Buddhism & R.E.B.T.: How to Be Happy

Buddhist monk Pema Chödrön writes “Meditation helps us to clearly see ourselves and the habitual patterns that limit our life”. (Yes it does, and that is rather uncomfortable at times. It is so much easier to blame others for my discontent!)

Albert Ellis, creator of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy asserts that feelings come from thoughts and we can control our thoughts. We are therefore responsible for our own emotional state. (Geez, always???)

This is a tough one to talk about, but through meditation, I’ve noticed that one of my limiting patterns is how readily I close my heart if I perceive a possibility of rejection. So I’ve been paying close attention to it lately…to how my heart feels (via sensations inside my chest) in various situations, and how my behavior correlates. It feels wonderful when my heart is warm and open, my breathing soft, full and relaxed. I feel light, loving, connected to those around me, and generally at peace with myself and the world. Situations flow with ease, and I welcome interactions with others.
Then the tide changes and the happy-go-lucky attitude gets whisked away. I grasp at it like a candy wrapper zig-zagging across the boardwalk on a windy fall day. It escapes. Carefree summer is gone, winter storms in. I notice a hardness or heavy feeling inside my chest. Thoughts are predominately negative. I avoid social interaction.

Is this re-frozen heart inevitable like the changing of the seasons? When I look at the alleged cause (maybe a casually dropped criticism by a loved one) I’m inclined to think that it is NOT inevitable. Other people seem to let criticism roll right off their backs. They do not appear to agonize over others’ choice of words. How can I do that too? It feels impossible sometimes.

There are two very different approaches I know of to resolve this problem:
1. Pay attention to the negative thoughts that cause the negative feelings then change the thoughts. (As prescribed by Albert Ellis and his Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy approach). I love Ellis’ concept that suffering comes when we deem others’ behavior “intolerable”. Their behavior is what it is. If we choose to view it as intolerable, we are simply setting ourselves up for a boatload of discomfort.
Or, 2. Take a more Buddhist approach and accept that emotional distress is a part of life. It can be very effective to sit down, relax my breathing, and let my mind settle into “observer” mode, wherein I notice my thoughts, emotions, and sensations in my body. I observe whatever is there without mentally engaging with it, without trying to solve the problem (because there likely is no true problem to be solved). Chödrön writes that “a quality that seems to organically develop within us (through regular meditation) is the cultivation of courage…the courage to experience your emotional discomfort”.

Despite these wonderful tools, I sometimes find myself on my soapbox, shaking my fist, enraged at intolerable behavior.  Behavior that hurts me, dammit, and is thoroughly unacceptable.  When I try to think my way out of this negative mindset, it’s as if  I’ve provided a stage for the negative thoughts to put on a show. It gets out of hand, growing into an epic spectacular of misery.

In those moments I have created a double whammy: I have declared the offending behavior intolerable, AND I have deemed my emotional discomfort itself “intolerable”.

When my mind is betraying me and rational thought is nowhere to be found, I move my body. I go upside down to clear my mind…perhaps try a challenging pose that requires strong concentration. It is the best remedy I know to quiet the indignant, know-it-all voices and make space for more productive thoughts. Only then does it work to take a few deep breaths and remind myself that everything is temporary, that positive and negative emotions come and go. This thought decreases the perceived enormity and finality of the disturbance. Then I move to a place of humility, in which I remember my own transgressions and become grateful that we are all allowed to make mistakes. We are all imperfect (not that “perfection” is a real thing, anyway). This helps soften any perception of victimhood or injustice. Then I recite (as many times as necessary until I feel the truth of it) the greatest heart-opening, peace-generating mantra I have found to date: “I am grateful for everything. I have no complaints”.

(Thank you to Richard Kronick for sharing the above parting mantra. Check out his discovery of it in Zen Buddhist book “A Flower Does Not Talk” here: http://completedthoughts.com/one-simple-phrase-can-bring-joy-peace-happiness/)

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