This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
They may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
This old chestnut, right?
I am often surprised when someone tells me they don’t know Rumi’s Guest House as it often appears to be as ubiquitous as all the other chestnuts from the mindfulness creed that has become so dominant in our culture over the last two decades.
If you’ve ever done an 8 week mindfulness course, your abiding memory of that course, other than the meditation exercises, will probably consist of these three things::
1/ Rumi’s Guest House
2/ Examining a raisin for a substantially long period of of time
3/ John Kabat Zinn’s definition of mindfulnessness: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”
As with mindfulness which came out of a chiefly oral religious tradition (Buddhism), this poem was not “written” by Rumi. Coleman Barks wrote this poem in the 60s, animated and inspired by the poet, jurist, Islamic scholar, theologian, and Sufi mystic Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī.
Rumi never actually wrote a poem called The Guest House. What he wrote was a whole bunch of stuff, including the Masnavi, a 50,000 line “Quran in Persian” from which Coleman Barks cherry-picked a few lines and images to make his American Buddhist flavoured poems.
The section from the Masnavi that this poem comes from is probably this one:
“Every day, too, at every moment a thought comes, like an honoured guest, into your bosom. O soul, regard thought as a person, since a person derives his worth from both thought and spirit. If the thought of sorrow is waylaying joy, it could also be considered as making preparations for joy. It violently sweeps your house clear of everything else, in order that new joy from the source of good may enter in. It scatters the yellow leaves from the bough of the heart, in order that incessant green leaves may grow. It uproots the old joy, in order that new delight may march in from the Beyond.”
Not quite as snappy and quotable, is it?
That said, let us not look a gift poem in the mouth. I have learnt that this is especially true when it comes to poetry. Because a poem is often a portrait of a fleeting moment or mind-state, even a religious fundamentalist (Hopkins) or an imperialist (Kipling) are able to write the occasional humane, universally wise and true poem.
It is universal because it expresses a fundamental psychological truth: most of the thoughts, feelings, situations, and bodily sensations that irk and discomfort us, we have scant, or even no control over. And for this reason, would be better served by not doing what we normally, neurobiologically (i.e. by default) are inclined to do when upset or irked: avoid, control, problem solve. Avoidance and control can at times be really helpful, but when they don’t work as strategies, time to consider a few other options?
It’s hard to put aside our default strategies. I even ended up using one of them (controlling/changing) on this poem. Because there’s a line in this poem that doesn’t sit well with me.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Meet them at the door laughing?
Can this even be done through free-will and choice, or does it need to be bolstered by a religious doctrine, which in the original Rumi poem, it is? I think we’re all capable, with a bit of practice in meeting these difficult internal states/guests with kindness, curiosity, even acceptance, but laughter?
Rumi’s exhortation to meet the unwelcome guests in a more modulated fashion comes earlier on in the poem in the dual meaning of the word “entertain”, both in terms of providing entertainment as well as giving attention or consideration to (an idea or feeling). I prefer this version of the poem (my controlled/changed version!), which is the one I’ve also learnt by heart and recite on an almost daily basis:
THE GUEST HOUSE
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
They may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door with kindness,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Whichever version you decide to learn by heart, I would really encourage you to learn this poem if it speaks to you. This poem is powerful poetic medicine for when the shit hits the fan, but I also find it forcing its way out from my lips when dealing with those things in our experience that fall short of expectation. Which is to say, for some of us, almost everything, almost all the time. Sometimes the old chestnuts are genuinely the most useful reminders.
In many ways, I love being the butt of someone’s joke, I love to be duped and fooled. Love magic tricks, especially of the Derren Brown variety that always reveal something profound to us about ourselves and others. As well as entertaining us in the process of fooling us.
I love Penn & Teller’s Fool Us. I particularly love it when those two Great Foolers themselves get fooled. And I love it when I am able to make a fool of myself (of my often-times pompous notions and ideas, at least when I’m defused enough to see the pomposity and ego-driven nature of them). And if done with love, and a kind of, hey-we’re-all-bozos-on-this-bus cameraderie, I can even enjoy it when others make a fool of me.
But I also feel uncomfortable when I see people being laughed at or mocked, especially if they are unable to defend themselves. I hate to see defenceless animals and children being treated unkindly, or made fools of. I also don’t like the more cruel spectrum of practical jokes that shock and alarm, or even really dismay people on this day where we celebrate all things foolish and fooling. Would I eradicate the day itself if I had the power to do so? Never. Because life is a series of April Fools’ days you might say, a constant series of small and large practical jokes sent to challenge us and teach us. Here are just two of my favourites:
-We grow up in a culture that tells us romantic love is the be-all and end-all in terms of living a rich, full, and meaningful life. And then when we get into a relationship, and at some level we start to feel duped by that narrative. So we fight, bitch and moan at our other halves, because we’ve all bought into those lovely, lovely lies of Pretty Woman or Sleepless in Seattle. When instead of the happy-go-lucky romcom we get Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or Her, or Fatal Attraction, perhaps even The Shining, don’t we feel like fools? And when we’re not in relationships, we feel outcast or alienated from this Core Romantic Narrative pumped into our minds through everything we watch and read 24/7, embedded in every song we’ve ever listened to.
April Fools y’all!
-Or what about the reality slap, that wonderful term created by Russ Harris to describe the gap between what we have and what we want: of jumping through hoop after arduous hoop (academic, interviews, various forms of social ingratiation) to get that prestigious job, or car, or amazing holiday, or nice house -whatever we think might bring us happiness- only to find ourselves miserable with the glamourous trappings we’ve worked so hard to attain.
April Fools y’all!
And by y’all, I include myself first and foremost in that dupery.
THE ULTIMATE APRIL FOOL
But the ultimate April Fool is the fool our minds make of us on a daily basis. Never out of pure malice – for how can a lump of meat, the brain, sitting between our ears bear malice towards us? Rather, as a function of their problem-solving, pleasure-seeking, pain-avoiding programming. Every time my mind tells me that the reason so-and-so didn’t respond to my text message is because a) they don’t care about me or what I’ve written to them, or b) they don’t fundamentally like me, or whatever other narrative they come up with, and I buy into that and suffer. Again: April Fools y’all!
Every time my mind singles out something I don’t like in someone else and then tells me that’s a reason to hold that whole person in contempt – April Fool!
Every time my mind says: that pleasurable thing you want (the extra glass of wine, the seventh chocolate digestive, the checking-of-Twitter or firing off an email ten minutes into a walk, or a yoga session, or some meditation) DO IT NOW – April Fool!
I don’t know about you, but my mind makes a fool of me dozens of times a day.
What to do? Recently I’ve gone back to doing a particular kind of meditation practice, both formally (as in a sitting practice), but more so informally, which I’ve found really helpful with my foolish mind. It might surprise you, as it doesn’t involve trying to argue with your mind, saying to it “No mind, you’re wrong when you say that your [boss, brother-in-law, mother, father, colleague – choose where applicable] is NOT a [insert choicest, most damning criticism of that individual]”.
Arguing with our minds doesn’t work because the mind is the best barrister ON THIS PLANET! It has hundreds of files, videos, taped phone calls, enough to fill 256 gigabyte’s worth of memory on a standard laptop demonstrating the ways in which that person or situation has said or done something foolish, fallible, unfair, unreasonable, and just generally shitty in a bid to hurt or upset you. And maybe they have. This is not to downplay the foolish, fallible, unfair, unreasonable, and just generally shitty things we do and say to each other. I have been a veritable font of foolish, fallible, unfair, unreasonable, and generally shitty words and actions to other human beings in my misguided and suffering mind-states. And I have also been privy to other people doing some of that around me too.
But if you even attempt to argue with your mind about all of this, it will win. It will prove you wrong, and itself right over and over again. And you will then be left in whatever state your mind gets you into when it plays and replays those particularly juicy, particularly painful tidbits, as verifiably true. So that doesn’t work (at least in my experience – has it ever worked for you?) – that will just lead to more suffering, which is something we want to try and reduce, right? I do.
Apart from defusion, when our minds start getting Practical Joker/Tormentor on us, what else can we do? A clue might lie in one of my favourite poems of all time, one I know by heart:
Before you know what kindness really is you must lose things, feel the future dissolve in a moment like salt in a weakened broth. What you held in your hand, what you counted and carefully saved, all this must go so you know how desolate the landscape can be between the regions of kindness.
Man! (Also: woman!) Isn’t that the reality-gap/slap encapsulated in one small stanza?! This bears repeating:
What you held in your hand, what you counted and carefully saved, all this must go so you know how desolate the landscape can be between the regions of kindness.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho lies dead by the side of the road. You must see how this could be you, how he too was someone who journeyed through the night with plans and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. You must wake up with sorrow. You must speak to it till your voice catches the thread of all sorrows and you see the size of the cloth. Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore, only kindness that ties your shoes and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread, only kindness that raises its head from the crowd of the world to say It is I you have been looking for, and then goes with you everywhere like a shadow or a friend.
