Fighting Off the Invaders

It makes me really irritated when I find myself in a pissy mood or feeling down because of something another person did.  It makes me even more irritated when this person didn’t do anything directly to me and just their existence is infuriating. Or they did something unintentionally that drove me insane.  It’s such a waste of energy and even though I know this, I can’t seem to get the thoughts about how much I hate this person out of my head.

I really noticed it this morning when I went to grab a coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts.  The woman in front of me ordered one of the unhealthiest breakfasts I’ve ever heard someone order, and I found myself stewing with rage with every word that came out of her mouth.  But so what?  If this woman wants to be unhealthy and increase her risk for diabetes, that’s her business.  Her actions have literally no affect on my life, and yet here I am still fuming about it.  I’ve started noticing this happen with other people too.  A friend does something dumb and I take it as a personal attack.  A woman on the train won’t let me pass by her to get off the train because she’s trying to take the seat I just got up from, and she’s trying to ruin my life.

Now that I’m no longer in the midst of those situations they all seem like very silly things to get upset about.  But when you’re in the moment if feels almost impossible not to lose it.  So how do you make it stop?

I’m reading this book called Why Buddhism is True, which I highly recommend, and the author talks about a lot about “thought” and the “self”.  One thing that he talks about that I’ve been thinking a lot about is this concept of negative thoughts being invaders in our mind.  So when you’re sitting there, minding your own business, and you start think something like, “Wow, Jessica is so conceited.  All she does is post dumb selfies on Instagram,” that thought is invading your mind.  You know it’s wrong to judge people, even if they ask for it by abusing social media, but the thought just creeps in.  These thoughts aren’t always about other people too, in fact more often it seems that they’re about ourselves.  Like when you catch a glimpse of yourself in a store window and the thought “ugh my thighs are HUGE” comes in, or you think “I’m not nearly as smart as any of these people in this meeting. Why am I even here?” (I think this one a lot).  These are all negative intrusive thoughts that do nothing except make us feel worse.

So how do we make them go away?

The author of Why Buddhism is True believes (from the Buddha’s teachings) that meditation is one of the best ways to put up walls and protect yourself from these intrusive negative thoughts.  He also stresses the concept of mindfulness; the psychological process of bringing one’s attention to experiences occurring in the present moment.  Mindfulness can be obtained through meditation because meditation is all about focusing the mind.

I started meditating because I wanted more control over my thoughts.  Part of having bipolar disorder, as well as other mental illnesses or just being a New Yorker, is being plagued by racing thoughts.  When most of these thoughts become negative, critical, and judgmental you start to find yourself in a very dark place.  But meditation or practicing mindfulness is like putting the brakes on these thoughts.  So when your mind starts to race and go after someone or yourself in a negative way, think STOP!  But just thinking stop isn’t enough because the mind will just start to wander back to the negativity, so you need to give it something else to focus on.  When you meditate, the breath is usually a good go-to.  Counting breaths, deep breathing, and other breathing techniques are a great way to quiet the mind.  But what about when you’re out in the world?  You can’t just stop and sit cross-legged on the ground.  Instead, the first step is to bring awareness.

One of my yoga teachers wears a bracelet and every time she has a critical or judgmental thought about another or herself, she moves the bracelet to the other wrist.  I started doing this too and it is truly disturbing how many times I have to move this damn bracelet.  I’ve noticed the #1 place the bracelet moves rapidly back and forth is the subway.  But for other people this could be at the gym, at work, or when you’re all alone and you don’t have any distraction from your thoughts.  I highly recommend giving this a try because your thoughts may surprise you.  So each time I start to notice my thoughts go dark, I take three deep breaths to give myself a “reset”, then I focus on something else like reading a book, playing a game on my phone, or anything I can give my full attention to. Pro tip: DON’T go on social media.

Don’t let your negative thoughts overtake you.  We all have them and we can all fall prey to them.  So buy yourself a bracelet (rubber bands work just as well), focus on your breath, and let that negative shit go.  Make the world, and especially your world, a better place by removing one negative thought at a time.

