Self-Awareness 101 — You are not your thoughts

“I think, therefore I am!” Descartes’ quote was great in its time, but I think it overshadows a larger reality. Most of us spend our time fully in our brains. We remind ourselves of what we need to do, the on-going “To Do” lists. We rehash conversations, worry about our futures, count calories, rewrite the past and generally spend most of our days paying attention to the blah, blah, blah going on in our minds.

This overriding tendency is getting much, much worse with the advent of cell phones and the ubiquitous nature of technology. The word generating part of our brains can now also post to social media, send tweets, text, write emails and the list goes on and on and is likely getting longer as you read this.

Truth is, there is a part of our brains that does nothing all day except generate words. It is its entire function. If you are reading this or writing, or having a conversation, that is a good thing. We need it. We have learned to navigate our world by interacting and speaking to one another. Problem is, when we aren’t having a conversation in the real world, we are still paying attention to this voice.

To illustrate this point, I want to ask if you have ever driven home from work,  or to a place you go frequently and when you arrived you have no recollection of the drive? If you have never experienced this, let me just say, it has been used as a defence in court and it was so familiar to those overseeing the case, that it was accepted as a likely thing to have occurred.

So where were you at the time? Likely, completely engaged with the word generating part of your brain. You were lost in your thoughts about whatever the word generating part of your brain likes to focus on. See list above for some examples.

Exercise 1

Try something with me. READ THIS PART TO YOURSELF AND PAY ATTENTION TO HOW YOU EXPERIENCE READING.

That sounds abstract, so let me try to explain what I mean. Think of the bolded part above. Reread it if necessary. What actually happens in your brain when you read? For many, but certainly not all, they hear the words in their mind. Read it again and see if that is true for you.

So, if you “hear” the words, who is listening? This is important. You, the real you, is the one listening to the words. The words themselves were just what you were reading on the page. In this example, it is clear that the words are what were written on the page and “you” are the one listening.

Let’s take it one step further. If you are not reading and you are listening to your “To Do” list, for example, you are still the one listening. In other words, the word generating part of your mind is not who you are. Since its entire job is to keep babbling on all day, many of us confuse it for who we are. When it starts to tell us things, we believe we are hearing our own voice. We may be hearing something a fourth-grade teacher told us years ago. You see, it is easier for the word generating part of our mind to keep repeating itself than it is for it to come up with new material.

Exercise 2

There is another way to illustrate this. It has become quite common in cartoons and movies to see someone trying to make a decision. In the movie, a “good angel” will be standing on one shoulder talking into one ear of the character. A “bad devil” will be standing on the other shoulder giving the opposite advice.

You can try this yourself. Hold your hands out in front of you, palms up. Picture yourself in natural, flowing carefree clothing standing on one hand. Now, picture yourself in a tight, very formal, army uniform standing on the other hand.

Take the time to see these two aspects of yourself. Now think of an on-going argument you have with yourself. Let’s see, maybe you are trying to cut out carbs, but love muffins. Or perhaps, you have promised yourself daily exercise but it is cold and wet outside. You know your own struggles, pick something that you can relate to. Visualize these two aspects of yourself arguing their points of view.

Carbs make you fat! I like muffins. You must exercise! I’d rather be warm and comfortable. … You get the idea. Take a moment to do this bit right now. I’ll wait.

I’m sure none of this is new to you, except perhaps picturing yourself standing on your hands. What I want to illustrate is that you are neither of the people standing on your hands. You are the one observing the argument. You are the one listening to the debate. The debate is being created by the word generating part of your brain. You are the one observing.

Why is this important?

This is an introductory blog, so I’ll just focus on the Top Three highlights. Let’s just say, this is really, really important.

1. If you think the words in your mind are you, you may not question what they are saying.

This is a real problem if they are mean, destructive or undermine your self-confidence. Once you realize the words aren’t you, you can question what you say to yourself, or better yet, change what you say.