My cynical/judgemental/critical brain sometimes can be a bit hard on kindness. “Hallmark card sentimentality,” it sneers. And I don’t argue with it when it says that. Yes, Dave, I say (I call that part of my brain, Dave), yes, that’s one way of looking at it, thank you.
You could say, not that I’d get Dave to agree with me on this, that a kindness practice rather than the word itself or a nice Instagram quote on kindness (the word/quote lasts a millisecond, hardly registers in the mind at all) is a “medicine” for all those inadvertently unkind parts of ourselves.
Inadvertently unkind because they are trying to be helpful in their sometimes heavy-handed suggestions, comparisons, judgements, lectures and sermons. They don’t realise that, just like our parents and teachers and political figures (at times), they only further torment or make fools of us rather than being useful or helpful. Their comparisons, judgements, lectures and sermons only make us suffer more not less.
A kindness practice, ideally done on a daily basis, in the same way we might take some vitamins or brush our teeth daily, works at the very roots of our mind’s magic tricks, the illusions and delusions it feeds us to keep us safe, but which also separate us from the world, other people, and often times our own deeply held values and beliefs. When I remember to do some of the kindness practices below, it often feels like an almost selfish pleasure, in that the gain for me is huge (over time) but also doesn’t hurt anyone else. In fact might make their challenging, suffering lives a tad lighter too.
A win-win is always great. Bingo! Or “Yahtzee” as one of my kindness gurus, Dan Savage, will sometimes exclaim when he suggests a win-win outlook for his suffering callers. Dan Savage is also a great example of how you don’t need to be all whispery and quiet, all holier-than-thou to practice kindness. His Savage Love podcast is the kindest advice show on the planet, even though Dan is often scabrously blunt and pragmatic, but his advice and wisdom and good humour is always delivered with kindness and a desire to be helpful.That’s the kind of kindness I aspire to.
So here’s a challenge for us in our bid to become kind in a way that some of your Kindness Warriors* are kind.
If you’d like to do a formal practice (I’m aiming to do this once a day for the whole of April) I’d recommend this 15 minute guided meditation from Russ Harris. I think it’s structured in a way to really get us into a kinder space towards ourselves and others, without being sentimental or “spiritual” in a cloying/annoying way (although finding our mind’s response to sentimentality and spirituality annoying, would also give us another way to be kind to ourselves): https://www.dropbox.com/s/xndq9j00b8zpoqa/Kindness%20Practice.mp3?dl=0
2. Informally, the next time you go for a walk with your whirring, chattering mind, focus your attention on random strangers passing you on the pavement, and then instead of the usual stuff our minds do (commenting, ignoring other people, feeling intimidated by their “otherness”) silently direct some of these well-wishing phrases to them in a mantra-like loop:
“May you be peaceful, healthy, content.”
“May you experience love and kindness.”
“May your life be rich, and full, and meaningful.”
It may feel a bit weird when you start doing it, but notice what happens to the mind if you push past the cynicism and boredom of your Inner-Dave.
4. Think of something you’re struggling with at the moment. Close your eyes, maybe even place a hand on your head or chest, and imagine someone kind that you know, or even a pet, saying some simple but kind words to you in sympathy. Whilst writing this today I’m strugging with a stonking head cold and am feeling fairly grotty. I had my kind person, and Max, say to me: “I’m sorry you’re feeling so crap today. Go easy on yourself, give yourself a bit of cosseting, Steve.”
If you try out any of these, please do tell me how they go in our next session together.
*My kindness warriors, also my ideal dinner party guests, just off the top of my head: Dan Savage, The Obamas, David Mitchell, K D Lang, Stephen Fry, the Queer Eye dudes, Russell Brand, Adam Phillips, Caroline Lucas, Steven Hayes, Stevie Wonder, Penn & Teller, Mary Oliver, Ajahn Sucitto, and many many folk from various spiritual traditions. Also, even more so, all those people you wouldn’t recognise if I named them. My clients, each and every one of them: all sensitive bods, and all incredibly kind people. My parents and other relatives, even with all their flaws, their sometimes foolish, fallible, unfair, unreasonable, and maybe even shitty and unkind ways at times. And what about that guy who stopped his car when he saw little Max, my dogchild, running in the middle of a busy road after he went AWOL in Fryent Park a few years back? Or the kind elderly lady and her husband who always stop to say a few kind words about my garden when they see me outside weeding over the weekend. The list goes on and on. As does this one]
At the moment, I wake up to jackhammers and drills.
Not just the usual jackhammers and drills of my own thought curves and mental convolutions, supplied by that sometimes-not-so-kind, maybe even Totally Loopy Word Machine we call the mind. But also “real” noise, and lots of it, from the builders next door who are probably going to be around for the next couple of months (!!), completely refurbishing and extending 109 Ruskin Gardens.
I’d been warned, I knew it was coming, and have got the owner of 109, Mr Patel to graciously agree to keep the work relatively quiet when I’m seeing clients. But at all other times, the gloves (or in this case, the jackhammers, drills, power-saws, etc) are off. Which is to say “on”. All the time.
Already I can feel the effect of all that banging and the drilling on my nervous system, and partly in response to this, am trying to re-engage with a mindfulness practice: mindfulness being all about working on our willingness to “be with” upsetting thoughts, memories, body sensations, and external irritants. Especially those we have limited or no control over.
I’ve also been finding a great deal of solace in a fork. A conceptual fork. Though in sessions, I’ll occasionally rush into the kitchen to grab a real fork in order to explain the concept to someone else.
This conceptual fork, sometimes called The Stoic Fork, is designed to get us to reflect on control, as well as the relinquishing of it. If you’re anything like me, control is important to you. It helps you to feel like you have agency, and choice, and most importantly “a say” in what happens in your life. And yes, control is important. One understanding of depression is that it proceeds from a misperception that we have no control over our lives whatsoever, that whatever we’re struggling with is so difficult and burdensome and entrenched, that we will never, ever, ever get a handle on it. Understandably that can be something of a buzzkill (to say the least).
This fork that I’m going to excitedly wave in front of your face says that we do have control, we do have agency, and the ability to make choices that are value-driven and meaningful to us. It says that we do have control over choices that will impact on how we live our lives right now in the present, as well as choices moving us forwards into the kind of lives and people we want to be in the future.
We need to skilfully differentiate between what is in our power and what is not. And that very differentiation happens to be the first thing we read about in a book of collected discourses issuing from the lips and the mind of a crippled, Roman slave named Epictetus who lived 2000 years ago. I like to imagine him as a slightly more philosophical and Latin-spouting version of Tim Renkow’s lovably, cheeky character in his new sitcom Jerk (if you haven’t seen it, do!).
Here’s a little experiment for you to try out before I explain the fork.
Think of something that’s getting you down at the moment. It could be anything: a physical ailment, a relationship issue, a problem at work, a crass comment someone made recently in your presence, something unsettling you’ve seen or read, or even six dudes banging and hammering and drilling all day long right next to where you’re sitting trying to capture the evergreen wisdom of Epictetus 😉
Make a mental or actual note of this thing, this thing that’s irking you. Now imagine me whipping out my IKEA fork (see drawing below) and asking you, as Epictetus might have done to another slave as they laboured from dusk to dawn on a Roman building site: “How much control do you have over this person/thing/situation/noise that’s upsetting or worrying you?”
Be warned! This is a trick-question. If you’re anything like me, you might say this in response: “Well not much, not as much as I’d like, but….”
“Don’t lecture me on control. Control has got nothing to do with this. Or if it does, it’s because that person/thing/situation is out of control and they’re driving me craaaaaaazy.”
To which I imagine Epictetus using his walking stick to draw a line in the sand showing the following “fork”.
As you can see, on the right he’s written the kind of things we sometimes believe or think (maybe not always consciously) that we can control, especially with regard to other people: what other people think what they say, how they act around us. But equally this works with any phenomenon in the outside world, or the inside world (our thoughts, feelings, body sensations, urges, memories). I have no control over whether my stomach might decide to translate my anxieties and worries into an unpleasant, nauseous sensation, or if my head might suddenly begin to ache, or feel tired and woozy.
Epictetus believed that the only thing we have any control over are thoughts/feeling, and our actions. As you can see in the picture above, I’ve gone and crossed out THOUGHTS & FEELINGS because although he was an incredibly wise man, and although many of his thoughts and theories have formed the bedrock of our modern psychotherapy and psychology practices, we also know now, that thoughts and feelings, just like body sensations, memories, and urges cannot be controlled!
