A Zen master and his student are walking in a forest discussing ways to quiet the mind of distractions. They come to a fast rushing stream where a damsel stands stuck on one side. She asks the master for help to cross the stream. The student assumes the master will say no because of their ascetic lifestyle, but the master agrees and assists the woman across. When the two get back to the monastery, the student confronts the master. “How could you do that? It expressly forbidden us to touch a woman.” The master smiled and asked, “Did you not learn anything today? You still carry the woman around in your mind while I left her at the riverbank.”
Like the Zen student, I ruminate on frustrations from past events or worry about my future and everything in between. My mind, my thoughts play a power role in my mood.
Sometimes my desires for more and better get the best of me. I worry about having more time. Dwell on some indiscretion done to me by a friend, acquaintance, or stranger. I look at where I am in life and think I should have done more, be more, have more. It doesn’t matter what the circumstance. It all happens in my thoughts. I let thoughts control my feelings.
The point is we all have times when our thoughts control our feelings. We allow them to run free in our head and we chase them; hold them; and worst of all believe them.
But they are just thoughts.
I looked for ways to break that negative thoughts cycle over the past few years and found exercises that work. I’m proud of myself. My mind feels “cleaner,” less cluttered. The negative thoughts still come, but I’ve learned how to better deal with them. I can do something about them besides dwell on them.
Here are six techniques that help me deal with my thoughts.
The Ten Second Centering Technique
The ten-second centering technique is taken from a book titled Ten Zen Seconds, by Dr. Eric Maisel. It’s a simple exercise of expanding my breathing from the normal two to three seconds to ten seconds.: five seconds inhale, five seconds exhale.
This expanded breathing rhythm signals my mind that something is different with my breathing and my mind focuses on the breathing and not the thoughts. My breathing distracts my thoughts. This works great when I’m worrying about something or excessively thinking about a project or idea. I found it works best when I count the seconds: five seconds on the in-breath, five on the out-breath.
Dr Maisel recommends adding mantra. A mantra is a word or phrase repeated in the mind. With every inhale of five seconds, repeat part of the phrase and with every exhale complete the phrase. For example, I would breathe in for five seconds and think “In every moment. . .” and on the exhale say, “we can find joy.” I admit it’s corny, but it works for me. Dr. Maisel lists twelve examples of mantras in his book and encourages users to experiment with creating your own.
There is power in a place. Something as simple as moving to another room, outside, or further can help break the cycle of sadness. University of Notre Dame Psychology found that by going through doorways or portals causes the brain to file away a memory. It’s subtle, simple. Go somewhere different I choose to go outside and choose a place that I know brings on joy: a walk in the forest; playing a sport; visiting with friends; or creative writing.
Move My Body
Any movement gets my mind focused on the mechanics of moving instead of thoughts. A walk around my neighborhood, a hike in the hills, cooking, cleaning, anything that gets me moving takes my mind away from thoughts. Physical and mental recreation of any type increases the endorphins, the “feelgood” chemicals produced by the body. Endorphins are released during exercise and are in the same class of chemicals as opioids.
Connect with Positive People
Being around positive people help bring joy back into my life. I call friends I know that have an intense positive outlook on life. I meet with three friends weekly that make me laugh. It’s two hours of conversation. We are so comfortable with each other and our conversation so engaging that it’s hard to leave. But, those conversations leave a flavor running through me that lasts the week. I remember their stories, and it brings a smile to me during the week.
I know someone that suffered from bouts of suicidal thoughts, especially when left alone. When he drove home from work alone with his thoughts, he always called someone that was positive, upbeat, and caring. He talked to that person for his entire ride home until he was with his family. It worked for him. He doesn’t need that support currently, but he knows that talking with positive people helped him relax in the now, accept his current situation, and hope for the future.
Use My Gift
We are are good at something. My gift is creativity. I love to create. To throw my mind into a project not only takes me out of my negativity, but puts me in the best mood. But, creativity is just one gift. I found the StrengthFinders assessment a valid way to help me find other strengths.
Wish My Antagonists Well
People can iritate me, anger harms only the angry person. It festers in the mind and can build up to a point where the mind moves the mental pain to other different points in the body: the neck, the back, and other joints and muscles. The back aches, knees, joints or muscle pain could come from mental anguish I hold. Research found a connection between body pains and illnesses and our thoughts.
The way I deal with anger is to think well of my antagonist.
I listen to a Jeff Warren on the meditation app Calm. One day during the last presidential campaign, I found myself full of rage at the news. Government officials were saying and doing things I felt wrong. This raised my blood pressure, heart rate and just put me in a bad mood.
