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Freedom from Fear

Living in a fear-based culture inevitably affects your state of mind and the decisions you make. As a citizen you may become more compliant, more willing to surrender your rights for vague promises of safety. As an employee you are less demanding...
Phillip Moffitt
October 19, 2022
15
 min read

Living in a fear-based culture inevitably affects your state of mind and the decisions you make. As a citizen you may become more compliant, more willing to surrender your rights for vague promises of safety. As an employee you are less demanding, less willing to take risks. And in your personal life you are more security oriented, and thus less open to new possibilities-all because you see the future through the lens of fear. Viewing life in this manner is not skillful. It is not that such concerns lack legitimacy -this is undeniably a time of danger and instability in our society, and unwise actions and indifference could destroy the future for our children. The problem is that the lens of fear distorts what you see. It focuses primarily on the negative, exaggerates the potentially threatening, filters out alternative views, and causes you to compromise your core values out of the urgent need to survive. Fear when not named narrows your vision, shuts down intuition as well as common-sense reflection, and promotes violent actions. Stated more simply, fear that is not recognized and tended to with mindfulness takes the life out of life. Your life energy is lost to dread as the body braces and the heart closes in anticipation of what is to come.

It is difficult living in a time of fear, but here you are, and the challenge becomes finding a way not to be consumed by it. This is best accomplished by first observing your responses to the culture of fear that surrounds you. You can then use this knowledge to work with your personal fears. Your reaction to dread and to uncertainty about yourself, your abilities, and what may happen to you imprison your spirit. Learning to work skillfully with fear is essential to your finding freedom and happiness.

As you deepen your spiritual practice, you will inevitably encounter all your fears, some of which you may not even know are within you. Being alert and curious about your fear allows it to become your teacher as well as to serve your growth. This gives purpose to what is otherwise meaningless suffering.

Fear Is Like This

Fear itself is not necessarily a bad thing-healthy, balanced fear can be very useful. It can serve as an alarm, a call for action, as in “Take your hand off the hot stove!” As a distress signal it triggers a sense of apprehension about the future, to which the body reacts by secreting adrenaline and other chemicals that give you the motivation and energy to act. As an experience of uneasiness, it can be a call for reflection, asking you to pay careful attention to your actions or decisions, or to reconsider a situation. It may well be your intuition warning you to be cautious. Unfortunately, most struggles with fear are of the irrational, repetitive, imagined variety.

Despite having often experienced fear, most of us do not have a clear definition of what it means in the context of an individual’s life. What one person classifies as fear, someone else would call anxiety, or another might label panic. If you are to work with fear as a way of knowing yourself, it is helpful to sort through this confusion in order to clarify what you are feeling.

Fear is usually described as an emotional response to a perception of danger, which elicits certain neuromuscular and chemical reactions in the body. You feel it arise in response to something that you see or that you hear, to sensations in your body, or to thoughts and emotions that appear in the mind. The presence of fear may be the result of an accurate perception as well as a completely distorted one. Regardless, it is your belief in the perception and your interpretation of its implications for your well-being that control the level of fear you experience.

Hence, fear is an internal experience, a subjective response to the immediate moment or some future event; therefore, you should regard fear with objective skepticism and not treat it as an absolute truth. This calls for you to develop a certain distance from fear, to see it as a phenomenon that is predominant in this particular moment, not the ultimate decision maker in your life.

There are two ways in which fear may be contextualized in order to begin working with it mindfully. The first one is to treat it as one of three responses on a spectrum of frightened reactions to something. Lowest on this spectrum is apprehension or anxious agitation, which is sometimes called anxiety. Then there is full-blown fear, a far more stringent response by the nervous system. If the fear keeps expanding, it will accelerate into the highest distress response: outright terror or panic.

Each of the three responses is subjective, happening inside you. But the more established you are in mindfulness that is learned in meditation, the less likely you are to escalate from apprehension to fear and then terror. In order to dis-identify with fear as it is arising, my teacher Ajhan Sumedho suggests making a mental note to yourself: “Anxiety is like this; fear is like this.”

Another skillful method to gain insight is to make a distinction between fear and the anxiety of life itself. When there is a specific object to be afraid of-a noise in the dark, a verbal threat, an uncertainty regarding a commitment, the outcome of a medical test, a truck veering into your lane-what you feel is fear in relation to that object.

Anxiety, on the other hand, is anxiety about, rather than of. You are anxious about growing older, or your child getting hurt, or your marriage lasting. There is no specific object of alarm. Instead you are responding to the frailty and temporary nature of existence.

