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.