Coming home to contentment: 3 simple steps

This after­noon, my mind took a sud­den wrong turn, and before I knew it, I was lost in the story of Why Things Should Be Different.

It was such a famil­iar expe­ri­ence that at first I barely noticed. Then, as the thoughts kept com­ing like cars in a free­way pile-up, I finally man­aged to catch myself—to take a step back from my spin­ning mind and tap into a deeper well.

The abil­ity to move between these two states of being—wishing things were dif­fer­ent and being with them as they are—is hugely impor­tant in Plan B Nation. With so many things beyond our control—jobs, the econ­omy, other people—it’s easy and nat­ural to start feel­ing embat­tled and exhausted.

But while it may be easy and nat­ural, it’s also decid­edly not help­ful.  In the words of Bud­dhist teacher Cheri Huber, “[T]he alter­nate real­ity in which every­thing is exactly as you think it should be exists only in your mind, and it exists pri­mar­ily to tor­ture you.”

Over the years, I’ve exper­i­mented with var­i­ous ways of work­ing with this chal­leng­ing state of mind (with which, in fair­ness, I was well-acquainted long before my Plan B Nation foray).  What’s worked best for me can be summed up in the fol­low­ing three sim­ple steps:

1. Stop

As soon as I real­ize that my mind is spin­ning an unwel­come sto­ry­line, I try to sim­ply stop. Often, that’s eas­ier said than done, so it’s good to have strategies.

One of my favorites comes from Bud­dhist teacher Joseph Gold­stein, whom I once heard describe his own tac­tic for deal­ing with intru­sive thoughts. As soon as he real­izes what’s hap­pen­ing, Gold­stein said he thinks: “Dead End.” For some rea­son, this sort of cracked me up, and prob­a­bly in part because of that, it’s been a use­ful technique.

Another strategy—also from Goldstein—is iden­ti­fy­ing the mind’s favorite sto­ries and dub­bing them The Great­est Hits as in “Oh! There it is again! My-father-never-really-loved me! Great­est Hit #5!” Again, this prob­a­bly works in part because it’s sort of funny.  It’s hard to take your own mind’s Top Forty entirely seriously.

 2.   Make a dif­fer­ent choice

I often think of my mind as mak­ing “moves”—from point A to point B to point C, and so on. Just as we watch our foot­ing when cross­ing a river using step­ping stones, we need to be atten­tive to where we place our minds.

That being said, fig­ur­ing out what works for us is a very per­sonal thing. The field of cognitive-behavioral ther­apy offers a slew of exer­cises designed to change the way we feel by chang­ing the way we think. But for all the research prov­ing the effec­tive­ness of these tech­niques, they’ve never worked so well for me. Whether that’s because I haven’t stuck with them long enough or because (as I sus­pect) it’s sim­ply not my way, I can’t say for sure. All I can say is that they haven’t helped much while other things have.

Another pop­u­lar antidote—especially if you spend any time hang­ing out with Buddhists—is lov­ingkind­ness or “metta” med­i­ta­tion.  But again, while I’ve spent a good bit of time work­ing with this prac­tice, it’s never really clicked for me in the way it has for friends.

What does work for me—and it’s been a process of trial and error—is per­haps best summed up in the words of the Late Medieval Catholic monk Thomas à Kem­pis: “Those things that cause you inward peace, think upon deeply.”

I love this quote. Sim­ply repeat­ing it to myself often helps to steer me back to a state of calm won­der. I also like reflect­ing on the ques­tion of what brings me inward peace. It varies from week to week, and some­times it’s sur­pris­ing. A promis­ing new friend­ship. String­ing small white lights around my liv­ing room win­dows. My friend Allegra’s spir­i­tu­ally infused Inno­va­tion Abbey con­sult­ing firm (with which I’m hon­ored to be affil­i­ated.) These are a few of the things that have recently lifted my spirits.

3. Do it

Once you feel a shift, let your­self relax into it.  Stay with it for a while. Think about how you might con­tinue to cul­ti­vate this way of being.

Bud­dhism talks of the Blessed Abodes—also known as the brahma viharas—states of mind that lead to love and aware­ness and away from suf­fer­ing. These, accord­ing to dharma teach­ings, are our true home.  While it doesn’t always feel this way, I believe this is true. And I know that my life is always bet­ter when I remem­ber the way back.