Category Archives: Zen Habits

The Mental Habit of Feeling Rushed and Overwhelmed

feeling rushedWe all can feel rushed and overwhelmed with the busyness of life at times, as we rush around trying to get it all done. Well, if we could take more moments to be mindful, then we may be more able to create better habits, and connect more with what’s most important in our lives. Here are a few simple tips to help with being more connected and slowing down the rush, so that our lives will be more manageable. We may even enjoy them more!  – Terri

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, rushed, even irritated by family members and others around us. I’d like to encourage you to try a mindfulness practice.

Here’s the practice:

  • Notice each time you feel rushed, anxious or overwhelmed. Try to develop an awareness of it throughout the day. The sooner you can catch it, the better. Make it a game: try to see it when it happens, as often as you can.
  • When you feel rushed, catch yourself and pause. Notice your mental habit of rushing, rushing to the next thing. Don’t let yourself waste your time with that habit. Instead, try building a new mental pattern: pausing, relaxing with the feeling that’s in your body, and then doing the single task in front of you, let that be your entire world. Trust that you’ll be able to handle the next task after it without worrying about it right now. Enjoy the doing of the task in front of you.
  • When you feel anxious, catch yourself and pause. Notice your mental habit of letting anxiety carry you off into a chain reaction of worry. Don’t let yourself waste your time with that habit. Instead, try building a new mental pattern: pausing, relaxing with the feeling that’s in your body, and then trusting that you can handle the uncertainty in front of you. Embrace the uncertainty and smile at it, relaxing into it.
  • When you feel overwhelmed, catch yourself and pause. Notice your mental habit of thinking about all you have to do and feeling anxious about being able to do it all. Don’t let yourself waste your time with that habit. Instead, try building a new mental pattern: pausing, relaxing with the feeling that’s in your body, taking things one task at a time, breathing and enjoying that task. Trust that you’ll be able to do everything you need to do and that you’ll be OK.

This is the practice. As you can see, it’s basically the same for all three (related) mental patterns, and it takes practice. You’ll mess up, but that’s OK. Smile and enjoy the practice.

Two Ways to Form Habits Effortlessly

forming habitsSlip into new habits. Instead of making a big deal about it, just start doing it, on a very, very small scale. Meditate for 10 seconds when you wake up in the morning, do one push-up, eat one vegetable. And have a reminder set where you will look at it every day, on the screensaver of your phone or computer.  You could do the habit each time you see the message for one brief moment! – Terri

Forming new habits can be life-changing — if you start meditating, create a simple exercise habit, and eat more vegetables, you health and happiness can be transformed in a matter of months.

But sticking to a habit can be difficult because life gets in the way. And we get discouraged when the habit gets disrupted.

How can we form habits without all the struggle?

I’m going to share two strategies that I’ve found to be priceless:

  1. Slipping into the habit; and
  2. Leveraging your smartphone

They’re so painless you will barely feel them. And your life can be changed as a result, with very little effort.

Slipping Into the Habit

The first strategy is not to try to create a full habit but to slide into it effortlessly.

Let’s say you want to meditate every day. Instead of setting aside 20 minutes and a meditation space for your new habit … slip into it. When you’re getting out of bed, just pause for a few seconds and pay attention to your breath. That’s it, just a few seconds.

That’s so easy you will barely notice the habit. Don’t try to become the world’s greatest meditator, don’t try to master the habit, just do a few seconds of it, and get on with your day.

After this becomes something you do without thinking about, try doing it for 30 seconds, then a minute. But don’t rush into this, take a week or two before you increase. It will seem ridiculously easy.

You can try the same thing for exercise — instead of going to the gym or doing a 30-minute run, try just doing a pushup when you’re about to take a break from your computer. Just one pushup. Or try doing a plank as you watch TV, just for 10 seconds.

Make it super easy to start with.

Leveraging Your Phone

This one is a version of Slipping Into the Habit … but it takes advantage of how often we check our phones.

It’s simple and obvious: put a photo with a message on your phone’s lock screen. For example, put a message that says, “Breathe” on your lock screen. Or perhaps “Get fit.”

