I wanted to share a little technique that I’ve been using to give myself perspective. It’s quite simple: I have a small brown paper bag pinned to the wall above my desk.
The bag is there to remind me that most of the things that are upsetting me or stressing me or just taking up headspace in the moment are transient issues that fit into that paper bag. The REST of my world remains outside that bag and unbothered by whatever is going on in there.
The trick for me is to not get sucked into that brown bag. When that happens, and it does, I’m suddenly whirling around with all the daily stressors and emergencies-of-now, and that’s all I see. My entire experience becomes those anxiety-provoking elements and my stress levels skyrocket.
It takes a lot more effort to fight my way back out of there than to stay outside in the first place.
At the same time, it’s so easy to follow all those stressors right into that bag. For me, that’s the path of least resistance, even a habit.
But when I lean back and take in the entire picture–the time-limited nature of what’s bothering me and the fact that in a couple of weeks it’ll be gone–my view broadens and I am reminded of what else is going around me right now, in this moment.
Right here, where I feel my feet planted on the ground. I smell the scent of lemon wafting up from my diffuser. I’m aware of sounds from the street below and sunshine coming in through my window.
Perspective. All of these things tumbling around inside the bag will pass. And, yes, perhaps more importantly, new ones will bubble up and take their place. I can’t stop that and I have to accept it. But I can take a deep breath and stay in the bright light of the day instead of darkness of that little bag.
I’ve posted several times about different counting techniques that I’ve used to help calm and ground myself (counting backwards, counting 100 breaths). It sounds like such a simple thing, but it is surprisingly effective.
Counting is one of those things that we naturally learn when we are very young, and because it’s so familiar to us, we can do it with ease as adults.
This ease comes in handy when our Monkey Mind is jumping around like mad, stewing over what has happened or fearing for what is to come. Counting gives it something to do so that its attention is drawn away from anxious thoughts.
In particular, I’ve found this to be useful at night when falling back to sleep has been hindered by that incessant buzz of thinking that won’t go away.
The technique that I’ve used over the last few weeks weaves a counting pattern like this:
Become aware of your body lying in bed. Try to soften the most obvious places of tension (for me, neck and shoulders) and turn your attention to your breath.
Begin by focusing on your inhales of your breaths and counting them, up to ten. Then, switch your focus to your exhales, counting each one up to ten. And again, switch back to focusing on the inhales, continuing this way
The combination of counting up to ten and focusing on either the inhales or exhales provides enough of a distraction from your thoughts, but requires some gentle attention to keep on track. The switching of focus invites your mind to return to the breath.
I’ve found ten to be a very good number; however, five would also work. Whatever you prefer. This might require experimentation to see what is best for you. For example, counting to two might work better for some people during waking hours when there is naturally more stimulation around.
As you establish a pattern with your breath, extend your exhales regardless of where your focus is. This helps slow both your breath and heartrate.
Again, this technique works because counting to ten is simple and unstimulating, allowing the mind to lull itself into a calmer state. When I find myself missing ten and instead counting into the teens without switching my inhale-exhale focus, I know that I’m beginning to drift off. I gently stay with it, but sleep is nearby.
Staying present is key for not letting your thoughts take you on a wild ride.
Maintaining presence, however, takes practice so I’m always on the lookout for new ways to imagine the state of being in the “now”. Some of these are simpler exercises than others, but the upside of a more “complex” technique means that all my mental energy remains on staying present instead of, say, worrying whether I embarrassed myself at a party three nights ago.
The following is a visualization and mental exercise rolled into one:
Seated, close the eyes. Breathing deeply, allow everything that is around you to fall away in your mind, leaving only those points where your body makes contact with the surface beneath you.
Imagine that the soles of your feet sit on top of sole-shaped pieces of support material. Your buttocks and thighs contact like-shaped material, as does any place your back rests against your chair. If you touch your fingers to the side of your chair seat, small oval-shaped pieces of material appear where your fingers make contact.
Everything else disappears against a background of light (or darkness, if that is more calming). The chair and floor and even the room you are in? Gone. The point of this visualization is maintaining focus on only what you are physically experiencing at any given moment.
It is a strange sensation to imagine, floating through the ether but still feeling support from the slightest bits of material that touch you. This is the ultimate in being 100% present and turns the concept of object permanence on its head.
You don’t feel it? It doesn’t exist.
Our brain wants to fill in the parts that we can’t see because the brain has formulated an image of what is out there. However, in this practice we try to do the opposite–let go of what we do not have immediate physical evidence for.
This is a good analogy for dealing with thoughts that our brain fabricates based on the expectations that it has. What if we let go of them, if only for a short while, and simply sit in the stillness of what is happening right now?
