The news has been so depressing lately. It seems that everywhere I look, all I see is fear: police shooting people for no reason other than fear, people shooting police out of anger rooted in fear, people planning to cast votes for presidential candidates based solely on fear, people with mental health issues getting shot-at by police due to a lack of understanding that resulted in fear. Fear is the root of all hatred and judgment. When we fear anyone that does not look, act, live, worship, vote, eat, pair off, or view the world the same way we do, we turn to hatred and judgment to "protect" ourselves from the things that scare us.
The "fear of other" is almost always instilled in childhood then ingrained throughout adolescence and into our early 20s, while the brain is still forming and we are still taking in information and developing our worldview. For some people, the "fear of other" becomes an actual phobia, called xenophobia, which is what we find in people like Hitler or groups like the KKK. Sadly, we are still seeing this level of fear today in America, and it's still resulting in extreme hatred, frustration, and anger, which is acted upon in the form of violence.
These fears start small, and they don't come out of nowhere. We are almost always exposed to them when we are very young: in our families of origin and our immediate communities. Our parents and care-givers (usually unknowingly) pass on to us whatever fears and prejudices they learned growing up. And then, because people tend to "keep to their own kind," we are continuously exposed to these fears and prejudices in our neighborhoods, churches, schools, and friend groups well into our 20s (if not the rest of our lives).
Did you know that our brains are not fully-formed until at least our mid-20s? I didn't know this until I started paying closer attention to my mental health, and learning about all the ways my childhood conditioning was affecting my actions and attitudes in my present-day life. If we do not learn how to carve new neural pathways in our brains, we continue to use the old, conditioned pathways for the rest of our lives ingraining our fears even further into our brains.
Just think about how much information, conditioning, belief, judgment, and prejudice is ingrained in us before we reach our mid-20s. I know I had a lot ingrained in me before age 25 -- much of it negative, and rooted in fear that resulted in survival mechanisms like judging others, trying to control people and situations, and isolating myself from vulnerable or intimate relationships that triggered my fear of rejection or abandonment.
It took a near mental break ("hitting bottom") for me to get the help I needed to change my negative thinking and self-destructive patterns. This effort to unlearn my conditioned beliefs and rewire my brain -- which has required the help of many professionals, mentors, self-help groups, and a daily mindfulness practice -- has been the hardest thing I've ever done, and it's a process that will last a lifetime. But it's worth it, because it has changed my entire perspective of the world, my fellow humans, and reality.
By committing to a few simple daily practices, I am learning to see life through a lens of compassion, empathy, and non-judgment as opposed to fear. Here are the three daily practices that have helped me the most:
1. Daily Meditation
It took my therapist (a mindfulness cognitive behavioral therapist) nearly a year to get me to finally commit to daily meditation. She practically gave me an ultimatum at one point. She said that mindfulness meditation was imperative for me to be able to change the way I viewed myself, other people, and the world around me. And she was right. Studies are coming out left and right about how daily meditation can change the brain. In one recent Harvard study, they concluded that in just eight weeks of meditating at least 30min per day, the brain thickened in four key areas:
1. The posterior cingulate, which is involved in mind wandering, and self relevance.
2. The left hippocampus, which assists in learning, cognition, memory and emotional regulation.
3. The temporo parietal junction, or TPJ, which is associated with perspective taking, empathy and compassion.
4. An area of the brain stem called the Pons, where a lot of regulatory neurotransmitters are produced.
Additionally: The amygdala, the fight or flight part of the brain which is important for anxiety, fear and stress in general. That area got smaller in the group that went through the mindfulness-based stress reduction program. The change in the amygdala was also correlated to a reduction in stress levels.
The researchers measured how much brain activity had changed from the beginning to the end of the training, and found that the people who were the most altruistic after compassion training were the ones who showed the most brain changes when viewing human suffering. They found that activity was increased in the inferior parietal cortex, a region involved in empathy and understanding others. Compassion training also increased activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the extent to which it communicated with the nucleus accumbens, brain regions involved in emotion regulation and positive emotions.
