Mindful Anger Management

First published on Huffington Post on May 3, 2012

The other day I was driving down the road feeling peaceful and happy. Life was good. All was right with the world. As I signaled to change lanes, the driver next to me wouldn’t let me in, and impulsively, I reacted. I yelled sarcastically, “Thanks a lot!” Then I called her a name. I proceeded to get angrier because I missed my turn. Then I paused and observed how ridiculous I was — in two seconds I had gone from joyful and content to angry and yelling at a stranger.

Have you had a similar experience? Have you ever snapped at someone because the perfect order of your world unexpectedly went awry? We all have our strategies for dealing with anger — some healthier than others. When we unconsciously lash out at people, it can be hurtful to both them and us — or just plain embarrassing.

Recently His Holiness the Dalai Lama had this to say about anger: “The first drawback of anger is that it destroys your inner peace; the second is that it distorts your view of reality. If you think about this and come to understand that anger is really unhelpful, that it is only destructive, you can begin to distance yourself from anger.”

Of all the wonderful emotions we have available to us as humans, anger is my least favorite. Yet I disagree with the Dalai Lama in one small respect, because I believe anger can be a useful tool in our search for self-awareness.

Anger is our built-in alarm system alerting us that something is wrong, out of harmony, off balance. Some event has clashed with our expectations, our beliefs or our spirit. We can gain vital information about ourselves and what we believe about the world when we look honestly at our anger. But when we react unconsciously, repress our anger or get caught up in it, it becomes counterproductive and negatively affects our health and relationships.

What if we practiced being mindful of our anger?

What if, as soon as we noticed our anger, we stopped for a moment to feel the emotion fully? What happens to the body when we’re angry? Maybe we feel a tightness or pressure in our chest; our body tenses and heats up; our breathing gets shallow. Just observing the sensations in the body is a mindful practice.

When we acknowledge and become fully aware of our emotions, we gain a certain amount of spaciousness in the experience. Just the act of accepting and acknowledging the feeling loosens its grip on us. And as soon as the grip is loosened, we can open to loving kindness towards others and ourselves. The sooner we move from anger to love, the sooner our inner peace is restored.

We can also bring awareness to our thoughts. In our anger, did we draw conclusions about a situation or the people involved? The moment I got angry with the driver who wasn’t budging in the next lane, I started to draw conclusions about her. She was an idiot… She was rude… She was in my way… She made me miss my turn. Well, none of that was true, but it’s the story my mind instantly created.

On a daily basis, any number of things can trigger anger and frustration — a friend does something that hurts our feelings, our company makes a decision that negatively impacts our work or we do something stupid or thoughtless and have trouble letting ourselves off the hook. We can easily get caught up in all sorts of stories about why something should or shouldn’t have happened, or worry about all the trouble it’s going to cause in our lives. Our minds will take us down a winding road while our frustration, anger and resentment intensify. We have attached meaning to an event. However, when we become aware of the story we’ve created, when we mindfully observe our thoughts, we can apply the brakes, stop the story and gently bring ourselves back to the present moment. And in the present moment, we realize the story we’ve created is causing more pain than the event that triggered it.

In The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle writes, “Accept — then act. Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it.”

As long as we resist what IS, our anger will build and we will carry that anger with us. When we accept what IS, we can begin to move forward. By acknowledging our feelings and simply observing our thoughts, we are better able to make a conscious choice of how best to respond to life’s occasional frustrations.

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How I Broke All the Rules — But Still Quit Smoking

First published on Huffington Post  on September 3, 2011

I was a smoker for 28 years. This month I celebrated one year smoke free. Even though I tried to quit many times before — probably 20 to 30 times in the last 10 years — this time felt different. This time it stuck. If you are struggling to gain your freedom from cigarettes, I hope I can give you a few new tactics to try. This is what made the difference for me, once and for all.

In many of my past attempts, I tried the usual tips and tricks. I set a quit date, threw out the ashtrays and elicited support from friends and family, but in the end the standard methods didn’t bring me success. So this last time, I broke nearly every rule but still managed to quit. So what made the difference?

