9 Steps to Soothe a Troubled Mind

One of the hardest things about having a busy mind is knowing how to quiet it. Sometimes it feels like rather than being able to control our thoughts, they in fact, control us: our emotions, our actions, our responses, our motivations, our self-confidence, and what makes us feel whole.

Negative thoughts in particular can be some of the most difficult to contend with, as we quickly find ourselves becoming wrapped up in self-criticism and self-doubt, believing the often-fictitious mental dialogue we perceive as fact. We are incredible thinking machines, capable of generating hundreds of negative thoughts each day, that come to define the way we think about and relate to ourselves.

The more we try to stifle such thoughts, the louder they become. It’s easy to believe that resistance is the easiest path to a quiet mind, but more often than not, the opposite is true. By learning how to acknowledge our negative thoughts, and approach them with compassionate awareness, we can reduce the hold they have on us and find a path toward inner stillness.

The next time you find yourself caught up in a sea of self-deprecation, consider these steps to clear out the mental deluge.

1. Allow the mind to be active and remember that you don’t have to engage it. Our thoughts come and go with little conscious effort. We expend our valuable mental energy only through those thoughts we choose to entertain. One of the most difficult practices, even for the most mindful among us, is simply allowing our thoughts to be present without clinging to their compelling storylines.

2. Gently tell the mind that you hear it and simply allow the thoughts to be present. Sometimes, just telling the mind, “I hear you,” can provide relief. The negative thoughts that consume our minds may be trying to tell us something important – they just haven’t found an appropriate way to express themselves yet. By acknowledging that you hear such thoughts without buying into their message, you begin to create space between yourself and the energy they exude.

3. Tell yourself, “I’m sorry you’re feeling this. I hate to see you hurting.” We rarely show ourselves the care and kindness we deserve when we’re bogged down in negative self-talk. Failing to acknowledge the pain this dialogue causes only makes our suffering worse. What would you say to a friend who spoke to herself in this way? Pause, and take a moment to show yourself some tenderness for what you’re feeling.

4. Remind yourself that you did not cause your suffering, and you deserve to be kind and loving toward yourself. There’s a Buddhist saying, “Don’t shoot the second arrow.” Each time we face a misfortune, two arrows fly our way: the first is the event that caused us pain, while the second is the suffering we bring upon ourselves by how we emotionally respond to it. By responding to our existing pain with self-blame, we increase it greatly. Instead, we can gently remind ourselves that our pain is not self-inflicted, and begin to relieve it by treating ourselves with kindness.

5. Challenge messages of self-criticism and self-defeat with messages of self-worth and understanding. It becomes harder to hold our negative thoughts in spacious awareness when we contradict them with competing messages. If you’re feeling inadequate in some way, look for evidence that doesn’t support your beliefs. Repeat the new messages out loud or write them down so you can see them regularly.

6. Remind yourself that you are not alone. You have a community of others who love and support you. We tend to isolate ourselves when we’re feeling distressed, yet these are the times when we most need the comforting presence of those who care about us. Think about who would want to be there for you if they knew what you were going through, and reach out to them.

7. Remember that your thoughts will pass. You are still you, whole and human. When we’re trapped in a negative thought cycle, it can seem like we’re never going to come out of it. Yet our thoughts are as temporary as the changing seasons, and while it can be difficult to separate ourselves from them, they do not define us.

8. Actively engage in something that soothes you. Repeat until you feel relaxed. One of the most powerful ways we can prevent ourselves from becoming overwhelmed by our thoughts is by turning our attention to something else and being fully present with the activity before us. Exercise, sit down with a cup of tea, meditate, listen to music, or journal. Tune into what you’re needing in the moment and allow yourself a break.

9. Remind yourself that it’s not easy and that’s ok. If you approach it with patience and an open mind, you deserve to be proud of yourself. If clearing our minds of nagging thoughts were easy, we’d all walk around with an air of lightness and ease, free of the distraction and tension a cluttered mind can bring. Celebrate the open-heartedness and attentiveness you bring to the process. Seize the opportunity to be kind and gentle toward yourself for your efforts.

The more you engage in the steps above, the more natural they will start to become. If you can catch yourself early on in a negative thought cycle, you decrease your chances of being carried away by accompanying emotions, and give yourself more space to be present to what brings you joy.

Bonus

Check out my free guide, Calming the Mind –Click here to download!