2. Being lost in your mind means you are not paying attention to your life.

If you “forget” the drive in, you also didn’t notice the cute dog that was playing ball; the beautiful trees beside the road; the sky, clouds, sunshine and you didn’t notice anything going on outside of your mind. This becomes important because you miss opportunities. You might not notice something that may have brought you joy.

3. If you believe you are the words in your mind, you are not honouring your true self.

Emotions get pushed out of the way, body sensations are completely ignored and your experience of the world becomes very limited.

Take some time today and focus your attention on the world around you. There is no need to narrate what you are seeing or to make a judgement about the quality of it or whether it is good or bad. Just observe it. Expand your awareness to the temperature, smells, sounds and sensations of your body. Isn’t that a nice break from the chatter? Your thoughts are not who you are. You are way more than that.

Moments

Our life is composed of moments. We like to dream about wonderful things like unfathomable riches, or a great vacation, getting that ring or promotion, but the truth is, we are living right now.

So, how do you feel right now? It is not too much of a leap to guess that you are warm, fed, clothed and have access to the internet. You are reading this, so you must be! But do you feel like you are OK? Are you savouring it?

Not too long ago I was faced with a relatively minor decision. I could pay $40.00 to take a “short cut” on the drive home, or I could drive over an hour through rush hour traffic, likely bumper to bumper.

Being fully conscious of my values and priorities, I decided to put some good music on, put the roof of my car down and just go through the traffic.

I could’ve stressed about the congestion, damming all of the people around me, wishing those in charge had made better planning decisions and been angry the entire way home. Or, I could recognize those around me were stressed, give them a little compassion and listen to some good music. It takes such little effort to drive that slow!

It may seem like a small thing, and it was, but our entire life is like that. A long time ago, I decided I didn’t want to look back on my life and see only stress and turmoil. For that drive, I was content. I knew it would take over an hour. An hour of my life I wanted to enjoy, not stress over.

Choosing to be happy now, even in gridlock, means that increasingly my life becomes filled with moments of contentment and joy. Isn’t that what we all want? Why not choose to be happy now? 

What if We Chose to Be Here?

It seemed like a simple question, but the more I pondered it the more I recognized it was rewriting how I told my story. For years, I’ve said, “I think I chose to be here” and in a recent conversation with a friend, I turned it around and said, “What if we all chose to be here?”

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It rearranges everything we’ve been focusing on. A few things fall from this premise and it is interesting to explore them, knowing full well the premise may be faulty. So, first, the most obvious is that if we “chose” we must have existed. Which, pretty much means we must exist after this body dies because we had to come from somewhere and we just go back. This is going back to a place from where we could chose what we want to experience.

There are many religions that have spoke to the range of possibilities, from returning here in a better or worse situation; living forever in a new reality that is either good or bad; or simply not existing after we are here. Truth is, no one knows for sure, but lets just stick with the possibility that we chose to be here for a while.

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Believing we exist after we die,

has the power to eliminate all of the fear

of our own death.

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When we no longer exist here, if we knew we existed somewhere else, it would make death a whole lot less frightening. Not necessarily for those we leave behind who suffer the loss of our presence and the emotional impact of losing someone you love, but for us, ourselves.

The idea that we may actually be able to choose to do this again, or that we might choose another set of parameters gives this inevitability known as death a whole new interpretation. It becomes more of a transition, a change in our reality, a new opportunity to chose to experience another life in an incalculable number of paradigms of reality.

You being you, even before you had the body you are in now, decided to experience life here. It allows us to refocus on the idea we wanted to come here and perhaps we should be exploring that instead of just getting by in a day. Why did you chose to be here? What did you want to experience, do, see, be involved in? You bought the ticket, and decided to go for the ride. What were you hoping you would get a chance to do? Trying to remember who you are and what your motivation was is a good place to start.

Even if this premise is wrong, and the only way to test it is to die, it has the power to allow us to think about life differently. We can look around with new eyes and see the world in a different way. A way that emphasizes why we would want to be here, what we enjoy and how we want to live.

