As you probably know by now, mindfulness is present moment awareness of both our inner world and our outer world. That’s been causing me a little bit of trouble lately, as our outer world seems to be kind of a mess. On a good day, I can look at this mess from a perspective of believing that it’s occurring because we’re going through a great global transition and change is usually uncomfortable and sometimes chaotic. On other days, I struggle to not feel somewhat distressed.
As if we haven’t encountered enough challenges over the past 18 months, right now we’re facing rising inflation, with prices skyrocketing on a variety of necessities, including $5 a gallon for gas, at least here in southern California. There’s talk of a winter covid surge in addition to the flu season being upon us. Measles are evidently back. And of course, the climate crisis, continuing political divisiveness, the ongoing battles over vaccine and mask mandates, and to top it all off, material and labor shortages, all converge to create something akin to a dark cloud over our heads.
So some days, I feel the gloom and doom of it all. It feels heavy on my mind and body. That feeling prompts me to observe what’s going on in my inner world, and I can fairly quickly realize that I’m allowing my thoughts to spiral into a negative state and that doesn’t serve me or anyone else.
It's frequently easier to notice how we feel versus what we’re thinking, so a couple of times a day, check in and simply ask yourself how you feel. If it’s not good, that’s a reflection of what you’re thinking and a signal that you need to take action to lift those thoughts out of the dark place they’re taking you. It’s time to lighten up.
While I am a strong proponent of meditation, when I’m feeling kind of dark or heavy, it’s not always the most effective practice for me. I need to get my mood up first so that my swirling negative thoughts don’t interfere with my contemplation and there are several simple steps to take to achieve this.
First, try music. Put some upbeat music on and listen while you work, or perhaps even dance around for a few minutes. It’s an immediate mood-booster.
Speaking of dancing, exercise is another great way to enhance your mood. It not only improves physical health, but again, our brains release dopamine when we exercise and that helps us feel better.
Another simple trick is gratitude which we’ve talked about many times before as a key component to mindfulness. Even if things seem dismal, as soon as you focus on what you’re grateful for, your brain starts releasing feel-good hormones and your neural patterns shift to the positive.
Pay attention to what you’re watching. The news or doom-scrolling are not going to make you feel better. Find something funny or inspirational to view instead.
Practice your faith. Studies show that believing in a higher power reduces stress, so pray or attend religious services, if that is part of your belief system.
Socialize. Our brains require interactions with other people in order to stay healthy. While many are back out there living life like pre-pandemic days, many are not yet. One of the worst things we can do when feeling pessimistic is to remain in isolation, so reach out and get out, at least a little. For some, this is a health concern and if that’s the case, take the steps necessary to minimize your risk. If you’re uncomfortable meeting people in person, then make the effort to socialize online, but with people you know, not strangers on apps.
If you’re staying homebound because it’s now a habit, it’s time to change that habit. You can take baby steps but push yourself to go out to more than just the grocery store. Try a coffee shop and if you’re in an area that’s not freezing, you can sit outside to start, or walk through a public space like a mall or museum. Many are struggling with re-entry into the outer world, but it’s important to our well-being, so even if you start small, it will help you ease back out there.
Do something creative. This lights up sections of your brain that might have been dozing lately, specifically in the right hemisphere of the brain. When we’re activating both halves, we feel more motivated and inspired. ‘Tis the season, so try cooking or baking something new and different. Not only does the creativity involved help, but the aromas that come from the stove or oven will also make you feel better.
Think of a hobby you love but have abandoned or find a new one. I have found joy over the past week in something as simple as a spray can. My outdoor flower pots were looking tired and sad, so I bought a few cans of spray paint and reinvigorated the pots as well my mood with shiny colors that feel bright and cheery.
Shortened days this time of year mean shortened sunshine. If you’re sensitive to this like I am, now’s the time to utilize artificial light. Turn on extra lights or brighter lights indoors or outside to keep your mood from getting gloomy. And go outside, even if for a short period of time, every day. Studies show this lifts our spirits and it’s an easy fix, even in cold weather, so we can literally lighten up by brightening our environment.
Do something for someone else. Again, studies show that this is one of the quickest ways to feel better. Random acts of kindness, reaching out to someone who might be lonely, volunteering for a charity, helping a neighbor, mentoring a teenager – the possibilities are endless once you put your mind to it.
It is indeed the holiday season again for most and it’s a time of year where people can be susceptible to sadness or depression. This year, that may be more widespread as we struggle with Covid concerns or find we can’t purchase that perfect gift for someone because it’s sitting on a ship somewhere in the ocean. Try focusing instead on the true meaning of the holidays instead of the commercialization we’ve been conditioned to pursue. Spending time with family and friends, practicing your religion, honoring ancestors, practicing gratitude – tis the season for meaning and purpose, if we choose so. If you struggle during the holidays, practice self-compassion and seek professional support if you feel depressed.
If you find that your thoughts are interfering with your sitting meditation practice, try switching it up for a while with guided meditations. The Loving Kindness meditation is a powerful antidote to feeling blue and there is substantial evidence that it reduces sadness, anger and depression, in addition to increasing compassion for self and others. Or try a laughing yoga session. As silly as it looks, it really does make you laugh and sometimes, we all can use a good laugh, which in turn releases those feel-good chemicals from our brains. Try moving contemplative practices, like T’ai Chi or yoga. You’ll get the benefits of both mindfulness and exercise, a double hit of uplifting hormones.
What simple things in life make you feel good? Do more of that. And judge less. Remember that it is not whatever happens that causes us to feel bad, but our judgment about that event that does. Practice neutral observation instead of judgment. When you notice that you’re judging, label it. Just say “judgment” or “I’m judging” in your mind. Ask questions to shift your mind out of judgment, like “I wonder how this person’s behavior is serving them?”, or “what could be happening in their lives right now to prompt this behavior?” You can also look for the humor in some situations.
The bottom line is we need to lighten up on the inside, despite whatever challenges we’re facing on the outside. If not, all we’re doing is adding to our pain and suffering, so it benefits us to make the effort. Practicing mindfulness allows us to focus on the present and that may be the most powerful practice of all during times like we’re experiencing. In this moment, are you safe? Are you breathing? Can you be grateful that you’re here? Staying focused on this moment, the time when life actually occurs, reduces the ego’s ability to catastrophize what has happened in the past or what could happen in the future. Right here, right now, we can remind ourselves that we’re okay. And then that moment is gone and we have the opportunity to focus on the new moment. Still here, still breathing, still okay.
Thanksgiving is right around the corner and I want to say thank you to you. I’m very grateful to share this space with you and grateful that we’re working together to make the world a more mindful place. It gives me hope and inspiration and that is a gift and a blessing.
Let’s all lighten up and enjoy each other, be compassionate with ourselves and others, and remember that whatever our circumstances, they will pass. Nothing is permanent and if we can remember that, we become lighter beings, less burdened and more able to celebrate each moment as it comes.