The truth is that you will never be absolutely safe. All things change constantly, even what is most precious. You know that you and those you love will die, but not when or how. This is the angst of life, the price of being a conscious human being. It is not a flaw, although many people cannot let loose of seeing it in such a manner. It is just the way life is constructed. When your awareness of this vulnerability is triggered, you can be swept into panic, collapse into depression, or desperately try to distract yourself. One of the values of spiritual practice is that you are able to come to terms with this anxiety in a conscious manner. Your life becomes more integrated because you are no longer trying to deny or avoid what is true.

Naturally, what often happens is that you compound the misery of a particular fear you may be experiencing with this general anxiety that is inherent in the human condition. When this takes place, the turbulence of all your apprehensions pours into the specific fear, and you suffer more. For instance, you simply forget a meeting, yet you are traumatized, certain that you are losing your ability to focus. Or someone disappoints you and you collapse into complete self-hatred, fearing that you have no worth to the other. With mindfulness practice, you learn to see how the untrained mind is agitated by the human condition and how not to allow this general anxiety to fuel your fear in a specific situation. You also gain tolerance for the unpleasantness of uncertainty and also the naturalness of your own imperfection. You have confidence that “life is like this.” You cannot and are not supposed to miraculously fix it; rather, you gain the insight that happiness and peace come from relating to life just as it is.

Levels of Fear

You can begin to deepen your understanding of how fear may be affecting you by becoming mindful of the four levels of alertness in your body and mind. First is the normal state of alertness you experience walking down the street, driving, or being at work. You are awake to change in the environment. If you suddenly perceive a possible danger, the body-mind switches to the second level of alertness, vigilance. This is natural and healthy, and the vigilance ends once the danger passes.

The next level occurs when there’s a prolonged sense of anxiety or fear. The body-mind goes into hyper-vigilance and stays there ready to fight, flee, or freeze in place until the trauma passes. Hyper-vigilance creates a tunnel-vision effect in which you primarily experience life through the lens of fear or anxiety. It can become a pattern if your life is so challenged that you repeatedly fall into this state.

Hyper-vigilance in adulthood can have its roots in childhood trauma, or result from working in a hostile situation or from being in relationship with a psychologically or physically abusive partner. Someone who is hyper-vigilant often interprets interactive signals differently than the norm and as a result suffers much tension and misunderstanding. Our society is presently showing signs of being in this hyper-vigilant stage.

The final level of body-mind response to fear is the frozen traumatic reflex that occurs when danger is continuous or your nervous system loses the ability to perceive that the danger has passed. It can occur if you are thwarted in your effort to fight or flee and are locked into a pattern of incomplete motion. Or it can also arise when you brace or contract for an impact, such as often happens in auto accidents. It can also be caused by threatening emotional situations, particularly in childhood.

If your circumstances were such that you continually sought to avoid drawing attention to yourself or you repeatedly contracted muscles to armor yourself against physical or verbal blows, these responses become a permanently frozen part of your neuromuscular system and can be triggered by stress. You can try to detect a frozen fear pattern in yourself by noting sensations of unease or numbness in the body, or feelings of mental disconnection or of not being in the body.

It might take you quite by surprise, but hyper-vigilance and frozen responses will usually present themselves at some point in your meditation practice. Almost everyone seems to have some degree of locked-in fear that needs to be released; however, the amount varies dramatically. Usually you will experience some physical and possibly emotional discomfort when it starts arising. Sometimes it might be accompanied by unidentifiable images or memories of a specific event; at other times there is only a raw sense of fear or of bodily discomfort. Because it is unpleasant, there is a tendency to distract the mind or to simply give up meditation. It has been my experience that if you can stay with the uncomfortable experience, it will eventually unwind itself in both its physical and mental aspects.

The Fear-Based Person

Some individuals so habitually view the world from their various fears that they are referred to as living a fear-based life. If you are such a person or know such a person, you know well what this means. There is very little mental rest for such a person, because life seldom seems safe, even just temporarily. You continually mistrust your judgment or question the reliability of others, or both. You perpetually second-guess yourself and also others, always seeking yet one more opinion or assurance. You may change your mind frequently or endlessly postpone making decisions in order to seek more information. If you buy something, even if it is at a good price, you feel, “I paid too much; I could have gotten it cheaper,” or “There must be something wrong with it.”