I can no longer control what thought is going to flit into my mind in the next minute than I can control what tweet Donald Trump is going to send out to his 60 million followers in the next hour. In fact, modern psychology has shown that the more we try and control our thoughts, feelings, urges, and memories, the more persistently they surface to assail us. It’s a bit like a government trying to ban a “naughty” or “insiduous” book or film (Lady Chatterley’s anyone, A Clockwork Orange?): as soon as people catch wind that now they’re not “allowed” to read that book, or watch that film, that’s the only thing you then want to do. Our minds seem to work according to similar dynamics.
If this is so, then we need to keep on reminding ourselves in some way, that the one and only thing we have any control over whatsoever, is our behaviour: our actions, our words, the things we write and say, and do. That’s it. That’s all we have. And that’s a lot!
Want to feel more in control? Control, in a healthy-ish, skillful-ish way your actions. As we know, there are lots of unhealthy ways to control our actions: starving ourselves (eating disorders) or overeating; exerting or harming our bodies so as to distract or focus our attention away from our pain; limiting our interactions with people we might enjoy being with in order to keep ourselves safe. So as with anything, a mindful approach is best when it comes to our actions. But always with the notion that, apart from what we say and do and write, we’re not in the driver’s seat of any shared inter-action (with another person or the world), and never will be.
How does one then apply this wisdom? I find it helpful to use the fork as a kind of reminder or mantra when I find myself getting irked by someone else’s behaviour. Let’s say a friend or a loved one does or says something that triggers me in some way, so that my knee-jerk response is one of the following:
“I wish they hadn’t said/done that!”
“Why couldn’t they have responded to me with X, rather than Y”
“I bet they’re now thinking this about me!” etc. etc.
This list might stretch to infinity, as infinite are the ways in which our minds proliferate suffering on the back of a perceived threat or hurt. At this point, if I’m quick enough to catch the panicky or angry thought, I might inwardly try and shrug my shoulders, call to my mind the image of that stoic fork and go:
“Can’t control her/him/it. Let it go.”
“ I have no control over this person/situation/thing. Let it go.”
“Not my circus, not my monkeys!” (or if you prefer the original Polish version of this expression “nie mój cyrk, nie moje małpy” [pronunciation here])
I might follow this with an attempt at a kind of rueful smile here, which can also sometimes help, particularly if it replaces the expression on my face at that moment which is likely to be a glowering or grimacing one.
It’s a simple practice, but I find it quite a powerful, especially when used in the midst of interacting with other human beings who are invariably going to be saying or doing things we wish we could control, but acknowledge we can’t. And even it allows us to be a little bit more flexible and kind with ourselves as well as with each other, we’re onto a winner.
Because we are pleasure-seeking, pain-avoiding creatures, for most of us, there is going to be something in our lives, maybe even a series of things that we develop a somewhat addictive relationship with.
For the sake of simplicity, by addiction here, I’m not necessarily talking about that especially dramatic or tragic addiction narrative that me might associate with the word ADDICTION in capital letters, associations in our minds pointing to Hubert Selby Junior’s Requiem for a Dream, or Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting – these being the outer limits of that pain-avoiding/pleasure-seeking dynamic we all experience as human beings. What I’m primarily talking about here are our everyday addictions.
My definition of addiction, caps or small-case, would simply be: that moment in the day when the thing you want, or the the thing you want to do, feels so strong, so compelling, so fused and necessary to your well-being that you would score the following statement very, very high if asked to give it a number out of ten:
“If I don’t get [whatever it is I want at this moment] into my system, I’m not going to feel OK.”
“Only eating/drinking/doing [whatever it is I want at this moment] will satisfy me or make me feel better, or just alright.”
If you’re scoring six to ten on these statements for anything, pleasurable or painful, it would be fair to say (in my book) that you’re somewhat addicted to that thing. I have never felt this way about cabbage, or watching Question Time. I suspect some might be addicted to the latter, but not me! Also important here is that a feeling of remorse after doing the activity, a feeling of perhaps having let yourself down (which is to say your Core-Valued Self). Again, I never feel that way after eating cabbage or watching Question Time. But I do after watching a couple of episodes of the latest binge-fest on Netflix for example.
Here are some of the things I have an addictive relationship with (you might want to create your own list as I bet at least some of these come up for you too):
sugary and refined-carbohydrate foods (ice-cream, biscuits, cake, crisps and other snacks, bread, crackers)
rich and satisfying foods, also comfort foods: cheese, peanuts, peanut-butter, mashed potatoes, chips
intoxicants (booze, especially wine; weed; I’d also include sugar, tea and coffee here; music can also be an intoxicant, but I never feel bad about listening to Forever In Blue Jeans on repeat, so I guess at least I’m not addicted to Neil Diamond – whew!)
mental stimulants: Twitter, YouTube, WhatsApp, Bumble, downloading new books/music/films
Have-To or Need-To-Do urges: an overwhelming need to reply to a message to someone, or some other form of communication that feels as if it can’t wait, or to send a message or an email (the content of the message could be positive or barbed)
and probably a whole bunch of other behaviours that I haven’t thought about whilst writing this post
Our remorse when following through with our addictive behaviours, like all emotions can give us a really valuable clue as to what the addiction is trying to say to us. And also perhaps one way in which we might be able to start working with the addictive parts of us. Here’s one idea of how to do that.
MEETING CRAVINGS WITH KINDNESS
The next time you are assailed by an addictive thought, or urge (“If I don’t go and get a glass of wine in me as soon as I finish work today, I’m done for!”) here’s something you might like to try.
Imagine that Addicted Part of your mind is one of your more reckless, but also gregarious and fun friends who has just sent you a text saying: “Hey Steve, fancy doing […] this evening! I know you want to! 😉 PLUS you deserve it – you’ve worked hard today! Give yourself a treat mate. All work and no play makes Steve a pretty dull therapist etc.”
OK, time to ask “Pat” to just give you 15 minutes and you’ll get back to him with your response.
I call my Craving Mind Patrick, by the way, after someone I knew at University who was pretty much 24/7 on the lash. If you were wanting to go out for a piss-up, or any other intoxicating or pleasure-seeking pursuit, Pat was not only ready and willing, but deeply committed to the two of you having as much fun as possible. Yes, the evening would invariably end with him puking or shitting himself, or needing to be carried home, but when you’re young with a full of head of hair, there is a kind of romantic splendour to these sorts of shenanigans. (You might want to help yourself defuse a little from your craving mind by giving it a name too. Even if you don’t try anything I’ve written below, just recognising when your craving mind is sending you an “invitation” as Patrick/Cruella/Milly doing so, can be a really helpful and defusing start.)
OK, you’ve now got 15 minutes to reconnect with your core caring self and your core value system.
If you were a parent, this self would come to the fore if your son or daughter told you they were going out with Pat to get hammered on whatever was available, or he might score from the local drug dealer when out. Equally, you might feel sad if you saw a close friend or family member pursuing a substance or activity (food, work, drink, whatever) that you could see was only intermittently providing them with pleasure, but than anything else: a good dose of suffering.
That’s not my voice you’ll hear, but the mellifluous tones of Russ Harris, and the practice can be found on his ActCompanion app, which is also worth a gander.
You’ll notice when doing the meditation that you use some of the following phrases when sending kindness to yourself and others:
May you be peaceful.
May you be healthy.
May you be content.
May you experience love.
May you experience kindness.
May your life be rich, full and meaningful.
I think these phrases can also be used as a kind of compass for us to decide whether we really want or need to join “Patrick” on whatever he’s dreamt up for us that day or evening. Big or small. Last night, I used the exercise below to decide whether I wanted to send a WhatsApp message to an ex-girlfriend, as well as whether I would have a glass of wine or two rather than a mocktail with my pistachio nuts whilst cooking. You can use these for anything you have an addictive relationship with.
EXERCISE: A FEW KIND WAYS OF GETTING IN TOUCH WITH YOUR CORE VALUES
Think for a moment about the thing you’re feeling compelled to do. Now really get in touch with the urge. Feel it in your body and as an almost insistent command. You will also be able to get in touch with this a kind of “craving” frequency in your mind. You might even want to put your hands into the “shape” of that craving. Altogether now, Strike a Pose!
Now work through the following six reflections:
MAY YOU BE PEACEFUL: Will this thing you want to do at this very moment lead to greater peace of mind? If it will, will that peace of mind extend to how you’ll feel tomorrow when thinking back about your behaviour? If not, what is it you could do right now that would fit the above criteria and help you to feel more peaceful?
