Clearing Emotional Clutter: Mindfulness Practices for Letting Go of What's Blocking Your Fulfillment and Transformation

Clearing Emotional Clutter: Mindfulness Practices for Letting Go of What's Blocking Your Fulfillment and Transformation

by Donald Altman
Clearing Emotional Clutter: Mindfulness Practices for Letting Go of What's Blocking Your Fulfillment and Transformation

Clearing Emotional Clutter: Mindfulness Practices for Letting Go of What's Blocking Your Fulfillment and Transformation

by Donald Altman


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A Fresh Start to a Healthy Emotional Life

Is emotional clutter blocking success in your personal and professional life? You’ve likely heard about the psychological benefits of clearing out the clutter in your surroundings, but how do you handle your emotional clutter — the psychological version of the jam-packed closet or impenetrable garage? Shutting away and trying to hide old pains and traumas creates toxic patterns that can keep you from having the life of your dreams. Integrating mindfulness and cutting-edge neuroscience, international mindfulness expert Donald Altman teaches how to modify entrenched habits and patterns with only a few minutes of attention daily.

Altman first helps you realize what your baggage consists of and how to transform or jettison it. He then shows how to avoid the daily danger of accumulating new emotional clutter. No matter how fraught your life or relationships may be, you can cleanse, heal, or accept the old wounds, mistakes, and disappointments. With Altman’s lifestyle tools, you’ll discover how to address your past, better deal with the present, and cultivate the best possible future. Start fresh with Clearing Emotional Clutter.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781608683642
Publisher: New World Library
Publication date: 03/15/2016
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 472,926
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Donald Altman, MA, LPC, is a psychotherapist, a former Buddhist monk, and the award-winning author of several books, including One-Minute Mindfulness, The Mindfulness Toolbox, and The Mindfulness Code. He conducts mindful living and mindful eating workshops and retreats and trains mental health therapists and businesspeople to use mindfulness as a tool for optimizing health and fulfillment. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

Read an Excerpt

Clearing Emotional Clutter

Mindfulness Practices for Letting Go of What's Blocking Your Fulfillment and Transformation

By Donald Altman

New World Library

Copyright © 2016 Donald Altman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60868-365-9


Stop Riding the Emotional Elevator

Help me to love a slow progression,
to have no prejudice
that up is better than down or vice versa.
Help me to enjoy the in-between.

— Gunilla Norris, Being Home

Things go your way, you get that big promotion, you get that new house you always wanted, you have a happy thought about yourself, you get a nice compliment, and the elevator goes up.

Or things don't go your way, you get sick, your partner leaves you, you think you're inadequate, your friend ignores your text, and the elevator goes down.

Awakening is your ticket off the elevator ride. It's knowing what pushes the elevator buttons. With this amazing gift, you suddenly realize that the real prize is getting free from those buttons and not obsessively pressing them like a lab rat trying to get a reward or avoid a shock.

Yes, the elevator ride can be exhilarating. But it can be tiresome and exhausting, too. Are you ready to get off the elevator? If so, you are ready for this very special gift for transforming emotional rubble from the past. Being fully awake is a path to joy, to peace.

* * *

The summer air hung heavy and moist inside the big hall where I sat with seventy-five other meditators during a silent ten-day retreat in upstate New York. My eyes were closed, and I'd been meditating for half an hour or more. I was aware of my breath moving in and out as my belly expanded and compressed. I had a sense of peace and calm. And then ...

A loud, unexpected noise broke the silence like a crackle of thunder. Our guide, a Tibetan lama, clapped his hands together while loudly exclaiming a short, monosyllable that sounded something like "PEIIAY." After this initial jolt, he said in a staccato-like voice, "Who is doing the listening? Who is in there? Who is sitting? Who is meditating? Who and what are pushing your buttons and making you feel good or bad? Where's that voice that's commenting on it all? Who? What? Where?"

The lama's questions pierced my consciousness like a lightning bolt. Where exactly was this person I'd come to identify myself with? Was there really anybody in there? Where was that voice in my head coming from — the one that didn't exactly sound like my real voice? The one that never seemed to want to shut up and was always looking for attention and validation — which was one reason why I was meditating.

