The popular sentiment is that it has been a rough year. If 2020 was a test, many of us failed. Some of us lost all sense of structure and routine; some of us lost touch with the important people in our lives; some of us gave up on long-held goals for self-improvement; some of us spent too much time distracting ourselves with TV, or following the relentlessly not-quite-informative enough news cycle; some of us became callous, suspicious, and unforgiving; and some of us struggled seemingly in vain against the emotional 'wolves at the gate' of depression and anxiety.
It has been said that "history is just one damn thing after another", and sometimes our lives can feel the same. With a new year ahead, and the realization that the start and end of difficult periods in our lives don't neatly limit themselves to lines on a calendar, the time to start getting serious about making the changes we want in our lives, is now. The time to make change is always now.
To get serious in making these changes, we need the right tools. A few weeks ago I wrote about Negative Visualization - or momentarily considering having lost something that you already have, in order to increase our current feelings of appreciation and gratitude. Now I want to introduce you to two additional tools that can help improve your mood and future outlook.
The first is the simple practice of "just note gone". We rightfully spend a lot of our time looking to the future to see what is coming at us - scanning our immediate future for danger, and often experiencing turmoil in anticipation of upcoming difficulties rather than as a direct result of the current situation. As the ancient stoic philosopher Seneca proposed: "We suffer more in our imagination than in reality". With the practice of "just note gone", the aim is to purposefully turn your attention in the opposite direction to take special notice of previously experienced things that are no more. Author Tim Ferriss elaborates:
"For example, at the end of a breath, notice that the breath is over. Gone. As a sound fades away, notice when it is over. Gone. At the end of a thought, notice that the thought is over. Gone. At the end of it experience of emotion – joy, anger, sadness, or anything else – notice it is over. Gone."
The "just note gone" technique is particularly useful in difficult times, because it trains us to recognize and remember that pains of all types pass, and even more importantly, that we get to choose where we place our attention.
A second tool that can improve your mood is "loving kindness", or simply taking time to explicitly wish happiness for the people in your life - family, friends, acquaintances, or total strangers. It really is that simple. Take a minute or two out of your day, think of one specific person, and think "I wish for you to be happy". You don't have to do anything. You don't have to say anything. Just think "I wish for you to be happy". Give it a try, and perhaps combine it with the "just note gone" technique to see what thoughts or emotions fade from your awareness as you wish for the happiness of others.
Many of us are seeing far fewer people than we would have day-to-day prior to the pandemic. You might think this would make using the loving kindness technique more difficult. Not so. Each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own. Everyone has a story, even 'the extra sipping coffee in the background; the blur of traffic passing on the highway; the lighted window at dusk':
As novelist Mark Meltzer so memorably stated: "Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind, always."
This week's sharp question:
Which of your current habits serve you most? Which serve you least?