To let go of those angry feelings, Jeff recommended the following exercise: Visualize the offending person/persons then say the following words: “May you be safe; may you be healthy; may you be happy.” Say them repeatedly while thinking of the person.
It works! I thought well of that person until the next negative thought about that person, then I repeated the phrase. Keep repeating it until the anger goes away.
It worked so well that I now think that phrase in public when in a disagreement with someone. It helps me stay calm and peaceful in that moment.
Change Worry into gratitude
Joy is already available everywhere, every day. It’s up to us to train our minds away from the negative thoughts to feel the joy around us.
My wife and I have this exercise where if one of us shares a worry and we both realize it’s trivial we say something for which we are grateful. We do this ten times. We realize saying the gratitude out loud helps us put in perspective the insignificance of the worry. I found gratitude listing an effective way to ease my worries.
Along with gratitude, daily meditation has become a routine that helps clear my mind. Making it a practice of ten minutes a day. I let the negative thoughts pass through the mind like a wave passes across the water or an object floats down a river. The thoughts will come, but it is my choice whether I grab hold of the negativity passing in my mind. Meditation helps me do that.
Like the Zen student, we all hold thoughts we should let go. Finding mental exercises that mitigate the negative and harmful thoughts keeps me calm, focused and most of all brings me back to feeling more joy.
“To win one’s joy through struggle is better than to yield to melancholy.”
I remember being poor, poor where I could not pay my bills, and I all my family could afford to eat were peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. My job paid 80 percent of our bills, so we had to decide which bills to pay with my paycheck. Talk about fear and pain.
Yet, through that pain, it pushed me to do more, be more than I ever thought possible. I decided to try washing windows for extra money. I felt fearful at the thought of doing something I knew nothing about. Fearful when approaching business owners and asking them if they wanted their windows cleaned when I had not idea how to do it. Finally, a food store with a set of windows that measured 30 feet high at the peak and 50 feet across offered me the job.
Talk about fearful — windows that reached 30 feet high — I decided to take the job, anyway.
I bought the equipment needed on a credit card: two squeegees, a wand, and a 25 foot extension pole. As the owner rang up my items, he recommended I don’t start a window cleaning business: “It’s very hard work and very competitive. I have ten guys a day come by asking to clean my windows.”
I thanked him for his words and then asked him if he could show me how to use the equipment. He gave me a five minute lesson and sent me on my way.
I arrived at the store at 3 a.m. and planned to work four hours before going to my full-time job. I borrowed the store ladder from the store’s crew stocking shelves because I realized my extension pole would not reach. It was foggy, dark and cold when I climbed that 12-foot, A-framed ladder to wet my first window with the scrubber. The ladder wobbled as I scrubbed the window. The lights from inside the store allowed me to see what I was doing. After I wet the highest window, I put the squeegee on the pole and got ready to take off the soap and water. I felt even more fear because the window was still almost 20 feet above me. I tried to pull the squeegee down the window and suddenly the squeegee fell off the pole. It fell toward my head. I ducked. It hit the ladder and banged off a window before going to the ground.
I was shaken but I climbed down the ladder to pick it up. That’s when an earthquake shook the building and the ladder. At that moment I had never felt that scared in all my life. I asked myself: Should I quit? Should I go back up the ladder? Fear told me to stay down and go home, back to bed. Instead, I pulled out my wallet and looked at a picture of my new wife and new child, the reason I put myself in this position. It was at that moment I knew what I must do. I put the wallet away, picked up the squeegee and climbed back up the ladder. The job took three days of working early mornings and evenings, but I finished and the manager paid me cash.
At that moment of completion, I felt more joy than I had in a long time. My confidence soared. I knew this cleaning work was the answer to our money problems. I loved the cleaning work. I went on to grow a business that serviced over 400 stores and 100 office buildings and we were never poor, again. My joy knew no bounds in that business.
It sounds ironic to feel fear, to go through that fear to feel joy. Going through the pain and fear actually moved me toward joy many times and avoiding the pain and fear of a decision or action caused me more pain and fear and sadness. Examples might be a crucial discussion with my wife or kids; learning something new; going into a new setting where I don’t know anyone; any changes in my life, expected or unexpected.
All of these and more raise my fear level in the beginning. I overcame many of my fears and went on to feel many more days of joy, and when I look back I recognized four strategies that helped me move through fear to attain joy: love, intuition, Kaizen and meditation.
