You Aren’t Who You Think You Are!


Have you ever found yourself so angry, say in an argument, that you’ve yelled, or said mean things, or left the room, or slammed a door, only to feel ashamed later?

Have you ever panicked, ready to pull your hair out, because your fear seemed overwhelming, demanding a quick fix that seemed elusive?

Perhaps it was in getting bad news such as being fired, or being told you have a serious illness, or finding out your spouse wants out.

It’s been said many times you are what you think about. If you’re having happy thoughts, then chances are they’ll carry you through the day, making it a good one.

Conversely, when you’re upset–who knows about what?–you’re apt to put in motion unhappy scenarios throughout your day. Not only that, you may be spreading your viral malcontent to others.

But it’s your unconscious thoughts that may influence you even more, and with greater fall out, since you’re unwitting of the sources behind what you say and do. In short, it goes a lot deeper than just what you think about.

It’s as though you’re living with a stranger usurping your identity. There he is, randomly, unexpectedly, projecting himself upon your conscious world.

Your thoughts, then, seldom come close to mirroring who you really are, though they may try to tell you that you’re either lacking or even very special.

And this is the good news, since your thoughts most likely come short of who you really are.

Your mistake is identifying with them.

This becomes clearer when we resort to linguistics.

In English, we always say things like “I’m angry” or “I’m lucky” or I’m afraid,” when logically this can never be so.

This gets corrected in languages like Spanish, French and German in which we say we have anger, or luck or fear.

Now try this little exercise in predicate adjectives to catch my drift. To

I am, add an adjective that describes you:

I am …

I am happy.

I am sad.

Et cetera.

I call it the name tag game and we all play it.

As such, these tags can never summarize in any moment the totality of who you are in your uniqueness, and thus you err when you identify with them.

Name tags reach back into your childhood as you strive for validation, or self-worth, often by comparing yourself to others.

My mother likes my sister more than me.

I’m smarter than Bill.

I’m not popular.

Unfortunately, such scripts program us; that is, unless you learn to identify the falsity of their self limitations.

By doing so, you free yourself from their tyranny.

You don’t replay them anymore.

Self-acceptance prospers in an environment saturated with love. Too many of us we’re raised, however, by parents who themselves were never accepted for who they were, and thus never fully loved.

Accordingly, their love was, in turn, conditional, or a projection of themselves.

The truth is you’re far more than the stories you’ve come to believe about yourself.

You don’t need to keep modeling yourself on what you think or have been told you are or should be.

You’re worthy now.

Too often you try to compensate for life having dealt you a bad hand:

A broken home replete with violence.

An alcoholic parent.

Bullying at school.

A physical or mental handicap.

Sexual abuse.

A friend’s betrayal.

An insensitive teacher.

And while measured by status and/or accumulation, you may even seem successful to others, you find you’re still battling feelings of inferiority or unworthiness daily.

In a kind of guerrilla war, your anxiety pushes you to flush out the enemy by doing still more.

You hunger for approval, but it’s never enough.

Afraid of disapproval, you retreat from doing new things because you might do it wrong or even fail.

Freeing yourself by identifying the stories you’ve come to falsely believe about yourself is your passport to loving yourself, and with it, finding confidence and joy.

Anxiety about yourself, unfortunately, is an acquired practice.

It follows you must undo the habit.

When you think negatively or act out destructively, catch yourself at it.

This isn’t my true self.

This isn’t me.

And you’re right.

You can help yourself by retrieving your thoughts in a strainer, as it were, by practicing mindfulness,

Breathe deeply through your nose for a count of six seconds, your hand on your belly

Feel your stomach inflate.

Now breathe out for a count of four. feeling your stomach contract.

Visualize happy scenes.

Let your body relax, beginning with your toes, then your feet, legs, back, arms and neck, each in its turn.

Now listen to your thoughts,

Do this without judging them.

If you stray, as we always do, return to deep breathing.

By listening to ourselves, detached from censure, we see objectively, freeing ourselves from anxiety’s tyranny.

We don’t allow our emotions to boss us around anymore.

To this end, I find restorative yoga the most peace-rendering exercise of any I’ve come upon.

Unfortunately, most yoga practice in the West confines itself to bodily exercise, or fitness,

True yoga is much more, or holistic, the “yoking” of mind and body, for they are ultimately one. Yoga mean “to yoke.”

This is where Western medicine so often fails, treating symptoms, not causes.

We are not mere physical creatures.

We possess a spiritual component.

We are sentient beings.

