Psychology, Spirituality

Three Soothing Sentences For When Life Feels Out Of Control

out-of-control
Are you the waterfall? Or the trees?

We’ve all been there; the swirling thoughts, the heaviness, the tightness in the chest. Feeling overwhelmed is a natural cycle of life. Sometimes, it’s necessary to stop us in our tracks, to give us space to reflect on the balance of our lives. However, if you’re finding you regularly feel like your life is out of control, you may be caught in the trap of trying to control the uncontrollable.

This is a dead-end. It wastes energy, wastes time, and causes unnecessary stress. Acknowledging this truth was one of the most significant “aha” moments in my recovery. For anxiety sufferers, trying to control everything is common; we worry about a million possible outcomes, tell ourselves “it shouldn’t be this way” when things don’t go to plan, and bemoan the unjust nature of life.

When life feels out of control, remember there’s always a choice

Truth is, we have a choice. Choice begins with identifying what we can control and letting go of what we can’t. This is one of the biggest catalysts to finding inner-peace, a path to freedom. To jolt myself out of a sense of hopelessness in times of hardship, I continually find myself soothed by these three sentences:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

This passage is taken from Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer, commonly associated with Alcoholics Anonymous and various twelve-step recovery programs. Those three sentences concisely strike the balance between responsibility and self-acceptance. It encourages us to diligently identify when we are wasting energy and causing ourselves unnecessary stress, and when to act to change our environment.

Safe to say, I’m a big fan. I find these words soothing. And you don’t have to be religious, or a recovering addict, to benefit from these words.  From my stance as a secular, non-dogmatic spiritualist (I’m sure there’s a way to condense that) I will explain my interpretation of the Serenity Prayer, comparing it with favourably with the locus of control, a concept from within personality psychology.

It’s outside my control to make you like this quote as much as I do… all I can do is try my best to explain its value. So here goes.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…

Reinhold was sharing this prayer at a sermon, so it was part of the contract to begin by addressing God. Casting aside religious connotations, I see this as a call to have faith in a way that works for you. Perhaps you’ll address the universe, oneness, unconditional love, or the divine feminine. The important point is recognising faith gifts us calmness (“serenity”) and clarity.

Serenity isn’t a magic consequence of faith alone

A clear mind allows us to rationally deduce which situations are outside of our control — and encourages us to accept them. Resistance is wrapped up in trying to control the uncontrollable — we’re denying the reality of our situation. Your bus breaks down, you get angry, curse, look impatiently at your watch, ask the heavens why this always happens to you. You lack the serenity required to accept this is something you cannot change. Buddhist philosophy refers to this as unnecessary suffering.

It’s worth noting serenity isn’t a magic consequence of faith alone. Yes, prayer and surrender create the soil for serenity to grow, but ultimately we have the choice to cultivate skilled states of mind via meditation, mindfulness and self-reflection. Try it now — think of the last time you were angry. What was the cause of that anger? Reflect on whether there was additional upset caused by trying to control the uncontrollable.

Courage to change the things I can…

I particularly like this sentence because it’s a clear call to action. It changes the dynamic from passive beholder of life, to someone who takes the courageous stance of enacting change. You’re not enjoying your work. You’re constantly stressed. You’ve worked in this job for years. Leaving is out of the question… or is it?

You decide acceptance alone won’t change a damaging environment, so you find the strength to take a risk, hand in your resignation and find another role which is more fulfilling and less stressful.

How does courage to change apply to the bus example? Instead of sitting with anger, you ask the driver for an update. They tell you there won’t be replacement transport and the mechanic will take 30 minutes to arrive. So you use Google Maps to search an alternative route and see your destination is 20 minutes by foot. It’s a nice day outside. You switch perspective and see this as an opportunity for an unexpected stroll in the sun.

And wisdom to know the difference

“Equanimity’s strength derives from a combination of understanding and trust. It is based on understanding that the conflict and frustration we feel when we cannot control the world doesn’t come from our inability to do so, but rather from the fact that we are trying to control the uncontrollable.” — Sharon Salzberg, Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness

Third and not least, wisdom. An ability to exercise solid judgement works both ways. Take the first sentence to heart, you absolve yourself of responsibility and become a victim. Life is something that happens to you. You wave the proverbial white flag, accepting everything with resignation. No, no, no…

Wisdom is the catalyst to discerning when action can be taken, or when acceptance needs to be cultivated. Born from practice and experience, wisdom acknowledges acceptance and action are two sides of the same coin. Crucially, wisdom tells us not taking action when we have the opportunity to do is equally damaging. We can think of this as appropriate responsibility.

The locus of control — a psychological explanation

Social-learning theory provides a psychological explanation for the importance of these three sentences. The locus of control is a framework of personality developed by Julian B. Rotter, describing an individual’s belief system in relation to events in their lives. Someone with an internal locus of control believes their actions are primarily the cause of events. Those with an external locus of control primary believe events are outside of their control, the consequence of fate or luck.

External loci are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, and anger

Though originally theorised around student learning, Rotter’s concept is easily applied to all areas of life. Interestingly, studies have shown the external loci (I’m sure this isn’t the scientific term) amongst us are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, and anger. External loci is a breeding ground for powerlessness, which, you guessed it, leads to the paralyzing feeling life is spiralling out of control.