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Calling All Bookworms

If you’re like me, then you know nothing beats curling up with a good book on a cool weather day, preferably with a warm drink in hand. In the eternal words of C.S. Lewis, “You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.” So grab your favorite mug and stay tuned to see what’s on my reading list this winter!

The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are — Brené Brown

A leading researcher on shame, authenticity, and belonging, Brown seamlessly weaves in tales of her own struggles with perfectionism and people-pleasing, with years of research around our struggle to fit in without compromising our unique, “wholehearted” selves. Brown is a natural storyteller, and will make you say “Aha!” and “I’m not the only one?” in this thoughtfully candid page-turner. I just finished it and like a good conversation, am already looking forward to starting it again.

In the eternal words of C.S. Lewis, “You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.”

The Best Buddhist Writing 2011 — Melvin McLeod and Editors of the Shambhala Sun

I first encountered this book in a meditation yoga class a few years ago, and didn’t pick it up again until last month. A collection of writings by leaders in the tradition, it’s enlightening, informative, and thought-provoking. A must-read for meditators, or anyone looking to bring a little more calm into their lives. Like all short story collections, some chapters may speak to you more than others. Read at your leisure, and don’t be afraid to skip around.

The Happiness Project: Or Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun — Gretchen Rubin

I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked this book. Rubin’s practical wisdom, humorous anecdotes, and gleanings from some of her greatest teachers, invite readers to challenge their preconceived notions of happiness, and cultivate practices to achieve the all-too-fleeting state of being. Lighthearted and engaging, Rubin’s style pairs well with the research she includes. Reflections that initially seem intuitive are explored to reveal deeper meaning, and will leave you happily engrossed page after page.

Unaccustomed Earth — Jhumpa Lahiri

Author of The Namesake and Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri has a way with words, easing the reader into the worlds of her characters with descriptive flair. In this short story collection, Lahiri brilliantly reveals the troubles and insecurities we hide beneath polished exteriors, and the unique, often unseen ways in which our close relationships create room to grow, retreat, and find comfort in the familiar. I loved not knowing where each story would lead, and while not always feel-good, the endings were never disappointing.

The Rosie Project — Graeme Simpson

If you’re looking to get lost in a lighthearted, laugh-out-loud, memorable read, you’re in luck. This one’s been on my list for some time, and I finally got around to listening to it (thanks, OverDrive!), finishing it in a record 3 days. Hilarity ensues when altogether socially inept Don Tillman embarks on the Wife Project to find the perfect partner. Enter, Rosie, an imperfect rule-bender who enlists Don’s help on a not-so-small project of her own. Thoroughly funny, heartwarming, and refreshingly insightful, this book quickly draws you in and doesn’t slow down. If you like it as much as I do, you’ll be pleased to hear, there’s a sequel.

How to be Lovely: The Audrey Hepburn Way of Life — Melissa Hellstern

A timeless icon, Audrey Hepburn lived with grace, style, poise, and elegance. This book has been part of my collection for some time, and it was worth a refresher to go back and read about the way she moved through the world with a rare kindness, sense of humor, and considerable thoughtfulness. One of the features I love about this book is the inclusion of quotes from Audrey herself, and from those with whom she was closely acquainted. To know Audrey, was to love her. If you’re looking for an intimate portrait of a woman whose beauty was surpassed only by her genuine spirit, this one’s for you.

Small Great Things — Jodi Picoult

Jodi Picoult bravely tackles prejudice, race, and privilege, in this gripping novel that will leave you replaying its plot in your mind long after you’ve put it down. Told from the perspectives of three lead characters, Picoult gives an intimate and eye-opening glimpse into the ways our attitudes about race shape our identities, and the advantages, disadvantages, and pressures we face. Provocative and raw, this book kept me up into the wee hours of the night, and is one that belongs on your nightstand. (I highly recommend the audio version, which brings this masterpiece to life.)

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Like it Matters

On our best days, we live like it matters. We give our bodies the attention and care they need and deserve. We nurture our relationships. We focus on what we have, instead of what we lack. To do so takes discipline and present moment awareness. Most of all, it takes willingness to believe that each of our days makes a difference, even when it feels like they may not.

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Letting Go

During a recent silent meditation, I found myself feeling distracted. As the minutes wore on, I wondered how much time was left and felt restless at the thought of sitting in quiet solitude any longer. To my relief, the familiar bell soon rang signaling the end of the practice.

