Adrienne: Most of us see increasing our mindfulness as a way to improve our mental health. But what does that actually look like in practice? How can we be more mindful in our daily lives and actions? We’re starting a new column today on Radio Active– dedicated to wellness. Our columnist is, Scott McPherson. Scott is a mindfulness instructor at Relax and Succeed. Hi Scott!
Scott: Hi Adrienne!
Adrienne: First Scott– tell us a bit about yourself and how you’ve ended up dedicating your life to mindfulness?
Scott: It was entirely by accident. When I was five years old, a massive wooden swing collapsed on me, and the sheer weight of it blew my head open. I literally had my mind opened. The babysitter, God Bless her, reacted quickly and got me to her Mom, who was a nurse, and she in turn called her husband, Dick Cherry, who was the doctor for the Edmonton Eskimos. He arranged for me to get the best care you could back then, but I was very low odds. I was awake all the way to the hospital, but after the operation I woke up to a nurse. She had a crucifix in her fingers, and she asked me where you go when you’re dead? I don’t remember even thinking about her question, but I could tell she was scared so I held her hand. Later, I got pondering what the point of life is if you can die at five. It turns out, that is a fantastic meditation to give to a five year old who won’t overthink that question, but who will see clearly how important that question really is. It turns out an accident like that is about the best training you can get to teach mindfulness I can think of. It’s essentially what the Dalai Lama got to do. We got to ponder the nature of existence as our prime focuses ever since we were little kids. What a gift.
Adrienne: The message is out there to be more mindful. What exactly is it that we should be doing?
Scott: Whether it’s sadness, insecurity or anger, most people are plagued by their negative emotions. Our ego’s habit is then to use our thoughts to blame those emotions on ourselves, or on some external source, and that’s why we suffer and feel victimized. Someone is at fault. That becomes our issue –we want to be ‘right’ more than we want to create a peaceful day. With mindfulness there’s no interest in ascribing blame, only in having a rewarding day. So rather than treating our emotions like the result of some good or bad action, we’re better off to see them like gauges, or dials, or meters that are giving us very useful feedback. Going one direction, a little bit of appreciation is contentment, a bit more is happiness, then we expand to joyful appreciation, until we finally explode in ecstasy. Most of us are okay with that. But going the other direction, a bit of want leaves us unsettled, then it increases to us feeling irritated. Then our unmet desire begins to frustrate us, and before we know it we want things to be so different that we’re angry. If that all goes on for too long, we can get to the point where we don’t even want to be ourselves anymore, at which point we’re getting depressed. If we let our ego live in our thoughts and see our emotions as the results of events, all we can do is hope the neighbour’s dog stops barking. But if we’re aware that those emotions are coming from the thoughts we’re thinking, then we have at least an opportunity to steer them in a better direction.
Adrienne: So it’s more positive to see our emotions not as a result of something, but as a choice to feel certain ways about things? Does this give us more control over our own thoughts?
Scott: Let’s say we’re angry that someone’s cut us off in traffic. The 1st thing to do is to practice acceptance. See it for what it is. People do cut people off, so reality is still intact. That said, when they suddenly come into our lane it can feel genuinely threatening, so for our autonomic brain systems to load up some adrenaline –that actually makes sense. We should forgive ourselves for that first flash of anger. Next, we have to really pay attention to the fact that anger is an unpleasant experience for us. It’s like drinking poison and then thinking the other driver will die. We should be happy for any opportunity to escape it. That desire can make us more open minded. Next, we should find the want that is driving our negative emotion. As we find more and more examples in our lives, we start to see the anger as being less and less about other people, and much more about how strong our desire or want is. One thing’s for sure, our level of suffering will relate directly to our level of want. The more we want to scold that other driver, the more suffering we’ll do.
