How can you get yourself to go to the gym instead of sitting back down on the couch to watch the 5th episode of Master of None?
Is there something you can do so that the next time your spouse is asking you a question at the same time that your kids are clamoring for snacks, you don’t snap at one of them?
How many things do you want to be different in your life? How many habits do you want to form or break? Chances, are there are quite a few.
I’d like to meditate more regularly, be more patient with my family, start meal planning instead of throwing together things that I find in the fridge, keep my car clean and my bags and papers more organized, and much more…
But, by definition, habits are hard to break. So much of our behavior is motivated by our subconscious. Our minds integrate the firing patterns of habits and we do so much in our days with our presence at half-mast. Maybe we’re driving but we’re also worrying about finances. Perhaps we’re putting our kids to bed but we’re also figuring out what we want to eat for a snack.
Our minds evolved to function on autopilot and multi-task. However, when we’re stuck in painful patterns (depression, relational conflict, etc) we need to be able to make conscious, willful decisions based on how we want things to change. This is made even harder when, under stress, our minds venture into fight-flight-freeze mode.
I think of this tendency towards subconsious action and fight-flight-freeze as our trance tendency. We fall into a trance–swayed by all kinds of neural firing and habitual patterning and we lose the ability to make proactive, conscious choices.
So how do we break the trance?
- Be clear about your motivations: If you’re not really sure you want to start working out more or you’d actually rather have a messy car than cart all those containers and papers and gloves and sweatshirts that collect then admit that to yourself. No judgment please. Not actually wanting to achieve a certain goal that you think you ought to want to achieve actually helps you on the road to figuring out what you DO want to achieve. Better to be honest than to continue to fall short because your heart’s not really in it.
- Take good enough care of yourself so that you maximize your chances for success: Let’s face it. If you don’t get to bed early enough, you’re going to be too tired for morning yoga or morning sex or whatever it is for which you’re aiming. Set yourself up for success as best you can at this point in your life.
- Practice mindfulness meditation: There are a zillion and a half research studies that show how beneficial meditation is. It doesn’t have to be spiritual. It doesn’t have to be for a long time. Mindfulness meditation is exercise for your mind. It increases our self-awareness which gives us a better chance of being proactive rather than reactive.
- Pay close attention to your personal warning signs: Do you get a fuzzy, hot feeling before you snap at your kids? Does your heart start to beat harder? Do you hear a voice in your head that says: “I’ll just pay that bill a little later…”? Use those signals as alarm bells!!! Those are the indications you’re going in the opposite direction from your goals! Take notice!
- Celebrate small successes and forgive mess-ups: You’re not going to be perfect. If you met your goal one more time this week than last week, you’re making progress.
Change is hard AND possible. For all of us. (Yes, you too.)
69% of a couple’s problems or challenges are perpetual. A.k.a., they’re not going to change much over the course of the relationship. This is what couples researcher John Gottman has observed over his 20+ years of studying couple’s behavior. Whatever subject you and your partner have conflict about today, you’re likely to still be having conflict over in 5 or 10 years. Gottman, scientist that he is, probably would take issue with my generalization, but I think that in addition to our relationship problems being perpetual, probably the majority of our individual challenges and issues aren’t going to drastically shift either.
But before you go crawl back under the covers, let me say I think this is actually good news for us.
Why good news? Because that fact gives us permission–no, actually encourages most of us (myself included) to stop banging our heads against walls that aren’t going to move. And just because the walls might not move, doesn’t mean that our experience of bumping up against the walls can’t change drastically.
Now, I’m not saying to assume that you can’t change or resolve anything in your life. Even IF 69% of problems were perpetual, that still leaves 31% which can change or end. I think, however, that we can all probably make a list right now of issues in our lives that we feel we have a good chance of tackling and another list of issues we’ve been wrestling around with for the better part of our lives.
