Wouldn’t it be more pleasant to ask for nothing?

Sometimes I lose sight of the fact that the “Santosha” of my blog name means contentment. I write about the struggle to find contentment more than what it means to have it. The Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca said that “We never reflect how pleasant it is to ask for nothing.” Now I see that I’ve been asking for contentment more than discovering it right here.

One of my favorite yoga teachers, Jo Tastula, says that we tend to focus a lot on what we want to receive, rather than what we want to let go of. She relates this to the season of Fall, and recommends that we consider the image of the tree dropping its leaves. What does that perspective look like? From up in the branches, perhaps it is a relief, or a comfort, to let go of what’s been weighing us down; to be bare and pared down to essentials. The fullness of Fall (imagine a nice round pumpkin or apple) gives way to completion (harvest, year-end). It’s a time to rest, to renew, and to strive less and prepare more.pumpkinsWhile Seneca has a somewhat mixed historical reputation, he is still considered to be one of the first great Western thinkers, and much of what he had to say about emotions is relevant to us today. When he said that “Contentment is achieved through a simple, unperturbed life,” he was talking not only about emotional regulation, but also gratitude, because contentment is impossible without feeling grateful for what we have already. Contentment requires us to stop asking for things, so that we can reflect on what is present. Thanksgiving_23

A recent episode of the comedy TV show “Blackish” demonstrated this idea in a gently humorous way. The main character, Andre, is upset to learn that his daughter is questioning her belief in God. But his own belief often consists of prayers that are requests  — asking God for some action or some thing that he thinks will make him happy. Later in the episode, after a moment of crisis for the family, he realizes the value of what he has and what he almost lost. Then his prayers change, and are about gratitude and thanks. In that moment, he stops striving, knowing that he has what is essential to him.

What would happen if you stopped striving for a while, maybe even shed some dead leaves? Perhaps you’d have time to nourish the truly important parts of your core. Or maybe just have time to breathe, and in that moment, discover santosha.

It seems to me that contentment is about satisfaction, and happiness is about satisfaction-plus. The plus is extra joy, extra pleasure. It’s like dessert at the end of the meal – it’s nice, but you don’t need to have it every day. I’m reminded of two books that I used to read to my kids when they were little. One was called “More, More, More, said the Baby”, and the other was titled “Just Enough is Plenty.” It’s nice to have more, but on many days, simply to be satisfied is enough, in fact it’s plenty.

 

If only this were a Mel Brooks movie

Each new day of the 2016 presidential election campaign makes me feel more as if I’m in some sort of psychocomedy like the movie “High Anxiety“, only instead of a hospital for the “very, very nervous” we have an entire nation on the edge of its seat, unsettled, uncertain, unhappy and yes, very nervous.

Plato said that “a good decision is based on knowledge,” but he also said that “human behavior flows from three main sources: desire, emotion and knowedge.” And when it comes to elections, emotion might have the upper hand. Psychologist Steven Sosny, writing in Psychology Today, says that we suffer from election stress partly because the “toddler brain” hijacks the “adult brain.” Adult thinking is rational and calm, while toddlers make impatient and sometimes greedy choices based on emotions.

A lot of people are already locked in to their candidate. Often such certainty is emotional, says Sosny, not intellectual. That’s why it’s becoming virtually impossible to have a conversation with someone who disagrees with you politically. In fact, just today in The Washington Post, there was an article about how geographically and socially polarized we are politically. People who would have discussed the elections with friends and co-workers in prior years are staying strictly away from such conversations this year.

A study of the 2012 presidential election found that voters don’t always want to feel responsible for the outcomes of elections, especially independent and undecided voters. The harder it was for a person to decide on a candidate, the more likely they were to ascribe the outcome of the election to fate.  In addition, stress hormone levels might even impact voter turnout. Research published in 2014 found that people who have higher baseline levels of the stress hormone cortisol are less likely to participate in voting, while those with lower baseline levels are more likely to vote. In other words, people who have a lower tolerance for stress don’t want to engage in what is an inherently stressful process.door-number

The stress continues into the voting booth. Israeli researchers found that cortisol levels just prior to casting a vote were twice as high as people’s baseline levels and even higher in people whose candidate was predicted to lose. This year, with the rollercoaster we’ve been on, it’s hard to say when we last experienced baseline stress levels. No wonder I’m hearing more and more people say, “I just wish it were over!”