In my ever-continuing quest to maintain my concentration during meditation, I’m constantly exploring different points of focus. My go-to still remains the breath, but I’ve written about sharing that spotlight with focus on sensations in the hands as part of a dual focus meditation.
More recently, however, I’ve incorporated more of the senses into my meditation practice (I mean, we have five so why not?).
In between the inhales and exhales, there’s space during which I’m notoriously susceptible to distractions. Lately, I’ve been working with sounds. I live in the city on a busy street and there’s rarely a lack of noise, so in the lulls between my breaths, my ears turn on and absorb the sounds transpiring outside my window.
The trick with sounds, however, is to allow them to simply be interpreted as tones and refrain from being drawn into naming them. A siren runs the risk of eliciting thoughts of “where’s the fire?” or similar scenarios. For this to work, it’s important to engage our “beginner’s mind” — our brains are quick to match familiar sounds with a story — and divorce the sounds from associations that we’ve made over the years.
If simply shuttling between breath and sound provides enough fodder for concentration, this might not be an issue.
In that case, street noise can be an effective anchor for its variability, its high tones and low tones, as the passing of cars may morph into ocean wave-like sounds.
However, if urban noises are either too intermittent or too difficult to resist spinning tales around, there are many other options for ambient sounds that will work for purposes of meditation. It’s no surprise that platforms like YouTube have a gazillion listings under “meditation music” that may fit the bill. In addition, apps like “myNoise” (and website myNoise.net) provide customizable background sounds to help mask outside noise and maximize ability to stay focused longer.
As the body moves with the breath, sound will remain in the background allowing attention to organically cycle between the two. From personal experience, I’ve learned that juggling between feeling into sensations in the body (breath) and being aware of sounds coming through my ears results in really turning down the dial on my Monkey Mind, which seems to fade to the distance. This dual focus can close the gap through which mind chatter might otherwise intrude.
If you feel inspired, give it a try and let me know how it goes!
Last year at this time, I feared that I had heart issues based on what I had read about some of the cancer medications that I had been on, so I went to the cardiologist and they administered some tests. When I came back to the cardiologist to discuss results with the doctor, I was told that they had found “something” in the echocardiogram and Holter monitor readings.
But I still had questions, so I had a consultation with the cardiac nurse, who went through everything with me.
And it turns out that while they did find “something”, it wasn’t really anything out of the ordinary, beyond normal wear and tear. I was assured that my heart was very strong and healthy and I could continue to push through high-intensity workouts.
Still, it was recommended that I get checked out again this year.
But you know what? I’m not going right now. It felt like anxiety about the scans and then waiting for the results did worse things to my heart than whatever I might have been already experiencing.
I talked this over with my oncologist, who agreed.
The fact is, there are things that you need to get checked out, especially as a cancer survivor. But for other things, especially without a specific indication that there’s something wrong, you are simply looking for trouble. And if you’re looking for it, you’re going to find it.
Our bodies are not perfect. And the older we get, the more aches, pains and abnormalities we have. That doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s anything “wrong” that immediately needs to be fixed.
Anxiety was the driver for me to get tests run. I was overreading about everything that could possibly go wrong–given the medications that I had been taking–and then rushing out to make sure that it hadn’t yet in the hope that I could rectify any budding issues.
And to be fair, there are still things that I could look at, still specialists I could contact. But perhaps I need to chill a bit…
…but perhaps I need to chill a bit. If it were to progress, would I stop exercising? Absolutely not. So then perhaps it’s best to take a wait-and-see approach for now.
All of this is so different from cancer, which drives us to seek treatment immediately. I am forever primed to worry about what might be happening in my body. But I also recognize this as a psychological side effect of cancer. I can’t let fear take over the rest of my life.
So for me, it’s time to stop looking for trouble, stop fearing for the future and simply relax and enjoy what’s happening in the present moment.
On the first day of my Yoga Teacher Training program, we did a curious exercise. Students were instucted to pair up and take turns speaking for about 15 minutes. During that time the speaker was to tell the other about their life. In turn, the listener was to say nothing. In fact, they were to make no facial expressions or give any response to the speaker. They were there simply to be present and witness to what the speaker was saying.
This was incredibly difficult for me to do. My partner was an amazing woman with a backstory that I was so driven to respond to. My usual MO in situations like this is to make little noises like “oh!” and “uh-huh”, and to nod along, raising my eyebrows, smiling…all actions to encourage the speaker. Containing that urge made me feel like I was sending a message to her that I didn’t care. I didn’t want her to think that she was boring me.
