Mindfulness and Numbers

This article appears in Issue 9.3 of the Wise Brain Bulletin   My article is on page 12 of the PDF version available here.

 

I’m wondering if you have ever looked at your bank balance and been hit with waves of fear and/or shame? Have you ever felt stuck in “not enough-ness”, based on how much money you earn? Have you ever injured your well-being in any way, to pursue “more money” in general? Did you ever keep a financial secret from people with whom you otherwise share just about everything?

 

If you have not experienced those things, then I salute your freedom!
If you have felt any of those things, well….. I know for a fact that you’re not alone.

 

I am deeply curious about why we have societal taboos around a topic that affects everyone every day. Isn’t it interesting, and potentially limiting to one’s freedom, that it’s “not polite” to discuss financial numbers? Again, maybe it’s different for you. But for some of us, we were trained (consciously or unconsciously) to keep feelings about finances to ourselves. I sense a collective assumption that if numbers are brought in to the open (either verbally or visually), then someone will get hurt, or offended, or lose something they value (even if it’s
not clear what specifically would be lost). When that did that come to be? Did that societal taboo exist when currency itself was created?

 

I’m an independent contractor. I absolutely love what I do professionally, and I relish the freedom that comes with setting my own schedule. I feel creatively expressed, and satisfied by making a positive difference in my clients’ lives. Part of the “cost” of that freedom, is tolerating the lack of steady paycheck associated with being an employee. Otherwise, though, on a day-to-day basis, I am delighted to be doing what I do.

 

As I write this, it’s the very beginning of 2015. Recently, I added up my 2014 earnings to get the annual income total. Definitely throughout the course of 2014, I knew that I was a bit behind in reaching my income goals, but it never seemed like a terrible problem at the time. Actually, I earned more in 2014 than any previous year. Sounds pretty good, right? I would anticipate that someone in this situation would feel happy after seeing the annual total. To recap, I love what I do, I get “paid” in myriad ways in addition to financially, and I was aware all along of what I was earning each month.

 

I want to share with you that simply not reaching my annual financial goal, and what I  thought and believed about that, led me to a situational depression that took my breath away  for a couple of weeks. I felt angry, ashamed, disgusted with myself, harshly critical, and an  overall sense that I was failing IN LIFE IN GENERAL. It was as if someone was bruising  me internally. I felt battered by the emotions, beliefs, and fears. Within seconds, my internal  condition plummeted in to deep despair. Just from seeing a number, which I could have  easily estimated in advance. Wow. That’s a formidable shift.

 

My meditation and mindfulness practices, thankfully, gave me some distance from believing  these painful internal assessments for too long. I will share more specifics about my  practices later in the article. These challenging and painful moments are exactly why I  meditate. I sit when the proverbial weather is calm, so that I have some relative ease with  accessing awareness when the foul weather rolls around.

Screen Shot 2015-06-29 at 11.57.40 AM

What fascinated me in particular about this process was that instant big jump the mind  took. I went from last year thinking consistently, “I’m ok. Numbers are a bit behind where I’d hoped they would be, but overall things are going well.” Then when I took the step of knowing the specific number for the year, for some reason the mind led me to experience painful self-hatred and an essential lack of faith that I was doing ok. For such a rational piece of information as a financial amount, the reaction was patently irrational.

 

Mind you, I am extremely organized. Part of how I personally generate a sense of safety is to keep on top of tracking my numbers. I look at them weekly, at a minimum. I am officially a geek when it comes to tracking this stuff, and proud of it! So how was it, then, that I could faithfully keep up with the micro-picture of my finances all year and suddenly feel like a complete failure in life when viewing the macro-picture? That is a big instantaneous jump!

 

I will share with you how applying mindfulness and gratitude helped me navigate the very difficult set of emotions, resulting from a mere mental interpretation of my 2014 earnings number.

Difficulty #1: Panic
Tool #1: Mindful Noticing

Have you heard the story of Chicken Little? Poor little guy. He fully believed that the sky was about to fall at any minute. His mind had no doubt that something terrible and world ending was about to happen. And he reacted accordingly with anxiety, fretting, panicking, and freely sharing those things with everyone around him. The folktale apparently dates back 25 centuries! That tells me that I am not the first to panic about a terrible thing that is not yet reality, but seems like it will happen soon.

 

I learned a helpful acronym for Fear: “False Evidence Appearing Real”. It helps me to fact-check the fears that arise. Back to my 2014 earnings story, I noticed that before I computed the number, it seemed like I was fine financially. Then after I computed the number, all of a sudden, my mind panicked, and tried to convince me that my proverbial sky was falling. “It’s not enough! We didn’t make enough! We must change things, immediately, to fix this emergency! This is terrible!” (False Evidence Appearing Real)

 

Mindful noticing helped me detect the painful fears exploding like fireworks. When I observe my thought stream, sometimes I can detect the False Evidence that is Appearing Real. The panic doesn’t just stop in my mind, however; my body reacts accordingly and the “fight or flight” system kicks in to gear. As if I’m a firewoman and the mind is sounding a false fire alarm. The firewoman doesn’t know it’s a false alarm until she investigates the situation.

