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Sunday, October 27, 2013

Mindfulness Part IV : Facing our fears

Rohit Rath, flickr

“I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, 

and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.” 

Mark Twain

Halloween is around the corner! What a better moment than this time filled with fear and death symbolism to address those difficult topics?

There's nothing we can do to eliminate fear and death from our lives. They are there, and whether we want it or not, we have to deal with them. Some have advocated for bringing them to the forefront and making sure that we regularly, consciously remind ourselves of their existence. Think of Hamlet's skull.

Satyrika, flickr

Let's thus start from the premise that we must face our fears. And who else but Thich Nhat Hanh to teach us how to apply mindfulness to that endeavor? (Quotes in italics.)


Fear is a mental formation; it is made of several elements, including the element of ignorance. 

Yes, yes, and yes. When was the last time you were afraid of something you knew and understood well? Once we free ourselves from ignorance, we free ourselves from fear. We also free ourselves from other negative emotions that fear can disguise as: preconceptions, anger, hatred.

Hence the need to gain knowledge on sources of fear:

Through knowledge and insight, we gain emancipation. We cannot have insight if we don't practice looking deeply. 

And the first step to looking deeply is... yes, you guessed right: mindful breathing.

Mindful breathing brings us close to our mental formations as they manifest within ourselves. Sometimes fear manifests, and our mindful breathing brings us back to our fear so that we can embrace it. We look deeply into the nature of our fear to recognize ourselves with it. If we do well, we can calm our fear, look deeply into it, and discover its true nature. Insight into our fear helps us transform it. This is true with all mental formations - such as anger, despair, agitation, and restlessness. 

Our first reaction is usually to run away from our fears and their source, but it might be wiser to address them:

Embracing the unpleasant, painful feelings, you calm them and touch what is underneath - the base of that unpleasant feeling, that pain. 

If you try to run away, instead of confronting or embracing your ill-being, you will not look deeply into its nature and will never have the chance to see a way out. That is why you should hold your suffering tenderly and closely, looking directly into it, to discover its true nature and find a way out.

Many of us do not want to go home to ourselves. We are afraid. There is  a lot of internal suffering and conflict that we want to avoid. We complain that we don't have time to live, but we try to kill our free time by not going back to ourselves. We escape by turning on the television or picking up a novel or magazine; we go out for a drive. 

Going home mindfully, we can talk to our wounded child within using the following mantra: "Darling, I have come to you. I am here for you. I embrace you in my arms. I am sorry that I left you alone for a long time."


When you think of it, most fears can be faced. But what about the fear of death? How can we deal with the fact that we are finite, mortal... that we have an expiry date? Is there anything more ironic than being granted consciousness of self... only to lose it completely when we pass? What's more, knowledge won't save us in this case: no one has ever come back from the other side to tell us what it's like!

Ray Ordinario, flickr

Here are some insights on how to handle the difficult reality of our own death:

1) Live in the present moment, and make sure you don't have regrets

Because life and reality are impermanent, we feel insecure. I think the teaching on living deeply in the present moment is what we have to learn and practice to face this feeling of insecurity. We have to handle the present moment well. We live deeply in the present moment so that in the future we will have no regrets.

2) Recognize the role suffering plays

Happiness cannot be separated from suffering. Happiness is clear and strong only against the backdrop of suffering. If we have not known hunger, we cannot fully realize the happiness of having something to eat.

In that perspective, perhaps death plays a role: it's the backdrop to life. Knowing life will end can help us enjoy it to the fullest.

3) Don't let your perceptions override logic

Birth and death are perceptions, not reality. We know that something cannot come from nothing, and someone cannot come from no one. Something cannot be reduced to nothing; being cannot be reduced to nonbeing.

We have the notions of coming and going. Where do I come from and where am I going? This is a difficult question. According to the teaching of nirvana, we come from nowhere and we go nowhere. We manifest when conditions are sufficient. When conditions are no longer sufficient, we no longer have the perception that we exist.

Nothing in there says that we will disappear for good!

4) Don't get caught thinking the physical realm is the only one. And breathe!

Breathing in, I know this body is not me. Breathing out, I know that I am more than this physical body. I am not caught in thinking of this body as myself.

How do you handle your fears?

Have you ever faced and overcome a big one?

How do you live with the knowledge that you will die?

