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Satisfaction Guraranteed

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I’ve read a lot of books on happiness. I’m practically an expert on the subject, as far as my library is concerned. The book that has been on my mind recently is by Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ. Which doesn’t sound like a book on happiness, but of all the books I’ve read so far, I think he gives the best advice on how to be happy.

This will probably not come as a surprise to you if you read my blog, but the key to happiness is to practice mindfulness. Well, actually, it was still surprising to me, because even though I do practice mindfulness, I’m not sure I am necessarily any happier than I was before I started doing so. So I was anxious to find out what I needed to be doing differently.

Here’s how it works: in any given moment, there will be good things and bad things. (Although I think he refrains from using the words good and bad, because Buddhism tries to avoid judgment and criticism. But I can’t remember what phrase he used.). We often imagine that if some aspect of our lives were different, we would be happier. If only we had a better job. More hours in the day. Eternal summer. In reality, even if we could get everything we wanted, it would just change the content of the good and bad things in our lives at that moment.

For example, lately I’ve been feeling increasingly dissatisfied with my single status. I tried to have a positive attitude on Valentine’s Day, but it would have been nice to have some guy other than my allergist wish me Happy Valentine’s Day. And he probably only said that because he kept me waiting for an hour before he finally saw me.

But when I really think about it, I thought it was sucky to be in a relationship, too. I don’t miss arguing about stupid stuff like where to put the plants. I don’t miss those periods of feeling disconnected during arguments. Being in a relationship didn’t even make me feel any more secure. The fear of rejection and abandonment was always looming. Every day my clients remind me of all of the pain and heartache that come with love, and I don’t miss that pain at all.

In many ways, my current life has been an exercise in learning how to be happy with what I have. When I got divorced I lost more than half my income and constantly stressed about the safety that comes with having money. Now I’m also supporting my brother and have even less than I did before. But I worried about money when I had more of it, too. So I really can’t say that money has made me happy, because my fear about not having enough of it has always kept me unhappy, no matter how much I had in my bank account.

Even though I still find myself wishing my life were different every day, multiple times a day, I do believe that happiness comes from accepting whatever life is in this moment. This mixture of joy and pain, good and bad. My relationship status. My income. Even my ability to access happiness.

When I teach clients how to practice mindfulness, I tell them that the goal is not to be successful at staying in the moment, but rather to become aware of when they are not and to bring their focus back to the present. So that’s what I do. A thought about how my life sucks pops into my head, and I remind myself that it is possible even in the midst of my pain to access happiness. Over and over again, until I get to that moment.

Control What You Can Control

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My friends on my tennis teams and in my groups often tell me, in a teasing way, that I am bossy. And I have to admit, it’s true. But it’s sort of necessary if you want to make sure that people show up to matches and for court times, because it’s very bad when people don’t. Which is exactly why people don’t like to captain and be in charge of groups. Who wants all that responsibility? No normal person, that’s for sure. So really, I’m doing everyone a favor.

One of the things that all of the books on compassion emphasize is how little control we actually have over our thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Our genetic makeup, our upbringing, our circumstances in life are not in our control. In some ways, it’s a little disconcerting, given that so much of our culture is focused on the idea that we control our own destiny. This is why people don’t want to take meds (they’re for the weak-minded). Why we blame people who find themselves in less fortunate circumstances than our own (they’re just lazy). Why our failures are our fault.

When I tell people about this aspect of practicing compassion, skeptics are quick to respond with, you’re just letting people off the hook. You’re just giving people excuses for not taking responsibility. Which is not the case at all. Because the one thing that we are in control of is our intentions. To be loving or hateful. Forgiving or vengeful. Accepting or judgmental. And our instinctive response with ourselves and others is to be critical and judgmental. It takes a considerable amount of discipline and practice to counteract these negative responses. It is far more work than controlling, blaming, and shaming ourselves and other people.

I know it’s negative, but as I reflect on this past year, the first thought that comes to mind is that it really sucked. I know people have it worse, that people have harder lives than me, but a lot of it was still sucky. It would be unrealistic to aspire to a normal life, given how predominantly mental illness factors into every aspect of my life, but sometimes I wish it could be a tad easier. Just a little less painful.

I tell myself all kinds of things to try to keep from falling into a pit of despair. The most helpful strategy is a compassionate one. I cannot entertain these thoughts because they cause me suffering, and I don’t have enough energy to spare on unnecessary suffering. I must take care of myself or I won’t be able to function. I remind myself that I’m doing the best that I can. That all I can do is focus on getting through this moment. I need to take advantage of whatever small thing I can do to make myself feel even the tiniest bit better.

