Cultivating Hope (and Attitude)

With the recent suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, and reports of an over 30% increase in suicides nationwide, much has been written in recent days about who may be at risk for suicide, the symptoms, and ways in which we can all be more aware of and ready to help those who have reached such deep levels of desperation or depression. Social media has been full of posts asking everyone to remember that we are all fighting a battle and to be more compassionate with each other, which is all good advice, of course.

Today in one such post, I read these words of the Dalai Lama and this really stuck with me. “It is important to cultivate an attitude that allows you to maintain hope.” Two facets of this idea are intriguing to me. First, that our attitudes have such a powerful impact on how hopeful we feel and second, that a more hopeful attitude can be cultivated.

Neither of these ideas is new or earth-shattering. We’ve all heard about the significant role that attitude plays in our day-to-day happiness, but few think of someone who is feeling hopeless as having an attitude problem. And it seems too harsh to accuse a person who is already feeling down of having a bad attitude, doesn’t it?

But listen to the phrasing the Dalai Lama uses… “it is important to cultivate an attitude that allows you to maintain hope.” The attitude has to be cultivated first, and then the ability to maintain hope will be present. Maybe the very fabric of hope is woven from our attitudes about life.

The last few days I have been feeling really down. There are practical and imagined reasons for this, I suppose, but when and where did my attitude go so far south that I was unable to see or feel any hope? And how does one cultivate the sort of attitude that’s needed for hope to grow and more importantly, to stick around through life’s many difficulties?

Maybe the key is just to recognize that life is uncertain. Period. A resilient attitude, one that encourages us to count the highs and learn from the lows every day, is bound to result in a more resilient spirit, a more hopeful spirit, over the course of a lifetime.

And when you have already begun to go down the rabbit hole of self-doubt, fear, longing or sadness? My mother often said, “This, too, shall pass.” Such a simple thought, and so true. Can you remember happier times and how you got there? Can you know that those happy times will return? Can you rest in that knowledge just for today and be at peace with it? Maybe one day at a time is how one cultivates a more hopeful attitude, despite whatever is happening in life.

The Dalai Lama had one other thing to say, “Choose to be optimistic, it feels better.” And so it does.

Ten Ways to Keep a Positive Perspective

Everybody goes through rough patches, times when they feel very alone or perhaps misunderstood by the world. Rough patches can sneak up on you. Things are going along just fine, and then one by one the little things add up and all of a sudden life feels intolerable, a trap set by surroundings or circumstances beyond your control. What do you do when you don’t know what to do? How do you find your way back to hope when you have forgotten how?

Depression runs in my family and I am well-acquainted with the its defeating weight, with how desperate you feel when you’ve forgotten how to hope. But I have found ways to recognize early on when I have begun to sink, and ways to help me keep a positive perspective, even when things look bleak. Here are ten that work for me (most of the time!):

1) Recognize that what you are feeling is a feeling and not a way of life. Someone once told me that saying “I am depressed” is not ever true. You are not depressed or sad or despondent or rejected or misunderstood. You may feel those things, but they do not define who you are.

2) Recognize that all feelings come and go, and this one will, too, if you let it. Try to remember a time when you felt hopeful and positive about your life and relive it in your mind. It may feel false to do this, but it is a gentle reminder to your soul that you will feel this way again.

3) Breathe. Right now, this second, you are fine. You have all you need and probably most of what you want. Relax and breathe again, and every time that those feelings of desperation rise up within you. Those few seconds of pause throughout the day can keep everything in perspective until hope returns.

4) Feel gratitude. List five or ten things or people or circumstances for which you are grateful. Keep a notebook by your bed and do this every night before you sleep. No other habit has been so effective as this for helping me to remember how truly fortunate I am.

5) Envision where you want to be, how you want things to change or grow. Spend a couple of minutes in meditation every day envisioning in as much detail as you can how you’d like to feel and what you’d like to be different. Everything starts with an idea.

6) Do something, anything, to move you closer to where you want to be. There is something about taking action, however small, that reminds us that we are in fact the active agents of our own lives. Life isn’t happening to us if instead we are making our lives happen.

7) Get a little more rest. So often a down mood really just stems from being overtired. Treat your self to a nap.

8) Be nice to yourself. Treat yourself as you would a friend who was feeling down. You wouldn’t berate a friend and tell him or her to get their act together, and you wouldn’t tell them they were hopeless and they might as well give up. Talk to yourself as you would a good friend and see how well you feel.

9) Take care of yourself. Get some exercise and eat healthy foods. Just like rest, these habits improve your well-being both inside and out.

10) Spend some time in nature. Few things can calm the spirit so well as a walk in the woods or on a beach.

When things aren’t going your way, sometimes the only thing you can do is keep it all in perspective and know that this, too, shall pass.

Stopping the Runaway Mind

It is 5 am and I cannot sleep. I decided to get up and write, which I wanted to do anyway, though not necessarily this early. But here I am. Author Flannery O’Connor once said, “I write because i don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” When my mind is in overdrive, filled with what ifs and worst case scenarios, writing does help me get to the heart of the matter and know what I really think, want and feel about something.

The question for me this morning, though, is why do our minds go into this type of negative spiral anyway? Let me give you an example of where my thinking has gone already…

My job is currently in question due to some reorganization at the college where I work. I am in many ways perfectly fine with the prospect of moving on, but at the same time, I am scared about having to start over somewhere else, or worse, having to cobble together some sort of income from who knows where. Once I start thinking about it, I become like a dog with a bone. I worry and fret and imagine one scenario where everything will be OK, followed by about ten others where my quality of life deteriorates until I end up a broke, homeless failure. Why is that? When our minds run away with us in this way, why do they always run south?

What if, at 3 am when the race is on, we changed course? What if instead of imagining all the ways in which something could go horribly wrong, we imagined ten different ways it could all go right? What if instead of just dreaming about how maybe we could make something work or we can squeak by without failing, we instead took that time to imagine the most successful outcomes possible? And imagined these outcomes in as much delicious detail as we imagine those worst case scenarios? What kind of power could these dreams have?

Jillian Michaels, the famous trainer from The Biggest Loser inspires people to imagine themselves successfully transforming their bodies and their lives through healthier living and thinking. She says, “Why not you? Why not you to do something for work that you love? Why not you to have a healthy body? Why not you to have healthy love? Why not you to be, have or do anything you have ever dreamed? We are so quick to think others are deserving over ourselves. The truth is that we are all deserving. So why not you?” I love this. Why not? Why can’t it all end well? And if (when) it does end well, how might that look?

A close friend says often that everything starts with an idea. Why not begin by changing the ideas I already have?