It is confusing when a fear-based person has developed the ability to pull you into salving his worries and solving his fears. You feel bombarded by the person’s apprehensions, and you carry anxiety that is hard to shake because it is not yours. Being mindful that this is occurring will allow you to separate from fear that is not yours and to develop a protective boundary. Some people who orient toward life from fear lack this skill and thus find themselves being the odd person out. Others shun them to avoid the constant alarm they broadcast. The skillful reaction to this isolation from fear, whether it is in yourself or another, is compassion.

If you are fear based, you might move from one obsession or worry to another as a way to cope with your general anxiety. When you go to a meditation retreat, you get to watch the mind become agitated and actually look for a problem to grab hold of, and you come to see that what the mind chooses to focus on is not reliable as a priority. One yogi I met on retreat learned to say “my old friend fear” whenever his mind contracted into fear. This enabled him to no longer give it credibility, and the world became a safer, more enjoyable place for him. But beware of identifying yourself as a “fearful person.” You may often see life through the lens of fear, but it is only a mental state that is coloring your perception; you are not that fear.

This is a critical understanding. If you jump into a cold lake and your body gets cold, you don’t suddenly think you are a cold lake; you are simply cold as a response to the environment. Fear is like that: Your nervous system may be flooded with the sensations of fear, but this is still only a response.

Meditating on Fear

Most people who start practicing mindfulness of fear realize for the first time how much of their behavior is motivated by fear. If this happens to you, you may begin to feel discouraged or possibly defensive, or to adamantly assert that your fear is justified and even needed. You are used to fear and you know how to work with it, so these responses are natural. It is as though you are afraid to be without fear! Of course, you might be right; I can only report that it has not worked that way for the yogis I have known. Without exception, as their reliance on fear has diminished, their sense of well-being has grown.

You can see what is true for you by mindfully working with some of your smaller, more approachable fears and then seeing what happens. Be patient, please. It helps to remind yourself that fear is not a stigma. Even the Buddha had to work with fear, which he describes in the “Sutta on Fear and Dread” in the Majjhima Nikaya.

Although it may seem as though fear is dominating your decisions, if you look more closely, you will find that there’s an energetic response that is even more powerful, and that is love-love in all its forms: appreciation, generosity, caring, tolerance, patience, creativity, and service. The core spiritual teaching about fear is that it inevitably arises whenever you experience a sense of separateness, either from others or from the environment. Fear overwhelms the mind, causes you to project that which you find despicable in yourself onto others, breeds paranoia, and fuels self-justifying, self-serving behavior.

As you grow spiritually and begin to see how interdependent all of life is, your sense of separation diminishes, and fear then starts to lose its grip. For this reason it is sometimes said that a person who has fully realized the dharma is completely without fear. Unfortunately, for the rest of us, there remains the ever-present need for practice.

Loving-kindness practice is the classic antidote for fear. If you see through the lens of love, you are not afraid of what is out there in the same way, even though it remains just as difficult and may still succeed in harming you. Your relationships to fear and to yourself are thus changed by experiencing the threatening aspects of life through the lens of love. Doing loving-kindness practice formally for just five minutes each morning, followed by saying loving-kindness phrases as you go through your daily routines, may well begin to make a difference in your life. I specifically suggest doing the following loving-kindness meditation to work with fear: “May I find freedom from fear in my life. May I also in turn help others find freedom from fear in their lives. And may I meet the fear in our culture with the courage of the open heart, which acts with decisiveness but never divisiveness.”

You can begin practicing mindfulness of fear today. When your mind seems to be caught in a storm of thoughts about how bad the world is or about something in your own life, take a moment to notice what happens in your body. Then notice how your mind is communicating with images and words. Remember to be curious and receptive without taking any of it personally. Let your heart open to the suffering the fear is causing.

The story is often told of a monk who lived in isolation in a cave where he painted beautiful murals on the wall as part of his meditation practice. With his strongly developed concentration and acquired skill, he painted a ferocious tiger that appeared as real as any live one. It seemed so real, it scared him to death! All things that arise in your mind are like the monk’s brush strokes on the cave wall-none of them, not even the ones that seem to be the most solid, are composed of lasting, unchanging substance.

When the fear feels stuck, realize that you are clinging to a perception that is merely painted on the walls of your mind. It’s this clinging, not the danger, no matter how genuinely threatening it might be, that is the cause of your greatest distress. The proper response is threefold: continual mindfulness of the fear, deep compassion for the suffering it is causing, and cultivation of equanimity that allows you to stay with it. You will find that the dharma will do the rest.

