which mindfulness meditation has diffused into the largest sectors of modern society. Used by “Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, Fortune 500 titans, Pentagon chiefs, and more,” mindfulness meditation is promoted as a means to help Americans work mindfully, eat mindfully, parent mindfully, teach mindfully, take standardized tests mindfully, spend money mindfully, and go to war mindfully. What the cover story did not address are what might be called the revolution’s “dirty laundry.”
“We’re not being thorough or honest in our study of contemplative practice,” says Britton, a critique she extends to the entire field of researchers studying meditation, including herself.
I’m sitting on a pillow in Britton’s meditation room. She tells me that the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine’s website includes an interesting choice of words in its entry on meditation. Under “side effects and risks,” it reads:
Meditation is considered to be safe for healthy people. There have been rare reports that meditation could cause or worsen symptoms in people who have certain psychiatric problems, but this question has not been fully researched.
By modern scientific standards, the aforementioned research may not yet be comprehensive—a fact Britton wants to change—but according to Britton and her colleagues, descriptions of meditation’s adverse effects have been collecting dust on bookshelves for centuries.
The phrase “dark night of the soul,” can be traced back to a 16th-century Spanish poem by the Roman Catholic mystic San Juan de la Cruz, or Saint John of the Cross. It is most commonly used within certain Christian traditions to refer to an individual’s spiritual crisis in the course of their union with God.
The divine experiences reported by Saint John describe a method, or protocol, “followed by the soul in its journey upon the spiritual road to the attainment of the perfect union of love with God, to the extent that it is possible in this life.” The poem, however, is linked to a much longer text, also written by Saint John, which describes the hardships faced by those who seek to purify the senses—and the spirit—in their quest for mystical love.
According to Britton, the texts of many major contemplative traditions offer similar maps of spiritual development. One of her team’s preliminary tasks—a sort of archeological literature review—was to pore through the written canons of Theravadin, Tibetan, and Zen Buddhism, as well as texts within Christianity, Judaism, and Sufism. “Not every text makes clear reference to a period of difficulty on the contemplative path,” Britton says, “but many did.”
“There is a sutta,” a canonical discourse attributed to the Buddha or one of his close disciples, “where monks go crazy and commit suicide after doing contemplation on death,” says Chris Kaplan, a visiting scholar at the Mind & Life Institute who also works with Britton on the Dark Night Project.
Nathan Fisher, the study’s manager, condenses a famous parable by the founder of the Jewish Hasidic movement. Says Fisher, “[the story] is about how the oscillations of spiritual life parallel the experience of learning to walk, very similar to the metaphor Saint John of the Cross uses in terms of a mother weaning a child … first you are held up by a parent and it is exhilarating and wonderful, and then they take their hands away and it is terrifying and the child feels abandoned.”
Kaplan and Fisher dislike the term “dark night” because, in their view, it can imply that difficult contemplative experiences are “one and the same thing” across different religions and contemplative traditions.
Fisher also emphasizes two categories that may cause dark nights to surface. The first results from “incorrect or misguided practice that could be avoided,” while the second includes “those [experiences] which were necessary and expected stages of practices.” In other words, while meditators can better avoid difficult experiences under the guidance of seasoned teachers, there are cases where such experiences are useful signs of progress in contemplative development. Distinguishing between the two, however, remains a challenge.
Britton shows me a 2010 paper written by University of Colorado-Boulder psychologist Sona Dimidjian that was published in American Psychologist, the official journal of the American Psychological Association. The study examines some dramatic instances where psychotherapy has caused serious harm to a patient. It also highlights the value of creating standards for defining and identifying when and how harm can occur at different points in the psychotherapeutic process.
One of the central questions of Dimidjian’s article is this: After 100 years of research into psychotherapy, it’s obvious that scientists and clinicians have learned a lot about the benefits of therapy, but what do we know about the harms? According to Britton, a parallel process is happening in the field of meditation research.
“We have a lot of positive data [on meditation],” she says, “but no one has been asking if there are any potential difficulties or adverse effects, and whether there are some practices that may be better or worse-suited [for] some people over others. Ironically,” Britton adds, “the main delivery system for Buddhist meditation in America is actually medicine and science, not Buddhism.”
As a result, many people think of meditation only from the perspective of reducing stress and enhancing executive skills such as emotion regulation, attention, and so on.
For Britton, this widespread assumption—that meditation exists only for stress reduction and labor productivity, “because that’s what Americans value”—narrows the scope of the scientific lens. When the time comes to develop hypotheses around the effects of meditation, the only acceptable—and fundable—research questions are the ones that promise to deliver the answers we want to hear.
