Our negativity bias is exacerbated when we compare our messy insides with the highly polished and carefully curated outsides of others.
If you are like me, you struggle with difficult feelings, often feeling like you are not enough. You struggle with feeliing broken and like you’ve messed up your life, even if your life looks neat on the outside.To take the power away from those feelings, you must learn that it is okay to not be okay. … It is okay to be perfectly imperfrect. The more you try to cling to what was, or what you didn’t get, the more you stop yourself from moving on and creating joy in your life. Start by reminding yourself that you are comparing your messy inside with the highly polished and carefully curated outsides of others. We all have challenges and vulnerabilities, so we need to develop inner strength to deal with them.
“Inner strengths are the supplies you’ve got in your pack as you make your way down the twisting and often hard road of life. They include a positive mood, common sense, integrity, inner peace, determination, and a warm heart. Researchers have identified other strengths as well, such as self-compassion, secure attachment, emotional intelligence, learned optimism, the relaxation response, self-esteem, distress tolerance, self-regulation, resilience, and executive functions… On average, about a third of a person’s strengths are innate, built into his or her genetically based temperament, talents, mood, and personality. The other two-thirds are developed over time. You get them by growing them.” Rick Hanson
We talked about neuroplasticity, how your brain is shaped by where you focus and rest your mind. Our mindfulness practice trains us to be in control of where we focus our attention. We can focus our attention on things that inspire awe, things we are grateful for, and things or people we have in our life. Or we can focus our attention on what we don’t have, how much better others have it, and what is or could go wrong.
“If you keep resting your mind on self-criticism, worries, grumbling about others, hurts, and stress, then your brain will be shaped into greater reactivity, vulnerability to anxiety and depressed mood, a narrow focus on threats and losses, and inclinations toward anger, sadness, and guilt. On the other hand, if you keep resting your mind on good events and conditions (someone was nice to you, there’s a roof over your head), pleasant feelings, the things you do get done, physical pleasures, and your good intentions and qualities, then over time your brain will take a different shape, one with strength and resilience hardwired into it, as well as a realistically optimistic outlook, a positive mood, and a sense of worth.” Rick Hanson
To build our inner strengths, we are going to explore on four practices: Fostering Awe, Cultivating an Abundance Mindset, Strengthening Our Kindness Muscle, and Nurturing Gratitude.
Awe is a spine-tingling feeling, like goosebumps, that connects you to something bigger than yourself. Awe arises when we experience the extraordinary: seeing the Grand Canyon, meeting a rock star, or your new grandchild. But it can also arise through more mundane things: leaves changing colors, stars in the night sky, frost on tree branches, listening to great music. Awe helps us by stimulating our sense of curiosity, making us feel more connected, and increasing our sense of generosity.
“Awe calms down the inflammation response. Almost every problem we have today… awe is a cheap, non-ideological solution to the problems of our times. It quiets down the nagging self and opens you up to wonder — wow, how could that possibly exist — and it makes us more altruistic. Awe tends to make us more forgiving, sharing…” Dacher Keltner
You can develop the skill of being more aware of moments of awe. Simply pause and open your mind to the wonders of life. The practice of Taking in the Good has helped me to be aware of the more mundane awe in my life.
Cultivating an Abundance Mindset
Along with our negativity bias comes a scarcity mindset. We always feel like we will never have enough or be enough. No matter how many of our dreams are realized, there is always something more we need. A scarcity mindset is very stressful, we need to cling to what we have and always strive for more.
An abundance mindset can be very healing. It is the feeling you can get when you just rest in the moment during meditation. You feel that “I am alright right now.” You feel like you are enough, peaceful, and loved. Because of the spacious feeling, an abundance mindset allows you to see possibilities.
Let’s take a moment to reflect on your abundance. You may choose to journal your answers.
- What are your personal strengths?
- What skills do you have?
- What resources do you have?
The abundance mindset is not toxic positivity. It is different than being optimistic. With the abundance mindset, you clearly see what you really need and what you have. So how do you cultivate this mindset?
- Becoming aware of the contraction you feel in your body when you are beginning to experience a sense of scarcity
- Changing the focus of your attention to what you have instead of what you don’t have
- Quit hanging out with doomsayers or people who rain on your parade and associate with possibility thinkers
- Give other people their due: let the other person prevail with their point (scarcity of rightness), let them have their moment to shine
- Savor any moment when you feel like you are enough, or you have enough
- Avoid comparing yourself to others. Remember you are comparing your messy inside to their highly polished and carefully cultivated outside.
- Take small steps to experience little wins
Strengthening Our Kindness Muscle
Kindness practice counteracts the loneliness and sense of separation that comes from not feeliing connected to other people. We can learn to turn down the volume on the internal, snide monologue of self-jedgment and be kinder to ourselves. After all, if we aren’t going to be kind to ourselves, who will?
Kindness is a skill that we can all develop. It starts with how you pay attention. Kindness practice aims to increase feelings of caring and warmth for our self and for others. We increase feelings of caring by mentally sending goodwill, simply silently repeating kindness phrases. Sometimes when we begin, we don’t feel those feelings, so we just express an intention, planting the seeds of loving wishes over and over in our heart.
Kindness phrases are wishes for something that is universally desirable for all beings.
- May I be filled with kindness
- May I feel connected and calm
- May I accept myself just as I am
- May I know the natural joy of being alive
As you say the phrases, connect with the felt sense of the goodwill you are sending. The feeling is more important than the words. Experiment to find the best words to open your heart to kindness. It may be that you must adapt the phrases. In the meditation, you will repeat these phrases over and over again, letting the feelings permeate your body and mind. Kindness is not a one and done. Practice this meditation for several weeks, until the sense of kindness for grows.