Consider it for a moment. Is it possible you chose to be here? Perhaps, not in the exact situation you are in, but using a card game as an analogy, you decided to play cards and now you are faced with the hand you were dealt. How would you live differently if you no longer were preoccupied with prolonging your life, avoiding death and instead focused on the good things you enjoy around you?

It becomes possible to let go of the fear. We know we are going to die and if that is not a bad thing, we can now focus on living the most satisfying life we can imagine.

Spring a Reminder of Change

Today is the quintessential first day of spring. Not the calendar month or the day with the highest temperature, the first day of the season. It is no longer winter. There may yet be snow but the snow that is here is melting. There is a slow rhythm of the drips as winter washes away.

The birds are back. The sky is filled with flight and sound. It is funny how much I’ve missed the beauty of the birds and their song. They sit on branches that show no sign of thickening, that precursor to the actual buds. The trees are bare. There are no spring flowers up yet and no hint of summer green.

I slept late and awoke to this fabulous day. I’ve often wondered if those Canadians that choose to move to warmer climes miss the change of seasons. It is always something new and more appreciated for its absence.

A reminder that time moves on and we are all part of a larger cycle of birth and death and renewal. Change is inevitable. Nothing is permanent. By being present we ensure that we are always appreciative of what we enjoy. To stop and give gratitude for all that we have and the exceptional lives we’re being allowed to lead. Showing this gratitude seems to open a door that lets more good come in. If you don’t think that your life is exceptional perhaps this deserves some attention. Stop to appreciate what you do like, it will bring more good in.

I have a fabulous east facing balcony on the second floor. From there I can see the sunrise in the morning and the constellation Bootes after dark, at least this time of year.

The universe conspired with humour while I enjoyed my balcony today. Three different men with three different dogs all had to clean up poop on the lawn in front of my house. The first guy had to come back, for the package, after he realized that I had watched his dog poop and him walk away.

The third guy had the further indignity of knowing that I was watching him. I came out onto my balcony mid poo and he had heard me. It is a fine example of how our lives happen in the moments in which they occur. We like to tell our stories about how great things will be in the future when we get that or move there or buy the next best thing but the true experience is always now. Simply by paying attention to the moment, my experience became about now. It may not be a grand trip to an exotic place, but it was funny watching these men deal with their dogs. Enjoying the first day of spring. Feeling gratitude for the humour, even if it was potty humour.

From the deck on the west part of my house, think sunsets and the Big Dipper at night, I can see a small pond that is frozen. There are geese walking across it as though to check it out as a future prospect. My pool is frozen as well and I crave its languid embrace. I still find it hard to believe that I have a pool and currently it is just as much a part of a dream as any other part of the future.

We don’t need to be reminded of how quickly our lives can be washed away, possibly before that next new thing even gets here. So perhaps we should appreciate today. Take the arrival of spring as a reminder that all things come to pass and feel gratitude for the things in our lives that bring us joy. How would you spend your day if you knew that everything was taken care of? Isn’t it, just for this moment?

The Perfume Radical

photoIt turns out that nail polish may not have been my gateway makeup. I realized recently that I have worn perfume for a very long time. I feel undressed without it. I love the aroma surrounding me. I know others enjoy it because I often receive comments about how nice it smells.

This simple accoutrement brings me joy. There I said it. There is no other reason to wear perfume (for me at least) other than I enjoy it. I try to pick out a new scent each time I purchase perfume. I would have stayed with “Sensi” by Giorgio Armani forever, but it was discontinued. It suited me perfectly, had a classy, well-rounded floral scent and managed to last all day. Now that I have worn many different scents for a period of time, noticing a hint of a particular perfume can take me back to a period in my life.

Unfortunately, like so many other enjoyable things in our lives, our increasingly intolerant society is beginning to insist that many work places should be “scent free” as though shampoo and deodorant are unscented. Lets not forget the automatic air fresheners that are sprayed in many washrooms either! Most people appear to enjoy the fleeting smell of a nice perfume, the operative word there being “fleeting”.

