How to Find Joy in a Troubled World

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Hurricanes, public massacres, health care crisis, earthquakes, riots; everyday seems to bring about a new global concern. I struggle between the responsibility to inform myself and the need to keep myself sane and positive. I want to be a concerned citizen and take steps to alleviate social problems. But I also don’t want to unnecessarily burden myself with the world’s catastrophe’s if I can’t help the situation. Turning on the news can quickly descend into despair and helplessness as we are bombarded with turmoil and tragedy across the globe.

This week I decided to turn off the news and listened instead to a book authored by the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Abrams titled The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World. The book is a wonderful portrayal of the friendship of these two spiritual masters who have come together to celebrate the birthday of the Dalai Lama and discuss the topic of attaining and maintaining joy in today’s chaotic and troubled world. There is much wisdom espoused in this book but there was one piece in particular that deeply resonated with me.

The Dalai Lama spent a significant amount of time talking about mental immunity and the practice of strengthening it.

What is Mental Immunity?

According to the Dalai Lama,

“Mental immunity is just learning to avoid the destructive emotions and to develop the positive ones.”

He compares mental immunity to having a healthy immune system in the body. When we have a healthy constitution we are able to fight off bacteria, infections, and disease.

“Mental immunity”, the Dalai Lama explained, “creates a healthy disposition of the mind so that it will be less susceptible to negative thoughts and feelings…If your mental health is not good, small disturbances, small problems will cause you much pain and suffering. You will have much fear and worry, much sadness and despair, and much anger and aggravation…One must develop the mind over time and cultivate mental immunity.”

Here in the West, this is not a concept we tend to put much stock into. We have a tendency to overlook this aspect of the mind. We focus instead on learning in respect to school or work. But strengthening our emotional mind will serve us well on a daily basis throughout our entires lives.

The Dalai Lama had another useful analogy when it comes to explaining how having strong mental immunity can help us. He talks about our ability to distinguish our problems as being both on a rational level and an emotional level and compares it to the ocean. He says,

“Like the ocean has many waves on the surface, but deep down it is quite calm. This is possible if we know how to develop mental immunity.”

Photo by Elena Saharova on Unsplash

This analogy is quite vivid and relatable. If we think of the waves as our problems crashing down around us, and the depths of the ocean as our emotional state, being calm and serene, it gives us something tangible to grasp onto. To add another more tangible example from the book Bishop Tutu tells how he used to get frustrated sitting in traffic. “You were grinding your teeth, and looking for somebody to kick, but growing older I said ‘well, this is an opportunity for being quiet.’” He recognized that getting angry and frustrated only added to the stress he felt, so he practiced calming himself in these situations. He adds,

“I think it takes time to learn to be laid back…no one ought to feel annoyed with themselves. It just adds to the frustration…it’s like muscles that have to be exercised to be strong…Being on Earth is a time to learn for us to be good, to learn to be more loving, to learn to be more compassionate…and you learn when something happens that tests you…This is a veil of growth and development.”

Mental immunity gives us the capacity to fend off negative emotions when difficult circumstances arise. By building our mental immunity we can learn how the mind works and learn to soothe our emotional reactions. When we first begin the practice we will still experience the negative emotions but we’ll notice their effect on us is diminished. Through continued practice, we gain more strength and work to develop the ability to decrease the negative emotions all together.

This practice serves to enhance our emotional stability which in turn increases our physical health. We know that the mind and body are integrally connected so strengthening our mental state has a whole host of positive effects on our body.

Strong mind = strong body.

And vice versa.

So building our mental immunity is good. How do we get it?

How to Practice Mental Immunity

Photo by Ashley Batz on Unsplash

Meditation

This is the foremost way to build your mental immunity. Meditation has been shown to strengthen the frontal cortex which is associated with working memory and executive decisions. It also increases the left hippocampus, which assists in learning and emotional regulation, according to a study done by Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. The most interesting part of this study is the testing they did on the brains of non-meditators. They gave them 8 weeks of mindfulness meditation training and tested their brains again and found significant increases in the both the frontal cortex and the left hippocampus. Lazar equates a meditation practice to exercise.

“It’s a form of mental exercise, really. And just as exercise increases health, helps us handle stress better and promotes longevity, meditation purports to confer some of those same benefits.”

Starting a meditation practice doesn’t have to be difficult. Nor does it have to be time consuming. In Lazar’s study the average meditation time was 27 minutes. Some practiced more, and some practiced less. Some only practiced a few times a week. The more consistent practices saw greater results. But the point is, getting started can begin with just a few minutes a day.

