Cultivating Patience

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Today on my way to work I listened to Pema Chodron talk about how to cultivate patience. She is one of my favorite mindfulness gurus because she’s female, she’s funny, and she laughs at her own jokes. Just like me!

More specifically, Pema talked about cultivating patience when we feel angry. Pema uses the metaphor of an ember for that spark of anger. Someone cuts in front of us in line. Someone on social media tells you to wear or not to wear a mask. Your partner tells you what to do. (That’s a big one for me.) If we don’t take the time to notice our reaction while it is in the ember stage, it can become a raging fire.

Setting things on fire, literally and figuratively, has been a hot topic. In the novel “Little Fires Everywhere,” Celeste Ng writes

Like after a prairie fire…It seems like the end of the world. The earth is all scorched and black and everything green is gone. But after the burning, the soil is richer, and new things can grow….People are like that, too, you know. They start over. They find a way.

In the midst of a pandemic and Black Lives Matter, perhaps we need a good fire to tear down the old and create something new. But without intentionality, it can lead to the Australia-is-on-fire kind of fire. And that we do not need.

It’s possible to have a controlled fire. But you have to plan for it, monitor it, reign it in at times. And eventually you have to put it out. Most of us are not fire experts. But we can learn to be.

In psychology, we call this anger management. But in Buddhism, it’s called cultivating patience. And you cultivate patience in the same way you cultivate anything when practicing mindfulness. First, you observe it. Where do you feel it in your body? Can you describe the feeling? Can you intensify it? Paradoxically, trying to intensify the feeling often extinguishes it.

Second, be curious about your anger. What are your triggers? What are your stories about your triggers? I don’t like to be told what to do because in my family, you should already know what to do. If you don’t know, you should be ashamed of yourself. And you are not going to shame me, gosh darn it!

Pema reminds us that the stories that we have created in response to our triggers are made up, but they hook us. They grab hold of us and send us off, guns blazing. When we can observe the ember in its early stages, we can name our anger and our triggers and wait to see what our anger has to teach us. In Rumi’s “Guest House,” he writes

That dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing and invite them in. Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.

I’m not saying this is an easy thing to do. It requires us to tolerate the pain of the burn. To accept our anger without judgment or criticism. And to think about what action will make us feel better. Which means, ultimately, we sit with our anger because we want to alleviate our suffering.

In a time when there is so much out of our control, we can all use ways to alleviate our suffering.

Suffering with Purpose

It’s the first noble truth of Buddhism that suffering is universal. But who wants to suffer, right? It’s such a drag!

But the thing is, the suffering is there whether we admit it or not. And if we do acknowledge pain, it can lead to good things, like personal growth, more compassion, and being able to feel positive emotions like joy.

But that’s only if we allow ourselves to really feel it. Many of us, understandably, don’t want to do that. 

So we deny the suffering, both to ourselves and to others. There are many ways to do this. Here are just a few examples:

  • Scrolling through our phones
  • Drinking and using drugs
  • Watching TV
  • Buying stuff
  • Compulsive gambling, sex etc

I know people who employ these strategies to ignore their suffering. I use some of them myself. Maybe you do too. It’s not something to be ashamed of. But it helps if we’re aware that we’re trying to be unaware.

Clearly some of these coping strategies end up causing even more suffering. But even if we avoid becoming alcoholics or compulsive gamblers, we can still cause suffering simply by denying our own pain. We may call it “being tough”. We may accuse those who acknowledge their difficulties as being full of self pity. 

And yes, I do this too. I am not judging! Sometimes my son calls me when he’s upset about his grades and I tell him “just work harder”. Or a friend with mental illness tells me for the umpteenth time about his big plans that he never gets started on, and I say “why don’t you just do it then?” I lose patience. I don’t want to acknowledge my own fears and insecurities, so I can’t deal with other people’s. It scares me. It makes me feel more in control, more “together”, to deny their pain too. But it doesn’t help them. It doesn’t help me either, because it separates me from the people I’m close to.

The consequences of this denial are far reaching. Only a father who denies his own pain can compulsively buy new cars while his children want for basic necessities. And only a leader who denies his own suffering can ignore the preventable deaths of thousands of people.