Adrienne: Ok– so let’s recap. First– we accept that things happen. Then we feel that– flash of emotion. We’re thinking with the traffic example, angry we got cut off, that we’re right and that driver did wrong. That’s the end place for a lot of us… but you say there’s more. Be conscious of the anger, remember being angry isn’t ideal, we want to feel better. How do we feel better?
Scott: The anger is the gift. It’s a nice clear signal that we are not entertaining productive thoughts. Blaming the other driver takes us nowhere. We can just let that want be, and just flow around it. The want will often be logical, just unrealistic. So the fact that we don’t want the person to have cut us off makes sense. But once we’ve truly accepted that our own thinking about the other driver the source of our painful emotions, we need to take the energy we’re using to think those painful thoughts and we need to reapply that energy somewhere else. Think of it like this: the back seat of your vehicle is filled with bottles of neurochemicals. Each bottone has a hose, and they all lead to a dial on our center console that allows us to choose our chemical. Just because we’re dialed into the anger at the other driver; that doesn’t make the other bottles of chemicals disappear. We’re just plugging the anger in instead. Shifting our thoughts is like moving that dial, and we’ll get whatever emotion we turn to. The still isn’t in the change, it’s in remembering that the change is always available.
Adrienne: Like more positive thoughts?
Scott: Positive thoughts are better than nothing, but that’s still a thought-based action that our ego takes. Rather than create commentary about the bits of life we half-consciously notice, we’re better to use our awareness to take life in. If we’ve practised this process and have proved to ourselves that it really does work, then we can know with confidence that placing our attention elsewhere will help. Using that faith, I can turn on the stereo, I can sing a favourite song. I can start counting red cars, or I can try to read all of the street signs. If I’m with a passenger I can just start a conversation about anything except about driving. Also, we should always remember, if we do get mad and our kids are the car, we may not be impacting that other driver, but we will be teaching our kids to be angry drivers like us. That may be a life skill we don’t want to pass down.
Adrienne: So can it really be that simple? We just accept there are bad drivers –or whatever– then we have faith that our bad feelings come from our thoughts, and then we turn on radio –to Radio Active of course– and that will work? We are now mindful?
Scott: The hardest part about my job is getting people to accept that we don’t generally improve our lives with some major revelation that saves us all at once. The truth is, we save ourselves, moment by moment, by staying present and steering for the road we’re on, not the one we wish we were on. That’s why they call it a practice. If it seems too easy, people are best to just look at the basic facts: if the angry thoughts make us angry, then the curious thoughts will leave us feeling curious, and joyful thoughts will leave us joyful. Your show is a great example, let’s not underestimate its power. I’m very confident that some of the weather reports have made people mad or happy more than a few times, not to mention the train. But if we can see our emotions as signals designed to guide us, rather than the agonizing results of the events in our lives. That’s no small victory. That alone can turn our life into a completely different experience.
Adrienne: Very interesting stuff. Thank you Scott.
Scott: You’re very welcome.
Adrienne: Scott McPherson is our wellness columnist, and he is a writer and instructor at relaxandsucceed.com, here in Edmonton. He’ll be with us next Tuesday, to talk about Valentines and relationships.
Since I am a big fan of the show, I’m pleased to report that on each Tuesday in February, I will be joining host Adrienne Pan on CBC Radio One here in Edmonton. You can listen via AM, FM, through the CBC Listen app, or via the web at CBC.ca.
Once the show has aired, I will add a link to it here.
Today we will be discussing how we can learn to use our emotions to helpfully guide us to better days.
If you would like to hear the first piece Adrienne did on New Years Resolutions, you’ll find that link here.
If you get to hear it and haven’t before, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the show. They have a great team.
Take care everyone. Here’s to a grateful day for all of us.
A serious childhood brain injury lead Scott to spend his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and identity. It made others as strange to him as he was to them. When he realized people were confused by their own over-thinking, Scott began teaching others to understand reality. He is currently CBC Radio Active’s Wellness Columnist, as well as a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB where he still finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.