Bi-locals: the meeting point of responsibility and faith

The good news is these personality types aren’t black or white. Rotter noted internal and external are part of a continuum, with a third group sitting in the middle. Referred to as bi-locals, this group mixes internal and external attribution. For argument’s sake, this is the “Serenity Prayer” group. I may be bi-ased, but I see myself in this group, and I believe many on the spiritual path to be the same.

Why? Because the spiritual path combines personal responsibility with faith in something much, much bigger than ourselves. It doesn’t encourage us wait for life to do us a favour as we pray for the universe to be on our side. It encourages us to do the work, heal, increase self-awareness, cultivate skilled states of mind. Then, with our work done, we have faith external factors will be on our side; be it synchronicity, karmic law or manifestation.

Empowering ourselves to take control

“If I really want to improve my situation, I can work on the one thing over which I have control — myself.” — Stephen Covey, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Perhaps you’ve realised you’re on the extreme end of the internal – external continuum. Great! Belief systems are not fixed, and this is a perfect opportunity to identify what needs to change. It’s time to use these three sentences to sooth and improve (I’m a poet and I know it). Begin with acceptance, move on to action. Rinse, repeat and gain wisdom.

Belief systems are transient. The Serenity Prayer and the locus of control remind us we are never powerless. We can empower ourselves. Paradoxically, a huge, huge part of the process is accepting what we can’t control. Fortunately, as personal development guru Steven Covey suggests, there is one thing we can always control — ourselves.


 

Psychology, Spirituality

World Suicide Prevention Day: The Times I’ve Wanted To End My Life

suicidal thoughts.
World Suicide Prevention Day.

In this article I’ll share my personal (and detailed) experience with suicidal thoughts, which could be triggering. If you are currently experiencing suicidal thoughts or extremely low mood please visit Samaritans.org or call +44 (0) 8457 90 90 90. Those in Berlin can contact: International Helpline Berlin: 030-44 01 06 07.

I first contemplated taking my life when I was 18. I felt the world would be better off without me. This wasn’t self-pity or melodrama — I genuinely felt the world would improve with a Ricky-shaped hole in it. I didn’t plan on telling anyone my intention. That’d put a spanner in the works. It’s not easy planning suicide if people know about it. Especially if those people love you.

I was exhausted by the daily emotional pain. I was overwhelmed and I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t really know what was going on or why I felt the way I did. I had no idea what steps to put in place to manage the feelings and thoughts I had. There was no escape.

Countless quiet Sunday mornings I’d lie in bed, paralysed by a sense of foreboding, thoughts of death ringing in my ears. Suicide, a symptom of depression, disguised itself as a rational form of treatment.

A Lunchtime SOS

One day I cried in front of my mum. I remember that day because it was the day after my mum rescued me on my lunch break, after I made an SOS phone call. I was working in a law firm and I’d just been promoted, somehow functioning despite regular panic attacks and a death wish. My first task in the new role wasn’t difficult. I had to phone a solicitors’ office and ask for their email address. Well, that’s a piece of piss, I thought.

So why couldn’t I do it? 9:10am, 10 minutes into the day. I’m a sitting duck at my desk, just about keeping my head above wave after wave of despair. I’m shaking. I can’t breathe. I feel like I’m going to pass out. I wait. I pretend to look busy, hoping no one will detect how I’m feeling. I make it until 12pm. “Just gonna pop out for lunch,” I say as nonchalantly as possible, tripping over the chair as I stand. I fling my bag over my shoulder, pleading for no one to ask: “Ricky, why are you taking your bag with you to lunch?”

Of course, no one asked such a innocuous question. But to the depressed and anxious mind, this question was a threat. It was a threat because my bag symbolised freedom. It symbolised my intent to walk out of the door and to never come back. If anyone asked, well… I’d find an excuse. Knowing me, I’d fail to find one. I’d probably cry and in front of the whole office. Game over. I’d be revealed for the pathetic, depressed weakling I was. Man up, or end it all, my thoughts told me.

“I Can’t Do It”

I walked out that lunchtime and phoned my mum instead. “I can’t do it, can you pick me up?” No matter how old you get, there’s nothing more comforting than your mum coming to pick you up. She did, of course, her maternal intuition knowing not to ask too many questions in response to my cryptic-yet-obvious plea for help. She knew she needed to be there and that’s all for now, and she was.

The confession was freeing. A weight lifted. Truth be told this moment was coming for a long time; the depression was consuming me, the anxiety burning from the inside. Until that point, I’d only confided in my girlfriend of the time. Neither of us knew how to handle it. The time had come to share the burden; through the tears the next morning I confessed. “I just feel so sad, and I don’t know why.”

It’d be some years before I explained to my family that “so sad” meant suicidal. Although the stigma is reducing, there’s a visceral response to talk of suicide. It’s almost too much to handle, yet one of the most effective ways of fighting the cause is by being open.

Before writing this article, I was speaking to my mate Ben. I’m vocal about my mental health experiences, yet in seven years of friendship, I realised I’d not once spoken fully about my experience with suicidal thoughts.