Whenever the topic of the “scent free workplace” comes up, I make sure I mention that I wear perfume everyday. If you apply it properly, no one should be offended. It should never be noticeable beyond your arm’s length. Which means that only those that you are directly next to you would ever know you are wearing it.

When I say this people are often shocked. First, we have all become accustomed to accommodating everyone around us as much as possible. So it is politically incorrect to admit I do something, for pleasure alone, that some people have said bothers them. Second, if I am wearing perfume, why hasn’t anyone brought the “scent free” policy to my attention? The truth is that very few people actually have a true reaction to perfume. The policy got broad acceptance because of those very few individuals who wear too much scent and that can be unpleasant if you need to work near it or can’t get away from it.

I do enjoy noticing the perfume during the day and my impression is others do as well. This applies equally well to fingernails. I enjoy the appearance of them throughout the day. My little artist enjoys painting them, perfecting the finish, matching them to my clothing or to the lighting.

Perhaps I’m a radical. I am tired of the smallest of minorities deciding the behaviour of the majority. We cannot reduce all inconvenience to zero. We cannot reduce all risk to zero. Is it wrong to simply enjoy things, even if there is a small but real chance that someone might be inconvenienced?

These small things are unimportant in the large scheme of life. I could not argue that I would not be able to live without my perfume, or nail polish, but they do bring us into the moment. Noticing my perfume or my nails brings a flash of joy and appreciation at unexpected times. I can see why these superficial things are important to me. They can remind me that life can be simple, that small things can make a big difference and everything is not about something larger.

Some Like it Hot

IMG_0056Is it Hot Enough For You?

Do you remember shovelling snow, hating the slippery roads, wearing layers upon layers and still being cold? This heat wave is the weather that we were all looking forward to as we stepped into deep water secretly hidden under a thin layer of ice, soaking us through to our socks. True happiness comes from knowing one’s self and getting in touch with how we truly feel and what we truly want.

Focusing on external circumstances like the weather (what can we control less?), especially if we aren’t enjoying them, can be a bad habit that is often used to avoid paying attention to what we are feeling. Do you find yourself shopping when you don’t need anything and spending more money than you have? Do you eat when you are not hungry and past the point of being full? Do you need a drink in order to face your day, or perhaps several? People do many things to distract themselves from their feelings. If you do anything habitually, that you know you probably shouldn’t be doing as much as you do, you may be trying to avoid your emotions. Click here to read more…..

In order to truly get in touch with what you want it is necessary to stop thinking about what should be making you happy. It is easy to get pulled into the idea that the next promotion, the next purchase, the upcoming holiday is what will make us happy. These are all future events and are not happening now. It is important to become aware of the less tangible, more satisfying aspects of your life. Especially in North America, we are all about the logical, scientific mind. We are quite confident that if you can measure it, test it and quantify it, “It” is real and worth our attention. We are driven by…click here to read more….

I want to welcome you to your life. Some things can be changed, some cannot. The trick is to experience your life to the fullest and to allow yourself to indulge in your passions. So stop thinking so hard and doing so much and enjoy the weather before the snow returns.

Can Stress Be Good For You?

IMG_4985As our understanding of how stressful our lives have become expands, more and more people are talking about meditation, leisure, slowing down and living in the moment. It is generally believed stress can hurt you and you should take every opportunity to reduce it in your life.

In a very two-dimensional way, this seems obvious. If you are worried, on edge and generally unable to relax, it must make you sick or at least tired. We can all think of someone who is so stressed their health and possibly their life has fallen apart. But this belief misses a larger truth. Many of our great accomplishments, enjoyable activities and even some of the pivotal and positive things in our lives are inherently stressful.

Worrying your true love will refuse your offer of marriage may be stressful, but that does not mean you should not ask. Standing up in front of a group of people to give a presentation, is also stressful, but it may be invigorating. People choose to sky dive for heaven’s sake!