MAY YOU BE HEALTHY: Bring to mind an image of yourself at your healthiest – emotionally and physically. Will the thing you’re craving to do at this moment promote and add to that healthy-you? If not, is there something else you could do right now, that would also perhaps be pleasurable, or stress-reducing, even if not as pleasurable as the thing your Craving Mind wants you to do. But instead will certainly contribute to acting, and thus feeling more healthy?
MAY YOU BE CONTENT: Notice, the word is not “happy” or ROTFLMFAO. That last phrase is very “Pat”, btw. The origins of the word “content” are more to do with feeling satisfied and “contained” in some way. Like we feel when we’re doing a meditation such as the one I provided above. Would doing this activity help you to feel genuinely “content”? Would you feel content tomorrow, or later on, knowing you’d done it? If so, go for it! If not, what could you do right now that might help you to feel content in a “satisfied” and “contained” way?
MAY YOU EXPERIENCE LOVE? Does your “Patrick” love you? Mine doesn’t. He’s just the part of my pleasure-seeking/pain-avoiding brain that wants to do the activity he’s been “programmed” to do by hundreds of thousands, if not millions of years of evolution: head for the yummy stuff (booze, sex, dancing, whatever), and avoid the yucky stuff (essays, reading, meditation). What would a loving friend suggest the two of you do/eat/experience? Maybe you can be that friend to yourself at this moment?
MAY YOU EXPERIENCE KINDNESS: Again, is this the kindest thing you can do for yourself at this moment. Is Patrick motivated by kindness? If the word kindness doesn’t sit well with you, perhaps has some kind of religious or religiose overtones to your critical-judging mind, try a word like “helpful”? If doing the thing Patrick wants you to do is the most helpful thing you can do for yourself at this moment, go for it! If not, maybe you might want to send a text to him saying “thanks, but-no-thanks, Pat!”, and do something kind for yourself right now.
MAY YOUR LIFE BE RICH, FULL, AND MEANINGFUL: Again, you might want to spend a moment thinking about what a rich, full, and meaningful life for yourself might look like in the here and now, without changing your job, or your flat, or anything else for that matter (though change might be part of this process too). If the thing you want to do is aligned to that vision you have of yourself, go for it! If not, is there an activity you can do right here and now that will add to the richness, fullness and meaning of the next ten minutes of your life, the next hour of this finite timespan we all have allotted to us.
You don’t have to go through all of these steps to benefit from this defusion technique. Even just getting into the habit of imagining that every craving you have (to go on Twitter or Instagram, to check your phone for a text message, to eat another biscuit, whatever) is a text from your Craving Mind, and then just very quickly ask yourself if following-through with the urge would be kind or helpful? This is a great first step. And may be the only step you need to take in order to unhook yourself from your craving thoughts and urges.
You might want to follow this by a second step of simply saying aloud, maybe two or three times, something like: “Thanks Pat, I’d really love to [and meaning it, because you really would love to do this], but I can’t today/tonight.” And then getting on with something else that is meaningful to you.
Even if we did this one out of ten times that our craving minds hooked us into their desires (not actually your desires, your value-driven desires, but our pleasure-seeking/pain-avoidant brain’s desires), we’d be 10% freer than we are at present.
On 20 September, 1812, the 24 year-old poet and libertine Lord Byron opened a letter from a married woman, 27 year-old Lady Caroline Lamb, with whom he’d been amorously involved for a period of time.
The love affair had been terminated by Byron and his need for fresh dalliances. He had recently turned his attentions to the petite, apple-cheeked Anne Isabella Milbanke, who would later become Mrs Byron, and the mother of Ada Lovelace (the first female computer programmer, you may recall).
Lady Caro had been dispatched of by Lord B. in this manner:
“I am no longer your lover; and since you oblige me to confess it, by this truly unfeminine persecution,—learn, that I am attached to another; whose name it would of course be dishonourable to mention….I offer you this advice, correct your vanity, which is ridiculous; exert your absurd caprices upon others; and leave me in peace.”
But she wouldn’t, or couldn’t leave him in peace, and alongside her response, signed “from your Wild Antelope”, she also sent him a small locket, inside which Byron discovered bloodied clumps of his former lover’s pubic hair.
The missive accompanying the pubes tried to explain the thinking behind her gift, as well as asking him for a reciprocal gesture, framed somewhat in the key of faux-care:
“I asked you not to send blood but yet do—because if it means love, I like to have it. I cut the hair too close & bled much more than you need—do not do the same & pray put not scissors points near where quei capelli grow. Sooner take it from the arm or wrist—pray be careful.”
This letter is a masterclass in the tangled, mixed-message mess of how as human beings we negotiate the terrain of love-in-crisis, as well as the kind of dramatic behaviour that commonly marks the end of a relationship.
Whatever you might think about this particular post-break up communique, perhaps we can all agree that Lady Caro was most likely exhibiting some of the symptom of what I shall henceforward refer to as Break-Up Mania (B.U.M).
Alongside the infamous too-close depilation incident, other symptoms of B.U.M might include self-medicating with large quantities of laudanum, showing up at your ex’s apartment disguised as a male page in order to spy on him, slashing your wrists with a broken wine-glass, as well as a protracted series of even more creative acts, most notably Lamb’s roman à clef, Glenarvon.
Glenarvon was published in 1816 and told the story of a rakish cad, Lord Ruthven, a habitual seducer of women, who meets his end pursued by the devil, haunted by the women he wronged. Bryon, commenting on the book, questioned whether it was a kiss-and-tell, or more likely a “fuck and publish”. Whichever it was, Glenarvon went on to become something of a bestseller in the year 1816.
2. IS B.U.M PATHOLOGICAL?
Break-Up Mania as my somewhat tongue-in-cheek acronym suggests lies along a spectrum, which for the most part can be filed under “standard operating procedures” in the Handbook of Being Human.
On its gentler manic slopes we find a young man writing a letter to an Online Agony Aunt (in this case, Cheryl Strayed’s Dear Sugar) in which he enquires: “How do you get over a break up? How do you cope with that amount of pain, logistical nightmares, and abject sadness?”
Further along, we get the more emotionally fraught exchanges between Rejector and Rejectee: those lovelorn, self-pitying, wheedling, second-chance begging text messages/letter/emails we’ve all sent at some point or another to an ex, accompanied by whatever the modern-day equivalent might be of a pubic hair filled locket.
Maybe some form of sexting? Or perhaps a podcast, such as The Berlin Patient in which Joel White plays some of the audio files he sent his ex girlfriend after their break up? In the podcast, White invites his contemporary Greek Chorus (made up predominantly of friends but also consisting of a polyamory-espousing French novelist, and his therapist, me) to weigh in on his actions.
White’s deconstruction of B.U.M is, to my ears, a fascinating five hour long spoken-word riff on Neil Sedaka’s two minutes of oxymoronic breakup pop: both happy-sad, healthy-sick, painful-blithe, a weirdly spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings recollected in tranquillity. And not just recollected: repackaged, reformulated, reconstitued even.
Why not have a toke of the two-minute version right now:
I think what makes this most affecting is the the polyphonic nature of the vocals. A rare moment of the tragic hero and his elucidatory Chorus all singing from the same hymn sheet. As if Sedaka were expressing B.U.M for all of us – which of course he is.
A few clicks away from creative sublimation, we also have some of the further reaches of the B.U.M spectrum in more extreme and obsessive forms behaviours: self-harming, surveillance and stalking, verbal and physical abuse, wilful damage of personhood or property. Such as acid poured over one’s lover’s car, or a beloved children’s pets finding its way into a stock pot. You may recognise the latter descriptions as that of the 20th Century version of the Lady Caroline archetype”: Alexandra “Alex” Forrest, played by Glen Close in the 1987 Adrian Lyne Film Fatal Attraction.
But lest we fall into the gendered Venus-Mars shaming trap of believing that the outer-reaches of B.U.M are either populated by hysterical women or dangerous, stalky men, recent research on strategies used after romantic relationship termination, shows that the genders are pretty much neck-and-neck in their embodiment of B.U.M.
As you would expect, there is a different between the strategies and emotions felt by Rejector and Rejectee. But very little difference in terms of Rejectee behaviour, particularly along gender lines, even in terms of threatening behaviours and physical abuse:
So although there is comedy to be had from the somewhat shame-driven contours of The Berlin Patient, which can’t help but at times fall into the Mars-Venus trap, what interests me more about the project is Joel’s attempt to tackle the million dollar question underpinning his/our B.U.M, which is: why do we put ourselves and other people through this kind of stuff?
It’s a question he puts to me in one of our therapy sessions. Here’s my attempt to answer it.
