Awareness is Not a Tool

How can meditation help you if it is not a tool to improve your attention? And why are professionals so reluctant to use the word, meditation?  

I hear it all the time. Call it mindfulness; don’t call it meditation. Don’t call it mindfulness; call it mindful awareness. If you call it meditation, people will think you are prescribing a religion. My impulse is to shout: Just be quiet and sit! Don’t worry about the label!  

I’m not ordained, certified, or sanctioned as a meditation teacher. I have only practiced and studied meditation for more than half my life, and I’m still no expert; I’m not trying to be. But I have something to say about the relationship between practicing awareness and practicing mindlessness. If you are in the ADHD familly, you have more experience with one of those practices than the other, and you can guess which one.  

Practicing awareness is a thing in itself, but if you practice to attain some unattainable goal, like stopping your thoughts, you will get stuck on a perpetual carousel. The end of thinking will happen involuntarily when you die; so don’t be in such a hurry to get there. 

Dr. Daniel Siegel has demonstrated that individuals with ADHD who practice mindful awareness show a reduction in ADHD symptoms to a degree that rivals medication. In a webinar I attended, he told a story about telling his colleagues, who asked what medications his research subjects were taking, to “substitute a t for the c.” He was telling them to substitute meditation for medication. That doesn’t mean meditation is a tool to fix a broken brain. Practicing awareness is simply the opposite of practicing mindlessness.

When you practice anything persistently enough, new habits start to form. But when you try turning awareness into a tool, you will be constantly evaluating if the tool is working. If you become even more aware of your mindlessness by meditating, you might conclude that meditation is not working. Then you may assume you are doing something wrong. Sitting with awareness of what your brain is doing, even when it is wandering, is not doing something wrong.

What if you discovered, when meditating, that you are perpetually evaluating yourself and questioning your competence and your worth, even questioning whether you are meditating correctly? Would you be practicing awareness? I say, yes indeed. You would be observing the activity of your brain. Imagine that you have observed your wandering mental activity often enough that you are tired of bothering yourself about it. At that moment, you might choose to give up practicing because you have a lot of experience with giving up. But what would happen if you stopped bothering yourself about your wandering mind? Perhaps you would begin seeing a layer of self-defeating thought (the judgment that your mind should not be wandering) for what it is. You are watching the movie of your self-critical mind, one that judges constantly. If you are watching the judgment without judgment, your are practicing simple awareness. 

I have been on a mission for years to encourage adults with ADHD to practice a more accepting and compassionate attitude. You probably wouldn’t tell an anxious friend to stop worrying about their worrying when they have every reason to be worried about a significant health issue. You would be kind to your friend. So why are you so  unfriendly to yourself? One plausible reason is that you have a long history of being judged, and you have adopted self-criticism as a pre-emptive strategy. You would rather experience, and maybe even express, your shortcomings than be criticized by others who are better than you, which is most people. Does that have a familiar ring? Or maybe you do the opposite; you know better than everyone else, and you don’t care what anyone thinks. But if you really don’t care, why do you protest? I believe those two responses, self-deprecation and narcissistic thinking, are flip sides of the same coin. 

So, if you think you cannot meditate, simply because your mind wanders a lot, what good would it do to watch your brain wander, much less engage in the boring task of bringing your awareness back to the present moment again and again? My answer is simple. You can do that. The only hard part is doing it without judging anything. That is what enlightenment is…turning up the lights to see what’s happening inside and outside of your brain. The idea of the brain observing the brain is complex, for sure, but simple awareness is simple. 

Observing self-defeating mental habits demystifies the habits. Your mind wandered, so what? When you watch the stream of wandering thoughts and interrupt the stream by labeling it, “thinking,” you are stepping back from the content of your thoughts. You are letting them be. As you continue to sit with gentle awareness, you just might discover some relief from mindlessness, if only for seconds at a time. You cannot run a marathon tomorrow, but you can always start where you are. 

The goal is just to sit and be aware, not to gain from sitting. If you feel you can only sit for two minutes at a time, and that you must get up and pace before resuming, just continue to sit with the notion that you cannot tolerate restless feelings. When you continue to sit, you are tolerating the thought instead of believing it and letting it control you. It is that simple. You just have show up and practice.

