When you get into self-help, you can spend a lot of time (and money) sorting through your “issues.”
This is a worthy endeavor. It’s a gratifying part of this human experience to understand and accept the conditioning that was passed down to you, and to have a framework for understanding how, where, and why you pass along those same dynamics, yourself.
Especially in the San Francisco area and in other New Agey communities, there’s an emphasis on digging through your “blocks” from the past, and there’s a general ethos of eschewing anti-depressants, of seeing those little pills as “the easy way out” and “not really solving the problem,” all while propping up the Big Pharma.
Like so many things in life, there is usually some truth to all sides. Sometimes, for some people, anti-depressants are a form of avoidance from facing the core work that really needs to be done.
However, that’s not always the case. Sometimes anti-depressants are a lifeline back to feeling alive again, and sometimes the inner work just isn’t cutting it.
In all of our searching for an emotional breakthrough, we can resist that there’s the biochemical side–this chemical cocktail in your brain and endocrine system that swirls around so many hormones and chemical processes, and that is, yes–
–very much responsible for a significant part of how you feel, from day to day.
Maybe you don’t need more inner work. Maybe it’s just biochemical.
People resist this. I used to, too, when I was clinically depressed and on anti-depressants in my twenties. Taking them felt like giving up, like I was saying to the world that I was powerless to do anything about my happiness. I hated that feeling.
I hated that feeling so very much that I quit taking them, without consulting my doctor (something you are never supposed to do, by the way), and somehow, some way, I managed to survive without them.
But I would revisit that feeling of powerlessness in 2012, when I was diagnosed with an auto-immune disease. Things swirling around in the body were amuck, totally out of my control. I was exhausted, nearly all of the time. I was using every tool in my arsenal to live my life in integrity, and looking back–doing a pretty damned good job with the reality I was in, if I do say so myself.
It was the exhaustion, I thought, that contributed to those times when I was irritable and impatient, or when I had a long cry at the end of a long day, and thank goodness for all those years of “inner work,” which gave me a way of looking at my emotions that didn’t pathologize them (and which is, now, a big piece of what I teach others).
Maybe this is you, knowing deep down that things have gone awry, yet feeling a sense of deep resistance to “just popping a pill.” You believe in mind over matter. You know that you’re smart enough to figure this out. You know that you’re willing to do the work.
And still–maybe, just maybe…it’s biochemical.
Just the Facts
Here’s what I did to treat my auto-immune issue. These are just the facts, ma’am:
- When I quit eating gluten and dairy, my energy levels noticeably lifted, and because I had energy, I felt happier. That’s biochemical.
- When I started taking Armour thyroid medication, my energy levels lifted further, and because I had energy, I felt happier. Synthroid, it’s worth noting, did nothing for me. That’s biochemical.
- When I started cutting down on caffeine (no longer needing it to help my sagging energy levels), I felt less anxious. That’s biochemical.
- When my test results revealed that I was on the very low end of the Vitamin D range, I started supplementing with Vitamin D, and believe that it’s part of this picture. That’s biochemical.
- When I started adding maca powder to my smoothies, my periods–which had gone haywire with the auto-immunity–got more regular. That’s biochemical.
- When I let go of sugar, my sleep noticeably improved, which helps…everything. That’s biochemical.
Fact: a significant portion of how you feel every day is actually completely biochemical.
I lived then, and live now, a pretty amazing life. Like everyone else, though, there are pockets of my life where things are stressful or there’s a conflict to sort through, and those places are painful, or sad, or cause anxiety.
I figured that it was just a matter of doing more inner work to find patience in those places, calm when thinking about them caused anxiousness or anger, and reaching for hope when things felt sad.
Guess what? Not always. I can account for no new breakthroughs in my emotional understanding that seem to underpin the greater patience I have in those areas that formerly felt so reactive, or the greater ease with which I drop thinking anxiously or angrily about perceived wrongs, or the hope that I generally feel even when I’m sad.
Prior to the biochemical changes, I was always very committed to tools that helped my life, and I did see success with them. It’s not ALL biochemical.
But after the biochemical changes, it all just feels…simpler. More do-able. There’s less to “work on.”
“More inner work” isn’t always what we need. I thought that I was just treating my auto-immune issues, not my day-to-day emotional or psychological well-being.
Turns out, I was treating both.
Powerless to Powerful
You could see treating biochemistry as I once did–something that feels powerless.
Or, you could see it as a great gift.
It’s a gift that you are living in a time when, if you are suffering terribly from depression, there is a pill out there that can find you some relief, so that you can have enough strength to love yourself and others to get through your day.
It’s a gift that science understands some of what these chemicals in our brains do, and that we now know there is a wide range of things out there that you can do to boost them–more vitamin D, more Omega-3s, etc.