Screen Shot 2015-06-29 at 11.57.56 AM

Helpful practices for when panic blooms:

  • Focus on breathing regularly and evenly, and count the breaths in and out to 10.
  • Write a non-judgmental list of the thoughts and fears the mind has generated, just to clear them out and gather them in one place that is not inside the head.
  • Label sensations in the body, especially where there is tightness. Say out loud something like, “Chest feels warm. Cheeks feel tight.”
  • Look around the room, and say out loud a simple description of what is seen (i.e. green lamp, gray carpet, blue sky through the window).

Difficulty #2: Shame
Tool #2: Affirmations

I’m so curious why the mind generates harsh judgment towards me for things that I cannot change, especially when those things are in the past. If the mind said something like, “It’s ok, kid, you’ll get ‘em next time”, I can understand working with that and getting constructive feedback out of it. But when the mind generates any kind of “should”, I can be pretty sure that it’s not my Highest Self delivering that message. I am not able to change anything that I have already done. No intensity of “shoulda/woulda/coulda” thinking, will allow me to
revise history.

 

The specific interpretation of the 2014 income number in my mind sounded something like, “You didn’t work enough. You did that year wrong. You don’t deserve to have a business. You may as well quit, you failure.” Woah there, mind! That is super harsh! Where did that even come from?

 

I’ve learned another helpful acronym for this pinch. Shame…Should Have Already Mastered Everything. The shame response tells me that I did wrong, and am falling short as a person somehow. I should already know how to do everything, and do it perfectly. The shame response told me that the entire year was a failure for me personally, due to not meeting my income goal.

I can take great benefit from cultivating self-love and tenderness towards this creature (who is always doing the best that she can). For whatever reason, it comes more naturally to me to act and feel tenderly towards other creatures. At some point, my mind exempted me from the Deserving of Tenderness Club, and mindfulness practices help me get back in the club. If it doesn’t seem to come naturally to speak kindly with myself, then I need to cultivate the skill. That’s where the “practice” part comes in; I do it over and over until it becomes second nature.

Helpful tools for when the shaming self-critic is activated:

  • Write affirmations. I’ve learned that I cannot just stop thinking the negative thoughts. I have not found the Mute button for them. I need to consciously replace them with positive thoughts. If the positive feels too hoky, especially when taking on an affirmation practice, then neutral affirmations (in my experience) are far better than no affirmations at all.
  • Imagine the last time I was kind and gentle towards someone else. Pretend I am dealing with them, and speak to myself in a similarly kind manner.
  • From the field of Embodied Cognition, make sure my body temperature is warm. Research is showing that we more naturally have access to positive regard for self and others, when our physical body temperature is raised comfortably. (From Sensation. The New Science of Physical Intelligence . by Thalma Lobel.)

Screen Shot 2015-06-29 at 11.58.06 AM

Difficulty #3: “Compare and Despair”
Tool #3: Reality-checking

A painful second wave of self-judgment washed through when I compared myself to other business owners who I assumed made more money than I did in 2014. At the time, my defenses were down from the pain of the first wave of self-judgment. The negative process seemed to pick up momentum and cast its net wider for more potential proof of my failure. This type of thinking can spread like wildfire without my taking some mindful action to change its trajectory.

Helpful tools for when suffering from imagined comparison:

  • Just the facts. Really, do I specifically know other peoples’ financial information?
  • The 12-step tradition says, “Don’t compare your insides to other peoples’ outsides.” I have no idea how it feels to be that other person who I am envying. When I stop the comparison cycle, I am better able to access compassion, patience, and friendliness.
  • If I can’t be 100% loving towards myself in the moment is there anyone from who I could request verbal appreciation? Sometimes I have said to friends, “Could you remind me what you love about me? I’m having a hard time remembering in this moment.” I’ve noticed that it can be intensely vulnerable to make that request, and I acknowledge that it is easier said than done. However, no one has failed me yet, especially when I choose mindfully who to ask.
  • Metta meditation is a lovely, structured way to cultivate kindness towards myself and others. Simply focusing on wishing myself health, happiness, safety and ease, changes the trajectory of self-judgment. It’s disruptive, as they say in the tech world. I am definitely interested in disrupting the brutal self-talk that became a habit (but never actually improved anything about my life). Metta also helps me remember kindness for self and others. As in any sitting, the more I do it when times are easy, the more accessible it is for me when times get more challenging.

 

I encourage you to select any of these practices that would fit where you are in life at this time. I know for a fact that each of us deserves an internal experience of kindness and acceptance. Habitual self-criticism is one my greatest ongoing life challenges. Undertaking mindfulness practices, and using them in good times and bad, has made a world of positive difference for me.

May you be kind to yourself and others.

May you accept the perfection of who you Are.

May you see Reality and Truth under all circumstances.

May you be well right now.

Screen Shot 2015-06-29 at 11.58.29 AM