Awareness is a thing in itself. You might even meditate with some approximation of that sentence, like, “Awareness just is.” 

If there is a goal in my meditation practice, it is only to put my rear end on the cushion or chair and practice. When my judging self recedes into the background, my awareness comes to the foreground. 

Awareness finds us; we don’t find it. 

ADHD Awareness Month 2021

October is ADHD Awareness Month. You might not have realized October was approaching until September 30…not yet October. Remember that we live in just two time zones, “now and not now.”

I wish you a great month, from October 1 to Halloween. The weather is great this time of year for most of us. Spend some time meditating and exercising outdoors. Take a mindful walk and just notice what you see and hear, like my Pyrenees-Beagle does every morning.

Do what you can to stimulate your brain’s dopamine naturally. Take medicine if you need it, but don’t think it’s all you need. John Lennon was wrong when he said, “All you need is love.” Love is never enough, and medicine is not all you need to live well with ADHD.

If you have a marriage partner, consider attending my 3-hour Saturday workshop for couples on October 30. Also, Melissa Orlov, author of The ADHD Effect on Marriage, is beginning a new round of her courses for couples in October (https://www.adhdmarriage.com).

There are many non-medical resources for adults with ADHD these days. It is a large menu. Check out my resources page and Melissa Orlov’s.

I promise to continue my efforts to advocate for us and educate the public about what ADHD is and what it’s not; and who we are and who we’re not. And I will continue to challenge my ADHD peers, as I challenge myself, to take charge of living responsibly with it. We do best when we understand our neurological difference, accept the effects of ADHD in our daily lives, and acknowledge its effects on people we love.

Embrace every moment. Put as much effort into becoming mindfully present in each moment as you would put into your favorite pastime. Otherwise you will just pass time, and you will never get that time back. My personal best resource for living well with ADHD is daily meditation. Dr. Daniel Siegel, author of The Mindful Brain, says substitute a t for the c (meditation for medication). Meditation has been proven to enhance executive functioning. But I would add that you should not dismiss medication if you haven’t tried it. Either or both can enhance the quality of your life.

During this year’s ADHD Awareness month, consider how you might raise awareness in your community about the realities of ADHD. Encourage someone you know who may need professional support, or advocate for a young person with the disorder whose parents or teachers may not see the card that’s missing from the deck.

Let’s celebrate our strengths all month and beyond. Accept that the natural inhibiting features of our brains are inhibited. Put simply, our brains don’t easily inhibit our surplus of selective attention, speech, or behavior. But being uninhibited is not all bad. Know your strengths and use them. Acknowledge your weaknesses and be open to feedback no matter how uncomfortable. Express gratitude to those who are willing to be honest with us, and don’t judge their intentions. Accept that you may tend to see obstacles more easily than possibilities. Keep a beginner’s mind. In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few” (Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki).

Cultivating Patience: Beyond Lightening Up

In my last blog I highlighted what is normal about impatience. I demonstrated how lightening up about the rise of uncomfortable feelings helps inhibit impulsively acting on them. There is more to cultivating patience. Judgmental thinking…including judgment about your impatience…can interfere with learning a few things about yourself. Being open to the unreliability of self-talk can help. The greater your arousal, the more likely your narrative will be distorted, and the more likely you will believe your story line. Certainty that a person or a situation caused your abrupt emotional shift can lead to suffering.

You brain will direct your attention immediately toward any assumed source of sudden discomfort. Your first impulse will be to stop what you think caused the feeling. The self-protective instinct is a natural function of a normal brain. The instinct is not a problem; acting mindlessly is.

