Overcoming Resistance

Every day I run into circumstances where my mind’s habitual response is resistance. Last Saturday, one of the things I resisted most vehemently was leading a discussion entitled, “Welcome Everything, Push Away Nothing.”

overcoming resistance

My personal history with the traditional mindfulness teachings is befuddlement. I almost never get the point. Everything I’ve learned has come from doing the exercises. So when my meditation group invited me to lead a discussion on one of the teachings from Frank Ostaseski’s book, The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully, my inclination was to decline.

I recently wrote about What Death Teaches Us About Life, so I wanted to move on to different material. But listening to the interview the author and co-founder of the Zen Hospice Project and Metta Institute gave to Sam Harris on his Waking Up podcast confronted me with another primal fear that I habitually resist.

Serious as a Heart Attack

Sam Harris asked how Frank Ostaseski’s experience of having a heart attack affected his work.

Frank Ostaseski: Oh, boy. Well, you know. I used to think I knew a lot about dying. I’ve been with a lot of people who died. I thought I knew something about it. And then I realize that the view from the other side of the sheets is really different.

It was humbling actually. Really humbling.

I come out of surgery, and I’m in the cardiac care unit, and I’ve got tubes coming into every possible orifice, including I’m intubated, which means a machine is breathing for me. And I’m in this kind of anesthesia fog. And my son, who’s an adult at that point, about twenty-nine, and my best friend, a meditation teacher, are with me.

And into the room comes this respiratory therapist who says, “Let’s pull out that tube and see if you can breathe.” That’s how he introduced himself.

And I waved my arms back and forth “no, no, no.” I couldn’t speak, of course, because I had this tube in my mouth. And I took a pad of paper and I wrote, “I’m scared.”

The Practice of Acceptance

Mr. Ostaseski’s fellow meditation teacher reminded him to calm himself by focusing on his breath, but he couldn’t find his breath because the machine was breathing for him. He couldn’t tune into his bodily sensations either because he was of the anesthesia. Then he remembered a story about another famous meditation teacher who had faced a similar challenge.

Mr. Ostaseski: I grabbed my friend the meditation teacher, and I pulled him close to me. And I put my ear next to his mouth; and I listened to the rhythm of his breath. And my son, who I love beyond words, he just kind of slipped his hand in on my chest, and it was like a conduit to God. It was just pure love, actually.”

Those two things allowed Mr. Ostaseski to welcome the respiratory therapist’s request to take out the tube.

Resistance to Helplessness

Sam Harris: How long was the whole recovery process?

Mr. Ostaseski: The whole process took roughly about a year for me to sort of heal. And in the early stages of that I was quite disabled. I couldn’t do things like go to the toilet by myself or shower by myself. And so I felt tremendously weak at home. I felt dependent after my heart attack. I was depressed. I just felt helpless.

Welcoming Vulnerability

“In welcoming everything,” he writes, “We don’t have to like what is arising. It’s actually not our job to approve or disapprove. The word welcome confronts us; asks us to temporarily suspend our usual rush to judgment and to simply be open to what is happening. Our task is to give our careful attention to what is showing up at our door.”

Mr. Ostaseski: Gradually, what I noticed as I paid attention to these things and allowed these states is that that helplessness, that dependency, it became something more like vulnerability. It became something more like porousness, or transparency even.

And I began to experience much of the same things that the patients I had worked with had experienced.

Transforming the Experience

Mr. Ostaseski: I was very fortunate. I had great people around me who took care of me. I got really wonderful, supportive letters from people all over the place. And that love that came to me was really helpful. And it was beautiful that people loved me and it was nice to feel that reassurance. But what it really did was introduce me to, more intimately, the love of my own being.

Liberation and Confidence

We tend to protect ourselves from the experiences and situations we don’t like,” he writes. “But there is a sense of liberation and confidence that gets built up within us when we do the opposite, when we push away nothing.”