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Shortish Thursday

alexhung, Flickr

Yes, we are still in the middle of our Mindfulness Series, with more to come on fears and other topics to which mindfulness should be applied.

However, there is very little time to write today, so instead of a long, researched post in due form, I will simply share this lovely pie chart I just discovered:

What do you think, fellow writers or writer wannabes? Is that how it feels to you?

And: Please don't despair. If you are writing for the right reasons, it will eventually all fall into place.

I said eventually.

(Or "éventuellement", the French version, which interestingly does not have the same meaning. "Éventuellement" means "possibly" or "maybe", as opposed to the "in the end" meaning of "eventually". Ah, fascinating differences between languages!)

from http://kayemunroewritestoo.files.wordpress.com

Monday, October 21, 2013

Mindfulness Part III - Relationships

Mavis, Flickr

(Note: as for the other posts in this Mindfulness series, this one contains quotes by Thich Nhat Hanh. For previous posts on mindfulness, click here and here.)

(Note 2: this post is long, but I - humbly - believe it's worth it. I will let you be the judges!)

Can mindfulness help with relationships?

You bet!

Without mindfulness, a good part of our behavior in relationships is a reactive behavior. We react to others. It can be an emotional reaction, or it can be an intellectual reaction, but it's a reaction. (I hear you say "It can be a physical reaction, too!" Yes, it can be that also.)

That reaction can arise from our past experiences (e.g. our first relationships, i.e. with our parents) or from our present state of mind (e.g. we react to people differently when we are in a state of stress VS when we are in a relaxed state). But as a general rule, without mindfulness we do not have much of a grip on how we interact with others; apart from respecting some basic rules of social life to preserve harmony (hopefully!), we are just carried by a wave we don't even realize exists.

This is important because interactions and relationships start before we are even aware of it. Do you know someone who very rarely smiles or makes eye contact? In your workplace, for example? How does that make you feel? Even if you don't have an actual relationship with that person, his/her attitude has an effect on you. On the opposite end of the continuum, people who exude warmth, compassion, joy and serenity can have quite a different effect on others:

When you look at such happy people, you know that they are solid in the practice. Their way of walking, sitting, and smiling testifies to their solidity, freedom, and happiness. It is a blessing to have such people among us. They radiate peace, joy, stability, freedom, and happiness.

What kind of impression do you think you give away?

Whether we like it or not, and whether we actively engage in an interaction with someone, we have an effect on each other. That can bring about incalculable benefits:

In the past, you may have felt that you could not bear to be alone, and when a friend came and sat close to you, you felt better, because you were supported by his or her energy.

I know I benefit from the wonderful people in my life on a daily basis, and I sure hope I make my own little contribution.

However, and unfortunately, a lot of negative also comes from others. Didn't Sartre say "L'enfer, c'est les autres" (Hell is other people)? Haven't you felt, sometimes, that you would be better off if you were alone? Or at least if some people didn't exist?

There might be some truth to that, and some people (hermits) have taken it to the extreme. But true mindfulness, serenity, and joy - and harmonious relationships - cannot be achieved in a void:

Some of us think it would be easier to practice if we went on a solo retreat in the mountains, but if you do so, you will not have the opportunity to be challenged. Please use your private time, when you are sitting or walking alone, to practice and prepare yourself so that when someone comes and waters a negative seed in you, you will be able to respond in a most positive and beautiful way. If we do not prepare ourselves, then when a negative seed is watered, we suffer and react in a way that is not wise. We bring the suffering into ourselves and into the other person as well.

We are a gregarious species. For us human beings,

Happiness is not an individual matter. 

Les amants heureux, by Courbet

Here are some manifestations of how relationships affect our happiness:


Who doesn't have some resentment toward their parents? It can be big, it can be small, but for sure there is something you reproach your parents. What Thich Nhat Hanh recommends in those cases is to realize that whatever our parents have transmitted to us, good and bad, they most likely inherited it from their own parents. The wounded child within us, the one whose needs were not entirely fulfilled, took the place of another wounded child who had come before, who himself had taken the place of yet another wounded child who had come even longer before:

There may be a multitude of wounded children within our wounded child. If we know how to embrace and heal our wounded child, we will also heal the multitude of wounded children that have been transmitted to us by generations of our ancestors.

