Meditation or Electric Shock Therapy?

pemaskyDid you know there are a significant number of people who’d rather give themselves electric shocks than sit quietly in a room with nothing but their own thoughts for just 6-15 minutes? So reported Kate Murphy in Sunday’s New York Times, with her excellent article, “No Time to Think”. In an article she cites from Science Magazine, researchers were amazed with results from several different studies involving 700 people, “In 11 studies, we found that participants typically did not enjoy spending 6 to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think, that they enjoyed doing mundane external activities much more, and that many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts. Most people seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative.” You can read the full, fascinating report here. Apparently, participants were interviewed before the experiment, and all said they’d pay not to be electrically shocked, but when push came to shove, 65% of the men, and 15% of the women ended up opting for self-administered shocks as opposed to just a few minutes of sitting with their feelings.

Researchers theorized that the difficulty for people arose because their thoughts tended to be negative. That does seem to be our default setting, that “negativity bias”. Back in the days when we were living in caves, this was probably a key factor to our survival. We needed to worry about things like being eaten by saber-tooth tigers. We needed to be on the alert for danger, we needed to be thinking ahead about all the things that could befall us. And even though most of us don’t have to worry about being eaten for lunch at this point, we’ve replaced those primal worries with other pressing anxieties and stresses of the day. So given the opportunity to sit quietly, without distractions, without our mobile devices, without anyone calling or texting or emailing, chances are, our minds will start to lean into those fears which are often hiding just below the surface. Maybe we worry about what we’re doing with our lives, or we feel anxious about the state of our relationships with those closest to us, or we start thinking about financial pressures. Maybe we feel lonely, or bored, or deeply unfulfilled. Maybe we’re enraged, but we keep ourselves busy enough that we don’t have to feel that often. There are all kinds of uncomfortable feelings we humans experience—shame, doubt, guilt, envy, jealousy, despair, grief—just to name a few, and no one would invite these feelings into his or her living room for tea. Nonetheless, we’ll be visited by all of these perfectly natural, human emotions form time to time. And if we distract ourselves, or numb ourselves or busy ourselves so we don’t have to face those feelings, we also lose an opportunity to know ourselves, and to grow.

We have such fear about being with what is. Maybe we think if we stop and breathe and get quiet, we’ll remember that we have a finite amount of time here, and so does everyone else, even those we treasure beyond words. Maybe we’re scared that old pain will rise to the surface and overwhelm us. But this is the stuff that keeps us miserable and suffering. The denial, the avoidance. If we refuse to look at our issues, our problems, or pain, then all of that remains bubbling below everything we do and say. Living your life on the run is no way to do things. Not knowing yourself is the loneliest thing there is. Getting quiet and allowing your feelings to arise, peak and subside, is a beautiful lesson in impermanence. No feeling is forever if you acknowledge it. If you repress it, it’ll just keep coming after you. And if you develop a practice of sitting quietly and observing your breath, your thoughts and your feelings, you’ll find such relief. You are not your thoughts. You are not your feelings. You have the ability to step back from all that white noise and take a good look and listen to your internal dialogue. You’ll find, if you haven’t already, that “you do not have to believe everything you think”. You’ll find that everything is in a constant state of flux, including you. You’ll find that you have the power to choose one thought over another, and that this power will give you your life back. To the extent that you’re able to face your pain and work with it, you’ll be able to set yourself free. Otherwise that stuff owns you. It rules your world, and there’s just no need for that.

It is true that the rules of this game are not easy to swallow. If we’re lucky, we get 80, 90, maybe 100 years, as do all the people we love, if they are also lucky. That’s not a lot of time. But it’s enough time to have a blast. It’s enough time to live with your heart wide open, and to love the people in your life with everything you’ve got. It’s enough time to take in the insane beauty that’s around you if you look up from your phone now and then. Now AND then. Yes, some of it is devastating. We’ll all be heartbroken from time to time. Some of us will endure knifing losses. But there’s also joy. There’s also the laughter of those people you adore. There’s holding hands. There are hugs. There’s the ocean and the sun on your face, and the wind in the leaves of the trees. There are moments that take your breath away and fill your heart with yes. You really can’t have one without the other. If you numb out the pain, you numb out the joy. And that’s a great way to miss what could have been 100 incredible, interesting, meaningful years. Don’t let it happen.

