I Worry, Therefore I Am: Learning To Let Go Of The Fear Of Letting Go

Chapter 29 of the Tao te Ching says

Do you think you can take over the universe and improve it?
I do not believe it can be done.

The universe is sacred.
You cannot improve it.
If you try to change it, you will ruin it.
If you try to hold it, you will lose it.

So sometimes things are ahead and sometimes they are behind;
Sometimes breathing is hard, sometimes it comes easily;
Sometimes there is strength and sometimes weakness;
Sometimes one is up and sometimes down.

Therefore the sage avoids extremes, excesses, and complacency.

Encountering this teaching may spark a protest within those of us who feel concerned about things like politics, the environment, the suffering of others, and our own wellbeing. We don’t want to feel that there is nothing we can do to help.

In fact, when we sit down to try meditation, most of us will notice a barrage of thoughts.  If we get past preoccupation with the day’s tasks, we may find that we are bugged by many questions about suffering, the meaning of life, and our place in it. We might find ourselves angry, resentful, or grieving about things that happened in the past or worried about the future. We might have a nagging fear that if we stay in the present moment, we will discover that it is unbearably painful or that we are unworthy of a moment of peace, especially when others are suffering.

When encountering these tangles of thoughts, emotions, and accompanying physical sensations, many people conclude, “I can’t meditate.” However, beginning to notice all this with self-compassion is the foundation of meditation. We have these experiences not because “I just can’t concentrate,” but because we are human beings who have encountered confusing and painful things.

Many meditation practices involve focusing on something, like the breath or a mantra (brief saying or prayer). One that I often use combines the two-“Clear mind [breathing in], don’t know [breathing out].”

When I started out, I experienced a lot of self-judgment about my difficulty keeping my mind on the mantra as well as shame and confusion about what I saw on the “screen” of my mind. I pondered about the “correct” way to meditate~should I analyze the “stuff” on the screen?  Just observe the “stuff” on the screen?  Try to ignore it and focus on the mantra?  I stopped and started and stopped again.

Years later, when I sit to meditate, I still often see a big mental jumble.  But little by little, I develop compassion for that jumble.  I begin to realize that not knowing what to do about this jumble, just observing it, is okay.  I find the courage to tell somebody about my mental jumble and become aware that other people have them, too.  The jumble begins to lose its power.

Every so often, when I’m sitting with my mental jumble, I find myself going back and forth between it and the mantra.  Every so often, in the middle of something stressful, the mantra pops into my head. Something is shifting.

There are also times when the mantra is in the foreground, like a moon, full and bright. The mental jumble is there still, but at the far reaches of awareness. There are little wisps of me reaching out to try to solve some problem but most of me is seated in “don’t know mind,” is breathing, and is okay with that.

And then there are those very rare occasions when the mantra itself goes away and no other thought or worries rush in to take its place. I am just sitting, just walking, just doing the things of life, just being, a faint awareness that I am part of something larger without having to analyze and understand how, and even the concept of “I” grows fuzzy.  It is snowing.  The birds are singing.  Sunlight glimmers on the sea.

On these occasions, whatever sense of a separate “I” exists experiences a “descent of grace” when the energy that was bound up in the mental jumble and the perceived weight of the world on my shoulders flows down into and out of my heart.  There is a pulse of connecting with the world around me and letting go of efforts to fix it.  Released from the perceived responsibility of solving the world’s problems, a perceived responsibility often accompanied by a shadow of resentment, I can experience an outpouring of love and gratitude for my surroundings.


Listening in the Dark


December 14, 2017

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), now called “mood disorder with seasonal pattern” by the diagnostic manual used by mental health professionals, is characterized by symptoms of depression such as sleep and appetite disturbances, changes in energy levels, irritability, feelings of hopelessness or excessive guilt, difficulty concentrating, loss of interest in typically enjoyable activities, self-hatred, and thoughts of suicide, all of which begin in the fall and remit in the spring.  For some, depression is replaced by anxiety as the spring and summer months arrive.  Some individuals experience the flip side of depression, mania, during the warmer months.

Severity can range from a mild case of “Winter Blues” to symptoms that can significantly interfere with life functioning.  The farther one lives from the equator, the greater the likelihood of suffering from SAD.  Technically, to make the diagnosis, symptoms clearly should be attributable to changes in day length and not due to recurring psychosocial stressors though, in reality, the impact of seasonal stressors is often difficult to parse out.

