Thinking vs. Being Thought

It’s funny how we can know something so intimately and yet when asked to define it, we struggle for the right words. Consider the word “think”: What exactly does it mean?

According to Webster, it means “to believe that something is true, that a particular situation exists, that something will happen, etc.” It’s something we do practically nonstop from the time we’re born until the time we die. It’s like breathing — if you’re not thinking, then well, you’re probably not here. I’d even go so far as to say that the quality of our thoughts is just as important to the quality of our lives as is the quality of our lungs. Or as Gandhi reputedly said,

“Your beliefs become your thoughts, Your thoughts become your words, your words become your actions, your actions become your habits, your habits become your values, your values become your destiny.”

Powerful stuff, right? But also a little scary, considering how many of our thoughts we’re not even really aware of, let alone in control of. According to one source I came across (thanks Google books!), each of us processes roughly 60,000 thoughts each day. A whopping 95 percent of those thoughts are the same ones we thought yesterday, and eighty percent of them are negative. This translates to around 45,000 automatic negative thoughts (the author refers to them as ‘ANTs’) every day. Feeling down? No wonder.

So for better or worse, our thoughts shape our lives. I think on some level we realize this, which may explain the popularity of best-selling author and sought after speaker Byron Katie, who is perhaps most well-known for developing a series of four questions she calls “The Work.” Katie has made a name for herself by teaching that to end our suffering, all we have to do is challenge our thoughts. I’ve read one or two of her books, and while I have a hard time swallowing a few things she says, I definitely think she’s on to something. One thing in particular that she wrote has really stuck with me: “Human beings don’t think. We’re thought.” I could be paraphrasing, but the meaning is intact: that basically, when all is said and done, we’re really not that in control of our brains and the thoughts that spew out of them. Basically, our minds have a mind of their own.

If you’ve ever tried to meditate for any length of time, you know this with certainty. So Katie’s suggestion to question your thoughts and ask yourself if they’re actually true can be incredibly powerful. It’s quite eye-opening when you begin to see how so very much of your life –how much of what you do and believe — is based on simple thoughts. And usually very flimsy ones at that. I definitely recommend checking out her work if this resonates at all for you.

Anyway, I’m not here to promote Byron Katie or to dissect the inner workings of the brain. I only bring this up because my mind has been driving me especially crazy lately. I like to think I’ve gotten pretty good at uncovering its tricks over the years, but it’s quite a sneaky beast. It has all sorts of devious ways to manipulate and control my behavior without me even realizing it. Sound familiar? I’ll give you the latest example: Since writing the last post, I’ve been more aware than usual of the language I use with myself, (I do have to take my own advice, after all), and have thus been careful not to, as some of my group friends would say, “should myself”. And I must say I’ve been doing quite a wonderful job.

So why have I still been feeling like a pack mule? After pondering this question for a while, I realized that even though I wasn’t verbalizing them, or even consciously thinking them, my brain was still communicating the same old messages to me without my permission. (I told you it was sneaky) Now that I’m on to its subterfuge, I can defend myself against these unwanted thoughts much more effectively. Awareness here is key: After all, you can’t fight an enemy you can’t see.  Except since this blog is all about loving what is, I suppose fighting is the wrong analogy to use here. Besides, I’ve tried that route before, and it isn’t very effective. I can fight my thoughts all I want, but it always ends up the same way. That’s a battle I’ll never win. So I’ve had to accept the fact that my thoughts are going to be there whether I like it or not. Now, this doesn’t mean I accept whatever it is they’re saying, and it doesn’t mean that I don’t still try to change them or replace them with more desirable, constructive thoughts, but I think it’s important to recognize that thoughts are slow to change. Until they do, you might as well make peace with them.

Tara Brach uses a phrase “real but not true” to describe the kinds of thoughts I’m talking about here. I find this a useful way to think about them because while they feel real — often incredibly so — that does not necessarily make them true. I guess what I’m saying is that I’m attempting to follow the middle path: I’m not blindly accepting all my thoughts at face value, but nor am I attempting to argue with them or shout above them. I’m greeting them, acknowledging them for what they are (which can usually be described as ‘full of shit’), and then going about my business. It’s like refusing to engage with your unruly two year old who’s demanding you give her candy. It’s hard to tolerate that whiny chatter going on in the background, and often you just want to give in or scream at it to go the fuck away, but you can’t. And you can’t expect your brain to go away any more than you can a determined two year old. Hopefully it will mature with time like that whiny toddler, but occasional tantrums are to be expected. The sooner you realize that and stop resisting, the better. You and your brain are going to be together for quite some time. So you might as well become friends.

Pay attention to what you’re thinking today. How many of the thoughts you’re processing are in line with the life you want for yourself? Which ones do you want to take off the revolving turntable?