Your anger at your parents will disappear when you realize they carry something that they received from their own parents. When you feel negative about your parents, or about things they might have done to you, try and visualize them as children. Think of what they had to go through before you even existed. A lot of baggage runs in families. No family is exempt of baggage.

You can ask for a picture of your parent as a child, or ask other family members about the family dynamics outside of your own existence. When the taboo, if there is one, is broken, you will most likely discover some patterns (child abuse, alcoholism, depression, and other issues less serious), that will help you relativize the situation you grew up in.

The next step of course, in any interaction you have with others (and especially if you have children), is to avoid reproducing what you received if it was harmful:

If you don't know how to heal the wounded child within or to transform your negative seeds, you will make your children and friends suffer as you were made to suffer. You will blame people for having made you suffer. You know that it is not good to abuse people, let them down, exclude them, and hurt the already wounded child in them, yet you still do it.

Family of Saltimbanques, by Picasso


A famous French writer, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, said that to love each other means not to look at each other but to look in the same direction. He may be right, but not if you are looking in the direction of the television. I advise the opposite: Turn off the television and look at each other.

True, in love you need common projects, hopes and dreams. But you also need to look at each other, to really look at each other, on a daily basis. If we paid attention, I'm afraid many of us in long-term relationships would realize we don't often have sustained eye contact with our spouse. And I'm not even mentioning a sustained conversation, a sustained kiss, or sex that is more than a meeting of the bodies (what about the minds? and the hearts?)

We chose a partner. We chose to have children. Do we treat them in a way that reflects that choice?

Patience is the mark of true love. If you truly love someone, you will be more patient with him or her.

Le printemps, by François Boucher


Interacting with others is sure to lead to conflict sooner or later. Conflict does not necessarily entail fighting (verbal or physical). Conflict can remain latent. It is nonetheless unpleasant (think Cold War). Conflict will happen anytime there is a clash between different needs and/or opinions. Conflict will happen anytime we feel irritated by others' presence, and react to it in a way that is irritating to them. Conflict can even (and often) arise from a simple misunderstanding. What to do to prevent the escalation? Here are some pieces of advice from Thich Nhat Hanh:

Keep anger in check

You be about to punish each other with strong words. When you are angry, you want some relief. You think that if you can make him suffer, you will feel better. You behave like a child. You know that if the other person suffers, you will suffer, too. We escalate our anger and suffering through mutual punishment. We behave like this as individuals, groups, and nations. 

If only we could keep anger in check... so much conflict would not even live to see tomorrow.

Put the fire out

When your house is on fire, the first thing you do is try to put the fire out - not run after the person you think started the fire.

That piece of advice is gold: stop trying to figure out who's guilty, stop trying to retaliate (yes, in the heat of the moment, that's usually what happens!) Being vindictive will not help. Put the fire out instead. That's your goal.

Untie the knot

When the person you love says something unmindful or unkind, you might get an internal knot - it might be a small knot, but it is a knot. I can become harmful if you don't untie it, and the next time your beloved makes the same mistake, the knot will grow. 

So make sure you untie the knot before it gets any bigger. Don't let the pain grow.

Forget reproach

We cannot help transform anyone by using reproach. I we look deeply into ourselves, we may see that we have the same seeds of suffering. The practices of deep, mindful breathing and walking help us to recognize and transform our seeds.

Reproach becomes especially meaningless once we realize that in most cases, when someone does us wrong it is not on purpose:

If I make you suffer, it is not because I am evil or wrong, but because I am unskillful. Forgive me and teach me, so that I can be more skillful next time.

Most of the time, in fact, when you examine a conflict closely you will realize you are the source of your own suffering. Are you brave enough to admit it? I know I often tell myself that the person I am most angry at is myself. You might be angry at yourself for giving too much importance to someone else's behavior or words, for example. People will say and do hurtful things, but we don't have to internalize it!

Please reflect, look deeply, and you will see that the person who has made you suffer most is yourself, and no one else. 

Old man in sorrow, by van Gogh


Especially when it comes to helping:

Sometimes we are motivated by the desire to help, but we do not understand the situation. Then, we will do more harm than good. We want to make someone happy, but we push him to do things that make him suffer.

Being mindful entails seeing and respecting what others really need, as opposed to what we think they need (often based on what we need.) I'm sure you can think of examples. The presents we give and receive sometimes reflect that. The advice we give and receive also often has nothing to do with the real needs at stake.