So this year my New Year’s resolution is to exercise more control over my intentions, which are to be mindful, compassionate, and accepting. Which means that I need to write more blog posts.

Eye on the Ball

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When I went to that self-compassion retreat a few years ago, one of the teachers told me that she thought I loved tennis because I love practicing mindfulness. As you know, I’m a big advocate for mindfulness, but I was pretty sure I cared more about competition, burning calories, hanging out with friends, and wearing cute outfits than I cared about practicing mindfulness. But I can see her point. Tennis is the only thing I can do that allows me to block everything else out of my mind, and I almost always feel better afterwards.

For example, last Monday I was feeling so depressed that I actually did not want to play. Which almost never happens. But I knew it would make me feel better, and I was playing with a friend, so I forced myself to do it. It was tough, though. I thew up 4 times, which is a record. I’m not that good at singles anymore, so I was losing for most of the match. For the first set and a half I felt like crying.

But then I channeled my inner warrior. I told myself I could cry when I got home. I reminded myself of all of the times I was depressed during matches and played through them. How I’ve had to lie down for several hours after matches because of heat exhaustion–which is not a great thing, I know, but it does demonstrate my mental toughness.

And It worked. I won that night. I even saved a match point. I felt better afterwards, but I still cried when I got home. Still, I was proud of myself for my ability to fight through adversity. If there’s one thing that depression teaches you, it’s how to be resilient. To play my best under pressure. It has made me a stronger person.

The most helpful strategy was to keep my eye on the ball–which is pretty much always my strategy. If you’ve ever played with me, then you know that I often publicly announce that I am going to watch the ball before every point. I told myself that in that moment, I’m just a tennis player. Not a psychologist. Not a sister taking care of her brother. Not a depressed person. It’s just me and the ball. Nothing else exists.

Thich Nhat Hanh says that when you practice mindfulness, happiness is available to you at any moment. I can’t say that I was happy after the match, but I did feel better afterwards. And there were moments when I was in flow. When I was free from all the thoughts and feelings that plague me. And that is a great feeling.

So whatever your equivalent is to keeping your eye on the ball, be sure to call upon that strategy whenever you’re feeling down to help you ground yourself in the present moment. You’re bound to feel better afterwards.

If Only…

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It’s that time of year again–after Daylight Savings Time, shortly before Thanksgiving–when I am the most at risk for a depressive episode. But this year I am determined not to have one. Or at least to control whatever is in my control to prevent one. I mean, that is always my goal, but I do have an added incentive this year: I have to be able to take care of my brother, which means I have to take care of myself.

I am happy to say that I have been much better about setting boundaries as a result of this added motivation. I can only help so many people. I can only worry about so many things at once. I can only take on so many responsibilities.

The biggest problem is that, despite all of the blog posts I’ve written about letting go of those illusions of happiness that people cling to– money, beauty, the perfect relationship, extra hours in the day–I still cling to my illusions of happiness. I feel this restlessness that can’t be soothed. I long for something that will take the edge off. I turn to something that will only provide fleeting moments of relief, at best.

Lately I’ve been turning to shopping. I know it’s compulsive. I know that the relief will be temporary. I repeat this to myself as I fill my cart, put in my credit card information, and hover over the order button.

Sometimes I can talk myself out of it for a few days. But during those days I still obsess over it. Would it really be so bad if I bought another pair of boots? Don’t I deserve some indulgence, given the crappiness of my life?

So I give in and hit order. But a few days later, I have the itch to shop again. And then I have to take money out of savings to pay my credit card bill. And then I obsess about not having any money. And then I feel deprived, so I want to buy more stuff.

The problem is, I need something to think about. And if I’m not going to fill my head with all of these illusions of happiness, then what, exactly, am I supposed to think about?  So then I try to remember what all of those mindfulness books say about happiness.

I list all of the things that I can be thankful for. This is tricky, though, because if I see an accident on the side of the road, I think, I’m glad I haven’t gotten injured in a car accident. But then my obsessive brain will be like, oh my God! What if I get in a car accident?!

So then I have to switch to practicing self-compassion and tell myself that we’re not going to focus on car accidents because that stresses you out. We’re trying to focus on things that will make you feel more content. Like, how nice the weather is today, given that it’s the middle of November.

Or I’ll try to be fully present by focusing on whatever it is I’m supposed to be doing in that moment. Like driving. Or listening to my client. Or watching UVA get killed in football. Or I’ll do something that I enjoy, like knit, or read, or write.

But eventually I give in and shop some more. So then I have to switch to practicing self-compassion again and remind myself that I’m doing the best that I can.

It’s a lot of work, quite honestly. But it does occupy my mind with something other than illusions of happiness. So I’ll keep practicing and see if it keeps me from getting depressed.