So how can we acknowledge our own pain, without falling into self-pity and even depression? After all, sometimes we block out our pain because we feel it’s too overwhelming, and it will incapacitate us.

The answer is different for everyone, which I know sounds like a bit of a non-answer. But some of us may be more ready than others to actually feel. If we’ve spent a lifetime denying our emotions, it could be too much to let in all at once. 

I can just tell you what I’ve learned through years of therapy and reading books, and making lots of mistakes. First it helps to quiet your mind, so you can actually feel what’s going on inside. That can be through traditional meditation, or a walk outside, or sipping a cup of coffee on the back porch. But it won’t happen in front of the TV or while looking at your phone. 

You want to be still until you feel what Pema Chodron calls the “soft spot” of tenderness. It may make you want to cry, which could surprise you. How could I be so hard yesterday, yet today I’m weeping? Well, I’ve found there’s usually a direct relationship. The harder I feel, the more pain I’m usually holding inside. 

Crying can be very calming, but you don’t have to cry. But you want to touch that soft spot, and feel yourself open up where you’ve been closed off. Open up to your own pain, and then soon you sense that we’re all going through some shit. You’ll want to treat other people more kindly, because you’re kinder to yourself. 

I read a book by Luigi Barzini where he constantly referred to human beings as “pathetic”. At the time, I remember thinking “What? I’m not pathetic! Is this some kind of Italian thing?” But now I get what he was talking about. We are all pathetic, in the sense that we all suffer, and we all deserve pity and compassion. Not just Italians, but everybody.

Bobby G, How to Be Unsuccessful

Keeping it Real

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Everyone suffers. In fact, the “first noble truth” of Buddhism is just this, that we all experience pain. According to one commentator, “Some people who encounter this teaching may find it pessimistic. Buddhists find it neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but realistic.”

When I was in my teens, I experienced my first bout of severe depression. I saw no point to life and was sad all the time. This was in the mid 1980’s, before Prozac, and awareness regarding mental health issues was limited. My Dad’s response to my depression was to tell me to snap out of it, stop navel gazing and to focus on getting stuff done. Of course, this only made me feel worse about myself, because I felt completely incapable of being productive. I blamed myself for being depressed, and for not being able to shake it.

When we suffer, we have a choice; acknowledge the suffering, or deny it. Often we are told that if we don’t ignore our suffering, we are weak and lack character. “No pain, no gain,” as the saying goes. “Quit being a baby!” “Man up already!” There’s no shortage of ways to tell people to disregard their pain. There are many reasons for this, psychological as well as cultural. But I’d like to focus on the result of denying suffering, both on an individual and societal level.

As individuals, if we’re taught that our suffering is shameful, we feel like there is something inherently wrong with us. How often do we seek sympathy or compassion and are told “Just get over it”? If this is our normal experience, we no longer expect compassion and we stop sharing when we’re feeling bad. And if we hold the pain inside, it diminishes our ability to feel anything. So in order to tamp down the pain, or feel something close to joy, we will do anything we can. We drink or take drugs, we engage in affairs and compulsively seek sex, we watch TV all day, we work to excess, etc etc – there is no shortage of ways to deny or assuage our pain. 

If our approach is to deny, we are also more likely to tell other people to “just get over” their own pain, and to similarly shame them. Most of us do this with our children, but even if we don’t have kids we can ignore the suffering of our partners, spouses, parents and friends. 

At a societal level, when we disregard the suffering of our fellow citizens we become a callous and cruel nation. We look with disdain on our neighbors who are down on their luck, we deny basic rights to others which we ourselves enjoy, and we do things like putting migrant children in cages. Meanwhile, we sit engrossed in the never-ending stream of entertainment on our phones, and we work, or we work out, and turn our attention elsewhere. Suffering is hard to tolerate. But if we don’t learn to do it, we sacrifice our ability to treat each other with kindness and compassion.

Acknowledging our pain is the better route, for many reasons. When we allow ourselves to feel, it can be painful but it also allows us to feel intense joy as well. We open up a wellspring of suppressed emotions, many of them positive. And if we are conscious of our own pain and sadness, it’s a small step towards being compassionate not only to ourselves, but to others as well. Kind people make up a kind society.

It isn’t pessimistic to admit that we suffer – it’s realistic. And as Buddha would no doubt say (if he lived in 21st century America), “Let’s keep it real, y’all.” 