I’ve had this experience during meditation before: just when it starts to feel that I can’t hold my focus any longer, I’m snapped back to attention with a welcome bell tone. Afterward I find myself wishing that I could have stayed focused for the entire duration, without the thought of “This has to be almost finished” entering my mind. Nonetheless, this nagging voice of impatience surfaces again and again.

How often have you found that just when an experience starts to feel unbearable, it ends? Or suffered through something only to think, “That wasn’t so bad” when it’s over? How often has your anticipation of an event been worse than the event itself?

It’s natural to worry about how things might turn out, or to become so caught up in the desire to get out of something that we fail to notice the joy and opportunity it brings us in the moment.

Lately I’ve been noticing when things work out better than I’d expected or when something I’m worried about fails to come to fruition: when I’m feeling overbooked and a commitment gets rescheduled, when an expense ends up costing less than I anticipated, when good news comes in the midst of a stressful day.

There’s a wonderful Dutch saying, Don’t fret. It will happen differently anyway. It’s become a favorite of mine over the years, and one that continues to manifest itself in my life in different ways.

Sometimes an entire day can unfold in ways we didn’t expect. Sometimes it might be a whole year or even several. There’s a unique beauty in being able to live so fully in the moment that we can release our expectations on the present and simply be open to the days’ events as they unfold.

Imagine all the energy you could get back that you spent worrying about final outcomes. Imagine how it would feel to experience things exactly as they are, knowing that they are neither a fulfillment of nor a deviation from your expectations.

Things don’t happen a certain way because we believe that they will; they happen entirely independently of our predictions. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t work hard for what we want or take precautions to avoid disappointment.

But we can do so with an awareness that things might happen differently anyway. It’s reassuring and gratitude-inducing when something works in our favor, all the more so when we didn’t expect it to. It can feel discouraging though, like a betrayal even, when something turns out worse than we’d imagined.

It’s hard to loosen our grip on the present, to give up some of the control we might exert over how things unfold. But it’s also rewarding: to tune into the intricacies of the moments before us, to develop a curiosity about the world around us, and to trust that what doesn’t work out creates more space for what one day will.

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Reader’s Roundup

In this new feature, I’ll be sharing some of my most memorable reads from the week. Each day, one of my favorite self-care practices is to unwind with an article that catches my eye, often a few! This week: zoekboeks, hidden joys, and a table for one. So kick back, relax, and read on!

What Adults Can Learn from Dutch Children’s Books

The New York Times

I have to resist listing all the activities crammed into the pages of my favorite wimmelbooks because they would come across as cringingly mundane. But the cramming is, in truth, transcendent, this gentle collapsing of time and bending of space to capture worldly things in their everyday profusion.


Where Joy Hides and How to Find It

Mindful

I mean, if you think about it, we all stop and turn our heads to the sky when the multicolored arc of a rainbow streaks across it. And fireworks — we don’t even need to know what they’re for, and we feel like we’re celebrating, too.


Eating Alone

Longreads

I’m shy, and while I was mildly concerned about what people might think of me when I began dining alone, I was more concerned about what I might think of me if I didn’t try. I didn’t want to be someone who experienced less of a city, less of life, because I was afraid. So I went.

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A Season to Savor

Summer can bring about a carefree ease like no other season can: the days are longer, work hours are shorter, vacations are frequent, and time outdoors is cherished. By September, as we squeeze out final pool days and picnics, we wonder where the months have gone.

While our minds are free to flit and flutter, they’re far from stress-free. Even the most enticing escapes can bring out our worries and anxieties. Our toes are in the sand, but our minds are often elsewhere.

You might find yourself reflecting on a conversation from days ago or an earlier morning’s exchange. Or perhaps as you try to absorb the juicy page-turner you’ve just picked up, your mind begins drifting to an upcoming deadline, unfinished project, or impending decision.

Whether your summer roster has you traveling far and wide, or simply taking in the scenery of your own surroundings, this is a practice that can help you stay present when your unleashed mind begins to wander down worry lane.

Start by asking how you can be there for yourself right now. Maybe you can take a moment to notice where you are, and gently remind yourself that your worries only exist in your mind. Or, begin by uttering a few words of reassurance to yourself such as, “It’s ok, I’m here for you,” or, “I don’t want you to worry about this right now.”

Next, ask yourself what you’re needing. Do you need to slow down or take a break? Maybe you need an enjoyable distraction to put your mind at ease. You might need to write about what you’re feeling or talk it over with someone.

Human connection is a powerful medicine and a potent emotional pain reliever. Ask yourself whom you can reach out to. It might be a friend, a neighbor, or even a stranger. Whether or not you choose to share your troubles is up to you, but simply being in someone else’s company can help you step out of your head and back into the world around you.