Have you ever noticed how your perspective often changes once you have calmed down? Years ago I was sitting at a stop light at a busy intersection, waiting to turn right toward home. A small truck opposite me ran the red light and headed in my direction, barely missing other drivers already in the intersection who were honking their horns at this reckless driver. I was outraged that he was endangering lives. He proceeded into the intersection from his turn lane. Instead of making a full left turn, he angled toward the corner of a Shell service station twenty feet to my right. Two hedges on the property stopped his truck. He never hit his brakes. When his truck stopped, I could see the driver, slumped over the steering wheel, unconscious. I made two right turns to enter the Shell parking lot and dialed 911 for help. I learned after she was hospitalized that a diabetic episode had caused her to lose consciousness.

The first narrative in my mind prompted feelings of outrage. This selfish driver, whom I assumed to be male, was impatient and more important than the rest of us. The second narrative prompted urgent action and compassionate feelings. My first impulse was to stop a dangerous driver from killing others, and my second was to call for an ambulance to save the driver’s life.

Considering alternative to narratives is not always possible in real time, but you can learn to suspend certainty about any internal narrative through practice. It begins with observing more than the external event. You can expand your attention to include observation of your internal state. Practicing watching my own internal experience has shown me that I’m more prone to impatient reaction when I’ve missed a meal, gotten too little sleep, or been in a sour mood about something unrelated to the present event. I’m increasingly aware of my capacity for impatience, especially when others disrupt my calm state. Damn them!

Expanding your awareness about your impatience is the key to cultivating patience. A misguided use of meditation practice is trying to attain a constant state of calm. Good luck with that! Cultivating insight is more attainable. Enlightenment simply means turning up the lights. When you turn up the lights, you have a better chance to see what’s right in front of you and what’s rising inside of you.

I welcome your comments and personal experiences.

An Antidote for Impatience: Lighten Up About It!

If you grew up with ADHD, you’ve probably struggled with patience at some time in your life, if not in every stage of life. I’m far more patient now than in my younger years, but I have no certificate saying, “Patience Attained: No Further Effort Needed.” Personal growth is a path, not a destination. Here are some examples of my continuing struggles with patience.

I’m impatient with impatient drivers who ride my bumper on the freeway. I’m certain that my reckless driving is not as bad as theirs. Unlike them, I keep a safe distance from drivers in front of me, except for those who drive like they’re looking for a parking space…on the freeway.

I’m impatient with people who say insensitive things to me about ADHD, like, “ADHD is just an excuse.” It’s easy for me to refrain from using ADHD as an excuse for anything because I never did. Nor have I used my dyslexia, age, vision problems, hair loss, hearing loss, or tall frame as an excuse for anything except banging my head on chandeliers. I do not need my ADHD. Imagine me saying, “You should excuse me for being late for work because I love my ADHD more than my job.” I don’t think so.

I am impatient with ADHD deniers. I would like nothing more than to have someone reconfigure my brain. To anyone who ever said I should just try harder to remember, or to stay focused, or to think before I speak, please accept this heartfelt proposal: Beginning tomorrow morning, I will try waking up each day with no symptoms of ADHD or dyslexia. My family and friends will be relieved, and I will feel competent.

I used to think I was patient with people who are more rejection-sensitive than I. I try to accept those who reject me for rejecting them when I’m not. I try to accept their defensiveness as I try to accept my own. My rejection sensitivity is subtle and preemptive. I don’t want to disappoint anyone, and feel horrible when I do. Others express rejection sensitivity as anger when they feel rejected. I lack patience with angry people who, like me, have trouble tolerating perceived rejection. Certainty about the motives and feelings of others is like shooting myself in the foot. It gets me nowhere, and it harms relationships.

I want serenity now! But to live one day at a time requires consistency, which is a problem for me. So I skip some days and forgive myself for inconsistent effort. I embrace the serenity prayer as I understand it. I have a five-page list of things I cannot change, but to change what I can assumes that I should. Now that I have learned to differentiate what I can and can’t change, I have the option of changing nothing. The idea of change is less inspiring to me than growth and development. I’ve grown more from accepting failure than achieving success.

I’m impatient with people who lack humility, I lack humility the moment I begin to feel proud of being humble. Then I have to sit in meditation until I recover true humility…without being proud of it. Patience opens me to compassion for people who suffer absence of humility due to childhood neglect, abuse, or other forms of being devalued. Humility helps us forgive ourselves and others for our imperfections.