Then, when you check your phone and notice this message, slip into your new habit. If the phone says “Breathe,” then pay attention to your breath for just a few seconds. If it says “Get fit,” then simply do a pushup or something like that.

Obviously, you can’t do that every single time you look at your phone, but if you do it a few times a day, you’ll be slipping into a new habit effortlessly, and soon you’ll be on your way to a healthy habit that could change your life.

Changing the Stories In Your Head

Changing the stories in our headSometimes the stories that we tell ourselves get us into lots of trouble, even when we are working hard to make a positive change in our lives. The stories we tell can get in our way instead of helping us to achieve our goals. So, a story like, “I am going to lose 50 lbs, and exercise every day” might sound like a great story, but it won’t be when the excitement wears off, you fall off your diet or you have challenging days. You need a better, more realistic story, and one that can be more compassionate during the difficult moments. Changing habits is hard for all of us, and yet if we could tell better stories, it’s more likely we will stick with a new habit. -Terri

If you want to create a new exercise habit (for example), you might tell yourself something like this:

“This is going to be amazing, I’m going to get fit and look incredible and be super healthy!”

This is a story you’re telling yourself. It’s not real, but it has tremendous power to affect your feelings about your habit and to change your action. You have a positive story about the habit, and it motivates you to take action.

But perhaps the exercise you did one day was really tough, and you didn’t enjoy it. Your story might change, to something like, “Wow, that was super hard. It sucked!”

Now your story about the habit is not so good, and you’ll be less enthusiastic about doing the habit from now on.

Maybe you also missed a couple of days of exercise because you got busy. Your story changes to, “Damn, I screwed up, I’m not as good at this habit as I thought, why am I not disciplined?”

The story isn’t so good. Now you might actually try not think about the habit, and you are much more likely to skip the habit from now on.

The story you tell yourself about your habit matters more than most people realize.

So the key is to shape the story, become your own habit storyteller, and create a story that will make you more likely to stick to the habit.

Telling a Good Story

The truth is that none of these stories is actually true. They’re just narratives we have made up, in our minds, about what’s going on. The reality is what’s happening right now, and in an “ideal” world we would just drop the stories and be present with the moment, experiencing reality as it is.

There’s no such thing as an ideal world, though. We tell stories. That’s what we do. So the key is to realize when you’re telling a negative story that’s going to make you quit the habit, and instead create a more helpful story.

Try this:

  1. Ask yourself how you feel about the habit you’re creating. Are you psyched about it? Are you discouraged? Looking forward to it or dreading it? Feel strong about it or feel like you’re doing lousy? Is it a wonderful experience for you or are you plowing through the suckiness? This is all an indicator of what story you’re telling yourself.
  2. Start creating a better story by focusing on the things you love about the habit. You could focus on how much you hate the habit, or you could focus on what you love. It’s your choice. Find things to appreciate about the habit. Look at your successes and think, “Man, that’s awesome that I’ve done those things.”

This is not to say that you should only think positive thoughts, or that you should ignore the negative. But if your story is on the balance more positive than negative, you’ll be more resilient. You’ll be able to handle the negative stuff with grace because you have a positive feeling about the habit.

If you resent doing the habit or see it as a sacrifice, you’re more likely to blow the negative aspects up when they happen. But people with a strongly positive story will be likely to weather the storm of negative aspects of the habit.

The Positive Story Exercise

Try to think about some of the following thoughts when you’re working on your habit:

  1. This makes me feel strong/healthy/empowered (or some other positive trait).
  2. I am proud of doing this habit.
  3. I have had some great successes with this.
  4. I’m learning a lot with this habit.
  5. I’ve had good experiences with this habit.
  6. There are some exciting things about this that I’d like to share with people.
  7. I can appreciate the little things about this habit.
  8. There are things I genuinely love about this habit.
  9. This can sometimes be a struggle but it’s definitely worth it.
  10. This habit is improving my life multiple ways.
  11. I’m lucky to be able to do this habit.
  12. There are things about this habit that I look forward to.
  13. I’ve missed doing this habit sometimes, but over the long run, it doesn’t matter.
  14. Doing this habit makes me more resilient.
  15. When I’ve done this habit, I feel accomplished and satisfied.
  16. I feel like a better person when I do this habit.

