• Dr. Deb

Autopilot - in search of calm

On Autopilot

So yesterday morning I had a doctors appointment. I hopped into my car, and before I knew it I noticed I was heading in the complete opposite direction from the doctor's office. I was heading towards my Barre3 class - I was on Autopilot. It happens to all of us, we get caught up in thinking of the things we have to do later or replaying the evening before for whatever reason but one thing is certain - we are not in the now. No big deal right? This is just what minds do - they are always scanning, search for information that might serve us. But what if we could train our minds to be more present? What benefit might we experience?

Research suggests people who spend more time in the now are happier. We also know people who are happier do not necessarily need to have more pleasant experiences they merely need to notice more neutral experiences. Actually we all pretty much have a level of happiness - when something wonderful happens we are thrilled but we return rather quickly to that set point. So if part of the key to happiness is awareness of neutral stimuli how do we notice the nuetral?

For some of us, neutral emotions can be elusive and difficult to detect. I taught a Mindfulness class a couple sessions ago, and I had a difficult time conveying what neutral thoughts, feelings or sensations were to the group. Some got it but a couple really struggled. In class I gave examples like feeling your feet in your shoes or the fabric of your sweater - but after reflecting on a recent trip to a health food store I believe I have a different answer.

I seem to have an easier time detecting positive and negative over neutral. Perhaps you are the same way. For example, I am aware of positive emotions when I think of having a slice peanut butter fudge and aware of negative emotions when I think about the new rug Winston chewed in the sunroom while I was busy working with a client. (That my friends was not a pretty moment for either of us.) But what about neutral? Like I said it can be elusive.

So at the suggestion of one of my dear friends I was off to find a more natural remedy for my chronic neck and shoulder pain. I ended up at the Green Earth Natural Foods Store in Emmaus because of her recommendation. However in this trip I found something even more valuable than relief from pain - I found a new friend Calm.

As a mindful clinician, believe me I have developed an intimate relationship with my pain. I have made space for the pain, listen to what it to teach me about this process we call aging, and even develop a bit more patience with my body and myself when it tells me a need a break. That being said, I also would be ok if it was a little less present in my life. Thus the trip to the health food store.

The store keeper was lovely; she explained various options herbal and others as well as CBD lotion for my shoulder and neck. She also gave me a sample (merely a drop) of CBD oil to place under my tongue to see if that would be helpful. After meandering about the store and continuing to discuss options a bit more she asked how I felt? I checked in with myself and said a bit "spacey." I related to her it is similar to how I feel after I meditate - not bad just a bit spacey. Without skipping a beat she said "Maybe it is just calm you are feeling." I was taken back - I needed to pause and process those simple words - "Maybe it is just calm you are feeling." I can't explain it to you other than to say I didn't have a hook to hang that thought on. Could it be that I was so unfamiliar with calm that there was no container or folder in my brain to file it in? It was if she was speaking another language but I understood the words she was saying; I just couldn't connect what I was feeling with that word - calm. All I knew was that I needed to explore this more.

So when I got home, I decided to invite "calm" to tea and see what it had to teach me. (If you are unfamiliar with inviting an emotion to tea see my blog - An invitation to Tea) I laid out my best linens and china and offered calm a seat. As someone with ADHD and a tad of GAD sprinkled in there it suffices to say I have a busy mind and calm is not something that often comes to visit - or so I thought. As I sat with this unfamiliar emotion - calm, I began to wonder could it be that calm comes to visit and I do not notice? This dear woman's simple observation really made me stop and wanted to assess how often it is that I am aware of my newly introduced friend named Calm.

So in a quest for calm, or more accurately my investigation to bring awareness of Calm, I can tell you I have observed a few things. If I sit very still and quiet I notice this new friend Calm is with me - perhaps he likes stillness? As I sit here on my porch and type and Winston (my Pitbull rescue) and I await the storm that is coming I find this process of writing is one that Calm also seems to enjoy. Calm also pays me a visit when Winston sleeps on my feet or lays his head on my belly. So is Winston the key? No, Calm is present after a good workout at Barre3 when I am bone tired, and sometimes he even sneaks in the door about 20-30 mins into the workout. He is with me when I walk down to the park. It seems I can more easy to identify my new friend Calm when I am in touch with my body.

So how do I feel when Calm is with me? There is an awareness of my mind, heart and body being in the same place at the same time. My breaths are deeper, my chest feels more expansive, my belly, shoulders, and jaw muscles are relaxed. Even my brow is relaxed. In Calm's presence my mind slows down and it is easier to focus. I am breathing and I know I am breathing (thanks Jack Kornfield). I notice a slight smile on my face and even my eyes (thanks Tara Brach). I hear the beautiful orchestration of the birds singing, I feel the sand under my toes on our brick patio, a cool breeze on my face and hear my husband's grandfather clock chiming in the house. Hmm … all in a matter of moments when checking in with or having tea with my new friend Calm I am feeling pretty good.

Ok so why make a conscious effort to notice those moments of calm or notice when Calm is present? Might I accomplish more than a moment of peacefulness. The answer I believe is yes. We already notice the negative or stressful events in our lives, we call this a negative bias. It is the survival mechanism that allows us to notice potentially dangerous situations - it is how species survived. Additionally, we know that neurons that fire together wire together. So if I notice when Calm has come to call and I name him and sit with him a bit mindfully I promote the neurological wiring to take place that will assist me in noticing future situations that Calm is present.

Let me explain it another way. Imagine a world were the only thing one noticed was threatening or perceived threatening situations - pretty stressful right? Around every corner and behind every door there is danger. That's is what people with PTSD experience the neutral stimuli - a door closing can be perceived instead as gun fire and the body reacts accordingly. It takes practice but we can lay down new neurological wiring to support positive and neutral observations. It is like wearing down a path through a field of high grass. If you keep walking on the same trail over and over you eventually create a path and the journey becomes easier. By merely noticing neutral or my new buddy Calm I begin to create that new path making travel back easier and easier each time.

Here's another thought. What if my new default became "calm"? What if I was able to identify Calm throughout my day even in just small bits? How would that change my experience? It is like the white tailed deer we see in the Poconos. My husband and I see them all over but when friends come to visit we need to point them out. We see what is familiar.

There is an old story that I have heard Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield tell and it goes something like this. A young woman moves to a village and she goes to the local market place and asks an elderly woman there "What are the people like here?" The old woman says, "Well, how did you find the people in the village you came from?" The young woman says "Oh, they were nosey, in my business, and wouldn't let me alone." The old woman said "You are likely to find the people here to be similar." The young woman was not happy with this woman's response and she decided to move to the next village. A few days later another young man moved to the village and asked the same old woman "I am new here, what are the people like?" The old woman asked this young man how did you find the people in the village you came from?" This person said, "Very friendly, eager to lend a hand and helpful." The old woman said "You are likely to find the people here to be similar." The young person walked away and began to unpack deciding to stay. We see what we expect to see and disregard the less familiar.

My goal this next two weeks is to notice and record in my journal (or note in my phone) the moments I am aware that Calm is sitting with me - perhaps you will decide join me.

I will report back with my progress.




© 2018 Mindfulness Instructor/Personal Life Coach, Dr. Debra Romberger.

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