Getting a Fresh Start

We are living in turbulent and chaotic times. We are challenged with complex problems we do not yet know how to solve. As a country we seem to be paralyzed in gridlock unable to agree even on what the problem actually is. So to begin this year, I'd like to continue to draw on some findings in neuroscience to help us find our way together. The Core Curriculum we offer at Zen Life & Meditation Center of Chicago can offer you a rich set of practices and skills for becoming more creative, adaptive, flexible and grounded during these times of uncertainty and change.

I've listed here what seem to me to be some common distortions and misconceptions that contribute to stress and suffering in our lives. I've then listed some practices and suggestions for transforming them.

Some Traps and Common Cognitive Distortions When your attention is divided and fragmented it's easy to be manipulated by some of these nonconstructive habits.

  • Polarized Thinking - black and white, all or nothing, good or bad. "Let's give the good people the guns, and keep them out of the hands of the bad people."
  • Over-generalization - taking one bad experience and jumping to conclusions about your entire life as a result of that one incident.
  • Personalization - interpreting every glance or comment made by someone as a negative reflection about who you are or who you should be.
  • Mind Reading - negatively assuming you know what other people are thinking.
  • Should's and Should Not's - making rigid and inflexible rules that don't allow you to flexibly adapt to rapidly changing circumstances
  • Catastrophizing - perceiving any event as a major catastrophe or a sign of one on the way by anticipating the worst possible outcome.
  • Emotional Reasoning - Basing opinions based on how you feel without considering facts or objective observations.
  • Pessimism - seeing a negative outcome for almost any event.


Practical Suggestions for Rewiring Your Brain Instead of worrying about your limitations, harness the power of your intention to imagine new possibilities. The daily practice of mindfulness meditation can actually help you begin re-wiring your brain in a way that will support more constructive and creative habits.

  • Think in Shades of Gray - By seeing all possibilities along a continuum, you don't get caught so easily in the extremes of black and white thinking.
  • Context Checking - Learn how to adjust your opinions and perceptions to the particular context you are in.
  • Detaching - Disconnect yourself from repetitive negative beliefs.
  • Change your intention - if you feel depressed and would normally withdraw, screw up the courage to ask someone to lunch and get out of the house. Do you remember how well this worked for  George Castanza in Seinfield? Following the realization that every instinct he had ever had in his life was wrong, he decided to try doing the exact opposite.
  • Externalizing Problems - When something unfortunate happens, rather than interpreting it as a reflection on your self-worth, consider it a problem that needs to be solved.
  • Optimism - Consider every situation in your life, not as a problem, but an opportunity to grow and learn something new.


It's no surprise, given the increasing complexity of our culture, that there is a resurgence of interest in mindfulness meditation, because this simple skill of awareness has the potential to help you work through places where you get stuck. If you need support to learn how to meditate, please consider coming to the Primer classes at our Zen Life & Meditation Center.

by Robert Althouse