In traditional parlance, we have a Soul.

In modern life, however, we’ve disconnected Body and Soul.

The consequence is that we find ourselves out-of-balance, resulting in stress, fatigue and, ultimately, illness.

Yoga reverses this, restoring health, both physical and mental.

Yoga helps you let go.

Yoga enables you to love yourself and, with it, forgive yourself and others.

I’m sadly limited to a blog, when there’s so much else I’d like to say.

But let me recommend a book that will jump start your reconnecting mind and body. I promise you’ll not want to set it down:

Brad Willis. Warrior Pose:  How Yoga (Literally) Saved My Life.

We listen too much to our head, when we should be living life with our heart.

If you follow my suggestions, hand over my heart, you’ll increasingly gain power over that stranger who’s usurped the premises.

You’ll dislike him so much, you’ll ask him to leave.

The good news is that he will!



Medicine discovers meditation

stressFunny how the poets I read and taught in college have a way of popping up in my mind, even though I’ve been away from that scene for seven years now.  Take, for instance, the English poet Wordsworth.  He’s famous for his nature poetry and talks about “wise passivity,” by which he meant suspending the thinking part and simply letting the senses imbibe the stillness we often find in nature and arriving at the things that really matter. I’d say he was right on the mark, especially with our modern way of living crowding our space to be ourselves, muffling the intuitive stream that fosters coherence and confers tranquility.

A few days ago I was rummaging through the Tao Te Ching, which I like to do every now and then, since it’s densely packed with wise counsel, and came upon this passage that got me started on this present blog entry:

Act by not acting,
Accomplish by not straining
Understand by not knowing. (63)

 Simple but profound, such counsel promotes understanding and, with it, healing.  We need to teach ourselves to be still that we may intuit the essentials and practice mindfulness, something the East with its contemplative traditions discovered several millennia ago, anticipating poets like Wordsworth and, now, contemporary medicine.  The ancients were right all along about meditation as essential to our best selves.  In a time of ever increasing stress, we need its solace more than ever.  Consider this sober warning in the Harvard Newsletter (March 2011):

Over the years, researchers have . . . gained insight into the long-term effects stress has on physical and psychological health. Over time, repeated activation of the stress response takes a toll on the body. Research suggests that prolonged stress contributes to high blood pressure, promotes the formation of artery-clogging deposits, and causes brain changes that may contribute to anxiety, depression, and addiction. More preliminary research suggests that chronic stress may also contribute to obesity, both through direct mechanisms (causing people to eat more) or indirectly (decreasing sleep and exercise).

With available electroencephalogram testing of alpha brain waves along with pulse rate monitoring and even MRI brain scans focusing on “gray matter” in the brain areas responsible for memory, self-awareness and empathy, we now have empirical data gathered by professionals that can be replicated.  In sum, we know meditation works, which means that it can assuage pain and prevent or heal some of our entrenched ills, whether physical or psychological. The paradigm of medical reliance on medication, surgery, diet and exercise is expanding.  In short, a quiet revolution is underway as medicine discovers the ancient axiom that mind and body are one.

Perhaps its seed was planted most notably in the fascination the Beatles showed for Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founder of  Transcendental Meditation.  Luminaries such as film director David Lynch; TV notables, Ellen Degeneres and Oprah swear by it.  Hey, George Stephanopoulos is into it too.  TM prides itself on research findings, at this juncture, some 700 plus, allegedly confirming its effectiveness in reducing stress, depression, high blood pressure and cardiac risk.

BensonMedicine started to look seriously at a supplementary role for meditation with Harvard’s Herbert Benson putting it to the test via the rigors of refined imaging, using TM volunteers.  As he put it, “Three decades ago it was considered scientific heresy for a Harvard physician and researcher to hypothesize that stress contributed to health problems and to publish studies showing that mental focusing were good for the body.”  Benson opened up medicine to meditation’s possible inclusion with his best selling (four million copies) The Relaxation Response in 1975.  “With meditation alone, the T.M. practitioners brought about striking physiologic change.”

Benson subsequently converted TM into a simple two step approach:  repeat a word or phrase of your own choosing and disregard distracting, every day thoughts by returning to your word or phrase.