Mental illness and stigma kills people, far too many people, and the easier we can openly discuss, the better. So here goes.

The Times I’ve Wanted To End My Life

I’ve had three or four suicidal spells. Lunchtime walk-out was one moment in a year-long period where killing myself felt a viable option. I remember searching on Google for techniques. I considered crashing my car on the motorway and making it look like an accident. One of my more flamboyant plans was to jump off the Bristol Suspension Bridge. Then I discovered they had suicide barriers. Balls.

I had a special spot in a beautiful park some miles from my house I’d morbidly nominated as “the spot.” One day soon, I told myself, I’ll go there and I’ll overdose on pills, washed down with vodka to make sure. Occasionally I’d drive to the spot, stop the car, sit. Wait. Contemplate whether to get out the car, to walk to “the spot.” I never got out of the car. I sat until the sun set, the darkness embracing me, a familiar embrace.

Aside from fantasising and plotting, I’ve been dangerously close to taking action a few times. Stumbling back from town, dizzy from five-too-many Jägerbombs, far too much smooth R’n’B and Joop Jump aftershave, I argued with my girlfriend over the phone. It’s five in the morning and I’m five minutes from home.

Fuelled by the falling out, something kicks in and I turn around, back from where I’ve came, towards the canal. I walk onto the bridge, a bridge I cross on my daily commute. I climb over the barrier. I sit and stare at the mud-brown water below, contemplating the jump. Not today, I decide in the end, and go home.

Stoppage Amongst The Cutlery

I had another severe bout of depression at university, triggered viciously by the sudden death of a friend in a motorcycle accident. I fell apart. I experienced extreme paranoia, panic, suicidal thoughts, I heard voices. The noise was deafening. Staying alive was a challenge; sitting on a bus was the mental equivalent of holding my hand over a burning flame. Lecture halls were sensory torture. Social interactions were exercises in how long I could act hinged when wildly unhinged under the surface. It’s surprising how far smiling and cracking jokes can get you.

Drinking didn’t help, neither did drugs, I did both. In a similar incident to years prior, triggered by a drunken argument with my then-girlfriend, I storm back from town, walk into my kitchen, find the sharpest knife and hold it to my wrist. I hold long enough for the cold blade to warm to my body temperature. The next day I attend a friend’s birthday party. I joke as I retell the story of storming home. I censor my stoppage amongst the cutlery.

Depression Is A Great Teacher

All things considered, it might sound weird to say I wouldn’t change a thing. Depression has been my greatest teacher. Depression taught me courage. It made me realise the power we each have to shape our perception of the world. Depression forced me into a journey of understanding the mind, to glimpse behind the curtain. Knowing what true rock bottom feels like opened me up to a new appreciation of normal.

It’s not easy to recollect and articulate these experiences. But I do so with a purpose. I want to send a message of hope to anyone feeling the way I did. I’m here now, behind these words. I survived, somehow, and I’m happy to say in the years passing, I’ve experienced stillness, tranquility, peace, contentment, fulfilment, joy. Not all the time, of course, but it’s a miracle I feel the way I do now. I experience low mood at a tiny fraction of what once was.

Contemplating suicide isn’t contemplating physical death. It’s contemplating an escape from extreme suffering. Within the midst of immense mental pain lies an opportunity for rebirth. An opportunity for the self-image to crumble, the ego to disintegrate. It’s an opportunity to rebuild. In A Road Less Travelled, M. Scott Peck goes so far to argue mental illness is an act of grace, a “powerful force originating outside of consciousness which nurtures our spiritual growth.”

Indeed, depression, anxiety, psychosis and a host of mental illnesses are so much more than emotional responses to events. They’re messages from the soul.

Shameful To Shamanic

Suicidal thoughts don’t have to be acted upon. Instead, if we transform our approach to mental illness and reduce stigma, we find Peck’s words ring true. We find emotions are a form of inner intelligence telling us something isn’t right, the beginning of a significant shift in consciousness. In many indigenous tribes, those who suffer become healers and shamans. Their mental illness is viewed as a gift.

If you’re reading this now, and you’ve experienced suicidal thoughts, this post is for you. Seeing the experience as a gift may feel almost insulting. But I want you to remember hopelessness is not truth, it’s a symptom. I want you to make a promise to yourself to keep going. I want you to have the courage to continue to fight. I want you to surprise yourself by living and experiencing things you never felt possible. I want you to look back in 10 years time, teary-eyed and stunned by the beauty you’ve seen, beauty you never thought possible. All of this beauty lies ahead, hidden from view.

I don’t know what stopped me from harming myself, but something did. If you’ve had suicidal thoughts and you’re reading this now, it’s what stopped you. Never underestimate the power in staying alive. And never underestimate the power that has kept you alive. Let this be an indication of your strength, a reminder you can rebuild, transform, grow, experience, love, laugh, create, take control.

For now, just keep going.


Need to talk? Hey, I’m Ricky, creator of MindThatEgo. If this article has affected you, please feel open to comment below, or message me directly at [email protected]. Thank you so much for reading.