And listening:

Often, in life, we want to help but don't know exactly what to say. That shouldn't be an issue, since:

Listening deeply can help the other person suffer less.

Yes, listening often is enough. For a person in need, simply having someone to talk to can make a world of difference:

Look at someone who is full of suffering and does not have an opportunity to speak of it to anyone. He looks like a bomb ready to explode. There is a lot of tension and pain, and in fact, that person explodes many times a day.

On top of listening, you can also reformulate and repeat some of the things the person has said. So simple, yet so powerful. I know it works wonders when one of my children is upset:

- I hate it when she steals my toy!
- It makes you angry when she takes your toy?
- Yes!

At which point the upset child usually gives me a hug. Poof, anger defused. It's almost miraculous. The only thing, you have to be present, really present, for this to work:

If you are obsessed with your own problems, pulled into the past or sucked into the future, you cannot really be there for the person who needs your help.

Also remember that you are there to listen. Not judge:

You do not judge while listening. You keep your compassion alive. The other person may be unjust, may say inaccurate things, or blame, attack and judge. 

This is not always easy. First, we want to be right, and show it. Second, we are caught up in our own problems; as Thich Nhat Hanh would wisely say:

The seed of compassion may be getting smaller and smaller as we are caught up in our daily problems.

This makes it possible to go on with our lives without even having a thought for others who have much bigger problems. But we can at least try to salvage/regain/nurture compassion inside of us.

And when in doubt, we can at least smile. Or even hug:

Architects need to build airports and railway stations so that there is enough room to practice hugging.

Oh yes! And people have to take the time to hug!

Now let us know what talks to you in this post!

This post reminded me of a favorite song of mine from when I was 7-8 years old.

Lyrics are to be interpreted as applying to the human race rather than to 2 people. Contrary to what the song claims, however, I believe we are never alone. Here are the lyrics, quickly translated (unfortunately some of the poetry is lost):

We sleep against each other
We live with each other
We caress, we cuddle
We understand, we comfort
But in the end we realize
That we're still alone in this world

We dance with each other
We chase each other
We hate, we tear each other apart
We destroy, we desire
But in the end we realize
That we're still alone in this world

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Mindfulness Part II : Dealing with it

Nova Scotia, 2013

Here we are for the second post of our mindfulness series. This one will tackle the difficult task of overcoming our perceptions and implementing change in our lives.

(If you missed the first mindfulness post, it was about physical health... make sure you take a look! Click here. And after you read today's post, stay tuned for the following ones, where you will learn more about how to deal with fear - including the fear of death - and how to have harmonious relationships, always with the help of mindfulness!)

Putting on a different pair of glasses

What I like about the mindfulness practice is that it empowers us to modify our perceptions and mental formations. Once you cease being a victim to those perceptions and mental formations, happiness becomes possible no matter what. You are equipped for serenity and well-being. In the face of life's contingencies, difficulties, and absurdity, the wisest attitude might indeed be to reframe how we see things. After all (all quotes by Thich Nhat Hanh):

Most of our suffering comes from our wrong perceptions. We do not have correct insight about the nature of reality. [...] We feel anger and despair because we are ignorant. We don't understand ourselves or other people. We discriminate. One meaning of meditation is to sit down on the bank of the river of perceptions and observe them. If you know the nature of your perceptions, you will be free from them. 

Yes, you will be free from your perceptions, because you will be able to take a distance from them. But first we have to accept to see things. To really look at them. To pay attention to them. And that is the initial challenge:

When we come to a retreat [or meditate/become mindful], the noble silence and the quiet sitting may touch our seeds of pain and cause them to manifest. We have to be with our pain, and this is difficult.

Once we do see what is there, including the pain, we are still facing a humongous challenge: the challenge of overcoming the power of habit. One of those habits consists of constantly chasing something:

It is so common to struggle in daily life. We are rarely at ease in the here and the now, always struggling, trying to attain something. The first element of the practice is to stop struggling. Just allow yourself to be. Allow yourself to be a drop of water in the river, and just flow together with that river. If you cannot let go of your anxieties, you won't be able to do that. 