Sending you love,

Ally Hamilton

The Voice Inside Your Head

negativecommitteeYesterday afternoon my son, who’s seven, was practicing the guitar. He’s been taking lessons for less than a year, but he’s doing really well. I love to listen to him play, it brings tears to my eyes. This week, his teacher told him to stop whenever he makes a mistake, and “loop back.” This is a new way of working; in the past, if he made a mistake he’d keep going. Anyway, he was having an “off day.” He couldn’t make his fingers move as quickly as he wanted to, and he couldn’t make the notes sound the way he wanted them to sound. After about twenty minutes, he came out of his room frustrated and in tears, and told me he was “never going to get it.”

So I went in and sat down with him, and asked him to breathe a little before he started again. I also talked to him about the voice inside his head. I asked him if he was aware of that voice, and he looked at me like I’d discovered some huge secret of his. He asked how I knew he had a voice inside his head, and I told him we all do. I told him about a ballet teacher I had when I was thirteen. No matter what I did, no matter how hard I tried, it was never good enough. He’d berate me in front of the whole room of dancers with scathing remarks. I felt the burn of shame so many times as I spun and spun on my toes in that room with him. In the years I studied with him, he only “broke” me once. There was an afternoon when a tear slid down my cheek, and even though I wiped it as I danced, he saw. It was the only time he asked me if I was okay. Years later, after I’d quit, I ran into him on Broadway. He asked me where I was dancing, and I told him I wasn’t. He was shocked. He said he’d always been especially hard on me because I had what it took. I told him for me, personally, hearing that then would have made all the difference in the world. I didn’t need “tough love” and I didn’t need shaming. Someone who believed in me would have worked wonders.

The thing is, we often internalize those voices we hear growing up. If we’re told we’re loved and cherished, if we’re made to feel that we have an impact on the people and the world around us, we’re likely to have a pretty kind and forgiving inner voice. If our effort is acknowledged, we learn to appreciate our process, instead of getting hung up on the results, but if we’re met with constant criticism, if we get the message that we never measure up, we’re very likely to develop a loud and relentless inner critic. My son’s guitar teacher is an incredible guy. Kind, loving, patient, encouraging, and tough in all the right ways. He’s bringing out the best in my son. Anyway, I explained to my boy that an inner voice that roots you on is a huge help as you move through life. Shame is a poor teaching tool, and it’s a horrible constant companion. Telling yourself you’re having a tough moment is a lot kinder than saying you’ll never get it, and it’s a lot more accurate.

I get lots of emails from people who are in pain, and so many of them are incredibly hard on themselves. We all make mistakes. We all have pain, and we all struggle. None of us acts from our highest self in every moment, or in every situation. Sometimes we have healing to do in a certain area, and maybe we’ve been avoiding that work, and then it springs up and bites us in the ass, this raw place within us that’s crying for our kind attention. Sometimes we make a mess of things out of sheer confusion and desperation. Beating yourself up isn’t going to serve anyone, and it isn’t going to aid you in your growth process. It really isn’t. Telling yourself you’re a terrible person who screwed up and made your own bed which you now deserve to lie in isn’t going to help you get to the source of what caused you to move in the direction you did in the first place. It’s okay. You’re human. Just start where you are and examine what happened with a compassionate eye. You’re not a terrible person who deserves to suffer. You didn’t set out to hurt anyone. If you were that kind of person, you wouldn’t torture yourself about it. You see what I mean? If you feel badly, it’s because you have a kind heart. Maybe you made some really poor choices. So be it. Get to work figuring out why you weren’t respecting yourself. Or why you didn’t speak up and say that you were feeling unseen or unheard or unloved.

Life is short and amazing, or long and painful. I’m pretty sure those are the options. And I think the key difference is how you’re talking to yourself. If the world within you is loving, it makes it so much easier to move through the world around you. I can say for myself, I worked this out on my yoga mat. I took that loud, shaming voice and I starved it. I stopped believing in it. I stopped giving it power or credibility, and I fed a loving, kind, patient, compassionate voice. I still worked my ass off, but I did it with a smile on my face, because it feels good to be in a healthy conversation with yourself.

