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3 Keys to Living Effectively: Attention, Calmness, and Understanding

Strategies and goals

A number of my posts in coming weeks will make mention of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. I was fortunate enough to hear him speak recently in Middlebury, Vermont, and since then I’ve been listening to some of his recorded public talks, which are freely available along with a lot more interesting material at dalailama.com. Thinking about some of the things the Dalai Lama has said, I found myself faced with a question about my own life: I know a lot about how to act in my own best interests, yet some of the time I act as though I only understood short-term pleasures and not long-term happiness. Why is that?

Based on bits gleaned from psychology, neurology, and meditative practice, I came up with three things I need in order to ensure I act in the best way possible–to encourage my own success while simultaneously letting go of stress, overcoming fear, enjoying what I’m doing, and staying in touch with my highest goals and aspirations. It’s a tall order, and the three things aren’t easy. On the bright side, though, they are simple.

1. Attention
A good habit is a treasure, because it takes no special effort to follow. When I show up to Taekwondo several times a week and get a good, long workout, it’s not because I’m thinking about or planning exercise: it’s because I’m used to going to Taekwondo. In the same way, bad habits are serious trouble. In order to break a bad habit, or even to overcome it on a one-time basis, we usually need to be able to direct attention to what we’re thinking, feeling, and doing. We could also talk about attention as having to do with self-awareness or mindfulness.

For example, I might be tempted to sleep in some morning and risk being late for an appointment. It’s difficult to battle this intention if I’m just thinking about how it would feel to stay in bed versus how it would feel to get up, and especially if I have a habit of sleeping past my alarm. However, if I consciously think about things like

  • “If I get up now, I can be on time–and if I don’t, I risk being late”
  • “Staying in bed is pleasurable, but I like showing up on time to things too”
  • “I’ll have to get up sooner or later, and it probably won’t be any easier in 15 minutes than it is now”

… and other things in the same vein, then I’m able to make a decision rather than just succumbing to my gut feelings.

2. Calmness
Buddhist teaching warns about the danger of attachment, of strong emotion. Speaking honestly, I’m not entirely sure how this applies to strong positive emotions like love or delight, though I could make some guesses. What I am sure of is that getting wrapped up in my own emotions and doing nothing about it leaves me in a position where it’s hard to change or do the things that are best for me. Being able to step back from our emotions and out of a frame of mind dominated by thoughts like “I really, really want that” or “I’m afraid!” or “I feel embarrassed” puts us in a place of calmness from which we can think about our long-term interest and our well-being–not to mention other people’s long-term interest and well being. Not having that calmness keeps us confused and short-sighted, bogged down in an obscuring cloud of emotional debris.

This site offers a wide range of tools for working with emotions, even very strong ones, including idea repair, understanding mental schemas, and much else. If I want calmness, there’s usually some way for me to achieve it.

3. Understanding
I started out thinking of this item as “knowledge,” but I realized that it includes not just understanding how my mind works, having good organizational strategies, and knowing how to keep myself healthy, but also ideas of what’s truly important, what leads to real happiness, what the value of a good relationship is, and what kinds of goals are worth pursuing. Having attention and calmness is not nearly as useful when I don’t have the understanding to use that attention and calmness by making and acting on good decisions.

That’s it: attention, calmness, and understanding. If I can remember to look for those three things, my theory goes, I’ll be on top of the world. I’ll report back and let you know how it’s been working for me. I’d be very interested if you care to do the same, whether in comments or privately through the contact form.

Photo by Hani Amir

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How Writing Can Help Cure Depression

Techniques

An excellent article on MedicineNet.com interviews medical professionals and therapists about using writing to cure depression. Creative writing might very well have positive effects on depression, but the kind of writing the article discusses, and the kind I recommend for working on almost any emotional or motivational issue, is journaling.

Before I go much further than this, I’ll add this disclaimer: of course not all emotional concerns can be addressed through writing and self-help. This is one tool for helping address depression, but it’s not meant to be a cure-all, something that does everything for everyone.