Resources

Five Kinds of Decisions

Naming the type of decision you’re trying to make will help bring clarity to the process.
Phillip Moffitt
October 19, 2022
3
 min read

Naming the type of decision you’re trying to make will help bring clarity to the process.

Benevolent: All of your options are good, for instance choosing between two good job offers or between spending time with your family vs. taking a personal retreat. What seems like a benevolent decision can sometimes indicate a deeper, hidden conflict you are avoiding acknowledging because it’s too unpleasant. Ask yourself, “Am I creating options for myself in order to escape facing a deeper issue?”

Neutral: You don’t have a preference for any of your choices, yet you can’t make the decision. This paralysis is usually a sign of a hidden conflict that’s trying to express itself through the decision. Sometimes the conflict is with another person. The skillful way to handle a neutral decision is to be compassionate with yourself and be mindful of how the decision feels in your body right now. Oftentimes, the answer will reveal itself.

Mixed: There are gains and losses inherent in all of your options, and it’s not clear which is the wisest course, such as the choice between committing to a relationship vs. keeping your independence; whichever choice you make, you have to give up something you desire. Beware of trying to have your cake and eat it too. Likewise be careful of fantasy decision-making, such as telling yourself that although the person you’re dating isn’t really right for you, making a commitment will change him into a new person.

Undesirable: All of your options have unpleasant consequences, for example deciding whether to keep silent or speak out about a lie one of your co-workers has told, which will affect workplace morale. There’s not a good outcome no matter what you decide, so it’s a really hard choice to make. In this circumstance, listen to your heart: Which choice will be the easiest for you to live with, despite what’s likely to be unpleasant external conditions?

Unknowable: The consequences of the decision are unclear, such as whether to have a risky operation or an experimental medical procedure. It’s a tough decision to make because you really don’t know how it’s going to play out. It’s best not to make such a decision until you absolutely have to, and then clearly state to yourself the full consequences of making the choice vs. staying with your current situation. People often underestimate the risks and downside of the unknown and exaggerate the negative aspects of the status quo.

To explore skillful decision making further, please read “Making Skillful Decisions”.

Resources

Discovering the Clarity of a Responsive Mind

For most people, learning to move from a reactive mind state to a responsive mind state is the single most helpful tool to reduce suffering and increase well-being. See if this practice can make a difference in your life.
Phillip Moffitt
October 19, 2022
7
 min read

For most people, learning to move from a reactive mind state to a responsive mind state is the single most helpful tool to reduce suffering and increase well-being. See if this practice can make a difference in your life.


Resources

Experience vs. Interpretation

A crucial skill for minimizing emotional chaos and sustaining clarity in your life is the ability to distinguish between your experience and your interpretation of your experience.
Phillip Moffitt
October 19, 2022
6
 min read

A crucial skill for minimizing emotional chaos and sustaining clarity in your life is the ability to distinguish between your experience and your interpretation of your experience.

For a more in-depth exploration of this topic, read Phillip Moffitt’s article “Knowing What’s Really Happening: Experience vs. Interpretation”.

Resources

Knowing What’s Really Happening: Experience vs. Interpretation

A crucial skill for minimizing emotional chaos and sustaining clarity in your life is the ability to distinguish between your experience and your interpretation of your experience. Your experience is simply whatever is happening in the moment...
Phillip Moffitt
October 19, 2022
12
 min read

A crucial skill for minimizing emotional chaos and sustaining clarity in your life is the ability to distinguish between your experience and your interpretation of your experience. Your experience is simply whatever is happening in the moment—a sound, a taste, a bodily sensation, an emotion, any kind of interaction, etc. Your interpretation is your mind’s reaction to that experience. One way to understand this difference is to picture that when you are directly experiencing a moment of life, you are within it; when you are interpreting it, you are outside it.

Interpretation occurs as the result of a combination of several factors. The mind has an automatic tendency to interpret an experience and create a story about it based on memories, past associations, and attitudes you have about yourself and others. It then selectively gathers data from within the experience to support its interpretation. It may seem to you that your mind is simply trying to figure out your experience, but really it’s screening for evidence to support the story it’s clinging to. However, this story is a delusion because your mind is being clouded by the strong emotions of the moment.

You can easily become committed to a particular interpretation to the point that it becomes a habit, a story that you repeat in similar or related circumstances. For example, “nobody wants to date me” is a story I often hear from both single men and women between the ages of forty and sixty. This belief is usually based on a very limited effort to make contact with potential partners that is undermined by unrealistic standards they have held since they were in their twenties. But when I point out that they’re more mature now and may need to change their criteria, I am often met with an exasperated look that says, “You don’t understand.” They cling to their interpretation of the problem rather than allowing the challenge to evoke the change and inner growth that is necessary given the arc of human life.

