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Is the Sky Falling?

I woke up this morning feeling pretty low-energy and for lack of a better word, blah. The sky grey and gloomy, I turned on the local news to see what the weather was going to be. Instead, I heard about the Daunte Wright shooting in Minnesota and resulting protests, down the street from the courthouse where the trial is underway on the George Floyd death, followed by a whole slew of bad news from around the world. I turned the tv off, not to stick my head in the sand, but to get my mind focused on something productive instead of spiraling into an even worse state of mind.

Based on conversations that have occurred over the past couple of weeks in our workshops with both staff members and leaders, it’s clear that anxiety levels remain high for many and moods are mixed. Anxiety over the virus and vaccines, fear of returning to workplaces, concerns about not having a workplace to return to, nervousness about kids returning to school, and burnout from the blurring of anything even close to a work/life balance for many, seem to be taking a toll right now.

I think a large part of this is related to fatigue. We have Covid fatigue, change fatigue, zoom fatigue, social injustice fatigue, political fatigue, and, well, just overall general fatigue as a result of living with so much uncertainty for over a year now. But if we allow ourselves to stay in this state of being, it’s an endless cycle that won’t improve.

Our state of being is based largely on our cognitive processing. We have a thought. That thought influences our feelings or emotions. Those feelings influence our behaviors. And those behaviors then influence our thoughts. That cycle creates our state of being. The key to raising our state of being starts with our thoughts.

If we allow our automatic thoughts, which we all have, to flourish unchecked, we have a problem. All we have to do is turn on the news and witness the current violence against blacks and Asians, the political corruption and divisiveness that seems to be never-ending, the increase in crime that is exploding almost everywhere and the number of Covid cases back on the rise, and the negative thoughts we experience result in feelings of dismay, fear or anxiety, resulting in behaviors influenced by those emotions.

But we can choose to control those negative thoughts before they start the next cycle that will create our current state of being. We have unfortunately always had political corruption, violence, discrimination and crime. While Covid may be a new virus, it is certainly not the first to cause widespread illness and death. Taking the long view doesn’t change the events, but it allows us to gain perspective and realize that the sky is not falling. The world has always been full of struggles and strife. The major difference between now and more ancient history is that we can see all of these events play out in the media 24 hours a day. In the context of human history this is a new phenomenon. Additionally, negative news sells, whether in money or number of followers, so we don’t see that overall, the positive events occurring in the world far outweigh the negative.

I think I’ve mentioned this before, but it is the best analogy I’ve heard, which is what happens after a plane crash. It gets continuous coverage, with every terrible detail rehashed and horrible images shown over and over again. But there has never been a news story on the 100,000 planes that reach their destinations across the globe safely every day. One versus 100,000, and the one gets all of the coverage.

I am of course not saying that the issues in the news are not important, such as the police shooting in Minnesota, the current trial over George Floyd’s death, the recent spate of hate crimes against Asians, or the spread of the virus and new concerns about one of the vaccines. But if we allow our automatic thoughts to assume that everything is horrible in the world all of the time, we won’t have the capacity to think or take actions that could make the world any better. If we allow our state of being to stay in one of fear, hatred or dread, we are impotent to contribute anything toward solutions.

Mindfulness helps us strengthen our ability to notice our automatic thoughts. Once we notice them, we can change them. That sounds simple, but it’s not actually an easy feat. It requires strengthening our mindfulness skills, most effectively through meditation, in order to be able to notice and identify the thousands of negative automatic thoughts we have daily. While it may seem that we have brain damage as a species because so many of our thoughts are negative, our minds have developed to protect us, so the default of negativity is to ensure that we notice dangers. But this very function is creating a negative state of being for many of us and that’s not healthy.

I’m keenly aware that my state of being this morning is negative and that will not serve me well, so I have to choose to change it. We can’t stop our thoughts nor can we only have positive thoughts, but we can slow the process down, giving us time to better control what’s going on between our ears. We can shift our state of being from one of a chicken-little perception that the sky is falling to one of life-goes-on and that we can choose how we participate in it.