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Do you think I bought too many shoes?

Being Present, Part 2

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Yesterday I met with a client whose grandmother is coming to the end of her battle with cancer and Alzheimer’s. Of all of the scenarios I can imagine, practicing mindfulness when your loved one has a degenerative disease seems the most challenging. Every day you try to be in the moment, grateful for good days, for what they are still able to do, knowing that eventually they will have fewer good days, fewer things they are able to do. But I guess there is always something to be thankful for–that their suffering is over, the pleasure of having known them, memories that you treasure.

This past month and a half has been tough. Practicing mindfulness and gratitude have become survival mechanisms rather than a choice. Sometimes I think about what my life was like in August, when my primary stressor was going back to work after being off for the summer, and it seems like a luxury. Now, in addition to the usual stressors of work and family crises, I have become a parent.

Ironically, the hardest part is the stuff that “normal” people do every day–meal planning, cooking, grocery shopping. Domestic tasks in general. I hate all of them. Even if I were married, I wouldn’t be as domestic as I am now. But I have no choice while my brother recovers from heart surgery.

In moments of weakness, I think about what my life used to be like. I never thought I’d say this, but I miss my solitude. I miss boredom. I miss the freedom of not having to go to the grocery store and eating a bowl of cereal for dinner instead. Of spending hours reading and writing in my journal, even if it was because I had no one else to talk to.

Likewise, I feel even more saddened by my single state. Before, although I didn’t love it, being single felt more like a choice–even though that was an illusion, since I hadn’t met anyone. Now dating isn’t an option. I barely have time to get ready for bed.

I know that I am not clairvoyant. I don’t know what the future holds. Things won’t be like this forever. Still, my current situation is a loss of freedom similar to what I experienced when I got divorced. Although I would have never quit my job while I was married, we could survive if I lost my job. Knowing that I had to work after I was divorced made keeping my job a necessity that caused me anxiety.

But as soon as I become aware of these thoughts about my past and future, I have to focus on the present. Not because I am trying to push myself to a higher state of happiness or enlightenment, but because it’s all I can do to get through each day. I would not have chosen my current situation, but hardship is an inevitable part of life, and my life is no exception to the rule. I cannot think about what my future holds because there are so many things to come that are overwhelming. I can only focus on this thing, in this moment.

This week that thing is returning to work full time, in the midst of the period in the semester with the highest volume of clients. Which is often the beginning of my descent into depression. Except this time, I can’t get depressed, because I have to take care of my brother. But since I can’t control whether or not I get depressed, I’m scared.

But I can’t worry about that today. Today I am not depressed. Today I will focus on getting through the day, and that will have to be enough.

One could argue that my life is worse than it was before, but I cannot afford the luxury of entertaining that thought, either. Nor do I feel that way. I just focus on the things that I can be thankful for now. Although they are different things, they are as plentiful as they were before. My brother is alive. He is getting better every day. He is able to help with more domestic tasks as he gets stronger. He is happy and appreciative. He is a football expert.

In fact, he recently informed me that Aaron Rodgers is not a fake State Farm agent. He is actually a really good quarterback. It makes pro football more interesting because now when Green Bay is playing I can cheer for the State Farm guy.

See? I can still find happiness in the little things.

Perception is Reality

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In “A Beautiful Mind” John Nash, a Nobel Laureate in Economics, talks about how he learns to cope with his hallucinations by ignoring him. That is a pretty amazing thing to do for someone who has schizophrenia. There are several disorders in which the person’s thoughts are so convincing, despite being false, that it is difficult to cope with them by deciding that you’re not going to listen to them.

For example, someone with anorexia may truly see herself as being fat, even though intellectually she knows that she is not. But her inner critic is so persecutory in its insistence that she not eat, not take up space in the universe, that she ultimately gives in. People with eating disorders often conceptualize their inner critic as having a relationship with ED, and ED is the most abusive partner I have ever met in therapy.

Or someone who is psychotic might be convinced that he is going to win a million dollars because Publisher’s Clearing House has told him that he may have already done so. And despite the fact that the check has not arrived in the mail after several years, he makes outlandish purchases based on the prize money that he is convinced is on the way.

I do not have delusional thoughts, but sometimes my obsessive brain tries to convince me of things that are not as insidious but still cause me to suffer. No one gives a crap about me. I am incompetent. Sometimes I can convince myself otherwise with objective evidence, but sometimes my inner critic is relentless in trying to convince me of the veracity of these assertions. It will repeat them hundreds of times a day. The effort to refute them is exhausting.