Mr. Ostaseski: I felt this deep, deep trust, not in something other than me, but in reality itself. And with this trust arose a kind of rest. A deep, deep rest. Body at rest, heart at rest, consciousness at rest.

There’s this great sense of being at peace with the way things are. Not fighting against life. And then there’s this kind of absence of struggle for a period of time. And this went on in my case for several months where there was not so much a sense of Frank there. Not my ordinary personality wasn’t so much in charge, if you will.

It came back. It reasserted itself. It came back one day and said, “Don’t worry. Here I am. I’m back. I’m in charge.” But once you’ve had those experiences and they’re not just some spiritual highlight but actually deeply integrated, you can’t fool yourself anymore that you’re in charge.

Putting Out Fires

Frank Ostaseski’s story reminded me of two important reasons I continue to perform these mental exercises every day.

First, training the brain to find calm within chaos is like a fireman training to put out a fire. They don’t welcome fires, but are confident they can face them.
Second, because every fire is different, the more strategies we have to put them out, the better.

Ten Minute Exercise

To practice welcoming everything and pushing away nothing, try this version of choiceless awareness.

1. Find a place where you won’t be interrupted for ten minutes.

2. Set a timer to remind you when you’re done.

3. Sit comfortably with back straight to allow for easy flow of the breath.

4. Focus attention on the breath or any other sight, sound, smell, taste, feeling, or thought.

5. As your attention moves from the breath to another sense object, simply allow that to become your focus.

6. When attention moves on from that object, follow it to the next object, etc.

7. If the mind gets caught in the past or the future, gently return to the present.

8. When the timer sounds, take a moment to note that the attention shifts happen without any effort.

9. Take a moment to notice how the mind and body feel right now before continuing with your day.

Extra Credit: Whenever you find that you don’t have to engage your attention on any particular object (like when you’re waiting in line or in traffic), try staying with it in this way wherever it chooses to go.

Dying Well

Thinking about death can be far less anxiety producing than thinking about dying. But, surprisingly, contemplating end of life scenarios really tells us more about how we want to live.

dying legacy

The End of Suffering

The last time I spoke to my dad on the phone, he was eighty-eight years old. He was in a hospice facility because he couldn’t make it to the bathroom on his own. His wife couldn’t carry him. He was weak and winded. His lungs were shot.

I asked him two questions.

“What’s your quality of life?”

He said, “Zero.”

“Are you afraid to die?”

He said, “No.”

Then he told me he had to get off the phone because his physical therapist had arrived. The purpose of the therapist’s visit was superfluous, but the visit was not. It gave my dad another moment of human connection before he let go of life a few days later.

My father’s wife never faced the fact that he was dying, so he didn’t either, which left him with no choice but to suffer. He knew that dying was release from suffering, but had to accept it to know release.

When is Illness Dying?

I can understand Dad’s confusion about dying. His mother died when he was two. His father died at sixty. Most of the people in our extended family smoked or drank, so they died in their fifties, sixties and seventies.

Most of them died at home. Most of them died in their sleep. They seemed to accept that they were dying.

Given the ability of modern medical science to keep a body going even after our organs shut down, more of us are going to have to define for ourselves what living and dying really mean.

Sobering Scenarios

Some of the circumstances that the Oregon Health Decisions pamphlet ask us to imagine include:

If I have an incurable illness which will most probably cause my death, and I can no longer speak for myself…

It’s relatively easy for me to say I do not want to spend my last months having medical treatments that have no hope of curing my illness.

I also say no thank you to a tube placed in my nose, mouth, or stomach, or a needle or catheter placed in my body to give me water and other fluids.

And I’ll pass on the breathing machine, too.

It’s completely counterintuitive, but contemplating death with a clear mind transformed my relationship to it. Contemplating my responses to dying actually focuses me on how I want to live.

Appointing a Health Care Representative

Who should we choose to make decisions for us when we can’t make them for ourselves? Someone we love and trust? Someone who knows us very well? Someone who is not emotionally attached to us? Someone who lives nearby?

