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How to Thrive in the Neutral Zone

We crave intense emotion and experiences, but often our days are composed of quiet, mundane moments. How can we be comfortable shifting into neutral?

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We love extremes. Go big or go home. No pain, no gain. Never settle for less. Cultural messages like these reinforce our innate drive toward dopamine-producing experiences—whether they take the form of a passionate affair, a controlled risk like hang-gliding or mountain climbing, or just driving fast with the music turned up. “We’re clearly wired, both neurologically and physiologically, for the new and novel,” says clinical psychologist Maria Sirois, PsyD, who teaches internationally on the study of positive psychology and mind-body medicine. (For example, she cites research showing that even women in happy, long-term relationships have a strong arousal response to fantasies of sex with strangers.)  If we don’t get those highs—and lows—in real life, we find them onscreen, in media that plays directly to our craving for intensity, or at the shopping mall, in search of that elusive object that will change everything. “Our consumer culture feeds this attitude,” says Arnie Kozak, clinical assistant professor in psychiatry at the University of Vermont College of Medicine, and author of The Everything Buddhism Book. “Life should be glamorous at all times. If it is not, you need to buy more products.”

Often this struggle plays out as what Frank Jude Boccio, an ordained Zen Buddhist teacher and yoga instructor, calls the “push me, pull me” cycle—the constant swing between attachment to what we like and aversion to what we don’t, without pausing to experience the space in between. Thich Nhat Hanh famously used the example of a toothache: While we’re having it, we’re very aware of how bad it feels, but how often do we take a moment to enjoy not having a toothache? “There’s a strong biologically and culturally conditioned tendency to ignore or remain unaware of neutral feelings,” says Boccio. “You may have heard—or said yourself—that you feel most alive when feeling strong sensations and emotions, even painful ones. That’s a powerful tug.” The way to get off that emotional roller coaster, he says, is through practicing nonjudgmental awareness of what arises within us throughout the day. Consciously watching without reacting gives us a bit of healthy distance from our emotions, and also reminds us how quickly an emotion can pass through when we don’t feed it. (Think of how fast an argument with your teenager dies in the water when you decide to stop pushing back.)

The “middle way” is the foundation of the Buddha’s teachings. “In the Buddha’s own case, he went from one extreme, of a life of pleasurable indulgence, to the other extreme, of ascetic deprivation,” says Kozak. “Sanity was found in the middle, not denying the needs of the body and also not being a slave to them. The same goes for emotions. Peace, serenity, and tranquility are found in the middleness of things.”

So how can we thrive in the neutral zone? Stop looking for more than what’s already right here, right now. Western psychology and Eastern philosophy seem to agree that the key lies in savoring the richness and meaning available to us on even the most uneventful of days. Maybe you’ll find it in the way the light hits that Japanese maple tree in your backyard, or a caring text from a friend, or a chocolate truffle slowly melting on your tongue. “We need to get beyond our FOMO—fear of missing out—so that we can relax into the present moment and enjoy the simple pleasure of sensing the world around us and just breathing and being alive,” says Kozak.

Accessing that simple pleasure requires devotion, says Sirois—a focused intention to dedicate time each day to finding the extraordinary within the ordinary.

Practice paying attention. Choose moments throughout your day to simply notice what you see, hear, taste, smell, and feel. “Attend to these things, and when you notice that your mind is adding commentary to the experience, or simply getting distracted, bring it back and start over again,” Kozak says. “There is an unending flow of sensory experiences for us to enjoy. Mindful breathing is always available to us. Pay attention to the physical sensations that arise as you breathe. Investigate these sensations with curiosity and notice how they change moment by moment. When your mind starts generating opinions about the breathing or goes somewhere else, gently escort it back.”

Boccio says that employing mindfulness “micro-practices” throughout the day have transformed the way he experiences everyday chores like folding laundry. “It’s something I actually look forward to, as I enjoy the fresh scent, the loving care I can give to my family’s clothes, and the choreography of clothes-folding,” he says.

Focus on the great moments. “Life presents us now and then with moments we’ll never forget—births, engagements, reunions. But most of life is pretty much business as usual,” says Sirois. She recommends a daily practice of writing down the “great moments” of the day, whether they’re big milestones or (more often) little ones that are an integral part of the “business as usual”: a good conversation, a delicious meal, an invigorating walk. Do this regularly, says Sirois, and you’ll get better and better at recognizing and savoring moments of well-being and connection. A gratitude journal can serve the same purpose.

Reinvent your experience. Budhist “gathas” are short verses designed to bring awareness to the present moment. Boccio suggests writing your own gatha to create a new context around an activity you find boring or unpleasant. “Though I was born and raised in New York City, I used to hate taking the subway,” he recalls. “All those people in my way, the stench, the cold in the winter, and the heat in the summer! So I wrote the following verse, and even I was amazed at how it totally transformed my experience—if not to actual pleasantness, at least a more compassionately accepting one that cut my self-absorption and reactivity:

Entering this subway,
I look at all the faces around
black, white, red, yellow, brown,
we are all in this together.”

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