But the idea behind this exercise made a lot of sense. Too often, we can derail the thoughts of others by interjecting comments. Even when we are encouraging the speaker, we may inadvertantly be sending them off in a different direction than they had planned to go. Additionally, I realized that my need to show that I was interested about what they were describing was actually moving the focus on myself, rather than allowing the other to speak their truth.
This spoke to my own insecurities. In particular when speaking with people in positions of power, I will often watch for body signals and verbal cues that inform me as to what direction I should take my story. I recognize that I lack self-confidence, lost over the years by interacting with people who, in fact, did not value me or my thoughts.
Afterwards, my new friend and I blurted out how much we had enjoyed the other’s story and how difficult it had been to not show appreciation. But we also understood the value of this exercise.
I would not be quite so stone-like with a speaker in a future situation, but I will definitely be more reserved with the interjected “wow”s and allow the speaker to wind their own way through their story, allowing them to fully express themselves, giving them them gift of holding space for what they want to say.
I’ve written before many times about different “grounding” techniques. Grounding is what helps move us out of the chatter in our heads and brings us into the present moment, where we can pause and realize that we are safe. It helps put space between our ourselves and both fears about the future and regrets about the past that may unnecessarily cloud our minds.
On days like those, I need to fine-tune my focus. This calls for a grounding technique that won’t be as easy to derail.
Body scans are some of my favorite grounding and calming go-tos. But recently, I was introduced to tracing the outline of the hand with your mind, a focus on just one part of the body. I tried this and found that it worked brilliantly!
Just like when, as a child, you started a drawing using the outline of your hand by placing it on a piece of paper and tracing the around your fingers with a pencil, you can do the same thing mentally. Imagine the sensation of a point of pressure (say, an invisible crayon) moving up your wrist to the outside of your pinkie, around the fingertip, and down the other side into the hollow between the fingers…and doing the same as it moves up and down each finger until it ends up on the outside of the thumb and travels back down the wrist.
What makes this so effective for me is that it is a simple visualization that requires a bit more concentration, and yet it is still uncomplicated. That means that it gives my monkey mind a little extra to focus on, but not so much that it becomes a struggle.
Try it next time you need grounding and want to trying something different.
If you’re new to mindfulness meditation, you might have found it difficult to hold focus on your breath. But the reality is that you don’t need to be a beginner to struggle with this. There are some days that the mind refuses to be still and even a long-time meditator will find themselves carried away by thoughts.
In an effort to help keep my head here and now, I started paying attention to how it was that I lost focus. For me, it happens during the lull between breaths.
What is that lull? Well, there’s a very short, almost imperceptible pause between my inhale and exhale. I’m okay during that time because I can focus on the sensations in my chest and belly. That’s not the pause that gives me problems.
It’s after the exhale that I experience a longer pause before the next breath begins, especially if my breaths are slower and deeper, because my body doesn’t require another breath right away. And that’s when I’m more likely to “see something shiny” and my mind wanders off.
But I found that by focusing on my hands during this pause, I could keep my random thoughts at bay.
If you’re having focus issues and would like to try this, all you need to do is consider your focus as cyclic. First, with the inhale and exhale, focus on the breath sensation–choose wherever you feel the air movement most distinctly, such as the rising & falling of your chest, the rushing of air in and out of your nostrils, or similar. It will be different from person to person.
Next, during the pause between your breaths, turn your focus to the sensations in your hands and fingers. There may be some tingling or throbbing, or perhaps nothing discernable. That’s okay. Just see if there’s anything there that you can feel.
Then, when your next inhale begins, pay attention to the breath again.
It may sound like you’re jumping from one body part to another, but in reality the transition is very smooth. The focus on the hands gives you a place to go until the next breath returns, all the while keeping you present.
When I first tried this, I thought I was “cheating” because I wasn’t staying with the breath. And I had to remind myself that the purpose of this wasn’t to earn a gold star for being the best “focus-on-only-the-breath” meditator. It was to stay with whatever was happening “now”.
Allowing a slight change in focus when my mind is active keeps me present. Staying present calms me more effectively. And that helps me return to the meditation cushion day after day after day.
There is beauty in the stillness that we experience between breaths. This dual focus practice isn’t meant to pull us away from that. Rather, it gives us a focus for those days when the mind is active and easily distracted, and appreciating that stillness is not available to us.
What used to feel like a jumbled mess of emotions and sensations before, now makes sense to me. Intense feelings don’t come at me as quickly as they used to and there’s more space between a stimulus and my response to it.
There is a PAUSE.
That doesn’t mean that I’m perfectly calm and don’t get frightened, anxious or frustrated. I do. You can see that in some of my posts, because I try to be very honest about what I’m experiencing in the moment. But no matter how deeply I dip into fear, I don’t stay there.