“Does it promote good relationships? Does it reduce cortisol? Does it help me work harder?” asks Britton, referencing these more lucrative questions. Because studies have shown that meditation does satisfy such interests, the results, she says, are vigorously reported to the public. “But,” she cautions, “what about when meditation plays a role in creating an experience that then leads to a breakup, a psychotic break, or an inability to focus at work?”
Given the juggernaut—economic and otherwise—behind the mindfulness movement, there is a lot at stake in exploring a shadow side of meditation. Upton Sinclair once observed how difficult it is to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it. Britton has experienced that difficulty herself. In part because university administrators and research funders prefer simple and less controversial titles, she has chosen to rename the Dark Night Project the “Varieties of Contemplative Experience.”
Britton also questions what might be considered the mindfulness movement’s limited scope. She explains that the Theravadin Buddhist tradition influences how a large portion of Americans practice meditation, but in it, mindfulness is “about vipassana, a specific type of insight … into the three characteristics of experience.” These are also known as the three marks of existence: anicca, or impermanence; dukkha, or dissatisfaction; and anatta, or no-self.
In this context, mindfulness is not about being able to stare comfortably at your computer for hours on end, or get “in the zone” to climb the corporate ladder. Rather, says Britton, it’s about the often painstaking process of “realizing and processing those three specific insights.”
Shinzen Young, a Buddhist meditation teacher popular with young scientists, has summarized his familiarity with dark night experiences. In a 2011 email exchange between himself and a student, which he then posted on his blog, Young presents an explanation of what he means by a “dark night” within the context of Buddhist experience:
Almost everyone who gets anywhere with meditation will pass through periods of negative emotion, confusion, [and] disorientation. …The same can happen in psychotherapy and other growth modalities. I would not refer to these types of experiences as ‘dark night.’ I would reserve the term for a somewhat rarer phenomenon. Within the Buddhist tradition, [this] is sometimes referred to as ‘falling into the Pit of the Void.’ It entails an authentic and irreversible insight into Emptiness and No Self. Instead of being empowering and fulfilling … it turns into the opposite. In a sense, it’s Enlightenment’s Evil Twin. This is serious but still manageable through intensive … guidance under a competent teacher. In some cases, it takes months or even years to fully metabolize, but in my experience the results are almost always highly positive.
Britton’s findings corroborate many of Young’s claims. Among the nearly 40 dark night subjects her team has formally interviewed over the past few years, she says most were “fairly out of commission, fairly impaired for between six months [and] more than 20 years.”
The identities of Britton’s subjects are kept secret and coded anonymously. To find interviewees, however, her team contacted well-known and highly esteemed teachers, such as Jack Kornfield at California’s Spirit Rock and Joseph Goldstein at the Insight Meditation Center in Massachusetts. Like many other experienced teachers they spoke to, Goldstein and Kornfield recalled instances during past meditation retreats where students became psychologically incapacitated. Some were hospitalized. Says Britton, “there was one person Jack told me about [who] never recovered.”
The Dark Night Project is young, and still very much in progress. Researchers in the field are just beginning to carefully collect and sort through the narratives of difficult meditation-related experiences. Britton has presented her findings at major Buddhist and scientific conferences, prominent retreat centers, and even to the Dalai Lama at the 24th Mind and Life Dialogue in 2012.
“Many people in our study were lost and confused and could not find help,” Britton says. “They had been through so many doctors, therapists, and dharma teachers. Given that we had so much information about these effects, we realized that we were it.”
In response, Britton conceived of Cheetah House as a public resource. “We’re still in the process of developing our services,” she says. “Lots of people just come live here, and work on the study. Because they’re part of the research team, they get to stay here and listen to other people’s experiences, and that’s been incredibly healing.”
As a trained clinician, it can be hard for Britton to reconcile the visible benefits of contemplative practices with data unearthed through the Dark Night Project. More than half of her patients reported positive “life-altering experiences” after a recent eight-week meditation program, for example. But, she says, “while I have appreciation and love for the practices, and for my patients … I have all of these other people that have struggled, who are struggling.”
“I understand the resistance,” says Britton, in response to critics who have attempted to silence or dismiss her work. “There are parts of me that just want meditation to be all good. I find myself in denial sometimes, where I just want to forget all that I’ve learned and go back to being happy about mindfulness and promoting it, but then I get another phone call and meet someone who’s in distress, and I see the devastation in their eyes, and I can’t deny that this is happening. As much as I want to investigate and promote contemplative practices and contribute to the well-being of humanity through that, I feel a deeper commitment to what’s actually true.”