“People seem to become more sensitive to other people’s suffering, but this is challenging emotionally. They learn to regulate their emotions so that they approach people’s suffering with caring and wanting to help rather than turning away,” explains Weng.
Not sure where to start? Check out my blog post about meditation resources online. For a combination of guided mindfulness and loving-kindness meditations, check out Anam Thubten's Winter Feast for the Soul catalog. Here is a great article and step-by-step loving-kindness meditation by renowned meditation teacher Jack Kornfield.
2. Daily Gratitude Lists
The practice of writing a daily gratitude list seemed so cheesy to me when I was first introduced to it, but now this tool has become one of my main go-tos when I'm feeling angry, hurt, frustrated, scared, alone, etc. It's amazing how quickly I can snap my mind out of a negative tailspin, just by jotting down ten things I feel truly grateful for. But I don't usually wait until I'm in that negative place to write out a gratitude list. If I don't have paper or my phone in front of me, I can simply stop what I'm doing, close my eyes, and meditate for five minutes on all the things I have to be grateful for in my life.
There is a lot of science behind the practice of gratitude. One study showed that after three weeks of keeping a daily gratitude journal, participants experienced the following changes in their lives:
• Stronger immune systems
• Less bothered by aches and pains
• Lower blood pressure
• Exercise more and take better care of their health
• Sleep longer and feel more refreshed upon waking
• Higher levels of positive emotions
• More alert, alive, and awake
• More joy and pleasure
• More optimism and happiness
• More helpful, generous, and compassionate
• More forgiving
• More outgoing
• Feel less lonely and isolated.
They don't have to be complicated lists. Most of my daily gratitude lists consist of the first ten things that come to mind in that moment: a delicious meal I might have had, my dog, the weather, or the fact that I have steady income and can afford to do what I love with my spare time.
One fun way to make sure you commit to writing out a gratitude list each day is to start a gratitude email group with a handful of friends. Each day, someone from the group starts a new email thread with that date in the subject line: "7/27 Gratitude." Each person simply sends out their list to the group, and nobody replies or comments on anyone else's list. Each person just replies-all with their gratitude list. It's like sending it out into the void, but knowing that people you care about are reading it. This approach in particular has helped hold me accountable to practicing gratitude on a daily basis.
3. Daily Effort to Practice Non-Judgment
This one is a bit more complicated, and can be practiced in a number of ways. It's also the one about which you're probably thinking, "Oh, I don't have to worry about that. I'm not racist/sexist/ageist/classist/etc.!"
Non-judgment was probably the hardest practice for me to develop, because it meant facing some uncomfortable truths about deeply-conditioned fears and beliefs I had, which were ingrained in me early on by adults in my life. Those adults were also probably conditioned toward fear and judgment early on in their lives, and were just doing the best they could when they were teaching me how to view other people and the world. These fears are passed on at a molecular level. In fact, studies are now starting to suggest that trauma can be inherited, passed on through our DNA! (There are so. many. studies. and. articles. about inherited trauma, if you're interested.)
I may not consider myself to be racist, but that doesn't mean I'm not a judgmental person. I may call myself a feminist, but that doesn't mean I don't regularly judge other women. I may say that I want to help the poor, but that doesn't mean that judgmental thoughts don't cross my mind when I see a poor person suffering from addiction walking out of a liquor store. Maybe my parents, teachers, caregivers, or the community I grew up in didn't teach me to judge people in openly, politically incorrect ways -- but I certainly learned to judge people in a lot of other ways. I certainly gossiped, which is one of the worst forms of conditioned judgment. I certainly compared myself to other people in order to feel better than -- or even worse than -- others. And worst of all, I judged myself nearly non-stop for most of my life, until I finally got help.
Luckily, non-judgment is another state of mind that can be trained.
