After a recent setback, I found myself practicing mindfulness in the trough of sorrow. Mindfulness practices have received much attention for being the next great thing. What is mindfulness? Most people likely associate mindful practices as a self-improvement technique. The school of self-improvement is not new. However, some methods have changed. Our understanding of self-improvement practices has evolved beyond behavior modification and stress management to a deeper understanding of the human psyche. Psychology has progressed to making shifts in the present, leaving the examination of personal histories in the past.
Some of the earliest writings discovered on mindfulness date back twenty-five centuries in Eastern traditions. Mindfulness often defined as a mental state achieved by purposefully focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. Mindfulness is a consistent awareness of our thoughts about our feelings, sensations and emotions related to everything in our environment. Mindful practices involve accepting our thoughts and feelings without judgment or believing in them.
Jon Kabat-Zinn states that mindful practice comes from knowing what is on our minds through paying attention, non-judgmentally. The fundamental practice involves understanding that there is no right or wrong way to think or feel from moment to moment. When practicing mindfulness, our thoughts turn to what we are sensing in the present rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future. Mindfulness includes five interconnected constructs:
- Attending to one’s internal experiences, thoughts, feelings or sensations (observing)
- Describing – ability to articulate them
- Awareness – responding to present situation with awareness
- No Judging – reframing from judging internal experiences as “right” or “wrong.”
- Not Reacting – withholding habitual reaction to internal experiences
Mindfulness involves a conscious direction of our awareness. Being aware and mindful are used interchangeable frequently. Awareness is a function of mindful practices as described above. We can be aware and not be mindful; an example would be when we judge then react to an internal experience. By the way, all experiences occur in the mind of the individual, which is why we drop the descriptor (internal) and just use experience. In other words, no one else is having our experiences but us. Therefore, although the techniques and practices can be universal, we will all experience mindful practices differently.
Mindfulness and Attachments
The practice of nonattachment is as old as mindfulness in Eastern tradition. A definition for nonattachment is having a flexible, balanced way of relating to our experiences without clinging to or suppressing them. According to Buddhist teaching, nonattachment is not being stuck or fixated on ideas, images or visual objects and not feeling pressure to acquire, hold, avoid or change. Instead of aloofness, indifference, not caring or disengagement; nonattached people genuinely care, is engaged and responsive in the presence without self-aggrandizement or self-degradation.
Being attached to our beliefs, possessions or people represent our mistaken view of the principle of permanence. When we cling or attach to something, it is our mistaken belief that stuff and things are our permanent possession. Nothing last forever, there is a season for all things. Forming attachments conflict with the five constructs of mindfulness, we judge and react without awareness. We might judge when we are attached because mentally we have taken possession of the thing. Once we have taken possession, we think we know how it “should” be. The mindful practice involves understanding and accepting that we possess nothing, except our thoughts. Through mindful practice, we continually observe our thoughts for occurrences when we have formed attachments.
Defining the Trough of Sorrow
The Trough of Sorrow refers to the period of struggle a startup face after a setback. By startup, I am referring to both the business and its founder(s). Startups are a challenge. From a global perspective, any time one strike out to create something, which will take them against the grain, expect unexpected difficulties and obstacles. The greatest example is Adolf Hitler was a frustrated artist. How different would history be if he had sold a painting? A startup business is not much different from writing a novel, selling your artwork, becoming an actor or musician.
Musician, author, artist or startup founder is hard, because things are not going to go as desired. In fact, there is one certainty, the moment one decides to tackle that big thing. They can be 100% confident that challenges they had never conceived of will present themselves as obstacles. It does not matter how great your idea, it is a foregone conclusion that something will go wrong at some point.
