Move on from the past and live stress-free in the present.
The English poet John Milton said the mind can create for us our own personal heaven or hell. I know from personal and professional experience that we can use the mind as a terrible weapon against ourselves and our happiness, or find in it a loyal ally. Because we do not control the mind, most of us allow it to control us, with it tending to swing back and forth. If not exactly heaven or hell, a lot of time is spent in purgatory. We have in our life story, and experiences of the mind—the ally and the sabotager.
"Okay, okay," you say impatiently, "I got it, now give me the tools to change. Tell me whatever I need to know to get off this mental merry-go-round." First of all, and you may not want to hear this, but it is important to get patient with yourself and with your progress (or lack of it). Often, we are harsh and denigrating with ourselves, and struggle in an attempt to force the mindless chatter to cease. Needless to say, when you are experiencing inner turbulence, it seems impossible to get still, breathe and relax. Quite often your inner self is agitated, fearful, struggling, and if approached about your behaviors, you more than likely become defensive and resistant.
When you stop and turn your attention inward, it becomes clear that the mind is chattering ceaselessly. In Buddhist meditation, such is called "monkey mind," in that it is comparable to a noisy monkey swinging from limb to limb. Or, in our case, from thought to thought, never taking a break.
Most of the time we have so much chatter going on, we're not even aware it's happening. Sometimes when I'm outdoors walking in beautiful natural surroundings, it occurs to me that I've been off in the past, or planning for the future, instead of staying in the present and allowing the beauty of nature to relax me.
I may find myself frowning or having tense muscles until I catch myself and witness that I'm not really present. I can break the cycle of mind chatter with some deep breaths, which helps to become present. Then, I'm open and can hear the birds sing. Shortly thereafter, I'm gone again and have to repeat the process. So here I am; I write and I teach that which I need to practice and do more of in my life.
What is it like to be aware? Some of us are more externally focused, some of us are internally focused, and most of us are somewhere in between. Even when you are unaware of your endless chatter, there are times when the automatic tendency is broken. You are really present and able to know what helps you become more aware, as we all have at times and exceptions. Maybe it's just before going to sleep, upon first awakening when you see a sunset, changing the baby's diaper, or washing dishes.
There are instances when something you do fully engages you in the "here and now." Whatever helps you become more aware, do more of it and do it more often. Without judging, notice if your awareness is more available at certain events, but not others. Be gentle with yourself and direct awareness to encompass a broader spectrum of your thoughts, sensations, and fantasies.
I have a client, Milly, who has a great deal of physical pain in her body. She has had several surgeries—back, knee, shoulder, you name it. Some surgeries helped and some did not. She took lots of pain medication from different doctors who did not take time to review the whole picture. Some of these medications had serious side effects and were not compatible with others. She ended up in the hospital with seizure-like activity from contraindication, was put under supervision, and taken off everything in order to ascertain the cause. After going through such an ordeal, she decided to try managing her pain another way. She engaged in counseling, relaxation techniques, hypnosis and eventually meditation.
When Milly first came to me, there was no point in asking her to breathe and relax. Asking Milly to relax was as futile as asking me to do brain surgery—she didn't have a clue how to do so. She was racked with pain, so managing it became our first priority. Since she was too agitated to relax, so she agreed to walk outdoors, do some yoga stretches that did not aggravate her body, and did this before her sessions with me. The physical movement calmed her a little, and she became trusting enough to allow me to use clinical hypnosis for pain, and in time to teach her self-hypnosis. With hypnotherapy, she learned how to manage her pain fairly well and realized she was able to have some control back.
The next step was to help her pay more attention to how she was thinking. As she became more aware, it became evident to her that she spent an enormous amount of time thinking negatively. The negative thinking, in turn, lead to a rollercoaster ride of emotions.
Her thoughts often ran as follows: "it's never going to get any better. There's no light at the end of my tunnel." She also heard voices that harshly judged her. Angry, vindictive, sabotaging voices that blamed her for living her life "wrong" and ending up as a "cripple." She believed that she was being punished for having pushed her body, excessively as she did, when she played tennis. The voices in her head sounded suspiciously like those of her parents, particularly her father who was a harsh, critical person, and especially intimidating when she was growing up.
Needless to say, Milly was unable to relax at any level until she paid attention to the huge amount of time she spent using her mind as the enemy. She had endured so much, that she was eventually ready to tackle her thoughts, inner voices and visions. She had a few weeks of intense struggle, catching herself and intentionally stopping the process. At my suggestion, she put a "STOP" sign in her mind as a symbol of changing the flow of thoughts. She also said "STOP" out loud sometimes with a laser-sharp intensity. Milly also journaled on a regular basis between sessions, putting on paper her vision of how she wanted change and relaxation to look.
Journaling is a wonderfully powerful tool, especially at times of change. It allows us to take floating ideas, thoughts and feelings out of the vapors, and putting it on paper to give them a concrete form. It's more powerful to journal by hand, instead of computer, as the hand is connected to the unconscious. This exercise starts clearing out the endless ruminations, and opens up some spaces inside where you are able to breathe easier. When one gradually gets to, and is able to recognize, this state of mind, one is readier to create what one chooses to put in there.
Some of you may say that you are not as bad off as Milly. Though this may be true, how are you thinking? Are you conscious in the moment and focusing? Or, does it go something like this: "I'll be glad when I go on vacation, but how am I ever going to pay for it when my cards are maxed out. I hope this vacation turns out better than the last one when we had that big fight—to this day, he has not said he is sorry for being so rude to my friend..." going on and on, ad nausem?
You are preoccupied with the future, which triggers you back to the past, again and again. So, what has you by the scruff of the neck? It becomes apparent you are not controlling your thoughts and feelings, but that you are being controlled by them, as you flow back and forth between past and future.