Psychology, Spirituality

I’ve Been Feeling Overwhelmed With Life — And That’s Fine

feeling overwhelmed
Feeling overwhelmed with life? Relinquishing resistance is a good place to start.

Navigating the flow of life can be compared to captaining a ship. Sometimes the ocean is calm and navigation doesn’t require much effort. Sometimes the ocean is vicious and navigation is difficult. Sometimes we may navigate choppy water with effortless skill, anchored by inner stillness. Sometimes we may struggle to navigate the calmest waters, feeling overwhelmed as much by storms within as waves without.

Yesterday, I couldn’t steer; I let go of the ship’s wheel, knees shaking from seasickness. I stumbled to the edge and gazed into the distance, fear rising as abruptly as the crashing of the wildest shore. What I had previously navigated suddenly overwhelmed me. I felt paralysed. Mindfulness was resigned to memory as I became preoccupied by thoughts, lost in visions of the future.

I’ve been here before. I’ve capsized, gone overboard, fought to keep my head above water. However, a selection of tools, resources and robust self-care has helped me to recover quickly. Writing hasn’t flowed recently, but what better time to approach a subject I’m sure we can all relate to to some degree?

Why not write about my experience of feeling overwhelmed, from the inside out? 

Here are observations of the subtleties of mind as I was momentarily stopped in my tracks. Step by step, this is an uncensored, behind-the-scenes examination of feeling overwhelmed with life. I’m hoping this article will contain relatable experiences, helping you find an approach to manage a similar situation.

Feeling Overwhelmed With Life Started With An Energy Dip

“Tonight I’m gonna rest my chemistry.” — Interpol, Rest My Chemistry.

The first vaguely noticeable red flag was a dip in energy. Not the usual daily fluctuation, but something deeper, beyond the restoration of sleep. An essential Life Force, described as ch’i in Chinese culture, Prana in Hindu philosophy, and many other names across many centuries and cultures. I became aware of such an energy deficiency days before overwhelm hit. And… I ignored it! Even though I strive to maintain balance and understand the importance of rest, I overextended myself energetically. I didn’t take note. I didn’t switch off.

Switching off for me slowing down, taking it easy for a while. It doesn’t include relaxation techniques or meditating or socialising (important for introverts) or reading, but instead doing nothing. The type of self-indulgent, cosy nothing most of us engage in during a harmless winter cold.

Having periods where we rest and recharge is vital. But as covered in an article on time valuation, doing nothing is low value because it isn’t productive. As a result of these internalised beliefs, the dip in energy was accompanied by an inner resistance, operating outside of my awareness. I attempted to carry on as usual, rather than respect my body’s message to slow down; despite a clear reminder on my wrist…

slow down
An overlooked reminder to slow down.

Burnout Via Resistance

Many of us face chronic burnout due to similar resistance, ignoring the warning signs of stress. We don’t pay attention to our natural, limited energy resources, instead attempting to soldier on with an IV drip of caffeine and false-promises of slowing down at some fixed point in the future. Resistance manifests differently for everyone, but for me, it arrived in the form of emotional frustration, combined with a sense of inconvenience:

“Uhh, not now, low energy! I have things to do. Why am I tired? I shouldn’t be. This isn’t fair. How do I return to how I felt days ago?”

This string of inner-dialogue is insightful. The first section — “not now!” — is me resisting. I’m attempting to push away unwanted sensations. Essentially, I’m in denial. I then question the why of the situation, another form of resistance. Then, I indulge in unnecessary suffering and pity, spinning the narrative things “shouldn’t be”  this way, that it’s “unfair”. The last section — “how can I get back to how I was” — has a different structure. This is a form of resistance manifesting as attachment to the past.

Mindfulness is attempting to be in the moment to the best of our ability. Yet here I was, wistfully indulging in what once was, craving the return of energy and creative flow. The paradox is, attachment to a previous state is one of the biggest barriers between feeling alive in the present and, ironically, experiencing the desired state again. You can’t be fully in the moment when your mind is stuck in memories of past, or imagined futures. During this stage, I was floating between two timelines while unwittingly neglecting The Now.

The Illusion Of A Fearful Future

The energy dip began late last week, Thursday or Friday. I can’t quite remember. But after a few day’s resistance, I’d become intoxicated by the mind. Self-awareness is the ability to step back from thoughts and feelings. Yet indulging in memories of the past led to identifying strongly with thought. The stronger we identify, the harder it is to step back. Indulging in memory is a deceitful form of identification and often hard to catch. Ultimately, it’s a powerful pull from The Now, disguised as a way to diagnose present-moment pain by searching for answers in the past.

I didn’t chastise myself, as that defeats the purpose of balance and self-compassion. But it’s important to note at this point, I was struggling to step back from thinking because my reserves were low. My ch’i needed to recuperate, and I wasn’t giving it necessary space. Tiredness, hunger, illness — these challenges make mental resilience harder to harvest. I felt like I was trapped in the middle of a swarm of bees, attempting to swat one away at a time. Each thought felt tangible, real. As someone prone to depression, this is the moment a dear old friend, hopelessness, turns up for a reunion.