Wishing that for you so much, and sending you love,

Ally Hamilton

Take the Road Inward

dalaiactionsThe desire to be happy drives all of us, but sometimes it drives us in the wrong direction. Anything we do, we do because we believe it will bring us peace or contentment or feelings of joy or gratitude, even things we do for other people. I teach because I love it. I love the feeling of being in a room full of people who are breathing and sweating and focusing and looking at themselves in an honest way, in a safe space. I love the co-creation of that space, and I feel grateful that I can offer ideas that might help someone to heal, drawing from my own healing journey over the last twenty years. It feels good. Doing things for my kids makes me happy, even if I’m exhausted and have answered nine million “why” questions by the end of the day. Folding those tiny tee shirts, or pairing up those little socks makes me smile, because it’s so fleeting. Soon my son’s socks will be bigger than mine, and my daughter will be rolling her eyes as she heads out the door with some guy I’m going to vet like I work for the FBI.

Anyway, my point is, if you ask yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing, or why you want what you want, I can almost guarantee you’ll find it’s because you think this course of action will lead to your happiness. If you’re on a diet, maybe it’s because you haven’t been treating your body well, and are now trying to make friends with it again, eating whole foods, and drinking lots of water, and tuning in to your body’s needs and desires. Or maybe it’s because you’re buying into the insanity that you can never be skinny enough, but if only you could, you’d meet someone fabulous. See what I’m saying? Whether it’s a healthy or unhealthy motivation, you’re doing it because you believe it will lead you somewhere good.

If you’re working a ninety hour week because you think a lot of money will make you happy, and someday you’ll be able to retire and enjoy yourself, I’d say that’s not a good course of action because tomorrow isn’t promised. If you’re chasing someone who isn’t really giving you the time of day because you believe if only you could “have them”, then you’d be happy, I’d say you’re also on a thorny path, but sometimes we’re in pain, and that’s what’s motivating us. We’re coming from a place of lack, and we attach our happiness to external things, people, events or circumstances, and so here we are on this quest to be happy, but we’ve taken the road to misery. I think a lot of people are living this way.

Ask yourself why you want the things you want. It’s a good exercise, and you don’t have to share your findings with anyone (although a great therapist can be very helpful in this regard). Make a list of those things or people or brass rings you’re chasing, and hold them up to the light, because you don’t want to spend too much time racing down Misery Lane. You really might need to recalibrate your GPS, and set a new course. Happiness is inside us. You don’t have to run or race or travel to find it. You really have to get quiet, so you can hear the voice of your intuition, so you can tap into that inner knowing. It’s got a very clear voice. It will tell you “yes, this”, or “no.” It’s just that sometimes we’ve drowned it out with a lot of shoulds.

It took me a long time to be happy. I spent a lot of my young adult years convinced I’d be happy, when…and you can fill in the blanks with so much stuff. I also spent a lot of time blaming other people for my unhappiness. Those are flip sides of the same coin. If your happiness lies in something or someone outside yourself, your lack of this person or thing or event becomes responsible for your unhappiness, but the truth is, no one is responsible for your peace of mind, or lack of it, but you. We each have our own work to do to unearth our joy, our passion, our gifts, those things that light us up, or terrify us, or inspire us. We all have to look at what’s holding us back, where we might be blaming, where we might be stopping ourselves with self-limiting beliefs. You have to know yourself if you want to be happy. A huge house isn’t going to help you with that, and neither is the “right” person. You’re the right person. Knowing yourself and accepting yourself is inside work. So if you’re looking for a road to get you there, pick the road inward.

