about serenity

Meditate for Real

You will find lots of people who will tell you to meditate for two minutes a day, that just a few minutes is enough, that you can take it easy and it’ll work just the same. I’m here to tell you you’ve got to dedicate time to it. Don’t just meditate for two minutes. It’ll only confuse you. Meditate for twenty minutes, that’s your baseline. You start at twenty minutes. Of course, this is my experience with it and other’s might be different. I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on this, I’m far from that; my goal is to share what I’ve learned from my practice.

I used to apply the “two minutes” rule (or five, that’s not the point) and found that instead of helping me, the meditation would make me irritable and I’d feel uneasy. I wondered for a long time why meditation was making me feel that way, and I questioned whether the practice was good at all.

After reading more about it, I came to the conclusion that meditation is a practice that has to be taken seriously, and that means dedicating time and effort to it. There is no easy fix, there is no quick meditation. I never found any positive effects out of meditating for less than twenty minutes.

Don’t think you’ve mastered it, either. Perhaps you’ll meditate for twenty minutes for a few weeks, start feeling the results, and then you’ll tell yourself that you already know what it’s about, that you can now meditate for shorter periods of time to “maintain” the effects. Don’t delude yourself like that. You’re no expert. I’ve been meditating on and off for five years and each year I feel like a beginner, like I’m learning new things about the practice that should have been obvious.

So, meditate. By all means, meditate. And please, take your time with it. Give yourself the time and space to really get into it, because twenty minutes? You’re just scratching the surface. It’s the least you can do.


Five Ways Negative People Drain Your Energy and What To Do

If you’ve ever lived with or shared an important portion of your day with a highly negative person, you know how draining it is. No matter how positive your attitude is or how much you try to protect yourself emotionally, they end up having some sort of impact on you. I’m in this situation now (and was raised by very negative people), so I took some time to think about it and see just how it’s affecting me, hoping that understanding things better will help. This is what I found:

1. They unload their problems on you. Sharing difficulties is a common thing among friends and family (and sometimes strangers), and there’s nothing wrong with it, of course. After all, having a support system and someone to talk to is very important. However, it shouldn’t become a burden. Negative people have an ability to not only tell you the specifics, but to convey their deep, negative emotions very effectively. So what starts as sharing their problems, ends up as transferring their negative emotions over to you. If you’re very empathic or sensitive, chances are you’ll end up feeling as if their problems are your own.

What to do? My strategy is to differentiate my problems and their problems in my mind. It’s okay to feel sympathy for them, but you shouldn’t adopt their problems as your own. You have enough going on already.

2. Their emotions are contagious. Negativity, anxiety and stress are all contagious feelings. So are joy, happiness and enthusiasm. Being close to a negative person for extended periods of time will wear you down, and probably cause you to start thinking negatively yourself. Sometimes all it takes is one conversation, and you’ll be in a bad mood for the rest of the day.

What to do? Do things to develop and sustain your good mood. Meditate, go jogging, work out, do yoga; or dedicate at least fifteen minutes every day to a hobby you love, whatever it is. It will relax you and remind you that there are good things in life, too.

3. They become emotionally dependant. It doesn’t always happen, but if your relationship is close, the negative person will start depending on you. They will want to share their negativity every time they feel it, and they’ll expect a strong reaction out of you -even if one isn’t warranted. They’ll want you to make decisions for them and be available at all times to pander their needs. And they will complain if you choose not to accommodate them.

What to do? Don’t rush to indulge their requests every time, especially when they aren’t rational. Be your own person and react in the same way you would if it was a normal situation.

4. They say no to everything. No matter what you suggest that might make their lives easier, they say no (and often end up contradicting themselves as well). They don’t want to go for a walk, they don’t want to stay home, they don’t want to have coffee, they don’t want to see a therapist, they don’t want to try yoga, they don’t want to rest more, they don’t want to get out of bed, they don’t want to meet with their friends, they don’t want to find a new job, they don’t want to read a book, they don’t want to try to see things differently, they don’t want to, they don’t want, they don’t, no. Whatever comes out of your mouth will be met with a negative answer. They’ll probably get frustrated with your suggestions, thinking you don’t understand them, and complain about that, too.

What to do? For the time being, stop expecting them to agree with you. It’s hard for them to see things in a positive light. They’re going to say no to most of what you say, and it’s best for you to make your peace with that.

5. They don’t respect your own needs and wishes. This is perhaps the most damaging aspect. They might care about you, but they are terrible at showing it. Because they expect to be your first priority in life, they will constantly demand your time, though not always in an obvious way. Their demands can be very subtle, but effective. Pay attention to how many times you end up postponing your own life in order to attempt to help them. How much are you sacrificing? Social life? Time dedicated to work? Alone time? Sleep? They’re taking it all.