As much as I practice detachment and serenity, and as much as I meditate, I have to admit that I, too, get caught in every day life's stresses. Yes, sometimes I sweat over the small stuff. Last weekend again, I put lots of pressure on myself to not only complete a 10-hour translation project, but also to accomplish a variety of chores around the house... on top of exercising and spending some quality time with my family (including the pets). As one could expect, I was unable to accomplish it all.Then as I was writing this, finally allowing myself some down time as the day was coming to an end, a sunbeam coming through the window made said window's filthiness (the dog keeps licking it!) all too apparent. I kept looking at it, and it frustrated me. I forgot about all the positive that had happened during the weekend. I forgot about all the things I had accomplished. I also forgot about all the good moments, like when the whole family went for a hike in the woods, followed by a fish 'n chips by the ocean front.

How could I let dirty windows ruin all that?

There's always going to be obstacles!
We have to learn to deal with them.
Nova Scotia, 2013

If you can stop and establish yourself in the here and the now, you will see that there are many elements of happiness available in this moment - more than enough for us to be happy. Even if there are a few things present that we dislike, there are still plenty of positive conditions for our happiness. We allow one dying tree to destroy our appreciation of all the other trees that are still alive, vigorous, and beautiful. If we look again, we can see that the garden is still beautiful, and we can enjoy it.

There. I need to leave my dirty windows behind. There is so much more to life. Is a perfectly spotless house my goal in this existence? Is this how I will choose to pursue happiness?

There are many things that we are unable to leave behind, which trap us. Practice looking deeply into these things. In the beginning, you may think that they are vital to your happiness, but they may actually be obstacles to your true happiness, causing you to suffer. If you are not able to be happy because you are caught by them, leaving them behind will be a source of joy for you.

Of course the dirty window example is a simplistic one. So many other things, way more complex and insidious than dirty windows, play a negative role in our lives... and we refuse to admit it. Let's take a pause and observe them. Activities. Habits. Relationships. Are they a source of joy, or a source of suffering?


Being aware of things is great. A huge step in itself. But taking action is better. You cannot allow yourself to stay at the awareness stage without moving. This I know because it has been a tendency for me. I excel at thinking. Problem is, it eventually turns into circular thinking. Action is thus vital.

The North Star helps us face north, but just looking at the North Star does not mean we will go in a northerly direction. You have to take daily steps to go in that direction.

"Daily steps" is the right way to put it. To change is hard. Really hard. If you've heard of the law of inertia (physics), you know that changing trajectories necessitates a lot of energy. I suggest we first stop going in the wrong direction. Before even trying to redirect, we need to find ourselves in stillness. And what better way to achieve that stillness... than meditation? Meditation is not avoidance. Meditation implies slowing down enough to see what really is going on:

Some people think meditation means avoiding reality - that you pursue something transcendental and no longer care about practical things. But meditation, mindfulness practice, is concrete; you deal with reality instead of running away from it. You go back to your real problems and your real situation.

In case of doubt, it is sometimes better to wait before you act, but you can still do something:

If you are ever unsure of what to do, go back and enjoy your breathing.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The mindfulness series: beginning with health

rthakrar, Flickr

I had walked into the library for a quick browse of the Children's French section, in hopes of finding something interesting for my students, and for my own kids by the same token.

A dozen books and a couple CDs later, as I was on my way out, a discrete book cover caught my eye. The title, The Path to Emancipation, intrigued me. Anxious to get my other errands done, I almost walked past it. But then it felt as if it was calling me. I can't explain. I had to stop and pick it up. And then I had to take it home. And then I had to read it. And then I discovered in it a myriad of treasures.

As I kept sticking post-it after post-it on the pages to mark my favorite findings, it became obvious that I would have to share them... and what better place than right here, on the blog?

Interestingly, even if this book is unquestionably spiritual, and also very "psychological", in nature, some of the quotes I extracted from it can directly relate to health, as in physical health. And that's where I want to begin today, as I feel that Buddhism and the practice of mindfulness might be less intimidating if we approach them from the physical point of view... for now.

While I was preparing this post I stumbled upon one on a similar topic, by my friend Dr. J, and the coincidence made me smile. The time is good, I thought. The blogosphere is ripe. Let's post it!

But first, to make sure we dissipate any unfounded skepticism about the Oriental approach to spirituality, this excerpt:

We have found that it is perfectly possible to practice mindfulness as a nonsectarian, nonreligious practice, without sacrificing anything.