That’s because, as well as becoming attached to the past, I projected my current state into the future. That’s when overwhelm really kicked in. Scenario after scenario popped into my mind as I visualised myself unable to cope, catastrophising my imagined future. I can’t cope was swiftly followed by hopelessness. This worst-case-scenario projection is a breeding ground for anxiety and stress.

It can be hard to remember these are only thoughts, and we all have the resourcefulness in any given moment to step back, witness, and become The ObserverFortunately, I soon became aware of my inner resistance and my mind’s time-travelling tendency. This is when change began.

Opening Up To The Richness Of Melancholy

“I’m going to go home, put my jogging bottoms on, and be nice to myself.” — Me. Yesterday.

I was sitting in one of my favourite cafes having finished one task for the day, with many left, struggling to ignore my lagging Life Force. Suddenly, awareness illuminated my mind. A sense of comfort glided into my consciousness like a warm hug, acknowledging my need to slow down with the loving assuredness of a caring parent. Immediately I abandoned resistance and accepted my energetic nature and sense of overwhelm.

Free from the tension of resistance, I opened up to how I was feeling in full detail. I became The Observer of thoughts, emotions and visualisations, rather than feeling infused with them.

A rich spectrum of emotion came to the forefront of my awareness, and I realised I’d been resisting a delicate sadness, a midnight-green melancholy. Selectively numbing our inner experience isn’t possible, instead we numb everything. My resistance had closed my heart to a degree; now, I cracked it open and vulnerability flourished. The humidity of numbness was pierced by rainfall of sensitivity, as the enriching aroma of petrichor enlivened my emotional landscape.

Awareness opens us to the exquisite shades of inner experience. Now the air was clear, I could see the factors contributing to my state of mind.

I noticed two voices: The Victim and The Saboteur. I needed to manage these voice to avoid indulgence and the risk of becoming stuck, which could lead to a depressive episode. I’ve discovered ways of facilitating the needs of each. Your approach might be different. Experiment, be creative, see what works for you, but keep the balance of the Middle Way in mind. Here’s my approach.

Giving The Victim The Spotlight

The Victim is the voice within that tells me life’s unfair, that things shouldn’t be this way, that I’m a victim of circumstance and someone else or something else is to blame. It’s an alluring voice, a voice resonating with me for many years. It’s a common voice, one which only serves to strip us of power and make us feel helpless. Thanks to the catalyst of awareness, I moved into The Observer role and created space from thought, allowing me to tune into this familiar thinking pattern. This allowed me to empower myself, relinquish blame and remember:

I am the only person responsible for resolving this mood.

Succumbing to The Victim mindset only makes things worse. Realising responsibility is Stage One in dealing with The Victim, but there’s another practice I find particularly effective. The Victim wants attention, it wants to be heard. So I give it the spotlight for a select period of time. I step into the role like an actor stepping on stage and consciously indulge in a self-centered, pitying rant. I feel the frustration and unfairness with the vigour of a bawling child:

“Life is so hard! It’s so unfair! Why can’t I just be allowed to live out my dream? Surely I’m working hard enough for it? Won’t someone notice me? Come along and make things easier? I never get my own way. Poor me!”

This is similar to the inner-dialogue I used to cleanse my mind. Try it — it’s cathartic! The key is doing it with awareness. We can call this purposeful self-ranting, its aim to satisfy and quieten The Victim. Putting pen to paper and writing this string of dialogue is just as, if not more, effective.

Having purged The Victim, the voice dimmed. Now The Saboteur came to the forefront (personified as The Matrix‘s Agent Smith). The Saboteur knows what’s good for me and actively tries to encourage me to do the complete opposite. Thanks Agent Smith.

This time, The Saboteur was encouraging me to binge-eat, to binge-drink, to stop going to the gym, to stop writing, to abandon MindThatEgo, to sabotage relationships, to sink into the murkiness of the ocean while waving the white flag and throwing in the towel.

Silencing The Saboteur

Green waves
The Victim and The Saboteur can keep me below water — if I let them.

The Saboteur is an interesting part of my psyche because I know the depths it can take me. I feel its presence, and acting against it can take a great effort. The sooner it’s managed, the better.

When I woke this morning I felt better, but The Saboteur was still there. “Don’t get out of bed,” it said, “you’re tired, you don’t have energy.” It was telling me there was no point in going to the gym. This isn’t a voice to pay attention to. Indeed sometimes my body does need to rest, or I do need more sleep. But thinking processes courtesy of The Saboteur arrive in narrative form; not intuition or sensation from the body. The latter is worth paying attention to.

Knowing its nature, I deal with The Saboteur differently than The Victim. I’ll give in a little, feeding its needs in a way I know won’t cause harm. Then…

I tell it to fuck off.

Seriously. Try it. Having recharged yesterday my resilience returned, and I was having none of it. I was regaining control and aside from tenderness, The Saboteur was my biggest challenge. Noticing its attempt to prevent me from starting my day, I knew I had the choice to listen, or to fight. So I stood in the mirror, stared deeply into my eyes, and channelled my warrior.

Carrying this mindset into the gym, each rep became act of defiance. Evidencing how effective weight training is in managing my mental health, I could feel The Saboteur retreat. It knew its place, it knew I wasn’t playing games.