How the Mind Resists Uncertainty

When confronted with a difficult experience, the untrained mind wants to be anywhere but in the present moment, where it perceives acute unpleasantness. The mind becomes anxious whenever it’s uncertain and reacts as if one’s survival is at stake. So rather than staying with the experience and determining the best possible way to relate to it, the mind jumps to creating a story that involves worrying about the future or judging oneself or others based on past experiences. This pattern of resistance to staying present in experience is an automatic response arising from the limbic brain as it detects threats. Ironically, the story imparts a false sense of knowing what’s going on and therefore can seem temporarily soothing.

When we start to interpret an experience, the thoughts generated by our reactive mind become our primary experience, as opposed to whatever is actually happening that needs our full attention and considered response. Usually we continue on with the activity, but our attention is split or less than complete. Is it any wonder that we don’t do our best under such conditions? And sometimes we just can’t continue the activity. For example, Scott, a Life Balance client, suffers from what he describes as “shutting down” at work. Although Scott is a high-performing manager, whenever his colleagues critique his ideas, his mind starts spinning and he has to wait for the episode to pass. He reports losing two or three hours a week due to being “triggered.” Scott interprets his peers’ feedback about his ideas as a personal attack.

You too may have triggers that cause you to get lost in interpretation rather than staying present; you may even have a pattern of interpretation that shuts your mind down but have never realized it’s happening because you are so accustomed to it. For sure, there are so many different experiences vying for attention in any given moment that in order to deal with what seems like an overwhelming amount of stimuli the mind rushes to interpretation to gain a sense of control. In reality, though, interpretation creates a false impression of stability. As you start to become aware of your patterns of interpretation, be kind and nonjudgmental toward yourself. It’s not helpful to fall into self-blame or self-loathing, both of which are forms of interpretation.

Becoming Mindful of Your Experience

You can begin to break the habit of automatically interpreting every experience by practicing anchoring your attention firmly within the experience. Notice any physical sensations and emotions that are arising and observe the state of your mind. Is it racing, agitated, fuzzy, or clear? For instance, if you feel that someone has not lived up to an agreement they made with you, rather than contracting into an interpretation of them or their motives, simply stay with the feeling of what it’s like to be let down by another. You might say to yourself, “I’m just going to be interested in this,” and then watch what
happens. Just be in the moment and let the experience form.

I realize that what I’m saying sounds easier to do than it often is, especially when the experience you’re having is going badly. Staying with the experience can seem impossible if you don’t know what to do or think, and it’s getting worse. But everything you’re noticing and feeling, even your resistance, becomes part of the direct experience. If the situation doesn’t feel safe, you obviously need to respond as skillfully as you’re able to avoid getting hurt. However, if you’re willing to let loose of controlling the experience, there is a greater possibility that you will intuitively find a more skillful way to respond than what your pattern of interpretation might dictate.

For instance, when you and your spouse are having a disagreement and she’s not being the way you want her to be, it can be confusing or threatening to you. It’s a disagreement you’ve had numerous times before, and so you jump to your usual interpretation, to reassure yourself. Sometimes that may work, but it’s unlikely, because what you’re really doing is recycling the experience. What would happen if you just noticed what you’re experiencing? “In this moment, I’m hearing her words. My heart is troubled. But my body feels comfortable. What else am I experiencing? I’m having this moment that’s
emotionally unpleasant. It’s so unpleasant that my mind is jumping to interpretation and it’s grabbing hold of it.” Could you just stay with that experience and see what unfolds? Sometimes we feel so compelled to respond to a situation that we rush to interpretation. But do we really have to? What would happen if we didn’t give in to the drama of the situation? Maybe if you paused your spouse would take advantage of the silence to say something unexpected that could shift how you respond and therefore establish a new way of relating to each other.

The next step toward breaking your habit of automatically interpreting every experience is to practice being mindful from moment to moment of the distinction between experience and interpretation. Begin to notice, “Is there a difference between my direct experience of what’s going on and how I’ve interpreted it?” You’ll need to practice noticing over and over again before you really start to know the difference. The more you’re able to distinguish experience from interpretation, the more you’ll be able to stay in the moment, the calmer you’ll be, and the more choices you’ll have for responding skillfully to whatever circumstances arise.

