Any time your sense of well-being or peace of mind is dependent on external factors, you are at the mercy of those circumstances. For instance, if you feel the need for approval from your boss or peers, then you have given them a lot of power if they withhold their approval; consciously or unconsciously, they often do. As I am watching the horror of the massive destruction in the wake of Hurricane Irma, I am reminded of a post I wrote a few years ago regarding dealing with unpleasant situations and thoughts.
One evening while watching the news, I came up with a metaphor that has helped me understand how I could better relate to my life stresses and remain in a peaceful state of mind.
There was a news story following the progress of Hurricane Gustav as it approached New Orleans. The eye of a hurricane is quiet and the winds are the strongest at the periphery. As I watched the satellite and radar pictures, a metaphor evolved. The whirling wind represented my racing thoughts. As I become further away from my “center”, the greater the impact these thoughts have on the quality of my day. Historically, I would attempt to slow down or suppress these thoughts. I wasted a lot of energy and as I became drained, the thoughts would race even faster.
The wind can also represent your life circumstances. Most of us spend a lot of time trying to control our circumstances to allay our anxiety and be happier. Most of our situations in life are really not controllable. The key with both racing thoughts and our life circumstances is to pull into the center of the storm and stay there. You cannot stop a hurricane.
We are conditioned by our society to believe that the more we experience or possess, the happier we will be. This includes having less pain. At some deep level, we all know that this is not completely true, but we still hold onto the myth. The issue is that that we do have a choice in how we respond to our adversity. If we choose to remain in an angry reactive state of mind, then the energy you need to solve your problem is quickly drained. It is critical to remain connected to who you are regardless of your circumstances and then move forward with conviction on YOUR terms, not the terms of those around you. If you are anxious and angry, you are not connected to anything.
How do you stop your racing thoughts. You can’t. We all are aware of the futility of trying to control your mind. It was in 2003 that I inadvertently began the expressive writing outlined in Dr. Burn’s book, Feeling Good. Within two weeks I felt a shift for the first time in over 15 years. Six months later, with additional ways of calming and shifting my nervous system, I emerged out of the Abyss. The writing is the one exercise that is necessary to begin the process of simply separating from your thoughts. That is why I am so adamant that patients begin this one step before they jump into my book or website. Once you have separated from your thoughts, then you can redirect your attention elsewhere. Positive thinking is just another way of suppressing thoughts and you can see just by looking at this picture of a hurricane the futility of trying. What is effective is positive substition. You have to first become aware of what is before you can change direction.
“Active meditation” is the first tool I use to re-direct my consciousness. You place your attention on any sensation for a few seconds. Instead of fighting the noise in my head, I have switched the sensory input. I like the quick shift as it keeps me involved in the day and it is a real time strategy. It’s an abbreviated form of mindfulness. Eventually, you learn to watch your thoughts with curiosity but you realize that they are only thoughts and usually not your reality.
A free man
What about unpleasant circumstances that you have no control over? You might notice that this is the case most of the time. You can’t the people around you, although we often try. There are and endless set of difficult situations at work. When you attempt to control a situation that is not controllable, you are wasting your time and energy. Dr. Fred Luskin, author of Forgive for Good, calls this scenario, “the unenforceable rules”. It is fine to wish someone would act better, but that wish turns into a demand, you have now increased your stress response without any hope of resolving it.
I have experienced an unusual amount of stress this last year and have had to dive into my own recommendations at a level I have not done for years.One of my mentors pointed out that, “The greater the adversity, the more chance you have of practicing your tools. I am writing, tearing it up, using the active meditation, looking at forgiveness (especially the perfectionism), practicing awareness of how I am reacting and also my effect on others. Paradoxically, I am feeling the most free I have ever felt. Mind you, it is still a day-to-day process and I have to also have to let myself “fail”. Fail well
As you use your tools to pull yourself into the center and just deal with one issue at a time, you will have the internal strength to do so successfully. I don’t often get pulled into dead end conversations and situations anymore. My energy levels have soared. I have much more emotional reserve compared to when I was in high school. My limitations are mostly physical. It is also clear that the actual level of stress is a major problem if it involves not having your basic needs of food, shelter, and water being met. I don’t want to disrespect this degree of adversity.
While your thoughts spin in your head and life races around you, use your own set of tools to remain fully aware and centered. Then, you will be at peace – and free!
My thoughts are with all of those in Florida, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Turks and Caicos, Virgin Islands and Texas. The amount of suffering you must be going through is unimaginable.