TOMAS ROCHA is a research associate at the Mind & Life Institute and a doctoral student at Columbia University.
A challenge of the constant exposure to Social Media is envy. In the article below, the author discusses envy in relation to what we read online on a daily basis and offers a suggestion regarding how to recognize and not allow envy to overwhelm.
The rise of social media makes it easier than ever to open a window onto the lives of others. We watch as our neighbors clink glasses and toast their anniversaries, witness a teenager who lives three states away show off his expensive new car, and scan through baby photos, job promotions, and life events of people we’ve never met. Someone with bragging rights about a recent windfall can reach far more people with news of accomplishments and good fortune than ever before.
Why, then, aren’t we all celebrating?
In a New York Times op-ed titled “The Downside of Inciting Envy,” Arthur Brooks discusses the rise of envy in American culture, focusing on the divide between wealth and poverty and the changes in our collective attitude as that gap widens. Brooks writes, “Unsurprisingly, psychologists have found that envy pushes down life satisfaction and depresses well-being. Envy is positively correlated with depression and neuroticism, and the hostility it breeds may actually make us sick.”
While social media has the potential to make a big world smaller, to bring people of all kinds together, and to strengthen the bonds of friendship, its downside is bleak. Let’s face it: We don’t always experience joyous excitement when scrolling through photos and posts of our friends doing well, enjoying a vacation, or having fun together. Prosperity, pleasure, or an unexpected bonus in someone else’s life can stab you with pain. It might make you depressed or even ill.
Imagine my therapy client who has fertility issues. What does it feel like to her every time she opens Facebook to find a post from yet another former high school classmate announcing her pregnancy? Consider your neighbor who has been unemployed for a year logging onto Google+ only to discover that his longtime friend was recently promoted—again. Sure, there are plenty of people online congratulating one another, sharing in joy, and finding vicarious happiness in the success of others. But envy can be powerful and decidedly unpleasant.
Social media amplifies unintended slights or emotional injuries. Most of all, it exponentially increases the likelihood of social envy.
It’s important to acknowledge the effect this has on us. Envy pops up, sometimes automatically and without our consent. Pushing it down and pretending it doesn’t exist isn’t any healthier than indulging or wallowing in it.
A neuroscientific article about envy and the brain explains that abstract emotions (like envy) are experienced in precisely the same way that concrete feelings (like physical pain) are. The brain doesn’t distinguish between the two. Slam your hand in the car door? It hurts. Experience a surge of envy? Same thing. If envy creates pain, it’s a form of suffering, and it’s important to work toward finding positive, healthy ways of managing it.
The Internet brings us closer to each other and we see more. It’s like living in a big, crowded city. In a big city, residents learn how to move efficiently, how to work with one another as they walk down a busy street, how to form a queue, and how to live together in as much harmony as possible in close quarters. On the Internet, in the big city, and in our own social networks, we must become responsible for managing our unavoidable human emotions in a way that won’t inflict negativity on others or sickness and unhappiness on ourselves.
The first step is recognizing envy as it occurs, noticing when you catch yourself falling into a feeling of chronic comparison and disappointment, and understanding that while those feelings might be natural, they don’t have to linger. You can make choices about the attitude you want to take toward the success of others. You can elect to celebrate with them rather than feel emptiness. You can decide to notice a sense of fullness and gratitude rather than counting up the perceived lacks in your own life. A good start is to accept the initial wave of envy and then move forward toward a more positive mindset, for your own good.
Someone, somewhere, has exactly what you want. The attitude you choose to have toward that fact will have long-lasting implications for your own health.
This article first appeared on Rewire Me. To view the original article click here. Pamela Milam is a therapist and life coach who lives in Dallas and New York. She is the author of Premarital Counseling for Gays and Lesbians and is working on another book that takes a close look at what happens inside the therapy office.
One of the questions hospice professionals ask families is in relationship to future planning after the death of a loved one. This is obviously a sensitive topic, but perhaps there is more to the question than meets the eyes. Of course, this is a question one needs to know how to ask and is often something that can be garnered from regular conversation. For example, I visited someone who was discussing how he has a yearly fishing trip with some buddies and he was trying to figure out, as his wife was dying, whether he should cancel his trip. In the midst of this, the person shared that his wife had said to him that she doesn’t want him canceling and that she wants him to keep living after she is gone. This was something that offered him strength, and the will to keep on living. Perhaps his wife’s words will help ease his grieving process, knowing she would want him to keep living and enjoying. While future planning is not the only indicator, according to the study that is referenced below, future planning can be an indicator of complicated grief.
