The above title is a really poor play on Spencer Johnson’s classic book “Who Moved My Cheese,” – a book that teaches us that change should be viewed, not as a curse, but as a blessing. I’ve been in a funk for the past couple days. I noticed my outlook was not as sunny and neither was the weather in LA. I took a step back and like any clinician worth their salt, evaluated what contributing factors were at play. I recognized it had been raining for two days straight in LA (a rarity), I had been up late entertaining a friend from out of town, not taking care of my body, and generally not doing many of the things I prescribe in my B.A.L.A.N.C.E model, myself. When I looked at the evidence, it was no wonder I was feeling a sense of doom and gloom.
Happiness does not assume one experiences the feeling “happy” all the time. Rather, happiness is a state of mind that allows for the occasional setback. The person who has reached a state of well-being and contentment understands that life is a series of ups and downs. Much of the Buddhist teachings prescribe that we become unattached to the ups and downs and become an observer, instead. This way, we are able to consciously watch our life without becoming attached to its inevitable ups and downs.
Many of the patients in my happiness groups found this a hard concept to grasp. An interesting observation about those who suffered with depression, or bipolar disorder (about 95% of the group), was that even though their life tended to cycle in ups and downs as did everyone else- they seemed to ruminate more on the downs, and even anticipated the downs during a time in their life that should have been joyful.
A dangerous interpretation of non-attachment is “indifference.” This should not be the case. Buddhism is not advocating that we move through our lives passive and numb. Rather, it teaches that we should view all change as inevitable and a part of life- even our moods.
With today’s rampant over-prescribing of psychotropic medication to all emotions, negative, it is no wonder we tend to lend more weight now to our sadness. Whenever we feel down, anxious, or depressed, someone says “wait, there’s a pill for that.” People learn to quickly avoid these painful emotions by turning to chemical substances, sex, or some other harmful behavior. Yet, these emotions should be a welcome part of the human experience. Without this diversity of emotional spectrum, it becomes difficult to experience the positive end. We need the yin to experience the yang. We need the rain to see the rainbow…ok I’ll stop with the Hallmark card.
In addition to this take on life, we must also have the tools to evaluate what ingredients we are putting into the mix. If we are not taking care of ourselves, not sleeping, or drinking too much alcohol, we’re making well-being an uphill battle. If we haven’t challenged ourselves recently and found ourselves stuck in a routine, we’re going to feel like we’re in a rut. If we look at our interpersonal relationships and notice they’ve all taken a turn for the worse, it’s likely we’re going to feel it.
“Don’t say, “I am depressed.” If you want to say, “It is depressed,” that’s all right. If you want to say that depression is there, that’s fine; if you want to say gloominess is there, that’s fine. But not: I am gloomy. You’re defining yourself in terms of the feeling. That’s your illusion; that’s your mistake. There is a depression there right now, but let it be, leave it alone. It will pass. Everything passes, everything. Your depressions and your thrills have nothing to do with happiness. Those are swings of the pendulum. If you seek kicks or thrills, get ready for depression. Do you want your drug? Get ready for the hangover. One end of the pendulum swings over to the other.” -Anthony Demello
So what did I do with my weekend funk, you may ask? I marched myself right over to my Bikram yoga studio. I recently resumed Bikram after a friend re-introduced me to it. Not only did I intend to sweat out all the toxins from my body, I also intended to let go of the toxins from my mind.
The reason I like Bikram so much is because it has so many parallels with life. There are moments of intense suffering in Bikram and we are told to simply “keep breathing.” As in life, when the going gets rough, all we can do is keep breathing, just put one foot in front of the other, and recognize it will eventually get better.
Another interesting aspect of Bikram yoga is that each day our bodies are different. One day, we may be able to go in and do all of the 17 postures. Yet, the next day, it may seem next to impossible to do a simple back bend. As with life, we must understand that we are constantly in flux and to maintain a sense of non-judgment about ourselves as we change.
Lastly, Bikram gives me a chance to rip off the old page and start on a fresh one. It allows me to “shake the etch-a-sketch” if you will, and start anew. No matter what I’m going through, it doesn’t stand a chance when I’ve allowed my mind to calm down for 90 minutes.
Avoiding Conflict does not an “Inner Peace” make…
As I stepped out of Bikram, I felt reinvigorated. Although my body was completely exhausted, my mind was refreshed. I was able to take a step back and review what else was going on in my own life that may have been contributing to my negative emotional state.
I started to closely evaluate my relationships and see that I had been letting friends take advantage of me. Part of this seems to be an easy transition for a therapist. Many people feel like they should be able to unload on me, without care or concern for how I feel. Without running the risk of sounding a bit paranoid, I’ve found (especially in LA) there are people who will gladly take advantage of your kindness. Part of this was my fault, equating friendliness with passive tolerance of selfish behavior. Part of this was simply hanging out with the wrong people.
Yet, in my disease to please, I began to experience discomfort internally. My stomach churned, I pulled something in my upper back that made it hard to turn my neck, digestion was all off, and my sleep was suffering. Since then, I have decided to say “no” more often, and that the “someone is better than no one at all” approach is not necessarily true. Furthermore, I realized that my tendency to be conflict-averse was hurting me more in the end. Just because one successfully avoids conflict, does not mean there is peace, especially internally.
So there you have it…the “Happiness Doc,” isn’t always “happy” 100% of the time. The difference between myself and many people who suffer with depression or chronic un-fullfillment is not our differing life circumstances, but the approach we take. I like to see myself as the Julia Child of my life, and if life isn’t tasting good, I take out the ingredients that are making it sour. I don’t simply sit back and complain of life’s awful taste and wait for someone else to bring a better dish.
It is also important to realize that sometimes life just sucks. That is the bittersweet truth about it all. We must savor the sweet times and withstand the sour…understanding that the sweetest dishes can only be appreciated best with a twist of lemon.
Funny enough…our yoga teacher gave us a quote yesterday that was poignantly fitting for where I was at the time and this blog. Here it is:
…As the great Confucius said, “The one who would be in constant happiness must frequently change.” Flow. But we keep looking back, don’t we? We cling to things in the past and cling to things in the present…Do you want to enjoy a symphony? Don’t hold on to a few bars of the music. Don’t hold on to a couple of notes. Let them pass, let them flow. The whole enjoyment of a symphony lies in your readiness to allow the notes to pass…
Dr. Colleen Long is the author of “Happiness in B.A.L.A.N.C.E,” and practices in the Los Angeles area. Dr. Long works mainly from a positive psychology framework as it applies to addiction, depression, relationships, and weight loss. Her website can be found at www.DrColleenLong.com. All public speaking/media event requests handled through FreudTV (info@FreudTV.com).