What to do? Set some limits. They’re not going to like it, but it needs to be done. Be as explicit as necessary. Some example phrases: I need to finish some work or my boss will get mad at me; I haven’t slept enough in weeks; I need time to meet with my friends and relax. Again, they’re probably not going to like it; let them. You deserve time to relax and to take care of your responsibilities.

My journey with Buddhism

About five years ago, I googled the word “meditation”. I’m not completely sure what made me do it. I know I was struggling with anxiety, and trying to finish my thesis dissertation, without much success. But I don’t remember exactly what led me to that search. It could have been an article on the internet, maybe. The important thing is that I clicked search. 

One website caught my eye right away, it was wildmind.org (which I recommend if you’re interested). I began reading their posture workshop and mindfulness of breathing guides. It took me a while, probably a couple of weeks, to read it all thoroughly. The guides are meant for anyone who is interested in meditation, and no religious conversion is required at all, but mentions of the Buddha and his teachings are understandably made. I started practicing meditation and soon felt some benefits. (As a side note, Buddhist meditation is one of the most effective things I use to deal with my anxiety.)

Besides the practice of meditation itself, I became interested in the ideas behind it. Reading about them made me feel good, and I wanted to know more. So I googled again, and went on to read books, articles and such on the topic of Buddhism.

It wasn’t until last year that I started reading the Suttas (Buddhism’s sacred texts) in earnest. I wish I’d done it earlier, but perhaps it wasn’t the right time. You certainly get a different perspective from reading the Suttas directly than you do from reading books about them. When you’re reading a book about Buddhism, you’re getting the author’s opinion on it. No matter how hard anyone tries to be objective, their own views are there (sometimes more obviously than others). There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. I’ve found, however, that I prefer to read the original discourses and do my own interpretation. By doing this, my understanding of Buddhism has changed noticeably, and I’m still just scratching the surface.

I don’t consider myself a Buddhist, though I’ve felt tempted to define myself as such several times in the last five years. There are still some things I’m not comfortable with, especially the more, say, supernatural aspects of it. The fact that I don’t know any Buddhists outside of the internet doesn’t help matters, either.

Will I convert to Buddhism? Will my family and friends give me the same funny look they gave me when I told them I meditate? I don’t know. Maybe. At this point I feel that it would be disrespectful to Buddhists to call myself that, when I’m not even sure it’s the right path for me. I do find the more practical teachings very useful, and their basic ideas ring true, for the most part.

My journey with Buddhism is constantly changing. I guess nothing in this life escapes from impermanence.

The First Thing I Do In The Morning (After Peeing)

Lately I’ve been trying different ways to stop procrastinating, most of them were (sadly) unsuccessful. There are things I want to do (and others, I have to do), and somehow I always find excuses to put them off for one more day; I’ll get them tomorrow, really. The internet is one of my biggest problems, because I need to check my work email among other work related things, I also want to read the news to stay informed, but somehow I end up sucked into meaningless websites that do nothing for me but waste my time.

Actually, if I really think about it, they do one more thing. They suck the life out of me. In the morning, I like to sit in my back yard, with my coffee and laptop, watch my pets frolicking in the sun (alright, napping in the sun), and surf the internet mindlessly. After a while of unimportant must-read randomness, my motivation for all the things I need to get done is gone. It always begins the same: I wake up, tell myself that I need some me-time, that I’ll concentrate on work after procrastinating, it’s just for a little while, don’t I get to enjoy life, too? But after I’m done with indulging myself, my energy levels are so low I can’t even find a reason to get up from my chair and get through my day.

So yesterday I tried something different. I woke up and sat in my backyard with my coffee and laptop, but didn’t switch on the internet router. Instead, I started working on one of my fiction stories and by the time I realized it, I’d been writing for over an hour and I felt great. I was energized and feeling positive, so I got up and started doing some chores I’d been avoiding. I also went to get groceries, cleaned the house and planned my work schedule for the week, all before noon.

The first thing I do in the morning, it seems, sets the pace for the rest of the day. Am I being productive and actually doing something, or am I avoiding what I need to get done? The more I do in the hour after I wake up, the more I do during the day. I wonder what I’ll accomplish if I manage to stay away from the internet until at least the afternoon.

Quicksand Anxiety & Why I Stopped Fighting It

Have you noticed how much anxiety and quicksand are alike? I’ve been dealing with anxiety for about fifteen years, and I’ve tried lots of things to manage it. Medication and psychotherapy (several times, combined and by themselves), Buddhist meditation (one of the most effective things I’ve tried), positive thinking (useful, though I’m not always in the mood for it), the paradoxical technique (in which you purposefully try to make yourself more and more anxious until it seems absurd, a complete failure for me –I just got more anxious), exercise, less caffeine, less carbs, more sleep… You name it.

About five years ago, I was in the middle of a college final, and I was completely terrified. I had to pass that class, it was one of the last credits I needed. I was also shaking, having palpitations, sweating and feeling the urge to run out of there. I couldn’t think, I couldn’t utter a word. What was I going to do? I needed to pass! I needed to do well! If only my anxiety would just go away.

