Last year I received an invitation to speak at a conference for professionals in the caring professions. The conference, which was attended by doctors, nurses, counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists, dentists, hospital and army chaplains, missionaries, marriage and family therapists, surgeons and students, was on the topic of pain and suffering. The conference organizers asked me to give a seminar on the topic “Gratitude During Times of Suffering” and my marching orders were simple: explain how it’s possible to remain thankful in the midst extreme of suffering.
Now I’ve never been particularly good at being thankful when things are going wrong. If I have trouble sleeping, I grumble the next day. If I don’t have enough money to buy something I want, I whine and complain to whoever will’; listen. If I have a physical injury, everyone in my circle of friends is sure to know about it. So expecting me to give a talk about practicing gratitude during times of suffering would be like asking ask John Wayne to dance Swan Lake, or asking Justin Bieber to sing the part for Count Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro.
To put it bluntly, I found my assignment daunting. How could I teach other professionals a lesson I had not even mastered myself?
I’ve just published two articles at the Taylor Study Method on the power of positive breathing. Part 1 looks at how stress and anxiety are deeply rooted in primitive survival instincts. Although directed at psychology students preparing for their licensure exam, the techniques I’ve shared can be applied by anyone wanting to better manage stress or reduce anxiety. There’s nothing particularly complicated about these techniques, which basically involve mindful breathing. Part 2 explores the science of mindful breathing, including research showing that mindful meditative breathing can increase the size of the brain, improve social skills, make it easier to achieve mental clarity and focus, in addition to increasing emotional intelligence, self-regulation and resilience. To read my articles, click on the links below:
Unwanted toxic thoughts can be a bit like dealing with monsters. Suppose your house happens to get overrun by monsters in the near future. In that case, you have three choices. Either you can feed the monsters, in which case they will stick around. Or you can fight the monsters, in which case you may get clobbered and defeated while the monsters only become stronger. Or you can do your best to simply ignore the monsters. If you choose to ignore the monsters, maybe they will go away or maybe they won’t, but even if they stick around, you will have learned to treat them with the contempt they deserve and they will have lost their hold over you.
Similarly, if we fight unwanted thoughts head-on, then we are focusing on the very thing we want to rid ourselves of, leading to a phenomenon that psychologists call the “Ironic process theory” or “the white bear problem.” Researchers have found that trying to directly suppress unwanted thoughts is about as successful as telling someone not to imagine a polar bear. The very act of trying not to imagine a white bear inevitably recalls the white bear to mind; similarly, the very act of struggling not to think toxic unwanted thoughts is sure to bring the thought to mind, creating a wearying cycle of mental exhaustion and frustration. What tends to work much better is to treat unwanted thoughts with the contempt they deserve, and that means that we don’t feed them and we don’t fight them; instead we focus on what is important to us—our values, our goals, our core beliefs—and do our best to simply ignore the toxic thoughts.
As we rush about our busy lives, how often do we stop to savor the joy of being able to breathe, or the joy of being able to sit in a state of peace and stillness? How often do we remember that, of all the blessings God has given us in this world, the blessing of being able to breathe affords one of the most profound occasions of gratitude?
I have really benefited from these talks presented by Father Maximos. Father Maximos shares practices we can all do to cultivate inner prayer during times of constant distractions, and he also has some helpful things to say about mindfulness and the history of the Philokalia. The talks are totally free to download from Patristic Nectar.
Imagine you have a friend whose boyfriend is always tearing her down and continually telling her that she’s stupid, unable to cope, that nobody likes her and that she isn’t pretty enough. What would you say to your friend?
Obviously you would tell her she should break up with her negative boyfriend, or at least that she should stop paying attention to his continual criticisms.
Even though that is the advice you would give someone else, when it comes to ourselves we pay attention to an incessant negative monologue about ourselves that is just as bad. The monologue of negativity isn’t coming from another person but from our own brain. Instead of “breaking up” with our negative brain, we pay attention to it.
Here are some examples of how we can challenge negative self-talk:
“Yes, this is a difficult challenge, but I have many resources for coping with this.”
“Okay, things are going wrong in my life right now, but I still have a lot to be grateful for.”
“I don’t know how this is going to turn out but I do know that whatever happens I will be stretched and have the opportunity to grow through this trial.”
“I know from the past that I’ve been able to endure and achieve a lot more than I thought I’d be able to. I have a basis for confidence as these further challenges arise in my life.”
Notice that this type of positive self-talk is not blind optimism or escapism but based on realities that most of us can affirm about ourselves and our lives.
Those who follow my blog know that I go through stages of posting about different subjects. Last year I wrote a lot about gratitude and positive thinking. Then I began posting about mindfulness. Recently I’m writing about the role struggle plays in the Christian life. These three themes are actually all related. Here’s why.
To develop the skill of gratitude, you need to practice mindfulness/watchfulness to retrain your brain to move from the negative to the positive, from anxiety to peace. But in order to get really good at mindfulness, you need to struggle. Nothing worthwhile in life comes easily, let alone gratitude and mindfulness. In my article ‘How Peace of Mind is a Skill That Can Be Developed With Practice’ I outlined six specific ways a person can struggle to become more positive and at peace. I’d like to take the opportunity now to expand on this and give a specific exercises you can do to become more mindful, more grateful and more at peace with yourself and the world.
But before I begin, I just want to say one more time: gratitude and inner-peace are not gifts. That is, they aren’t personality traits that you’ve either been given or deprived of. Rather, gratitude and inner-peace are skills that can be developed with practice. Today I’m going to explain how you can begin practicing these skills right now. The exercise I’m going to present only takes 10 minutes each day, yet it has the potential to transform your life.
Thankfully God has given you a tool for controlling your brain and fasting from toxic thinking. That tool is called the prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain that enables you to observe your own thinking. You don’t have to be a brain scientist to use your prefrontal cortex. Every time you watch your own thinking, every time you choose to switch from one thought to another, that’s the prefrontal cortex working.
If you spend long enough using this part of your brain in the right way, you can learn to be alert, in a constant state of watchfulness to weed out toxic thinking. As thoughts arise in your brain, you can use your prefrontal cortex to watch what is happening and exercise second-by-second censorship. Often the process of simply observing your thinking is itself enough to extinguish the unwanted thought. As Hieromonk Damascene observed in Christ The Eternal Tao, “A thought cannot exist for long under the light of direct, objective observation. …just watch the thoughts disappear under the light of observation, as if we were an objective, disinterested spectator; they will pass one by one.” If you do this long enough, gradually you will come to realize that you are not your thoughts. You will begin to see your thoughts as things outside yourself, like airplanes in the sky, that you can either allow to land in the run-way of your mind, or reject and watch them fly away.