For a moment the wheels in my head stopped spinning. They simply could not compute the lama's impenetrable questions. For a brief gap, maybe in exasperation, the mind shut down and all that was left was awareness. The ego's committee of voices that ceaselessly spins talk and tales had ceased. There was no longer a "me" in the way. Just spacious awareness. Just this. Just the gap. Just presence.

* * *

The lama's queries might seem like odd ones to entertain. Especially living in a culture — no, a world — where having a strong personality gets you on TV, where individual initiative and creativity are highly sought-after qualities, and where constant stimulation makes contemplation and looking inward less understood, if not actively avoided.

In fact, a study conducted by psychologists at the University of Virginia and Harvard University and published in the journal Science indicates that people are quite unwilling to sit with their thoughts. Asked to be alone with their thoughts for six to fifteen minutes in a closed room in a lab or at home, from one-third to one-half of the participants cheated and listened to music or used their phone. In a later study, researchers placed subjects in a room where they could voluntarily self-administer an electric shock to themselves rather than be alone with their thoughts. Over half gave themselves shocks.

Is being present without some form of stimulation really so scary? What would you do given this choice? What do you do when you are alone? If you fear the unwanted scenarios your mind can conjure up when left to its own devices, that's perfectly understandable. To verify our mind's ability to scare the hell out of us, researchers tested university students in thirteen different countries and six different continents. The results, published in the Journal of Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders, found that 94 percent of participants had experienced an unwanted thought in the previous three months — usually some form of intrusive doubt. A lesser number experienced some kind of repugnant intrusive thought. This is why I often write the following words on the whiteboard in my office:

Thoughts are not necessarily facts.
Most of the time they're not even close.

Imagine, for a moment, that you're sitting on a beautiful sand beach in Malibu when you suddenly have the most anxious, worrisome thought in the world. Other than a few tanned Californians with towels, there's absolutely nothing dangerous on that beach. And yet a scary thought can produce a powerful effect — hijacking the joy and experience of that moment.

On the other hand, what if you simply observed the same thought as nothing more than a mental sensation? In other words, suppose you viewed it as no different than a physical sensation — except that it's happening in the mind? A physical sensation is not you, is it? It's a momentary, fleeting feeling in the body. Likewise, a mental sensation isn't you. Thoughts are a natural process, and it means your brain is working, which is a good thing. What's not helpful is when habitually anxious or ruminating thoughts and cravings — the debris from past emotional wreckage — hijack your brain from your present-moment experience.

Rather than go to war with your thoughts by fighting them or fearing them, you can take a more diplomatic, or detached, approach by engaging mindfulness. To better understand this idea, I interviewed Paul Harrison, a longtime meditator and the director of The Mindfulness Movie. He said he underwent a major shift in awareness that dramatically changed his life:

I had an experience at a young age where I understood that I was not the ego. It happened one afternoon. As I was sitting at my desk feeling extremely frustrated with my meditation practice, I noticed the lemon tree outside my window. I began staring at one of the lemons until I completely lost awareness of myself. I was so absorbed in the lemon that I wasn't aware of time or of my surroundings. Then there was an instant shift of perception, and I understood that the source of thought — that moment before a thought actually occurs in the mind — was actually emptiness. It was an empty awareness that was alive and full and permeated the emptiness of the universe. And finally, I realized that the "I" was simply a tool that the mind produces. We think we need it. But there is something much deeper within us all.

That one change in perspective has stayed with me throughout my whole life and has kept me grounded. I used to be motivated by money, but I know now that money is also a tool. That change of perspective helped balance my life, and because of that I spent more time with my kids when they were young and needed me most, and I know that enjoying quality time in my life is worth more to me than the typical things many people spend so much time acquiring.

Since that experience, I've never been prone to depressive tendencies. It goes back to that inner knowing that a state of sadness is just passing through the mind. There is a detached state of awareness that remains objective to the sadness. That's not to say that I don't get out of balance! But it gives me an overall perspective that I need to start shifting back to my balance state. The universe becomes aware of itself through your body and mind, and when you realize it — that's the gift.