So what is really going on? Kelly McGonigal, a doctor who studies the impact stress has on us has made an interesting discovery. In her TED talk 

she explains that if you “believe” stress is bad for you, it does more harm to your health. Simply put, it is our own brain’s interpretation of the effect of stress that ultimately determines how likely the stress will be harmful. Her study demonstrated that if you experienced a stressful event you were 43% more likely to die the following year ONLY if you believed stress was harmful for your health.

In contrast, those who experienced stress but did not believe it was harmful, actually had a lower risk of dying than people who had the least stress. Woah!! That is not what we have come to believe. Could this be because doing interesting things, taking chances, putting yourself out there makes life interesting and more enjoyable, even though it is stressful? I think that may be the case.

Is life worth living if we are constantly trying to be as risk and stress free as possible? I think not. We all know what that would look like and it would be incredibly boring. So, think of your heart pumping and your breathing increasing as your body prepping for action, not as something that is bad for you. Get out there. Take a chance, do something exciting, it may even reduce your risk of dying…

Aren’t they irritating?

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If you ever notice yourself in a situation where you find someone’s behaviour irritating, stop and write it down. We all know the feeling of being rubbed the wrong way. The person acts in a way that gets under our skin and we dislike them because of it. If you experience this you’ve struck gold.

There are, for purposes of this discussion, two parts to the way you experience the world. One is through sensations in your body and the other is through how we explain our world to ourselves using words. The sensations part does not have direct access to the word generating part of our brain and must communicate through body signals. It is more difficult to hear and understand messages that are communicated this way, but that is where the irritation comes in. You experience the other person as irritating because you are trying to tell yourself something that you have noticed about them.

Sometimes a person can be irritating because they allow themselves to do things that you don’t allow yourself to do. They aren’t following the rules, as you understand them. It may be that you are trying to tell yourself that you are too strict about the rules, not allowing spontaneity and joy to enter your own life. The body  is trying to tell you this  and the emotion of irritation is how it is delivering the message.

Another friend found people that were preoccupied with how busy they were irritating. Then she discovered that she had entered a part of her life that was causing her to be too busy. The message may be subtle and easy to shrug off like any unpleasant encounter, but it is worth listening to.

Take a moment when you have a chance to reflect, and read what you have written. Try to write down, as well as you can, what irritated you about this person. Why was that irritating? Why do you feel it is unacceptable? How do these judgements relate to your own decisions? This irritating person may be just what you need to understand yourself a little better.

The Most Important Moment is Now

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As science and spirituality continue to merge on many fronts, one of the more interesting discoveries is that meditation is being “discovered” as a treatment for many psychological disorders. Not only are people with serious problems benefiting from this practice, many people with everyday issues like anxiety and overeating have seen benefits. In addition to that it has been shown to slow some of the effects of aging (Epel, 2009 and Turner, 2010).

Now, stay with me here, I’m not going to tell you that you have to sit in the lotus position and say OOOvHHHMMMNnnnn for hours on end. Meditation, or as it is referred to in the scientific literature, mindfulness, can be achieved just by ignoring your brain for a while. The definition of mindfulness is generally thought to have two parts: focusing on the present moment and accepting what is without judgment (Coffey, 2010 and Bishop, 2004).

The key to all of this is that you must make this moment the most important moment. Worrying about the future, fretting about the past, planning what you need to do next, rethinking upsetting conversations, must all take a back seat. The moment of meditation needs to be the most important moment–while you are doing it. You can get back to worrying about what you are going to do if you happen to run into someone that you don’t like, or whether or not you should buy a dog or two cats–later. For now, recognize that everything is OK and that you do not have to do anything or plan anything for the next fifteen minutes. You may find that you do not want to go back to worrying when you are done.