Just think about one of these each time you do the habit, or just after. And then try another one on the next time you do the habit.

Slowly, with thoughts like these and others, you might think of, you’ll start to have a more positive story about the habit.

And that will make all the difference — not only will you want to stay with it longer, you’ll enjoy it more each time you do it.

The Compassionate Way to Health & Fitness

healthy bodySo, yes, we all want to have better bodies, a healthy diet, and we may even get excited and motivated for a while to do what we need to, to hit these targets.  But Leo suggests that all of this striving is not necessary, and in fact may make it less likely that we will reach our goals.  Instead, he suggests an approach to compassionate health to meet our fitness goals.  With compassion and gratitude for our wonderful bodies, we can enjoy taking care of ourselves and appreciate our capabilities and enjoy the beauty of moving through nature, and it doesn’t have to be the difficult, stressful way that it has always been.  –  Terri

By Leo Babauta

Lots of us would like a better body, an amazing workout habit, and a diet that celebrities would die for.

OK, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but most of us definitely have an ideal when it comes to fitness. We want to be super healthy, and we strive for it. Maybe we strive and then fail and feel bad about it, but we strive.

What would it be like to not strive for these fitness goals?

What would it be like if we removed the striving, and found compassion instead?

The Problem with Striving

When we strive for a fitness ideal (which is usually what we do), there are a few fundamental problems to be aware of:

  1. The ideal is one we will never meet. Even if we do great at our goal, it won’t be what we pictured. For example, I ran several marathons and an ultramarathon because of ideals I had in my head, and completed them … and they weren’t at all what I pictured. They were still worthwhile, but not at all what my fantasy was.
  2. You have a good likelihood of failing at some point, not meeting your ideal, and then feeling bad about yourself for failing.
  3. You don’t hit the ideal right away — most ideals are several months, if not years, in the future. So for the first few days, first few weeks … you will just do the activity but not hit any ideal. This is likely not fun. You might set ideals for each day (“go for a run today!”) but even then, you’ll go for the run and it won’t be what you fantasized it would be.
  4. Once you reach the goal you’re striving for, you’re not content. You just find another goal to strive for. And another. Until you’re dead, having never been satisfied.

What we don’t realize is that there’s nothing to strive for. We’re already in the perfect place: a moment that is filled with beauty and wonder, a life that is filled with untapped love and compassion, a goodness in ourselves underlying everything we do. We’re already in the ideal moment, but we take it for granted and fantasize about something else instead.

We can just stop striving. Just find joy in this present moment, without needing the crutch of our fantasies.

The Compassionate Way

So if we stop striving for health and fitness ideals, does that mean we just lie on the couch, stuffing our faces with potato chips and slurping soda all day? Umm, yuck. And no.

What we can do is 1) realize joy in who we are, where we are, and our intricate connection to the wonderful people all around us, and find contentment right now; and 2) in that moment of joy and contentment, we can act out of love.

What are some acts of love that we can do, in this moment of joy and appreciation for what is right here in front of us?

  1. Appreciating the gift of our bodies, we take care of them. The bodies we have are incredible, wonders of nature, and we take them for granted. We abuse them by being sedentary, taking drugs, eating junk food, not taking care of them. Instead, an act of appreciation for our bodies is to care for them. Exercise, walk, eat well, floss, meditate.
  2. Appreciating the gift of life, we explore the outdoors. There is so much to notice and explore, to behold with absolute wonder, that it’s a waste to be online or on our phones all day. Instead, it’s an act of love to get outside and move our beautiful bodies.
  3. Appreciating the gift of food, we nourish our bodies. Instead of abusing ourselves by putting junk in our bodies (just to satisfy cravings of comfort), we can find joy in the nourishment of our bodies with gorgeous, healthy, delicious food. And appreciate that the fresh food we’re feeding ourselves with is a gift, grown from the earth by people we don’t know who support our lives, a miracle not to be taken for granted.
  4. Appreciating this moment, we meditate. This moment is filled with brilliance, and yet we often ignore it. Instead, we can sit and meditate, to practice paying full and loving attention. We can do yoga, moving while we meditate. We can meditate as we go for a run, lift a barbell, ride a bike, swim in the ocean, walk in a sunny park.