People suffering from complicated grief may have difficulty recalling specific events from their past or imagining specific events in the future, but not when those events involve the partner they lost, according to a new study published inClinical Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
The death of a loved one is among the most painful and disruptive experiences a person can face. For most, the grief subsides over time. But those who suffer from complicated grief continue to yearn for the lost loved one, experience waves of painful emotion, and feel hopeless about the future.
Research suggests that that people who suffer from complicated grief, similar to those who suffer from post-trauamatic stress disorder or major depression, have difficulty recalling many of the specific memories of their past.
But there’s an exception: They often retain their ability to recall specific memories for events that include the lost loved one.
Graduate student Donald Robinaugh and professor of psychology Richard McNally of Harvard University were intrigued by this cognitive paradox, and it raised another question: Do thoughts of lost loved ones also shape how people with complicated grief think about the future?
To find out, the researchers recruited adults who had lost their spouse or life partner in the last one to three years. Some of the participants showed signs of complicated grief, while others showed signs of more typical bereavement.
The participants completed a series of tasks to assess their memory for past events and their ability to imagine future events, both with and without the deceased. They were asked to generate specific events based on positive cue words (e.g., safe, happy, successful, loved) and negative cue words (e.g., hurt, sad, afraid, angry).
Adults suffering from complicated grief showed deficits in their ability to recall specific autobiographical memories and to imagine specific events in the future compared to adults experiencing typical grief, but only for events did not include the deceased. They showed no difficulty generating events that included the partner they had lost.
“Most striking to us was the ease with which individuals with complicated grief were able to imagine the future with the deceased relative to their difficulty imagining the future without the deceased,” say Robinaugh and McNally. “They frequently imagined landmark life events – such as the birth of their first child or a 50th wedding anniversary – that had long since become impossible. Yet, this impossible future was more readily imagined than one that could, at that point, realistically occur.”
These findings point to a cognitive mechanism underlying the distressed yearning that is characteristic of complicated grief.
The research also underscores the importance of generating goals and aspirations for the future after the loss of a loved one. According to the researchers, “setting goals and working toward them may be an important component of natural recovery from the disruptive and painful experience of loss.”
We all find ourselves with to-do lists that we never complete. And the lack of completion often creates extra stress in already stressful situations. There are many ideas regarding better scheduling methods and better means of prioritizing tasks. I came across this short piece which offers a mindfulness approach to removing stress from the hectic nature of struggling to complete what we must.
If you can define the schedule of your workday or week even a little, yet constantly feel constrained by time, try a new path. Get mindful as to what rigid routine or schedule pattern is causing you stress. Even if you can’t figure it out, try injecting some change-up. Here are two such approaches.
Some people get into the office and absolutely won’t feel organized till they listen to voicemail and scan emails. These folks know they can’t operate on all cylinders until they see and organize what has just come over the horizon.
Others, though, get to these two activities only because they’d feel ashamed if anyone knew they had yet to know about a memo or call. They grit their teeth, tighten up their back and sit for the first hour or two doing this task they abhor.
As odd as it may feel, it would help those in the second group to get past any self-induced shame and dive into what they normally only allow themselves to get to once “catch-up” is over.
Really? Yes. Besides money, whatever motivates them is what they need to chomp on for an hour or two, to get their brain acclimated and affirming why they are really back at work. (The other folks are just fine doing the mundane as a warmup to their soon-to-be-productive and inspired efforts.)
A changeup like this can make all the difference in the world in mindset, productivity and connectedness to your work life. Recognize which of the two groups you fit in and try the strategy. Even if you are of the first mindset, try the approach on for size if you can mentally swing it. You may learn more.
Another stress-erasing strategy is to break big work into smaller pieces. We’ve heard that before, right? The creative difference is not to add stress and scheduling to that new equation. (The point is to take both those things out of the mix, as the old recipe called for them.) Here’s how:
If you have to accomplish something by company- or self-imposed deadline, decidedly put it on your “side-desk,” so to speak (physically or figuratively). When you are restless with another task at hand and need to move toward something else to feel productive (or stay awake), it can be easily grabbed and worked on.
As a writer, I always have several pieces regularly due. Rather than start and finish any in one fell swoop (which I can do with little stress), I recently stumbled upon getting a start on four works hovering soon-to-be-due. Seeing them started, drafted out (or even just thought about with a couple notations taken down) really made me feel a sense of progress. It was nothing to pull them in and work on them; I became more motivated to see their direction take shape. The strategy was effective for me, and I likely should incorporate it more.