To Wake Up, See Beyond the Hijacker

Your birthright is spacious awareness — a powerful presence that is empty of worry, guilt, and fear. Take a moment to imagine what that would be or feel like. It's like noticing our mental states from a safe distance. As Paul's story demonstrates, one way to get off the elevator ride is to not be so attached to, or hijacked by, the "I-centric" point of view — what I like to think of as the "I, me, my, and mine."

Suppose, for example, that you toss a bucket of red paint into the air. Is the air colored or tainted by the paint? No, it hasn't changed. It's still just the air. Spacious awareness is like that — it is untainted by our egocentric "I" thoughts about events that come and go. Your thoughts are like that spattering paint that doesn't really stick to the air.

By cultivating spacious awareness you can slowly detach from the limiting filters of "I, me, my, and mine" — thus loosening your identification with the never-ending stream of thoughts that can keep you tight, on edge, and reactive. This bare awareness doesn't take sides — it's not adding anything to your experience or subtracting anything from it. It's not judging the thoughts or defining who you are because of the mind's content. Awareness simply observes without an agenda, other than to let you be aware, present, and at rest.

LIFESTYLE TOOL: Stop Riding the Elevator Meditation

There's no special equipment to buy to get off the emotional elevator and cultivate spacious awareness. Stepping off the elevator is a process of letting the mind settle down and coming into the body's presence. This Lifestyle Tool helps you do this in three easy steps. To begin, find a natural setting where you will not be interrupted for five or ten minutes. (Shocking yourself is optional.) Any natural setting will do: a park, a courtyard with one tree or shrub, or a small yard with a few blades of grass. A sky with clouds is always nice; it's a way to throw your gaze far, far out.

1. See if your mind can empty itself in the sky and clouds. See if, for just a second, you can get lost in a tree's mass of leaves and branches. Notice how, even for a split second, in that moment between thoughts the "I" fades away. There is just the observer, just awareness. Just space between the thoughts. This is the bigger you, without boundaries. How wonderful!

2. It doesn't matter if you have lots on your mind. Don't wait until you finish chores or work or other tasks. In fact, it's better that you stop in the middle of those mental demands to do this. You'll notice the mind's resistance to sitting and noticing. As you sit, simply witness what the mind does, how it reacts, comments, advertises, distracts, fills with desire, craves, avoids, wants to take the body elsewhere, erupts in intrusive thoughts, and so on. What a great show! Don't fight anything. You might even comment, "Hello, again, mind. Thank you for these thoughts," before returning to nature. If you feel emotions, notice what they are and where you sense them in the body. Eventually (although "eventually" is relative), the mind will get the idea that you're not going to fight with it and that this game is no fun.

3. No matter how often the mind intrudes, remember to breathe. Exhale slowly. Then bring your gaze back to nature. There's no limit to how long or when you can do this training. Try it at lunch for a minute or at home for an hour in the backyard. Afterward, when you are done, sit with the following questions. I recommend actually writing down your answers in a journal that you can refer back to as you go through this book.

• How did your thinking, analyzing, critical mind get in the way? How did you manage to let it go, not resist it, and get beyond it? How does the internal committee of "I, me, my, and mine" color your daily experiences?

• What was it like to just witness thoughts — as opposed to react to them?

• How would you describe those moments when you were empty of the "I" viewpoint? Can you recall a time in your life when you experienced this?

• How can you use this practice to get grounded when your emotional buttons — both the up and down ones — are being pushed?

Invite self-compassion and patience as you use any of this book's Lifestyle Tools. No one is ever "perfect" when it comes to learning about the nature of the mind, and so you get an A+ for trying. Remember, too, that you're not trying to stop thoughts. Rather, you're making friends with the mind, marveling at how it works, and getting off the emotional elevator through cultivating spacious awareness and identifying less with your mental merry-go-round.



What if you could erase everybody's memory of how the world operates? In that moment, the world would be born anew.