I finally challenged the belief that I needed a cigarette.

“I need a cigarette.” Smokers say or think this all the time in any number of ways. If I was stressed out, I would say it with exasperation: “I need a cigarette!” Even if I grabbed a cigarette without thinking, I was basically saying to myself, “I need a cigarette.”

In the car on my way to work, “Just one cigarette before I get there.” After dinner, “A cigarette would be nice.” As I poured myself a cup of coffee in the morning, “Where are those cigarettes?”

Beliefs are very powerful things. And when a smoker says, “I need a cigarette,” even if we say it flippantly, we really do believe that we need a cigarette. It can be hard for some to admit, because who wants to admit they need something so stupid, but until we face it and call the lie into question, we can’t get past it.

The truth is, we don’t need cigarettes. We need something, but it’s not a cigarette. We need a break, we need a few moments alone, we need a distraction, we need to slow down, we need to give ourselves a gift, we need to feel nurtured, we need a moment’s peace. But we do not need a cigarette.

So this time, when I heard myself say anything close to “I need a cigarette,” I’d answer back forcefully with “That’s a lie! I do not need a cigarette.” Any lie brought into the light loses its power. Just the simple act of calling the lie a lie was enough to loosen its grip on me, and slowly my belief in the lie started to fade.

If I needed a break, I would take a break, but without the cigarette. If I needed a few moments of peace, I’d go to my room, shut the door and meditate or take a quick nap. If I felt tense, I’d exercise. If I wanted to enjoy the evening air, I would take a walk around the neighborhood after dinner, but without the cigarette. In time, my belief changed, and I finally believed that I didn’t need the cigarettes after all.

I learned it’s okay to be uncomfortable.

While the physical symptoms from nicotine withdrawal are certainly real, they are temporary and can be eased with nicotine replacement therapies.

I quit cold turkey, and I was certainly a bear to be around for the first few days. But after a week or so, the nicotine is out of your system. What you’re left with is the discomfort of letting go of something that has come to be like a friend. It is uncomfortable to change an ingrained habit, to create new pathways, to try to cope with life without the usual crutches. And nobody likes to feel uncomfortable.

A friend who is a recovering alcoholic once told me that an important element of his recovery was to learn that it’s okay to be uncomfortable. Many of us have little tolerance for being uncomfortable, and we live in a society that teaches us to leave no desire unmet.

During a 3-day silent meditation retreat, I learned of the power of simply being present with discomfort. When you are sitting for hours in meditation, you learn how truly uncomfortable even a tiny itch can be.

In mindfulness practice you are encouraged to be present with physical sensations even if they are uncomfortable. Rather than unconsciously scratching every itch, you allow your attention to settle fully on the experience of the sensation. You don’t try to change it. You watch what happens when you don’t relate to the sensation according to your conditioned response, which would be scratching. In most cases, I found that the itch subsided on its own — no scratching needed.

You can try the same mindful practice with cravings. Bring awareness to the craving feeling. Rather than answering the feeling with smoking, just make a mental note of the feeling. Don’t get lost in judgment or explanations about why you are experiencing the feeling, because that will only feed the discomfort. Instead, remain in simple awareness of the body sensation — it won’t kill you. Feel your body. Breathe deeply. See if the feeling changes. Does it grow stronger or weaker? Does it pass?

This practice helps you break your conditioned response of attempting to satisfy every craving or tension with a cigarette. It takes the power away from the discomfort and gives it back to you. Awareness can be extremely empowering.

We believe we need willpower to resist the mighty power of our cravings. We don’t need willpower, we just need to see the cravings for what they are. They are transient feelings. They are not almighty and powerful, and they will not do us in. It’s okay to feel the discomfort and let it pass. For so long I had given my power over to the craving for cigarettes, but this time I took my power back.

I replaced smoking with breathing and other healthy things.

Most people do not know how to breathe properly. I once heard Dr. Andrew Weil offer his advice about the most important thing people should change to improve their health. He answered, “Breathe.”

We do not breathe deeply enough. Shallow breathing leaves us feeling tired, deprives us of oxygen, and creates tension in our bodies. For smokers, it’s common for us to only breathe deeply when we are filling our lungs with smoke.