I’m less patient with experts than flexible thinkers. I want to cultivate more patience with people who know everything, and people who read my mnid so well they know my thoughts before I express them and know my intentions without asking. They are still human and not so different from me. I am capable of thinking I know more than I know.

Most of all, I’m impatient with me.

I welcome your comments and observations.

Stop Striving

Strive is considered a positive word, suggesting a rewarding outcome for extraordinary effort. Webster’s definition: “to devote serious effort or energy.” But the noun strife is a negative word that suggests conflict: “bitter sometimes violent conflict or dissension or and act of contention.” The two words share the same root, but the verb strive describes something internal while strife is external.

I believe striving has a downside. It can cause unnecessary internal conflict that inhibits creativity…a kind of strife within.

Did you ever notice being more productive when you cease striving? Have you ever gotten stuck striving to write a perfect opening sentence of an essay. When you do that, writing an entire essay seems daunting. But when you set out to write an imperfect draft, without concern about crafting sentences, the writing is easier. Knowing you can start editing and crafting your second draft is liberating. You can even postpone writing the opening sentence until the essay is otherwise complete. There is no reason to strive. In fact, striving, in this example, creates a conflict between creating and crafting.

I remember a hymn of peace we sang in church when I was a kid. I recently found a choral version of it on YouTube. The last verse touches an emotional chord that still invites ease of being into my soul: Drop thy still dews of quietness til all our strivings cease. Take from our souls the strain and stress and let our ordered lives confess the beauty of thy peace.

Trying to be requires effort; being doesn’t. Being who you are is more honorable than trying to be some ideal notion of who you should be. I have to practice interrupting thoughts that I should be someone who doesn’t make mistakes, never fails, always uses good judgment, has no regrets, is always confident and never questions himself. I do not get to be that person. Trying to be is more than a waste of time; it is self-centered preoccupation.

Rejecting the self is not a good way to start any endeavor. You can only start where you are. The beginning of writing my book was the only hard part. When I tried to write, I couldn’t. When I stopped trying to write, I just wrote.

Sometimes I can manage to stop striving and let it be. There is no good reason to think about the “I” that is being and doing. Paul McCartney said he once had a dream about his mother, a nurse who died at age 47 when Paul was 14. Near the end of his long run as a Beatle, he was going through hard times when his mother came to him in a dream and whispered to him, “let it be.”

Let it be…let it be.
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What do you think? I welcome your comments.

Be Different

You don’t want to be like everyone else, but you have ADHD and dislike being different. So, which is it? Do you prefer being a people pleaser? Do you want to avoid all people who don’t understand you? You don’t have to do either. Next time someone says, “I don’t understand you,” you might say, “I know you don’t, and I’m okay with that.” You may not feel okay before you say it, but you might after you say it. It only takes a little courage to practice being you. When you can do that, then you can change some things you want to change without rejecting yourself.

Here are some suggestions for practicing observing your experience without judgment (of yourself or others):

1. Dare to be different. If you don’t want to be different, you won’t be exceptional at anything.
2. Observe your rejection-sensitivity without judging it so you can stop blaming others for rejecting you.
3. If you believe in the power of acceptance, accept others who are different from you. Otherwise, you will reject difference itself, including the truth of your own difference.
4. Understand that no one else in the universe has had your life experiences, and you haven’t had theirs.
5. Speak if you want to be understood. Others will not know you if you’re unwilling to speak in your own voice.
6. You canot grow if you cannot tolerate the discomfort that comes with feedback you may need.
7. Don’t let anger separate you from others. Accept your feelings and stay connected.
8. Know that embracing differences frees you to be you and let others be different from you.
9. Accept positive differences that matter to you…your skills, interests, personality, temperament, energy, creativity, humor…whatever your strengths are.
10. Accept negative differences that should matter. For example, self-acceptance includes accepting that your ADHD affects others. You cannot prevent negative effects if you’re unaware of them.
11. If you wish to have influence with a spouse or friend, allow their influence. Allowing someone’s influence is often reciprocated, and mental flexibility is good for relatioinships.
12. Stop being defensive; it fuels more criticism. Stop criticizing; it makes people defensive.

