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older manWhy do conditions like depression and anxiety – and troubled relationships, often – cause us such intense suffering?  We find ourselves feeling trapped and helpless, unable to pull ourselves out a spiral that feels miserable and beyond our power to change.

A recent article suggests that it is the obsessive focus on ourselves that leads to the suffering caused by many psychological problems.  We not only suffer – we keep ourselves focused on our suffering until we are quite literally lost in our thoughts and beyond the reach of the outside world.  It really becomes a sort of negative narcissism, doesn’t it?

What to do?  The key is to break the obsessive self-focus; to pay attention to the outside world.  We can do this by noticing the world around us (particularly people) and choosing to pay attention.  Our minds will wander back to our ruminations.  That’s OK; notice, forgive yourself and return your attention to the world outside yourself.

Buddhist practice offers us a particular way of doing this called mettta meditation, the practice of extending loving-kindness to those around us.  How to do this?  A great place to start is this blog from a gay man who recommends meditation where we are, when we are – using the example of spending time in a sleazy bar.  Notice those around you, starting with those in your field of vision.  Open your heart.  Wish them well:

  • May you be happy.
  • May you be healed.
  • May you be safe.

Moving our focus from our own fears, judgments, addictions to consciously sending awareness, concern and love to others has the paradoxical effect of freeing us from our own suffering.

A great companion to meditation – particularly for those who really want to liberate themselves from psychological dysfunction – is action.  It may seem counter-intuitive to reach out to help others when what we most intensely desire is for someone to see and reach out to us, when we feel we have no energy to spare.  Check this out:

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To say this is kind of simple is not to say that this is easy (especially getting started).  A key component is cultivating compassion and loving-kindness for ourselves, and too often we torture and abuse ourselves instead.  If the focus is only on loving others and we fail to include ourselves among those deserving of compassion, this just becomes an exercise in codependency.  But nurturing ourselves cannot really be separated from concern for others.