 

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5 Words to Eliminate from your Vocabulary

When I was in 6th grade, we had a funeral for the word “said.” My teacher said asserted that the word was used too often and that if we just used our brains, we could find other words that would be much more descriptive. And so we buried said. I discovered a lot of new ways to communicate how a person is speaking that year, and I continue to notice the impact language has on our daily lives. I’m particularly aware of how many words we use that are self-defeating, discouraging, or just downright mean.

So here’s my list of words that I think belong in the ground right next to said (or that could at least be used a little more judiciously):

1. Should– Banish this word from your vocabulary. Should is just a cruel word that demands things be different than what they are. It turns you into a failure. Well, they’re not and YOU’RE not. Stop.

2. Need– As in “I need to do x,y, and z.” Need is so overbearing. Try to see if you can’t make it into I want to instead.

Example: Replace “I need to eat better” with “I want to eat better so that I can be healthier and feel more alive.” Sounds so much kinder and approachable now, don’t you think?

3. Have– As in “I have to.” But do you really? In truth, no one has to do anything. Try out ‘want’ here too. Or if it’s more appropriate, just realize that you’re really not obligated to do it!

4. Try — As in, “I’ll try to do x,y, and z.” As Yoda says, “Do or do not, there is no try.”

5. Okay, so it’s not a word, but I also cringe every time I hear someone using a label to describe another person. I. Hate. Labels. They put people in a box and leave no room for freedom and growth. Do yourself and everyone else a favor. Stop labeling. Tell someone they’re athletically talented if you must, but resist identifying them as “the athlete.” Let them know they did a great job on that exam, but don’t turn them into “the smart one.” People are more than what they do. Recognize the inner strengths that helped them to achieve whatever it is you admire or are proud of.

Try some of these out and see how it affects you. Lots of times when I’m REALLY dreading doing something, I notice I’m telling myself I have to do it. But as soon as I take out the “I have to,” I realize I actually DO want to do it after all! Language is powerful that way.

 

 

 

Holding On and Letting Go

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why — despite all I’ve learned — I still haven’t completely let go of the eating disorder that has been following me around for the past 20 years. I can clearly see how much it holds me back. I can see that it makes me miserable. And unlike some people who struggle with an eating disorder, I can even see how it makes me look — and I don’t like what I see. So what’s it doing for me that makes it worth all that? I honestly don’t know.

Sometimes I think  it’s just that after living more of my life with it than without it, the eating disorder is simply second nature. It’s what I’m used to, and despite how much it sucks, I don’t really know how to do anything else. Or perhaps more accurately, I do know how, I just have a very hard time doing it because it feels so foreign, wrong and uncomfortable. Other times, I’m not so sure. After all, if I’ve learned anything about myself through all of this, it’s that I have the ability to make myself do just about anything no matter how difficult it is if I really want to. And if there’s anything I want for myself, it’s to live the rest of my life without an eating disorder. So I’m not sure the “it’s just habit at this point” explanation is entirely correct.

I do think it plays a role, but I think more powerful than that is my extreme aversion to uncomfortable feelings. More specifically, uncomfortable emotions. Interestingly enough, I can handle physical discomfort pretty well, but emotions are another story. I’ve gotten better at it since reading Pema Chödrön’s book When Things Fall Apart, listening to Tara Brach’s talks about the concept of radical acceptance, and begun practicing meditation and mindfulness, but it’s still something I struggle with a great deal. I remember when I first came across the concept of accepting and allowing thoughts and feelings to arise without grasping on to them or letting them overpower you, and it was like a whole new world opened up. That notion, as simple as it seems, was not something I had ever even considered. Up to that point, I had lived my life either running like hell from difficult emotions or doing something to numb myself out. Sitting with them? No way. The entire notion of impermanence found in Buddhist teachings remains a challenge for me too. Pema talks a lot about the fact that we live in a world where we can never really have ground under our feet — that since things are always changing and evolving, we’re essentially groundless and we might as well get used to it. As someone who has spent the bulk of her life trying to control things, this is simply unacceptable. Nevertheless, I’m trying make peace with it because I can see the wisdom in allowing things to be as they are and not fighting them so much because, well, they are that way. It’s like fighting against the fact that the world is round or the sun is hot. This is basically the serenity prayer line “allow me to accept the things I cannot change.” Acceptance? Not exactly one of my strong suits… My problem has always been my insistence (some people would call me stubborn…) — that “No, dammit; I CAN control this and I WILL.

