Break the Cycle

July 7, 2020

Our bodies are eavesdropping on our minds and the external world in every moment. Every bit of raw data we perceive, either consciously or unconsciously alters our mind, our body, and our perceptions of reality.

And this is where a steady diet of negative news or media content can become problematic.

Note – I’m not bashing all media as bad. It’s become vogue to lump all media sources into one untrustworthy bucket of “lamestream media.” That’s not what I’m talking about here. It’s important to be properly informed by reputable and objective sources, be they mainstream outlets, or smaller, equally qualified channels that maintain neutrality in their reporting of the facts.

What I am talking about is the quality of the information we allow into our minds. With so much data flooding our senses, it’s vital to mindfully curate the content of our awareness. It’s too easy to turn on the television or scroll through a social media feed with no concern or filter on the quality of the content we’re absorbing. This unending stimulus washes over us causing a direct and measurable change in our thoughts, emotions, and physical well-being.

Here’s how it works in a nutshell: Any incoming information makes its way into your awareness through the gateways of one of your 5 senses. In the case of a news report, you receive a combination of visual images coupled along with the sounds of spoken words or background noise. That input is perceived and triggers your brain to release neurotransmitters (brain chemicals that send signals between brain cells) and activate neural networks that code for specific thoughts, interpretations or beliefs about the information you’ve just consumed.

Those thoughts then causes the release of certain neuropeptides (chemical messengers that cascade throughout your body to various tissues and glands). Those glands then release specific hormones that ultimately influences the way you feel physically.

So now we’re feeling differently because of the information we just let into our minds.

But it doesn’t stop there. Our brain notices how we’re feeling differently and then we start to think the way we’re feeling. It’s a feedback loop – we absorb negative information, signaling our body to feel the way we think, and then our mind notices we’ve begun to feel bad and we start thinking the way we feel.

Rinse and repeat.

Run this cycle for a few hours or days, that state becomes a mood.

Continue it for a few weeks or months, it becomes part of your temperament.

After years, that negatively or fear becomes a personality trait, or state of being.

See the problem here?

So how do we escape this trap? In a word, awareness.

Understanding how this happens is a good start. But you have to be vigilant. Notice what you mind has settled on and recognize that what you are attending to is changing your neurology and biology moment by moment. Then make the commitment to be skillful, conscious, and mindful when it comes to the data you consume. Your attention is a precious resource and it shouldn’t be squandered on toxic, negative, hateful, or fear-generating news. Focus on the positive, the good, the uplifting stories and aspects of life and relish the way those make your body feel. Create a feel-good feedback loop.

(This would also be a good time to talk about the power of gratitude, but I’ll save that for a future post.)

“I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet.”

– Mahatma Gandhi

Most of us may not have given it much thought, but we each get to decide what goes into our mind. Sometimes rising above life’s negativity can be as simple as consciously deciding where we put our attention.

True Freedom

July 4, 2020

As Americans celebrate Independence Day, it’s a good time to pause and reflect on what it means to be free. In this country, freedom generally refers to our ability to live free from oppression and tyranny, to be treated equally, to be able to speak as we choose, to come and go as we please, to bear arms, to vote for whom we choose, to love who we want, to worship whatever god (or lack thereof) we like.

This concept of conventional freedom has been a powerful ideal that has and continues to make this country an amazing place to live. These freedoms cannot and should not be taken for granted. Countless lives and enormous sacrifices have allowed us to enjoy the freedoms many of have come to accept as the givens of our daily existence.

However, freedom goes far deeper than these things. To truly be free we have to be free from the past, free from conditioned thinking, outdated beliefs, and the bondage of karma. Whether we realize it or not, many of us are prisoners of our habits, perceptual cycles, and the grooves we’ve dug into our nervous system through repeated use for years and lifetimes.

In truth, we’re not free. Not as long as we keep doing things the way we always have. Rather than being awake, creative, aware, and adaptive to the changes of life, we’re in a prison of our own making; we’ve built our cell, locked ourselves inside, and the prison warden is ourself left over from yesterday.

True freedom means digging a tunnel out of your cell by seeing beyond old habits, emotional addictions and ways of thinking, questioning your personal status quo and discovering the tiger snares you have set to trap yourself as you hack your way through the jungle of your own mind.

“To see a thing uncolored by one’s own personal preferences and desires is to see it in its own pristine simplicity.”

⁃ Bruce Lee

To really be free, we have to question the authority of our beliefs, the cultural programming we have inherited, and our ideologies that hold us back in a limited understanding of who we are, why we’re here, and what it all means. We have to ask ourselves “Does this thought, this idea, this concept or philosophy truly serve me? Is it and evolutionary choice for me? (and everyone impacted by it (and if you understand the interconnectedness of the universe, that means everyone)).

Will we hang on to our old broken worldviews of exclusion, separation, rampant nationalism, racism, hostility, distrust of knowledge and wisdom, or will we liberate ourselves to experience unity, wholeness, inclusivity, peace, truth, and understanding? Now more than perhaps any time in the past, we stand at an evolutionary crossroads – one path pulls us back into primitive, reactive, unconscious tribalism; the other path leads to a an evolved global community of compassion and understanding informed by knowledge and expanded awareness.

