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One of the points of meditation in the various traditions that practice it is to gain a greater sense of awareness of your mental state – of what you are thinking and how you are feeling physically and emotionally. A few minutes of meditation establish the mindfulness, and then, ideally, the mindfulness continues throughout the day.
My favorite acting teacher, Alice Winston, taught me an important lesson about mindfulness. On the stage it is vital to be free from inappropriate physical tension, or else the audience will see you as a real person, the actor, having real anxiety on the real stage, instead of seeing the imaginary person, the character, truthfully inhabiting the imaginary circumstances of the play. She demonstrated how tension creeps into one’s shoulders. Then she said that you could become aware of the tension, and release it (slowly, so as not to call the audience’s attention to yourself). This all seems quite simple and obvious, but at the time it was a revelation to me.
A Vietnam vet once explained to me a system of mindfulness for soldiers that he learned from a book, I know not the title. It involves assigning colors to emotional states. He called these emotional states “zones.” When you’re in the green zone, you’re relaxed and in control of yourself. When you’re in the yellow zone, you’re very tense, and thinking clearly becomes much more difficult. When you’re in the red zone, you’ve lost control, you’re in the grips of fear and adrenaline, and now you’re firing your machine gun willy-nilly at anything that moves. Your goal as a soldier is never to slide into the red zone. This is accomplished by becoming aware of when you’re in the yellow zone, and taking whatever steps are necessary to settle back down into the green zone.
“Woa, I’m in my yellow zone right now, aren’t I? I’m feeling extremely anxious and agitable. My muscles are tight as rocks. Things are bothering me that normally I’d take in stride. I had better take a deep breath and back away from this situation.”
Good soldiers keep cool heads even in hot situations. They try not to budge from the green zone, but because that isn’t always possible, they learn to recognize and properly address the yellow zone.
Anxiety and depression are disguise artists. Each time they attack the fortress of your mental well-being, they appear in different costumes. They will use new tactics and will seem like new problems. But anxiety is always destructive self-worrying, and depression is always destructive self-condemning, and however they dress themselves, “that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.”[i]
Depression is not a single emotion, but a habit of unrealistic thinking that leads to a range of negative emotions. The habit of self-condemning can be replaced by a habit of realistic self-endorsement. Likewise, the habit of self-worrying can be replaced by a habit of realistic self-assuring. Happiness is not a single emotion, but a new habit of realistic thinking that generally leads to range of positive emotions (but also realistic negative emotions).
Mindfulness is the starting point. Recognize your state – your mindset, zone, or whatever you wish to call your current mode of thinking and feeling.
[Describe CBT negative thought counting exercise.]
A little girl is asked to carry a full glass of water from the kitchen to the living room. She walks slowly, ever so carefully holding the glass in two hands, watching closely the slightly bobbing meniscus of liquid at the top of the glass, feeling the flatness of the floor with her feet as she takes each creeping step. This is a delicate operation and so she must concentrate, listen closely to the feedback from her senses, and adjust deliberately.
Holding on to happiness is a bit like that. I must continually watch my mood and listen to my thoughts, and make the tiny course corrections that keep me from slipping off the path I wish to tread.
The psychologist Albert Ellis advocates three kinds of acceptance:
- Unconditional self-acceptance.
- Unconditional other-acceptance.
- Unconditional situation acceptance.
One of the roadblocks to acceptance is perfectionism.
Perfectionism is the idea that there is a certain way that I must behave, or that other people must behave, or that situations must unfold, or else I cannot be okay. As long as my sense of well-being is dependent upon my life fitting impossible standards, I will be plagued by anxiety, depression, rage, and/or frustration.
è Let go of your unrealistic demanding for how you, other people, or the world should be.
è Accept unconditionally how you, other people, and the world actually are.
It’s okay to have preferences for how you’d like things to be. It’s okay to press for your preferences. And it’s okay to feel realistic disappointment when things don’t go your way. But don’t make things more awful than they really are, or hold on to the awfulness for one second longer than is necessary.
States and moods
Beliefs, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are interconnected. They influence and reinforce each other. And so they tend to align together along certain lines. We might call these alignments states.
A mood is not a single emotion, but a range of emotions that tend to stem from a certain state.
Suppose I have an irrational and self-defeating belief that I am a loser. I’ll probably entertain distorted thoughts like, “I have never done anything worthwhile in my whole life.” This thought will naturally lead to a feeling of worthlessness. The depressed feeling will naturally lead to behavior like moping around the house and avoiding life. This behavior might disturb my sleep schedule and lead to feelings of fatigue. I might have an underlying belief that anyone who mopes around the house, sleeps too much, and has no energy must have a severe problem and no chance of ever being successful in life. When I notice that I’ve been suffering a depressed mood for a long period, I might think a distorted thought like, “There must be something seriously wrong with me.” This distorted thought will make me feel terrible dread, and will reinforce the self-defeating belief that I am a loser. This terrible feeling will encourage me to continue my self-defeating behavior. And the cycle goes on and on.
States therefore gather momentum. They are self-perpetuating, for good or bad.
Happiness, then, is a certain state. In particular, it is a cheerful and accepting one. And the key to happiness is to be aware of your state and, if you begin to veer off course, to steer yourself back in the right direction. You cannot control your feelings directly. But you have considerable control over your thoughts and behavior, and even over your beliefs. And so you can indirectly sway your feelings in general directions.
You must not let your circumstances govern your state. Your material circumstances will never be good enough to make you happy. There will always be negatives that you can let bother you, if you choose to. There will always be imperfections. Things will virtually never go exactly as you want. You may experience extremely pleasing moments, but not enough of them: you cannot build a sustainable sort of happiness from such moments. Don’t let other individuals, society as a whole, nature, or happenstance decide for you whether you shall be happy. Why give them that power?
[i] Ecclesiastes 1:9.