There is no need for striving for fitness and health ideals. Instead, we can let go of those ideals and appreciate what’s right in front of us. And in gratitude, act with love and compassion to take care of ourselves and pay attention to the moment we’re in.

Are You Feeling Stressed & Overwhelmed?

Taking time to relaxIt seems that I have too many days that I feel this sense of being overwhelmed, that I have too many things to do and not enough time to do them. Leo gives some practical advice, even though it is also counter-intuitive. He suggests that we need to slow down, be mindful, check in with ourselves in this present moment, and to only do one thing at a time. This may look like a weird idea, but I know from my experience that it has helped me to slow down when I feel my body telling me to speed up. It actually makes the day go much smoother, and I probably get more done!

I can relate to this article by Leo Babauta. He talks about having a lot of concerns on our minds throughout the day and how it can cause us to feel stressed. He describes seven methods for dealing with feeling stressed and overwhelmed:

  1. Recognize the signs. – When you realize you feel overwhelmed, you need to pause.
  2. Pause and notice – Sit still and look inward. Notice the physical feelings of stress.
  3. Notice the urge to be in control – Don’t act on it. Just see it, acknowledge it.
  4. Give yourself love – Send love to yourself, like putting a warm hand over your heart. This should relax you, make you feel less anxious.
  5. Narrow my scope – You can’t do everything at once. Make a list, pick a few things you CAN do today.
  6. Focus on one thing – Clear everything else away, and just focus completely on that one thing.
  7. Relax into the moment – Don’t focus on anything else — you’ll get to those things later — relax into the warm embrace of the goodness of this moment.

How can you use Leo’s advice in your life today?

If taking on another list can even cause you to be stressed, try one step at a time. Pick a suggestion you think you could accomplish each day this week and once you feel you have mastered this task, move onto the next.

“You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day. Unless you’re too busy, then you should sit for an hour.”   {Zen}

All You Need, You Already Have

By Leo Babauta

There is a famous stone water basin (or “tsukubai”) outside of the even more famous Ryoan-ji Temple in Kyoto, with four characters that read: “ware tada shiru taru.”

This is a Zen saying that can be translated in a number of ways, all to do with contentment. But my favorite translation is:

All you need, you already have.”

I think it’s such a lovely way of looking at life.

As you sit here reading this article, pause and take an assessment of your life right now. Chances are, you have enough food, clothing, shelter, and other basic necessities in your life. You might also have loved ones, people who care about you. You are (mostly) comfortable, without any desperate needs. All you need, you already have.

And yet we don’t see life this way … we are dissatisfied, looking for more comfort, more love, more knowledge, more certainty, more possessions, more food, more entertainment, more validation. I do this too — I’m not criticizing anyone. We don’t often embody the idea that we already have enough.

If we remember to do so, we can give thanks for what we have. We can appreciate the beauty, the preciousness, of every moment, of being alive. It is a miracle, and we don’t have to take it for granted.

So to me the question is: how can we learn to embody this idea?

“All you need, you already have.”

Learning to Embody Enough-ness

It’s nice to say that we have all we need, but what does this mean in practice? What actions can we take to help us remember this?

I find it helpful to try to remember a few principles in my daily life:

  1. Appreciation. If we have all we need, the problem is that we forget this simple fact. So we can develop the habit of noticing what we already have, being thankful for it, not taking it for granted. We can appreciate the people in our lives (instead of complaining about them), the possessions we already have (instead of thinking we need more), the food we get to eat (which might mitigate our desire for yet more food pleasures), the simple moments that we often take for granted (instead of needing even more entertainment and distraction).
  2. Respect. If we appreciate something or someone, we might treat them with respect. In the Zen tradition, bowing to others and even to your meditation cushion are a deep part of practice. It shows a respect for the world around us, which supports us and which we are deeply a part of. You might not want to bow to everyone you meet, but you can make a mental bow to them, offering respect internally even if you don’t make any sign that you’re bowing. It will show in your other actions.
  3. Turning towards others. If we already have enough … why worry so much about ourselves? Why not see what we can do for others? There are others who are suffering, perhaps starving or facing violence, or perhaps just sick with anxiety or depression. We can’t solve all of these ills alone, of course, but if we do our best to help others as much as possible, perhaps we can contribute towards the betterment of the lives of all beings. This doesn’t mean you need to spend every waking hour devoted to helping other people, but even considering whether your motivations are other-facing or for yourself is a good practice.