Love is a powerful motivator when faced with fear. It can push people to lift cars off children; stand up to a bully; step toward work or job or activity feared but necessary.
Fear stops us dead in our tracks.
Love is the catalyst that propels us forward.
I remember listening to a Medal of Honor recipient speak at the Reagan Presidential Library about what the United States highest medal for bravery meant to him and his thoughts on his actions to receive the medal. He prefaced his remarks with this one statement:
“I was scared; more scared than I’d ever been in my life and the only thing the got me to move, to go save my fallen brothers in arms was love. I loved those guys and love is what got me to come out from my safe position and help them.”
When I think back on all the times I was afraid, very afraid, the biggest thing that really pushed me was my love for my family. I credit love as my motivation for my new business, my new jobs, my commitments. Love was and still is the most powerful motivator for me to move through my fears.
My wife and I recognize love is such a powerful inspiration through our marriage that we toast our glasses of wine “to love” because we know it is what keeps us going through our fears. I believe love to be the greatest motivator of all when it comes to committing to an action, an action that scares you.
Intuition is that “sixth sense,” that “gut feeling” about something or someone.
I have used my intuition to propel me forward through the stress and fear of a apprehensive action or crucial conversation. It turns out I’m not alone. Studies show even CEO’s of major companies will reflect on their intuition, their “gut” feeling when making decisions.
Malcolm Gladwell, author of many popular human behavior books such as Blink, The Tipping Point, and Outliers, researched how people can tap into their intuition to move them forward. Gladwell found that “A tremendous amount of expertise resides in the unconscious mind. These aren’t things we can necessarily describe, explain or map out.” He found the more experience people have in a field, the more trustworthy their intuition.
There are studies that believe intuition is a hoax, but the majority of science work finds intuition an effective tool for a person especially where people draw on their vast experience when making a decision.
I use my intuition to help me through that which I fear. For example, I self-published three books years ago. I knew nothing about publishing, but my instincts told me I needed to write these books, that my business experience in one field transferred to another. I learned everything I needed to publish the books and it took time, but my intuition helped me keep up my perseverance to complete the books. My intuition was correct and the books went on to sell thousands of copies and help many beginning business owners.
For some individuals, like myself, intuition is a preference and I lean on it. For example, I write in my journal each morning, three pages of what I call a “free write,” I write whatever comes to my mind. During that writing, ideas will come to me of what I might do that day. Some ideas make me anxious but most are mundane activities. It helps when I ask myself while I write “What would I do if I wasn’t afraid?” I’ll keep writing and then suggestions come to me that give me a tinge of fear, but I recognize the activity as a possible growth for me, and I write them on a “to do” list for that day. My mind’s idea must lead toward something that is positive in action, that propels me toward personal development, and doable that day or week.
The Kaizen strategy is one I use when change is inevitable or I want to instigate a change. Radical changes scares me. The Kaizen strategy requires me to breakdown what appears to be a monumental action or project into small more comfortable actions and thus lesson my fears.
Breaking fear down into manageable actions is noted in a book called One Small Step Can Change Your Life by Dr. Robert Maurer. A person can break fear down to small incremental actions that mitigate the fear inside, according to Maurer. The tasks are small building blocks for a more formidable goal such as publishing a novel.
Kaizen is an exercise created by the United States during the depressions of the 1930’s as part of the Training Within Industries program. Instead of looking to radical, more innovative change as a response to situation, the United States used Kaizen and developed small incremental changes and actions that could improve business during the depression.
The method worked so successfully that it was again applied to help rebuild Japan and Germany after the war.
The idea behind Kaizen is to calm the “fight or flight” mechanism in our brains and instead of looking at the catastrophe and helplessness, do small consistent actions that improve things over time.
Hmm, I wonder what I small actions I can do to help out during this pandemic?
The Kaizen strategy follows five strategies:
Asking simple questions (that lead to simple tasks and answers) to dispel fear
Take small actions that guarantee success
Solve small problems of the much larger problem or task
Reward myself or others
Recognize the small moments that everyone else ignores.
Another author offered similar advice in her memoir but said it a different way. The author Anne Lamott talks about breaking large unmanageable tasks into smaller, manageable parts. She tells the story from her childhood, in her book bird by bird, of her dad, her brother and her doing school work at the family kitchen table.
“My older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. . . he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books of birds. Immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said. “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
“Bird by bird,” I think of that phrase when I fear the vastness or seeming impossibility of a task. Then I start to break down the task into much smaller actions and reward myself when I complete each one, which inspires me to do the next small action.