What's Your Story?
We all have an inner story, and whether you are aware of it or not, it's quite a powerful influence on your life. The story is generally formed around a cluster of core beliefs, passed down to us when we were very young by members of our family. Like sponges, we absorb everything without question, as if it all were gospel. We can't question when this happens, as we truly are helpless and have not reached the age of reason.
The beliefs influence us significantly, whether we are aware of them or not. If we were lucky, what was passed down was not too damaging, but for most of us some of these beliefs have cost us dearly. One's tendency to identify with the inner story, which is usually unconscious, actually limits how one lives in the present.
Sometimes the story may go as follows: "No matter what I do, it's never enough." So, one pushes more and more, while at the same time believing that it won't matter or won't be enough. This story, or life script, is a familiar one to me as a psychotherapist. It is usually instilled in the child's unconscious by critical parents or teachers.
Other familiar story lines go as follows: "Everyone I love leaves me. It's my fault; if I had been a good girl, they would not have quarreled, been violent, or divorced." If the patterns that the core beliefs cause are too deep and are persistently interfering in your life, it's important that you consider psychotherapy to root them out. In such situations, I use several techniques, in addition to talk therapy, to hasten the healing. I use hypnotherapy, guided imagery, breathwork, Psych K, as well as accessing the inner child for healing purposes. All of these methods access the unconscious where the clients story got started.
When Milly was born, her father wanted a boy and had little to do with her until she was old enough to participate in sports. She was a good athlete—agile, talented, fast and played many sports during her school years. Her father coached her team in many of her chosen sports and as long as she did well, she had her father's attention. When she wasn't up to par, her father demeaned and criticized her performance, even to the point of telling her she played like a "wimpy girl." She never felt valued as a female and tried her best in every venture to show her father she was not inadequate. It wasn't ever good enough for him.
In college she turned to tennis and was quite successful. Tennis was not one of her father's favorite sports, so her championships and honors did not impress him. She played harder, faster, and through injuries until her body gave way as result of been pushed too hard for too long. After each surgery, her father seemed to take perverse pleasure in telling how right he'd been about tennis, in that she chose the "wrong" sport.
It is evident to Milly now that the groundwork for all of her injuries was laid in overreaching her limits in all the sports she ever played. She did it to try and engage her self-centered father, to try and make up to him for not being a boy. Relaxing and being reflective was not allowed in her family, as it was equated with laziness: "no child of mine is going to be lazy." Since Milly had no inner permission to take care of herself, she had to stay active and busy until she became "crippled."
Free Up From Your Story
When you are living your life, as if the story is true, you create situations that replicate the original belief system. For instance, in Milly's case over the years she found herself in a struggle with many male figures to whom she gave authority. She over-extended herself to please them, and generally was left feeling on a deeper level, "I'm not enough." This feeling of "not enoughness" created problems in romantic and intimate relationships. So much focus had gone into acting "boyish" for her father that she did not value her femininity, and felt lacking there as well.
The story that has us by the scruff is like living in a deep, pervasive fog. It's a real struggle to see where the arrows of our life are pointing. We go the way we are pointed, to what seems to be the way—a way that was given us by others. If your story isn't working for you, then it's time to examine it for what it really is, not what you would like it to be. We have to accept that we can't change them and we can't change the past, but what we choose to do right now will change our lives as we go forward, for better or for worse.
Levels of Destressing
So many layers of our existence get in the way of knowing and appreciating our wonderful uniqueness, so we have to start somewhere. In Milly's case, we had to take her inner knotted ball of yarn and unravel many levels of pain, distrust, and fear before she could accept herself enough to be quiet, to breathe and relax:
- We tackled the obvious—the physical pain—giving her tools to manage it better without medication.
- We addressed the extent of her negative thoughts and feelings, as well as the underlying anxiety.
- She journaled and came to a deeper level of understanding of why she experienced her injuries as a punishment.
- We examined her storyline, her life script, and why she had it.
- After unearthing her life script, she had to deal with an enormous degree of anger towards her parents, especially her father, as well as the ignorance on both their parts.
- She started to get glimpses of how she wanted to create a new set of beliefs and a new life for herself—visualizations.
- Inner child work was done to heal the past and give her new permissions. She realized she did not have to be sick or crippled in order to take care of herself. (Remember in that family, relaxing equaled laziness.)
- She practiced breathing, felt more spacious inside, and was able to truly relax for the first time. At this stage, she was more able to love and value herself.
- She moved from relaxation into a meditation practice and felt new and whole as if for the first time.
Milly continues to transform and sees me on an as-needed basis. She still has some physical pain to deal with, but it is less overwhelming, as she uses her new tools. She is suffering less emotionally and her responses to outside stressors are much less reactive. She's also in a new relationship and taking it slow, using new information about her world to be her guide; she said she is cautiously hopeful about its outcome. She works at seeing him with new eyes, not eyes fogged by earlier relationships with men.
Some of you may wonder why I digress with Milly's situation. Many of you may read about her and say, "that's not me." However, if you have trouble getting still, breathing deeply and becoming relaxed, you may have a few levels to work through before you can surrender into relaxation. It may not be Milly's experience, but use her steps of healing to get to know yourself at a deeper level. Realize that your story is just that: a story that's getting in the way. It's not who you really are. It may take some tools, time, and much effort, but you can get healed and start altering your course. You can develop the capacity to disengage from your story while continuing to become more engaged in your own life, making your mind your ally. May you enjoy the process.
Laura’s “Overcome Obstacles and Have an Incredible Life“ offers boundless guidance, addresses doubts, fears and uncertainties that may be keeping you stuck and wondering if you have missed your chance to be happy. You have not! Read or hear more at www.laurabyoung.com
This article was originally published at http://www.laurabyoung.com/. Reprinted with permission from the author.