Tired of being a frequent flyer on the plane of self-doubt, judgment, denial, and blame? Me too. I spent far too many years of my life with a churning worry deep inside. I’m not smart enough, pretty enough, tall enough. I’m a fraud. As far back as I can remember, this anxiety festered inside, robbing me of joyful living. What was I so afraid of?
Well everything, and nothing in particular. Anxious dispositions have been shown in studies to have a genetic component, and many of our personal habits were unintentionally adopted into our self-concept long before our sense of choice. Unfortunately in America, much of our adolescent coming of age orbits around conforming, with little energy available to invest into discovery of self, other or authentic tribe. Our inherited ‘negativity bias’ - a tendency that kept early human ancestors alerted to potential threats in their environment - doesn’t help matters either. Our bodies, therefore, tend to react more intensely to negative stimuli than to positive experience, and even reinforce it. According to Rick Hanson, Ph.D., psychologist, Senior Fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, and New York Times best-selling author “the brain is like velcro for negative experiences but teflon for positive ones. That’s why researchers have found that animals, including humans, generally learn faster from pain than pleasure.”
As a philosophy major in college, I found myself naturally drawn to life’s deep questions. Learning from great thought leaders like Aristotle, Socrates, and Thoreau, my curiosity had a place to play. Hearing the famous quote by Rene DesCartes, “Cogito ergo sum - I think therefore I am” installed an assumption into my personal ideology that my mind was my reality and therefore, who I was. I easily bought into this, as my thoughts felt essential to distinguishing me from another. Little did I know that this presumed separateness would perpetuate the fire of anxiety already smoldering inside.
As I moved through my twenties, thirties and forties, I continued to weave in and out of our largely expectant, ego-driven world, with my self-worth gradually eroding. The persistent fatigue I felt from the illusion and performance of fitting in was creating a stress-filled existence. On and on it went, until one day when I discovered mindfulness. This idea of paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally, opened my heart. I eagerly inhaled the wisdom of Pema Chodron, Eckhart Tolle, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Michael Singer, and Don Miguel Ruiz. I listened to Tara Brach, Shauna Shapiro, Kristin Neff, Dave Potter, David Steidl-Rast, and many others. Slowly, a theme of values alignment and ego detachment began to emerge, and together they encouraged me to invite the Curious Observer back into the captain’s chair of my life story. I started by noticing my self-talk, labeling it for what it was, and minimizing judgment. Some days I really got it - other days it eluded my grasp. I practiced mindful meditation, compassion and self-compassion. When I noticed myself complaining, I redirected myself toward tuning into what we have in common and appreciating shared experience. It felt rickety but I was trying.
Fast forward to last November, when I experienced a breakthrough trifecta of crises. Three Tuesdays in a row, I was knocked over by an unexpected wind gust of deep-seated fear, disappointment, and rejection. For months, I cycled through anger, shame, and hopelessness, a seemingly unstoppable parade of vulnerable emotional states. “Get me off this ride” was my mind’s recurrent playlist. Constant overthinking - projecting worry into the future or ruminating over the past - became a dizzying loop of negative outcomes.
Eventually, I got tired of hiding, running in place and feeling stuck. It was time to find the lesson. I registered for Rick Hanson’s Positive Neuroplasticity Training class and started learning how to refocus my mind’s energy on “installing the good.” He reminded me that “neurons that fire together wire together and passing mental states become lasting neural traits.” What kind of steward had I been playing in the movie of my own unhappiness?
Hanson says that the 100 billion neurons in the average human brain make 5 thousand synaptic connections each with other neurons. This internal world-wide-web furnishes us with several hundred trillion little microprocessors. Learning occurs when these neurons, firing 5 to 10 times per second in synchronized patterns of activation (brainwave rhythm), begin to associate with one another. This system offers us countless opportunities to influence how our neural net is groomed.
Research shows that simply labeling with a single word a negative state of mind - pain, anxiety, irritation, disappointment - calms activity in the amygdala (the alarm bell of the brain), and increases activity in the prefrontal cortex. By intentionally registering beneficial experience again and again, we can actually slant our amygdalas in a new direction, orienting our nervous system toward holding the positive rather than simply avoiding the negative. And the nervous system becomes more receptive to beneficial experiences, and more efficient at turning them into lasting changes in neural structure and function. With repeated practice, we can gradually resensitize our brains to the good. Hanson says “You can develop, over time, a joyful amygdala.” In this way, we choose to motivate ourselves to lean more into who and how we want to be.