Be careful not to give a therapist the impression that you need to be overhauled in order to have value. Your therapist might honor your desire for a makeover, and then you will not feel valued. Change doesn’t happen when you feel misunderstood or rejected, but when you feel understood and supported. Being different is not a problem.

Looking Ahead, Looking Back

I wake up these days not knowing what day it is. My calendar cares less about me since I retired my psychotherapy practice. In time, I will resume a relationship with time, and the calendar will matter again. It will organize me in a new way. I will be more productive, more purposeful, and maybe even more visionary. Perhaps more creative with sentence fragments.

I will continue writing, speaking at conferences and local events, co-leading the ADDNashville support group, providing 3-hour workshops, and advocating for individuals and families living with ADHD. I will continue to promote a perspective for living a good life with ADHD, including (1) the practice of mindful awareness; (2) the path of acceptance and willingness; and (3) the value of respect for our creative potential. External obstacles are nothing compared to internal ones. What we believe about ourselves can be far more limiting than what others believe about us.

I believe in my book. Living Well with ADHD is a tool that can help adults who are wired like me. It was informed by the experiences of many extraordinary people. We belong, we matter, and we can make a difference in how our culture views difference.

I’m grateful to all my former clients who trusted me to join them, challenge them, and support their noble efforts. They taught me about effects of ADHD beyond my personal experience. They demonstrated courage in exposing their vulnerabilities and fears. They took their personal work seriously and improved the quality of their lives. They transcended the limitations of asking what’s wrong and demonstrated the power of asking what’s possible.

Emotion Regulation: Stop Trying to Regulate It

Emotion regulation is a common problem for adults with ADHD, but the concept of “regulating” feelings could lead to self-defeating efforts. We know that regulating the breath can have a calming effect on the body, but how do you regulate feelings? Wishing not to have them magnifies the very feelings you wish to escape. Wishing to escape a situation you’re in does not make the situation go away.

There is no thermostat to regulate feelings directly. “Feelings just are,” says psychologist and author, Robert Wright. What he means is that we don’t choose feelings; they choose us. The very idea that we choose them creates problems in how we relate to other people and to ourselves. We control nothing when we relate mindlessly to our emotional experience. Relating mindfully involves relinquishing effort to control what we can’t.

Honoring your feelings means accepting them as normal human experiences and suspending judgment about yourself and others. To accept feelings is to honor the reality that they have roots in old memories, and they have a normal function. Feelings protect you. Fear, for example, helps you prepare for the future, anticipate consequences, avoid risky behavior, obey laws, and meet deadlines.

Honoring feelings also allows you to detach from the notion that situations are responsible for your feelings. Suspending certainty about unfounded beliefs helps prevent believing that difficult life situations should not occur. Our story lines (the meaning we make) will create more problems than the situations and people we blame. We only feed negative feelings when we push back against life as it is.

Here’s an example of how a feeling once tricked me into believing my story line. I was certain one day that my wife’s silence meant she was angry with me, and equally certain she had no reason to be. I began to feel angry that she was angry. I grew silent along with her, wishing to avoid whatever she needed to say to me. Nothing had actually happened except for the unexamined thoughts that kept bubbling up from my discomfort! I was anticipating, judging, and generalizing from history, some of which preceded our 42-year relationship.

I was far from being mindfully present. My rejection-sensitive mind was predicting the future in a self-defeating effort to escape uncomfortable feelings. I was prepared to defend myself from what she was thinking, only to learn I was dead wrong. She had been experiencing some physical pain that she had not disclosed. Unaware of my story line, she broke her silence with a thoughtful acknowledgement: “Just so you know, I’m not feeling well and might seem irritable today.” My feelings changed immediately. My mindless effort to control the future was no longer necessary. In fact, it never was.

Practicing acceptance and compassion for self and others is good for all your relationships. Tibetan Nun Pema Chodron advises us to “embrace the feeling and drop the story line.” Zen Master Seung Sahn often told his students, “Keep a don’t know mind; a don’t know mind can do anything.”