Ask yourself at what point in the day can you most consistently take 3–5 minutes to sit down to meditate. Is it in the morning right when you wake up? Or at the end of the day before you go to sleep? Maybe it’s mid day when you feel frazzled and you need to calm your mind. Whenever it is, schedule it like a meeting that you can’t skip. Use a free app like Insight Timer or try a meditation video on You Tube.

Yoga

For those who can’t fathom the idea of sitting down in silence even for a few minutes another option to increase your mental immunity is yoga. The benefits of yoga are very similar to meditation but can be a little easier to begin because of the physical movement involved.

Yoga focuses on integrating the connection between the body and the mind which increases the awareness when stress shows up. Yoga gives us a way to channel that energy in a healthy way. This article from Everyday Health explains some of the additional benefits that yoga has on the mind.

“On an energetic level, yoga teaches you how to cope better with stress by cultivating a sense of ease in both active or passive poses. On a psychological level, yoga helps to cultivate mindfulness by shifting your awareness to the sensations, thoughts, and emotions that accompany a given pose or exercise.”

Practicing yoga in a class setting has additional benefits. According to Linda Schlamadinger McGrath, founder of YogaSource Los Gatos in California,

Practicing in a group setting, [such as a yoga class,] stimulates the production of oxytocin, the love and bonding hormone.

But this doesn’t mean you can’t still reap the benefits by practicing solo. Doing a few yoga poses to stretch your body and relax your mind in the morning can be an energizing way to start the day.

Personally, I find taking short yoga breaks throughout my work day help keep me more productive and increase my focus for longer hours than working straight through. The ability to step away from my work and focus on my body while also getting the blood flowing after standing or sitting for an hour has increased my productivity exponentially.

If you want to try some forms of yoga that help relax the mind by integrating meditation into the practice, check out my article listing several of these beneficial practices.

Headstands

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My yoga teacher is always telling us that headstands help keep depression away and increase emotional stability. Inversions are a common therapy for depression among the yoga community. Yoga teacher, Amy Weintraub writes about the benefits of headstands in her article “Inversions for Anxiety and Depression”. She writes that mood is enhanced due to increased muscle tone in the spine. This has a positive effect on the limbic cortex, which is the emotional center of the brain.

Being upside down stimulates the pituitary and hypothalamus glands. These glands regulate all the other glands in our body and are responsible for metabolism, growth, and blood pressure and can lead to an overall relaxation response. At the same time, increasing the blood flow to the brain through inversions helps improve overall brain function and helps stimulate the production of neurotransmitters like dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. These are the feel good chemicals responsible for keeping energy up and feeling happy.

The physical component of the pose increases body awareness as your focus is shifted to balancing and aligning your body in the opposite direction. This also serves as a meditative aspect as you try to balance yourself in a whole new way, and as you gain a new perspective by literally turning your world upside down. It deepens your focus and forces concentration on the present moment.

Before jumping into a headstand, it’s important that it is done correctly and only held for as long as comfortable for the neck and shoulders. It’s best done with the instruction of a qualified teacher. But if you want to start out with some preparation poses, here’s a really simple guide to building up to a proper headstand. If you’re not quite ready for headstand, you can still experience the benefits of inversions. Legs up the wall and forward bend are two simple inversions that anyone can do without prior experience and without the fear of going upside down.

Practice. Practice. Practice.

These are just a few of the ways you can build up your mental immunity. I recommend trying these and trying anything else that will strengthen your mental state. The more tools you have the better off you’ll be. You never know what life will throw at you so the more ways you have to stay mentally strong the better equipped you will be to stay positive and present in any situation you encounter.

Mental immunity is a practice just like everything else in life. The more consistent you are the better you will get at it and the greater joy you will experience. It won’t always be easy. In fact, both the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu agree that to experience true joy, you must also experience pain and suffering. The practice of mental immunity will allow you to find joy even in the face of pain.

I highly recommend reading or listening to The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World. You will learn more about building mental immunity but also learn invaluable wisdom and insight on compassion, generosity, and happiness from the world’s most formidable spiritual teachers.

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Happiness & Health Improvement Junkie, Meditator, Yogi, Triathlete, Film & TV Editor, Writer/Blogger

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Debby Germino

Debby Germino

Happiness & Health Improvement Junkie, Meditator, Yogi, Triathlete, Film & TV Editor, Writer/Blogger

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