These thoughts are inspired by time spent with a young man who is earnestly seeking a meaningful and fulfilling life. I have known him since he was a little boy, but have not sat down with him for a conversation about life until today. I am so grateful for our time together.
Life is hard and life is a miracle. When life is hard, this does not negate the miracle of life. The miraculous nature of life does not eliminate the reality of stress, anxiety, loss, disappointment, illness, injury, disagreement, and heartbreak.
We learn a lot of things in school – algebra, Shakespeare, history, chemistry, grammar… Even with the best education, most of us are never taught explicitly how to:
- Work gracefully and purposefully with the discomfort that is an inevitable part of life
- Cultivate internal resources such as gratitude, joy, and love independent of circumstances.
These two skills are critical to a life of well-being. They are massively useful in navigating, and even thriving in, the ups and downs of life. Without these skills, we are left to seek comfort in circumstances and/or look for escapes & distractions from discomfort in approval, substances, social media, food, technology, materialism…
There is no effective, permanent escape from human discomfort. Circumstances are constantly changing and largely outside our control, so we cannot count on them as a consistent source of gratitude, love, and joy.
We can practice the two critical skills of well-being everyday. We can expand our capacity to be with discomfort and we can access gratitude, love, and joy.
Here is the blueprint for that practice:
Set a timer for five minutes. Commit to pay attention to the sensations of your breath. When you do this, two things will happen. 1. Your attention will wander. 2. You will feel stuff.
When you notice that your attention has wandered, just bring it back to the sensations of your breath. When you notice that you are feeling something (boredom, restlessness, anxiety, an urge to send an email…), simply accept this as part of being human and return your attention to the sensations of your breath.
When you are done with this, set the timer for five minutes again. This time, sit quietly and connect with the feelings of gratitude, appreciation, love, and joy for specific circumstances and people in your life. After a couple minutes of this, see if you can access these feelings for life itself. Experiment with an unconditional approach to these positive emotions. It may feel awkward, and your attention is likely to wander – this is all part of the practice.
You can do this to start your day or before you go to sleep (or both!). The more consistently you do this, the more easily you can access it throughout the day. This practice is good for your physical and psychological well-being. It can also have a positive impact on your relationships and your ability to focus on your priorities.
This practice can also help you find balance throughout the day in the midst of demands and distractions. You can stop briefly several times a day and do the following:
Open your posture, take a deep breath, and smile.
Observe the sensations of your feet on the ground and your breath in your body.
Accept whatever you notice — even if it is uncomfortable – as part of life.
Access gratitude, love, and joy for life. Remind yourself of what matters most.
Full disclosure – when I was struggling with anxiety, perfectionism, and harsh self-criticism earlier in my life, I would have rolled my eyes and laughed at you if you told me to do any of the above. I believed that there was an escape from what I was feeling and that I just had to work harder and prove that I was worthy. I would have dismissed the idea of accepting discomfort and cultivating joy as new-age hogwash.
However, after thirty years of studying neuroscience and behavior, reading wisdom from lasting traditions, and working with thousands of individuals from many walks of life and levels of economic and social status, I have seen repeatedly what a difference this practice makes for people. It has transformed my own life in ways that I would have thought impossible.
Your brain is continually updating itself based on what you do. This means that everything you do is practice as far as your brain is concerned. You have the opportunity – everyday – to grow your skill in working with discomfort and cultivating gratitude, love, and joy. What are you waiting for?
Dave is an author, speaker, coach, and consultant on the practice of mindful self-regulation. You can order his book, Good Life Practice, here. If you have thoughts or questions, you can contact Dave at firstname.lastname@example.org If you are interested in more information or setting up a conversation with Dave, please visit www.appliedattention.com