So how do we learn to embody these principles? Through habits and rituals.

Rituals to Embody Enough-ness

It’s hard to remember to be present and grateful and filled with enough-ness throughout the day, with all that we have going on, with all of our distractions and internal stories.

So I recommend forming little rituals that help us remember.

Here’s a list of ideas for rituals, but I don’t recommend trying to form all of these rituals, and especially not all at once — try one at a time and see what helps you:

  1. Wake up and say a little prayer of thanks for what you have in your life.
  2. Keep a one-paragraph gratitude journal every evening.
  3. When you meet someone, bow to them (in your mind) out of respect. You might touch your heart or offer them a smile if that helps.
  4. When you eat, say a little prayer of thanks to everyone who made your meal possible (farmers, cooks, transporters, their families, etc.). Appreciate every bite if you can.
  5. Before you start a new activity (a work task, a workout, a meeting), pause and ask yourself what your intention is for this activity. Is it focused on helping others?
  6. When you are done with an activity, show respect for others, your environment and your equipment by respectfully and mindfully cleaning up, instead of rushing to the next activity.

There are other rituals, of course, but these are a good start.

You might also ask yourself, before you buy something … whether you really need more or if you have enough. Ask yourself, before you go to an app on your phone or a website on your computer … whether you are doing it to help others or to fulfill a “need” that you don’t need fulfilled. Ask yourself, as you interact with someone else, whether you’re showing them deep respect and appreciation, whether you’re focused on helping them or protecting yourself.

Ask yourself, regularly throughout your day, whether you have all you need. I think you’ll find that you do, and by appreciating that fact more often, you can see what a profound miracle that is.

Our Everloving Quest to Control Our Lives

By Leo Babauta

Almost our entire lives are spent in a quest to gain control, security and comfort in our lives. Unfortunately, we never really get it, so we keep trying, relentlessly.

This is the main activity of our lives.

What would happen if we stopped?

We could be less restricted by fear, less anxious, less driven by the need for comfort … and more in love with life as it is.

You might be surprised by how much we strive for control.

The Ways We Try to Get Control

The basic nature of live is that it is everchanging, uncontrollable. When we think we have stability in life, something comes up to remind us that no, we don’t. There is no stability, no matter how much we’d like it.

And this kinda freaks us out. We don’t like this feeling of instability, of loss of control. So we do things to cope, out of love for ourselves. These are strategies for control, security and comfort.

Some examples among many:

  • We go on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Pinterest, because doing so is comfortable and feels like we know what we’re doing (a feeling of certainty, of things under control).
  • We make a to-do list or even try out an entire productivity or organizational system, because it feels like we’re getting things under control.
  • We clean, or declutter, or organize our desks.
  • We tackle email, because it’s out of control, and getting it under control sounds much less anxiety-inducing.
  • We procrastinate on a project that fills us with uncertainty, and procrastinate with our favorite distractions, which have less uncertainty for us.
  • We get frustrated with other people, even angry, because they’re acting in a way we don’t like (we don’t control that part of our lives, and it’s difficult for us) … so creating a story in our minds about how horrible they are and how right we are and how life would be better if they just did X, helps us to feel under control.
  • We try to organize the apps on our phone, to avoid dealing with our feelings of difficulty.
  • We plan, plan, plan. On paper, in our minds. Everything feels under control when we plan.
  • We research, google things, so we feel we’re gaining control over a topic.
  • We buy books to gain control over a topic.
  • We sign up for classes.
  • We make resolutions and goals and bucket lists.
  • We create systems.
  • We try to gain control over our health by creating a diet and workout plan.
  • Shopping feels comfortable.
  • Eating for comfort.
  • Drugs make us feel like we’re controlling our state of mind, including alcohol.