My psychiatrist tells me that I should put myself out of my misery at the beginning of this barrage by taking an Ativan as soon as the thoughts begin. But often I don’t because, despite all I’ve said about the importance of taking meds, sometimes I still don’t want to. And because, unlike depression, anxiety feels so normal that sometimes I forget that it is not. The meds definitely help. Most of the time I know that when the thoughts come, they are not true. But sometimes it takes a lot of work to keep them at bay.

Practicing mindfulness helps, too. One of the benefits of practicing is that it helps you understand the nature of the mind. Even for “normal” people, this is how the brain works. Random thoughts will pop up. They may not be based in reality, may not reflect what you actually believe. And in the next moment, the thoughts may be completely different.

But it’s really hard. Maybe if I dedicated my life to meditation like Buddhist monks do, my inner critic would be less effective in undermining my self-worth. Or maybe Buddhist monks don’t suffer from mental illness.

But my psychiatrist supports my mindfulness practice, in addition to my meds. He confirmed that it works, even for people with mental illness. But it takes a long time, and it happens very slowly. I know it works because I remember what I used to be like. And now when I go several days without meditating, in my moments of weakness the thoughts creep in and become more convincing.

So I continue to practice, and in the moment, I feel loved, competent, and worthwhile. So I’m writing this post to remind myself that this is true because, in the next moment, I may feel differently.

Three Years Later…

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Today is my blog’s 3rd birthday! Can you believe it? I’ve written 277 posts and still haven’t run out of things to say!

In those 3 books about God that I read this summer, they all said that we have many rebirths in the course of a lifetime, and the beginning of this blog year definitely feels that way. As you know if you’ve been reading my blog, my baby brother had quadruple bypass surgery less than a month ago. What I did not mention at the time is that I am taking care of him, so his heart attack has been a life-changing experience for both of us. While taking on this new role has presented many challenges, in some ways it has simplified my life. My behavior is more intentional; my motivation for everything I do is clear. Many of the things I have realized in this past month relate to themes I have written about over the past 3 years, so I thought I would share some of them.

1. Self-care. I often tell people to treat self-care as though your life depends on it, because it does. Nevertheless, I still struggle with it. It’s hard to go to bed on time, to cook, to go to the grocery store. I still have trouble saying no. Still push myself to the point of exhaustion. But now that I’m taking care of my brother, self-care really does feel like life or death. I have to go to the grocery store and cook healthy meals because if I don’t, he can’t eat. I have to get out of bed, even if I don’t feel like it, because I have to check on him. I have to set limits, or I won’t have the energy to care for him. Like Romeo said in his last post, sometimes it’s better when you don’t have a choice.

2. Mantras. There are so many new things to worry about now that I often feel overwhelmed. Sometimes I can’t fall asleep. I wake up to anxiety attacks. In rare moments of stillness, I cry, thinking about what he went through, wondering how we will make everything work. But in addition to my usual mantras (e.g., everything is going to be OK; I’m doing the best that I can), I have added 2 more: 1) anything is better than him being dead, and 2) if God saved his life, then he’ll help me find a way. And that helps to calm me down.

3. SolitudeI offered to take care of my brother without really thinking about it. At the time, I didn’t realize it meant that he was going to live with me indefinitely. Not that it would have changed my decision. But it’s sort of like suddenly having a child without the 9 months to mentally prepare for it. There was a moment where I mourned the loss of my space, my freedom, but that quickly faded. And surprisingly, I have gained far more than I have lost. I have someone to watch football with. Someone to talk to when I get home, to share my thoughts with. He cares about how my day went, whether I won my tennis match. I don’t dread days when I have nothing planned now, because they’re not as dreadful when you don’t have to spend them alone.

4. FriendshipsMy friends are so awesome. I am so thankful for them. Even though they don’t know my brother, they call and text to ask how we’re doing. They’ve made meals for us. They say prayers for us. They wished me luck on my first day back to work because I was stressed about it. They’ve listened to me cry. They’ve spent hours putting together shelves so that my brother could have space for his belongings. They are taking good care of me, so that I can take good care of Romeo.

5. GratitudeIn my prayers, when I give thanks for all of my blessings, I always do so with some anxiety, knowing that at some point I will lose the things that I am thankful for. What will I do then? Fortunately, hardship and loss have heightened my awareness of how plentiful my blessings are. I am even more aware of what a gift it is to be able to breathe, to feel your heart beat, to walk. (All mindfulness exercises, by the way.)  I’m thankful that I have a job that has vacation days. I’m thankful that every day my brother gets stronger. That he is happier now than he was before the surgery.

If this period of my life marks a rebirth, then my goal in this lifetime is to be more fully aware of what a gift it is to be alive.