An article about non-judgmental awareness on Huffington Post says:
The key here is to bring awareness and intentionality to the moments of our lives. Be aware when the brain is automatically judging a situation or a person, and we can pause and get some perspective. Was this judgment just something that popped in my mind? Is there another way I can see this? Is the checkout person in the checkout line just a checkout person or someone with their own history or triumphs, perceived failures, moments of adventure, and wanting the same thing I do, to be understood and cared about?
A page on a Dialectical Behavior Therapy website discusses the use of non-judgment in therapy, and says:
The point of taking a nonjudgmental stance is to give ourselves an opportunity to observe the same old things that we always observe in our minds or in our environment or about other people, but open ourselves to thinking about it in a different way. So if I withhold my judgment about what my thought means, but simply observe it, note it and let the thought move away, I have an opportunity to treat myself more gently. Even if I still have the judgmental thought, I can observe that I had the thought, then let it go. That’s the beauty of nonjudgmental stance; all the negative garbage we’re so accustomed to telling ourselves is suddenly cut off and a gentleness takes over so that healing becomes possible.
Some ways that I practice non-judgment in my daily life:
--> Eye contact. Looking someone in the eye forces me to see them as a human being who is separate from me, which reminds me that other people have their own lives and realities that they are dealing with each day. Making eye contact with the clerk at the store, the person working the drive-thru window, or the waiter at the restaurant helps me feel like I am part of a bigger picture on this planet. When I'm looking you in the eye, I'm not seeing the color of your skin, the amount of money you make, or your gender. I'm seeing your soul.
--> Thank-yous on the interstate. This one sounds funny, but it actually works. Driving is something I do nearly every day, and it's an environment where I tend to not only judge complete strangers openly and aggressively, but also see other people as the enemy or the obstacle between me and my goal. Inside my car, I can safely judge and ridicule others all I want, and no one will ever know. But it still carves those negative neural pathways deeper into my brain, so I have begun using my time in the car as a chance to practice mindfulness and loving-kindness. (Did you know that you can meditate anywhere, at any time?) Another thing I started doing was always thanking other drivers for letting me merge in front of them. I simply hold up my hand in the rear-view mirror and look to make sure they see me waving. Most of the time, they wave back! In that moment, it doesn't matter who they are or what we do and don't have in common. In that moment, we are helping each other and acknowledging one another. "I see you. Thank you."
--> No gossiping. Gossip is an easy way to make small talk, and it allows us to feel less-guilty about passing judgment on others, because we have accomplices. However, this form of judgment does so much more damage than we even realize, and each time we gossip, we further ingrain the practice of judgment into our conditioned minds. I was the worst about gossiping when I was younger, and I think it's because my self-esteem was so low that I could only feel better about myself by putting other people down. And to make it even more confounding, I would judge other people as being better than me, to make myself feel worse about myself. I had the fear of failure and the fear of success. No wonder I felt so stuck and confused all the time! By adopting a no-gossip policy, I was able to quickly see (a) just how tempting it is to judge others, and (b) how much better I feel when I don't gossip.
But why do we talk and gossip so continually, seeing that we so rarely resume our silence without some hurt done to our conscience?”
― Thomas à Kempis
--> Retraining my brain. Once I had the awareness about my habitual judgment -- both of myself and others -- I could start the daily practice of stopping myself from doing it. This is actually easier than it sounds, but it takes awareness, willingness, and a real desire to change. It was so surprising to me when I first started this practice just how often I caught myself wanting to judge people and situations! Any time I catch myself starting to pass judgment, I stop and ask myself, "Where is this coming from? What am I afraid of? Why do I think I'm the authority here? Could I be wrong about this?" Each question I ask myself helps me learn something new about my conditioned beliefs, which I can then work on with a therapist, mentor, or self-help workbook or group.
Judgment is what we add to discernment when we make a comparison (implicit or explicit) between how things or people are and how we think they ought to be. So, in judgment, there’s an element of dissatisfaction with the way things are and a desire to have things be the way we want them to be.
So there you have it. I challenge you to commit to these three daily practices for at least two weeks. See for yourself if you notice any changes in your own mind and heart!
We may not be able to change the world overnight, but we can start changing the world today just by changing ourselves.
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