It’s a gift that you can probably choose from a huge, wide range of options for all of this–and they’re affordable. It doesn’t cost money to ditch sugar.
In fact, we’re not powerless when it comes to this biochemical cocktail. There is a wide range of options.
Ditch Holy Grail Thinking
And…sometimes, for reasons I haven’t figured out, my energy levels will still unexpectedly plummet.
Or I’m sailing along for weeks with patience and compassion, and then there’s an argument with someone. Who knows? Maybe it’s the triggering of a deep core wound, or maybe I accidentally had some sugar and my biochemistry has tilted in the wrong direction (because seriously, people, the sugar thing affects a lot).
It seems to me that the most dangerous thing about anti-depressants, or dietary changes, or deep inner work, is thinking that it’s some kind of Holy Grail that will solve all of your problems.
Underpinning that belief system is one tiny-big word that seems to cause a lot of our suffering: perfectionism. “If I just [eat right, live right, follow that plan, take that pill], I’ll be happy.”
It’s our dysfunctional attempts to avoid suffering, fear, sadness, anxiety…that really cause the suffering. Click to tweet: http://clicktotweet.com/7yYkZ
You are a human being, and you’ll come up against challenges. When people say “it’s all about your choices,” they’re telling the truth.
It’s about the tools and perspectives you choose to adopt, the patience and compassion you choose to practice, and the mindset that you choose to be committed to.
It’s also–because we live in a biochemical world–about the choices you choose to make in regards to your individual biochemical cocktail. Your choice might include a prescription bottle that you rattle like maracas every morning before you pop one, or your choice might be more yoga, less caffeine.
I support whatever choice you make, actually, so now you know you’ve got at least one person on your side, extending compassion for whatever you decide.
I only ever just invite you to choose consciously, from a place of considering all options. That’s what true power looks like.
One of the things I do when I start every single life coaching session is a simple one: We take a moment, just to breathe.
“Try to take the kind of inhale where your shoulders go up a bit, and then when you exhale, make a bit of a noise as you release the air,” I invite my clients. “Move past the prim and proper breathing.”
And we sit like this, in perfect stillness, for just the first few moments of the session. I do this in part because for many of my clients, this is the first time all day that they’ve had a moment to stop and just breathe. My tribe tends to be pretty driven, intelligent types–the types who have usually seen themselves as too logical to be doing any self-help work; the types who kinda-sorta-a-little-bit think (like me) that the term “coaching” is…well, a bit ridiculous. They have full lives, and full days, because they’re full of ideas and are very purpose-driven.
Again and again, they tell me the same sorts of things: that the breath helps them relax. Or that they look forward to it, all day. Or that they’re amazed by the power of this simple tool and how little time it takes.
But then there’s that one time–the time when the breath doesn’t relax them and instead, something (beautiful) comes up.
I’ll hear the emotion wavering in her voice as she shares with me that the stillness actually made it harder to keep some of the tough stuff at bay. I’ll think, “How courageous she is, to bring this here, to give voice to her experience.”
I’ll say, “Tell me more.”
Meditation Tells the Truth
I am a lover of truth. I grew up feeling like I couldn’t tell the truth, that there were consequences in my family for truth-telling, and I remember leaving home at eighteen, fiercely independent, and thinking to myself with relief that I no longer had to worry that if I told the truth, my character or behavior would be trashed.
I had left home. I could hang up the phone. I could leave the restaurant. I could, if needed, order someone to get out of my house. Typically, after leaving home, it usually never came to anything that dramatic, but just that knowledge was enough for me to feel like perhaps I could…breathe.
There was just one problem. I, too, would come to meditation, and instead of feeling the nice, fuzzy, relaxing feelings, my “stuff” would come up. Anger. Rage. Replaying conversations in my head.
Meditation brings us to the truth. People say they want concrete ways to move past their blocks, but we’re not sure “how” to do it.
Meditation, in my experience, is “how.”
No More Running
At first, I wanted to run from the sadness. This wasn’t what was supposed to happen in meditation! Wasn’t meditation supposed to bring enlightenment? Compassion? Calm?
Somewhere along the way, someone more experienced than myself suggested that I just “sit with” the sadness, as if the part of me that was sad was a friend in need–a friend who needed someone to sit beside them, to be with them without trying to “do” or “fix.”
So that’s how I sat, and that’s when I learned that meditation was helping me to practice, and slowing down to get some breathing space is a practice, in a very pro-active and practical way, this whole “make friends with yourself” thing that so many self-help books are talking about.
We read all of the time about how we’re supposed to accept ourselves, make friends with ourselves, love ourselves, as if it’s as easy as turning on a switch.
Sitting with my sadness–sitting with myself in sadness, in the way that I would hope for a dear friend to sit with me–was what taught me about befriending myself.