There are thousands more examples. Examine everything you do with this lens: is this activity a strategy to somehow gain control?

Now, I’m not saying these strategies are bad. They help us cope with difficult feelings. Some of them result in a healthy life. They all come from a place of love.

But it is good to be aware of this need for control, and perhaps this awareness can even help us free ourselves.

Why These Attempts at Control Keep Failing

So we do everything above, all day long, when things are feeling uncertain, uncomfortable, out of control, unsafe. They are strategies for control, security, comfort.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work.

Let’s say you make a to-do list and a plan to make yourself feel under control. Now you have to do the first thing on the list. But this makes you feel uncertain, because it’s a difficult task and you don’t know if you can do it. So you go to the easier things on the list … but the difficult task is still there, just put off for a bit, and you feel bad about it.

Eventually you run to distractions, or check your email, so you don’t have to do the task. Or you start cleaning up around your desk. You make some calls. The feeling is still there, though, in the back of your mind. None of the strategies work.

Or take another scenario: you’re feeling lonely. You don’t want to face this feeling, because it’s uncomfortable and you don’t feel under control. So you eat. Or you shop online. Or you watch TV, porn, Youtube. The feeling doesn’t go away. So you do it again. Or you turn to alcohol or drugs.

Maybe you get everything under control — you’re organized, have systems for everything, are spot-on with your productivity, have only healthy habits. Congratulations! You win! Except, things keep coming up that are ruining your perfect palace of control. You get anxiety until you deal with these things, and get control back. But when you were doing that, more things came up. People are calling, emailing, interrupting you, and you get irritated often because everything is getting messy. Your OCD is not resulting in a feeling of comfort and control, but just the opposite.

Finally, consider that you might feel things are stable, but then someone dies, you get injured or sick, a family crisis happens, you company goes into crisis mode, there’s a crisis in your country. Things are never under control, so you feel anguish because you thought you had stability.

Luckily, we have another way.

The Mindful Way

If life is uncontrollable, and because we don’t like the feeling of being out of control, we do all kinds of things to seek control … but it doesn’t work … what alternative is there?

We can practice mindfulness, and learn to accept the uncontrollable nature of each moment.

Start by just sitting still, and try to pay attention to the sensations of this moment, around you and in your body and even in your mind. Just notice what’s going on.

Then notice that your mind wants to run, to planning or worrying or getting a grasp on things. We run from this unknown, uncontrollable moment to a strategy of control.

Notice this urge to run, to control … and don’t act. Do nothing. Just observe, taking no action.

Notice how this feeling of being out of control feels. Where is this feeling located in your body? What is the sensation of it in your body? Is it one thing, or changing? Investigate with curiosity.

Be still with this sensation in your body. Practice with this a little at a time, for days, for weeks. You’ll start to get to know it intimately.

And then it won’t be so bad. You’ll learn to sit with this feeling of out-of-controlledness, and be OK with it. You’ll learn to trust in this moment, not to lead to an outcome you want (control!), but to turn out just fine.

You’ll need to do fewer things to get under control, to get comfort. You’ll still do some of them, because no one ever truly masters this (control!), but you’ll need it less.

And then what? What’s left when we don’t try to control? Love. We still act, but not out of a need for control. We act out of love for others and ourselves.

This is the other way.

Get to the Root of Work Stress

By Leo Babauta

There isn’t a working person among us who doesn’t deal with stress — whether you’re an entrepreneur, a freelancer, working for a struggling startup, or clocking in working for a company, work stress is inevitable.

But where does this stress originate, and how do we deal with it?

Most guides to stress will give you some actions to take: exercise, sleep well, eat right, meditate, and do some yoga at your desk. These are all amazing, and you should do them.

However, I’m more interested in getting at the root of stress. Dig down, ferret out the cause, and work with that directly, rather than treating the symptoms. Only once you deal with the cause of stress can you truly be a master of it.