Anyway, I digress. What I’m trying to say is that I’m beginning to realize that my difficulty in letting go is directly connected to my difficulty in sitting with uncomfortable feelings, the most pressing of these being the almost constant anxiety that bubbles beneath my surface. I wrote in the previous post about my struggle with this, but unless you’ve really experienced it, it’s difficult to imagine how powerful it is. I’m not sure how to describe it except as a visceral feeling that overwhelms me at almost every waking moment, as though I must always be vigilant against an impending attack. My body is constantly sending out signals that I’m in danger and that I need to protect myself. At times, I’m able to notice it, see it for what it is, and move on, but at other times, the feelings are so strong that they overpower my logical, rational brain and I find myself scrambling madly for whatever I think will calm the panic. This typically presents itself as me attempting to control something, and one of those “somethings” just happens to be food. There are other things, of course, but that’s the only one that also ends up hurting me as much as it seemingly ‘helps.’

The funny thing is, I’m not so sure it actually helps anymore. As my last therapist pointed out, it’s likely more of the fact that I believe it will help than that it actually does. It’s my Dumbo’s feather, if you will, or perhaps more accurately, a placebo. Except in this case, it’s a placebo that carries with it some pretty wicked side effects. But in the moment, when I’m panicky and scrambling, I don’t have access to that higher part of my brain that knows the truth —  I am not rational. Eating disorders are not rational. One could argue that in some weird, twisted, messed up way they kind of are, but not really. They’re really just one big delusion after another.

And that’s where mindfulness comes in. The more I practice it, the better I become at seeing the panic for what it is and catching myself before I spin off into old destructive patterns. I don’t need to run from the anxiety. I don’t need to numb out. I can greet the phantom anxiety, tell it hello, remind myself that it’s just some random chemicals in my brain doing their thing, and move on with my day. Granted, it’s not quite that simple, but you get the idea. In the end, I’d much rather sit with anxiety, fear, loneliness and all those other perceived monster emotions than with an eating disorder. In truth, they’re much kinder.

So that’s what I’m going to do. Bring it on anxiety. I’m ready for you.

“Just” Relax

Relaxing is not something I’m particularly good at.

To give you an idea of how uptight I tend to be, let’s just say my dentist recently told me if I don’t stop clenching my jaw I’ll likely need to get a mouthguard. Yeah. That bad. At the time, I wasn’t even aware I did it, but since he pointed it out, I’ve realized I do it almost constantly, even in my sleep. And it doesn’t stop there. If you need to find me in a room, just look for the girl with her back as straight as a board and her shoulders practically levitating off of her body. That would be me.

So when I hear people say “just relax,” I have to laugh at the silliness of it. “Just” relax? Are they serious? I wish it were so easy. But no, apparently my natural state is to behave as though I’m always up against something. Even when I’m very clearly not in ANY DANGER WHATSOEVER, I seem to think I should still be on guard just in case. It’s simply my subconscious reaction to, well — life. I must be ready AT ALL TIMES to defend myself. Suffice it to say, all of this preparation for the inevitable disaster is terribly exhausting. I’ve gotten better at noticing it since I began meditating regularly and practicing being more mindful of my thoughts and how I feel in my body (shout out to my therapist!), but it still sneaks up on me every now and then. Like this morning. I noticed during my meditation that my mind was being particularly unruly. I suppose that should have been the first tip-off, but my mind is often that way, so I tried my best to just let it be. Well, my mind had other ideas, and soon enough I was in a foul mood, hating the world and everything in it. I hated the guy walking on the street in front of me and his stupid baggy pants, my shoes didn’t feel got AT ALL, and those girls in the apartment above mine needed to shut the fuck up.

Obviously, I needed to do something. So I did what anyone would do and I took a shower and sang some Adele at the top of my lungs. That helped a little bit, but what really helped was when I sat down and started flipping through my book of poetry. The first one I came across was this one, which I wrote a little more than a year ago:

Stop.

Just stop.

The running,

The hiding,

The wanting.

Put down your weapons,

Peel back the armor,

And breathe.

Pull the oxygen deep

into your lungs,

your belly,

your mind,

your soul.

Air out that space

so long closed off to

the outside world.

Let life rain down

upon your heart.

Bare your breast

to its arrows–

Love

Fear

Desire

strike the tender spots.

Sinking in

and melting

like the snow.

©Jennifer Horton

Something about reading those words really soothed the storm inside. I read it several times aloud and it hit me — this is what my irritability was trying to tell me. That I needed to Stop. To LET GO. Somehow speaking that need out loud helped to release some of the pent up angst. And I’m so glad because it’s a gorgeous day outside and my unexplained anxiety was threatening to keep me from being able to enjoy it. Hopefully next time (and trust me, there WILL be a next time) I’ll catch it before it spins quite so far, but I’m at least grateful to be reminded of an important lesson. And to remember just how healing poetry can be.

