The Up Side of Down

Why being up can get you down

I fell in love with jogging when I was in my mid-20’s.  Over-weight, miserable, and in a soul-devouring job, I took to the gym every day.  This love affair with jogging has lasted all my life though, like anything that is not a full-hearted commitment, it has suffered from severe neglect for great lengths of time.  Yet every winter I decide I will train for another 5 km run and dive happily into the daily workouts and practices.  And every summer, I hit the same motivation wall at the start line of the run. My running friends give me great advice on how to overcome this runner’s block.  Be positive!  Put yourself at the end of the race!  Do it for someone you love!  Offer it up as a gift to someone!  Pay yourself with bling!  Have a donut at the end!

I really appreciate all this post hoc cheerleading and that suggestion for bling truly speaks to my inner magpie.  However, it rarely works for me.  In fact, on one race, my marriage almost ended as my dear partner, sensing my plummeting morale, cried out, “What a beautiful day!  Isn’t it such a joy to be running along the canal on a day like this!?”  I credit my Buddhist practice of non-violence (and the fear of horrible re-birth) for not pushing him into the canal.

What’s wrong with being a Cherrie Cheerful?

Other than running the risk of being naïve or insensitive to what’s actually going on, there’s probably nothing bad I can say about being cheerful.  However, it is really important to understand that having a positive stance to our experience is not the same as engaging in positive chatter no matter how well-meaning.  Perhaps a better way to put it is that, when faced with challenges, it helps to cultivate an even-handed stance to our experience.  “Positive” in this sense means we look at what is happening in a way that keeps us steady in the face of the difficulty.  We see what is happening and do our best not to avoid the uncomfortable feelings by distracting ourselves from it.  Although positive commentary (or affirmations) may be somewhat useful here, it is more likely to defer the inevitable or prevent us from making clear-minded decisions by tangling up our thinking.

I remember going through a significant loss that was to have a serious impact on my career.  When I shared this with a friend, she launched immediately into all the ways I was actually better off for the loss, how it was going to open doors and windows, and that I was never really happy with the previous situation anyway.  Some of what she said was true, some wasn’t; however I was left with the idea that I was ungrateful for feeling bad because of all the riches I was going to receive in having this painful experience.  In reaction, I started making impulsive decisions which is typical when we are in pain and just want it done.  Thankfully, none of those decisions made matters worse and no, there were none of these wonderfully terrific material outcomes from the experience.  In fact, the best outcome was that when I finally stopped feeling depressed one day, I had a better appreciation for what my patients go through in their own losses.

Martin Seligman, one of leading researchers in the area of Positive Psychology, points out that having a positive psychological attitude is different from thinking positively.  “Positive” in positive psychology is used here in the sense of nourishing or cultivating wellness.  Its models of wellbeing help us develop as healthy human beings who are resilient and who act from a solid core of values.  Positive psychology has less to do with being cheerful or upbeat and more to do with finding the complex relationship between our emotions, capacities, and the environments that can foster health and well-being.  It’s definitely not a model for a quick fix or a way of reframing difficult circumstances so we can be naively or willfully blind to what is unfolding in our life in this very moment.

Thinking positively is a way of verbally encouraging ourselves to stick to the task.  It has its place and can be useful but, ironically, it has a dark side.  When thinking positively is not matched with that even-handed stance to what is happening in the moment, we can underestimate danger.  If we are in conditions where knowing the down side may be really important, it can have serious consequences.  In other cases, such as convincing myself I can run a marathon (I can do it!), it can leave me feeling worse if I fail (I don’t even have control over my mind!).  Avoiding failure because we fear it often leads us to deny any hint of its possibility.  Even appropriate self-assessments of limits and normal self-doubt are suppressed quickly leading to uncertainty about our capabilities.  When we are uncertain about our competence and ignore that uncertainty because we think that is the failure point, a negative outcome ends up confirming what we feared in the first place.  And the real negative cycle of fear and avoidance begins!

How can we become a Steady Steph?

In his forthcoming book, The Antidote: Happiness for people who can’t stand positive thinking, Oliver Burkeman writes:

[Research] points to an alternative approach [to happiness]: a ‘negative path’ to happiness that entails taking a radically different stance towards those things most of us spend our lives trying hard to avoid. This involves learning to enjoy uncertainty, embracing insecurity and becoming familiar with failure. In order to be truly happy, it turns out, we might actually need to be willing to experience more negative emotions – or, at the very least, to stop running quite so hard from them. (See also this article in the NY Times.)

This is a wonderful pointer to what we practice in mindfulness work.  It does not mean we need to become mindfully morose, dropping into all our icky stuff or only seeing the negative side of things.  It definitely does not mean embracing uncertainty in a foolhardy or irresponsible way.  Our practice of staying in the moment means we understand that the present moment is not always a pleasant moment.  And, as distressing as unpleasant moments can be, they are a rich source of information of our present capacity to deal with our life.  Difficult and unwanted emotions arise as a normal part of our warning system.  They inform us of the width, depth, and height of the challenge before us.  They are a metric of resilience and their intensity is a calibration of our resources.  When little hassles result in large responses, it tells us we may be feeling fearful.  When large challenges are met with numbing out (it can mimic steadiness), our resources may be depleted.  These are important messages from our body to our heart/mind.

Through the fundamentals of mindfulness – compassion, befriending self and others, remembering joy, and equanimity – we can meet these challenges of uncertainty with a stance of steadiness.  We can respond to these emotional expressions by accepting them as part of who we are.  We can be a friend to ourselves in the same way we would treat a friend who shows up at our door at midnight, distressed and distraught.  We can recall that joy was a recent visitor even if it was just that sip of tea between battles.  We can meet them without judgement or rejection, as messengers whose information is best heard in quiet.

But – and there’s always a “but” – just as I can’t learn to run a marathon by running one, we cannot expect to meet these challenges skillfully in the moment they show up.  My running coach used to say, “Train your heart on the short distances.  Train your muscles on the medium distances.  Fall back on your training on the long distances.”

Here are things you can do for your training:

  • Commit to daily sitting meditation – it cultivates the habit of letting go of what seemed so important in the moment and develops the breath as a calming, steadying skill.
  • Find joy in the ordinary – it strengthens that happiness muscle and doesn’t leave it to atrophy while you wait for that happiness peak experience to happen.
  • Respect your limits – it trains awareness of the edge of the cliff.  ‘Nuff said.
  • Be kind in speech and action – it’s just plain nice.  It also cultivates healthy relations with yourself and others which makes going through tough times easier.
  • Get healthy in body – your body and mind are joined intricately and dis-ease in one is disease in the other.

Go for it!  You can do it!

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