When I finally succeeded at releasing my smoking habit, I replaced smoking with deep breathing exercises and other healthy activities. Instead of a smoke break, I would often take breathing breaks — simply stopping what I was doing to take a few slow, deep breaths.

When I was tired and tense after a long day, I would lay down for a few moments and practice 3-part breathing, which is the practice of slowly filling the three chambers of your lungs with air, beginning with the belly and moving up through the rib cage and the upper chest. Then, release the breath fully in all three chambers. It’s extremely effective at releasing tension. You simply can’t be stressed out when you are breathing deeply.

For smokers, a cigarette can represent a well-deserved moment of relaxation. At the end of a long day, we certainly feel like we “deserve” a cigarette. Actually, we deserve so much more than a cigarette. We deserve to relax. We deserve to enjoy our lives fully. And we deserve to have clean, fresh air filling our lungs and fueling our bodies.

Over the course of this past year, I became free from the need for cigarettes through shifts in my belief system, mindfulness practices and healthy replacements. As a result, I’ve become more empowered to create the life I want. I actually lost 15 pounds! I walked my first 5K. I started a yoga practice, and I haven’t looked back longingly at smoking even once. I came to believe that I deserved to live a life of freedom and fullness. And so do you.

On the Path to Self-Discovery With the Duchess of York

First published on Huffington Post, 2011-05-20

I’ve always liked Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York. Perhaps it is that she came on the scene when I was a teenage girl and infatuated with the royal weddings, like girls today. Perhaps it was her curly hair, which matched my own. Or her slight chunkiness, which also matched my own. Over the past decade, it’s been sad to watch what seemed to be her spiral downward. Last year, when she was caught on tape in the alleged bribery scandal, it appeared we were witnessing her self-destruction. However, as I watched Oprah’s interview with Sarah last week, I felt hopeful for her again. She still seems a bit shaky and just a little bit desperate, but she also appears to have found at least the trailhead of her own path to self-discovery.

Interspersed throughout the Oprah interview were clips from Sarah’s upcoming series on OWN, “Finding Sarah,” where she is counseled by Dr. Phil and Suze Orman to help her find her way. While I’m not a big fan of on-camera therapy, especially when it’s coming from Suze Orman who hardly seems qualified — I mean, who goes to their financial advisor for help with self-esteem issues? I was struck by one moment in particular when Sarah asks Suze with hopeless frustration in her voice, “How do you get self-worth? I don’t know how to get it!”

I remember years ago asking that question of my therapist with much the same frustration. While I cannot relate to life as a royal, I can certainly relate to Sarah’s personal struggle of not knowing her true value, making destructive choices and self-sabotage, and I know I am not alone.

It is at these low points in life when we realize we are going at it all wrong, that life is just not working, and we begin our own personal journey of self-discovery. For me it was also a journey of spiritual discovery — where I came to discover that I am a spiritual being, that I have within me the power of the “divine,” that I am — like every one else — a unique expression of God. I’m not sure where Sarah’s journey will take her, but I do believe it is a vital journey for every person to take.

A couple of practices were essential for me as I worked through my issues and came to discover my inner peace and confidence. I found that I had to:

Become aware of self-talk

Most of the time, we are unaware of our own thoughts. When we stop for a moment and observe our self-talk, some of us find that the voice in our head can be pretty unpleasant. It’s like hanging out with a nagging critic who points out our faults as we move throughout the day. If we let this critic go unchecked, it can lead to feeling pretty crappy about ourselves.  If we believe we are unloved and unlovable, it’s no wonder we look outside ourselves to fill the inner void.

But we can’t change what we are not aware of. So we need to shine some light on the self-critical thoughts and conversations that are happening in the background of our minds. At first we just need to become the observer and bring awareness to our thoughts and feelings. We can say, “Isn’t that interesting,” as a thought passes through our awareness. That’s enough to release any charge of negativity a thought or feeling may be carrying.

