Practicing Optimism in a Crappy World

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After my last couple of posts, several people said they appreciate my optimism—a trait that is clearly in short supply these days. As I don’t think I’m either ostrich or Pollyanna, and I’ve done plenty of ranting and yelling at the images on the TV news and on my often too-smart-by-half phone, I’ve been exploring the source of the hopefulness that I’ve been conveying to you.

I think that the mindfulness meditation I’ve been practicing for more than a year now has finally reached fruition, and I’d like to share some of my discoveries and resources.

I’ve been meditating with help from various gurus offering guided imagery through CDs and phone downloads for quite some time, and last Fall I took an 8-week course on Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), a program developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. I took the course near my home; it’s available in many areas and involves walking, sitting, and standing meditations, gentle yoga, body scans—with your mind, not technology—and the like.

Kabat-Zinn also coined the term “mindfulness,” which stems from early Buddhism, calling it “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.” The emphasis is on concentrating on the rhythm of your breath to focus your mind.

Kabat-Zinn’s program has actually been associated with positive changes in the brain: an article in Psychiatric Res (2011 Jan 30;191(1):36-43, which for some reason won’t hyperlink) noted “changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective-taking.”

Who wouldn’t want that?  But for the longest time, though I was a diligent student and meditated daily, I felt I wasn’t getting the full benefit. I was “stuck,” allowing the same dopey stories—sometimes annoying, sometimes worrisome—to race around in my brain. And my “inner critic” wouldn’t let me get away for a minute with that non-judgmental stuff Kabat-Zinn talks about. What’s so hard about this? I’d berate myself. I’ve been doing it forever. Why can’t I master it?

Some time ago, I had the opportunity to speak with Sharon Salzberg, a well-known and beloved teacher and a founder of the highly acclaimed Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. Salzberg suggests dealing with the inner critic by giving it a name or persona.

Hers is Lucy, the Peanuts character who told Charlie Brown: “The problem with you is that you’re you.” When she has negative feelings about herself, she acknowledges them by thinking, “Hi, Lucy,” or “Chill it, Lucy,” in a friendly manner.

I’ve adopted my own Lucy, and finally, finally, I realize I’m spending more time living in the moment. Granted, there are some pretty scary moments all around us these days, but once you don’t dwell on them and continue to replay them, they lose their heft.

The whole point, which I’ve known for some time but only just become able to internalize, is that if you accept these feelings, thoughts, and fears and don’t fight them, knowing they’re transitory, they pass fairly quickly. You simply move on.

I am bolstered by imagery like that of the man standing outside his house, burdened by two heavy suitcases. One contains “regrets”; the other holds “worries.” First he drops one; then the other. His step is considerably lighter as he walks away.

I am also bolstered by the oft-repeated quotation attributed to Mark Twain: “I’ve lived a long and difficult life filled with so many misfortunes—most of which never happened.”

Tara Brach, one of my favorite mindfulness gurus, encourages smiling. In one of her talks, she says, “Smiling affects areas of the brain associated with happiness; it can’t cause happiness, but it can tip you in that direction.” If you want to try it, begin by sensing a smile around your eyes, then your mouth, your heart, and then sense and feel that smile throughout your body.

I find Brach’s talks so helpful that I listen to them repeatedly. One of them, “Meditation: The Radical Acceptance of Pain,” has on occasion freed me from a migraine headache without medication. The talk is less than 12 minutes long, and I recommend that anyone suffering from pain locate it via Google and listen to it—maybe even twice. There’s nothing like relieving one’s pain to open a path to optimism.

Mindfulness recently got a nod from Bill Gates in The New York Times Book Review (September 9). Reviewing the new book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Gates says the author insists “that life in the 21st century demands mindfulness—getting to know ourselves better and seeing how we contribute to the suffering in our own lives.”

Acknowledging that this idea is “easy to mock,” Gates writes: “As someone who’s taking a course on mindfulness and meditation, I found it compelling.”

Though mindfulness is helpful to the individual, its proponents see its widespread practice as beneficial to the larger society. Emphasis is placed on the concept of lovingkindness. As Salzberg has said: “Lovingkindness and compassion are the opposites of fear.”

Another favorite guru, Jack Kornfield, speaks of the importance of equanimity, “the ability to meet all experience with a balanced mind.” Acknowledging that sometimes situations demand a strong response, he asserts that even such a response can be done with equanimity.

Equanimity arises from “living with a deep understanding of the passing of all things,” and leads to a peaceful heart. “With a peaceful heart, you can see clearly and respond wisely.”

The best leaders, he says, “combine strength and wisdom with a steady and peaceful heart.”  And so I say, optimistically: If enough of us follow this path–and if we elect leaders who meet that definition–perhaps we can make the world a little less crappy.

It’s been quite a journey for me to reach this point, and I’ll readily acknowledge there are times when reality’s bite makes me feel optimism is kind of nutty. But then I breathe, smile, and the shadow passes. We really don’t have to live in anger and fear.

Perhaps you’ll join me? Have you tried mindfulness? Are you tempted? As always, I’m eager for your thoughts. And even if you don’t care to comment, if you like this or any of my other posts, please feel free to share and/or click on “like.”

I’ll close by echoing Kornfield’s message: May you–may we all–live with a peaceful heart.

Annie