Sending you love,

Ally Hamilton

Look Beneath the Surface

We-dont-see-things-asLife will never fail to offer you opportunities to practice patience and compassion. Challenging people or circumstances can be incredible teachers. We can’t control who or what shows up on the path in front of us, but we can choose our response. You can look at the surface of a person and judge or condemn them, and when I say the surface, I don’t mean their appearance, I mean their way of being. The quality they’re bringing to whatever it is they’re doing. There’s a whole complex world happening under the surface, and you may not get a glimpse into it. If you see someone on line ahead of you at the supermarket, for example, and you notice they’re talking loudly on their cellphone while the person behind the register is trying to ring them up, all kinds of thoughts and labels might stream through your mind. The minute you start thinking, “selfish, inconsiderate, unaware, self-absorbed, thoughtless”, you’ve lowered your own vibration. You’ve made a decision to become a character in their story. The disgruntled, righteous shopper! You could take that same moment to come back to your breath. To catch yourself if you’re starting to spin toward dark, hopeless thinking. To remind yourself that’s their story, and it doesn’t seem to be a very happy one. You could direct your energy to the person ringing them up, and send love. You might even smile at them and wink. When it’s your turn at the register, you could make their day by being present and kind. If you really wanted to do an advanced practice, you could send some love to the person on the phone, because how many beautiful moments must they be missing? Chances to connect in a meaningful way with other human beings, lost because they’re somewhere else.

It happens all the time, all day long. You’re driving along and someone cuts you off in an insane way. You get an adrenaline rush if it’s a dangerous move they’ve made; that can’t be helped, but some people become irate, as if it’s personal. They roll down their window and flip their traffic finger, yelling expletives and feeling their blood pressure go up. You might be thinking, it IS personal, I’m the one who was just cut off, but that’s on the other person, it’s not a story you have to join. They may have a genuine problem. Maybe they’re dealing with an emergency, and maybe they drive like that all the time. Who knows? Their driving persona may not sync up with the person they are most of the time. Some people have road rage. People who seem calm and reasonable in most cases can get behind the wheel of a car and do a fairly winning impression of Jack Nicholson in “The Shining.” Maybe your old Aunt Marge struggles with that.

Sometimes people write in about family members, and it goes something like: “This person in my life makes me feel powerless. This person makes me feel invisible. No matter what I do, this person won’t listen to me.” You can’t control other people. You can’t make someone see you or hear you or love you. It’s all a choice, but for some people they haven’t realized their own power yet. Things happen, and they react. A person says something hurtful, and they respond in kind, even though that isn’t really how they feel. We’re all having this separate experience, together. I think it’s really important to realize that. Feelings are feelings, and stories are stories. You have all these complex, often wounded people coming together interacting with each other, each with her or his own ideas about what’s happening, and all knowing that one day we will die. Not that anyone loves to think about that, but we all know it’s there. Not everyone handles it well.

Sometimes people just repeat what they know. If they weren’t treated with consideration, maybe they don’t understand the concept. Maybe they grew up in a house where no one ever stopped to really listen to them, where they had little to no impact on the world around them. Maybe they grew up thinking what they said and what they did didn’t matter much to anyone. Or maybe everything was handed to them, and perhaps they grew up thinking other people were there to serve them.  Can you imagine a childhood where you thought you were to be served? Isn’t that sad? The best thing in life is being of service, of feeling you’re able to make a meaningful contribution to the people and the world around you. Imagine if no one ever taught you that. Would it be nice if you figured it out on your own along the way? Of course, but we never know what another person needs in order to grow and learn and be happy. Perhaps you’re crossing paths with them at a time when they still have a lot to understand. Does anything good come from condemning them? Is it any kind of reflection on you if a person can’t see you, or doesn’t know how to be kind and compassionate?

The thing is, you only get so many minutes in a day. Life doesn’t have a rollover plan for wasted moments. And you can let the challenging people you encounter, or the difficult situations you may face rob you of entire afternoons if you aren’t careful, but I don’t recommend it. Life will bring enough for you to deal with; it’s plenty of work keeping your own side of the street clean. You might try something if you feel like it. When I wake up in the morning, I remind myself of all the amazing gifts I have to be grateful for, starting with having another day to open my eyes and be in my body and hug my children and love people firecely and try to do something meaningful with my time, something that might be helpful to someone else. Most of the time things work out pretty well that way. I don’t succeed in every moment of every day, of course. I’m a human being, and there are times I’m deeply disappointed in myself. Especially if I realize I allowed too many moments that could have been beautiful become sour instead. But I think when you move through the world with that idea of spreading love, of being in love, you’re a lot less likely to get thrown off center for too long. It’s easy to love the people who are awesome; thoughtful and present and open and full of life. It’s harder to love those who push our buttons. But if we ever want peace, that’s the work, to love those people we can’t understand. That doesn’t mean we have to agree with them. And to remember when we’re confronted, we really never know someone’s struggles, fears, doubts, shame, or old wounds unless they share them with us. People who’ve been badly hurt usually have some pretty solid walls built up. It’s not easy for everyone to tear them down and be vulnerable. I’m saying, whenever possible, practice compassion, and then get back to the work of choosing love as your storyline. It makes the journey a lot more fun.