Each day doing a small task that leads to the overall completion gets me passed the “flight” than “fight” mechanism. When I break down my fears into little actions, my fears also become small or disappear and I don’t mind doing the action. I’ll reward myself, as well.
Meditation and visualization
My mind’s thoughts can be like a conduit that fills me with energy or like a drain that siphons away my energy. It’s my choice. I decide which thoughts to hold on to and which ones to let go. It’s tough for me to let go of negative thoughts and allow the positive thoughts stay in my mind.
To help me I do meditation and visualization
Meditation is a way to calm my mind. It is a way to take back control of my mind that fills me with too many thoughts and feelings that cause me to not function at top efficiency. I’m stuck in my thoughts, and what I’ve learned is that I am not my thoughts. I have chosen to hold them in my mind, but through meditation I learn to let them go. Mediation clears my mind of a clutter of thoughts and feelings like cleaning up a messy room. I feel much less stress, fear, and sadness after I meditate.
For example, in today’s media, fear is a tool used to sway people toward an opinion. Fear gets my attention, but at the same time causes me anxiety when I’m constantly bombarded with negative, threatening, and depressing messages either in the news or social media. Mindfulness meditation helps me through those feelings.
When the Corona Virus pandemic started, I listened to every bit of news I could find. It made me feel afraid. The more I listened the worse my anxiety grew.
At one point my anxiety grew inside me where I found it hard to control. I checked my body signs. My heart rate jumped to over 120 bpm, my blood pressure elevated to 140/95.
I immediately started to listen to my meditation on the Headspace app. I repeated the mediation three times in a row. It took about a half hour. When I finished, I retook my vital signs. My heart rate dropped back to 75 bpm and my blood pressure was 120/70, again. I continue to use meditation daily and curtailed my news watching. There are many meditation apps that help. Calm is another good one and some medical providers offer it free for a year through their membership.
Meditation works for me and brings me more calm and joy.
The second mind technique is a proactive approach of visualization to make my mind work for me. In visualization I choose the words and thoughts and pictures that help me visualize my goal and overcome my fears. Visualization is a powerful tool used by many athletes and business people.
There are so many ways to use visualization to move passed fear and complete a goal and there are so many books on the subject to help people get there.
Along with these books, I’ve looked at a few metaphysical books that discuss the manifestation of our thoughts and visualizations and while I believe my thoughts do help with crystalizing my goals, I’m also of the belief in a little “destiny.”
A few times I’ve visualized something I wanted and really pushed for it only to see it not come to fruition; however, some other opportunity happened at the same time and all the doors opened for me in that direction. I reflected back later in my life and realized that had the other goal actually manifested itself, I would be in worse shape than I am today.
I once used a Dream Journal where I wrote out my dream in descriptive detail and glued a picture next to the words. It helped me to make many of these dreams come true. My Dream Journal page would consist of what I wanted; a detailed description of the want; a picture gave me a concrete visual and small steps I would take to make each dream a reality.
For me simple visualization now starts with my daily journal writing. I create my day, my goals — long term and short term, my worlds and characters for stories and thoughts in a three-page free write. This visualizing and freewriting started after I studied The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. The book helped change my way of looking at my creative side and helped me visualize what I want. Somehow visualizing my ideas consistently and then writing them down helps me to see the goal materialize.
There are so many ways to create a dream or goal strategy to help lift me to where I want to be, which is higher degrees of joy in my life.
I have used the Franklin Planner where you reflect on values, missions, and roles before deciding on goals. I have used a journal where each page was a dream / goal I wanted to accomplish with details and a visual to help keep me focused.
The one problem I had with my planning and dreaming is my scattered mind. I have so many ideas I want to see accomplished that putting energy into all of them — a little each day — felt like me trying to juggle plates in the air. It was stressful and took my mind in too many directions. When I reflect back on my life, I have come to realize that the goals and dreams I completed happened because I focused only on that one dream/goal and made that one a reality. Maybe that’s just my personality. My parents and wife notice I always finish one food on my plate first before I eat something else.
I’m a visual person. I need to see it in front of me to be able to act on the goal, so I’m looking at making my computer’s homepage a dream board, so when I open my computer it’s the first thing I see. I’m looking now a dream board with one major goal laid out on card stock or the computer. A dream board has three options: Stability (finance/job), social (friends, family, relationships, or personal (personal development, fitness and health). Choose one option when creating a board. There are so many ways to create a dream board. I’m going to use Moodboard or Canva for my online dream board. When I finish it I’ll drag it to my homepage.