Benson’s work was soon popularized in the public world through Norman Cousins, physician Dean Ornish, and a Barbara Walter’s ABC interview.  Still, the medical community for nearly 15 years dismissed Benson’s findings as largely a placebo effect.  That changed as other universities took up their own research, supporting Benson.  Today, Harvard has launched an endowed professorship dedicated to continuing research and treats thousands of clients seeking relief from stress with the Benson method.  Relaxation Response therapy is, in fact, incorporated into specialized programs at Boston’s Harvard linked Beth Israel and Massachusetts General hospitals, with fourteen affiliates nationally.

Today the meditation mainstream seems to be shifting to what’s called “mindfulness meditation,” an adaptation of the Zen approach to medication pioneered by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts to treat patients with debilitating diseases and chronic pain.  Like relaxation response meditation, mind-based stress reduction, or MBSR, is science centered, except it differs in how it approaches meditation.  Instead of a word, or mantra, and returning to it when your thoughts wander, you allow your thoughts, noting them, though not analyzing them, returning to focus on your breathing.  The idea is to objectify rather than personalize your thoughts, enabling you to better deal with them.  It’s been shown to activate the gray matter in those areas of the brain responsible for memory, a sense of self and empathy.  It inculcates self acceptance and helps us see that memory belongs to the past and isn’t real.

As such, it works well as a backdrop to the now widespread cognitive approach in counselingYou can actually practicemindfulness” anywhere, or while walking, listening to music, taking in conversation.  Allegedly, it can, with time, help  you become more empathetic through your heightened awareness of your own responses and thus a more diligent listener in social contexts

Whether you use a mantra or mindfulness approach doesn’t really matter since both result in a relaxation effect, though in my very limited experience I find the mantra version easier than mindfulness, which by its very nature can sometimes be distressing.  But there are many kinds of meditation formats, so you may want to search for what makes you most comfortable.  What’s worked especially well for me is known as Restorative Yoga, a derivative of Hatha yoga combining breathing, imaging, muscle relaxation and mild body postures.  I was introduced to it through Nurrie and Rick Stearn’s helpful book, Yoga for Anxiety:  Meditations and Practices for Calming Mind and Body.  Yoga might just be the most integrative of all approaches, administrating to both body and spirit.

I have to be candid: meditation does have its skeptics, some of them arguing that the alleged empirical effects can be attributed to advocate or placebo causes.  Personally, I’ve always found the latter untenable, since if it promotes healing, then the placebo response actually validates the psychosomatic power of the mind, which is ultimately what meditation is all about.

Others argue that random controlled trials (RCT), the gold standard, are lacking, and I’ve found this to have validity; for example, if you turn to the highly regarded Cochrane database, combing scores of medical journals, only one study turns up and it’s equivocal, recommending more randomized testing.

For all the claims that meditation can reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke, the American Heart Association has reserved judgment.  While its definitive report, published in April of this year, does indicate that TM can reduce blood pressure, it urges more research and assigns a lower rating to alternative meditation therapies.  I don’t see a problem here.  Meditation shouldn’t occur in isolation, but in concert with medication when needed, surgery when required, healthier food choices, and regular exercise as constants.

Meditation enthusiasts will rave about its benefits, how it’s made them calmer, more relaxed, better able to deal with both themselves and others, etc., but this is the stuff of anecdote, not science,  Just how do you quantify happiness?  And yet if we see behavioral change such as freedom from drugs; a happier disposition; a gentler, more loving person, we may not be able to measure it, but we know something is going on.

Frankly, I’m impressed with what doctors like Benson and Kabat-Zinn have uncovered.  To be sure, it’s a new science with bumps that need smoothing out, but its future lies in its promise and the empirical base on which it rests.

It seems The American Psychological Association APA) is on board, giving a resounding endorsement to MBSR.  (See Davis and Hayes.  “What are the benefits of mindfulness?” Monitor on Psychology.  July/August2012.  Vol. 43, No. 7.)

Of course, you can resort to SSRIs like Effexor, Zoloft and Lexapro, or quick fixes through benzies like Xanax or Valium, but they come with baggage, or side effects, sometimes worse than any proffered cure.  By the way, research has demonstrated that MBSR is at least half as effective in treating stress as SSRIs.  It’ so effective that the UK’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence has listed MBSR among primary therapies for depression.

As a final caveat, do you remember James Randi, skeptic extraordinaire, debunker of the paranormal?  Though he dismisses TM for its lavish claims that include levitation and psychic prowess to influence social behavior, he nonetheless can accept a relaxation response as ameliorating physical and psychological health, whether through meditation or some other means like music or just plain rest.

That makes sense to me.  After all, isn’t this what meditation comes down to–indulgence in time out?  We all need that.

Teach us to be still.






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