Sending you love,

Ally Hamilton

Weathering the Storms

Between-stimulus-andSometimes life feels like a huge storm that sweeps in and throws us off center, carrying us up and spinning us around until we can’t tell north from south. This can happen when someone with whom we’re close is in pain, and we feel helpless to stop their suffering, and end up suffering ourselves. It can happen when we lose someone we love and are faced with that gaping hole where a whole world used to be. It can happen when unexpected events turn our plans upside down, and it can happen when we, ourselves feel pulled to make changes.

The reality is, we are in control of so very little. The only thing you can really control is the way you respond to what life puts in your path, and even that takes enormous effort. We can make a practice out of choosing the thoughts that strengthen us, rather than the ones that weaken us. We can make a daily, hourly effort to see all the gifts around us, whether they exist in the fact that our heart is beating for us, or in the sunlight streaming through the window, or the rain pattering on the roof. Maybe there’s a gift in the eyes of a stranger, or someone who knows you and sees you for who you are. We can think about what we say before we say it. We can try to align ourselves with the truth in our hearts, and move from that space. We can share our gifts, we can give away our love, because we’ll never run out. When we love people, we can tell them, and not as a throw-away thing, but in a way that makes them understand we see them, really. These are all things we can do.

We’ll never control what other people do or say or want or need, nor should we try. Everyone has to do his and her own journey. Most people just want to be happy. A lot of people attach their happiness to external events, markers, or milestones. It’s not surprising, it’s what we’re taught culturally. Sometimes people feel frustrated or enraged or in despair because they just can’t seem to grab that brass ring. They can’t get that great job, or meet the right person, or look the way they want to, or get life to bend to their will, and so they lash out, or shut down or numb out or run away, thinking maybe a different direction or path or person or house or job or car or diet will finally solve it. But it’s an inside thing, and you don’t need to pick up and go anywhere. You really just need to sit down and get quiet. Mostly, we have the answers. We know what we need, but we are not always ready to accept what we know.

One of the greatest and best things we can all work on, is non-reactivity. There will always be storms, after all. Things will happen that we don’t expect or want. People will always surprise us, sometimes in good ways, and sometimes in ways that rip our hearts out. If you work on inner steadiness, no one can take that from you. This, to me, is one of the most powerful and amazing gifts of a consistent yoga and seated meditation practice. The ability to connect with your breathing, slow it down, and feel it happening, is both simple and profound. It’s a way of reminding yourself that you are here, right now. You have that, and because you’re present, you can see how things are with you. You can scan your body for tension, and when you exhale, maybe you can soften a little. Maybe you can relieve yourself of the illusion that you’re in control and have life by the reins. When you do that, you grant yourself the greatest power you’ll ever have. Fighting reality is exhausting. Creating constructs where you’re in the center of the world, and everything is happening to you and around you is not going to bring you any peace or strength. Recognizing that you’re part of something so much greater, that you’re connected to everyone and everything around you, is a much more expansive and accurate way to perceive reality.

Most people are not trying to hurt you, or me. Most people are trying to piece together some happiness for themselves. Having a breathing practice gives you the power to pause when things or people around you get intense. When you’re on your yoga mat, and you hold a lunge pose for eight, ten, twelve long deep breaths, you train your nervous system and your mind to breathe through intense sensation. Rage creates intense sensation in the body. Loneliness does as well. So, too, do fear, resentment, bitterness, jealousy, envy, joy, excitement, and gratitude. All of these feelings create chemical reactions in the body. Most people have an easy time holding the emotions and sensations that feel good (although not everyone has an easy time receiving love, embracing joy, opening to contentment), and most people struggle with the emotions and sensations that hurt like hell, such as grief, despair, and hopelessness. The thing about feelings is that they don’t last forever. Storms come and go. People may also enter and exit our lives. It’s incredibly likely things will not go according to our plans. For so many people, an uncomfortable feeling arises and they want to flee, or to numb out, or deny its existence.

