August 5, 2013

Freedom from Despair: 6 Simple, but Not So Easy, Steps.

Sanity is not optional.

The modern lifestyle seems to be characterized by busyness and noise. We get so lost in all of our busyness that we forget about sanity and well-being. It is so sad, because we might even say that sanity is not important, it is essential. As a society, we have bought into the misunderstanding that sanity is an option. We believe we can choose whether we want to invest in our health and well-being or watch the news and hurry off to work. Unfortunately, this misunderstanding has disastrous consequences.

After just a short time, we are depressed. We have stared into the light box or our cell phone for so long that our brain feels like an inanimate mass stuck between our ears. We start to yearn for some spark, some sort of vitality. We eat a bag of M&M’s or drink two or three soft drinks. This provides us with a jolt, but it is short lived. In the end we feel only more depressed. This approach is dangerous. A day or two is one thing, but if this goes on for weeks or months, it can lead you into a pit of despair that seems nearly impossible to escape.

Change is not an option, it is a necessity. But, at this point turning around is easier said than done. We are un-motivated because we have depleted the brain of pleasurable neurotransmitters with our junk food diet, lack of exercise, excessive sexual activity, drinking, and/or drug use. To make matters worse, we are fighting an uphill battle because the very physiological system that was meant to reinforce healthy behavior was used to create and reinforce the self-destructive rut we are now stuck in. So, not only will everything in you want to eat a pound of candy and watch TV, but none of your attempts to change will, in the beginning, be reinforced. Hence the famous words of St Paul, “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.”

Digging out of this rut is, in the initial phases, little more than a struggle against self-centeredness. Basically, we are struggling against our own self-imposed limitations, which are experienced as an inability to do what we do not want to do, and not do what we do want to do. We are protesting our self-imposed imprisonment.

So, step one is to dispose of all un-realistic expectations about this journey: the fire under your butt will burn out after about three days; not being fired up does not mean you cannot move forward; knowing that will not change the fact that at some point you will want to give up; you are not perfect, but that is not an acceptable reason to not try.

Change is more about process than results.

In a situation like this commitment can be incredibly effective. However, our sense of commitment is only as strong as our intention. So, before we begin we must strengthen our intention. Before we get out of bed in the morning, we need to connect with a motivation that we cannot wear out. We need a motivation that transcends our self-centered way of thinking. Every morning we have to dig deep and find a sense of inspiration buried within ourselves that is sustained, not by the promise of profit, but by a fundamental form of gratitude that reminds us of the great potential embedded in the human condition and our responsibility to manifest that potential in our daily lives.

So, once we have strengthened our resolve what do we commit to? Do we commit to a dogma, a person, or a divine presence? No. We commit to a way of life. We are concerned with where and how, not why, who, or what? To begin with we are devoting ourselves to action.

What follows are six simple steps that seek to reconnect you with the center of meaning and inspiration in your life.

1. Study: Look for a book that offers you a challenge, not a source of entertainment. If you are a religious person, sacred scripture may do the trick. If not, look through the philosophy or perhaps the spirituality section at your local book store.

Remember the emphasis here is on open-mindedness, not entertainment. So, pick something that resonates with you, while encouraging you to step out of your comfort zone. We want something that challenges our worldview and makes us think. We are looking for something that is simply fun. If you cannot think of anything ask Google or a friend. We should read for at least 10 minutes in the morning and 10 minutes in the evening everyday for a month.

2. Fasting: This is not a diet. The emphasis here is not on nutrition, but discipline. With that said, keep it simple. Perhaps you would like to give up fried foods or red meat for 2-3 days. While it is important not be so extreme that you set yourself up for failure, it is equally important not to sell yourself short. Pick something that is a problem for you—pizza, candy, or soft drinks—and give it up for a few days.

Honesty is all that matters. If you do not struggle with eating, one day with no food, or two days just juicing is plenty. Whatever our choice, we should perform the fast once a week for one month. No more, no less. Remember discipline and asceticism are not the same thing. We are practicing commitment (samaya) in order to break out of a rut, not punishing ourselves for being a slouch.

3. Cleaning: In extenuating circumstances action and more action (karma yoga) is the remedy. It reconnects us with the body, which is the source of inspiration. For the next 30 days, we should devote 30 minutes per day to cleaning our environment. This includes laundry, sweeping the floors, washing dishes, the whole bit.