Find peace within

When we feel empty inside, it’s natural to seek someone or something to fill the emptiness. But there is no one or no thing that can give us what we need. Lasting peace, happiness and acceptance can only be found within. If we are having trouble finding peace, it may be that we need to remove some clutter.

Meditation is the most valuable tool we have for uncovering the treasure trove of peace and well-being that is within. In the silence, we touch serenity, we feel our spirits expanding, we feel spacious freedom and, most importantly, we connect with our inner wisdom.

The choice of meditation practices is wide-ranging. It doesn’t need to be complicated or require much special instruction. In Unity, one of the practices we teach is silent meditation. In a recent article in Daily Word, Rev. Carolyne Mathlin offers this simple technique to begin:

Sit quietly in the silence. If you need a focus, follow your breath. If your mind chatters, and it will, just gently return focus to your breath. Dissolve into the silence and let the silence reveal Itself to you.

I do not believe there is any other practice that has been more beneficial to my spiritual growth than meditation. If you don’t have a meditation practice of your own or have let it lapse, I encourage you to start one today and find the peace that lives within you.

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Laura Harvey is the editor of Daily Word, a daily devotional magazine, published by Unity since 1924. Unity emphasizes the practical, everyday application of spiritual principles to help people live more abundant and meaningful lives.

Letting Go: How to Release the Past

First published on Huffington Post, 2011-02-26

A dear friend of mine cannot seem to let go of an old hurt. His marriage ended in the 1970s, and she passed away a few years ago, but thoughts of his ex-wife are still very fresh in his mind. We will be having a conversation, and something unrelated will trigger a memory. Attempts to steer him in another direction usually fail. He is simply unable to let it go.

Stories from our past, unforgiveness and regret distract us from living fully in the present. But how do we let things go and move on?

We all hold on to hurts from time to time. I realized recently I was holding on to a project that had not gone as I had hoped. I wasted way too much energy stewing over what had happened and why. I replayed the project in my mind many times — somewhat compulsively. Nothing could be done about it now; the project was over. I needed to learn from it and let it go, trusting that next time, I would do better.

So how can we let go when we feel compelled to hold on?

Be present

Compulsive thinking contaminates our present reality. When I realized I had been stewing over the project, I asked myself a simple question: Where am I right now? The question snapped me back into present moment awareness. My mind had been in one place while I was in another. We all do this. We may be lying in bed at night, taking a shower or driving to work, but our minds are distracted, or engaged in one-sided arguments, or trying to fix someone or something. Asking ourselves, “Where am I right now?” gives us a chance to step outside the internal dialogue for a moment of peace. Look around you, take a deep breath and notice what you see, hear and feel. Present moment awareness is the point of power and choice. It frees us from our compulsive thoughts.

Accept

So often we simply don’t want to accept what has happened. When mistakes are made, we tend to resist, telling ourselves that things should have gone another way. Resistance causes inner turmoil, robbing us of peace in our day-to-day lives. Acceptance brings peace. Learning from past experience is important, of course, but replaying things over and over again just binds us to old hurt, guilt and anger. With awareness and acceptance, we find that the hurtful situation loses its hold on us, and we are free to move on.

Forgive

Forgiveness is a common stumbling block. We don’t want to let others off the hook for hurt or pain we feel they caused us. But forgiveness begins and ends in our own consciousness. We forgive in order to free <em>ourselves</em> from the bondage of judgment and anger. In Daily Word each month since 1924 we have included a message about forgiveness. I went back into the archives to find this from 1941:

As long as we hold harsh or unforgiving thoughts, we cannot be an open channel for the receptivity of good. They who are unforgiving harm themselves rather than the object of their condemnation, for the hate generated operates only within themselves and leaves its effect solely upon them.

We suffer when we hold on to the past. Do the forgiveness work, let it go and get some relief.

Be grateful

This quote from Kahlil Gibran is profound:

I have learned silence from the talkative, tolerance from the intolerant and kindness from the unkind; yet strangely, I am ungrateful to these teachers.

It’s so true. We learn from the irritants in our lives. At the very least, we learn how not to be. But how often are we actually grateful for the lessons?