For me, for instance, a tendency towards anxiety and over-analysis or stress during transitions are some challenges I’ve had for most of my life. I have invested considerable time and energy understanding and trying to shift these tendencies. To a certain degree they have changed, but they’ve never gone away completely. What IS changing, is the way I relate to these challenges.
Just as meditation and mindfulness teaches us to develop awareness of, compassion for, and non-attachment to our thoughts, ultimately we practice meditation and mindfulness to be able to apply these qualities to our lives in action. These are the qualities which, despite the ongoing tendency of anxiety, depression, disorganization, hot tempers, and so on, can help us relate to our lives in lighter, more fluid, more compassionate ways.
I might not be able to prevent myself getting anxious during a big life transition, but I can:
anticipate that anxiety might arise and reduce any anger or disappointment in myself
notice it early on after it does arise so that I can respond quickly to take care of myself
use humor to lighten the experience
relax into the sensations and emotion and reduce the fight/flight/freeze response.
These are just some ways that I can improve my life even if I don’t get rid of my anxiety.
We can grow and change in beautiful ways, but we have the most power to do that effectively when we make friends with our enduring character traits; our temperaments, our tendencies, the particular constellation of beauty and bunk with which we entered this world.
What qualities about yourself are you tired of trying to change? To which ones might you bring gentle acceptance and skillfulness? If the challenge is going to be there anyway, can you make friends with it?
My son has a book about a tractor named Otis. Otis saves a calf who’s fallen into a mud pit. The calf is struggling to get out and the more he struggles, the deeper he gets sucked into the thick, sticky mud. It all ends well for the calf and Otis, but what about the rest of us who’re stuck in the mud with no friendly tractor to pull us out?
Because we’re all stuck in some mud. It’s the nature of being human.
Buddha spoke of it when he said that life is suffering. Maybe you’re sick, maybe you’re lonely, maybe you have a hangnail. Maybe your marriage is falling apart, maybe your children are driving you crazy. Maybe you’re lazy or broke or 4 pants sizes bigger than you want to be.
This is what it means to be human—to be imperfect in our own uniquely beautifully messed up ways.
So many people spend so much time and energy worrying that they are too __(fill in the blank)__. That if people only knew how _(fill in the blank)____ they were the shit would hit the fan. What would happen?
Would everyone really turn their backs and walk away? Would stones be thrown at your head? Would you be exposed as a breathing, sweating man or woman with bruises and bumps?
As somehow more truly broken or icky than everybody else?
We are ALL warty. Whatever you are worried about—that you are too _(fill in the blank)___—there is likely some truth to it…
…AND it is NOT the WHOLE TRUTH.
I am impatient. I can’t remember anything about history or dates. I get lost in the plots of complex movies and need someone to explain it to me. I snap at my kids. I don’t like the burn of an intense workout. ALL true. But I’m also loving, and funny and smart in all kinds of other ways. And so are you.
Sometimes I work with clients who fear that, on some deep-down buried level they are evil. And even that is partly true. We are all microcosms of the universe and bad/evil is part of that universe so it is part of us. It’s the yin and yang. It’s the whole gorgeous blob of sweet aliveness. But it’s an evolving universe, and unless you have a serious head injury or cognitive disorder, you’re evolving too. The definition of evolving is to develop towards more a mature, advanced, complex form. And when we use the brilliant consciousness we’ve been graced with as human beings, we can shine the light of mindfulness and compassion on even the dingy, stingy bits of our beings.
When we can stop writhing in the mud, we can quiet down. We see our muddy legs, the brown splotches of mud on our elbows. We see all our loved ones in the mud with us—and they’re splotchy too. They have mud mushed on their cheeks and in their hair. But we don’t hate them for it. We love them in spite of that wet, soggy dirt.
Maybe when you allow yourself to look clearly at yourself you find things you don’t like. That happens. But when we are seeing clearly, there isn’t a charge. It isn’t the end of the world; it’s just a little mud. So maybe we wash some of it off. We try to change what we can. But it’s not an emergency. It’s just growing into the next moment we’ve been gifted.