Finally, ask yourself how you can use this opportunity to tap into your strengths. What are you good at? What brings you joy? How can you use your gifts to help alleviate some of the tension you’re experiencing? Draw, sing, dance, read, cook, create, swim, dive, dine, laugh, share, photograph, run, stretch, breathe. Let yourself get lost in whatever makes you feel alive.

Like all of our days, summer’s are best fully savored. We owe it to ourselves and those around us to tune into them with deep awareness, even as the past and future compete for our present moment attention. Catch fireflies. Cook out. Sleep under the stars. And let your mind come with you.

Bonus

Need a hand? Keep these questions at your fingertips and start savoring each moment – Click here to download!

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When Life Gives You Lemons

No matter how much we plan, prepare, practice, or procrastinate, life can get messy. As Anne Lamott so beautifully captures, All truth is a paradox. Life is a precious unfathomably beautiful gift; and it is impossible here, on the incarnational side of things. It has been a very bad match for those of us who were born extremely sensitive. It is so hard and weird that we wonder if we are being punked. And it is filled with heartbreaking sweetness and beauty, floods and babies and acne and Mozart, all swirled together.”

When we’re struggling, it can be difficult to tune in to the beauty that surrounds us. Instead of redirecting our awareness to the positive, we tend to focus exclusively on the downside of things. When things start going our way again, we notice the simple joys each of our days brings with little conscious effort, and naturally dwell on these moments. But we’re frequently at a loss when it comes to holding both together.

There’s a powerful practice we can engage in when we’re faced with small currents, like running late or feeling overwhelmed, to big waves, like getting into an argument with a loved one or struggling with an illness. It’s called the AND. Instead of zooming in on the negative, we can broaden our view to see what good we might be able to squeeze out of our most trying experiences.

Here are some examples:

I’m stuck in traffic AND I get to go to a job I love.

I’m worried about my health AND I have access to reliable medical care.

Money is tight AND I’m finding ways to stay afloat.

I’m feeling lonely AND I’m surrounded by reminders of others who love and care for me.

The house needs repairs AND I have a space where I feel comfortable, relaxed, and safe.

My child is struggling in school AND is a beautiful symbol of strength and perseverance.

I’m feeling overwhelmed AND I’m choosing to give myself time to unplug.

I’m feeling unfulfilled AND I’m using my gifts to help others and develop my strengths.

I’m having a hard day AND finding small ways to take care of myself.

I exchanged harsh words with a loved one AND I’m grateful to have a partner in life.

It may sound easy-peasy, but this practice is a real challenge to do in the moment. What makes it so difficult? In part, it’s because the consequences of our negative experiences feel much more significant than those of our positive ones, and sometimes, they are.

Yet, we often crowd out the good in our lives before these consequences even occur. Imagine you’re running late to work. Your mind might be spinning with thoughts like, “I’m never going to get everything finished that I need to,” “My colleagues will be disappointed in me,” “I knew I shouldn’t have hit the snooze button,” or even, “I might lose my job.”

Meanwhile, you fail to appreciate your favorite song playing on the radio, take in the morning sun, or feel gratitude for making some of the green lights. Maybe you don’t notice the happy face of the child crossing the street, or the friendly wave of your neighbor as you exit your driveway.

By investing more in the uplifting experiences that occur alongside the ones that weigh us down, we raise the potential that they too will have lasting, even life-changing impacts.

It’s easy to appreciate the good that surrounds us when life is going the way we want it to. But when we encounter difficulties, it becomes much harder. This is when we most need to make room for the AND, by tuning into the big and small moments of our days that bring us a sense of peace and gratitude, no matter how insignificant they might seem.

The next time you’re faced with something that feels hard to bear, be it a small annoyance or a heavy burden, try this practice. Connect the difficulty with something for which you can be grateful, or that provides even the slightest relief. It’s important that the positive element that you choose to focus on be related to the negative. For instance, saying to yourself, “I got a flat tire AND it’s a beautiful day” isn’t as effective as saying, “I got a flat tire AND I have a car I can depend on to reliably get me around.”

You may even want to start writing down your examples, so you can reflect on the things that are going right in your life, in the midst of all that may be going wrong. The more you engage in this practice, the easier it becomes, and the more you’ll develop the capacity for resilience, gratitude, and trust – in both yourself and the world around you. Where can you make room for the AND today?

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