Along the same topic of visualization but from another approach is Susan Jeffers’ book titled Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. A fascinating look at overcoming fears the stifle us and keep us from our goals. She encourages readers to not play victim to their circumstances and to take control of your life — total control.
Jeffers mentions seven definitions of taking responsibility:
Never blame anyone else for anything you are being, doing, having or feeling.
Be aware of the multitude of choices you have in a given situation
Jeffers’ vocabulary suggestions help me move from a place of pain to a place of power. When I find myself repeating words from the Pain List, I consciously work to change the wording in my head to the Power List. I hear coaches from the bench yell their own Power Words to players on the court or field. I hear business executives and entrepreneurs use a Power Word list with themselves or their workers. Words have power to me and it’s so easy to fall prey to the negative ones. I always must be vigilant in choosing the words that move me away from fear and pain.
“Whenever you are not taking responsibility [for your life] you put yourself in a position of pain and hence decrease your ability to handle the fear in your life.”
Susan Jeffers, Ph.D.
I know there are more possible ways to work through fear to get to joy: goal setting, determination, money, survival, etc. but love, intuition, Kaizen, and meditation/ visualization to be the most successful for me to move past my fears toward better personal growth, and of these four the greatest is love.
There is a bench that sits on a low bluff that looks out into the ocean. I go there every morning and sip my coffee and watch the tugboats and fishing vessels go back and forth. The seagulls caw overhead and occasionally an eagle flies by. Each day is a different scene. The water color, the waves, the air, sky, wind is always different. Something about that view as I sit and sip my coffee is forever imbued in my memory. It is my “happy place,” a place that brings me the most joy.
When I’m feeling low or stressed. I take myself back to this place by the sea and the rememberance of the images, the sounds and smells bring me peace, joy and love to my being.
William Butler Yeats felt something similar when he wrote in his poem, the Lake Isle of Innisfree. He was standing on a busy street and the sound of a fountain’s trickling water took him back to his boyhood and he conjured images of a past time of not only wonder and beauty but peace, love and joy. He created a place in his mind where he could go to feel better about life.
I hope everyone has a happy place, somewhere in their mind they can go to feel a deep sense of peace, joy and love.
I forgot my happy place when I started watching the news and reading social media. All the fear built up by others, all the information and not knowing what to believe, kept my mind in a constant state of turmoil.
When I reach for my happy place in my mind, it gives me some pause to feel what peace, joy and love feel like.
I know places are not the only memories where I can peace, love, and joy.
Family memory can bring me joy. My grandchildren and their actions and play or just remembering their smiles, puts me in a good mood.
Meditation using Headspace or Calm can bring me back to a more relaxed state. It doesn’t give me joy but it does bring me peace.
Friends can bring me into a joyful focus either by remembering the good times with them or calling them up and falling into conversation. I recently began calling a friend from my high school days. It’s been over 20 years since we last spoke, but our conversation was as if we just spoke yesterday. We fell into easy relaxed conversation that quickly.
Religion helps me sometimes. Knowing, feeling and believing my greater-than-life force brings me to a higher level of positive energy. Reading The Book in times of stress brought me back from despair many times when I was younger.
Experiences from the past, times of my life when I felt so on top of the world, might make me feel better, but for me events from the past, stay in the past. I don’t relive them. I know people do, and this might be a tool to uplift someone.
Journal writing also can bring me more joy. It allows me to empty my soul of all my negativity and then write in the positive reflections in my m life, give thanks and gratitude for what I have, and create a list goals to my day.
Bravery brings me a sense of joy. Doing something I’ve feared attempting. I do it in a small way, nothing grandiose. Examples might be calling my friend from high school; writing a blog for others to read; finishing a novel or poem and sending out for others to read.
One brave activity I’m trying is camping. I haven’t really camped in my life, but I love nature and I want to try. So, I did baby steps first. I watched videos online. I began collecting what I need for my camp box. I drove to campgrounds to see what they have. I practiced setting up a tent in my backyard. I learned to cook on a camp stove. With each practice, I took notes: what am I missing? How should I organize my camp box.
People smirk and say, “Just go camping.” But, I want it to be a success and success to me means planning, practice, and patience. Small steps lead to greater joy, to me.
I have my first overnight camp trip in two weeks. I reserved it online. And, of course it’s at the beach. I felt such joy when my reservation was confirmed. I can’t wait to continue stepping out of my comfort zone toward another goal.
Whatever my happy place, having a picture or video helps me to remember the experience.
I’m sure there are other forms of “happy places” in the mind but for now, this is a good start.
May all seek and find a thought that brings joy to life.