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Like many others out there, I practice mindfulness. Or attempt to, anyway. The hyper-awareness born from actively taking stock of your feelings and emotions can be exhausting. Sometimes I just want to turn my mind off, but negativity can be a veritable force. My personal vice is to dwell on the past to the extreme. Seriously, I’ll dwell on things that happened decades ago, feeling anger and resentment as though it were still fresh. Another pitfall is getting caught up in the ‘What if?’ game. Nowadays, being the financially savvy millennial that I am, I like to torture myself with: “What if I hadn’t moved out of my parents’ house right after college? 2+ years of rent money is 20k that I could have invested, instead.”
I’m sure for many, a similar list goes on and on and on. But, this is where mindfulness comes in to play. While I’d definitely love to write the ‘N00bz Ultimate Guide to Mindfulness & Positivity 101’ and sell you an eBook for $14.99, it’s way too subjective of a topic. One-size-does-not-fit-all.
Here’s a few things I keep in mind (heh), though:
Don’t Bite the Hook
A few years ago, I went to a psychic. The first time was because I’d
drunkenly impulsively bought a package from Groupon. I went back a second time because he was, in essence, cheap therapy but with a little bit of whimsy and incense.† He gave me a copy of Don’t Bite the Hook by Pema Chodron (like, out of the blue and just because. Thanks, bro). I gave it a listen, and it’s pretty good as far as self-help audiobooks go. I wouldn’t say it’s fundamentally changed my life, but there have been some bits of wisdom that’s stuck with me, even five years later.
My biggest takeaway was the idea that anger, resentment, bitterness, regret, and guilt are things we allow ourselves to feel because they are comfortable. On the opposite end of the spectrum: introspection, holding ourselves accountable, taking charge of our emotions, these things require hard work and vulnerability.
While that may not be a universal truth, and maybe even seem a little oxy-moronic at first blush (comfort, ostensibly, is a good thing and negativity, by its very name, is a bad thing, yet negativity = comfort?), it was definitely true for me: it was easier to resent the poor ways people treated me rather than acknowledge that, sometimes, life is unfair and you don’t get an apology for it (or, even worse, that maybe I’m not entirely blameless). As for regrets, it was easier to dwell on the theoretical money I could have had by now rather than working on an actionable plan toward making actual money.
Resentment, righteous indignation, regret… 99% of the time, these don’t serve any useful purpose to our lives. They’re just bait that snag us into a time-sucking, negative feedback loop. Every moment I spent on resentments and regrets was time spent not being mindful and present in the moment (that is, time I just wasted on making myself miserable for no real reason).
I’d say I’ve improved over time, but once it a while, it’s completely mindless. That is, I’ll find myself daydreaming and zoned out, and my thoughts just naturally wander down a path of negativity. In those moments, I’ll snap to, remind myself not to bite the hook, and think happier thoughts.
Or look at basset hound puppies.
I don’t guilt myself into an attitude of gratitude
Some of the oft-repeated advice regarding mindfulness is that you should be grateful for what you have in your life because there are millions, if not billions, of people who have less. While I agree that gratitude is important for not being a shitty person, I don’t agree with this tid-bit. Why?
That’s not gratitude. That’s guilt.
For one, guilt is an ultimately useless feeling. Secondly, you’re comparing yourself to others – something that, time and again, we are told not to do. Why is it bad to compare yourself to those who you think have it better (i.e., “The grass isn’t always greener on the other side!”), but it’s perfectly fine to compare yourself favorably to those who have less? It doesn’t make me feel good to live in my home and know that others are homeless; to buy groceries and know that others are hungry; to feel lucky that I’m a white, college-educated American and know that others don’t share the same privileges in life as I do and are under-served because of it.
Instead, I divorce myself from the idea that gratitude is the passive byproduct of “Try not to complain too much.” You’re allowed to feel jealous, disappointed, and wish for more in life. That’s called not being a robot. It’s fine to take stock of your life and say, “This could be better.” That’s not casting aside gratitude; that’s ambition, setting goals, and motivation to achieve them.
Now, I recognize that there’s a difference between what I’m describing v. someone who does sit around and whine incessantly without even a passing acknowledgment of their gifts in life (you know, those awful people who post shit on Twitter like how the slaves didn’t have it as hard as they do). Those are the people whom I will compare myself favorably against.
In the end, I remind myself that no one and nothing is perfect. I’m patient if I do catch myself crunching numbers for the money I’d have if I’d made different life choices. I don’t beat myself up if I rehash old arguments with all the things I could have said. The past is the past, and it’s a fine place to visit to learn important lessons and shape our futures for the better… just make sure to employ a bit of mindfulness now and then to keep yourself from living there permanently.
†Maybe he was psychic, in part. He did say with absolute certainty that I would land a job within the next two weeks. Nine days later, I landed my first ‘real’ job after college, which ended the five soul-crushingly depressing months of job-searching and aggressive unemployment. Coincidence? …probably.
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