When I returned home today after a long day of work the sky was black and the wind whipped cold rain around filling the slushy puddles and wetting the ice and snow banks. Before I opened my front door I could see my husband speaking crossly to my daughter. When I opened the door my son ran up to me smiling and saying, “Mama!” with pieces of rice stuck to his cheeks. I picked him up and turned to my daughter who was scowling by the kitchen table. The bath water was running and Chris told me H needed a bath to get the paper mache out of her hair and she was resisting.
I went into Mama-mode—encouraging her into the water–negotiating, pouring water over her head despite her grumpiness and scrubbing shampoo into the sticky hair. Later on when I had to pull my son out of the bath because he needed to go to bed he cried until he was red-faced and then I went back to cajole H out of the bath and into her giraffe pajamas.
Tonight I didn’t yell. Tonight I didn’t lose my temper. But it took everything I’ve learned and practiced to keep breathing and stay kind to keep things moving. In order to avoid resorting to power or force (even if only a verbal “Get OUT of the bath NOW!”).
I get angry plenty. And I wonder how many kids grow up as functional as they do being that parenthood–that LIFE–is such a challenge. And I’m a white woman with a safe, warm home and food in my fridge.
People both horrify and amaze me. The kindness and beauty of communities coming together to love and support each other. The violence, cruelty, and ignorance in the killing of an innocent man who was just saying he was fed up with being harassed by police.
I am so blessed…and life still brings me to my knees often enough.
I only know this. We all want to be happy. We act out of fear and we act out of love. We pause and we forget to pause. Many of us don’t know to pause–to take a breath. We’ve never been taught. And even when we are taught–we have to learn–again and again.
Our mind-chatter is frequently against our best interests. Our nervous systems are stuck in perpetual vigilance mode as we live so apart from the flowers, from the sky, from the feeling of rain on our cheeks.
Sometimes I hate that compassion is the tone most easily heard by others. I want to scream or yell or blame because for an instant there is relief. But a second later the pain increases. My child or husband or the person who cuts me off in traffic is further in defense–giving me the bird.
Tonight I was able to see H wrapped in a holey blue towel, her brown hair scraggling damply down her back, tears in her eyes. She was tired. She was hungry. She missed her grandparents. A bath was hard for her tonight. I was able to stay soft. But tomorrow, maybe I won’t be able to. I can’t say. But for right now, I can pause. I can breathe. I can join together with others to work for love and freedom from injustice. It comes down to each moment and each choice. Our lives depend on it.
Please Call Me by My True Names
by Thich Nhat Hanh.
Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow —
even today I am still arriving.
Look deeply: every second I am arriving
to be a bud on a Spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.
I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
to fear and to hope.
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death
of all that is alive.
I am the mayfly metamorphosing
on the surface of the river.
And I am the bird
that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.
I am the frog swimming happily
in the clear water of a pond.
And I am the grass-snake
that silently feeds itself on the frog.
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks.
And I am the arms merchant,
selling deadly weapons to Uganda.
I am the twelve-year-old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.
And I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.
I am a member of the politburo,
with plenty of power in my hands.
And I am the man who has to pay
his “debt of blood” to my people
dying slowly in a forced-labor camp.
My joy is like Spring, so warm
it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.
My pain is like a river of tears,
so vast it fills the four oceans.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and my laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart
can be left open,
the door of compassion.
“What should I have said when he asked me out?”
“What should I do on my day off?”
The word “should” is incredibly pervasive in our inner dialogues. At the heart of “should” is the belief that there’s a RIGHT way and a WRONG way. When we believe that, we are set up to struggle because our focus is outside ourselves–attempting to figure out the answer externally. Whether we learned that from critical parents, school, challenging siblings, or peers, it is our practice to UNLEARN it. We need to reconnect with the internal wisdom that is our birthright.