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February 2015

you are free: 4 lessons from meditating on forgiveness



A little over a week ago, I attended an all-day meditation retreat led by Tara Brach. I'd signed up it months ago and it seemed like a fun idea, a great way to really see how mindful I could be, but as the day grew near, I started to worry. Would I be able to sit still all day? Would I be able to survive without looking at my phone? Would I be able to handle my own thoughts for hours and hours at a time? Though I strive to be positive and present in my daily life, meditation is an entirely different level of presence — and one I wasn't entirely sure I was ready to tackle for an entire day. 

I was uneasy about the experience (as I often am when I try new things), but I tried to go into it with an open heart and mind. And I'm glad I did. The day-long experience ended up being wonderful for me. It was a challenge, for sure, but one that left me feeling inspired and introspective. I took countless pages of notes, sat still for long periods at a time (something I really couldn't have imagined doing before the retreat), and looked at my phone very little. The meditation leader, Tara, touched on so many thought-provoking topics that I knew I'd have a hard time writing this post. It was such an enlightening experience that I want to share every little bit of it.

Since this probably won't be the last post I write about the experience (and it probably won't be the last time I attend a session hosted by Tara), I've decided to focus on one of the topics that resonated with me the most: forgiveness. This particular meditation session focused on emotional healing so it's no suprise that this topic came up. It's a concept I'm obviously familiar with (who isn't?), but I learned some very important lessons about forgiveness while listening to Tara speak, including...



When Tara spoke of forgiveness, she reminded us that it's not necessarily a natural thing. To paraphrase what she said, "In some way, we all feel separate from other people. We've all be hurt; we've all been wronged. In an effort to protect ourselves from pain, we put down those who have hurt us. It is a survival instinct. It's natural to want not to forgive, to aim to protect ourselves, but blaming others causes us pain and holds us back from love." It's natural to avoid things that have caused us pain, which makes it feel unnatural to forgive. But when we forgive (even if we don't forget), we open up space in our hearts and minds for love. This might sound cheesy, but it's the truth. The more you forgive, the more you love. And the more you love, the more you create a more positive, present life for yourself. To forgive you might have to resist the human instinct for protection. I like to think of it like this: when you forgive, you're choosing connection over protection. The more you can connect with others (even those who have wronged you), the more you can create a more peaceful and loving environment for yourself. (Keep in mind that the connection has to be healthy for you. If forgiving will bring you pain or put you in unhealthy situations, take a look at the next point.)



Tara said something along the lines of: "You can't will forgiveness, but you can be willing. The intention to forgive can open your heart. When you forgive, you are free." Forgiveness doesn't always come easily. Some things feel as if they are unforgivable. A great many of those things feel unforgivable because we don't even open ourselves up to the possibility of forgiving. We shut it down quickly, making it not even an option. If we at least try to be open to the notion of forgiving someone who has wronged us, we might find that forgiveness is, in fact possible. However, Tara raised a great point when she mentioned that sometimes we aren't ready for forgiveness. Sometimes, particularly in highly traumatic situations, we're not in a place where forgiveness in a healthy option for us. I like to think that, even in the most traumatic situations, forgiveness will come in time because true forgiveness is the best path to freedom from pain. However, I think it's important to be okay with not being ready for forgiveness, to know that forgiveness isn't always possible in the present moment. 



One of my favorite things that Tara said while talking about forgiveness was this: "What would you have to feel if you let go of the idea that the other person is wrong?" She asked the audience to shout out answers to this question and some of them were: powerlessness, anxiety, blame, loneliness, guilt, regret. As I sat in my chair listening to these answers, I could really relate to them. But then I also started to realize how negative these were. Yes, the idea of removing blame and then having to experience these emotions is incredibly difficult to imagine, but what about some of the more positive emotions that we might have to feel, like love and empathy? Wouldn't those be particularly difficult to feel toward someone we'd been unable to forgive? As I thought about it, I realized that, as difficult as it would be to experience these emotions, both the good and the bad, it's perhaps even more difficult to avoid experiencing them. Forgiveness is about feeling, which is maybe why it's so hard to do sometimes. But the more we feel (negative and positive), the more we learn about others and about ourselves and with that knowledge we can do so much. 



Toward the end of her talk on forgiveness, Tara said (to paraphrase): "We often feel as though, if we let go of blame, something bad will happen. Forgiveness is not about condoning bad behavior. Forgiveness frees your heart, but it doesn't mean you can't still protect yourself. When you forgive, you become bigger than the victimization." One of the things, I think, that holds us back from forgiving others is believing that if we forgive them, we are admitting that what they have done to us is okay. But that's not what forgiveness is. Forgiveness is to stop feeling hurt about something that was done to you. It doesn't mean that what was done was right. It doesn't mean that you will ever have the same relationship you had. Forgiveness is much more about changing how you feel inside you than it is about changing what's happening outside with others. As Tara put it, "When you forgive, you are free." Forgiveness is often mistaken for something that sets someone else free, but it's actually about setting yourself free, which is one of the most positive things you can do for yourself when you've been hurt.  