Once we become aware of our thoughts, accept the situation as it is and release it through forgiveness, we can then move on to being grateful for it. We can look back and find some aspect of the situation that has had a positive effect on us. Maybe we learned something. Maybe the trouble ultimately resulted in positive changes in our life. We may not be in control of everything that happens to us, but we are absolutely in control of our perception. Stepping into gratefulness for all that life brings is extremely freeing and empowering.

What kind of strategies have you developed to let go of old grudges or compulsive thinking?

Good Enough Just as We Are

 

First published on Huffington Post, 2010-12-01

More than a year ago a good friend sent me an email that I’ve saved in my inbox. Every now and then I open it. It always makes me smile. She wrote: “Just a reminder, in case you forget: You are perfect in every way. Say it. Know it. Feel it.” I can’t remember what prompted her email, but most likely she noticed I was caught up in self-doubt, as occasionally happens. When expectations are high, deadlines are looming, and my responsibilities are piling up, I tend to get anxious, overwhelmed and unsure of myself, which is exactly the opposite of what’s needed. Feeling inadequate is generally a success-killer.

We all suffer from insecurity at times, but when our internal dialogue turns nasty and mean, it undermines our happiness and our ability to grow and succeed. For me, the chain often starts with a vague sense that I’m not getting enough done, even though I am “doing” all the time. I’m the mother of two boys. I’m a wife. I work full-time, and then some. I’m the cook, the grocery shopper, the house cleaner, the homework assistant, the arbiter of my son’s Xbox screen time. I’m a busy woman! But, to my internal critic, it is never enough. We beat ourselves up for the foolish things we do, the unhealthy habits, the judgmental thoughts, the imperfections.  Soon we find ourselves carrying around a big ball of self-loathing, which can be a real pain.

In The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz writes, “Humans punish themselves endlessly for not being what they believe they should be.” So why are we constantly trying to be more than we are? Why isn’t this good enough? How do we change our self-loathing into self-love?

Recognizing the illusion of our egoic thoughts is a start. Eckhart Tolle describes it this way, “Behind every negative self-concept is the hidden desire of being the greatest or better than others …. Whenever you feel superior or inferior to anyone, that’s the ego in you.” Being conscious of the voice of our ego is how we release ourselves from the prison of self-judgment and blame. Our true essence is so much deeper than what our ego would have us believe.

We are more than our to-do lists, more than our personalities, more than our bodies or the roles we play in life. We are spiritual beings. We are the physical expression of spiritual power. The late author, metaphysician and theologian Eric Butterworth told us to sing our song of wholeness. He wrote: “Take time to be still and listen to the beat of your heart and feel the throb of your pulse. The universe is celebrating itself in you as an instrument of life. It is singing itself into your soul, saying, ‘You are alive, you are whole, and you are being healed and renewed in a constant rhapsody of life.'”

Imagine how we would live if we believed we were enough, if we were no longer comparing ourselves to others or judging ourselves on some arbitrary scale of bad and good, better and best. We loosen the grip of our inner critic by simply becoming aware of its influence. We don’t need to argue or resist the negative thoughts — just notice them, and affirm the truth as a counterbalance. Every time a thought of shame, guilt, disgust or mild irritation enters our minds, we recognize it and weaken its ability to take hold of our perception. We deny the lie that our egos would have us believe and affirm the truth that we are whole and perfect, just the way we are.

A recent daily message in Daily Word, the magazine for which I serve as editor, suggests the following way out of self-doubt: “I can consciously stop the negative talk in my mind and begin a new kind of conversation. I remember that I am a whole, shining, beloved child of God with unlimited potential. Nothing stops me but my own worries and fears. I have everything I need to succeed through the wisdom and power of God within me.”

When my friend wrote me that note about being perfect, she wasn’t saying I could never make a mistake. She was saying she saw the real me — the divine spark within, the song of my wholeness, my indwelling Christ nature — and she wanted me to see it too.

When we have found peace within ourselves and made peace with our bodies, our skills, our strengths and our weaknesses, we have the key to living happy and fulfilling lives. We just have to stop believing every thought that runs through our minds and start believing the truth of our innate wholeness. We are good enough just as we are.