How often do we worry our way into the future or ruminate our way into the pain of the past? It is easy to do as we human's have a built in "negativity bias" which simply means we are hardwired to pay more attention to negative events more frequently than positive ones. The evolutionary theory on why we have this bias suggests our natural tendency to dwell more frequently on the negative is simply our brain's way of trying to keep us safe. Back in the day, those who had a high degree of awareness to signs of potential danger were more likely to survive. Fast forward to the present day and our brains remain highly focused in on all the negatives in our environment so we can stay safe. Today our brain is more often than not keeping us safe by tuning into who insulted us in the past, who was snippy this morning, how long the line is to get coffee, the worry about what might happen during our job interview, date, or the work presentation next week, and all the negative stuff we consume via social media and news outlets. We are carrying all of this around like a big bag of rocks and it is weighing us down.
Abby Packing in one of the many beautiful parks near our home.
Even if we have a pretty amazing day filled with mostly positive events, if there was just one negative event, (say a car accident that created a traffic backup on the way home,) we have a very strong tendency to give that one event more juice than all the others taking us into low or high level stress, and activating the sympathetic nervous system. So how can we combat this bias that is part of our auto-pilot programming? First of all we have to be aware that the negativity bias is part of our operating system so we can start to tune into it. As we begin to consciously and intentionally pay attention, we can start to notice how our bodies react when we feel triggered. Is it a tightening of the chest and lungs? Does your brain start to disconnect and you lose your train of thought? Maybe you lose touch with your common sense or your ability to make sound judgements or to communicate effectively? Do you feel shut down or like you need to escape? Pay attention - allowing yourself time to notice how you respond to various negative stimuli is the key to being able to start to get off the short path to Negativityville, and find your way back to peace and presence.
Once we have developed a few muscles around awareness, we can start to bring in tools that enable us to increase our focus on the good in our life. These tools empower us to release the negativity that drags us either into the past (anger, resentment,) or fast-forwards us into the future, (worry or fear). Some of my favorite ways to remain squarely in the present moment include mindfulness practices like breathwork and meditation, gratitude practices, yoga, getting the creative juices flowing, and connecting with the natural world.
Nothing brings me back to "the moment of now" more quickly than slowing down or stopping, and focusing on my breath. There are so many breath practices that can support finding calm and presence. If you are not familiar with breathing exercises you can google a few of my favorites like box breath, dynamic breathwork or power breathing, 5-5-7 breathing and Hara breathing. There are hundreds and hundreds of breathing exercises (or pranayama). No matter which ones resonate with you, a regular practice will empower you to quickly move into your preferred breathing exercise, and more easily come back into the present and a more neutral mindset, the moment you feel yourself getting triggered by a 'negative event.' I also engage in daily meditation which combines breathing with a myriad of other practices that allow us to be present in our lives more often than not. There are so many types and styles of meditation - there is truly something for everyone. A great place to explore the various styles is Insight Timer - it is free and there is more meditation content there than any other place else I've found.
I'm also a fan of maintaining formal gratitude practices to support cultivating presence and keeping the negativity in the background. Sometimes I like to dedicate an entire day to wearing rose colored glasses. This practice will quickly tune you into how much the negativity bias is showing up in the moments of your day. I send an intention to go out into the world and notice what is right, and to catch myself thinking, saying or doing something that falls outside of the positive or neutral zones. The moment I catch myself I do a "cancel and replace" practice where I stop, and say to myself "I cancel that thought out" or I stop the action I say, "I cancel that out" or if I am saying something less than positive, I stop, and cancel it out. I then replace the thought, words or action with something positive. For example, if I am driving and someone cuts me off and I have to slam on the breaks and my purse spills onto the floor of my car and I start to amp up and use my (not so neutral) words, I stop, and I say, "I cancel out xxx," and replace it with something positive. It could be "bless you and I hope you get to where you are going safely," or "bless you and have a nice day," or simply, "I'm sorry, I'm sure there is a reason you are driving that way and I hope you find peace in your day." What you replace it with is up to you - but it has to be positive. You might have to fake it until you make it, but eventually you will start to feel a growing kindness and compassion towards others rather than immediate anger and resentment in those unexpected moments when someone else's path crosses yours in a less than positive way. You can also replace negativity with gratitude. Once you cancel it out you shift into a gratitude practice where you state something you are grateful for instead. "I'm grateful to have a car that allows me to get to places with ease or I'm grateful for the beautiful sunshine or the green trees lining the road." The skies the limit when it comes to gratitude. Another practice I enjoy is when I wake up, before I even open my eyes, is to go through a litany of things that I am deeply grateful in my life - it is such an amazing way to start the day and to get grounded in the good that is there if we only look for it. I am also big on journaling to create presence, and one practice I particularly enjoy is an end of day journal entry where I capture all the good things in my day in a stream of consciousness letting go. Another approach is to list ten things you are grateful for each day. The more we focus on gratitude, the more we see the good. The more we see the good, the more naturally gratitude proliferates our lives.