Forgiveness can be a complex topic because the acts and people you might need to forgive can vary so widely. However, the underlying notion of freeing yourself through forgiveness — no matter how you've been wronged — is the same. As I sat meditating on forgiveness after Tara's talk, thinking about those I wanted to forgive and those I wanted to forgive me, I reached a deep and clear understanding about how important forgiving others is and how truly amazing it feels to simply forgive. It is a release unlike anything, filled only with the possibility for love and peace. 

Tara encouraged us to imagining forgiving those who have hurt us and asking for forgiveness from those we'd hurt. It was quite therapeutic to do this, to simply think the words "I forgive you," even if I knew I would never say them aloud. Give it a try if you can. Think of those you need to forgive (perhaps even yourself) and say to yourself: "I forgive you, __________ for  __________." It's a simple sentence but it can bring you a sense of peace and understanding that you might not have experienced before. This isn't to say that forgiveness will remove all pain, but I personally found attempting it to be incredibly freeing, lifting just a little bit of weight from the heaviness of the human heart. 



Less than a month until my new book, The Positively Present Guide to Life, debuts and I'm SO excited! The book is all about how to stay positive and present in various areas of life including: at home, at work, in love, in relationships, and during change. I've turned back to it often this year as I've gone through major changes and it's been tremendously helpful. The book is filled with inspiring images that make it even easier to stay positive and present. You can learn more about the book and find out where to buy a copy here. (You can also get a sneak peek at the book, access a free download, and watch the book trailer!)

24 hours without complaining : 5 lessons I learned



Last week I stumbled across this post (via SwissMiss) in which the author challenges her readers to stop complaining for just one day. I don't consider myself a huge complainer, but I know I do my fair share of whining on a daily basis so I decided to challenge myself not to complain for 24 hours. It seemed easy enough. After all, for a good chunk of that time, I'd be asleep. 


It was not nearly as easy as I thought it would be. At all


It turns out that I do a lot more complaining than I realized. It wasn't until I started really paying attention to what I was saying, thinking, and typing did I start to see how much negativity I was actually putting out into the world. For the most part, these are tiny things — phrases like, "I'm freezing!" or "Ugh, why isn't it Friday yet?" — but all of those little complaints start to add up. 

Every time you complain, you're putting negative energy into the world — and into your life. And that's something you definitely don't want to be doing if you're striving to live more positively in the present. The more you complain about your life (even if it's simply in your mind), the less space you leave for positive thoughts that celebrate what you should be grateful for. 

As I made it through the 24 hours of attempting to be complaint-free, it became very clear to me that I needed to change some of my thought patterns and habits in order to create a more positive environment for myself. While struggling to avoid my whiny thoughts (I really started to annoy myself!), I thought about how I could tackle the complaints that surfaced in my mind. Here are the five tactics I used when I found myself veering toward a complaint...



The first complain I noticed myself uttering during this 24-hour challenge was when I walked outside into the cold January morning and immediately thought to myself, "Ugh. I'm freezing!" Yes, it was cold outside, but was I really freezing. Of course not. I was outside for less than five minutes in a warm jacket and boots. When I actually paid attention to how my body felt, I realized I wasn't even that cold. I'm so used to complaining about the cold (I'm not a fan) that I just complain for the sake of complaining. Not cool. As the day went on, I realize that I do a lot of that default complaining. I'm used to thinking I don't like something or I feel a certain way in a situation, but when I really allowed myself to experience it, I realized that more often than not, my complaints weren't based in any reality. They were simply a default setting. Which brings me to my next point... 



Another thing I was quickly made aware of when I started giving more attention to my thoughts was the amount of times I complained about something that hadn't happened yet. In my mind, I was dreading the mound of laundry I had to tackle or whining to myself about how I didn't want to deal with that conference call. These things weren't even happening and I was already complaining about them! I soon discovered when I pulled my mind back to the present moment, I had a lot less to complain about. Complaining about something that hasn't happened yet is a ridiculous waste of time and all it does it make whatever that unpleasant thing is take up more of your thoughts (and your life!).  



One of the easiest ways to counter complaints, I found, was to focus on things you have to be grateful for. Whenever I found myself complaining about something, I tried to think about what I was thankful for that related to that situation. For example, going back to the laundry I didn't want to do: when I thought about how annoying it would be to have to wash and fold my clothes, I countered that complaint with gratitude about how lucky I was to have clothes and a washing machine and an able body that could put the clothes in, take them out, and fold them. Once I started focusing on all of the positives, a simple task like laundry started to seem much more like a blessing than a curse and it became much more difficult to whine about it.



It hadn't really occurred to me before, but over the 24-hour complain-free day, I realized how often I use complaining to bond with others. When I friend text me, "How's your day?" I automatically responded with, "Ugh. So busy!" First of all, I should be grateful to have work that keeps me busy (and thankful for the opportunity to do what I love for a living!) and, secondly, there are a million positive responses I could have had that didn't involve a complaint. However, it's become a default for me to complain to friends about how busy / stressed / etc. I am because we always vent to one another in this way. This isn't to say we shouldn't vent when having a tough day, but complaining shouldn't be a way to bond with others. Bonds should be formed over positive things, not negative. 



