How to Feel Better When You’re Feeling Bad
Buddhist-inspired wisdom for navigating difficult times.
Posted March 2, 2015
Psychotherapy and marriage counseling can offer very real help when you suffer from challenging circumstances, painful feelings and relationship difficulties. At the same time, PT blogger Toni Bernhard’s new book has reminded me that other traditions as well offer profound and practical wisdoms for navigating life’s joys and sorrows. In How to Wake Up, Bernhard shares generously with us her distillations of Buddhist-inspired methods. Want to feel better when you are feeling bad? Without either paying a therapist or popping pills? If so, this book is a must read, must treasure, and must read again.
Bernhard herself knows from personal experience the importance of what she preaches. Bernhard had been happily enjoying pretty much all of the blessings that life has to offer: robust health, reasonable wealth, a great marriage partnership, motherhood plus a highly satisfying career as a law professor. Then one day, out of the blue, her body flipped into a state of chronic fatigue and pain. This book, Bernhard’s second, shares the wisdom that has helped her transition from an expansive life out and about in the world to a new but also highly meaningful life lived mainly just in her bedroom.
The title of Bernhard's book, How to Wake Up, can be misleading. This is not a book about alarm clocks or early bedtimes. Rather, waking up is a Buddhist term for the process of ever-increasing awareness. This kind of waking up leads to inner peace whatever the external circumstances.
Waking up clarifies pathways for reacting to disappointment, sadness, insecurity and pain. Through increased awareness, these pathways can lead you from suffering to sublime states like wisdom and equanimity.
Sublime states lie outside the arenas that contemporary psychology generally addresses. Yes, psychologists have only relatively recently begun, with the positive psychology movement, to focus on positive attitudes like acceptance, appreciation, affection, awe, in creating inner well-being and satisfying, secure relationships. Buddhist thought however has long studied these phenomena.
Bernhard right away, starting in the very first paragraph of the first page of How To Wake Up, guides readers through engagingly simple understandings of these profound ideas. She then follows the explanations up with simple exercises that can help you to implement your new ways of navigating joy and sorrow.
Impermanence and change.
One trigger for bad feelings can be unwanted changes in your life.
“The Buddha woke up to the reality of the human condition: we are subject to impermanence and change; we cannot find a fixed unchanging self; and we will encounter suffering." (page 9, which is the first page of the first chapter)
Changes can wreak havoc: loss of a job, a divorce that you didn't want, sudden crashes in the economy that destroy net worth and savings, medical illness, and more.
When we recoil from emotional painful events with shock and horror, or self-blame, our suffering intensitifes. When we feel angry in response to beliefs that we are entitled to something better because “he should have…” or "she should have..." our suffering intensifies. Regret over the past and its changes, along with concocting worst-case scenario expectations about the future, similarly can make a current bad situation feel worse.
By contrast, understanding that uncertainty and unpredictability are inevitable in life, and fortunately can even become your friends, can launch calmer times. Acceptance of uncertainly and change as part of the nature of life leads to ability to address the new facts on the ground as a new reality. You then can get familiar with this new reality, and can move forward in your life toward a new and newly gratifying normal.
Impermanence and change then even can prove beneficial. What’s bad today may well become the foundation for a better tomorrow. That’s your mission. To accept what is, and allow your life to flow forward. As one person once said, “a bend in the road is not the end of the road.”
Mindfulness has become a new psychological mantra. Psychologists now recommend it as a treatment for virtually all ills, but we are johnny-come-lately's to this strategy of experiencing deeply what feels most fearful to you and thereby allowing the negative feelings to pass on. Bernhard explains the ideas underlying why mindfulness works, as these ideas are lifted straight from Buddhist practices. She then shows you how to use the techniques, with ease and grace, via simple exercises.
The bottom line.
I am continuing to feel enlightened by every chapter, in fact every page, of this easy-to-read and yet profound book. The book arrived just in time to help me personally, as I suddenly this winter, out of the blue, was knocked over by the arrival of severe asthma. The asthma fortunately now is under control, but not before I gained from the brief bout of illness an opportunity to implement what I've been learning from How to Wake Up.
My suggestion: Follow the Boy Scout mantra of Be Prepared. Before your life takes a serious turn in a direction that is not of your liking, or now if you are currently struggling with distressing aspects of your life, be sure to read Toni Bernhard's How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow.
(c) Susan Heitler, PhD
Denver Clinical psychologist Susan Heitler, PhD is author of multiple books, audios and videos for therapists and for general readers including an interactive website that teaches the skills for marriage success, PowerOfTwoMarriage.com. Her latest book is Prescriptions Without Pills: For Relief from Depression, Anger, Anxiety and More.