This article acknowledges that both day length and seasonal stressors can affect mood.  It offers some suggestions for soothing symptoms without silencing the wisdom that is often birthed from discomfort.  In other words, the article attempts to approach the subject in a way that neither demonizes nor deifies feelings of melancholy that sometimes arise in the dark time of the year.  Developing the ability to observe the discomfort of SAD with self-compassion and to work skillfully with the symptoms can increase capacity to cope with difficulties gracefully year round.

Many traditions acknowledge the interweaving of light and darkness.  The Taoist Yin/Yang symbol is a familiar representation of this idea.  Our language contains idioms such as “the night is darkest before the dawn.” A fetus grows in the darkness of the womb.  A seed needs darkness to germinate.  The yoga tradition describes three primary energy channels, called nadis.  The pingala nadi is associated with characteristics such as action, planning, and light, while the ida nadi is associated with self-reflection, rest, and darkness.  The central channel, the shushumna, contains the homeostatic oscillations of ida and pingala, weaving them together with a larger life force, or prana, giving birth to “aha” moments.

Taoist philosopher Dr. Yi Wu, at the California Institute of Integral Studies, tells the story of a student who said to him, “How wonderful that the Taoists can enjoy walking in the rain with no umbrella.”  Dr. Wu corrected the student.  “No.  If it is raining, a Taoist stays indoors.  If he cannot be indoors, he uses an umbrella.  If he can’t stay indoors and doesn’t have an umbrella, then he enjoys walking in the rain with no umbrella.  The important thing is to take care of your nature the best you can in the situation you are in.”  How can we put this flexibility of mind into practice in the dark time of the year?

Unlike bears, we don’t have to hibernate all winter.  Few of us, even the most introverted and misanthropic, truly would wish to crawl into a cave and stay there for five months.  We have some capacity to alter our surroundings to make them more comfortable. In the dark time of year, individuals and cultures find ways to bring in light, literally and metaphorically.  We can turn on the lights and turn up the heat.  We create celebrations and festivities, bringing a sense of abundance to an otherwise barren time of year.

On the other hand, these activities, when done in excess, can be an example of what some psychoanalysts call a “manic defense” against discomfort.  Holidays can bring up thoughts of lost loved ones.  Visiting with friends and relatives can trigger tendencies to compare oneself unfavorably to others.  Loneliness may be exacerbated when bombarded with images of happy families celebrating together.  Simmering interpersonal conflicts may begin to boil when family members spend more time cooped up indoors together.  In order to distract ourselves from discomfort, we may find ourselves spending more money than we really can afford or engaging in frenetic holiday preparations and parties that don’t truly nurture us.  Everyone engages in this behavior from time to time; however, too much can contribute to even more distress in the future.

Following are some suggestions for addressing SAD by accepting that some discomfort may be inevitable, exploring underlying thoughts and emotions, and soothing manifest symptoms.  The darkness of depression, when used as a starting place for compassionate self inquiry, can serve as a catalyst for growth.

Practice Self-Compassion

Kristin Neff, Ph.D. has defined and developed ways to measure self-compassion.  Practicing self-compassion can do much to relieve SAD symptoms.  As mentioned, holidays have a way of eliciting self-criticism if we aren’t able to live up to media images of perfection.  Post-holidays, we may find ourselves with debts larger than we would like or feeling lonely once the festivities have died down.  We may judge ourselves for wanting to sleep more and for being less productive.

What if it were okay to feel what one feels?  What if it were okay to mourn a loss even when others are celebrating?  What if it were okay to go to bed early in winter, take breaks from social interactions, or be a little less productive?  Such changes are natural for many animal species.  Does a bear judge itself for hibernating in the winter, or does the bear just do it?  Human distress is often exacerbated by judging ourselves for having thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that are quite natural given the situation.

Establishing a daily practice of self-compassionate self-inquiry such as mindfulness, meditation, or free writing can create space to experience disavowed thoughts and feelings and soften habitual self-criticisms and invalidations.  Such practices can help differentiate between activities that are born from our authentic self from those that constitute a “manic defense.” Practicing self-compassion and clarifying ones own thoughts and feelings can also help flush out misunderstandings that arise in interpersonal relationships.  These practices can enhance quality of life year round.

Manage Energy

Developing compassionate self-inquiry practices can help discern the best use of personal energy.  Spiritual teacher Carolyn Myss asks us to imagine that we are given a set amount of energy each day.  When it is gone, it is gone.  How will we put it to best use?  Before the holidays, this may mean saying “no” to some activities.  Afterwards, it may mean reaching out to those to others and engaging in simple, inexpensive social activities, such as game or movie nights to ease winter doldrums.