I can find the CALM amidst the CHAOS.
When things get intense, I know how to feel into my body. I recognize the physical sensations and I focus on releasing them. Smoothening them out. Breathing through them.
All those abilities were always available to me, but I resisted calming myself. I am aware that on some level I used to feel that anxiety was a necessary way to express my fear; that it was necessary to descend into fear to express my emotional state to others, so that I would be taken seriously. While it sounds odd to read that now, it was only through learning that I was able to soothe myself that I learned I didn’t need to commit to the torture.
I return to the PRESENT.
When I start thinking about fretful things in my past or fearing the possibilities of the future, I can now recognize that my mind has drifted away and I can pull myself into the present, feeling into my bodily sensations. I can break through the dark tumult that’s enveloping me. And suddenly, the noise is gone and I’m standing with my feet firmly planted in my room. I hear the birds and I find peace.
I know I am SAFE.
I realize that there were behaviors that I engaged in during times of anxiety in the past, like pacing back and forth, that actually soothed my nervous system. Just as rhythmic rocking soothes a child. My body was wise and knew what I needed. When, years ago, the burden of my workload chained me to my desk and prevented me from movement, my anxiety skyrocketed and became almost unbearable. That was a clue, but at that point in my life, I didn’t know how to listen to my body.
Now I know what I must do to calm down and I allow myself to do it. But this change didn’t come about suddenly.
It takes PRACTICE.
Practicing mindfulness meditation when I am at peace allows me to build up the habit that carries me through difficult times. I practice daily. Somedays I can focus on my breath perfectly; other times I lose myself in thought shortly after I’ve begun. Regardless, I don’t give up. Even the “bad meditation” days are better than no meditation at all. Each session strengthens my mindfulness habit.
If there is a time that I’m going to feel anxiety, there’s a good chance it’ll be during my yearly mammogram. This year it came around the same time that my oncologist gave me permission to stop letrozole (and there was stress preceeding that appointment), but also great fear associated with my perceived cardiac arrhythmias, for which I have several visits with a cardiologist lined up.
To top that off, a family stressor followed on its heels, which I won’t go into but one that portends difficulties in the future. This last anxiety-provoking event used the previous stressors as a springboard and exploded into something even bigger. I was primed for anxiety and it took me for a ride until I found the traction to dig my heels in and slow down.
The worst part is, none of this stuff will simply go away.
Often, when people speak of anxiety-provoking events, they’re described as stressful things like a tense meeting with the boss or college finals or tight work deadlines. Admittedly these are all nerve-wracking, but they are also time-limited.
Then we have something like cancer.
I remember listening to a talk about anxiety where the lecturer tried to give the audience perspective about what was really going on, and he asked: what’s the worst thing that could happen? “You’re not going to die,” he assured us. And it’s true: let’s say that you fail all your final exams, but you’ll survive, even if you have to retake the classes.
Cancer survivors can attest to the fact that we suffer a different flavor of anxiety. There is no deadline on our stresses. They are thick and cling to us, like caramel sauce on the inside of a coffee cup, thinned by the passage of time, but leaving a film on our lives. Our hope is to get past the two-year mark, then five. Ten, if we’re so lucky.
Often, we hear about the success of treatments only to realize that the success is based on the majority of patients lasting until the end of the study, which might have been only five years.
Having someone tell you that you have a 95% chance of surviving five years is, well, underwhelming, especially for those of us who had premenopausal breast cancer. I mean, yeah, I HOPE I can last five years.
So, what to do? If there were ever a time to practice non-attachment, this is it. For some of us (present company included), it is excruciatingly difficulty to release expectations–I want, even NEED, to be assured that everything will be okay and then rest easy with that.
But I promise you, clinging to the desire for things to be different only causes suffering. It also robs you of the joy of what you are experiencing right NOW–a beautiful sunrise, the softness of a pet’s fur, the richness of a cup of coffee, the coziness of a warm blanket. We are so wrapped up in fears of what the future holds that we miss the magic of what is before us.
Now is the only moment that exists, so truly, it’s the only moment that is real and certain.
Everything else is either history or what we concoct in our minds.
So this time of the year, I have to sit back and sense the Earth under my feet, feeling into how it supports me. This is what it feels like to be here now. No matter how many times I remind myself of this, I know I’ll have to do it again when the next stressor hits. That’s okay.
This isn’t the first time I’ve written about anxiety and it certainly won’t be the last. But practicing mindfulness, every time I go through this experience, I reign in my emotions a little earlier and start feeling better a little faster. When I look back at what happened I realize I’m making progress, and that’s what really matters.