Challenges and Obstacles lead to the Trough of Sorrow
The Trough of Sorrow is not just an obstacle, challenge or mistake. It is the depressed state after initial success. The Trough is not a singular thing. It is a repetition of obstacles, difficulties and/or mistakes. The Trough signifies a time when you are contemplating giving up, closing the doors, putting down the paintbrushes and accepting your defeat. A trough is usually thought of as a place for feeding animals or the low place between hills. Of sorrow denotes sadness and grief. The Trough of Sorrow is when you have been worn down by the repetition of struggle and success. It may take years to write your novel and years more before anyone has a chance to read it, if ever. Just because you have a great business idea does not mean:
- You will ever make any financial transactions
- You will be able to raise enough financing to make it a success
- That your target audience will find your product or service
- That enough customers discover you to produce a sustainable traction to grow the business
- You will be able to build a team of employees to work the idea
The Trough is the groove you pound into your forehead from beating it against challenges repeatedly; Sorrow is how you feel. When feeling sorrowful, you eat and sleep poorly complicating matters. Diet, sleep and exercise are linked to depressive moods. Soon you begin to wonder if you are wasting your time. If you have friends working outside your project, you watch as they go to work, socialize and enjoying their lives. You think you should be enjoying your life instead of chained to this project, which is a complete failure.
Mindfulness and the Trough of Sorrow
The Trough of Sorrow reveals the depressive feeling startup founders can experience while searching for traction with their business offering. Making matters worse, we compare our success to some idol we admire. Entrepreneurs, writers and creative types imagine creative success that mirrors a hero and the accolades that follow. When success does not happen quickly, it exacerbates the feeling of failure. We can feel that others are smarter, more passionate, talented, they have something we do not possess. You are feeling sorrow for yourself. You are deep in the Trough of Sorrow (see graph).
Mindful practices can help. I know because it is what helped me begin to turn the corner. The Trough of Sorrow can mimic all the symptoms of a depressive episode erratic eating, disruptive sleep patterns and lack of energy, etc. For me it was purely work related, it should be clarified that if you are working on a major project (novel, startup company, etc.,.), your life probably revolves around work. Of course, work can and often does spill into other aspects of one’s life.
The first thing I realized when I began attempting to do some simple mindful practices is just how many different detour my mind can wander. A big part of mindful practices involves silencing the runaway mind. The Trough was created because we have a lifetime of heroic stories of people we begin to idealize. When we attempt our big project and things do not go according to how we imagine it, we feel sorrow. I am not talking about those who tried something new failed and now they are depressed. Remember I said trough of sorrow, which only occurs after months, maybe years of grinding, clawing, and struggle.
Sitting in Silence
The first technique, I learned on the road to recovery and greater creativity, sitting in silence. Sitting in silence means you must unplug all the devices. In the beginning, give yourself 10 minutes; initially, this may seem like an eternity. Sitting in silence goes against who we are as a creative type. I would recommend practicing daily. Schedule your ten-minute mindful practices into your daily activity; I can assure you will find something else to do in its place.
You can expect to feel an itch or discomfort in some body part, ignore them. That itch or discomfort is a thought when you attend to it; you have attended to need. Your need to fix it. We have been taught to take pills to resolve any and all discomforts. Whatever, the discomfort we must take all measures to eliminate the distress. In mindfulness, you simply become aware that the discomfort exists, you can name the discomfort, but you just want to be mindful of the fact that it has returned. Itches on your arm when you become aware of it will likely move to another part of the body.
The Wandering Mind
First, the physical discomfort followed by thoughts, ideas, fantasies or all manner of mental disruptions to your sitting in silence. Expect to follow a few of these thoughts before you remember that you are supposed to be sitting in silence. Initially, my thoughts centered on how dumb this was (sitting silently doing nothing) and how many other things I should be doing.
Because the mind has a knack of wandering, it is important to schedule time to practice mindfulness continually. As entrepreneurs’ sitting in silence does not come easy, we are accustomed to doing something and being busy. However, the time spent meditating in mindful activity will be your most productive. The ability to clear the mind and sit at the moment is priceless.
The Trough of Sorrow is perfect for high achievers, creative types and those attempting to do something unique and innovative. As you can see from the above graph, we are built for micro failures and successes. We psych ourselves out of incremental failures and do not get too excited for the daily successes. Most people are not made this way; they want steady and not too stressful. The everyday kind of a person graph would be much shorter because they would give up and move to something steadier and less stressful. It is our unique makeup that allows us to push past.