The most anxiety relieving qualification for me is someone who has discussed my wishes with me. We all have our own thoughts about what constitutes a good death. I wouldn’t want to die someone else’s death.

Clarity or Comfort

If I have a brain disease that cannot be reversed and I cannot recognize my family and friends, speak meaningfully to them, or live independently…

I don’t want to receive treatment for the brain disease that would prolong my life or be treated for any other illness that would cause my death.

I do want to control pain and suffering even though I could become physically dependent on the drugs.

Thinking about my relationship to pain treatment when I am aware of my surroundings and lucid is more complicated. I haven’t yet used mindfulness practices to manage chronic pain, but would be willing to give them a try based on their track record.

Resolving Conflicts

I currently don’t have any bad blood relationships to contend with. A useful tool for keeping relationships from deteriorating is to remember that we all screw up, we’re all going to die, and that dying with bitterness isn’t ideal.

Palliative care doctor Ira Byock recommends in his book The Four Things That Matter Most keeping these phrases in mind just in case.

Please forgive me.

I forgive you.

Thank you.

I love you.

I don’t have any nagging religious questions to resolve about the afterlife, but recognize that many people do. That’s why I asked my dad if he was afraid of dying. If he had been, I would have tried to find him someone equipped to address his fears.

When it comes to resolving the conflict of what to do with the body, I was torn between organ and tissue donation, and medical research. I decided on the latter because it could potentially benefit more people and would cover decisions surrounding cremation. This aligns with my values of not burdening my family and friends.

It’s a Wonderful Life

My partner bought plane tickets to visit her ninety-five-year-old father at the end of June. Proving the old adage that death can come at any time, he passed away in early June.

Yesterday, on her first Father’s Day without a father, my partner read me some of the kind comments that her dad’s former music students left in response to his online obituary. (The marching band pictured at the top of this post is the one her father formed.) It was her “It’s a Wonderful Life” moment.

In his article, Seven Keys to a Good Death, Charles Garfield recommends reviewing our lives to recognize all the people we’ve loved, everyone who has loved us, and things we have done to contribute to the greater good.

My strategy for this comes from one of my favorite mindfulness teachers. He recommends taking a few minutes at the end of each day to write down things that made us happy, kindnesses that we performed for others, and things others did for us. I like the three good things format for doing this. For quality over quantity (once per week), a gratitude journal is also a good choice.

Hopefully, calling to mind all that I’m grateful for when the time comes will reassure me it’s okay to let go.    

Ten Minute Exercise

You can begin relieving some of your own anxiety about dying by searching Advance Directive and your state. It should take less than ten minutes to find it.

For more encouragement, watch Timothy Ihrig’s TedTalk How to Die Well.

It runs 13:32, but you can watch it in less than 10 minutes at 1.5x speed.

Self-Compassion or Self-Sabotage?

“If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? If not now, when?” –Rabbi Hillel.

If the quote that starts off the Self-Compassion Chapter of psychologist Dr. Rick Hanson’s book Resilience makes you a little self-conscious, you’re not alone.


Self-Compassion or Excuses?

Roughly ninety minutes before I had to leave for Social Club, I sat down to complete my accountability task (writing a video script for a well-being exercise), a challenge I’d issued myself at the conclusion of the previous meeting. Accountability tasks are useful because they lend mild peer pressure to good intentions that we might otherwise let slide.   

My mind was working a mile a minute, but not on what to write.

There had been only six days (four workdays) between meetings.

An unexpected project had taken up one of those days.

Someone had asked me to fill in as a discussion leader for our meditation group, which ate up part of another day.

I had blocked out time on Sunday to write, but my partner wanted to spend time with me.

It was better to write a good script than one that had to be re-shot.

I hadn’t gotten in my step count for the day.

If my accountability task had been coming up with excuses, I would have nailed it. But, despite my rationalization skills, I couldn’t quiet the voice in my head that said I was just being lazy.

Getting Mowed Down

One of the chores I shared with my brother, growing up, was mowing the lawn.