Following a 2004 election in Taiwan, about 10% of the population was diagnosed with depression and anxiety, labeled “post-election stress syndrome.” And in this country, we usually see advice after election day on how to deal with these “blues”. This year, however, our high anxiety and election coverage fatigue might call for some pre-election stress relief. So what might help?

  • Going on a complete media “fast” for a few days.
  • Getting your news from print sources rather than TV or radio, which tend to be more hyped.
  • Focusing on your own life. The truth is that the election outcome won’t affect your day-to-day routine at all, at least not right away. So take comfort in that and use your emotional resources there.
  • Doing a loving kindness “just like me” meditation. The hardest thing for those of us who feel passionate about a candidate is recognizing that those on the “other side” want the same things we want, deep down. Focusing on the ways that they are “just like me” can help.

If the election really were a Mel Brooks movie, it would end with all the bad guys getting their comeuppance and all the good guys living happily ever after. In real life and politics, it’s not that simple. But at least we know that we can do it all over again in 4 more years.

Learning about mindfulness from The Mentalist

Have you ever been upset with someone, frustrated because they didn’t understand what you needed from them, only to have them say, “I’m not psychic you know!” The message, of course, is that we can’t read each other’s minds, so how can we possibly know what another person feels or needs?

But the reality is that we really don’t have to be psychic to know some basic things about other people; we just have to pay attention.

In case you’ve never seen The Mentalist, it’s about Patrick Jane, a man who at one time pretended to be a psychic. In reality, he just has very keen powers of observation and a lot of chutzpah. His arrogance as a fake psychic caused his family to be murdered, however, so he stopped pretending, and went to work for the police, helping them solve criminal cases.

Of course, The Mentalist is a fictional TV show, but it’s fascinating to watch as the character explains what he knows about a suspect or a witness, just from observing or talking with them. Body language, clothes, nervous habits, accents, the things we surround ourselves with – they tell our story, if anyone takes the time to read it. Patrick Jane does that – he questions things that seem out of place; he uses his senses; he looks for what people value, he empathizes.

If only we were all TV characters like the Mentalist! We might understand so much more about each other. Don’t despair, though, there’s an app for that. Cognitive psychologists have been developing wearable gadgets that can monitor emotional ups and downs by measuring things such as heart rate and electrical changes in the skin. Depending on the device, they send messages about your emotional state to you or to other people. This is not as creepy as it sounds. Worn by children with autism, they can provide valuable messages to parents and caregivers so that the adults can respond to a child’s behaviors appropriately, even if the child isn’t able to express what he or she is feeling. The devices are also useful as biofeedback tools so that you can learn to recognize and manage your own moods and emotions.

Would feedback like that help us understand each other better? If you’re wearing a wristband that sends me messages when you’re feeling low, would I eventually learn to recognize those moods without the technology? Or would I become dependent on the technology and no more sensitive than I was before?

Humans are hard-wired for empathy – somewhat. We learn it as children by watching the adults around us, and from stories we read and hear. But we need to keep practicing it. Even as adults, we can improve our emotional intelligence. Before we can truly understand others’ emotions, we have to start with ourselves – staying connected to our emotions instead of suppressing them, learning how to reduce stress and being okay with strong feelings. Then we can expand that intelligence to include others – communicating better by staying focused on the person we’re with, making eye contact, paying attention to nonverbal cues (like the Mentalist!)

Daniel Goleman says that, “A prerequisite to empathy is simply paying attention to the person in pain.” How you turn your attention to someone may not matter in the end. Staying tuned in emotionally with the people we love makes our relationships stronger, whether it comes from a gadget, a mindfulness practice, or even psychic ability.

 

A new balance

I thought I had stress management under control until I decided to move. I was maybe even a little bit smug, staying calm when others fell apart, stepping in to support my friends and family through their crises. Now I’m realizing just how easily the balance can be disturbed, life can feel chaotic and turmoil can take over.

In most stressful situations, there are both emotional coping responses and practical, problem-focused responses that will help ease the feeling of discomfort. For me, it’s easier to focus on the practical steps, so I make the to-do lists; I schedule the cleaning, the repairing and the painting; I go through the closets; I sort things to keep or get rid of.