3. WHY BREAKING UP IS HARD TO DO
When mania – extreme behaviour, stemming in most cases from profound forms of suffering – follows a break-up, what is actually being broken-up we might ask?
Mania doesn’t follow a sundering of all our relationships: the move from one mobile provider to another, the losing of a follower on Twitter or a friend on Facebook (although this can take some of us to the brink too). What breaks when we are told that a lover, or a partner no longer wants to be with us anymore?
At a psychic level we could say that at one level, everything breaks down (for some of us) at this moment: our world, and all our emotional bearings. These emotional bearings, or rather the map on which we find our bearings, might be described in psychological terms, as our Attachment Map.
As babies, we are weak and vulnerable, our first attachment figures (generally speaking: our mothers and fathers) hold our lives in their hands. Quite literally. Without their constant care and attention, we wouldn’t get to the point where we can function as emotionally mature, independent human beings. Attachment is a kind of unconscious contract which most parents might not even realise they’re signing, a contract also filed under the term “love”, wherein our caregivers take on the evolutionary burden of looking after us physically as well as emotionally so that their genes packaged deep inside us, might have a chance of flourishing beyond their demise.
The primacy of this contract is what lies I think at the heart of a certain type of black humour concerning parental abuse and infant mortality, in the form of of the “dead baby joke”. Here’s one from Anthony Jeselnik’s recent set:
“You don’t know anything about pain until you’ve seen your own baby drown in a tub. And you definitely don’t know anything about how to wash a baby.”
These jokes work for Jeselnik’s audience in an edgy, uncomfortable way because, taking account of Benign Violation Theory, an abused, neglected baby is seen by all of us an extreme violation of social and moral norms. Just as long as we can believe that Jeselnik himself would never actually carry out these acts himself. Consider the difference in reception of these accounts in a Baby P or Victoria Climbié trial.
So, what you might ask has this got to do with adults breaking up? Well, the idea goes that the template of attachment set by ourselves and our parents gets reinstated or replayed to some extent when we fall in love and glom onto a new adult attachment figure. In this way, how we respond to a break up, depends upon our early attachment history, but also our evolutionary history as a species. Either way, it may, quite understandably for our inner-child elements, present itself a devastating emergency.
When Neil Sedaka croons in his breakup ditty “Don’t you leave my heart in misery./’Cause if you go, then I’ll be blue” the pop song cliche’ takes on a different quality if we imagine that this cry might be the message imprinted into every baby’s wail when its parents leave it alone in a dark room to fend for itself.
As babies we don’t have the cognitive abilities know whether we’re lying in a crib with radiators set at just the right temperature for us, and a monitor scanning our every fart or burp, or instread we’re just another infant in that 25 million year evolutionary tale lying on the floor of the forest, whilst distracted Mum wanders off in search of pine-nuts. If she doesn’t come back when we scream, we may indeed be rendered “blue” not just as in sad and upset, but dead. Hypothermia, asphyxiation, or just being eaten by another hungry animal. There is a part of B.U.M which is always at this catastrophic pitch. Nicely summed up by those other philosophers of the breakup: Gamble, Huff, and Gilbert. “Don’t leave me this way,/I can’t survive, I can’t stay alive/Without your love.”
So the mania, in whatever form it takes at the end of a relationship is perhaps akin to that primal scream. If you don’t come back, I might die. Or at least it feels that way.
Sometimes that scream is a little bit more sophisticated or creative (Freud calls this sublimation). We see this in Joel White’s audio letters and his podcast, in every pop star’s breakup album, and even in Lady Caroline Lamb’s Glenarvon. They’re all consciously, but mainly unconsciously, designed to hook the listener (our ex, or someone new?) into continuing, or restarting a conversation with us; all conversation being the seed of a relationship that we may wish to reclaim, or at least make sense of.
Depending on our attachment style (as human beings we seem to be pretty evenly split between those who have a secure versus an insecure attachment style), a break up can feel either like a life-threatening abandonment, or a painful but recoverable upset. The difference being I think lies in whether the breakup registers as an intolerable threat to the inner-child parts of our psyche, or something we can work with.
Secure attachment stragies – which even us insecure bods can learn although it will take a concerted effort to do so – might allows us even in the darkest depths of the breakup, to still find a way to connect with those other more adult part of ourselves (our own Inner Parents). These can continue to take care of our vulnerable inner-tots even as we struggle with what’s befallen us.
So how might this look in practical terms?
4./ RECOVERING FROM B.U.M
I’ll keep this brief, because I think Inner-Parenting or reconnecting with Self is a very personal journey.
For one person it might be throwing themselves into a year-long creative project like Joel’s Berlin Patient Podcast. For another person, it’s baking, or gardening, or thrash metal.
Yes, this might be a good time to talk with someone in a constructive, non-shaming way about your relationship history, maybe going all the way back to your first relationships, not those elementary school crushes per se (but those too), but rather the 18-year plus “marriage” we all have had with our parents, and continue to have.
When I work with someone on this theme, I like to combine exploration of attachment style and relationship history with an eye to all the “parts” generated from our experiences as an internal family system, along with a here-and-now value-driven focus in just what it is you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
Remember the guy (or maybe it was a gal -no matter) who wrote to Cheryl Strayed Strayed’s Agony Aunt Sugar wondering how to “get over” a breakup (“How do you cope with that amount of pain, logistical nightmares, and abject sadness?”) Here’s what she wrote back:
“You let time pass. That’s the cure. You survive the days. You float like a rabid ghost through the weeks. You cry and wallow and lament and scratch your way back up through the months. And then one day you find yourself alone on a bench in the sun and you close your eyes and lean your head back and you realize you’re okay.”
Strayed’s pithy but heartfelt response suggests it’s more a case of getting through rather than getting over. As hard as that is to swallow, I think it’s true, but that doesn’t mean that one has to be a passive passenger on the B.U.M ride.
Musing recently about gratitude in my Gardening/Positive Psychology blog, I came across the work of psychologist Robert Emmons who has dedicated his whole career to researching the effect of a single emotion (gratitude) in our lives. How important is it, how to nurture and build more of it for ourselves.
Here are his ten evidence-based prescriptions for becoming more grateful,:
1. Keep a Gratitude Journal
One of the best ways to cultivate gratitude is to establish a daily practice in which you remind yourself of the gifts, grace, benefits, and good things you enjoy. One of the best ways to do this is keeping a daily journal in which you record the blessings you are grateful for. Emmons’ extensive research has shown that this technique makes people happier. When we are grateful, we affirm that a source of goodness exists in our lives. By writing each day, we magnify and expand upon these sources of goodness. Setting aside time on a daily basis to recall moments of gratitude associated with even mundane or ordinary events, your personal attributes, or valued people in your life gives you the potential to interweave and thread together a sus- tainable life theme of gratefulness, just as it nourishes a fundamental life stance whose thrust is decidedly affirming.
So you begin by cataloging, each day, gratitude-inspiring events. It does not much matter whether you begin each day journaling or make your list the last thing you do at the end of the day. There is no one right way to do it. You don’t need to buy a fancy personal journal to record your entries in, or worry about spelling or grammar. The important thing is to establish the daily habit of paying attention to gratitude-inspiring events; a daily regimen is what is required. The act of writing them down translates your thoughts into words. Psychological research has shown that translating thoughts into concrete language – words, whether oral or written – has advantages over just thinking the thoughts. Writing helps to organize thoughts and facilitate integration, and also helps you accept your own experiences and put them in context. In essence, it allows you to see the meaning of events going on around you and create meaning in your own life. Writing about unpleasant, even traumatic events is widely recommended by therapists. In the context of gratitude journaling, it may help you bring a new and redemptive frame of reference to a difficult life situation.
Your gratitude list must be periodically updated. It is important not to allow your catalog to become stale. It is true that in the first few days of journaling the content might be a bit redundant. Overlap is fine, but literal repetition should be avoided. It may even produce the opposite effect from that intended. One can only imagine, after weeks of this repetitive process, one writing, “My life is so empty! All I have is my cat, my dog, and my apartment!”
When you identify in your daily journal those elements in your life for which you are grateful, the psychologist Charles Shelton recommends that you see these as “gifts.” As you reflect on or contemplate an aspect of your life for which you are grateful, make the conscious effort to associate it with the word gift. Be aware of your feelings and how you relish and savour this gift in your imagination. Take the time to be especially aware of the depth of your gratitude. In other words, don’t hurry through this exercise as if it were just another item on your to-do list.
2. Remember the Bad
For most people, life is generally perceived to be pleasant. Research has shown that memories of past events tend to be biased toward the positive. A recent study showed that over 90 percent of research participants listed more pleasant than unpleasant autobiographical memories. Despite this preference for the positive, there is no reason why the blessings that are listed in our daily gratitude inventories should be only pleasant. We need to remember the bad things as well.
