As a positive psychology coach and meditation teacher, new clients often ask me, “Have you always been a naturally positive person?”
Given what I do, I think most people assume I was one of those easygoing kids who naturally grew into a calm, happy adult. To the contrary, I came to the field of positive psychology and contemplative practice in an attempt to heal a host of stress-related health problems and calm my anxious, racing mind.
For years, I woke every morning with a pit in my stomach and a feeling of dread, believing the familiar self-story: “I have so much to do and not enough time. I am already falling behind. And I can’t believe I ate so much last night. Today, the diet and the next self-improvement project starts for real.” My mind was a battlefield of self-criticism and happiness was somehow always just around the corner with the
I joke, but it is true that I needed to study positive emotion before I could let myself experience positive emotion. I completed my Master in Applied Positive Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania in 2012. Here, I learnt that positive emotions don’t just feel good in the moment, but physiologically change the way our brains and bodies work to broaden our cognitive capacity, improve physical health, and build the personal and social resources we need to thrive.
During my research, I also learnt that self-criticism activates the body’s stress response in the same way that a threat to one’s physical survival activates the stress response, which shunts energy away from basic maintenance functions like digestion, immune function, and the hormones needed for a good mood and sleep. Being kind to ourselves, on the other hand, calms the stress response to make us more resilient in the face of failure, emotionally balanced, and satisfied with life.
Quieting the relentless inner critic, however, doesn’t happen on a whim. As anyone with anxiety knows, you can’t just talk yourself out of it. Repeating positive affirmations doesn’t work when your mind knows you are lying. If I tried to tell myself, “I am radiant and beautiful and accept myself as I am,” the inner critic would quickly jump in to remind me, “False! Not true! Are you kidding? You have so far to go!”
I, like most people in Western society, lacked basic training in how to work with my thoughts and feelings, especially difficult feelings. So when I found myself out of balance, my default was to reach for something to fix it (such as food, alcohol, distraction) or to try to fix myself (think: lose weight, achieve something).
The most courageous thing I have ever done is learn how to turn inward to explore the workings of my mind and heart. The first months of starting a meditation practice consisted of placing my hands on my heart, finding my breath in my belly, and half a breath in feeling the shakiness in my chest and the clutching in my stomach. “Oh, this is anxiety,” I would gently say to myself, “This feels so hard.” My mind would race and think of all the things I should be doing. Rather than trying to make the anxiety go away by getting busy or working on the next accomplishment, over time, I learnt how to observe my inner experience with curiosity and acceptance.
It is not that the thoughts and feelings went away, but rather that I stopped believing them. I could let them be there, and as I experienced myself as the awareness that was noticing them, I was free. I was free to direct my attention to the things that were also true about my life that I couldn’t see or feel before—the brilliance of the sky on a clear day, the pleasure of my first sip of coffee in the morning, a warm hug from a friend, the support of family, and the simple joys of being alive.
I started fertilising my mind with the healthy mind states–like gratitude, loving-kindness, optimism, and joy—that naturally give rise to wellbeing. I took my training seriously, creating rituals and routines to help focus my attention on the good. Today, not only do I no longer have anxiety or insomnia, but I also have more moments of deep inner joy than I ever thought possible. While I still have my moments of worry and self-doubt, just like everyone, I have the skills needed to attend to my inner experience so that I don’t get stuck. The joy of self-kindness inspires me to try new things, take on new challenges, and connect with those around me.
As a practitioner in New York City, it is truly my joy to share the fruits of positive psychology and meditation with all who may benefit!
Embodying Wisdom & Compassion
Our attention is our most precious resource. Where we choose to direct our attention not only determines our moment-to-moment reality, but also changes the shape and function of the brain long-term. In neuroscience, this process is called ‘experience dependent neuroplasticity’.
Let’s explore this concept with a helpful analogy because it is so important:
- Imagine a small ball on firm sand. If we move the ball back and forth along the same path in the sand, a deep groove will eventually form along that path.
- Think of your brain (which is made up of a hundred billion nerve cells, called ‘neurons’, sending signals to each other), like the sand. Think of your thoughts and feelings like balls that can create different patterns in the sand.
- Every time you have a thought or feeling, you get a temporary blip of neuronal communication, creating a pattern. For example, a passing feeling of love makes a certain pattern in the brain; a moment of fear is a different pattern; wanting a piece of cake is a pattern in the brain; feeling grateful is another pattern.
- Having a passing feeling or thought is like running the ball through the sand one time, which wouldn’t leave behind too deep of a groove.
- If, however, you have the same type of thought or feeling over and over again, the groove in the sand gets deeper and deeper, making it more likely that you will have the same thought or feeling in the future.
So, what does this mean for us on a daily basis?
It means that we need to be very careful about what we give our attention to (i.e., social media, the news, advertising, television shows, magazines, people, gossip) and the habitual thoughts we run over and over again. In our culture of consumption and competition, our attention is too often pulled towards thoughts of comparison, criticism, judgment, and fear.
Practice Tool: Embodying Wisdom & Compassion
According to Buddhist psychology, each of us contains the seeds of many different ‘selves’. The self we choose to feed and nurture gives rise to our dominant self, which manifests in our physical posture, tone of voice, habitual thoughts and feelings, and daily interactions.
One of my favourite attention-focusing practices leverages the visual spatial cortex and imagination to change the neurological pattern in the brain and resulting cascade of physiological responses. Give the following embodied meditation from Paul Gilbert’s work on compassionate mind-training a try:
- First, stand loosely and relaxed with your eyes gently closed. Adopt a soothing breath for a few moments. Allow your body to relax, using as little effort as possible to hold yourself up.
- Now, imagine that you are a deeply compassionate and wise person. Think of the ideal qualities that you would like to have: understanding of the shared human experience, deep kindness, warmth, gentleness, steadiness, mindful awareness in challenge, sincere gratitude and appreciation for life.
- See yourself here and now, inhabiting your physical body just as it is. Imagine these qualities of compassion sinking deep into the core of your being. Allow your facial expression to be gentle and kind. Perhaps a slight smile crosses your face. Each breath a kind breath intended to soften and sooth. Notice how you are holding yourself. What does it feel like to embody these qualities of tenderness and wisdom?
- What would it look like to engage the world as this compassionate self? See yourself interacting with others—coworkers, family and friends, the barista at your local coffee shop. What is your body language? Tone of voice? What kind of presence do you have?
Practise embodying your compassionate self throughout your day! Recreate compassionate body postures, facial expressions, and voice tones as you engage at work and home. At first, these practices may feel a bit artificial, but remember you are in training. We become the selves we want to be through commitment and practice. Enjoy the journey with curiosity and open-mindedness!
Words: Kayleigh Pleas Vogel
Positive Psychology Coach, Meditation and Yoga Teacher