Why we Need to Retire the Phrase “Self-improvement”

The self-improvement industry is big business these days. It seems everyone is on a quest to become “better,” whether it’s by playing games like Lumosity to improve their thinking skills, attending yoga classes to become more centered, or the perennial favorite, exercising and dieting to “get fit.” All told, people (primarily Americans) spend roughly $11 billion a year in their efforts to achieve greatness.* Once relegated to the dark corners of the book store, so-called self-help books are now the world’s best selling genre. Ironically, though, as writer Jessica Lamb-Shapiro tells the Guardian, 80 percent of the people purchasing self-help books are repeat buyers, which may or may not be indicative of how much they’re actually being helped…

However, my problem with the self-improvement movement is not the insane amount of money people spend (though that is a bit disturbing), or even with the fact that so many of the things they’re spending it on are probably completely bogus. No, my concern is with what the term itself implies. Because to be interested in self-improvement, one must first believe they are in possession of a self that needs improving. The underlying message here is “I am not good enough, I am flawed, I am not okay just the way I am.” While I won’t assume that everyone who buys the books, invests in the workshops or goes looking for a life coach is necessarily coming from a place of unworthiness, I’d be willing to bet that with a little digging, they would find they believed at least one of those messages had a nugget of truth in it. But the thing is, you can’t hate yourself into improving. Believe me. I’ve tried. And it wasn’t pretty. If you dislike yourself — any part of yourself — even just one little bit, you will never, ever, be good enough. You will just spend the rest of your life jumping through an endless gauntlet of hoops, running a race that can never be won.

All this being said, I will confess I still read “self-help” books and engage in some other “self-improvement” related activities (meditation has done wonders for my mental health, and I loved Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly). But there’s a key difference now: My motivation has changed. Where I was once coming from a place of disgust — at myself, at the current state of my life, etc. — I’m now coming from a place of love and compassion. For me, it’s no longer about self-improvement, but life-improvement. And that mind shift has made all the difference.

I’m interested in what others think:

What are your thoughts on the term ‘self-improvement’?

Have you ever purchased anything that falls into that category?

Do you think you’re ‘improved’ now?

Let me know in the comments!

*I obtained all of my data from this article in the Guardian:http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/dec/28/self-help-books-literature-publishers-growth

Another interesting article on the self-improvement industry juggernaut from PR web: http://www.prweb.com/releases/2013/1/prweb10275905.htm

Feeling the Fear and Doing it Anyway

Every so often I have what I like to call an obvious epiphany. It’s an epiphany because to me, it’s as though a light bulb has gone off in my head and suddenly where there had been nothing but dark ominous forest, a bright clearing appears. The obvious part comes from the fact that the majority of these “epiphanies” are so simple that it’s insane I didn’t see them sooner. Or maybe I did see them but just wasn’t ready to acknowledge them. Whatever the case, I had one of these “aha moments” last night. It started like this:

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I had been sitting on my couch, watching television, and just generally feeling in a funk. I think I’ve mentioned that I tend to get somewhat melancholy and contemplative in the evenings, and this night was no different. This night, the subject of my contemplation was the current state of my life. You see, the past several months, I’ve been more depressed than I have been in some time. I’ve long suspected that I have seasonal affective disorder, also known as seasonal depression or “SAD.” The way I’ve felt this winter has me convinced. Anyway, suffice it to say that I’ve been struggling to do much of anything and last night it was weighing heavily upon me — this overwhelming feeling that my life is going nowhere, that I’m simply treading water and will be for all of eternity. Then something in me went off:

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I realized I’d been waiting for something. Occasionally I had ideas in my head of things I might rather be doing, or plans for things I’d like to do once my funk passed, but last night I realized I’m tired of waiting. Screw that. The people who get somewhere in this world don’t get there by waiting; they get there by fucking getting up and doing something. Here I was, sitting around waiting for things to just get easier, when life is going on right outside my door. I’ve been waiting until I “felt like it” or it was more “convenient.” News flash Jen: It’s never going to get easy. I think my refusal to accept that has been a big part of my difficulties over the years. No matter all this evidence I’ve encountered to the contrary, I stubbornly continue to expect that things should just be more pleasant and not so god damn hard all the time. Ironically, though, I think they would be at least a little bit easier if I stopped having all these lofty expectations about how I think they should be. It reminds me of a line in my all time favorite nonfiction book, When Things Fall Apart, by Pema Chödrön (if you haven’t read it, DO IT NOW), in which she suggests we “just lower our expectations and relax.” It sounds so simple, but my difficulty in doing so has caused me a lot of suffering.

Granted, this new realization scares the shit out of me, because it means that now I have to start acting. I have to step outside of this cozy little cocoon I’ve built for myself over the past few months, throw off these chains and DO something. I plan to take it slow at first lest I scare myself right back into my cozy, yet suffocating chamber, but I’ve already started making a list of things I’d like to tackle over the coming weeks. And although I’m anxious about what lies ahead, I’m also a little excited. A weight has been lifted, and I feel pretty good. It could also be that the weather today is nicer than it’s been in a long time and as I type this the sun is streaming through the window and warming my back, but whatever, I’ll take what I can get.

Here’s to new beginnings.