— John Nelson, Matrix of the Gods

Are you an avid social networker? How does your time on Facebook or other social networking sites usually make you feel? Do you notice when your mood goes up or down? Do you notice the streams of memories, thoughts, or desires that get stimulated by the images and posts of others? Many people use social networking in a positive way to stay in touch with distant friends and family. In the same way, we need to constantly stay in touch with the "posts" we're putting up in our own minds, as well as the instant "texting" sent to us by the body — all of which I like to think of as Inner-Facebooking.

Inner-Facebooking skills are all about how you use one of your most precious resources: your attention. Your attention is what you use here and now to navigate your world. While others may try to grab your attention for their own purposes, no one other than you, ultimately, can decide how to use and harness this gift of awareness.

To illustrate what I mean, take the following brief survey:

• In what ways have you used your attention today?

• How often did technology grab your attention?

• How good do you feel about where you placed your attention?

• Did you use attention to help you feel more balanced and at peace?

Attention is necessary to regulate your emotions and help you maintain your emotional equilibrium throughout your day. By Inner-Facebooking, you can be more aware of harmful or distracting external or internal "posts." You notice the subtle signals of tightness, stress, or dis-ease your body is sending you. Knowing how to shift your attention lets you become skillful at putting up nurturing, feel-good posts that get you motivated, inspired, and involved. With Inner-Facebooking, you become proficient at noticing your moods, sensing emotions in your body, and cultivating the attitude of an impartial observer as you rebalance in the moment. To do this is to literally rewire and reshape how your brain makes connections.

On the other hand, if you lack Inner-Facebooking skills, you might find yourself hopelessly mired in negative clutter from the past. In one of the biggest studies of its kind in the United Kingdom, researchers analyzed more than thirty-two thousand participants who completed an online survey related to stress and repetitive, self-defeating thoughts. While the study determined that traumatic life events and family history were the largest predictors of depression and anxiety, there was one vital variable that kept stress in check. That mediating variable was one's perception of stress. If you strongly believe that you can't cope with a stressful situation, then you won't. However, if you shift your attention so as to view the situation from a distance, you can think about it and assess it differently. You might say, "Yes, this is stressful, but I've handled these kinds of situations effectively before. And I can find resources to help me get through it successfully." As Professor Peter Kinderman, lead researcher of the UK study, said, "Whilst we can't change a person's family history or their life experiences, it is possible to help a person to change the way they think and to teach them positive coping strategies that can mitigate and reduce stress levels."


Excerpted from Clearing Emotional Clutter by Donald Altman. Copyright © 2016 Donald Altman. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Part 1 Recognizing and Clearing Away Old Emotional Clutter

Chapter 1 Stop Riding the Emotional Elevator 15

Chapter 2 Inner-Facebooking 23

Chapter 3 Cultivate a Beautiful Garden of Thought 33

Chapter 4 The Peace of Acceptance 43

Chapter 5 Get Centered in Your Breath and Body 55

Part 2 Healing Relational, Cultural, and Ancestral Clutter

Chapter 6 Cleansing Family Emotional Clutter 65

Chapter 7 Reflections on Compassionate Communication 77

Chapter 8 Planting Friendship Seeds 87

Chapter 9 For the Love of Listening 97

Chapter 10 Expanding Your Tribe 107

Part 3 Preventing New Emotional Clutter With Daily De-Cluttering

Chapter 11 Change the Distraction Channel to Find Clarity 117

Chapter 12 Vaccinate Yourself against Affluenza 129

Chapter 13 Put the Brakes on Work and Speed 139

Chapter 14 Nature's Cleansing Power of Hope 151

Chapter 15 Daily Flexibility, Softening, and Letting Be 163

Part 4 Transformation and Fulfillment with Peace, Purpose, and Wholeness

Chapter 16 Awaken the Compassionate Heart Today 177

Chapter 17 Fidelity to the Moment 187

Chapter 18 Become a Master at Untying Knots Each Moment 195

Chapter 19 Take Daily Snapshots of Joy 205

Chapter 20 Now Is the Best Time to Connect with Purpose 215

Acknowledgments 227

Notes 229

Bibliography 237

About the Author 243

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