In sitting with my sadness, with no intention to do anything and with no intention to “fix,” I could offer myself the truest kind of acceptance.
This is an empowering kind of acceptance, because it doesn’t require anything external. You’re always the one breathing with yourself, and no one else can do the breathing for you. When you find your way to the other side of sadness, after having sat with it and accepted it, it’s a triumph.
No one else did this for you; you created your freedom, all on your own.
Back to Center
Nine times out of ten, my meditation practice is nothing but pure stillness and noticing. Then there’s the tenth time, where I get to practice being with sadness, or antsy agitation, or something else that feels uncomfortable.
I’ve learned that at such times, it can be helpful to remember that whatever I’m experiencing during a sitting is exactly what I’ll experience, “out there,” in the world.
As living, breathing humans, we’re all going to get sad, or agitated, or uncomfortable. We have choices–release it, or hold it in. Most of us choose to hold it in. We bury it under work or martyrdom or addiction or drama or something else. Then, when it does come out–as the feelings almost inevitably must–we feel as if life has spun out of control, the tears endless, the frustration magnified, the discomfort so acute that you might start to question everything.
People say of meditation, “it brings me back to center.” The center of what?
The center of your feelings. It’s the center of “being with” feelings–and “being with” them is a form of releasing them–that doesn’t go to such an extreme as venting them out onto other people or losing your grip on your life when depression visits.
This one deceptively simple practice of being willing to breathe in, breathe out, looks so innocuous and passive, yet it’s the doorway to actually dealing with the truth of who we are.
Back to center, indeed.
If you are a truth-seeker, a freedom-seeker, meditation is the most powerful practice you could engage with. And–it is definitely a practice. It’s something that evolves and grows as you change and shift. It goes as deep as you’re willing to go. It gives back benefits equal to what you’re willing to invest.
I was thinking about the top benefits that nearly a decade of meditation has brought to my own life–what have I really ended up with, after all those hours on the cushion, all those moving meditations and inquiry meditations and mantra meditations?
These were my top four–the top four reasons to establish a regular meditation practice.
#1: To become suspicious of any “Top Whatever Reasons” lists. Meditation brings us to a place of critical awareness, where we stop taking things at face value.
When you’re on the cushion, or practicing a walking style of meditation, or noticing how quickly emotional states warp in a movement meditation (all different styles explored in 30 Days of Meditation), you stop believing that whatever you’re thinking or feeling in the moment is any kind of absolute truth.
You start thinking critically, more willing to engage in a process of inquiry rather than bouncing back and forth between “maybe this my problem” and “no, no, this other thing must be my problem.”
You might even stop seeing things as “problems.”
#2: Because it enhances your physical health. Mindfulness-based practices have been shown in clinical studies (“clinical” meaning controlled studies that administer scientific measurement) that at the very least, meditation reduces stress and anxiety.
In some studies, it’s been shown to reduce depression, and others have suggested that it lowers risk of high blood pressure and heart-disease. The field of mind-body medicine is exploding as neuroscientists look into how we might even promote our own healing with meditation or mindfulness-based techniques.
#3: Because it reduces overwhelm. In my Breathing Space circles, I talk about how overwhelm isn’t really “problem,” but what we think about our busy schedules and to-do lists is the problem. There are plenty of people with busy schedules and to-do lists who take a pretty measured approach to everything that they do–and they aren’t overwhelmed (at least, not chronically).
It’s the out-of-control thinking that gets us overwhelmed, and meditation practices become the place where thoughts can be distilled down to their essence, and then examined. When we start examining the thoughts behind our overwhelm (“If I don’t get this done, it means ____”) we can start to change our relationship to overwhelm.
#4: Meditation is communication with our deepest selves; it’s where you go to know yourself intimately, beyond to-do lists and personality archetypes and what other people think of you.
In 30 Days of Meditation, I ask people to think of the relationship they have with their practice. What would your meditation practice say to you, if it could speak? What would it ask you? What would it be trying to tell you?
It’s really hard not to see the truth any time we remove distractions. This is what meditation does, in essence–the practice removes distractions.
On March 4th, 30 Days of Meditation will begin its inaugural run. I’ve spent a decade practicing meditation, sometimes more often and sometimes less often, and I’m not someone who just walked into the practice, all blissed-out in my hot little stretchy pants as I burned some incense, and immediately went, “Ah, yes, transcendence.”
Meditation practice is for everyone. It’s for you. It’s enlivening and enlightening. It’s a pragmatic and useful path to self-realization and deep growth–and it’s a way to just chill out in a life that feels hectic, over-worked, under-appreciated, and chaotic.
Meditation is how you come home–to yourself.
Check out http://www.30DaysofMeditation.com to learn more and to register.