In order to meditate you must sit, walk, run, swim, bike, lie down or ski. Well anything that you can do that allows you to disengage your mind. Walking in heavy traffic, for instance, would not be suitable because if your mind was not engaged there is a good chance that you would be pulled back into thinking about your surroundings pretty quickly and abruptly. The key is that it needs to be an activity, or no activity, that allows you to “turn off your brain”.

I am not going to tell you that you have to stop that word generating part of your brain that has nothing better to do than jabber all day about this and that and all of the things that you have to do and what happened several years ago at the beach when that large….but I digress. What you need to do is not pay attention to those thoughts. When words come into your mind (and we both know they will) simply observe them and pay no further attention.

It can be helpful to visualize the words as bubbles that float to the surface and pop, or as cars speeding down a highway off into the distance, or any other visual that you may find useful. What we are trying to avoid here is paying attention to the words. So, if you suddenly remember that you haven’t fed your pet fish, recognize that it won’t matter in the next 15 minutes. You will remember again. If you start to think about how angry the clerk made you at the store, see the words individually, don’t get pulled into the story, just observe that you had a thought and let it fall away.

Screen Shot 2014-04-10 at 6.12.48 PMThe key is to just be aware of the fact that your brain is generating words and to not care about what they are saying. Right now, in this moment, it is not important. It can be helpful to focus on your breath and keep bringing your attention to your breath. If you are moving during this time you might focus on each step or each stroke. You may just pay attention to all of the sensations coming from your body and the words being generated by your mind. Just accept them and do not engage with them. Do not criticize yourself for thinking, just notice and bring your attention back to your body or your breath or your movement.

The next step is to start to notice other things. How does your body feel? What are the sounds and smells around you? Is it cold, hot, midlin? Take note of these things, but don’t get engaged. For instance if you realize it is too cold, it is not the time to get a sweater. You can wait until you are done, you won’t freeze to death in 15 minutes (not in a place that you’ve chosen to meditate in anyhow). This is a great exercise in learning to observe your thoughts in a way that allows you to see how transient they are and that they occur even when you are paying attention to something else. But, more on that at another time.

So to recap, you want to be focused on the moment and to accept it for whatever it is–even if your fish is starving to death. Meditating in this way for 15 minutes a day is all that it takes. What is there to gain from doing absolutely nothing for 15 minutes everyday?….well, a lot actually. Meditation, or mindfulness, has been shown to decrease stress, depression and illness. It has been shown to slow the aging process and it is key in helping to break bad habits such as smoking or gossiping. So, by taking the time each day to recognize that the most important moment is now you can improve your life. Now that is easier than dieting or exercising wouldn’t you say?


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Aren’t they irritating?

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If you ever notice yourself in a situation where you find someone’s behaviour irritating, stop and write it down. We all know the feeling of being rubbed the wrong way. The person acts in a way that gets under our skin and we dislike them because of it. If you experience this you’ve struck gold.

There are, for purposes of this discussion, two parts to the way you experience the world. One is through sensations in your body and the other is through how we explain our world to ourselves using words. The sensations part does not have direct access to the word generating part of our brain and must communicate through body signals. It is more difficult to hear and understand messages that are communicated this way, but that is where the irritation comes in. You experience the other person as irritating because you are trying to tell yourself something that you have noticed about them.

Sometimes a person can be irritating because they allow themselves to do things that you don’t allow yourself to do. They aren’t following the rules, as you understand them. It may be that you are trying to tell yourself that you are too strict about the rules, not allowing spontaneity and joy to enter your own life. The body  is trying to tell you this  and the emotion of irritation is how it is delivering the message.

Another friend found people that were preoccupied with how busy they were irritating. Then she discovered that she had entered a part of her life that was causing her to be too busy. The message may be subtle and easy to shrug off like any unpleasant encounter, but it is worth listening to.

Take a moment when you have a chance to reflect, and read what you have written. Try to write down, as well as you can, what irritated you about this person. Why was that irritating? Why do you feel it is unacceptable? How do these judgements relate to your own decisions? This irritating person may be just what you need to understand yourself a little better.