I was allergic to grass. Prying it from the catcher into the lawn bags turned my arms red and made them itch. I frequently had to pause for a sneezing fit. If I wiped sweat from my brow, my eyes grew puffy and teared up. On a hot, polluted day, my asthma flared up before I finished, so I’d go inside and lie down on the sofa until my medications kicked in and I could breathe again.

If my father walked in and found me recovering, he would say something motivational like, “Lazy bones.”

After one day of mowing my medications almost didn’t bring me back. My dad wasn’t home. My mother didn’t drive. As I lay on the sofa, I experienced waves of stabbing pain in my chest. Each time they peaked, I had to decide whether or not they warranted calling an ambulance. I didn’t know what a fatal asthma attack felt like.

At dinner that night, my dad looked down on the spacious back lawn and casually said, “Missed a spot.”

That was the last time I mowed the lawn. I chose laziness over my dad’s work ethic. Dad had asthma, too, and he toughed out many tasks that exacerbated it. He also died of complications from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Feeling Guilty

The voice in my head telling me I was lazy for not completing my script was my dad’s.

I felt guilty because the voices in the heads of people challenged by depression can turn the famous quote advocating self-care (If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? If not now, when?) into a call for self-sabotage. Being “for myself” might mean spending endless hours under the covers instead of getting much needed exercise. Immediate gratification of short-term pleasure can supersede pursuit of long-term health because “if not now, when?” And, self-isolation can replace spending time with people because no one out there could possibly “be for me.”

I’m not a paragon of self-discipline, but I don’t want to get in the habit of not being accountable to myself.

Self-Criticism or Self-Guidance

Kayleigh Isaacs, founder of the Awake Network, hosted an online conversation with Dr. Hanson where a woman asked, “When working on self compassion, there seems to be a risk of getting too soft on oneself. What’s the balance between self-discipline and self-compassion?”

Hanson explained that it’s useful to distinguish between self-criticism and self-guidance. A good guide will prompt you to challenge yourself, acknowledge areas where you need improvement, and support you in making those improvements.

The self-critic, often sounding like a well-meaning but demoralizing parent, makes us feel incapable of surmounting our challenges.

Three Arguments for Self-Compassion

In Resilient: How to Grow an Unshakable Core of Calm, Strength, and Happiness, Hanson makes three more cases for self-compassion.

1. “The Golden Rule is a two-way street: we should do unto ourselves as we do unto others.”

2. “The more influence we have over someone, the more responsibility we have to treat them well…Who’s the one person you can affect the most? It’s yourself, both you in this moment and your future self: the person you will be in the next minute, week, or year.”

3. “Being good to yourself is good for others…Think about how it would benefit others if you felt less stressed, worried, or irritated, and more peaceful, contented, and loving.”

Tricking Our Brains into Self-Compassion

The problem with using self-compassion to move from depression to well-being is that we know what we should do, and we know what’s responsible, but our self-guidance keeps getting drowned out by our self-critic.

When depressed it’s easier for us to muster compassion for someone we believe to be genuinely worthy than for ourselves.

Ten Minute Exercise

A brain hack that can turn our capacity to show compassion for others back to ourselves is the Self-Compassion Letter from the Greater Good Science Center website. Here’s a basic outline

1. Find a pen and paper or other writing implements.

2. Set a timer for ten minutes.

3. First, identify something about yourself that makes you feel ashamed, insecure, or not good enough.

Internalized fear of laziness.

4. Write down how it makes you feel.

Well, lazy. Also, not good enough.

5. Imagine someone who loves you unconditionally. What would they say to you?

Depending on my state of unworthiness I might think it would take a superhero to care about me. I’ll go with Batman.

Hey, Citizen of Gotham: Heard you’re feeling lazy because you didn’t finish your accountability task.

6. Have them remind you that everyone has flaws.

Nobody’s perfect. As hard as the Justice League works to combat crime, the Avengers seem to be wiping the floor with us at the box office. 