I also find that physical exercise like yoga and Qigong are a great way to be fully present. Both of these allow me to quickly drop into my body and the present moment. I love developing presence in my body because we tend to take our bodies (a vehicle of sorts) for granted and it is too easy to get disconnected and ignore what they may be telling us. A slow moving flow or Kundalini style practice allows me to tune into how my body is feeling and to listen and respect what it needs to create more balance in my life. This paying attention is what brings us into the present moment. I also love doing creative projects like painting, collage, digital drawing, furniture restoration, creating and producing guided meditations - all of these allow me to get lost in flow states where there is no sense of time and I am deeply engaged in what I am doing in the present moment. Creativity comes in many forms - what do you enjoy? Is there something you enjoy so much that when you do it you feel like you can't stop? Have you ever lost all sense of time, or felt like time had slowed down or come to a stop? Or maybe you sensed ideas just flowing into your brain from the ethers? This is a type of flow state, and when this happens you are happily living and being in the moment.
My other go to for coming back to now, and releasing negativity is to immerse myself in nature. In my experience reconnecting to nature will always restore us to balance when we are feeling less than 100 percent. If I find myself in a state of negativity, or if I'm not well, or I feel depleted, one of my immediate go to solutions beyond breathwork is to find the nearest source of nature and immerse myself. This can be a bike ride on the trails, a hike through the woods along the river where I tune into the buzz of dragonflies or the sounds of birds and frogs, kayaking, or laying down in my garden and watching the bees and butterflies land on the flowers that surround me. It can be sitting on my porch with a cup of tea and watching the birds at the bird feeder, taking in the fresh air, and the sounds of them calling amongst the trees and foliage. Most days, it is a walk with my dogs through the woods, or around the ponds near my home where we are graced with a variety of water fowl including great blue herons and beautiful white egrets.
Back in 2021, after I finally conquered a virus that knocked me flat on my back for most of March and part of April, I was left with a body that couldn't do most of the things it could before I got sick. It felt like I woke up in someone else's body, and it was disconcerting to say the very least. The daily yoga practice, the breathwork I used during my meditation practice, the bike rides on the many trails in our area with my husband and son, the hikes and walks down by the river, the kayaking trips, walking my dogs, cleaning my home - all of these were suddenly beyond my reach. If I hadn't been aware of the negativity bias, I might have given up and moved into a dark place of anger, resentment and fear. I used gratitude and gentle meditation practices to help lift me up when I wasn't able to do much else. One of the practices that saved me besides a family that had my back and helped me every step of the way, was listening to guided meditations. I found myself listening to many of them repeatedly, day after day. While I found a plethora of amazing teachers on Insight Timer that I began to follow and listen to, (Jack Kornfield, Tara Brach, Sarah Blondin, David Ji, Reggie Ray, Dakota Earth Cloud Walker, and the wonderful Burgs), I also followed my own voice and wisdom. One in particular that captured my heart, and truly led to my own personal healing, was filled with the many sounds in nature that I missed laying in my bed.
I had created this meditation in 2019 to capture some of the sights, sounds, and smells I regularly enjoyed on my walks along the river and in the woods where I live. A symphony I find quite healing includes the birds singing, the frogs croaking from the bogs that shoot off from the river and streams, the chatter of the squirrels, the buzzing of insects, and the constant background of a rushing, sometimes babbling river as it washes over the rocks and logs along the river bank. I was so captivated by the sounds and smells found deep in the woods along the river bank, that I wanted to record them and share them with others. Little did I know that a year later I would be confined to a bed listening to them over and over, ever grateful I had made this particular recording, "Allowing Nature to Heal Us." No matter what life throws our way, we will always find healing in nature. When we immerse ourselves in the beauty of nature, we are reminded we have so much to be grateful for.
Looking for a vehicle to come back to zero? I invite you to go on a virtual walk into the forest with me. Below is a restorative meditation that evokes feelings of taking a walk in the woods and communing with nature. Find a comfortable place to sit or lie down for a few minutes with a set of headphones. You can sink into the forest's song calling you to surrender your burdens and connect to both the serenity and wildness of life. This guided meditation explores the idea of nature and healing: By simply immersing ourselves within nature, we are nourished, filled with peace and returned to present state balance and gratitude.