The problem is that focusing solely on the action steps is making me more than a little anxious and kind of obsessive. I literally can’t stop thinking about what needs to be done next. I can spend half a morning organizing my Craig’s list posts and Freecycle emails. I can spend half an afternoon organizing bags of castoffs for Goodwill. Meantime, all semblance of normal life is lost.image

Larry David once quipped, “I don’t like to be out my comfort zone, which is about a half inch wide.” Getting ready to move has been forcing me to see the limits of my own comfort zone.  I keep thinking that if I can just clear the clutter out of my house, I’ll feel calmer. But really what I need to do is clear the clutter out of my mind. It’s time for some emotion-focused stress management steps.

Emotion-focused coping means using techniques that help change how I’m looking at the stressor of moving. According to Richard Blonna, one such emotion-focused method comes from Morita therapy — accepting the strong feelings that I have right now, and turning my attention instead to productive work (like writing a blog post!) Another thing I could do is examine whether any of my thinking around the move is illogical. For instance, am I setting arbitrary deadlines for myself? Am I catastrophizing any aspects (if I don’t do this today, the move won’t happen)? If that’s the case, I can try substituting more positive statements for the negative ones.

I realize also that I’m making a classic mistake of people who have too much to do. I’m sacrificing some of the very activities that could make me feel better. While I’m continuing to do yoga regularly, its benefits would last longer if I also added some meditation or breathing breaks on the days in between classes. I could also be turning to my friends more for social support — a night out is okay, even when there’s a lot to do. And, in spite of the cold, a walk in the park would be calming.

Most of all I need to be mindful of spinning my wheels. As Robert Anthony has said, “Moving fast is not the same as going somewhere.” Maybe there are days when the best preparation for moving is not to pack, clean or organize anything.

Emotions: Too close for comfort?

Does expressing emotions scare you, or make you feel somehow weak? As much as we over-communicate these days, we often keep our emotions in check or hide how we really feel. Perhaps cultivating greater emotional awareness can help us express our emotions more often and more constructively, and lead to more fulfilling relationships at home and at work.

Psychologist Paul Ekman has written that “Without emotions there would be no heroism, empathy, or compassion, but neither would there be cruelty, selfishness, nor spite.” He has studied how our facial expressions convey emotion, and written extensively about paths to a more balanced emotional life.

Interestingly, we might not be expressing emotions in writing as much as we used to. A group of British researchers analyzed a database of over 5 million books and found that words with emotional content have declined over the past 100 years. They looked at the frequency of mood words — those that expressed anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness or surprise. The one exception to the declining trend was the emotion of fear, which has actually increased. The use of different mood words also tracks closely with historical events such as World War II, when there was a notable increase of words expressing sadness and a decrease in words connected to joy.

While written works don’t necessarily reflect actual behavior, how we tell stories to our children is a behavior with important outcomes. Listening to how we express emotions helps children develop emotional skills. A recent study published in the journal Sex Roles showed that mothers are better at this than fathers. The mothers in the study used more emotional words and elaborated more when reminiscing with their children about past emotional experiences, both good and bad. By doing so, they let the children know that their perspectives about a situation, and their feelings, were important.

Dads shouldn’t feel bad about these results, or leave the reminiscing to moms, though. Emotional awareness can be learned and enriched. The problem is that emotions, especially the negative ones like guilt or anger, sometimes make us uncomfortable, so we push them deep down inside us. In Japanese Morita therapy, people are taught to accept and co-exist with uncomfortable emotions; since the feelings can’t be controlled, opt to change your behavior instead. Go ahead and do what frightens you instead of letting fear hold you back.

Another way to become more aware of emotions is through writing. James Pennebaker, who developed the “writing to heal” program, had a group of people who were laid off write for 20 minutes a day, for 5 days, about their emotions and what they were feeling. After the study ended, 65% of the people who wrote about their emotions found new jobs, versus 26% in the group who didn’t write. The writing, a form of mindfulness practice, helped people clarify what they were looking for.

Putting yourself in another person’s shoes, imagining what they are feeling, is another way to build emotional awareness. Chade-Meng Tan, who developed Search Inside Yourself, has a practice called “Just Like Me” meditation. It serves as a reminder that most of us want the same basic things out of life, such as happiness, and that all of us suffer sometimes. It is a profound way to feel more connected to others.

Improving emotional intelligence isn’t a task with an end point though. Just as athletes and musicians continue to practice, even after reaching the big leagues, we shouldn’t stop refining our emotional abilities. Richard Davidson, who studies the neuroscience of emotions, says that “There are many sources of destructive emotions in our culture, and … constant barrage of stimuli…” We “need to keep practicing to effectively maintain the gains achieved.”