Stop. Breathe. Think

A fews ago I decided I wanted to start meditating.  I would sit cross-legged on my bathroom floor (the only dark, quiet place in my apartment), close my eyes, and sat there as my mind raced in circles until my legs hurt and I had to get up.  Spoiler alert: this is not what meditating is.  Meditation is focusing your mind on a single endpoint.  It can be your breath, a visualization of some sort, or a mantra (i.e., a word or phrase like “I am enough“).

I didn’t learn about that last part until I did my yoga teacher training (several years later), so I started to research how to meditate since sitting in a dark bathroom wondering what you’ll have for lunch that day is basically the opposite of meditating.  Everything I found online suggested using one of the many guided meditation apps, and linked me to the one I’ve now been using for several years; Stop. Breathe. Think.

The app offers a variety of guided meditations based on how your and body and mind are feeling.  You tick off some feelings or sensations your experience at that particular moment, and a list of recommended meditations display for you to choose some.  Some are longer (15-20 minutes) and some are very short (1-3 minutes – great for the train or waiting in line).  It was fantastic for me because it gave me something to focus on which helped silence the rest of my incessant internal monologue.  Eventually I learned how to meditate without an app by focusing on my breath or various mantras I learned during my training.

Although I don’t use my app as much as I used to, the concept of Stop, Breathe, and Think has followed me into various aspects of my life.  Like today…

Today, for whatever reason, is a sh*tty day.  You know the old saying that someone “woke up on the wrong side of the bed”?  Well I did that.  I don’t know how, but I did and it’s stupid and it’s make everything seem impossible and infuriating.  And no, it’s not that time of the month, in case you were wondering.  Since I’ve been feeling so much better, it bothered even more than it normally would to feel so off all day.  Nothing particularly bad happened, a few annoyances here and there, but that’s normal.  But for whatever reason, today anything could send me into a blind rage and I’m not about it.

The offense: I was sitting in a meeting and someone was eating and chewing with their mouth open.  The sound of someone chewing will irritate me on a great day, but on a bad day?  I was seething.  All these thoughts about how rude and disgusting this display was distracted me so much that I have absolutely no idea what happened in that meeting.  Someone could have said “Wow that girl, the technical writer, is really stupid and ugly,” and I would have either nodded or completely ignored it.  All I could think about was how angry I was.

The second the meeting ended, I bolted out of the room and headed for the elevators to go back to my desk.  Still filled with rage, I impatiently waited for the elevator.  Then God or the universe or whatever is watching over us took this opportunity to mess with me, because every time I hit the button, the wrong elevator came.  Eventually I gave up and took the stairs, pouting and stomping my way up, and then slumped down at my desk, defeated.  I was so mad that I felt like I was going to burst into tears.  I could feel the hot, angry tears welling up in my eyes and couldn’t believe I was about to cry over nothing.  In that moment, something came over me.

“STOP,” a voice in my head told me.  That’s when I noticed my breath; it was erratic and labored.  My hands were shaking and my palms were sweaty.

“BREATHE”.  I have the word tattooed on my wrist and yet I still forget to do it all the time.  I slowly and deliberately got up from my desk and calming walked to the bathroom.

“THINK” about the breath.  It always comes back to the breath, as any yoga teacher will consistently tell you.

I sat in the bathroom and took a few deep breaths (thankfully no one has done something foul in there before me) and thought about getting a cup of hot tea from the kitchen.  After my breathing became regular again, I washed my hands with warm water to feel the calming sensation of the heat and went to the kitchen to make some tea.

For all the time I spent feeling angry, irrational, and upset, it only took me a few minutes to calm myself down.  Had I just sat at my desk and continued to stew in my irrational rage, I can absolutely tell you it would have taken exponentially longer to feel normal again.

We have a lot more control over our thoughts and feelings than we give ourselves credit for, and one of the ways we learn this control is through meditation.  If you’ve never tried it or have tried it and not felt the benefits, I highly recommend downloading an app like Stop. Breathe. Think.  Our time is precious, so don’t spend it outraged over someone just trying to eat their lunch.