Good! Now how does one apply the wonderful insights of mindfulness to "real life", and more precisely to a very common set of goals among this blogosphere and society in general, namely becoming and staying healthy?


I was not fully aware of it (still got some work to do on my mindfulness practice), but Buddhism is a wonderful place to start if you want to improve your relationship with food. First of all, it can teach you to actually focus on what is going on when you eat:

When you chew it, you are aware that you are chewing a piece of carrot. Don't put anything else in your mouth, like your projects, your worries, your fear, just put the carrot in. And when you chew, chew only the carrot, not your projects or your ideas. You are capable of living in the present moment, in the here and now. It is simple, but you need some training to just enjoy the piece of carrot.

How often do we really focus on what we put in our mouth, fully and exclusively? If you're anything like me... not very often. With the possible exception of a dinner out in a fancy restaurant, when the price of each bite is enough to justify giving it your whole attention. Nutritionists have been saying it for years though: eat slowly. Pay attention. You will eat less, and better, this way.

Speaking of eating less and better:

We look deeply at the object of our desire and craving, and, if we look deeply enough, find that it is not really the object of our desire.

A few seconds can make a great difference; a flash of awareness, one in-breath, is all that is needed for transformation to occur. 

How often do we feel like we "need", or at least really want, a food or drink that will obviously not be good for us? What happens if we pause for a few seconds and reflect on our true need? Is it hunger, or is it thirst, fatigue, stress, boredom? If it is hunger indeed, is junk really what we want to put in our body?

Mindfulness, real mindfulness, seems to be the way to recreate a healthy relationship with food:

To be worthy of the food, we only have to eat it mindfully. I like to remind myself to eat in moderation. I know food plays an important role in my well-being. That is why I vow to eat only foods that maintain my health and well-being. 

There is even a specific piece of reflection to achieve this healthy relationship with what we consume, be it food, drink, or anything else; it's called The Fifth Mindfulness Training:

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I am committed to cultivating good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming. I will ingest only items that preserve peace, well-being, and joy in my body, in my consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family and society. I am determined not to use alcohol or any other intoxicant or to ingest foods or other items that contain toxins, such as certain TV programs, magazines, books, films, and conversations.

Fascinating, isn't it? I will come back to the "mental health" aspect of this in another post. But for now, let's move on to another side of physical health: disease.

Eating lunch at Le Caveau (Domaine de Grand Pré vineyard) commands taking your time.
Nova Scotia, 2013


Not only do we humans not know how to treat our body right to stay healthy - too often, we are also at a loss when it comes to looking after a body that has been invaded by disease... as it will, sooner or later. The first lesson could simply be to rest:

We know that when an animal is wounded, it looks for a quiet place to lie down. Wisdom is present in the animal's body. It knows that rest is the best way to heal. I does not do anything, not even eat or hunt; it just lies down. Some days later, it can get up. It is healed. Human beings have lost confidence in their body. We panic and try to do many different things. We worry too much about our body. We do not allow it to heal itself. We do not know how to rest.

How many of us, when our health is "under attack", just want to keep going no matter what? We pop pills, we want all symptoms to disappear, we want to be ready to function optimally in the minute. Well, be it a common cold or something more serious, this is not possible. A body needs time to heal, time that for the most part should be dedicated to resting. Can we try that?

And while we're at it, why don't we also stop trying "many different things" to lose weight? Why don't we just become mindful, really mindful, of what our body feels like based on what we feed it? I trust our body knows what is good for it, if only we pay attention to the signals. Nobody feels good after a food or an alcohol binge, that's for sure.

The second lesson on how to restore our health could be to treat ourselves with the same love and compassion that a caring parent shows:

Remember when you were small and had a fever and felt so alone, your mother would suddenly appear like an angel. She touched your forehead with her hand, full of love and concern, and you felt wonderful. Even if your mother is no longer alive, if you know how to touch her, she will be born again within you. This is your hand, but it is also your mother's hand; your hand is a continuation of her hand. If you want to feel your mother's hand touch your forehead, go ahead. Your mother is alive within you.

Who takes the time to gently put a hand to their own forehead? If you can infuse it with the memory of parental love, even better.