7. Consider the influence of life events, family, genetics, etc.

I don’t think it’s worth beating yourself up because you inherited your dad’s allergies. And remember the story your dad told you about how his father made him tough out a broken foot? Maybe that rubbed off on him.

8. In a compassionate way, ask whether there are things you can do to improve or to cope.

If I had to pull something out of my utility belt to address this problem, I’d say that you weren’t being lazy so much as acknowledging other people’s needs. Deferring your accountability didn’t shortchange anyone, and the alternate uses of time weren’t self-indulgent. Just make sure you don’t get in the habit of over-promising and under-delivering. That’s not good for your self-esteem and will impact your ability to help others. Feel free to use the Bat Signal when you need to, but remember, I’m out there fighting crime. – B 

9. After writing the letter, put it down for a little while. Then come back to it later and read it again.

Here’s the full set of instructions for the Self-Compassion Letter (it’s not being lazy to do it in 10 minutes instead of 15).

How to Reboot Your Ego

I once laughed at a bumper sticker that read “Reality is for people who can’t handle drugs.” A Fresh Air interview with Michael Pollan about his book How To Change Your Mind convinces me that ego is for people who can’t handle reality.

ego reboot

The Harsh Neurotic Chatterer

The closest author Michael Pollan could come to describing his psilocybin (aka magic mushroom) experience to Terry Gross was this:

“I felt my sense of self scattered to the wind, almost as if a pile of Post-its had been released to the wind, but I was fine with it.”

He didn’t feel the desire to put the papers back in order. The consciousness that beheld this was not his normal consciousness. It was unperturbed, dispassionate, content.

“And what I brought back from that experience was that I’m not identical to my ego.”

Considered by researchers to be one of the “healthy normals,” Pollan doesn’t see much of a problem with his ego, the neurotic internal chatterer who narrates his life. He claims he couldn’t have written How To Change Your Mind: What The New Science Of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, And Transcendence without it. But even he admits that at times his ego “can be very harsh, and it’s liberating to have some distance from it.”

The Black Mass

The egos of people Pollan interviewed for his book were worse than neurotic. The internal narrator of a sixty-ish figure skating instructor kept telling her a tale of terror. Her bout with ovarian cancer wasn’t over. The cancer was coming back to get her. Her fear was debilitating.

So, on her psilocybin trip, she journeyed into her body to face her storyteller down.

“She saw this black mass under her rib cage, and she realized that was not her cancer. It was her fear. And she beheld this black mass, and she screamed at it. She said, ‘get the fuck out of my body.’ And it vanished. And when she came to, her fear had been absolutely extinguished.”

The Most Unearthly Sight

The image that took Pollan’s breath away showed up one day on his computer: a photo of an emaciated man with an oxygen clip in his nose wearing a hospital gown, taken three days before his death.

“And he was beaming,” said Pollan. “It was the most unearthly sight. And that’s how he died. And it was this experience – and I say experience, not just drug – that allowed him to die that way.”

The fifty-something journalist had enrolled for a psilocybin clinical trial after receiving the diagnosis that his bile duct cancer had spread to his lungs. The experience allowed him to live the last seventeen months of his life without fear. His equanimity was so remarkable that the staff at Mount Sinai hospital gravitated to his room during his last days just to be near him.

Pollan ascribes the staying power to insights gained on these psilocybin trips to what William James called noetic sense. “This isn’t just opinion. This is revealed truth.”

The Default Mode Network

Though Pollan, the skating instructor, and the dying journalist all discovered that their ego was not their self, progress in brain imaging has helped scientists pinpoint where ego goes to work. The Default Mode Network is a group of structures built on the brain’s newest evolutionary real estate. Its programming includes self-reflection, rumination, time travel to our future and the past, and our ongoing autobiography.

DMN is not the part of the brain that produces emotion, but that more primitive region receives the network’s broadcasts via cable.