Mindful Practices for Creative People
The construct of Awareness is often mistaken for mindfulness. Imagine you can be aware that you are angry and not be mindful of the anger. To be mindful when we are angry, we must disconnect from the feeling, have the ability to describe the anger and display no reaction to the feeling. Imagine hovering over yourself seeing you in an angry state. You are aware that you are in an angry state of mind. Anger is a symptom of fear. Fears do not develop in the present. Therefore we are always afraid of something we want to occur or afraid something will not happen. When these things do not happen the way we think they “should” we get angry.
Likewise, the practice of mindfulness involves nonattachment or disconnecting. A founder of an organization, the author of a manuscript, the novelist, songwriter identifies with their work on a very personal level. Success brings accolades and failures are taken personally. Being attached is not meant in a physical sense. We are attached when we eliminate all outcomes except one. Using the above example of fear leads to anger, one decides based on some norm that “things” should only happen a certain way. They are attached to the outcome and will likely be or become disappointed.
As we become mindful in the trough of sorrow, we experience the wandering mind like a detective. We identify each sensation, feeling and discomfort. We catalog each one, so that as they occur, we call their name. An itch on our back, we might say I feel you itch. We do this for every distraction or wandering disturbance. Soon we experience these sensations less and less, moments of silence increase without disturbing wandering mind interruptions.
We celebrate our new found quieting of the mind by patting ourself on the back. Then we realize ego has captured our awareness. Mindful practice does not have an expiration date. We strive to be and become mindful moment by moment. We endeavor to become aware of our thoughts and their origins. We do this because past thought repetition becomes future actions. We examine thought pattern to discover thought triggers. Being aware of thought triggers enlightens us to where we are stuck mentally. By releasing thoughts that trap us mentally, allow us to respond to circumstances and situations without being controlled by our thoughts reactions.
Mindfulness practice in the trough of sorrow is practicing becoming unstuck. Creative types have one thing in common; we wish to emulate an idol. One of the biggest sticking point when creating our thing is comparing it to an idol’s project. One it will never measure up and two when trying to emulate someone else we miss our uniqueness.
The founders of Uber did not envision the Uber you and I are familiar. I am confident they were merely working on a creative idea. That is because it is impossible to create something like an Uber intentionally. When we get stuck comparing our ideas with the case study of a successful project, we inevitably come up short. One way mindfulness practice helps is by focusing our awareness on the present (Now). By staying in the present moment with our efforts, we eliminate the comparisons.
Becoming Unstuck and More Creative
Mindfulness can break us out of our stuckness by un-attaching us from the outcome. It is natural to want to follow a blueprint that has been successful. However, by focusing attention on the outcome, we miss the process. The secrets reveal themselves within the process. I try to subvert the process time and time again. After the second or third time I remember to take a step back, the details are buried in the process. Remember the carpenters’ mantra “measure twice cut once”.
Being attached to the processes or the outcomes from a practical sense limits possibilities. Mindfully we cannot be present if we have an expected conclusion. When the process does not mirror the expectation, we become angered (fear we have failed). We dig a little into the trough. Mindful practice, specifically sitting in silence allow new ideas and possibilities arise. If we have the courage to test these new ideas, we may discover a different iteration to solving an old problem. Mindfulness focus on the now reinforces the practice of looking anew at each day’s event, not comparing today with yesterday and anticipating what will happen tomorrow.
When we work to rid the attachments, being stuck is no longer an issue. Without attachments, comparisons lose their importance. We admire our idols while exploring our processes. No longer fearing that we do not measure up to some standard, we are free to experience more possibilities. Being free does not eliminate the challenges of creating, struggles becomes today’s process of events. Without the struggle, there is no need for sorrow. Each day’s task become that day’s experiences and eliminates the desire to dig a trough. Mindfulness practices can eliminate depressive moods brought on by the trough of sorrow.