As a side note, it’s interesting to witness the balancing of feminine and masculine energies throughout this process. I needed to cultivate a feminine energy to open up to vulnerability and sensitivity. Once I’d accepted and processed my emotions, it took a cultivation of masculine energy to overcome The Saboteur; a perfect illustration of the duality of yin and yang.

I suspect the depletion of my Life Force arose from an imbalance that needed to be addressed.

A Summary Of Overcoming Overwhelm

“It ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.” — Rocky Balboa

As I write, I feel lighter. Seasickness subsided. Knees no longer wobble. More space, more flow. Past and future have less pull, present. I’m aware I still need rest, but the change is noticeable. In the past this would have lasted much, much longer. Best of all, I’m ready to get back behind the wheel, to steer the ship through challenging waters. However, I’m also aware I need time to adjust to my usual pace.

I’ll end by summarising my approach to dealing with overwhelm. The initial step is relinquishing resistance and denial of how I am truly feeling: physically; emotionally; cognitively; energetically. I pay attention to the tendency of my mind to indulge in the past, or project fearfully into the future. Then I open up to my full experience, allowing myself to be vulnerable. If sadness arises, I allow it to wash over me, and experience it with self-compassion and curiosity. This allows other contributing factors to surface.

On this occasion these were the voices of The Victim and The Saboteur. Each needed to be managed in their own way, allowing me to clear the mind and to re-focus on the here and now, while respecting the need to adjust back to my usual pace, to find balance.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed and struggling to navigate, I hope these techniques help you find your sea legs. Remember: this too shall pass. Be kind to yourself. Allow yourself to feel. In no time, you’ll be back behind the wheel.

MindThatEgo Podcast, Spirituality

🎧 MTE Podcast #1: Essential Spirituality With Roger Walsh

Listen below:

The MindThatEgo Podcast is also available on iTunes.

This is a special moment… in the first ever MindThatEgo Podcast, I’m delighted to be joined by a very special guest, Dr. Roger Walsh, Professor of Psychiatry, Philosophy & Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine.

Roger has spent three decades researching wellbeing, combined with deep spiritual practice and self-exploration. Roger’s writing has earned him numerous international awards. His book — Essential Spirituality: The 7 Central Practices — is the topic of this discussion. It’s not an understatement to say this book changed my life, transforming my perspective on the world, inner and outer.

Roger’s transformative work has extensively uncovered useable tools all of us can practice to open us to new ways of living. These tools, thousands of years old yet more relevant than ever, can help uncover our true potential, transforming our inner-universe into an abundant landscape of analysis and learning.

Far from dogmatic religion, this is livable, life-changing, state-enhancing spirituality.

Talking points include:

  • What is the true source of happiness?
  • How can spirituality prepare us for death?
  • The role of psychedelics as a glimpse of our spiritual potential.
  • The transformative power of self-awareness.
  • The nature of true love.
  • The benefits of living ethically.
  • Can depression and anxiety be a gateway to spiritual awakening?
  • Spiritual practice as a means of connection and oneness.
  • Joyfully serving others as enlightened self-interest.

A special thank you to Roger for not only generously giving his time, but also sharing deep personal insights with sensitivity and kindness. This conversation will stay with me for life; I hope it contains value for you too. Enjoy.

Ego, Features, Fitness, Spirituality

Buddhism And Body Image — Applying The Middle Way Philosophy

The Middle Way was taught by Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha. Born into a rich family in the ancient city of Kapilavastu, Gautama lived a comfortable, privileged life within the grounds of his family’s palace. Gautama first set foot beyond the confines of wealth and luxury at the age of 29. He was horrified by what he saw — death, disease, misery, suffering. Humbled by this new reality, he was struck by the realisation of the thread of suffering running through humanity. From that moment, Gautama began his quest to find a way beyond suffering, to Nirvâna.

In a moment known as “The Great Renunciation,” Gautama calmly abandoned his life of leisure, giving up his status, wealth and possessions. His initial attempt at awakening was through asceticism, an extreme form of self-discipline. Six years of little food, little sleep, little interaction and hours and hours of meditation each day took their toll; Gautama collapsed in ill health. After this worrying wake-up call, he realised an important truth — an extreme, unbalanced approach would never lead to enlightenment.

Buddhism And Body Image

Despite being accused of cowardice by his pro-ascetic peers, Gautama knew a balanced approach was essential to reach Nirvâna. At the age of 35 he sat beneath The Bodhi Tree, determined to meditate until he reached enlightenment. After 49 days, he became The Buddha (The Awakened One). He then saw things as they really are, leading to his formation of the The Four Noble Truths, a philosophy on suffering. This principal formed the foundation of Buddhism.

The Eight Fold Path is a central teaching in this philosophy. This “path” avoids sensual self-indulgence and self-mortification. Its ethos: balance. This article will apply this philosophy to the complex and sometimes conflicting topic of body image. Below are five separations. Each distinguishes extremities in areas of suffering related to body image, carving a middle way. This is my attempt to structure the unspoken, abstract and often subconscious way spiritual practice has drastically improved my relationship with my body. I’m hopeful it’ll help you, too.