Let's learn to rest... from the experts!
Domino, 2013


Just like life cannot be dissociated from death, and happiness cannot be dissociated from unhappiness, health and well-being cannot be dissociated from disease and pain. Feeling miserable from a physical point of view is not something we want for ourselves or others, but the truth is, it does help tremendously when comes time to appreciate our health:

Those of us with allergies suffer from blocked noses and other unpleasant symptoms. After it has rained, when the pollen is washed away, we can breathe more easily and have a vaguely pleasant feeling. If we are mindful, we know that the pleasant feeling comes from the fact that there is no pollen in the air causing our bodies to suffer. Because of awareness and mindfulness, that pleasant feeling is amplified. We smile at it, knowing how wonderful it is. It is like not having a toothache, which is actually a feeling of physical well-being.

On those matters, I am unfortunately too knowledgeable. I cannot express how the aftermath of an intense, debilitating migraine can make one realize how your "normal baseline", i.e. the simple absence of pain, is a wonderful, wonderful thing. After a bad migraine I feel so light, everything feels so soft, so quiet, and so pleasant, I always wonder how I could ever take health and well-being for granted.

What do you think?

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Readings on happiness


In the past few weeks I busied myself with the reading of Happiness for Dummies (as if I wasn't busy enough already!)

This is definitely NOT the first book about happiness I read, but going back to the basics never hurts.

With the help of sticky notes, I pulled out everything that "talked" to me, whether I had already heard about it in the past or not. The quotes I will share today (in italics) are things we should be reminding ourselves of on a regular basis!

Anything not in italics is my own comments. Please add to it if anything in here inspires you, reminds you of something, upsets you, whatever!

1) Type B personalities tend to enjoy less material success than Type As, [but] Type Bs are much happier.

Type A personalities have more of what we could call drive and ambition, and in turn usually gain more success and money. Yet they are not happier! I don't know for you, but every time I question how much I've accomplished in terms of success and money, I will remind myself of that!

The energy one does not use toward ambitious pursuits can serve other goals, for example getting lost in blissful contemplation. Maybe not as "productive" from the material point of view, but so good for lucidity and serenity! I'm all for that!

2) Happiness ISN'T power, money, success or excitement.

That completes number 1. I like that the author added excitement to the mix, because we often blur it with happiness, when in fact immediate pleasure/intense emotions are NOT the same thing as happiness. Truth is, when we indulge in them too much, we usually suffer in the long run (says she, who has such a hard time resisting ice cream... but then gets a headache from the fat and sugar contents).

Other examples of excitement that does not lead to long-term happiness include shopping sprees, doing drugs, and cheating on your spouse.

3) What money really buys:

When the stock market goes down, people on fixed incomes suffer - they forego dinners out, do with less heat in the winter, and buy more store-brand items in the grocery store. Does that mean that they're unhappy? No - but it does mean they're less comfortable and less free to live their lives the way they want to.

So money does not buy happiness, but it does buy comfort and freedom, among other things.

Of course, the wise thing to do when money is scarce is to adapt and be flexible (as depicted in the paragraph above). If you refuse to modify your spending habits to fit your decreased income, you WILL end up unhappy (and full of debt). Unfortunately, I know someone in that situation. One of the main reasons for his behavior has to do with entitlement issues - more on that later.

4) If you remove yourself from [an] irritating circumstance (walk away from the person you find annoying or turn on the air conditioner), this tells your nervous system that it can stop feeling irritated - and, it does.

Yes! Why do we let our nervous system become overwhelmed? Why don't we give it a break? No later than yesterday, I had an epiphany in those matters. After teaching/looking after kids all day, then translating in the evening, I finally made it to the living room couch around 8 pm, ready to put my feet up and indulge in some pleasant reading. I had been up since 5 am (for a run in the rain), and was looking forward to some down time. To my dismay, however, puppy Zia decided this was a good time to start stealing every object she could reach that fits in her mouth, and chew on it. Annoyed (and close to exhausted), I said "This is my only time to relax, and now I have to chase a dog?" D, who had been helping with the chasing, wisely replied: "Why don't we put her in the crate for a little while, it won't hurt her." So in she was, with something acceptable to chew on. Aaaahhhhh... I felt so much better. If it had been just me, I would have left Zia roam freely... and would have ended up chasing her all evening. Sometimes you just have to put your own needs first.