What can a journal accomplish for a depressed person? There appear to be a whole range of benefits:

  • Dr. Michael Rank calls journaling the “most effective and cheapest” form of self-help.
  • A journal can be used with an understanding of idea repair to help fix broken ideas. This is one of the most powerful contributions of cognitive psychology: a tool we can use to change our own thoughts and feelings from damaging to constructive.
  • A journal can create a feedback loop, which can help a person break an old habit, start a new one, or make progress with motivation in general.
  • Dr. James Pennebaker, a psychology professor at the University of Austin, reportedly has found that “writing about upsetting personal experiences for just 20 minutes at a time, over three or four days, can result in a significant drop in blood pressure and a healthier immune system.”
  • Therapist Catherine Carlo credits journaling with giving journal writers “a better sense of where they’ve been, where they are, and where they’re going,” according to the article.

In the article, Rank points out that people can feel resistance to starting a journal. This is an understandable feeling, but reversing any habit or emotional condition requires something either internal or external going in a new and not entirely comfortable direction. However, my experience writing about even very disturbing issues in my own life is that it rapidly becomes not only comfortable but actively a relief.

There are several approaches to journaling that can be useful. Carlo recommends journaling in a group. “Just having that unspoken support and encouragement gives [journal writers] courage to write about their feelings” even if the journals aren’t shared, the article quotes her as saying. Carlo also suggests envisioning yourself in a medieval castle while writing, in order to get some distance and perspective.

Recording journal entries with a tape recorder, computer, or smartphone is a viable alternative to written journaling for anyone who doesn’t like to write.

Sharing a journal with someone else can invite help and understanding. On the other hand, some journal writers may prefer to never share what they write in order to create a feeling of complete privacy about the process. When I write about something especially sensitive in my life, I go beyond even that by writing the journal entry and then immediately deleting it. I still reap all the benefits of writing the entry, even though there’s no outward trace left over when I’m done.

People who like to draw, even if only stick figures are involved, can substitute drawings for writing some of the time. While these drawings aren’t usually as clearly-communicated as words, they can sometimes be more expressive and exploratory.

Journaling can also be used to understand how we might not be using time well by logging everything we do (even down to stopping to pick up the phone or take a bathroom break), to provide insight into why we’re acting the way we are (see my article on “How To Improve Willpower Through Writing Things Down: Decision Logging“), or to create a record we can use to go back and understand parts of our lives better, after the fact.

It doesn’t have to be difficult to start journaling. If you can get yourself to sit down at a computer and open a word processor or to pick up a pen and a notebook, you can just write, with no pressure about how much or how often you’ll write, nor what you’ll write about. Journaling gives us each the choice of how to approach difficulties in our lives … and often, even the tools to overcome them.

Photo by paperbackwriter

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Great Expectations Alone Won’t Cut It

Handling negative emotions

I’ve been reading Dickens’ Great Expectations, and there’s a lot for me to like in it. The thing I like the least, I’ve been thinking, is how some characters persist miserably in behavior that isn’t any good for them. Miss Havisham wallows for decade after decade in her anger and disappointment at being a jilted bride, and as she drifts ghost-like through her house in the rags of her wedding dress, I mentally shout at her, “What are you doing? Is this really what’s going to make you happy?”

And Pip, the main character, is worse: after being elevated to wealth by an unknown benefactor, he torments himself by pursuing a beautiful woman who makes him miserable, stops visiting the people who love him and make him happy because they’re beneath his station, and uses his wealth to run up huge debts by living beyond even his newly extravagant means. It makes me want to take him by the shoulders, shake him, and shout “Wake up! Why are you making yourself miserable?”

At least, it does until I realize how much I do the same things sometimes: maintaining a negative emotion because of having become attached to it, or spending huge effort pursuing an unworthy goal, or looking away from the difficult but ultimately more satisfying choices.