Get More Sun Light

At this time of year, the sun rises around 7am and sets around 4:30pm.  Although the sun is present in between, many of us go to work in buildings with little natural light, entering these spaces shortly after sunrise and leaving after the sun has set.  The impact of so little contact with the sun can be profound.  Getting up before sunrise and going for a walk may not sound like fun, but developing the habit can be a true act of self-compassion and is arguably the single most effective approach to addressing the physiological impact of light deprivation.  Going outside at noon can also help.

A light box or dawn simulator may be used to supplement natural light. They are typically used for 30 minutes in the morning.  A light box may be used in combination with meditating with eyes open, allowing the light to fall indirectly on eyes.

Recognizing our Connection to Nature

In the late 1950’s Pete Seeger wrote the song Turn, Turn, Turn, based on chapter 3 of the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes:

“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted…”

Recognizing that our own moods, thoughts, and behaviors vary and turn along with the natural world can, perhaps paradoxically, help us to find a sense of inner calm no matter what the season.

Laurie Edwards, PsyD, RYT is a licensed clinical psychologist and yoga teacher.  She is on the faculty at Yale University and has a private practice in Branford.  She teaches yoga at Yoga on Whitney in Hamden. http://www.lauriemedwardspsyd.com

Honoring our Common Humanity at the Holidays


We all want to feel genuinely happy, healthy and loved. We all want our loved ones to feel happy, healthy and loved.

And then life happens and challenges those simple longings.  Relationships don’t turn out as we hoped. Maybe our finances suffer. Our looks fade. We face illness and loss. It happens to all of us in one way or another.  It is our common humanity.

Ideally, we use these challenges as a point of connection with each other, a way of recognizing and honoring our common humanity. Ideally, we support and uplift each other so that we can grow together, so that we can see the silver lining in each difficulty without sweeping pain under the rug.

In reality, we live in a keeping up with the Joneses world. This can take different forms, depending on our particular community.

Perhaps there is pressure to look attractive all the time or to be financially successful at all costs.  Maybe we are supposed to have perfect children, a perfect home, or be exceptionally thrifty. Maybe we feel we have to get As all the time or be an amazing athlete.  Maybe we feel our worth depends on being a perfect church member, denying our personal needs in order to serve others, or on never being angry.  Perhaps we feel compelled to buy perfect Christmas gifts or roast the perfect turkey.  Some cultures expect newer generations to surpass their forebears in achievement while in others to do so is seen as “putting on airs.”  Sometimes it’s a confusing mixture. It can be hard to get it right.

We will all fail at meeting these expectations at some point. We will all fail. This is our common humanity. And yet we typically respond with judgment, both of others and ourselves. Perhaps we outwardly respond to another’s misfortune with empathy while inwardly gloating in a way that is palpable to the other.  Maybe we judge ourselves to the point of feeling self-hatred.

Judgment feels bad, and so, understandably, we try to squirm away from it in strange ways. Maybe we convince ourselves that if only we work harder we can be okay, can atone for our failings.  Maybe we put up a facade that only reinforces our inner pain and creates loneliness.  Maybe we blame our loved ones for spoiling things. Maybe we find ways to numb ourselves.  We all do this from time to time. It is our common humanity. And we can all learn and grow.

In his book “On Love and Loneliness” Jiddu Krishnamurti suggests that conformity ultimately brings disorder to our relationships. Interacting with another in a way that is scripted by the expectations of culture or creed swallowed whole or even by our past experiences with that individual, whether pleasant or painful, thwarts true connection.  Christine Carter, of the Greater Good Science Center, notes that “When we love only the parts of ourselves we deem to be good or strong or smart, we reject the parts that make us real. This sets us up for inauthenticity. We start hiding what is real and showing off what is sparkly; but our seeming perfection is fake.”

Self-compassion practice, articulated by Kristen Neff, PhD, encourages us to acknowledge our moments of struggle with self-kindness and to remember that whatever we are feeling has also been experienced by someone else. In fact, most likely someone else is feeling it in this very moment. It is our common humanity. We are never alone.  Can we begin to give voice to our struggles and have the courage to share them with one another?

Try this little practice:  Notice how your body feels when you speak or act from your heart.  Now, how does it feel when acting from a sense of social expectation? Can you begin to put words to the sensations?  Imagine sharing those feelings with others and taking appropriate action, such as “I feel knots in my stomach when I think about that party.  I don’t want to be rude, but I really can’t afford to go.  I will find another way to let the hosts know I value their friendship.”

The most precious gift we can give is the courage to be our honest self, to speak our truth with as much grace as we can muster.  Not only is that a gift in itself, it also gives others permission to do the same.

Laurie Edwards, PsyD, is a psychologist on the faculty at Yale University and has a private practice in Branford, CT. Connect with her at lauriemedwardspsyd.com