If you struggle with attending to tasks on dates you schedule them to be done, try the approach. Incrementally chipping away at work load, with low pressure, could indeed get you ahead of the game (in yours and your bosses’ eyes).
This strategy, too, might not be for everybody. It is worth the try, though, to see if you can make yourself work differently and whether it has an effect on your productivity. No one knows that better than you; you may surprise yourself.
Think on both examples. The key is to find a way to think about flow and ease of work schedule, rather than rigid patterns possibly not serving you well. The potential reward is more balance and satisfaction. The driving factors are doing what motivates you instead of making you feel stuck.
Stop agonizing over your work schedule. Try to arrange it to pull you forward with energy, rather than keeping you stagnant and stressed.
Lisa A. Miles has been uniquely blending her expertise in self-development, mental health and the creative arts for over 25 years. Based in Pittsburgh, Penn., she is a coach/ consultant who advises individually and for business, author of two books (one about an institutionalized artist), professional speaker, and composer/ performer on violin and mandolin (including collaborative work with Jungian therapists). Also available as a coach working virtually, Lisa is included in the international Life Quality Improvement directory. Please check out her webpage at lisamilesviolin.com.
Many of us tend to defeat ourselves before trying something because we don’t trust ourselves. I came across this list of things to avoid thinking and saying about oneself. I think the list and ideas the article shares below will provide much to consider.
We tend inflict so much suffering upon ourselves through negative self talk. It’s really amazing when you think about it. So much suffering due to words running through our minds…
In this post I’d like to share my top 10 self-damaging things we tend to say to ourselves. I have my own experience with negative self talk, believe me!
One tool for overcoming negative self-talk is to call it what it is. I’ll say more about that in a minute. Here is my list of the top ten things to avoid saying to yourself.
1. I’m not worth it.
This is a direct assault on your self-esteem and it is simply not true! Telling yourself you are not “worth it” only perpetuates negative beliefs you may have picked up early in life.
2. There’s no use.
Telling yourself there is no use steals your personal power and leaves you with no motivation.
3. I can’t do it.
Again, very disempowering. There are times when you truly cannot do something, however, most of the time this one is delivered as more of a self-attack than a statement of fact.
4. I’ll never follow through.
This is a set up for failure before you really get started. We all know that success comes one day at a time. Telling yourself you will fail before you get started is shooting yourself in the foot.
5. People won’t like me.
A set up for rejection. When you enter a new situation telling yourself that people won’t like you, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy!
6. Others are better than I am.
We all tend to compare ourselves to others. Sometimes we exercise prejudice against ourselves, though. Telling yourself that others are better than you is an assault on your self-worth.
7. I am not enough.
A huge one for people who feel inadequate to meet the demands of life. A sense of personal inadequacy is very discouraging – don’t reinforce it!
8. I must be perfect.
The way to guarantee failure is to criticize yourself whenever you are imperfect, which is all the time. We are perfectly imperfect!
9. My opinion doesn’t matter.
More low self-esteem in this statement. To say this one to yourself, you must consider yourself unworthy.
10. I’ll never be any different.
We say this as if we are written failure into stone. It’s a hopeless thought. Just say no to this one!
What To Do About Negative Self-Talk
Follow these steps to get a better handle on your negative self-talk:
1. Catch yourself. So often we run on autopilot and allow our minds to ruin our day. So, start each day with the conscious goal to catch yourself saying negative things.
2. Call a spade a spade. Next, label what you just said! Recognize it as negative self talk.
3. Use the following formula: “I just had the thought…” (repeat the negative thought here).
If you caught youself saying, “I am not worth it,” for example, then you would pause and say, “I just had the thought, ‘I am not worth it.’”
Using this formula securely labels the thought as a mere thought. If you do not realize that what you said was just a thought, you run a higher risk of taking it personally and allowing it to ruin your day.
4. Take a deep breath and move on!
I hope you found this post helpful! If negative self talk persists in spite of employing these methods, then you may have an underlying attachment that maintains the self-sabotage. Please watch this free video to learn more about negative attachments.
Watch the free video The AHA! Process: An End to Self-Sabotage and discover the lost keys to personal transformation and emotional well-being that have been suppressed by mainstream mental health for decades.
The information in this video has been called the missing link in mental health and personal development. In a world full of shallow, quick-fix techniques, second rate psychology and pharmaceutical takeovers, real solutions have become nearly impossible to find. This presentation will turn your world upside down.