I am learning so much from Dr. Hanson’s kind, hope-filled philosophy. Awareness of our inherited negativity bias, holding negative experience in mindful spacious awareness (to pull out of being glued to the movie), as well as our capacity to 'install' positive experiences simply by staying with them longer, has the potential to be life-enhancing for so many of us.
As I continue taking steps along this uncertain human path, I can feel myself recalibrating my brain's negative tendencies, growing inner resources, and expanding and connecting with our shared potential. More often than before, I choose to install the GOOD. And, that simply feels better.
Brother David Steidl-Rast on Happiness and Gratefulness
Brother David Steidl-Rast on a "Good Day"
The Power of Mindfulness: What You Practice Grows Stronger | Shauna Shapiro | TEDxWashingtonSquare
Hardwiring Happiness - Dr. Rick Hanson - TEDxMarin 2013
Do you feel hopeless at times, that you can't ever seem to get a break or that other people just don't understand your life? Of course, no one other person can ever know the shoes you walk in or the pain you feel. While each person's life circumstances are unique, we also know that much of our pain is self-inflicted. What I have learned from my own struggles and from the work I do with others is this: if we are not willing to accept our flaws and embrace our humility, if we are not willing to truly invest in ourselves and replace destructive habits with life-affirming ones, we cannot move out of the struggle. The fast-paced culture we live in does little to help us feel our ONENESS with all people. In fact, it does quite the opposite, by encouraging competition and drama. And so, a very real effort is needed to shield ourselves from the cultural trappings by which we can, at times, feel so consumed.
Our EGO is a very powerful force – it exists to allow us to develop a separate identity because our present society encourages it. When we entered this world, most of us felt at one with other people and with Love. Then slowly, beginning with our own name, we become conditioned by our family and our culture to develop a separate identity, our Ego. We were taught to be good girls and boys, which would earn us approval, but which also quietly eroded our sense of oneness and unconditional love. We learned to compete for attention and love, forgetting that we are essentially precious and good. Slowly over time, our sense of personal power was replaced with Fear – fear that we might not be good enough, smart enough, attractive enough. In Marianne Williamson's A Return to Love, Reflections of the Principles of A Course in Miracles, she writes, “The Ego is quite literally a fearful thought .. our entire network of fearful thoughts, all stemming from that first false belief in our separation from God and one another, is called the ego. Thought separated from love is a profound miscreation. It's our own power turned against ourselves.” And, Eckhart Tolle tells us “anyone who is identified with their mind and, therefore, disconnected from their true power, their deeper self rooted in Being, will have fear as their constant companion.”
For most people, they are so lost in their Ego world that they have no idea they have disconnected from their consciousness. Consumed by Fear and Self-identification, it is virtually impossible to shift toward Love, because our Ego is so busy preserving the status quo. The status quo may not be one that supports our best potential, but because it is familiar, it is to be protected no matter the cost. When this happens and we are consumed by our fears, we often turn to victimizing our Selves by blaming others for our pain (to assume any personal responsibility would jeopardize the Ego we worked so hard to protect). This is a trap, which unfortunately our culture supports. The more we identify with our Ego, the more restless we become and the more we attempt to resolve the restlessness through more attachments, such as material consumption, toxic chatter or self-deprecation.
If instead, we move past our Ego and see how we are all ONE massive life force, many of our fears are stripped of their power over us. “By making this pattern conscious, by witnessing it, you dis-identify from it. In the light of your consciousness, the unconscious patter will then quickly dissolve. This is the end of all arguments and power games, which are so corrosive to relationships. Power over others is weakness disguised as strength. True power is within, and it is available to you now.” Eckhart Tolle
Observing the Ego is our gateway to awareness of and then release of Self. This requires a good deal of practice, as identification with the Ego has become so habitual in adulthood.
Be the quiet Observer in your own life and watch where this takes you. Each time you find yourself stuck in attachments, simply sit in this new awareness. Eventually, begin to disentangle your Beingness from your Ego-identification and you may notice some remarkable things in the ways you feel. Just because you were once robbed of the pure love and innocence you arrived with, does not suggest that you are not absolutely capable of reclaiming it.
Release Ego and Embrace Love – it is Who You Are.
Certified Health and Lifestyle Coach, Sheryl Melanson, partners with people to transform limiting habits into mindful choices that express their values, create action plans and recalibrate their lifestyle to optimal well-being.