If you can’t sit with uncomfortable and painful feelings, there’s no way to know yourself. Knowing yourself is at the heart of every spiritual practice. Otherwise how can you know which way to turn? How can you discover what scares you, what’s holding you back, what frees you up? How can you recognize your unconscious drives if you numb out every painful feeling that fights its way to the surface? How can you feel good about the way you’re leading your life if you lash out whenever you feel threatened or angry or envious or unheard? You don’t want to be a storm yourself, but that’s what it’s like when we can’t stop and breathe and lean into our painful feelings. We’re just an unpredictable storm barreling through life, leaving pain in our paths. Not intentionally, but just because we don’t trust ourselves. We think if we do that, if we stop and give our rage a chance to catch up with us, it will overwhelm us, but it’s the running away or pushing it down that does that. Creating some space between your feelings and what you decide to do with them is brilliant. It’s powerful. That’s a skill you can put to good use so you can direct your energy toward ideas, people, and pursuits that will uplift you, and not the stuff that tears you down. As always, you’re welcome to try a little yoga online with me if you’d like. You can sign up for a 15-day free trial, here: http://pages.yogisanonymous.com/preview/1995. You have nothing to lose but your feelings of being powerless in the face of life’s storms. Life does not have to be that way.

Sending you love, and wishing you peace,

Ally Hamilton

Say Yes to Yourself

coelhoIt’s really important to be conscious of where you direct your energy. It’s easy to get caught up in all kinds of mental gymnastics that will do nothing but exhaust and deplete you. For example, you really don’t need to spend your energy on anyone else’s drama. You may have friends who always have some urgent thing happening—a fight with their neighbor, a disagreement with a friend or colleague, an ongoing frustration with their partner—that they want to discuss endlessly with you. You might also realize you’re drained when you walk away from these interactions. Or, maybe you’re allowing yourself to obsess about things over which you have no control (that would include most things). Perhaps you’re spending an inordinate amount of time daydreaming and fantasizing about a person who would be with you, “if only they could.” You only have so much energy, and you only have so much time.

Sometimes we overextend ourselves and say yes to everyone else, sacrificing our own needs and wants in the process. If you’re miserable, you’re not going to have a lot to offer anyone. Self-care is not selfish; it’s necessary. If you’re someone who’s a natural giver and helper, you really have to watch your tendency to leave nothing in the tank for yourself. You might be able to show up for other people, but you’d have so much more to give if you took care of yourself, too. If you’ve ever ridden on a plane, you’re familiar with the directive in case of a “water landing”—you’re supposed to secure your own oxygen mask first, before you try to help anyone else, including your children. If you pass out, after all, then they’re really in trouble.

Sometimes we spend a lot of our energy thinking about how we look, and that usually includes our dissatisfaction with where we’re at right now. And in the time it takes to berate yourself, you could have gone for a quick walk around the block, elevating your heart rate, and taking in the trees, or the sun, or the breeze on your cheek. You could have done ten minutes of yoga, which might have served as a reset button for your day, or might have brought you into alignment with what’s in your heart. Ten minutes to connect to your breath and open yourself up is more powerful than you might imagine. It sure beats ten minutes of staring at a “beauty” magazine, which is not about beauty at all.

Everything you eat, read, watch and think about is food for your mind, your heart, and your body. They work together, and the more you feed yourself well, the better you’ll feel in all these areas. If you gossip about someone, you’re going to walk away from that exchange feeling crappy about yourself, because you’ll know you fed a weak part of who you are. You really want to choose the thoughts and activities that will strengthen you and fill you up with yes. Then you can take that yes, and spread it all over the place.

Carve out some time in your days that’s just for you. It doesn’t have to be a lot of time, but let it be enough that you can hear that inner voice. Without that, you’ll really be lost at sea, and may find yourself saying yes, when you really mean no. You may find you’re running on empty at a time when you need to be able to fire things up (which is most of the time). You’re precious, and you have gifts to share that only you can. In order to do that, you need to direct your energy. Don’t waste it on the meaningless stuff.