Do you have a similar story to share?

ADHD and Perfectionism

Finding the perfect system for getting things done can only be positive, you may think. But pursuing perfection can be problematic for adults with ADHD. An “ideal system” can even obstruct you from getting things done. Imagining a perfect system may be stimulating, but coordinating the parts to activate and sustain it can be overwhelming. Consistent effort is a common problem for us.

Subscribing to the notion that you will function normally with a perfect system is self-defeating. Tools should not be more important than their purpose. We can function better with structure, for sure, but creating and maintaining structure is something else. So we browse for the most elaborate system. A simple system might not satisfy our insatiable appetite for perfection. A new Mercedes looks and rides better than an old pickup truck, but it cannot carry a heavy load.

ADDNashville recently examined some popular systems, like those of Marie Kondo, David Allen, and Ryder Carroll. We discussed why some of us find organization gurus unhelpful in the long run. One person suggested that when the gurus capitalize on their great ideas to target a broader audience, the result is systems that are more complex than the original ideas. Herein lies a problem for us: complexity stifles individuals with compromised executive functioning. Simplifying, on the other hand, liberates us.

Can someone else’s system work for you? I think so, but I recommend being confident and defiant enough to find your own way to use it. Claim the parts that appeal to you. Take from them what you will likely use and disregard the rest. That’s what I did with Ryder Carroll’s Bullet Journal Method. A creative ADHD friend who recommended it was using it for one simple purpose. “Use it however you wish,” she suggested. I began using it to capture and index ideas and titles for writing projects. I took the plunge after reading only the first 25 pages. I’m glad I did that. Otherwise, my perfectionism would have hooked me. I’m capable of becoming more obsessed with a tool than with using it.

Maybe I will read the rest of The Bullet Journal Method, but I will trust my aversion to complexity. I know how my wheels can get stuck. It happened this past winter when my street became a sheet of ice after a deep snow. I abandoned the car.

Coming and Going

I forget that I have a memory problem. My wife and I recently took a two-week trip, perhaps our first ever…I don’t remember. I had checked the long-term weather forecast about a month before our trip and was delighted to learn we would enjoy the first warm week of the year on the Gulf. I forgot to check the forecast again later, before I packed shorts and t-shirts. I didn’t take a jacket. Here’s the good news: it was too cold and rainy that first week to go outside anyway, and we’d been moved into a big house near the one we had reserved, thanks to a sewer problem in the first house.

The temperature warmed up to sweater weather by the second week, and even warmer two days before we departed for home. I walked on the beach at my preferred times, sunrise and sunset. I wore blue jeans, layers of undershirts beneath a corduroy shirt, and my Red Sox cap.

It was my dog’s first beach trip. He is still confused, one week later, about where we live and why the ocean is no longer close to our house. Wilson, our beach boy, made friends and chased girls. Nearby residents with dogs remembered his name, and I tried to remember names of their pets.
Wilson got away from me only once. Unleashed in a test of his loyalty and maturity, my two-year-old pyrenees-beagle chased a sea gull and then ran like a coyote to visit a family about two hundred yards from where he left me. I ran as fast as a man on Medicare can to rescue that family from my disloyal dependent. The family liked him. He was playful with their two small dogs and unsuccessful in his effort to eat their food.

I’m less ADHD-impaired on vacations than at home. I packed well and put away all my clothes and travel items upon arrival. I swept sand from the deck and interior wood floors, cooked my share of meals, and washed dishes daily. I stored grooming and hygiene items in drawers and arranged my hang-up clothes in a closet larger than any we have at home.

I loaded the car for our return home while my wife conducted her usual last-minute inspection of our rental house. She exited with a hair dryer I’d left on the bathroom counter, but she overlooked one drawer. The item I miss the most was a recent purchase. I had bought a nose-and-ear hair trimmer to trim the only hair that grows fast at this stage of my life. I’m less concerned about the easily replaceable comb, shampoo, and floss. Who remembers to floss anyway?

If you have ADHD, you have some memory stories too. Do you remember any of them?

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