Aging Well

Aging Well


Posted June 28, 2018 6:00 a.m. EDT
Updated June 30, 2018 5:01 p.m. EDT

If 80% of our thoughts are negative, taking a moment to step back and notice what your mind is doing can offer some real relief.

The bulk of my clients call me in crisis and full of fear. Fear that there is no solution to address the very difficult situation at-hand or, if there is one, they cannot afford it. They call me when their internal worlds are all stirred up because of something happening in their external world.

It is interesting because over the last week, since my own hospitalization, I am suddenly standing in similar shoes. I read recently in an article in the New York Times that we have 40,000 to 60,000 thoughts per day, 98% of them are the same as yesterday. 80% of them are negative. As a 51-year-old mother with three kids still at home, a job we've come to depend upon, family, friends and the assumption I would live to the ripe old age that three of four my grandparents did, it’s probably higher than 80% negative for me right now.

I suppose, eons ago, these were the situations that seeded the beginnings of religions. When there are no guaranteed outcomes, how do you respond to unbearable thoughts and feelings? There are certainly less healthy ways—alcohol, busy-ness, taking one’s feelings out on those around you, or jumping with both feet into an infinity loop of worst case scenarios.

This past week, I’ve had to ask myself a question I usually pose to my in-crisis clients, “how can I tap into my wisest self and respond from wise-Liisa-mind?”

Twenty years ago, when I was in a similarly provoking situation, a kind, elderly and wise physician gave me the book by American Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön, “When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times.” While I’m a practicing Presbyterian, I am not beyond reaching out for tools provided in other faiths. Religions, after all, were largely developed over millennia to help people bare situations like these. I read Chödrön’s book back then, and have listened to the audio version since then countless times. More recently, I downloaded another of hers called “Making Friends with Your Mind.”

This is not to say that Chödrön’s methods, so to speak, put a cork in the bottle of tumultuous emotions, but I will say that they offer some pretty simple ways to work with the evil genies that escape the bottle.

For example, when my mind goes to the assumption that in the next scan, they’ll surely find an insidious, fast-growing cancer which will have me underground by August, and who then is going to raise my kids or take care of my parents or pay the bills, or for that matter even take out the trash on the right day? Here, dear readers, is a behind-the-curtain glimpse of where the wild horses in my mind run to.

Chödrön, who by the way came to Buddhism through her own suffering, asks what would happen if we just noticed these kinds of thoughts? "Ah, there goes my mind again. Hm, interesting." Or what if we responded by stopping -- to quite literally smell the flowers? When I can catch myself, I’ve actually started taking my dogs on a short walk. My previous habit was listening to audiobooks or podcasts related to my profession during these walks, in attempt to be as productive as possible every single minute. Instead, now, I notice the birds and how the light hits the leaves. I notice how summer smells and the sounds of the crickets and bullfrogs.

One point Chödrön makes that has stuck with me is that whatever provoking situation arises is not an obstacle to having the perfect life, but rather the very thing that can force you to develop the tools that can enable you to have a good life, whatever arises.

In another book I've been reading, “Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study,” by George Valliant, which details the lives of men who have been followed for over 70 years, I’ve been encouraged by the observation that crises like this often force internal changes that can permanently reshape inner and outer lives for the better.

So my internal dialogue now goes, "Is that important? Is it not?"

I’m learning.