Welcome to week #2: Starting from where you are right now.
It sounds so simple and straightforward, doesn’t it? Starting from where you are right now? It sounds like that should be a given – where else would you start from?
But it turns out it’s not so simple.
“Obviously, once you delve into it, now isn’t as exact a word as it appears.” – Michael Ventura
How did your homework last week go? Did you reach your goal?
Or did you nod your head and agree with some of the thoughts, and make a mental note to try some of them later? And then life got in the way?
Either way, your work is the same this week. It’s about starting where you are right now – wherever that is. Whether you are feeling an encouraging sense of success or the sting of something you are labeling a “failure” – you still have something to learn and you still have somewhere to grow. But accepting our place on the learning curve can be tricky. It’s so easy to fall into patterns of self-destructive thoughts (“I should have been able to…”) that don’t serve our greater good.
What gets in the way of your progress? What gets in the way of your success? In all of my years working as a therapist, I’ve observed that we all tend to be our own harshest critic. There’s always this little voice (usually well-camouflaged inside our heads) that speaks to us very powerfully. It’s always waiting to leap in and laugh at our failures, to mercilessly kick us while we are down.
But we don’t need to let this happen. Mindfulness practice can help you slow down and really face that voice — and take away the power it has over you. Practicing mindfulness helps us bring chronically negative thoughts out of the shadows and into the light of observation. From there we can let them gently float away, just like any other thought. We then have the power to guide our own lives where we choose, rather than being held captive by our unconscious negative self-talk.
Mindfulness practice was once described to me as being similar to taking a glass full of cloudy, silty water and placing it on a shelf. Eventually the silt falls to the bottom and you can see the water clearly at the top. Our minds are cluttered with so many thoughts at every moment of every day and it can be really difficult to stay focused on our true intentions and greater goals.
Not only do we have all our internal chatter, but we also have thousands of other messages competing for our attention – from the media, friends, family, co-workers, etc.. Each is telling us what kind of person we should be – leaner, smarter, quicker, sexier, happier, the list goes on and on. It can be really hard to discern which voice to follow in the moment. And we can look back on our mistakes and beat ourselves up for them. Or we can leverage them towards our success. But first we must find stillness and quiet within, and then like with the glass described above, our “gunk” will settle and we will discover clarity.
It’s all in the way we choose to look at it.
Often we fall into thought habits – patterns of thinking that we take for granted. We have assumptions about the way we will experience certain things – like breathing, for example. When you practice mindful breathing, you start to become aware of how hard it can really be to just stay focused on your experience of the breath. Your attention gets pulled away from the simple task of just focusing on the breath over and over again. You start to realize how busy your mind really is.
However, with practice, you learn how to refocus yourself more quickly when distracted. You might still have frequent thoughts, but you learn to not get too caught up in them. You learn to sit still and watch your thoughts come and go, like clouds passing across the sky. You learn to slow down and more consciously choose which thoughts you want to entertain.
“I feel like I’m finally not owned by my thoughts.” – a recent Focus and Thrive program participant
When I was on retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh in 2010, I remember he compared our minds to gardens – you have to choose which plants to water or the weeds will take over. If you “water” — or pay attention to a thought — it will grow and take up valuable space that is needed by other plants to survive.
“Your mind is like a piece of land planted with many different kinds of seeds: seeds of joy, peace, mindfulness, understanding, and love; seeds of craving, anger, fear, hate, and forgetfulness. These wholesome and unwholesome seeds are always there, sleeping in the soil of your mind. The quality of your life depends on the seeds you water. If you plant tomato seeds in your gardens, tomatoes will grow. Just so, if you water a seed of peace in your mind, peace will grow. When the seeds of happiness in you are watered, you will become happy. When the seed of anger in you is watered, you will become angry. The seeds that are watered frequently are those that will grow strong.” Thich Nhat Hanh (in Anh-Huong & Hanh, 2006, 22)
In other words, if you let your mind run wild and water every thought that comes your way, you’ll end up with a mess of weeds and not enough resources to feed the thoughts you really wanted to grow. Mindfulness practice helps you discern the thoughts and make more conscious choices about which ones to pay attention to.
And so the art of goal-achievement lies in how you interpret your “failures.” By learning to let go of the thoughts that pull you off your track, you become more capable of picking yourself up, learning from your experience, and continuing on your path.
This is a critical piece – if you are able to make learning a part of your path, then nothing is standing between you and the next step in the right direction. Once you take self-judgment out of the picture, you are free to simply learn from your mistakes, pick up, and move on. Read on for this week’s homework assignment – designed to help you take the next steps towards your goals.
What can you learn from your experience last week? Click here to download a worksheet that will help you learn and grow from your experience, and also build a better goal and plan for the next week. Included in the worksheet are some practical ideas my clients have found helpful to support their work toward their goals.
As you complete the worksheet, keep the mindfulness circle in mind. If you find yourself getting distracted by any self-defeating thoughts, practice letting them go and coming back to your experience of your breath in the present moment. Just use that practice to redirect yourself so that you don’t get pulled off your learning path.
Coming Up Next Week:
We’ll continue exploring the fine art of goal setting by focusing on what is really important to you and distilling your intentions into concrete, achievable steps.