Speaking of listening to your needs. Today, I had planned to get up at 5 to go to the gym. I VERY rarely miss a workout. You know the trick to reaching your goals: "No excuses". But when I woke up this morning, I was both extremely tired (slept too little) and extremely sore (twisted my ankle during yesterday's run in the dark morning). I also had a hint of a migraine headache, and that usually only gets worse for the next 12 hours, no matter what I do. So, I decided NOT to go to the gym. Instead I popped some Ibuprofen, downed a tall glass of water, and went back to bed. For once this was a good decision.

I want to add that if you know you are about to face a potentially stressful situation (like a long day of work), you should prepare your nervous system. This morning, spending some time outdoors before work, I noticed the beauty of the pure blue sky and of the colorful trees. I noticed the warm breeze on my face and bare arms. I heard some birds singing. I even saw 3 deer. And I decided that I would carry the joy and peacefulness this had instilled in me all day, no matter what. I like to believe that I carried a positive aura around me, because the day ended up being really good!

5) Hardy people are like hardy animals and plants - they are resilient. 

They survive adversity, weather the storms of everyday life - and in doing so, they grow stronger, more competent, and happier over the course of their lives.

This is why some Holocaust death camps survivors, despite the horror they've been through, qualify as happy. If THEY can be happy, why couldn't we? Enough with playing the victims. Despite the hassles and the problems, I feel lucky that I've never had to face something like a death camp (any other example of something dreadful that you can think of works, too). What we need to realize is that we are lucky and blessed in many aspects. Let's focus on that.

6) Hardy people want control over their lives, are committed to the things and people that matter the most to them, and view life as a series of challenges.

In brief, hardy (and happy, by the same token) people don't rely on chance (or on others) to reach their goals; they put their energy where it matters; and they accept that life will not be an easy ride. That can lead to a realistic, yet very empowering outlook on life!

7) Life is an experiment and, as with all experiments, you're seeking truth - in this case, the truth about who you really are and what makes you happy. 

The way science works is that each time an experiment fails, it brings you closer to the truth. And so it is with life. The important thing is to keep on experimenting!

I really like this comparison with the scientific approach. Science is all about trying over and over and over again, until you finally find an answer. Getting impatient or frustrated with the process changes nothing to it: it takes time, and it takes mistakes. Mistakes are not useless at all, as the author points out so wisely: they bring us closer to the truth.

8) Identifying your sources of flow: Flow is the end result when you apply a set of skills to a challenging situation. 

If you have skills but they're unchallenged, the best you can hope for is a feeling of relaxation that quickly turns to boredom [...] If you find yourself in a challenging situation, but you lack the skills necessary to deal with the situation effectively, you end up anxious or angry. If you lack skills AND challenge, you end up disinterested, apathetic, and dissatisfied.

Finding a happy middle in terms of stimulation is a lifelong endeavor! I know I've been both over and under stimulated at different times in my life. To determine where I am on the continuum, I try NOT to listen to my internal tape, and focus rather on how I feel. If I feel stressed out, it means I'm overstimulated... even if I think I'm not. If I feel bored, it means I'm understimulated... even if I think I'm not.

9) Research has shown that people who cope most effectively with life stresses, ranging from the minor hassles to the major catastrophes, do so by adopting a problem-solving approach [...] 

On the other hand, people who cope ineffectively with these same stresses tend to engage in wishful thinking, impulsive behavior, denial, and blame. The choice is yours.

As I always say: be pragmatic, not dramatic! Identify the problem, its source, and some potential solutions. Then implement them. That's it! There's no room in that for getting over emotional, or denying what's going on.

10) A sense of entitlement - a feeling that you have a right to something - is the root cause of most people's unhappiness. 

Here are some things you are NOT entitled to: a spouse who always thinks as you do; children who always love you; employment (now or in the future); good health and a long life; a computer that never crashes; cheap gasoline; the respect and admiration of your peers; a stable economy; a car that starts on a cold morning.

Wow! Maybe we should all write that on our bathroom mirror!

And last but not least, about greed:

Why do an increasing number of highly paid corporate executives end up in prison these days? Are they just another example of stupid crooks? No. What they are is greedy - they aren't satisfied by making millions of dollars a year. They want more - and they feel they have the right to take as much as they want, no matter how much it hurts other people or destroys the very institutions that made them rich in the first place.

Are those corporate executives happy? I bet not.

What about you?

Anything strikes a chord in this post?