Cause of Stress

Let’s take a look at some things you might be stressed about at work:

  • Hard deadlines
  • Difficult co-workers or boss
  • Uncertainty about your job
  • Uncertainty about whether you can succeed at this project
  • Competition, office politics, interpersonal conflicts
  • Not having enough time for family or personal life
  • Being overwhelmed by too much to do

There are many more possibilities, but these are a good sampling. In all these examples, the cause is really the same thing:

We are attached to how we want things to be. We have an ideal about how each of these situations should be, and our clinging to this ideal is causing the stress.

Let’s take the uncertainty about the job. Of course, that’s not ideal, we would rather have a stable job that we don’t have to worry about. So reality is not matching our ideal (a stable job), and that causes us stress. We don’t like the present situation, and this not wanting uncertainty is causing us to stress out.

The same is true of each of the above examples — when a co-worker is not meeting our ideal, when we have an ideal that we won’t have too much to do, when our ideal of having easy-to-meet deadlines isn’t being met … we get stressed.

Unfortunately, this happens all day long, every day. Our ideals about reality are constantly not being met, and so we stress out. It builds up. It becomes a health problem.

So what’s the way to deal with this? Let’s take a look.

Dealing with the Cause of Stress

If our attachment to an ideal is the cause of our stress, then can we just not have ideals? Well, that would be ideal, perhaps, but no, I’ve found it impossible to not have ideals. The ideals come up, unbidden, in our active and ever hopeful minds.

The way to deal with the cause of stress is to 1) notice that you’re feeling stress or frustration, 2) mindfully notice your attachment to an ideal, and 3) loosen the attachment, finding love for the actual reality of the present moment.

Let’s look at these in turn.

First, you have to notice the stress. Learn to see your frustration or worry about something as a signpost, a flag that tells you what’s going on. In this way, stress becomes a positive thing, because it’s letting you know that something is going on. It’s like a notification system on your phone — instead of ignoring the notifications, as we usually do (we don’t like to think about stress), we can mindfully drop into ourselves and deal with it.

Next, you have to mindfully notice your attachment to the ideal. That means dropping in and saying, “Hey, things are meeting my ideal and it’s stressing me out — what’s my ideal?” It’s probably something that is more secure, stable, comfortable, controlled than what you’re currently experiencing.

For example, if you’re overwhelmed by too much work, your ideal is probably that you have a very controlled, comfortable amount of work, and that you’re on top of it all. That would feel much more secure, stable, comfortable to you.

Unfortunately, comfort and control and security aren’t what life provides us. It mostly provides us the very opposite — something chaotic, unpredictable, uncomfortable, unstable. And we can be upset by this, or we can embrace it. We can hate all of this about life, or we can love it. This is a choice.

Finally, we can loosen our attachment to this expectation or ideal. We can say, “This ideal is not helping me. Clinging to wanting things this way is actually harming me. I hereby open my heart to many more possibilities.”

That means we can be open to a less-than-ideal co-worker, who isn’t perfect and is struggling with his issues. We can be open to loving having too much work, more than we can possibly do, and having to prioritize and just focus on the important stuff for now. We can be open to the possibility that we’ll do poorly, or lose our jobs, because even then we’ll figure something out and life will be just fine.

Loosening our attachments is about realizing that life doesn’t have to be one way, our way, that we can be open to life’s way. It’s about learning to love everything, shit and all. It’s about being curious about life, about others, instead of judging life and other people as bad.

And then it’s about working from this place of peace and love. Have too much to do? Pick one task, and do your best with it. Have an annoying co-worker? Find compassion for her struggles, and be curious about what she’s going through, and talk to her compassionately and empathetically about your conflict with her. Worried about losing your job? Focus on doing your best, while preparing yourself for the possibility that you might need to find another job.

Many people won’t like this solution, because it means that they don’t get the ideals they want. Most of us want to control life to be the way we want. And that’s fine, if it works for you.

What I’m suggesting is being open to the many other possibilities, opening your heart to what life offers instead of what you want it to offer, being curious about what’s really in front of you rather than judgmental, and learning to love everything as it is.