These are the patterns of most of our miseries, and there are five things we need to get through to go from there to a happier life:

  1. Awareness. We can’t do anything about our problems before we admit that they’re problems–which presumably is why admitting you have a problem is the foundational first step in twelve-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous.
  2. Belief. Pip believes there’s nothing he can do about his attraction to Estella, but in fact we have enormous influence over our own beliefs, preferences, and drives. Believing that our problems can be changed is more or less essential to purposely making that change.
  3. Knowledge. It doesn’t help to want to change if we don’t know what we want to stop doing and what we need to start doing instead. Understanding what success looks like, and how that differs from what we’re doing now, gets us from just wanting to change to being able to see what that change would be.
  4. Habit. Many of our behaviors are ingrained and will stay with us unless disrupted by accident or on purpose. Even if we know how we want to change our actions, we won’t act that way automatically: we need to build new habits and disrupt old ones. (Note: this long, hard-work phase is often skipped in novels and other stories, in which the realizations alone are sometimes portrayed as being enough. In real life, not so much.)
  5. Time and attention. Our resources are limited, including our time, strength, attention, and focus. Some of these resources need to be dedicated to making a change if a change is desired, and that generally means that they have to come from somewhere else.

Dickens being Dickens, I have a hard time imagining that Pip will come to a bad end. If he does win out in the end, I’ll be interested to see how he gets through these five steps (or at least the first three) to find his real strength.

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Mental Schemas #3: Emotional Deprivation (with help from Holden Caulfield)

Handling negative emotions

The Emotional Deprivation Schema
A few quotes from J.D. Salinger’s character Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye can help explain what this schema is about.

“Sometimes I act a lot older than I am–I really do– but people never notice it. People never notice anything.”

“She bought me the wrong kind of skates–I wanted racing skates and she bought hockey–but it made me sad anyway. Almost every time somebody gives me a present, it ends up making me sad.”

Occasionally feeling like other people don’t understand, don’t care, and/or couldn’t do anything about it even if they did seems to be a normal part of the human experience. Feeling like this every day and all, though, can be emotionally debilitating as hell.

I’m not suggesting that everything that goes on with Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye is part of an emotional deprivation schema. As real human beings, our motivations are too complex to be meaningfully explained by any one concept, and to Salinger’s credit, Holden feels like a real human being to many readers. But Holden does us a favor in helping to show the emotional deprivation schema and some of its effects.

A person with an emotional deprivation schema might choose relationships with people who aren’t very capable of giving care, understanding, or support, and might act in ways that make it harder for even people who are capable to give these things. Such a person might provoke others or try to keep people at a distance (on the assumption that they wouldn’t really be able to get close anyway).

Overcoming an Emotional Deprivation Schema
Making progress with this schema first requires understanding how it’s working in one’s life: taking note of behaviors and choices that come from these beliefs and that can affect relationships. Techniques like journaling, talk therapy, and mindfulness practices can help bring these ideas out.

One way to tackle an emotional deprivation schema–or any schema–is to identify broken ideas and then repair them. Schemas express themselves as broken ideas, and repairing these ideas helps make progress in taking down the schema.

Since an emotional deprivation schema is a lack of faith in receiving attention, care, and understanding from other people, any experience that demonstrates people actually providing these things is worth paying attention to and building on. Even small gestures, when recognized as real caring or support, show the inherent flaw in the line of thinking that this schema promotes, and focusing on these gestures widens the cracks in this kind of mistaken belief in a way that can eventually break it apart.

Holden himself seems to have come up with a way to feel better about other people caring about him, which is to care about other people:

“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around — nobody big, I mean — except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff — I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.”

Unfortunately, this particular way of demonstrating that people can care for each other is a little impractical. Yet right at the end of the book, Holden finds a simpler, more practical way, which is just watching his little sister on a merry-go-round.

“I felt so damn happy all of a sudden, the way old Phoebe kept going around and around. I was damn near bawling, I felt so damn happy, if you want to know the truth. I don’t know why. It was just that she looked so damn nice, the way she kept going around and around, in her blue coat and all. God, I wish you could’ve been there.”

Photo by Fozzman

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