As we often have trouble feeling love for ourselves, it helps to start with a benefactor. A benefactor is a person, animal, place, scene, memory or divine being that allows us to feel unconditional love. It is not necessarily your spouse as life gets in the way and adds complications to that love. You may choose a child, a puppy, a sunset, a beach, a spiritual leader to be your benefactor. The benefactor will help us to wake up the feelings of love or innate goodness in ourselves that may be hidden under layers of defenses. The defenses may keep us from feeling the love, that is why we may simply set the intention and repeat the practice over and over until we penetrate the defenses.
While you are learning kindness, it may be easiest to practice in formal meditation sessions. However, kindness can be practiced anywhere. You can use this meditation in traffic jams, in buses, in stores, at work and on airplanes. I recently sent kindness to each player showing free throws at the Badger game. You can use it at any time to calm your mind and keep you connected to your heart. We are going to practice with a loved one and ourselves. But you can expand the practice to include friends, neutral people, difficult people, and the whole world.
In this practice, we’ll be cultivating loving kindness. We all have within us, this natural capacity for kindness. Or…friendship that is unconditional and open…gentle…supportive. Kindness is a natural opening of a compassionate heart…to ourselves and to others. It’s a wish that everyone be happy.
Keeping your eyes closed or your gaze softened, think of a moment with someone who loved you unconditionally. It could be someone from the past or the present; someone still in life or who has passed; it could be a spiritual teacher or guide. It could be a cherished pet.
And, as you experience this love, notice how it feels in your body.
A smile…a sense of expansiveness. This is kindness, a natural feeling that is accessible to all of us, always. Resting with this feeling of open, unconditional love for a few minutes.
Letting yourself bask in the energy of kindness…breathing it in…and breathing it out…inviting feelings of peace and acceptance
Now bring your awareness back to the person beside you. Begin to send the love that you feel back to that person. You and this person are similar. Just like you, this person wishes to be happy. Send all your love and warm wishes to that person.
- May your life be filled with happiness, health, and well-being
- May you know the natural joy of being alive
- May you be filled with loving kindness
Keeping those loving feelings, bring your attention to yourself. Wish yourself well by extending words of loving kindness to yourself.
- May I be filled with loving-kindness
- May I feel connected and calm
- May I accept myself just as I am
- May I be safe from inner and outer dangers
And now, bringing this practice to a close by basking in the energy of kindness that may have been generated here.
Gratitude is a gift, people who practice it: have an improved ability to cope, are more likely to take active steps, look for the silver lining, reach out for support, regulate negative emotions more skillfully, and manage impatient urges.
Before you go to sleep at night you often have thoughts about your day. How many of those thoughts are about what went wrong, what irritated you, or the thing you wish you had not said? Our brains are wired to pay attention to the negative. So, we always feel like we must be on alert. We put up our defenses. Our brains have become Velcro for the bad and Teflon for the good. We need to rewire our brains to learn to savor the good.
When I started a daily gratitude practice with a friend a couple of years ago, it was hard to come up with three things I was grateful for. Even after doing the practice a couple of months, I really struggled to come up with ideas of what I was grateful for. My inner critic kept telling me that each thing was not good enough, it was looking for a winning the lottery type thing. It wanted a fantastic experience to include and nothing less.
It is hard to get started to feel grateful, because we take so many things for granted. Gratitude is like a muscle we need to build up, just like mindfulness or kindness. First, we must be mindful enough to see what we can be grateful for. And then we take the time to savor it and just really appreciate it.
We often think gratitude is dependent on something out there. But gratitude welcomes what we are given. It doesn’t know any stories about how it should have been. It is not dependent on what you have. Gratitude takes us by surprise. It arrives out of nowhere. After having a headache, we are grateful to have a non-headache for at least a couple of hours. When you are outside, if you bother to look at the sun shining through the trees, you may feel grateful for the beauty that you often ignore.
Gratitude is dependent on your heart. You can even find gratitude for the sorrows in your life, the hand you have been dealt. Sometimes it is through the hardest things that your heart learns its most important lesson. Some people in the poorest countries in the world are grateful for what they have. They don’t know what they don’t have. They are not missing it.
Take a moment to look at what’s satisfied you in the past week. What really makes you feel nourished? It could be big things, or it could be little things. You can savor the little things just as much as you can savor the big things like winning the lottery.
It might seem paradoxical to think about things you’re grateful for when you are in a negative mood or stressful situation. By practicing gratitude, we will improve our ability to cope. We are more likely to take active steps in a stressful situation. We begin to see the silver lining. And we are more likely to reach out for support so we can regulate negative emotions more skillfully. In other words, those times when gratitude doesn’t come as naturally to us might be exactly when we need it most.
That is why we need to practice gratitude, being aware and amazed by life, nature, and love every day. If we have not practiced gratitude, the gift won’t be there when we most need it to lift us out of a negative mood. We can all become more grateful human beings.
Fostering awe, cultivating an abundance mindset, strengthening our Kindness muscle, and nurturing gratitude give us the strengths we need to deal with difficult emotions, challenges, and our feelings of vulnerability. These are the supplies we need to make our way down the hard road of life. And the only way to get these supplies is to grow them through practice.
“With mindfulness we can produce a feeling of joy, a feeling of happiness whenever we want. Because we are a practitioner, we should be able to fabricate, to produce a moment of joy, a moment of happiness. We know what conditions we need to produce a feeling of joy, the feeling of happiness, for us and for the people we love. As a practitioner we should be able to produce a feeling of joy to nourish us and the people we love.” Thich Nhat Hanh