Separation #1: Worth From Appearance

“This Body itself is Emptiness
and Emptiness itself is this Body.
This Body is not other than Emptiness
and Emptiness is not other than this Body.
The same is true of Feelings,
Perceptions, Mental Formations,
and Consciousness.” — Excerpt from The Heart Sutra – Translated by Thich Nhat Hanh

Effective techniques to alleviate negative body image require unlearning. What do I mean by this? Improving body image requires us to undo the internalisation of strong cultural messages, messages assimilated since birth. The previous article explores the importance of unlearning the warped and unrealistic cultural definition of beauty. In similar vein, the first separation requires us to unlearn the cultural delusion that how we look has any influence, whatsoever, on our worth. This separation distills worth from appearance, avoiding the extreme of placing value on personal appearance — a remedy guaranteed to cause insecurity and anxiety.

Inherently, most of us agree our worth isn’t skin deep. You may be thinking, “that’s obvious Ricky, tell me something new.” But living and breathing this truth is a far cry from agreeing with it. That’s because intellectual acknowledgment — “I know I should feel this way” — is different from experiential understanding — “I feel this way.”

To clarify, think of a time when you’ve really, truly appreciated someone or something. Remember how it felt. You may have experienced a warming energy moving freely through your body, accompanied by an upbeat sense of ease, an unexpected outpouring of joy. These feelings are spontaneous. They don’t arise because of judgemental thoughts, as the consequence of evaluating a situation and deciding it is a moment for appreciation. These feelings arise in the absence of all thinking. Rarely, if ever, do they follow the thought: “I should appreciate this.”

Now, think of a time when you told yourself: “I should appreciate this moment.” How did you respond emotionally? For me, these types of thought are always followed by a suffocating sensation of guilt, accompanied by a self-sabotaging spiral of thoughts: “Why don’t I feel appreciation for this moment? I must be a bad person.” Self-worth follows this same blueprint.

body image worth
Our worth exceeds our physicality.

The antidote is moving beyond the intellect, to a place we can spontaneously feel self-worth. There’s no magic pill or quick fix; it takes regular meditation and mindfulness practice to cultivate appreciation, compassion, love and acceptance — for yourself, for others, for situations. Experiential understanding in this sense breaks down into increased self-compassion and self-acceptance.

The good news is you don’t have to focus on attaining self-worth. Developing experiential understanding causes self-worth to radiate from within, arising in the absence of thought — just like the appreciation example. And when this feeling radiates from within, the value placed on external factors (including appearance) starts to evaporate, all by itself.

Take action today — here’s a guided meditation on self-acceptance.

Separation #2: Satisfaction From Vanity

“We must distinguish between pride and self-confidence.” — Dalai Lama, Daily Advice from the Heart.

How do we apply the Dalai Lama’s above advice to body image? The key lies with Separation #2: satisfaction from vanity, the sweet spot between body shame and narcissism. Feeling content with the way we look isn’t indulgence. Vanity is. It’s a manifestation of the ego, a fragile form of attachment. Vanity causes suffering because indulgence in the body misplaces self-worth and attaches to the illusion of a fixed concept (more on that shortly). I’m not going to claim I don’t give a damn about my appearance; I cut my hair every three weeks and have an ASOS Premier Delivery subscription.

The Middle Way isn’t a lack of care. It’s taking care of physical appearance, without undue emphasis. This is particularly relevant to exercise and body composition. As mentioned in Instagram’s Influence On Negative Body Image, my body image struggles were sparked by feeling “too skinny” or “weak” or “not manly enough.” I started weight training because I thought building muscle would enhance my self-worth and value. I quickly learned a lesson. Instead, self-judgement increased as self-esteem decreased because I was paying even more attention to my physical form. I had gone from one extreme to the other.

I still weight train, and I finally feel I’ve found balance, most of the time. The key lies with perspective, not pull-ups. I no longer objectify my body as a piece of flesh I’m desperately attempting to sculpt by constantly pushing it to its limits. I value it as a vital extension of me, not something I own. I try to use exercise to increase the mind-body connection (at roughly 70% success rate). I listen to it and respect it by making a further separation.

Separation #3: Functionality From Objectification

“Apart from the obvious health benefits, we received evidence that physical activity can improve body image by diverting attention from what the body looks like to what it can do.” — A Body Confident Future

In a world obsessed with objectifying physical form, switching focus to functionality is an effective way to tackle self-objectification. Exercise plays a valuable part in this process. A philosophy I’ve developed for weight training is:

Switch mindset, from judgement to intrigue. Move from evaluation to fascination.

From the moment I ordered my first protein shake and stepped into the sweaty, windowless confines of my local gym, I was desperate to move away from self-perceived inadequacy. Consequently I began mindset of judgement and evaluation. What did that lead to? It led to constant self-judgement and self-evaluation, even once I’d got going. I’d feel frustrated and downbeat staring at my reflection. I’d obsess over the parts (parts = objectification?) of my body not developing as quickly as I’d hoped.

