A humbling exercise is to pause and ask ourselves “Is my perception accurate?”
Short answer is: nope.
We experience everything through our own unique lenses of bias, projection, ego, and personal experience.
All of us operate from subjective realities, and the key to productive communication and healthy relationships is to negotiate that subjectivity – and not to coerce others into thinking or behaving our way… the “right” way, so we believe.
You haven’t lived my life and you’re not in my head (lucky you, haha) so how can I expect you to see and process things the way I do?
It comes down to this: we don’t need to agree and sometimes we won’t even understand, but we do need to validate and respect.
The concept of impermanence keeps creeping into my life.
It was the subject of a few recent passages in the Buddhist and Taoist collections that I read every morning. It was the first thing I saw in the library last week, as the theme of Mary Pipher’s new memoir. It was the salt in my daughter’s tears when summer camp ended, and it’s the ache in my heart when I look at her and wonder where the last decade went.
It can be kinda crazymaking to consider that change is the only constant; that we’re always in this weird transformative flux of evolving towards our expiration.
It’s hard to say goodbye to the status quo we took for granted, our youth, our health, and our loved ones. The upside is that impermanence impacts everything, including shitty situations – they too shall pass.
When I overthink all of this and existential dread kicks in, I remind myself that change is a biological imperative. Every cell in our body, every cloud in the sky, every stone on the earth, every wave in the sea, every single moment is fleeting – it’s up to us to find beauty, joy, meaning, and purpose not in spite of but because of our shared impermanence.
The ideal mind is open, accepting, and nonjudgmental.
If only that was our default!
Let’s be real – usually the mind is conditioned, calculating, and easily triggered.
One of the juiciest baited hooks that I chomp down on time and again is political propaganda – signs and stickers that to me represent ignorance and hate. When I see them, I instantly leap to criticism and condemnation.
Sometimes I’m able to catch myself in mid-judgment and tell myself that I don’t know anything about the people displaying the name and slogan that are so triggering to me. Maybe these people are really kind, maybe they’re going through illness or other hardships, maybe they’re afraid.
It doesn’t mean that I condone hateful words or actions, but I gain nothing by harshly judging complete strangers. Said another way: I do not condone prejudice, discrimination, or abuse of power and I believe that getting stressed with vile thoughts about “the enemy” doesn’t help anything.
If I think it’s wrong that people dehumanize others, then I shouldn’t do the same to the dehumanizers. I don’t want to contribute to the problem… so I’m trying to stay on the middle path.
I can support the causes and values that I feel are righteous without losing my integrity and peace of mind. This is the work (and it never ends): disrupting reactions and thought patterns that are unkind and unhealthy, while giving myself the space and support to slip up, try again, learn, and grow.
Bedtime can be particularly challenging because without the distractions of the day it’s just us and our thoughts… and often those ruminations are far from pleasant and cloud our perception of reality. The other night I realized that the inner monologue running through my mind was a really nasty narrator.
That wasn’t my real voice; that wasn’t the real me – not the rational, wise, kind person that is usually behind the wheel and interacting with others.
It was my ego – my fragile, fearful ego.
When the ego feels threatened, it will: assign the role of “enemy” to the threat; focus on faults and flaws; magnify and exaggerate the danger; insert its own conjecture in the absence of details; create and fixate on thoughts that support the belief of the threat.
It creates what-if scenarios to prepare itself for how to defend and retaliate if/when its fear comes to fruition. And for the paranoid ego, it’s really an inevitable when; not a potential if.
In this attempt to protect itself, the ego actually weaponizes its fear against us and colonizes our minds with its delusions and looping thoughts.
So how do we deal with this destructive nutjob living rent-free in our minds?
Acknowledge that it isn’t you and it isn’t true.
Don’t take the bait; if you already bit the hook, let go by: getting curious; considering nuances; seeking opposing views to your thoughts; being flexible; trusting what you know is true – choosing facts over fear.
Our ego relies on mooring in the constructs it has created to deal with the fact that very little is within our control – which often means we diminish uncomfortable reminders of mortality.
When we are confronted with the stark nature of impermanence, we feel unsettled.
Ego wants everything we love (or at least everything we’re accustomed to) to last forever.
Ego wants to feel substantial and solid, with no surprises.
But this is in contrast with nature and existence itself, which is a constant cycle of change, degeneration, death, and renewal.
This is so hard to stomach and surrender to… but releasing our resistance and accepting the inescapable (change, aging, illness, and death) allow us to become active participants in our fleeting, precious lives.