When we remember how difficult life used to be and how far we have come, we set up an explicit contrast in our mind, and this contrast is fertile ground for gratefulness.
Why would remembering the worst that life offered be an effective strategy for cultivating gratitude? Because it capitalizes upon natural mental tools and normal human thought processes. For one, psychological research has established the empirical truth that “bad is stronger than good.” Negative stimuli often evince powerful reactions that can be difficult to ignore or surmount. The adversities of life, seasoned with strong emotions, are deeply etched in our memories and for this reason are easy to recall. Yet a competing tendency is that the feelings associated with unpleasant events tend to fade faster than the feelings associated with pleasant events. We yearn to reconcile with our ex-spouse because the memories of stormy encounters and icy contempt have faded. Therefore, to be grateful in our current union, it is helpful to remember just how awful a previous marriage was.
Second, our minds think in terms of counterfactuals – mental comparisons we make between the way things are and how things might have been different. At times these counterfactuals may be counterproductive to our mental well-being, as we lament opportu nities lost or regrets over what might have been. But we can harness the power of counterfactual thinking by reminding ourselves of how much worse life might be than it is.
3. Ask Yourself Three Questions
In working on a daily moral inventory, you might find it effective to incorporate aspects of a Buddhist meditation technique known as Naikan. Naikan was developed by Yoshimoto Ishina, a self-made millionaire and devout Buddhist from Japan. He developed the method as a way of helping others look inside (the word Naikan means “looking inside”), become introspective, and “see oneself with the mind’s eye.” The practice involves reflecting on three questions:
What have I received from X?
What have I given to X (or Y)?
What troubles and difficulty have I caused X, or Y?
These questions can help us address issues or relationships. It helps us to see the reciprocal quality of relationships and provides a structure for self-reflection. This can be directed toward work situations, social interactions, or toward developing higher aspects of oneself.
The first step or question involves recognizing all the gifts we receive. Remembering a person’s smile, kind words, or helpful actions can elicit feelings of gratitude. When we focus on the good that comes to us every day, we can be filled with deep appreciation rather than drowning under the burden of our problems. Once when I traveled, I reflected on how many people were responsible for helping me get from Point A to Point B. Having arrived at my hotel room, I was shocked by the sheer number who were involved (the shuttle bus driver, ticket agent, baggage handler, security screener, pilots and flight attendants, rental car agent, and hotel desk clerk, among others; I’m sure I left some out). Focusing on what these people are giving has reduced the stress of travel for me far more than any other factor.
Next we focus on what we give to others. This helps us realize how connected we are to others and helps remove a sense of entitlement that might come from feeling that we are due things from others without a need to give back. Ask yourself the question: In what ways might I “give back” to others as an appropriate response for the gratitude I feel? Be creative in finding ways to give back for the many blessings you have received. At the very least, l owe and I express a heartfelt thank-you for all those people in the previous example.
The last step is a difficult one of acknowledging not the things that bother us, but how we cause pain in the lives of others by our thoughts, words, and deeds. The author Greg Krech, who wrote on the practice of Naikan, says of this step, “If we are not willing to see and accept those events in which we have been the source of others’ suffering, then we cannot truly know ourselves or the grace by which we live.”
This practice of asking the three questions can be practiced daily for twenty minutes or so in the evening. It can be used to reflect on the day’s activities in a general way. Another method is to reflect on a specific relationship over a period of fifty to sixty minutes. One can view a relationship chronologically or focus on a particular situation that might need attention. Regardless of the relationships under meditation, the process of Naikan emphasizes two themes: (1) the discovery of personal guilt for having been ungrateful toward people in the past and (2) the discovery of feelings of positive gratitude to- ward those persons who have extended themselves on behalf of the person in the past or present.
4. Learn Prayers/Poems of Gratitude
Surveys have revealed that people spend more time praying than doing just about anything else. 72 percent of people asked say that they pray at least once a day; 75 percent of people say they would like to spend more time in prayer, and over half (51 percent) say they pray before a meal. Most of the prayers are casually conversational rather than liturgically formal.
Prayer is at the front and center of the spiritual life. It has been referred to as “the soul and essence of religion” and “the most spontaneous and personal expression of intimacy with the divine.” Prayers of gratitude are among the most common form of prayer, and religious scriptures of various traditions are replete with prayers of this type. Even college students, who are not generally regarded as a particularly prayerful group, pray prayers of thanksgiving more frequently than any other type of prayer (except for petitionary requests).
If prayer in a spiritual or religious vein is not your thing, one can access a similar sense of gratitude by learning a poem by heart. This is something I’ve explored in my By Heart Project – with a number of the poems I’ve chosen to learn falling in some way into the category of Poems of Gratitude/Prayer.
Good health; being alive; no more skin allergies; I’m not fat; white teeth; exercise; eyes; ears; touch; physical strength; afternoon nap; ability to breathe; modern medicine, energy to get through the day; no broken bones. Each of these bodily-related blessings appeared in journals that Emmons’ research participants have kept. The physicality of gratitude is noticeable as gratefulness for the functioning of one’s body, recovery from illness, or for just being alive are some of the most commonly mentioned themes. Nearly 80 percent of his research participants say they are grateful for their health, or the health of family members, making it the most cited trigger of gratitude. Another frequently mentioned source of gratitude is the senses – the ability to touch, see, smell, taste, and hear.
In her remarkable book The Natural History of the Senses, the author Diane Ackerman wrote that “nothing is more memorable than a smell.” Smells transport us back to earlier times, perhaps to childhood vacations, or adolescent romances, or family holiday traditions that we now look back on with nostalgic gratitude.
Through our senses, we gain an appreciation of what it means to be human, of what an incredible miracle it is to be alive. Could there be a more fitting response than that of joyous gratitude? For millennia, poets, philosophers, and physicians have praised the miraculous and beautiful nature of the body. Seen through the lens of gratitude, however, the body is more than a miraculous construction. It is a gift, freely and gratuitously given, whether one perceives the giver to be God, evolution, or good family genes. Even though some bodily parts may not function as reliably as they once did, if you can breathe, there is cause for gratitude.
Dr. Frederic Luskin suggests in his popular book, Forgive For Good, the following exercise, which he calls the “Breath of Thanks”:
Two or three times every day when you are not fully occupied, slow down and bring your attention to your breathing.
Notice how your breath flows in and out without your having to do anything … continue breathing this way.
For each of the next five to eight exhalations, say the words “thank you” silently to remind yourself of the gift of your breath and how lucky you are to be alive. He suggests practicing this at least three times per week.
It is a good reminder that gratitude begins with the basics. Breathing gratitude is a practice that is available to all of us, regardless of our current life circumstances.
6. Use Visual Reminders
Enter Emmons’ family home and one of the first things you will see is a ceramic plaque above the hallway mirror with the words GIVE THANKS carved in the center. Help yourself to a drink from the refrigerator and you might see a magnet on the door quoting Eleanor Roosevelt: “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is mystery … today is a gift.” Now go over to the family room and look at the bookcase to the right of the windows. On one shelf is a pewter paperweight given to him by a close friend containing a passage from the author Melody Beattie: “Gratitude can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend:’
Two of the primary obstacles to being grateful are (1) forgetfulness and (2) a lack of mindful awareness. Forgetfulness. That human tendency. We forget our benefactors, we forget to take time to count our blessings, and we forget the many ways in which our lives are made easier because of the efforts of others. Awareness is a pre- condition for gratitude: we must have noticed whatever we are to be thankful for – we cannot be thankful for something of which we are unaware. Therefore, we need to remind ourselves and to become aware.
Some people attach Post-it notes listing blessings to their refrigerators, mirrors, steering wheels, or other noticeable locations. Others set their pagers, beepers, or phones to signal them at random times throughout the day. When they are signaled, they pause and count their blessings on the spot. A trial lawyer found that his shower each morning evokes thankfulness, for he had spent considerable time in remote areas where hot water was an unthinkable gift.
We might even want to consider an accountability partner to remind us to be grateful. Accountability partners make us, well, accountable. We become answerable to a trusted inner circle or partner who will challenge us when we begin to stray off the moral path. Just as it is easier to maintain the discipline of physical exercise when you have a partner, maintaining the discipline of gratefulness also benefits from a partner with whom you can swap gratitude lists and who will challenge your ungrateful thoughts.
It stands to reason that an accountability partner would be effective in kindling our sense of gratitude. Gratitude is, after all, a social emotion that is activated in relational contexts. You might find yourself developing a deep sense of gratefulness toward your accountability partner that then generalizes to others in your social sphere.