From “How to Be Unsuccessful” – Beto G.

How Taking Care of Yourself is the Best Thing You Can Do for Your Mental Health

While it seems logical that taking care of yourself will lead to an improved mental state, in reality, it’s a bit more complicated than that. There are actually five types of self-care that affect mental health: physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual, and professional. If one or more of these areas isn’t being properly tended to on a regular basis, then everything else gets thrown off, too. Here’s how to implement self-care across the board so you can live a happier lifestyle. (Hint: It’s about going back to the basics!)

Eat Healthfully and Exercise Regularly

Copious research indicates that what we eat can affect our mental health, for better or for worse.Fruits and veggies promote feelings of optimism and happiness while boosting self-esteem from a nutritional standpoint, as well as the fact that they help promote a healthy weight. Highly caloric and fattening foods, however, can promote poor mental health, because they change the bacteria that live in our gut, thus increasing anxiety and brain inflammation. By eating nutritious, gut-healthy foods, not only will you have more energy, but you’ll naturally increase your body’s serotonin levels, a “happy hormone” that helps boost and stabilize your mood. 

There’s also been significant research indicating the link between exercise and an improved mental state due to the production of mood-boosting endorphins. It’s been proven that even low levels of activity, such as gardening or walking for 30 minutes a day, can help ward off current and future depression. 

Get Enough Sleep

Studies suggest that lack of sleep is linked to certain forms of mental illness, so it’s clear what an important role it has in terms of keeping us mentally sound on a daily basis. Sleep deprivation causes you to become so grumpy, depressed, and frustrated that you can’t finish daily tasks, thus increasing feelings of worthlessness. Fatigue also prompts poor eating habits and lack of exercise. It’s important to make lifestyle changes to support quality sleep, so that means setting a consistent sleep schedule; exercising earlier in the day; avoiding heavy meals, caffeine, and alcohol before bedtime; unplugging an hour before sleeping; and implementing a sleep ritual, such as sipping herbal tea

Manage Your Stress Levels

Stress feeds mental illness and vice versa, so take time to slow down and focus on taking deep breaths. Practice mindful meditation  — an easy way to tap into your spiritual self-care — and yoga. Getting down with your downward dog has been proven to help those with mood and anxiety disorders. Take it a step further and get a massage or make an appointment with an acupuncturist as acupuncture is a known stress reliever.  

Tend to Personal Grooming

Personal grooming is not about vanity, but there certainly isn’t anything wrong with trying out a new hairdo, lipstick color, eyelash extension, or cologne, either. In fact, studies suggest that the simple application of deodorant and perfume can improve self-image. Even if you work from home, take daily showers, comb your hair, and put on your street clothes. Make an effort to dress up when you’re going out — and not just to the office. Just as important is staying on top of your personal-care habits that directly affect your health, because neglecting to do so can result in a vicious cycle. For instance, people who suffer from depression often don’t make their oral health a priority, leading to teeth- and gum-related health issues that can be frustrating, thereby exacerbating the depression even further. Finally, learn to accept a compliment; a simple “thank you” will do. 

Surround Yourself with Positive People

Take an inventory of the people in your life, and cut ties with anyone who is toxic or not serving you well, as these individuals can have a short- and long-term impact on your mental state. Surrounding yourself with positive people will help you achieve your goals, boost your spirits, make you feel attractive, and support you through thick and thin without judgment. 

Adopt a Work-Life Balance 

A work-life balance is the key to living a healthy lifestyle — both physically and mentally. Let go of the fear that you’re failing your company by not working after hours. Schedule important activities so you’re forced to take a break, whether that’s dinner with a spouse or a prepaid workout class. Turn off technology so you’re not tempted to answer the phone or check emails into the wee hours. And yes, do schedule that vacation. 

Part of managing your mental health is not biting off more than you can chew. With that in mind, learn to feel comfortable with saying “no.” Prioritize your responsibilities, and don’t feel guilty about not taking on everything that comes your way. 

Photo Credit: Pixabay

After spending years in a corporate setting and far too long neglecting his own self-care, Brad Krause followed his calling and became a full-time life coach. He spends just about every waking hour helping people find ways to put their wellness above all else.