I’ll repeat that last sentence, because it’s key in what I’m trying to say: if only the anxiety would just go away.

It hit me at that moment that it wouldn’t. That I couldn’t magically make it go away. I had been trying to calm myself down, and the damn, stupid anxiety was still there. It also hit me that it had been there hundreds of times before, and I had survived many exams. I’d done it all, with the anxiety. And I knew I’d feel it again in the future. The anxiety was a part of my life, so I accepted it. I don’t mean that I liked it, was happy about it or even that I gave up. No, I accepted the terrifying and – ironically – liberating truth of it: I would get through my exam feeling anxious and I would survive it.

The moment I realized that I could do it (because I’d done it so many times in the past and I would again in the future), I was able to stop focusing on it and start focusing on the exam. It’s not that I forgot about my anxiety, or that any of the physical symptoms completely went away. It was that I was in control again, and my anxiety was not. I was able to think, I was able to speak. I was able to remember what I’d studied. And I passed the exam.

I learned something very useful that day. Anxiety is like quicksand. The more you fight against it, the faster you sink. If you focus all your energy and thoughts on how anxious you feel and how you’re convinced that you’re in a situation where everything is going to hell (even if most of the time it doesn’t actually happen), you’re just feeding your anxiety. The way to get out of quicksand, as you might have heard, is to stop struggling with it.

Now, I know that sounds impossible. You’re in the middle of a panic attack and you should stop struggling? It sounds like cheap advice from someone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about, doesn’t it? But I’ve done, and I assure you it’s possible. Here are the steps:

1. Remember that you’ve survived similar situations before. These are huge accomplishments, and you should feel proud.

2. Understand that it won’t magically go away on its own.

3. Know that it doesn’t need to go away right now because, after all this time, you’re an expert at surviving situations like this. You could write a book about it.

4. Accept your physical and emotional feelings of anxiety without focusing all of your attention on them.

5. Gently guide your attention back to the task at hand, as many times as needed.

It’s not a magical solution, but it doesn’t have any side effects, it’s free, and you can do it. You’ve done it before hundreds of times. Now you just need to gradually learn to focus your attention on what’s important. And what’s important is reclaiming control of your life.

What I Want To Do

I must have taken at least two or three dozen career orientation tests in my life, maybe more. Some of them, I took while I was in high school. Some, in college. Others, after I graduated and started working. I had a problem with most of the tests: I could see how each answer would influence the results. So if I was feeling artistic that day, the results ended up biased towards art. Same with science, and with any profession known to humankind. It’s not that I was trying to cheat; it’s that I felt the questions were too obvious. I’m not sure why I kept taking them, since I was never really satisfied with the results, but I suppose my desire to find (admit, rather) my dream job was strong.

One day recently, I was online and decided to take yet another one of those tests. This one had less obvious questions. In one of its sections, I had to choose between two jobs. Architect or florist, teacher or mechanic, lawyer or scientist… you get the point. I was doing fine, and it was quite monotonous, until one of the choices was “magazine editor”. I teared up immediately; it was such a physical response, I had no control over it. Memories of my very young self editing my own newspaper on my old computer came rushing back. I never really gave it much thought then, I was about ten years old, and thought it was just something fun to do on the computer. My parents never encouraged me to look into it more and, with time, I stopped. But here I was, almost twenty years later (twenty years! It’s scary to think how much time has passed) tearing up over the idea of writing and editing a magazine.

I wasn’t scared at that point, that came later. I was relieved. I had spent over two years questioning my career choice, but I wasn’t getting any closer to an answer on what I truly wanted to do. And there it was, clear as water, as it should have been all those years. Writing, editing, that’s what I wanted to do.  That’s what I always found myself trying to do, without being aware of it. There are several reasons why I never dedicated much time to writing, but they sound very close to excuses if I say them out loud. Fear of not being good enough is probably the biggest real reason.

Right now, I’m still struggling with that fear. What if no one wants to read what I write? What if they read it and think it sucks? What if I can never make a living out of it and have to continue doing work I don’t like?

What if I’m not worthy of doing something I love?

The question had been in the back of my mind all the time, though it took me a while to notice it. This question, I believe, is the key. The real reason it took me so long to figure it out, the reason why I’m scared to write, why I’m scared to give it my all… what if I’m not worthy of it?

For the time being, my strategy will be this: The answer is I am worthy. I don’t fully believe it yet, but I’m not going to let myself dwell on that. I will try, and then try some more, and learn and practice and practice, and maybe in ten, twenty, thirty years, I’ll come back to the question. And perhaps, the question itself will have changed then. Was it worth it? I hope the answer is yes, because it’s the only answer I’ll accept. It’s worth it. I’m worth it. Let’s get to work.

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