For example, you may have a habit of collapsing into interpretation whenever you receive any form of rejection. If so, first observe the thoughts that pop into your head. Then notice what you’re actually feeling, physically and emotionally, right at that moment, and ask yourself whether you can stand to be present with those sensations. Most of the time the answer will be yes. Finally, examine your ego. Does it feel demolished, insecure, or angry as a result of the rejection? Is your ego doing the interpreting? Have compassion for your ego and appreciate that it just received a blow, but don’t let its compensating interpretations define you in the moment. If you don’t buy into the interpretations, they will eventually cease.

Releasing Your Compulsion to Interpret

Once you begin to recognize that interpretation is only your view of an experience, it becomes possible for you to begin to release your compulsion to interpret every moment. Ideally, your goal is to create a new habit, a new default setting for responding rather than reacting to all types of experiences. Establishing this new habit starts by staying with the experience. When you find that you’ve jumped to interpretation, just notice the difference. The noticing gradually becomes automatic. There are many activities in your life that you do automatically—driving, cooking, typing, etc.—and that you more or less notice without noticing. In the same way, you can develop the habit of automatically noticing the difference between your experience and your interpretation of the experience.

When you discover that you are interpreting rather than staying with your experience, you don’t have to stop doing it. I’m not saying that you must get rid of all interpretation, but I am encouraging you to learn to distinguish between experience and your interpretive reaction to it. As with any kind of mindfulness practice, being curious helps. Ask yourself: “What will happen if I practice noticing the difference between my experience and my interpretation of it?” “What does it feel like right now?” “How many times today can I notice? Twenty? Fifty?” Just be curious.

The opportunity to practice in this way occurs many times throughout the day and requires persistence. You may be in a meeting, driving your car, talking on the phone to a friend, or having a heated discussion with your child and notice the difference between your experience and your interpretation of the experience. The more you get used to it, the more you will notice it. The more you notice it, the more you will tend to notice it.

There undoubtedly will be moments when you won’t be able to stay with your experience and you will become lost in interpretation, so it helps to reflect afterward. For instance, on your way home from work you might stop to pick up groceries for dinner. After leaving the store and driving halfway home, you realize that you forgot something. In that moment your mind becomes filled with frustration and you think, “My evening is shot. I either spend thirty minutes going back to the store or I heat up leftovers for dinner. Either way the family is going to be disappointed in me. How could I have forgotten? I’m so stupid!” At that moment you are being consumed by your interpretations and there’s no stopping it. However, once you’ve resolved what you’re going to do about dinner, you can then reflect back on what just happened. Imagine saying to yourself later, “So I forgot. I had this experience of forgetting, and then I had this interpretation of my experience. What was it like?”

You can also cultivate your ability to make this distinction by observing other people as they’re acting out their interpretation of an experience or telling you about something that happened in their life. You can tell the difference between what actually happened to them and how they’re interpreting it. I repeat: their interpretation isn’t wrong, necessarily—it’s just different from the real experience.

There are certainly times when you need to be able to respond to an event that’s unfolding in your life while simultaneously interpreting it. For instance, you need to be able to interpret the body signals and emotional vibes of others in order to be a good communicator. Likewise, you need to be able to recognize and interpret patterns in people’s behavior in order to be effective and anticipate change. Moreover, sometimes someone may harbor ill will or jealousy toward you or see you as a rival, in which case you need to take steps to protect yourself.

Remember Your Intentions and Priorities

You can really harm yourself when your interpretation of your experience overrides your intentions and priorities. Charles, another Life Balance client, is a good example of what can happen when you base your actions on misguided thinking instead of your intentions and priorities. Charles was a high achiever who was chosen to represent his company in negotiations with another company about how the two companies might collaborate on a project. In preparation for the negotiations, I helped Charles identify some crucial points that needed to be included in the partnership agreement. However, when during the meeting his counterpart at the other company suggested the same agreement we had
defined, Charles responded by saying, “Let me think about it.” When he told me this afterward, I asked him why he hadn’t said yes on the spot. Charles replied that he didn’t want his counterpart to perceive him as being too quick to agree and therefore weak; he also thought that there might be a chance of getting an even better deal. I was dismayed because what mattered was getting this particular agreement settled, and he had it in hand. But Charles got lost in his interpretation of what the other person would think of him and his ideas about how he was supposed to act in such situations. Sure enough, when Charles later contacted the other negotiator to accept the offer, he was told, “Since we didn’t reach an agreement, I thought more about it myself and I no longer want to do it.” Charles was devastated, but he learned a valuable lesson.