7. Make a Vow to Practice Gratitude
There is some research which shows that swearing a vow to perform a behaviour actually does increase the likelihood that the action will be executed. In one such study, members of a local YMCA who decided to participate in the Twelve-Week Personal Fitness Program agreed to “exercise three days per week for twelve weeks and beyond at the Y.” Once making the decision to participate, the experimental group was sworn to perform the promised behaviour. A second group signed a written commitment to perform the promised behaviour, and a third, control group, did not make any form of commitment.
The impact of the manipulation was examined for its effect on adherence to the program. Subjects in the vow condition did demonstrate greater adherence than the other conditions as measured by consecutive weeks of three exercise sessions without relapse.
Why is swearing an oath an effective motivator of behaviour? For one, a vow, when made before others, constitutes a public pronouncement of an intention to perform an action. Breaking a vow thereby becomes a profound moral failure (as dissolution of a marriage is for those who taking wedding vows seriously). Fear of sanctions, either internal (in the form of guilt) or external (in the form of social disapproval) is a powerful motivator.
What might a vow to practice gratitude look like? It need not be elaborate. It could be something as simple as “I vow to not take so many things in my life for granted. I vow to pause and count my blessings at least once each day. I vow to express gratitude to someone who has been influential in my life and whom I’ve never properly thanked.” If your vow is formalized, post it somewhere conspicuous where you will be frequently reminded of it. Better yet, share it with your accountability partner.
8. Watch Your Language
In the late 1930s, the amateur linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf posed the theory that language determines the nature and content of thought. This “Whorfian” hypothesis inspired decades of research in a variety of disciplines, including linguistics, psychology, philosophy, anthropology, and education. To this day, it has not been completely disputed or defended but has continued to intrigue researchers around the world. Many have adopted a weaker form of the hypothesis, namely that language influences how we think rather than determining, in a rigid fashion, the very content of the thoughts.
I introduce the Whorfian theory here because of its relevance for thinking about how to stimulate more grateful living. The way we describe events in our lives, and ultimately, life itself, is a direct window on how we perceive and interpret life. This theory says that the language we use influences how we think about the world. Carried further, the Whorfian view is that the words we use create reality.
Compare grateful discourse with ungrateful discourse. Grateful people have a particular linguistic style. They tend to use the language of gifts, givers, blessings, blessed, fortune, fortunate, abundance. They traffic in the discourse of thankfulness. Ungrateful people, on the other hand, tend to focus on deprivation, deservingness, regrets, lack, need, scarcity, loss.
A low and depressed part of us can sometimes walk around chronically engaged in negative self-talk (“Nobody likes me,” ‘I’ll never find a partner;’ ”I’m such a loser;’ and so on). “We are what we think about all day long,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson. The talk becomes so automatic that we don’t even realize that we are doing it or realize the pervasive effect it is having. We can change our mood by engaging in some kind of dialogue with that part and see if we can have some kind of dialogue with it, rather than just letting it continue to monologue itself into an even deeper depression.
9. Go Through the Motions
An ingenious series of experiments conducted a number of years ago showed that when people mimicked the facial expressions associated with happiness, they felt happier – even when they did not know they were moving the “happy muscles” in their face. Researchers have found that smiling itself produces feelings of happiness. How were they kept in the dark? Simple. They were asked to hold a pencil with their teeth. Doing so tends to activate the muscle we use when we smile (the zygomatic major). This muscle lifts the corner of the mouth obliquely upwards and laterally and produces a characteristic smiling expression. Try it now. You will smile. Now, take that pencil and hold it in your lips, pointing it straight out. A different set of muscles are now activated, those that are involved in frowning (these are the ones targeted by Botox treatments). Why this clever ruse? You can’t let subjects in the study know that they are supposed to be feel-ing happy, because that would have unintended consequences on the behavioral rating of interest.
It turned out that the people with the pencils in their teeth, who were, unbeknownst to them, activating their zygomatic muscles, rated cartoons funnier than those who held the pencils with their lips. It appears that going through the motions can trigger the emotion. Technically stated, involuntary facial movements provide sufficient peripheral information to drive emotional experience.
The relevance for practicing gratitude is direct. If we go through grateful motions, the emotion of gratitude should be triggered. What is a grateful motion? Saying thank you. Writing letters of gratitude. Isn’t this the way we socialize our children to become grateful members of a civic society? Expressing gratitude toward someone whom you’ve never properly taken the time to thank can have profoundly positive consequences, for both the person expressing and the recipient. Research I described in chapter 2 indicated that the positive glow resulting from sharing a gratitude letter can last for several months.
So what if the motion has to be forced? The important thing is to do it. Do it now, and the feeling will come. There is a great deal of psychological evidence showing that attitude change often follows behaviour change. Good intentions are often crushed by old habits. If we stand around waiting for a feeling to move us, we may never get going. Get a person to perform a behaviour, and, with some exceptions, their feelings will fall in line. Get people to attend church, and pretty soon they will start believing in what they are hearing. Get people to volunteer in soup kitchens, and they will become more generous. Effective churches plug people in right away. Effective managers know that successful training focuses on changing behaviour first. Marriage therapists tell spouses who have lost the love to pretend that they like each other. In each case, going through the motions can trigger the desired emotions, setting the stage for emotions to reinforce the behaviour.
10. Think Outside the Box
If we want to make the most out of opportunities to flex our gratitude muscles, then we must creatively look for new situations and circumstances in which to feel grateful. Just when I thought I had fully grasped the conceptual basis of gratitude, an article came across my desk describing two “anomalous cases” of gratitude not fitting the usual dynamic of the giving and receiving of goodness between benefactor and beneficiary.
The first case is being grateful to those who do you harm. In other words, being grateful to our enemies. What a preposterous notion this seems to be. Because of our natural inclination to either defend or retaliate (the “flight or fight” response), this is a very difficult notion for most of us to comprehend. Yet this is a common idea within Buddhism. The Dalai Lama often repeats this Buddhist teaching by telling his audiences that he is grateful to the Chinese for giving him the opportunity to practice love for his enemies. If love is too much to swallow, then be grateful that our enemies give us opportunities to practice patience. Similar examples can be found in other spiritual traditions. The Sufi poet Rumi writes about a priest who prays for his muggers:
“Because they have done me such generous favours.
Every time I turn back toward the things they want,
I run into them, they beat me, and leave me nearly dead
in the road, and I understand, again, that what they want
is not what I want. They keep me on the spiritual path.
That’s why I honor them and pray for them.
You may be able to more readily identify with the second anomalous case of gratitude. It is being grateful to someone whom you benefit. Individuals who perform volunteer work sometimes speak of the benefits they receive from their service and express gratitude for those who gave them the opportunity to serve. Mother Teresa often spoke of being grateful for the sick and dying she ministered to in the Calcutta slums, because they enabled her to deepen her compassion. The psychologists Ann Colby and William Damon studied “moral exemplars” – people who made extraordinary moral commitments to the social organizations where they volunteered or worked.
One quality that these moral exemplars had in common was a strong positive attitude – they took joy in their lives and were determined to make the best of whatever happened. Notably, they expressed this positivity as a deep gratitude for the satisfaction they got from their work, and especially, from helping others. Since service to others helped them to find their own inner spirituality, they were grateful for the opportunity to serve. These exemplars have a profound sense of themselves being gifted. Purposeful actions then flow from this sense of giftedness so that they can share and increase the very good they have received. We are reminded that gratitude is incomplete until it is manifested in outward action. We might often need if we want to feel good ourselves, as the psychologist Charles Shelton so fittingly describes, “give back the goodness.”
Very often when working with clients, we get onto the question of their values.
These discussions are not necessarily about values in terms of “principles or standards of behaviour” – although they might include these. Rather, values, we could say give us a lens through which to discover or reaffirm what it is that really matters for us in our lives. It helps to have a clear sense of what really matters for us, as this can give us a kind of value-driven compass with which to live our lives in (hopefully) a richer and more fulfilling way.
Perhaps the best definition of what we means by values is the one given by Kelly G. Wilson below:
“Values are freely chosen ways you understand your place in the world; they are patterns of behaviour that evolve over time based on your actions, and you feel satisfaction mainly by doing these actions for their own sake, not for any outside incentive or rewards.”
Kelly goes on to explain each of these different facets.
Values Are Freely Chosen
This is probably the biggest way that our understanding of values differs from most of the common uses of the word. These are not anyone else’s values. They are yours and yours alone. I wouldn’t tell you what to value, and I would encourage you not let anyone else tell you either. You get to pick. While there are many preselected sets of values you might choose to subscribe to, for the purposes of our work together, you need to decide for yourself what they will be. If you adopt someone else’s idea of what is valuable and it doesn’t line up with what you really feel is important to you, you’ll just find yourself struggling with another set of stories that don’t work in your life.