In Sanskrit, the word for liberation is Moksha. Moksha is emotional, intellectual, and spiritual freedom. It invokes the image of the peeling away of the layers of conditioning we have built up around ourselves like the skin of an onion. As each layer is removed, we become a little more of ourselves; pure unbounded beings of unlimited potential. Moksha is the freedom the world needs now. Only when we free ourselves from the past, the fear, and reactivity, will we move forward as a society.

On this Independence Day, may all being be free. Free from suffering, free from pain, free from the prison of conditioning that holds us in the ruts of the past.

Moksha 🙏🏻

The third step on the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path is Right Speech. Right speech implies speaking words that bring peace, harmony, and compassion into any interaction. It means choosing words that come from a place of truth, authenticity, but are also infused with kindness and understanding of their implicit intentions. To use the words of Don Miguel Ruiz in The Four Agreements, ‘Be impeccable with your word.’

The bottom line in right speech is to do no harm.

For example, we often relish hearing a biting and sarcastic comment, however such comments are often made at the expense of another. Cynical, critical, snarky, hostile, or aggressive words cause harm.

Equally important to the words themselves are the things that go unsaid, or the implied subtext contained within the speech. When we practice right speech, we have to ask ourselves, “What am I trying to convey? Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind? Does it improve upon the silence? Am I being mindful of my words in a manner that uplifts and helps to bring understanding?”

Which brings me to the attached image. I have to admit, I debated sharing it, knowing that It might be emotionally triggering to some, but I believe it underscores the lack of understanding and compassion we are suffering from as a society right now. The left column lists some frequently heard responses to mask mandates or stay at home orders in the interests of our public safety, health, and well-being. The right column lists how those words could be interpreted.

We are in a bona fide health crisis and the science is clear that we have to adjust our way of life (wearing masks, avoiding large gatherings, etc.) if we’re going to get through it. The pushback voiced in some of these frequently heard comments often betrays a constricted and egocentric view that doesn’t take the bigger picture into account.

I’m not saying that everyone who says one of the phrases in the left column necessarily feels equivalent to what’s on the right side. However, those phrases do carry a degree of insensitivity to how they may be interpreted by the listener. Yes, we filter the world and the words of others through our own biases to perceive our own reality. But that doesn’t lift the responsibility of the speaker to choose words with care. Those comments also indicate a level of ignorance to the multiple factors involved in this issue:

Do you know someone who has had or died from COVID-19? If not, at the rate we’re going, that’s likely going to change.

We all want to get back to our lives, but what do you deem to be an acceptable sacrifice to make so that can happen? How many lives? Will those lives be people you know and care about?

No one wants to live in fear. But this really isn’t about fear, it’s about concern for others. Wearing a mask or avoiding large gatherings isn’t a statement that says, “I’m afraid”, it’s a statement that says, “I care about others not getting sick”.

Freedom won’t be very relevant if illness sweeps throughout our entire country and collapses our health care system. If your breathing is being managed by a ventilator, freedom to breathe unaided is going to be a slightly bigger concern than a nationalistic ideal.

Although both sides continue to politicize the issue, 2.74M infections and 130K deaths is a lot of people. This is not make believe. It’s real and it’s serious. In the final analysis, it’s about people’s lives and not who is to blame. (although consequences and karma are inescapable…)

I can hear the pushback from some, “Oh you’re just too sensitive, too politically correct. People like you make our country weak. Suck it up, buttercup!”

To a certain extent, that’s right. I am sensitive to the words we choose to use. Despite its shock value or humor political incorrectness won’t ever qualify as right or mindful speech. I hate to break it to you, but being deliberately cruel or careless with your words doesn’t make you the tough, brutally honest, tell-it-like-it-is hero. It just makes you mean. It dumps more negativity into our collective consciousness and continues to hurt others. And since when is being sensitive to the concerns of others a bad thing? We’ve been misled to believe that compassion and caring are signs of weakness. They aren’t. They take more strength than you imagine.

“Compassion and tolerance are not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength.”

⁃ The Dalai Lama

And maybe it’s me, but I always thought that looking out for the little guy, helping those that were weaker than us, and taking care of each other were part of our core American values.

Ultimately, you as the speaker, don’t get to determine how your speech will be interpreted. You may not think you’re being insensitive or hurtful with your words, but if they carry passive-aggressive, uncaring, or hostile baggage just below the surface that intention will still come through. You can’t un-ring the bell. Once the words leave your mouth, they can’t be pulled back in. To mindlessly fire a salvo of talking points to justify a narrative doesn’t serve anyone and only feeds a wave of ignorance and selfishness that’s sweeping the country.

Speak mindfully. Speak with compassion. Speak with understanding. Speak from a position of awareness. Speak what one of my teachers called the “sweet truth”.

Words matter. And they have consequences. They tell others who you are and what you stand for.

What will the legacy of your speech be?