Showing Up for Your Life, Just as It Is

Each year at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, I help teach a daylong course in meditation for beginners, which hundreds of people attend. When you first learn to meditate, it’s not unusual for your mind to decide that since you aren’t doing anything else this is the perfect time to deal with your most challenging problems. The mind, therefore, can become quite agitated, so the students are given an opportunity during the day to have a ten-minute individual interview with one of the teachers, to talk about their experiences. A few years ago, a woman who interviewed with me presented a long list of seemingly unsolvable problems. I listened attentively as she described her difficulties, and when she finished, I spoke to her about the importance of practicing loving-kindness toward herself. As for resolving her problems, I had no suggestions other than that she focus on the experience of them and not on her interpretation of them. Recently the woman showed up at my weekly meditation class and said, “You won’t remember me, but I am the woman you told to stay with my experience, not the interpretation.” I did not remember her name or face, but I did remember her interview. “Well,” she said, “those words were what I really needed. I now speak to all sorts of groups, and I tell them about that interview with you and give them the very same advice.” She had learned to show up for her life by being willing to be present for what was difficult in her life. The same can be true for you.

Here is a 5-minute video of Phillip Moffitt speaking about the importance of distinguishing between interpretation and experience.

Resources

Preventing Pressure from Becoming Stress

Why do some people suffer from debilitating symptoms of stress while others who are under equal or greater pressure don’t? This is a question I’ve deliberated for the past 25 years as I’ve listened to countless meditation students tell me about...
Phillip Moffitt
October 19, 2022
5
 min read

Why do some people suffer from debilitating symptoms of stress while others who are under equal or greater pressure don’t? This is a question I’ve deliberated for the past 25 years as I’ve listened to countless meditation students tell me about the difficulties in their lives. I’ve learned consequently that there is a distinction between the pressure someone experiences due to the conditions in their life and stress, which is their mind’s reaction to that pressure. Although constant pressure can lead to physical and mental fatigue and even strain, stress, which is the result of anxiety and fear, is far more likely to endanger your physical and mental health. I’ve also observed that many people conflate pressure and stress; they automatically interpret any feeling of strong pressure as being inherently stressful. But this is a misperception. Understanding the difference between pressure and stress can create a greater sense of ease and well-being in your life.

Differentiating between Pressure and Stress

Pressure is a natural response to the “weight” or “heaviness” of the demands in your life, which you experience in your body, particularly your nervous system. The feeling of pressure starts in the brain as it contemplates your situation; the brain then sends signals about whatever is happening to you to your autonomic nervous system, which manifest as body sensations, thoughts, and images in your mind. Pressure is like an internal messenger that is telling you, “Pay attention.” You experience the message as a demand; it is this demand that constitutes the felt sense of pressure in the body and mind.

Stress is a very different phenomenon. It is your mind’s fearful, anxious, and immediate reaction to the demands that you face. You may be reacting to demands that you are facing at this moment or ones that you anticipate will happen in the future. You may even be reacting to pressure you felt in the past that was so traumatizing that the memory of it triggers feelings of stress in the present. You may also be inflating how truly fearful the situation is or completely misperceiving what’s going on.

The reason stress can be harmful is because it provokes an exaggerated and inappropriate “fight or flight response.” Although the fight or flight response is designed to help us cope with threatening situations, it isn’t intended to be turned on for long periods of time. When it is, the flood of neurochemicals that are released in the process damage the heart, the glands, and the nervous system. Also, when we’re stressed, we tend to take up unhealthy habits in order to combat the stress, such as overeating or abusing alcohol or drugs.

Don’t get me wrong — too much pressure for too long a time period can also be debilitating and harmful, however your body and mind are built to cope with sustained pressure and to recover when the pressure is over. But when you are under stress for a long period of time, you are in danger of becoming imbalanced or sick. Your body and mind can handle periodic or brief episodes of stress but they are not equipped to cope with constant stress and the damage it causes.

Using Mindfulness to Heal Your Stress Habit

If you tend to interpret many situations in which you feel pressure as being stressful, then you are in danger of getting caught in a vicious cycle of constantly feeling stressed. The first step in overcoming this reflexive reaction is to ask yourself, “Is this really stressful or am I simply feeling a lot of pressure?” You find the answer by assessing the particulars of the situation, clarifying what action is called for (while being realistic about what you are capable of doing), and accepting that there are times in life when you will feel pressure and the outcome is uncertain. (This is called clear comprehension in the Buddhist practice of mindfulness.) If it truly is a stressful situation and you are in danger or are unable to function, then you need to take whatever steps are necessary to assure your safety.