It is very common for people who are not aware of their automatic thoughts to think in egocentric terms, such as whatever is happening is “being done to me.” This is the basis for much of the hostility and violence we see in society. Everything is seen through this lens of fear and defensiveness and creates a perpetual cycle of negativity and aggressiveness, which in the eye of the beholder seems justified because they are constantly at risk of someone doing something to them.

But this could just as easily be reframed into the opposite. Any event could be seen from the perspective of “what can I learn from this?” or “how did I contribute to this occurring and what can I do differently next time?” Those thoughts are empowering instead of debilitating and not only improve our state of being, but move us toward creative thinking that can actually help contribute to the solutions we need for the multitude of challenges we’re facing.

Gratitude also plays an impactful role in creating our state of being. Keep in mind that gratitude is both a thought and a feeling, so can greatly influence our behaviors. I choose to focus on gratitude this morning, even though it feels like a struggle, because gratitude will help me shift my state of being from feeling pretty awful to feeling good. And if I feel good, I’m more creative and more energetic, which means I can support more people better than I could in a low state.

This speaks to the quality of non-judgment inherent in mindfulness. I recognize that I’m judging events as “bad” and that in turn is coloring my view of the world this morning. Automatic thoughts like, “what is becoming of the world these days?” or “how can anything ever get better?” don’t solve any problems. They just drain me of my energy. This is not to say that tragic events aren’t happening in the world because they are. But sitting in judgment and negative energy isn’t going to make them any better, so I know that I have to shift out of this mood or I could contribute to more negativity in the world as I try to do my job today. I have to accept that I can’t fix the world, much as I would like to. Mindfulness allows me to recognize that my thought processes are turning to areas that won’t serve me or others. It’s a choice that we all make, either consciously where we take actions to shift our thinking, or unconsciously through non-action. While none of us individually can fix all of the ills in society, we can each contribute to improving conditions, even if it seems like it’s on a small scale. Cumulatively, that could lead to big changes.

As we’ve been covering over the past few weeks, there are many, many forms of meditation, and almost all of them are scientifically shown in studies to be effective at not only increasing our ability to shift our cognitive as well as emotional functions, but with a consistent, dedicated practice, to slowly change the actual structures of our brains. Regular meditation can shift the neural connections that create much of our automatic thinking from negative to positive. This could be why intense meditators seem so calm and content. They don’t have that little voice in their head constantly shouting bad news.

A simple presence meditation can strengthen our ability to notice our automatic thoughts. We sit quietly and simply note when thoughts arise. As thoughts arise, we can gently note or label them: “planning,” or “judging,” or “catastrophizing.” We’re not noting our thoughts so that we can change them in this practice, we’re just turning toward this process and noticing thoughts that we normally don’t realize we’re having. We don’t typically recognize their impact and we’re usually not even aware that they’re there, but the next thing you know we’re carried away. Practicing a presence meditation helps prevent us from getting lost in our own negative mental activities. And that, in turn, shifts our state of being from negativity towards positivity.

So I have some work to do this morning, before I can begin my job that supports other people. And while part of me just wants to go back to bed and pull the covers over my head, that’s not going to serve any purpose. I’ll sit in silence for a while instead, getting present and centered and finding whatever I can to feel grateful for, like my health, my home, technological and scientific breakthroughs, the fact that the economy is predicted to be great this year, that I can see my family soon and that so many people are doing great things to contribute to a better world.

As I look at the dark grey mass above my head, I can remember that it’s only gloomy from my current perspective. If I was flying in an airplane, I would be able to see that above the grey blanket, the sun is shining and the sky is blue. The sun is always there, the world keeps turning and life goes on. I can remember that I am blessed to be able to experience it.

How’s your state of being today? Perhaps getting present and focused on gratitude could make a difference. I think it’s at least worth a try.

Until next time. Have a wonderful week.

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