The most important lesson I learned about complaining is that a lot of the time the things I complain about are things I can change. Too cold while watching TV on the couch? Grab a blanket! Annoyed by an always-negative friend? Stop hanging out with her! A lot of complaints are within my control and I've realized that, if something's bothering me, whining about it is not the answer. If I want less to complain about, I have to take action. And, for those things I can't control, I learned that it's a lot less stressful if I just learn to accept them as they are. Complaining about something you can't change is a huge waste of time and all it does it create unnecessary negativity. So I've realized this: If I can change something, I should. I can change it but don't want to, I should be quiet. And if I can't change it, I should let it go. 


Though this challenge was only 24 hours long, it was an eye-opening experience for me. It made me much more mindful of how I think (and what I spend my time thinking about) and it shone a light on the ways I could choose to be more positive. I'd highly recommend giving it a try. The more you're aware of complaining, the more you'll be able to change it (and hopefully eliminate it). The more time you spend complaining, I've learned, the less time you have for other things, like celebrating your awesome life and all the things for which you should be thankful! 



what stories are you telling yourself?



I've been thinking a lot lately about the stories we tell ourselves and how these stories manifest into realities. You might not consider yourself a storyteller in the conventional sense, but every day you tell yourself stories. A lot of these stories start off as facts and we add to them, creating fictional tales that we then take as truth and experience as reality. This sounds a little abstract so let's look at an example...

Let's say you have a difficult interaction with a colleague. This is a fact. You had an unpleasant interaction — let's say it was a disagreement about how to present material in a meeting. That happened and it wasn't fun. But the storytelling part comes in when you start imagining what it would be like to confront that colleague about the situation. In your mind, you imagine telling her off in detail. You imagine what you will say and how she will respond defensively. You envision your retort to her imaginary arguments. Though this interaction is happening only in your mind, you start to physically feel as if you are in that moment: your palms sweat, your heart races, your muscles tense. The story you're telling isn't real, but the way you feel is. You have turned ideas into your reality. You are mentally and physically living in a moment that doesn't exist in reality. 

We do this not only for future situations, but also past ones as well. Right now take a moment and think about the last time you were in an awkward situation. Imagine how it felt to feel socially awkward or to have just said the absolute wrong thing to the wrong person. You're probably cringing right now just recalling it, and you're probably feeling some physical reactions too — maybe tense muscles or sweaty palms. Even though that moment is in the past, if you tell the story to yourself in your mind, it starts to feel as if it's happening now. 

Pretty crazy, huh? When written out like this, it sounds like something that might make for a good mental patient case: made up stories that feel like they're really happening. But we all do this to ourselves all the time. We rehash what's happened or we create scenes that have yet to happen and they feel incredibly real. If we did this in a positive way — spent time dwelling on that amazing memory of a great day or envisioned how perfectly the nerve-wracking speech is going to go — this wouldn't be such a problem, but when was the last time you spent a lot of time thinking about how wonderful something was or how great it's going to be? 

It makes sense to reflect (a little bit) on what went wrong — after all, that's how you learn not to do it again — and it's not the worst idea to consider what might go wrong so you might prepare and avoid disastrous situations, but I think it's important that we be aware of the stories we're telling ourselves, both about the past and about the future. These stories can very often feel real and they're not. The past recollections are tainted by our memories (what now seems like the worst might not have been that bad in the situation) and the future is completely imagined. 

The thing is: these stories have power over us. When we tell them enough, we start to believe them. Regardless of what actually happened, if we've created a memory of it and we keep telling that story, we believe that's the truth. Likewise, if you imagine something enough and think it's going to happen, it might actually become a reality. (Then you'll confirm your own storytelling abilities by saying to yourself, "I was right! I knew I was going to feel so awkward on that first date and it would go terribly and it did!") We also start to tell these stories to others (particularly stories about the past), which makes them feel even more real. 

But, in truth, the only thing that's real, that's actually happening right now, is the present moment. Whatever is in your head is a story. It would be ideal if we could stop telling ourselves stories, but that's a whole lot easier said than done. What I think we need to do is start being aware of these stories. Once you're aware that what you're telling yourself is a story — and not necessarily reality — you have the option to keep telling it, change it, or let it go.

We need to start asking: What stories am I telling myself? We need to start asking: Are these stories completely based on actual reality? (Hint: almost never; our minds can't help but put a spin on things.) We need to start asking: Are these stories adding value to my life? (Hint: they're usually not.) And, perhaps most importantly, we need to start asking: If I'm the storyteller, why not tell positive stories? 

I urge you to ask yourself these questions this week and see if maybe you can counteract (or let go of) the negative stories you've been telling yourself. Become aware of your stories and decide whether or not you want to keep telling them. 



Learn how you can positively transform your story in my new book, The Positively Present Guide to Life. The book is all about how to stay positive and present in various areas of life including: at home, at work, in love, in relationships, and during change. I've turned back to it often this year as I've gone through major changes and it's been tremendously helpful. As a bonus, the book is filled with inspiring images that make it even easier to stay positive and present. You can learn more about the book here. (You can also get a sneak peek at the book, access a free download, and watch the book trailer!)