THE BLOG
08/25/2013 11:32 am ET Updated Oct 25, 2013

4 Steps to Mindfully Ride the Ebb of Life

As a therapist working with people in creative industries, I've seen how the idea that "you're only as good as your last project" creates an unwholesome dissatisfaction and constant striving to do better, a perfectionism that leads to a lack of appreciation for the great triumphs of life. As the wheel of fortune turns, the section that was in the mud gets dried in the sunlight while the parts that were in the sunlight roll into the mud. Buddhism teaches that happiness is a momentary state of mind, body, and energy, so when you're happy, relish it, but be mindful that the wheel will inevitably turn. Similarly, when you're unhappy, recognize the fleeting nature of your emotions and experiences, learn from them, and know that this too shall pass.

When you're meeting your goals, being productive, feeling a sense of purpose, enjoying prosperity, and flourishing in all areas of your life, it can feel as if you've reached the end of a long road and all suffering is behind you. If you've emerged from a trauma or loss, or a long period of unhappiness, the desire to believe that you've "arrived" is especially powerful. Given that genuine inner happiness fluctuates, it's important to be mindful as you ride on the rim of that ever-turning wheel, rather than hold on to the misconception that life and happiness are static.

Your goal must be to remain open to each moment and what it brings, whether it be positive, neutral, or negative, thereby freeing yourself from distractions, hindrances, and the fleeting desires that create what I call the "wanting mind." Peaks are wonderful, but they don't last forever, so it's important to drink every drop of juice from the fruit when it's at its height of ripeness, rather than hoard it fearfully or squander it. Otherwise, when you end up in the valley again, you're more likely to experience the suffering caused by wanting mind and wish that you could return to your previous circumstances.

Here are 4 steps from my book, Wise Mind, Open Mind to help you circumvent the valleys in your life.

Step 1: Cultivate Patience

In an ebb period, impatience and doubt inevitably arise. The wanting mind longs to take charge, so it can be hard to accept that you can't control how or when you'll meet your goals. When you feel emotional distress and pain in response to upsetting situations, patience keeps you from being reactive and making poor choices out of frustration. It allows you to be in harmony with the timing of others, who have their own rhythms and may help you to manifest your vision. Mindstrength (the ability to very quickly and easily shift out of a reactive mode and become fully present in the moment) allows you to be patient and remain present in the moment as your life unfolds before you. It helps you clarify whether circumstances feel right, and whether you're acting in ways that are in accordance with your values and core passions.

Step 2: Set Realistic Goals

To prevent feelings of impatience and anxiety, it's good to set specific, realistic goals for yourself, based on what you've learned about the typical timetable for achieving your goals. However, if your target date arrives, and you realize that for all your hard work, focus, and dedication, you still aren't where you'd planned to be, assess the situation mindfully rather than automatically give up on it. You may need more time to heal from a loss. Perhaps you're very close to a point where a dramatic shift will occur. Mindfulness will give you clarity, allowing you to recognize why your projected timing didn't work out and accept that there were circumstances beyond your control; that you procrastinated, became distracted, or engaged in avoidance behavior; or that you don't have the passion you thought you had. You'll recognize that boredom doesn't necessarily come from a lack of passion. Sometimes it comes from being impatient and from not being mindful of the process and the opportunities for growth that it offers.

Step 3: Ask Yourself, "What Now?"

Sometimes, the ebb of happiness is very low and lasts a very long time. Depression doesn't have to block you from a life of purpose and fulfillment. Both Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill suffered from depression, yet neither overly identified with this affliction. They recognized that this "black dog" (as Churchill called it) would appear of its own accord, and they accepted the rhythms inherent in a depressive temperament. I tell depressed or bipolar patients that focusing on why they have this affliction may be useful up to a point but that a far more productive question is, "What now?" We focus on getting the client the proper medications and natural vitamin supplements or hormones, and arranging for emotional support, which alleviates the worst of the depression. Then we explore how the depression or manic energy can be used as fuel for a purposeful life.

Step 4: Take a "Reality Check"

Many of us have feelings of guilt and powerlessness when we are in the ebb of life. Such guilt often stems from a defensive need to believe that we have more control over life's events than we truly do. Sometimes, taking a look at others' experiences, or doing a "reality check," can alleviate these feelings at least somewhat. We can also believe "God is punishing me" or "This must be karma; I must've done something terrible in a previous life." These types of beliefs lead to the question, "Why?" or "How did I cause this?" instead of the healthier questions, "How can I use mindfulness to focus on my immediate experience? What am I thinking, feeling, and sensing now?" After attuning to the now, ask "What's next? What do I need to do?" These questions are at the core of creative transformation. We need to look forward, even while embracing the pain of the moment. A forward-thinking view can lead to reinvention and healing.

So no matter if you're experiencing a peak or valley right now get off your computer, cell phone, iPad or the telephone and take a sacred mindful pause to reflect, and relax. Let yourself flow into this beautiful space of peace, grace and equanimity, taking the time to mindfully recharge your battery of self. Enjoy this breath and this moment now!

For more by Ronald Alexander, Ph.D., click here.

For more on mindfulness, click here.