When an uncomfortable emotion such as anger, jealousy, or fear arises, there are a few steps we can take to manage it mindfully.
First, we simply acknowledge that the feeling is (temporarily) there. “Ah ha, I’ve been triggered. My heart is pounding; my cheeks are hot – this feels like jealousy.”
Then, we accept the emotion. We’re not judging ourselves for feeling that way or labeling the emotion as “bad,” or trying to dismiss, deny, or wallow in it – we allow it to be without our resistance. “I can sit with this for a moment; it won’t kill me and it won’t last forever.”
Finally, we soothe and release the emotion. “This person triggered my old fears of being betrayed and abandoned. But there really is no threat here, it’s just in my head. I’m going to keep breathing deeply – my heart is already settling and I’m starting to feel calmer.”
It takes practice for all of our lives to just let it be; the acceptance of discomfort is the key to our freedom.
There is a space between myself and my thoughts, and in that place, I observe with curiosity.
I’m aware of the patterns and loops; the fixations and stories. Rather than automatically believe them, what I’m striving to do is pause, notice the mental habit, and remind myself that a thought isn’t a fact or an accurate representation of reality.
It’s not helpful for me to believe a mental construct, often created by my ego to serve its needs.
And when comparative criticism starts to creep in, I interrupt the process and ask myself if I’d want someone thinking that way about my daughter. Taking that approach further, I remind myself that everyone has a child inside, and I think about that child’s fears, needs, and feelings.
This practice of pausing, observing, and replacing judgment with empathy helps to open my heart.
The First Noble Truth in Buddhism is dukkha which means “difficult to face.”
This refers not only to the suffering that is an inevitable part of life, but also to our uncomfortable emotions and troubling thoughts.
Too often we take detours – we avoid, deny, numb, repress, or lash out rather than live in the experiences and feel the feelings that cause us fear and pain.
If we summon the courage that is inside all of us, we can remain open and curious about what our emotions and mental loops are trying to tell us, and we can face life itself in all its unpredictability and impermanence.
My best friend surprised me with this Green Man ornament shortly before his death. For over 15 years it has watched over my family and our home, serving as a constant reminder of loyalty and love.
It’s also a symbol of the seasonality of life, the ebb and flow that is all around us and within us.
Spring can be seen in nature as a time of resurrection and renewal, but we don’t have to wait for the flowers to bloom to cultivate transformation in our own lives.
What do you want to let go of?
What do you want to rejuvenate?
Where do you want to make a fresh start?
Give your inner garden the attention and energy it deserves – with patience and loving care, you will flourish.
Practicing gratitude is a powerful way to live mindfully, paying attention to and giving thanks for the good things in our lives. Gratitude can provide a shift in perspective and help us find purpose and hope.
It’s important to understand that gratitude cannot exist until we validate and process our uncomfortable emotions.
When we’re experiencing frustration, grief, or uncertainty, common responses are sentiments like “Who am I to complain when there are people who have it so much worse than me?” (this is comparative suffering, a system of ranking pain that only makes us feel worse) or “It’s selfish to feel like this when I have so much to be thankful for.”
Dismissing emotions is a form of gaslighting, and it compounds the pain. Accepting what we’re feeling without trying to deny, numb, or run from it will allow us to move through the emotion and get to a place of clarity where we see that we can feel something difficult AND we can feel thankful.
We are strong enough to straddle this paradox.
Our brains create emotions as immediate reactions to environmental stimuli.
Emotions are based on sensory input and memories, and only last 90 seconds – anything longer than that is not the emotion anymore but the story we are making up about it; dwelling in our feeling about the trigger, like when we stew in self-righteous anger.
Emotions are neither positive nor negative, and we can’t control how our brains produce these reactions – but we can control how we respond to them.
We can get curious, label the emotion, notice how it feels in our body, and choose what to do next.
This prevents us from getting hijacked and falling into habitual patterns, and gives us the agency to make productive choices that create new neural pathways in the brain.
When we pause, we harness our power.
The past cannot be restored.
But we can repair, adapt, redeem.
We can hold both grief and gratitude in our heart – the grief for what is no more will deepen the gratitude for what is now.
Loss and suffering birth a perspective of awareness and understanding that all things are temporary; change is inevitable.
This is the very nature of all life and it beckons us to awaken in presence; to connect in kindness with the world, ourselves, and each other.
We can use this wisdom to share our light, offering empathy and hope.