Take A Listening Walk

One of several versions of the painting "...Image via Wikipedia
For those of you who’ve waited with baited breath (not!), I guess it’s been awhile since I last posted here.  My excuse is that it’s summer and I have been out of my routine as well as out of the city for at least part of that time.  I drove my candy apple red Mustang convertible to Banff, Alberta.  Oh, yes, and I took my husband too :-).  It was quite the adventure, and certainly a good way to get to know a new car.  I’m tempted to write a whole blog post just on driving one of these days, but then again, maybe I shouldn’t.  I couldn’t believe some of the drivers I encountered, especially on the stretch between Penticton and Banff!  On the whole, however, it was a wonderful trip.

Instead I want to write about something I have been doing in the last few weeks as a way to counter some anxiety attacks I’ve been having.  This kind of anxiety is new to me…it seems to rise up suddenly out of nowhere and becomes very physical in nature with tightness in the chest and perspiration and an all around fearful feeling.  From what I have read about menopause, anxiety or panic attacks can often be a symptom.

The worst thing to do when you’re having a panic attack or anxiety is to try to push it away.  In my Buddhist readings, I’ve often come across the idea that “aversion” or trying to push something away, is not the way to deal with anything, whether it’s an emotional reaction or an uncomfortable situation.  What that often does is simply magnify the anxiety or discomfort instead of getting rid of it.  What you are taught to do, essentially, is to go through it, feel it fully and then let it go.  Anxiety is one of those things that can be made stronger and more powerful the more you panic about panicking!

So what I have been doing, not as a way to get rid of anxiety, but a way to train myself to be more in the moment, is to go on “listening walks”.  Aside from watching where I am going (which is essential!), my whole attention is on listening, not to the thoughts going through my head, but to the physical sounds of the world around me as I’m walking.  The louder sounds are obviously easy to hear, but what I try to do is listen for the more distant sounds, like a faint hum of the city, or maybe a small plane in the distance, or voices a block or so away.  And as I hear each one, I identify them to myself.  A car door shutting, a baby crying, a crow squawking;  just like that.

It does take some practice, believe it or not, because the mind wants to work things out when the body is in motion.  It wants to plan or organize or evaluate all kinds of things, and it is so tempting to be drawn into those trains of thought.  So the idea, similar to meditation, is to gently bring your attention back to identifying sounds.

Now this may sound mundane and boring, but over time I have gotten better and better at keeping my attention on sounds, with the result being that I give myself almost a half-an-hour of complete calm.  Walking is good anyway, but doing this mental exercise makes it even more beneficial.  So if you’re not into meditation, but you want to find a way to relax your brain…take a listening walk, and I promise you’ll find a new sense of calm.

And I ALSO promise that I will be adding more posts more frequently in the next few months if you’re willing to read ’em. 🙂

IJ

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Happiness Is Over-rated

A smiley by Pumbaa, drawn using a text editor.Image via Wikipedia

A good friend of mine writes a weekly column in our local newspaper and over the last couple of weeks he has been focusing on the topic of happiness. We are, many of us, often consumed with the desire to be happy, and look for it in the wrong places (or in the wrong things, whichever the case may be). He includes a number of lists written by others, including psychologists, of things you can do to improve your happiness quotient.

While I agree with most of the points in those lists, like fostering a positive attitude and stopping to smell the roses, so to speak, I think there’s another underlying factor at work. 

Sometimes we try to pop a “happiness pill” when we are clearly not. And when we try to sweep our misery under the carpet instead of addressing it and then letting it go…all of the happy pills we take won’t work.

In other words, trying to be happy can sometimes be more about going into denial and can only make things worse. I’m not saying that we should wear our misery on our sleeve and making everyone else around us miserable too. But when there are underlying problems, pushing them aside won’t help.

I say this because I have dealt with depression myself and have family members who have experienced clinical depression and even worse, bi-polar disorder. In the latter case, it can only be treated with medication, which truly is like popping a “happiness pill”. But depression can’t be overcome simply by happy thoughts alone.

Outside of a serious or clinical case of depression, I think people are often contributing to their own unhappiness because of their expectations and the feelings of entitlement. Happy is what we “should” be and when we aren’t, then something is terribly wrong.

The fact is that even in the course of a day, you can easily bound from sadness to happiness and back again…and this is completely natural. If you expect to be deliriously happy all of the time, you are truly kidding yourself, and you will ultimately be disappointed. Buddhists say that the real problem is not the state of happiness or unhappiness, but clinging to one or the other.

Trying to cling to a happy state seems obvious, but why would we want to be miserable?

Actually, we often LOVE being miserable even though that seems an oxymoron. We love going over and over unhappy events in our minds, perhaps mentally punishing someone for some past hurt. Self-pity can itself be rather addictive.

I think the word “happiness” itself has probably been used to death and sort of comes with its own baggage now; perhaps “contented” or “at ease” are closer to what we can achieve.

Have you ever felt contentment about something? It is not a “high”, but rather a quietening of the mind and completely relaxing. If the whole world could simultaneously experience even five minutes of contentment in the true sense of the word, I’d bet you that after the five minutes was up, much of the hate, anger, violence, desire and greed would be alleviated for the following five hours. Can you imagine? Just five hours of world peace.

So here is my list for ways to achieve contentment:

  1. Feel and experience an emotion completely, then let it go. If you pay attention to the natural process of any type of emotion, it ebbs and flows. So let it.
  2. Just sit and breathe, and think of nothing but breathing
  3. Be in the moment, and if you’re having trouble doing that where you are, go for a walk and pay rapt attention to every thing you see, hear and physically feel. Do everything with rapt attention.
  4. Take a nap…naps are very refreshing
  5. Follow the serenity prayer; change the things you can, don’t try to change something you cannot, and learn the difference

These are just five points, I’m sure I could think of more over time. Each of them has given me a sense of peace and contentment in past, but it does take effort to remember and apply them. Even if only one of them stands out or works for you, keep using it and I know it’ll help you to relieve some of the misery and stress of your daily life.

Most of all, stop expecting to be happy, and ironically, you’ll probably start to!


IJ

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