The most common flaw in DMN programming is reruns: it might run the same thoughts dozens if not hundreds of times a day. A more challenging flaw is that to get our attention it often goes negative: You’re worthless. No one could possibly love you. You’re not worthy of love. Life will never get better.

Reining in the Ego

Whether it’s the Cartoon Network, Fox News, CNN, or DMN: spending too much time with any programming distorts our reality. But, stories from the Default Mode Network create a unique hazard. There’s a reason journalists don’t fact check their own stories. We think what we think is true is true. And, unlike the stories from external networks, DMN stories have a direct pipeline to our emotions without going through fact checking, editing, or even as much as a spell check.

Depression is like watching DMN nonstop.

Psilocybin therapy quiets the network long enough to give the ego a chance to reboot. Sometimes the mere threat of cancellation puts our ego on notice that it’s time to come up with new stories, or else!    

If You See A Monster

According to Pollan, in the clinical trials, two guides: one male, one female, accompany the subject. The traveler lies on a couch wearing eye shades and headphones: to listen to a carefully curated playlist of instrumental music. (For the record, because music is one of the most effective influencers of emotion, I think using it in this setting is a terrible idea.)

Pollan gave examples of the trip instructions that the guides offered including what to do if you see a monster. Don’t run away. “Walk right up to it, plant your feet and say, what do you have to teach me? What are you doing in my mind?”

The Takeaway

Just as our life is much more than our autobiography, this therapy shows us that what we think of as our “self-interest is something larger than what is contained by our skin.”

I can think of my body as me, but every last molecule of it is made from food, air, and water that came from outside me.

If my thoughts are me, who am I when I’m not actively thinking?

I might think of my consciousness as me, but without my internal and external environment, what would I be conscious of? And what about those times I’ve been under anesthesia?

Since early studies of psilocybin therapy indicate that they’re safe for non-psychotic people, non-addictive, and four times as effective as current antidepressants, Pollan supports continuing the research, and supports thorough regulation, but he doesn’t draw the line at clinical use.

Mental Health Clubs

Even those of us who aren’t clinically depressed suffer from suboptimal autobiographies and behaviors.

“Imagine if we had mental health clubs,” mused Pollan, “where you could go once a year, let’s say on your birthday, and have a guided psychedelic experience as a way of taking stock on where you are in life. I think that could be a kind of nice idea.”

Ten Minute Exercise

By deactivating the Default Mode Network, psilocybin allows us a very vivid experience of what it’s like to experience the world directly without our ego turning it into a story.

To keep our ego in check at other times, it helps to remember that it’s only the brain talking to itself. To keep that conversation civil, try practicing the following exercise.

1. Find a place where you won’t be interrupted for ten minutes.

2. Set a timer to remind you when you’re done.

3. Sit down with back straight and close your eyes, or gaze a few feet in front of you without focusing on anything in particular.

4. Take three intentional breaths and focus your attention wherever you experience it most distinctly.

5. Breathe naturally.

6. When your ego sends you a thought, ask yourself the following questions.

  Is it factually true?

My clothes are in the dryer would be a fact.

My clothes are old, shabby, and I need to buy new ones would be an opinion.

• Is it useful?

Remembering that I need to take the laundry out of the dryer might be useful.

Beating myself up for all those times I forget to take the laundry from the dryer is not useful.

• Is it connected to the goal?

Our present goal is to notice how to skillfully respond to our ego. Noticing that we’re thinking about an activity we’re not presently doing is useful.

Getting up to tend to the laundry would not be useful.

• Is it gentle and agreeable.

It would be a good idea to take the clothes out of the dryer after the timer sounds because then your clothes won’t be wrinkled would be gentle and agreeable.

Get up and take the clothes out of the dryer right now because you’re a scatterbrained idiot and won’t remember would be harsh and disagreeable.

7. When you’ve finished analyzing a thought. Return your attention to your breath until your ego dispatches the next thought. Repeat the vetting process.

8. When the timer sounds. Take a moment to notice how your mind and body feel before continuing with your day.