Understand that the fact that you get to pick your values doesn’t mean that you will always be a perfect example of them. If only. You may choose to value your relationship with your children very highly. Does this mean you’ll always be the perfect parent? Not at all. Of course there will be times when you do things, even intentionally, that won’t square up with your idea of what it means to be a good parent. Your basic choice to make this area of your life a priority is what constitutes your value (and we’ll have more to say about pursuing your values in the next chapter on commitment).
Values Describe Your Understanding of Your Place in the World
This aspect of values might be a little harder to wrap your brain around. Think here of Viktor Frankl and his decision to remain behind to take care of his patients in the concentration camp even when he had an opportunity to escape.
If you didn’t know the details of his story—if you thought, for example, that he was just a guy in a terrible place who had a chance to escape and didn’t take it—it would be hard to make sense out of his decision.
Knowing how Frankl understood his place in the world—what it meant for him to be a doctor, a friend, and a fellow human being—explains and dignifies his choice. When we’re talking about values, we’re going to mean those ways in which you’ve decided to relate yourself to the role you will play in the world—as a member of a community or family, as a learner, as an artist, and so forth.
Values Are Patterns of Behaviour
Values from this perspective are not individual acts. Buying your wife a bunch of flowers does not make you a good husband. A pattern of acts that show consideration, thoughtfulness, and kindness is more like what we mean by values. Giving a bunch of flowers on Mothers’ Day or “just because” might be part of the pattern. It is the pattern that will cause, at the end of your days, someone to stand graveside and say, “he was a loving husband, and I will miss him so.”
Values Develop Over Time, Based on Your Actions
If you choose to value being a good husband, that value is unlikely to be static. Take someone for example, has been with his wife for more than thirty years. Being a good husband at year one does not look exactly the same as being a good husband at year thirty-one. Our most profoundly held values ask us to grow and change our patterns of living even though the central value remains constant.
This is another one of the ways in which our understanding of values differs from the everyday use of the word. Some understandings of the word might be written down into some kind of code. But our understanding of values evolves over time as the result of many, many actions you might take in the service of patterns of living you care about.
Another thing to keep in mind is that, in the sense we mean, you don’t really “clarify” or “discover” what it is that you value. Rather, you construct it over time as you engage in a pattern of actions that, eventually, start to look like a value. There are certainly lots of snake-oil salesmen out there who have plans and systems in place to help you “clarify” your values. Take this kind of thing with a grain of salt. Once you decide what you want your life to be about, only your efforts over time can really work out for you what this actually means. And the meaning and pattern will grow and change over time.
Values Are Intrinsically Rewarding
Here’s your lesson in behaviorism for the day:
There is a very basic idea in behavioral science that organisms (that is, people and animals) will work to pursue pleasure and to avoid pain. Pleasurable things are known asreinforcers; painful things are known as punishers. You get off the couch and go to the cookie jar, reach in, and pull out a snickerdoodle. Mmmm. Your behavior is reinforced. You walk to the stove, turn it on, and stick your hand in the fire. Ouch! You’re punished for your behaviour. From this point, you’re more likely to go get a cookie and less likely to stick your hand in the fire.
For nonhumans, reinforcers all relate to pretty basic things like food, sex, shelter, and social contact. But because of our story-telling brains, humans can get reinforcement for all sorts of places. If you doubt this, try giving a chicken an “employee of the month” award or tell a horse that it’s not going to get into heaven if it keeps wandering out of the paddock.
One of the basic qualities of a value in the sense we mean it is that it creates its own reinforcement. As we understand it, the act of being a good Mum becomes its own reward, if that’s something you value. Likewise, being environmentally responsible, being kind to animals, and learning to make beautiful music on the trombone can all be intrinsically rewarding, if they are things you value. If you only practice the trombone for hours each day because of the salary you get from the local symphony, yet otherwise detest the whole endeavor, you probably don’t value trombone-playing all that highly.
You may find yourself in a place where nothing feels valuable. Please, please, please ease yourself into the stream of life. It is in that stream of activity, engaged in with awareness and flexibility, that you will find things to love. There are only so many things to love that you can find hiding under your bed. And moving around in the world can be hard, but we think, if you practice the things we describe in this book, you will be glad you came out and joined us in this varied and extraordinary world.
What Do You Want Your Life to Be About?
This may seem like a hard question or it may seem like an easy one. Either way, it is a question worth lingering over. You can think about this question for yourself now, but it can also be a really worthwhile exercise to do with someone else, like a therapist or a friend.
Here are some great strategies courtesy of Burka and Yuen (still the best book on the topic, if you’re looking for something really readable and useful):
1. Identify a behavioral goal (observable, specific, and concrete), rather than setting a vague, global one.
NOT: “I want to stop procrastinating.”
INSTEAD: “I want to clean out and organize my garage by September 1.”
2. Set a realistic goal. Think small, rather than large, and choose a mini- mally acceptable goal rather than an ideal goal. Focus on one (and only one!) goal at a time.
NOT: “I’ll never procrastinate again!”
INSTEAD: “I’ll spend an hour a day studying for my Math class.”
3. Break your goal down into small, specific minigoals. Each minigoal is more easily reached than the big goal, and small goals add up to a big goal.
NOT: “I’m going to write the report.”
INSTEAD: “I’ll spend thirty minutes working on a plan for my spreadsheet tonight. Tomorrow I’ll spend another thirty minutes filling in the data, and then the next day, I’ll spend an hour writing a report based on the data.”
4. Be realistic (rather than wishful) about time. Ask yourself: How much time will the task actually take? How much time do I actually have available?
NOT: “I have plenty of time to do this tomorrow.”
INSTEAD: “I’d better look at my calendar to see when I can start. Last time, it took longer than I thought.”
5. Just get started! Instead of trying to do the whole project at once, just take one small step.
Remember: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” NOT: “I’ve got to do it all in one sitting.”
INSTEAD: “What is the one first step I can take?”
6. Use the next fifteen minutes. You can stand anything for fifteen minutes. You can only accomplish a task by working at it fifteen minutes at a time. So, what you can do in fifteen minutes is of value.
NOT: “I only have fifteen minutes, so why bother?”
INSTEAD: “What part of this task can I do in the next fifteen minutes?”
7. Expect obstacles and setbacks. Don’t give up as soon as you hit the first (or second or third) obstacle. An obstacle is just a problem to be solved, not a reflection of your value or competence.
NOT: “The professor isn’t in his office, so I can’t work on my paper. Think I’ll go to a movie.”
INSTEAD: “Even though the professor isn’t in, I can work on my out- line until he gets back.”
8. When possible, delegate (or even dump!) the task. Are you really the only person who can do this? Does this task really have to be done at all?
Remember, no one can do everything—not even you.
NOT: “I am the only one who can do this correctly.”
INSTEAD: “I’ll find the right person for this task so that I can work on a more important project.”
9. Protect your time. Learn how to say no. Don’t take on extra or unnecessary projects.
You can choose not to respond to what’s “urgent” in order to attend to what’s important.
NOT: “I have to make myself available to anyone who needs me.”
INSTEAD: “I don’t have to answer the phone while I’m working. I’ll listen to the message and call back later when I’ve finished.”
10. Watch for your excuses. Instead of using your excuse as an automatic reason to procrastinate, use it as a signal to spend just fifteen minutes on your task. Or use your excuse as a reward for taking a step.
NOT: “I’m tired (depressed/hungry/busy/confused, etc.), so I’ll do it later.”
INSTEAD: “I’m tired, so I’ll just spend fifteen minutes working on my report. Then I’ll take a nap.”
11. Reward your progress along the way. Focus on effort, not on out- come. Watch out for all-or-nothing thinking: the cup can be half-full just as well as half-empty.
Remember, even a small step is progress!
NOT: “I can’t feel good until I’ve completely finished.”
INSTEAD: “I took some steps and I’ve worked hard. That feels good.
Now I’m going to watch a movie.”
12. Use your procrastination as a signal. Stop and ask yourself: “What message is my procrastination sending me?”
NOT: “I’m procrastinating again and I hate myself.”
INSTEAD: “I’m procrastinating again: What am I feeling? What does this mean? What can I learn?”
Remember: YOU HAVE A CHOICE. YOU CAN DELAY OR YOU CAN ACT.
One or two things that you can use in your inner dialogue with the procrastinating part of yourself:
You can act, even though you are uncomfortable.
The legacy of the past does not have to control what you do in the present.
You can take pleasure in learning, growing, and challenging yourself. You do not have to be perfect to be of value.
If you’d like to do some work on your own struggles with procrastination, do get in touch.