Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Replacing Cigarette Butts With Baby Carrots, or My Drunk Neighbors, Part Two

My neighbors are drunk again. I know, big deal, right? Anyways, this party started sometime late on Mother’s Day and ended on Tuesday. Yeah, I said Tuesday.
This is New Orleans, y’all.

So, you’re probably wondering whether I judged my drunk neighbors as I groggily walked my dogs past them at 8am. This answer is yes…kind of…and it’s complicated.

I actually didn’t judge them on Monday. On Monday, I wondered whether they knew someone who had been shot in the second line on Mother’s Day. I felt sorry for them, which is like a stepping stone to feeling compassion, only totally not the same thing at all. I noted the difference between sympathy and compassion, and sent them prayers as I scooped up my dog’s poop.

So, yeah, I’m basically Enlightened.

On Tuesday, though, guess what? I judged them. I stopped myself pretty quickly, though. I stopped myself by instead actively wondering what kind of drugs they were on. Molly? Coke? Adderall? Crystal meth seems unlikely but possible? Does anyone do crack anymore? I really don’t know.

Then I wondered if this tragedy party cycle is really just some kind of coincidence or my imagination. And I decided that it really doesn’t matter, because the point (for me, not for my neighbors) is that it got me thinking about how easily we fall into bad habits when life is scary.

The Dalai Lama says:
When we meet tragedy in life, we can react in two ways – either by losing hope and falling into self-destructive habits, or by using the challenge to find our inner strength.

Preach Tenzin.

Actually, though, this teaching doesn’t just apply to our lives in times of tragedy. This is the choice we face every single minute of every single day. Do we respond to our world automatically, moving forward through sheer unconscious force of habit, or do we greet each moment with a sense of curiosity and respond to it thoughtfully?

In other words, we are constantly making a choice between automatic and manual. The point of yoga, for me, is to create a third option in which it becomes automatic to take each moment as it comes. Let’s call that the semi-automatic approach. That has a nice ring to it.

In order to do this, you have to constantly stop what your doing, look around and ask yourself, “Where am I? What am I doing? How do I respond to this world around me in a more beatific/reasonable/peaceful/effective/pleasant/sane manner?”

That’s what we call practice.  And, like I said before, practice may not make perfect, but it does make progress.

The problem is that in order to make this kind of progress you have to be sort of stopping and going at the same time. That is to say that life is not going to pause around you while you sit there trying to figure out how to respond to it. You gotta have a strategy.

Here’s one from the Dalai Lama:

The way to overcome negative thoughts and destructive emotions is to develop opposing, positive emotions that are stronger and more powerful.

This is the same kind of reasoning that tells you to replace smoking cigarettes with eating baby carrots. Great idea, but how do you do it? It’s really easy to tell someone else that they should stop thinking negative thoughts, but actually, most of us are kind of addicted them, so not thinking negative thoughts is actually really really hard.

I’m not going to go into why we’re addicted to thinking negative thoughts, because I don’t know why. I also smoked for twenty plus years, and I don’t know why I did that, either.  That’s part of the challenge of dealing with bad habits, right? You don’t always know how you developed them. And knowing why won’t really help you that much in this context, anyways.

Maybe when you were twelve someone you thought was cool smoked or maybe it was your mom or maybe your cool mom smoked, but twenty years later it doesn’t matter whether you think smoking is cool anymore or not, you’re still addicted. Knowing why only makes you go, “huh, that’s interesting about me,” and then you still have to deal with the very real fact of your physical craving.

Knowing that you hate the shape of your butt because your sister always made fun of it and all the girls in magazines have butts that are shaped the same and those butts are not the same shape as your butt isn’t enough. When you think, ‘I hate my butt,” you have to be able to slow your brain down and think, “No I don’t. I love my butt. My butt is cool.”

So, how do you do that? If you've been looking at your butt long enough, you've developed an automatic thought response to it that moves almost too fast to intercept. And if you combine your negative thoughts about your butt with all the rest of the negative thoughts you might have, trying to replace all of them at the same time with really awesome positive thoughts that you haven't even had yet is kind of intimidating. 

Well, maybe you shouldn’t try to think about qutting all negative thinking all at once. Maybe that’s too much. Maybe you could just start dealing with the thoughts that you’re having right now thisverysecond. That’s what the practice is actually about, anyways, being present and responding to what's happening rightthisverysecond.

When I was quitting smoking, I didn’t tell anyone I was quitting smoking because I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to do it. So, instead every time that I wanted a cigarette, I would say to myself, “I am not having a cigarette right now.” For me, it was way easier to think about each craving as an isolated incident than to try to think about never smoking a cigarette ever again in my whole life ever. Even now, as a pretty devout non-smoker, that seems way scary to me.

Forever is, like, a really really long time, y’all.

So, did I replace all my cigarettes with baby carrots? 
Hell no. 
Like I said, I smoked for over twenty years. I’ve never done anything else everyday for twenty years, including brushing my teeth or bathing. I definitely needed a crutch, so I smoked an e-cig. (In my defense, an e-cig is basically a baby carrot for a long-time smoker.)

In other words, I replaced a really really bad habit with a habit that isn’t actually proven by medical science to be really bad, but probably will be some day. And then, because the e-cigs took up the space where my cravings were, but they weren’t really that great, I just stopped smoking them.

I guess what I’m suggesting here is that maybe if abolishing all negative thinking from your brain right this second seems like it might be an insurmountable task and that attempting said task might just lead to a perfectionism>facing imperfection>disillusionment>depression>giving up cycle that is totally anti-productive, try thinking smaller.

How about trying to replace some of your negative thoughts with some at least slightly less negative thoughts some of the time until you get used to it and it feels a little easier?

That seems do-able, right? That seems consistent with the whole middle way approach. I feel like the Dalai Lama would be down with it.

Because addictions to anything - sugar, heroin, negative thoughts, whatever -are hard to break, and sometimes it’s all you can do to not indulge in your addictions. Sometimes I’ll go to a bar and everyone else will be smoking and drinking and having a great time and guess what I’ll be doing? Not smoking. That’s it. Not drinking. Not laughing. Not eating baby carrots. Not having a good time. Just NOT SMOKING.

So maybe it's okay if today you can't say that you sincerely love your butt. Maybe just not hating it is a good start. Sometimes there are moments when you aren’t ready to reach for that baby carrot and not smoking just has to be enough.

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