I’d started to change my body to change my self-esteem, yet I was operating within the paradigm of unrealistic beauty standards. I was placing my worth on how close I was getting to the perfected images I’d seen in the media. This expectation, this hope, was fuelled by a deceptive fitness industry that sells a lie of what is possible, without the aid of steroids. I’d internalised a distorted expectation of the functionality of my body. I wasn’t tuned into me, I was tuned out, hopelessly trying to attain someone else’s look.

The above philosophy has radically changed my outlook. I take a playful approach to the way the body changes and adapts. I try and step back, simply notice changes without actively labelling them “good” or “bad” or myself a success of failure dependent on my reflection. I take a curious approach to when I feel weaker or stronger on a particular day, or how certain foods give me more energy than others. At a basic level, I’ve developed an appreciation for the miracle of the human body, and its ability to change.

Self-criticism does of course still catch up with me. I get days where I feel anxious about my appearance — maybe I’m shrinking, putting on too much fat, incapable of exercising properly, not eating enough, eating too much — but these are reduced, fleeting, they don’t stick and I’m able to step back quicker, rationalise.

Separation #4: Impermanence From Fixed Concepts

“This body, too: Such is its nature, such is its future, such its unavoidable fate.” — Kāyagatāsati Sutta

Attachment is fixation. Attachment to fixed concepts causes suffering. Fixed concepts are an illusion — the reality is nothing is fixed, everything is constantly changing. Impermanence (anicca) is central to Buddhism, and one of the three marks of existence along with suffering (dukkha) and non-self (anattā). Ignorance to these three marks causes suffering, as all elements within our universe are transient, in constant flux. The Four Noble Truths, as mentioned previously, are:

  1. All existence is dukkha. Unsatisfactoriness, suffering… Ultimate happiness cannot be found in anything we experience. Gaining six pack abs or dropping a dress size won’t bring happiness.
  2. The cause of dukkha is craving. We grasp at some things, push others away, putting us at odds with the way life is. We grasp perfect beauty standards, we push away images of perceived ugliness.
  3. The cessation of dukkha comes with the cessation of craving. We can’t change what happens to us, but can change our response. Our bodies are our own, each a unique shape and size and composition. Severing the craving for a different body and accepting our body as our own can reduce suffering.
  4. There is a path that leads from dukkha. This is the Noble Eightfold Path.

One of the biggest attachments we develop is to the body. Eastern practice offers remedies to this; the Kāyagatāsati Sutta, for example, is practice of developing mindfulness through contemplations on the body. If we can accept the impermanent nature of the physical body, its inevitable fate, the decay over the course of time, we can cultivate a more peaceful relationship with it. Balance with this separation is respecting the transient nature of the body, avoiding attachment (indulgence). Conversely, we simultaneously want to cultivate a sense of ease with this knowledge. Impermanence and eventual death doesn’t justify bodily neglect (mortification).

Separation #5: Health From Aesthetics

Western culture is heavily invested in the idea the self, intelligence and consciousness is all contained in the mind. Other traditions don’t see it this way. Chinese medicine, for example, correlates emotions to specific organs, and treats symptoms accordingly. Viewing emotions are a form of abstract experience is a fallacy — look no further than cortisol, a hormone released during times of stress, referred to as “public enemy number one” for its damaging physical effects. Then there’s growing evidence that gut microbes may influence our mood. A 2011 study by McMaster University discovered implanting bacteria from anxiety suffering humans into mice increased their level of anxiety-like behaviour.

Not only does this study bring new meaning to “gut feeling,” it highlights the symbiotic relationship between mind, body and soul. The way the body is treated has a significant impact on the mind. One of the biggest tools I’ve used to manage depression and anxiety is to make sure I’m treating my body well. At a stage of crisis, the first point of call to assess exercise, nutrition, sleep hygiene, stress, alcohol and drug consumption. My direct experience tells me to achieve an optimum mental state, a solid foundation to handle day-to-day fluctuations, all of these areas have to be in order.

health body image
A focus on overall health, not aesthetics, is proven to improve body image.

Mental health can’t flourish whilst the body is abused by junk food or neglected by lethargy. Sadly, our culture is so set on bodily abuse is taking active steps to better health is sometimes seen as a rebellious (or even presumptuous) act. Just try abstaining from alcohol and see how challenging it is. Forget exercising and eating well to shape up to Instagram models or Hollywood stars; this level of care is crucial not to look good, but to feel great. Ignore the messages saying you don’t deserve it — you do.

That’s why the fifth and final separation is an important one. Learning to tune-in to your bodily sensations and energy can act as a visual guide to your health. This is very subjective and personal to you. Weigh up the pros and cons and be your own guide. If you feel a certain way after eating a certain food, or feel energetic after less than eight hours sleep, follow your guide. If your skin indicates a lack of hydration, or too much fatty food, follow the guide. Respect the body, refer to it, let it guide you to good health.

A final word

Drastically improving body image is possible. But no article, no single tool, no words of wisdom or fads or movements or meditations will magically flip a switch. It takes hard work. It takes daily application of the tools, some of which I’ve shared, many of which are out there, waiting for you to uncover. The moment you consciously decide a negative body image isn’t serving you, is the moment you spark change.

Good luck. You can do this.