Sending you love,

Ally Hamilton

Check out my books here, and please send me love as I work on book number three 🙂

Don’t Worry

doctorowAs much as possible, try not to “future-trip.” It’s so easy to get caught up in worries about things that may never come to pass, to start envisioning worst-case scenarios, to formulate conversations in your head, or come up with plans you might not ever need. While you’re busy boiling yourself this way, your nervous system is tensing up and sending cortisol through your body, as if these events are actually occurring. In other words, you can make yourself sick with worry. You can raise your blood pressure with your thoughts.

When are we most likely to do this to ourselves? When we’re feeling vulnerable, tested, or threatened, and maybe it’s part of our inclination toward negativity bias, too. We survived as a species by being alert to possible danger, but there aren’t too many sabertooth tigers waiting to chase us down to eat us for lunch these days. We aren’t built for longterm stress, we’re built for short bursts. If we’ve been hurt before, we try to set things up so we won’t be hurt again, and that’s understandable, but you don’t want to live defensively. You know the saying, right? “Hurt me once, shame on you…hurt me twice, shame on me.” But the thing is, living in fear isn’t really living, it’s gripping. When we start to spin out, and imagine all the things that could go wrong, we’re losing the potential for peace in the current moment. We’re feeding fear instead of love. If you’re dealing with survival, keeping a roof over your head, and caring for your loved ones, that’s real stress, but worrying won’t help, action will. Any small thing you can do to try to right the ship or get some momentum happening is going to make you feel more energized and hopeful, and optimism in the face of difficulty is often the difference between turning things around, or staying stuck.

The same is true when we travel back in time, with regret, despair, or longing. Whatever has happened, it’s behind us. Of course we all have treasured memories, and there’s nothing wrong with visiting old friends and cherished loved ones we can’t hug anymore, in our minds and in our hearts. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about traveling backward as if we could redo or undo something. There’s no potential left in the past. We can learn from it, we can be softened by it, but we can’t rewrite it.

For so many people, the mind catapults from one to the other. Longing and sadness over things behind them, fear and anxiety over things out ahead of them, and the poor nervous system goes along for the ride. The most powerful way I know to land yourself fully in the now, is to become aware of your breath. That’s the greatest gift of yoga, and seated meditation—they both center around your breath. Those inhales and exhales are always happening in the present moment, and if you can feel your breath, you know you’re here; awake, aware, engaged with life, which isn’t happening behind you, or out in front of you. It’s happening right now.

Worry doesn’t change the outcome of a thing. Believe me, if worrying about something could prevent it from happening, we’d know about that by now. We’ve all had the experience of making ourselves ill over something that never came to pass, right? It’s especially hard when we love people and we’re concerned for their well-being. Maybe someone you love beyond words is putting herself in harm’s way. How do you not worry about that? First of all, when we love people, we make ourselves vulnerable, so you may as well accept that. And, you can’t save anyone but yourself, and you may as well accept that, too. There are certain answers we’ll never have until we exhale for the final time, and perhaps, not even then and that also makes us vulnerable.

Anyway, my point is, we can’t control the outcome of anything except how we face what we’re given, and even that takes tremendous effort. We can love people with everything we’ve got. We can offer an ear, our shoulder, a hand up if we’re in a good position. We can listen, we can grieve with people, or make them a meal, or try to find help for them if we aren’t sure how to help them ourselves, but our worry doesn’t help anyone. If someone is afraid for themselves, you really don’t help by reflecting that fear back to them. If someone is suffering, you don’t serve them by getting down in the mud and wailing with them.

I believe you can help a lot simply by being present with someone, being able to hold a space for someone’s grief or anger or loneliness or confusion or shame. That’s a huge thing you can do, but you can only do that if you show up with open ears, an open heart and an open mind. You won’t find those things behind you or in front of you. They’re within you. When you can show up that way for yourself, and for all the people in your life, then I believe you’re really living. Life is short and precious, or it’s a long and painful; I believe those are the options. Try not to miss too many moments. Life brings enough heartbreaks of its own, we don’t have to make this stuff up. It also offers a million gifts a day if we’re paying attention. It’s easy to take it for granted that we all woke up today, right? But that is a gift. If you have your health, it’s a gift. If you have people in your life whom you love with your whole heart, that’s a gift, even if they’re causing you some pain right now. Loving people so deeply that we hurt when they hurt, is a gift. Try not to miss too many gifts if you can help it.

Sending you love and a hug,

Ally Hamilton

 

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