The second step is to be mindful of whether you are feeling stressed simply because you are under pressure. If so, you can remedy this in several ways:

  • Begin with naming it as pressure and clarifying what the demand is. Then define the tasks involved and make a list of what is required of you to complete what needs to be done.
  • Acknowledge the challenge that the pressure presents and work out a system of balancing it. Allowing yourself time to rest, eating healthy food, meditating, being in nature, engaging in physical activity, receiving body work, and getting involved in activities that give you joy can all help bring relief from stress.
  • Find a support system (either a person or a group, professional or friends) to help you deal with the pressure.

The third step is to notice if a feeling of inadequacy, ambivalence, or ambiguity is causing your stress reaction. If so, explore these feelings — they are your teachers as well as your motivation.

The fourth step is to notice if you have a “story” or an identity of being stressed out and ask yourself, “In what way does feeling stressed all the time serve me? If I weren’t so stressed, what would I be feeling? What would I be dealing with?”

If you truly apply yourself to this mindful exploration of pressure and stress in your life, you will become much more mindful of what you are actually feeling. Moreover, once you have clarity regarding the distinction between pressure and stress, you may well discover that you have an increased capacity for handling pressure and are more skillful in dealing with it. You also become more adept at recognizing stress and seeing its destructive nature. In turn, you become more careful about putting yourself in stressful situations and are more likely to seek help in getting out of them.

To view a video of Phillip speaking on this topic, click here.

Resources

Core Values and Essential Intentions Worksheet

Identifying your core values and then creating a few essential intentions that you are mindful of moment-to-moment in the midst of the chaos of daily life can help you stay in balance and clear-minded. Here is a worksheet we use with clients and...
Phillip Moffitt
October 19, 2022
1
 min read

Identifying your core values and then creating a few essential intentions that you are mindful of moment-to-moment in the midst of the chaos of daily life can help you stay in balance and clear-minded. Here is a worksheet we use with clients and in workshops that you can download and fill out to identify your own values and intentions.

You may find it helpful to read this short article before completing the worksheet: “Differentiating Goals, Intentions, and Values”.

Download PDF

Resources

Differentiating Goals, Intentions, and Values

Many people lack clarity about their goals, values, and intentions. We often lump them together and delineate them in varying ways. As we live out the chaos of our lives, it is inevitable that our goals, values, and intentions become...
Phillip Moffitt
October 19, 2022
3
 min read

Many people lack clarity about their goals, values, and intentions. We often lump them together and delineate them in varying ways. As we live out the chaos of our lives, it is inevitable that our goals, values, and intentions become enmeshed. However, they are essential reference points for staying true to ourselves and bringing clarity to confusing situations in daily life. I differentiate them in the following way:

Goals are aspirations for the future that you seek to achieve; if they were not in the future, they would be achievements already. You may be accomplishing a certain goal already, e.g. being a good parent, but the effort is not over, so it remains a goal.

Intentions form the basis for determining how you meet each moment as you move toward your goals. Intentions always relate to the present moment. In the Buddha’s Eightfold Path, right intention is the second path factor and it arises from right understanding. In this sense, intentions reflect what you believe matters most in life.

In daily life your intentions reflect the essence of who you are. They shape your words and actions. As you develop inner maturity, you realize that being true to who you are is more important than achieving goals and that many of your goals can only be achieved through staying true to your intentions.

There are three essential intentions for living skillfully — meeting life with an attitude of loving-kindness, not causing harm, and renouncing speaking or acting in a manner that would cause harm in situations where our greed or aversion is strong. The Buddha also offered many precepts and values for us to live by such as right speech, non-stealing, generosity, patience, and forgiveness, all of which support these basic intentions.

Values reflect your understanding of what really matters to you. They are shaped by familial and cultural conditioning, personal experience, and the wisdom of your understanding. Values can be situational, temporal, hierarchical, and subjective; thus, many of your values are somewhat fluid in daily life. However, as you develop inner maturity, you adopt certain values that do not fluctuate — these are your core values. From these core values you create intentions. You may have many core values from which you create a few essential intentions that you are mindful of moment-to-moment in the midst of chaos in daily life.

An important distinction between values and intentions is that you can have values that lack commitment whereas intentions are active in the moment and focused on being a certain way right now. Intentions are where the “rubber meets the road,” where your values are reconciled with your goals, and where you give witness to what is essential to you as you dance with life.

You can find our “Core Values and Essential Intentions Worksheet” here.

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