Your environment is a reflection of your mind. If your mind is messy, your environment is messy. If the environment is connected to your state of mind, then we should be able affect our mind state by effecting the environment. When we have cleaned our house or finished our yard work a sense of dignity is resurrected within us.

4. Hygiene: Bathing is another form of action based practice. However, bathing has more ritualistic connotations and therefore a greater capacity to effect change in one’s mind-stream. We should bathe and/or shower twice daily for 30 days. A morning shower and an evening bath have proven most practical for me.

While a shower is acceptable it is important that we work in a proper bath whenever possible, as the full body submersion has a purifying quality. If you would like to add candles, bath salts, bubble bath, or any other bath product that strengthens the experience for you, please do so. Do not skimp. When a bath is not possible, sitting on the floor of the shower under the running water is the most effective option.

This practice can be enhanced with prayer. If you have a morning prayer routine or would like to start one, I highly suggest bringing it into the shower. Praying under the running water is powerful.

We can also effect a great deal of change in our mind stream by putting on a nice set of clothes. For the next 30 days we should pay close attention to how we dress. Allow yourself to look good and feel good. We do not have to wear a suit everywhere, but we should invest in our appearance as it is but a symbol. How we look is a reflection of our quality of life. Effecting our appearance is an excellent way of reconnecting with our intrinsic sense of self-worth. The emphasis of step four is on self-love (maitri).

Photo: donjd2

5. Exercise: We are not training for the Iron Man. Keep it simple and allow your own capacities to define simplicity. If you are quite fit, then establish a routine that is on par with your fitness level. But remember, fitness is not the only thing that should be considered when thinking about sustainability. We have to take time into account.

Within the framework of our current goal—breaking out of our rut—consistency is more important than breaking personal records. So, always consider your daily schedule and plan an exercise routine that you can stick to. If you are not in great shape, do not fret. Start where you are. If that is a simple walk or recreational bike ride, then so be it. But whatever your fitness level, consider your time constraints. We do not want to set ourselves up for failure. We should be able to find at least a half hour we can devote to our physical fitness for the next thirty days.

6. Meditation (silence): We live in an age where silence is becoming more and more rare. We are perhaps the first generation in the history of the human race that has completely eliminated silence from our daily life. Just 20 years ago most people were forced to be totally quiet at least once a day while using the toilet. Now we just take our phones and look at FaceBook. We have completely filled our periods of natural silence with noise.

In order to remedy this issue, we can take a few practical steps. First, catch yourself when you are fiddling with your phone just to past time and quit: on the bus, while waiting in line, or on the toilet identify mindless phone activity and eliminate it on the spot. Second, eat dinner without the TV. Third, turn off the radio when you are in your car. Take out the head phones while you are walking or riding your bike.

photo: flickr/Ryan Oelke

Now, we can begin to install periods of intentional silence. We can begin with 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes in the middle of our day and allow this to carry on for 30 days. It is important to allow silence to form our intentions before we leave the house, and to allow silence to interrupt our busyness throughout the course of our day.

If you are familiar with meditation practice, or would like to start a practice routine, you can use these two periods for formal meditation practice.

If you are not really interested in meditation as a practice, take about 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes at lunch to sit in silence. Walk outside and sit on a park bench or in your back yard. Take a deep breath to begin and feel the crispness of the air and its effect on your body. Feel your lungs and abdomen as they expand with the in-breath and contract with the out breath. Feel the heart beating. Just notice any sensations, including thoughts, as they arise. We do not need to do anything with them. Just let them come and go. In fact, it is our willingness to let things be as they are, including the compulsion to mess with everything, that qualifies this period as silence.

This simple process is intended to reconnect you with the source of inspiration in your own life. Once you have found that inspiration, above and beyond everything else, hang onto it. This is your journey. Making the journey is not an option. Jobs are optional. The journey can be intentional or we can deny it and become a prisoner within the walls of our skin. When it is intentional it is commonly referred to as the spiritual path.

Spirituality is a process of discipleship.

Once we reconnect with the movement of bliss within, we must become its disciple, its student—allowing it to discipline and guide us deeper into who we are. Listen to it. Follow it everywhere. No matter where it goes. We must be willing to follow it into our darkness and uncertainty. It will bring us face to face with our demons and give us the courage to face them. It will teach how to be both nurturing and strong. It will never destroy fear, but it will teach you how to be yourself in the face of fear.

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Ed: Sara Crolick

{featured photo: via Paul Williams}

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